With unfailing good humour and optimism, John Joel recounts his experiences as a P.O.W. in Italy, first in the Chieti Camp, then as an escapee living with an Italian family, then as a P.O.W. once again after being recaptured by the Germans. His account describes the ingenious ways in which the P.O.W.s made life awkward for their captors as well as the resilience and creativity of the P.O.W.s in ‘making do’.
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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John Joel recounts with humour life in Chieti and how the POWs tormented the guards – once all sitting down at roll call until the fat Italian Officer himself shakes with laughter. He gives also the best account of the “hammer down the well” story and how the fire engine, brought in to help retrieve it, was minus many essential parts when it had to be towed out. The Germans who arrived 24 hours after the Armistice were glad to find 1400 unfortunately obeying the nonsensical order ‘to stay put’ little knowing that there was perhaps another 100 feverishly tunnelling away. After escaping from a train with others in pouring rain a shepherd takes care of them with shelter and food though when they wake in the morning they can see a German camp half a mile away. On the third night they are taken to different hiding places with a circle of teenage boys in front of them and a wider circle of younger kids ahead. John describes excellently his life with the Cosimati family at Cese (Avezzano) with their six children and livestock in close proximity. The father is much pleased when his guest can follow the evening prayer in Latin. Joel’s companion is housed by the Fascist Mayor who arranged for identity cards and introduces him as a cousin to two Germans also billeted on him. When they have to leave Cese they meet and live with a variety of other POWs until a rastrellamento gathers them all in. On the journey to Germany he and five others are honoured by being barbed wired into one half of a cattle wagon with five guards in the other half so that none escaped and they arrived, as did all others from Italy, at the Mooseburg Camp – on ‘D’ Day. He is there too when the Camp is released by the Americans having marched back from another camp. John Joel remembers much of the human and the humorous side that could be found in such appalling circumstances as the POW suffered.
[As a footnote]. Uys Krige author of ‘The Way Out’ which recounts much about life with the shepherds of the Abruzzi says in a footnote that the NZ CO of the Camp at Modena in May 1945 went to the War Office to enquire about the order to stay put which he had obeyed. Nobody seemed very concerned. A few days later he shot himself.
In Mooseburg when parcels were issued a collection (of contents) was made for the Russians. When the British won the toss against the Americans as to who should be the first section to be flown out of the camp they designated the Indian compound.
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REMINISCING WITH JOHN H. JOEL
[Drawing of Chiete POW Camp, wire fence and guard tower]
Camp No. 21 (Chieti) basked in the early afternoon sunshine. The prisoners, survivors of many a bloody battle in the Western Desert, based in the sunshine or dozed on their beds. All was peaceful.
Two Italian soldiers entered one of the barrack rooms to make some small repair. They were obviously not well versed in the ways of British prisoners of war because one left a hammer unattended for a few moments. It vanished.
The loss was reported and immediately all hell was let loose. Bugles sounded, Carabinieri tore round the camp exhorting all prisoners to get on parade for a roll call at once.
I was busy drawing maps of Italy. When Wiggy and I volunteered to join the escape committee I was given a small silk handkerchief with a map etched on it showing all major towns and told to make a copy. This must have met with approval because I was given the job of making as many copies as possible.
The silk handkerchief was handed back; I retained the master copy from which I made further copies, handing them in one at a time. It took quite a time to make one copy as three look outs were needed. One at each end of the corridor which ran the entire length of the barrack block and one outside the window. Their task was to give me ample warning of patrolling Carabinieri so that the maps could be returned to their hiding place.
When the roll call bugle sounded, I hid the maps and then wandered slowly to the latrine. It was essential to make delays so that the men working in the tunnels (we had five) could be got out and wash at least some of the earth off themselves.
When all the tunnellers had been recovered and the entrances closed and camouflaged, the stragglers joined the parade. When the Italians had satisfied themselves that all prisoners of war were on parade the Carabinieri started a thorough search of the camp.
This took a long time and it was very hot standing in the open. Don’t get the idea that this was a Brigade of Guards type of parade. Quite the opposite. Most of us were in shorts only and many had bare feet. It was a matter of pride that parades ordered by the Italians did not require any show of military virtues. In fact the scruffier one looked the better.
One British Officer decided that he had enough and sat down. An Italian sentry standing with fixed bayonet, lowered his rifle and lumbered towards the British Officer with the intention of doing a little pig sticking. At that moment fifteen hundred British Officers sat down as one man. The sentry paused. Sticking one British pig might be O.K. but fifteen hundred seemed a few too many.
There was what seemed a very long silence whilst I wondered if they would open up with one of the machine guns dotted around.
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Then the senior Italian on parade, a fat rather jolly looking Major, started to laugh. It grew on him. He put his hands on his hips and absolutely roared. The sentry grinned and then he too started to laugh. Several British Officers smiled then also started to laugh. In no time the whole parade was one jolly laughing crowd. The Italian Major regained control and made a gesture with both hands for us to get up. We did so but it was some hours before we were released from the parade. The hammer was not found.
The beds in Camp 21 were all wood and of the bunk type i.e. one above the other. Four solid posts had holes drilled through them about 3/4 inch diameter some foot above floor level and at about four foot above. Over these posts fitted the wooden bed held up by a sort of a dowel six inches long and 3/4 inch diameter slotted through the drilled holes.
One of the brighter prisoners saw the resemblance to a hammer handle, so carefully removing one of the dowels put in his trouser pocket with a bit sticking out, and wandered around the camp. It was not long before he was spotted by patrolling Carabinieri, pounced upon and whisked off to the camp Commandant’s office. It was only there that they thought to search him and discovered they had not found the hammer.
The Commandant was rather displeased. The Carabinieri were given a spectacular review of their ancestor’s history and some interesting suggestions as to their future employment. Meanwhile the prisoners were enjoying another good laugh.
By the next morning the number of beds held up by dowels had decreased considerably, balanced almost exactly by the number of prisoners walking about with look like hammer handles sticking out of their pockets. It wasn’t long before the Carabs (as we called them when we were being polite) gave up asking prisoners to turn out their pockets. It was then quite safe for the real hammer to be moved to a safer hiding place with, I understand, the handle sticking out of it’s owner’s pocket.
A day or so later another prisoner in pursuit of our favourite hobby of Carab baiting, told one of them that he had pinched the hammer and hidden it in the well in one of the Camp court yards. This had a fairly strong, well built cover but very soon a working party of Italian soldiers was hard at work taking it down. No hammer just inside so it must have fallen into the water.
They sent for a fire engine which in due course arrived with a motley crew of civilian fireman and they started to pump out the well. There was a numerous and most helpful crowd of prisoners watching, getting in the way whenever possible and making helpful comments.
We managed to keep the Carabs fully occupied so that the two men who wriggled under the fire engine went unobserved. They unscrewed the sump brake cables etc., and altogether turned a somewhat aged fire engine into a non-runner.
The well was pumped dry and there was no hammer. The prisoners were dispersed and another vehicle was brought in to tow out the disabled fire engine.
The grand finale to this comic opera was provided when the towing vehicle stopped outside the camp gate to shut it. A would be escapee who had somehow attached himself to the underpart of the fire engine could hold on no longer and dropped on to the road. He was promptly arrested and returned to the camp. I believe he got thirty days solitary confinement for his exploit. In the crowded conditions of the Camp this was almost always treated as welcome holiday.
I never did find out what happened to that hammer!
[Written in pencil] Page 34
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REMINISCING WITH JOHN H. JOEL (through Bill Wright)
THE GREAT ESCAPE (ALMOST)
Camp 21 (Chieti) was agog. Even if the news of the Italian armistice had not come from the Italian Commandant, we would have known. The barrack block occupied by our guards was clearly visible through the barbed wire fence that separated it from the prisoner of war camp, and against the twelve foot high perimeter wall was placed a ladder. A steady stream of Italian soldiers was going up this and obviously going home having decided that for each of them the war was over.
The sentries’ watch towers were all empty so Vic and I talked of following the Italian soldiers. After some shilly-shallying we thought it better to wait a day or so and try to improve our escape packs, mostly with more food. The next day the Senior British Officer ordered that no prisoners were to leave the Camp. He had orders from the War Office that, in the event of an armistice, all prisoners of war should remain in their camp so that they could more easily be located and repatriated.
At that time we thought that this was correct but how we ever came to believe that the Germans would evacuate Italy and leave several thousand prisoners of war to be collected by the Allies, I cannot now even begin to understand. The fact that some 1500 British Officers believed it is no excuse. We deserved what was coming to us and it wasn’t long. The next morning, we awoke to see the sentry towers occupied by steel helmeted German troops.
The Escape Committee reacted quickly and ordered as many tunnellers as possible to go down immediately before the obvious roll call. I understand that only about ten men per tunnel (we had five tunnels none of them completed) went down because of ventilation difficulties. It would not be possible to keep the fans going during a roll call. All were below ground and the entrances disguised only just in time.
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Roll call duly came with a squad of German soldiers taking up strategic positions around us and the head count being made by a German Officer assisted by an Italian. It must have resulted in fifty or more missing prisoners but there was no fuss or excitement from the Germans. They probably thought that to collect about 1400 Officer prisoners out of about 1500 was quite good going. Once the roll call was over the tunnellers came to the surface and normal digging was resumed but with increased vigour. One unforeseen result was that we were some 100 rations short so had to spread the meagre issue to feed the tunnellers.
For the next few days the same number of tunnellers (not necessarily the same people) went down at each roll call. However not for long for, in a few days we were transported by road to an ex other ranks camp at Sulmona. It was empty and in a very rough state so we assumed that the prisoners had all escaped or, more probably, been taken to Germany.
Every wooden bed that I tried was full of lice and that was the general experience. Soon there were a number of splendid bonfires as lice ridden beds were burned. We slept on the floors fighting shy of the bedding, most of which had also been burned. On the second day at Sulmona Dennis came to ask me if Vic and I were still keen on escaping. On being assured that we were he told me that he had acquired a pick head.
He had been told that the Germans put prisoners in cattle trucks which were then locked and taken to Germany. Dennis intended to smash a way out of the cattle truck with his pick head and said stick close to me when they take us to the station. When, on the following day, we were assembled to move to the station Vic and I kept very close to Dennis.
We were lined up in the goods yard facing a long line of cattle trucks. The guards’ van at each end was of special interest because the windows on each side which protruded so that the guard could see all along the train, had all the glass broken and in each, aimed along the side of the train, was a machine gun. While we were waiting there was a burst of machine gun fire and a lot of noise from further up the train. The news was rapidly passed along that a prisoner had been shot trying to escape.
We later heard the full story and it seemed that one prisoner could not see any German sentries near so made off towards the end of the goods yard. The sentry had in fact been between two trucks lighting his cigarette and he stepped out and called “halt”. The prisoner broke into a run and took a full burst from the sentry ‘s machine pistol in his back killing him instantly.
The German N.C.O. came along the line of prisoners counting thirty at a time and motioning them, with his machine pistol, to get into the next empty cattle truck. When our turn came Vic and I kept close to Dennis and his friend Roger, and climbed with them into the truck. The door was closed with a clang and we were in darkness.
Before the door shut I had spotted a candle lantern hanging from a nail and at once took it into protective custody. There was a partly burned candle inside so it was bound to prove useful. We then had a council of war to decide which part of the truck to break open. The plan was that when we had a big enough hole we would jump and try to roll into the ditch as the train slowed down.
The easiest place was obviously the side of the truck but the four machine guns and the fate of one would-be escaper exerted a powerful deterrent. We decided to make the hole over the buffers where we would be out of sight of the sentries at each end until the actual jump.
