Clarke, W.J.F

Summary of W.J.F Clarke

W.J.F. Clarke provides a timeline, together with a brief, concise note covering the first part of his escape from Camp 49, as well as a short note on his escape from the train carrying the P.O.Ws to Germany. One of his fellow escapees was Lieut. A.R. Laing, M.C., R.E. In spite of the brevity of the report, he notes the generosity and bravery of the many Italian people who aided him and his fellow escapees.

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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All 168 Days ‘on the run’ Recorded!

Though after a month W.J.F. Clarke stopped keeping notes each day (or they have been lost) after his exit from Fontanellato where he was in those 168 days is accurately recorded and so it gives such facts to accounts of others such as Anthony Laing whom he quickly joined after they had carved a hole in the railways truck and jumped from the train taking them to Germany after recapture on the front line in the Abruzzi, hundreds of kilometres from Fontanellato. (300 miles as the crow flies according to the notes which most probably meant three times as far on foot up and down valleys.)

Anthony Laing took him back to Florence where a family had helped him and for two months they were well cared for over Christmas when two Germans, unknowingly, shared the fare of their mixed guests.  After going up to Venice and finding no exit there they were guided up to and quickly out of Milan.  “On 23rd February, 07:55 a.m., arrived Laveno and then by boat to Cannero, bus to Cannobio and up by cart to Socraggio.  24th Feb. dep 05:00

arr Peak -11:55 – and crossed front.  Gave ourselves up to Swiss frontier guards at 15:30.” (Feb 6th it is recorded “to see Madam Butterfly”.)

[handwritten note by Keith Killby: K.K. Dec. 2004]

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Escapee Notes and Diary – 168 days

September 1943
9           Escape from camp
10         Fontanellato (Grignaffini Farm)
11         ditto
12         Fontanellato (Gelati)
13-15   ditto
16-27   Cannétolo (Gotti Farm)
28         Costamezzano (North)
29         near San Pellegrino
30         Metti (Mike Ross & George Bell)

October 1943
1           Morfasso (Gary Cole and Branny Richards)
2           Bellagamba (South)
3           Pessola
4           Scanza
5           Segnatico
6           Scurano (Pyman and Frazer)
7           Sole
8           Maro
9-10     Gazzano
11         Casa Piccirella
_______________________________________________ (Notes end)

12         Dulcia
13         Ospedale
14         Gaggio Montana
15         Guzzano (Cumarano)
16         San Siacomo (Futa)
17         Castro San Martino
18         Moschetta
19         Marradi
20         Castell dell’ Alpe
21         San Paolo in Alpe
22-24   Rio Salso
25         Montecoronaro
26         Viamaggio
27         near Bocca Trabaria
28         near Fraccano
29         Pietralunga
30         Branca
31         near Nocera Umbro

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November 1943
1           Near Annifo
2           Femadre
3           near Abeto
4           Teracina (Cole & Richards) (dark on mtn)
5           Poggio Gancelli
6           Pizzoli
7           Casamaina
8           Terranera
9           Pagliare del Tione
10-15   Secinaro (held up by illness)
16         Corrita
17         Santa Maria (Phalp, Nichols, Bridger, etc)
18         Frattura
19         caught by German patrol in line (300 miles since flight from Camp 49)
20-23   Villetta Barrea
24-26   Sora
27-30   Frosinone

December 1943
1           in train near Rome
2           in train at Fara Saina
3           escaped in early hours of morning / night at Orte
4           Alviano
5           Orvieto
6           near Fabro
7           near Chiusi
8           near Alberero
9           Indicatore & train to St. Ellero, then up to Paterno
10         Paterno
11-12   Acone
13-20   Santa Brigida
21-22   Florence (Buti)
23-24   Florence (Giuliana Bighi)
25-26   Florence (Buti)
27         Florence (Righi)
28-31   Florence (Buti)

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January 1944
1           Florence
2           Florence
3           Florence
4           Florence
5           Florence (ORESTE lunch with Tarchiani)
6           Florence (to see La Bohéme)
7           Florence
8           Florence
9           Florence (Mumford arrived)
10         Florence (Identity card)
11         Florence
12         Florence
13         Florence
14         Florence
15         Florence
16         Florence (departure postponed)
17         Florence
18         Florence (panic due to Lind’s capture)
19         Florence (dep delayed owing to cancellation of trains)
20         Florence
21         Florence
22         dep from Florence 17:50. Arr Bologna 22:15
23         dep Bologna 03:00, arr Venice 10:00.  Mestre
24         night in hotel in Venice
25         Padova
26         Padova
27         dep Padova 06:55 arr Corticella 11:00 tram to Ruffilo dep 17:11 arr Florence 20:25
28         Florence
29         Florence
30         Florence
31         Florence

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February 1944
1           Florence
2           Florence
3           Florence
4           Florence
5           Florence
6           Florence (to see Madam Butterfly)
7           Florence
8           Florence
9           Florence
10         Florence
11         Florence
12         Florence
13         Florence
14         Florence
15         Florence
16         Florence
17         Florence
18         Florence
19         Florence
20         Florence
21         dep Florence 16:30 arr Bologna 23:00
22         arr Milan 13:45 stayed overnight
23         dep Milan 07:55 arr Laverno, then by boat to Cannero, bus to Cannobio, and up by cart to Socraggio
24         dep 05:00 arr Peak 11:55 and crossed frontier; gave ourselves up to Swiss frontier guards at 15:30.

