Gilbert, Edwin Middleton

Summary of Edwin Middleton Gilbert

Told by his son, John Gilbert, using his father’s letters and tape recordings, Edwin’s story provides not only details of his escape from the Germans, but also a little background to his whole military story. Edwin was a gunner who was captured in Tobruk in Libya in June 1941. He describes life in PoW camps in Veano and Chieti, and his escape from a train in 1943 whilst being transported to Sulmona. He spent many months in the village of Cese with the Tomei family.

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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For the Monte San Martino Trust

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[Photograph with caption]: Edwin Middleton Gilbert, c. 1945

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My father, Edwin Middleton Gilbert, was born on 16th February 1919 at Southchurch in the County Borough of Southend-on-Sea, where his mother had stayed with her parents for much of the First World War.  He was the second son of George and Gladys Gilbert.  The war was over, but his father had only just left the Army and resumed his job as an insurance clerk with the Prudential Assurance Company.  At first the young family returned to their flat in London, but in 1924 came back to live in Thorpe Bay, also in the County Borough.  At seven Edwin went to school at Lindisfarne College, in those days at Westcliff-on-Sea, where he did very well both academically and in sport, becoming head boy in his last year, 1936–1937.  From there he went to University College London (UCL) to read French and German.

Edwin completed two years at UCL before the outbreak of war obliged him to wait for the Ministry of Labour to decide whether he could complete his degree or was to be called up for military training.  In the event, the course of study he was pursuing did not exempt him from military duty, and he enlisted in the Royal Artillery (RA) at Horseshoe Barracks in Shoeburyness on 18th April 1940, Army Class for Duration of War.  He served there in the ranks of the 22nd Medium and Heavy Training Regiment.  A School of Gunnery had been there since 1859, after the RA had come under the control of the War Office during the Crimean War.  At the time Edwin was at Shoeburyness, the School of Gunnery had become the Coastal Artillery School, which was to be his speciality.

Edwin spent five months at Shoeburyness.  After four weeks of basic training, Edwin and the others in his batch of about 90 recruits would have been graded to continue their training as either gunners, drivers, or specialists.1  Edwin was one of the few selected for twelve weeks of specialist instruction to equip him for duties such as those of a battery commander’s assistant and a range-taker.  On 2nd September, his last month at Shoeburyness, Edwin was appointed unpaid lance-bombardier, the RA equivalent of lance-corporal.  It appears that he had already been marked out for transfer to an Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU), which took place on 28th September, when he proceeded to the Coastal Defence OCTU at Plymouth.  Edwin stayed at Plymouth for two months before transfer to the Coastal Artillery School at Llandudno for one month’s further training, from where he was commissioned as a second-lieutenant on 21st December 1940.

On being commissioned, Edwin was posted to the RA at Milford Haven Fixed Defences and attached to Fishguard Battery at nearby Penrhyn (368 Coast Battery).  The main coastal fortifications in the area were at Milford Haven.  However, the established policy of batteries defending only the ports had been replaced in May 1940 by one based on a continuous line of coastal defence, after the Royal Navy could no longer guarantee vulnerable points on our shores against sea-borne landings.2  Edwin’s battery was one of the eight emergency coast-defence batteries ordered by the War Office on 8th June 1940 to be formed on 12th June.  Fishguard Battery was accordingly allocated two 6-inch naval guns and two searchlights, and designated as a close-defence battery for use in short-range engagements with enemy vessels, minelayers, blockships, and torpedo craft.  While at Fishguard Battery, Edwin was placed under orders on 19th February 1941 (three days after his twenty-second birthday) for service in the Middle East, but not to embark before 5th April.  In preparation for that, Edwin joined “Depot RA” at Woolwich with effect from 10th March.

Despite the note on his record that Edwin was not to leave for the Middle East before 5th April 1941, he embarked from Liverpool on 19th March.  The place and timing of embarkation make it clear that Edwin was among the 42,000 service personnel, mostly in the Army but also in the Royal Navy and the RAF, on Convoy WS 7.  The Winston’s Specials were fast-moving

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convoys carrying troops and equipment to Egypt, India, and occasionally the Far East.  Edwin is believed to have been a passenger on the SS Duchess of Atholl, based on his recollection in 1965, that he was berthed on a Canadian Pacific liner and visited Table Mountain en route.  Only one ship of that Line joining the convoy from Liverpool called in at Cape Town as opposed to Durban.3  Edwin arrived at Port Tewfik on 6th May after a relatively uneventful and very comfortable voyage, having travelled first-class as an officer.

