George (Toots) Williams (DCLI – Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry) was imprisoned in PG49, Fontanellato. This document recounts both his recollections as well as diary extracts written at the time by fellow escapers Hugh Jobson and Ted Pryke (also both DCLI). They were joined later on their walk by Ian Shaw (Green Howards). Titled ‘A Long Walk Back’, the account is notable for the details of daily progress, geography, the help – including food – given by peasant farmers and the speed with which their walk was accomplished. Their first encounter with Allied troops was with a Canadian unit at Casacalenda, 35 days after their journey started.
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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[Handwritten comments by Keith Killby – not transcribed]
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A LONG WALK BACK. ITALY: SEPTEMBER 9th to OCTOBER 13th
This short account of a ‘walk’ by three young Captains of The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry(1), with Captain Ian Shaw of the Green Howards, in September and October 1943, from a prisoner of war camp in northern Italy back to Allied Forces in southern Italy demonstrates the determination of young soldiers captured during World War II not to accept imprisonment if means could be found to escape from captivity(2).
As Ian English shows in his book ‘Home by Christmas?’ large numbers of members of British and Commonwealth forces escaped from Italian POW camps following the Armistice signed with the Allies in early September 1943, and many succeeded in reaching their own forces again. The number of escapees is estimated at 50,000. Many were recaptured, some died, not always from German attack and some just disappeared and were not heard of again.
This story is in many respects similar to those involving other escaped POW’S but its own unique events distinguishes it from others. It is based wholly upon the diaries kept daily by Hugh Jobson and Ted Pryke(3), and the recollections of George Torquil Gage Williams known to his contemporaries throughout his life from an early age as ‘Toots’, who was one of the three from the DCLI. Inevitably there are some discrepancies between the accounts of Jobson and Pryke and events that were significant to one were sometimes less so to the other. Toots observes that Pryke’s notes showed a greater concern with the food that the four consumed than other events.
The history of this adventure over a 35 day period between leaving the custody of an Italian POW camp and arrival in British (or rather Canadian) hands is also a commentary upon the considerable bravery, help and support provided by local Italian communities through which Toots and his companions travelled, given with little regard to the threat of brutal punishment often meted out by German forces to any aiding escaped prisoners. The diaries also show that on only a very few occasions were they refused any sort of help. With those exceptions they were fed as far as the local peasant population had the means to do so, and usually found somewhere to sleep.
(1) Hereafter the DCLI.
(2) A letter from Sheila Hood to Lieutenant CS Denman dated 30 July 1942 says (Inter alia) poor old Toots, what a miserable way to spend the rest of the war.’ How little she knew!
(3) Both diarists are now dead (as at 1 August 2008) and the whereabouts of the original diaries is unknown. Toots Williams retired from the Army in 1960 with the rank of Colonel.
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The distances covered daily varied between 12 and 32 kms or 8 and 20 miles. This does not superficially appear to be very demanding but it will be seen that much of the walking was across valleys rather than down them and inevitably involved much climbing up and down over rough ground along mule tracks for much of the total journey in hot dry weather, constantly on the look-out for Germans and the occasional hostile locals. What is quite clear from these diaries is that the four Captains walked in hilly country, occasionally short of food, and sleep, suffering physical fatigue sometimes nearing exhaustion, with the constant risk of recapture, but sustained by a determination to return to British lines. In the first three weeks the weather was fine and only towards the end did persistent rain hamper progress.
Not the least of their problems was that of cleaning the clothes in which they all escaped; whenever the opportunity arose what they wore was washed in a convenient river and dried in the sun as they had no change of clothing. A consequence of this situation was that they tended to avoid being caught in the rain wherever possible.
Generally there was no shortage of food. Bread, cheese, and many varieties of fruit were the staple diet. There were occasions when they had meat, (pasta occasionally), when they were fortunate enough to find a more prosperous farm than was usually the case. When arriving in an area where they were hoping for food and/or accommodation for the night they tended to look at a collection of farms, and decide which one tactically was the most suitable, bearing in the mind the possible need for an easy escape route in the event of a scare.
The total distance covered as the crow flies was 583 kms, equivalent to 364 miles but in reality the distance actually walked was nearer to 960 kms (600 miles) taking account the constant climbing and descending of the hills and mountains along the whole route. The route planned from the commencement was more or less south-easterly. The rivers ran from the upper Apennines to the east through very narrow wooded valleys, while roads and railway lines ran along the bottoms of the valleys and were avoided, (with one or two exceptions). Wherever possible mule tracks were followed on the premise that German troops would not frequent them. River crossings were commonplace and did not create too many problems, water levels being low in late summer, and provided the opportunity to bathe and wash clothes.
The maps which illustrate the route taken over the period of 35 days are from their set of touring maps and are the copyright of Michelin. Marked upon them are the nightly stopping points.
To remain faithful to the wording of the diaries there has been minimal pruning of the material and no words have been changed, but to aid a proper understanding of the narrative, and only where necessary and in square brackets, words have been added for clarification. Some of the material in the diaries has been relegated to footnotes to assist the flow of the narrative.
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George Torquil Gage Williams (‘Toots’) was born on 17 May 1920. His grandfather was Major John Williams of Scorrier(4), and his father Captain John Gage Williams(5). After a conventional school career in 1937 he left Cheltenham College and went to the Army College at Heathend, Farnham. This was an expensive establishment(6) designed to prepare potential officers for an army career. Toots’ uncle Stephen had hoped that Toots would be successful in securing a place at Woolwich, the home of the Royal Artillery, but he was not accepted there, and instead ended up at Sandhurst in 1938 by which time the threat of war was very real.
Toots boxed for Sandhurst at Middleweight and was runner-up in the Intermediate Saddle in which ‘Mary’ Dobson(7) beat him after a prolonged jump-off. Toots’ father had won the Saddle at Sandhurst and had also boxed and Toots regretted that he had not been successful in winning the coveted equitation prize as his father had done.
Both Intermediate and Senior terms at Sandhurst passed out together and my commissioning date was 3rd July 1939. Seven newly commissioned officers joined the 2nd Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry(8) at the Tower of London where it was doing London Duties from its base at Shorncliffe(9). In August, London Duties were being operated from Chelsea Barracks.
Toots was one of four officers detailed to join the 1st Battalion of the DCLI that had been in India since 1919, and they reported to Gurrock, Glasgow in September 1939, listening to Neville Chamberlain’s speech announcing that Great Britain was at war with Germany, as they sailed down the Clyde. The younger officers cheered the news, but the older ones said that they had no idea what they were cheering about. This first convoy of the war contained 1700 officers mainly Indian Army, recalled from leave to return to India in the ‘Duchess of Bedford’ under the command of Colonel Auchinleck(10). Some of the ship’s crew had refused to sail in her and as a result some of the officers aboard had to undertake various fatigues, in the galleys, painting the ship grey from its former white colour from stem to stern and manning the two 12-pounder guns mounted on board.
Toots with others went ashore at Port Said, behaved as many other young officers would, given the circumstances, and ultimately arrived at Bombay on 27th September. They stayed in Lahore for the next two years by which time the Japanese had entered the war and there was a rebellion in Iraq. General Sir Archibald Wavell was
(4) He was known as ‘Scorrier Jotin’.
(5) He served with the 19th Hussars in the First World War, was wounded and after the war served as ADC to Lord Liverpool in New Zealand.
(6) The fees were 100 guineas a term.
(7) ‘Mary’ Dobson of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers.
(8) DCLI hereafter.
(9) Of those seven Peter Milfward was killed in France, Johnny Howard wounded in Italy, Algy Dorrien-Smith killed while parachuting. Dickie Burke, killed while piloting a glider, John Guy Salusbury-Trelawney badly wounded, and later repatriated by Red Cross exchange, and Hugh Jobson, the writer of one of the diaries, who was wounded with the 5th DCLI in Normandy.
(10) Later General Sir Claude Auchinleck.
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Commander in Chief in India and ordered to Iraq the three best Battalions he had; the King’s Own were flown to Habbaniya but suffered terrible casualties on arrival there from hostile fire from the IRAQ Army who held the high ground around the airfield.
The 1st Battalion DCLI and the 1st Battalion South Wales Borderers(11) followed by sea in the troopship Lancashire from Karachi in November 1941, with Major Harvey (DCLI) as OC. Troops on board, having first sent a Company to Peshawar to escort the German and Italian Ambassadors and their Missions from Afghanistan. They were to be taken to Iraq and escorted to the Turkish border and there released. Military intelligence had hoped to obtain some useful information from the important members of these Missions and their cabins were ‘bugged’, but engine noise and other difficulties frustrated this. The Battalion arrived at Basra at the end of the month(12).
The troopship brought with the DCLI its own (and first) motor transport loaded into the bottom of the ship and above it two railway engines for use (it was thought) on the Basra-Baghdad Railway. A difficulty arose as there were no cranes powerful enough to lift the Railway engines from the ship. They had to be dismantled before they could be extracted and the transport made available to get the Battalion ‘up country’ where the rebellion was still on-going(13). The Battalion reached Hindiya in Iraq on 12 December, then to Habbaniya on February 15th and to Taji near Baghdad on 1st April. Iraq was a filthy place with extremes of temperature; bitterly cold with wind blowing off the steppes and up to 130 degrees in the shade in summer.
As Stalingrad had been saved with the defeat of the German armies there, the oil fields of Iraq were no longer under threat and half the 9th Army based in Syria, Iraq and Persia (Iran) were available for release for service elsewhere. The rebellion in Iraq petered out and the 1st Batt. DCLI, and the residue of the 10th Indian Division, left Baghdad on 17th May 1942, (Toots’ 22nd birthday), and moved across the desert to Haifa on May 21st, to Ismailia(14) on 24th and Alexandria on May 26th. The journey to join the troops fighting in the North African campaign took 21 days, with a stop at Haifa where the transport was serviced by an Australian Workshop Company after the long drive from Baghdad(15). Some of the officers had a few precious hours in Pross’s Bar in Haifa and were greeted by an air raid from Crete directed at the oil refinery in Haifa.
