Summary of Anthony Gregson
Anthony Gregson’s account starts just after the Italian Armistice in September 1943 where he was being held prisoner in Camp PG 19, about 4 kilometres SE of Bologna in Italy. His first escape attempt ultimately failed due to German reinforcements around the camp. This account details his second escape attempt where he tried to leave the camp by hanging on underneath a supply truck as it left the camp. He hoped the supply truck would eventually be driven back to a garage outside the camp so he would be able to continue his escape on foot, but, unfortunately, after a lot of travel between other POW camps he ended up right back where he started at Camp PG 19. He finally escaped one night by very carefully avoiding the patrolling German guards and climbing over a wall. He hid in the garden of a nearby house belonging to an Italian family who took him in and offered him aid. The file on Gregson held by the MSM Trust is more extensive than this article. Please contact the Trust if you wish to view the original file.
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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Escape of Anthony Gregson,
Excellent account of attempted escape from PG 19 about 4 kilometres SE, of Bologna and German take over. 1 POW killed and others wounded until the Germans realised they were not armed. Many South Africans in camp. Some 100 were brought back next day. Germans take over camp and send Italians to another camp nearby. Gregson’s hard earned German uniform made to escape from the Italians now useless.
Gregson plans with others to hide in roof and gains access and hides things there.
Then in the afternoon decides to try getting out hanging on under a truck driven by the Italians to get supplies. Out of the Camp they stop to pick up 2 Germans. At the Italian camp too many Germans around to get off. Back to PG 19 then to Bologna station then back again to PG 19 and finally into yard to park for the night. German patrols.
At 3.15 am finally drops to the ground and keeps in shadows while Germans are looking the other way makes for a wall and climbs it then crawls across road and climbs into the garden of a house. 20 tanks and much else go by. Finds a rubbish dump in which to hide all but his head. After dawn has broken old man brings him bunch of grapes and children eye him from the house. Young man brings him a hat.
(Later he is taken in by family who hide him though the Camp is just across the road.
In 1993 he made contact, after a vain search soma years before, with family – Loro – who had helped him. They still live in the same house and suitable members of the family are being found for Bursaries).
See also Mick Wagner, Alastair Capes, and de Cent.
[Handwritten notes by Keith Killby]
Written about this long trek down to [word unclear ? Folmer] and escape to Americans near Cassino with some 50 villages etc. named.
Also account of motor cycle return trip to find family outside camp, where he had hidden, in 1988 but without success. He returned again in 1993 by motor cycle and through the Italian motor cycle club he found the family, one of whom received a bursary from the Monte San Martino Trust.
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Itinerary September to October 1943
PG 19 about 4km South East of Bologna, opposite to the house Due Madonne, Via Due Madonne, No ?8, Bologna, where the family Loro still live.
[List in two columns]
Bruscoli Borgo San Lorenzo
Piene S. Stefano
Mr Cavallo, Castel Nuovo, home of the Contessa
Alpe della Luna
Sierra di Burano
East of Gubbio
West of Fabriano
East of Albacina
East of Camenino
East of Muccia
East of Norcia
West of Arquata
East of Amatrice
East of Antrodoco
West of Aquila
Piano di Pezza
East of Avazzano
Piana del Fucino
West of Trasacco
West of Alfedena
Mr La Meta
Pietro Infine (now a ruin)
South East of Cassino
Crossed the battle lines onto Mr Cesema
Mignano – Mr Lungo
Joined U.S troops
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Chapter I – The Germans Arrive
Someone arrived in the bungalow wreathed in smiles with the news that “it” had happened at last, the Italians had packed in!
I left off work on the German eagle and swastika I was embroidering and joined the throng outside, where we witnessed the Italians at play, throwing caps in the air, tearing off military tunics and in one case throwing his rifle over the sentry box.
Just then Brigadier Mountain the Senior British Officer returned from the Italian Colonello-Commandante, having been given a hand-shake and congratulated on being a free man again. I think now, that the Italian had his tongue in his cheek.
All round the camp were small groups discussing the news, while in the bungalows people were busy packing, which included making a portable package of food which most people had ready for the occasion should we have to trek across country.
The general impression in the camp was I think one of hopefulness that the Germans had been caught on the wrong foot and would beat a hasty retreat, too hasty to worry about us, to the barrier of the Alps, on at any rate to the River Po which lay about 30 miles to our North.
Meanwhile Brigadier Mountain had been working on the Italian Commandant, and had sent a message to the Italian General Commanding the district demanding arms including anti-tank guns.
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That this message ever reached its destination is most unlikely, however the “answer” sent was that the Italian General had far more and better things to do than worry himself about PG 19.
