A Long Walk Back – Appendices


This document should be read in connection with Williams’ account of the journey south from PG49 Fontanellato with Jobson, Ted Pryke and Ian Shaw. It comprises Jobson’s description of their return to the UK after reaching allied lines. George (Toots) Williams also adds a description of a return to Italy in 2008, following the route of their walk in September-October 1943.

The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.

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HITCH-HIKING HOME 1943: Captains GTG Williams, H Jobson and WE Pryke
AN ITALIAN ODYSSEY 2008: Colonel GTG Williams

Edited by Dr. Geoffrey Gibbons

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[Photograph and caption]: [1 word illegible] and Merlin against wall of large old castle in Piacenza. (Fontanellato camp 1/2 a mile away). Piacenza size of Truro, 150 miles from Venice.

[Photograph and caption]: [1 word illegible] of Rezzanello castle from photo.

[Photograph and caption]: Rezzanello courtyard – our only exercise area (volleyball!)

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14th October to 5th November 1943. As recorded in the Diary of Captain Hugh Jobson in company with Captains GTG Williams, WE Pryke and Ian Shaw

Sunday (sic) 14th October
[This entry was written on SUNDAY when in fact the day was THURSDAY] Woken up at dawn by the noise of 5.5 Medium guns of the Scottish Horse firing from BONEFRO. Had a wonderful breakfast of tea, egg and bacon and marmalade. Ronnie Borrodaile [was] accused of looting as he used a face towel belonging to the house! We all lorry-hopped back to FOGGIA, passing through rolling downland with white dusty roads. Amazingly little traffic on the roads with no dumps. The Brigade had outrun its supplies.

[We] arrived at No. 11 Forward Maintenance Centre at FOGGIA for lunch. Well run place where we had a good big lunch and received kit from deceased soldiers’ kitbags. FOGGIA was in a complete shambles, especially around the railway station, wrecked trains lying all over the junction. The RAF had done a splendid job and it was encouraging to see them in large numbers on the 12 airfields around the town. In the afternoon we were interrogated by Corps Intelligence Officers. They did not seem to be very interested in anything. They were most interested, however, in our suggestion to drop paratroops in certain areas to help along the escaping soldiery.

Lorry-hopped back to BARLETTA in an RASC Company lorry, detached from the Highland Division. Very dull flat plain with the stereotyped Fascist farms in straight lines, very like the plain outside BARCE in Cyrenaica. BARLETTA was a very pretty small Adriatic port and we made ourselves very comfortable at the local transit camp there, which was in a huge warehouse. We were all disgusted by the behaviour of the local troops, mainly RASC, RE and RAOC. They were very badly turned out, unshaven and drunk. They even drank with Italian soldiers, which made our blood boil.

15th October.
Lorry-hopped back to TARANTO. We passed through BARI, which had been untouched by the war, masses of ships in the harbour. It was a grand hot sunny morning and a very beautiful countryside…a contrast to the plain of FOGGIA. Here there was uneven ground covered in vineyards and olive trees, with stone walls everywhere.

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Saw a battalion of the 1st Airborne Division out on a route march. They looked very fit and business-like, unlike the service troops in BARLETTA. Heard that Tony Deane(1) and Jock Goodwin(2) had been killed. Toots adds: Goodwin was killed in Sicily commanding a Glider Bn: from South Brent and [was] an instructor at Sandhurst with us.

Very sad as they were both very young for battalion commanders, and both real good chaps. A wop selling grapes at L20 a bunch was severely dealt with, when he tried to sell some to our lorry. He lost the lot and received a good kick in the pants. We had a wonderful view of TARANTO harbour from the hill just north of the town. We passed lots of 8th Indian Division going up to the line. In Iraq they had been next to us.

We arrived at the POW Reception Camp to find practically nothing there. No stores or real organisation. Everyone extremely annoyed as the POW Commission were living in the lap of luxury. The usual typical bloody awful lot of ‘base walahs’. We managed to get some supper as some of the escaped POWs were able to cook. We turned in for the night all rather disgruntled. The only interesting thing was seeing an American recce unit, armed with white scout cars. They were parked under the olive trees close to our camp.