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The possibility of an Armistice with Italy was first made known to the prisoners in camp 49 on the evening of September 8th 1943 at about 8:00 p.m.  No confirmation was available, but there seemed to be little doubt of the fact.  No special action was taken, and the POWs retired to bed as usual that evening.  In the morning the guards were still in their sentry boxes, and the SBO was informed at a meeting with the Commandant that he had received no orders from his HQ, but that in the event of an attack on the camp by the Germans, he would defend the camp, and therefore also the POWs, from such attack.  It was, however, fairly obvious that the forces at his disposal would be unable to put up any effective resistance against any German force, and it was later decided that in the event of news being received of German forces approaching the camp, the Commandant would allow the POWs to leave the camp area and take refuge in the neighbouring woods and fields. The alarm was sounded (by a British OR) at about 12:30 and by 1:00 all the POWs had left the camp, and were making their way into the surrounding countryside.  The Germans arrived at about 3:00 p.m., but apparently made no effort to round up the POWs, though this would not have been difficult. The whole of the POWs were still operating as an organised body. That night (9th/10th) was spent in a river cutting a few miles from the camp.

Next day it became increasingly obvious that it would not be possible to keep the whole 600 odd men in one body, under one officer, and therefore steps were taken to break people up into little groups. This was done in a number of ways, such as one of the companies moving off across the main Via Emilia.  A number of people, myself amongst them, volunteered to go and work on farms in the neighbourhood.  We exchanged our battle-dress for civilian clothes and were then taken, in twos and threes to farms in the immediate neighbourhood.  The farm I went to with Jacovides was so bad that we were very soon fed up with the place and tried to get ourselves moved.  One Signorina Bianca Gelati of Fontanellato, who had previously brought us food and tins from Red Cross Parcels, made arrangements for us to go and stay at her house in Fontanellato for a few days, until some other arrangement could be made.  We were well looked after by B. and her sister, but it was very soon apparent that they were very nervous, and that we would not be able to stay there for long. She arranged for us to stay at a farm at Cannétolo, with the family Gotti.  At this stage the Germans had started putting up posters etc offering rewards to anyone who handed over a British POW, and at the same time threatening considerable punishments to anyone who was caught harbouring a POW.  In spite of these notices the Italians did not, as far as I know give up any prisoners.

Jacovides and I were extremely comfortable at the Gotti’s. The food was very good and plentiful, and we had comfortable beds in which to sleep at night.  Our midday meal was brought to us as we lay in the fields under the grape vines, as it was not considered advisable that we should be around the house during the day.  Bianca came out from Fontanellato daily with newspapers, and also all the latest local news.  We listened to the BBC daily at 9:00 in the evening and heard the latest news from England. This incidentally, was the first time we had heard Big Ben for about two and a half years. I scribbled down as much of the news as I could get, and then passed it round next morning to other officers whom I knew were in the area.

We could have stayed on at the Gotti’s indefinitely, but it became obvious to me that the British forces were not going to make any rapid advance up the Italian peninsula. In fact at this time they were struggling for a very precarious foothold on the beaches of Salerno. It therefore seemed to me that something had to be done. Jacovides was in favour of staying and waiting for the British to arrive.  At the worst he said it would be a matter of a month or two. I reckoned about three to six months, which was too long for me to wait.  In actual fact the 5th Army arrived there at the end of April 1945, nearly 20 months

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As Jacovides would not come away at this time, I looked for another travelling companion. Marcus Kane-Burman was looking for someone to join him and so we decided to set off together.  He had promised to take AB McLean with him, so the three of us agreed to push off south towards the British Lines. Our first obstacle was the Via Emilia Highway; we decided it would be a good thing to move so as to arrive at the VE just as it was getting light.  On the evening of the 27th September we had a final conference at about 5:30 and I decided to leave the Gotti’s farm and come over the farm where KB was sleeping for the night.  I left Gotti’s after it had got dark and made my way over to Cannétolo village.  Incidentally there was much weeping etc. at the Gotti’s farm when I announced my departure.  They considered that I was very unwise, and that I could stay there with them for a long as I liked.  They had been most kind to me and I was sorry to leave them, but the possibility of a German round-up in the area seemed to me to be too great to allow me to go on endangering this family.  The penalty for them would of course be much worse than it would be for me, in the event of my being rounded-up.