(12) A more detailed history of the 1″ Battalion DCLI may be found in the Regimental History covering the period from 1939-1945.
(13) The railway engines in the event were no use as the railway track was metre gauge to Baghdad and thence standard gauge to Constantinople. The same mistake had been made in 1919!
(14) Ismailia, on the banks of the river Nile was the Headquarters of Middle East Command and continued to be so until British troops evacuated Egypt in the 1950s.
(15) Chapter VI of The History of The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. 1939-45′ begins: ‘The long drive, non-stop except for nightly halts … ended south-west of Tobruk, in the desert sand on June 5th, exactly three weeks later, and they covered a distance that could not have been less than two thousand miles’.
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On 28th May the Battalion DCLI moved on to Mersa Matruh, then to Gambut and finally to Tobruk five days later, were in battle on the 5th June and overrun by German armour that day. It went into that battle wholly ill-equipped for the tasks set for it(16). By evening many of them and others in the Brigade in the area of BIR-el-HARMET, south of el ADEM and just north of the Free French Forces at BIR HACKEIM, had been captured by the Germans. TOBRUK itself, isolated by the German advance, fell to a combined assault on 21 June.
On 6th June a column of several hundred captured troops were marched through an ill-defined gap in a mine field. Some casualties resulted from this, and friendly fire from units of the 22nd Armoured Brigade caused more. A German officer told Toots that he was to take a white flag that the officer was holding in his hand, and go towards the tanks and invite them to stop shooting at British troops. Toots declined the offer but another near miss from a 2-pounder gun distracted the German officer enough for the matter to be dropped.
The prisoners eventually made their way to a POW Transit Camp at BARCE(17), where the Italians guarding the prisoners spent their time displaying bayonet marks on their bottoms, that they claimed they had received from Australian troops when they were POWs themselves. Still in the hands of the Italians, from Barce the POWs moved on to BENGHAZI, a better organised Transit Camp where Toots had news that his uncle Stephen Williams had been captured two days before him. Certainly by 23rd July 1942 it was known in England that Toots, Hugh and Ted were prisoners of war, and by 30th July 1942 Lieutenant CS Denman at HQ, Middle East Forces, had received a letter from Toots sent from Italy(18).
Some days later some POWs (including Toots) were moved by air to LECCE on the heel of Italy, a nerve-wracking experience in a Savoia Mechetti 3-engined plane piloted by a terrified Italian who flew at zero feet to avoid the RAF. After two days at this Transit Camp they moved off north to Campo 66 at CAPUA about 30 kms north of Naples, and there they found many officers they knew, who had been at that camp for some time. About 400 officers occupied a compound adjacent to the ORs’ compound holding about 1000 soldiers, some of whom were from the DCLI captured on 5th June. It was possible, though forbidden, to converse by messages thrown over the wire wrapped around stones(19). Dysentery was rife and bed bugs were everywhere and virtually impossible to eliminate. The troops were at Campo 66 for about six months before Red Cross parcels began to arrive on a modest scale.
(16) The History of The DCLI reads at p. 112, ‘….despite last minute and often contradictory orders from higher formations, lacking both equipment and weapons adequate to meet an armoured assault, denied the artillery support for which they asked, almost insulted when they gave warning of vital hostile intent, they obeyed in every particular the orders that had been given to them. For twenty days almost without stopping, the First unknowingly had been moving to a disaster which was none of their making. Weary with much travelling …they had come closer and closer to the battlefield… .without protection from other arms, naked to the enemy’.
(17) Barce was little more than a wire cage in which the prisoners were held temporarily.
(18) The letter of 23rd July to Lieut. Denman states that’ Jackie, Doug, Gilbert, Toots, Hugh and Ted and some others are well and now prisoners of war…they are at present in what is apparently a clearing camp and expect to be moved to a permanent camp very shortly. The present address is “Campo Prigionieri Guerra No. 66 , PM.3400. Italy”.
(19) It was here that Toots saw a Sergeant from his unit will himself to die being presumably unable to face the prospect of a long captivity.
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Those made an enormous difference to the very poor diet provided by the Italian prison authorities.
There were about 30 Albanians in the camp. An escape plan of which there were high hopes of success, was via a tunnel dug from a hut into the camp’s main sewer exiting through a manhole about 20 metres outside the camp. The night the first group was due to make its escape, Italians were awaiting them at the manhole and fired into the sewer killing about four officers. The Albanians were moved out of the camp that night!!
About 50 officers including those of the DCLI who had not gone to hospital with dysentery or jaundice were moved to REZZANELLA, a small castle in the hills above PIACENZA, about half-way between PARMA and MILAN, and overlooking the PO valley. It was secure and much better than the camp at CAPUA, with more food and improved recreational facilities. The officers there were provided with cold weather clothing, a great relief for those still in the khaki drill uniforms in which they were captured in the desert.
About this time Toots heard that his grandfather had died mostly as a result of the shock of hearing that his son Stephen was a POW, and then that Toots himself was missing and believed killed. The next blow for Toots was news that his father, who was on the staff of Lord Fortescue at Tavistock, had been killed in a car accident at Roborough just outside Plymouth(20).
In the Spring of 1943 the chateau camp was closed and the inmates moved to a camp at FONTANELLATO containing about 400 officers and 100 other ranks from the 1st South African Division who were taken prisoner at TOBRUK. Acquaintances were renewed and some like Tommy Pitman(21) were among the first POWs captured by the Italians. The Camp was a former Nunnery and more suitable than for the purpose for which it was being used with a good-sized exercise field located within the wire. 7-a-side rugger was organised and it was possible to maintain a reasonable degree of fitness. Toots played but also was one of a select band of bookmakers operating on the basis of ‘vino’ tickets that were the camp currency.
As the war continued it became clearer that the Italians were planning to seek an Armistice with the Allies. By that time the camp occupants were organised into companies and platoons. Fitness had become a priority and when the Armistice was signed all knew what they had to do, escape back to British lines. Major Donald Nott(22) was their company commander and Colonel de Burgh the Senior British Officer(23) in the Camp. Though terms were agreed on 3rd September the Armistice was not made public until the 8th September(24).
(20) This was the Home Guard Division and local Administrative Headquarters for Devon and Cornwall.
(21) Or the 11” Hussars.
(22) Of the Worcestershire Regiment, DSO MC, from the Abyssinian Campaign.
(23) SBO for short.
(24) At this time there was a rumour current that the Allies had landed at Genoa where the principal Italian warships had been blockaded. There was noise of battle in the Genoa area but it later became clear that the Germans were fighting the Italians for control of the Italian navy.
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(The following text is taken directly from the diaries kept by Hugh Jobson and Ted Pryke each day together with added recollections of Toots Williams since recounted by him(25). Diary entries by Ted Pryke, generally shorter than those of Hugh Jobson, are shown in italics)
THE LONG WALK BEGINS
Wednesday 8th September 1943:
At about 8 pm the villagers from FONTANELLATTO went mad and we realised that the Armistice had been signed and publicly announced. A speech by Colonel de Burgh instructing everyone to remain calm ended a very eventful day. A watch was maintained throughout the night to guard against the possibility of the camp being taken over by the Huns.
Thursday 9th September: Day 1
0900 hrs. [There was] no roll call but a speech by the SBO instead instructing us to draw rations and be ready to leave camp as a battalion at ten minutes’ notice. Packing [was] not taken seriously as the general impression was that Jerry was withdrawing to the north of the River Po.
1200 hrs. Alarm went. This coincided with a JU-52(26) doing a dive right down low over the camp. We moved out at speed, wearing battle dress and carrying haversacks. Everyone soon got extremely hot as we marched about seven miles across the fields to an area near PAROLETTA, 3 kms northwest of FONTANELLATTO. [We] stayed in a field eating grapes all day. As Jerry’s out looking for us so [there is] no movement. [We] spent a very cold night on the Bund(27).
Toots adds: He was wearing a pair of serge trousers and a coat made from a mule blanket, with army buttons to give the impression that it was part of a uniform. He had no spare clothes with him and was wearing parade boots that lasted, tied with string where necessary, through the whole 35 days. The others were in English battle dress and Army issue boots.
Distance 9 kms.
Friday 10th September: Day 2.
Lay low on the Bund all day, very uncomfortable and short of food. Villagers started to arrive in large numbers, bringing food and clothes and news that two Jerry tanks and three lorry-loads of infantry had been to our camp and had sacked it. They were still in the neighbourhood. At teatime my company had orders to prepare for a night march. We were all very glad to leave the Bund and its 600 temporary inhabitants. 1900 hrs. Donald Nott led the Company on the night march across the plain. We
(25) The three officers originally involved were Captain GTG Williams (95617). Captain Thomas Hugh Jobson (95618) and Captain William Dudley Pryke (99745) all of the DCLI. Captain Ian Shaw of the Green Howards joined them later and stayed with them for the remainder of ‘The Long Walk Back’. He was killed in October 1944 near Antwerp while serving with the 52nd Lowland Division.
(26) A Junckers 52 fighter bomber.
(27) An embankment.
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crossed two railway lines and the main Strada Nationala without bumping [into] any Germans. We then had the order to scatter and Toots, Ted and myself walked hard towards the hills and stopped at 0230 hrs at a hayloft just south of FIDENZA 20 kms west north west of PARMA in the foothills of the Apennines.
After crossing the FIDENZA/PARMA road and railway at approximately 11.30 pm [we] walked very fast until 2 am when we put up in a hayloft south of FIDENZA just in the foothills. [We met a] well-off French-speaking ‘padrone’ and wife who entertained Ian Shaw and I to coffee, biscuits and cognac next day at 0800 hrs. [We] also listened to the BBC and learned that no landings [had been] made by the British north of Salerno. This news and a very useful 1:1,000,000 touring map [were] taken to Toots and Hugh, who had moved off to lay up in a nearby valley, where [a] decision as to [the] course to pursue, check of stores etc took place. Ian slept till midday, when we ate, [and] obtained bread from a farm.
