Summary of Norman Kingham
Norman Kingham was captured around Apr 1941 when his unit was retreating from the general German advance while he was trying to salvage supplies from an overturned truck. During the retreat he was able to bury some £2million pounds and documents in the desert which was eventually recovered. He spent 2 years at Camp PG 78 near Sulmona in Italy. Being a draughtsman Norman was extremely useful in helping to forge passes and documents for fellow prisoners. He eventually escaped during confusion at camp when German forces arrive to replace the Italian guards. Had one very narrow escape from recapture by escaping into a sewer and another when he ends up in no-man’s land and survives an artillery bombardment. He did however make it back to the Allied lines.
Norman was presented with a Military Medal for his prison escape but he refused it because of his disgust of Army policy that only commissioned officers could recommend other solders for bravery medals. He ended the war back in Middle East where because of his architectural background involved him in various construction projects.
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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Notes on Manuscript of NORMAN KINGHAM
(Draughtsman and architect who pursued, some of his profession in army service, POW camp and while being pursued.)
In the desert in the early days with 2nd Army Div. (?) Being a draughtsman and so to maps brought him in contact with many Generals, Eden and the like.
Good story of Padre who had taken a service for ‘some Free French in grey uniforms’.
NK is raiding an overturned truck in the desert one night but recognises fellow raiders as German. Buried some £2 million pounds and documents in desert – later from P.Camp sent home compass bearing for their recovery. Generals Neame, Gzmbier Parry and O’Connor being interrogated at same time. But later claims that O’Conner who had taken off tabs was ill so disclosed his identity.
When recruited to unload bombs in Tripoli harbour NK and others managed to ensure that most rolled into the sea and nearly shot. Later, as a sapper, had to help defuse a bomb with German sapper officer.
At Sulmona there were compounds for Sen. [Senior] Brit Officers, Officers, Sergeants, O.R. [Other Ranks], Greeks, Free French and Yugoslavs. The one who cut the bread took the smallest slice.
Handcuffed after Dieppe raid but, with false keys they made such a farce of it that the Italians gave up. Good description of Salle when they escaped and the dangers for them and Italians, including just surviving the sudden escape into a sewer, into which the Germans dropped a grenade. Found two Germans, one just alive, who had their throats cut by Free French.
Snow and cold made life almost impossible, sleeping in snow holes, being pursued by skiing Germans. End up in the area of Guardigrele when the battle nears. They and a German gun position seem to share the same haystacks but when a shell demolishes theirs they survive. They press on towards the Allies. Exhausted two women go out to find ‘the Americans’. New Zealanders appear and they are through.
NK and his fellow draughtsman make many unorthodox army moves including refusing MM’s [Military Medal] and sent to the glasshouse etc. In ME [Middle East] again and ends up in the troubled Palestine with Italian POWs and a young Arab in retinue.
It would seem that NK wrote his story some years afterwards and without notes.
Some of his timing of events are a bit amiss and one wonders whether some of his memories are exact – but of course often accurate accounts seem incredible.
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Manuscript of NORMAN KINGHAM
1938 Joined TA [Territorial Army] 3rd Cheshire Field Squadron RE Sapper.
1939 Camp in Monmouth became driver. Got a stripe but lost it almost immediately.
Called up the day before the declaration of war — no accommodation so lived in the Grandstand at The Oval, an athletics ground in Wirral. Later in old houses in Spital. Demolition training Silverdale, Autumn in Hulme Hall.
1940 Unit moved to Doncaster. Lived in Rossington Hall. Bill Knight had task of lettering latrines etc. in our billet. A staff officer asked him to put his name on his personal kit. Bill’s lettering was superb. Lots of other officers from Divisional HQ [Headquarters] asked Bill to do their names on theirs too. Bill became overworked and sent for me to help at HQ [Headquarters] in 2nd Armed Division in the Bell Inn, Barnaby Moor. Whilst Bill went on leave I was left to do the lettering.
[Handwritten annotations by Norman Kingham on right hand side of page]
We were at the University together, joined the TA [Territorial Army], were captured and escaped together & eventually became my partner in the practice of Kingham Knight Associates.
[Main text resumes] I was told to put a sign on the General’s door (a bedroom in the Inn) “PRIVATE”. There was no table so I mixed colours on the floor. The general unexpectedly returned, very distressed (Major General Hopblack). He told me to get some maps of Yorkshire and paints to colour defence areas against invasion. He seemed very pleased. I was then instructed to get a clean uniform for the next day. Returned to my unit in Rossington Hall. Next morning the Quartermaster refused to give me a new uniform. Back in the Bell Inn the General was furious – sent me back in his staff car with instructions that his orders were to be obeyed. I got two new uniforms – one for Bill and one for myself. The general told me to move into cottage by the Inn (Pear Tree Cottage). Randolph Churchill was his liaison officer, but the General could not stand the sight of him.
One day the General went off to London for instructions, but did not return – we heard that he had been murdered outside the War Office.
Our new General arrived, a Major—General Tilly. He appointed Bill and I as members of his staff. His senior officers were:
G1. George Young-husband Colonel;
G2. Derek Schrieber, Major;
G3. Geoffrey Hardey Roberts, Major.
There were many problems facing Britain at that time:
i) Invasion threats
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ii) No equipment!
iii) Forces being pushed out of Europe.
The Bell Inn had a small landing strip. One day the Duke of Gloucester arrived with Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. He had flown to Holland and returned with her jewellery. For security it was put in our Pear Tree Cottage. There was a great fuss. CIGS [Chief of the Imperial Staff] arrived (Sir John Dill arid Ironside – Sir Anthony Eden.).
Randolph Churchill returned with a cine camera to record the visit, but Sir Anthony refused him permission. I learned that politicians ‘were and still are more important than executives.
The Divisional HQ [Headquarters] moved then to Thorsby Hall in Sherwood Forest. Bill and I were formally transferred from the old unit to the Divisional HQ [Headquarters] as Topographical Draftsmen.
The Division was prepared to go to Norway. The HQ [Headquarters] moved again, but this time to Guilsborough Hall, a small beautiful manor house in Northamptonshire. It had until the previous day been occupied by a German and his South African wife – a friend of Hitler’s, They got away by air; (see photographs in my album). Bill and I occupied the ground floor cloakroom, as our map room and sleeping quarters. One night at 2am, the G3 [General Staff Officer Grade 3] aroused us and asked for maps of Africa – “bring them to the Billiards Room”. We were in pyjamas. Those present in uniform were:
CIGS [Chief of the Imperial Staff] and staff
Foreign Secretary etc.
Generals, G1 [General Staff Officer Grade 1] and G2 [General Staff Officer Grade 2].
The maps were laid on the table and we were told to remain. Egypt apparently was leaning towards the axis and had to be persuaded to change their mind.
(The King of Egypt was being advised by his ministers that if he were to side with Germany, the British (who were there under a league of Nations mandate) would be kicked out and Egypt would once more be independent. Our commander in Cairo had placed his artillery facing the Abdin Palace in a show of force. King Farouk decided to side with the Allies).
Our General in command was sacked. (his old friend, Brigadier Tilly was now our Divisional Commander). Eden told us that our new division was not to go to Norway, but instead to Egypt. At 4am we all had tea. Eden had realised that the two lads in pyjamas were only Sappers – everyone else was either a field officer or Civil Servant. We both had to sign the official secrets act before leaving the billiards room.
Next day the General sent G1 [General Staff Officer Grade 1] and the “Heavenly twins” (Bill & I) to Towcester Racecourse to select maps for an Armoured Division. Bill and I stayed two or three days and brought back about six tons covering Egypt and North Africa. (The Towcester Racecourse stands were an emergency map centre of the Ordinance Survey whose HQ [Headquarters] was at Southampton).
We returned to Guilsborough just in time to pack for Maddingley Hall, Cambridge. The General had a slight fever – no wonder!
Bill and I took over the stables at Maddingley for our maps – the house became Div HQ [Division Headquarters]. For the next few weeks we had extra security.
Commanders of the various Brigades who would accompany us reported for briefing. Instructions were given, equipment and stores ordered, transport to the port of embarkation arranged but no destination was given at the time.
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Bill and l had separate embarkation leave. The night before my leave we were bombed and I took home a kit bag full of ripe pears which had been blown off the trees in the orchard.
That evening the sentry at the lodge gate reported that an elderly private insisted on seeing the General. He was sent up to me in the stables.
Apparently he had been our Commanding Officer in Cairo who had placed the guns outside the Abdin Palace.
It was the then about 11.30pm. I awoke General Tilly described the soldier and was told to bring him over. Tilly had been one of his Brigadiers in Cairo – they were both delighted to meet. He had surrendered his commission but then rejoined as a Private. He stayed about a week.
G1 [General Staff Officer Grade 1] returned from leave with his wife and two young daughters. The girls were placed in my care – we went to the pictures, walks and they played in the map room over the stables.
The general returned from his leave in a very distressed state. His wife had died and his only daughter had gone to the USA with her husband. He looked poorly – parchment, coloured.
London was being bombed — we could see the flames, hear the bombers and the news of the war was bad.
One night he came over to the stables to get away from the staff officers. A messenger came across – I think it was his Secretary Norman Bailie, with further sad news – his mother had also died.
I went for Tristran, his Batman, and we put him to bed but stayed with him all night.
Two days later we were on the SS [Steam Ship] Strathallan in the Mersey. She was anchored off Seacombe and we watched the ferry boats passing to and fro. We were there for three days.
The General joined us with the pilot and we sailed out past the Fort and Lighthouse. It was October 1940 – we met our convoy in the Clyde.
Other ships in the convoy were:-
Empress of Canada
Duchess of Bedford
Reine del Pacifico
We sailed West to US waters then South to the Gulf and East to Africa and called at Freetown for water.
Bill and I moved into the promenade deck of the General’s suite to establish our map room. There was an enormous amount of planning to do.
We allocated maps and worked with our new G2 [General Staff Officer Grade 2]. Major Schrieber our original G2[General Staff Officer Grade 2] left us at the Bell Inn to join the Duke of Gloucester as his ADC [Aide de Camp]. The Duke was a Major-General and had been appointed Governor General of Australia.
Our new G2 [General Staff Officer Grade 2] was a Major Lloyd (“Rosie” Lloyd).
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We sailed South to Freetown for water then to the Antarctic, then East into the Indian Ocean to avoid U boat packs, then North to Durbane General left the ship in Durban (December 40) and went by air to Cairo. The convoy continued up the Red Sea, Suez Canal and finally to Port Said. We were driven to Moascar Camp where our work really commenced.
The Divisional HQ [Headquarters] was set up at Moascar, but by coincidence the 3rd Cheshire Field Squadron occupied the next camp about 100 yards away. Met Roy Eastwood, Doug Peel and the gang of TA [Territorial Army] friends. I spent a leave at Cairo – visited the Museum and helped pack exhibits into tea chest for evacuation during the war. These were then taken by army transport to Sakkara and placed in the enormous Tombs of the Sacred Bulls until after the war. I was fascinated by Tutankhamen’s slippers and spare clothes. He had rolls of spare cloth (it seemed in excellent condition) and most of the old furniture out of his tomb. Sadly some of the gold extremities were mixed up. Fingers, toes and penises etc. on the mummies were sheeted in gold. There was a tea chest half full of extremities, rings, ear rings etc.; I can’t imagine how they would sort them out!
In late November we moved South to the desert by the Pyramids. Bill and I had taught ourselves navigation and our new roles would be as navigators to the advanced and near Divisional Headquarters. Meanwhile Wavell’s 7th Armoured Division had cut the Italian lines of communication and most, of their army under Martial Gratazani and surrendered.
