Summary of Eric Hopkins
A tale of multiple and unsuccessful attempts to avoid the Germans after the Italian Armistice. Eric was recaptured after escaping from Fontanellato and he was captured again a few months after escaping from a holding camp after this first escape attempt. He escaped again, while being transported with a man called Swann, by jumping over the back of a lorry while under gun fire. After being recaptured they were in the middle of their fourth escape attempt by tunnelling out of the camp when they were transported by the Germans to Mousburg and then to Oflag IX/A7Z.
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.
[Digital page 1]
EDITED BY JS from a Probus talk by Eric Hopkins. Corresponding with Dr Julian Hopkins
After a couple of weeks in the transit camp at Brindisi I, together with other officer survivors of our brigade, was sent to Montalbo Camp, an old castle in the Apennines where we stayed until spring 1943.
We were all subsequently moved to a new camp at Fontanellato, between Farma and Piacenza in the flat ground not far south of the River Po. The building which housed about 600 was stone built and recently completed. It was intended as an orphanage but housed us and officers from two other camps. From it on a clear day we could see the Alps.
In July of 1943 Mussolini and the fascist government were over thrown and Marshal Badoglio took control. There was great excitement on 8th September 1943 when we heard that Italy had ceased fighting. Our senior British officer assembled us and said that the instructions that he had received by our secret camp radio were that we were to stay put. This was from the British Powers that be! We could see that the Germans were reinforcing their troops in the south by observing the large number of transport planes heading in that direction.
Fortunately the Italian camp commandant, who was not a fascist and who was pro-British gave orders for a gap to be cut in the barbed wire fences at the rear of the compound and we all formed up and marched about a mile into the countryside to await developments. We were told by some Italian locals that the Germans had arrived in force and surrounded the camp only to find it empty. They took the camp commandant away and gave him a very rough time.
Our senior British officer gave the order to disperse. Every man for himself. There were three main options:
1. To stay in the area awaiting the arrival of the allies who had landed at Salerno, south of Naples.
2. To make for Switzerland and subsequent internment.
3. To head south to meet the allies.
I decided on the last and set off with another Green Howard on the long walk. Rumour had it – false – that the allies had landed near Genoa so we headed due west for a few days, only to have our hopes dashed. We then entered the foothills of the Apennines on the Mediterranean side and kept walking day after day having to traverse the scores of valleys and ridges.
The Italian country folk were most friendly and helpful and fed us most evenings, allowing us to sleep in the hay under cover. At the end of September we came across a flat circular area about one mile across and crossed it only to find a very muddy drainage channel on the far side of which was a high bank. We had no option but to remove our boots, roll up our trousers and wade across. The bottom consisted of foul smelling black slimy ooze and when we climbed the bank with our boots in our hands we spotted some farm buildings nearby. There was a road below the bank along which a number of German vehicles passed. When the coast was clear we went to the farm to ask for water to clean ourselves and were invited
[Digital page 2]
inside. Warm water and towels were produced and we had just completed the task when the door was opened and three Germans, one of whom spoke English, entered.
When you are looking into the muzzle of a loaded firearm you do as you are told and our hands were above our heads without delay. We were taken to what had been a working camp for British P.O.W.s it consisted of half a dozen huts in a rectangular compound. There were two barbed wire fences about a yard apart and a third about ten yards distant. Each corner had an elevated sentry/guard box. The occupants of the compound consisted of recaptured PoWs of all ranks and I found that one of them, a mechanic, was doing some work on a German vehicle. I asked him to purloin a pair of pliers and this he did on the third day, the German having told us that we were to be moved the following day.
As soon as it was dark I asked for the pliers, only to be told that the owner intended to go first. So, we formed up on our stomachs in single file, I being second and my companion next. When all was quiet the escape commenced and the first fence was breached at ground level, followed by the next. In the gloom I could see the leader disappear towards the outer fence and was just about to wriggle through the second fence when I heard the sound of approaching boots on the gravel. The sentries were being changed!
I lay completely still and saw the boots of the Germans pass within a few feet of me. Heaving a sigh of relief that I had not been spotted I crawled towards the outer fence but was unable to find the hole. As far as I was concerned there was only one thing to do and that was to climb over. I can assure you that climbing a ten foot high barbed wire fence at night with German guards in the vicinity is no laughing matter. I managed the ascent and descent and then made contact with my companion, getting him to do the same. We left the site with all speed, taking the direction from the night sky. Shortly after there were sounds of machine gun fire from the camp with plenty of shouting and more firing. We quickened our pace and kept on the go until first light.
After that close encounter we moved more cautiously, keeping to the woods where possible. A week or so later late one afternoon near the top of a valley we came across a village and were told by one of the locals that the Priest spoke English as he had spent a number of years in South Africa. We made contact with him and were invited inside only to discover that the local Bishop and his entourage were there for the night! We had a splendid meal, the vino flowing freely.