We had between us at this stage 2 tins of bully beef, 2 tins of biscuits, (one eaten for lunch) 2 tins of carrots (one eaten for lunch) a tin of jam (eaten for lunch) [Pryke] had 450 cigarettes and 6 oz of tobacco, [and] Ian 150. Hugh still had an oil compass and Ian spoke French and Spanish and had a fair knowledge of German and Italian(28). The decision was taken to move South-east along lower northern slopes of the Apennines, turn South if possible down the TIBER Valley, then South-east towards [our] own troops. Ian [was] appointed interpreter, Hugh i/c compass, Toots leader owing to his good eye for country, myself QM(29), Doctor and i/c rations.
Distance 15 kms.
Saturday 11th September: Day 3
0600 hrs. Woke up to find Ian Shaw asking for food etc. We joined forces with him, as he spoke reasonable Italian; he and Ted were able to get some bread and an excellent road map of Italy off the farmer. We rested in a wood until midday, to allow Ian to have some sleep. [There were] numerous German aircraft of all types, MEs 52s, and Blohm & Voss tank-carrying aircraft were seen flying to and from SALSOMAGGIORE, 10 kms southwest of FIDENZA. [We] started walking again at 1400 hrs. Given grapes and bread at a farm, who told us where to put up for the night at PIEVE COSIGNANO. In hayloft [in] small village on a secondary road. [We] had a wash, surrounded by local populace and were given bread and hot milk, also 50 liras. Germans in a civvy(30) car stopped at [an] inn opposite, but [we had] no trouble, apart from [the] scare. Heard other parties marching through [the] village during the night, and warned of a factory near FORNOVO(31).
Distance 17 kms.
Sunday. 12th September: Day 4
Made a dawn start and had breakfast at a farm, where Peter Milner (Royal Artillery) and party were staying. We all felt the heat and it was a great effort to climb the hills.
(28) Ian Shaw’s knowledge of Italian was a considerable asset to the escapers throughout.
(31) Fornovo di Taro 20 kms south of Fidenza.
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Very quick work made of grapes found en route. [There were] no roads so area [was] clear of Germans, but large number of Wops all going ‘a casa’(32) .
Tremendous climb up towards a ruined castle and then a long drop down towards the river TARO, arriving at farmhouse just above RIVIANO at sundown.
Being Sunday we were given a wonderful supper of hot chicken and rabbit, followed by bread, cheese and vino. [It was] the first proper meal since the evening before we left camp. Germans [were] reported at RUBIANO (Riviano) and also guarding the bridge and powder factory. They could be seen passing along the main road. A long, hard day, but we made little distance due to lack of practise.
Started at 0600 hrs and took breakfast of hot milk and bread from farm on top of the first hill, where we met Milner, Donaghue and Tregoning (from Launceston) asleep in the hay. We took bread away with us. Long trek, meeting with Italian soldiers going to their homes. After a heart-breaking climb [we] reached RUBIANO and put up on a farm for the night Given bread and grapes and later an excellent meal of fried chicken and rabbit, cake, cheese and wine. Gave chocolate to wife and kids. Heard of a Greek vet who spoke English.
Distance 11 kms.
Monday 13th September: Day 5.
An English-speaking Greek veterinary student was produced. He gave us a lot of useless advice. He could not understand why we were unarmed. We met Archie Hubbard and Carol Mather(33), both dressed in civilian clothes and in high spirits. An anti-Fascist priest gave us our route and a note for the parson at SOLIGNANO, 35 kms south-west of PARMA. We did not march until nearly 1100 hrs. Extremely hot and we enjoyed fording the river TARO. Very steep climb with no cooling breeze. Dropped down to SOLIGNANO, but swerved right when we found that Jerry was billeted in the railway station. Spent the night in a farm, after having supper with an ex-Carabiniere. Our farm had three very pretty girls(34) who worked in a beauty shop in PARMA. A good night spent on mattresses on the drawing room floor.
Breakfast at 0700 hrs of hot milk and bread and sugar. Second breakfast at 0800 hrs of hot cakes, similar to waffles. Greek arrived and with the help of the local ‘anti-dictator’ priest gave us a route. Met Carol Mather and Archie Hubbard, both in civvies, who copied our map. Crossed the first branch of the TARO, dined later on bread, milk, raw eggs and vino. Arrived 1830 hrs overlooking river TARO and railway at SOLIGNANO. Our host overcome by English cigarettes. Listened to wireless and slept on mattress in local hairdresser’s house.
Distance 9 kms.
Tuesday 14th September: Day 6.
Dawn crossing of the road, railway and river, which was the other branch of the TARO. Very cold fording it. Followed our first friendly valley as regards direction. It
(32) ‘A casa’ – to their homes. They could be easily recognised by their army boots, though they no longer wore any uniform.
(33) Later Sir Carol Mather MC, Welsh Guards, later Tory MP for Esher.
(34) All the girls encountered by the four officers in their 30 days’ walk were ‘pretty’; perhaps a reflection of years in a male environment in the army and in a POW camp.
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led us to the road PARMA-LA SPEZIA, which was crowded with German traffic. Made a crossing where there were woods on both sides of the road. Had a wonderful bathe in a small river and then started on a long steep climb up through wooded country. Had excellent bread and cheese off a woodcutter and then met a very pretty young girl washing clothes in an Apennine stream. Saw a large herd of horses before descending a long wooded path. Slept in the hay in the hamlet of LANGHIRANO, 20 kms south-southwest of PARMA. Very poor supper and a huge crowd, who were very scared of Jerry, who had raided both the neighbouring villages for food.
Started at 0530 hrs after vino and raw eggs, one of which broke in Ian’s pocket. Forded river, crossed main road and down an unmarked river, where we bathed, using soap, our first for a week. [We] found a snake here. Crossed next main road, which had a lot of German traffic on it and then very stiff hill climb up. Lunched at top on cheese, bread, plums and walnuts. Over top of hill into a hidden valley, where we lay watching horses graze on opposite side while we mended socks etc. Set off on compass course up a small valley, where we met a charming girl washing clothes. Pushed on towards LANGHIRANO and arrived at 1830 hrs. Lay hidden watching for the best local farm, but eventually ended up in village. Had bread and milk and a little vino; large crowd watched us and were rather nervous.
Distance 17 kms.
Wednesday 15th September: Day 7.
Made a dawn crossing of a secondary road and the river PARMA. Very hot day and we walked from lunch until seven without a halt, as both Ian and Toots appeared to be having a walking race. Ted and myself [were] both going badly owing to blisters. We both had heavy GS boots(35) while the others had thin brown parade boots. Walked for a short distance on a tarmac road. We saw no Jerry but decided never to do it again. Just before lunch we had a pleasant bathe and washed our clothes. We finished up in a very nice farmhouse at LANGRIMONE, 14 kms south of LANGHIRANO, owned by Signor Luciano with a very kind wife and a pretty daughter; as usual he had a son in the bag(36). Shaved before eating an excellent hot supper of rissoles, bread and vino. Ted and Ian fed next door with two pretty girls.
‘Started at 6.30 hrs, crossed the river PARMA, took breakfast of bread and milk off a farm on the way up the next hill. For lunch [we] got eggs and bread from a mill and tried to boil them, not very successfully. [We] bathed and washed clothes in [the] afternoon and reached a farm near a road junction at 1930 hrs. Ian and I fed with two (sic) very pretty girls. Toots and Hugh with Pa and Ma, who lent a cut-throat [razor] to them for shaving. Had coffee, bread and cheese and very matey evening. [We] had our one and only march on tarmac road and advised not to repeat it.’
Distance 11 kms.
(35) ‘General Service’ boots with thick soles and studded with metal.
(36) In custody.
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Thursday. 16th September: Day 8
Started off down a small road and detoured left to avoid a POW camp. [We] crossed a river and followed up its valley. Very hot indeed. Met a bogus ‘Wop’ Captain going ‘a casa’ from AHQ Rome(37). [He] advised [us] to fly from EMILIA REGGIA airfield(38)! [We] ignored his advice and went on walking. Crossed the main road late in the evening and spent the night in a farmhouse near CASTELNOVO which was occupied by Jerry. Our hosts turned out to be mad, and everything, including the bread and milk, was incredibly dirty, A bad night [was] spent by all. An unusual shaped mountain top near the village. Very wooded country but fruit scarce.
Early start as usual, after breakfast of coffee bread and jam. Climbed alt morning. Lunch of bread cheese, vino and grapes in [a] small mill. Crossed the main road late and put up at a ‘mad’ farmhouse at CASTELNOVO NE’ MONTI.
Distance 16 kms.
Friday 17th September: Day 9
Made an early start along a mule track which led us to an unmarked lateral river. Passed near GATTA(39) and then followed along the SECCHIA valley which was nearly dry. [We] had a Jerry scare at midday and lay ‘chup’(40) for a time. Jerry in the town and railway station. We crossed the railway by walking over the top of a tunnel – most satisfactory. Crossed the main road near a mill where we obtained some bread and cheese. Very strong wind and bad going as all the valleys ran East-West, which did not help us on our course, which was South-east, running parallel to and 30 kms [south] from the PARMA-BOLOGNA road. Spent the night in a very small and very poor farmhouse, where I was compelled to admire all the schoolbooks belonging to a small girl.
0530 hrs start along secondary road, crossed unmarked river and followed along to junction with the SECCHIA. Warned of Germans and bore right- handed. Spent the night in a very poor farm where a girl insisted on taking us through the schoolbooks. [The] feeding [was] poor, but people very kind.
Distance 17 kms.
Saturday 18th September: Day 10
Very hot day and our feet now extremely sore, but the best cure for blisters is to keep on walking. Crossed three valleys and four hills before reaching PAVULLO. Nearly walked into a Jerry patrol post, who (sic) were reputed to be guarding a radio transmitting set. Our morale restored by cognac, given to us by an American-speaking couple, who warned us of an emergency landing ground just ahead and occupied by 300 German troops. Went on carefully, keeping to a thick chestnut wood which skirted the ELG and it also enabled us to cross the main road at dusk. Were refused admittance for the first time, but a drunken ex-serviceman took us in
(37) Army Headquarters.
