The Dirty Half-Dozen — Meet the Six Aging POWs Who Pulled Off One of WW2’s Most Daring Escapes

The Allied POWs of Vincigliata Castle were well past their prime; but that didn’t keep them from escaping.

“It is a cast of characters that even Hollywood would never dare make up. But every detail is completely and unbelievably true.”

What do you get when you take dozens of captured Commonwealth army generals and put them in a supposedly escape-proof Medieval citadel in Tuscany at the height of World War Two? The answer is one of the most outlandish break-out stories in military history. Mark Felton, author of the book Castle of the Eagles: Escape from Mussolini’s Colditz is here to introduce MHN readers to the characters at the heart of one of the lesser known yet remarkable chapters of the war in Europe.

By Mark Felton

CASTLE OF THE EAGLES: Escape from Mussolini’s Colditz is the incredible untold true story of how a group of British and New Zealand generals, held captive in a massive Tuscan castle on Il Duce’s personal order, mounted some of the most daring escape attempts of World War II.

Ranging in age from 42 to 63, the dozen generals and brigadiers had been captured in the Western Desert or in two famous cases, actually fallen from the skies into Axis hands after their transport planes were shot down over enemy territory.

Each was accustomed to the pressures of command, yet all were unwilling to simply take it easy and see out their imprisonment in comparative comfort. Instead, these grizzled, middle-aged war heroes, many nursing age-related problems and old battlefield wounds, devised a series of increasingly dangerous and arduous escape schemes from their prison fortress — Vincigliata Castle.

Vincigliata Castle.

From planning to hijack the plane that brought them to Italy, to abseiling down 30-foot high castle walls, the team eventually put themselves to work digging a 60-foot long tunnel through the bedrock beneath Vincigliata.

This final and massive engineering feat took the prisoners seven months of hard labour. And it was work that was made all the more arduous when considering that the men were all well past their prime.

Then one wet and blustery night in late March 1943, six of the generals escaped and headed for neutral Switzerland, over 200 miles to the north. Dodging Italian search parties and police patrols, the fugitives stowed away on trains or walked north, facing physical challenges that would have taxed the energies of men half their ages.

In the spirit of the famous movie The Great Escape, here are presented six of Vincigliata’s secret tunnel diggers – a literal ‘dirty’ half-dozen who created a civil engineering miracle beneath the castle, working in mud, clay and water with only one thought in their minds – freedom. It’s a cast of characters that even Hollywood could never dream up. But every detail of their story is completely and unbelievably true. Here is the cast of ‘real’ but tragically forgotten World War Two heroes:


Dr. Mark Felton is a well-known historian and writer. He is the author of 20 books. Castle of the Eagles is currently being developed into a Hollywood movie. Mark regularly appears as an historical expert in television documentaries for Discovery, The History Channel, PBS, Quest and American Heroes Channel, including several programmes partly based on his books. For the latest news, reviews and media about author and military historian Mark Felton, visit

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