Edwin appears to have gone by train to Cairo, where was quartered in the barracks at Heliopolis.  Had he not fallen ill with dysentery while at Cairo, he would almost certainly have been included in the draft of officers and 50 other ranks who joined B/530 Coast Battery at Tobruk on 8th July 1941.  As is was, he did not join what was by then named 202 Battery until 27th August.4  In September 1941 the order was given to convert the existing coast defences at Tobruk, including 202 Battery, into a properly constituted artillery regiment divided into four units.  The result was the creation of the 17th Coast Regiment, with its war diary starting from October 1941.  The Regiment’s four units were its headquarters; 202 Battery in the fort area, with two 149 mm guns left by the Italians (metric equivalent of 6-inch guns);5 206 Battery at the point, on the north side of the harbour entrance outside the boom, with two 4-inch naval guns; and X, later 432, Battery, on the south side, with a group of smaller, anti-motor-torpedo-boat guns.  The three batteries and the boom are shown on the War Office map below.  For ease of reference I have labelled the three batteries A, B, and C respectively. 

[Map with caption]: Detail of map in file WO 201/1980 “Tobruk Defences” at The National Archives

The map and these details should give the reader a better understanding of Edwin’s tape-recorded account of the events of the fall of Tobruk and his capture on 20th and 21st June 1941:

[Edwin’s own account]

“As it happened, I had been on duty in my battery the night of the first break-through, and at dawn I was looking over towards the land and saw from the south-east sector of the perimeter, where the break-through came, clouds of smoke, and heard a lot of gunfire.  By the time I went off duty to have breakfast, no news had come through, but a little later we heard that there

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had been an attack, but that it had been contained; there was no cause for alarm.  We therefore continued normal routine, which meant that I had the rest of the day free until the evening.

I spent the morning in the usual way of pottering about and cleaning myself and reading a little and so on, but after lunch I and the battery captain went down to our sister battery at the point, where they had a good beach, to have our usual afternoon bathe.  It was a lovely day, so we splashed in and out of the water, and had a little tea, looking out over the bay which formed the harbour.  Our position was, you see, on a large spit of land which formed the left arm enclosing the harbour, and over on the south side of the harbour we saw a lot of transport going up in flames.  We had until now received no information whatsoever as to the progress of the battle, but we thought that something must be happening, and my battery captain said to me, “We’d better get back to our battery, Curly.  Somebody seems to be getting very flappy.”  Incidentally, I was called Curly because I’d cut off all my hair.

We rushed back and found up at our own headquarters that nobody knew anything at all, and we couldn’t get any information or instructions from Brigade, so we manned the guns and just waited to see what happened.  It wasn’t long, however, before we could see with the naked eye, or certainly through field-glasses, tanks appearing over the top of the escarpment.  So, still having received no orders, we merely pooped off at them with our guns and managed to get one or two.  The guns were pretty heavy ones, 6-inch, and if one of our shells landed on or near one of these tanks, it didn’t do them much good.  So we did something to try to stop the rot, but it was much too late and, only a matter of half an hour after that, the German troops entered the main part of Tobruk and we were completely cut off.

We spent the rest of the night quietly, waiting to see what would happen, and in the morning, we were rounded up and taken off to our first prison camp, which was the hospital in Tobruk itself”.6

We have no details of Edwin’s whereabouts after this until he was documented as having arrived at Campo per Prigionieri di Guerra n. 29 at Veano,7 a camp for senior officers some 45 miles north-east of Genoa, on 11th July.  It is assumed that he had been transferred from Tobruk to Benghazi and then flown to Italy across the Mediterranean, as seems to have been the case for most officers.  His stay at Veano was probably a short one while Chieti, the camp he was destined for, was made ready to take in the many junior officers captured at Tobruk.