16th October
Drew £2 and some washing kit. After breakfast I [Jobson] went down to the town by lorry. Usual dirty back streets, but the main town was most impressive with large open streets and big buildings. The swing bridge between the inner and outer harbours caused much trouble as enormous traffic jams were made when the bridge went up. Saw a Light AA Regt drive off and LST(3) most amazing sight. Also saw ’ducks’(4) at work.

In the afternoon I had my medical and wrote several letters. Ian Shaw was interrogated. An Italian widow washed my shirt, towel and socks for me. We also managed to scrounge some beer, which was being issued at the transit camp just along the road. The Youngers beer tasted magnificent. Slept well, rather crowded as six more officers arrived. They had been well kitted up at BARI at the old POW camp from next-of-kin parcels which were dumped there. Toots adds: It was here that we parted company with Ian Shaw, who did as he was told, whereas we took our own line.

(1) Of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
(2) Of the Welsh Regiment.
(3) Landing Ship Tank.
(4) DUKWs: amphibious vehicles.

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17th October
Great joy in the camp as we received our sailing orders. Usual mess up on the docks resulting in a three hour wait. This quite pleasantly spent sitting in the Italian Naval Officers’ sailing club. The ‘Royals’ were busy trying not to wreck the yachts or drown themselves. Masses of boats in the outer harbour. Eventually we went out in LCI(5) to HMT Euridice a very old 3000 ton Blue Funnel boat. I shared a cabin with Ronnie Borrodaile and David Blair. Toots, Ted and Davies shared the other. Davies was a really nice South African, who had escaped from BOLOGNA and had swum the river Volturno before getting through to CAPUA. Good food, but no drink on the ship. We all had some from various ship’s officers. Most unpleasant Chinese stewards, who were extremely truculent and rude. We did not sail till dawn.

18th and 19th October
We sailed at dawn, going out through the minefield in line ahead formation. About 20 small ships in the convoy. Our only escort was an armed trawler, but there were always fighter patrols overhead. Our speed was only 7 knots. From the sea TARANTO had far more the appearance of an Eastern town, rather than a European one. We lost sight of land, but next day we kept very close in land, the toe of Italy, having a small coastal plain with barren mountains behind. Small white fishing villages were the only sign of life.

We nearly hit a large floating surface mine, only a violent change of course saved our bacon. We now found the ship was due to go to ALEXANDRIA, so we persuaded the skipper to call in on Sicily. The straits of MESSINA were most disappointing, but Mount Etna stood out well, when viewed from the sea. Spent the night aboard in SYRACUSE harbour. A very pretty harbour and seafront.

20th October
Got off the boat at last in an orange boat. The ship’s boats proving unseaworthy, as he lowered each one to let us ashore, the water came up in the boats! Masses of 51st (Highland) Division about. A most beautiful town, not badly war-scarred. We were put in a rotten transit camp. We all did a bunk, leaving David Blair I/C Draft of men. The four of us [including Ronnie Borrodaile] got a lift up as far as AUGUSTA. Very rocky, hilly, unproductive countryside, with graves dotted all along the roadside, with occasional wrecked tanks etc.

Had a hair-raising ride from AUGUSTA to CATANIA passing through the hills before passing down onto the plain. We passed the famous bridge, which was captured by 1st Parachute Brigade, passed the huge US airbase and eventually

(5) Landing Craft infantry.

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fetched up in the new officers’ club in CATANIA. At about 2100 hours had dinner. We used the plates with the Luftwaffe crest on them, as the club used to be their HQ. Very uncomfortable night spent on the floor of an AA Battery office. Then got sudden orders to move, so we had breakfast at 0530 hours. [Ted Pryke’s notes mention that Leslie Barber an HAC(6) officer in the AA Regt. was defending CATANIA airfield]

21st October
Flew in an American DAKOTA from CATANIA to TUNIS in one hour 35 minutes. A very dashing Yank pilot frightened some shepherds off a ridge in Sicily. A very nice American, Captain Hudson, fixed us all up with a passage on a Dakota next day for ALGIERS. Felt very tired, but managed to get some money from a bank. Had some strong drink at Max’s Bar, and felt sorry for it, We stayed in the Majestic Hotel, a well run show for a transit camp. Mostly Americans about. Too tired to go sight-seeing.

