Summary of William (Bill) Hunter Strachan
A story told in three parts, of Strachan’s (Bill’s) two escape attempts, and of his and Charlie Khun’s encounter with a member of the Italian police. William Hunter (Bill) Strachan was captured at Tobruk on June 22nd 1942. His first escape attempt from Camp P.G 52 Chiavari Italy was on May 3rd 1943, and his second was on the 9th September 1943. At some point they meet up with Gordon Lett.
Whilst being on the run for the second time with Charlie Khun, they wounded a policeman. In the same incident Charlie Kuhn was seriously wounded, but both Charlie and Bill end up being advertised as ‘wanted for murder’.
Two letters written in the 1990s at the end of the file give Strachan’s and Khun’s separate and differing accounts of the incident.
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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[Editor’s Note: Five lines of handwritten text by Keith Killby. They were not transcribed as the information is repeated below.]
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Supplied by Susanne Strachan (widow) via T.D. Vickers. April 1996
W.D. STRACHAN. Notes on escapes from Campo 52 Chiavari Prior to Armistice & at Armistice and of Sgt [Sergeant] Charlie KUHN.
Taken at Tobruk Strachan unofficially joined a work party of about 50 who went out of the camp whenever Red Cross Food parcels were being carried from the store which w [rest of word obscured] across a stream with high banks. He carefully rehearsed with 6 others his escape by cu [rest of word obscured] out, handing to one of them his army overcoat and so in ‘civilian clothes’ could walk away and even past the It. Camp Commander Adjut.[adjutant] coming in the opposite direction, go safely into a vineyard.
Goes through Chiavari and in Rapallo takes a bicycle and then on a train to Genoa says he is German but at Genoa does not leave station and gets on a train to Turin ticket inspector is suspicious. Taken to Carabinieri HQ [Head Quarters] Turin and returned to camp. One month solitary but beaten up.
At Armistice the Italian Camp leader handed over to Germans who slowly advanced firing at the Camp guards including South Africans who had joined them.
Strachan cuts his way out at night to be followed by two others and the owner of the p [rest of word obscured] 3 of them meet some distance from the point agreed but in the hills are turned away by nuns. Make way to Rapallo. Greeted with joy by 12 year old shepherd who gives them his food for the day and taken to house of E. speaking woman. Whole village responded with [rest of line missing]. Woman is denounced so they go into mountains where a former It. Officer visits them and says he will return for them to join his partisans. It. officer is betrayed and mu [rest of line missing] Copy of LEAFLET for POWs to give themselves up.
‘Disaster at Sesta Godano’. (S.G. South West of Pontremoli)
Strachan meets other POWs and South Africans. Charlie Kuhn’s (Sgt [Sergeant] 3rd Coldstream) goes off and returns to say he has met Gordon Lett, who has organised a partisan group near La Spezia. (See ‘Rossano’.) Outside Sesta Godano a Carabinieri cycles past them and then turns to face them with a revolver. They overpower him and, anger at the way the C. [word obscured] had sometimes treated them, beat him up, but other C.s arrive. Strachan and Kuhn speed off into the hills. Kuhn falls down a precipice and ends up unconscious being taken by the Italians to hospital in La Spezia. Continuously interrogated and fearing to lose his leg he is excellently nursed by an Italian girl and helped by one of the Carabinieri guards. A piece of rock is found still in his leg and removed and he improves and preparations are being made for his escape but the Germans suddenly come and take him off to Germany. He lives in Canada with Anna Maria his wife and the nurse who helped him. Also Charlie Kuhn’s additions sent from Canada. He confirms most details where he concerned. Carried up ravine on the back of another man hauled up by rope with a broken leg (later found a large piece of rock in it) and unconscious from time to time from blow on head. In spite of having killed a carabinieri (the killing is implied not stated) he is taken to hospital in La Spezia and after four hours of interrogation quite well treated and has a mixture of visitors with varying kinds of political inclinations. Still married to the girl who was one of his nurses in the hospital, whom he married in 1949. Just before attempting escape from hospital taken by the Germans to a very mixed camp and then in cattle trucks (to Germany) where a hole in the side was by chance discovered just after completion. So to Mooseberg. Original escape from march out of camp at Chiavari was a dash through a house into the fields behind and then help from a farm house. Remembers an RAF [Royal Air Force] Sergeant who made 5 attempts and made it in the end fooling the Italians by speaking in Welsh and saying he was a Romanian.
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[Photograph with caption of W.H. Strachan and Tom Vickers at a reunion at Coldstream in 1990]. Reunion at Coldstream 1990. Bill Strachan, Tom Vickers. M.G [Machine Gun] Platoon, No 1 Company, 3rd Coldstream Guards, 1942
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ESCAPE FROM CAMP FIFTY-TWO
[approx. 2,500 words]
[Pencil sketch with key showing the geography of the camp entrance]
W H STRACHAN
TYNE AND WEAR
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ESCAPE FROM CAMP P.G. 52
by W H STRACHAN MM [Military Medal] (2656614)
I was taken prisoner on June 22nd 1942 with my Platoon Commander Lieutenant T.D. Vickers, when trying to break out of the German-Italian cordon around fallen Tobruk. Like thousands of others I suffered months of starvation and sickness in transit camps in North Africa and Italy before being moved to permanent camp No. 52; near Chiavari, Genoa. It was indeed a relief to get to a camp where there was some organisation and regular, though inadequate supplies of food. Nevertheless, my one thought through all the devastating, soul-destroying days of humiliating captivity, had been “Escape” and it had now become a burning obsession.