At Chieti Edwin was in Sector 1, and after a spell in the camp hospital, for an illness which the censor had inked out, he settled into life there pursuing his university studies with the help of books sent to him by his father – not all were kept back by the camp authorities, and by reviving his violin-playing.  In a letter to his brother dated 5th July 1943 (although his reference to yesterday appears to relate to the day of the great cricket match between Sectors 1 and 2, which the majority view holds to have been on 3rd July) he writes:

[Edwin’s own account]

“I am now playing in four musical ensembles, and yesterday, for example I was at it for over four hours.  There is the theatre orchestra for the musical show next week; then the church orchestra; and the full orchestra, preparing for the next concert with the well-known Bach Toccata and Fugue and Beethoven’s Eighth, having given last time the Haffner, Prelude to Tannhäuser, the Finale of Tristan, and two arias.”

Edwin was aware of the need to keep up morale by some sort of resistance, and devised at least one mock boastful Fascist slogan in Italian for the POWs to shout out as part of their guard-baiting, but he was not one of those bent on escape.  Thus he, with his best friend, George Stephen Darlow (called Stephen) were amongst the majority rounded up by the Germans after

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they took over the camp shortly after midnight at the start of 21st September 1943.  Edwin and Stephen must also have been amongst those taken by lorry in batches to the camp at Sulmona on 23rd and 24th September, and then, on either 30th September or 1st October, taken from there by bus to the station to join a train bound for Germany.  The trains consisted of cattle trucks, although Major James Chutter, in his book “Captivity Captive,” recalls that he and his companions managed to talk a German parachute officer into attaching a first-class railway carriage on to the end of his train for the field officers.8  Their request was not for comfort but to increase their chance to escape, which most did.

We know that a considerable number of junior officers managed to break out of their cattle trucks and jump from the train, Edwin and Stephen among them.  The citation for the two gives no date for their escape, but it must have been during the night of either 30th September and 1st October or of 1st and 2nd October:

[Edwin’s own account]

“Lieut. Darlow and Lieut. Gilbert were captured during the defence of Tobruk on 23 June 42, and were imprisoned at Chieti (Camp 21).
Acting in accordance with orders given by the Senior British Officer, they did not attempt to escape until the Germans had taken over the camp, and they were being transferred to Germany.  Under cover of darkness, following 12 other officers, they jumped from the moving train near Avezzano.  After living in the mountains for a few days, they moved to Le Gese (sic), where they awaited the arrival of Allied troops.”9

The evidence points to Edwin and Stephen having jumped after passing through Avezzano, on the way to Carsoli.  Fortunately, Edwin gave an account of his escape, which he probably wrote either when in No. 2 Ex-POW Repatriation Camp or when finally back in England:10

[Edwin’s own account]

“We were dull and dazed in that wagon.  So long had we been living on hope – wishful thinking is the current term – hope in the face of brutal, crushing facts, so that now, with Germany at the end of a railway journey, there seemed nothing left but to curl up and sleep.  Two fellows had made a break for it at the station – one was dead, the other wounded.  What was the use.  A curious crowd in this cattle truck, I thought, but then ever since our smooth-running Chieti life had been thrown out of gear by the intrusion of fast-moving events, the world had seemed oddly out of control.  I had no close friends here apart from Stephen, and I felt numb and hurt.  These things ought not to be happening to me, I ought to be packing up for Alex or Liverpool, instead of lugging my belongings away to a further spell of imprisonment.  And so I dozed off, waking a few hours later to find things happening.  Somebody had found that one could get out of the windows and slip off the train when it slowed down, and already about ten had jumped.  My state of mind was such that even then it took me some time to realize that I too could escape.  Escape!  back in Chieti I had always looked upon the escapers with mingled pity and admiration.  Poor fellows, they dug tunnels and manufactured all kinds of equipment, but none had succeeded in getting away.  They had not the broader interests that I had, thought I, toddling off smugly to a rehearsal, or settling myself down with a new book and a carefully husbanded cigarette.  Besides, if I were to make a break for it, I should have to leave all my kit and books behind!

Nevertheless, even into my sluggish consciousness, gradually crept, like the tide over the mudflats, the realization that there was an opportunity not to be missed.  I could escape; not be carried into Germany, but get out into the wide world, with a sporting chance of reaching our lines.  I told Stephen that I had decided to have a shot at it and asked him how his leg was.