Thousands of prisoners were flooding East into Egypt.
Our Div [Divisional] HQ [Headquarters] stayed in the desert and our General went to Cairo for a further meeting with Sir Anthony Eden. The 7th Armed Division were withdrawn and returned to England. I joined the long range desert patrol for navigation experience and visited their base at Jairabub from where Colonel Combes had set off. Apparently German forces now threatened to take Yugoslavia, pass through Greece and Turkey to attack India.
All our spare armoured brigades were immediately directed to Greece together with 3rd Cheshire Field Squadron.
This left our Division without tanks, guns or sappers. We were given Indian Infantry Brigades, Field Hospitals and odds and sods.
At Moascar Doug Peel had contracted a bad dose of impetigo – when I last saw him he looked dreadful – scars and scabs all over his body. He went into hospital.
Turkey was neutral in the last war but by agreement the British Government were to send “civilians” to Turkey to construct airfields in case of emergency. We could then move in if necessary before Germany.
Doug made a good recovery in hospital but to his surprise he was not returned to the 3rd Cheshire Field Squadron, but was discharged in Suez and as a civilian joined this special force for Turkey.
He spent most of the war there – this is another interesting story!
General Tilly went up into Libya to our advanced forces – his car was hit in an air attack but although he was not injured he developed jaundice and died on the way back to Egypt. I never saw Tristran, his batman, again.
Our G1 [General Staff Officer Grade 1] (George Young-husband) was now in command. In journey 41 we moved up into the desert and on to Cyrenaica. Bill was with Advanced Div. [Division] HQ [Headquarters], I was with rear HQ [Headquarters]. Our new General joined us from England. Major General Gambier Parry – had been the King’s ADC [Aide de Camp] in London. It was winter and the weather was bitterly cold
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at night but hot by day. One night I slept in an Italian dug out and became covered in lice!
The 2nd Armoured Division now had completely taken over from the 7th Armoured Division. Our only armour was old tanks and transport from the 7th Armoured Division which could not make the 1,200 miles back into Egypt. Five A13 tanks, some gun carriages and field guns.
The RAF [Royal Air Force] had about two Hurricanes, no bombers but we had an old Handley Page bi-plane attached to one of the two field hospitals.
Our basic equipment was hopeless. There was no proper water supply, 4 gal [Gallon] petrol cans were to be reused for drinking water. Even when boiled we risked lead poisoning.
German Hienkel bombers began to take an interest in us. We had moved much further West, through “Marble Arch” beyond the salt marshes towards Tripoli.
Enemy aircraft now attacked with machine guns and light bombs. The General’s car was hit, but no one was injured. He was very shaky, Generals Neame and O’Connors joined us at the HQ [Headquarters]. There were constant disagreements about what to do. Frustrated because of our isolation and now enormously long lines of communication back to Egypt, we dug ourselves in.
‘Rosie’ Lloyd’s brightly coloured latrine tent was torn to pieces in an air attack so was my lilo inflatable. We both felt very cross at the time.
Nearly all water points had been contaminated by bodies. A 20 mile strip of salt marshes between the desert and the sea restricted vehicle movement. Dozens of vehicles had sunk in these marshes. Old Major Hullah, our padre, kept pestering me for a map. He could not read a map – nor could his driver. I gave him a street map of Alexandria.
The following week he came back to ask for another. He had been around his parish and held a service with the “Free French”. There were no Free French within 1000 miles. These boys, he said, were wearing a grey uniform, and had given him lunch after the service, taken his map and sent him on his way.
They were, in fact, the advanced units of the German forces waiting for their tanks and field guns. Their tank commanders were being flown over our lines to become acquainted with the country.
We had now started to pull back. The last unit was the rear Divisional HQ [Headquarters]. For the next few weeks. We were only a few miles ahead of the German advance forces.
We zigzagged across the desert to lead the Germans away from our stronghold at Tobruk. Had the Germans ignored us and gone straight for Egypt, there was nothing to stop them. As it was they kept, chasing us across North Africa, up mountains and back into the desert.
The German Commander was Von Streitcher, his son was his ADC [Aide de Camp].
On these occasions his ADC [Aide de Camp] drove into our HQ [Headquarters] to ask us to surrender. Our General was very rude. The young Streitcher recognised old Major Hullah and thanked him for the church services! We were on the move day and night. In Barchi, as I was threading my way through the rubble and burning buildings and vehicles I spotted an overturned supply truck (RASC) [Royal Army Service Corps], I stopped for “supplies” there were several other lads there taking cases of tinned peaches and sacks of sugar when I noticed their vehicle. Just visible by the light of the flames was an eight wheeled German armoured car. I quietly slipped away.
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Finally we passed back into the desert to Fort Mekili. On the way we were cut off by a mobile patrol. We had stopped on the top of a hill to erect a radio mast wired to receive instructions from Cairo. My car was about 500 yards down the hill — I had gone up to get instructions and a mug of tea. It was about midday. Reggie, the ADC [Aide de Camp], and I were enjoying a drink when a mobile machine gun opened up. Bullets flew everywhere. One hit my mug, one Reggie’s cap, I thought the hot tea on my face was blood and meant I’d been hit – fortunately there was no damage. The wireless truck was riddled but again no one was hit.
There were shell holes everywhere and we all took cover. Reggie was very upset because he had dropped his orange. Eventually I wriggled like a snake down the slope to my truck which was between me and the German machine gun carrier. I reached it safely – fortunately it started first time and I sped off up the hill and over the ridge to safety.
There was an Indian Infantry Brigade at Fort. Mekili and we were told to go there. On the way everything went, wrong. The Indians thought we were attacking them and opened fire. The RAF [Royal Air Force] made their first appearance to give us cover, but mistook us for the enemy and bombed us. The Germans, too, made a hash of things. We had stopped a mile from the Fort. Their advance units split and ran up both sides of us, then opened fire with us sandwiched in the middle. Their losses must have been greater than our own. The General or his ADC [Aide de Camp] asked for a clean hankie and got Reggie to wave it in surrender. The silence was broken by the crackling of burning vehicles. There was dust and smoke everywhere. It was 8th April 1941. I sat on my truck roof and to my surprise there was Bill in a truck a few yards away. We had not met for over two months.
Everyone was dazed – Germans, British, Indians. My Ford truck was carrying a vast amount of Egyptian money – about £2m plus all the classified documents. Bill and I piled the money into a convenient slit trench and covered it with sand and stones. I then smashed my rifle, put a packet of sugar into the petrol tank, smashed the distributor and collected some maps. Major Fordum Flower came over (he was the CO [Commanding Officer] of the Div [Divisional] HQ [Headquarters]) with G3 [General Staff Officer Grade 3] (Geoffrey Haydey Roberts) and his younger brother. They asked for maps and set off to organise a burial party.
On the retreat I had picked up a young soldier whose truck had broken down – he rode on my running board but tragically had been hit in his bottom. All I could do was to make him comfortable. By the time the MO [Medical Officer] had arrived he was dead. He had been married on his embarkation leave. We took him to the pile of bodies for burning. I had been instructed to stay with the General.
Fordum Flower was still there with G3 [General Staff Officer Grade 3] and his younger brother – I suggested that they should lie with the bodies and make a run for it after dark. It worked and they got back to Tobruk. I met them both after the war. Geoffrey Haydey Roberts became comptroten of Buckingham Palace, Fordum Flower Chairman of the Stratford on Avon Theatre – he was a brewer.
In the meantime Bill and I got into conversation with a young German NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] – who turned out to be an architectural student. We spent a happy hour chatting by his truck which was similar to mine (Ford V8 but his had been supplied by Garwoods Motors of Toronto). Meanwhile the British Generals were being interrogated.
There were five officers over the rank of Brigadier – General.
General Sir Philip Neame VC [Victoria Cross] (Chief Engineer)
Major – General Gambier Parry
Lieutenant – General O’Connor (Tank Commander)
2 others – Indian Commanders.
O’Connor was so shaken that he took off his red tabs and stayed with the troops.
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We were almost out of water. Eventually we were rounded up, piled into any trucks which were still mobile and made for the coast at Benghazi. Everyone was physically and mentally exhausted.
Three months earlier when we had driven through Benghazi all the houses had been flying Union Jacks. Now they all had German flags. The journey took several days. We stopped overnight by an old airfield. Bill and I with a young pilot decided to make a run for one of the Italian aircraft. We got away from our group of prisoners and hid behind a low wall by a ruined building. The aircraft was the other side about 100 yards away. After a rest we leapt over the wall and landed on a group of Germans who were brewing up. We were returned to the other POWs.
We next went by road to Tripoli and from there by train, Westwards, to a POW camp at Sabratha. Because we had been captured on Italian soil we were to become Italian POWs and were handed over into their care. There was much sickness — water and sanitary facilities were almost non-existent. We young ones were fittest; I was 20 at that time.
General O’Connor was quite poorly and decided to disclose his identity but no one believed him. He took two or three days to convince the Italian Commandant that he was a General and not a private. He was our best tank commander but, alas, had no tanks. From the Sabratha camp we could see the Roman columns of ancient Sabratha – it was many years later that my wish to visit the site came true. We drove there as a family – Olive Paul, Tim and I.
In the confusion we had all become separated. One day several hundred of us were sent in railway trucks into Tripoli.
The harbour was littered with wrecks – most buildings had been destroyed but about 500 yards off the quay stood an old cargo boat – it was to take us to Europe.
We were lined up to be taken by barge to the ship. It was noon. Out to sea we heard a bomber – a lone twin engined plane came into sight about 2,000 feet above the sea. It dropped one bomb right down the funnel of the ship which was immediately engulfed in smoke and steam and sank within minutes. There was confusion everywhere. We cheered.
The cattle trucks were reloaded and most of the prisoners set off back to Sabratha but 20 of us were left behind. Four of us, the youngest and fittest – looking were put back on the barge with some German soldiers and towed out to another ship in the harbour. It was a Polish ship with a cargo of bombs. Our job was to unload it.
The bombs were lowered onto the barge – it was in fact a flat topped lighter with no sides. There we had to lay the bombs flat with timber wedges to prevent them from rolling.
The barge was listing and there was quite a swell. When the barge rolled to port I quietly managed to loosen one of the wedges on the opposite side – nearest the ship. As the barge rolled again a whole row of bombs rolled against, the ship and one by one fell into the water.
The Germans went mad, cocked their guns and lined us up against the ship. The crew had lined the rails, yelled at the Germans and I’m certain saved our lives. I was petrified. The barge returned to the quay and we helped to unload it. It was now getting dark – I was singled out as a Sapper and taken to a bombed building where a group of German bomb disposal Sappers were cautiously removing rubble. I was put to work to help. There was a stone floor out of which was sticking the battered fins of one of our unexploded bombs. Whistles blew and
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everyone was moved away – except the German Sapper, an officer and myself. He crawled to the bomb – I was made to follow and handcuffed to his ankle. The object was to ensure that when he reached the fuse and commenced to remove it I would understand how it should be done safely. It was about a 500lb [Pound] bomb and must have been there some time. Fortunately he did the job perfectly and we were untied and given mugs of tea. We were so relieved that we hugged each other before parting.
I can’t remember returning to Sabratha – I think I passed out. No food for two days and I was beginning to feel very weak. After two dreadful weeks in Sabratha we again were taken to the docks, but this time we were loaded into the hold of a small cargo boat and sailed out into the Mediterranean. There was hardly room for everyone to lie down. After two days the air was dreadful — we had not been given food or water and of course there were no public toilets. Most prisoners were really ill. Some died. On the third night some of us were allowed out on deck – one was a sailor who believed we were off Crete. We were each given water and a ships biscuit and those of us who were still mobile ‘were allowed out each night.