Previous plans made with friends of my own Regiment had been frustrated so often through sickness, or lack of food, clothing and supplies that I conceived the idea of a solo breakaway.
Cautious inquiries in the new camp brought information that certain characters in the compound were informers, – that there was no organised escape committee, – that frequent raids were made by the Carabinieri to check on tunnelling activities, and that NO ONE HAD EVER ESCAPED.
We were situated some six miles from the coast in the narrow Fontana Valley, with the mountain range rising immediately from
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the camp wire on the west side, whilst on the east was a ravine, beyond which ran the main Genoa-Chiavari road and then the next mountain range.
Hemmed in by the mountains, kept away from the outer perimeter by a trip wire, over which it was forbidden to pass and with the usual sentries around the perimeter augmented by machine-gun posts, equipped with search lights at each corner and Carabinieri patrols inside and outside the camp, it seemed that escape was indeed impossible.
Day after day I trudged around that compound perimeter studying the guard system, measuring the distance between sentry posts, checking the wire for some weakness or shadows when the lights were switched on at night, in addition to making mental pictures of the complete landscape beyond the wire.
We were allowed, when supplies permitted, one British Red Cross food parcel per person each week, (without them many of us would not have survived), and issues were made, one parcel between two men, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These parcels were stored in the administration buildings on the main road and it was necessary for a working party of about fifty prisoners to be escorted to and fro across a narrow footbridge over the ravine to carry the food packages into the camp for distribution. The route was lined with additional sentries as well as the duty officers and Carabinieri dog patrols.
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Here, I felt, was the weakness I sought . Broad daylight, with a regular working party with everything running like clockwork, might tend to make the Italians somewhat lax in their attitude.
I approached one of the regular carriers with an offer of cigarettes if he would permit me to take his place on occasions to enable me to “see a bit of the outside world”. (Sergeants were not allowed to join working parties). He agreed and throughout that winter I made several journeys across that bridge to the main road and decided that I could succeed if I had a screen of men to help me.
With care I chose my escort of six men who were regular members of the working party, Guardsmen Head and Troop of the Coldstream Guards, Bombardiers Hughes and Wynne of the Royal Artillery, Signalman Curry of the Artillery and “Jock” of the RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps].
Showing them on paper just what I needed, we practised in the following weeks; one pair in front of me; two pairs behind at six-yard intervals; the first pair to stop and light cigarettes when ascending the steep bank leading from the footbridge to the road, thus blotting out the view of any sentries above; one of the second pair to grab my overcoat as I took it off, while his partner handed me a small hessian sack containing my food for the trip; the third pair to hold up any sentries behind by asking for matches to light cigarettes.
Rehearsals went well and I was supremely confident as I set about preparing my wardrobe. A pair of blue dungarees bartered from a
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sailor, I cut down to make trousers. From a Yugoslav field grey jacket I made a cap and a civilian-type waistcoat. A striped shirt with the painted “P.G.” covered by rough patches completed my outfit. All these I hid away under the floor of the hut. I let my hair grow very long and unkempt, I stopped shaving and began to wash my face in ersatz coffee in an effort to darken my skin. From our meagre supply of food I hoarded a small amount of chocolate and biscuits and planned to make a rapid getaway to France if and when I got out of the cage. Speed was essential for I knew only about a dozen Italian words. I had no money or documents and was by no means one hundred percent fit.
On the morning of May 3rd 1943, the conditions were favourable: warm, but with a continuous drizzle, and I decided that it was Now or Never. Calling my cover men together I found that Wynne was missing and when a hurried check of the huts failed to locate him, all agreed to carry on with the plan. Accordingly when the working party had been in session for about an hour, we managed to get into our rehearsed formation. I was wearing a grey overcoat which reached down to my ankles and completely covered my civilian rig-out. Head and Troop were in front, Hughes and Curry behind me with Jock on his own in the rear, as we began that long-awaited crossing.
Out of the camp gate; “Oh where have all these additional sentries come from?” Down the bank to the wooden footbridge, “I wonder if the damned policeman is suspicious? He’s giving me a
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looking over”, – across the bridge, – the tension was mounting, so far so good! Now we’re on the incline leading to the road and everything depends upon the coolness of my escort. The first pair stop. In a flash my overcoat is off and Curry grabs it as he overtakes me. I snatch my cap from inside my waistcoat and put it on just as Hughes passes by and hands me the sack which I immediately sling over shoulder. In less time that it takes to write I am transformed into an unkempt peasant stepping up to the main road, and the parcel – carrying prisoners, guards and Carabinieri alike are unaware of the drama that is being unfolded.
