Ekbery, Brian

Summary of Brian Ekbery

This account summarises the dramatic story of an RAF Officer, Brian Ekbery, whose plane was downed in the Western Desert, leading to his capture and imprisonment in Italy. Brian Ekbery was a courageous and persistent escaper and eventually crossed Allied lines near the Sangro on 1st January 1944. Brian Vincent Ekbery served with 55 and 223 Medium Bomber Squadrons and the Desert Air Force. He was shot down in October 1942 and Mentioned in Despatches in July 1944. He served with 254 Torpedo Beaufighter Squadron until the end of the war. He was demobilised in June 1946 and returned to the Civil Service doing weekend flying with the RAFVR from 1950 to 1953. He lived with his wife and two sons in the Wirral and died in November 1997.

This document includes Brian Ekbery’s own account and notes written subsequently by Keith Killby.

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.


My troubles began in North Africa, for I was shot down whilst flying a Baltimore Bomber of 223 Squadron during a daylight raid against the enemy airfields of Fuka and Daba in the Western Desert. The date, I have good cause to remember, was 9th October 1942, and the Squadron was engaged at the time in ’softening up’ prior to the El Alamein offensive. The damage to our aircraft was decisive, both engines being put out of action by enemy ‘flak’ and I belly-landed the aircraft in a great wave of flying sand. We had no chance of escape and my crew of three and I were immediately surrounded by the Afrika Korps and taken prisoner. After careful interrogation by the Germans, we were handed on to the Italians who moved us along the coast through various camps to Tripoli. From there we were transported by sea to Italy on 1st January 1943 – a rather bleak New Year’s prospect. On arrival we spent a short time at Capua, and were then moved to Fermo in north eastern Italy where we remained prisoners until the Italian Armistice of September 1943.

Here was a golden opportunity and, in the confusion following the Armistice, I managed to escape from the camp and, accompanied by an RAF Navigator, travelled south in an attempt to meet the advancing allied armies. Despite the obvious risk of being taken for spies, we exchanged our uniforms for civilian clothes and grew beards to lend us a more authentic Italian appearance.

Our route lay across country and we avoided roads and towns where the enemy were likely to be encountered, choosing to march all day and seek shelter in some isolated farmhouse at nightfall. During all this time only once were we refused shelter, and making steady progress we crossed the Pescara River and cautiously approached the battle front which was then in the region of the Sangro.

It was now early December 1943 and we found ourselves faced by a continuous enemy line through which, we decided, it would be very difficult to pass. There seemed no advantage or attraction in getting killed, so we decided to lay up for a while in an unoccupied farmhouse, in the hope that the 8th Army would over-run us in its advance. For all this time we were courageously fed by three neighbouring families – under the noses of the Germans at their local headquarters.

Unfortunately, the hoped-for advance did not occur so we decided to throw cautious to the winds, and to make an attempt at passing through the forward lines. We marched all night and lay up the following day only about one mile from the British positions. Our idea was to make our final attempt at dusk but almost immediately we ran into a German patrol and once more I was captured, though my companion managed to get away, only to be retaken later, and to spend the rest of the war in Germany. Because of my civilian clothes and the fact that I had acquired a fair knowledge of the language in my travels, I was lucky enough to pass myself off as an Italian and was compelled to act as a stretcher-bearer by my captors. I was placed under guard with some genuine Italians who were being similarly coerced, but the guard had his mind on other things and I was able to slip away without a great deal of trouble.

I started out on another attempt to reach the British positions, but again fate was against me and I ran foul of a German strongpoint, coming under fire from the sentry. Extricating myself from immediate danger, I attempted to out-flank the strongpoint but jumped out of the frying pan into the fire, being pinned down for three hours by a concentrated artillery bombardment from my own side. I can honestly say that this was the most terrifying experience of my life and I lay there deafened and shaken, praying for the earth to swallow me up. At least the barrage stopped, but in the light of my experiences I decided that the chances of passing through an area where the troops were so thick on the ground were very slim – I ran the double risk of being shot at by both friends and enemy – so I decided to make an attempt through the mountains.