By about 10 pm the Italians had cleared paths through the barbed wire that ran inside the wall, opposite the four small doors in the side and back walls of the camp, the main front gates being closed and guarded. In fact the sentries were all still in position and still had orders to shoot any escapists on sight.
Brigadier Mountain was pounding round the defences with the Italian senior officers in tow till late at night, but the Commandant steadfastly refused to open the gates until he had information that a German coup was imminent; I listened to some of his arguments, one of which was that if we did have to clear out at night, he would not turn the arc-lamps off (which shone outside as well as inside the wall) for fear that all would be confusion without them – this seems to me to be evidence of his treachery. According to him, should the Germans come his soldiers would fight them relentlessly.
After dark one of the Italian cyclists that had been sent out to reconnoitre, reported that a German 88 mm A.A. [Anti Aircraft] battery was moving out, which seemed hopeful, also we had seen German transport moving North along the Rimini – Bologna road which ran close by; little did we think that the battery was moving to gain better command of the camp!
Late at night we all went and collected a Canadian Red Cross food parcel each, from the store, and failed to persuade the sentries to let us out I
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went to bed and found most people already asleep in their clothes with emergency small kit and food packages, many in prison-made rack-sacks.
I felt that I had hardly been asleep when the lights went on and people were tumbling out of bed. The order “Stand to” had come round and I noticed it was 4am. I grabbed my kit, consisting of a Red Cross food parcel and a haversack and having wasted a precious minute or two vainly looking for a friend of mine (Captain Anderson) I joined in the general exodus.
The camp was always well illuminated at night by arc lamps all round the edge, and I saw everyone converging on gate B which had been opened and a dense column moving fast for the Main Camp gates. Suddenly the head wavered and broke back into those close behind, there was no noise, but it was obvious what had happened, the Jerries were coming in through the gates. I streaked across the camp keeping to shadows, towards the small gates at the back, all of which were closed. The Italian sentries were still at their posts but terrified of what they thought the Germans would do to them if they let us get out.
Brigadier Mountain, however, was on the spot once more and after some 10 minutes delay which seemed like hours his personality had all the three doors opened.
The Italians implored us to be quiet once outside with “Tedesei vicino” continually on their lips. We debouched onto the road and everyone started up it away from the camp. I paused, however, trying the hedge into the wood on the far side but finding
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it impossibly high and thick, joined the stream making up the road.
We were about 400 yards outward bound and in darkness – free men – a strange feeling after 14 months of captivity, and I, at any rate, was walking on air. When the quiet padding of myriad feet was shattered by the giant calico-tearing of Tommy guns. The road was cleared in a trice, everyone on top of each other in the ditches, as for me I charged the base of the hedge head down full speed ahead, but made little impression on the hedge and much on the head! We lay hardly breathing while burst after burst swept the road. I heard someone in the wood quite close crying quietly for help, and someone whispered hoarsely to him to keep quiet, the uncertainty of the situation made it inadvisable to help him just then.
Jerries, moved about in the wood shouting, “Stand up English – March to camp – Quickly – Come on, etc.”, interspersed with bursts on the Tommy gun for affect.
Shortly, during which time I had time to reflect bitterly what a horrible business war was, some Jerries came down the road collecting us out of the ditches. We got up and back we trundled into the camp: taking our wounded with us. On passing through the gates once more there was a German standing guard there. His profile is still fresh in my memory; his lean white face, spectacles and steel helmet, and slung about his body the many items carried by the German infantryman. Never have I seen a face so void of expression, he might have been chiselled out of stone.
Inside our four walls once more I saw the Germans herding everyone between the two wire entanglements near the gates for
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counting I reckoned. So, edging my way towards the vines on the other side of the centre road I skirted behind them and so into the bungalow.
There I found half a dozen chaps who had not left the camp, one with very sore and bleeding knuckles. Another was seeing whether he could fit his considerable frame into a small cabinet having removed the shelves – which reminded me of the delightful story I have since heard of the man who did just this when the Germans moved all prisoners at Chieti (P.G. 21) (less those in the tunnels).
When the camp was empty of prisoners the German soldiery came round looting and on finding the cabinet failed to get the door open, it having jammed; so they started shaking it to see if there was anything inside, this treatment produced the inevitable bellow of wrath from within! Having recovered from their shock the Jerries cried “Ha! Englishman! Come out! Come out!” Where upon the voice from the still more irate occupant demanded how the hell they thought he from the inside could succeed when they had failed – more spicy language followed – before the Jerries grasped what was desired of them and still more oaths followed! While the cabinet was demolished about him.
