The document contains two diaries, that of Captain G.D. (George) Burnett, an RA Officer captured at Tobruk and a shorter one by Lt J. B. (Beverley) Edge RA (the latter document rediscovered in 1962 in the rafters of the hut where they hid).
With Lt Robert (Bobby) Blake, Lt Kenneth Lowe and Flying Officer Arthur Dodds RAF, they hid in the roof of one of the huts at PG 78 Sulmona after being transferred there from PG 21 Chieti following the Armistice in September 1943. They were in the roof for 18 days while the other PoWs were taken to Germany and enemy troops occupied the camp. After descending from the roof on 18 October, Edge and Lowe exited the camp on one side and were soon recaptured. The other three went under the wires on the other side and met contadini who helped them. Burnett’s diary (with later commentary) also covers the weeks he, Blake and Dodds spent sheltered by an Italian family in the town of Sulmona before being guided over the Maiella to the Allied lines (Royal West Kents) in January 1944.
See also the accounts by Robert Blake (Lord Blake), in the MSMT archive, and Arthur Dodds in his book “Desert Harvest”, Dianthus Publishing, 1993 & 1998 (pp. 25–42). Burnett’s account has drawings of the layout of the apartment and its location in Sulmona, and Edge has sketches of the layout of PG 78 and of the hut where they hid.
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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Diaries of George Burnett & Beverley Edge who having been in Chieti hid in roof at Sulmona for 18 days after the rest of the PoWs were taken to Germany. The Diary of B.E. was left hidden in the roof. In 1961 the Mayor of Sulmona was written to and the letter passed to the Italian army who explained that 75 per cent of the Camp had been demolished but they would look. Having found some notes of another PoW and therefore the right hut further information was passed, the Diary found by the Italian Army and via the Embassy in Rome reached B.E.
The Diary of Beverley Edge is very well detailed of the 18 days in three-foot head room and just enough floor space for the five to stretch out with a further extension for food and water supply and then a loo area. A small spyhole enabled them to look down at the many varied inhabitants below, including some vehicles. Their entrance had been made up a ladder from the outside and bricked in by the driver to one of the officers. After other PoWs are taken away they hear and see various searches which later are stepped up to threatening and actually throwing hand grenades into the huts on either side but not into theirs though and English officer is brought in to yell that the huts will be blown up – to which he added “not sure if they are bluffing but anyway the Allies are near”. There was adequate food and water for 14 days. Still, however, various groups of Germans come and spend a night below and once the sleeping Germans were obviously disturbed by a sudden uncontrolled cough of one of the five. They cut down on food and water – no cooking or heating so all cold. They heard others talking after they had been discovered and taken away.
Having heard hand grenades going off in other huts they see a German come into their hut and take something out of box and throw it in – an old boot! One night some 60 Germans slept below. Then the number of “visitors” decreased but the noises of war seemed nearer and the whine of shells could be heard.
On 19th day – 18 October 1943 they decide they must get out that night. They take away the bricks to remake their entrance hole. The tallest goes first and his feet find the window sill below and then the ground but his legs cave in for several minutes as do those of the others who follow. There seem no Germans near but they are obviously in the administration block but they find two weak points in the perimeter wire. Two in the exploration find another OR PoW hiding on his own. Three decide to go one way and two the other. Both parties make up the mountainside – as far as their weakened limbs allow but then turn south. Unfortunately B.E. and his companion [Ken Lowe] turn too soon and are soon surrounded by German soldiers and so in spite of their long sojourn in the roof end by being taken up to Germany.
George Burnett and his two companions [Robert Blake and Arthur Dodds] are soon found by contadini who at first reluctantly hide and feed them, then others come and are more enthusiastic until taking them into Sulmona itself where a not surprisingly very frightened family give them shelter near the Duomo. Change their clothes and find at least a bed for four – including one of their helpers. Rumours of rastrellamenti, arrival of the Allies, Pope making peace, which throw their terrified but very determined helpers into hysterics. Alarms are rife. They still however go out and even play billiards in a bar with a German whose army is very busy withholding the attacks on Castel di Sangro two hours’ drive away – by tortuous roads. All help to celebrate Christmas in the best way possible and on New Year’s Eve a heavy fall of snow does not stop the discussions on getting through the lines. (At one time “Simpson” brings them money – William of “A Rome [Vatican] Lifeline ’44”?) At 4 p.m. on 12 January they finally set off with a young man to meet an experienced guide who is going to take some 24 through the lines. They climb and climb through the snow trying to put their ill-shod feet into the snow holes of those in front. They had been told it would take one night (an impossible estimate) to get through, then they hear two. They rest up during the day, in the snow, as their unaccustomed limbs recover a little. They hear their guide has been taken to work by the Germans but the younger and less experienced one takes them towards but not into Palena – destroyed by the Germans – where they find the guide has returned home. They go on a narrow path beside a gorge and then cross a river into which G.B. falls. Though soaking wet in the freezing weather they stagger on with Alberto leading and young Francesco helping and encouraging behind. As dawn was arriving they find a farmhouse which greets them with hot water and food and say the others ahead are sending back transport for them. They are taken to the West Kents at Casoli then further south until in Bari they occupied the same hut in which they had been put on arrival as PoWs in Italy. Those responsible for receiving them did not seem to make them exactly welcome. They sailed from Taranto on 26 January 1944.
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Diary of George Burnett (RA Officer captured at Tobruk)
Hid in ceiling of Sulmona Camp with Beverley Edge and others taken from Chieti towards Germany.
Not as detailed as diary of B.E. for period in ceiling but excellent on treatment by contadini and later of cittadini of Sulmona who, in spite of the confusion, panics, rumours and alarms, usually caused by themselves, never lost their generosity and courage.
Then an excellent picture of the traumatic two days and nights climbing high in the mountains, barely clad and fed through deep snow and then through the freezing Sangro [probably the river Aventino or a tributary, not the Sangro – Ed.] to reach Allied Lines.
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Diary of George Burnett
At the beginning we expected that 10 days would see us through.
Thu 30 September 1300
My 26th birthday. A draft of 720 officers going away so we got up here very quickly helped by Clifford and John Craven but not without losing most of our kit which we afterwards heard being looted by ORs [Other ranks]. A very disturbed night with threats from the Germans, shots and Verey lights. Ripley-Duggan contacted us and gave us the position.
We spent the first 2 hours in acute discomfort dispersed as far as possible in the roof and lying close to the walls, as we expected an immediate hue and cry when the Germans found that numbers were short. This did not materialise and the compound was quiet except for bands of ORs wandering through scrounging from the kit that officers had left behind. A small number of sergeants seemed to be continuing to live in one of the small huts adjacent to us. After dark the Germans broadcast threats to hiders up and many of the British ORs (who apparently were still clinging to the forlorn hope that they would not otherwise be sent to Germany, but allowed to remain until our own troops arrived) went round calling hysterically to hiders to “Play the game and come out – the Germans are going to tommy-gun all the roofs”. They feared that they would be sent to Germany in lieu of the missing officers. We heard John Deavin and his party bale out from the next bungalow on our right.
The strain had proved too much for them and in any case their preparations were not nearly as good as ours. They had no decent floorboards and only a poorly concealed entrance inside the hut itself. We felt very considerable apprehension but decided to hang on until the danger of being shot at became immediate. Ripley-Duggan was an officer hiding-up as an OR in the Camp itself and hoping just to dodge the Germans. He was very good in coming each night that he survived to give us the latest griff on the situation. Clifford Wilton and John Craven helped us up into the roof and then passed up our 4 Red Cross Parcels, 7 rolls of bread, some blankets and a couple of greatcoats. They then replaced the bricks and removed the bed frame which had served as a scaffolding and the table and ladder which had been our means of ingress. Both of them had originally intended to be of our party but had proved to be too big-boned to get through the narrow entrance. We were very grateful to them for their assistance in helping us up. Our own organisation had not been too good and several things were left downstairs which we had intended to have with us. Notably three great coats were missing and Bobby only had on a pair of light shoes instead of his boots. This turned out later to be a really serious handicap. However, we had remembered the tin opener.
Friday 1 October
A thorough search this morning brought several hiders to light but we have escaped so far. Tried to play bridge but the light failed after one rubber.
The method of searching at this time was for small independent parties to go round both inside and outside the buildings. Many people were found who had been hiding in covered holes in the ground, concealed in the woodpile, or in the piles of scrapped beds, and other places. For many days the Germans
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Fri 1 October cont’d
paid a lot of attention to the next building on our right where Deavin had been in the roof and John Pelly & Co underground. We kept very quiet, lying without boots and talking only in whispers.
Sat 2 October
A rather better night’s rest. Perfunctory search this morning which we endured with bated breath. Ripley-Duggan informs us that Naples has fallen also Avellino and that our own troops are 25–30 miles NE from there. Good news but I still put our chances at about 5–l against. Roll on the allies. Dodd is the noisiest member of the party – coughing, blowing and moving. Plenty grub – shit tin filling rapidly! Terrible nerve strain about 1730:– Beverley Edge, ‘I think we’re going to be OK’. No sooner were the words out of his mouth than a Boche working party came to the next bungalow and with much crashing and banging started taking tiles off the roof. We thought it was all up especially as after they had finished their first job they came walking round to the ‘entrance’ side of ours with all their paraphernalia. One walked underneath us through the empty bungalow. They then attacked the hut on our other side and eventually passed on. We had an extra good scoff to celebrate. Ripley-Duggan says tonight that this place is to be used as a German barracks as from tomorrow, and that all prisoners will be moved either tomorrow or within the next 3 days. This will be a bad thing if it comes about and will reduce our chances considerably.
At this time we still based our main hopes on the arrival of our own troops within a few days. If we had known the true facts I would have realised that my 5–l odds were absurdly optimistic. My statement of the food and water position was based on the assumption that we would be in hiding for a week or 10 days at the most. Some of the water was rather bad and we mixed it with powdered milk and a little sugar to make it drinkable. Bev Edge was appointed “Q” and mixed excellent Klim in complete silence. Arthur was suffering from a bad cold which made things particularly unpleasant for him. We were rather alarmed at the sanitary situation but later the demand was not so great and the position improved. It must have been on this night that Ripley-Duggan was captured for we only saw him again in German hands. For information we had to rely almost entirely on our ears. There was a small peephole into the inside of the hut and from it we could see through the open doorway. By craning the neck one could also see a narrow strip through one of the side windows.
Sun 3 October 1200
No further developments except that apparently the last ORs have moved from this compound. We’ve made what preparations we can to live in the roof if Boche come in below but haven’t much confidence in the outcome.
Mon 4 October 1230
Yesterday afternoon was a time of frightful tension, with constant snoopers searching round. One actually put his hand to the place where plaster is dislodged on the inside. Our evening meal was cut short but we made up by having a tin of salmon this morning. All PoWs seem to have left now but sentries are still posted. More searching and tapping kept us on tenterhooks this morning.
Until 3rd & 4th Oct, we had heard sounds from the American occupied compound above us and also of a small number of British NCOs who lived in a hut in our compound. Lt. Col Marshall [SBO PG 21 Chieti – Ed.] had visited them and spoken to them one day. But now there were no such sounds and the only visitors were
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Mon 4 October 1230 cont’d
German search parties and soldiers, scrounging among the debris.
After this day my diary was suspended. The general consensus of opinion being that this was wiser as otherwise the Germans (if we were recaptured) might use it as evidence that we had been making notes of their troop movements. This might very well have had awkward consequences for us.
On the afternoon of Monday Oct 4th at about 1400 hrs a big German L.A.D. truck was driven through the large doorway of our hut and parked almost immediately underneath. Two other small vehicles were squeezed in beside it and their crews proceeded to make themselves comfortable underneath the section of the hut which we were occupying. This was a great blow and our spirits sank to zero. We had always kept very quiet but now we had to be deathly still. Such tasks as opening tins of rations and crawling down to the latrines became fraught with peril. Fortunately during the day the Germans were very noisy – hammering at their trucks and playing the gramophone. In the evenings they would listen to the radio and we bitterly regretted being unable to understand German. We resolved to stay awake at night in order not to give ourselves away by snoring or movement. These nights were intensely uncomfortable and in the mornings we could scarcely move for cramp and stiffness. The slightest move at night gave rise to a chorus of whispered curses and warnings which were far noisier than the movement itself. These unwelcome visitors finally departed at about 1400 hrs on Thursday 7th Oct. Pouring rain ensured them an unpleasant journey which gave us considerable ground for satisfaction. They left behind many traces of their stay which stood us in good stead during future searches, when hand grenades were employed in an attempt to frighten out any hiders up who might remain.
On Friday 8th Oct, the Germans sent Ripley-Duggan round all the huts shouting something like this:– “All people left hiding up must come out now. They will be given half-an-hour to get down to the Administration Block. After that hand grenades will be thrown in all buildings. It is no use remaining, as before the Germans leave they will blow-up all the buildings completely.” For our benefit he added when he came to our hut “I don’t know how much of this is bluff. The nearest British troops are supposed to be 3 or 4 days away”. This last was quite encouraging and we decided to hang on until the last possible moment, hoping that the German threat was mainly bluff.