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We therefore moved up to the front of the truck where most of the officers were recum-bent and some already asleep. It was difficult to find room to put one’s feet down and a fairly polite request for someone to make room was greeted with some very naughty words and an impolite request to ……. off. Dennis mentioned that magic word ‘escape’ and the grumblers immediately moved to make room for the assault to begin.
I lit the candle, shut the lantern, and held it to give same light to Dennis. He took a mighty swipe just above floor level and then dropped the pick head with as choice a selection of swear words as I had heard for many a year. The truck was steel lined. We ought to have foreseen that. After a few probing digs in an upward direction, we established that the steel lining finished just below our shoulder level, say about five feet from the floor.
Resumption of hole digging was delayed because the train had stopped and we were afraid that the noise might be heard by the guards. This happened many times but in between the halts Dennis made progress in making the hole above the steel level. Eventually it was about a foot square and he stood back saying that he thought it would have to do even though it was a bit rough around the edges.
There was now quite a queue of would be escapers stretching back from the hole and from the back came a voice offering us the use of his hacksaw. We didn’t stop to ask how a prisoner acquired such a useful escaping tool, but said yes, pass it up. It arrived and proved to be one more example of prisoners’ ingenuity. Part of the metal band from a vino barrel had been flattened so that it assumed a bow shape, and round the outer edge of the bow had been carefully filed saw teeth. How it was done and how long it took we could only conjecture but it made a useful job of cutting the rough edges of the hole and it was then passed back. In the dark I couldn’t see who the owner was but I often wonder if he still has that hacksaw.
Dennis announced all ready. He would go first, Roger would throw two packs after him then jump himself. They would walk towards each other along the line to collect the packs and meet. I announced that I was going second with Vic and looked round for him. He was not in sight or earshot so I started a search which entailed leaving my place in the queue. At last I found him, fast asleep in the other corner of the truck. Vic was not one of those who emerge from sleep and are wide awake almost at once. It took some time for him to realise that the great moment had at last arrived. He followed me, still half asleep, as we pushed towards the head of the queue.
We were able to watch Dennis as he climbed out of the hole and it was quite difficult. His shoulders would not go through in the normal position so he knelt down on the floor and raised both hands as if about to dive, and put them through the hole. Then his shoulders and then a heave, obviously holding the roof of the cattle truck, and he was sitting on the bottom of the hole, legs and thighs inside and the rest of his body outside. Another heave and legs and feet vanished through the hole and we waited fearing to hear a scream if he fell.
Roger with his head outside threw two packs and went through the same performance as Dennis and also vanished from view. The next two had already taken what I regarded as my rightful place but I had suffered much bad language in getting as near to the hole as I was. My statement that I had helped to dig it got the retort that Vic, my companion, had not done anything so I could b….. well wait. I was by now No. 7 so had no option but to accept that position.
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The next two got safely away, and then the next, but it was taking a long time because of waiting for the train to slow down a little before jumping. At last it was my turn and Vic, now wide awake, was behind me with two home made packs. I followed the accepted pattern and swallow dived upwards through the hole, took a grip on the roof of the truck, and heaved myself partly through so that I was sitting on the bottom of the hole, legs inside, body outside. I found it very difficult to get enough purchase with both hands grasping the roof immediately above my head, so I reached out with one hand and got hold of the roof of the truck in front.
A preliminary taking the strain showed that this might be better even though the different way the trucks were bouncing on the springs, added to the difficulty. I must admit that after the first shock of waiting for catastrophe when Dennis jumped, I had forgotten all about danger. I took the strain and heaved the whole of my body out of the hole and for a few moments was supported by my two hands only, on different truck roofs moving with different rhythms. I reached down with both feet scrabbling for the buffer and found it with one foot and the coupling with the other. I moved over and sank, a bit breathless, on to the buffer. Vic’s head was out of the hole and he suddenly called out urgently “Mind your arse”. I realised in a flash that the noise I had only half heard from the front was the buffers of each truck hitting the truck in front. I lifted up one cheek of my backside just as the buffers under me came together with a crash.
Thinking how nearly I had left a piece of rump steak behind I dropped to the ground between the now stationary trucks. The risk I had just taken hit me and I sat down feeling distinctly wobbly. Two packs landed beside me followed by Vic who gave me a kick and said “I shouldn’t sit there”. I was sitting on the railway line with a truck wheel on either side. I got up hastily.
So there we were, standing upright between two cattle trucks of a train that might move off at any moment. Two more escapees climbed out and for a short time stood alongside us having a conference. They decided to crawl under the trucks and stay lying between the lines until the train moved, obviously concerned about those machine guns. Vic and I exchanged glances and together came to the conclusion that the machine guns were less dangerous than the possibility of being caught and dragged along under the train by some low part of a truck.
We ducked under the buffers and started to creep quietly towards the edge of the track. To walk across granite chips wearing army hob-nailed boots without making any noise is practically impossible. However, we reached the grass verge without attracting a burst of fire and both of us flopped into the ditch which thankfully was dry. I pulled stinging nettles over me to hide as much as possible and didn’t notice the stings although some of my fingers were quite painful.
The train was still stationary and the next two escapees decided to wait for two more and then a further two. We could clearly hear their pretty loud discussion which resulted in the decision to make up a party of six. The noise was getting louder and louder with shouts such as “Thats not my b….. pack you idiot” etc. etc. Fearing a burst from the machine guns Vic called out “Shut up!”. “What’s that?” came a very loud answer. “Shut up you b…. f… do you want to get us all shot” called Vic. This produced the desired result and the six moved off on the opposite side of the train. The train at last started and all too slowly moved off and out of sight.
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It was a long time later that we understood why the machine guns had not opened fire. Bill, who had spent several years at Bonn University, spoke and understood German, had jumped from a truck nearer to the rear of the train. When it stopped the rear guards’ van was opposite the ditch in which Bill was cowering and many of the guards got out to stretch their legs and ‘spend a penny’. One of them said “Old Fritz up in front is making a lot of noise over his pee”. Bill had also heard the row and thought the same as the guards. When I told him about our six noisy escapees (we had already christened them the Southend Excursion) we came to the conclusion that old Fritz up in front was probably thinking that Hans at the rear was making a lot of noise over his pee. Neither of them realising that it was the naughty English in the middle.
When the train was well out of sight we climbed out of the ditch and made towards what looked like the bottom of a very high hill or mountain and started to climb. On and on and up and up we went, stopping fairly often to draw breath and rest. We were not exactly in peak condition or overfed. As we continued to climb it began to get light and we realised that the night was over. At last in full daylight we stopped and, feeling sure that every man’s hand would be against us, we crept under a bush to think. We had only one cigarette between us so broke it in half and lit up. By this time my fingers were quite painful but I hardly thought about them and it was several days before I realised that some of the end joints were a bit bent.
The realisation of what we had done slowly grew on us and I thought of the film of the Thief of Baghdad when Aladdin finds a bottle on the shore. He sees movement inside so removes the cork and out leaps a Genie, growing bigger and bigger and crying out ever louder
FREE! FREE! FREE! FREE!
P.S. Information subsequently from all sorts of sources, much not confirmed, says that of the 30 officers in my truck only one went to Germany. He had a huge carbuncle on his leg and could hardly walk so the gymnastics to get out of the hole were beyond him. 29 got out. Two were killed by our own guns when trying to cross no man’s land. Two re-joined our own forces and both were killed later in Normandy. Twenty-five were eventually recaptured and taken to Germany.
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Not long after arriving at Chieti I developed a boil on the back of my neck, doubtless a sort of desert sore. I was not too keen to report sick to the Italian Doctor so put up with it until it was very ‘ripe’ and extremely painful. At last I could stand it no longer so off to the Italian Doctor I went. He looked at it and rubbed his hands in what I thought was quite unwarranted glee. With my back to him I felt a pretty sharp pain in my neck and he said finished. The P.O.W. immediately behind me was feeling sick. He told me the Doctor had picked up a blunt ended pair of scissors, stuck them in the base of the boil and scissored up catching the resulting mess in a not too clean cloth. Drastic but it cured the boil.
The Italians agreed that we could buy musical instruments and a levy of a few lira per prisoner enabled us to buy enough for a small orchestra. Tony Baines, one time first bassoon with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, was the leading light in this enterprise and the band gave one or two concerts before the Italian Armistice in 1943 gave us all hope of release.
[typewritten note] The pages headed ‘45 Years on’ fit in here.
It started to rain. Heavy persistent rain. It dripped off the bush and gradually we were becoming soaked. At last, in desperation, we decided to move on. My idea was to walk south and keep on walking until we reached our own troops, even now working their way up from the toe of Italy. We walked just below the summit to avoid being sky-lined and as we came round a bend into a saddle between two peaks we encountered dozens of escaped prisoners. Obviously we were not the only ones who had taken advantage of that quite long wait by the train.
The rain stopped and the sun came out and it was quite hot. We stripped down to shirt and pants and laid out our battle dress to dry at the same time discussing escape with those near to us. As far as we could make out five cattle trucks had been broken open so some 150 prisoners were on the run. In fact a good few were not. They were lying in the sun drying off.
It was some time before our clothes were dry enough to put back on and, after a conference Vic and I decided to move off in a southerly direction, partly because such a large concentration of escapees made a good target for any German searchers. In a short time we were alone walking along the mountain side when we saw two figures coming towards us waving something white. When within hearing distance they explained that they had mistaken us for German soldiers and were surrendering all over again.
It was now late afternoon and we began to think where we could spend the night. We were accosted by a shepherd who was well aware that we had escaped and, to our surprise, was ready, in fact eager, to be of help. He cut each of us a large slice of his bread, rubbed a clove of garlic over it, and gave it to us. Dry bread and garlic doesn’t sound very appetising but to us it was splendid.
Neither of us spoke Italian but we gathered from his chatter that he could guide us to a nearby cave which would provide good shelter. We agreed and so started a slow descent of the mountain during which we gathered two more escaped prisoners. It was now quite dark and the shepherd managed to convey to us that he had to take the sheep back to the village. We must stay where we were and he would return to guide us to the cave. As we had no idea in which direction the cave was we had no alternative.
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It got colder and colder and for the first time in my life I was shivering in such a way that my whole body was trembling and my teeth literally chattering. Attempts to get warm by stamping and waving my arms, were discouraged by my companions, who were still very wary of attracting Germans.
At long last the shepherd returned with two helpers. One carried a large cooking pot (caldio) obviously full of hot food. It didn’t take long to reach the cave and, after a tricky, short almost vertical descent, we were inside. The Italians produced a candle and matches and by candle light dished out the food, some sort of macaroni and very welcome.
The third Italian had been carrying a large square load which turned out to be a bale of straw which he broke open and spread out for bedding. By some alchemy our numbers had increased to nine and we suspected that the shepherd’s ‘bush telegraph’ was working. Not only was there no indication that the Italians would hand us over to the Germans, but every suggestion that they wanted to help us to get clear away. With a bit of a squeeze there was just about enough room for all nine of us to lie down so at last, fairly warm and fed, we settled down to sleep.
Next morning we awoke cold and stiff and were soon all too aware that there was a German camp only about half a mile away as the crow flies. Any movement outside the cave by day would put the mover in full view of any German looking up the mountainside. At the front of the cave a yard or so below the entrance, was a ledge about two feet wide and on the lower side of this a growth of bushes which, we were told by the Italians, made the cave invisible to anyone down below. However once out of the shelter of the bushes any figure would be skylined.
An immediate problem was the normal evacuation of the bowels. Anyone who could not wait until after dark had to evacuate onto a piece of paper which was then tossed over the bushes down the mountainside, first making sure that no Germans were looking our way.
So the first day progressed with one or two visits by Italians who tried to persuade us to go down to their village where they would look after us. They promised more hot food after dark and took great delight in discussing which Fascist paper they would bring for our toilet purposes.
