Peter Barshall was captured in Algiers and passed through two camps (the second being Chieti) before arriving at PG49 Fontanellato. He escaped from here when the armistice was signed. Hiding in the mountains he contacted an Italian business partner of his father from Milan. He received a gift of money and clothes and was able to cross into Switzerland.
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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MEMORIES OF A P.O.W. (ANON)
So many, years have passed and so much has been published about those war years, and many accounts about prisoners of war. Having agreed to write a short recollection of my experiences, I do so as a tribute to those who tried and those succeeded in their efforts to escape.
I am sure there are many who never got the opportunity – but I remember very many who believed that for them the ‘war is over’. So, I write this, as a message to those who face the many problems with which one is faced, that in whatever situation in life, there is seldom a valid reason, not to think positively and ‘have a go!.
I was a gunner forward observation officer, supporting a Guards regiment in a failed attack on Longstop Hill in Algeria. In the inevitable confusion, I wanted to keep out of sight until darkness. Not a great success.
I was captured hiding in a haystack by some Algerians, who evidently spotted me and went and informed an attacking German tank crew. I was well treated and had Christmas dinner in their Mess. From then on life was less comfortable.
The many guardsmen and myself were shipped to Palermo, and locked into a local horse menage. Then by train to Capua, near Naples. There, all the officers, English, American etc. were in a large hutted camp with virtually no facilities. Alongside, an even bigger camp for the ‘other ranks.’ A Para officer and I escaped; this was quite exciting – but ended by us being recaptured. Waiting on the platform of the local railway, with tickets to Naples, my partner needed urgently to relieve himself – but in the darkness we went into the ‘Ladies’ and were spotted by one of the station guards. A Court Martial sentenced us to solitary confinement; but there was nowhere available – so the matter was forgotten. The only outcome was that we were designated as “pericoloso” in big red letters on our documenti and sent off to another big camp in Chieti. Much tunneling but no success. And then another long train journey north to Fontenel1ato north of the Po valley. Fortunately, the pericolosi were included.
This was an officer’s camp of maybe 200, well organized by the SBO, Col. de Burgh. He had good relations with a Commandante, who was not unfriendly to the Brits. Tunnelling made good progress and kept, those interested, busy, when not playing Bridge.
Eventually the Commandante heard of the Allied landings in the South, and reckoned his job was done. He allowed the wire to be cut – and all the inmates were let loose into the countryside. Sadly, the Germans were pretty angry and shot him.
The exit was well organized. Five men teams under a more senior officer set off with high hopes. I led my party south. Had to find a drainage ditch to cross the main Via Appia, solid with German transport. And so ended up in the foot hills, not occupied by soldiers, but rather unpleasant Carabinieri. Got to find local famers, whom we could trust; they gave us a bit of food, and hay lofts to sleep in. We did what work they wanted, and the best was treading grapes; resulting in seme hangovers.
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Before the war, my father had a business partner in Milan. So, I wrote him a guarded letter, without location; but a friendly cell was indicated as a point of contact. Local friends of course were in personal danger for helping us. Eventually, to my surprise, a courier turned up with civilian clothes for two, and money. We were helped by locals to make plans to move on. In the event my companions were not really motivated; the weather had turned cold, and they were neither fit nor keen to move on South. So I asked an older officer to join me to try to get through to Switzerland. The locals and partigiani were very helpful and brave. So, we went down into Fidenza and took a train to Como. A long exciting journey, trying to took Italian, and pretending to sleep. A few near disasters were luckily avoided. Como station bristled with Germans inspecting people off the train. Having no documents, this was frightening, so we just looked as if we owned the place and marched out. There we made contact with local contrabandieri (smugglers). That night we went by car to a place on the north side of the lake, got into a small boat, and off we rowed across in the dark. Money helped. Then up the mountain. A snow storm and local dog patrols were a bit hazardous – but the smugglers knew their business. Next day got down to Chiasso, arrested – but free!