Having previously noted that there was only one opening into the roof of the bungalow, and that in the lavatories, I proceeded thither and piled up tables and stools to reach the ceiling only to be told by the chap with the sore hand that he had been battering at the trap door for half an hour, and sure enough it would not budge.
Tommy guns were still occasionally chattering their war cry
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outside and I imagined the rest of the chaps outside being driven straight away to Germany or farther North, as I thought, and it appeared the British Government were certain, that the Germans might be in too much hurry, with the Allies on their heels, to dally with prisoners. Incredible as it sounds it appears that the Government expected the Germans to leave Italy in such panic that they’d forget the prisoners!
I spent the remainder of the night on tender-hooks with my food parcels in the safest place I could think of – the most remote latrine!
Two Germans clattered in as dawn was breaking, looked into the latrines on the opposite side of the room and went out again.
My heart sank when on looking through a crack in the window I saw Gerry sentry lolling over the rail round his box which was built on top of the wall. Evidently they were not in a great hurry to leave. These thoughts were confirmed when our own people came in and I learned that apart from a substitution of Jerries for Italians everything in the camp was normal again.
After a chin-wag with friends when we related our various experiences of the night I went off to the cookhouse for a cup of tea.
The morning was a very busy one. I got hold of Anderson and Pat Spooner and tackled the trap door in earnest. In daylight it was clear that the door consisted of a piece of plywood nailed onto the framework of the aperture, no wonder it would not lift.
An hours work and the plywood was off and had a primitive but effective catch fitted so that it could be fixed from above so as
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to be unsuspicious looking from below, ingress and egress into the roof was by means of rough sheets knotted together which meant that although we did away with the table and stools, one of us had to be up above the whole time.
A recce of the attic revealed a very spacious and well ventilated if ill lit apartment extending without obstruction right round the “U” shaped building, interlaced with stout wooden beams. The “floor” was closely set parallel beams made of cellular bricks of which the Italian builders are so fond, and fixed beneath them the laths and plaster of the ceiling below. Walking along these beams even in my crêpe rubber-soled shoes produced a reverberating “Thump – thump” in the rooms below. In some places the wall of the rooms below were continued up through the attic to the tiles, and I thought would provide good cover for a game of hide and-seek if the Germans ever came up for a look round.
Having installed food, water, bedding and a few books in our new home, using window shutters as beds, I left Pat as caretaker and went for a walk to look at the changing face of PG 19.
The Germans were busy making themselves comfortable – clearing up anything left by the Italians of whom there was no sign and mending the cuts in the wire. They had put away their tin hats and entrenching trowels and were wearing uniform copied from the British Army in Africa; Shirt, shorts, socks and boots with bare legs the whiteness of which showed them as being recent arrivals from the North. On their heads the universal and much envied Gerry cap, a soft cap with large peak.
They had brought their transport into their part of the
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camp, it consisted mainly of half tracked Ford lorries, presumably made in the Amsterdam factory.
I joined a knot of chaps round the main wire gate and found that the O.C. [Officer Commanding], Germans was the object of their curiosity. He was small in stature, fair with blue eyes, a grin from ear to ear and bubbling over with energy, he was an Ober Lieutenant and only 23 years old. I did not speak enough German to be able to converse with him, but gathered that he was very sorry for the happenings of the previous night when we had suffered one killed and several wounded. He said that a few minutes from the time of first opening fire he realized that we were not armed and gave the order to fire high. Bologna, he said, had been full of stories that had reached German ears that we in camp 19 had received arms dropped from British Aircraft and were planning an attack with Italian co-operation on Bologna. He had consequently been ordered (?) to put in an organised attack. This, he said, he had timed so that the moon would have set and I think he said he had used 3 companies of infantry with half-tracked armoured vehicles, a battery of artillery (3 guns). While we were talking to him two assault guns rumbled through the front gates, so large that there was only an inch or two to spare. (105mm guns on MK [Mark] III tank chassis).
The Ober-Lieutenant went to meet the Unter-Lieutenant of the assault guns, who had an iron cross, and saluted him: so perhaps the Germans salute the iron cross as the Americans do the C.M.H [Congressional Medal of Honour].
They came back together to have a look at us. The Unter-Lieutenant
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was a tall and somewhat fat young man with a pleasant face and the very conspicuous iron cross dangling from his shirt pocket, he also was fair and physically a good Aryian though rather dull and placid looking.