[Digital page 2]

I spent some nights in those mountains – a very chilly and miserable experience, since, if a fire were lit, it immediately became a target for watchful sentries or anyone else who felt like a little target practice. However, I had now again reached a position about one mile from the British forces and decided that, on this occasion, I would wait for darkness to make my attempt. This proved my undoing because there was no moon, and I eventually stumbled into an enemy machine gun position and was recaptured. It was a disheartening experience. My captors, an Austrian Alpine unit, searched me thoroughly and, discovering that I was British, took me back to their headquarters where I was locked in a stable to await transport to the rear areas. However, on the second night of imprisonment I managed to extract sufficient bricks from the stable wall to make a hole big enough to crawl through. Once more I was free.

I again headed for the mountains and this time my luck changed. I ran into a party of Italian smugglers who, with their perfect knowledge of the terrain, were about to pass through the lines with a cargo of contraband. At first, they were unwilling to let me join them, but when I agreed to lead one of the mules being used as pack animals, they relented. The mule, incidentally, was a most unfriendly animal which persisted in sidling up and attempting to take a bite at me. This was particularly unnerving in view of the narrowness of the mountain paths we were following, and I was heartily delighted when, in making one attempt too many, it fell over a cliff, contraband and all.

I left the smugglers’ party in No Man’s Land and at dawn took a short cut to the road which had been indicated as leading to the British troops. Luckily an Italian farmer saw me and shouted a warning, then, picking his way carefully, he led me to the road – afterwards explaining that I had chosen to take my shortcut through a minefield.

After the minefield my troubles were over and everything became plain sailing. Tired, dirty and hungry I reached British troops at Casoli on the Sangro about 9 am on New Year’s Day 1944 – strangely enough exactly a year to the day from my enforced departure from North Africa.

Notes on Brian Ekbery by Keith Killby:

With both his father and his 17-year old brother missing at sea, Brian Ekbery volunteered for the RAF in January 1941 and was after six months a pilot.

He was shot down behind enemy lines on 9th October 1942. The crew made towards the Germans – in vehicles – rather than Italians on foot but were soon handed over to the Italians. Suffered appalling conditions and then transport to Italy in the hold of a ship. Brian Ekbery lost three and a half stone in 3 months.

Sent to Monturano. With two other PoWs, he disobeyed to order to stay put at the Armistice.

Brian Ekbery helped to lead a party to the coast when the SAS were parachuted in to help. This was one of many such attempts to get PoWs by sea from near Porto San Giorgio. Far too many and far too undisciplined. Attempt abandoned.

Ekbery decided not to return to the family who has hid him, except to say goodbye, and started to go south. At one point they encountered Fascists but whispered to them that they were ‘Corpo Segreto’ and the Italians let them going, believing they were very special Germans.

Ekbery was captured but not heavily guarded as he was thought to be Italian, he escaped. But he was alone as he could not find again his companion who had not been captured. Very near the front line he is heavily shelled in a copse. Though all the trees were shattered he was unwounded. He went away from the front line but hit a group of Italians working for the Germans but one Italian

[Digital page 3]

quickly realised who he was and told the Germans that the poor man was trying to reach his wife who was pregnant – and he was allowed to go. He got away from the Sangro and into the mountains.

Ekbery was captured by Austrians who treated him well but he refused to work for them, even carrying wood. Two Italians dug a hole for him and he escaped but he was shot at in a wood. He joined smugglers going towards the lines. He was given the most difficult mule to lead but it fell over a precipitous cliff which did not please the smugglers. He went on an was stopped in the middle of a minefield by a farmer who led him out. Round a bend he found British troops at Casoli on the Sangro.

On his return to Britain, he was commissioned and became a Pilot Officer at £19/6 per day instead of the 19/- per day as a Sergeant Pilot!

He made 22 Operational flights over Germany – bringing his plane back once on one engine.

During his escape Brian was sheltered by the Puzzielli, Simonelli and Grifoni families.

Connect with us via Facebook or email - [email protected]