We heard the first of these explosions about 0930. They sounded very terrifying; echoes and reverberations from the mountains magnifying the sound tremendously until it seemed that whole buildings were crashing down around us. We dispersed ourselves throughout the building. Arthur, Ken Lowe & I at the bottom end and Bobby and Bev Edge on the main planking. Bobby had his eye to the peephole when two Boche in full battle order with steel helmets came into our hut carrying a box of grenades. They went out and immediately a black object came hurtling through one of the windows and fell with a sharp smack on the concrete floor. Bobby thought that we had “had it” but the object proved to be only an old shoe. We ascribed our escape to the traces of German occupation which remained in our hut but the buildings on each side of us both had hand grenades thrown into them.
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On the night of the 12/13th October a violent wind blew one of the loose tiles down from the hole where we had made our entrance. We tried to conceal it as far as possible from the inside but there is no doubt that it spoiled our camouflage. However, by this time searches had become much more sporadic and less severe although from time to time odd hand grenades were still thrown into different buildings. One day a carabineer officer accompanied some Germans. They parked their small black car just outside our doorway and started by chucking a grenade in the building on our right. This building had frequently come in for attention presumably because two hidey-holes had been discovered there. The party then moved on and we heard further explosions as they went round the Camp.
On the 12th Oct, we cut our water ration to 2/5ths of a pint and our biscuit ration to two per man per day. Further reductions had to be made very shortly afterwards. From this time on we began to feel the lack of water a good deal and conversation frequently turned to foaming tankards, ice-cream and the like. A good deal of rain fell especially at night but unfortunately the roof was quite water tight. Beverley Edge and Arthur Dodds contrived a fishing tin but although we went to the length of taking the tiles down from our hole and Arthur fished until his arm was numb there was nothing but a slight moistness in the bottom of the tin.
On the night of the 13/14th a second lot of Germans came in about midnight. They looked like a company of fresh infantry on the way up to the front and behaved very like our own troops would have done, in similar circumstances – sleeping, smoking and talking and scrambling for the canteen when it came round. They only caused us one sleepless night as they left at about 1700 hrs on the next day.
On the morning of the 17th Oct at about 0700 hrs we were awakened by the crash of artillery and from then until about 0900 the Germans fired about 50 rounds of what we took to be 75 mm shells into the camp. That was very nerve racking indeed, even though, as gunners, we realised that the odds were pretty long against our getting hit. We resolved then and there to leave the roof that night if it should be dark enough (preferably raining). If it were a fine night we would remain one more day and go on the night of the 18th/19th. Water was now reduced to about four mouthfuls a day and we were all heartily sick of the darkness and enclosure of the roof. The strain of constant listening and having to talk in whispers was beginning to tell and we were becoming fratchety with one another. Ken Lowe proposed trying to get out himself and endeavouring to fill his canvas kit bag with water but as the departure of the Germans didn’t seem to be getting any nearer this was vetoed and we plumped for baling out of the roof and then trying to escape from the camp as best we could.
The night of the 17th/18th was fine with a bright moon so we postponed our attempt for 24 hours. On the afternoon of the 18th gangs of pressed Iti labourers were working clearing up the camp and we felt nervous that they would be locked in for the night with sentries posted. Fortunately they were sent out about 1800 hours.
The position as far as we could judge then was that our own particular compound was empty. As to the others we couldn’t say. The Germans were still living in the Administration quarter by the main gate and were using the road which ran across the camp and quite often the one
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Rough sketch of layout of Campo 78 Sulmona [showing location of hut where they hid and their escape routes from the camp]
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17 October cont’d
round it, for motor traffic. Besides this, German troops in transit were liable to come in any time of the day or night. We were fairly certain that there were no longer sentries in all the boxes but we expected to find them at all the gates and probably one patrolling each side. All this was based on the information got from listening (one of us was always awake both day and night) and we knew was by no means reliable.
About 2000 hrs on the 18th Oct Ken Lowe and I started to work on removing the bricks. It proved unexpectedly difficult but finally I got one out and the rest were easy, only care was needed not to drop them to the ground. The effort needed provoked intense thirst and we both drank the few mouthfuls of water which remained. Ken then squeezed out backwards through the hole and being the tallest member of the party (6’ 3”) was just able to get his feet on the window ledge helped by me hanging on to his wrists, while Bobby, in turn, hung on to my legs. Ken found himself very dizzy when standing on the ground and took several minutes to recover. We upstairs then manoeuvred one of the planks out through the hole and in this way made a ramp. I went out next and found it quite easy, but I too was very weak and wobbly on my lags. Ken went to see if the taps were on. They were so I too went off and drank greedily. We then helped the others down, having first got our bundles. The only mishap was when a boot fell from mine with what seemed a tremendous crash – fortunately no one noticed it. We then went to the washbasins (‘A’ on the sketch) and having drunk as much as we were able we rested and munched emergency chocolate in an adjoining hut (‘B’). Ken and I then went off in our stocking feet to reconnoitre. We found that the main part of the camp was deserted but could hear the Germans talking and laughing in their Administration Block. From the gap at ‘C’ I could see German sentries on the main gate (‘E’). Ken subsequently reported a sentry at the other gate ‘F’ but we were unable to find out if there was anyone at the top end at ‘G’ and ‘H’. From first arriving at the camp I had had my eye on a loose part of the barbed wire on the North side about half-way up. It had the advantage of being almost opposite a gap where the high inner wall had been broken down, but was not practicable as a means of escape as long as all the sentry boxes were occupied. But now it did seem possible. The exposed crawl across the motor track looked slightly concealed from the bottom end by a shallow dip in the ground and was about 120x from the sentry. The wire looked slack enough for us to crawl through without too much difficulty. I went back to report. Ken Lowe had found a possible place on the South side (marked ‘K’) where a fallen sentry box provided a certain amount of cover. I went with Beverley Edge to see it and we decided it was practicable. We then viewed my place again and went back to H.Q. for a council of war. We decided to split and as Ken and Bev preferred ‘K’ and I preferred ‘J’ it was decided that the two of them should try ‘K’ after giving Bobby, Arthur and myself half-an-hour to get clear from ‘J’. It was about midnight and a bright moon had risen. We got near the gap, put our boots on and prepared our bundles. Having all viewed the route carefully I set off pushing my bundle ahead. No shooting camp C.R.A. could have cavilled at my performance. I was expecting a bullet any moment and a snake couldn’t have kept lower. I lay alongside the wire and watched Arthur cross and then Bobby. Arthur and I then propped up
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the bottom wire to let Bobby through, Arthur followed, then me. The next fence was easier and in 15 minutes we were clear of the main wire and going on hands and knees through a disused garden. Soon we were able to walk and we turned East climbing into the mountain foothills, the camp lights receding behind us. Fatigued as we were it was a wonderful thrill to be free after nearly 16 months of confinement.
14 November 1944
The above account of the first stage of our escape was written in February and March 1944, that is on my first return to this country and some four months after the events took place. It is based on notes from my diary up to Oct 4th and thereafter on memory assisted by notes made in Oct 1943 when we were living with Italians in German-occupied Italy.
There now follows an account of events from our escape from the camp until we rejoined our own lines at Casoli on the morning of the 14th Jan. Except for the last two days of this period, the story is written up from my diary which was kept continuously. The last two days (that is the journey over the mountains to our own lines), are written from memory.
Tues 19 October 1943 7.55 a.m. Diary extract:–
Lying up in small copse on hill overlooking Sulmona. We got out through the wire last night – Dodd, Dizzy and me. It went surprisingly well but we nearly dished things this morning by hiding up among a bevy of Germans. Got away by stealth. Probably walked about 3 miles last night – a big circle bringing us round to the S.E. side of the camp.
(Note added later:– By 0600 we (especially Bobby) were almost exhausted – fatigue, hunger and thirst).
We had got clear of the wire at about 0100 hrs on the 19th and had started to trudge up the mountain; that is, going practically due East, but we gradually swung round to the South keeping a constant height on the mountain side. The going was not good – heavy scree underfoot which was rather noisy. We went slowly and were soon tired and feeling an urgent need for water. We were all carrying blankets and small bundles. Bobby and Arthur had greatcoats. At about 0600 hrs we lay down in some thin scrub to rest before daylight. Dodd got under a bush and immediately was fast asleep. Bobby and I were together. I unwrapped my bundle in order to use the blanket and put the loose tins beside me. As soon as we ceased to move we heard Germans moving about in the vicinity, calling to one another and apparently searching. We put them at about 400 yards away but owing to our acute sense of hearing after the enforced silence of the roof, it is possible that they were not so close. As it was, Bobby and I were acutely alarmed as we thought that they must have heard us moving and were looking for us. It seemed that to move would give our position away by sound, whereas if we stayed where we were we should certainly be seen at daylight. We lay listening intensely for about an hour, when the noises ceased. A curious impression remains of the striking of a church clock in Sulmona. This clock struck the quarter hours and the time seemed to go like lightning – the quarters chiming every few minutes. It was then the first grey of dawn. Bobby and I quietly made up our bundles, roused Arthur, and crawled on hands and knees for about 300x. We then went another half mile to the small copse in which I wrote up my diary. We slept there for about 2 hrs and then ate a little emergency chocolate ration for breakfast. We couldn’t eat much owing to thirst. The situation wasn’t very healthy
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as there was a road about 100 ft below us and 300x away, along which German vehicles passed from time to time. We could also see quite clearly here and there, small detachments of Germans billeted at the various farms. About 1000 hrs we decided to push on and climbed about 200 ft. It was a hot day and the effort practically finished us. We managed to go a bit further and got into a deep gully, fairly high up, where there was some cover and a little shade. There we lay for about 3 hours resting. At the end of that time we decided that it was imperative to descend into the market gardens, vineyards and olive groves at the foot of the mountains, in order to obtain water. We accepted the risk of meeting some of the German detachments billeted there. We descended slowly in a long slant going south. We were all in very poor shape, especially Bobby who could scarcely get along at all, and we didn’t trouble about concealment. We skirted a German occupied village and it was sheer good fortune that we weren’t seen – three conspicuous figures in khaki. By about 1600 hours we were lying in a thicket bordering a farm and were seen by an old Italian who was hoeing in his olive grove. He took no notice. I went off to prospect for water. The house at which I had intended to call I found to be a deserted ruin with a big grotto underneath where goats had been kept. I pushed on about half a mile further coming close to a German occupied farmstead where there was some sort of shooting range. I went back to the others and we pushed on again bearing S.W. between Sulmona and Pacentro in order to avoid the Germans. Presently we saw an Italian woman and a little girl making their way across a field. We waved to them, they saw us but took no notice, so eventually I hurried on towards them and called “Acqua – acqua”. The woman was obviously shaken at the sight of me. She was very nervous of the Germans, who, she said, were all around, but told me to wait in the bushes just at the back of some houses in a tiny village. I called down the others and we waited there. Presently the woman came out with a large pot of water. We drank greedily but kept one Klim-tin full for later. It revived us immensely. The woman was anxious for us to be off, so we returned to the ruined house intending to spend the night in the grotto underneath. It was nearly dusk. We gathered twigs. Arthur made a fire and started to prepare a brew of porridge with some oatmeal from the Red Cross parcels which we had had with us in the roof. After dusk an Italian youth came into our hiding place. He was the son of the woman who had given us water and he brought some bread, potatoes, apples and walnuts. He was very insistent that we should leave immediately we had eaten the food. He seemed to think that if we were found there by the Germans it might have awkward consequences for the villagers. We ate our porridge sharing our one spoon. I well remember there were four spoonfuls each. It was the first hot food we had had for nineteen days and tasted very delicious indeed. We felt much better for it and afterwards, utterly weary, spread out our blankets on the rocky floor and went off to sleep intending to leave about an hour before dawn.
Wed 20 October 7.35 a.m. Diary extract:–
Lying in ditch and thicket at foot of mountains. Last night got some grub and water and slept about 6 hrs in ruined house. Dodd brewed porridge which was excellent. Marched about 2 miles until dawn this morning and found a stream and some small tomatoes. All feeling much better in health and spirits for the food and rest.
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We had set off about 0400 hrs and marched roughly South. At one time we approached within 100x of a German post before Arthur saw their lorry. Just before dawn we came across a small irrigation ditch where we drank our fill on hands and knees.
After I had written my diary note at 7.35 we lay in the sun talking and must have been heard by an Italian peasant who was working in the field behind us. He came round and although we lay low he spotted us and came close. He was obviously shocked at the sight of us, as well he might be. Three grisly objects, emaciated, pale and with nineteen days’ growth of beard not to mention Bobby’s bloodshot eye; we were unprepossessing specimens. He told us to wait and said he would come back in a few minutes with “un poco di pane”. Sure enough, we saw him a short while afterwards coming across the field with his wife and daughter carrying baskets on their heads. Signora Centofandi (we subsequently discovered her name) was even more disturbed than her husband at our appearance. The women unloaded their baskets, producing bread, tinned meat, honey, tomatoes, apples and walnuts which we devoured with a will. We gathered from them that there were Germans all round the area but particularly in Pacentro and Sulmona, the two adjacent towns. By the time we had finished this meal another girl arrived with a huge bowl of “gnocchi”, some mutton cutlets and a bottle of Chianti. This was our first introduction to the Cerconi family. By the time we had polished that off, even we were beginning to feel quite full. At the end of the meal, the Centofandis having gone, old man Cerconi arrived. He had lived many years in America and could speak quite a lot of rather broken English. The gist of his remarks was the British troops had reached Isernia and were pushing up towards Castel di Sangro only about 35 miles South of Sulmona. They would be at Sulmona in 7–10 days. Until then he would look after us. We were to spend the day where we were, and at dusk he would send someone to lead us to a small hut, “with straw, warm and dry, where we could sleep. But we must be very cautious, we must be low and not walk about as other British Officers foolishly had done.”