(38) Reggio nell’ Amelia airfield 25 kms south east of Parma.
(39) 6 kms south east of CASTELNOVO.
(40) Urdu: quiet.
[original page 12, digital page 13]
and fed us, before passing us on to friends. Toots and I had a comfortable night in a duffle bed in a large well-kept farm near the TB sanatorium.
Usual start. Nothing eventful until afternoon when we met an American-speaking family who gave us vino and cognac also [the] route to PAVULLO. [We] crossed the main road, after nearly running into a German transmitting station. First refusal for a night’s lodging, but after I had taken a hell of a toss, [we] met a slightly drunk peasant who had served in the last war. He insisted in putting us up for the night and we fed in his house, with his drunken friend plus 14 other people, on hot cakes, cheese and vino. Ian and I were taken by a friend of his to sleep and, after listening to wireless, slept in beds – and of course overslept.
Toots adds: It took the Allies until 18th September to secure the Salerno beachhead, with the forward elements of the Eighth Army joining up with the US Fifth Army two days earlier(41). At this stage Kesselring began to conduct a deliberate disengagement. The US Fifth Army took Naples on 2nd October, but were then checked on the line of the swollen river VOLTURNO on the 8th, while to the east of the Apennines the Eighth Army’s limit of advance during the same period was Termoli, which was captured after a stiff fight on 3rd October.
Distance 17 kms.
Sunday 19th September: Day 11
Coffee and bread for breakfast. When we reached the TB Sanatorium we found the other two still asleep in bed. Very pleasant walk down through the woods to a river which ran in our direction, but it turned out to be very bad going indeed. Stopped for a bathe in the river and lunched on a bacon sandwich. Very hot indeed and bad going. Finished up in a farmhouse down in a valley near VERGATO(42). Very few Germans in this district, but our greatest danger was from the Blackshirts, who were out to get the German reward of L1800 (or £20) for any escaped British POW captured. News from the south not at all encouraging and no signs of the much rumoured landings at LA SPEZIA, LIVORNO and GENOA(43).
Down past TB infirmary after good scoff(44) and bacon and bread to take away with us. Had a bath in [the] river near footbridge (PANARA). [We] had an excellent lunch of raw eggs, vino and sugar beaten up plus bread and cheese. Now finished all [our] cigarettes. Up over a pass, where a local stood us a drink and gave us bread.
Distance 18 kms.
Monday 20th September: Day 12
Still extremely hot and difficult country to cross. All valleys running across us, which gave us plenty of hill climbing. Countryside very wooded and mountainous with few roads. Heavy air traffic – mainly JU 52s – which appeared to be flying between
(41) It is instructive to read the War Diaries of Field Marshall Lord Allenbrooke on the problems with the landing at Salerno.
(42) 22 kms East-south-east of PAVULLO.
(43) These rumours were without any foundation, there was never any intention of making landings at any of the places mentioned. See footnote 26.
(44) The word ‘scoff’ appears in various pages of the diary meaning food or meal; probable Afrikaans derivation: skof.
[original page 13, digital page 14]
BOLOGNA and FLORENCE. We spent the night in the hay alongside a church in a very small hamlet. Everyone extremely poor except for a young fat priest who had an extremely nice church and private house attached. He gave us some bread and cheese and let us eat it in the cow house. Plenty of hay so we all had a good warm night’s sleep.
Hard day’s climbing and saw a lot of Jerry planes. Ended up in a valley before LOJANO(45) and spent the night in parson’s hay after fair scoff.
Distance 20 kms.
Tuesday 21st September: Day 13.
Left our rich but inhospitable priest and climbed hard all morning. Left the close thick countryside and found instead rather higher but barren hillsides. Had an excellent lunch with some Forest Rangers, who gave us a raw egg beaten up and vino and sugar added, one of the best drinks I have ever drunk. Came upon a huge war memorial on the crest of the range. A tall column with a concrete tank at its base. Most unusual and most impressive, it was unveiled by Musso(46) himself. Met an English lady on the hill top, who gave us our route to CASTEL DEL RIO where we stayed the night in a farm with two pretty girls and a very nasty noisy small brother.
After cheese and bread breakfast from parson [we] had a hard day’s walk. Saw concrete memorial in the shape of a tank on top of hill and [were] rather scared at first. Met English-speaking woman who gave us food and route, also warning of Gerries (sic) in CASTEL DEL RIO. We stopped near there that night with two pretty girls, plus boyfriends, and a very noisy little boy. Gave lessons in English and cards.
Distance 16 kms.
Wednesday 22nd September: Day 14
A very pleasant day’s walking. Mainly uphill, but we left the barren range behind us and had a pleasant mule track in the woods instead. Passed several nice villas and got some bread and sausage off one. Very high up and clouds came down in the evening, but luckily we hit off a good big farmhouse, where some artists from Florence were spending the summer. We had an excellent wash and shave followed by a good supper. They were very windy of the Jerries who had occupied the village of MARRADI(47) nearby. Rumours of Jerry patrols in the hills.
Good walking all day on good track. Got bacon and sausage for lunch. Stopped night above MARRADI in old villa inhabited by old lady artists and owners. Had a wash and shave and meal of meat and bread. Good hay for [the] night.
Distance 14 kms.
(45) LOJANO 25 kms south of BOLOGNA.
(46) Mussolini former Head of State.
(47) 18 kms south-south-east of CASTEL DEL RIO.
[original page 14, digital page 15]
Thursday 23rd September: Day 15
Breakfast disturbed by the rumour of there being four Germans on horseback approaching the house. We ran hard, carrying a last minute gift of a bottle of really good Marsala. Found a good covered crossing place for the railway and road and had a good lunch off a decent woman living near the road. She put us onto a Baroness who proved very cold and windy, refusing us permission to listen to her radio and not even an offer of food and drink. Grand walk down a long drive through pine woods before climbing hard for three hours. Quite cold in the evening for the first time. Refused admission at one farm but finished up at a very small farm near ROCCA SAN CASCIANO(48). Dried our clothes out in front of a huge fire; bread, cheese and new vino, rather like cider, to drink, for supper. Slept next to the cows – very anxious night as I was on the exposed flank!!
Having breakfast with owner and wife when disturbed by rumours of Germans nearby. Decamped hurriedly taking a bottle of Marsala with us, which we put back [drank] around nearest bend. Had a good breakfast after crossing road and railway and heard of wireless in Baron’s house further on. Baron was out, and wife did not trust us. Had trouble getting in anywhere that night, but ex-soldier finally fixed us up and gave us good new wine. Too much for Ian! Slept with cows for the first time and Hugh put his foot wrong during the night. We were near ROCCA SAN CASCIANO.
Toots adds: As regards the scares about Germans on 23rd and 28th, we thought at the time that these rumours, brought into the place where we were, were more than likely by locals spotting us on the move. As for the 23rd when the rumour was of German ‘horsemen’, we had been very much in shirt-sleeves that day and we thought that the ‘horsemen’ bit of it originated from the tattoos of horsemen on my arms. Apart from that we looked like Germans in that we were all tall, fair-skinned and Jobson was gingery coloured, something foreign to Italian hill peasants.
Distance 16 kms.
Friday 24th September: Day 16
Found a good mule track towards GALEATA(49). Ted had the misfortune to have his knee seize up on him at midday. After a halt he luckily got it to work again. Ian went into the village and listened to Radio London. The news stated that we had advanced from Foggia and consolidated at Salerno, all much too slow for our liking. Several Wops told us about the reward and that the Fascists were becoming pretty active; however nothing came of their hints and we went on leaving GALEATA on our left, crossed the river RONCO and kept walking until dark. Ted was almost at the end; felt I had had enough myself, but kind farmer gave us some delicious potato flaps which revived us in a big way. A cold night as it was an open barn.
(48) 18 kms east of MARRADI.
(49) 10 kms south-east of ROCCA SAN CASCIANO.
[Original page 15, digital page 16]
Had a very hard day’s walk and I had just about had it when we stopped. Revived with excellent potato cakes at a village on the river RONCO. Very anti-Musso country.
Distance 18 kms.
Saturday 25th September: Day 17
Went up along an old Roman road, met an Irish RE officer from Bologna POW camp, who told us of a large crowd just ahead of us, but we never contacted them. Crossed the main road and river SAVIO, and then followed the line of the railway towards Mount FUMAIOLO(50), passing a wrecked Jerry aircraft en route. Very rough going and cold as it rained on and off from 1500 hrs. Passed VERGHERETO(51) and dropped down into the TIBER valley by going through the [unnamed] pass. Very risky going on the main road. We all had narrow escapes when two Jerry lorries came coasting down the road. Very desolate area with few houses and very short of food. Very lucky to find a small charcoal burner’s cottage in the failing light. Although they were extremely poor, they gave us hot macaroni to eat and a grand sleep in a very warm barn. A long, hard day.
After good breakfast of potato cakes and vino [we] met an English officer in hiding with friendly Italians who gave us bread cheese and cigarettes. Climbed up along old Roman road to source of river TIBER(52). On nearby road [we] were very nearly caught in the open by two German trucks. Spent night in a poor peasant’s hut. Wife very pregnant, but who gave us hot food that night. Excellent fresh straw, and best night for a long time.
Distance 26 kms.
Sunday 26th September: Day 18
Followed the mule track down the steep narrow valley, keeping the river between ourselves and the road. Very stiff after the hard day before, but rain and an excellent Sunday lunch of hot pasta kept our mileage down. More rain in the afternoon; moved over to the left because of the POW camp at TREVI, occupied by Jerry who were guarding Yugos(53). (Toots thinks it was probably a labour camp). Valley started to broaden out and we finished up at a farm near SANSEPOLCRO(54). [It was] a very small farm, but 15 of us sat down to supper around a small table. Very nice hot fried tomatoes and bread for supper. Our host gave Ted and Ian some of his own home-grown tobacco, which proved to be pretty rough. The son and daughter of PERUGIA’S police chief came in and expressed mild disgust at our living with ‘contadini’(55).
