Dobson, Tony


Major-General Anthony Henry George Dobson’s CB, OBE, MC, story is a heart-warming story and a valuable memoir of how escapes into neutral Switzerland were organised. He was captured during the battle of Gazala in north Africa and was interned by the Italians in Campo PG29 near Veano, north Italy. Following the Italian Armistice in 1943, he helped to set up an escape route into Switzerland. He eventually made his own way there via Milan and Como. While interned in Switzerland, he met his future wife, Nellie Homberger, on the ski slopes.

Part One is told in Tony Dobson’s own words. Part Two was put together by his son, Mark Dobson, from information Major-General Dobson left on a tape-recording held by the Imperial War Museum (ref 4670-5), and from his letters home from the PoW camp and Switzerland.

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

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Part 1

Tony Dobson was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Engineers in 1931. At the beginning of the Second World War he was in Iraq, having been seconded to the RAF to assist in surveying duties. He was then posted to Egypt where he served in the HQ of the Middle Eastern Command. In April 1942 he was promoted to Major and was seconded to the 150th Infantry Brigade on the Gazala line in Libya. At the end of May the Afrika Korps under Rommel attacked the Gazala line and he was captured and became a prisoner of war of the Italians. He was interned in Campo PG29 in Veano near Piacenza. On the capitulation of Italy in September 1943 the camp gates were opened and all the inmates walked out. After a few days hiding in the countryside nearby he and a handful of other officers settled in a farmhouse where they organised an escape line to Switzerland with the assistance of local partisans. Finally he decided that it was time for himself to make his way to freedom.

In his own words:

“An organisation was set up by, I think, a chap called Colonel Boddington … who was a sapper colonel, to feed away the large number from our particular camp, who had done exactly as we had, found their way into farms dotted around the countryside in those parts. His plan was that as myself and Stephen Radcliffe were both sappers … he would take us onto his staff … and employ us as reasonably fit young men … to charge round the hills – it was quite mountainous around there – find where these people were and collect them together at appropriate times and feed them into the machine which was transferring them to Switzerland. There was no other plan, they were going to Switzerland, there was no plan to move anybody to the south or to join the partisans or anything of that sort. And it was run on the Italian side … by a man whose name I never discovered, he was always known to us the Gangster. He lived in Piacenza, he ran a big garage with a fleet of hire cars, and he was collecting lira from the Germans by hiring these cars out and then handing over the lira to the escape organisation run by Boddington to pay fares and buy clothes and things to enable the British to move themselves to Switzerland … I believe that this chap was eventually picked up by the Germans, not I think … for helping the British prisoners escape, or indeed helping the partigiani or anybody else, but for some purely technical fault with the cars he was hiring. And of course the whole story came out. Rumour has it he was then duly shot.

“I don’t know how many guides there were… [their] business was to collect small groups of British [soldiers] and … take them in the train to the Italian-Swiss frontier and pass them over. These men were what the Italians called contrabbandieri, or smugglers. The trade was tobacco against saccharine. What the trade was in peace time I don’t know. I can’t remember now whether it was the Swiss who got the tobacco and the Italians the saccharine or the other way round! Francesco was our particular chap, a distinctly charming young man, who had done a lot of these trips. In due course it was arranged that I and one or two others would go. In the meantime I lived with an extraordinary family way up in the Appenines. I have never seen such enormous people! Great big father, two enormous sons, two daughters with fists like hams. And a sizeable mother as well. They were living in a farmhouse in tolerable comfort – they had plenty to eat in the sense of pasta, but the only meat that I can recollect that we had in the whole time I was there was a squirrel, and that divided between the family of five and me meant that it didn’t go very far! She made her own pasta and it was great fun watching her doing it, it was very high quality stuff too. I went out from there in every direction, tramping over the hillside finding these people wherever they were and telling them to stay put until I came back and told them what day they could be moved to Switzerland. I did this for about three weeks. And then it seemed to me that it was my turn… I returned to the Ansielmi family because they were nearer to the station at … Ponte del Ollio, on the railway which ran to Piacenza. They said that I couldn’t go to Switzerland dressed like that, I must be properly dressed, so how would I like to be dressed? I replied that I had better look a middle grade executive or businessman of some sort. So they went off and the very next day they came back with a suit – it must have cost them thousands of coupons on the black market or something – a hat and tie, a handkerchief. And a pencil. I asked, what was the pencil for? They said that all Italian businessmen have a pencil sticking out of their pocket. I accepted this as good advice. And then we had a colossal party, they killed another goose, it was really a terrific farewell … The next day we went down to the station where we were

