The hardened Veteran Stabsfeldwebel (Sergeant Minor) Gustav Rothenberger, a waxed ginger handlebar moustache with mutton-chop hair, was recognizable at Colditz Castle. This grim medieval castle in Nazi Germany, which had been converted into an escape-proof prisoner of war camp, was characterized by his towering beard and thick ginger handlebar moustache.

The martinet, a strict follower of routines, personally checked the perimeter of each castle every night. His last stop was always the narrow, carved-out rock terrace that contained the castle walls on one side and sheer drops on the other.

A barbed wire gate was established by guards who carried machine guns every 30 feet along the walkway. The other side was surrounded by parkland, trees and woodlands. There were two additional sentries that guarded the gate, one on the elevated metal catwalk and one at the top of the terrace.

Rothenberger appeared on the terrace shortly before midnight, on a hot September night 1943. He had his whiskers clipped, waxed and brushed to point. Two soldiers with rifles slung behind him also arrived on the scene. Rothenberger arrived on the terrace at an unusually early hour. Colditz had been quiet after the prisoners were locked in their quarters for two hours.

He marched up smartly to the guards on the terrace and barked: ‘There is an attempted escape on the west side. Report to the guardhouse immediately.’ They saluted, clicked their heels and took off.

Two sentries guarding the gate looked equally shocked to see him. The sentries were due to return to duty in two more hours. ‘You’re relieved early,’ snapped the sergeant major, appearing to be particularly irritable tonight.

Some inmates read books or sought to improve or entertain themselves in other ways, including theatrical productions and concerts

Inmates may read or seek to entertain themselves through other means, such as theatre productions or concerts.

However, appearances are not always what they seem. This was because it was fake Rothenberger. It was made of dismantled razors, watercolour paints and glue.

Like his escorts’ uniforms, his was also made of prison blankets. The correct color of German grey was used for his uniform. His Iron Cross was created from zinc taken off the castle roof, and shaped with a hot knife.

The headgear was made from a peaked RAF cap with felt and string. His pistol holster, which was cardboard, had brown boot polish on it. A piece of wood that looked like the Walther P38 pistol’s butt was attached to his holster. 

Two soldiers wearing greatcoats carried dummy guns with barrels made of wood and pencil lead. Bolts were made from steel bits, while the bolts had been shaped from pencil lead. Tin triggers were also used to activate the tin cutlery.

The impersonator’s name was Michael Sinclair, a 25-year-old British lieutenant. Fluent in German and a talented amateur actor, for four months he had studied the real Rothenberger’s gait, posture and accent, his routine, his mannerisms, the way he swore when angry.

While he was talking with the sendries at the gate high above the terrace’s entrance, 35 additional British officers wearing handmade civilian clothes waited on the sixth level of the castle. There, the bars to their windows were already sawn through.

They each carried a fake travel card, which was forged with a typewriter made of wire and wood. Each photo was taken using a camera made of a cigar box, spectacles and authorised using the German official eagle stamp, which is carved from a shoe heel with a razor blade.

As they saw the first guard hurry off, one of them whispered: ‘It’s going to work!’ If it did, it would be the first mass breakout in Colditz history.

With the sendries gone, the plan was for a 20-member first group to climb down on their knotted beds sheets. Sinclair would then unlock the gate and the rest would scramble down into the woods.

While some of those on stage were obviously men dressed as implausible women, others had gone to considerable lengths to achieve a simulacrum of femininity

Although some men were dressed up as imposible women on the stage, other performers had done great work to simulate femininity.

After they were in the trees, the birds would break into two and then spread into the country, making their way to the Swiss border via a number of routes. If one batch was lost, they would be followed by the others within a matter of minutes.

The last sentry stood at the gate and was cautious. Rothenberger cursed him. ‘Are you daft? Don’t you know your own sergeant-major?’ But an order had recently been issued that everyone entering or leaving the castle, without exception, must produce an exit pass, with a different colour for each day.