The nine of us spent much time in discussing and arguing about what to do next. We seemed to have settled into three lots of three, each lot with one injured Officer who would be a drag on the other two, at least for the time being. Slowly it emerged that time was needed to build up strength before making a determined effort to join our own troops.
The further discussion about whether to accept the offer to go into the village was finally settled when Vic and I said we would go first and send back a special password if we thought that all was well, or a different word if we expected a trap. The next Italian to press us was told that we two had agreed to go and he proposed to come and fetch us tomorrow evening. (Domani sera)
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So we settled down for a second night in the cave, or it may have been a third because I cannot now remember how long Vic and I stayed in the cave. The following evening we waited expectantly for the guide but it was well after dark when he arrived. Then for Vic and me began a remarkable journey. First about six or seven small boys, aged twelve or thirteen, set off in front in a wide semi-circle and absolutely full of excitement. They were followed by five or six teenagers who formed a sort of second screen.
Finally three grown men walked with us. We scrambled down the mountain from the cave, across a narrow road and out into the valley. We walked on a well beaten path which ran alongside the river and on the landside was a high embankment, well above our heads. Later that winter we realised that it was only just high enough to contain the river in flood.
After a time our guides stopped and passed round cigarettes which we gratefully accepted. Then one of them called me up to the top of the embankment and, as he held a lighted watch to my cigarette he pointed to lights about two hundred yards away and explained that it was the German camp. I needed no persuasion to return to the path at the foot of the embankment.
At last we arrived in the village and, by what I took to be back alleys, were ushered into a house. We were greeted by a Sikh sergeant in immaculate battle dress, who saluted and said that he had arranged for one of us to stay at this house and would take the other elsewhere. Vic volunteered to go so I stayed and, after all but the family had gone, I started to learn about my hosts.
Augosto and Mariarosa Cosimati had six children. Vincentina aged about 20, Ernesta 17, Fernando 16, Ettore 12, Antonino 10, and Gionnino 8. I was given food and a glass of wine and put in what I guessed to be the equivalent of the Victorian parlour, but very barely furnished. It showed little signs of having been lived in.
Vincentina came in and then started an early Italian lesson. She tapped the table and said ‘tavola’ so I said table. We continued in that manner for some time until I knew the Italian for most of the contents of the room. Then in an obvious question she asked ‘sposata’? I had no idea what she was asking but she soon made it clear by making a circular motion round the fourth finger of her left hand. I divined that she was asking if I was married so I said ‘si’. She soon got my wife’s name – Irene – who became ‘La Signora Irene’ (pronounced as eerainee).
This sort of talk went on with all the older members of the family and in time I acquired a working knowledge of Italian. It was some weeks before Vincentina asked if La Signora Irene was La piu bella du monde. I realised she was asking if my wife was the most beautiful in the world and I was expected to say yes, so of course I did.
I did not see Vic the day after our arrival in the village, which I now knew was Cese (pronounced Chaysee) but I sent the safe password to those in the cave and later learned that all were safely down in the village. Augosto was firm that I could not go out until he had been able to arrange civilian clothes to replace my battle dress, and no doubt the other escapers were under the same restraint.
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After a few days Augosto told me that another Officer would be joining me and in due course Ian arrived. He, like me, had been alone in a house but said he could not stand it by himself so had asked to be moved in with someone else. I had not much patience with him as I was quite happy to be on my own and thought it might be safer. However I had no choice so he remained. I was told that he and I would now sleep upstairs and a large double bed was shown to us. We were later informed that it was the matrimonial couch.
Perhaps now I should try to explain the layout of the house. The front door opened out on to the Via Raffia which I had taken for a back alley. It still looked like one. A narrow passage ran through the building to another door which opened out on to a tiny back garden. Nothing grew there but weeds.
There were only two rooms on the ground floor proper; on the right as you entered from the front, was what I have called the parlour, and on the left was the kitchen. Both these rooms had a door leading from the passage, but the kitchen had another door almost opposite. This led to a small space or hall and a step down led to the barn which was built alongside the house to the same height.
From this little hall a wooden stairway went up and was the only access to the two rooms upstairs which corresponded to the kitchen and parlour below. There was no landing so access to the far room was through the first one. At night the barn was the home of one donkey, two cows, one dog (Fido pronounced Feedoh) and a number of hens plus an indefinite number of sheep and at least one pig.
All the sheep in the village would spend the day up on the mountainside under only one shepherd. Each evening he would bring them all into the village and at a special command they would disperse, every sheep to its own house. As far as I know they never went to the wrong house.
The dung from the animals was raked into the centre of the barn floor and periodically taken out and spread on the land. The upstairs part of the barn was full of hay and straw and also wood (frasci) for the fire. There was no coal or gas and the only electricity was for lighting. Almost all cooking was done in the huge open pot over the wood fire in the kitchen. A very small charcoal fire was on a shelf alongside the fire which seemed to be used for making sauces etc.
There was no lavatory or any running water in the house. All water had to be fetched from the village fountain some distance away. Mariarosa or one of the two girls usually did this using a very large copper/bronze container. Much later on, when we had civilian clothes, Ian and I volunteered to fetch the water but with one either side holding the handle, it was as much as we could do to lift and carry it. The girls made it look easy. A piece of cloth tightly wound into a circle, would be put on the head and with one swift move the full container would be lifted and carried, head high, back to the house. No wonder all the girls had a magnificent carriage.
As there were no flush lavatories in the village everyone, at least once a day, had to either go out into the valley to squat or, more often for us, go into the barn to add to the pile of cow and donkey manure in the centre of the floor. I resolutely shut my mind to any thought that previous piles might have been used to fertilise anything which we were eating.
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It wasn’t long before we were supplied with civilian clothes and, although they were not quite Savile Row, they were welcome, and we handed over our battle dress to be hidden or destroyed. We were given an old safety razor by Augosto but soon received a rocket because we shaved every morning. He explained that Italians only shaved once a week so a clean-shaven face on Thursday could be a give-away. So we complied and soon got used to a bristle by the weekend. We even felt it was preferable to hacking away with his old blunt razor. He, of course, used a cut throat.
Every evening the entire family would be in the kitchen and Augosto would recite the rosary with the rest of the family reciting the responses. I soon got the hang of these prayers which changed each day. One day being ‘Il primo mistero doloroso si contempla’ another day was ‘Glorioso’ but I am afraid that I cannot now remember the third. Memory tells me that Sunday was a special but on weekdays the other two misteries were taken in rotation.
It sometimes developed into a somewhat non-Christian affair with father clearing his throat very noisily in mid-sentence and then spitting very accurately into the fire. On other occasions one or other of the boys not answering to father’s liking, would receive a hefty thump with the order ‘Rispondo bene’ which I translated as ‘Answer properly’.
I soon got to know which days were dolorous and which glorious, and one day when, as he quite often did, father asked ‘Que giorno oggi’ (which day is it) I immediately said ‘Doloroso’ which was, as I knew, correct. This made a tremendous impression on Augosto who had been quite sure that, as protestants, we were both condemned to eternal perdition.
He was even more surprised to discover that I could recite a great deal of the Creed and the Paternoster in Latin. The first time since leaving school that I had found any use for it. This must have increased the impression already made because one day he told me that he had talked to the local priest about us and our knowledge of Catholic prayers. Apparently after a very long session he had been assured that we might go to Heaven but would never be able to become Saints. We didn’t want to upset him so it was only in private that we expressed to being quite happy with that solution.
At that time there were no Germans in the village but occasionally they would make a house to house search looking for young Italians to conscript as labour. We therefore planned an escape route out of the house and village, into a small copse in the middle of the valley. By following a line of hedges, we could get away almost unseen. Our house being on the edge of the village was a collecting place for three other escapees in the event of an emergency.
Vic, who was shorter than I and had thick black curly hair, was staying with Francescino, who was Augosto’s brother, and was the Fascist Mayor. His house was in the middle of the village on the square. Vic made a believable Italian and had already been introduced to a German soldier as cousin Giovanni from the country. He also had a forged identity card called a Tessera on which his own photo, from his military identity card, suitably touched up, had been placed.
I was told that the official Fascist rubber stamp had been transferred by the simple process of rolling a hot hardboiled egg (without shell) over a genuine Tessera and immediately over the forgery.
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It was good enough to fool the German patrol which stopped Vic one day. At this time the German railhead had moved back to Avezzano which was just over the mountain/hill from our village Cese (pronounced Chaysee). One day a squadron of American fighter bombers came over in arrowhead formation and we watched, with great excitement, as the leader peeled off and dived towards Avezzano. A burst of machine guns, two bombs away, and he was back up in the air. The other planes all followed one after the other so Avezzano had quite a lot of bombs.
We quite expected to hear that the Railway Station was out of action but not a bit of it. The prison, over a mile from the station, had been hit, the walls breached, and a number of rogues, thieves etc., and some recaptured prisoners of war, had got away. This caused a great deal of patrolling by both Germans and Fascisti and was the reason why Vic had been stopped and questioned. The railway was unharmed.
On another occasion we sat up on the mountainside and watched three R.A.F. Spitfires at work. Two stayed up aloft circling around, while one dived on the engine of a freight train crossing the valley. The engine was hit and the train stopped. Spitfire No 1 went back aloft and No 2 dived and flew along the train with an almost continuous burst of machine gun fire. There were several explosions. Then he went up aloft and No 3 dived and gave a repeat performance. Apparently satisfied with their days work all three flew away.
Augosto told us that night that the BBC news had said that an ammunition train had been destroyed in central Italy. It was probably the one we had watched and it was still burning two days later.
Reference to the BBC reminds me of the evening we were invited to go and hear the BBC because “Parla kirkill”. That’s what it sounded like but we now knew enough Italian to translate it as Churchill speaks. The journey, after dark, to another Augosto who owned a radio set which could receive the BBC, was a splendid “cloak and dagger” affair. Our Augosto, wearing a dark trilby hat and a long black knee length cloak, led the way. As we came to each corner he would hurry ahead, peer round the corner, then make an elaborate forward motion with one hand and arm. This happened several times and when we came to the final corner we were told to wait but were able to peep round and see what happened. Augosto knocked on the door and a voice called out “Qui e?”. Augosto answers “Amici” and we were admitted.
I cannot at this distance of time remember which of Winston’s speeches we heard but we did our best to translate to the assembled Italians. To listen to the BBC was, of course, an offence under the Fascists, which explained the elaborate secrecy. The journey back was just as dramatic, but before we left we were offered tea, our first for many weeks. It was served in a basin, no milk or sugar and (thank goodness) very weak. It tasted wonderful but we wondered if it might have been some of the used tea which we had dried and sold to the Italians.
We saw Vic almost every day but there were two others who used our barn and escape route whenever there was a flap. Ken, a Captain Royal Signals, was over six feet tall and had fair hair. Pre-war he had been Land Agent to the Earl of Durham and he was, and looked, every inch a ‘hunting, shooting fishing’ type, quite unlike any Italian I have ever seen. Bill, also a Captain, was short, only about 5ft 6ins, and spoke fluent German having spent part of his education at Bonn University. They were known to the Italians as Il Capitanone and Il Piccolo Capitano.
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Augosto’s hens, all seventeen of them, were laying an egg each day and these were usually somewhere in the barn or nearby outside. On one occasion when there was a flap, Ken and Bill joined Vic, Ian and me in the barn whilst we waited, either for the all clear from the Italians, or the warning to use the escape route. Ken found an egg and, having a pin on his clothing, pierced the egg each end, stirred up the contents, and sucked it dry, then hiding the empty shell. There weren’t all that many scares, but every time there was one, Ken had a raw egg.