The Ober-Lieutenant recounted how, during the previous night he had met the Italian camp Commandant a few minutes after the firing had started “Surrender yourselves and your arms,” he said, “or I will reduce this camp to rubble by shellfire, I give you five minutes to decide.” The Italian’s answer took no longer than it does to say “Si, si”! I heard from one of our own officers that he had been heard telling the Italian just what he thought of the shameful way the Italians had handed us over, against the articles of the Armistice.
In the middle of the morning a bedraggled band of a hundred or so were marched back into camp to the tune of “Bad luck – Good try” etc. They had been systematically combed out of ditches, and the wood. They were mostly covered from head to foot in dirt, twigs, leaf mould and anything else that they had been able to hide in. I noticed amongst them a South African Colonel who had recently arrived from Germany, having badgered the Germans for a year with the excuse that having been captured by the Italians he should be in an Italian camp. While in Germany he was a member of the party of British Prisoners of War that were flown for propaganda reasons to see the grave of the mass murder of Poles near Smolensk.
The two missing from my room turned up with this party and told us how they had camouflaged themselves in the wood and how a
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German had rooted about all round them and stared them blindly in the face and was just moving on when he spied a piece of boot peeping through the leaves.
Shortly after another band was marched in to join us, they were two hundred South Africans other ranks who had been in a camp half a mile from ours. Into this camp were herded all the Italian officers and men.
The Springboks were in tremendous form and brought the news as given them by some Italians that the British had just landed at Rimini a port of the East coast about 60 miles from Bologna and were advancing rapidly. Good news as it was I was too old a hand to take it without a pinch of salt.
The Germans were very pleased with themselves that morning and told us of how one of their infantry sections had stopped a troop train full or armed Italians approaching Bologna: the German officer demanded immediate surrender, the Italians refused and fired at him, where upon he deployed his section and set to work on them, with the result that within a few seconds all the Italians were on the lines with their hands up and waving white handkerchiefs – nearly a thousand of them in all.
During the afternoon I played in a game of baseball and walked for a bit with Bill Strangroom, I was particularly annoyed with the Germans as they had spoilt my plans to escape from the Italians dressed as a German, to which end I had spent many hours in altering tropical uniform I had acquired off friends and making German uniform badges, the details of which took months to get right.
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I arranged with Bill to swap sittings with him for the evening meal so as to relieve Anderson in the loft for his meal.
This turned out doubly fortunate, as I was crossing the camp having eaten quite a substantial meal, when the ration lorry appeared at the camp entrance. I watched it drive up past the sentries and saw that it had quite a good load of food aboard.
It was driven by an Italian soldier and the Italian officer i/c [In Command] rations was sitting beside him, the Germans having kept these two at their job of feeding us. I noticed that the Germans showed the two miserable Italians just what they thought of them, mostly turning their backs on the lorry as it passed. “That’s useful,” said I to myself and went inside the bungalow to grab emergency ration and to tell Andy that I was going to have a look at the ration lorry, and would he mind waiting for Pat to relieve him.
He and I had already reconnoitred the underneath of this lorry with a view to its possibilities and while I was “cooling” the “cooler” a week previously he had actually tried to stow himself away in it but found himself too large to squeeze through the aperture formed by the chassis and the brake rods, however his helper’s had decoyed the Italians successfully and none of them saw his attempt. He told me that he thought access would be easier ever the back axle.
Watching the lorry going past, seated on the ground and supposedly reading a book (the Italians are capable of acting on the smallest suspicions), I had noticed that the propeller-shaft was running a full half inch out of true which proved most unpleasant later.
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Chapter II – Contraband Cargo
I walked over towards the cook-house where the lorry was unloading. In appearance it was somewhat similar to an ordinary British Army three-tonner and behind it was a small but tense gathering/were the Brigadier and his interpreter pulling the Italian through the proverbial mangle and making quite sure that he knew the compliments he was to take to his traitorous superior, the Commandant: the Italian made a bad mistake in trying to put all the blame onto his co-patriots, but was brought up sharp by the “ton of bricks” that the Brigadier, dispensing with the interpreter, showered upon him as a farewell gesture.
While listening to this entertainment I walked round the lorry and noted that the two Germans in the watch tower opposite were busy trying to reassemble the Breda M.G. [Machine Gun] left them by the Italians and the one sentry behind was either not present or deeply ensconced in his box; the Italian officer was undergoing his “Natapan” under the guns of the Brigadier and the soldier was helping unload the lorry.