The prospect of somewhere warm and dry to sleep, of a regular food supply and of this friendly assistance until our own troops should arrive in the not-too-distant future cheered us immensely. Even if this last hope was not realised at least we should be able to rest, and recuperate from the effects of our recent hardships. We gladly accepted his offer.
Thu 21 October 7.50 a.m. Diary extract:–
Lying up in ‘cameretta’ (straw hut) a good night’s rest and plenty of food after yesterday’s hot meal have made new men of us. We await further instructions.
Fri 22 October 8.55 a.m. Diary extract:–
A good night’s rest. Milk and bread for breakfast. No news – no change in situation.
Sat 23 October 16.45 Diary extract:–
An excellent lunch with vino. Good news of the war situation in Italy. Sulmona station effectively bombed last night. No change.
On these first 3 days very little happened. We were able to shave which improved our appearance not a little. We
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gradually lost the acute (and unpleasant) sense of hearing which we had developed in the roof and were able to talk normally instead of constantly relapsing into whispers. We were given milk at breakfast time, soup and bread (and sometimes meat and vino) at lunch of which we saved enough to have something more in the evening. Arthur (who looked after the commissariat) still had some “Yeatex” which was very good on the otherwise dry bread. Arthur had two Bibles and I had Culbertson’s “Gold Book” [on Contract Bridge – Ed.]. These constituted our library. After dark we used to go to an irrigation ditch about 100x away to wash. This was our only exercise.
About 800x away was a farmstead taken over by the Boche and used (apparently) as a petrol dump. We could often see the Germans moving about and there was a good deal of traffic. There was also a certain amount of German movement on the Sulmona–Pacentro road.
On the evening of the 23rd after dark we met 3 ORs and talked to them. They had been out for about 6 weeks, during part of which time they had lived in Sulmona which they said was quite possible but dangerous. They had had several narrow escapes. They were dressed as Italian peasants and were being supplied by Antonio Cerconi. They didn’t seem to have a definite plan but were just hanging on hoping for our own troops to come. They even spoke of giving themselves up to the Germans should food supplies run short.
Sun 24 October Diary extract:–
Germans at the nearby house tonight. Sounded as though they were a leave party scrounging vino. Yesterday evening spoke to 3 ORs who had been hiding up for 6 weeks.
Mon 25 October 15.30 Diary extract:–
Siamo Italiani. Tonight we move.
Tue 26 October 13.40
New lodgings – rather more cramped but much safer. 2 bombs on Sulmona last night. A short walk this morning – cold and dull.
The Cerconis were continually anxious in case some or all of their house should be taken over by the Germans, and the visit of the Boche on Sunday night decided them to move us to another straw hut about ¼ mile further from the house. This was much safer but even more cramped for us, being merely a V thatching about 4 ft high covering a floor of about 6 ft x 9 ft. On the Monday they produced Italian shirts and trousers for us and hid our khaki things. In this way we were able to move about a bit in the fields during the day time and Arthur was able to brew some tea. One of us was continually on watch.
Thu 26 October 0930 Diary extract:–
Planes ground strafing this morning. No change.
Fri 29 October 1230
Wretched day of rain yesterday necessitated change of sleeping quarters but back again at first light. Dull but no rain. New contact this morning which I trust will be useful.
We spent Thursday night in a bigger and better hut as our own leaked badly, but returned at first light. At about 0800 hrs we saw an Italian youth of about 18 and a boy of about 14 walking through the vines quite near us. Eventually they came over to our straw hut. Later we found their names to be Mario di Cesare and Elegio di Berardo. Mario said that he had been looking for a party of 3 British Officers
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(one of them a naval officer and one named Blake) since 6.30 a.m. that morning. He told us that he was working for the Germans at Sulmona railway station and therefore had special passes and could get inside information that would be of use to us. He asked us what we wanted. Our main request was for clothes and these he promised to bring on the following day.
Sun 31 October 10.30 Diary extract:–
Dull and tendency to drizzle. Yesterday unfortunate episode of Dodd’s stolen shirt makes us fear betrayal by ‘Son of a bitch’ Francesco. Yesterday first ‘brew-up’ for 30 days and very good it was too.
Francesco was an old Italian peasant who had lived many years in America. He spoke a little English – very difficult to understand and liberally interspersed with ejaculations like “Son of a bitch” and “goddammed”. He brought us a little bread and vino and tried to cadge things from us. Antonio Cerconi said that he was a notable bad character. Arthur had a khaki shirt stolen from the hut and the circumstances pointed overwhelmingly to Francesco. As he lived very close to the nearest lot of Germans and apparently fraternised with them we feared that he might give us away.
During this period Mario was bringing us a mid-day meal on most days. His other promises failed to materialise and we rather put him down as a big talker but not likely to do much. However, he had suggested that we might go and live in his house in the town. At first we didn’t care much for the idea but the weather was rapidly becoming more and more cold and wet and we were correspondingly attracted by the thought of having a roof over our heads. The incident of Arthur’s stolen shirt also inclined us to move from our present bivouac.
Wed 3 November 9.10 Diary extract:–
Nothing new. Rather off colour these last 3 days. I think that trying to cope with 2 sources of food supply plus a bit of cold has caused a slight chill on the stomach. Bobby’s Italian is getting very good.
Thu 4 November 14.15
Hot fine day. “Arrivedercis” all round. B.D. (Antonio Cerconi) quite happy. We move at 1730.
We had finally agreed to accept Mario’s offer of hospitality and it was decided that he should take us into the town at dusk on 4th Nov. We said good-bye to the Cerconis who had been extremely good to us throughout our stay. Needless to say Mario did not turn up.
Antonio Cerconi brought in 2 American officers – Ross Gardiner and Frank Hawkins – who were going to live in our hut. They had hidden in a roof in Sulmona camp in much the same way as we had done and had actually been in the roof when a hand grenade was thrown in under them. Fortunately they survived and eventually got out several days sooner than we did.
Fri 5 November 9.45
Mario did not turn up until 0730 this morning. Now in midst of market gardens on outskirts of Sulmona. Don’t altogether like Mario’s general attitude but think that he is probably OK.
The journey into Sulmona was quite exciting. We went quite fast along narrow tracks until finally we got into some small market gardens on the very fringe of Sulmona.
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[Hand-drawn map of Sulmona showing location of Di Cesare flat].
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[Plan with caption] Rough sketch of Di Cesare flat at Via Umberto 1, No. 35, Sulmona
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Fri 5 November 9.45 cont’d
Mario went off to reconnoitre. His explanations as to why he hadn’t turned up on the previous evening were most unsatisfactory and we didn’t care for his general behaviour. Particularly it seemed dangerous to take us into the town in broad daylight.
Eventually he came back and said that the coast was clear and that he would take us in one at a time. We didn’t wish to be separated but there seemed to be nothing else for it but to accept his decision. I went with him first and we were soon passing German soldiers and German vehicles. Looking back on it I don’t think that they had any suspicions but it was very hard at the time to appear nonchalant. On the way we met Antonio Imperatone, an ex-black-shirt-sergeant-major who was Mario’s uncle and very villainous looking indeed. He had a large automatic which he produced with great pride. Also he lent me his identity card, which was a decent gesture.
It was about 1½ miles to the house which turned out to be in a large block of working people’s flats. The di Cesare flat was on the first floor with an excellent view on to the main thoroughfare along which passed a stream of German transport. Just at the bend of the road was a café much patronised by German soldiers waiting to hitch-hike on the passing lorries. From here too, the road led off to the railway station which was clearly visible about 1 mile outside the town of which we were on the extreme NW edge.
I was hurried up the stairs into the big bedroom (‘C’) and was greeted very civilly by Sgra di Cesare who produced some bread and a bowl of hot milk. She was a woman of about 46 and my first impression was that she was rather untidy and not very intelligent. I was warned to keep away from the window.
Meanwhile Mario had gone to fetch Arthur and presently I saw the two of them coming quickly up the main road. Bobby followed about 200x behind on his own, looking somewhat worried which wasn’t at all surprising! It was a great relief when we were all safely assembled indoors.
Sat 6 November 1830 hrs.
News of John Penrice this morning. Sgt Cook called with news of an Australian Captain (a doctor) who had walked here from Turin! He told us of the big stir created in England at the removal of PoWs to Germany from Italy. General bad behaviour of Mario who, among other things, retains my watch. Very cold all day. Mario announces that the four of us will have to sleep in one bed tonight. A shocking thought.
When we first went to the flat the room marked ‘A’ had been stuffed with all the di Cesare valuables (matterasse di lana, poltrone, biciclette ….. ) and the doorway walled up and disguised as a cupboard. The intention being to stop the Germans stealing their things, a fate of which they were in constant dread. We got very tired of Sgra. di C’s, “Hanno rubato tutto, Signor Roberto, tutto, tutto, tutto, tutto, tutto, tt-o-o-t-o-t …..”! the voice rising to a crescendo as the final “tuttos” were uttered in incredibly rapid succession. This meant that when Mario was not on night shift we four had to share the big bed while Mrs di C and her sister slept in the small one. We took turns to sleep at the bottom, and altogether it was a most unsatisfactory arrangement.
Sun 7 November 1605 hrs
Slept 4 in-a-bed including Mario, last night which wasn’t very pleasant. However, he is out for at least the next 2 nights which is a good thing. Bobby inspected the
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Sun 7 November 1605 hrs cont’d.
hidy hole last night and found it very good. Mrs M. (Sgra di C) went this morning to collect our stuff which has duly arrived but unfortunately has had food pinched from it. The Germans have arrived at Tony’s (Antonio Cerconi’s) which makes things very different there and the 2 Yanks are very anxious to get in to Sulmona.
Mon 8 November 1830
Arrangements put in hand for dyeing our trousers this morning which is a good thing. The war news seems quite steadily good. Mrs M. is trying to make arrangements for the 2 Americans.
Tues 9 November 1830
Dyeing of clothing in progress. Good news of British advances to the line of the Sangro river at Torino di Sangro and near Castel di Sangro itself. Against this London radio speaks ominously of the German intention to establish a Winter line on the Sangro. Very cold and wet.
Thu 11 November 1200
Yesterday we heard that Pacentro was to be evacuated by the civilians which is rather worrying. Mario came in rather drunk last night. Up at 5 o’clock this morning to avoid possible rastrellamento which did not materialise.
Fri 12 November 1215
Yesterday afternoon we had a visit from the Australian Dr Capt Messenger [not a doctor but a medical orderly who subsequently betrayed PoWs, see William Simpson “A Vatican Lifeline ’44”, p. 133 – Ed.], also Josef and another British officer from Chieti. It was very pleasing to make this contact – particularly as identity cards were put in train. The Zio (Antonio Imperatore) called this morning and promised to see about a reply to our note to John Penrice. Y’day’s visitors told us of the extreme difficulty of crossing the front line. We hear today that Sulmona is declared an open city and may have to receive several thousand evacuees who have been turned out by the Germans
Sat 13 November 1500
Y’day at 1230 we had to nascond but it proved to be a false alarm and we were able to descend after about ½ hour. To-day is fine and clear but very cold outside. Pacentro has been evacuated (of civilian population) and apparently 50 PoWs were discovered in the process. We are rather anxious as to what will happen here. Flak opened up at 2 of our planes high to the E.
At this time we spent our day round the table in room ‘C’ which we never left except for the evening meal. We had bread and milk for breakfast, minestra at lunch time and usually some meat stew at night. During the day various members of the di Berardo family who lived upstairs frequently called in. There were 4 youths, Enzo (about 20), Ennio (about 18), who had been in the army but had left without permission at the armistice and were now lying pretty low to avoid being picked up by the Germans and sent off to Germany; also Elegio (about 14) and Ermano (about 10) who were at school. Ennio could speak a few words of English and was quite useful for giving some instruction in Italian. All swore that they hated the Fascists and Germans. Enzo was particularly bloodthirsty about what he would do to the Fascists when the British arrived. Both Enzo and Ennio, of course, had been members of the Fascist party and of the GIL, the Fascist Youth Movement, “per forza” they said. It was typical of the Italian mentality to lie down under the yoke when they were on their own and to threaten the most frightful revenge when they thought that they would have the Allied Armies behind them.
We had occasional visits from other PoWs who were living in the town. They were introduced by Signorina Nina Imperatore, a cousin of Mario’s who had apparently been a sort of part-time V.A.D. at the Italian hospital from which she had helped several British prisoners to escape. Josef [Pollak – Ed.] was a
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Sat 13 November cont’d
Czech who had been employed as a hospital orderly at Chieti. He spoke Italian, “come un Italiano”, also German, Magyar, English, Spanish and Greek fluently. He passed as an Italian in the town, had an identity card and a supply of money. We were very glad to contact him as we hoped to be able to contact guides through him.
We went out occasionally for a short walk after dark in the vicinity of the house but thought it very unwise to go about visiting in the day time as did some of the others.