It was some time later that Augusto remarked to me that the presence of so many ex-prisoners in the barn must upset the hens because they did not lay so many eggs. I wondered if he suspected what was happening so I warned Ken who then stopped his egg poaching.
On one occasion the flap caught us unawares. The Germans were already in our road searching the houses for young Italians to conscript them as labourers and other Germans were out in the valley too near our escape route for comfort. Augosto quickly got a chair and opened up the hatch to the loft, and told us to get up there. This we did in a great hurry and as we were about to put the hatch in place Vincentina said wait a moment. She pulled out from under the bed the partly filled chamber pot, opened the window and threw out its contents. She then passed it up to me and the hatch was closed.
We were glad of it before long because we were up there for a long time. The Germans, apparently, had a special ploy to catch Italian youths. They would search a house and finding nothing would give it the all clear. When they judged that any hidden menfolk would have come out of hiding, they would rush back and do a new search. They caught quite a lot with that trick, so we were kept up in the loft until the Germans had left the village.
Some years after the war one of our party went back to the village and visited the house where we had lived. That particular episode was recalled by the Italians who showed him the bedroom ceiling, still well punctured with bullet holes. A later German search party, long after we had left, asked if anyone was in the loft. On being told no, one of them put a burst from his machine pistol through the ceiling just to make sure.
In the early days of our stay in Cese we were very keen to walk south to re-join our own troops, and we tried to find someone as a guide. Our idea was to walk above the snow line where we were unlikely to meet any Germans. Augosto and all his family, were very much against this saying it was far too dangerous and we should wait until the spring. The news that an escaped prisoner had been found above the snow line, frozen to death, did rather add force to their objections. Anyway it soon became clear that there was no Italian silly enough to act as a guide during the winter.
I had, on many occasions, watched Mariarosa making bread for the family. In the kitchen was a wooden cabinet about five feet long and four feet high. When all the clutter was shifted and the lid opened, there was revealed what is best described as a square riddle which rested on smooth strips of wood at the front and rear inside the cabinet. The raw milled flour put in the riddle which was moved quickly back and forth, the sifted flour going down into the cabinet and the dross remaining in the riddle. This was in due time fed to the cattle, pig and hens.
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At the same the caldio (large cooking pot) was part filled with potatoes in their jackets busily boiling. When adjudged to be cooked they were lifted out with a large strainer, broken open, and the contents added to the sifted flour in the cabinet, while the skins were added to the cattle food. I was never able to find out the ratio of hot mashed potato to flour, but did gather from Mariarosa that it was added to keep the bread moist.
Keeping moist was very necessary because she was allocated her time and place at the village oven (il forno) only on a certain day each week. Probably the same as allocated to her mother, grandmother etc. from time immemorial. This meant that seven days’ bread had to be made and baked every time. The cooked loaves came out like several very large buns, about a foot or more across and two to three inches deep. They were slightly off white and tasted absolutely splendid.
The grain came from Augosto’s land and officially he was allowed to keep only a small percentage, the remainder had to be sold to the Government. However I suspect that only about half the crop was ever declared, because Augosto always had flour to bargain with, and the miller was never short of anything.
Somewhere Augosto had a large chest hidden (nascosted) in which all sorts of things were kept but I was never able to find out where it was. When Antonino (No 5) needed new boots there was a great deal of bargaining with a travelling cobbler. Eventually a small bag of flour changed hands and the cobbler started work with old leather, presumably salvaged or ‘borrowed’. I watched the whole process and can still remember much of how a pair of boots can be made by hand.
When Christmas came we wished them all a merry Christmas and the family all went to Church. Later on we watched with interest as Augosto prepared meat for what he said was to be ‘Rosbif Inglese’. Where the meat had come from I do not know but suspect that more flour had changed hands. Mariarosa was also busy preparing what she called Taglia Fine, which we translated as cut fine.
She put a pile of flour on to a large baking board and then cracked eggs and dropped the contents, one by one, into a hollow scooped out in the pile of flour. I am still sure that seventeen eggs, one day’s lay, went into that flour and that no other liquid was added. This soon became a nice big lump of dough which was well and truly kneaded.
Meanwhile Vincentina was superintending the caldio which was full of water and being heated over the fire. This had to be correctly salted, a few beans and garlic added, plus other flavours. Ernesta was at the small charcoal stove stirring a witches brew of tomatoes, olive oil, the inevitable garlic, and anything else to make a tasty savoury sauce.
Augosto took over supervision of the caldio and it was quite obvious to us that only he could be trusted to see that the water had been properly prepared. Vincentina was put to work rolling out the dough. This was not done by putting the dough on the board and rolling the wooden rolling pin over it. She kept the rolling pin in her hands, about chest level, and worked the dough round and round, using both hands. It gradually got thinner and thinner and as each piece was ready, she laid it out flat on the board, sprinkled it with dry flour, and rolled it into a sort of swiss roll. With a sharp knife she then cut lots of very thin slices from the swiss roll.
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When all the dough had been similiarly out, and Augosto had declared that the water tasted absolutely correct and was boiling, all the thin slices of swiss roll were scraped off the board into the caldio. The cooking only took a minute or so and we were all served with a high pile of what I would have called macaroni but I now knew was ‘Taglia Fine’. A sprinkling of dry ewe’s milk cheese (strong) and a spoonful or more of Ernesta’s sauce completed that dish. It was, of course, as light as the proverbial feather and very very nice.
Augosto then served the Bifsteak. He had raked off most of the fire leaving a base of red glowing wood embers over which he placed a metal grill on which the bifsteak was placed to cook. It was very tasty and was probably the beat meal I had eaten since leaving England, more than two years ago.
The birth of a calf to one of the cows, finished off Christmas Day on a good note and the new baby was christened ‘Natalie’. We were surprised and quite touched when, on the 6th January, we were presented with two cigarettes each, wrapped in coloured paper, from La Bephana. Our enquiry as to why, put Vincentina into her best explaining the obvious to idiots, mood. The three wise men took twelve days on the journey so the gold, frankincense and myrrh, were presented on the 6th January, obviously the right and proper day for presents. We felt rather humbled.
During one rather long spell of flap we went back to the cave before dawn every morning taking a supply of food and a bottle of vino. We remained there til after dark when we would wait on the outskirts of the village until Augosto gave the all clear. He would do this by coming out of his house and shouting loudly ‘Fernando -a casa’. We could then return to the house but I wondered what sort of reputation Fernando, the eldest son, got for being out late every night.
When in the cave we played a lot of cards to pass the time. It was mostly Poker for very low stakes, gains and losses duly recorded, to be settled after the war. However sometimes, if we were very quiet, a little mouse would come out and eat the crumbs from our snack. It was a nice little mouse and we got quite fond of it. However the flap was eventually over and we returned to the house.
Soon after getting civilian clothes, we had joined the daily morning exodus out to the fields to work, each of us carrying an Italian spade called a ‘vanga’. Quite unlike our own spade it had a long sort of broom handle with a large metal arrowhead at the end and a sort of foot rest (or rather foot push) about a foot above. With practice we found it to be a useful tool.
We were engaged on digging up the ground for a new vineyard and I asked Augosto why he did not use the plough. His answer ‘piu profunda’ made it clear to me that the spade went deeper than the plough.
The grapes had been harvested before we escaped but we gathered that wine making was quite a fiesta. Augosto’s wine press was under cover behind the barn and looked rather like a large square copper. It was built of stone and about a yard above ground level; the actual wine press was a further two feet deep with a hole which had a valve and a spout for the liquid to be drawn off.
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From what the girls told us it seemed that they trampled down the grapes standing bare footed in the wine press. We wondered if their feet were clean and if not, whether this would add to, or detract from the flavour of the wine! Near to the press there was a large barrel which we were told would hold a thousand litres. In October and November, when we first sampled it, the wine was fairly thick, cloudy and rather sweet. By the following March, when we left Cese, it was nice and clear and a trifle sharp.
One evening we were just about to sit down to the evening meal, three places were set on the small table, three glasses of wine stood ready, when there was a knock at the door. Vincentina answered it and we heard the unmistakable sound of German voices. Augosto quickly opened the door at the other side of the room which led to the foot of the wooden staircase and pushed us through just as two Germans entered from the other door. We watched through a crack in the door as Augosto put a glass of vino into each of their hands and waved them to a seat at the table at the same time offering them a meal.
This was accepted and with such heavily studded boots we felt it unwise to attempt the wooded, creaky stairs. So we sat on the bottom stair and I, being nearest, could still watch the two Germans, drinking our vino and eating our meal. This became so frustrating that eventually we quietly took off our boots and crept upstairs, where we remained until the intruders left much later on. Those Germans never knew how near they were to possible promotion for recapturing escaped prisoners.
It transpired that at some time in the past the girls had done washing for the Germans and they were now asking if more could be done. Vincentina said she had struck a hard bargain to do their washing in return for cigarettes. This turned out to be correct for she shared the cigarettes between Ian and me.
There was for a short time a German slaughter house on the other side of the road right opposite our front door, where stood a row of brick buildings rather like stables. The Germans simply requisitioned them and arrived one day to commence killing sheep, cows, and pigs, for the stomachs of the master race.
Mariarosa took advantage of their presence by scrounging a pile of offal, fat bones etc. This was put in the caldio (the one used for cooking) and bubbled away nearly all day making a dreadful stink. By some process which I did not discover, this became a mass of blackish greyish soap which soon dried into hard almost transparent cakes. It was certainly very good and we thought it made better shaving soap than we had ever used.
We suggested to Antonino and Giovannino that any cigarettes they could earn or beg would be welcome. One day Antonino proudly came in with a packet of ten and, in excited Italian, with plenty of mime, explained how Giovannino had attracted the Germans’ attention while he stole the cigarettes from a side table. I understand that Antonino is now a priest so maybe the theft was a useful lesson.
The slaughter house caused us to be mostly confined to the bedroom and, if we did venture out, we had to use the back door keeping a wary eye open for Germans. However they eventually moved away and life returned to its usual abnormal normal.
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Vic lived in a house on the village square owned by Francescino, Augosto’s brother, who was also the Fascist Mayor. For some time two German soldiers, Vic thought they were mechanics, had been billeted in the house with him and they accepted him readily as cousin Giovanni from the country.
They had a motor cycle and sidecar and seemed to tour the front line repairing vehicles as and when necessary. After one such journey of several days, they returned in a state of shock. From their excited semi Italian Vic gathered that they had five vehicles shot up and put out of action by Allied aircraft. It was quite obvious that the sky was now dominated by American and British aircraft.
Some weeks after the abortive attempt by American fighter bombers to hit the Avezzano railhead, a squadron of medium bombers (I think Mitchells) pattern bombed it and it was obliterated. Railhead was moved back to Florence. There was almost no Military traffic by day and, if we were up and about before dawn (we often were) we could hear and see the rush of German transport racing to reach the shelter of the railway tunnel which went through the mountain to Avezzano.
One of many amusing incidents happened during a stroll in the valley when we spotted a pile of human excreta with a piece of paper on the top. As far as we knew no Italian used toilet paper so it must be either British or German. Our efforts to read what was part of a letter now seems laughable but then we needed to know. After much twisting and craning of heads we decided it was written in German, and were warned that at least one German was, or had recently, been in the valley.
It wasn’t long before we were proved right for we passed two Germans up a telegraph pole repairing the wire. A friendly ‘Bon Giorno’ from us was returned and we strolled on until out of their sight when we strolled considerably faster. It never failed to surprise us that the occasional German we met would respond to our ‘Bon Giorno’ and seemingly accept that we were Italians but no Italian was ever deceived. Say ‘Bon Giorno’ to an Italian and he would chuckle and say ‘INGLESI’!