These few minutes were the worst for me during the whole story, my muscles turned to jelly and my heart to a steam hammer, was it worth the risk? Why not await another better chance that was bound to come? And a hundred other questions flashed through my mind; never before had I been confronted by such a stark and
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clear cut funk in my road of destiny. “Blast that wretched Italian when would he move out of the way” – a picture framed itself in my mind of myself in Germany cursing the day that I had let slip such an opportunity and calling myself all manner of things possessed of a craven heart. The Italian staggered away under a load of onions, one more glance round, the sentries still preoccupied, the Italian officer retiring shamefaced – the officer prisoners along the cook house steps, sipping the last of the “vino” with, so it seemed to me their eyes fixed on me and I dived under the tail-board and worked my way head first over the back axle, then over a cross frame then a cross tube with the brake arms attached to it.
My belt caught on a nut on this cross-tube and prevented me from getting farther forward to better cover, and to another cross frame that I had counted on reaching; no amount of restricted wriggling would loosen the belt and someone beside the truck told me to keep my feet down.
When the lorry was stationary I had the prop shaft to rest upon; after a minute or two the Italians climbed aboard and started up, and off we went down the centre road. At the inner gate we slowed down while it was opened, but did not stop and I saw several German boots as we passed.
A hundred yards on we stopped by the office buildings at the entrance to the camp and the Italian was taken to the office.
Germans were walking about by the score, I could see their legs as they came and went, some bare with socks and shoes and
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skin looking very white, some with jack boots and shorts, and a few with boots and the German bluey-green battle dress.
After five minutes suspense and wondering whether the sentry at the main gates would look under the lorry, back came the Italian with two or three Germans the latter climbed on the back and the engine started and the gears grated as was their wont: we had just cleared the gates going slowly when with a clatter a Tommy-gun magazine dropped on the ground, there was a shout and the lorry stopped suddenly with the magazine half under it about a yard from my nose! The owners arm picked it up and on we went once more, onto the road. Turned right and away – ‘Hurrah’! Said I aloud to myself – there was not much chance of my being overheard in the midst of the din the old lorry was making – “He won’t be doing any more driving tonight I think – I hope his garage is nice and convenient.”
We braked and changed gear for one or two corners and I was intrigued watching the working of the pedals and levers mounted on the side of the gearbox about two feet ahead of me. I always had ample warning of a corner as the shaft across my tummy on which I was to a large extent supported was an integral part of the brake system, and the nut that had caught on my belt periodically dug itself farther into me.
In order to be able to record where I was being taken I raised my head a trifle and was watching the side of the road through the gap of about 9 inches between the chassis and the body above, we were passing a side road when to my horror I saw two Germans and we stared one another in the face – they both raised their arms
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and shouted – the lorry stopped and they ran across; “Well,” thought I, “that’s that, anyway twice out of the camp in one day is not a bad effort.” They walked up to the truck, had a word with the driver and to the accompaniment of “Si, si” climbed on the back with the others, and off we rumbled once more! After another half mile we slowed down and swished through the gates of another camp – the one where the Italians had been put – it looked very similar to our own camp, and as we drove up to the cook house I spied Italian soldiers sitting disconsolately on their bungalow steps, as we had so often done!
I was worried, as from their seated positions these Italians could look under the lorry but I did not think they would split on me in their present mood.
At the cook-house we loaded something in sacks judging by the sound. And after interminable talking and arguing we started down the drive again and halted by the office buildings and more Jerries and sentries. The Italian driver was wandering round his truck. First he opened the bonnet and looked at the oil dip-stick, then he came round to the petrol tank at my elbow and had a squint into it: fortunately this alarming episode was not repeated.
By now time was beginning to tell and my arms and shoulders especially were aching, however, in a few minutes we were off again, up the road by which we had just come and ray heart sank as we turned again into Campo 19!
We stopped short of the inner gates and turned and I could plainly see my late companions taking their evening strolls around the camp – I waved to one or two I knew, but I don’t think they
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saw me, if they did they were too veteran prisoners to show that they had. As I watched them walking past, 10 yards away, I felt in a different world to theirs – with just so many yards of wire between us!
We halted again at the offices and on the left hand quite close the Germans were all lined up holding some sort of parade – perhaps mounting the guard. I was just wondering whether or not they were facing the lorry when an order was barked out and the parade executed an about turn – I was still none the wiser!
My aches and pains increased and the bar across my tummy was causing my legs to lose their feeling. Whereas before I could relieve the pain by squirming a bit while we were on the move, now I found it increasingly necessary to adjust my position while we were stationary and this is where my crepe-soled shoes were so invaluable.
This time we turned left out of the camp, up to the main road and right – towards Bologna.
Dusk was falling and this time I thought the lorry must be going to garage for the night, though if so, why were the Germans still on the back?
Once more on the main road, the driver opened up changing, into top gear for the first time.