When bedtime arrived the Priest told us that all the guest rooms were in use and that we would have to sleep with him! Accordingly we followed him by candlelight upstairs to a room with a wide bed. The Priest, having taken off his robe got into the bed from the left hand side, I into the centre and my companion on the right. The effects of the wine ensured that I was asleep without delay. What goes in has to come out and I awoke in the middle of the night in pitch darkness with my bladder at bursting point. As luck would have it the Priest awoke and lit the candle, putting on his robe and going, doubtless to keep in with the Bishop, to pray. I looked around in the dark and spotted the window. There was only one thing for it and I did it. Unfortunately there was a corrugated iron roof below the point of relief and as the building was on a hillside there was some distance from the window to the roof.
[Digital page 3]
About two seconds after I had commenced there was the most terrible din and this continued until the contents of about two bottles of recycled wine had been discharged. All of the village dogs started barking and my companion woke with a jump fearing that we were being attacked. Funnily enough when we took our leave after breakfast no mention was made of the incident so I guess that they were all in Church, chanting. I have often asked myself this question “Why should a Roman Catholic Priest possess a bed large enough for three persons?!”
It was now mid-October and winter was approaching and the days shortening. Each day we walked keeping under cover or as close to it as possible. At the end of the month we met up with two escaped commando officers who had been captured during the failed raid on Rommel’s H.Q. As a cold snap of weather had arrived we spent about a week in a barn huddled together for warmth. They were good company.
When the weather relented I stated that I was going to proceed and was advised that they intended to remain there. So I set off up the valley with fairly high mountainous features either side. Snow was now falling and I kept going until I was knee deep in snow and the light was beginning to fail. I came to the conclusion that if I did not turn back that I would probably perish. I sensed that I was not far from liberty but that without warm clothing or any food my chances of survival were slim. So I turned about in the gathering gloom and kept walking until I eventually came across some buildings. I knocked on a door and was invited inside to warm myself and to dry any clothing.
The peasant family who took pity of me and their relations and neighbours were magnificent. They possessed next to nothing and yet found for me a dark blue cloak which had seen better days. They also arranged for my khaki battledress to be dyed dark blue. I was hidden among bales of hay in complete darkness for a number of days followed by periods, which gradually lengthened, of sitting by the fire in their one and only room. At about midday there used to be a banging on the door and it was their pig demanding his daily ration of acorns! He was let inside and if he defecated a shovelful of hot wood ash would be placed on the pile and a short while later the whole lot would be shovelled up and put back on the fire.
I made it clear that I intended to attempt to get through to the allies but was told that the danger from wolves and the extremely low temperature would be a great hazard. So I stayed, well hidden, with one family or another from mid November 1943 until early in the new year. I had no watch or reading material – only my thoughts.
Early in January 1944 I was told that as the number of German soldiers in the village was increasing it had become too dangerous for me to remain and that I was to be hidden in a cave together with another British escaped P.O.W. The cave in question was towards the allies, high up on the side of a valley. My new companion, ten years my senior, was somewhat odd and told me that when in France with the B.E.F. early in the war he had been riding a motor cycle and had run into something very solid, waking up in hospital three weeks later.
He was a conductor (Senior Warrant Officer) in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, in a Territorial Army Unit. His name was Swann and he came from Hull although a Scot by birth. It was bitterly cold and it was vital to keep alight the wood fire that had been lit for us
[Digital page 4]
by the Italians so one of us had to remain awake. Some food was brought before dusk on most days and it was only the thought of possible freedom that kept us going. The days began to lengthen and it was only a matter of time before the allied offensive was launched to liberate Rome, thereby setting us free.
Towards the end of March the supply of food became erratic and one day we were told that it had become too dangerous for the courier to continue. Remember that there were fascists among the Italians and that a price had been put on the heads of escaped PoWs. We were told to leave the cave after dark and to walk down the valley to the outskirts of the village where we would be met, given shelter and sent on our way early next morning.
