"Welcome to Colditz."

My guide Steffi Schubert meant it and she had some great stories to tell.

But for hundreds of prisoners of war who arrived at the this mediaeval fortress 75 years ago, the German guards who delivered those immortal words did so with threat and menace.

The Nazi regime had deemed the castle to be a Sonderlager - a special camp - supposedly escape-proof, towering above the village of Colditz in the heart of Saxony.

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Colditz, or Oflag IV-C, was for the worst of the worst as the Germans saw them, the bad boy officers who were persistent escapers or had been categorised as special cases.

I was drawn there by an interest in World War II and a fascination with Colditz born of watching the BBC series of the same name in the early 1970s. That was before colour TV had reached our house and the characters were black and white too. In Colditz there were the "good Germans" from the more traditional old school of the Wehrmacht who - luckily for the prisoners - largely ran the place; and the "bad Germans" - SS or Gestapo who would interfere periodically - and, of course, the nearly always heroic prisoners.

That series and an earlier movie was largely based on the writing of British prisoner and escape officer Captain (later Major) Pat Reid, and after listening to more than seven hours of The Colditz Story on audio book en route to Germany, I was ready.

Riding through rolling farmland on a public bus from Leipzig you glimpse the place from many kilometres away as the castle or schloss rises up to 10 storeys high above the rock promontory it sits on.

The Colditz TV show kicked off the writer's interest in the castle. Photo / Supplied
The Colditz TV show kicked off the writer's interest in the castle. Photo / Supplied

The bus drops you on the outskirts of what is now a small town and you have to look closely for the signs to lead you to the castle - which is hard to get into; this town is yet to fully exploit this relic of another age, unimaginable in modern, friendly Germany. Colditz has not been "Alcatrazed"; there are just a few T-shirts and coffee mugs in the ticket office below an excellent museum.

But Schubert says German interest in the story of Colditz is growing, with an increasing number among the 30,000 who visit each year coming from within that country.

Although it's no longer battleship grey and covered in ivy, it is still an oppressive place. The prisoners' quarters, chapel and clock tower rise high above the cobbled, quite steeply sloping, courtyard the Red Cross said was too small, forcing the Germans to open an exercise area in a meadow below the castle.

Colditz Castle is first mentioned in records dating back to the 11th century before being rebuilt as a stone fortress 400 years later. It was near impregnable to invaders. Later, it was used as a hunting lodge for a wealthy Saxon family before being used as a psychiatric hospital around the turn of the 20th century. The Nazis used it to imprison German opponents from the mid-1930s until Polish POWs replaced them in May, 1940. The British arrived later that year and hundreds of men at a time were kept in cramped confinement until Colditz was liberated in April 1945.

Deep in the heart of Germany and far from the border of any neutral or friendly country, the chance of any escapee reaching Allied support was considered remote and the castle's 3m walls and solid rock foundations made it impossible to tunnel through, or so the Germans thought.

Schubert says engineers had inspected the building and wrongly declared the walls solid. In fact they were like Swiss cheese in places, with secret passages and stairways discovered by prisoners with a fanatical sense of duty to escape and plenty of time to attempt it.

The biggest mistake the Germans made was grouping together these highly motivated officers, most of whom had experience escaping from other camps. As it turned out, Colditz was one of the most porous POW camps in the Reich. The figures vary according to sources, but Schubert says the latest estimates are about 300 attempts, of which 165 were successful in getting men out of the castle, with most recaptured. Just 31 Colditz escapees made it home, most through neutral Switzerland.

Schubert took me (and four English tourists well studied in the legends of Colditz) along the route where Pat Reid escaped in October 1942, and went on to make the coveted "home run" with three comrades. They were able to break in to a sewage-filled cellar beneath the German quarters and squeeze "like toothpaste out of a tube" through a tiny air vent to clamber over an external wall and on to freedom.

German security officer at Colditz, Hauptmann Reinhold Eggers, has also been the source of much of the Colditz story. He wrote following the war that "a more unsuitable place to hold prisoners will never again be chosen".

There were strange contradictions at Colditz. The inmates felt they were Hitler's hostages, unsuccessful escapes or insubordination were punished with the brutality of solitary confinement for weeks; on the other hand German guards supervised one English prisoner's Oxford exams. Schubert says one Kommandant made a point of sending an escapee's possessions home if he had left a forwarding address. Such officer-to-officer civility was going on while total war raged through Europe and the death camps elsewhere in German-occupied territory were operating to capacity.

The air vent Pat Reid and three others squeezed out of like
The air vent Pat Reid and three others squeezed out of like "toothpaste out of a tube". Photo / Grant Bradley

Schubert called it the "Colditz spirit" - sufficient in all but one case to keep alive the prisoners from Western Allied countries.

The one deadly shooting happened in the exercise field below the castle. It was a pleasant place on the spring day I was there, a meadow surrounded by sycamore and chestnut trees. During the war, it was encircled with high fences and barbed wire, although not high enough to stop one athletic Frenchman vaulting to freedom.