The guard insisted on being shown a pass, which the reluctant ‘Rothenberg’ eventually produced. The pass was stamped, stamped and dateable. This copy was obtained from a German guard who had been bribed. This was an exact duplicate. It was actually the wrong color. The colour was meant to be yellow, but it turned out to be grey. For a while, the sentry looked at it, and then he turned his attention to the moustachioed red-faced figure who was berateing him. He slowly raised his gun and sound the alarm.

Another escape had been foiled but it had been a particularly brilliant, imaginative attempt, adding to the legend of Colditz that has stood unchanged and unchallenged for more than 70 years — heroic British officers in a Gothic castle on a German hilltop, tunnelling through the walls, hiding in the sewers, clinging to the undersides of lorries, ruse after ruse to defy the Nazis and escape.

However, this tale is only part of what the truth is. The story of Colditz tells the tale of an indomitable human spirit. But it’s also a tale of bullying and boredom.

Former inmates of Colditz were quick to paint the prisoner group as an unclassified, united, and cohesive bunch that was determined to get out. The opposite was true.

Prisoner Michael Sinclair impersonated Stabsfeldwebel (Sergeant Major) Gustav Rothenberger in a daring escape attempt from Colditz

Prisoner Michael Sinclair impersonated Stabsfeldwebel (Sergeant Major) Gustav Rothenberger in a daring escape attempt from Colditz

Prisoner Michael Sinclair (left) impersonated Stabsfeldwebel (Sergeant Major) Gustav Rothenberger (right) in a daring escape attempt from Colditz 

‘The class structure in Colditz was like the class structure of the time,’ said one new arrival. ‘There was a working class, who were the soldiers, the orderlies who had to work. There was the middle class — officers from minor or major public schools — and then there was an upper class, which included Lords of the Realm.’

The ‘old school tie’ mentality not only persisted but was exacerbated in captivity, as the inmates sought to build a replica of the lives they had known before the war.

Apart from class, there are also military service and nationality divisions.

Informal clubs such as the ‘House of Lords’ and the ‘Kindergarten’ began to form in the mess hall as men found their ‘tribe’ and stuck together. Eventually, Colditz even had its own ‘Bullingdon Club’, modelled on the all-male Oxford University private dining club that has since become a byword for elitist philistinism.

It was ‘mostly Old Etonians with the necessary “old school” and horsey characteristics,’ one member recalled. ‘We got on wonderfully well.’

One of the nastier traditions of the British public school was the ritual humiliation of ‘new bugs’ by older boys, and this too had its counterpart in Colditz.

The first day saw 16 officers of the navy summoned for a fake medical exam. An officer in a German uniform, posing as he was a camp doctor and with stethoscope ordered them to remove their pants before declaring in German that all their bodies were infested by venereal crabs.

A ‘medical assistant’ in a lab coat was barely able to contain his mirth as he daubed their testicles with a blue ‘woad’ made up of scenery paint and ‘high-smelling lavatory disinfectant’.

The story of Colditz is one of the indomitable human spirit, but it is also one of bullying, boredom, insanity, tragedy and farce

Colditz’s story is about the human spirit. But it also includes bullying, boredom and insanity.

It was regarded as just having fun at the new boys’ expense — but it was straightforward bullying, a brutal assertion of power of the sort that English public schoolboys have always inflicted on one another.

That ethos was also present in the common Colditz practice of ‘goon-baiting’ — goading the German guards to a point just short of explosion.

The aim was to chalk up a moral victory over the enemy by making the guards look foolish — by, for example, staring at a German’s fly buttons until he became self-conscious and felt obliged to check them. This could be a modest victory.

One other technique was to act strangely. For example, playing imaginary snooker and walking a nonexistent dog.

Many senior British officers accepted goon-baiting because it was fun and good for morale. But some, including the camp’s Methodist padre, Jock Platt, saw it as demeaning, infantile behaviour that reinforced the German sense of superiority and gave them an easy excuse to impose collective punishments, such as suspending exercise privileges.

