Imprisoned in a castle, and surrounded by German guards, you won’t believe what these men did next!
There was a heap of ingenuity, a load of courage, and more than a dash of incredulousness in the air at Christ’s College last week, as crowds poured in to the school auditorium to hear historian, journalist, and storyteller Ben Macintyre at the first WORD Christchurch event of 2023.
Speaking with local ex-journalist Jo Malcolm, ‘Spies & Espionage: Ben Macintyre Live’ allowed the author to share some of the amusing, inspiring, and plain unbelievable stories of the Allied servicemen imprisoned in Germany’s Colditz Castle during the Second World War. Hearing these tales, it was almost like being in a real-life ‘boys’ own’ comic – there were crazy escapades, schoolboy pranks, heroic escapes … and a slightly eccentric individual keeping an eye on everything going on among the prisoners and the guards.
Macintyre has a raft of published books to his name, including several which have inspired movies and television series, and having written so much non-fiction in the past he might have spent the evening talking about his writing process, how he conducts his research, or his own thoughts on the topics he writes about. He is a born speaker and presenter, however, and instead kept the focus squarely on his subjects, the people the audience had come to hear about: the men living in Colditz Castle. The crowd lapped up everything he had to say, and the hour-long event absolutely flew by, covering a wide range of topics.
These subjects included, but were not limited to:
- why spy stories make such good reading – because the spies put all the effort into creating the false worlds in which they live, the writer doesn’t need to worry about world-building so can get on with creating good writing
- the men and technology involved in successful escapes from Colditz castle … and what happened to those involved in unsuccessful ones (a hint – it isn’t what you think! The prisoners got asked to re-enact them so they could be photographed and recorded in a little museum of escapes!)
- different personalities and characters who resided at Colditz: the anglophile German who ensured a suitcase of fancy French suits made their way back to their British owner after his escape; the man who had to turn down the offer of a way out of the castle as part of a prisoner exchange and spent the rest of the war in captivity; Aotearoa New Zealand’s favourite local sheep farmer and Christ’s College Old Boy, Charles Upham; and so many more
- how Colditz mimicked general English society in its approaches to classism, racism, sexuality and mental health, …
I had already read and enjoyed a couple of Ben Macintyre’s books, and Colditz has been squarely on my ‘to read’ list since I first caught a look at it in the shops back before Christmas. Having now seen the author in person and had a preview of some of the stories contained within it, I am even more excited to get my hands on it, to read more about the men who lived there, and to learn about and share their incredible stories.
Macintyre does have some new books in the making, but while we wait for these to make an appearance on the bookshelves you can check out Colditz and his other books at Christchurch City Libraries. While you’re at it, why not try some of the other books available about espionage, prisoner of war escapes, or clever secret resistance weapons at the same time? Who knows, next time you need to escape from a beautiful German castle, you might have some new ideas to draw on!
Books by Ben Macintyre
Spies and Espionage: Ben Macintyre live - Wednesday 1 March 6.30pm
Master of the cold war spy thriller John le Carré called Macintyre’s pageturner The Spy and the Traitor “the best true spy story I have ever read.” With his elegant knack for bringing together meticulously researched historical detail with rollicking adventure stories and compelling characters, Macintyre’s books explore deceit, subterfuge, espionage and spycraft, and have been adapted for film and television including the Colin Firth drama Operation Mincemeat, Double Agents: The Eddie Chapman Story and Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. The engrossing star-studded adaptation A Spy Among Friends starring Guy Pearce recently wowed audiences, and SAS Rogue Heroes has been adapted by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight. “This is rock star history!” declared renowned historian Antony Beevor in his review for the Guardian.
Macintyre’s latest book Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle is the inside story that takes the reader inside the foreboding German gothic castle Colditz, the WWII prisoner of war camp infamous for many daring escape attempts. This detailed account of the prisoners who lived alongside their jailers is a thrilling tale of cat-and-mouse.
Presented by WORD Christchurch in association with Verb Wellington and Penguin Random House New Zealand.