Monday, July 14, 2014
The Colditz Story by PR Reid
Some books carve out their own niche in the world. Some books glean their own cult following. I recommended The Colditz Story to a friend of mine a few months back, and since then it has gone through three households with the same rapidity that it went through ours years ago--leaving much the same hilarity in its wake.
Colditz Castle, Oflag IV-C, was a Very Special POW Camp. To be sent to Colditz, you needed to pass--or perhaps fail would be the better word--a qualifying exam. Arriving in your first POW camp, you got together some mates, thought up an escape scheme, and snuck off. Maybe you headed to Switzerland, maybe to Yugoslavia, maybe somewhere else. On the way you slipped up, landing yourself back in German custody. And then, because your original camp had proven too flimsy to hold you, they shipped you to Colditz Castle. Where you were greeted by all the second-best and just-a-whisker-too-unlucky escape artists in the Allied Forces, all of which were just itching to get out of Colditz and run for home.
Pat Reid, a British officer, arrived in Colditz in 1940 after a failed escape attempt from another POW camp and left late one night in 1942 (failing to check out at the front desk). During his "holiday", he acted as the British Escape Officer and superintended dozens of escape plans from the simple and spur-of-the-moment to the zany and improbable. After the war, he wrote what is today still fondly remembered as the definitive eyewitness memoir of Colditz Castle, whose motto may well have been "Never a dull moment."
I once heard it said that the inmates of Colditz would never have got on as well as they did in the castle had they not, in most cases, been prepared for their ordeal by childhoods spent in boarding-schools. Certainly The Colditz Story could be imagined as an extension of the British school story, with a jolly rollicking buns-for-tea-after-a-stiff-reprimand-in-the-Commandant's-office tone to it. With the prisoners teaching each other French, disrupting morning roll-call by playing patriotic British songs loudly on the cornet, playing ball in the courtyard, and getting up to all the high-jinks imaginable, a big part of the book's charm lies in its sense of fun. As a friend of mine commented, "And I thought all the stuff in Hogan's Heroes was just made up..."
Of course, it's just this charm and fun that rubs the modern hipster intellectual the wrong way. Angst, durm, und strang are more realistic, don't you know. Pat Reid must be concealing all the horrible things that actually happened at Colditz...
...or is he? It's true that The Colditz Story, written by and partly about the last generation of stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen, doesn't delve deeply into the madness, depression, and disputes that must have arisen from time to time. But the attentive reader will see that although Reid keeps these in the background, he doesn't paint a picture that's all roses. From the Polish contingent sentencing one of their own men to death for spying for the Germans, to the one officer who feigned insanity for months as part of an escape attempt and very nearly fell over the brink himself, to Reid's own obsession with the idea of escape and depression after failed attempts, it's easy to see that we're reading some of the darkest chapters from these people's lives. But the emphasis is on how these men used their time productively, to fight the war in their own way.
This is perhaps everyone's favourite thing about the book: the wild creativity and daring used by the prisoners to disrupt German operations and to escape. Imagine a castle full of mad inventors, and you have some idea of this book. The prisoners built tunnels in every conceivable location and some inconceivable (including a tunnel that began under the very desk of the Commandant). They manufactured typewriters with which to forge German documents, skeleton keys for picking German locks, and uniforms to impersonate German soldiers. They became experts in the art of distracting the Goons (German guards) during the all-important roll-calls. They carried out various sabotage operations and built a small distillery. By the end of the war, they'd even built a small working glider in the castle attic.
A classic tale of pluck, invention, and wit, The Colditz Story is, without a doubt, my favourite war memoir and makes a fantastic family read-aloud.
The Colditz Story is currently out of print, though Hodder & Staughton will be republishing it in October. Find it at Amazon or the Book Depository (and don't be confused by Colditz: The Full Story, also by Reid, which is a more arm's length historical work).