It was a ridiculous and absurd joke to lampoon the guards. It served as a psychological tool, which enabled powerless men get back at their captors.

What troubled the padre most of all, though, was sex — or rather, the lack of it and what deprived men would resort to. In 1941, the Colditz actors and entertainers put on a Christmas performance that featured off-color jokes, puns and lavatorial humor.

For most, their time in Colditz was soul-crushingly and sometimes almost unbearably boring. If you weren’t one of the elite who spent every waking hour formulating and refining escape plans, there was nothing to do, which meant that most did very little

Colditz was a time when most people found it difficult to live with their lives. If you weren’t one of the elite who spent every waking hour formulating and refining escape plans, there was nothing to do, which meant that most did very little

They called it ‘Ballet Nonsense’ and the highlight was a choreographed display by a corps de ballet consisting of the toughest-looking, heaviest-moustached officers available, who performed miracles of energetic grace and unsophisticated elegance attired in frilly crepe paper ballet skirts and brassieres.

It ran for two nights, to universal acclaim — but Padre Platt was appalled. The illicit sexual flutters he saw onstage, in the audience and backstage was alarming. Dressing up in women’s clothes could encourage sexual thoughts and, in turn, promote masturbation, or worse, homosexuality.

Although some men were dressed up as imposible women onstage, others went to great lengths to emulate femininity. ‘The leading ladies were incredibly convincing,’ Platt noted. As the ukulele player in the band admitted: ‘It was very hard to keep your hands off them.’

In Colditz, British attitudes to sex, never straightforward in the first place, achieved a uniquely torturous complexity as the prisoners’ repressed sexual urges were coped with in ways both obvious and innovative.

One frustrated inventor came up with the ‘lecherscope’, a home-made telescope that could be used to ogle young women down in the town, some of whom obligingly, and perhaps knowingly, undressed in front of their windows or sunbathed in the open.

They tried to laugh at their sexual indiscretions, making fun of them and pretending they were not there. However, forced celibacy was a cruel addition to the already heavy punishment.

Peter Storie Pug, an undergraduate in medicine, observed the long-term effects of sexual oppression on men. An officer who was frustrated tried to castrate him.

For many, it was the other men. However, homosexuality is a topic the British handled by the centuries-old strategy of not discussing.

During the daytime, such relations were virtually impossible anyway, with the prison courtyard and the exercise yard so crammed with milling prisoners that, as one observed, ‘it would be easier to have a homosexual relationship on a Tube train’.

But night-time, when the castle’s hidden corners were accessible, was a different matter.

Padre Patt believed that sexual deviancy was not only a problem of discipline, but also of eternal damnation. He grew alarmed that ‘homosexualism has occupied an increasingly large place in contemporary prison humour’ and that books by Oscar Wilde and Frank Harris were being surreptitiously passed around.

He then heard rumours that ‘a small mutual masturbation group hold what they hope are secret sessions’, followed by the arrival of a young officer he believed was liable to turn the heads of those ‘susceptible to homosexual inclination’.

It was his duty as a religious man to act. Telling grown men to keep their hands off themselves and each other was, he admitted, ‘as difficult a task as has yet come my way’. He fully expected that the group would ‘tell me to mind my own business! But this happens to be my business!’

The mystery of whether Padre Patt entered into such delicate matters remains. But he never again alluded to the mutual masturbation group in his diary, leading some people to imagine that it had miraculously ceased following the intervention of God’s representative.

On the other hand, it may simply have been easier to pretend that same-sex relationships did not happen, or at most to concede, as did one senior officer, that ‘there was probably an element of homosexual feeling at times but never practising’.

It is an absurd statement. The Colditz men likely practiced homosexuality in the same way, or more than, one would think. But, like in other parts of the world, where homosexuality was illegal, this group did it in secret, in their closets, and with constant fear of being arrested.

A subject that is rarely brought up openly is depression. However, Colditz was haunted by its shadow. The mood fluctuated. You might feel a lift when you receive a Red Cross package, and then sink again once the hot water has stopped.