It was out in the valley that we met an Italian from Cese who was leading one of his cows by a piece of rope. He managed to explain that he was taking it to the bull because she “Gotta da heat”.
Augosto had for some time been worried that the Germans would requisition his pig and so it was decided that it should be slaughtered and eaten. The decision was hastened by the news that a German detachment was to be billetted in Cese. We did not attend the execution of the pig but for several days the sound of pigs squealing was commonplace and we assumed (correctly) that many pigs had their throats out and bled to death.
It was after our pig had gone the way of all flesh that one of the girls offered us a taste of a dark liquid which she was evidently enjoying. When we discovered that it was pig’s blood sweetened with sugar we declined, much to her surprise and amusement.
Another unpleasant moment concerned with food, was after Augosto had been out shooting and told us that he had got a couple of birds. We did not see how big they were but that evening a splendid soup was served made from the birds. My second spoonful produced an entire small bird’s head, eyes beak etc. I must have
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shown my distaste because Augosto said “Don’t you like it?”. When I said “No” three hands shot out towards my spoon but Augosto won and into his mouth went the birds head followed by a horrible crunch.
I was very interested to watch Mariarosa making cheese. The caldio, the universal cooking pot, was nearly filled with milk and hung over the fire to heat. At a certain moment, when I imagined it had reached the correct temperature, she added an almost colourless liquid which she called quaglio. (That is what it sounded like but my spelling may be wrong.)
After much stirring she put both hands into the liquid and started to pull solidifying milk into one lump. After quite a long time she had a fairly solid lump a bit smaller than a normal football. This was taken out of the caldio and flattened out on a piece of wood, probably a much used pastry board. A strip of what seemed to be plywood was then produced. It was about eighteen inches long and some four inches wide. This was wrapped round the cheese so that it became a circle and tied in place with string.
The whole cheese was then lifted up on to the rack which hung over the fire, where it joined the leg of ham already up there. I cannot remember how long it was before the cheese was adjudged suitable for human consumption but when that time came it had quite a hard skin and was very tasty grated over macaroni, spaghetti etc.
We sometimes watched the cows being milked at night and wondered why the yield was so poor by English standards. When we found out that they pulled the old fashioned plough during the day we understood.
It was now March and the arrival of the German contingent in the village, followed by the appointment of a German officer as Town Major, made us think of trying to reach our own troops in the south. After much discussion of pros and cons five of us, Ken, Bill Vic, Ian and I, decide to walk south above the snow line without a guide. The almost certainty that many of the family, of whom we were now quite fond, would be shot if we were discovered in their house, did help us to make our decision.
When the great day of departure came, we set off with packs of food, down the valley then up the mountainside and into the snow. We walked during the day and either came down below the snow line at night to scrounge a place in a barn, or, very occasionally found shelter above the snow line.
It was an extremely unpleasant and dangerous journey. On many occasions one, or more, of us would be up to the waist or higher in a snowdrift and need help to get out. A certain amount of discipline was essential so there was always someone in the rear to act as rescuer. Much of that journey is now a hazy memory but I believe that we slept under cover every night.
After five days we came down below the snow line to a small village to ask for shelter. Nobody was prepared to risk having us but one resident indicated a hut on the outskirts, which was empty, and might possibly be used. We broke open the door and moved in.
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In that village we met another escapee, a Captain, who was looking for shelter so we invited him to join us. Then by the bush telegraph two more escapees joined us. One was a Major of the South African forces and the other a German who said he was from the French Foreign Legion. The South African could, by speaking Africaans, make himself understood by the German who, by speaking almost pidgin Italian, could manage to converse with us. Bill, who spoke German, had no difficulty and was inclined to think that Johann, the German, was in fact a deserter from the German Army and not a foreign legionnaire.
Whilst most of the party went out into the village to reconnoitre, I took the only axe and went out a short distance on to the mountainside to cut wood for the hut’s open fire. There were plenty of trees so in a small clearing I selected a sapling and started to chop it down. I hadn’t got far when a little dark man in civilian clothes popped out from the bushes and for a time watched me in silence.
He then came over to me and held out his hand for the axe saying “Da me”. I handed over the axe and he took a firm grip right up close to the axe head. I thought “Idiot he’ll never chop it like that”. In fact he went through that tree like the proverbially hot knife through butter and very soon I had quite a nice pile of logs. He then slipped away as silently as he had come by which time, of course, I knew that he was a Ghurka.
That night, with a good fire burning, we had a conference and to our surprise found out that we had only travelled about 21 kilometres during the five days we had walked above the snow line. Our stock of food was almost exhausted so Bill, our German speaker, volunteered to walk back to Cese to replenish the larder. He was sure that by using the road he could do it in one day to Cese and return the next. After further discussion this was agreed.
This being settled someone produced a pack of cards and suggested bridge. The South African and the German were willing and so was I. A fourth was found and we commenced a rather odd game of bridge. Italian, such as we had, was the only common language so this was what was used. I think that pice meant spades and cuore hearts, but cannot now remember the others. We played for quite a time then decided to settle down to sleep.
Jim, one of the newcomers, had been in the Indian Army as a regular, and was telling some good stories of peace time in India. He had reached the punch line of his saga about a tiger hunt and the huge one he had killed, over eight feet long, when he gave a sudden scream, leapt upright, tore down his trousers, and ejected a very small mouse. The contrast between deeds of valour against enormous tigers, and panic at a small mouse, was too much for us, and we all collapsed in helpless laughter.
And so to bed, in the straw. Next morning, early, Bill set off with our somewhat apprehensive good wishes. We made some careful forays into the mountainside and made contact with two South African N.C.O.’s who were being sheltered in a few houses about half a mile away. We got what news there was of local conditions from them and gathered that there were other South Africans in their village.
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We cut more logs, this time without any help from the Ghurka, and eventually settled down to another night’s sleep.
It must have been about noon on the next day when Bill returned with a sack containing bread, cheese and other food. Augosto had gone to the newly appointed German Town Major, and asked permission to send food south to help needy relatives. This had been granted and a written permit handed to him. Antonino, the third son, aged about ten, plus the donkey laden with food had accompanied Bill all the way back so Bill had to lug the heavy sack only a few yards.
We had only briefly examined the new food supply, when there came an urgent call to see two South Africans. We all went out into a large open field and sat down with the two. They told us that last night their village had been surrounded by Germans and searched. Several South Africans had been caught but the Germans were aware that there were many others. One of the two had evaded capture by crawling under the huge vino barrel in the barn. They both thought a further search was very likely.
Towards the end of this talk I could hear a loud persistent whistle so stood up and looked in its direction. The whistle came from an Italian boy who was frantically waving and pointing in the opposite direction. I looked round and saw, only about a hundred yards away, a line of German soldiers about five yards from each other, advancing towards us. The line seemed to stretch from the snow line right down to the valley floor.
I gave the alarm and we scattered. I dived into a ditch and was trying to find grass or anything to cover me, when a German soldier looked down at me, rifle at the ready, and said “rosse”. I roused and raised my hands. The great escape attempt was over.
I was taken up the hill and handed over to a German Corporal (Gefreiter) where others of our party were already standing. All the Germans seemed to accept automatically that we were escaped British Prisoners of War although we were all in civilian clothes. Gradually more escapees joined us until some twenty or so were there under the guard of the Corporal and two soldiers, all armed with a rifle and machine pistol.
Bill, assisted occasionally by one of us, had quite a long talk with the German Corporal. We all tried to impress on him that Germany had already lost the war and might as well sue for peace now. He, seemingly a fanatical Nazi, showed us his right boot which had a very long bootlace. This, he said, was to hang himself if Hitler lost the war. I often wonder if he did.
About two hundred yards down the mountainside a man broke cover and started to run. The Corporal fired several shots at him but did not seem to have hit him. This made Bill ask if he could see the rifle and, without thinking the Corporal handed it over. Bill pointed out that the sights only went up to 200 yards so I asked him to tell the German that my soldiers had hit Italians at over 1000 yards. I don’t think the German believed me and anyway he suddenly realised that he ought to have his rifle back.
The Corporal had been ‘shooting a line’ about his section pointing out that one was from Alsace, another from Austria and others from conquered territories and all were 100% behind the German war effort. Later on two of the recaptured Officers told us that the Alsatian and the Austrian would kill the Corporal and desert but for the terrible reprisals that their families would suffer.
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Eventually we were marched down the hill to the road and put on a lorry with two guards sitting on the tailboard facing us, machine pistols at the ready. We arrived at a house farther down the valley and which was apparently used as a German H.Q. We were all shut in one room and the door locked. After some time one of the German guards came in and told us that we would be fed after they had finished their meal.
They were as good as their word. In due course six German mess tins, unwashed after use by the Germans, were passed into the room full of a sort of stew. For those who didn’t have one, spoons also unwashed, were borrowed and the meal consumed by the first six. The mess tins, still unwashed, were refilled, the spoons, also unwashed, reissued and another six fed. The process continued until all of us had eaten.
Bill, our German speaker, warned Johann, the supposed ex-French Foreign Legionnaire, to keep quiet and we would try to cover him. However when a German N.C.O. came in, he jumped up, stood to attention and asked to see an Officer. The N.C.O. went out and came back later and took Johann away. Ne never saw him again.
Was he really a French Foreign Legionnaire? A deserter from the German Army? A plant in the village to entrap escaped prisoners of war? All three possibilities had their adherents but as far as I am aware he was never heard of again. I think he was probably shot as a deserter.
The N.C.O. reappeared and asked if any of us spoke German. Bill said yes so was taken out of the room and was away for quite a long time. He later told us that it had been an awkward interview with a German Captain (Hauptmann) during which he had said that our civilian clothes had not been given to us by any Italians but had been stolen from barns when we slept rough. A downright lie but apparently believed.
It was when he explained that his knowledge of German was due to a spell at Bonn University that the climate of the interview thawed and when he and the Captain discovered mutual acquaintances in Bonn everything seemed to be splendid. The atmosphere cooled somewhat when the Captain said that we could be shot for wearing civilian clothes and, if we tried to escape again, we surely would be. Bill passed that warning to us all.
After an uncomfortable night the Officers were assembled and put on a truck for another, well-guarded journey. In due course we arrived at a temporary P.O.W. camp. It was a large square building and had once been a good class hotel much used by skiers. The town was Fiuggi.
We were searched and anything likely to assist escape impounded, including Italian Lire, and a receipt given. Then, one by one, we were interviewed by the German interpreter, an N.C.O. It was a very surprising interview because he sounded, and acted, like a typical Cockney in the wrong uniform.
We later found out that he was the son of an English mother and a German father, and for some years had lived and worked in London as a waiter. When he was nineteen, he and his father had risked a journey to Germany to visit relatives. Both had been arrested and conscripted into the German Army. He expressed concern that one day he might meet one of his younger brothers both of whom had stayed in England and were now probably in the British forces.
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We were taken up to the second floor of the Hotel and allocated rooms for either one or two Officers depending on the size. All the Hotel furniture was still there, proper beds, wardrobes, dressing tables etc and we thought what luxury. It looked as if the Hotel was a large square built round a central courtyard or light well with a broad corridor running all round the square with rooms on each side.
However we were unable to prove this as a very strong wood partition had been built across the corridor. It seemed as if the Germans had been told to take over half the Hotel and we guessed that they had partitioned half of every floor. If true it could mean that on the other side of the partition was emptiness and possibly freedom.
There was a Sergeant occupying the room next to the partition and he had been there for some time. We pulled rank and made him exchange with an Officer. An examination revealed that the wardrobe stood against the ‘party’ wall and we decided to dig through the wall at that spot.
