“A great many ancient European fortresses figured prominently in the six-year conflict. Consider these.”
FROM ITS PERCH HIGH ATOP THE FAMOUS White Cliffs, the sprawling fortress of Dover Castle protected England’s shores from invasion for hundreds of years. Overlooking the 21-mile stretch of sea separating the British Isles from France, the mighty 12th Century citadel was long considered the “Key to England.” No foreign army could hope invade the island without passing beneath its formidable walls.
Amazingly, when Britain went to war against Germany in 1939, the 800-year-old bastion was once again pressed into service.
Not only did Dover’s elevated ramparts make ideal observation posts, miles of historic tunnels cut deep into the chalk deep beneath the castle were converted into air raid shelters at the outset of hostilities. The fortress also housed a communications hub from which the RAF and Royal Navy coordinated search and rescue operations for pilots lost over the English Channel and North Sea. But most famously, bunkers deep within the cliffs concealed a top secret command post from where in 1940 Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay planned and directed the evacuation of more than 330,000 British and Allied soldiers from Dunkirk.
And Dover isn’t the only Medieval-era castle that was on the front lines of the Second World War. A great many ancient European fortresses figured prominently in the six-year conflict. Consider these:
The Colditz Cooler
The 15th Century stronghold at Colditz in Saxony became one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps in the whole of the Third Reich. The Nazis initially seized the one-time lunatic asylum in 1933 and converted it into a prison for the regime’s most hated political dissidents. But with the outbreak of war six years later, Colditz was transformed into a POW facility for Allied officers. Known as Oflag IV-C, Berlin was confident that the castle’s seven-foot thick walls, as well as its location atop steep cliffs, would make it virtually escape-proof to the more than 1,200 inmates that would eventually be housed there. They were wrong. As many as 36 prisoners managed to break out of the infamous detention centre between 1939 and 1945. In fact, theirs are some of the most daring escape stories of the Second World War. These tales have since been immortalized in a series of books, television series and films.
The towering Wewelsburg Castle near Büren, Westphalia wasn’t just home to a leadership academy for Heinrich Himmler’s SS. The sprawling three-sided fortress, parts of which date back to the 9th Century, also became ‘ground-zero’ for the Nazis’ outlandish research into ancient Germanic mythology, Nordic mysticism and the paranormal. It housed a massive archive of ancient texts and documents as well as a trove of artifacts unearthed by the Fuhrer’s army of archeologists. Himmler, who thought of the SS as a sort of latter-day chivalric order, imagined that the castle would become the spiritual epicenter of Nazism, that is of course once victory over the Allies had been secured. To that end, he transformed the bastion’s north tower into a richly symbolic shrine to National Socialism, complete with an eternal flame. The quirky Schutzstaffel Reichsführer even ordered that all SS-Ehrenring “deaths-head honor rings” be recovered from the fingers of fallen officers and returned to Wewelsburg where they were kept in a large vault hidden deep within the castle’s walls. The stronghold was captured by U.S. troops on April 2, 1945 — Himmler’s plans on making Wewelsburg the zentrum der neuen welt or the “center of the new world” would never be realized.
The Castle that Helped Sink a Battleship
Archdale Castle, a small and largely forgotten lakeside keep in Northern Ireland, was instrumental in one of the Allies’ most significant naval victories of the Second World War. Located on the shores of Lower Lough Erne near Enniskillen, Archdale served as a major base for Allied PBY Catalina and Short Sunderland flying boats for much of the conflict. Situated at the far western tip of Northern Ireland, the remote outpost provided an ideal calm-water shelter for the Allied long-range patrol planes that ventured deep into the stormy Atlantic in search of German U-boats. A secret deal between London and Dublin allowed British, and later American, flying boats to pass directly over the neutral airspace of the Irish Republic on their way out to their ocean hunting grounds. On May 26, 1941, a PBY from 209 Squadron flying out of Archdale spotted the elusive German battleship Bismarck. Once pinpointed, Royal Navy surface vessels and torpedo planes from the carrier HMS Ark Royal converged on the powerful warship and finished her off. The loss represented a crippling blow to the Kriegsmarine.