The din was terrific, oil-laden air streamed back from the engine, which was quite pleasant as the night was getting chilly, and the rattle of the propeller shaft merged into an unbroken tantrum: the shaft itself revolving so fast that its centre line only was visible as a concrete object; now and then a
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small piece of fibre would fly off the universal joint and hit my face. They did not hurt, but led me to wonder what manner of thing would happen were the joint to collapse altogether. The minutes dragged by like hours and still on we went and all I could see was the endless ribbon of road streaking by 18 inches away with an occasional skid-mark to relieve the monotony. I was constantly looking at my watch which gave me a peculiar thrill being the one machine which was under my control!
Then came the tram lines and cobble stones, the former were quite intriguing with their smokey(?) sinewy movements, but the cobbles reminded me of the time I watched a Rolls-Royce car being tested – its wheels were mounted on large rollers covered in lumps of iron which were rotated at so many miles per hour; every part of the chassis was vibrating so that it seemed a wonder that the thing still held together.
This, I thought, was not my idea of fun and I decided to part company at the next opportunity – garage or no.
We drove through the town – by now it was quite dark and the risk of detection was thus greatly minimised, in the outskirts we drove into what looked like public gardens and drew up near a big house out of which spewed many German noises.
Several Germans and two Italians stood round the lorry discussing current events, I gathered that the Germans had a very high opinion of the “Inglese” and an equally low one of the “Gloriosi Italiani”, that some of the Germans thought the Allies would try to land in Rome and that some thought the German Counter
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Offensive which they said had just started would sweep the English out of Italy: not once did I hear America mentioned. It tickled me immensely to wonder what they would think if they knew an Englishman was eavesdropping their conversation.
The lower half of my body was by now only semi-conscious and in searching for fresh positions I found I could put my left arm over the chassis between it and the running board wainscotting. The relief was immense also I contrived to straighten my legs and in doing so developed cramp – the resulting noise was enough to awaken the gods, but I got the legs straight and the conversations continued.
The Journey to Bologna had taken half an hour and it was close on 11 o’clock with a full moon when the German Officer or N.C.O. [Non Commissioned Officer] came out of the house and told the Italian to drive first to the station then back to the prison camp. Obviously I must disembark at the station. Everyone climbed on and off we went. I reckoned that the German wanted to fix up a train to take the prisoners to Germany.
The cobbles seemed worse this time, cramp came and went in various muscles, and I began seriously to consider what I should do if I were to begin to faint as I felt rather that way inclined.
This problem was driven from my mind by a German motorcycle, several had passed us going the opposite way, but this one came up close behind with its lamp full on and followed us down to the station: his lamp appeared to be shining right underneath the truck and although I tried to conceal my feet behind a wooden frame it seemed impossible that he could fail to see me. We
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entered the gates of a goods yard, and the motor cycle drew alongside, as we drew up he did likewise but just sat in his saddle with his engine running.
Two roller doors were run up and I thought the place seemed like a garage. Soon stores were being loaded on, they seemed of all sizes mostly pretty large and heavy, so I thought it must be camp rations.
The loading went on for nearly an hour and the German propped his bike up and started walking about and talking to an interested Italian about his bike. “Quanti cylindri.” “Ein sylinder, stzwei tag,” and so on. I had decided I could not stand any more mileage under the lorry so very gingerly started working my way out. There was the wall round the goods yard to be surmounted but there were huge piles of rubble and broken concrete lying about from the recent air raid affording good cover. The air raid had occurred about a week previously, and we at the camp had an excellent view of the 36 Flying Fortresses as they wafted across the sky at fantastic height, released their bombs and wheeled away like a giant sea flotilla then, after a minute of quiet before the storm, the mounting billows of smoke, dust, and wreckage and the rumblings from Bologna. Small A.A. [Anti Aircraft] fire was put up but this was more inaccurate by far than our own early in the war: some shells burst 200 feet up in the air!
As for fighters there were none to be seen a fact that we utilized at the expense of the Italian sentries. A quarter of an hour before the raid the air had been thick with planes of all types
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mostly German “scramming” off the local airfield: how we wished for a Bren gun as they flew over us no more than 100 feet up.