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to meet Francesco and three other [British] officers… We went from Piacenza to Milan, then we had to take a tram to the station for Como. That was a little alarming, we were right in the middle of Milan, where it was business very much as usual, with German troops in every direction. However nothing happened and we got to the station and got some more tickets there. The Italians love this sort of thing; we went down to the gentlemen’s lavatory, a chap came in front of us and went ‘psst’ and shoved the tickets into our hands. I don’t think that that was really necessary, but still that’s what happened. And then we sat in the train for a very long time before it started … It was a bit trying, a little boy came and did tricks in the train and then asked us for money, and we hadn’t got any. It’s very difficult to say ‘go away’: even though we did speak a certain amount of Italian it certainly wasn’t the Italian they spoke in Milan! But it all passed off all right.

“Eventually we arrived in Como … We walked across the local square there, which was right in the middle of the German Headquarters, again nothing happened, and we took a boat … a pleasure steamer. I think this was really the most trying and interesting part of the whole journey because the boat was running a girls’ school outing, girls of about 18 I suppose. Well, we hadn’t seen many girls for about two years; there we were, cooped up in this boat with all these very pretty girls, I very nearly chucked my hand in and said I’m not going to Switzerland, I’m staying here, but in the end they persuaded us to be brave, and they launched us onto terra firma at a little place called Moltrasio … We had by then picked up two Italians – I don’t know who they were but they were nice chaps, middle aged gentlemen, and they said that they were with the partisan organisation. They had a radio, I think in Milan, which was in communication with the British Embassy in Bern … but they had either mislaid or changed the ciphers and they couldn’t any longer decipher what was coming through, and they wanted to come to Switzerland with us, partly because this was the way to get there without having to go through the customs and immigration at the frontier, and partly because they hoped that we would be able to vouch for them. We said, that’s all very well but we don’t know who you are, but we don’t mind you coming with us. One was a chap called Marco something or other, he’d been an agent for one of the big companies in England and in Milan, and on the whole on the course of our journey with him we came to the conclusion that he was quite genuine. Anyway he came with us all the way. In Moltrasio we went to a house quite near the disembarkation point. Moltrasio is a little village quite like Clovelly,1 it has no street, you climb up steps up the hillside … We waited there with the wife of the chap who was supposed to be the chief contrabbandiere who was going to actually take us over the frontier, the man who knew the way, but he wasn’t there. She was quite happy to see us. We were wondering what was happening, this was daytime, quite early in the morning, absolutely nothing happened until about 5 o’clock in the evening, and then the smuggler suddenly appeared. It couldn’t have been more typical, one moment he wasn’t there and the next moment he was! A little man about 4 foot 6 wearing gym shoes, and he said, we must go to my uncle’s house, we can’t stay here. Well, in time we moved to the uncle’s house, who lived up at the top of the village, quite a walk up the village street which was very steep, and the first thing we saw at the uncle’s house was rifle with a bayonet on it, and hanging on the bayonet one of those slouch hats with a feather in it, which the Italian mountain troops, the bersaglieri, wear. We really thought this was the end, all that they’ve done is to hand us over to the local military. However this was far from the truth, because we were hastily assured that the bersagliere soldier was a key man in the whole proceedings, because his duty was to stand as sentry on the frontier and see that nobody crossed it, or alternatively to receive 50 lira from everyone who did, and he was one of the ones who did just that. And so we started off that very evening, from the village on the shores of Lake Como, straight up into the mountains up a very steep cobbled road, allegedly built by Napoleon and no doubt it was, about I suppose one or two thousand feet vertically up, it was getting dark. We came to a mountain hut or farm where they said, here we spend the night. We were then seven people, plus the bersagliere soldier, plus the guide Francesco plus the contrabbandiero … one enormous bed, and a barn full of newly mown grass – not hay but grass, and therefore very wet. I said, very selfishly, I’m sorry I’ve got flu, I feel absolutely awful, I’m not going to sleep on wet grass. So I was allowed to sleep in the bed, with three other people, and everybody else piled into the hay. The next morning we got up at dawn; it was now late October and it had been snowing in the Appenines where we had been, but it was lovely in Como, except for the morning fog, and as the sun came through it was absolutely beautiful; the lake gradually appeared through the fog. But it was obviously no time to stay in people’s barns or haystacks. Even the one I’d been in recently which was over the cows and therefore reasonably centrally heated: cows give off a lot of heat! We felt no compunction about moving ourselves to the rather more civilised atmosphere of Switzerland … We set off with the bersagliere leading the team with my hat sitting

