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A Description of Colditz Castle
"Almost upon leaving the station we saw looming above us our future prison: beautiful, serene, majestic, and yet forbidding enough to make our hearts sink into our boots. It towered above us, dominating the whole village; a magnificent Castle built on the edge of a cliff.   ...To friendly peasants and tradespeople in the houses nestling beneath its shadow it may have signified protection and home, but to enemies from a distant country such a castle struck the note of doom and was a sight to make the bravest quail.    ...The outside walls were on average seven feet thick, and the inner courtyard of the Castle was about two hundred and fifty feet above the river-level. The Castle rooms in which we were to live were about another sixty feet above the courtyard.    ...Colditz was situated...in the heart of the German Reich and four hundred miles from any frontier not directly under the Nazi heel. What a hope for would-be escapers!
"We marched slowly up the steep and narrow cobbled streets from the station towards the Castle...Entering the main arched gateway, we crossed a causeway astride what had once been a deep, wide moat and passed under a second cavernous archway whose oaken doors swung open and closed ominously behind us with the clanging of heavy iron bars in true mediaeval fashion. We were then in a courtyard about forty-five yards square, with some grass lawns and flower-beds surrounded on all four sides with buildings six stories high. This was the Kommandantur or garrison area. We were then escorted farther; through a third cavernous archway with formidable doors, up an inclined cobbled coachway for about fifty yards, then turning sharp right, through a fourth and last archway with its normal complement of heavy oak and iron work into the 'Sanctum Sanctorum', the inner courtyard. This was a cobbled space about thirty yards by forty yards, surrounded on its four sides by buildings whose roof ridges must have been ninety feet above the cobbles. Little sun could ever penetrate here! It was an unspeakably grisly place...."
Quoted from 'The Colditz Story', by P. R. Reid.
Walking from the railway station to the Castle, the visitor to Colditz will be able immediately to identify with Reid's description of the Castle. Indeed, it dominates the town, drawing the eye whenever it comes into view from behind buildings, frowning over the rooftops or just sitting there brooding over the town with its majestic presence. From almost anywhere in the town, you can see at least a part of the Castle; from the riverside it is an irresistible magnet to the eye: huge, dominating, solidity incarnate. Please allow me to illustrate:
It is massive, huge, large, big. Not big like a skyscraper or other modern building, but big like a hill or a mountain, like a cliff-face, something like that. You get the impression of solid permanence; that in say 500 years, the town of Colditz will probably look very different, but the Castle will still be there, looking pretty much the same as it has done these last century and a half or so.
It is difficult to describe in words the way in which the Castle is built on different levels, and all the odd slopes and such that exist on the top of the Castle's hill. Both courtyards have a marked slope; the outer courtyard is mainly level but slopes up to the southeast towards the taller of the Kommandantur buildings [the one that is now the Youth Hostel]. The inner courtyard has a fairly steep slope up towards the east from the gateway for about ten yards, but after that initial slope, it is pretty well level in the main. This is more apparent in one of my videos than it is from the photos; however, the first two photos on this page show the slope quite clearly.
Interestingly, the eastern side of the Castle is nothing like how it looks on the maps. Compare the north-eastern side of the Castle as shown on this map [the East is to the top of the map]:
with this view looking north along the eastern side of the Castle:
[Photo Credit: Melvyn Lawes]
Notice that curious multi-level arrangement, as well as the [now restored] north-eastern tower structure - neither those levels nor the north-eastern tower are shown on the map. You can also just about make out that there used to be another shed of some sort next to that tower [both of which are shown on the wartime map below]. Added to that the two doors on the north end of the eastern face of the Castle [as seen on this video]; that eastern side was not at all how I expected it to look from the maps I had seen. Still, what is there IS what is there, and the structure of that eastern side has not changed since the War. It's just that I was surprised to see what the structure really looks like! Here too is another video showing the levels clearly. This German wartime map also shows the levels to good effect [Credit: Winston G. Ramsey, After the Battle: Colditz, 1989]:
The 'Clothes Store' shown on the map on the north side of the Castle is/was actually up on a terrace some 30 feet above the roadway [although it has been demolished in the not too distant past; within the last 20 years or so]:
[Left photo credit: Melvyn R. Lawes]
The post-war years have not been kind to the 'escape archaeology' sites in and around Colditz Castle. All of the smaller buildings along both sides of the 'seam' [the dividing line between the two courtyards] have fairly recently been demolished, leaving only the taller buildings. This is a shame as they were not only of historical importance, but they also gave the Castle a lot of its wartime character. Also, the 'clothes store' shed has gone from the northern terrace; this was the scene of a successful escape. The Canteen Tunnel exit has been covered over with a patio, although before the patio was there there was also a lean-to shed there. I intend to put in a 'then and now' set of pages to illustrate these changes at some time in the near future.