Sulmona was on the main supply road for the Castel di Sangro part of the front and was also a main line railway junction. There were many Germans billeted in the town and many more in transit passing through. They did not interfere greatly with the Italians but sometimes cordoned off the streets and picked up a lot of Itis to do work on the road or railway or even for defence works at the front. This last was particularly feared by the Itis as workers at the front were frequently strafed by British planes. Very occasionally these rastrellamentos were extended to the houses and to guard against this danger our hosts sometimes asked us to go up and hide in the roof of the building. We had had about enough of roofs but complied with their requests because it would probably have gone hard with the di Casares if we had been caught in their flat. We did not consider the danger to be great.
Other visitors to the flat were Antonio Imperatore (who often brought tobacco leaves which Arthur smoked in his pipe and I made into cigarettes), his wife Elvira (a frightful woman, particularly for relating the most terrifying rumours of what the Germans were going to do next) and their small son Enzo, aged 3. Nina and her mother also came in sometimes. When the women got together they usually worked themselves into a panic. They said:– “The Germans were going to search all the houses, they were going to send all the men to Germany, they were going to evacuate all civilians from Sulmona, they were going to burn all the houses!” It was only the possibility of a total evacuation of Sulmona which really worried us. At that time we were still hoping for a quick British advance.
Tue 16 November 1400
Yesterday was a good day. Josef and [William (Bill) – Ed.] Simpson called bringing shirts and Lire 1500 cash. Also the war seems to make good progress. They also reported further possibilities of rejoining our own troops. Yesterday afternoon went with Mario and Ennio to nearby café-billiard saloon. Mario, Ennio, a German soldier and I played billiards. Also had coffee. Looking back it seems a foolish risk. Mario drunk at midday to-day. Relations are rather strained as a result.
Mario had asked if I could play billiards. I said “Yes” so he suggested that we might go and have a game. I agreed, expecting to be taken to a quiet Italian place. Far from it. Mario, Ennio and I went to the café on the corner. The bar was crowded with German soldiers. Mario paid for the use of the table and we pushed through the throng into a back room which was empty and contained a billiard table. A few of the Germans lounged through into the doorway to watch and one wretched little Hun came right up and leaned over the table. The two Italian youths (evidently thinking it better that he should take part rather than look on with too great attention) asked him to play, which he did. There was only one cue and after playing my shot I had to hand it to the Boche. I kept quiet and tried to look as though I was enjoying it, which I wasn’t! When he had gone Mario insisted (like the b.f. he is) on having coffee in the bar with the German soldiery, one of whom asked me for a match. I tried to look like an Italian who hadn’t got a match and must have succeeded!
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Wed 17 November 1200
Short rastrellamento alarm at 0900 this morning. It was believed that the Germans were taking Itis off the streets to work at Palena where many Germans had been entombed in a tunnel after a British air attack.
Thu 18 November 1630
Toothache. Josef called and brought hats. Apparently the Pescara scheme (escape by boat from Pescara) is off but the other appears to be working OK.
The other scheme referred to was escape with Italian guides over the mountains for which Josef said that he was conducting negotiations.
Fri 19 November 1200
Station machine gunned this morning and other flak later. 1800 hrs. Mario brought German with laundry to the house this afternoon which caused contretemps in subsequent explanations. Josef called with Smith (of tanks) [probably Captain Gilbert Smith – Ed. See Simpson, “A Vatican Lifeline ’44”, p. 18] bringing pullovers and long pants which is a good thing. He expects to meet to-morrow mid-day brother of the first guide; who is also prepared to take parties to our own troops. We hope to hear more of this shortly.
Sat 20 November 1830
Cloudy all day. Niente.
Mon 22 November 1400
Yesterday Bobby went out in p.m. with Mario and saw Sgt Sharpe but did not clear up mystery of how Mario first came to find us. Doddy and I took a walk in the park after dusk which was very pleasant. This morning some Camicie Nere came into the town but went out again by train apparently.
Tue 23 November 2100
Rainy day. Good news of the war. 3 new Canadian divisions are supposed to have arrived on the 8th Army front. Went out with Mario this evening to small house of a friend. Quite pleasant change. We still feed well but I feel that Sgra C. is finding greater difficulty in producing the stuff.
Wed 24 November
Yesterday evening I went out with Mario for about ¾ hr to the house of a friend of his. Had a drink. It was a pleasant change. This morning was the good news of the fall of Castel di Sangro. At 5.15 this evening a surprise rastrellamento sent us below for about ½ hour. It was only in the streets. There is some alarm as to what has happened to Zio Antonio. The next 2 days look as though they will be fairly unpleasant as the 2 women have heard that there are to be pukka rastrellamentos – prior to the German (police?) abandoning the town!!!
Thu 25 November 1205
Dull and showery. Doddy’s 23rd birthday. Hear of continued slow progress at Castel di Sangro. Rumours that (a) Sulmona will not be evacuated (b) that it will be evacuated. Our general opinion is that 14 days is the earliest in which we can expect our own troops (This was a vain hope indeed!). At times like this one feels pretty depressed and the chances of a successful outcome of our enterprise seem incredibly remote. The food situation still seems to be very acute but so far we are OK – living on minestra, beans and meat.
Sat 27 November
Went out in turn y’day evening with Mario. Bobby and I to take wine at a café in the Piazza and Dodd to the nearby friend. Pleasant change. This morning the Egyptian wife of the marisciallo –pilot called – a very pleasant, petite, peroxide blonde. Our 2 generals (Neame and O’Connor) have apparently succeeded in rejoining our own troops. Josef
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Sat 27 November cont’d
called this afternoon. Mountaineering is very difficult and off for the moment. We were glad to learn that plans exist for dealing with situation should Sulmona be evacuated.
Sun 28 November 1800
Got L.1000 changed this morning but Mrs M. refused to accept any. Went out for a walk in the town this morning and had coffee. It was very bright and altogether pleasant. Strong rumours of peace negotiations at the Vatican but I find this very difficult to believe.
Tue 30 November 1230
Y’day frightful row between Mrs and Zia over the question of pasta. We are all agreed that Mrs achieved a new low level in stupidity over this matter – actually sending 10 Kili of lingue passeri back to the shop. We were all furious. In the evening Mario brought in some “luxury” rations obtained from the Germans. They included a little butter and sugar. It was delicious having butter on our breakfast bread. This morning there is a big rastrellamento going on in the streets. Ennio brings the news that Radio London has announced a big offensive in the Apennines which will decide the fate of Rome. This, plus the rastrellamento, makes our mercurial Italian friends think that we have reached the last few days of German occupation. They even talk of absconding from work! Mrs Luisa (Centofandi) called this morning with a big loaf of bread and some milk. She said she was pleased to see us all looking so well and we were certainly glad to see her again. She is a cheerful kindly soul. If the di Cesares had taken the trouble to send our note earlier we might never have lacked for bread.
Wed 1 December 1430
Good news of the war from Radio London. 8th Army going strong and closing in on Lanciano. Sulmona mentioned in the bulletins – an encouraging sign. Italian rumours of the Germans leaving in 2 days! Luckily, after lunch today Mario saw his German friend bringing washing and was able to intercept him on his way upstairs – otherwise it might have been very awkward, if not disastrous.
Thu 2 December 2130
Good news of the fall of Lanciano and Casoli, also our troops continue to push on NW in the direction of Chieti. We are beginning to be more optimistic as to the danger of being “sfollatoed” – also of an eventual successful outcome to our attempt for freedom.
Sat 4 December 1830
Y’day our friends upstairs brought the wireless down for us to hear. It was very delightful to hear Big Ben chime again, but owing to lack of knowledge of the proper times we only heard short news headlines. Tonight the BBC acknowledges that Thursday’s news was a bit previous, but tonight announces the fall of Casoli, Lanciano and Orsogna, which is very good. Also our own troops are in the outskirts of San Visto. Even the 5th Army is advancing! There was a rastrellamento scare this morning which necessitated our getting up at the incredibly early hour of 8 a.m. It proved, as usual to be a false alarm. However, I seized the opportunity to get my watch back – damaged, of course, by that B.F., Mario.
Sun 5 December 2220
Today was promised hair cut, bath, radio from upstairs – none of them materialised!! News reasonable. 8th Army have taken San Vito but fighting still goes on in outskirts of Orsogna and also Guardiagrele. Hopes of liberation now seem to be deferred until the New Year. Tonight Enzo moots great scheme for hiding in the fondici but I don’t expect that it will come to anything.
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Sun 5 December 2220 cont’d
The Germans have issued manifestos requiring:–
a) All sfollati to report to HQ by Dec 8th – otherwise the severest measures will be taken.
b) All radio sets to be handed in.
Nina & Co. called in the afternoon in a flap about spies. The women had a wonderful gossip on the subject – retailing the old stories over and over again. The relations had the nerve to propose that William Sharpe should come here – as though these people weren’t doing enough.
Tue 7 December 2100 hrs
Had a bath yesterday in large wooden tub which was very pleasant. Today at 1200 was big scare when Sgra A., came in with the news that Sulmona was being given to the flames. They calmed down eventually and the whole thing had at least one good effect for Mario went to see the “muratore” (custodian of the palazzo) to obtain his co-operation in hiding us. We hope that this will improve our hidey-hole considerably. (All sorts of things were promised, but, of course, nothing was ever done.)
Fri 10 December 1600
Grey grim day. Yesterday afternoon they opened the sealed room which makes sleeping much more comfortable. Wool mattress and only 3 in a bed instead of 4. During the operations a German soldier came in. Fortunately we were in the other room. Own troops have taken Guardiagrele and are closing in on Ortona.
Sat 11 December 1745
Zio’s wife has just been in with her usual panicky news, which has frightened our hosts into asking us to nascond (hide) tomorrow. Expect that as usual it won’t come to anything. She also reports that Josef has been taken by the Germans – sincerely hope that it isn’t true.
Mon 13 December 0925
Yesterday was notable for 2 reasons:– (a) Rumours and (b) Porridge. Zio’s wife came in in the morning and reported that Sulmona was completely surrounded by the English. In the afternoon she called again to say that 2000 Germans had arrived for the purpose of making the last big rastrellamento of Sulmona. This of course threw our women into a panic and the “sofitto” and “un po di sacrificia Sgr Roberto”, were in great evidence. However, as usual, we haven’t gone up nor is there any need.
Last night Dod made excellent porridge with some oats, sugar and Klim milk were also obtainable. It was very unpalatable to our hosts. Zia ate a plateful but unfortunately was sick afterwards. Played “Tre Sette” in the evening. This morning Bruno brings news that our own troops are fighting in the outskirts of Ortona.
Tue 14 December 1800
Last night Mario was at Aquila and stayed in bed until about 3 p.m. today. No visits and no news. Bobby says that Mario retailed a long story to his mother this afternoon so we will probably be threatened with the sofitto again for tomorrow.
Thu 16 December 0900
Yesterday a rastrellamento alarm sent us upstairs early. The women kept us there until Mario returned at lunch time. In the evening Ennio brought in the tale of his alarming experience where a young German of about 22 to whom he was talking had been shot dead by a drunken companion at an inn. Continual stream of spy and other horror stories from the women.
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Fri 17 December 1845
Some relations called this morning and afternoon. They had been “sfollatoed” from Pescara. Zio was in this afternoon. First time that we have seen him for about 3 weeks. He says that rastrellamentos are off for the time being. The war news is disappointing – movement is so very slow that it seems hardly perceptible and so we are correspondingly depressed – remembering that at one time “home for Christmas”, seemed a certainty.
Sun 19 December 1730
Yesterday started badly with Mario borrowing Dod’s boots. However, things began to look up after that for the 2 Signore (Centofandi & Cerconi) turned up with bread and wine and milk. Bruno confirmed the “No more rastrellamenti” story. In the evening his father and he came in and we played “Tre Sette” until 1030. This afternoon we heard that Sgt Sharpe had returned to his house and intends shortly to go to Rome. We hope to hear more about this tomorrow. Mrs Zio has delivered my letter to someone who knows Simpson. The news today indicates slightly more progress – fighting in the streets of Orsogna.
Mon 20 December 1830
An Italian officer [Dino – Ed.] who claimed to have fought with the patriots in Yugo-Slavia and escaped from the Germans, called this morning with Zio’s wife’s sister. He promised to forward a report of our safety to our homes through the Vatican. This will be a great thing if it can be done. Also he promised to bring us overcoats. He possesses German passes. He says that Sulmona should be safe except for acute rastrellamentos when the Germans leave. Apparently Josef and many other officers have moved to Rome. He says that there are 7000 escaped prisoners of various kinds in Rome – also that the Vatican is surrounded and ingress impossible. This afternoon the maresciallo-pilota and his glamorous wife called. He gave an account of the generals who he had helped to guide to the front. Like all the others he says that escape through the front now is almost impossible. These reasonable Italians are all sensibly optimistic about the war. “Within a month” they say, “Sulmona will be in British hands” Speriamo che si! (They were 7 months wrong).