We eventually docked in Naples – by then we were filthy. Those who could still walk were lined up on the quay and we made our own way to the Army Barracks. It seemed scorching hot. We were loaded onto more army trucks and set off for the mountains. Late in the afternoon we arrived in a mountain town called Capua. It was raining. Capua is where Hannibal set up camp in his campaign against Rome. The prisoners there were mostly Australian. We were deloused, hair cut off, given food and a blanket. We were exhausted – I slept until dawn. To my surprise by midday I had found several members of Divisional HQ [Headquarters] including Bill. They had had similar experiences. A week later we all felt fitter.
As yet we had not been properly sorted out but we tended to group ourselves. Eventually the British went by train up to the Abruzzi mountains and the town of Sulmona. It was a long walk from the station to Camp FG78. We arrived late in the afternoon and all the British went to No.3 compound. The residents watched us arrive with interest. Parachutists and submarine crew with odds and sods who had preceded us. Bill and I were put into Hut 60. There were several compounds in the camp.
Senior British Officers
OR’s [Other Ranks]
Sulmona is surrounded by mountains. Adjacent to our Camp was a state penitentiary (equivalent to our Dartmoor). In Italy a man may be sentenced to 400 Years, appeal and have 150 remitted. Most men in the penitentiary were lifers.
Sulmona was to be our home for the next two years. Fortunately it is in a beautiful valley – we were on the lower slopes of the Marrone mountains — the valley floor is at about 2,000 feet and the peaks reach 8/9,000 feet. At the head of the valley to the north stands the Grand Sasso – it tops 10,000 feet and is the highest mountain in Europe south of the Alps.
Our camp was actually in the Garden of Ovid’s House (he was a poet who was banished by Augustus in 23AD). He wrote the Art of Love and his villa was called Fonts d’ Amore – his fountain was our water supply.
Much happened in those next two years at Sulmona – it was like a university. Those of us with fertile minds found the days too short. We started a newspaper called “The Mountain Echo”, Bill was the Editor and one copy was hand – printed every week – Bill’s printing was superb. I did illustrations and drew a cartoon
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strip. We had a hut reserved as a theatre and put on shows. The problem was to select plays for all – male cast so the obvious first choice was “Journey’s End”. Next we did farces. The second was “The Third Watch” in which females were not taken seriously. As more prisoners arrived in the camp so did more talent. With the arrival of Autumn so cricket merged with football until the first fall of snow. Early in December, 1941 I had my 21st Birthday and somehow managed to have a party. News of the war was bad – made even worse by the propaganda machine.
We young ones were far more resilient than the middle – aged or family prisoners. Husbands pining for wives and children – particularly when mail was bad or worse, when there was no mail at all. Again we younger ones were very fit and basic sickness never seemed a problem. We were, however, very conscious of wounded older men on the threshold of despair. Occasionally one would die. As more prisoners arrived so we became very crowded. Our simple beds were soon replaced by bunk beds and rations tended to be for two rather than for one. This began to create problems. For instance there would be one small bread roll for two every day. “Partners” had to share and rows were frequent.
Bill, my partner, and I had a fool – proof system which others eventually followed. The one who divided the roll or scup would select the smaller portions for himself. In this way we avoided arguments over food. The same applied with Red Cross Food parcels when they were distributed.
For some the nights seemed endless but again we involved a game at our end of the hut 60 where a mental arithmetic problem was circulated at dusk. Each would work out the answer for checking at dawn. An example would be “cube 738”. As time went on they became more difficult. There was little time to brood.
Life was unpleasant at times – shortage of water during the summer. The latrines were primitive and barriers tended to form between intellectual groups. Personal possessions were almost none existent – excepting in the officers compounds. The only time I really got angry was when the Income Tax returns arrived. These were the only link between our government and its men. This was my experience at that particular time. Morale seemed to be at its lowest when we lost HMS [His Majesty’s Ship] Hood, but we were surprised to receive a visit from the American Ambassador in Rome (the US was still neutral). He was carefully separated from us but he did manage to let us know he would not be seeing us again in this capacity. Shortly afterwards the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. We were all relieved when the US decided to exclusively assist our war effort – it helped to compensate the loss of Europe, Singapore and at that time, North Africa.
We decided to organise an Art Exhibition in Compound 3 and the Yugoslavs compound. About this time one group were digging a tunnel and I managed to acquire some damp gravel. It is a natural subsoil in the mountains and when exposed to air it hardens. Romans used it for concrete. My exhibit was to be a bust of Shakespearian. It was a complete failure. The materials contained too many small pebbles and in addition it hardened too quickly. Shakespearian beard and hair fell off and by the time he had been patched up he looked like Churchill so I renamed him Winston.
Unfortunately he had just been finished and was baking in the hot sun in our compound when there was an emergency muster, We all had to line up and be counted. The Italian officer in charge was most interested in my sculpture and I was produced to give an explanation. I could not say it was Churchill but in a flash I renamed him “Il Le Duce” – Mussolini. The officer was delighted and the bust was taken to the Commandant’ s house and from there to Rome where an article in “Il Popolo d’ Italia” proclaimed it’s a work of art by a British POW.
For sometime I had been “doing” portraits, usually from torn photographs, of POWs girlfriends, wives or children. It was fun, kept me busy and acted as a cover for my official occupation drawing maps for our escape panel.
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The Italian Captain who had discovered “Winston” commissioned me to make a portrait of himself – this meant me sketching him in one of the Commandant’s offices. It was mid – afternoon on a hot summer day, the Captain felt drowsy, took off his belt and revolver and placed them on the table. Soon he was fast asleep. It would have been stupid for me to take advantage of the situation so I quickly continued with my work. Suddenly a German staff car pulled up outside. Two German Officers and an SS [Schutzstaffel] officer jumped out and hurried to our door. In a flash I had shaken the Captain awake, buttoned his jacket, put on his belt and revolver when the door burst open and in came the three German Officers. I was sent outside but managed to snatch the Germans atlas out of their car – happily unnoticed – I hid it with the portrait and colours. A guard was called, I was returned to our compound, but I had saved the Captain from being posted to the Russian front. He was most grateful. The German visit was to enlist Italians, both civilian and army, for the Russian Campaign. I subsequently completed the portrait, made many more and became a frequent guest in the Commandant’s office.
At Christmas time I was taken down to the office under some pretext or other which I’ve forgotten, where the Captain gave me two bottles of champagne to be smuggled to the Senior British Officers so that they may drink a toast to our king.
There were many sad occasions particularly in the Yugoslavian compound where differences of opinion led to bloodshed. There were also failed attempts to escape – occasionally a death but much suffering due to an almost complete lack of medicine.
There were terrible frustrations too, lack of information, of letters, of Red Cross parcels, water and of course a mere substance diet. Occasionally we turned punishment into a game. For instance when the Allied forces made a landing at Dieppe our commandos took some prisoners back to England in handcuffs. The Italian High Command immediately issued orders for all POWs to be handcuffed. Alas they did not have sufficient. Examples had to be made so two POWs would be handcuffed together. The difficulties then occurred at night – going to the loo, sleeping and changing clothes. However a Private Horwood was an expert watchmaker — we called him “Hairspring”. By morning he had freed us all. We were to have replaced them for the morning muster in the compound but as always the comedians took over. Some appeared with the wrist of one POW handcuffed to the ankle of his mate. Groups chained themselves together others ankle — to – ankle like a three legged race. Those who had no handcuffs complained and demanded to be treated like the rest. After 48 hours the handcuffs were all taken back.
On another occasion we were all given small red patches of cloth to wear to show that we were prisoners. They ‘were about six inches square – fortunately it was in the summer. Again the comedians took over. Because there were no instructions about where these patches were to be worn – or that we should also wear clothes, most of us made them into jock straps and we all paraded in the nude. One chap, who was well endowed asked for a larger patch! One “queen” asked for two more to make a bra.
Bill and I had become excellent forgers. We had been recruited as a part of the British escape organisation. Anyone wishing to escape must first obtain permission from the Senior British Officer, give details of the plot and, if it were accepted, he would then be given whatever help was available. Clothes, money railway tickets etc.: The clothes were easy – the Camp Theatre staff could provide most things – even women’s clothes. Bill and I did the maps but we also did railway tickets and official documents. The German atlas was most useful. We would be loaned documents to copy, but with new names etc. We frequently worked all night by oil lamp because the originals had to be returned as soon as possible. From old railway tickets which would be collected from rubbish etc.; we could select similar paper, or card, someone (I don’t know who) would give
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the current colour serial numbers and we would produce the necessary documents. As far as l knew none of these forgeries were ever detected. We even had train timetables.
One almost successful escape ended in tragedy, A young Private spoke fluent Italian. His father was a regular British soldier in Egypt, his mother Italian. He was a good — looking lad and his plan was to escape as a girl, take a train from Sulmona to Pescara. Change for Bologna, change again for Milan, change again for the Swiss border and Geneva. All went brilliantly well — he made all the connections but just outside Milan the train filled with troops making for the border and guard duty. In a tunnel, in darkness some Italian lads made advances and soon discovered he was not a girl! Apparently he had been very badly beaten and died shortly after — a lesser consequence was that he had not been reported missing.
About the same time a young Lieutenant got through to Switzerland dressed as an Italian soldier – he too spoke fluent Italian and like young Garner he too had not been reported missing. However like a fool he let it be known that he was an escaped POW from Sulmona and security from then on was really tightened up. Our Commandant at Sulmona was replaced. One other Navy POW got away to the Vatican but, apart from our later escape, we were kept under strict security. The Senior British Officers were moved and the Yugoslavs, Free French and Greeks went, too.
Most of us had made a strenuous effort to keep fit. This was not easy because of overcrowding. We managed press-ups, running on the spot, and what we called “Swedish Drill”. Unarmed combat was taught by the ex—Army heavyweight boxing champion — Norman. His partner was an Anglo — Indian boy called Frankie Hunt. Frankie was selected to play the roll of Elvira in our camp production of “Blithe Spirit” by Noel Coward. We had received the original script and some very “heavy” books on the French Revolution from HM [Her Majesty] the Queen. They came via the Red Cross. I was Elvira’s understudy but Frankie played the part beautifully. Soon the Theatre Group was rehearsing and our Company used the privileges as a cover for our escape plan. Bill and I did all the stage sets too.
At the same time we had renamed the “Camp Blightyborough”, and had formed a parliament I was elected Speaker. All sorts of plans for escape had been considered. Bill and I had been in the Camp for two years and the prospect for repatriation was about nil. Our main aim was to get home and back to the University. Some of our amputees had already been repatriated.
We had managed to get a coded message home which located our slit – trench outside Fort Mekili which was full of money, some films etc. During one of the Allied advances out of Tobruk these bad been recovered.
The war was now going in our favour and the opportunity to slip out and get away had never been better. Many had applied to the Senior British Officers for permission to escape but we were all ordered to stay put. Failure to do so would mean a Court Martial!
This was sufficient for some of us to determine to have a go! The current production of Blithe Spirit has been an enormous success. It created an illusion of stability and the privileges enabled us to prepare in earnest. Security was relaxed to the extent that we were allowed out of the compound up to the inner ring of fencing. Beyond were further rings, search lights and guard towers – but it enabled us to locate the weak spots and the surrounding cover. We made our plans.
It was late summer and we decided to go during full moon in three days’ time. Maps, rations and suitable clothes were carefully, and very secretly, at the ready. Our guards up till now had been Italian and over the months we had
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learned to respect each other. They of course were under the direction of the Carabinieri. About noon there was a great commotion – the sound of vehicles creeping up the valley got nearer and the cloud of dust indicated they were a little more than more than 100 yards from the camp.