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on the end of his bayonet instead of his own which he was wearing and the guide. The nearer we got to the frontier the more … ‘cloak and dagger’ the whole thing became with a lot of ‘psst’ and hiding behind trees, and eventually we arrived at an enormous chain link fence. It was really a rather surprising thing to find up there. They said we stop here, and we said how are we going to cross this? It was about 10 feet high I suppose, with three strands of barbed wire at the top and three strands at the bottom. A pretty formidable obstacle to get over, and in the middle of a wood although there was an old cobbled road up to it. And a sentry box into which the bersagliere soldier took up position … we said, what do we do now? And they said, we’ll pass you though the fence, but first let us give you some advice. You see up there? And we looked up the mountain, about a thousand feet up there was a big building, and they said, that’s the carabiniere barracks, you don’t want to get near there! And we said that we wouldn’t go near there if we could help it. They said, otherwise you just go … The next thing that happened was they lifted up the fence, they said, here’s the place to go through, and there was a perfectly good gap through this thing, somebody had made a gap through the barbed wire at the bottom. The chief guide went to bottom of the chain link fence, lifted it up and we all passed underneath, and our modest goods consisting of a razor and a couple of handkerchiefs wrapped in a cloth were thrown over the top, and there we were in Switzerland. The sentry presented arms, everybody said arrivederci, the two Italians went back the way they came and we and the other two Italians who were with us who knew no more about it than we did were left standing one yard inside Switzerland wondering what to do next. And so we said that the obvious thing is not to go up that way, we must go down, the other way. And so we set off down the mountain, it seemed the sensible thing to do, through the woods, [it was] very easy to lose your bearings. We kept on coming back to the frontier fence which was rather stupid! Eventually we found a road and we said that if it goes down it must go to Switzerland, if it goes up it goes back to Italy. We set off down this road, and eventually we met some Swiss soldiers, two I think 2… The Swiss were very cunning of course, and manned their frontier with Italy with German-speaking soldiers, and the frontier with France with Italian-speaking soldiers, and the frontier with Germany with French-speaking ones. Which was obviously a very sensible thing to do, they couldn’t communicate with the other side. But it made it difficult for us: I don’t think anyone in our party spoke much German, and in any case they spoke Schweizerdeutsch. However they were very welcoming, and they said they wondered where we were, [as if] they knew we were coming, I don’t know how. We were led off to Chiasso – quite a long walk, and we had already walked up the mountain so we were quite tired by then. In Chiasso we were looked after, by the Swiss Red Cross I suppose. They provided odd items like a handkerchief and a piece of soap, that kind of thing. We spent that night there in a school … and then we went to Bellinzona. In Bellinzona they had a bigger set-up just outside the town … which must have been a factory or a warehouse … in which they were doing exactly the same as the Italians: it was a quarantine camp. We stayed there a few days. We refused to have our hair cut as the Swiss wanted us to do; we said no, British officers don’t have their hair shaved. And we won that one actually! The Swiss were very charming as usual, they were also I suppose conscious of the fact that one day the war would be over and there might be some potential tourists among the prisoners of war! And we were classified as an odd thing called evadés de guerre, which is not at all the same thing as a person who is interned, because there are rules about internment. One of them is of course that you can’t be repatriated until the war is over, because an interned person is somebody who has entered the foreign state, the neutral state, armed. This is what happened to the Polish Division. They, with great pride, marched across France before Dunkirk, arrived at the Swiss frontier, and demanded to be allowed to enter. The Swiss said, well, put your guns down and come in. And they said no, we won’t do that. And so they were allowed in with their arms and promptly had to be disarmed and were interned. Whereas if they’d said they were non-combatants escaping from the Germans, they would have been sent straight home as soon as there was a means of doing so. There were a few British there in the same position. But we, as escaped prisoners, were ‘non-combatants’, and the only mention as such in the Geneva Convention is that they may be assigned a ‘place of residence’. And the place of residence assigned to us was a place called Wil in east Switzerland in the canton of St Gallen. Not altogether suitable, very near the German frontier, very strongly Roman Catholic. But on the other hand we couldn’t have been treated more kindly.”