22nd October
Flew in the morning in another Dakota from TUNIS to ALGIERS in 2 hours 32 minutes. Flew along the coastline and understood why the 1st Army took so long: huge wild mountains with few roads or towns. Got put under arrest on arrival and hauled up to SHAEF to give an explanation as to why we were not still on HMT Euridice! Got a rocket and told not to leave the transit camp pitched on the ALGIERS racecourse. It was most uncomfortable, but we scrounged a few more clothes, etc. before going to bed early.

23rd October
Woken up by trotting ponies being exercised. Went into town and had lunch in the excellent hotel being used as an Officer’s Club. The harbour was packed with ships. Enormous dumps of supplies on the docks impressed me. Had the good luck to meet an officer in the 30th Batt.(7) DCLI, who took us to their HQ in Fort de Lau. We received a warm welcome from Harry Cantan 2I/C(8) and Bill Pool, and many others. Fitted ourselves up with cap badges etc. A pickup truck was put at our disposal for the remainder of our stay. Mickie Tremayne was unfortunately away on detachment. The CO, Hugh Joslen, was in hospital. We visited him and realised he had not long to go as CO.

(6) Honourable Artillery Company.
(7) Battalion. These were all ‘old aged’ and therefore used for ‘rear duties’ etc.
(8) Second in Command.

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24th October
Gave a lecture to the 30th Batt. in the morning and had lunch in their Mess. Some very fine French Officers came along, real good types, and pleased with their American equipment. Saw two films, “In which we serve” and “The Road to Zanzibar”. Both very good indeed. Our first film show for nearly two years. Fixed up to sail next day, so went to bed early, after saying goodbye to the 30th Batt. Very impressed by the town, and its layout, but hated the locals, who were all making fortunes. Vast prices for everything.

25th October-4th November: at Sea
Embarked on the P&O Liner Stratheden. Found Basil Wood(9), Bill Satterthwaite(10) and Colonel Arthur Corbet. And also the 1st Infantry Brigade of the 1st US Infantry Division. Real good chaps who had been through North Africa and Sicily and were now going to UK to do the Assault Landing on the coming ‘D’ Day. Very crowded indeed, but everyone in high spirits, and longing for something to drink: a dry ship except ‘in the cabins’. A calm voyage with two ‘U’ boat alarms. Came in round north of Ireland and up to Glasgow.

4th November
Arrived in Glasgow. Very embarrassing reception for 12 of us. Met on the quay by General Thorne, GOC(11) Scottish Command.

Toots adds: A guardsman and cousin of the Boscawens.

Taken by ‘bus to Langside Transit Camp. Free drinks on the War Office before lunch. All of us had too much because of this unique situation. Sent off telegrams to Father, Aunt Elsie and Uncle Gilbert. All confined to camp. Filled in endless forms and got kitted up, medically examined and gave long statements to Intelligence Officers. Went to bed very tired.

5th November
Had a big lunch and was taken by the Provost of Glasgow to Hampden Park to watch Scotland lose to RAF 3-1. Very much enjoyed it all. We were given tea and taken to a cinema, before being returned to camp. Longing to be set free on leave. Left for home by train that night. Toots changed trains at Crewe and went straight to Yelverton. Ted and I went on straight to London and arrived at breakfast time. We parted and I got to Aunt Elsie’s house in time for lunch. Lovely to be home again and get into a quiet comfortable house, with clean sheets and no squalor.

(9) 14th/20th Hussars.
(10) Somerset Light Infantry.
(11) General Officer Commanding.

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In 2008 Toots adds: I was given a railway warrant from Glasgow to Yelverton. It would be an emotional home-coming. My father had been recalled for duty and was on the Home Guard headquarters for the western area in Tavistock. Earl Fortescue from Castle Hill, Exmoor, was the (T.A.) General in charge and a friend of my father, who had been given the job as a Giii Staff Officer, being the ‘trouble-shooter’ for Cornwall as he knew it so well. He was killed in a car accident in Roborough in Autumn 1942, aged only 49. In January 1943 I received a Red Cross card from my mother telling me the sad news and that she thought that she would find a smaller house in Yelverton. At the time the family home had been in Whitchurch, part of Tavistock.

