Ben Macintyre specializes in finding nooks and crannies in World War II history and then striking best-seller gold, first with Forgotten Fatherland and then, among other books, Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat, A Spy Among Friends, Rogue Heroes, Agent Sonya, and now Prisoners of the Castle, a chronicle of the infamous German prison called Colditz, a medieval pile that today houses a youth hostel. Macintyre details the famous escapes, but, just as importantly, gives a vivid picture of everyday life in what became Germany’s most elite prison. Set aside a few hours for this book, since once you start reading you will not stop until the last page.

Roll call at Colditz.

JIM KELLY: In your new book, you do wonderful dramatic justice to the reputation of Colditz as a prison famous for its escape attempts, partly because many of its prisoners of war had ended up there after failed efforts to escape other prisons and also because so many of the occupants were officers and thus unlikely to be shot if captured, thanks to the Geneva Convention rules governing the treatment of P.O.W.’s. Which escape attempt did you find the most audacious?

BEN MACINTYRE: I love one of the early French escapes, in which the elegant cavalry officer Pierre Marie Mairesse-Lebrun went down to the exercise yard, had an accomplice cup his hands into a stirrup with his back to the exterior fence, and then ran at him, put his foot in the stirrup, and vaulted over the fence, like a steeplechaser. He then jumped over the wall, while sentries shot at him, walked and cycled to the Swiss border on a stolen bicycle, and crossed into neutral territory. Safely back in France, he wrote to the Colditz Kommandant asking for his luggage and elegant wardrobe to be returned—which, amusingly and amazingly, it was.

The French-cavalry officer Pierre Marie Mairesse-Lebrun, who escaped Colditz during the war.

J.K.: What I liked so much about your book is that you do not just bring the escapes to life, but you offer a fascinating look at daily life in the prison and the interactions among the different kinds of prisoners and their relationships with the guards. Daily life could be so boring that one guard even noted in his journal the day some French prisoners caught a mouse and let it drift down from an upper floor on a tiny parachute. I found especially fascinating the existence of the Prominente, important prisoners whom the Germans treated differently. How did the Germans decide who was special, a process that you point out was not always accurate?

B.M.: The Germans selected a group of special prisoners who were, in effect, hostages, held as bargaining chips because they were deemed to be particularly valuable because of social or political connections—the relatives of generals or politicians, or members of the royal family. By the end, these included two of the king’s nephews and Churchill’s nephew.

But they also made mistakes. One man was allocated special-prisoner status because his mother wrote a casual letter mentioning he was very distantly related to Churchill. Another man managed to get himself included in the group because he claimed to be a nephew of Field Marshal Alexander, which he was not.

J.K.: You create such memorable portraits of both prisoners and guards that I wonder if you have a favorite in each of those two groups?

B.M.: My favorite prisoner has to be Julius Green, a Jewish dentist from Glasgow hitherto almost entirely forgotten by history. Green was a good dentist, but an even better spy, who was principally responsible for sending coded letters back to the U.K., requesting escape equipment and passing important intelligence on troop deployments, local Nazis, and events inside Colditz. Green passed the hours thinking of the meals he planned to eat when he was finally liberated.

The most fascinating character among the guards was Reinhold Eggers, who ended up a chief security officer. Eggers was no Nazi; an Anglophile former schoolteacher who spoke perfect English, he treated the prisoners as if they were naughty schoolboys, and kept a record of every escape attempt. I discovered his personal scrapbook while researching this book, an extraordinary treasure trove.

A walnut concealing a compass, used by a Colditz prisoner to plot his escape.

J.K.: You point out that the wartime history of Colditz is little known in Germany, but that is not the case in England, where it has been the subject of movies, TV series (one starring David McCallum and another Damian Lewis), and even a board game, more popular than Monopoly in its time. Why do you think Colditz has such a grip on the British imagination?

B.M.: Colditz is part of British mythology because it represents a particular sort of stiff-upper-lip story, in which powerless men, incarcerated though innocent, continued the war by other means—doing anything and everything they could to escape. But the real story of Colditz is, of course, more complicated than the enduring legend, and far more interesting. It is a story of courage, but it is also a tale of human frailty, enterprise, resilience, and vulnerability.

J.K.: I love all your books, and a particular favorite is Operation Mincemeat, about the successful British plan to plant a dead corpse armed with fake battle plans who would then be discovered, to their regret, by the Germans. This tale has been told before, but nowhere near as richly textured as by you, thanks in part to your discovery of a dusty trunk filled with valuable documents. Is this the biggest eureka discovery in all of your writings?

B.M.: Yes, the discovery of that trunkful of documents belonging to (indeed, stolen by) the chief architect of Operation Mincemeat, Ewen Montagu, was the most remarkable discovery I have ever made. No one had looked inside that trunk for at least 30 years. It contained official reports but also letters, diaries, postcards, and dozens of photos. I felt I was in a film as I opened it … and Operation Mincemeat has now become exactly that. (John Madden directed a 2021 film adaptation of the book starring Colin Firth.)

Matthew Macfadyen, Colin Firth, and Johnny Flynn in the 2021 film Operation Mincemeat, based on Macintyre’s book of the same name.

J.K.: As a child, did you have favorite books or authors that inspired you to write the books you do?

B.M.: As a child, I loved narrative history, both fiction and nonfiction: R. J. Unstead, Ronald Welch, Henry Treece. No one really reads these books now, but they had a profound influence on me. Later I read In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, the first nonfiction novel, a true story that reads like fiction. I have been trying to emulate that ever since.

J.K.: If a time machine could deliver three of the people you have written about to your apartment for a drinks party, whom would you choose?

B.M.: Eddie Chapman, the double agent code-named “Zigzag,” a dreadful crook, brilliant spy, opportunist, and charmer; Tommy “Tar” Robertson, the unsung hero of wartime espionage, who brilliantly fooled the Germans into thinking they had a fully functioning spy network in Britain, when every single spy was controlled by … Tommy Robertson; and Alexis von Roenne—he was Hitler’s spy chief, who would be executed for his part in the July plot to assassinate the Führer. Von Roenne was highly intelligent, a German patriot and a secret anti-Nazi conspirator. It has never been clear whose side he was really on—I would ply him with drink and try to find out.

J.K.: Finally, in that same vein of fanciful musings, make believe World War II had never happened. You are a born writer, so what subject do you think would have attracted your attention all these years?

B.M.: I have loved writing about war, but I am less interested in the traditional aspects of warfare: battles, maneuvers, tactics, and so on. I am fascinated by the personalities and character; war is a wonderful backdrop to ask the question “What would you do?,” but I am fascinated by almost any situation in which individuals have to make decisions in circumstances not of their making, and over which they have no control. This is true of almost every great event in history, not just war—revolution, natural disaster, and even peacetime espionage.

Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison, by Ben Macintyre, will be published on September 13 by Crown

Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for Air Mail