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(It had been inflamed and stiff for over a week without medical attention, and later developed into an abscess in the calf which crippled him for months.)  He replied that it was not too bad, and said, rather indignantly, “You don’t suppose that I would let you go without me.”

Hastily, in order to take our place in the queue, we put on greatcoats and packed up food, spare underclothes and socks – amusing that in typical PW fashion, we should “queue up” even to escape!  Soon came the chance we were waiting for, and I hoisted myself up and out of the very narrow opening – we had just passed through a town and now were travelling slowly through country.  Slowly enough to jump, I thought, and then, just as I was about to throw myself off I saw a telegraph pole looming up out of the darkness.  Another moment, and I should have hurled myself against it at about twelve miles an hour.  As soon as it passed, I jumped and rolled over and over down the embankment.”

They had been travelling through a mountainous region and had been able to jump with relative safety due to the low speed of the train as the steam engine laboured uphill.  Edwin and Stephen met up together after their jumps and stayed hidden in the mountains, presumably in case there were search parties out looking for escaped prisoners.

After living rough for ten days or so, Edwin and Stephen had to seek shelter locally.  Their weakened state and Stephen’s bad leg ruled out walking south to the Allied lines, neither was staying in the increasingly cold and inhospitable mountains an option.  Whoever did help, whether a friendly farmer or members of one of the Italian resistance groups, arranged for them to be taken in what seems to have been a simple, open two-person carriage to the little village of Le Cese.  We have the following account by Edwin of that journey and reception on 13th October 1943:

[Edwin’s own account]

“Can I ever forget that night ride?  Two British officers, in full uniform, jolting gently – or not so gently, S [Stephen] with his abscess thought – along a country road in a buggy.  It was a brilliant moonlit night, and the trees on either side loomed up dark and irregular.  Still the old horse plodded on, and now we were crossing a bridge and entering a large meadow.  Up on my left was the ridge we had descended from earlier, and in a gap there stood out a fairy castle, with pinnacles and turrets gleaming mysteriously.  (Later I found it to be a monastery, La Madonna delle Grazie (?)).  My attention was brought back to earth by the sight of fires ahead, smouldering heaps of hay.  Then left again, past a black iron cross to come suddenly upon a group of buildings, evidently stables.  The gig halted and we were asked to wait. 

Soon two women appeared, Maria delle F. and Fr. who, after consultation, covered our heads and shoulders with one large shawl, and with injunctions to caution, ordered the boy on.  We came out into the piazza and drew up in a little alley on one side of it.  Stumbling out stiffly, S & I crawled up a flight of stone steps & through a door.  There we found ourselves in a little outer room or hall – all these names sound too dignified – with a row of chairs along one wall.  On to these we sank exhausted and smiled wearily at our hostesses who were welcoming us curiously with much gesturing.  “Are you all officers.”  “What is your rank – and his.”  “Where were you imprisoned?”  As soon as they heard about S’s leg they took him into the kitchen by the fire and applied hot greasy dressings.  I followed & there sitting together we sipped an extraordinarily good drink – it was only the hot sugared milk I afterwards took every morning for breakfast, but then it seemed incredibly delicately flavoured.

The others were all in now, the Yankees making a big hit with one woman who insisted on carrying them off to her stables.  Gradually everyone was billeted & led away, we as invalids, staying in the same house”.11

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The reference to “Fr.” is almost certainly to Signora Francesca Ida Tomei, who gave refuge to Edwin and, it appears, also to Stephen in her house.

The next day, Edwin buried his military uniform.  As well as putting on civilian clothes, he had to assume a name and some family connection with the Signora.  As a gifted linguist, who had spent over a year in Italy, Edwin would have picked up the local dialect soon enough to get by.  From then on, he lived as one of the family, sleeping in a little attic room and hiding away when Germans came near.  He wrote two letters while at Cese, the first as follows:

[Address] Avezzano per Cese

14 January ‘44.

My very dear parents,
This is a curious letter, in that probably, if all goes well, it may never reach you.  I have been living here in this little village called Cese since I escaped from German hands three months ago.  I hope to hang on here until our troops arrive, but recently some prisoners have been recaptured just outside the village, and it is at least possible that I may be discovered, and hauled off to some Oflag in Germany.
Nevertheless I am certain that if it does happen, it will be in spite of all my friends here could do to help me, and my object in writing this is twofold.  Firstly, to recommend to you the family with whom I am staying, because if the war passes right through this district, or if I am found here by the enemy, they may suffer hardship and privation.  If you receive this letter without hearing from me by cablegram or otherwise, it will mean that I have had to leave here, perhaps for Germany and that I would like you to give any assistance possible to my hostess, in the way of sending money, food, clothing, from England, if it is permitted.
The lady’s name is Signora Tomei Francesca (they put the surname first), and the above address will certainly suffice.  I have the greatest affection for this woman, who has treated me like a son all this time.  I have been living right in the house, like one of the family, even when a company of German soldiers were stationed in the village itself.  One evening a couple breezed in to ask for beds.  She did not turn a hair, but passed me off as one of the family, and saying that the house was poor and small, managed to fob them off.
My life here is a very odd one, but it has become habitual now and without the perpetual doubt «shall I be recaptured?» I should be spending a very pleasant holiday.  I feel moderately fit, but my appetite has noticeably fallen off after a year and a half’s imprisonment, and I have the most furious arguments with my hostess, who gives me much too large meals.
But if I cannot go into details of my present life, it will all make interesting chatter when I return home.  I have made three attempts to get word to you, twice by fellows bound for our lines, and once by a cryptic note to Gösta’s mother in Sweden.  It may interest you to know that my friend Stephen Darlow is here with me – we got away together.
Well, I hope that soon I shall be able to get word to you directly, and that this letter is never sent off, but if I get caught, it may possibly reach you more quickly than news from Germany: that was my second reason for writing.
If things don’t go well with me, I should like to think that I had done everything possible for this woman, who has been so extraordinarily good to me.
Most loving greetings to you and to all friends,

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The reference to Gösta was to Gösta de la Gardie, who was at Lindisfarne College from 1935 to 1938 and became firm friends with Edwin.  Gösta would most probably have stayed longer in England after leaving school, but the outbreak of war made him return to Sweden.

Given the length of time he spent at Cese, Edwin evidently became accustomed to Italian rural life.  Some Italian expressions stayed with him for many years afterwards: he would often say scusi instead of excuse me, and he would sometimes refer to a person with localised authority of one sort or another as the capo del villaggio, when talking to me.  Nevertheless, the experience put him under great stress, with the fear of being recaptured.  Edwin’s level of anxiety will have ebbed and flowed, but it never went away entirely, even after his liberation.

Edwin and Stephen managed to evade recapture until the arrival of the Allies.  Judging by the accounts of other escaped prisoners, this was quite an achievement, thanks to Signora Tomei’s bravery, but perhaps also to the ability of the two to stay put there and not fall out with each other or with the Signora despite the strain they were under.

The progress by the Eighth Army up the Adriatic side of Italy was slow and hard-fought.  About 50,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers lost their lives in that struggle.  Before turning to Edwin’s description of his liberation, we can put it in context by quoting from New Zealand’s official account of the Kiwis’ advance up Route 82 into the Abruzzo region in June 1944, in pursuit of the retreating Wehrmacht:

[New Zealand’s official account]

“The Division did not regain contact with the enemy, but was so hindered by the demolitions and minefields that it took three days to reach Avezzano, less than 20 miles from Balsorano.

When the trucks of B Company, taking the lead in 26 Battalion, encountered obstructions which they could not pass until trimmed by the engineers’ bulldozers, the infantry debussed and set out on foot to catch up with the armoured cars, which by that time, 8 a.m. on the 7th [June], were stopped by a demolition three miles north of Balsorano.  B Company lifted mines on the verges while the sappers cleared the road.  The company passed Castronuovo [sic] and halted for the night about seven miles beyond Balsorano.  The rest of the battalion, which followed as the road was opened to vehicles, laagered not far behind B Company.  The same day 25 Battalion concentrated in the village of Urbani near Balsorano.