When I arrived at KB’s “home” at about 9:00 p.m. on the 27th, I found that news had been brought in by Gordon Beasley (supposedly from the BBC) that Kesselring had detached some troops to stop the flow of prisoners who were making their way south.  Subsequent events proved that this must have been only a rumour, but at the time we were rather impressed by it, and we promptly held another council of war.  We decided that it would perhaps be better to make our way northwards and try to get into Switzerland.  Having come to this decision we went to bed.

September 28

The next morning we got up at about 4:30 and prepared to set off.  We were almost persuaded not to go, because the weather was foul and there was a steady drizzle.  Mac’s family produced some hot coffee, which cheered us up a bit, and at about 5:00 we departed.  We reached the railway line and the Via Emilia and crossed both of them without incident.  This “success”, coupled with the fact that the rain had now stopped, raised our spirits quite a bit, and we tramped on quite gaily.  At Nocera we had our first nasty moment.  We passed a woman on the road, and although we looked pleasant to her and bade her good-morning, she gave us a dirty look and started to run towards the village soon after she had passed us.  The whole thing was almost certainly only imagination on our part, but we were rather sensitive to the slightest thing at that stage, and consequently we were apt to let our imagination run away with us.  We took no chances, however, and withdrew from the road, and for the next hour or so we kept to the woods.  Round about 11:00 we had arrived at Costamezzano and as it had started to rain, we pulled in to a farm house, where we stayed for the rest of the day.  This was a particularly good billet and we managed to dry our clothes in front of the fire.  That night we slept in the hayloft.

September 29

Next morning we pushed on at about 9:00, with the sun shining cheerfully.  The day happened to be a “festa”, which meant that all the locals were lounging about the roadways and near the pubs, and caused us some embarrassment as we went by.  During the day we met David Erskine, and later Vyan and Dene.  At 5:00 p.m. we pulled in near San Pellegrino, where we again had a good billet at a farm.

September 30

We moved on next day (Thurs, 30th Sept) again in fine weather.  A minor tragedy occurred at our start – as our one and only piece of Red Cross soap was left behind.  We lunched at the roadside off our haversack rations, plus some eggs we had collected and had had boiled.  Metti was our evening halt, this time not quite so comfortable, but adequate.  Mike Ross and George Bell came into our

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“house” in the evening, having apparently been in the village for some time. K-B earned his keep here by pulling out a couple of teeth for the members of the household.

October 1

The Friday was not such a good day, as it started to rain heavily soon after we started out.  We had to take shelter by the side of the road for some time, but eventually we got to a village where we enquired at the local pub for lunch – and got a very good one, although we had to wait a good while for it.  The pub-keeper’s wife had been in Wales for many years, and although Italian, spoke good English, but with a strong Welsh accent.  After lunch we pushed on to Morfasso where there was some difficulty in getting accommodation owing to the fear of the villagers for the local Fascist.  There were a number of English speaking characters in this village.  Here we held a council of war, and decided that after all, it would be a good thing to try to reach the British lines rather than go to Switzerland, and we therefore determined to waste no more time, but to turn South on the following day.  After we had gone to bed in our hayloft, we were suddenly awakened by two or three people, who were pointing revolvers at us.  It appeared that we had been suspected of being Boches, and they were making an investigation.  The “investigators” turned out to be none other than Branny Richards and Garrard Cole whom I had known at Camp 17, so we had no difficulty in establishing our identity.

October 2

Therefore the morning of the 2nd October saw us start on our trip southwards, and although we were somewhat aggrieved at having to retrace our steps, we did feel that we were doing the right thing.  That night we reached Bellagamba, where the inhabitants seemed to have everything laid on, and the next night we reached

October 3

Péssola after a somewhat worrying crossing of the Ceno river, which we waded – probably unnecessarily – and after a night march in the company of a guide, who although crippled, made it difficult for us to keep up with him.  At Péssola we were invited up to the priest’s house to listen to the 9:00 news on the wireless.  The news did nothing much to reassure us, as the Allied progress at this stage was not very encouraging.

October 4-5

Scanza and Segnatico were our next two objectives.  At each of them we slept in haylofts and generally had plenty of food.  Before leaving Scanza K-B once again paid his way by pulling out a couple of teeth, this time for a child.  All this tooth extraction had of course to be done without any sort of anaesthetic, and was quite unpleasant, not only for the victims, but also for us who were helping, and listening to their screams.

October 6

On Wednesday we reached Scurano, where we met up with Pyman and Frazer, who had just arrived from Fontanellato by car.  They told about the mopping up operations that the Germans had been carrying out in the area, and of the capture of a number of 49-ers.  We had the best supper to date, at Scurano – a meal which K-B unfortunately had to forego owing to stomach trouble.