Meanwhile Bill had been in conversation with the sentry who said that there was nothing against us moving from room to room until lights out, when every prisoner must be in his own room. So a pack of cards was produced and game of bridge was set up on the bed and carefully rehearsed so that each of the four knew his place and how to proceed with genuine calls in the bidding should the sentry come in.
The wardrobe was slid along the wall and one man started to dig with a penknife, the only weapon which had survived the search. No 2 scraped up the spoil and passed it to No 3 who carefully packed it in the wardrobe. No 4 kept watch for the patrolling sentry with whom Bill was doing a splendid job by, from time to time engaging him in conversation.
None of us had any cigarettes so we asked if some of the Italian Lire, which had been taken from us could be used to buy some, but were told this was not possible. Ken had been given a receipt for over a thousand Lire and an appeal to the interpreter was at last successful. He altered his record and Ken’s receipt, from 1200 Lire to 200 Lire and promised to spend 1000 Lire on tobacco and vino if possible.
In due time he came back with two Chianti flasks full of red wine and several leaves of tough tobacco. The only way of smoking the tobacco was to make a tube of whatever paper you could scrounge, screw up one end and pour in the very dry tobacco from the other end, which was then put into the mouth for smoking. It made a pretty potent smoke, particularly if old magazine paper was used.
We stopped digging temporarily and gathered in one of the larger rooms to try the vino when the door opened and the interpreter brought in an American Officer in uniform and wearing a steel helmet. He said he was a recent captive and Ken, as the senior Captain asked his name, which he gave as Lieutenant Merle Hodgson.
Ken, still in ragged civilian clothes, then proceeded to introduce Merle to each of us in turn. We wondered what he thought to being introduced to such untidy individuals, all in civvies, as Captain this and Lieutenant that etc.
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Merle was offered a cigarette and he said yes please as he had some time ago smoked his last. The ritual with the paper and tobacco was done for him, and the art of smoking it explained. He lit up and sucked the smoke into his lungs and then went blue in the face with coughing. It was a bit stronger than the American Army issue he had been used to.
We found out in due time that he had been up in the front line with the guards from whom his unit was soon to take over. He had been very worried and a bit scared, by having to wear a British steel helmet instead of his own.
After a small celebration with the vino, we resumed the attack on the wall and by late evening had made a small hole right through what was probably the first half of a cavity wall. Bill came in and said that all were now ordered to go back to their own rooms as it was lights out. We debated whether the one who was to sleep in the Hole room should continue working throughout the night but Bill said that the sentry had orders to look into every room regularly. We decide it was safer to stop for the night and continue the next day.
So we all departed for what we hoped would be a good night’s sleep. It wasn’t. At about one in the morning we were woken up and told to get dressed as we were to move immediately. We found out that the Sergeant was not moving so told him to re-occupy his old room and to make sure that any Officers wishing to escape, were told about the hole and given occupation of that room.
We heard ages later that two Officers had accepted the opportunity and enlarged the hole. As we had suspected the other half of the Hotel was empty and they went down into the basement, opened a window, and got away. It would be nice to know who it was so that we could ask for a vote of thanks, but I never heard the names of the beneficiaries.
On the previous day Jim, of the tiger episode, had waited until our sentry was chatting with Bill, and simply walked down the stairs. He got to the ground floor before being challenged and sent back.
From Fiuggi we were moved to a proper P.O.W. camp which was basically for other ranks but had a compound, surrounded with strong barbed wire, for the Officers. There was a hut with beds and bedding and the main meal, usually soup, was brought in each day by British other rank prisoners. Jim thought that being an other rank might help in making an escape so made arrangements with one of the orderlies to exchange names and roles.
Meanwhile we were exercised in trying to decide whether it was better to wait at the end of the queue for soup in the hope of getting something solid, such as barley or get in early in the hope that it had been well stirred. There were about fifty Officers in the compound and our little party of six agreed to split so that some went early and some went late, changing roles daily. I am told that this was my idea and we kept it going up to the end of our captivity to ensure, as far as possible, a fair distribution of what was available.
It was at this time that I started the habit of always having a crust of German black bread in my pocket so that I could have a little chew when the pangs of hunger got too unpleasant.
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Jim made his exchange with the other rank who moved into the Officer’s compound and seemed a bit ‘off put’ by trying to act his part as a Captain. He heard that as the Allies advanced, the Germans would evacuate the camp and move us further north. We also heard that Jim had dug a shallow pit in the other ranks compound, and arranged for helpers to cover him over if and when the Germans did evacuate the camp.
At last the day came and we were all assembled in trucks and apparently ready to move. However there was a long delay and when Jim rejoined us he told us why. He had been put in his shallow grave and carefully covered by his helpers. The prisoners were assembled by the trucks and counted and one was missing. During the hue and cry an other rank volunteered to show the Germans where the missing man was.
He was taken by an Ober Lieutenant and two sentries back to the now empty camp, and showed them the shallow trench. When the cover was removed Jim came out and told them his real identity. The German Officer laughed and said “You might have got clear away but for this swine”, at which he gave the other rank a hefty ‘back hander’ which knocked him to the ground.
I cannot now remember how many camps we stopped at on our way northwards up Italy. We were usually hungry, sometimes very hungry, but the Germans almost always managed to supply something to eat, possibly at the expense of the Italians.
I have a memory of arriving at one camp where we were thoroughly searched and lined up inside the camp alongside a barbed wire fence separating us from those yet to be searched. There was great fun in attracting the guards’ attention while various items were passed through the fence to avoid confiscation. Most were eventually returned to their original owners.
What proved to be the last camp in Italy was quite large and was obviously a collecting point for prisoners before entraining them for Germany. Here there was already an escape committee and I volunteered to try to smuggle something into Germany. At that time I had a mass of thick hair and when we got the order to move, a tight roll of German Mark notes was taped to my scalp and my hair pulled over it.
This was just as well because the search before entraining was very thorough. One by one we entered a long tent and were ordered to strip naked. All clothes were taken from us and passed along various divisions of the tent to be very carefully examined. I got the impression that that one division concentrated on trousers, one on jackets, and one on underwear.
While this was going on a Doctor had a good look at, and in, the various orifices of the body but he did not look into my hair. He then passed me on to the end of the tent to await the arrival of my clothes and then get dressed. When we finally got to Germany I handed back the roll and was congratulated on my success in smuggling in over a thousand marks.
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The train for the journey to Germany was once again composed of cattle trucks, but this time with a difference. We had all escaped at least once and the Germans were taking no chances. Our six, probably regarded as dangerous escapers, were lined up in front of a truck and we could see that one half had been carefully enclosed with barbed wire leaving only a small gap.
We were ordered to climb in through that gap and then hand out all items of metal, belt, braces, and boots. The persuader was the usual machine pistol. Bill who was last in, made a fuss about handing over his boots and finally threw them at the sentry. I think that only a curt command from his N.C.O. saved us from a burst of machine pistol fire.
The wire gap was very carefully closed and we realised that we were in for a fairly long stay. A bale of straw and a wooden tub with a tight fitting lid, for calls of nature, made this obvious. A similar bale of straw was put in the other half of the truck but no tub. Then a long wooden bench seat was passed in and erected. We watched with interest.
Seven German soldiers climbed in. Five made themselves comfortable in the straw while the other two sat on the bench facing us with machine pistols resting across their knees. This was to be the pattern for the next two days until we arrived in Germany. Two men always on duty while four plus the N.C.O. in charge rested.
The ability of British Officers to escape from locked cattle trucks was clearly well known. We were told that in some of the trucks the prisoners had made a human pyramid with the man on the top kicking out the roof. No wonder they took our boots. Thus we journeyed through the Brenner Pass, securely shut in our truck so we saw nothing.
Food was passed to us twice a day and on one occasion, when the train halted for a time, two other ranks were ordered to empty the tub, which by then needed it. We assumed that the halt was to allow those prisoners not so well guarded as we were, to perform their natural functions, and of course the guards.
We were told that on a previous train, at such a halt, a prisoner had made an attempt to get away, but had been seen and called back. He came back, hands up, and thought that was all. However the German Warrant Officer in charge of the train, came up and said “You were told that if you attempted to escape you would be shot”. He then shot the prisoner with his luger.
One truck was cleared of its occupants and the wounded man thrown in and the door locked. When the train got to Germany he was dead. True? Or to discourage us? We never found out.
We arrived in the Reich on the 6th June 1944 and were marched, under guard, into a huge camp at Moosburg, obviously intended for other ranks. At one end an area had been wired off and contained a fairly large hut reserved for Officers. The first news when we were in the hut from those already there was that the Allies had invaded the continent that morning. The Free French in the camp had a clandestine radio and had heard the BBC news.
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The hut was a very good representation of the Tower of Babel. Mikhailovich Yugoslavs and Tito Yugoslavs who hate each other and had to be housed at opposite ends of the hut. Indians and Pakistanis, both then part of the Indian Army, Badoglio Italians, who had fought with the Allies, a few odd New Zealanders and some Australians, plus some white Russians who had been prisoners of the Italians, together with Officers from almost every Regiment in the British Army. There was also one Norwegian who was an Officer in an English Regiment. No one was able to explain how this had happened.
We settled down to an uneasy, very overcrowded, life. There was no Theatre or Canteen and, when a general knowledge quiz was held, we all crowded into the largest room and perched precariously on the two-tier beds.
The obtaining of some musical instruments brought forward the idea of a musical evening. The practice for this took many weeks and Ben, with his clarinet, did his in the lavatory and seemed to spend nearly all day at it. My bed was immediately outside the loo door, and I must have heard the theme from ‘Swan Lake’ several thousand times. Somehow, even now, I cannot learn to love that ballet.
It was at Moosburg that when we received Red Cross food parcels, a collection of tins of food, was made for the Russian prisoners, who had no such luxuries, and received less rations than we did.
There were several stories about the Russians. One was that when one of them died in the barrack room (which we were led to believe happened fairly often) his body was carried out and supported on roll call, so that his rations could be drawn. The Germans usually took several days to discover the deception, normally when the smell became a bit too strong.
It was also rumoured that on one occasion, when there was a lot of noise from the barrack room, a German sentry let loose his guard dog into the Russian compound. The dog vanished and next day his skin was hanging on the barbed wire with a note saying send more dogs. A different version says that the dog vanished completely, skin, bones, teeth, the lot, and no trace was ever found of it. I make no comment on these quite unconfirmed tales.
We had not entirely abandoned all hope of escape, but a hut in the middle of a wired in compound, which was part of a huge camp with many separate wired in compounds all round it, did not seem very promising. Then we heard that we were to be moved to a permanent British Officers Camp. Perhaps a chance on the way.
However when the move eventually came, there was no opportunity to escape. We were guarded as closely as the crown jewels and so arrived at Oflag 7 B, at Eichstatt near Ingolstadt. Each new batch of prisoners is interrogated by the Senior British Officer, or one of his aides, in order to get the latest news from the outside world.
We were not much help to these Officers who were somewhat disconcerted to discover that we had all been captured early in 1942, well before many in the camp. Our news of co-operation to escapees, by the general run of the Italian people, was a fat lot of good in the middle of Germany.
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Once again Vic and I volunteered for the Escape Committee but all active jobs were already filled and with plenty of reserves, and, as yet, we had no feasible plan for an escape. Our employment was therefore confined to ‘stooging’. That is as lookout for some clandestine activity.
In my case this usually consisted of acting as lookout whilst the radio was in action. Radio was of course forbidden. It was a simple job but one had to stay awake. It could involve just sitting, ostensibly reading, but with a prearranged signal, blowing the nose, knocking out the pipe etc., to be made if a German passed going in a certain direction.
The Radio functioned very well and each night the BBC nine o’clock news was read out in every barrack room. Once again a stooge was outside the barrack block as the news was being read out inside. If a German came near he would march noisily into the room and call out loudly some prearranged message. By the time the German arrived the news sheet would be well hidden.