After hot breakfast had a late start owing to rain. Heading south down TIBER valley and least hill climbing since the start [of our journey from FONTANELLATO]. Had
(50) 25 kms south-south east of GALEATA.
(51) 23 kms south-south east of GALEATA.
(52) This point was 4,800 feet.
(53) Yugoslav POW’s.
(54) 50 kms south-south east of GALEATA.
[original page 16, digital page 17]
Sunday lunch hot, two in each house and very good. Rain held us up again in the afternoon, but got into fruit and tobacco land by nightfall. Near SANSEPOLCRO. Were given tobacco and paper for cigarettes, good scoff of tomatoes and vino.
Distance 15 kms.
Monday 27th September: Day 19
A pleasant morning’s walk keeping close to the Tiber; lots of bread and grapes to eat. The towpath was well screened by vines and tobacco crops; saw some one to one and a half pound trout and a kingfisher. Very little German traffic on the main road despite its excellent surface. In the afternoon it [became] in (sic) wet(56) and we got badly bogged in the clay while making a detour around CITTA DI CASTELLO(57). I had the misfortune to sprain my Achilles tendon with disastrous results for the next ten days. Kept walking until after dark and put up in a large farm, where we got a poor welcome, but they warmed up gradually and gave us a fair supper with plenty of vino. Rained torrents in the night, our roof leaked and we all had a cold, miserable and bloody night.
Wet walking. Little traffic on road. At night got past CITTA Dl CASTELLO and walked very late in the dark. Lucky to find good farm, where we had bacon and good food (hot).
Distance 23 kms.
Tuesday 28th September: Day 20
Very heavy going underfoot, but an excellent day’s walk, as we kept close to the river TIBER and saved masses of climbing. My tendon gave me hell all day; a cold bandage, renewed every hour or so, made things just possible. Rained in the afternoon and uneventful day found us past UMBERTIDE(58). At dusk we came to a large villa and tried our luck; it was right in. Owned by George Bruffani and his mother, they took us in. We had a hot wash and shave, a wonderful supper, then, of all things, a bottle of whisky, real Scotch! We had a bed each and clean sheets. Too comfortable and I slept badly, my ankle giving trouble. George owned the Grand Hotel, PERUGIA. His wife was also pretty shattering.
Uneventful day but distance seemed very long. Had our best night beyond UMBERTIDE, at chateau of English lady (English-speaking) and son, George. Wash, shave, plenty of vino, onion omelette, stuffed tomatoes, and fried pimentos. Lashings of bread cheese, excellent white wine, fruit and nuts followed by whisky (English) 10 years old. Brandy and cigarettes and long chat! Heard wireless news and, after a present of soap, up to a real bed.
Toots adds: The English-speaking woman, George’s mother, had been the wife of a Cockney, who kept a pub in the East End of London, which needless to say, Pryke said he knew!
Distance 23 kms.
(56) This is verbatim from the diary.
(57) 15 kms south-south-east of SANSEPOLCRO.
(58) 25 kms south-south-east of SANSEPOLCRO.
[Original page 17, digital page 17]
Wednesday 29th September: Day 21
Followed the right bank past BOSCO; good going except when we left the towpath to go across fields. Surprise lunch of fried eggs from an extremely pretty woman; the husband took us across the river in his boat to avoid crossing the long and tricky bridge. Crossed the main PERUGIA-FOLIGNO road with fairly heavy German traffic on it; rather a tricky crossing which excited several locals. Had a bad reception at one farm. But Germans reported to be in several local localities. Very long walk across the plough[ed fields], but rewarded by the view of ASSISI(59) shining in the evening sun, perched on the side of a mountain. Stayed night in a cow house, but luckily well away from the cows. Only bread and grapes to eat. Plagued by howling children. My tendon very painful all day making me walk dead lame.
Very good day’s walking after good breakfast from George. Crossed river and walked hard till lunch, when we met an ex-soldier who gave us fried eggs and cheese and ferried us across the river. Crossed PERUGIA-FOLIGHO road, fair amount of traffic but OK, finished up going straight across country over heavy plough with ASSISI on our left. Took measures against wind (?) before going to farm for the night. No food given to us but good night in cow’s house. Near no village but just south-west of Mt. ASSISI.
Distance 25 kms.
Thursday 30th September: Day 22
TIBER valley behind us and we are now on the plain of UMBRIA. Very dangerous as there are at least three large German airfields and several Command HQs. Near BEVAGNA(60) we bumped into a Fascist guard, who, mistaking us for Huns, directed us to TORRE DI MONTE FARCO(61) a local Hun HQ. We kept to a canal bank and left FOLIGNO airfield on our left but walked almost into a German working party building a new runway. We decided to make for the hills and, after a tricky hour, we reached them, having crossed a canal, the railway, and the main road, which had fairly heavy traffic. We spent the night near TREVI(62) after two refusals. A Carabiniere took great trouble to get us food and shelter on the condition that we moved on before daylight.
Trickiest day so far. Taken for Germans by Foresteri near BEVAGNA and kept up pretence. Along canal bank where German car passed very close, also DR. Passed FOLIGNO ‘drome on left and found ourselves in German district. Reluctantly decided it was too dangerous and headed for the hills. Did so left of TREVI and, after being refused lodging, but given food, were taken care of by Carabiniere in house of refugees.
Distance 25 kms.
(59) 15 kms south-east of BOSCO.
(60) 15 kms south of ASSISI.
(61) Probably MONTEFALCO 5 kms south-east of BEVAGNA.
(62) 12 kms south-east of BEVAGNO.
[original page 18 digital page 16]
Friday 1st October: Day 23
Terrible going all morning. We kept going along the hillside, parallel to the road. Very steep and loose, rough stones under the olive trees; no path whatsoever. We broke into a convent and were politely ushered out by a charming and very smart nun, who, after her initial surprise, poured blessings galore on our heads and sent us on our way – even rougher than before. Had a very stiff climb with a woodman and his donkey and found some lovely grassland on top of the mountain. Came down to near PIEDIPATERNO(63) for the night. Very steep valley with sharp rocky mountains leading down to the road, railway and river NERA, all of which were close together at the bottom. Excellent farm, who did us well, despite late work going on in the vino crush.
Climbed all day again. Glad to be back in the mountains and felt safer. Water excellent. Spent night near PIEDIPATERNO, after good dinner and cigarettes from ex-officer.
Distance 18 kms.
Saturday 2nd October: Day 24
Terrific climb in the morning and finished up on top of the world which turned out to be a completely deserted grass plateau. Had lunch in a deserted charcoal burner’s hut; wonderful cold, clear water spring. Pushed on until we were captured by a band of Royalists, who, on identifying us, gave us a grand mutton stew. Their HQ was a small isolated farmhouse near COLLE CAPITANO. We pushed on, glad to be clear of that Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company. We followed the bed of the river down; very rough going, made worse by heavy rain. We arrived at a small farmhouse near LEONESSA(64), very cold and soaking wet; it was also pitch dark. Had some hot gruel and a hot fire dried out our clothes before a good night’s sleep in the hay.
Up on over the hills and followed the road. Had our first meeting with ‘resistance band’ who, after mutual recognition, gave us excellent mutton stew and guides. The resistance band was at MONTE LEONE(65) [and] their HQ at COLLE CAPITANO. Pushed along river bed until dark, when rain came on. Spent night with two ex-sailors from SPEZZIA in hay.
Distance 23 kms.
[At this point the diarists appear to have become confused over the actual day of the week; The next entry records it as Wednesday 3rd October, instead of Sunday, but note Pryke’s entry!]
Wednesday (sic) 3rd October: Day 25
Started out in the rain; very hard going as we could find no good mule track to follow and clouds obscured our view. Met up with a party of ten Free French, who were
(63) 15 kms south-east of TREVI.
(64) 22 kms south of PIEDIPATERNO.
(65) MONTELEONE DI SPOLETO, 15 kms south-south-east of PIEDIPATERNO.
[Original page 19, digital page 15]
looking for potatoes in a field. Very high, rough, mountainous country. We found some power cables and decided to keep along in that direction. We went around POSTA(66) where there was a Jerry HQ. All the locals extremely windy as several POWs had been recaptured in the area. Had a wonderful high tea of apples, walnuts, bread and cheese before pushing on, as the neighbourhood was too windy to sleep in Terrific evening walk along a ridge, finishing up long after dark in a small mountain village. We were each allotted a house. My post was the local Forest Guard, a Fascist but anti-German.
Difficult country, following electric cables in mountains. Poor food all day for a Sunday. Gerry traffic on road in the afternoon, hit a good track after feed of apples, walnuts, bread, bacon and cheese. Pushed on till dark, when we were taken into a village beyond POSTA. Each bloke to a separate house, excellent hot scoff and good hay for the night.
Distance 19 kms.
Thursday 4th October: Day 26
Hard climb up on to a very high barren ridge which we followed along to MONTEREALE(67). Our map was very bad indeed and we got rather lost. We sighted the GRAN SASSO(68) and started our climb, which was the toughest we ever did. It took over three hours, when we reached the top (above the clouds), we found a huge lake and masses of sheep grazing on the grassland around the lake. We had lunch in an exhausted condition, too shagged to get out of the chilly wind blowing off the GRAN SASSO. All shepherds windy, as Jerry two days previously had had a big round up, capturing fifty POWs hiding up in the area. Spent the night in a small deserted cow house; masses of rats, not much straw and cold and damp. All very tired after the climb.
Very hilly walking. Heard of many English nearby, but none seen. Met a windy Yugoslav who advised staying put. Rumours of sentries on the main road, decided to cross at first light, and laid up below electric power station in a deserted hut [with] (signs of previous British occupation – Red Cross tins, etc.) [This was] somewhere near MONTEREALE but beyond.
Toots adds: The GRAN SASSO and [Mount] MAIELLA at 9,584 and 8,157 ft respectively are the two highest peaks in the Apennines. We were well above the tree-line for a lot of the time on these features, which are divided by the river PESCARA.
Distance 20 kms.