I turned southwards towards Chiavari, icy cold inside, hair bristling on the back of my neck, nerves tensed for that possible shot or challenge: but no! One hundred yards, – ‘this is it’, I wanted to run but curled my toes up inside my boots and resisted the urge. Through the busy village I slouched, conscious of the fact that I was much too tall to be a native of these parts. Dutifully responding to, and copying, the Fascist salute with which every one greeted me. Then Hell! Of all the luck! Coming towards me were the camp Commandant, Colonel Taddeo Castelli and his Adjutant, Lieutentant Savateri. Again that almost overwhelming desire to run, but that would certainly arouse suspicion I felt.
I turned off the road and made my way along the vine-covered terraces which sloped down to the ravine, I stopped awhile and with a feeling of utter relief made water, glancing through the
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foliage I watched them pass, waited a few moments, and set off again in the continuing drizzle. This time there was a wonderful feeling of elation; I was FREE’ FREE’, oh what a spring there was in every step, what a song in my heart!
Just before noon I passed a road-block unchallenged, then saw a sign “Rallentare” which I took to be the name of a village but which I afterwards learned meant “Go Slowly”. Through Lavagna, across a bridge, then into Chiavari on the coast.
I felt uncomfortable wandering through a town filled with Axis troops but no-one appeared to give me a second glance. Finally reaching the coastal road I turned northwards, and after having walked for five hours in the increasing heat of the day, I was glad to lie down in an olive grove and have some of my precious food. Lying there I took stock of my position; so far all had gone well, but I had to speed up and I made up my mind to get some sort of transport if possible. Soon I was on my way again, this time picking unripe peas and beans from the terraces alongside the road.
In the early evening I reached Rapallo feeling rather tired, and here I took a bicycle from outside a restaurant. Continuing Northwards, I ran into a naval road-block at Portofino and was compelled to turn in my tracks, making my way southwards again I passed through Rapallo and as darkness fell I pulled off the road and took shelter among the olives.
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Lying in the gloom I fretted at the delay and at the haphazard way in which I had prepared myself for this ordeal, I was forced to realise that I was completely unaware of conditions in the country and that the best thing I could do was to try to get on a train.
Despite my exhaustion I slept badly for a thousand and one thoughts raced through my mind, and the sea fret which fell over the area made me most uncomfortable. As the sky lightened in the early morning, I rode to the railway station at Zaglio and entered with a group of hurrying workers, I guessed that the bulk would be travelling in the direction of Genoa, so made my way to the most crowded platform. For some anxious minutes I wandered about, avoiding contact with all who seemed likely to approach.
My first scare came when an official came to punch tickets. Withdrawing a POW envelope from my pocket and hastily returning it, I said, “Sono Tedesche” (I am German), this apparently satisfied him and he turned away thus permitting my thumping heart to slowly return to normal.
Soon a train arrived and I chose a converted goods wagon in which to make the trip. Here at least there were no corridors and officials were unlikely to make an inspection of tickets.
Sitting in the dingy van I pretended to sleep, watching my fellow passengers and the various stations through almost closed eyes. An hour’s journey brought us to Genoa “B” station where I
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descended with everyone else, and went to the assistance of an over-burdened woman who appeared to be asking me to help her off with her luggage.
I surveyed the station, ‘Oh dear’, the place literally swarmed with officials and military personnel, Carabinieri, Railway Police and Security Militia, in addition to ticket collectors. I wandered up and down platform No. 1 pondering over my next move. Imagine my joy when within ten minutes the Rome-Turin express thundered in, the crowds surged towards the already overcrowded carriages and I found myself alongside a second class coach. Quickly I boarded it and placed myself in the corridor, I was very conscious of my bedraggled appearance, which was in striking contrast to that of the German and Italian Officers in the compartments and the prosperous civilians in the corridor.
However, I deluded myself that fate was being kind to me. Terminus Turin then only fifty miles to the French border, I closed my eyes, France, Spain, Gibraltar. I could see the huge rock rising out of the calm, blue Mediterranean.
Oh, it was grand! Two further stops however, added to the congestion and movement of any kind was impossible. Then alarm! As we pulled out of Alessandria station, along came a ticket collector. Click! Click! Slowly, remorselessly came trouble, I tried to turn and retreat but ill-tempered Italian protests focussed attention upon me, and I felt I would have to stay and bluff my way through once more.
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There was nothing else for it, the official arrived and repeated the formula ” Sono Tedesche”, with the letter coming out and returning rapidly – but this was no countryside station attendant. Here was an experienced main line man, and a torrent of Italian greeted my remark. “Sono Tedesche”, I repeated, again a voluble aggressive reply – not a word of which I understood.
By this time the whole corridor was in an uproar and military heads peered frowningly outwards, my tormentor shouted and within minutes two well built men in plain clothes arrived on the scene. They led me to a luggage van.
A German Officer appeared but of course I could not understand him and had to admit that it was not “Sono Todesche”, but “Sono Inglese”. An Italian civilian doctor next arrived speaking English and to him I confessed that I was in fact, an escaped prisoner of war.
How my captors beamed. I had made their day, I was stripped and searched and during the remainder of the journey carefully watched by two men whom I found out, were members of OVRA [Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism] a branch of the secret police.
