Cover Image: Prisoners of the Castle

Prisoners of the Castle

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Member Reviews

Ben MacIntyre is a brand, and every time I open his new book, I eagerly anticipate reading it.  This book didn't disappoint either.  The story of Colditz, famous for its WWII reputation for being impenetrable is fascinating on its own but reading Ben MacIntyre has its own special appeal.  It is not just a recitation of historical events, it's the authors view and interpretation that makes the book memorable.  Great read for the  WWII books fans, thrillers and spy stories enthusiasts as well as for people interested in reading about social customs. All those who appreciate wit and humor will also enjoy this book.
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Sorry I wasn’t approved until after the publication of this book as it’s a fascinating story, well written and a page turner.
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Colditz, a forbidding German castle fortress, was the destination for Allied officer POWs, and some other high-profile prisoners.  It’s important to know that Colditz was different from POW Stalags for enlisted men run by the often brutal Gestapo and SS guards.  Colditz was staffed by Wehrmacht (regular army) personnel who generally complied with the Geneva Convention.  According to the Geneva Convention, captors were allowed to set their enlisted prisoners to work—but not officers.  As a result, most of the prisoners at Colditz were at the leisure to go stir crazy, unless they thought of other ways to keep their minds busy—like dreaming up escape plans.  

There were dozens of attempts from 1941 to 1945, and Macintyre chronicles them in all their variety, inventiveness, and risk.  Despite what you might see in old movies, it was rare that an escape was successful and, even when they were, the escapee still had to make his way across hundreds of miles of hostile territory to get to Switzerland or another border.  Few did, but you can imagine the spark it gave to the prisoners when they learned of a successful escape.

The book isn’t just about the escape attempts, though.  A closed community tends to have intensified social dynamics.  On the positive side, the prisoners threw themselves into cultural pursuits, including putting on concerts, skits and plays.  Hilariously, the British chaplain was appalled at prisoners dressing up as women for some of the plays and skits they acted out in the castle’s theater, thinking that even these ridiculously ersatz women would stir the men’s passions.

At Colditz, there were various nationalities, primarily British, French, Dutch and Polish, and they didn’t always work well together.  There were also problems with class conflict, racial prejudice, and anti-Semitism among some of the prisoners.  Sadly, there were prisoners who shared many of the same fascist and racist attitudes as the Nazis.  Some prisoners were communist sympathizers, which foreshadowed the Cold War conflict.  These differences caused problems in themselves, but also served to further divide the prisoners when some suspected that there were moles among them tipping off the Germans to escape plans.

A special intelligence operation in the UK, MI9, came up with dozens of ingenious ways of smuggling contraband and information to the Colditz prisoners.  MI9 wisely equipped flyers with many hidden escape aids, in case they were shot down and captured.  When you read about some of these bits of spycraft, you won’t be surprised to learn that their inventor inspired the creation of the Q character in the Bond films.  Amazingly, Denholm Elliott, who played Q, was a POW of the Germans in WW2 (though not at Colditz).

As always, Macintyre’s book reads more like a novel than a history.  His research is deep and detailed, but he weaves it smoothly into his storytelling.  Just as I hoped, he includes a postscript describing the postwar lives of the most notable characters.  This factual story is more gripping and entertaining than any fiction about Colditz could hope to be.
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Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazis' Fortress Prison is an interesting read. I am giving four stars.
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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Crown Publishing for an advanced copy of this history  on one of the most famous German prisons of World War 2.

I was familiar with the story and history of Colditz Castle and its denizens during the Second World War more from biographies of some of the inhabitants or from overviews of the war. I knew that is was a prison for Allied soldiers, but thought it was more famed for the many escapes and derring- do or as in inspiration of many movies and television shows. The real stories, the stories of imprisonment, the escapes, the lives of the internees in general turn out to be far more interesting and in many cases sadder than the boy's own adventures that I was familiar with. Ben Macintyre a chronicler of many true World War II stories and tales of espionage has brought his outstanding skill in research and writing to this tale of both prisoners and captors in Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazis' Fortress Prison. This book tells the real story of what happened behind the walls, where men did their best to survive the psychological toll and physical pains of capture, and how many tried to keep fighting even behind concrete walls.

Colditz Castle was a Renaissance castle that in the early days of the war with German advancement into Europe so swift and sudden, found themselves with a lot of enemy combatants to keep track of. Originally the castle was for all Allied troops, French, Polish, English and others, before becoming strictly a prision for English officers in 1943. This is where the troublesome prisoners went, the constant escapees, or the high valued prisoners, nephews and cousins of kings, ministers and the like. To the British with their history of public schools and class status the prison soon was a reflection of their society, aides for the officers, clubs based on society standing, book discussions, religion classes, discrimination for Jewish and Indian officers, and yes constant attempts to escape. The escape stories are fascinating as are the stories of espionage that prisoners would pass on in letters, or that they would receive in Red Cross Package.

Being a book by Ben Macintyre the tale is well- written, well- told and well- sourced. I look forward to anything that he writes for he has gift of telling a story and explaining things so well the reader never feels lost or confused. The book is told chronologically which gives the book a good flow, with what is going on the the world, along with what is happening to the prisoners, mingling well. I had no idea about all the work that went into getting equipment and supplies to prisoners for escape or for spying on the enemy. The escapes are so well sketched a book or a miniseries could be developed just from that. An interesting story of men in difficult situation who rose to the occasion, failed in every way or were destroyed by the enormity of it all.

For readers of World War II stories, well it is Ben Macintyre, but still a different look at the war, and the price of capture on those who longed to fight or die for the cause, but instead found themselves in a cage. For all the stories of escapes or gliders that were built in the prison, it is the personal stories that really make this book. From the weight of not escaping after numerous attempts, being discriminated against for their heritage from his own side, even a few men who turned traitor, this book is filled with personal stories that gives a real sense to what happened to these men. Recommended for historians, and readers who enjoy well- written nonficton.
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It is always a treat to dive into a Ben Macintyre book. This one was quite different from his other work, but reads the same. Instead of focusing on a singular story through an event or person, it focuses on a location [Prison} and all the characters that interacted with it. The book is essentially a timeline, navigating the years of WW2, with each chapter focusing on either a character or event that occurred in the prison. As always, Ben does a delightful job of storytelling the wild stories that took place.
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If Ben Macintyre wrote the phone book I would pre-order it. He's that good at finding the most interesting aspects of a story and Prisoners of the Castle is no different.

Admittedly, the story of Colditz in World War II gives him a lot to work with. Macintyre slowly builds out the entire world of the prison without losing the main narrative around this small little story in the midst of a world war. There are multitudes of tales that are funny, serious, heartbreaking, but always human. Macintyre also doesn't shy away from a huge nuance that is often ignored in World War II stories. Not all German soldiers were murderous Nazis. 

This book is great from beginning to end and I highly recommend it even if you are not a World War II buff.

(This book was provided as an advance copy by Netgalley and Crown Publishing. The full review will be posted to HistoryNerdsUnited.com on 9/13/2022.)
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This is another wonderful narrative nonfiction from Ben Macintyre. I was unaware of the detailed history of Colditz prison. I had read about it in passing in other WWII books, but the focus on it here is well done. This is a compelling read, full of interesting characters that will be enjoyed by fans of Macintyre's, WWII, adventure, and intrigue. This is a solid, engaging pick!
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