October 7

Next day we did a very short trip to Sole, owing to the torrential rain which caused us to shelter for several hours.  A warm stable, good food and a roaring fire by which to dry our clothes welcomed us here.

October 8

On again next day to Maro, where the locals appeared to have some doubt as to our identity.  Eventually we managed to convince them, and then they could not do enough for us.  Plenty of food was provided, and our clothes were given a thorough overhaul.  We were also taken to listen to the village wireless set to hear the BBC once again.

October 9

On Saturday, the 9th October, our destination was rather uncertain, and we eventually went a good deal further than we had intended.  This was because we met up with four old boys who were going in our general direction, and invited us to go with them to

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Gazzano.  This involved a long trip in the dark, and in pouring rain but we finally reached our destination.  One of the guides was about 70, and with his party had done a round trip of about 25 miles that day to attend a meeting of the rural district council, or its

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Italian equivalent.  On the way we met Finch, Abbott, Stephenson and Dumant, all ex-49er.  At Gazzano we were split up between different houses, and were well looked after.  Our clothes were thoroughly dried out, and in fact washed and mended, other clothes being loaned to us in the meantime.

October 10

We had decided to stay for an extra day at Gazzano to have a rest and generally to get our kit just right.  We didn’t have any difficulty in persuading the people to let us stay, but we moved round to different houses for meals to lighten the load on any one family.  We tried to get some decent maps from the priest, or in fact from anyone who would give us them, but we had no success in this respect.  We had been relying on the silk map up to now and though this was worth its weight in gold it didn’t give much detail, nor was it very accurate.  During our Sunday of rest at Gazzano, Gordon Dickens and Squ. Ldr.[Squadron Leader] Barr (an Australian from Corp 5) came through the village.  So did several other non B.S.

October 11

We left next day in bad weather – fine drizzle and mist – and had a new treat, “elevenses”.  We stopped at a wayside pub to enquire the way, and were promptly offered hot coffee (or the drink known euphemistically as coffee) which was most welcome after the rain.  We had to cut our trip short at about 3:00 in the afternoon as we were getting very high up on the slopes of Alpe Sigonella and there was a definite danger of getting caught in a mist.  We therefore stopped at a tiny hamlet known as Casa Piccirella, consisting of about 3 or 4 houses.  We had a guide for the last part of the trip – a good thing as this was hardly the type of country in which to get lost in the mist.

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October 12

Next day we had to cross this mountain which rose to about 5,000 feet and for this part of the trip we were again fortunate to have guides – a family with two mules, returning to their home after a season of charcoal burning up in the hills.

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Bovington Camp. 321.

Ref. DDMI (P/W)/AW/263

To – D.D.M.I. (P/W),
War Office,
Room 327, Hotel Victoria,
Northumberland Avenue,

Reference your memo. of 12.3.45, the following particulars are supplied:-
(a) Major Fane-Hervey, M.C., R.T.R.
Capt. M. Kane-Burman, S.A.M.C.
Capt. Macaulay, R.A.M.C.
Lieut. A.R. Laing, M.C., R.E.

The names of other Officers who escaped are not known, but as far as I can remember not less than 8 (including myself) escaped at this time.  It is possible that others escaped later, but this is not certain.  There were 26 Officers in the truck.

(b) Details of the escape are as follows – An axe, which had been taken from the Germans in the P.O.W. Camp at Frosinone was concealed and taken into the train.  After the train had started the wall of the cattle truck was cut partly through by means of the axe, it being intended to complete the hole after dark.  On the first night, however, (Dec. 3rd/4th) the train remained stationary in Rome station all night, and no escape was possible.

On the next night (4th/5th) the train started at about 1:30 a.m. and the work of cutting the hole was immediately completed.  Just before 2:00 a.m. I escaped, a number of others having already gone in the previous few minutes.  The hole was made in the forward end of the truck over the coupling, as shown at X

[A line-drawn diagram of box cars, with X marked.]

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and the escape was made by climbing through this hole on the coupling and so on to buffers and then jumping clear.  The train was moving at about 15-20 m.p.h. at the time.

The truck B in which I was, was placed immediately in front of the passenger coach A in which were the German Guards.  There were also guards in a number of the brakesman’s boxes on the ends of the goods trucks.  Whenever the train stopped, these guards would immediately alight from their carriage and spread themselves out along both sides of the train until it restarted.  It was thus more or less impossible to escape while the train was stationary, or in daylight, owing to the proximity of the coach carrying the guards.

Immediately after jumping from the truck I walking along the track and re-joined Lt. Laing, who had jumped in front of me.  We then remained hidden until daylight, after which we continued on our way to Florence.

6670 Lieut. R.E.M.E.
18 Command Workshops,
Bovington Camp,
Wareham, Dorset.
6th April, 1945.

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