So having arrived at Yelverton station, I had the problem of finding where she lived. I walked the half mile up to the small cluster of shops that made up the village and saw a man selling fish from a basket on his bicycle. As my mother was very keen on fish I said to him ‘Do you know where Mrs Gage Williams lives?’ ‘She do dearly love a bit of fish’ he replied and I knew that I had hit the jackpot! He thought she lived in Estella or Westella Roads. I thanked him and walked down Westella Road, looking in all the windows and sure enough recognised furniture and pictures on the walls of one of them. A woman opposite, the wife of a Naval Captain shouted, ‘Are you Toots?’ She rang my mother who was working in the YMCA in Plymouth and she came out by ‘bus. I was home. (aged 23)

[Photograph and caption]: Sept. 2008 – Captain Merlin Hanbury-Tenison, The Light Dragoons, wearing his grandfather’s mule blanket coat, which he wore in Sept. 1943 at the same age 22/23

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Retracing in September 2008, my steps of 1943
Col. G T G Williams

The motivators of this exercise were my daughter and son-in-law Louella and Robin Hanbury-Tenison, together with their son Merlin, a Captain in the Light Dragoons, who at the time of our departure for Italy, had a week left of his leave before having to return to duty in Afghanistan. They all thought that while there was the opportunity it would be revealing to retrace part of the route that I had covered in September and October 1943.

I was taken prisoner in North Africa on 3rd June 1942 and spent 15 months in three Prison Camps in Italy. The Italians sued for peace and that came into force on 8th September 1943 thereby providing the opportunity for 50,000 allied POWs to escape. Most of those that did so were recaptured and transported to Germany. A very few got into Switzerland and were interned there until the end of the war. A few more managed to reach Allied Forces advancing slowly up Italy. The Germans fought every yard of the way while some of the escaped men hoped that they would be released if they ‘stayed put’ in Italy, expecting the Allies to make faster progress than they did through the country. The problems caused by the terrain were much underestimated.

If there is an appropriate time of year, then September is the ideal time walking down the length of Italy – we drove it this time and the weather was lovely. But if it had not been possible to reach Allied lines by mid October (only five weeks after we escaped), winter snow would have been likely and it would have become a different proposition. Grapes and other fruit were in abundance during our 35 day walk but four weeks later we may well have struggled to find enough to eat.

The Hanbury-Tenison’s were in Venice and I flew there on 22nd September. After a night in the city we set off to find Campo 49, Fontanellato in PIACENZA. About 100 miles from Venice we found PIACENZA, (a Truro-sized town), in the Po Valley and the POW camp. The Camp at Fontanellato contained 500 officers and 100 South African Other Ranks. It was fairly new and had been built as an orphanage.

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but now in 2008 was the principal hospital for the town. Locals were friendly and interested in knowing why an old man was visiting it. The exercise field that we had used while in captivity and from which we escaped through the cut boundary wire, marching out half an hour ahead of a German column that came to collect us, was still there and largely unchanged. Photograph 1 shows me sitting next to the stone recording the escape of the internees from Fontanellato in September 1943, and the second a view of the prison. (see inside cover)

[Photograph and caption]: Photo 1
[Photograph and caption]: Photo 2
[Photograph and caption]: Photo 3

We had been in this camp for six months and before that 40 of us had been in a hilltop castle, REZZANELLO, overlooking the Po Valley and perhaps 40 miles’ distance from PIACENZA. We duly found REZZANELLO on the map and there it was, now a private residence gentrified somewhat by religious antiques it contained. Improvements had been made with a large swimming pool and fountains in the gardens all working. The owner was away but the ‘staff’ showed us round the castle and told us that it had been used as a German Headquarters after we had been removed. We were there as prisoners from January

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to March and always very cold, as we were still wearing the khaki drill uniforms in which we had been captured at Tobruk, shirts, shorts, etc. and were provided with only one blanket each by the Italians. I was fortunate in having a jacket made by the regimental tailor out of a donkey blanket and 65 years later I still have it. In photograph 4, I am standing in the entrance to REZZANNELLO castle.