For many, there was also the anxiety of wondering what was happening to wives and lovers back at home and the worry of a ‘Dear John’ letter dumping them.

Colditz proved to be a lonely place for many. It was sometimes so boring that it became almost unbearable. If you weren’t one of the elite who spent every waking hour formulating and refining escape plans, there was nothing to do, which meant that most did very little.

Many read, or attempted to learn or entertain themselves by other methods, like theatre or concert productions, others played cards or wrote letters. Others fantasized about their home or surreptitiously masturbated. As one inmate put it, the hours between meals and roll calls were worn away in a cycle of ‘smoking, sleeping and self-abuse’.

Any deviation from the norm was thrilling. One day a guard wrote in his diary: ‘The French have caught a mouse and are letting it drift down on a parachute from the fourth floor.’

But such diversions were short-lived. It was rare to find something new, and even those who were most interested became boring bores. Lights out, at 9.30pm, came as ‘a blessed relief, for it meant the end of another wasted and useless day’.

PTSD was undoubtedly something that some men experienced.

Yet the captives, including the doctors and priests, tended to regard depression in much the same way that homesickness was treated in all-male boarding schools: a sign of weakness which was best ignored, since ‘mollycoddling’, it was believed, would only make the unhappiness worse. ‘The stiff upper lip is a great thing to hide behind,’ one inmate remarked.

Most people either kept their feelings of sadness hidden or suppressed them. ‘I suddenly realised I was going round the bend,’ wrote one officer. ‘I took myself, metaphorically, off into the corner of the room, and gave myself a good dressing down.’

Even those who are most positive felt like their spirits were starting to drop as the years and months passed.

Desperation set in for some — such as Mike Sinclair, whose escape plan by impersonating Stabsfeldwebel Rothenberger was frustrated at the very last obstacle. He was desperate and urgently seeking to escape.

Before being captured, he had already escaped from Colditz twice before being brought back. Now he spent hours staring furiously over the castle ramparts, smoking his pipe, monitoring and memorising the guards’ movements, searching for gaps in the walls.

‘Poor Mike absolutely loathed every minute of this life and had no other interest except in trying to escape,’ wrote a fellow inmate. ‘He would never admit defeat.’

As he walked to the enclosure, he was joined by a number of other prisoners. They took positions at the 8-foot high wire fence that was topped with barbed steel and set up guards.

The game of football began. While the sun shone on men’s faces, they chatted or sat in groups while the rest of us walked around the perimeter.

Sinclair was alone and walked up and down the wire for over half an hour. Sinclair wore thick gloves to hide his hands and then leapt over the first tripwire, climbing up the perimeter fence.

After a brief moment, he appeared to be floating in midair. He then grabbed the topmost barbed-wire strand and began pulling himself up. The guards saw him balance astride the wires and unloaded their guns.

That day, the German NCO was on duty. He knew Sinclair well and greatly admires his bravery. Sinclair was now on the ground, so he ran over to the other end of the wire. ‘It’s no use, Herr Sinclair,’ the guard said, not unkindly, but Sinclair knocked aside the man’s pistol and sprinted up the slope, jinking as he ran.

When the first shot echoing around the park, he was already half way to the outer walls. There were two more and then another. The volley was followed by several guards from different locations on the perimeter. An emplacement was the location of a machine gun.

Sinclair was 10 feet away from the outer walls when he staggered, then dropped to his knees. He slowly shifted forward, then he staggered. There were very few British recriminations about the Germans among the British. The guards were reluctant to fire after being given warning and without the intent of killing. Sinclair could have intended to be killed, which is a grim possibility.

Some ascribed his actions to a ‘spontaneous breakdown in reason’. But Sinclair was perfectly sane when he died; he knew the most likely outcome of a ‘dive at the wire’. It seems that after four years, he just couldn’t stand captivity any more. 

Adapted from Colditz: Prisoners Of The Castle, by Ben Macintyre, published by Viking at £25.