22 December 2000
Yesterday they got into a frightful flap about spies and we had to unmask our big gun (of rejoining our own lines) (They were still very much against our leaving). (I think that they wanted very much to hand us over in person to the British when they arrived.) That calmed them down. Pino [Dino? – Ed.] was in and said that it was very difficult actually to rejoin the lines even though he himself had recently been in sight of a patrol of Alpini. It is difficult to know how much reliance to place in this story. Pino [Dino? – Ed.] came in again today. He told us that Cassino had fallen (incorrectly) and then broached the question of going to Rome in company. He promised to bring in an Italian Captain who would tell us more of the situation. However, he didn’t turn up at the proper time. Perhaps we shall see him tomorrow. Nina called with a lot of stories of spies etc.
24 December Christmas Eve 17.15
Yesterday was Bobby’s birthday and these good people evidently at considerable effort and sacrifice to themselves provided us with an excellent supper and extra ration of vino. Nina was in during the afternoon with more sad tales about spies and we learn today from her brother that William has been taken. Nothing more has been seen of Pino [Dino? – Ed.] since his visit four days ago. An aunt of Mrs C. came in at lunch time today having walked all the way from Corfino bringing us oil, sugar and flour, – luxuries more or less unobtainable here. Mrs C. is trying hard to produce some little part of the Christmas fare to which they are accustomed.
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December 27th 1100
We all feel very grateful to the Signora for the effort she made to provide extra cheer for us at Christmas. We had an excellent lunch of gnocchi; steak and verdura on Christmas Day. Antonio, his wife and child were here for both Christmas and Boxing Days. A Sgt/Major friend of his called at lunch time and provided me with cigarettes and matches. He came again yesterday bringing some sweet biscuits (a welcome change) and also a jacket which at present is being altered. On Christmas night and Boxing night all the “Black-beetle” family were in and we played various card games until midnight. We taught them how to play “Slippery Sam”, which they seemed to enjoy. On Christmas afternoon we had the wireless and were able to hear the news in English including a resumé of the King’s speech. Yesterday we heard that Orsogna is in our hands except for mopping-up operations. This is much more cheerful news. The snow-line has come much lower over Christmas and we now see German lorrys with snow on the roofs passing through the town.
December 30th 1100
On 28th Dino (the Italian officer) visited us. Mrs sent him away at first saying that we had gone to Rome. Fortunately the sister-in-law was able to bring him back again. He gave us no information of Rome but said that a “sicurissimo” way of rejoining the lines was now open. This is good news – we hope to be able to use it soon. He gave us lire 1200 and yesterday sent us 3 overcoats by his henchman (Gino). The Black-beetle family come in every night and we play “Pontoon” and “Slippery Sam”.
January 1st 1415
On 31st Dec, D’s henchman brought us overcoats – very welcome in the event of our having to make an emergency exit. New Year’s Eve was very depressing. We played Slippery Sam for 2½ hrs on end. In the afternoon the family purchased (with some of our lire) a large carboy of vino. Unfortunately however Mario was out and supplies were strictly rationed. It was a shocking dull evening to which wind and snow added their quota of depression.
Today we woke up to a world of snow and indeed it is still snowing heavily although the temperature remains above freezing point. We started the New Year with no bread and no milk, but as the day goes on things are getting worse. At mid-day Mario brought news that Dino had been arrested and was being subjected to the third degree. This gave rise to considerable apprehension in the family. Shortly afterwards 5 Germans thundered at the door and we had hurriedly to take refuge in the lavatory. However, they were only a line maintenance party and now the tension is somewhat relaxed.
The only bright spot in the New Year is the news which Mario brings of the arrival in Sulmona of English guides. I hope to goodness this is true but even if so, the weather could not be more inopportune and seems likely to hold up any attempt to rejoin the lines for several days.
2nd January 1230
Spent last night at the black-beetles where we still remain. Bruno went out this morning and brought back reassuring news – to wit – that no lists (of names and addresses) had been found when our friend was taken. This cools off the alarm a great deal. Mario has not yet returned so up to now we know nothing more about the guides. News this morning says that our own troops are now within 10 kilos of Pescara. Got bitten by bed-bugs last night.
3rd January 1600
The snow still lies thickly but is thawing quite rapidly. Yesterday and today have been perfect days for weather and the mountains are a wonderful sight – soaring peaks of snowy
[Digital page 24]
3rd January 1600 cont’d.
white against a background of powder-blue. However, unfortunately it seems probable that this snow makes them quite uncrossable at the moment.
Yesterday’s news was that nothing important was discovered when Dino was taken. The guides were said to be lying low until the present German activity (and the snow) is finished. There was a rastrellamento for snow clearing purposes this morning. This kept us in hiding until after mid-day when we came back to this flat. I don’t know yet where we are intended to sleep. London radio spoke yesterday of our own troops being within 8 kilos of Pescara, but today talks of hard fighting N of Ortona. The Russians seem to be doing splendidly.
4th January 1730
Nina came in this morning and stayed to lunch. Mario sprung a bombshell on us at lunch time by asking if we would like to join a “leave party” tonight. Of course we accepted gladly. Gino was to come and give details at 1230 but so far he has not turned up. At the moment I feel very depressed. So near but yet so far. According to Mario the party expects to arrive at the British lines tomorrow morning. If we miss this chance we would seem to be scuppered.
5th January 1500
Yesterday evening the black-beetles came in and cheered us up a bit. Today is wild wind and snow. Mario brought news at lunch time that the party did not go yesterday but is waiting for better weather. This is a great relief.
6th January 1045
Yesterday it snowed heavily all day but thank goodness today is fine. Of course thick snow still lies. The black-beetles came in last night and as usual we played “Slippery Sam” or “Banco” as they call it. We found last night that Mario had pinched my overcoat without saying anything to me so he is due for a steep rocket when he comes in. The fine weather makes us rather more hopeful. But the mountains look very formidable.
8th January 1200
Y’day lunch time I gave Mario a steep rocket for taking my coat without permission. He had no excuse to offer and remained in the sulks all day. In the evening his Mother applied again for the loan of it, which of course I had to grant but made it clear that I took a pretty poor view of the situation. Fine and sunny today but the snow still lies thickly. I wonder when we will be able to leave.
9th January 1930
Yesterday about 1500 hours Nina came in and stayed until about 2230 hrs. She had meant to stay the night but unfortunately her messenger failed to reach her home. About 2230 her uncle and some of the neighbours arrived and after an ugly scene, carried her off. Today in the afternoon the father of the “black beetles” plus his son-in-law came in together with a bottle of vino. One thing led to another until about 1800 hrs Bobby had to be put to bed followed shortly afterwards by Arthur. Result is that I hold the fort alone. This is particularly trying as unfortunately some thieves have broken in and stolen from one of the empty flats of this palazzo. Therefore I have to listen to all sorts of incredible stories. The reply of course is, “Si, si signora capisco bene”. Not entirely true for also I am feeling the fumes of alcohol – as witness this writing!
10th January 2130
Bobby not very well to-day. He was sick last night and has only perked up this evening. 2 Spits set fire to an ammunition train this morning which burned merrily. Nina called for a few minutes this evening.
[Digital page 25]
11th January 2100
The theft business reached a crisis today. After yesterday’s visit of the carabinieri which caused us to spend 2½ hrs in the roof and led to an amusing conversation with Enzo and the son of the muratore who were also hiding in the roof. They posed as amateur detectives but behaved as though their own consciences were far from clear. Today the black-beetles (on whom rests the chief weight of suspicion) threatened to denounce the muratore to the Germans as a possessor of contraband and stolen goods. Fortunately this came to nothing. At lunch time we heard from Gino that he intends to leave tomorrow evening if it freezes tonight. Up to now it is not freezing but I think it very likely that we will go tomorrow. I certainly hope so.
Night of 12/13 January
Reached top of the Maiella (c.7500 ft).
Evening 13 January
Morning 14 January
About 1000 hrs contacted Royal West Kents.
Night 14/15 January
HQ 13 Corps at Paglietta [Paglieta].
Night 15/16 January
Transit Camp at Vasto.
Hotel Adria at Bari.
Account of the Journey over the Maiella to rejoin our own troops, 12/14th Jan 1944.
When living in Sulmona we had always in mind two conflicting objects. One was to make the necessary contacts to obtain a means of escape to our own lines. For this our channels of communication were Mario di Cesare (who we did not trust as we considered that he wished at all costs to keep us at the house until the British took Sulmona); his uncle Antonio Imperatore, ex-black-shirt-sergeant-major; his cousin, Nina Imperatore, who often saw other ex PoWs who were living in the town, the maresciallo-pilota, who alleged that he had guided Generals Neame and O’Connor back to our own lines but always told us that the journey was now impossible, and Helena, Antonio’s sister-in-law from whom we didn’t expect anything but who in the end delivered the goods. The other object was to avoid being discovered by the Germans or by Fascists who would have given us away to the Germans. For that it was necessary to lie low.
At first, through Nina, we contacted Josef who was conducting negotiations on behalf of PoWs in Sulmona. However, apparently owing to the indiscretion of himself or his acquaintances, the Germans raided his lodgings and he had to leave hurriedly for Rome on or about the 11th Dec. This left us without any contact whatever.
On 20th Dec, Helena brought the Italian officer known as Dino, to see us. We thought he was a good chap but for no reason at all the di Casares didn’t trust him. He had with him an Italian youth, Gino, who was known to Mario. Gino was stockily built and had ginger hair and blue eyes; unusual for an Italian; he turned out to be an excellent chap.
Dino brought us money and sent us overcoats. Unfortunately his activities were discovered and he was arrested by the Gestapo on Dec 31st. This led to great
[Digital page 26]
consternation in our family, who feared lest our address would be discovered and that the Germans would come for us to the house. To guard against this we moved to the Fillipi (the “black-beetles”) flat next door where a window provided a second way out into a back lane. This meant extreme discomfort in sleeping conditions but it was very decent of i Fillipi to risk having us at all. So, as we thought, our second contact was broken, but in fact it survived through the Italian youth Gino who saw Mario on the 4th Jan and said that he had made arrangements with guides to take a party over the mountains. He intended to call and take us to the rendezvous later in the day. He never came and a frightful gale with heavy snow blew throughout the night. Trams were stopped and there were six-foot drifts in the town. On the 5th Jan Mario was able to tell us that the party had not carried out the original intention of setting off on the night 4th/5th Jan.
The affair of Dino’s arrest and the shortage of rations seemed at last to have made the di Casares realise that it would be just as well if we were to go. Bad weather delayed our departure but after thawing for several days hard frosts on the l0th and 11th made a crust on the snow and Gino sent word that the party would leave on the 12th. Mario was to conduct us to the rendezvous at dusk.
At that time dusk was at about 1630 hrs and after lunch on the 12th we started making preparations for departure. What was left of our khaki clothing was brought up from the cellars and we put on khaki shirts under the Italian civilian ones that we normally wore. In addition I wore my khaki battle-dress blouse (for the sake of warmth) and like all the others an Italian greatcoat and hat. Arthur had his small leather attaché case and Bobby and I carried haversacks, containing personal belongings (including Culbertson’s Gold Book, which had become a sort of talisman) and some meat sandwiches. Water and vino we declined, on account of the extra weight.
After many good-byes and a good deal of weeping from the women (I think they thought that we hadn’t much chance) we set off at about 1600 hrs. Mario went ahead with Arthur, and Bobby and I followed about 100x behind. Mario went very fast and it was difficult to keep up with him. In the failing light we took a wrong fork and Bobby and I went some considerable distance out of our way before turning back. Fortunately we met Mario again and resumed our journey travelling even faster. Mario, of course, had cut the time much too fine and we were very anxious in case we didn’t get to the rendezvous soon enough. However, we did get there. It was near an isolated farmhouse on the SE outskirts of Sulmona and there were many Italians. We were perspiring freely and already very fagged as the result of our two mile walk. Because of this I agreed to exchange my greatcoat, which Mario had always coveted, for his light raincoat.
Almost immediately the party of about 25 persons began to move off on a narrow track through the fields, leading roughly SSE. The moon had not yet risen but it was a clear cold night with faint starlight. We went very fast and the going was hard. After about a mile I put a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and threw my bundle away. Bobby followed suit and Arthur reluctantly parted with his attaché case sometime later. Not long afterwards I also threw away my coat. I realised that I should want it if we were to halt anywhere but decided that if I was to keep up with the party I must cut my load to the minimum. So we stumbled on in the faint starlight, a long column in single file with we three together, at first somewhere near the middle but tending always to drop to the rear.
There was an alarm early on and we hid for a few minutes in a vineyard, then on again. We crossed the main road one at a time and turned more East towards the mountains. We waded through a mountain torrent and then began to climb more steeply, soon getting into frozen snow which was lying about 6-inches thick.
[Digital page 27]
On and up, through a tiny village without sign of inhabitants until by about 2100 hrs we were well beyond cultivation or human dwellings and a rising moon began to light up the gleaming vastness of frozen snow. When rounding a shoulder the moon sometimes projected our distorted shadows hundreds of feet below.
Occasional 5 minute halts were now allowed and the pace had slowed to a steady monotonous plod, with heads down, inserting our feet in the prints of the next ahead. The guides reconnoitred round shoulders and at some places (where there were known or suspected to be German outposts) we had to go fast and with particular care. At halts we flopped in the snow and on resuming I began to feel a growing stiffness in the groin.
At this stage we expected to complete the journey in one night and it was the prospect of being in the British lines by morning which spurred us on. We now reached an area of scrubby forest. As we climbed higher the snow was thicker and made the going worse. We were continually making long upward traverses round interminable shoulders.