[Photograph and caption]: Photo 4

Having escaped from the Camp at Fontanellato in September 1943 we moved as fast as we could through the nearby vineyards and settled down for the night. Three of us, Hugh Jobson (DCLI), ‘Ted’ Pryke (DCLI), and I were joined by Ian Shaw (Green Howards) and left the main body of POWs and started south west for Genoa, where rumour had it that Allied troops had landed. Italian deserters said the battle we could hear was the Germans fighting for the Italian fleet moored in Genoa. We turned back east south east for the hills and as far as we could, kept to the high ground avoiding towns, villages and main roads. The country is vast! Italy is like a fish skeleton, with hills large and steep, and rivers running eastwards from the principal ridge. This meant that we were for ever climbing until we found the ridge and a mule-path or other track running along the ridge. Then down we had to go the other side, crossing the next river and starting up again the next hill and so on. Photograph 5 shows the nature of the country over which we travelled for 35 days, climbing often as high as we could to avoid Germans and other undesirable persons!

We always started before dawn and walked until dusk, hoping to find an isolated farm where we hoped to obtain some food and straw for the night. We were usually lucky. Country people the world over are lovely and

[Photograph and caption]: Photo 5

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generous, and they helped us usually at great risk to themselves, a matter we had very much in mind.

In September 2008 we drove down the country staying with English friends near CORTUNA. These friends had taken great interest in our trip and undertaken some research into the route we walked in 1943, so we endeavoured to keep by road as close as possible to our general line of march. I remember seeing the sun shining on Assisi across the valley. So we ‘did Assisi’ that has more pilgrims per annum than Jerusalem. It is quite lovely, though badly damaged by an earthquake some years ago, and has been beautifully restored.

[Photograph and caption]: Photo 6

On the higher ridges one gets above the tree line and this means much better walking, almost like the Highlands, (as Photograph 6 demonstrates), except there was no heather nor Germans!!

Having walked through TUSCANY and UMBRIA the four of us crossed into ABRUZZI (which includes the Grand Sasso at 9,500 feet), over the Pescara River, climbing MACELLA at 8,000 feet. Staying at 6000 feet we had good walking and little likelihood of meeting Germans, only shepherds. One night, as the diary records, we stopped near an electricity station and slept in a shepherd’s hut. In September 2008, they were still there as we had last seen them 65 years before. Further on we had come across some wrecked gliders. These we discovered later were the remains of the successful German Commando raid on a ski hotel, lower down the mountain, to rescue Mussolini who was held prisoner there by Italian troops. He was subsequently flown back to Hitler though of this we knew nothing at the time. That same evening we had dropped down to a lower level and approached what appeared to be a monastery or nunnery, which turned out to be partly deserted. We spent the night there. Now in September 2008 we were back and found it, converted into an Hotel. We stayed there and I think I slept better on the floor in 1943 than in a bed in a converted monk’s cell in 2008! Next morning we found that there was a road up to the ski hotel and we drove up there to find a considerable number of skiers. There were none in 1943. The hotel was locked and the funicular was not working, but Robin and Merlin were able to obtain access and let my daughter and I in through the front door. A marble plaque announced that Mussolini had been held prisoner there until 13th September 1943. We were

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able to take a copy of the photographs of the wrecked glider still practically on the front doorstep. Photographs 7 and 8 show the hotel at Gran Sasso in September 2008 with snow on the ground nearby.

[Photograph and caption]: Photo 7
[Photograph and caption]: Photo 8

We had no time to complete the trip from the PESCARA to BIFURNO rivers, (some 100 miles of walking), as Merlin had to report to Brize Norton en route back to Afghanistan to rejoin his unit. A photograph of the four of us was taken just before Merlin and I flew back to England.

[Photograph and caption]: Photo 9

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I am left with the strongest impression that it had been an amazing journey in 1943 over considerable distances in very difficult country with the added complication of Germans and Fascist Forces on the lookout for us and other escapees. I do not propose to do this again!!

I am very conscious today that so much of the countryside that I saw in September 2008 was ’missed’ in 1943 due I suppose to the necessity to concentrate on the walking, pressing on through sheer will-power despite feeling exhausted and the nervous tension of being constantly on the watch for dangers. There was always an underlying sense of anxiety not knowing who or what we might meet at any moment as we walked. There was not much talking between us; generally we were too tired to wish to talk unless there were decisions to be made on the route or our evening halt. I still marvel at the determination of both Hugh and Ted to record at the end of each day some of the events of the previous 24 hours. Only now can I fully appreciate how fortunate we were to reach Allied lines safe in body and mind.

[Photograph and caption]: Robin and Toots discovering the route – Gran Sasso area.

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