On arrival in Turin I was taken to the Carabinieri Headquarters and interrogated by several officers who were fairly friendly. I was put in a cell overnight and next morning, with an escort of three, was taken by train back to Chiavari.
A hostile reception committee awaited me at Camp Head Quarters, Colonel Castelli refused to believe my story that I had just
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walked out of the camp on the spur of the moment, I refused to give my word that I would not attempt to escape again and was awarded the maximum punishment of thirty days solitary confinement with six of those days on bread and water. I was then handed over to the tender mercies of the Carabinieri for that period.
No sooner was I in their private jail than they commenced to give me a really scientific beating up. I finally lapsed into unconsciousness and the following week was one I shall never forget. (After the war I had the satisfaction of giving evidence against three of my jailors at the war Crimes Tribunal at Bologna).
On my release from punishment I had no regrets. I had learned a lot during my brief adventure and knew there would be no mistakes the next time.
The next time? Yes, it came on September 9th 1943, the day after the Italian Armistice, that day the whole camp was handed over to the Germans and in the evening I cut through the wires and escaped with two men of the Royal Naval Submarine Special Service. Leading Seaman James Freel and Victor Worthy. On this occasion we were successful but not before we had spent a dangerous fourteen months with Partisan Forces, participating in a brutal campaign, fought with utter disregard for the Hague Convention against the Germans and the Fascist Brigate Nere.
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We were finally ordered to make our way southwards, crossing into Allied Occupied Territory on Thanksgiving Day 1944, but that is another story.
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FAREWELL CAMP FIFTY-TWO!
W.H. Strachan, MM [Military Medal]
Tyne and Wear.
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[newspaper article from ‘Fiamma Repubblicana’]
Ed eccone un altro capeggiatore feroce e malvagio. Strackan sergente ingelse scappato dal Campo di Concentramento, che con la sua bicca ferocia ha già fatto tante vittime.
[Handwritten translation] Wanted for Murder! German / Fascist newspaper, October 1944, Genoa, Italy. “And here is another of the criminals, ferocious and wicked, an English Sergeant named Strachan, who escaped from a concentration camp and who, by his own beak-like ferocity, has already killed many victims”.
[Editor’s note. Later in the story it becomes clear that these accusations are false]
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FAREWELL CAMP FIFTY-TWO!
I remember it well.
9.40 p.m. September 4th, 1943. Camp P.G52 Chiavari, Genoa, Italy.
“South of the border, down Mexico way,
That’s where I fell in love when stars above began to play,
The Mission bells told me that I must not stay,
South of the border, down Mexico way.”
Over two thousand voices joined in the refrain during a morale-boosting concert in ‘Campo Concentramento, Prigionieri di Guerra 52. Two thousand voices of British and Commonwealth prisoners of war, forbidden by their officers to leave the camp when the Italian armistice was announced the previous day, were now trying, in forlorn fashion, to dispel the despair of their betrayal by the Italian Camp Commandant, Colonel Taddeo Castelli. He had treacherously handed them over to the Germans.
On the Northern perimeter of the compound, a short distance from the wire fencing, four figures with blackened faces lay at intervals in a shallow wheel track on the left of the roadway, which led to the camp Infirmary.
I took the lead, armed with only a pair of
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nondescript pliers, and slid towards the first trip wire, which was strung about twelve inches above ground. As I eased my body beneath it, I thought, ‘Too effing-true mates. I must not stay.’ Stealthily, I crawled to the inner line of barbed wire where I began to cut the lower strand. It was hell. A seemingly impossible task, for the cutting section of the tool was almost non-existent. For a few seconds I took a breather, then began again but used a twisting action this time. Eventually, with an audible ‘ping’, the wire snapped. I pressed myself as close to the ground as possible and rested awhile, knowing that I had to repeat the action on the next wire above, and this would necessitate my raising my arms, head and shoulders. Somehow this strand of wire seemed easier to break. Folding the two pieces back, I left a prominent gap for my friends.
I needed a rest by this time and once again flattened myself to the soil, hoping that the searchlights could not be sufficiently depressed to cover the area in which I lay. I prayed too, that the German sentries, whose footsteps I could hear about a hundred yards away to my right, would be reluctant to patrol the complete wire boundary of the camp, to which they had just been posted.
I was afraid, oh yes, really afraid. The hairs bristling at the back of my neck, gave testimony to that! But above the fear, I was consumed with anger over the treatment I had suffered during the past five months and
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over the stupidity of those who had aided and abetted our betrayal.
When news of the armistice had reached us the previous day, prisoners of war of the South African Police Battalion, all Boers, were placed on duty outside the perimeter with the Italian sentries, and we were warned, under threat of court-martial, not to attempt to leave camp. As a result, two thousand soldiers and sailors mainly from Britain, South Africa and Australia, who ought to have been freed, were now in the hands of the ‘Wermacht’.
Merriment had gone on throughout the night, everyone with visions of being home within days. During the morning everything appeared normal, with happy, excited ex-prisoners, hungry for firm news, enjoying their new-found status. However, shortly after eleven o’clock, there came the sound of machine-gun fire from all around the camp. Simultaneously, groups of German soldiers began to approach the wire from all angles, firing into the air. Not a shot was fired in return by the Italian guards or their South African partners.