Tony Dobson remained in Switzerland until the allies established a frontier crossing near Geneva in early 1944. During this period he was able to indulge in his favourite sport of skiing, and it was during a period of this activity in the resort of Arosa that he met his future wife Mlle Nellie Homberger. They were married in St Helens, UK in 1946.

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1 Clovelly: a fishing village on the north coast of Devon, England, it is a major tourist attraction notable for its extremely steep pedestrianized cobbled main street, donkeys and views over the Bristol Channel. (Wikipedia)

2 In his subsequent report to the War Office in London, made in July 1944, Dobson stated that the party entered Switzerland near Cabbio, Tessin, where they were taken over by the Swiss Military.

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Part 2

The border between Switzerland and France was opened in October 1944 following the allied landings in the south of France in 1944, and the evadés de guerre were able to return home. They were taken to Lyon and flown to Naples, which may seem a perverse route back to the United Kingdom but in fact made sense as many of the man were from other countries in the British Commonwealth and Naples was a sensible staging post for their dispersal. Major Dobson and a couple of other British officers remained in Switzerland for a few weeks to tidy matters up with the Swiss authorities before leaving Switzerland. They spent a last night in the Cornavin Hotel in Geneva; whilst he was there Tony proposed to Nellie Homberger; he gave her an engagement ring and promised to bring her back to England for their wedding once the war was over.

The Swiss would not allow the Americans to drive a truck into Switzerland so the next day he and his colleagues boarded a privately-hired tram (complete with ‘Privé – Reservé’ on the head-board) which took them to the frontier accompanied by a Swiss army officer and another soldier. At the border they were handed over to an American GI, the sole occupant and driver of an enormous lorry who took them on a ‘terrifying journey’ to Lyon Bron airport. From there they were flown into a fog-bound England, landing at Rothwell in Northamptonshire rather than their intended destination of Heston aerodrome. (Rothwell, otherwise Harrington airfield, was a base for clandestine operations into Europe during the war and it is my guess that they flew there on the return sector of such a mission, the pilot having decided that he might as well fly back to his base having been denied a landing at Heston due to the weather. This would also explain the presence of some other passengers on the flight who were complete strangers to Tony.) Since all the other former Swiss internees were still on their way home from Naples by ship, Tony and his small party were in fact the earliest arrivals from Switzerland. Or maybe not: there was a story that on an earlier flight out of Lyon the pilot asked his passengers where they wanted to go to. Somewhat bemused they said ‘Naples’. To which he replied, ‘Yeah, but where do you really want to go?’ And when they all said to ‘to England’, that is where he took them.

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Tony was taken to a country house in Princes Risborough, a few miles outside London for de-briefing. He found it difficult to convince them that he really was an ex-POW: they were apparently expecting some starving, emaciated specimen of humanity, not a man who had spent the best part of a year skiing, climbing and being fed a lot better than his countrymen at home. He then spent six weeks waiting to be recalled for action, but very little happened, apart from being told that as he had completed his time as a temporary major (a rank that he kept the whole time that he was interned, both in Italy and in Switzerland) he would revert to captain. This naturally infuriated him: he even suggested that he would return to being a prisoner of war as he would be far better off financially! They relented on this and eventually sent him to Ripon in Yorkshire to sharpen up those military skills he had forgotten during his period of incarceration. After this he joined an active unit as a brigade major once more, a similar position to that which he had before his capture in Libya, but this time with gunners who had been engaged in anti-aircraft activities in London and who were being retrained as infantry soldiers ready for the big push into northern Europe. In March 1945 he was posted to join the 2nd Army and was finally back in action. Working in Field Marshall Montgomery’s staff, he was, as he put it, ‘in a highly important department which really runs the war, or thinks it does’. They were living and working in caravans or trailers which stayed behind the front line as it advanced eastwards across Germany. Censorship of course prevented him from saying very much in his letters home about his work and location, although in April 1945 he did mention that he was near the German town of Osnabrück.

But later that month he became ill. Initially he thought that he had flu; then a doctor diagnosed malaria. But what he had in fact contracted was jaundice, and was therefore unfit for further duty. For him, ‘the war was over’ – for the second time. Although he did make a full and relatively swift recovery, he was still convalescing in hospital on VE Day (May 8th 1945). He was upset that he was not with Montgomery when the German Generals surrendered to him: he wrote to his mother that he was in a ‘Prison Camp for the Italian bust, Hospital for the Germans; where shall I be for the Japanese? Lunatic Asylum or the Grave?’