Friday (sic) 5th October: Day 27
[We] moved off at 5.15 hrs in moonlight. We crossed the main road near the power house and moved round to the south side of the GRAN SASSO, which we reached
(66) 12 kms south-east of LEONESSA.
(67) 12 kms east of POSTA.
(68) 25 kms east-south-east of MONTEREALE.
[Original page 20, digital page 14]
by daylight. Wonderful path took us down to ASSERGI(69) which we reached by 1000 hrs. Two BORs(70) warned us that Jerry was extremely active and in occupation of all the villages. Over 500 POWs had been retaken in the area. At ASSERGI we obtained masses of bread and cheese – very welcome as we had eaten little for nearly twenty-four hours. Learned that Mussolini had been imprisoned up at the hotel and had been released by German para- and glider troops. Five wrecked gliders went to prove their story.
We had a very near escape as we had to keep alongside the road, which had traffic on it. Very warm day, which did not improve our tempers, but we had a good lunch, followed by lots of climbing, which took us up onto some very barren, open country, running along parallel to the GRAN SASSO. We met with two more BORs and three Spanish from the French Army. Kept on walking as there were no isolated houses and few villages. All the farmers lived together and walked out as far as ten miles to their land and back each day. We spent the night in a large semi-ruined monastery near BARISCIANO(71). Great flap in the village, when Toots and Ian went down to it for bread and cheese. The local Fascists reported to be particularly vigilant. Our building was said to be under observation and searched every day. Very cold night as not enough straw.
Crossed main road at first light and on to GRAN SASSO. Met two ORs from L’AQUILA camp who gave us news of their camp, also first news of officers from our camp, Roncoroni and Duke (RA). Excellent path to ASSERGI (Mussolini’s prison) where we got bread cheese and eggs. Tricky work moving alongside road with a lot of German traffic on it. Crossed and climbed to a suitable lunch place. Ian broke darning needle but mending my socks with ordinary one as a penance! Headed across deserted country where we met some Spaniards, ending up for the night in a deserted nunnery above BARISCIANO. Ian and Toots went in for food, which they obtained; colossal flap in village as recently raided by Gerry.
Toots adds: On the 6th (? 5th) October we came across two German gliders on a slope of the GRAN SASSO. If Hugh says there were five gliders that’s fine, but I only remember two. We were at the top of the mountain and I don’t remember any cable car or hotel. We treated the gliders with some caution and had a good lock around. But found nothing of use to us. It was only later that we learned that they had been used by Otto ’Scarface’ Skorzeny and his German commando snatch squad, which had landed there a few days before to rescue Mussolini from his Italian gaol at ASSERGI(72).
Distance 24 kms.
Saturday (?) 6th October: Day 28
Left at dawn and kept up in the hills on mule tracks. Very cold indeed until 0900 hrs, when we stopped for bread and grapes. Morale soared when we saw the first Spitfires fly overhead towards L’AQUILA. Padre gives news that we have occupied
(69) 25 kms south-east of MONTEREALE.
(70) British Other Ranks.
(71) 12 kms south-east of ASSERGI.
(72) This spectacular rescue code-named ‘Operation Oak’ made on 12 September is fully documented in many works.
[Original page 21, digital page 13]
VASTA(73) and CAMPOBASSO(74). This really made us think and despite local advice, we pushed on, keeping a good eye open for Jerry.
Had lunch at a magnificent Catholic monastery. A wonderful view right out over the plain. The hills were very bare with only almond trees to break the monotony. The nuts made excellent eating. We crossed a valley and climbed hard to cross a range overlooking the river PESCARA. Kept walking – all the locals mad with excitement. News of our paratroops in the neighbourhood probably untrue. Good supper in a farm overlooking the PESCARA.
Early start. Good walking along deserted mountain tracks. Padre in village gave very optimistic wireless news. Carried on along unused road to monastery, where we got sugared almonds, bread, cheese, vino, and two packets of jam. Route given and on over pass where we looked down onto river PESCARA. First heard rumours of British paratroops dropped. Night in farm near river, good scoff and information.
Distance 30 kms.
Sunday (? 7th) October: Day 29
Early start up to the river PESCARA by the private electric company bridge. Tricky as masses of Hun on the road, which was 100 ft off and in full view. Luck was with us and we pushed on hard, until stopped by rain, when we given lunch by a Wop who had been in the USA. Hot chicken and a fried egg each! Masses of American speaking people in the district. After lunch we pushed on, stilt raining and very bad going; we lost our way in the clouds and eventually finished up in a small farm near an ex-POW working camp. We met the local Fascist on the path, who warned us about the Germans and he appeared to be quite friendly. We also met three South Africans, who were living out in a cave. They were well supplied with Red Cross parcels and blankets and had been there for three weeks. Persuaded them all to get moving.
Misty start. Crossed river PESCARA over electric power house bridge. German convoy on road stopped and nervous five minutes. Crossed OK and under railway and up hill as fast as we could go. Had breakfast in farmhouse and heard that many others had taken same route. On again until stopped by rain, took shelter in hovel, where Ian and I had a shave. On a short distance, but held up again by rain. Had excellent lunch of chicken (two between four of us), fried eggs, grapes and cheese. Ian listened to wireless. Crossed very tricky gorge and put up late at mountain village. Met Fascist local chief, also two South African ORs(75). Village near CASOLI(76).
Distance 12 kms.
(73) VASTO, 160 kms north of Salerno on the Adriatic coast.
(74) 100 kms north of Salerno. In fact the Eighth Army had liberated Termoli 25 kms east of VASTO on 3rd October but neither CAMPOBASSO nor VASTO were captured until some weeks later.
(75) Other Ranks.
(76) 60 kms east-south east of BARISCIANO.
[original page 22, digital page 12]
Monday 8th October: Day 30
Conducted by South Africans out to their cave. Here met by thirty of them – all South Africans or New Zealanders. Very cheerful and living like kings. Had our first mug of tea for a month, followed by bread, jam and butter; too good to be true. I was given a packet of tea and some razor blades to take away. Before leaving we heard of the paratroops’ instructions and we did not agree with their route. We pushed on and then climbed [Mount] MAIELLA, 8500 ft high. We were all now fit and we made it easily. My strained tendon now forgotten. The most magnificent view from the top. We could see PESCARA(77), the sea and almost to the firing line.
Drank from the source of the Chieti water supply, where we met more Kiwis. We then went right down and finished up near the German HQ in CASOLI. Lots of air activity – all our planes. Masses of fruit and a good wash when fording the river.
Picked up at 0530 hrs by South Africans, who took us out past Carabinieri barracks to their hideout in the mountains, where they gave us breakfast of tea, sugar, milk, bread, butter and marmalade. Heard further news of parachutists. They gave us two packets of tea. Up over mountain, then bore right along southern [northern] slopes of MAIELLA above GUARDIAGRELE, then up and over MAIELLA (8000 ft), and down again. Over river by CASOLI, then over main roads and put up near CASOLI in poor farmhouse full of refugees from CASOLI. Made tea for all of them after food. Much appreciated – with plenty of sugar.
Toots adds: It was about 8th October when we looked down onto a reservoir of lake in the MAIELLA and saw that it was being used by German flying boats, some of which were anchored on the water at the time. Mention of ‘parachutists’ refers to individuals and small parties, dropped by the SAS to motivate the known large numbers of escaped POWs lying up in the mountains. We didn’t meet any of them, but learnt more of their activities when we got through and were asked if we had met any.
Distance 23 kms.
Tuesday 9th October: Day 31
Early start. Followed up the line of the river SANGRO. Germans in the villages and on most routes, but we kept to the mule tracks. Masses of fruit, the green figs being particularly good. Saw a lot of the RAF and heard them bombing. Turned off left and climbed over saddle. Our journey should have ended as we were seen crossing a ploughed field by two Jerry lorries and a M/C [motor cycle], but luckily they took no action. 1500 it started to rain. We stopped for some tea, but got soaking wet and practically bogged in the plough. Luckily we got a guide at dusk. He took us to a small paesete where we took shelter in the schoolhouse. We got Radio London – news bad as we found that we [the Allies] were still south of [river] BIFERNO(78). Our host gave us no food, but dried off our clothes, and we slept well in his maize leaves, after drinking our tea.
(77) on the coast 40 kms north of CASOLI.
(78) about 40 kms south-east of the SANGRO.
[original page 23, digital page 11]
Away early, and over into SANGRO valley, which we followed for a bit, then turned south and up over a saddle, crossing road with a fair amount of German traffic. Further on caught in the open by two German trucks and a DR [despatch rider] but unaccountably not fired on nor followed. Closest thing so far. Down other side, very wet and stopped for a bit in a cottage (bread and eggs). Then on to a wine press, where we picked up an ex-soldier, who took us to his village and got us lodging for the night. Made tea, listened to the wireless, no food offered.
Distance 18 kms.
Wednesday 10th October: Day 32
Terrible going as we had to go across country; very slow and tiring work. Our map was particularly vague as regards this area. We could now hear the shelling quite plainly. Met up with a wounded WOP officer — a good chap who gave us some eggs and a really good, large-scale local map of the area. He had his wife and a friend looking after him. His band had done well and repulsed a Jerry attack, inflicting losses on them. We had a nasty scare at midday. Firing very close behind us made us walk flat out for several kilos (sic).
In the afternoon we got hopelessly mixed up with some Jerry in a large wood near MONTE CATILIOGNE, but a thunder storm saved us from certain capture. Crossed the river TRIGNO at dusk. I flushed two snipe, but luckily not the Hun, who were mining the bridge close by. Spent the night near MONTEFALCONE. Good supper ended in a hurried exit to a small barn.
Off early. Second encounter with ‘resistance band’. Wounded Italian officer gave us a map, fed us on eggs, cheese, bread. Gave wife the English soap, German scare, so pushed on. Now hearing the battle. Crossed main road in woods, and nearly ran into German petrol point. Saved by rain on leaves, drowning noise of our approach, and bypassed it. Ran like hell for 200 yards, our nearest escape of the trip. Raining off and on, crossed river TRIGNO at dusk, most painful crossing yet made, and in dusk met old man, who put us on food and lodging for the night. Made tea again, but not appreciated much. Slept in hay some distance off, behind village of MONTEFALCONE.
