Hilder, Eric

Summary of Eric Hilder

A short account written by Eric Hilder’s daughter from notes which were spoken by Eric to his grandsons and from which a recording was made. A full transcript of the recording remains with Eric’s family. Eric was captured at Tobruk, interned at Lucca and finally at Sforzacosta. He escaped from the hospital wing just before the Germans arrived and spent several months hiding out on Italian farms, with a fellow PoW, Charles Medlar. In 2005 Eric’s family returned to Italy and were able to make contact with many members of the families that helped Eric.

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.

Notes from Eric’s daughter, Ann Blair

My father was Eric Hilder, Q.M.S with the R.E.M.E. attached to the Coldstream Guards. He was captured at Tobruk, and shipped to Italy in a boat that would normally be carrying coal. He was in a PoW camp at Lucca and then ended up at Campo 53, Sforzacosta. He was in the sick bay when the Germans took over the camp and on September 20th he escaped along with Charles Medlar. He eventually spent three months on a farm in Tolentino with the Vitali family.

He made one visit back to the farm in about 1956 but after that there was no contact.

My father did not speak much about his wartime experiences but on holiday in 1989, while staying with his daughter in Ottawa, he started talking to his grandsons. The conversation was recorded and so we have a record of his experiences as told to two small boys over a number of days! It is a transcript that starts with him joining the army, surviving Dunkirk, being one of the last out of Crete, life in the desert, capture at Tobruk and a description of life in Camp 53 and his eventual escape and return home.

Ann with her daughter and niece went over to Tolentino in 2005. Keith Killby had put us in touch with Jessica Palmieri who had come to England on one of the bursaries and we also made contact with Antonio and Guiseppi Millozi. All we had was an old address book of my father’s and Jessica helped us by telephoning people with the same names. To cut a long story short Jessica’s husband recognised one of the addresses and together we found the farm where my father stayed for 3 months. The present owner turned out to be a relative of Umberto Vitali who we were seeking. 

We had such an emotional meeting with Umberto who now lives in Ancona. On the wall in his sitting room was a photograph of my father and Umberto. We were introduced to Umberto’s family – his wife, his daughters, grandchildren and brother and his family. Jessica accompanied us on this visit and had made all the arrangements by phone. She was invaluable – we were really sad to hear she has passed away, leaving her husband and two small boys.

On our second visit to Italy this time my sister came too we were able to piece together more of the details of my father’s time on the run. At the start of our trip Guiseppi very kindly met us at Sforzacosta camp and gave us much more background information about the camp and life there.

There are gaps in my father’s narrative. For example he escaped with a man called Charles Medlar and Charles suddenly disappeared from the story. My niece subsequently found from army records that Charles survived the War.

Through Guiseppi we were put in contact with Roberto Cruciano from Urbisaglia who is an historian and who has researched Sforzacosta. Roberto then briefly introduced us to Elizabeth Staffini whose grandfather sheltered POWS, one of whom was a Gilbert Broadbent.

The day we left, Elizabeth very kindly brought us a complete photocopy of Gilbert Broadbent’s book in English, which is full of amazing detail. It was this book that helped solve the mystery of what happened to Charles Medlar, the man who escaped with my father.

We had already found out that Charles had got through safely and had met the Allies in Urbisaglia. From Gilbert’s book we were able to ascertain that there was a group of about 12 POWs together near the coast and the group split with ‘Eric and the South African’ going to look for a boat and the rest of the group going back inland. This follows my father’s narrative as well. I think Professor Jones’ father may have been one of this group.

My father finally escaped by boat from Pescara. He had a strange crew of another soldier, his Italian wife and mother in law, two Polish soldiers and a white rabbit. They used wellington boots to bail out the boat. Eventually they were picked up by the Allies and my father was debriefed in Naples.

Before this my father also spent time with the SAS under the command of an Alan Green. Alan Green had been parachuted behind enemy lines to set up lines to evacuate POWs on the run. Both my father and Albert Jones (professor Jones wrote about his father in the MSTM newsletter) mentioned a rendezvous with a submarine and how they went two nights running to the same point but were unable to make contact.

Members of my family have now visited Umberto Vitali and his family on four occasions. We have been entertained royally and there is a strong bond between us.

Unfortunately we have not been able to track down my father’s record of his debriefing in Naples. Apparently a lot of these records went astray or were or were taken to the United States.

I think Albert Jones probably left the camp before my father as my father was in the ‘hospital’ when the Germans took over the camp. Charles came to him one evening and said it was ‘tonight’ or never and so they cut through the wire late at that night. Then the remaining prisoners were deported to Germany within the next few days. 

The last visit to visit Umberto Vitali was in 2017 and we hope to go again as he is quite frail now. There is also some more detective work to be done around Pescara as apparently my father was sheltered on another farm for about a month.

What started out as our quest to find the Vitali family broadened into a much wider appreciation of what happened. So many people helped the POWs. We stayed in Urbisaglia at the Famiglia Tombolini’s hotel and found that the maternal grandmother had fed a soldier on the run, the same with Jessica’s friend Manuela whose grandmother did the same. A story of bravery and kindness that should not be forgotten.

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