Frightened women and children, who had crowded around the perimeter, fled in fear and dismay.
Now, two thousand men, prisoners once more, were horrified to learn that it had all been a dream.
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Colonel Taddeo Castelli, the Commandant had sold us down the river.
Which bloody, British fool, had issued that order for ex-prisoners to remain within the wire? (1) [Editor’s note – see footnote at the bottom of the page]
Once again I turned my mind to the job in hand and eventually made my way to the outer-perimeter fence. At that moment there came an exchange of German voices but the discourse ended in laughter. The final hurdle was more robust and I began to wonder whether I was ever going to make it. The singing in the concert hall continued as I struggled with wires reluctant to break. Despite the warmth of the Autumn evening, my body felt quite cold as I became increasingly aware of my vulnerability. Our hastily arranged plan depended entirely upon the inexperience of the German sentries. I had every confidence in Jim and Vic, the two ‘matelots’ behind me, but Taffy was an unknown quantity. He was the owner of the pliers and that was the deciding factor which led to his inclusion in our escape group.
At last, the final wire parted and was twisted clear.
[Footnote 1]. Forty-four years later I was to read that the infamous order concerning prisoners of war in Italian camps, had been issued by Bernard Montgomery.
I wonder how many prisoners died as a result of this?
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Without looking back, I slithered through, rolled across the cart track and dived into a field of ripening maize, tall enough to hide a crouching man. As arranged, I made for our first rendezvous point in the centre of the field, extremely conscious of the noise as I brushed against the brittle stalks and leaves. From the concert hall in the camp, faintly came the sound of laughter. ‘Who can laugh at a time like this?’ I wondered.
From the West came the two strokes of a big bell and I guessed it was from the tower of Monte Allegro, denoting the time of 10.30. I knelt down facing the camp, straining my ears to hear the approach of the others.
‘Free! Free again.’ I mused. ‘They won’t get me this time.’
Nearby, a dog began barking and its call was taken up by many others in surrounding villages throughout the valley. At one time I thought I heard the swish of leaves, but had no idea of the direction from which it came.
Three strokes of the bell, 10.45, and still no sign of my companions. Quietly I called, “Jim. Vic.” No response. I was beginning to have doubts, feeling that someone ought to have appeared by now. There had been no shooting but perhaps some patrol had ventured inside the camp, to frustrate the movement of my friends. I pondered
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over my plans for a solo breakaway and decided that I would make for the second meeting place, at the top of Monte Allegro.
I was determined that this time, there would be no mistake. Since my first escape and re-capture in May, the camp Carabinieri had made life hell for me. Thirty days solitary confinement, six of which were on bread and water, had really shaken me. The beatings I had endured during my month of isolation, only increased my desire to be free, and the harassment of individual supervision for twenty-four hours of every day since then, strengthened my resolve to the utmost. (1)
“No mistakes. No mistakes.” I repeated. “No bloody mistakes this time.”
The bell of Monte Allegro sounded eleven and stirred me to make a move towards the mountain.
I turned to the West and made my way diagonally across the cornfield. I walked steadily, not concerning myself with concealment. Breaking out of the field, I came
[Footnote (1)]. At the Bologna War Crimes’ trials, I gave evidence against four Carabinieri officers. Colonel Taddeo Castelli did likewise, having turned King’s evidence. Charges against him were dropped.
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to the first of the cultivated vine terraces, which varied in length and height. Progress was slow, as I had to climb up the face of each terrace in turn and nowhere could I find a regular track. Eventually I arrived at the wooded area of the mountain side and the going was much easier. Occasionally I came across a small cabin and took a breather, listening for other footsteps. It was after midnight, just as the clanging of the church bells had ceased announcing the hour, when I heard movement ahead of me. I whistled the V Sign “- – – ____”, stood perfectly still, then repeated the call. Back came a shout, “Vic here!”
Standing up, I saw his outline. I couldn’t quite believe my good fortune. We made towards each other and shook hands joyfully.
“What about the others?” I asked. “Jim must be out.”
“He was right behind me at the wire, but I’m not sure about Taffy.” came the reply.
We stood back to back for a while, peering and listening, but there was no movement in our immediate vicinity. We climbed on to where the trees grew more sparsely and the chestnut trees petered out to be replaced by stunted oaks and birches. We were both parched and hungry, and Vic was desperate for a smoke. As the bells all
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around, began to sound for two o’clock, we chose a fairly level spot and lay down. Bells and dogs quietened down then, unexpectedly, we were brought to life by the sound of falling stones and a sharp cry of pain. Suddenly – alarm! ‘Could it be a German patrol?’ I wondered. We decided to be still and await events. Finally there emerged in our view, a lone figure away to our right. I made my way towards the climber, armed with a rounded stone the size of my fist.
I recognised Jim and hissed, “You’re making too much noise. We can’t sleep!”
We turned to where Vic lay and each began to talk of his part in the break-out. Jim said that Taffy had decided not to follow but he, himself, had made his way up the mountain by a dried-out water course and all had gone well until his recent tumble, when some pebbles gave way beneath his feet. Fortunately, he had a supply of cigarettes and matches, so two contented sailors lay back and enjoyed the weed.