Bill and I were actually outside the compound when the Italian guards began to panic. Apparently the Germans were coming to take over. In fact they were mostly Poles but it indicated that security would be tightened up immediately, there was no time to go back for our “kit” — we always carried our maps and “water—bottle” with us for such an emergency.
This was it. In a flash we were over the first fence — and between the first and second fence where the guards patrolled. We darted up to the second fence and were sandwiched between the old Italian Guards and, by now, the new replacements who were running up the hill about 50 yards away.
As we got over the second fence both sets of guards opened fire. They missed us and we escaped but from the shouting and screaming it was obvious that there had been casualties amongst both the Italians and Germans. The firing stopped.
In the confusion and heat Bill and I were away up into the woods heading for the Morrone Mountains. If we had not been fit, with enormous reserves of energy, I doubt whether we should have reached the cover of trees and undergrowth. As it was we were safely through the wood and heading for a tree lined gulley. At about 2,000 feet above the camp we looked back. We were exhausted but free!
The next phase would be across a rock face but danger of detection was not worth risking. We were on the West face of the Marrone range and would be in bright sunlight until sunset. The opposite side of the valley, beyond Sulmona, was already in shade. We rested under the ferns shaded from the sun. At times like this we agreed that as one rested the other would remain alert.
Towards evening we moved onto the rock face and made our way up to the grassy slopes along the top. There were some sheep there so we assumed that there would also be a shepherd too. We also noted a further ridge of peaks in the moonlight. The going was difficult and our progress was slow. Next morning the search parties would be out so the greater the distance between the camp and ourselves the better. Our original plan was to make for Switzerland. Our maps were for the North but although we were heading East, we were still on the maps. As dawn broke we had crossed the second line of ridges and were heading across a grassy slope towards the third ridge. We were well above the tree line – at about 5,000 feet. The tinkle of sheep bells drew our attention towards the flock with three human figures. Cautiously we made our way towards them.
One was an old shepherd, one a young priest and the third an Italian youth from Rome. They seemed to know we were escaped prisoners and seemed relieved to meet us. They had a strange tale to tell. The youth was a Carabinieri sergeant under sentence of death and the priest, Geraldus, had been sent to administer absolution. However he was armed and the two of them had got away to the mountains and were heading towards a remote village called Salle. The shepherd was helping them across the mountains – we were invited to join them. The priest in this remote village was a friend of Geraldus and we could hide up there. The old shepherd took us to a spring where he filled our water bottles before hiding for the rest of the day – there was no cover so it was essential that we should move only at night.
The spring was still visible below us. To our horror several figures appeared below and made for the spring; a German patrol. They were hot, tired and like us rather scared. We were light, they had steel helmets, rifles, kit bags and ammunition. They also had food! The shepherd was still with his sheep on this
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high grassy plateau. One of the soldiers spoke to him but he did not give us away between sunset and the rising moon we silently crept towards the summit. Going up is always easier than descending but with the aid of the moon we made better progress. Our plan was to reach the tree line before dawn. Also our descent into the next valley would take us several days. We continued to move only at night but as Geraldus predicted there would be no soldiers on this side. The village to which we were heading was called Salle. It was now visible on an outcrop of rock 2,000 feet below us. Geraldus left us in the morning to make his way down. In the late afternoon he returned with a Woodsman with some bread and cheese. It was a banquet.
In this part of Italy there is no coal so the beech forests are harvested for distillation into carbon. During the summer men and boys from the valley work in the forest producing carbon and on the lower slopes caring for the sheep. During winter the mountains are in deep snow so the men and boys drive the sheep south from the mountains to graze in the pastures around the plains of Foggia. The women and children remain in the villages to look after the lower fields, vine yards and live stock. This had been the pattern for generations.
Our woodsman’s title was La Guardia and he was in charge of the forests. He lived in Salle, knew the priest Don Oliverio and was to prove to be a loyal and generous friend. Next day we were led into the upper part of the forest to a hut in which the carbon workers had lived during the summer. It was now empty but offered tine luxury of a roof. Don Oliverio visited us next day with Ermenia de Monte. They were loaded with supplies – bread, cheese, grapes, soup, and wine. Ermenia was a tower of strength – she lived in Salle and had enormous energy. They had travelled over five hours from Salle up steep paths through the forest. They also had news. The Allies were to land at the top of Italy so if we stayed put, we should soon be behind our lines – our plan to head North to Switzerland was then abandoned.
Geraldus and the Carabinieri had moved on to another village where the boy would be safe. We never saw them again. One day La Guardia brought in three other escaped prisoners from our camp – two soldiers Geoff and Dai Jones and a young British officer, Ken. By a wild coincidence we all came from the Wirral. We were assured that there were no Germans in this valley — or in this part of it, so we moved lower down to the fields above the village of Salle. There we helped with the harvest. Salle consisted of two villages. The old village had been completely destroyed during an earth quake and the Government had built a completely new village, two miles lower down the slope. This village had water, electric and modem sewage systems. It had been completed by about four years before the war. It was a model small industrial village whose main business was making violin strings from sheep gut. The gut was dried, cleaned, twisted and stretched to produce a range of thicknesses. It was a smelly place.
One day there was a panic. The village was to be occupied by a German patrol — we retreated back up into the mountain. The German Commander instructed the Mayor to provide “girl” escorts for his troops. Immediately all the local girls were sent by their parents to join us in the mountains. About 20 arrived one night with La Guardia – and placed in our care. The problem was to keep them quiet – sound carries a long way in the mountains and this was their first experience of mixing with Foreign soldiers. Their stay with us was only to be temporary whilst their families made arrangements for them to to billeted with relatives in other unoccupied remote villages. Within three days we were alone again – however the Germans had been alerted that we were in the region.
It was now late Autumn. One day La Guardia came up with three more soldiers – two NCO’s [Non Commissioned Officer] and an Irish Captain. He was a doctor. They were heading South. The Allied Landings in the North had not taken place – they were now expected to land in the South. The weather was turning cooler and the sheep were being gathered
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in the valleys before their long journey south to the plains of Foggia. The head shepherd in the valley was a tough old man called Bartolomeo. The last of the harvest had to be gathered in and we all helped in the top fields just below the tree line. Bill and Ken were hidden in the town having medical treatment. The priest’s mother was the nurse. The rest of us remained with the harvest.
At midday we stopped for our usual meal of pasta when quite unexpectedly three men appeared. One was obviously an Italian peasant, but the other two were sportsmen out on a shoot. They had sporting guns and were quite out of place in “our” valley. No local men would have the equipment which these two had. We welcomed them all and invited them to share our meal. In the normal course of events an Italian peasant would not presume to be their equals. The two sportsmen were, to me, obviously German Officers having a days relaxation with their guns. The Italian peasant knew we were not Italians by our accent, but I doubt if the huntsmen were sure. They were however suspicious. The Irish Doctor could not resist examining their guns – he handled them expertly. The Germans were alarmed and offered to leave three game birds in repayment for the pasta, grapes and wine. One of them asked the doctor where he shot and the fool told them! They exchanged shooting experience and promised to meet him in Ireland after the war.
The cat was out of the bag. They prepared to leave, thanked us and made their way back down the hill. Before they were out of sight I had collected my belongings, bid the others a farewell and keeping well out of sight, followed the shooting party towards Salle. The doctor was quite oblivious that he had given the whole game away by telling them he had a shoot in Donegal. Geoff and Dai packed but made their way back up to the mountains to hide. I hid in the ruins of Old Salle and waited. Within half an hour a German armed patrol left Salle heading for the mountains. There was an interval of about an hour – about the time to reach our fields, when the sound of gun fire closed this episode. I don’t know what happened but the three who had decided to stay put were never in contact with us again. I made my way into the new village to stay as near to the German’s base as possible because they would now be out combing the mountains looking for the rest of us. It was dark but I knew of a semi basement which was used as a farm store — it contained hay, was reasonably dry and clean. I fell asleep but was awakened at dawn when the door creaked open and a small girl came in looking for eggs. Hens also shared this room with me. Soon she would find me under the hay so I decided to make the first move and hoped that she would not be too scared. Very quietly I whistled a tune from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. She stopped and listened, then I said “hello!” and asked her name. She told me and I asked if she could whistle too — she, shyly, joined me in a duet! She knew I was an escaped prisoner hiding from the Germans but others in the village knew also of us and accepted us as friends – but they never knew where we stayed.
The Germans had by now an accurate description of me because I had been the spokesman over lunch. My Italian was far from being polished – my accent must have been terrible because of the way I learned to speak. This must, have temporarily fooled them. Back in the POW camp many of the Guards could not read or write – I could read but did not know exactly what I was saving. The guards would hand us letters and newspapers to read, this we managed to do but they corrected our accents. By comparison my Italian must have sounded like someone from the back streets of Naples – or Birmingham. I asked the little girl to take my clothes to Don Oliviero and asked him for replacements. She agreed. I stripped off and returned below the hay. She left with her eggs and my clothes over her arm. In order to make the exercise into a sort of game. I drew a series of cartoons:-
One showing her and me dressed;
One showing her, but me undressed – she had my clothes;
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One showing her with Don Oliviero – giving him my clothes;
One showing him giving her new clothes;
One showing her returning to me; and
Finally one with her and me, in my new clothes.
Don Oliviero kept this drawing and years later after the war when we returned to make a BBC programme he produced this old scrap of paper from the church records. I had hoped that my new clothes would come “by return”, but alas, two days passed without a visit from the little girl. All this time the Germans must have been scouring the mountains for me. At last one morning I heard the door creak open and the little girl came in – I sat up to welcome her but to my horror she did not have my new clothes. At first she pretended not to understand me but eventually burst out laughing and ran outside. She then returned with “things” for me to wear so I dressed as quickly as possible. The little girl had done her job perfectly – although it had taken some time. I was desperately hungry – it was darkish and getting cold. The good news was that the Germans had left the village, so I cautiously made my way up to the Church. Bill and Ken had been hidden there the whole time and were now almost recovered. Both had had a series of boils which were leaking and very painful. I was very fit.
The main businessman of Salle had a friend who was the Mayor of Pescara – a large town on the Adriatic Coast. His brother was the Mayor of New York. For some reason or other the Mayor of Pescara wanted to meet us. We were washed and shaved and taken to a large house in the Village Square. It was sheer luxury being clean and in civilised surroundings, I had expected the Mayor to sneak in the back — as we had done, but no, he arrived with a police escort. His car was a Buick Limousine which must have been a very conspicuous vehicle in a remote mountain village. Apparently, so we were told, a submarine was to pick us up on the Adriatic Coast – Italy had surrendered and everyone was hoping for an Allied landing. People started to take risks – they certainly nailed their colours to our mast. The Allies missed a wonderful opportunity at that particular time to take Italy, but alas they allowed the Germans to occupy the whole country. After a lovely meal we parted and agreed to meet again. The Mayor’s convoy left for Pescara with it’s escort. By a strange chance Don Oliviero was later to become the Bishop of Pescara.
Years later when I was a student in New York the Mayor, La Guardia, had died and I attended his funeral in St John the Divine Cathedral. I did not meet his brother from Pescara – perhaps he did not survive the heavy fighting. Hundreds of thousands of New York Catholics had filed passed La Guardia’s brei as he lay in state. Normally his funeral would have been in St Patrick’s in down-town Manhattan, but it would have been too small.
The Mayor’s visit to Salle again alerted the Germans that prisoners or someone important were in the region. Bill and Ken retired to their hiding place and I to my hens in the hay rick. Next day, at 2pm, I was in a village house waiting for the BBC midday news. A play was just finishing — “The Monkey’s Paw”. I wanted to check details of landings etc.; and had my maps laid on the table. Yes, the Allies had landed in Sicily, but not yet on the mainland. At that moment the alarm went up. The Germans had returned to Salle in force!
