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P. R. Reid’s “The Colditz Story”






May 3, 2017

Some of the greatest escape stories ever written come out of World War II. I first read this many years ago, and have never been able to get it out of my head.


Reviewers of this gripping First-Person British book have been extremely positive. Note clips from some of them:

Tremendously exciting! The Colditz story challenges comparison with any of the escape stories of World War 2. It is men who think (and write) like this who do what these men did.” —Guy Ramsey, The Daily Telegraph

A true but fantastic record. . . . utterly intoxicating and completely entertaining. . . . Not since Sherlock Holmes have I had such pleasure in reading a thriller. It is seldom that I have read a book at a single sitting, but this story defies interruption. —Sterling North, New York World Telegraph and Sun

Full of skill and enjoyment. . . . The book is an astonishing record of what human ingenuity can accomplish. —Basil Davenport, Saturday Review

Just about the best of many escape books of World War II.Time Magazine

The Colditz Story became a movie, starring John Mills and Eric Portman; produced by Ivan Foxwell.

Sketch of the interior of the castle [Berkeley Edition]

This book is unique in a number of respects: It is not just the story of one escape but rather the story of many escapes (precious few of them proving successful).

The fortress was the ancient palace of the Archbishop of Salzburg, sentimentally revered as the place where Mozart composed and played many of his works. It was considered to be impregnable as well as escape-proof, as the Castle’s garrison outnumbered the prisoners at all times. At night the fortress was floodlit from every angle; there were clear drops of a hundred feet from the barred windows, there were sentries just outside the barbed wire; then further precipices and more sentries.

This German prison camp was reserved for enemy officers who had escaped from other camps. Here were gathered together the most desperate and daring men of half a dozen Allied nations—their single thought: ESCAPE!

When you begin reading the book, note that it’s not until the fourth chapter that Colditz comes into the narrative; that’s where the real action begins.

* * * * *

As I re-read the book, I couldn’t help but note how times have changed. Back then, all sides respected the Geneva Convention Agreement. You will note that Captain Reid references how grateful he was for the agreement. Americans have–as long as we elected presidents who were themselves veterans–generally respected the Geneva Convention Agreement. Now, with veteran presidents becoming a thing of the past, we see something ominous taking place: a willingness to violate it.

We are so used to seeing Germans demonized by the Holocaust that we fail to realize their humanity. In this book, we see exhibited their willingness to permit their prisoners to play musical instruments, put on concerts and plays, participate in sports, and even laugh at themselves when they are duped by their prisoners. In some respect, in its lighter moments, the book reminds me of a synthesis of Keystone Cops, F Troop, and MASH.

You will note that there are no American prisoners in the book, reason being that the U.S. didn’t enter the war until 1942 (December of 1941’s Pearl Harbor attack precipitating our involvement).But if there is one thing I predict you will be fascinated by, it will be the ingenuity of the prisoners, the endless chain of trying out every possible method of escape the human mind could conceive.

So, take Agatha Christie’s advice: “If you want real excitement, buy The Colditz Story.”