The Guns of Pevensey
First established by the Romans in the 3rd Century, the castle at Pevensey in southern England was later expanded into a keep by William the Conqueror. In 1940, the crumbling walls were again put to use, this time by Britain’s Local Defence Volunteers (aka the “Home Guard”) who urgently needed to fortify the channel coast against the threat of Nazi invasion. Little more than a grenade’s toss from the seashore, the castle’s ramparts were soon bristling with machine gun nests and bunkers all poised to throw back an Axis amphibious assault on the English coast if need be. The grounds of Pevensey were later transformed into an army base for both Canadian and American troops in the lead-up to the 1944 Normandy invasion.
The Tower of London
Since its initial construction in the 11th century, Britain’s storied Tower of London has served as a fortress, a royal palace, and a treasury, but most famously of all, a prison. Some of its best known “guests” over the centuries have included William Wallace, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes. During the Second World War, the tower served as a POW camp and briefly held Rudolph Hess. Nazi Germany’s unstable Deputy Fuhrer spent four days there after his failed peace mission to Britain in 1941. German agent Josef Jacobs was also incarcerated in the tower. On Aug. 15, 1941, the 43-year-old spy was shot by firing squad on the grounds of the historic site. He remains the last person ever executed in the Tower of London.
Just three miles up the Thames from the Tower of London sits Buckingham Palace, the official administrative residence of the British monarchy. And like so many other famous London landmarks, the palace became a target during the Blitz. In fact, the property was struck on 16 separate occasions during the course of the war, with nine bombs scoring direct hits on the building itself.  The most famous of these incidents took place on Sept. 13, 1940 when a bomber on a daylight raid over the British capital planted three bombs on the palace while King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were inside. “It all happened so quickly that we only had time to look foolishly at each other,” the Queen later wrote of the incident. “My knees trembled a little bit.”  Her husband was unruffled by the attack. “I am glad we have been bombed,” the King famously declared. “It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face”. While most of the damage occurred during the Battle of Britain, Buckingham continued to take a beating from German bombers as the war continued. In 1941, a policeman was killed by a blast on the grounds while one of the palace walls and a smaller building were damaged by a V-1 rocket in 1944.
Hitler’s Treasure Chest
Neuschwanstein Castle, located in the picturesque Bavarian Alps of southern Germany, looks like something out of a storybook. In fact, the Romanesque-style palace, which was erected in the mid-19th Century by King Ludwig II, was the real-world inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Yet despite its fairytale pedigree, Neuschwanstein was the scene of one of the Nazi regime’s most notorious war crimes. From 1941 to 1944, the 65,000-sq.-ft., 200-room palace was the headquarters for Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the top-secret task force that plundered occupied Europe of its artistic and cultural treasures. Much of the estimated 1.4 million railway cars worth of statues, paintings, ancient manuscripts and treasures looted by Hitler’s war machine passed through Neuschwanstein on the way to a network of secret depots and warehouses hidden throughout the Third Reich. While the bulk of the priceless booty was eventually returned to its country of origin, literally tons of stolen riches still remain unaccounted for.
The Bizarre Battle of Schloss Itter
Schloss Itter castle in Austria served as the backdrop for one of the last (and weirdest) firefights of the war in Europe. On May 5, 1945, a handful of GIs liberated the 13th Century keep, which for the previous two years had been used by the Axis to house captured French military and government officials (along with their wives and mistresses). Among those detained at Itter were French prime ministers Paul Reynauld and Eduard Daladier along with generals Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin. With the Third Reich in its final death spasms, top Nazi officials ordered a column from the 17th Waffen SS Panzer Grenadier Division to speed to the prison to murder the high-profile inmates. Outnumbered and facing almost certain annihilation, the American troops enlisted the aid of the camp’s Wehrmacht guards and a number of the French prisoners. Together, the former enemies united to fend off an assault by die hard Nazis. The whole fascinating story was the subject of a 2013 book by journalist, historian and author Stephen Harding entitled The Last Battle.
(Originally published on Jan. 26, 2015)