If a POW was found in a house, it was immediately burned down and the owner shot. My thought was to protect my host – the wife of a Cavalry Officer. I grabbed my maps (now in the Imperial War Museum) and ran out into the street. At the same moment a truck load of troops turned into the same street about 100 yards away. In a panic I dropped the maps, stooped to pick them up and noticed they had fallen onto a manhole lid.
In a fraction of a second I had lifted the lid and climbed down. It is surprising how quickly one’s mind can react and adjust to situations. It was the
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main village sewer. The village was on a steep slope – the 18 inch oval sewer pipe entered the manhole at the top and fell down about ten feet to the outfall at the bottom. I knew that if I had gone up the “in” pipe head first I would drown. By going head first, with the sewage, down the outfall I had a chance – all this had only taken seconds. As I headed into the pipe the sewage crept up my trouser legs, over my shoulders but at least l could breathe. In fact I was actually floating down the pipe like a cork.
There was a tremendous explosion – I can only assume that they had dropped a grenade into the manhole to finish me off. As it happened it propelled me forward in the blackness. It was like being a bullet being fired from a gun. I must have passed out. I could still breath, just, and on I floated down. It was too tight for me to move – fortunately it had been raining and there was just enough water to float me on. In a dry sewer there would be no chance to move one way or the other. I remember reaching a reinforcing rod across the pipe and I had great difficulty squeezing past. To go back would have been impossible. Eventually I reached the next manhole and hung out of the pipe like a worm. The sound of water tumbling down to the bottom brought me back to my senses. My arms had been stretched out in front. Now they felt for the rungs which are built into the walls for access up and down.
Somehow I managed to hold on to prevent a fall to the bottom – I was still blown up like a saturated bag. My feet felt for the rungs and took the weight off my arms. I climbed up to the cover and with my head and shoulders gently lifted the lid off. It was then pitch black, and raining heavily. I must have been in the sewer for seven or eight hours. A man who was walking past looked in horror at me and fell on his knees in prayer — he must have thought I was the devil. He informed me that the Germans bad gone so I made my way to the house with the radio. The situation for these wonderful Italian women was now very difficult because the Germans were alerted to there being escaped prisoners in the area and in the village too!
Don Oliviero called so did Ermenia. I was cleaned up and fresh clothes were produced – these consisted of an old dinner suit and sweater. My boots were badly cut by the fragments of hand grenade and bits of sewer pipe but mercifully apart from flesh wounds no bones appeared to be damaged in my feet. The real worry to me were the numerous punctures in the flesh around my groin – the bleeding must have kept the infection in check. An old lady made a dressing of herbs and white of egg. She had been treating Ken and Bill with incredible success. They had managed to slip out of the village during the commotion by the manhole incident arid had been bricked up in a cavity in an old stone wall on the mountain track.
It was now impossible for any of us to stay in the new village so about midnight I set out in the pouring rain for the mountains. All our friends were in tears. The track to the mountains went through the old village which was about two miles away. Rain water was flooding down the track like a river. Above the noise of the rain and wind a sound of approaching footsteps got nearer and nearer. I hid at the side of the path when two figures appeared under a huge umbrella.
By an incredible stroke of fortune it was Bill and Ken. It was indeed a joyous meeting. We figured that the Germans would be out again at first light to scour the mountains so we decided to hide in the deep gorge below the new village of Salle. The rock face on either side of this gorge was vertical and the river would by now be a raging torrent. We could not get wetter so we made our way down to the gorge. We waded down the river to a small dry crevice in the rock and settled down for two days for the Germans to tire of looking for us.
On the second day the rain stopped and a warm sun soon dried our clothes. A girl from the village came down with some washing – we knew her to be trustworthy and
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disclosed our hiding place. Later in the afternoon Ermenia came with some pasta and wine. My feet and groin were very painful and I had difficulty walking. She told us that La Guardia knew of some hidden cellars in old Salle where we would be safe so at night we were led into the old ruins. It was a maze of narrow alleys between wrecked buildings but there were many cellars – we made ourselves familiar with the suitable escape routes in the event of being disturbed.
The following day we were stunned to see a German patrol moving up the mountain about 50 yards from our path. They had heavy machine guns and mortars. They did not return that day. About 4am the following day Ermenia crept into our cellar – the Germans were to search the old village and had posted sentries on the paths leading in and out. She was a real heroine. The usual way in which the Germans rounded up workers, or prisoners, was to post sentries at night on all paths and roads leading into the village, then someone in the centre of the village would fire off several bursts of a machine gun to waken everyone and create panic. All those who should not have been there would try to escape by running out of the village where they would be rounded up by the sentries. At dawn we could see them – fortunately there were only half a dozen but they had rifles, helmets and lots of equipment. They were far less mobile than we were and they were perhaps even more scared. There was the usual burst of machine gun fire but quietly we stayed put. The Germans then came in to do a search. For a whole day we played cat and mouse.
Towards evening they gave up and went back down the mountain. It was obviously too dangerous to remain near to either the old or new villages. So we made our way again up to the Carboni huts. We travelled separately at intervals. On the way we passed the German mountain patrol on their way down. They were worn out and looked completely fed up.
At about that time there must have been many groups of prisoners on the mountains, A group of Free French whom we met had arrived and had threatened to kill Germans wherever they found them. This upset Bill and I and we were delighted when they moved on towards the North.
We made our way to a remote hut in which we had sheltered some weeks earlier. To our horror there were two young German lads there with their throats cut. One was dead and the other was barely conscious. In the cold, his blood had congealed into a solid mass and this forced him to gasp for breath. Bill cleared his windpipe so that he could breathe more easily but it was too late. I sat with his head in my lap, our eyes met and his – and ours – filled with tears. At least he died with friends.
It was obviously far too dangerous for us to remain there – soon colleagues would be out to look for the missing lads – when they found them all hell would he let loose. We covered them with leaves and branches and soaked in human blood we made our way back into the forest. It was pouring with rain.
At day break to our delight we again met Geoff and Dai together with three other ex-POWs. They had planned to stay put in the mountain until our forces occupied the valley. La Guardia had also been providing them with food but there were now too many of us. A trip to the village and back would take at least ten hours. Ken, who was the only officer, felt he had to take charge of us and for two or three days we agreed to comply with his leadership. We fed off sheep.
We were then high up the mountain at the top of the tree line when the first snow fell. Our options were either to remain in the snow where our tracks could be easily followed or we could move down deeper into the forest – but nearer to the village. Bill caught another sheep which we killed and skinned for our last meal. We had learnt much from the shepherds. Bill, Geoff, Dai and I were prepared to eat raw fat and lard. The others wanted to cook over a fire. This
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was our signal to part. The smoke would give our position away but they would not listen.
We four then packed and made our way South. The others remained — or so we thought. We believed the road to the South at the top of the valley would be too heavily guarded so we decided first to move across the next mountain range to the East towards the Adriatic and then more South. This is the Miella range and the second highest south of the Alps. That night we crossed the river in the gorge below Salle and made our way up the other side towards the small town of Carramanico. We spent the day hidden in undergrowth, crossed the main road between military convoys which were moving both North and South.
By dawn we were high in the forest, on a path which led to Sana Spirito. This is an old 5th Century monastery where Fra Diavilo had lived (he was the Robin Hood of Italy). My feet by then were giving so much trouble that I could only hobble – they also were so swollen that I had to travel bare foot once we reached the snow line. The intense cold stopped the pain. When we finally reached the ruined monastery we found it occupied by the survivors of a Canadian Bomber. They were well – equipped and had travelled about 50 miles from where they had landed. They also had – up – to – date news from England. The Allies had decided to fight their way North up the leg of Italy. The Americans on the Rome side – they were then bogged down at Monte Casino, and the Brits up the Adriatic Coast.
I slept soundly in a cell overnight. Outside there was a blizzard raging. The Canadians kindly tried to dress up my wounds but the cold had reduced the swelling and the pain was much less too. Somehow or other they had a German doctor as a hostage and he removed the obvious bits of stone and metal which had worked its way to the surface. Again we four felt that there were too many of us so we moved off at dawn up the valley towards a saddle between two ridges. The going was difficult because the freshly fallen snow was soft and by then was over 2 feet deep.
By mid – afternoon in brilliant sunshine we reached the saddle. I had found it easier to crawl on my hands and knees. Suddenly Bill sounded the alarm – up on the West ridge about one mile away was a line of four skiers – obviously German and were already heading down our way. We later found out that they were from a German ski school on the Miella. We moved forward as quickly as possible and made for the steepest downhill slope. Below on the Southern slope lay the top trees of a pine forest. We lay on our tummies and “swam” towards the pine trees. Dai was leading. We must have been doing 8/10 miles per hour by the time we reached the trees – their lower branches were already buried in the snow and reached the snow covered ground. We slid into the trees head first and kept going when we heard screams and the cracking of branches and skis as the Germans hit the trees. They must have almost been on top of us. Then there was silence apart from the groans of their injured.
Three of us had stopped, but Dai had difficulty and headed beyond the trees towards a precipice. By a stroke of good luck he was able to grab a bush at the very edge. We formed a human chain and very carefully pulled him back. The drop was about 1,000 feet. It was now getting dark and we were about to dig sleeping holes in the snow when Geoff spotted a new track made by some animal – possibly a wolf or fox, which seemed to lead down. We followed it into a clearing where exhausted, we dug two holes. One for Bill and I and the other for Geoff and Dai.
It was bitterly cold but the snow must have provided some insulation. Our sleeping pattern was simple but effective. One would curl up on his side and go to sleep. The other would wrap himself around facing the same way but would keep awake. The main heat loss would be from his back – this would keep him awake and alert. When the cold became unbearable he would turn over curl up and go to
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sleep and the first chap would wrap himself around the sleeper and “thaw” his frozen back. Before dawn we were all awake and ready to move on down the mountain to the South.
About mid – morning there was the rattle of automatic weapons from above us in the mountains. We did not know it at the time but apparently Ken and the others had decided to follow us but had been caught by the ski patrol. Ken was the only survivor. When we met, years later, he told me of this tragedy. He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp.
Later that day we could hear the noise of battle ahead. We were nearing our lines! Geoff was near to exhaustion and he and Dai decided to move more slowly than Bill and I so we parted at about 5,000 feet. Dai’s book “Escape from Sulmona” covers his experience from then on.
Geoff decided to go down to the nearest town for medical help. He was retaken by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. He survived the war but died shortly after.
Dai decided to go North again and spent many more months on the run before he too was reached by our forces. Dai died sadly in 1988.
Bill and I decided to continue South at about 3,000 feet. All the time the sound of gun fire got nearer – or we got nearer to it. One day we saw three figures climbing out of the forest into the snow covered plateau where we were walking. They were two British Officers and an elderly doctor – I think he was a major.
They too were heading South but the lower slopes were swarming with Germans and they felt it to be too dangerous. It was now almost dark and Bill and I prepared our snow — hole. Our advice to the three new — comers was to do the same – but in one big hole. For some reason, perhaps modesty, they all settled in separate holes.
As usual the night was bitterly cold. Bill and I were awake as dawn was breaking and went to raise the others. Sadly the Doctor had frozen stiff during the night – it must have been a painless death. The two younger ones survived, just, but were suffering from frost bite. We managed to restore some circulation but both were in agony. Their only hope was to get to hospital as quickly as possible. The last we saw of them was stumbling back to the woods. I don’t know what happened to them. We covered the Major with snow, said a prayer, and set off on our way.