Schubert pointed out the spot where Mike "The Red Fox" Sinclair was killed in his desperate dash in 1944. Guards were notoriously poor shots, but a bullet ricocheted off Sinclair's elbow and then through his heart and he fell in the autumn leaves. Full military honours were accorded at his funeral in Colditz.

Disguises were often used in escape attempts. Sinclair had almost made it out during an earlier attempt by convincingly disguising himself as a particular guard, a man who like many others was a World War I veteran. The guard had a spectacular flowing white moustache and was dubbed by the prisoners "Franz Josef", after the former Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. There was a fair bit of cross-dressing for theatrical purposes (musical productions were popular) and the skills and costumes proved useful for escape attempts. One French prisoner convincingly passed himself off as a bronze-haired Rhine maiden until at the last minute a guard figured something was not right "and a fine hat and abundant wig were off, revealing beneath the bald head of Lieutenant Boulay", Reid wrote. Another ruse involved a dummy made by the Dutch that was paraded in courtyard during the frequent appellen, or roll calls, to muck up the German's head-count.

Max the dummy (fourth from left) was made of plaster and cement by Dutch POWs to cover up absences from roll-calls. Photo / Supplied
Max the dummy (fourth from left) was made of plaster and cement by Dutch POWs to cover up absences from roll-calls. Photo / Supplied

Schubert says prisoners had access to a library, which the Germans came to regret. One book the French borrowed on the history of the castle contained vital information that led to them digging a 44m tunnel project from a wine cellar, beneath the chapel, and to within metres of an external wall before being discovered. This escape route is well displayed and it's hard to imagine anyone being able to chip through so much solid rock with only rudimentary tools.

She says there are about 30 known tunnel projects and more are being discovered in what has been recognised as an important historical site. Unfortunately we weren't shown the dorm rooms where prisoners spent years contemplating escape. The prisoners built a thriving industry in fake key making and German uniforms. A wooden sewing machine made by prisoners is on display at the museum with other fascinating artefacts including the radio used to listen to the BBC World Service and a simple yet powerful symbol - a tangle of barbed wire.

Allied intelligence agencies found ingenious ways of smuggling money and maps into Colditz to aid escapes, pressing them into vinyl records and playing cards, some of which are on display. In Colditz, a deadly serious game of cat and mouse developed during the war with guards finding ever more sophisticated ways to thwart escapes, including using listening equipment to detect tunnelling.

A portrait of Charles Upham in the museum at Colditz Castle. Photo / Grant Bradley
A portrait of Charles Upham in the museum at Colditz Castle. Photo / Grant Bradley

Among Allied prisoners was an artist, Lieutenant John Watton, whose work is on display. Subjects include Kiwi war hero Charles Upham, sent to Colditz in 1944 to spend the remainder of the war and twice awarded the Victoria Cross; and RAF fighter ace Douglas Bader, a double amputee who had ended up in Colditz after escape attempts from other camps.

Schubert says a library book on flight borrowed by the British helped in the most audacious escape project of them all - a glider with sheets around a light wooden frame built in the attic of the chapel house. The plan was to launch it from one of the highest points of the castle using a makeshift runway on the roof with a bathtub as a counterweight. In pride of place in a very good attic display is a replica of the original glider, which Schubert says was most likely used as firewood when Colditz was used by German authorities for civilian prisoners some time after the war.

A documentary crew three years ago built their own version of the aircraft and successfully flew it from the roof and over the River Mulde to prove it was potentially a viable plan.

The war ended before the original one could be tested.

A replica of the glider prisoners built to use in a planned escape. Photo / Grant Bradley
A replica of the glider prisoners built to use in a planned escape. Photo / Grant Bradley

As the United States 9th Armoured Division drew closer the German jailers simply handed over the keys of the castle to the prisoners and although there are no accounts of reprisals by the prisoners there was doubtless a big dose of schadenfreude.

Colditz was liberated on April 16, 1945, after prisoners and guards groundlessly feared an SS unit in the town might use the schloss for one last stand.

Besides being a jail for a short time, the fortress was used as a general hospital by East German authorities following the war. After the Berlin Wall came down, tourist numbers increased: now, some of Colditz is a well-patronised youth hostel, and another part of the former guards' quarters has been turned into a music academy.

Schubert says a former British prisoner who came back in the 1990s to "escape-proof" Colditz for the academy's dedication ceremony brought with him a fake key from his incarceration. It opened the lock first time.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Fly to Berlin on Virgin Australia and its codeshare partners Etihad and Air Berlin. Colditz is a 2.5-hour drive from Berlin. Public buses from Leipzig take about 1.5 hours. Leipzig is just over an hour by fast train from Berlin.

Details: Steffi Schubert takes two-hour guided tours for $29.60. Contact: schubert.steffi@t-online.de
A tip for visitors: Wear stout shoes, you'll be treading the same rugged cobblestones as jack-booted guards and prisoners who wore wooden clogs.

Where to stay: Adina Apartment Hotel Berlin, Hackescher Markt Contact: abhm@adina.eu