We quickly agreed that we should make our way to the Monastery at the peak and ask for shelter. As we climbed, we became increasingly aware of the great bell of Monte Allegro dominating all others in the Fontana Valley. Already it seemed to intrude on our lives somehow.
We were not too far distant from the great
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building when we set out on our last lap, but it was well after four when we finally came to a cobbled stone track which led to the dark, towering, eerie shape of the church.
Thankfully we made our way to the massive doors, with Jim in considerable discomfort with a knee damaged in his fall. Somewhere inside was the sound of hymn singing. There were lights too, but no-one responded to our shouts and kicks at the door. Eventually a small peep-hole door opened and a voice called, “Va via! Va via!”
“Help us please. We are English.”
Once again, “Va via!”
I tried once more. “Aidez moi. Je suis Anglais.”
But whoever was inside, didn’t want to know and the door was shut in our faces.
Disconsolately, we turned away. “The bastards! Bloody bastards!” I muttered. “I’ll be back one day.”
Jim said. “Perhaps there are Germans in the place. There must be some reason for turning us away.”
Somewhere, nearby, we heard the trickling of water. We followed the sound to an outhouse where a
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lavatory cistern over-flowed. In turn, we each climbed up and drank our fill.
“They must have known who we were.” remarked Vic. “I thought they were supposed to help strangers in need. I wonder what would have happened if they had used the sanctuary knocker at Durham Cathedral?”
Jim persisted. “I’m sure there must be troops in there. It must be a good place for signals and communications. Let’s forget it and make for the sea.”
There was a large, paved area surrounding the Monastery, and as we walked Westwards, we caught our first glimpse of the sea. I was glad that my companions were sailors. There was some comfort in that.
We began to descend towards Rapallo, this time using the cobbled path. On either side of us we could see cultivated terraces bearing vines, but the grapes were not yet ripe enough to eat. Here and there was the outline of a stone cottage and occasionally, a more grandiose villa. We were about one-third of the way down and could see that just below us, was a fairly extensive cluster of houses, seemingly clinging to the steep mountain side. From the sea rose a fret that was cold and uncomfortable, so we decided to leave the track and take shelter in some suitable spot on one of the terraces. Here we were pleasantly surprised to
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find that there were peaches growing among the vines. Strange, that with so much fruit growing, none had been available in the camp. Finding a small hut, we opened an unlocked door and were assailed by the smell of drying hay. Thankfully we threw ourselves down, prepared to sleep. It was a restless, fitful sleep for each of us. We emerged from our hide-out about seven o’clock. As yet the sun was on the other side of the mountain and we were enveloped in patches of mist. Occasionally we heard the cries of sheep and goats, and the calling of their charges, as we sat down to make a breakfast of peaches.
It was agreed that contact had to be made quickly with someone living in the vicinity, in order to get a clear picture of what was happening in the locality. We had been forbidden to learn Italian in camp, but I had a smattering of school French which I thought might be of help. Our knowledge to date, was that Mussolini had been forced to resign and that the Italian government had signed an armistice with the Allies. Basically, we were among friends but – where were the Germans?
Rumours of an Allied invasion of Italy, had not been confirmed before our flight from the camp. One thing was certain in our minds; ‘The bloody Jerries would never give up’.
We were all too tall to be mistaken for locals
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and, of course, our khaki battle-dress, even shorn of the red silk patches which once highlighted the back and knees, were a dead give-away. Our immediate needs were food, washing facilities and a complete change of clothing. But how? All this was in the hands of the gods.
Cautiously making our way back to the track, we renewed our descent towards the sea. Slowly the mist began to lift revealing the beautiful coastal town of Rapallo and the adjoining Portofino. Somewhere below were sounds of several discordant bells and cries of animals. We decided to step off the track and await the approaching noises. Suddenly, through a patch of mist, we saw a flock of goats coming our way, spilling over from the track to the terraces on each side. They were being urged forward by a ragged, barefoot boy of about twelve years.
“Inglese!” he shouted excitedly. “Sono Giacomo. Piacere! Piacere!”.
We didn’t quite understand the language, but the idea was quite clear. With extravagant hand gestures, I related our names, agreed we were English, and pointed to the mountain top, saying, “Campo”. With sign language we indicated our need of food. From a small haversack, he produced what was obviously his meal for the day. A small, rough loaf of bread, a piece of goat cheese, which smelled to high heaven, a peach and a bottle of diluted wine. He insisted that we
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take the lot. By means of signs and occasional words, he made it known that an English-speaking lady lived nearby, and he would take us to her.
Down below, on the beautiful Ligurian coast, we could see the movement of transport in the towns. Everything seemed so peaceful, with only the jangling bells and the cries of the goats to break the stillness of the day.
The first group of houses we saw, carried the designation ‘Via San Bartolomeo’, and it was to house number five that we were escorted. By now, the excited shouts of Giacomo had attracted the attention of several adults, as well as children who crowded around us, offering a very warm welcome.
From the house rushed a vivacious, young woman, laughing and crying.
“I’m Linda Basso.” she declared. “Oh come inside. Meet my mother and my uncle.” She spoke rapidly to the crowd, who reluctantly left the scene.