During an extra-long halt we saw figures following in our tracks about half a mile behind. They turned out to be a similar party to ours and were led by Gino who thought that we had missed the rendezvous in Sulmona as two Brigadiers apparently had done. He gave us each a nip of brandy which was very welcome. It was then that we met Fergus Panton (Lt. (IA) Baluch Regt), David Roberts (Lt. RA) and Rodney Hill (Lt. 4th Survey Regt RA) all of whom had been living in Sulmona. Panton had already made one attempt, been recaptured by the Boche, escaped again, and was now trying for the second time.
About midnight we heard the barking and howling of wolves ahead. We made a short steep descent out of the forest and started to climb a steep snow slope. A few wolves came out of the forest but did not come nearer to us than 200x. At about 2 a.m. the crest of the Maiella was visible 2 or 3 thousand feet above us. A long halt was called and it was here that we first distinguished the chief guide, Alberto, a little stocky man. We gathered that it was impossible to make the journey in one night and there was considerable dispute as to what was to be done. Most of the ex PoWs were beginning to feel very exhausted. After much parley Alberto pushed on but many of the Itis turned back at this stage. The party now consisted approximately of the two guides Alberto and Francesco (a young pleasant chap); Gino, and about 8 other Italians, Bdr Rosen who could speak fluent Italian and who we thought at the time was an officer, about 10 other British other ranks and we six officers. We were all in pretty bad shape. Pain in the groins made it agony to resume after a halt. Bobby had on only thin shoes with poor soles which were rapidly packing in. None of us had had any exercise for three months and had lived on a meagre diet. The worst of all was Rodney Hill who had escaped from hospital in the town. He was a comic but pathetic sight with his shirt tail hanging out of the back of his torn trousers, and a trilby hat with no dent perched on the top of his head.
Alberto said that we were making for a deserted monastery where we could light a fire and rest. Always it was the prospect of something better ahead which kept us going. We went on very slowly now, often staggering and sometimes lying in the snow to rest. The file became very strung out in twos and threes and even single figures two or three hundred yards apart. About 4 a.m. we had a long rest and then Bobby and I pushed on again. We were nearing the top and the going was very steep. We decided to rest until Arthur should catch up. After a time Rodney Hill arrived and we sat in the snow talking in a rather light-headed sort of way. Rodney looked simply ghastly. Arthur did not arrive and I lose track of things until I remember that about 0800 hrs the sun was up and we were climbing the last few hundred feet on to the saddle at the summit of the Maiella (about 7500 ft). The sun seemed to put new life into us and after a last effort the ground began to slope away miraculously to the East. The sun lit the snow showing up the pattern made by enemy
[Digital page 28]
ski patrols. We decided to rest for some hours in a straggly copse. We took off our boots and hung up our socks to try and dry them in the sun. We ate a little of our sandwiches and drank a little brandy. Up till then we had been eating snow to slake our thirst.
The prospect of another night march seemed appalling but at least it was downhill and we were told that it would be considerably less distance than the unbroken stretch of 15 hrs of the previous night. There was the German occupied village of Palena to skirt and Alberto went on to reconnoitre there, arranging to meet us at 2100 hrs outside Palena.
We sat in the snow until about 1430 hrs. A cold wind sprang up and made it very unpleasant so that we were almost glad to move on again. Re-starting was a very painful process but downhill was definitely easier and we made good time for about 2 hrs when we came to a ruined house where it was decided to remain until dusk. We saw 2 of our Spitfires and were very glad that they didn’t take us for a German patrol.
Francesco led off at about 1600 hrs and at about 1800 hrs we were coming out below the snow-line and were approaching Palena. Francesco went off on a long reconnaissance and it was not until 2000 hrs that we reached the rendezvous with Alberto outside Palena. Here a big disappointment awaited us. We learned that Alberto had arrived at the village in the morning and had been seized by the Germans who had sent him to work with gangs of pressed Italian labour clearing snow from the railway. It was hoped that he would be released at about 2100 hours and would be able to join us at about 2200 hrs. A long discussion followed as to whether it would be better to wait for Alberto who knew the route which would be particularly tricky as we skirted Palena. (This would probably mean us being caught by daylight still not having reached our lines); or to go on immediately with Francesco, who was a good fellow, but who admitted that he was not absolutely certain of the route. Bombardier Rosen was the central figure in these discussions with the Italians.
At length it was decided to wait until 2200 hrs and if Alberto did not turn up, to push on without him. As many as could crowded into the tiny hut for warmth. Those who did not, lay down in the snow outside. For a time Bobby and I sat dozing on the doorstep with our legs inside but eventually gave way to the entreaties of those outside and changed places. It was bitterly cold. Eventually Arthur, Bobby and I lay down on some planks occasionally stamping up and down to restore our circulation. 2200 hrs came but still no sign of Alberto. About 2220 (as far as I remember) we set off again, descending steeply towards Palena. After about half a mile a halt was called. We could see one or two small houses in front. There was considerable uncertainty as to what was happening and after some time I went down to the nearest house, which turned out to be Alberto’s home. It was a miserable cabin but they gave me some clean fresh water to drink which was extremely welcome. Eating snow is an unsatisfactory way of quenching thirst and as yet we had not come across any running water.
At the house I discovered that Alberto had returned, was even now having some supper and would soon be ready to resume. This was great news. We were raised from the depths of gloom created by cold, disappointment and fatigue, and success once again appeared a possibility. We waited for some time longer during which halt Arthur and Bobby were able to have a drink at the house.
We had come very ill-supplied with rations and the Italians were extremely kind and generous in giving us some of their bread and meat and an occasional nip of brandy. Strangely enough we couldn’t eat much but something was necessary to keep us going.
At about 2330 hrs we started again, going very quickly round Palena and doing a tricky crossing of the main road. We went through the deserted village of Letto Palena and eventually struck a narrow rough goat track on one bank of a very deep fearsome gorge. On the other side the
[Digital page 29]
brown rock face rising precipitously for several thousand feet. The river roared beneath us, much swollen by the melting snow. We were now past the German outpost line and into the wide stretch of wild no-man’s land which was liable to be patrolled by either side.
At (I think) about 0130 hrs we passed through the blackened ruins of Lama Pellegrine [Lama dei Peligni – Ed.] which we afterwards learned had been burned by the Germans before their withdrawal to Palena. We were resting here for a few minutes when we heard a shout from the other side of the river. Hastily we pushed on again and when we were clear of the village we could faintly discern 2 or 3 black figures on the further bank who must have been a Boche patrol. We pushed on hard for another hour and then had a long rest. As many as possible crowded into a small hut. Those of us who came up later lay outside in the snow.
We were now very weary indeed but at last success appeared in sight and we went on again. Alberto was in front going strong, but the line was very strung out and Francesco stayed at the rear encouraging stragglers and frequently turning back to keep them on. His conduct was first rate. We frequently drank from small muddy ditches, which served temporarily to slake thirst and then left the mouth drier than before.
At about 0330 we were faced with the crossing of a fierce mountain torrent about 10 yards wide at its junction with the main stream. The column gradually closed up while the guides reconnoitred a route across. The only way that seemed possible included a jump of about 6 ft from one big rounded bolder to another. Francesco stood in the water by the second one to assist. The party set off again. Several slipped on the second boulder but were saved by Francesco. It came to my turn. I made the jump but on alighting my legs gave way and the next instant I was in the river up to my armpits. My hat and stick went floating downstream. Helped by Francesco I scrambled out and was across. Strangely enough the cold and wet didn’t seem to matter much. The great trouble was the immensely increased weight of my clothes.
On and on. Stopping frequently now for rests. At about 0630 we had a longish halt near an inhabited village. We thought we had arrived and were bitterly disappointed to find it was not so. Only another mile or two. But we were nearly at the end of our tether. Just about dawn we set off again, spurred on by the news from Italians that there were Germans on the other bank of the river who might pick us up or engage us with artillery fire. Those who could pushed on ahead. We three could only manage one or two hundred yards at a time between five minute rests. The river bank was of thick mud, in places up to our knees. It tugged at our boots and Bobby’s shoes kept coming off. After one halt he got on ahead and I decided to wait for Arthur to catch up. He eventually came plodding along on his own, and we sat together for a while for him to rest.
The sun was now up and it was pleasantly warm. My clothes had almost dried. We went on again – up a short steep bank. Bobby was lying at the top looking absolutely frightful. He had had a complete black out just at the top of the bank and had dropped in his tracks.
After a further rest we went on again. Over a small stream and eventually on to a footpath beside a millstream. At the mill they gave us some water and told us that the earlier arrivals had contacted our own troops who were sending transport for us to a place about half a mile further on.
We got there at last. The Italian family at a small farm house were extremely kind. They lit a big fire and brought hot water to wash our feet. We sat by the fire for some time until at about 1030 a.m. a 15-cwt truck arrived from the Royal West Kents to take us to Casoli.
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It was an inexpressible relief to be with our own troops again. To talk English to British soldiers: to travel in a British Army truck. Above all there was a wonderful sense of relaxation after the fatigues of the journey, to know that we were no longer of the hunted, liable to betrayal by everyone be they enemy or pretended friend.
So to Bn HQ at Casoli where we were able to wash and were given an excellent lunch. Then to HQ XIII Corps at Paglietta [Paglieta] where we spent the night and said “Good-bye” to our Italian friends. Here I met Tom Braithwaite and got some first-hand information of 124 [Field Regiment, Royal Artillery – Ed.]. After that an uncomfortable night at a transit camp at Vasto where we left Rodney Hill in hospital, and then by bus via Foggia to Bari. At Bari we spent a few days, accommodated in the very same hut where we had first been confined as PoWs on arrival in Italy. The PoW sub-commission here were a poor lot who thought only of their own comfort and made no endeavour to welcome us or make us feel at home.
After a few days we were sent on to Taranto where we embarked in the P&O liner “Ranchi” on 28th Jan, 1944.
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Diary of Beverley Edge
[Handwritten note] Introduction and maps to Beverley Edge’s escape diary. It has no page numbers, neither does the diary. Both of course are copies made in or after 1962.
MT = Motor Transport
KLIM = Canadian dried milk
Carab = Member of the Carabinieri – the Italian special police
[Sketch map of Italy]
[Digital page 32]
[Sketch plan of PG78 Sulmona indicating hut in which the men hid]
This copy of a diary, which I kept during 19 days spent in a roof of a PoW camp in Italy needs no introduction to the four friends who shared it with me. For others who may be interested a few words of explanation are necessary.
On Sept 3rd 1943 Allied forces landed in southern Italy, and on Sept 8th it was announced that an armistice between the Allies and Italy had been signed.
At that time there were between 1200 and 1300 British and American officers in a PoW camp at Chieti. The camp was taken over by the German army, and about 22nd or 23rd Sept the prisoners were taken to Sulmona, en route for Germany.
Among them were:
Capt Clifford Wilton
Capt John Craven
Capt George Burnett
Lt Robert Blake
Lt Kenneth Lowe
F/officer Arthur Dodds
and myself. During 18 months incarceration at Chieti we had lived in the same building, and, with about 30 others, occupied the same hut at Sulmona.
The PoWs who were in Sulmona at the Armistice had been able to break out
[Digital page 33]
and make their way south. However, a few had been rounded up and were at the camp when we arrived. Amongst them was Gunner Spall, who had been my driver in the Western Desert, and who rendered invaluable assistance when we decided to hide in the roof of our hut, we hoped until such time as we could leave the camp unescorted, or until it was occupied by Allied troops.
Sulmona lies in a valley about 700 ft above sea level, almost surrounded by mountains rising to 6500 ft. To the north, we could see the Gran Sasso d’Italia (9500 ft) where, only 10 days before our arrival, German paratroops under Col. Otto Skorzeny had rescued Mussolini, who was being held there by Italian Military Police.
The camp (Campo di concentramento Fonte dell’Amore!!) was built on a steep slope about 3 miles, I think, from the town. The buildings were surrounded by a 10-foot brick wall, in which a 6 or 7 ft breach on each side had been made at the time of the Armistice. Outside the wall was a rough road [sketch of one of the huts] 15–20 ft wide, then a fence of single strands of barbed wire about 6 ins apart; outside this 10–15 ft of grass, then a 10-ft barbed wire fence, lit by electric standard lamps and search lights.
The brick huts were about 14–15 ft wide and 50–60 ft long; the distance from the concrete floor to the lath and plaster ceiling was about 8 ft. Double wooden doors extended the whole width of the hut at one end. Our hut, like many others, was built on two levels because of the slope of the ground
[Digital page 34]
[words missing] [tiled] roof was completely sealed.
It very soon became obvious that, as we had feared, this was a transit camp for Germany, a country we had no wish to visit at that time, so procuring a small home-made ladder which, incredibly, had been lying about, and keeping a good look out, we were able to make an entrance to the roof of our hut by removing about half a dozen bricks at the top of the outside wall, just under the eaves, 8’6” to 9 ft from the ground. It was necessary to make some sort of floor, and for this we found some strong planks. We managed to get a small zinc laundry bowl through the hole, a small jug and as many old food tins as we could find; these were all filled with water.
We had been at Sulmona a week when a call to parade on the football field indicated that it was time to disappear, so we took to the roof.