Toots adds: The brief mention of the near thing with a German petrol point in a wood is putting it mildly! We knew there were a lot of German vehicles in the wood that we had just entered. We could hear voices and engines. ! was leading very gently, fortunately in torrential rain. As I was crawling through a bush, I almost ran my nose into a German tin hat, which a ‘Kraut’ had put down while he had a ‘crap’ the other side of the bush. He never heard me and we withdrew, reckoning that we had got far too close!
Distance 20 kms.
Thursday 11th October: Day 33.
Off early we followed up the course of a small stream, arriving at a take. The noise of battle was now extremely loud. No traffic on the E-W secondary road, a great
[original page 24, digital page 10]
surprise to us. Pushed on towards GUARDIAFIERA(79). Very good hot lunch given us by locals, who were all very excited. We located a good valley, running down to the river BIFERNO, with no road near to it.
We got down safely to the river and crossed it by a small footbridge, just north of CASACALENDA. Here we met David Blair and Ronnie Borrodaile(80) who were in possession of news from the radio and telephone reports from the village. Came on wet, so we turned in early at a farm; had a good hot supper and slept for twelve hours. Noise of battle and flashes much too local for comfort.
Off early and up riverbed towards watershed. Eggs and cheese at 1100 hrs. Battle heard more distinctly. No traffic on unmarked secondary road. Down over and towards right of GUARDIAFIERA. Had good hot lunch of fried eggs, tomatoes, pimentos. Down to river BIFERNO and crossed over footbridge, and met Borrodaile and Blair, who gave us local dope. Put up in nearby farmhouse, and had a good scoff. Decided to wait for one day to watch events.
Friday 12th October: Day 34
We left our farm after a hot breakfast. Having checked the news from Ronnie Borrodaile, we then climbed up a small hill just below MORRONE(81) to watch the battle. Hard shelling all day long, with three different battles very easy to distinguish. One to our left and rear around GUIGLIONESI(82) where our forces had crossed the BIFERNO. The main battle due south of around CASACALENDA, our troops being about 5 miles from us. They appeared to be in two columns, one from LARINO(83) and the other from BONEFRO(84), the latter column appeared to be making headway. On our right we could hear the battle for CAMPOBASSO(85). Very cold wind but the locals gave us plenty to eat. That night the shelling increased and heavy traffic indicated that the Hun was withdrawing.
Had a wonderful lazy day after a bad night. Moved up to ridge to see battle. Watched bursting shells in morning, then touched local farm for lunch, and finally had food and night’s sleep there. Very good food and hay shared with four Italian refugees.
Distance 1 km.
Saturday 13th October: Day 35.
At 0600 hrs the Germans blew the stone bridge over the BIFERNO near GUARDIAFIERA. Three terrific explosions followed by dense smoke; when it cleared there was no sign of the bridge. They made four unsuccessful attempts to destroy the iron bridge further upstream. At 0900 hrs was considerable local flap as approximately 100 Germans, fully armed, were reported at MORRONE; they were
(79) 15 kms east-south east of MONTEFALCONE.
(80) They were both Cameron Highlanders.
(81) MORONE DEL SANNIO, 10 kms south of GUARDIAFIERA.
(82) 15 kms north-east of GUARDIAFIERA.
(83) 10 kms east of GUARDIAFIERA.
(84) 15 kms south-east of GUARDIAFIERA.
(85) 30 kms south-south-west of GUARDIAFIERA.
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said to be looting and raping. Ronnie B and David Blair joined us and walked up to CASACALENDA. We were the first to enter the village and were clapped and cheered by all the locals. At the far end we were picked up by a Canadian Scout Car, commanded by a very nice Canadian Tank Major. We ate his chocolate while he drove us back to Brigade HQ.
Distance 3 kms.
The Brigadier turned out to be Tubby Martin RNFs(86), who was an instructor at the RMC when Toots and I were there. The local RSM was ex-CQMS Leakes, from Dagshai(87) who used to play in our station cricket team as a useful bowler. One of the Brigade LOs(88) was Rivers-Bodilly, who was at the ISC(89) with me and had since joined the DCLI having been with the battalion in Tunisia. We were all amazed at the magnificent equipment. There was a Regiment of Field Artillery, a Medium Regiment, one battery of 17-pounders, one battery of light AA and an infantry support company. The rations were much appreciated, but we felt sorry for the men, who were all in shorts still.
Had a hair-raising ride back in a Gyp(90) (sic) to rear Brigade HQ, just behind BONEFRO. Here we met George Lascaris and Leon Blanchard who brought down Colonel Mainwaring (RWF)(91) with them. We had just beaten them down and were the first to come through the Brigade. Brigade HQ was in a magnificent villa, but rather ravished as the Hun had used it as his HQ previously. Had a good hot water wash and shave and slept really well on the floor. We gave information to the IO(92) up until after midnight.
What a day! After breakfast heard two bridges had been blown at 0630 hrs, after much German northbound traffic all night. Moved off at 1030 hrs for CASACALENDA and arrived around 1300 hrs. Flags out in streets and crowds clapped and embraced us all. Felt a complete ass, but managed to jump onto a Canadian scout car, who took us to Brigade HQ, where we were fed and pushed back to rear HQ for food and night’s lodging. Met Lascaris and Blanchard.
Toots adds: Lascaris, a Greek and Blanchard, a Belgian were both good linguists. They teamed up with Colonel Mainwaring, who had been a senior officer on Monty’s staff and was considered a VIP, and so was someone who should have every assistance to get away.
(86) Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
(87) The Hill Station of the 1st Batt. DCLI in the 1940s.
(88) Liaison Officers.
(89) The Imperial Service College, now Halleybury.
(90) A jeep!
(91) Royal Welch Fusiliers.
(92) Intelligence Officer.
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BACK WITH BRITISH FORCES
Sunday 14th October: 1st Day of Freedom.
From this point onwards the entries of Hugh Jobson’s diary records the gradual, and rather slow progress back to UK of Toots Williams, Hugh Jobson and Ted Pryke.
But the adventures were not quite over. On 15th October the four officers arrived at Taranto in the south east of Italy. On 16th Ian Shaw departed, while the three remaining boarded ship and sailed at dawn on 18th in the Eurydice calling at Syracuse. Sicily, where the three ‘did a bunk’ from the ship. From Syracuse in south Sicily they found their way to Catania, flew from there to Tunis by American Dakota aircraft, and from Tunis to Algiers, where on 25th October they boarded the P & O Stratheden, reaching Glasgow on 4th November, and home the next day.
[Photograph and caption]: The Fontanellato plaque to the prisoners of war
[Photograph and caption]: The ex-camp from Viale IV Novembre
[Photograph and caption]: The recreation area – scene of escape
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[Photograph and caption]: 1947 – the wedding of Capt. Hugh Jobson and Miss Hester Williams (cousin of Captain George Torquil Gage Williams) at Werrington
[Photograph and caption]: Captain William Dudley ‘Ted’ Pryke 1914-1994
[Photograph and caption]: Captain George Torquil Gage Williams
The Editor – Geoffrey Gibbons, born in 1927, was a lawyer by profession and an historian by choice, educated at Birmingham University (LL.B, 1948) spent a lifetime working as a solicitor in the Midlands (and 7 years as a Deputy Circuit Judge) before retiring in 1994 to study History at Warwick University (MA. 1996, Ph.D, 1999)
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Operation Oak to find and rescue Mussolini
Skorzeny appeared before Adolf Hitler on July 26th 1943. Hitler had learned that his political and military ally and friend Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, was ousted and arrested by his own countrymen.
The Italian people got tired of their failing megalomaniac dictator, who was so much better in words than in deeds. After four years of war, instead of the promised victories, Italy lost its large colonial territories in North Africa and East Africa, and now Sicily, the large island in southern Italy, was occupied by the advancing Allies, who were clearly going to follow soon with an invasion of the Italian mainland (which they did six weeks later, on September 3rd 1943).
Overthrowing Mussolini was quick and bloodless. In a late night session, the members of the Fascist leadership accused Mussolini of failures, and then voted against him for the first and last time, and the next day the king summoned Mussolini to his villa, told him that all Italians now hated him and that he must go, and when Mussolini stepped out of the king’s office, he was arrested by the Carabinieri military police force, and the king appointed Pietro Badoglio, a former politician and army Chief of Staff as the new temporary Prime Minister.
Hitler was terribly furious about this news; not just because his fellow dictator and friend was overthrown, but also because there was very little he could do about it. He could not retaliate by invading Italy, because Italy was still his ally in the war, and the new Italian government immediately assured him that they remained loyal allies, which they did, for a while. It was clear to both sides that the new Italian government was quietly looking for a way to switch sides in the war, to end its long alliance with Nazi Germany, and to most likely deliver the arrested Mussolini to The Allies as a gesture, but so far Italy kept fighting against the Allies, shoulder to shoulder with the German military, which was already deployed in large numbers all over Italy. All that Hitler could do, was to try to find where the Italians were hiding their former dictator before they delivered him to The Allies, and only then act quickly to rescue him, in order to put him back in power by force, this time as a German puppet backed by the Nazi military power in Italy.
So, on July 26th 1943, the day after Mussolini’s arrest, Otto Skorzeny and five other commanders of Germany’s most elite military units, were urgently summoned to “Wolfsschanze” (Wolf’s Lair), Hitler’s isolated and heavily guarded command post in the forests of East Prussia. Once there, the six officers (Captain Skorzeny was of the lowest rank) met Adolf Hitler, Hitler did not tell them why they were summoned. After each of them presented himself, Hitler simply asked each of them two questions:
‘Are you familiar with Italy?’ ‘What do you think of Italy?’