A colonel at the British Legation, arranged for me to go Bern and work for the Military Attache’s team. In a neutral country this was ‘interesting’.
I was set to organize the exodus of several thousands of ‘evadee de guerre’; They were allowed to go under the Geneva Convention, as opposed to the internees. But they too had to be got out. So, eventually flew back home and ended up in Germany.
Nothing special about this story, except for me & that I got away with it.
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[Obituary of Peter Barshall which appeared in Cheltenham College’s Floreat Obituary Supplement]
Major Peter Frederick Barshall (S, 1934) Peter Barshall, father of James (Ch, 1983), died on the 12th December 2014, aged 97. On leaving College he worked in his father’s office for £9.50 a week as a 17 year old and with the help of a friend he joined the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) as an underage. In 1936, he was sent to South Africa but by 1938 he was back in London.
At the start of World War II, he became a forward observation officer in 138 Field Regt. R.A. On the nights of 22nd & 23rd December 1942, along with the 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards, they mounted an attack, which was to become known as the battle for Longstop Hill in Tunisia. While heavy rain fell, they captured what was thought to be the entire massif, before being relieved by the 18th US Regimental Combat Team. The Germans counter-attacked, driving the Americans off Djebel el Ahmera. The following night the Guards successfully recaptured the hill only to find when daylight came that another summit, Djebel Rhar, remained to be assaulted. During the night the Guards once again attacked but after capturing the second hill, they were driven off by a furious counter-attack by the Germans on Christmas Day. Peter moved his little detachment consisting of five men into the valley. Both the British and the Americans had evacuated and they were the only allied troops in the area. He told his men to scatter and hide until nightfall, before trying to get back to their lines. He hid for many hours in the bottom of a haystack but to no avail. Some local Arab farmers came and dug him out, seized his automatic and marched him in the open to the line of Panzers.
After a while the guns of his regiment seemed to have got the range of the Panzers, so he had the experience of being shelled by his own side! He was taken in a motorcycle sidecar to Tunis and then on an Italian Navy sloop to Italy where he was interned near Naples. He and two parachute officers escaped but were caught and taken back to the camp. Their documents were marked in red ink ‘pericoloso’ (dangerous). The whole camp was then evacuated by train to the north of Italy, where they were herded into a large building, Fontinellato [Fontanellato], intended to be a home for orphans. On September the 8th 1943, they heard that Italy had surrendered and agreed to unite behind the British and the US. The Italian Commandant, Colonel Vicedomini, told them there had been fighting since dawn in Parma and Piacenza between German and Italian troops. The Colonel was a friendly civilised man and he ordered the gates to be opened. Later the Germans shot him for this. They all streamed out of Fontinellato into the countryside, organising themselves into groups of up to six men. Peter led his group south towards the Apennines and tried to restrict movement until after dark. They were tired and very thirsty but as they got into the foothills they found friendly contadini (Italian countrymen), who let them sleep in their barns and gave them bread and fruit. With the help of a friendly girl, Peter sent a letter to Signor Piere Olmo, his father’s partner in Milan. He waited to see if anything would happen – it did! Through one of his managers, Piero Olmo sent him civilian clothes and some money. The manager, Signor Balabio, was very brave to come and meet Peter who was planning to make his way to Switzerland. The rest of the men weren’t interested so they agreed to split up. It was decided that the oldest member of the group would stay with Peter. After saying their goodbyes, they began their journey to freedom. They were optimistic, they had money, and clothes and Peter had a good smattering of Italian. They headed by train to Como via Milan, where instead of connecting with the train to Como they found themselves spending the night on the floor, playing a sort of hide and seek with the guards. In due course they arrived in Como and had a rather dangerous, if not exciting, exit from the station under the eyes of the Gestapo, police and soldiers. They walked through as if they owned the place and met. up with two very pleasant contrabbandieri (smugglers). In the evening they travelled by car to the north side of Lake Como. At night they rowed across and started walking up the mountain, led by their new smuggler friends. After many hours of climbing they reached somewhere near the summit of Monte Generoso and could see below them the Swiss valley and the town of Chiasso. They allowed themselves a short rest in a broken down hut, to await the daylight – then, without delay, descended the other side of the mountain – and so into Switzerland. They were instantly arrested by police and taken to a camp for refugees.