Chattering excitedly, she made tea and insisted that we sat and drank it as she fried eggs and made toast for us. She talked incessantly about the war situation, her life in London before 1939, her family and friends, and
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questioned us about our backgrounds, as we demolished substantial quantities of food. Finally satisfied, we sat back and told her of our plan to get away by boat, if there was to be no landing by Allied forces in the area. She produced towels, soap and a razor which we used in turn. These were the property of her brother who was serving in an Alpine Regiment near Domodossola, on the Northern border.
As we breakfasted and talked, the whole village burst into life. Everyone wanted to meet and welcome the English. Gifts of food, wine and tobacco, were handed in to Linda’s mother. There were no fascists any more – no black shirts anywhere. We listened to Radio Roma, but the language was beyond us. Linda translated, informing us that the Allies had indeed landed in the South but there was no suggestion that further landings at Genoa and Venice, were envisaged.
We remained in an over-fed daze that morning and at one stage, were asked to go outside and meet the local people. We did so with much hand-shaking and kissing on either cheek, by men as well as women. The latter was quite alien to us but we suffered in silence. Vic was the star turn. He looked Italian and many could see in him, a likeness to this cousin or that. The name Vittorio was also a help.
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Leaving the villagers to go back to their own occupations, we returned indoors for a less frenetic discussion with our hostess about our immediate requirements, as well as plans for the future. Our original idea was to steal a boat and make our way Southwards in search of invading troops. Had we done that immediately, we might have got away with it in the turmoil of the time, but we were filled with this idea that General Alexander would make a landing nearby.
We asked Linda if she could obtain for us, civilian clothing of any kind.
“Of course.” she replied. “I have many good friends and one in particular, an American, is married to an Italian. She has lived in Santa Margharita for many years and is well to do. I will see her this afternoon.”
She returned, fully laden, early that evening and helped us to equip ourselves with a variety of oddments, which were in no way out of place in the environment. There were gifts of money, books – a complete set of the works of D.H. Lawrence, published in Germany. Donna Louisa, who sent them, had been a friend of Lawrence before the war.
That evening we went down to the ‘osteria’ to be introduced to many of the locals. There was music and dancing, with wine and food in abundance. As the evening
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progressed, I realised that I knew nothing of the true character of Jim and Vic. They drank copiously; oh how they drank! They were hard men, members of a special service, two-man submarine group, who had been captured after a devastating attack on shipping in Taranto Harbour. They intended to make up for the lost months in the prisoner-of-war camp, where we had become acquainted in the “special surveillance” party of inmates who required constant watching. It was understandable. They too, had had a rough time as prisoners.
I did not drink and had the utmost difficulty in convincing the Italians that this was so. Finally, I had to get Linda to explain to everyone that I was a Scotsman, not English, and was a member of the Church of Scotland which did not permit smoking or drinking. This appeared quite incredible to people who drank diluted wine as soon as they were weaned from mother’s breast. From then on I became something of a legendary character.
How quickly the first few days passed, but disillusionment began to creep in. Separately, accompanied by Linda, we visited Rapallo, where we observed more and more Germans arriving to man the defences vacated by the disintegrating Italian Army. It was obvious that escape by sea would be impossible, so we had either to sit tight and await further Allied landings, or move inland and find a route down South by way of the Apennines.
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Our life of luxury was not to last much longer. News came that the Basso family had been denounced to the German authorities and could expect a visit from police or troops at any time. Hastily we were escorted to a secret cave, higher up the mountain, where the family stored their wine harvest.
A week passed, during which we cooked, studied phrase books, walked in the woods, did gymnastics and endeavoured to toughen ourselves in readiness for future adverse events. We could not decide exactly what would be the best course to pursue, always having in the back of our minds, that our troops would soon invade the North. Thus, September passed by and all were agreed that we must make a positive move before Winter approached. We really needed arms and heavy clothing, and asked Linda to see what she could obtain for us.
As a result “Colonel Testa” (a nom de guerre) was brought to us one evening, introduced by friends of the Basso family. He would give us no idea of what organisation he represented or where he lived, other than that he came from the Province of Genoa. He had served as an officer in the Italian Army and proposed to organise a guerrilla group with us as section leaders. Money and arms would soon be made available. Leaving us with a gift of ten thousand lira and his personal Beretta pistol, he departed for Genoa.
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Within days we learned that he had been tortured and killed by the Gestapo, having been denounced by a discarded mistress.
Fascism was once more raising its ugly head and it seemed just then, that time, for us, was running out. However, as events turned out, it was the prelude to thirteen months of perilous adventure behind the German lines.
W.H. Strachan MM [Military Medal]
Tyne and Wear.
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Disaster at Sesta Godano
by W.H Strachan
(Approx 2,700 words)
William Hunter Strachan MM [Military Medal] FRGS [Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society]
Tyne and Wear
Note: This story was published in full in the 1995 Edition of the ‘Coldstream Gazette’. Bill Strachan died on Friday, 13th May 1994.
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[Map of North West Italy. Some of the towns and locations that are mentioned in W.D. Strachan’s account are circled or highlighted.]