Lower down we heard some sheep and once more we enjoyed a meal of raw fat – it kept us going. Most of the sheep had ticks so the fleece was discarded as soon as possible. Below us in the valley we could see the River Sangro. It was obvious that the Allies were on the other side – we could see gun flashes from both sides. It was an ideal spot from which to watch a battle but we had to keep moving. We made our way below the snow line into the forest and dry land. I managed to fit the remains of my boots once more onto my feet. One of Bill’s boots had almost disintegrated. We could hear the roar of heavy traffic on the road below. Although we were always cautious for some reason or another that day there was a feeling of elation. We were still alive. The slope was grassy and the trees had thinned out considerably – we started to jog downhill.
Out of the scrub about 50 yards below us four young German lads were sitting down – we tried to stop, but only managed to slow down. The Germans turned saw us and fled down out of sight. It was only now that we realised how terrible we must have looked. We had three weeks’ growth, filthy clothes soaked in sheep’s blood and had sticks which might have looked like guns.
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Soon we found a safe hiding place until it was dark – from now on we would only move at night. We reached the road at dusk and remained hidden whilst a convoy of tanks made their way down the mountain road towards the front. On the opposite side of the road was a low stone wall – at a convenient gap in the traffic we darted across — vaulted over the wall and fell about 10 feet on to a ploughed field. It was a miracle that no limbs were broken.
The ground was a steeply sloping field but we did not realise at the time that the mountain road zig – zagged down the lower slopes with numerous hairpin bends. We must have crossed the same road four times before arriving on level ground in the valley. Soldiers on the trucks all seem to be singing a German version of “Roll out the Barrel”. Trudging across ploughed fields was exhausting. Our feet were constantly caked in mud and they felt like lead weights.
We tried to keep quiet but every dog from miles around seemed to be barking. Soon it would be dawn and we needed shelter during the day. Ahead was a hillside graveyard with convenient tombs. One had a broken slab and we were able to creep inside for a well — earned rest.
British artillery shells were now passing overhead so we assumed our lines would be about four miles away. At dusk we were on the move again but we were now too low to see the flashes so navigation was hit and miss. Bill tended to lead but about midnight I took over to give him a rest. It was pitch black and raining when we encountered barbed wire. Mine fields never crossed our minds.
Eventually whilst half way across a barbed wire fence we heard a frightened voice enquire “Karl?”. We had broken into a German Cookhouse and the guard or cook must have thought we were colleagues. We froze and very slowly and quietly retraced air steps to safety.
The next day was spent in a ditch but we did manage to see the road leading to the bridge. At night we made our way to the river bank but to our horror the bridge had been blown up. Hurriedly we retreated to seek shelter before daybreak.
In this part of Italy hay stacks are usually in light reed buildings with thatched roofs. They are quite comfortable. The farms around Salle consisted of no more than two rooms. One was for the parents and the babies, one for the daughters. The sons lived in the hay stacks. We came across a typical small farm with two or three small fields and the usual hay stack. Seen we were under the hay – it was the first time we had enjoyed warmth for ages. We made a small dug out for added protection. I slept all day.
At night we crept out and approached the farm. The old farmer and his wife were very friendly – he had worked as a labourer on the railways in America so we told him we were Americans. He was delighted and soon we were enjoying a large basin of potato soup, bread and wine. He had three large vats of Marsala — a rich red local wine. We all drank our fill.
We did not tell him where we were staying, for obvious reasons, but were invited back next night. During the day we could look out and see a platoon of Indians attacking a German outpost on our side of the river. The constant sound of gun — fire was deafening. That night we returned to the farm but had rather more wine than was prudent. We had also seen, during the day, a larger farm which was being used as a billet for the German soldiers. We quietly made our way there, inside we could hear German voices so we banged on the doors and windows and yelled for them to come out. They all went as quiet as mice, so we returned to our haystack feeling very smug, Our confidence was growing — the German lads seemed more apprehensive now that shells were constantly whistling overhead.
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The following morning Bill went to his usual position at the edge of the haystack to scan the countryside. He whispered for me to join him. Between the river and a small town on rising ground behind us were open fields (the town was Guandiagrele).There were one or two scattered farms and barns and all the trees were bare.
The Germans had rounded up dozens of women and. girls made them put on their brightest clothes and had placed them in the fields in full view of the Allied gunners. Our shelling stopped immediately. During this lull the Germans relocated their own field guns – a large field gun was brought down and hidden behind our haystack. We quietly retired below the hay.
The gun crew entered our rick to fill their mattresses with straw. Before they left one of them had a pee – sadly over Bill! Before dark they opened fire – the crack of the shot was incredible – we were just below the end of the barrel. That was bad enough but we were enveloped in hot cordite fumes which started my hay fever off. Fortunately the crew were wearing ear muffs.
After an hour – at dusk, they stopped and gun clearing commenced. Just before dark a small patrol set off down the hill towards the river. We kept them under observation from our haystack and were surprised that they hid themselves in a ditch about 50 yards away – just out of sight of their farmhouse HQ [Headquarters]. We became very worried about the use of civilians — particularly women and young girls, as a foil for our artillery. At dusk the Germans had rounded them all up and locked them in a large barn.
When it was completely dark we crept out and carefully made our way to this barn which was, by a stroke of luck, not guarded. In seconds we had pulled the bar off the door and spoke to some very frightened old women. We explained who we were and told them to leave immediately, make their way home or go into hiding before the battle. They obviously knew their way about but we did not wait for them to leave. On our way back to our hay stack we called in at the old man’s house, had some wine and were given a large bowl of pasta. We decided to eat in the hay stack and took our leave. This was to be the last time we saw the old man and his wife.
It was a quiet night. Just before dawn the German patrol returned from their own hiding place. Shortly after sunrise there was much shouting from the barn in which the women had been locked. The German patrol had arrived to place them once more in the fields and had discovered that the barn was empty. Our artillery then opened up a massive bombardment. The roar of continuous explosions and the screaming of shells seemed to make the ground quake. I don’t know how long this went on for – perhaps for eight hours or more. The problem for us was that we were in no man’s land and the roar of both sets of guns, theirs and ours, seemed double.
Then it happened:-
One minute we were huddled in a hole in the ground under a hay stack. There was an ear – splitting explosion and we found ourselves standing on the edge of a huge crater where the German field gun had once stood. The hay stack had completely disappeared. Three German lads were just visible through the cloud of cordite smoke. We were all dazed, coughing and choking. Bill was still holding a portion of our pasta bowl but by a miracle neither of us had received a scratch.
It was impossible to speak. There were rocks falling all around us. Shells were falling thick and fast so we quietly walked in a daze down the hill towards our own gun flashes. The bombardment quietened down later in the afternoon and it
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was obvious that there was now only an occasional shot from the German artillery – or what was left of it.
We walked across fields until we reached a road about a mile away. This we followed until it reached a gully. The old bridge had been blown up so we made our way through the rubble across to the other side. In a hole I spotted some timber boxes. Was it food? The lids were firmly secured and I was anxious to open one but Bill insisted we press on. Another miracle! The boxes were anti – tank mines of a new type which contained no metal so that they could not be identified by the usual magnetic mine detectors. If I had opened it that would have been the end.
Further on we came across a man crouched in the ditch with his trousers down. I can always remember because he was wearing a smart trilby hat. We asked “Where are the Americans?” and he pointed straight ahead. We were new walking through the edge of a field when a little girl appeared from behind the hedge leading a cow.
At that point we knew we were safe.
The Germans had for some months adopted a scorched – earth policy. All livestock was killed — even chickens, all wine kegs were destroyed and there was considerable looting. On the other hand when we received food, clothes or killed a sheep we always left, where ever possible, a chit with our name and the goods carefully noted.
The little girl was going home with the family cow which had obviously been carefully hidden from the Germans. In their one — room farmstead the family were slowly recovering from the days of hell during the fighting and bombardment. We sat down exhausted whilst one of the women went off to find an “American”. In about half an hour there was the roar of an engine, a rumble and squeaking — it stopped outside the door and two young men were brought in. They were New Zealanders in a Grant tank.
We had reached our lines after three months of wandering. I burst into tears of joy. These lads were an “observation platoon” attached to the New Zealand Artillery and had been directing the bombardment. They were North of the river and were also protecting the temporary bridgehead whilst their Sappers secured a more permanent one.
We sat on top of the tank on either side of the turret and to our surprise continued North away from our Lines. Soon we were able to point out German artillery positions – or where they had been before the bombardment. There was still the occasional shot, rattle of machine gun or the crack of a heavy gun. We looked in vain for the old man’s house. Nothing remained of it.
The tank then turned back to the river where we were transferred to a jeep (we had not seen one before) which took us over the new pontoon bridge to the Army HQ [Headquarters]. In a ruined school we were interrogated by an officer. Name, rank, number, unit, town, name of principal railway station etc. There were several other ex-POWs who had been picked up nearer the coast.
We bathed, shaved and had hair cuts – got clean dry clothes and food. There was a great deal of activity. Our troops were in the process of fighting their way North and we were obviously in their way. Three old men were brought in and they recognised Bill and I immediately but they all looked as we must have looked two hours previously. They were Generals Neame and O’Connor (we had been captured on the same day) and Air Marshal Boyd. He had been in Sulmona too and his pilot, little Billy, was a friend of ours. They had come down by fishing boat – they too had fallen for the “submarine trick”.
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Up to that time Bill and I had shared our army life with senior officers. These three brass hats were delighted to meet us again. We exchanged notes about the fate of other old friends and events generally.
The situation now changed – that part of our army lives would never be quite the same. They went off with other senior officers, and we were absorbed into the system and we resented it. We were expected to be on parade and to undertake tasks which had become foreign to us. However before we left General O’Connor introduced us to Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke who was at the front on a visit with a group of Russian Generals. They had come to witness the crossing of the Sangro and the bombardment. They were all surprised that we had walked through it without a scratch! Also present was General Montgomery and General Freidberg (the New Zealand Commander).
Looking back I can now see that our Front Line forces were as keen to get rid of us as we were to go but our minds were working on different plans. We found ourselves on a truck going South through Foggia (where the mountain sheep were to winter). The further we retreated from the front line, the more red tape appeared. People in the rear never seemed to understand what people at the front had to cope with.
At last we could stand it no longer. We left the “system” and set off once again on our own only this time we were behind our own lines.
We caught a train going South to Bari. It was an old battered train without any glass in the windows – the seats were wood benches and the old steam engine was turning carbon – perhaps from our mountain.
The train pulled up at a “halt” and Bill set off to refill our water bottles. There were all sorts of people on the track side – German, Italian and British soldiers, women, sheep, hens and an assortment of goods.
We were casually looking out of our window and noticed a German lad in a very distressed state just below us – he was crying almost uncontrollably. Suddenly Bill shouted “Duck”. There was a loud bang and screams from women.
We again found ourselves splattered in blood and guts. The lad had blown himself up – Bill thought it was a hand grenade but it must have been something else because only the lower part of his body remained.
We continued to Bari in a dazed and sticky state.
We reached Bari just after an ammunition ship had blown up. It had a load of mustard gas on board and everyone was anxiously trying to keep away from the docks where we were planning to go to catch a ship home. We reported to a Red Cross unit and were asked to be interviewed by the BBC for a Christmas broad cast. We refused.
Recently when the dock area had been bombed an old cemetery had also been badly damaged. Tombs had been blown apart and old bodies and bits and pieces of people lay everywhere. Outside this cemetery we met an old soldier who was making his way to a better port nearby, Taranto. We joined him. A ship was due to leave for England and by slick talking on his part we boarded and set sail. We joined a convoy off Sicily and headed for Tunis. Sadly there was an accident in the engine room and several lads lost their lives. The ship (Dundee Castle) was immobilised and the convoy sailed on without us.