With the war in Europe over Dobson remained in Germany, being based variously in Hamburg, Bremen, Hannover and Bad Oyenhausen amongst other

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places. He was also engaged in arranging his marriage to Nellie Homberger; this took place on November 10th 1945 at St Helens in Lancashire, after many difficulties with the authorities in respect of visas, travel arrangements and other obstacles. Once married, he promptly returned to Germany, leaving his new wife to live in London on her own, awaiting the opportunity to join him once suitable accommodation could be arranged for service wives to be with their husbands. There were vague promises from the government that this might be possible later in the year, but otherwise the only chance that such couples had to see each other was on the occasional home leave, or perhaps a business meeting called in London, or, in Tony and Nellie’s case, a military skiing competition in Chamonix, France, not far from the French-Swiss border. It was touch-and-go whether the French visa for Nellie would be ready in time (she had to get a British passport in her own name as the spouse of a British national first), followed by the travel arrangements by train across France in late winter, but this was all completed successfully and they had a joyous reunion, back in the Alps where they had first met. Later that year, in August, they spent another holiday together in Switzerland. The tale of Tony’s journey from Brussels to Basel is interesting. Of the journey itself little needs to be said – a slow train making frequent long stops which took 17 hours to complete, but his description of how he reduced the fare he paid demonstrates much enterprise. In his words: ‘I buy a ticket as far as the Luxembourg frontier with Belgian francs – half fare for the military. In Luxembourg for some reason I have never been asked for a ticket so I don’t bother to buy one. In France I get a ticket to Basel with French francs, quarter fare for the military – so that the whole journey cost me under 30/- first class! I recommend anybody travelling in France or Belgium to invest in a second hand battledress!! ’ (30/-, £1.50p, about £90 in today’s money).

Nellie finally joined Tony in December 1946 and they were both able to live together under the same roof. They remained in Germany until 1950 in a variety of houses and had three children in fairly short order.

Back in England they bought a house in Guildford, Surrey, and Tony worked at the War Office in the Manpower Directorate, then coping with the manpower bill for the Korean War. In 1953 he was promoted to Colonel and the family was posted to Hong Kong for three years, where he was the Commanding

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Officer of a Field Engineer regiment. Their fourth and last child was born there.

Returning to the UK in 1956 he joined the staff of the Engineer-in Chief at the War Office. In 1959 he was promoted to Brigadier and took the position of Chief Engineer at HQ Eastern Command based in Hounslow. In 1962 he was about to be posted to a similar job in Gibraltar when a vacancy arose in the British Army of the Rhine headquarters in Mönchen-Gladbach, as Deputy Quartermaster General, engaged in the complete revision of administrative plans for war as a consequence of NATO’s decision to adopt a forward strategy, together with an immense works programme required to house the all-regular (and much married) Army in Germany. In 1964 he was promoted Major-General in the dual role of Chief Engineer of the NATO Northern Army Group and of BAOR, still based in Mönchen-Gladbach. In November 1967 he retired from active service but remained on the Army list as Colonel Commandant of the Royal Engineering Corps , a position he held until 1973. On returning to England after his retirement he purchased a house in Farnham, Surrey, where he passed away on March 12th 1987, sadly missed by his family and colleagues the world over.

Among his awards and medals these should be mentioned;
Commander of the Bath (CB). Awarded 1968.
Order of the British Empire (OBE). Awarded 1953.
Military Cross (MC). Awarded 1944.
1939-45 Star. Awarded to members of the armed forces who saw active service between 1939 and 1945.
Africa Star. Awarded to members of the armed forces who served in north Africa between 1941 and 1944.
France and Germany Star. Awarded to members of the armed forces for service in northwest Europe between June 1944 and September 1945.
1939-45 War Medal. Awarded to full-time personnel of the British armed forces who served a minimum of 28 days between September 1939 and September 1945.

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He was also twice mentioned in despatches: July 1941 and June 1942.

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[Photograph of Tony Dobson, labelled ‘J.Weinberg’]

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[Two photographs. Marked in the original file as being of Tony in Basel]

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[Photograph marked in the original file as being of Tony Dobson and Nellie Homberger]

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