The attempt to drop off the lorry in the goods yard was frustrated by the motor-cyclist. And indeed it nearly proved fatal as the brass buckle on my belt, having already endured far more than its Egyptian creator could have imagined possible, gave up the struggle and tinkled to the ground – Teutonic reaction – Nil. Soon the loading was finished. However, I was in a position over the back axle infinitely more comfortable and, as it was dark, fairly well concealed. While we were going along I dangled my legs out at the back and when stationary cocked them back under the bodywork. The journey back to the camp once more was safely accomplished. We stopped just inside the inner gates as a German went to fetch a British Officer out of bed it being close on midnight. Then we drove up to the Red Cross, store near the cook-house and the unloading commenced. The sentries in the box overlooking us kept switching on their search light but even so the temptation was great to drop off and go off to my bed – except that that was in the attic and made up on a window shutter and probably had someone else sleeping on it!
The off loading completed we drove back and halted once more outside the offices – surely this time the garage would be the next stop, but no; round we turned and halted on the patch of ground between the “Cooler” and the wire entanglements, the flood lights from the latter shining across the ground under the lorry excepting where its wheels cast shadows. The Germans got off and the driver went into the buildings and I was left
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awaiting his return. Two German sentries strolled up and down on a short beat on the drive and stood talking quietly every now and then, they were about twenty yards from the lorry. 1 o’ clock came and passed and it was evident that there would be no more activity until next morning.
Now and then the silence was rended by the noisy entrance of a dispatch rider on his two stroke motor-cycle he would await a reply to his message and sit talking to two or three others on the step at the entrance to the office buildings.
As one thirty struck on a distant steeple the Jerries on the steps got up yawned and went off to their quarters; the chief bar to my movements thus removed I began to suggest to myself that it might be time to do something, spirit was willing, but my body was not.
I could watch the guards, though my view of them was upside down, by bending my head down and looking beyond my toes. Judging a suitable moment I commenced an antic similar to the parlour trick of crawling round the back of a kitchen chair without touching the floor. My object being to gain a sitting position on the near axle without leaving the friendly shadow of the chassis members. The inevitable bout of pins and needles resultant upon any fresh movement having subsided I commenced to contort myself under the propeller shaft and up on the other side of it, my head towards my toes, every few minutes I achieved a new position where to go either forward or back seemed a geometrical impossibility and in one of the more precarious of these after a little noise had escaped me I heard a shuffling of a sleeper above and his deep
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sigh. “Oh so you’re still up there are you” thought I and resolved to be more circumspect.
The sitting position on the rear axle was eventually realized and as I sat preening myself powerful head lamps were switched on about 50 yards away, the lorry being on the other side of the drive.
I had to freeze and hope for the best, most of my lower part was lit up my legs being along the axle, but the number plate cast a disrupting shadow and the lorry with the lamps started up and moved forward, the shadow moving in sympathy over my trousers, on the drive it turned and drove out of the camp: The two sentries had their backs to me and were naturally watching the moving lorry.
My immediate plan was to get to the front of my lorry and slip round the corner of the offices and scale the wall.
The minutes ticked by, the sentries were changed, the quarters chimed and at about a quarter to three I first glimpsed the setting moon under the back of the lorry. At 3:15am the moon had set, and I reckoned that with only two more hours before the first streaks of dawn now was the time or never.
When the sentries were at their maximum of about 30 yards away and with their backs turned I slipped head first to the ground and lay there crossed by the wheel shadows, trying to look like an old coat or tarpaulin. Motion for the following three quarters of an hour was reminiscent of that of a caterpillar on the point of expiring, my general direction being towards the front wheels, and motion being suspended when the sentries were in my direction as I was fully exposed to them and to any sentries on the wire running parallel, which latter I could not see and
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hoped did not exist.
On arrival at the front wheel I stood up at the selected moment, and, my legs covered by the wheel, rested on the wing which was all in deep shadow – what a heavenly relief! The corner of the office building being next objective I waited until the guards moved to a position placing the lorry between themselves and the corner. They did this after a few minutes and stood looking down with “bored interest” at some peculiar tin stoves which the Italians had dumped at our never ceasing requests: their function being to disinfest our buildings which were swarming with flies and also housed several families of fleas and other unpleasant bugs which our doctor and David Roberts our scientist were unable to identify.
Twenty odd paces and I was round the corner, another ten and I was at the junction of the building and the wail. Now there was only one sentry box which had a line of vision to me, and even here the sentry was far more likely to be looking the other way.
The prison was in these buildings and having spent five days therein only a week before I knew all about the wall just there and that there was a drain pipe about two feet from the wall. Using this artificial chimney, as a mountaineer would call it, there was little difficulty in climbing to the top of the wall. However, my home made tin cigarette case in my shirt pocket grated alarmingly against the bricks, and lying flat on the top of the wall I heard a tapping and muttering coming from two dark shapes not thirty yards away. Staring hard I made the shapes
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out as being two self-propelled assault guns probably those that appeared in the camp the previous afternoon. Several Germans were working on them, and were walking back and forth between the S.P’s [Staging Post] and a wooden shack.