Because of pressure of time and risk of discover, preparations had been carried out in extreme haste and we had omitted to compare the size of the entrance with the vital statistics of all participants in the venture with the result that Clifford Wilton and John Craven were unable to get through the hole we had made – only five of us squeezed in. Gunner Spall was at hand to replace the bricks, wedge back pieces of mortar, make firm with mud, tidy up, remove the ladder and lose it as far away as possible.
What food we had was taken up with us, but most of our personal possessions, such as they were, were abandoned [words missing] remember contained washing kit, a spare pullover and spare socks; also a small paper-covered calendar for 1943, which contained a few hymns (with music) and was prefaced with a message of good will and Christmas greetings from the late Pope Pius II to all prisoners of war. We had each been given one the previous Christmas. No turkey and Xmas pudding.
The diary was kept in this little book, writing on the few blank pages, between the lines of music and hymns and in the margins. In it I have used
[Digital page 35]
[tenses?] indiscriminately. [I] imagine I intended to describe events as they were happening, but for various reasons this was often impossible, and the happenings of some days were not recorded until the next, and so the tenses were somewhat mixed.
Just before we left the roof on Oct 18th 1943, I started to destroy the book, but having torn it in half, changed my mind and wedged it in the rafters just under the tiles, and there it stayed until the summer of 1962.
The recovery of the diary is due entirely to the perseverance of Ken Lowe and I am deeply grateful to him for his efforts. We had often thought it would be interesting if the diary could be found – perhaps one or two of us would be on holiday in that part of the world one day. Nothing was done until, several years ago, Edward Ward of the BBC was doing a broadcast programme from Italy called “Return to Sulmona” [Ward had been a PoW in Sulmona – see his memoir “Give Me Air”, Bodley Head, 1946 – Ed.]. Ken at once wrote asking if he would try to recover the diary, but received no reply.
Then in July 1961, after reading a book [possibly “Return Ticket” by Anthony Deane-Drummond, which contains the same plan as on Digital page 33 – Ed.] which featured an escape from Sulmona and which included a plan of the camp, Ken wrote to the Mayor of Sulmona seeking his help. As the camp was under military administration, the Mayor forwarded the letter to the Italian War Office in Rome. Eventually a reply was received from a Col. Georgio Bonoli, who said he would be pleased to help, but doubted success as 75 per cent of the camp had been demolished. After consultation with me, Ken sent him a plan of the camp marking the building we thought we were in.
In January 1962 a letter arrived from Col. Bonoli with apologies for it being “molto in ritardo”, enclosing some notes by Arthur Dodds covering events on Oct 3rd and 4th and Oct 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th – so they had located the right hut, and presumably it was still intact, but had not found my diary. Ken wrote again to thank Col. Bonoli and to ask him to have another look.
Eventually in July 1962 my diary was handed by the Italian W.O. To Col. W.M. Ingli[s?], British Military Attaché in Rome, who went to considerable trouble to check Ken’s credentials
[Digital page 36]
and, to make sure the diary did not go astray, he sent it to him c/o the War Office London under ‘secret’ cover.
On Sept 14th 1962 the diary reached me, 19 years all but a few days after I had started writing it. Mice or more probably moths had nibbled a few holes in the paper cover, otherwise it was in good condition and every word was legible. Apart from two corrections to the spelling and the addition of a few commas, this is an exact copy.
[Digital page 37]
Diary of Beverl[e]y Edge (In roof of Sulmona Camp for 19 years)
1st day – Thursday 30 September 1943 (George’s birthday)
12.15 – We are in the grub queue when the shout goes up – “Parade in 5 mins” – Will this be the 1st party for Germany? – We agree to take no risks and get up in the roof at once – we grab our kit, whip the ladder out of the window. – With friends keeping a watch, all 5 are soon in the roof and kit is being handed up. – Bricks are replaced – the others dash off to the parade.
In 15 mins they are back with the news that 700-odd leave at 2 o’clock – that includes everyone in our building, so we shall be left alone in the roof (if they don’t find us). However, 2 friends who are “stopping” have promised to get in touch when they can.
We soon learn that 90 officers were missing from the parade – 40 of these were soon rounded up.
Thursday night was hectic. British ORs went round the buildings shouting “Come down from the roofs, Jerry will machine-gun the ceilings”. – This news brought a few from their hiding places. – There was a tremendous crash as people in the roof of the next building baled out through the ceiling.
We slept little, truck and MC engines buzzed most of the night as vehicles came and went from the camp. – The boards were hard, but the bugs were not nearly as bad as expected.
We all used the lavatory before 9 a.m. (Roll Call time) and I cut and buttered 2 slices of bread each. We then prepared for a long, still, silent morning. – We knew there would be a thorough search. There was – it lasted until, I think, after 12 o’clock – our hearts were in our mouths as [words missing] Germans search just a foot or two below us.
Would they notice the plaster that had fallen away at the junction of wall and ceiling. If they did would they connect it with our entrance to the roof outside the building just under the overhanging tiles – No, the search is over and we are still OK.
Friday afternoon – pretty quite – played a rubber of bridge – but soon had to give it up as the light was so bad.
Friday night quiet – Night time, on the whole, is the most worrying time – Everything is so quiet – a cough, snore or creak of a board seem [words missing] echo through the night. Ken and Arthur had
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colds which did not help, any coughing and nose blowing had to be carried out as far as possible while lorries or MCs were passing the building.
Normal routine is lavatory before roll call – breakfast after roll call and search – Supper our only other meal we have about 6 p.m.
We started with about 60 pints of water – between us we have consumed 2 pints a day so far – we have sufficient food for 12 days more; we could go a little longer if necessary – we started with about 12 Italian loaves – the remainder of our food is Red Cross – about 6 parcels.
After the 6 o’clock meal we prepare to lie down for the night – we lie down most of the day too – there is only just over 3 ft head room in the middle of the roof, sloping down to nothing at each side. We have a double thickness of blanket under us and a blanket each to put over us at night. We need these and all our clothes to keep warm – only 2 of us have Gt. coats.
3rd day – Saturday 2nd October 1943
An awful day – it seems that some more people are leaving – probably the remainder of the officers – mostly Americans – Roll call is followed by a strenuous search – which seems to last nearly all day – There is an almighty clatter going on in the building below us – they are smashing the roof in – we are all lying on our backs, motionless, staring at the wood and tiles a few inches above, our hearts hammering away at our ribs – It seems almost certain that our number is up – we decide to have a good tuck into our rations, if we get the [words missing] they reach our roof – if we are caught our food will be confiscated.
Meanwhile the noise goes on, it seems as though the building next door must be razed to the ground by now.
Heavy boots are clanking on the concrete floor of our building – someone kicks a box – a bed or table is pushed to one side, they are right underneath us now – “Come on – Bust open the ceiling – let’s get it over” – my heart is working a shuttle service between my boots and my mouth. The boots clanked out again, and soon demolition starts
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on the building above.
Many times the boots returned and many times we died a thousand deaths. However, by evening the situation was more or less calm and we had a good supper of bread, bully and Canadian meat roll.
Just after dark (7 p.m.) we had news the camp would be emptied during the next day or two and occupied by German troops – The thought that the empty premises under us might at any time be occupied by German soldiers was not cheering, however we passed a reasonable night.
4th day – Sunday 3rd October
We have had no news at all from the outside world. There has been a certain amount of half hearted searching – and it appears from our only peep hole that a good many more prisoners have been taken away.
Sunday afternoon – there has been a good deal of MT activity. It is impossible for us to guess what the situation is.
Sunday evening – we have heard nothing of our own people for some time. Those in the next building have gone. It seems they have all gone – however there may be a few left as the guard still patrols the path at the end of our building – of course may be to keep Ites out.
A very unpleasant evening – a wretched man (there appeared to be only one) spent a long time poking around this and adjacent buildings. We lay motionless for over an hour – then while the fellow was pottering about in the next building we had our supper – a slice of bread and jam each. We had opened a tin of salmon but dare not risk the noise of removing from tin – our [words missing] satisfied. There is a certain amount of MT buzzing about until about 9 p.m. after that it is very quiet for the rest of the night. It rains pretty hard.
5th day – Monday 4th October
Quiet first thing – we can still hear the sentry on his beat. We had the salmon for breakfast with the last of the bread – very good it was too – some of the water is a bit rusty, but it does not taste too bad – to this morning’s ration we mixed a generous amount of Klim – delicious [words missing]
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came round tapping the floor and walls.
For the last hour a fellow on a MC has been roaring through and around the camp – evidently a new toy.
Yesterday and today there has been considerable air activity in this part of the world for the 1st time since Armistice – mainly German planes we assume – although this morning we heard the Sulmona air raid alarm, so our boys were about.
It is pretty quiet now (1.30 p.m.). Ken is lying on his back studying the roof – George has just tired of Poker Patience and is following Ken’s example – Bobby is sitting with hands round his knees, head slightly bent to avoid the roof, casting a vacant scowl at our small dark world. Arthur is reading the Bible by the small beam of light that comes in under the tiles through the loose bricks where we made our entrance. I am writing this by the same beam. The light is very bad and it is only possible to read, write or play cards when the sun is at its brightest; if a cloud passes over work must be temporarily abandoned.
[Cut-away drawing of men in the roof of the hut]
Sanitary arrangements are rather tricky – water containers, as they are emptied, serve as urinals. Our main contraption is a tin box, about 3’ x 1’ x 1’ on a small platform at the end of the roof – it is reached by crawling, on all fours, along single planks running down the middle of the roof. It is a slow and tiring journey, as everything we do must be done absolutely silently – one false step, cough or bumped head may give us away. Some Red Cross boxes filled with earth
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and a tin of de-lousing powder complete our sanitary equipment. We think the place will be reasonable to live in for 2 weeks or so – but hope we can get away before then.
2 p.m. Some more Germans arrive. The worst has happened. 3 vehicles and a dozen or so men have occupied this building.
We managed to get in a quick meal of meat roll, biscuit and milk while they were making a good deal of noise.
They played the gramophone in evening – mostly English records – Lambeth Walk, One Night of Love, etc. – What a night – we had to settle down soon after 5 before it got dark.
About 9 our hosts went to bed. We agreed that we must all keep awake all night. From 5 p.m. to 8 o’clock Tuesday morning we lay motionless on our backs in the pitch dark – there was hardly a sound from below – now and again a sleeper turning and one fellow coughed a good deal. We hardly dared breathe, but had to whisper from time to time to make sure everyone is awake.
6th day – 5th October
This morning we were only able to prepare chocolate and milk for breakfast and that not until 1 p.m. We are doing as much slumbering as possible. These fellows look like staying for a bit, so we shall have no sleep again tonight.
Air raid alarm went again this morning.
Wireless programme this evening. Vast improvement on gramophone which is tinny and records and needles old.
Another night over – now [words missing]. It seems impossible to go through the night without one or two small noises [but] our hosts appear to be heavy sleepers.
Yesterday Ripley-Duggan and Dick Smith were found or caught or maybe they were out of food and water and had had to pack in – we [just] heard them talking as the Germans were marching them away – bad luck – we must be the only prisoners here now. Hurry up 8th Army.
Bully, biscuit and [words missing] for breakfast. We have just [word missing?] finished, and from below [comes] the smell of bacon [words missing]
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strains of a sweet melody.
Uneventful afternoon, bad night. Arthur having dropped off to sleep coughed loudly at about 4.30 a.m. and then performed what sounded like a double somersault. He was silenced immediately. The incident was followed by a low conversation between 2 Germans below – one of them put on his boots and went out. We just waited, expecting him to return with an officer or perhaps some of the guard. We felt pretty awful. We had put up with a good deal for a week and our hopes of success had been pretty high. This seemed to knock the bottom out of everything. We just waited – 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 7 o’clock – nothing happened.
8th day – 7th October
It was now Thursday and 10 o’clock, so we had breakfast – salmon, biscuit, milk. It was raining hard and one or two truck engines were running, so after breakfast we took the opportunity of reorganising the latrine under cover of the noise. During this operation there had been a good deal of noise going on below, and it appeared that quite a number were on the move somewhere. Imagine our surprise and joy when, on looking through the peephole, we discovered the building clear of beds and everything except debris.
A council of war was called at once, and a meal of bacon, biscuit and tinned strawberry was prepared in case we could beat it at dusk – it looked like being a good night for it – it was pouring with rain.
However, it soon became obvious that there were still a few Germans in the camp. A few more arrived by car and had a look round – two fellows spent a good deal of the afternoon moving furniture from the top compound, past the end of our building, to some place lower down (the camp is on a slope). We obviously cannot get away tonight, but nevertheless spirits are high. We should get a good night with the building to ourselves. Also the rapid disappearance of our downstair tenants has made us hope that this is the beginning of a big withdrawal caused by the success of the Allies on the East and West coasts.
Hope we shall not have to spend much longer up here – our chins are getting a bit rough – no wash or shave for over a week makes one feel a bit
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scruffy – I manage to pick around with a tooth brush now and again, also remove my socks and give my feet a good airing each day – I am expecting someone to kick up a row about this, but so far it has passed without comment.
I don’t think I have mentioned before that our living quarters are a section of the roof about 14’ x 6’ x 3’6” high in the middle, sloping to nothing at the sides – the floor is of good strong planks laid loosely over the beams – owing to shortage of planks, a little less than ¼ of this space is unfloored and therefore useless. There is only just room for the 5 of us to lie flat – food and water are on rough shelves in the next section of the roof.