Peter managed to obtain work as a liaison officer for the Military Attache at the British Legation with the Palais Federal. Communications were all in French and very formal. Under the Geneva Convention there is a difference between refugees and internees. The former could leave at any time possible; the latter had to be confined while hostilities lasted. Amongst these were some men important to both the British and American governments, such as scientists and undercover agents. There were many thousands of internees, but no means of moving them once outside the Swiss frontier and this was quite a problem.
Peter was ordered to take over the sharp end of the operation. He found an old unused station south of Geneva, which had a local tramline adjacent. At the station was a cafe and this had a cellar, which could be reached through trap doors outside and on the platform. The police would check all the men going through the station and then watch the train depart. The illegal men were taken to the station during the day and put into the cellar long before the main body arrived during the night. As the train was ready to go, and just before Peter gave clearance for departure, the illegals would rush out of the cellar through the trap doors, onto the narrow platform and jump into the train. During this daredevil activity some friends would create a bit of confusion as a cover. Quite a few Americans escaped this way, and Peter got a very nice commendation from the Ambassador. In addition,
the name of Captain (temp.) P.F. Barshall, Royal Artillery, was published in the London Gazette on 20th December 1945 as Mentioned in a Despatch for distinguished service.
Having rejoined the HAC, Peter regained his commission and commanded a troop in A Battery, after which he was promoted to Major and became 2 i/c of 1st Regt. At the time of the Coronation, Peter commanded the HAC Street Lining Detachment in Oxford Street. It was the only TA Regt. to parade on their own, the others parading with their parent Regiments. The Detachment spent three days in a tented camp in Hyde Park practising street lining before getting thoroughly soaked on the day. He served on the Court of Assistants.
He was chairman of the Ski Club of Great Britain and involved himself in the scout movement, rising to the level of Commissioner, albeit uneasily after many years in the armed forces. Peter attended the B Battery annual luncheon in September 2011 at which event the former Battery Commander and Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Sir Douglas Morpeth TD announced that Peter was to become the Father of the Battery. This announcement was met with universal acclaim. It should be added that Peter, a young 93 year old, drove himself to Armoury House from St John’s Wood.
After retiring from the active reserves, he became a Special Constable and was often charged with the enviable duty of policing International Rugby games on Saturdays!
Peter’s European lineage fostered a fearless lust for travel reflected in his building an international trading company, FM Barshall Ltd, with offices in West Africa, Latin America and his much loved Italy. He travelled for extensive periods to China – even throughout the revolution. As his children grew older he frequently took them out of school in the belief that one would learn far more by seeing the world; Charlotte to India for a week long wedding and Amanda to Brazil on the first Concorde trip.
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Family meant everything. He loved their extended summer holidays in Italy and the family benefitted from his passion for mountains and skiing with happy days in Zermatt and St Anton, while his wife high tailed it to the sunshine of Morocco. He loved horses and rode frequently out of the St John’s Wood barracks.
Peter was also rather strict – table manners were his pet peeve to the end and a directed glance was supposed to be interpreted as to what was incorrect – elbows, fork, knife – who knew? Boyfriends were terrified and few survived an invitation to Sunday lunch. Having lost his memory during the war he was a stickler for writing everything down – that did not extend to his children’s names; he called them all by the dog’s name and infuriated by the lack of instant response!
Despite being stoically conservative, he was extraordinary in his ability to embrace change over his near Century. He researched his ancestors and compiled his memoirs for his family and descendants, no mean undertaking for a very reserved man in his nineties. Many of the family received detailed emails from him the day before he died.
Peter is survived by Susan, his wife of sixty years, his daughters Charlotte, Amanda, sons Andrew, Peter, and their grandchildren, who delighted him.