I left the cigarette case on the wall and hung down the far side dropping the last foot or so onto what for all I knew might be a pile of old tiles. The landing quietly accomplished, the next few minutes were employed in moving alongside the wall at snail pace as it seemed that the Germans, whose shadowy forms I could see working on the assault guns, might notice any noise or speedy movement. Soon I struck away from the wall over a vast pile of chaff, my aim being the. large farm house some 400 feet distant. It would have been suicidal to walk about in my scanty uniform in daylight so it seemed best to contact an Italian as soon as possible.
I had to submerge into the chaff as a sentry walked down the wall and stopped by the assault guns just where I had dropped off the wall. Soon I crawled on again, through a hedge into a ditch at the side of the road. Across the road was a hedge and the farm, to the right faintly loomed the shape of a parked German lorry, to the left was the camp entrance and a large bush from which came spasmodic rustling noises, probably a bird having bad dreams but then the Italians were now the German’s enemies and would not the latter have sentries everywhere? The first attempt at crossing the road was frustrated by a cyclist, the second, on my tummy, was successful, and I was glad to reach the comforting ditch on the other side. The hedge seemed impassable and had wire netting on the inside. There was a small iron gate a little way along
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the hedge but I found this padlocked, it was 5 feet high with spikes on top and surmounted by a very tough and thorny rose: obviously the owner did not intend it to be used. It took a full minute to climb the gate the bolt hanging and rattling in its lock all the while. To add to the noise a band of ducks or rabbits alongside the house took fright and stampeded up and down their cage, every time I moved.
To enter the house seemed foolish as, likely as not, there would have been a great commotion so I reconnoitred the small untidy garden. This was divided by a stout fence into two, one half being the Italian equivalent to a lawn, very small, and very parched, the other half was a vegetable plot and very untidy, growing mostly runner beans, and large multi-coloured pumpkins.
The sky was beginning to fade in the East and there was a chill in the air which pierced my shirt and set me shivering.
In the far corner of the “lawn” was a heap of what looked and felt like grass cuttings and twigs: a good place to hide I thought.
As I could not have shown myself in daylight in my khaki drill clothes, my first aim was to obtain “civvies” by hook or by crook and the hook method seemed the best one for a start.
Just then came the distinctive thundering and clanking of tanks from down the road, two sides of my garden were bounded by roads, and motor cyclists appeared, two stopping at the road junction on the far side of the hedge from me, in a minute or two the heavy stuff came along and passed by below me, they were heavy S.P. [Self-Propelled] guns 105 millimetres I think and mounted on the MK [Mark] III chassis that I had known so well in its original tank form in the desert. Each
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group of three or four was proceeded by a soldier on a push-bike and the crews were mostly sleeping with the commander alert, and bare-headed wearing earphones. About twenty in all passed by and after that all types of German Army vehicles were passing to and fro. I learned later that Firenze (Florence) had refused to surrender to the handful of Germans there and that these. S.P. [Self-Propelled] guns were the force or part of the force dispatched to bring the city to heel.
As light was broadening over the sky I dug myself into my rubbish heap with just my head protruding and with a rampart of grass around me. By 6am, it was quite light and I dozed until about 8am. when the front door of the farm rattled and creaked open and out strolled an old man with white hair. Just the sort I want I thought, where age had learned how foolish it is for man to hate his fellow man.
The old fellow strolled round his little garden looking here and there but never towards me: in a few minutes a top window was unshuttered and two little girls aged about 8 and 5 looked out on the morning. I raised my head into their view, forced a charming (?) smile and beckoned the old man towards me. The children did not flee in terror at seeing a head in the manure heap, as I by now had discovered that I was immersed in the cleaning’s of the rabbit hutch! The children soon grasped my meaning and whispered hoarsely to the old man who walked over glanced at me, then turned back and ambled behind a tree; I was momentarily perturbed, but here he was, coming back with a huge bunch of grapes which he tossed to me before going inside.
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And so once more a glorious sun rose above the roof of the house and bathed me in sunlight already hot.
Faces frequently appeared at the windows to survey me so that soon I knew the family quite well; the chickens came to see me and having ventured to within two yards flapped away in panic having decided after so many sideways glances that I was something most unusual, their curiosity overcame them however and they repeated the performance ad infinitum.
Soon the young man of the family aged perhaps 20 years approached me on tip toe like a cat burglar and after many furtive glances in all directions, tossed me an old hat.
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[Handwritten Note in capitals]