Thursday night we decided that it was necessary for only one to stay awake at a time, so we arranged to work one shift of 2½ hours each.
About 9 p.m. a truck arrived and some Germans – about 6 I should say – came into our building. It looked as though our hopes of sleep were in vain – however, they left the building almost at once and we heard no more of them.
9th day – Friday 8th October
The worst day of my life so far – about 9 o’clock we heard the following: “This is a British officer, Lt. Ripley-Duggan speaking. The Germans have asked me to warn anyone who is hiding to come out at once, as they are going round the buildings with hand grenades – if this proves unsuccessful, they will demolish the camp. The situation appears to be that the Allied Forces are 3 days away – you have until 11 o’clock to get out.” We made no answer and heard Duggan repeat his piece to the next building. We had a quick council – decided to spread ourselves around the roof. Bobby would stay at the peep hole. We did not think hand grenades could do us much harm, but if they showed signs of tommy-gunning the roof, or putting a charge of H.E. in the building, he was to shout, and we would bale out through the ceiling.
It was a terrible morning – the banging started at 10.30. Every little noise sounded like someone making a hole in our brickwork ready for a charge.
Soon after 11, I should think, they reached our area – a grenade went off in the next building. Then the party
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came into our building – there were some Itis with them – they had a look round and went out – sweat was pouring off me. I was still wearing the 2 pullovers I wear at night – nothing happened. Then a grenade went off in the building the other side. After a few more bangs and crashes, the noise died down for a while.
We kept still for some long time after that, Bobby still watching and we had 2 more frights – the 1st when some Germans came in carrying a nasty looking box – however, they only had a look round and then left. A little later Bobby had just reported an Italian officer standing outside the door. I heard a clump as tho’ something had hit the floor or wall. Bobby’s head came back from the peephole as if he had rec’d a sharp upper cut. “What’s that?” I said. “[Word incomplete] he threw something in – some black object.” Nothing happened – Bobby put his eye back to the peephole – “OK it’s only an old boot!”
After an hour of comparative quiet, grenades started exploding again, but in another part of the camp – then quiet again.
Somewhere about midday, we all returned to the living quarter of the roof and had a drink of water – we needed it.
We lay still all afternoon and kept watch in turn. We were disturbed again several times by Germans, usually in pairs, some appeared to be searching, others scrounging.
The evening was very quiet, and the Germans who had been living in the vicinity of our building had evidently left.
We turned in that night feeling fairly hopeful – we had not been found and the evacuation of the camp had apparently started.
During the early part of the night there was considerable movement of MT outside the camp, and we hoped that perhaps we might find the camp empty in the morning but we were to receive a nasty shock.
We had finished our one [word missing] of bacon and biscuit and some [word missing] and were watching for the 1st sign of movement. Soon a car came in, stopped, 2 German officers got out, looked into the buildings in the vicinity and went up the camp. They were shortly followed by another German officer, accompanied by a “carab” and 2 tough looking German soldiers. They [words missing]
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passed to the building above us. We heard the carab calling “Avanti, avanti”. This was followed by a grenade thrown in by one of the Germans. So the fireworks had started again. They seemed to be doing a fairly detailed search, however they did not use an awful lot of grenades. It was an anxious time until we heard their cars drive away.
We had 2 visits after that, the first from 2 Germans, who only glanced round and went away taking 2 brooms with them. Then 2 German officers strolled in, they also only looked round and smashed a gramophone record which was lying on the ground. One them came so near the peephole that, with a thin stick about a yard long, I could easily have poked him in the eye.
A very quiet evening. We turned in feeling very confident, and dozed off to the continuous drone of what we took to be German transport fleeing northwards.
(Bambino asking “Where is the guard?”)
11th day – 10th October Sunday
A day of rest, no excitement. We saw just a few German soldiers scrounging.
Discussion as to whether to cut down our daily water ration – at present rate we can last 6 days. We have food for 9 or 10 days – decided to keep water same and increase food by 1 biscuit per day with jam or syrup and to review situation in 2 days’ time.
We feel that the events of the last few days, together with the sounds of demolition, both north and south of us, today, indicate that it is very unlikely that the Germans will be here for another 6 days – but who knows?
12th day – Monday 11th October
A quiet night last night. This morning has been quiet except for 2 lorries in one of the compounds above us. They sound as though they are loading up with something.
A German officer, the 1st person we have seen today has just passed the entrance of our building. He looked in and went off in the direction of the loading. The engine of the truck has been running all the while.
Yesterday (Sunday), as the siren was sounding, a large flight of British planes few directly overhead. It was a fine sound, but we were a bit anxious about their objective. This camp must
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be a wonderful target with its 100s of red roofs all very close together on the green hillside.
Monday did not end so quietly after all, several important looking people went round the camp and there were a few fireworks. They sounded to come from the bottom of the camp.
Quiet night apart from a few rifle shots. Rained nearly all night.
13th day – Tuesday 12th October
Quiet day. Important looking visitors (one in long cloak) had a look round – several men came from time to time, collecting wood.
Much cooler – we have reduced our water ration today to 2 Klim tins. Milk in the morning 1st thing and water 4.30 – 5 o’clock.
It is wonderful what beauty there is in water when you are short of it and thirsty. The old zinc bath we are using now is half full and that clear cool liquid is a sight for sore eyes – I should like to plunge my face in it and drink and drink and drink.
Very windy night and very cold. We could do with some more blankets. The wind blew down one of the bricks covering the entrance to our roof – a big blow – hope it won’t be noticed – nothing we can do about it anyway.
14th day – Wednesday 13th October
Another pretty quiet day.
I think we are all feeling a bit weak, and certainly feeling the reduced water rather. If only the people would go – we should all feel new men if we could get out and sink a good pint of water. I personally get very little [words missing – satisfaction?] out of my small amount of food – my mouth is always dry.
Large number of visitors turned up at dusk – about 60 spent the night in our building.
Cold night, but not as bad as last.
15th day – Thursday 14th October
Our visitors cleared out at about 9 a.m. – hoped they were leaving us altogether. They took kit with them. However, they or a similar number like them returned at midday. They are [words missing] around down there [words missing]. They look as tho’ they are waiting to leave. It’s a [words missing]
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troops on the way back, [word missing] we hope they are; we don’t mind so much.
I wish they would hurry, our water and rations are getting short.
Today we sorted out our hard rations and each took our share in case we have to leave in a hurry – these include tea and coffee which we cannot use up here – am looking forward to my first pint of hot tea!!!!
All the downstairs tenants left in the evening and many besides them.
A very quiet night. We could hear no sentry and were very hopeful, but [alas] in the morning there were still quite a few Germans about the camp.
16th day – Friday 15th October
Had a check up of water today – only 8 pints left. We are making this last until Tuesday night when we shall have to bale out – if it is raining Monday night, we shall take advantage of this and leave a day earlier. I hope it rains, this continually parched throat is getting me down. I have been sucking a prune stone all afternoon, but it does not make much difference.
My beard itches a good deal, particularly at night, not impetigo, I hope.
Bitterly cold again last night, the very short rations we are on make us feel it all the more.
Quiet night – quite a lot of movement on road.
17th day – Saturday 16th October
Thought we heard distant gun fire this morning – hope so – maybe thunder.
Discussion as to whether to jump out tonight [words missing] get water while [words missing]. If we could get water we could last 6 or 7 days longer.
– – – –
Here the diary ends. The account of the next two days I have written from memory, and allowance must be made for the passage of 19 years.
18th day – Sunday 17th October
We were awoken about 8 a.m. by the sound of loud explosions. We at once thought of the ultimatum read out by Ripley-Duggan on 8th Oct and the threat to demolish [words missing]
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through the valley, and it was impossible to locate the source.
Altogether there were about 75 explosions – after the first few we were able to recognise gunfire, the whine of shells in the air, and then the bursts. We also heard the sounds of falling masonry.
It was hardly conceivable that the Germans would try to demolish the camp in this manner; they might, however, if they were pulling out, give it a few rounds of gunfire just for good measure – and, as far as I remember, that is how we summed up the situation.
Anyway, there was nothing we could do except lie there, hoping for the best, not liking it at all.
19th day – Monday 18th October
A quiet day, I think – water almost exhausted. We decided to bale out, if possible, at about 10 p.m.
The time was passed planning what we would do if and when we got out, and packing our few belongings in our haversacks. We decided to carry one blanket each.
I think this must have been the day that a German soldier appeared in the doorway, looked [drawing of the hut showing exit of the group using the plank] furtively up and down the camp, then slipped in behind the door, lowered his trousers and, ignorant of the eye in the gallery, squatted and let nature take its course.
Later we put on our boots, and as silencers, our spare socks over them.
It was about 10 p.m. and all was quiet, so George – I think it was George – started to reopen the entrance, with Ken’s assistance. Gunner Spall had done a good job, it was a least 20 mintues before they were successful – it seemed longer. We could not risk the noise of bricks falling
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to the ground, and easing them carefully inwards was a tricky operation.
In the bright moonlight on the ground below our opening was a pile of empty food tins, about a yard across and nearly as high. It was impossible to drop clear of them, and to drop on them would create a din to be heard for miles.
Ken, being the tallest, agreed to start the exodus; and easing himself out, feet first and bottom uppermost, managed with help from above to lower himself until his feet just touched the window sill, which fortunately was directly below. He jumped clear of the tins and flopped to the ground, too dizzy to stand.
It seemed an eternity – perhaps 4 or 5 minutes, before he felt steady enough to get up. Then we passed him the longest plank from the roof, which he leant against the wall at an angle; the rest of us were able to lower ourselves to this and slide clear of the pile of tins.
These exertions, after 19 days of recumbency and short rations, left us all dizzy, and we had to rest for 5 minutes or so.
Meantime, near one of the wash huts, Ken had found a stand pipe where we were able to get water, and the next ten minutes were spent drinking vast quantities while we planned the next move.
Feeling that as a group we might be rather conspicuous, we had agreed previously to split into two parties, George, Bobby and Arthur forming one – Ken and I the other. It was decided now that one from each party [words missing] had a scout round to locate any guards and to decide the best way out.
It was clear that there were Germans in the administrative building at the bottom of the camp – the other compounds appeared to be deserted. We listened carefully, but could hear [word missing] sound of a guard at the top behind the 10 ft wall [word missing] a little lower than halfway down the camp, on each side, there was a breach in the wall, from there we could see that the gates at each end of the [words missing]
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During this reconnaissance George and I had a rather startling experience. We were passing a building which I think had been used as a cookhouse, George stopped just inside the doorway and help up his hand warning me to do the same. It was pitch dark inside. “I’m positive there’s someone in here,” he whispered. We were standing in the moonlight. I said, “He must be able to see you. Ask him if he’s British.” George said, “Are you British?” A voice said, “Yes, are you?” We went in and saw dimly a soldier. He said he had a good hiding place, was able to get in and out of it easily to get water, and having found food in the camp, was staying. We wished him luck and rejoined the others.
The best way out appeared to be through one or other of the two gaps in the wall, then up the camp between the wall and the wire, and over the wire at the top.
We drank more water and decided to try and break out without further delay, agreeing that Ken and I should use the gap in the southern wall, and George, Bobby and Arthur the other gap.
I think we went first, and the others were to start 15 minutes later.
Ken and I poked our noses round the wall. The moon shone down the road between the wall and the wire like a searchlight; by comparison the electric lights surrounding the camp looked dim. We heard the sentry lower down the road talk to someone, and we heard the gate open and shut. The chances of crossing the road unnoticed seemd slim.
Flat on our stomachs, we worked our way across to the first barbed wire fence. I put my folded blanket under the bottom wire, which was about 6 inches from the ground, pushed it up and Ken wriggled under; then he held the blanket for me. Crawling across 2 or 3 yards of rough grass we reached the shallow ditch just inside the main 10 ft wire fence, and make our way up the slope as rapidly and as quietly as possible to the top of the camp, about 50 yards, I guess.
We had gambled on there being no sentries here. There were none. It did not
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[words missing] it up the hill. After about twenty minutes we heard a few rifle shots some distance behind us, and wondered how the others were getting on.
It had been our intention to get well clear of the camp before dawn; we hoped to get a considerable way up the mountain then turn south.
I fear we turned south too soon, and going through an olive grove we heard men shouting. The shouting seemed to come from our right; we turned left and started to run, shots were fired, then more with tracer amongst them, uncomfortably close. I looked round and saw about six Germans closing on us; as I turned I fell. I don’t think I could have run any more anyway; and that was that as far as Ken and I were concerned.
We were taken into Sulmona and presented to the area commander, I think. He showed little interest, and seemed rather annoyed at being disturbed. We were then taken back to the camp we had so recently left, and less than 24 hours after leaving the roof, I was sitting on the pavement outside Sulmona railway station, trimming my beard with Ken’s nail scissors! So began the first stage of the long and uncomfortable [words missing – journey to?] Germany.
[words missing] heard that George, Bobby and Arthur had been successful. They met some friendly Italians, and were able to hide in a flat in Sulmona, where they stayed for 10 weeks or so.
After Christmas they were taken through the lines by an escape route in the mountains, and eventually back to England.