We did as told and were put in a barn with deep hay on the floor, the door being bolted and locked. We were just settling down when the sound of approaching boots on cobbles became louder. Shouts in German were followed by the door being smashed and I thought that we would be killed on the spot. We were taken to a H.Q. In the village, stood side by side with our hands behind our backs and our hands tied with stout rope, my right hand to Swann’s right hand and my left to his left. One of the Germans, black uniform of the S.S. Looked me in the face and drew his thumb across his throat, indicating that we were for the chop. We were put in the back of a lorry, sitting on the floor near the tailboard, with one German, armed with a sub machine gun, sitting opposite. For some unknown reason the knot securing my right wrist had not been tied with the usual German efficiency and I managed to loosen it and then free both of our hands. I muttered to Swan that I would disarm the guard and that he was to bail out. I lunged across, whereupon the guard shouted and the driver applied the brakes. I could not wrest the weapon from him and followed Swan oven the tailboard, rolling along the road. The guard opened fire in bursts, the tracer bullets ricocheting off the road surface. Miraculously neither of us was hit and we fled in a south westerly direction until dawn. I reckoned that the further we travelled from our incident area the better so we walked for three or four days before resting in a barn in which three escaped British P.O.Ws were. Most unfortunately lice were present and I developed blood poisoning. My left hand was nearly twice its normal size, I had a vivid red line running up my left arm-and a large lump in my left armpit. It was one of the lowest points of my life.
The local Italians, marvellous as usual, on seeing my condition said that there was a doctor from Rome, no doubt a fugitive from the fascists, in the nearby village. Next day he visited me and performed certain procedures which may well have saved my life. We were told by the locals that the Germans were looking for us so we moved south west for some while and ended up in a village where we met a very civilised man who spoke English, his wife and her sister. They too were fugitives. He kindly took our photographs, my parents address and somehow got the photos to England. This was the first that my parents knew that I was all right from late August 1943 to April 1944.
Not wishing to stay anywhere for too long we moved off in a southerly direction. We were told that an American parachutist had been dropped and was in a cave at the head of a nearby valley. We found him – an American Italian – but the supplies that had been parachuted with him were of no use. The army boots appeared to be minimum size 10, the silk escape maps had one half of Italy on one side and the other half on the other side and the compasses were
[Digital page 5]
of the collar stud type! I did not like the feel of the place and we decided to push on. He told us of a route through the German reserve area and then through the front line which would lead to liberty but his information was as useless as the supplies. Within two or three days we were in the midst of the Germans and this time there was no escape. End of eight months on the loose.
We were put in a small camp similar to that from which I had escaped six months previously. A number of the occupants had only been captured recently and we decided that we would make every effort to get away. The perimeter barbed wire fence was only ten yards from our hut so we smashed a hole in the concrete floor, sank a vertical shaft about five feet deep and then a tunnel towards the barbed wire. The soil which was as dry as dust was placed between the ceiling and the roof, two of the ceiling panels having been removed with great care and replaced when any of the German camp staff approached. The weight of the soil made the ceiling sag and whenever the allied fighter bombers attacked nearby German gun positions the vibrations from the bomb blasts caused the ceiling to sag further. However our luck held in that respect but not as far as the tunnel completion was concerned because we were all moved by train to Germany just before the perimeter fence had been reached.
After a spell at a very large transit camp at Mousburg I ended up at Oflag IX/A7Z at Rotenburg a small town on the River Fulda a few miles south of Kassel in Western Germany. Some of the inmates had been captured in France in 1940, others in Greece in 1941 and the remainder recaptured P.O.W.s from Italy having been captured in North Africa. There were also Canadian survivors from the disastrous Dieppe raid in 1942. Subsequently some survivors from Arnhem arrived.
The winter of 1944/5 was pretty grim and had the Red Cross parcels not arrived life would have been very hard indeed. The vertical vapour trails that we could see from time to time were V2 rockets being launched against London.
Our camp had a secret radio receiver so we were aware that the war was drawing to a close when we heard that the allies had obtained a bridgehead across the Rhine. During the last week of March we were ordered to vacate the camp and to prepare for a march eastwards. For two and a half weeks we walked all day. Our Senior British Officer had sensibly given his word that no escape would be attempted and we were permitted to carry large white sheets prominently displayed to deter the allied fighters from attacking us. The German guards knew that the war was lost but the camp commandant, a Nazi brute, was determined to accomplish his orders.
Fortunately the allied land forces made excellent progress and on Friday l3th April we were liberated by an American Armoured Regiment. The feeling and joy of liberty were beyond description and within a week or so I was walking up the front path of my parents’ home. They could hardly believe that it was I!
At the beginning I should have mentioned that during the period 1937/9 the hundreds of thousands who joined the services on a part time basis as volunteers did so for one reason only – patriotism.
[Digital page 6]
At the end I omitted to say that thirty years after the war ended, having a wife and three adult sons, I realised how much worry and suffering I had inadvertently inflicted upon my parents during the period of the war.
In August 1989 my wife and I visited the village in Italy where I had spent the winter of 1943/44. It was now a ski resort! Overnight our car was coated with ice so you can imagine the altitude. I did not possess a blanket during the sojourn in the cave.
[Photograph with caption] November 1942. Photograph taken in Italian PoW Camp and sent to my parents in Walton on Thames.
Photograph of Eric Hopkins