Many of the prisoners had been captured at Dunkirk so had been there a long time. Everything was well organised and under control. For instance, trade with the German guards, the black market, was under the control of a German speaking Officer who had a few assistants. All other prisoners were forbidden to do any trading.
The currency used by our black marketeers was cigarettes. We were told that the issue to the guards, not front line troops, was two cigarettes per man per week so our Red Cross issue and private parcel cigarettes, represented wealth indeed.
Black bread, flour, sausage, and fresh meat, all had their price in cigarettes, but the only one I can now remember is 40 cigarettes for a loaf of black bread. Those with cigarettes who wanted to buy food (who didn’t), registered their name and requirements with the black market and were placed on the appropriate list. In due course your turn would arrive, perhaps after many months, and you would hand over 40 cigarettes in exchange for a loaf of bread.
I had no doubt at all that the scheme was administered fairly. Any suggestion of ‘fiddling’ the black market food would almost certainly have resulted in physical violence.
There was no central Officers Mess and, in fact, no room for one. Friends got together to make up a small mess of some six to twelve persons, and each of these messes was allocated a number. All German rations, except meat, were distributed on a per capita basis. Potatoes were cooked centrally in their jackets, and then issued out to messes as was the bread ration. On a good day one might get a slice of bread and 1 1/2 potatoes each.
The weekly meat ration for the whole camp, was cooked centrally into a sort of shepherds pie which was just about sufficient to serve one meal to a fifth of the camp. This gave a piece of pie about 1 1/2 inches thick and about three inches square for each prisoner, who would then wait five weeks for his next meat meal as supplied by the Germans.
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My mess numbered eight – the six who had been free in Italy, plus two others, who really functioned as a subsidiary mess. We had about a quarter of a fairly big room, which we divided by a careful placing of the double decker beds and wardrobes, thus giving an illusion of privacy.
Red Cross food parcels, when available, were issued to messes, so that if the issue was half a parcel per man, my mess would receive four parcels. There was a sophisticated system of dealing with Red Cross parcels. A large hut, normally kept locked, was used as a store and operated by the prisoners supervised by the Germans.
When parcels were issued it was to one member of each mess, usually me, who had to decide what tins were required at once and what retained in store. The former would be opened by the very efficient, semi-mechanical, tin opener, which was operated by a German. The latter would be left in store unopened.
Each mess had an area in the store allocated to it into which unopened tins were placed. The mess PMC, again me, would keep a list of items kept in store as would the store itself.
At certain specified times it would be possible to withdraw further items for consumption. These would go through the tin opener before being handed over.
Normal practice would be to keep in store only those items which would deteriorate if the tin was opened. Biscuits, butter, margarine, prunes, tea, coffee, dried milk would be withdrawn as soon as allocated to the mess, but tinned fish, corned beef, meat stew etc., would be left in until needed.
One by-product of the Red Cross parcel store was a number of items made out of the tea chests or crates in which they arrived. Some of the men achieved great dexterity in constructing chairs, tables etc. Once again a rota system was enforced. If you wanted a chair you put your name down and waited your turn, often several weeks.
Another by product was tin ‘bashing’ and it was astonishing what could be made from used (and cleaned) tins. Mugs, kettles, and what were called smokeless heaters, probably because in use they produced a veritable fog. They were designed to burn newspaper mixed with dubbin (boot and shoe grease) and were useful in preparing a brew up. A refinement on this model was equipped with a small fan, worked by hand, which had the same effect as the blacksmith’s bellows.
The Germans must have thought that we were very interested in their news because we bought a lot of papers. In addition to those used for brewing up I had about six or seven under my bed sheet as additional insulation.
There were often ‘niggles’ and reprisals from our hosts. On one occasion all mattresses were taken away and stored in the theatre (only a large room) which was of course closed and locked. They said that this was a reprisal because German Officers captured in Libya had not been given mattresses.
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There must have been at least one Officer who was a good locksmith, because within an hour or so, we were instructed to report to the theatre, after dark, and in strict rotation, to draw mattresses. The only snag was that you did not get back your own mattress. I have called them mattresses but palliasses would be more correct. A sort of long sack filled (sometimes) with straw.
My replacement palliasse was not ‘buggy’ so I was quite happy, particularly as the supply of newspapers never seemed to diminish. I cannot vouch for the story of one prisoner who was supposed to have filled his palliasse with porridge oats and was extremely displeased that they were now someone else’s property.
The only heating(?) in our room was from a large cylindrical stove with a round metal stove pipe going out through the wall. The New Zealanders, who occupied the next mess, had an idea for improvement. They got the tin bashers to make a long oblong sort of box with three holes in one side, each with a tight-fitting lid.
This box was designed to fit between the stove and the stove pipe chimney so that tins of water could be place over the holes and perhaps be boiled. A snag was that it needed a brick support so, every prisoner in the room, about thirty, was asked to steal a brick from the Germans, who were doing some repair work inside the camp.
The Germans had threatened to shoot anyone trying to steal anything from this site so there was an element of risk. However I got my brick without much trouble, only needing a little low cunning. I wonder if I will ever again be threatened with death for stealing a brick.
The weather got colder and colder and in early November it snowed quite heavily. Memory says that it remained until the following February. On a good day the thermometer in the room could get up to zero by midday. Red Cross issue long pants were in great demand and (by me at least) worn over the short ones. In fact most of us wore every scrap of clothing we possessed. It was quite chilly.
In part of the grounds was a small, about quarter size, seven a side hockey pitch. To make it level it had been sunk a few inches into the ground. This was now filled with water which promptly froze solid. The reason for this soon became clear as a large quantity of ice skates had arrived, via the Red Cross, from Switzerland. I got a pair and fixed them to my boots, and started to learn to skate. It was at least one way of getting warm.
One morning the Gestapo arrived and everyone, except the Senior Officer in each room, was ordered outside. The Gestapo were all in civilian suits and looked as unpleasant a bunch of plug uglies as I have ever see!).
In one of the first rooms the nasty little gangster told the British Officer to do something. He flatly refused and pointed out that he was a prisoner of the German Army, and the Geneva Convention did not require him to obey civilians. He would, however, take any reasonable order from the German soldier who was in attendance.
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The sentry was trying hard to hide his delight at this turn of events but the Gestapo man was furious. Threats and much waving of his automatic pistol had no effect on the British Officer so he was marched, by the soldier plus the Gestapo to the Commandant’s office.
Apparently almost every British Officer had taken the same line and the Commandant had to confirm that they were correct. He therefore put a German soldier with each one of the Gestapo, to transmit their orders to the British. What with the delay this caused, plus difficulties of translation, and misunderstandings, usually deliberate, it took a very long time to search the camp.
The Gestapo were fuming but the soldiers were thoroughly (but not too visibly) enjoying it. Meanwhile all of us outside were alternately freezing, then taking it in turns to skate to get warm. Sitting down or standing still were not very popular pastimes. When the search was over and, half frozen, we returned to the barrack room, we had to clear up the mess left by the searchers. Everything had been turned upside down and contents of cardboard boxes thrown out etc. I doubt if they found anything worthwhile.
A story circulating in the camp was about the German soldier who drove into the camp to deliver some goods to the canteen. He was using a German G.S. Wagon which you may know takes to pieces. The wheels, shaft, sides etc., come apart just as the British G.S. Wagon (long obsolete) did.
He was lured into one Officer’s room by the offer of a cigarette, which took him about ten minutes. When he came out his horse and the G.S. Wagon were missing. The horse was not too difficult to find but the several parts of the Wagon were spread all over the camp and took quite a long time to find.
It must have been in late November, when the snow had been lying for some weeks, when two P.O.W’s were standing at the open ground floor window of their room. They gazed disconsolately at the weak winter sunshine, when, down the middle of the road, strutted a goose. Unfortunately, I was not a spectator as the two, as one, leapt out of the window, grabbed the goose, wrung its neck, and nipped back through the door.
The subsequent story has it that the four foot high rubbish bin just inside the entrance, was emptied out and the goose dropped to the bottom, and all the rubbish piled back on top. Not a moment too soon. The gate opened and a file of German troops entered, split into small parties, and proceeded to search the camp. They peered in all sorts of corners and under huts, some of which were on stilts.
Some of them even made little clucking noises, to the delight of those P.O.W’s who were in the know. After quite a time the search party reassembled and marched out. Why they did not search inside the barrack rooms has always been a mystery to me but it simply did not seem to have occurred to them. That night there was feasting in a small part of the camp and the goose feathers made a useful addition to the straw in someone’s mattress.
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Next morning, at Roll Call, the German Hauptmann, (Captain), told the Senior British officer, that the Camp Commandant was in a raving temper because the goose which he had been fattening for Christmas, had got out and vanished. He thought that it had probably been stolen by someone in the town. I believe the S.BO. had a sudden fit of coughing at that moment.
It was the same Hauptmann who caused an outburst of ribald laughter at a Roll Call when he, as ordered by Hitler, gave the Nazi salute instead of the old military one.
When the news of President Roosevelt’s death came to us, the S.B.O. ordered correct uniform for the following morning Roll Call, which would be followed by a short service in memory of the President. The resulting spick and span turnout must have surprised the guards who were used to pyjamas, slacks, bare chests, in fact anything but correct uniform.
After a few words of remembrance, we stood for a few minutes in silence before being dismissed. An unusual tribute to a great man, and a staunch friend of Britain.
As the winter moved slowly towards spring, the war news, even from German sources, became encouraging, and most of us felt it was only a matter of time for us to be released. Then we heard that we were to be moved to a safer area. Some believed the story, but many of us were certain that we would be used as hostages – there were already rumours of a last stand of the faithful in a Bavarian redoubt.
There was a hurried sorting of stocks of food, any surplus being given to the less fortunate. It was clear that we would have to carry everything we wanted to take so, in addition to as much portable food as I could manage, I took several tins of pipe tobacco, a spare pair of socks, and the blue and white check mattress cover.
We started out to march in broad daylight and the Senior Officer asked for permission to show white flags prominently. This was refused, perhaps because they didn’t want to admit that the Allies now dominated the air.
After about an hour’s march, we were moving along a road which ran round a hill, with open fields on the right and woods on the left, with a ditch between the trees and the road. It was here that 24 American planes, I believe Thunderbolts, attacked us, diving and machine gunning all along the road, and sometimes across from side to side.
Being on the left of the column, I dived into the ditch and had the dubious pleasure of watching the half inch bullets ping off the road, which was now empty. Bursts of flame were visible from the guns as each plane took its turn to strafe what they must have thought was a column of enemy troops.
I suffered a small chip out of my left wrist and another on my left knee, but many were not so lucky. Later estimates said five had been killed and 49 wounded. Had we in fact, been fighting troops, these casualties would hardly have affected our combat worthiness. So much for air power.
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We all made our way back to the camp where an emergency dressing station had been set up. Most of us returned to the barrack room we had left a few hours ago, to await events.
Many stories circulated about the attack. The P.O.W., said to be a concert pianist, who stood up in the open field waving a white handkerchief and had his right hand shot off. Another who felt a hefty blow on his chest and, on examining himself, expecting blood, found a bullet in his cigarette tin. The chap who was lying in the same ditch as I was and swore at the man ahead because he had been kicked hard in his ear. He was most distressed when he found a severed foot pouring blood over his head.
There was also the tale of the German Lieutenant who was also in my ditch but much farther back. A P.O.W., who was on the open side of the road where there was no ditch, jumped up and ran across the road. He caught a burst of fire from one of the planes and dropped in the middle of the road. As the next plane dived and loosed its deadly hail, the lieutenant got up, walked to the wounded Officer, picked him up and carried him back to the relative safety of the ditch.