One night just before lights out we saw to our horror that our new friend’s kitbag contained an assortment of heads which he had collected in the cemetery.
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He sat on his bunk combing their hair and talking to them. He and they were removed and we never met again.
However he had got us on the ship for home. Repairs were completed to the engines and we slowly passed out to sea and through the straits of Gibraltar into the Atlantic, it was mid – winter, driving rain, mist and very limited visibility. We spent most of our time on deck.
Out in the Atlantic a low – flying aircraft made two passes over the ship. It signalled by Morse that a pack of submarines lay ahead aid the Scharnhorst was also loose in the Atlantic. A signaller on deck read the message so from then on we only went below for showers and food.
The survivors of a Greek cargo ship were on board and the Greek lads enjoyed the showers as much as we did. Having lots of hot water was heaven. Eventually we sailed up the Bristol Channel, disembarked and were sent by train to London. There we were interrogated in a Hotel and met a Sapper, Brigadier (Robbie Robertson), who was to crop up in our lives after the war. He seemed to know a lot of personal details about us so I assumed that the senior officers, who had been flown home, must have passed through his hands.
We telephoned home and after a few days caught a train for Liverpool. Coming home was like a dream come true. I was fast asleep when the train arrived in Lime Street and was roused by Dad and Bert who was to become my father-in-law – for a moment I could hardly believe it was not a dream. My leave was very short – or so it appeared. Bill’s was extended because his younger sister had died. We had both tried to return to the university but this was impossible. We then tried to become Bevan Boys – I.e. miners, but the army would not release us.
I arrived at a transit camp in Croydon – two days later I was in hospital. My feet and groin were patched up and my army records caught up with me. One of the boys in the POW camp was Philip de Guingand. He was a Bombardier (Private). His younger brother, Freddie, was a Brigadier and General Montgomery’s Quarter – Master General. One day he called to see me in hospital for news about Philip. Their mother lived in East Croydon near to my cousin George Carlos.
One day Freddie took me to his mother’s for tea – she was charming but very confused and had no idea which was the Brigadier and which the Bombardier.
V1 bombs were raining on London and a raid occurred during a visit to see George and his sister Halcyon. Halcyon was an Air Raid Warden so out she went with her whistle and steel helmet whilst George and I sat in their shelter under the stairs. We were both petrified. Reaction set in after months of stress and I almost had a nervous breakdown.
[Marginal note probably by Keith Killby but the wording is unclear]
I was posted to a unit in Redhill – it was in a large house (the Colman’s Mustard peoples house) but on the way I made a detour to spend a weekend in Watford with brother Eric. On the Saturday over lunch with his wife, Billy, and their two girls, Pat and Jo. Pat called me over to the window to watch a V1 flying overhead. They were not afraid. Their courage brought me back down to earth. Up until then I was beginning to feel sorry for myself.
On the Monday I walked up the hill from Redhill station towards my new unit. There was much activity – fire engines, ambulances and military police. During the weekend the building had received a direct hit from a V1 and my new unit was no more. Nothing remained standing. The military police directed me to the Sappers HQ [Headquarters] in Chatham.
On the way from the station at Chatham I heard a dog yelping – one had fallen into an emergency water tank which was the size of a small swimming pool. I left
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my kit and went into rescue it. Later that afternoon I arrived at the barracks drenched to my skin and looking very untidy.
From there I was sent to Ripon in Yorkshire where I met Bill again. We were on a draughtsmen’s course with a number of architects and surveyors. Somehow or other we both ended up in Aldershot.
Troops were in training for the second front and there were lots of parade ground drills.
When we were being interrogated in London Bill and I had recommended a young soldier for a bravery award. He had died in the desert after holding back an armoured patrol. With an anti – tank gun he had destroyed two tanks before he too was killed. We were informed by the War Office that only commissioned officers were allowed to make recommendations for awards. We were furious.
One morning we were all on parade (about 2,000) after having spent – or wasted, hours of cleaning our kit. A General was to inspect us. He and a group of officers were on the saluting platform when Bill and I were called out by name.
An RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] marched us to the platform and yelled a citation that for successfully escaping from a POW Camp (or something like that) we had each been awarded the Military Medal. We were, he said, an example which others must follow. There had been no warning. We were both expecting to be reprimanded again for some misdeed or other. The General, poor soul, was about to pin Bill’s medal on when Bill saluted and said he would not accept it. I immediately did the same.
The RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] had gone purple with rage – the General did not know quite what to do so we both smartly about turned and marched back to our respective positions. That night Bill was on a train to Ayr in Scotland and I was in a truck on my way to Bordon in Hampshire.
We had both been studying for our RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] intermediate examination. Had we still been at the University we should have been exempt but as it was we had to sit it externally. Bill did his in Glasgow and I was to do mine in London.
I applied for a three day leave to do the three day examination at the RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects]. It was refused. I was reminded that there was a war on. When the time arrived for the exam I made my way to London, sat the exams and returned to my unit where I was immediately arrested for desertion.
No one believed me so I was sent to the “glass house” for 14 days. Fortunately I was fit, again but the glass house (Military prison) was far easier than some of my earlier experiences in Italy and Africa. On my return I was in disgrace.
In those days the exam results were published very quickly and news in the press indicated that I had passed. Someone at the War Office read the results and a letter was sent to my CO [Commanding Officer] to congratulate him for having such a bright young Sapper — and asking him why I was not commissioned?
The CO [Commanding Officer] was overcome with embarrassment and I was sent for. Why had I not told him? What could he do to put the record straight? He was full of apologies so to help him out I explained that anyone could make a mistake but to make amends all he had to do was for him and his wife to invite me out to dinner. He gladly accepted and the matter was closed. He was a fussy bombastic little man and I felt quite sorry for him.
Shortly after this I was called to the War Office again and told that I was to be commissioned and put in a special unit to be dropped behind the enemy lines. They accepted that I was a “loner” who was quite capable of looking after
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himself. I wanted a commission in the Royal Engineers but they offered me one in an Infantry Unit. I refused but had no option about being dropped somewhere in China.
I have never found out who had recommended me. Training was to commence after a short leave. I returned to Bordon to wait to be notified.
It was all very unfortunate because I was planning to sit the special finals with Bill next year. Late one night a young man, whom I did not know, wakened me. He was on a draft to go abroad but he had only just been married and said that a friend of mine – who was on the same draft, would swap with him. It was Bill.
They were in Aldershot and there was not a moment to spare. I packed, left a note for the CO [Commanding Officer], and we drove that night to Aldershot. In the barracks a line of soldiers, wearing only slacks, were being inoculated. In a second I had joined the line in front of Bill with my papers (AB [Army Book] 64). I got my jabs and told the Medical Officer that I had been sent as a replacement for the other lad. The names were changed on his list. Most of the others in the line were from the unit in Ripon and we were all known to each other (Geoff Beard, Harry Kaislake etc.
In the draft office our names were formally substituted – they had the correct number of soldiers and we were all given 7 days embarkation leave. We thought we were to go for training abroad – perhaps Canada. On leave I wrote to Brigadier Robertson at the War Office to let him know of my change of plan and gave him details of the Works Services Unit which I had just joined. I told him we were to go overseas but if he needed me he knew where I could be found.
We sailed for the Middle East and once again ended up in Egypt. The transit camp was in a military base at Moascar in the Nile Delta – the same camp in which we lived back in 1940.
Life was relaxed with lots of swimming and the prospect of leave in Cairo. Our job was to build a suspension bridge across a river in Burma. First it had to be erected adjacent to the Suez Canal.
We used Italian POW labour and our knowledge of Italian was of great assistance and the bridge went up in record time. It was a large span and the RAF [Royal Air Force] used to fly under the roadway in mock attacks.
However plans changed and others would now take over. Dismantle the bridge and then erect it over the Burmese river (I think it was to be the Irrawaddy).
Bill and I still found time to study for cur Special RIBA [Royal Institute of British Architects] finals and had all the necessary books which we planned to share. We were then all told that we were to be split up. I was to be posted to Benghazi in Libya and Bill to Baghdad. The others were to go in pairs but the RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] was determined that Bill and I were to be parted.
The morning arrived for us all to set off to our respective units. Bill and I were missing – we had gone swimming. That night on our return to camp we were arrested and put in the Guard House. Next morning we were charged as deserters and were marched to the CO [Commanding Officer] for sentence.
In 1940, when we first arrived in Moascar, the 3rd Cheshire Field Squadron (our original TA [Territorial Army] unit) had been posted to Greece. Bill and I had gone up the desert with the 2nd Armoured Division HQ [Headquarters]. The old TA [Territorial Army] unit had remained in the Middle East after serving in Crete and Greece and the lads were now due for home leave. Most had already passed through but one, Bertie Wallis (from Blackler’s store in Liverpool) was still in Moascar. He had received rapid promotion and was a Lieutenant
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Colonel. The last time we met, he was a sapper and I was a Lance Corporal in the Territorial Army. Bertie was acting as the temporary CO [Commanding Officer] in this transit camp whilst waiting for his home leave. Bill and I were marched in and we all immediately recognised each other. Bertie rose and we shook hands. The RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] was white with rage.
We exchanged experiences which shook the RSM’s [Regimental Sergeant Major] confidence. I think he had spent the whole war in Egypt. Why weren’t we officers? Not had time. The RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] was asked what should be done – we would have to go to a training unit at Maddhi outside Cairo but first we should have to be tested for intelligence and suitability. “I’ll test them now go and get the necessary forms.”
Bertie’s first question was to me: “Is London the capital of England?”. “Would you mind repeating the question sir?”. I pretended to rack my brains and finally answered “Yes”. “Passed” said Bertie.
To Bill: “Is the Mississippi a river?” “Miss who?” “Mississippi” said Bertie. Bill pondered the question and he too answered “Yes”. Passed with flying colours.
The poor RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] helped fill in the form and prepared our train tickets to Cairo. Bertie was going home on leave the next day. In Cairo we had to change stations. The place is usually crowded but on this occasion there was a state funeral. In 1940 on my last leave in Cairo, before giving up the desert the then PM had been shot and was being buried.
Before the war at Liverpool I had played football for the Wellington Rovers. We had been in the Business Houses League. An Egyptian student from the School of Architecture called Saly was in the sane team and by a ten million to one chance there he was in the crowd just by us.
Again a meeting of old friends. We told him where we were going but he insisted that we first should spend the weekend with his parents in Heliopolis. They were very wealthy with a beautiful swimming pool and made us most welcome.
We stayed there three weeks. Saly’s father was a Government official and promised that he would see that Bill and I would be posted somewhere close together so we might share our mobile library. In the meantime we were to return to Moascar and tell them we had failed.
Back again in the Guard House in Moascar we were waiting for another “Desertion” charge when our posting came through. This time it was to Palestine. Bill was to go to Haifa and I to Nathanya.
Later we met about once a month to exchange books and notes. The war in Europe had ended and all surplus materials were to be marshalled in Palestine ready for the Far East. The War Office caught up with me and I was put in charge of a large ammunition dump just outside Nathanya. Adjacent to this we also had a factory which manufactured terrazzo sanitary fittings. There were about 150 workers – half Arab and half Jewish. It was securely fenced and well protected by Palestinian Police guards. The CO [Commanding Officer] was permanently absent. The SM [Sergeant Major] was Wilf Mannion, the footballer. The factory was on a cliff top overlooking the Mediterranean. At the foot of the cliff there was a narrow beach with massive boulders. The cliffs were covered in wild orchids.
