Colditz Castle and stories of the brave British officers, who were kept there because of their determination to escape, left an indelible mark on my boyhood years.
Pictures of the formidable fortress in eastern Germany, lit up by searchlights at night, were both thrilling and frightening.
Growing up in the Fifties in a village in Oxfordshire, where a mere bike ride was exciting, I was frustrated that my generation had missed out on World War II. Avidly, I read the paperback memoirs of those who had pitted themselves against dastardly foes.
Educational: The former BBC political correspondent (above) tries a prisoner of war bed
It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I crossed the bridge over the river into the small town of Colditz, not far from Leipzig, to see what is left of the most famous prisoner-of- war camp in Germany.
The bridge is no longer named after Adolf Hitler, but the enormous castle still dwarfs the town, and painted across the end of a building is a welcome sign: ‘Willkommen in Colditz.’
During the long years when Colditz was part of East Germany, the castle was used as a hospital. Now most of it lies empty, with abandoned rooms and neglected corridors.
You need an expert guide to point out where the legless flying ace, Douglas Bader, was carried up the stairs to his quarters.
But the great 16th-century structure has survived, largely unscathed, and in many places been restored. It welcomes about 30,000 visitors a year, mostly from Britain. It’s run by a non-profit association as a cultural centre, with exhibition rooms and a music school, as well as the PoW museum. It also houses a youth hostel, where we stayed.
There were about 500 Allied officers at Colditz at any one time, from several countries. Over five years, only about 30 prisoners successfully escaped, with the British contingent managing 11 home runs, as they were called, getting all the way back to Blighty.
Jail break: Colditz Castle is one of the most famous German prisoner-of-war camps in WWII
When I was a BBC political correspondent, I met the famous Airey Neave, who was the first to make a home run. Sadly, he was killed in an Irish paramilitary bomb attack at Westminster when Margaret Thatcher was about to appoint him Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
By an extraordinary piece of luck, there were three people on my tour with a close connection to Airey Neave. Amy Perry, who runs an antiques shop in Gloucestershire, drove for eight hours from Calais, to meet up with her two brothers to visit the castle for the first time. Their grandfather, Norman Forbes, attempted a daring escape with Airey from another camp, and as a result they both ended up in Colditz.
Many of the escape routes can still be seen in the castle and they were lovingly described by our friendly, informative guide, Steffi. She also revealed to Amy and her brothers that Norman had made three unsuccessful escape attempts.
The most amazing exhibit was a full-size replica of the home-made glider designed to be catapulted off the roof with two escaping prisoners on board. Fortunately, Allied forces liberated Colditz before this crazy plan was put into operation.
At the end of our tour, Amy was ecstatic. ‘It has been fabulous, much better than expected,’ she told me, ‘I’ve learnt so much.’
It was a view I certainly shared. My older brother, Peter, went with me on this trip, and we also met five male friends from Stoke-on-Trent who were all thrilled to come to this legendary site. In the shop, you can buy a plate, engraved with the words ‘Escape to Colditz’ and for those who like T-shirts, there’s a black one with the slogan: ‘I escaped from Colditz.’
It was a marvellous day, perfectly concluded by a night spent at the youth hostel, where the guards used to sleep. I never thought Colditz would be so comfortable.
For those who think we hear too much about World War II, there is blessed relief to be found in Leipzig.
For music lovers it needs no introduction: Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner all called it home. We spent a wonderful three days in this beautiful, interesting city. Overall, it was one of the best short holidays I can remember.
Travel Without Borders (travelwithoutborders.co.uk, 0844 3575 232) offers tailor-made packages to Colditz and Leipzig. The First Quick Escape Attempt trip to Colditz Castle, with two nights’ B&B, guided tour, flights to Berlin and rail travel, costs from £379pp.