To the first question, only Skorzeny answered “Yes”, referring to his honeymoon in
[original page 29, digital page 5]
Italy nine years earlier. To the second question, while the other five officers gave politically correct answers about Italy being an Ally of Germany and so on, Skorzeny decided to gamble and answered just: “I am an Austrian, Fuhrer”. It was a short answer that said a lot. Skorzeny knew that Hitler, also originally Austrian, will understand that he was thinking of the traditional hostility between Austria and Italy, which increased when Austria was forced to hand a large territory to Italy after World War I.
The gamble paid off. Hitler dismissed the other officers, and after they left, he told Skorzeny what really happened in Italy (German news media just said that Mussolini resigned for poor health), and told Skorzeny that he entrusted him with a mission of the highest strategic importance, to rescue Mussolini before he was delivered up to The Allies.
For convenience and secrecy, for the duration of the mission Skorzeny was placed under the command of General Kurt Student, the commander of the German Paratroopers Corps, who was also sent to Italy that day, with a large force of his elite Paratroopers for the same reason, but also to prepare to occupy Rome by force if necessary. To the Italians, Skorzeny, the SS officer, will pose as General Student’s adjutant, wearing paratrooper’s uniform.
After meeting with General Student in “Wolfsschanze” that night. Skorzeny phoned his deputy, Karl Radi, and told him that they were given a mission that can not be discussed over the phone, and asked him to prepare, by dawn, a very long list of every kind of special equipment imaginable, from guns and explosives to black hair colour and monk robes. Radi was also instructed to select forty of Friedenthal’s best men, including all those who spoke Italian, and bring with him ten secret agents from the Ausland-SD headquarters and ordered that all will be dressed as paratroopers. They all flew to the German military headquarters outside Rome.
In the seven weeks that followed, Skorzeny helped as much as he could in the German intelligence gathering group effort to find where Mussolini was held and then to gather tactical intelligence to be used for planning a rescue operation once the location was known. By the way, in addition to using every intelligence resource they had in Italy, the SS, under constant pressure by Hitler, also used astrologers and psychics in Berlin in an attempt to find Mussolini. During those seven weeks, the suspicious Italians moved Mussolini to a different location three times, to prevent a rescue attempt, and he was heavily guarded by the Carabinieri. Three times the Germans were able to find out where Mussolini was held, and three times he was moved before the Germans were ready to raid the location.
Mussolini was first transferred to the tiny island Ponza, off Naples. When the Germans had that information, Mussolini was already transferred elsewhere. Then it was hinted that Mussolini was held in an isolated villa in the tiny island La Maddalena, near the large island Sardinia, 150 miles west of the Italian mainland. Skorzeny was able to smuggle one of his Italian speaking commandos to that island,
[original page 30, digital page 4]
disguised as a sailor and a few days later that man reported that he even saw Mussolini in the villa from a distance. Skorzeny then flew in a Heinkel 111 bomber to take aerial photos of the location. The bomber was shot down by allied fighters and crash landed at sea, but Skorzeny and the bomber’s crew were rescued by an Italian destroyer, whose crew was unaware of the purpose of the pictures in Skorzeny’s camera. Before the Germans raised La Maddalena island, they found out that Mussolini had already been flown away from the island in a seaplane and his location was lost again.
Mussolini’s new location was then picked up in September by Herbert Kappler, the police attache in the German Embassy in Rome, who intercepted a seemingly meaningless Italian police radio transmission referring to security preparations around Gran Sasso. The experienced and suspicious Kappler immediately guessed that Mussolini is held in the ski hotel at the top of the Gran Sasso mountain that was only accessible by cable car from the valley below. Further intelligence hints convinced the Germans that Mussolini might now be imprisoned on the Gran Sasso.
The Germans had to really hurry now, since on September 3rd 1943, the Allies invaded the Italian mainland and on September 8th Italy surrendered to the Allies, and a day later the Allies landed further north at Salerno, near Naples. Italy was not yet an enemy of Germany, but no longer an ally and time was short. Preparations were minimal, not just because of the new political situation, but also because of heavy allied air bombardments on the German bases near Rome.
Skorzeny flew again in a Heinkel 111 bomber, this time over Gran Sasso, and took pictures of the location with a plain handheld camera. When he returned, a simple attack plan was quickly designed by General Student, Harald Mors (one of Student’s paratrooper battalion commanders), and Skorzeny. The plan was simple, but not easy.
Twelve DFS 230 assault gliders, each carrying nine troops and a pilot, will be released from their tow aircraft over Gran Sasso at a rate of about one glider every minute. Each glider pilot will then have to struggle against the strong and unpredictable wind conditions above the 9500 ft summit, in an attempt to land on a tiny patch of straight soil next to the ski hotel at the summit that was surrounded by steep and rocky slopes from all directions.
Once on the ground the troops will storm the ski hotel, where it was assumed that Mussolini was held, in an attempt to get to
[original page 31, digital page 3]
Mussolini as fast as possible before his surprised guards will have time to shoot him in the last moment. The Italian guards will have to be defeated and the mountain summit secured.
A secondary force, led by Major Mors, will simultaneously arrive by trucks to the lower cable car station at the bottom of the mountain and will secure it. Mussolini will then be flown off the Gran Sasso by a Stork light aircraft.
The glider assault force, a total of 108 troops, was comprised of 81 paratroopers in 9 gliders, and Skorzeny with 25 of his men, and a guest, in 3 gliders. Skorzeny’s ‘guest’ was General Fernando Soleti of the Italian Carabinieri, who was kidnapped by Skorzeny’s men and forced to board Skorzeny’s glider. The idea was that his presence in the raid could further confuse the surprised Carabinieri guarding the Gran Sasso summit. There was no time to arrange maps for the glider and tow aircraft pilots who were flown in to Italy just before the raid. They were to simply follow the lead aircraft, piloted by Student’s intelligence officer.
Despite serious difficulties before and after the raid itself, the operation, on September 12th 1943, was a complete success, and the only injuries were among the troops onboard the last glider in the row, which crashed while landing right in front of the already released Mussolini, and among the Italian guards at the lower cable car station who were shot by the Germans, but nobody was killed. Skorzeny’s glider was initially the 2nd in the row of 12 tow and glider pairs, but during the flight the lead tow aircraft, with the only pilot who knew how to navigate to Gran Sasso, had to abandon the lead, and Skorzeny’s tow pilot suddenly found himself first in the row but without a map, Skorzeny then used his knife to cut a small window in the glider’s bottom under him, which was enough for him to successfully navigate to Gran Sasso, based on his memory of the flight path from his aerial photo flight a day earlier, by passing navigation instructions to the glider pilot in front of him, who relayed them by cable to the tow aircraft’s pilot.
Once on the ground, after a perfect landing just next to the side of the ski hotel, Skorzeny ran forward, pushing General Soleti ahead of him, looking for the first door he could find, when he saw Mussolini looking at him from a 2nd floor window. This was definitely helpful, since he now knew exactly where to go. Skorzeny shouted to Mussolini to get inside to avoid being hit by possible shots, and then charged into the hotel. The surprised Italian guards were further confused by General Soleti who shouted at them to avoid shooting, and less than a minute later Skorzeny broke into Mussolini’s room and disarmed his two guards, as two other of his men came in from the window after climbing the wall. Once Mussolini was secured in his room, Skorzeny saluted Mussolini and said: “Duce, I was sent by the Fuhrer to rescue you.” “I knew my friend would never let me down.” Mussolini replied and he embraced Skorzeny.
[original page 32, digital page 2]
Within a few minutes, all the Italian guards in the ski hotel and upper cable car station were disarmed without a single shot being fired, and at the bottom of the mountain Major Mors’ men took over the lower cable car station after a short fire fight, and by the time of the last glider landing (the one that crashed) Mussolini was already out of the hotel, waiting for the Stork light aircraft that will fly him to safety.
The Stork, a two-seater light aircraft, was flown by Captain Heinrich Gerlach, General Student’s personal pilot. After he successfully landed on the Gran Sasso summit, the big Skorzeny insisted to also board the tiny two-seater aircraft, and placed himself in its small cargo bay behind the passenger’s seat. Skorzeny later explained this action in saying that he was not willing to risk a situation in which, after a successful rescue, he will face Hitler only to report to him that Mussolini was rescued by him but then crashed on the slopes of the Gran Sasso mountain. He preferred to die in such a crash too instead.
Captain Gerlach, the pilot, had his own doubts about the chances of a successful takeoff, since in addition to having an incredibly short and rocky ‘runway’ that ended in an abyss, that runway was also cut in the middle by a deep ditch that was not visible in the aerial photos that Skorzeny took a day earlier. Skorzeny’s extra weight, and the lower lift in the thin air at 9500 ft, were not helpful either.
With Mussolini and Skorzeny onboard, Gerlach told the paratroopers to hold the small aircraft in place while he increased the engine’s power to the maximum, and then signalled them to let go. The small aircraft ran forward. When he reached the ditch, Gerlach pulled the stick to raise the aircraft a few inches in the air before it descended back to the ground after the ditch and gained a little more speed before it fell down to the abyss at the end of the runway. With nerves of steel, Gerlach let the small aircraft dive down just over the steep mountain slope, and then slowly pulled the stick to level in the valley below, keeping the aircraft at treetop level to avoid possible enemy fighters, and not sharing with his two passengers the information that the engine was damaged in the bumpy takeoff and not fully functional.
They landed in a German controlled airbase near Rome, where Mussolini and Skorzeny immediately transferred to a German bomber that flew them to Vienna, and from there Mussolini was flown by another aircraft to meet Hitler in ‘Wolfsschanze” that same day.
There were well deserved honours for all the key players. Skorzeny was promoted to Major and was awarded the Knights Cross, and became famous. Herbert Kappler, the German police attache who found Mussolini, was also both promoted and decorated. Captain Gerlach, the Stork pilot was awarded the Knights cross for performing one of the most difficult takeoffs in the history of aviation. And several others among the pilots, paratroopers, intelligence personnel, and of course, Karl Radi, Skorzeny’s deputy, were either promoted or decorated for their role in the operation.
[Digital page 18]
[Handwritten comments – not transcribed.]
[Digital page 19]
[Map of Italy showing the route of the Long Walk Back. With circled numbers showing where they were approximately every 5 days.]