Gradually the British soldiers from this unit all went home on leave. Soon I was on my own with two Italian P0Ws to cook, the usual Arab dobhi boys, a dog and two cats. My little hut soon became a drawing office. In my spare time I designed a large town house for an Indian contractor which was to be built in Jannu Tawi in Kashmir.
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Every morning the factory work force would be brought in by truck – the Jews from Haifa and the Arab’s from surrounding villages. One day the Arab’s lorry turned on its side in a ditch. No one was seriously injured but one Arab had an excellent knowledge of First Aid. He also spoke perfect English but was so keen to remain anonymous that my curiosity was aroused – I feel certain that he was Glubb Pasha.
The Jewish “draughtsman” who prepared the drawings for the various moulds was most helpful. He was Patrick Cohen, an architect who had qualified in the Bauhause in Germany. To me, as a student, he was a giant Patrick was an enormous help to me during those months in Nathanya.
One day a prison van arrived from the civilian jail at Atlit which was just south of Haifa. At one time it had been an important crusader castle and port but only fragments of the old castle now remain.
A young Arab boy of about 15 years of age was brought in with instructions for me to follow. Apparently his sister had been raped by some British soldiers and according to Islamic law the girl had to be killed and this was the duty of her eldest brother. Next the immediate male members of her family were to extract a vendetta price by murdering some British soldiers. Having done this Saly, his father and elder brother were convicted of murder. The father and brother had been executed but Saly was too young and had been given life in Atlit jail. There he was the only juvenile and according to regulations he had to be moved somewhere else – but where? My unit was known to be heavily guarded and he was duly delivered to our guard house. After signing for him the prison officers then left.
Behind my hut was a lean – to in which I made blue prints of drawings. This was now to be his home. The boy was still in a state of deep shock and for days he would neither speak nor eat. With the help of the two POWs and the other two Arab boys he slowly began to respond. I taught him how to make prints and to be useful. He was given complete freedom within the compound providing he behaved himself.
He became less shy and followed me everywhere. After several weeks he was sufficiently relaxed to ask for favours. He loved to dress in army clothes, to wear my wrist watch and borrow my fountain pen.
One day he pleaded to be allowed to visit his mother in Nablus his home town. It was the end of Ramadan. At that time the “Stern Gang” was very active. Stern had been a student and had been killed during a terrorist raid on a British base. Half a dozen other other young terrorists were then reforming the gang – one was Begin who eventually became Prime Minister of Israel. A nasty piece of work.
As a precaution all British military vehicles had to be heavily armed. The Stern Gang’s trick was to put hand – grenades in the backs of army vehicles whenever they stopped for other traffic or any other reason.
I decided to take a risk and agreed to Saly’s request. First I obtained spare uniforms for Saly and the two Italian POWs. I drew one automatic, two rifles and two hand guns from our stores and late on Friday afternoon we set off in our army truck with the two Italians in the back armed to the teeth. Saly was in the front with me. Nablus was an Arab hill town in Transjorden. Now it forms part of Israel. The country is beautiful and wild. It was dark as we eventually made our way up the narrow streets and pulled up at heavy wooden gates in a high protective stone wall. A British Army truck out after curfew caused great interest. Saly banged on the gates and when they were opened we eased the truck into a beautiful courtyard. Old men hugged and kissed him as he made his way in
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to his home. The gates had closed behind us. People kept coming over to smile at us and eventually Saly brought his mother out. There were tears of joy. He was now head of the family.
The Italians went out in to the town to taste their freedom too but they had to be back by 2pm on Sunday. I remained in the courtyard with the vehicle and my thoughts. A great feast was arranged for Saturday night. Two sheep were roasted and I was fed the usual delicacies and was obviously the guest of honour. After evening prayers Saly’s mother brought him to me and gave him into my care. It is an oriental custom to give a child to a guardian. Next day I felt dreadful having to take him away. We were all in tears.
Three weeks later Saly again pleaded for me to take him back home but the risks were then too great. I did however agree that if he would promise to return to me in Nathanya then he could go off on his own. He promised to be back in his hut by dawn on the Monday before the workers arrived. Like all good Arabs he kept his word and wakened me at dawn with a cup of tea. I allowed him home on other occasions and at no time did he ever let me down.
Doug Salaam who had slept on the bunk next to me in Sulmona had also escaped and got home to England. He had been commissioned and was then living in Beirut. Bill had been sent home to be demobilised so I agreed to spend a couple of weeks with Doug in the Lebanon. We went out for dinner on my first night to the Hotel Normande on the sea front. The waiter was most embarrassed to tell us that it was an officers only hotel and I could not be served. Doug ordered two meals whilst I returned to his unit to put on his spare uniform. We then enjoyed our meal and exchanged experiences. Doug’s job in the RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] was to ferry complete convoys of trucks up to Turkey beyond Homs and Hamma. There the Russians would take them over.
I went on one trip with him. My real wish was to visit Damascus and see the street called Straight where St. Paul was blinded. The street was still there. On the way back I got a lift in a staff car with a Brigadier who was on a visit of inspection. In the days of the Ottoman Empire a railway track linked Turkey to Egypt. It passed through the Bekkar valley in Lebanon then into Palestine where it continued South along the coast to the Nile delta. The track had been blown up at the border with Palestine and of course there were no trains beyond that point.
We had been invited, to an ENSA [Entertainments National Services Association] concert in the Bakkar valley and had stayed on for a couple of nights. Early one morning we were disturbed by much banging and shouting coming from the railway. It was pitch black and impossible to see what was happening so the RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] fired a verie light which illuminated the whole area. Hundreds of Arabs were removing the timber sleepers from the track and when they saw that there were only four of us they fell about laughing. We quietly retreated. The next time I visited the Lebanon there was not a vestige of track remaining.
Back in Nathanya I continued with my hobby of archaeology. The country was rich in Roman remains but of more interest to me were the Neolithic settlements. They all seemed to occur on outcrops of red hemra earth. A young RAF [Royal Air Force] dentist shared my “then” passion and borrowed an old Dakota aircraft in which we flew up and down the coast to locate these red patches of earth. Later we drove out to these sites and were lucky enough to discover some excellent flint factories – these were of late Stone Age. I collected a few specimens for identification at the Department of Antiques in Jerusalem.
The director was an Englishman called Iliff. He confiscated my collection and demanded to know where I had found them. I refused to tell him but later went back to make a further selection which I kept. They were better examples than
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those he had in their Museum in Jerusalem. Elsewhere I found some Roman glass and Greek silver. All were packed into a tea chest which I entrusted to a Tanker Ship’s Captain who was about to sail from Haifa to Liverpool. My father collected the tea chest for me and took them home. After the war I presented all the silver to London, the glass to York and the flints to Liverpool Museum. In the meantime Iliff had been appointed as the Director of Liverpool Museum and after the war was delighted to have the flints. I then told him where the sites were.
In most Middle East army establishments a number of civilians were employed – ours was no exception but we only had two two Arab dhobi boys. The older boy was about sixteen and had saved enough money to buy a wife. He asked for leave, set off for a town called Zagazig in Egypt where there is an appropriate market.
He travelled both ways on the buffers of the train and one week later he returned with his bride. She was an old woman of about 30 and happily settled down in her new home. The boy found her a job on a road gang and her wages would go into a common pool. All their food was provided from the camp so living expenses were minimal.
Shortly before I left Palestine the boy asked for another leave it seems he had saved enough for a second wife. This time he could afford a younger one.
In due course they both returned on the buffers of the Zagazig train.
The two women soon became great friends and both worked on a road gang.
With two wives now earning money the young man felt it time to retire.
Patrick Cohen and I had entered for three architectural competitions and we had won two of them. One was for a Spa on the bank of Lake Tiberius where there was a “hot” mud spring which had some therapeutic qualities.
The second was a fertility clinic at a small town on the railway track between Nablus and Nathanya. Both have since been built. The clinic had to be in two sections – one for Jews and one for Arabs.
Patrick and I had become good friends. He was then the only Jew I could trust in Palestine. Early one morning he roused me – he had broken the curfew to come to warn me of a possible attack. He took a tremendous risk. The Stern Gang were to raid our ammunition dump for explosives that morning. Anti – British feeling was running high in the Jewish community. Refugees from Europe were landing all along the coast at night and the British were considered to be a threat. By now the war in the Far East had ended and security had become very lax. Jewish refugees from Europe were landing on the coast and had nowhere to go.
Palestine had numerous empty military camps complete with First Aid rooms, canteens, stores, cook house and, of course, living quarters.
The British Forces had stocked these camps to receive an influx of troops in transit from the European War Zone to the Far East. Overnight the mass movement of troops was put into reverse but the camps remained and sane were, in my opinion, deliberately left fully – equipped without even guards.
Many camps were occupied by the refugees. Tine camp at Beit Lyd was only three miles away and very near to the coast. It was occupied whilst I was there.
Sadly some were looted. Most: of the early refugees were professional people who appeared to have been able to “buy” their passage on the small boats.
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Patrick’s warning had to be taken very seriously. Saly and the Italians were armed, and quietly, without lights we drove out or the camp down towards the town. On the outskirts we put on all the lights, dropped into a lower gear and raced into the town with the horn blowing and the lads shouting and banging the door panels.
We woke everyone up Lights were put on the houses and civilians peered out to see what was happening, There was no sign of the Stern Gang so we returned to the camp, set fuses in each ammunition hut, soaked the gelignite to render it unstable and reported the situation to our HQ [Headquarters] at Lydd Airport.
I was told to evacuate the camp and report back to Egypt. The following day army replacement would arrive to await those returning from leave. A month or two later the Stern Gang struck again and hanged three of our lads in the centre of Nathanya. Begin used to boast about the British soldiers he had personally murdered.
All documentation concerning young Saly was destroyed and I packed my few personal belongings. Patrick pleaded to come with me but I promised I’d send for him as soon as I reached home through at the time I did not know quite how to go about this. In the meantime we four went in the faithful old army truck to Tulcarme, where the Haifa to Egypt train stopped, and waited for the train South. We were all worried and very sad to be parting for we had become a strange sort of family. The Italians were to be repatriated very soon. Saly was free to go home, resume his responsibilities as head of the family but to remain out of sight. We all embraced and parted.
Back again on a ship for home I was surprised to bump into Doug’s RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major]. He was in charge of our troop deck. He could not quite understand that I was once more a sapper – I told him I was on special service. From then on he called me sir After further debriefing in London I headed for demobilisation and home just seven years after the commencement of the war. Hinchcliffe Davies, a Liverpool architect with whom I started my career in architecture as his office boy, was now the Controller of Labour in the Occupied Zone. He had Patrick immediately flown to England and safety. I returned to the university, Patrick was given a job with Hinchcliffe in his office and together they designed the new Corn Exchange in Liverpool. Later he joined our office and worked in Toronto, Liverpool and Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, whilst I was back in the Middle East, all our POW Concert party reached home and the original cast of Blithe Spirit was still running at the Duchess Theatre in London where our cast was substituted to raise funds of Mrs Churchill’s Aid for Russia fund. They were an enormous success.
Sometime later Bill and I returned to Sulmona with Edward Ward (now Lord Bangor) to do a BBC radio programme.
Again we met our old friends in Salle and the proudest moment of my army life was when I heard that every I.O.U. or chit which we had left for food, clothes and sheep had been honoured when our forces reached them. We were received as Heroes.
My main regret was, and still is, that I don’t know if young Saly survived. It was just another incident of ships that pass in the night.
One ship however did return. Several years later when Bill and I were practising in the Bluecoat Chambers an unexpected visitor arrived. Brigadier Robbie Robertson had looked us up. He was then PR to Charles Clore and we got our first introduction to commercial architecture through him.