The advance was resumed early on 8 June, when A Company, 26 Battalion, passed through B to take the lead.  The engineers continued to work ‘at top pressure’ so that the armoured cars, tanks and lorries could follow the infantry.  Only A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry and one troop of tanks went ahead; the rest of Divisional Cavalry and A Squadron, 20 Regiment, moved into San Vincenzo, a little town among terraced hillsides which rose to the rocky heights east of the Liri.  A Company of the 26th made steady progress, despite the mines and booby traps which wounded seven men during the day, and covered eight miles before halting near Capistrello, only four miles from Avezzano.  The rest of the battalion stopped overnight between Civitella Roveto and Capistrello, and the transport, after being held up by bad demolitions farther south, also passed Civitella Roveto before stopping to laager.  Some delayed-action explosions on the road during the night cut signal communications to the rear.

Another early start was made on 9 June, when C Company took over the lead from A and advanced to within about two miles of Avezzano.  A two-man patrol went on ahead over low hills to enter the town, where the mayor and citizens had turned out in force to welcome the Allied troops but waited all day in vain.  The two men were treated royally.  A very bad demolition blocked the road just south of Capistrello, but the troop of tanks managed to get over a saddle and catch up with the infantry.  Half-way up the last hill before Avezzano, however, they were held up by yet another demolition—the last one”.12

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Cese di Avezzano,
9 June ‘44.
“My very dear parents,
I am sitting in my little room here, by the light of a stinking oil lamp, to start a letter to you this first night of freedom.  I have just re-read a letter I wrote for you 14 Febr. [sic] – how different the tone!  Then I was passing through one of several anxious periods, when recapture seemed very possible.  Now, thank God, it is hardly possible – our troops are here.

Last night, at about this hour, the last German troops passed through the village, knocking up a few people in their usual manner, for food and to steal anything worth taking.  This morning there was suddenly an extraordinary clamour in the square – shouts of ‘here they are, the Americans’ – and after a few moments a rather amusing triumphal procession appeared, the nucleus of which was two irregular New Zealand scouts.  In the midst of a rather embarrassing and unnecessary fuss they advanced across the square towards our house and, tiny as it is, half the village tried to get in after them.  Well, they gave us the news and moved off again.  We, Stephen and I, walked towards the next village, where there is a company of them, but found it too far, and came back to celebrate here.  Just as well, for on the road further on two Italians were badly wounded by a mine.

But it is late, and if I start to tell you all about it now I shall get no sleep tonight.  It is already after twelve.  I am pretty well – not really fit, because for so long I have spent too secluded and sedentary a life – but that is only general lack of vigour, and I shall soon be back to normal.

Nearly two years in Italy, living a very unmilitary life is a curious way of passing a war, but certainly worse ways could be found.  So many things there will be to tell and to ask, especially how is everybody?  Ronald?  I should be coming home soon – see P.S. – and having some leave with you – che contentezza – as they say here.

The next night – one o’clock of the 11 June – I have just come back from some merrymaking with two other officers and some of the Kiwi troops who are in this district.  We tried to have a dance, but the floor space was far too little, and only a few couples could girate together.  Most of the ex-prisoners here have gone straight down to base but we want to see our families settled first, and have a little festa with our friends here.  Everyone is happy – most of all ourselves – and these last days here are just one long binge.  It is very jolly to be able to stroll about everywhere, freely, after so many months’ seclusion”.

The letter appears to be incomplete – either a page is missing or Edwin sent it off as it is.  From the way the two sheets of letter paper are folded together, it appears to be more likely that he sent it off unfinished, perhaps to catch the post. 

This must have been a very exhilarating and heady time for him, particularly since he would have been physically weakened by months of hiding away and possibly still suffering the effects of a prison-camp diet.  Nevertheless, Edwin also wrote another letter that day, recommending an award for Signora Tomei, transcript on next page.  As a result of that letter, Signora Tomei received an award of 15,000 lire (about £16 at that time) from the Allied Screening Commission on 22nd June 1945.  The payment was for the estimated cost of board and lodging, clothing, and sundry expenses, nothing else.  The details of the award and a copy of Edwin’s letter are to be found in The Allied Screening Commission (Italy) file on Helper Claim 15648, held by the US National Archives

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[Address] Cese di Avezzano,
9 June ‘44.
Subject:  Assistance to ex-P.O.Ws.
To:  O.C. Avezzano Area.

1)The Signora Tomei Francesca has supplied me, the undersigned, with food, clothing and lodging from 13 Oct. ’43 to 9 June ’44.

