Summary of Fred French
Fred was a driver in 918 Company, RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] and was captured on 2nd June 1942 at Bir Hakiem, North Africa, at the time of the battle of Knightsbridge. He found himself in Campo 53 Sforzacosta. When the camp guards left, Fred decided to make his way to meet the advancing Allies and avoid the German take-over of the camp. After staying for a while on a family farm, they had to flee for fear of approaching Germans. This account is notable for the unusual description of ex-PoWs being betrayed to the Germans by an Italian Fascist family, after which Fred was taken to further captivity in Germany.
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.
(Insert in The National Ex-Prisoner of War Association Christmas Newsletter 1998)
Fred was captured on 2nd June 1942 at Bir Hakiem, North Africa, by the Italians at the time of the battle of Knightsbridge. At the time he was a driver in 918 Company, RASC [Royal Army Service Corps]. He found himself in Campo 53 Sforzacosta, Macerata and spent Christmas of 1942 there.
“In the spring of 1943 a dozen of us volunteered to go out on a working party to a large farm near ‘Isola della scala’, the nearest town was Vigassio. It was from here that two of us escaped. We were housed in an old granary belonging to the farm and each morning two guards with fixed bayonets marched us up to the farm to work. One morning, after about 5 weeks, no one came to take us up. We waited for about an hour and an Italian workman came by on his bicycle, got off and made us understand that the country had packed in the previous day and that our camp commander and guards had all cleared off and left us for the Germans to take over. We didn’t go much on that, so the only alternative was to try and escape if possible.
Bill Harker, my pal from Liverpool, and I got through the wire of our compound that night. We hadn’t gone very far when we met a man and a woman who invited us to their house ‘Avanti Casa Mia’ and got us to understand war was a wicked thing and we could stay with them if we wished to do so. They knew our troops were pushing up from Southern Italy and that it would only be a matter of time before they arrived. We lived with them on their little farm for about a month. Their names were ‘Pietro’ and ‘Pasqua’ and they had 4 daughters, 3 of school age and the youngest ‘Christina’ was about 2 years old. The eldest, at 13, was ‘Norma’ then ‘Maria’ at 11 and ‘Ramilda’ was 7. We used to help Pietro on his farm, his wife lent us some of his clothes to wear whilst she took what little we had and dyed it brown.
One morning Pietro’s sister who lived at Vigassio 4 kilometres way, cycled over and told him that a few Germans had been there and that they had machine-gunned farm buildings looking for escaped prisoners of war. They had also pinned up notices offering the Italians money for information concerning prisoners. Pietro became very frightened as his head be the next target and we would not have much chance either, so he told us if we went down to the ‘Grande Aqua’ (River) and laid low, he would bring us down food and drink each day. As we were still only a kilometre from where we had escaped from, we decided to move on! We thanked Pietro and his wife and began our wanderings.
We tried to lie low by day and travel by night. Hunger was our worst enemy as we could manage for water from the many streams in the area. Several times we had to risk our luck and talk to people as best we could. We knew enough Italian words to get by and so far we had been lucky and usually picked ‘loyalists’, but we knew the end had to come eventually. One afternoon we found an allotment and went looking for food, we found a couple of turnips and sat under the hedge to nibble them. Two elderly women came along and spotted us, so to be polite we spoke to them. One of them told us we were in a dangerous area – mostly Fascists there they said, but her son could help us if we’d let him. The son was at home and she took us to a farm cottage and told the occupant to give us a meal and for us to stay there until she wen t home and told her son to come and get us to somewhere safer. It was not long before we saw a young man coming in our direction waving a red garment of some sort to attract our attention. He told us that his mother had sent him to take us to safer surroundings. He said that he had been to America and started to hum Bing Crosby’s tune to us. He gave Bill the red scarf he had been carrying, because he said it would make him look more casual. He asked if we had any money and when we said no, he gave me a few lira and said that he would take us to a farm to sleep and that he would come again at the crack of dawn and help us on our way.
He got the Padrone (farmer) to break open 2 bales of straw for us to lie on and wished us ‘Buona Notte’ (good night). I was rudely awakened in the very early hours by a vicious kick in the ribs and awoke to find a German officer with a sub-machine gun at my head. Bill was over by the wall with another Jerry fleecing him. So that woman and her son were Fascists after all and he had shopped us good and proper! We were then taken by German staff car to their headquarters and interrogated and then off to an Italian camp that they had taken over. So started 2 years of captivity by the Germans.
In the winter of 1944, we were put on a forced march lasting 6 days, from Gottingen to Hildesheim. We had to sleep in the fields like cattle, with no cover of any sort and we used to wake up covered in white frost. Our limbs were that cold and stiff we had one hell of a job to stand up! Eventually we were marched to the town of Hildesheim where we were liberated by the Americans, sorted out and flown to Brussels in Dakotas. The next day we were flown home to High Wycombe in the bomb bays of Lancaster bombers.”