The former 'store shed' in the outer [Kommandantur] courtyard has been mainly demolished; the back and side walls still exist in that they are still there in brick, possibly partly because these walls are backed by the rising ground within the courtyard. Here is what it looks like now:
That store shed was used as 'cover' by the escaping team during Pat Reid's successful escape in October 1942. Of course, there were also low buildings in the Kommandantur courtyard at that time; however, Reid and his team had to cross the path of a sentry in order to reach the cover of the shed. The distances involved in Reid's escape route are not large, but the escapers must have had to have been really quiet in order not to have been detected by the sentry in the courtyard - he'd only have been a few yards away at best! The outer courtyard is just not that big! To my mind, that just makes the triumph of that escape all the more impressive!
As you will have seen from my pictures and videos, Colditz Castle is not quite as 'grisly' as it was in the War. During the War, and up until only recently, much of the Castle was coloured a sort of dull, dirty, sandy-brownish-red kind of colour. This is because the walls are rendered with a mixture made up partly of plaster or sand made up from local materials; the local rock is porphyry, which, in Colditz, is the 'red' type of porphyry, thus giving its colour to the buildings. Recently, however, the majority of the Castle has been painted white, with details and edges picked out in cream and black. However, the building at the south-western side of the Kommandantur, the Expeditionsgebaude, has not yet been painted; it is still the original colour. In fact I think it has been left that colour in order to show what the rest of the Castle used to look like. Also, the faces of the west terrace and western precipices have not yet been painted either - if they ever will be. These are currently a sort of greyish colour. These details can clearly be seen in the picture below, with the 'brown' Expeditionsgebaude building to the right [Photo credit: Melvyn R. Lawes]:
Take a look at these two sites: this one and this one. From the pictures on those sites, apart from getting an idea of the poor state of the buildings before their restoration, you also get more of a picture of what the buildings looked like in terms of their pre-renovation colours. However, there is an interesting point in that it seems that despite the buildings' being repainted, the paintwork still suffers. Look at fairly recent pictures of the clock tower by the main gate, for example this picture below [Picture credit: Gesellschaft Schloss Colditz website]:
That tower, at the time of my visit, was covered with scaffolding while it was being repainted. My point is that the paintwork deteriorates over time. Look at some of my pictures of the inner courtyard and notice how the paintwork is already deteriorating. Unless the Castle paintwork is maintained constantly, then, it looks as if such deterioration is inevitable - it's a bit like painting the Forth Bridge. Although, of course, the Castle's neglect during the Iron Curtain years will have caused much worse damage, the Castle does still need to be looked after on an ongoing basis! Perhaps it would not take too many years for the original brown colouration to reassert itself otherwise!
Colditz Castle, then, is a fascinating, complex structure; a hotch-potch arrangement of seemingly random buildings arranged on the hilltop above the town. Although I can attempt to describe the Castle using pictures, videos and maps, there is no substitute for actually going there to visit it. Unfortunately, many of the areas of the Castle are out-of-bounds to the public, and although it would be necessary to access off-limits places in order to get images like those on this site, it is still a most evocative and, well, just incredible place. I hope that this page has given you something more of a feel for what the Castle is really like.
If you would like to visit Colditz and its Castle, I recommend that you visit my 'Getting to Colditz' link.
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