2)Even in the most difficult and dangerous periods, when other ex-P.O.W.s have been recaptured, or obliged to leave the village, this woman has been constant and courageous in her help.

3)I most strongly recommend her for any reward to which she may be entitled.

[signed]E.M. Gilber, Lieut. R.A.

(E.M. Gilbert. Lt. R.A. 162194)

It is not clear when Edwin and Stephen went to “base”, or where that was.  However, it is thought that they were soon on their way to the repatriation camp at Naples, the main base for the British Army’s Central Mediterranean Force. 

Once back in England, Edwin went on home leave for a spell before attending a medical board at Preston on 4th August 1944, where he was assessed as Category C, fit for home service only.  His categorisation partly explains why, on 26th September 1944, he was posted to the Intelligence Corps Pool on detached duty from the RA.  The other reasons were his university education and knowledge of German.  The Army was already preparing for the occupation of Germany and Austria after their defeat, and for the tasks of administering denazification and investigating war crimes.  In February 1945 he was promoted to Captain and, after a further fitness review in April, placing him in Category B, he was posted to Klagenfurt in Austria in May.  From there he moved to Vienna in September, which had by then also been divided into four zones of occupation, the British having most of the southern districts including Hietzing along with Schönbrunn Palace, which became the British Force of Occupation headquarters, where Edwin was based as a general staff officer.

Edwin returned to civilian life in August 1946, with the honorary rank of captain, to resume his university education, graduating in 1948, whereupon he joined the Passport Control Department of the Foreign Office, being posted at first to the Visa Section in Hamburg.  His last posting abroad was in 1965 to the Visa Section in New York.  At the end of that tour of duty in 1967, and after almost 20 years of service abroad, he returned to work in London and went back to live in Thorpe Bay.  In the 1970s he took early retirement and eventually moved to a cottage in West Malvern in 1977, where he remained until his death in January 2002, just three weeks short of his 83rd birthday.

[Date of writing] Cheam, January 2024

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[title of page] Notes

1.Source for general details of Edwin’s (EMG’s) training: Medium and Heavy Training Regiment, R.A.: General Instructions for the Guidance of Regimental Commanders on Mobilization, London: War Office, 1939 – WO 287/109.  EMG’s rank and position as specialist confirmed in his undated letter to UCL.

2. Main sources for details on fixed defences: Western Command file on RA coast defence 1940–41, WO 166/11; and Second World War Anti-invasion Defences in South and South-West Wales, by J.A. Berry, pp. 13–14 – <> (Berry) – accessed 25th April 2019.

3. Details of Convoy WS 7: WO 193/53, except for the sailing date for the SS Duchess of Atholl: <> – accessed 17th February 2020. 

4. Dates and details of arrivals are taken from the B/530 Coast Battery war diary, covering the period 1st January 1941 to 30th September 1941 – WO 169/1514.  Its name changed to 202 Coast Battery in August.

5. EMG once referred to using Czech guns.  Research points to them being Škoda 15cm K10s, Austro-Hungarian naval guns taken by Italy after WW1 and renamed “cannone 149/47”.  One source with photo: <> – accessed 13th January 2024. 

6. EMG recorded by his nephew, Peter Gilbert, at Beckenham 30th December 1962.  No hair presumably to reduce lice and fleas, which plagued the troops at Tobruk.

7. According to a letter from the ICRC to me dated 4th March 2008.

8. Captivity Captive, by James B. Chutter, London 1954, p. 101.

9. WO 373/96/487 – Recommendations for Awards, Annex 1F.  The date of capture looks two days too late, but it could be when the Germans handed them over to the Italians.  Gese should be Cese, possibly a misreading of EMG’s writing.

10. Found in a small notebook, probably Army-issue.  EMG did not date his account.

11. Found in the back of Thomas Mann’s Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull, Berlin und Leipzig 1923.  Perhaps it was the only book EMG kept when jumping from the train, being a slim paperback, which could easily be slipped into his tunic or greatcoat pocket.  EMG’s account was probably written in Le Cese, hence the cautious use of initials and using the book as a notebook.

12. Italy Vol. II: From Cassino to Trieste, pp. 82–83.  Part of The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War – <> – accessed 1st June 2020.

All WO references relate to files at the National Archives, Kew, except for that at Note 1 in the British Library

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