It was also said that, far behind me, where the road ran through the outskirts of the village, the German Housefrauen were outside their houses, some sitting on chairs, calmly tearing up petticoats etc., and bandaging the wounded, nearly all of whom were their enemies.
Many years later Bill, one of the six ex-Italian escapees, went back to Germany and Eichstett. The old Oflag Vll B had been transformed into a barracks for Security Police. When he explained to a sentry that he had been an inmate, he was made welcome and shown round. Before he left they gave him a copy of the history of the barracks.
It contained a report of the shooting which it attributed to an all black squadron of the U.S. Army Air Force. The casualties it gives as 19 killed and 60 wounded. It also states that when the column moved out of the camp many children, as children will, followed alongside the marching prisoners. When the attack started every child was thrown to the ground with at least one P.O.W., on top as protection. None of the children were wounded.
After 24 hours in the camp, we were off on the march again, but this time at night. We marched all night with a halt for a meal at about midnight. By dawn Germans, moving ahead, had arranged sleeping accommodation in barns etc. Food was scarce but occasionally an egg might be bought for one cigarette.
There is a story of one prisoner, sleeping amongst the hay, who was woken by the cackling of a nearby hen, which had just laid an egg. He grabbed the egg and pushed a cigarette up the hen’s backside.
I cannot remember now, how many nights we were on the march, but on one occasion, on the outskirts of Munich, we watched a thousand bomber raid on that city. It was all over in about twenty-five minutes and most of us, whilst taking reasonable cover, were highly delighted.
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Eventually we arrived back at Moosburg camp, which we had first seen on D day. It was much changed. No separate compounds and no beds, at least we didn’t see any, and vastly over-crowded. I found a space in a hut just enough to lie down and try to sleep. If I turned over I would hit both men on either side.
There were many rumours of advancing troops and a story that the S.B.O., a Group Captain R.A.F., had gone out with the Camp Commandant, under a white flag, to try to contact the Allied forces.
Eventually we were semi-officially informed that contact had been made with American forces under General Patton, and a request made by the Germans, that the camp be treated as an ‘open’ area and by-passed in any American attack. The request had been refused on the grounds that the attackers’ job was to defeat Germans and nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of that.
All the prisoners I spoke to, seemed to be quite happy with that point of view but I imagine the German guards were not. The next day, early in the morning, American tanks were seen in the distance. Several prisoners climbed up the stilts of the sentry’s watch tower and soon it was packed tight with prisoners who pushed the sentry into a corner.
Then began several running commentaries on the progress of the Allied advance. A few shells roared over the camp and several bullets landed inside. I cannot remember that anyone took cover or that anyone was hurt.
I was told later that the Volksturm (Home guard) had taken up a defensive position outside the camp and called on our guards to join them in fighting the Allies. The guards refused so the Volksturm turned their Panzerfaust (anti-tank bomb) and fired it into the camp killing some guards and wounding others.
The first wave of tanks passed the camp then one drove in over the gate and barbed wire, to tremendous cheering and shouting from the prisoners, prisoners no longer.
The American advance continued, and later in the day there was a state visit by General Patton himself, pearl handled revolvers and all. He talked to the senior American prisoners and it was clear that evacuation was already being discussed and planned. Soon after he left an American ‘DONUT’ truck arrived staffed by two very pretty girls in uniform, who proceeded to hand out doughnuts to all and sundry. They left when supplies ran out and never returned.
I also heard that the American advance was held up for a few days because of a shortage of rations. Many thousand K rations had been given to the prisoners by the troops. They were very acceptable after the watery German soup.
The planning for evacuation was well in hand and we were told that, as there were about equal numbers for American and British prisoners, we would be moved one barrack block per day with American and British alternating.
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A draw for first to go was won by the British who, to the American surprise and almost disbelief, ordered a block of Indian Army prisoners to go first. These would include what is now Indian, Pakistan, and Bangladesh Officers.
I cannot remember how long my barrack block waited but fairly soon we were told your turn tomorrow. Tomorrow dawned quite misty but very soon we were all on board U.S. vehicles and on our way to an airfield at Landshut. When we were about half way the convoy stopped. Dispatch riders had told the Senior Officer that thick fog had stopped all flying for the day.
The thought of going back to the camp caused intense depression, but when the convoy restarted, the vehicles did not turn round but kept in the original direction.
We arrived at a small town where the convoy stopped outside a fairly new block of flats. Apparently the Americans had given the occupants one hour to get out of the flats to provide billets for the prisoners. American military police were giving instructions and seven of us were shown into one room of one of the flats, to bed down for the night.
Every room, except the loo, had as many, or more, bodies than it could hold. After a long march across Germany, and many days in Moosburg with no washing facilities, we made what use was possible, of the bathroom, which was very crowded most of the time.
After his wash, Tats didn’t feel like putting on again his not too clean pants, so he made a search of the chest of drawers in our room. There were no men’s pants but he dug out a rather splendid pair of ladies knickers, which he promptly donned, much to our delight.
By this time many of the local inhabitants had come to goggle at us, and many of us had gone down into the road to exercise our new found freedom. Several girls offered their services as bedmates in exchange for chocolate or soap or almost anything eatable. As far as I am aware no one availed themselves of these offers.
Only a few days ago the Americans had fought round and through the town and the signs of battle were still visible.
Next morning we were up early and once more aboard the trucks, and so to Landshut airfield, where a fleet of Dakotas was running a shuttle service. Soon my turn came and some fifty of us climbed into the plane and sat all round the cargo cabin. There was one American crew man who remained standing and casually smoking . There were no seat belts or parachutes, and nothing to hold on to, so we were a bit unsteady at first.
After some time the pilot called the crew man, who then announced that he had just called up Metz aerodrome because he had to land for refuelling . We landed a few minutes later and I could see, through the planes window, a scene of feverish activity.
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The plane stopped, steps were rushed to the door, and we were carefully assisted down and waved towards the scene of activity. There were several trestle tables, covered with white (?) cloths, at which Americans were frantically cutting sandwiches. It was a really splendid meal and a wonderful effort by the Americans, who had only about six minutes warning of the arrival of a plane load of ex-prisoners.
An orange each and the plane was refuelled and ready to take off, so all aboard again. When we next touched down it was the R.A.F. station at Brussels.
As the plane taxied to a halt an R.A.F. truck came chasing across the airfield and when our door opened, he backed right up to the plane so that we only had to step across. Hurry, hurry, we were told. Winston is to broadcast.
The truck raced back across the airfield and we were ushered into what was clearly a canteen. It was full of R.A.F., who shushed us quite strongly. Then from the radio the unmistakable voice of Winston Churchill making his VE day broadcast. It was 8th May 1945.
It took time for it to sink in that the war in Europe was over. We all had a cup of tea and many had a cake or a bun. It never occurred to me how it was to be paid for. And I had no money; neither did any of the other ex-prisoners.
We were then taken to an Officer who took down full details from each of us and said that after him we could go to the field cashier who would advance Belgian money. Don’t take too much if you want to get home soon. There will be a shuttle service of planes back to England starting at dawn tomorrow. You may also go to the quartermaster’s stores but only draw clothing for your immediate needs. We don’t want to overload the planes and all you need will be available in England.
Tats and I drew some cash and then made our way to the stores for clean pants. Tats (he of the lady’s knickers) asked if he could change in the stores and the Corporal said “Yes. Of course”. There were some surprised, amused, and delighted chuckles when he revealed himself in all the glory of a pair of fancy ladies’ knickers. His wife still treasured those knickers thirty years later.
We then went out into Brussels and were greeted with cheers, hugs etc., by many excited civilians. Anyone in British uniform was a hero on V.E. Day. I had one or two beers but was not allowed to pay for anything.
Not having touched alcohol for over two years I was a bit fuddled but can remember doing the Lambeth Walk, between the tables, in a very large basement cafe. There must have been several hundred in a long line, dancing and drinking some of the many beers offered.
We decided to get back to the barracks, ready for the trip to England next morning. but couldn’t remember where it was. Eventually we found a kindly airman who took us in tow. And so to bed.
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Next morning we were up with the lark and, after an early breakfast, caught a truck to the airfield, where we were assembled in lots of ten (or maybe fifteen) on a first come first served basis.
We were to fly back to England in a Lancaster Bomber and I found myself, with several others, lying down in the bomb bay. I hoped that the bomb release lever was safe. There was one seat next to the pilot and the lucky prisoner who occupied it was the only one who could talk to the pilot.
There is a story that one prisoner who got this favoured seat, asked the pilot if he knew Flying Officer X, who had married his sister during the war, and who he had never met. The pilot was surprised, and delighted, to acknowledge that he was the Brother-in-Law.
We landed at an aerodrome somewhere in England, I think it was in Kent, and were assisted from the plane. We were taken to a large hangar where rows of tables had been laid with tea, cakes, buns, etc., to which we did full justice. I believe there were speeches of welcome but I have absolutely no recollection of them.
Next we were moved to a military camp where the first thing was a request to lie down on a rather spartan bed, when vast amounts of de-lousing powder were sprayed up our trouser legs. Then off to collect clean underwear, shirts etc., and then to the shower.
On my way to the shower a Corporal, obviously a dispatch rider, asked me for the address of my next of kin. He refused to be put off and followed me into the shower. I said I will write to my wife after I have showered.
He then explained that he had a standard telegram which read ‘I am back in England and will see you soon’. All I had to do was give him the name and address of my next of kin and my signing off name, and he would do the rest. I thought this a good idea and complied at once. He soon sped off with a batch of telegrams and another dispatch rider started collecting more names and addresses.
When properly dressed I was guided to another Officer who explained the mysteries of ration books, clothing coupons, petrol coupons etc., and proceeded to issue them. I was then warned to be ready for transport to the station next morning, and issued with a rail warrant to my home station, Chingford. Then a few drinks in the mess and off to bed.
Next morning an issue of money, against a signature, and then transport to the station. I do not know where it was (no signs) but there was a refreshment room on the centre of the platform. It may have been Swanley because the train ended at Cannon Street.
As I walked towards the exit I wondered if the underground still functioned, and if so, would my warrant be valid. I need not have wondered. In the station yard was a row of Army lorries, each one with the name of a different London terminus displayed on a large board leaning against the truck.
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I did not want Kings Cross or Paddington or Euston, but Liverpool Street was very inviting. So I travelled with one or two others to Liverpool Street. Apparently the truck drivers were on duty all day and for many weeks for the sole purpose of transporting ex-prisoners of war, from Cannon Street to the terminus for their ultimate destination.
I caught the next train to Chingford and in due course walked through the subway and round to my wife’s house. A welcome from her mother and sister was hardly over, when the front door burst open and a breathless wife hurled herself into me arms.
From a prisoner of war on 7th May, to a free man and home on 10th May, was wonderful work by the U.S. Air Force, the R.A.F., and the Army. It was many weeks before I really surfaced.
The foregoing is not meant to be for a book or a novel but is, as far as possible, a record of what actually happened. Much of it could stand a lot of ornamentation.
The six often referred to were, in alphabetical order:
Lieut. J.H. Joel – Green Howards – usually called ‘Solly’
Lieut I F. McLay – Royal Tank Corps – usually called ‘Ian or Mac’
Lieut G.F. Ramsden – Royal Engineers – usually called ‘Rammo’
Lieut C.A. Taylor – Northumberland Fusiliers – usually called ‘Tats’
Lieut V.J. Wiggin – Kings Own Royal Regt. (attd. Green Howards) – usually called ‘Wiggy’
Capt. W.J. Wright -R.A .S.C. – usually called ‘Bill’
Throughout this record I have referred to ‘Wiggy’ as Vic. He, Tats and Ian are now all dead.