[Photograph of an Italian World War II Propaganda leaflet, the left hand side has a picture of W.D. Strachan with an article saying he is wanted for murder. The right hand side of the leaflet has an amnesty article advising any Allied POW’s that are “on the run” to give themselves up to the Italian authorities.]
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[Photograph with caption] Ferdinand (Charlie) and Anna Maria Kuhn, Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada.
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Brigadier Crockatt’s “Stand fast” order to British and Commonwealth prisoners of war in Italy when the Italian Armistice was signed in September 1943, together with the treachery of Colonel Taddeo Castelli, Camp Commandant of Camp P.G.52, Chiavari, Genoa, ensured that 2,300 inmates became prisoners of the Germans on September 9th.
I know, I was there – but not for long! That same evening, followed by Leading Seaman Victor Worthy of the Royal Navy’s two man submarine service, I cut the perimeter wires on the north side of the camp and escaped – into the unknown.
We soon established contact with several fellow escapees as we waited hopefully for the Allied Invasion Fleet. Among these was Lance Sergeant Ferdinand (Charlie) Kuhn of the 3rd Coldstream who decided to make an early break and move southwards with two South Africans in an effort to reach the Allies. Two weeks later, he returned, saying that he had met an ex-prisoner, Major Gordon Letts of the Indian Army Service Corps, who was organising a partisan group near La Spezia and sought all the help he could get. He had asked Charlie to return and try to persuade me to join him. I liked the idea. Early in November, in the most appalling weather, we set out for La Spezia.
During the afternoon of the third gruelling day, we approached the area of Sesta Godano and could see in the distance, a fair-sized market in progress. We ought to have avoided it like a plague, but
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tiredness and a desire to reach the end of our journey, if only to escape the persistent rain, tempted us to take a risk. It was an ill-fated decision. We skirted the perimeter of the crowd and were glad to reach the end of the built-up area. We hurried along a narrowing valley towards the mountains, knowing that at some time we would have to cross the raging torrent in a ravine on our right.
We were about two miles beyond the town when a Carabiniere officer rode up from behind on a bicycle. The noise of the rushing water and the splash of the rain had completely covered his approach. Some distance ahead, he jumped to the ground, dropping the cycle and drawing his revolver. “Halt! Drop those packs! Who are you?” he called. We walked towards him lowering our haversacks. “Jump him, Charlie,” I muttered. He did just that, grabbing the revolver and striking across the policeman’s face. We both grappled with his writhing body and began to beat him up. All the pent-up hatred engendered by the bastards who had maltreated me in Camp after my first escape a year before, came to the surface and I kicked him as he struggled with Charlie. It was he who had to throw the unconscious enemy and his bicycle over a low wall, into the ravine.
By this time, blood was pumping from the bandaged middle finger of my right hand, the tip of which I had sliced with an axe and almost severed whilst chopping wood some days before.
We had barely time to recover our breath before we were assailed
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with a fusillade of shots. Four Carabinieri, two armed with rifles, had jumped off a lorry some distance behind and seemed hell-bent on taking us. “Leave the packs and run!” I shouted.
With Charlie following, I raced up the valley and at the first sight of a suitable track hidden by a bend in the road, dashed up the mountainside on the left. I had no idea where my friend was but could hear shots continuing on the road below. Under the cover of chestnut trees I ran Northwards till I was utterly exhausted and sought protection under an overhanging rock face. When twilight came I continued on my way in the direction of Piacenza and on three successive nights begged food and medical treatment for my hand at isolated cottages.
During the evening of the fourth day I reached the Osteria at Cichero and gave the alarm. Charlie had not returned.
That night, word went out to all families in the surrounding villages, warning them to ensure that there was no evidence of any kind in their homes to connect them with ex-prisoners of war.
Nothing untoward happened immediately but a month later, friends of ours, Father Atilio Fontana of Cichero and Lidia del Soldato of Borsonasca were arrested, tried with aiding and abetting enemies of the State and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment in Genoa Prison. Each pleaded that their Christian duty was to help anyone in distress. These sentences were quite lenient.
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Word filtered through from Vito Spiotta’s Neo-fascist Headquarters that my name was being published on a “WANTED” list together with those of “Marzo” and “Bini”, Vincenzo Canepa and Giovanni Serbandini, organisers of the 3rd Garibaldi Partisan Brigade. (Communist).
Three years were to pass before I learned of what had happened to Charlie. He ran behind me for some time before he realised that the Carabinieri were closing in. Wisely, he threw away the revolver, vaulted a low wall on his right side and scrambled down into the ravine. All too soon, he lost his footing and fell one hundred and fifty feet. When two of his pursuers finally reached him, he lay unconscious with a serious head wound and a gaping hole in his right thigh. He was left there, guarded by two policemen, whilst efforts were concentrated upon the removal of wounded Carabiniere. It was a difficult task to lift Charlie out of the ravine for he was six feet two inches tall. It was as well that he was unconscious for no-one was in any mood to treat him with care. Darkness was falling as he came to, momentarily, and he found himself hanging downwards over the shoulder of a ‘contadino’ who, with a rope around his waist, was being pulled up the side of the ravine while someone was pushing from behind. Quickly, oblivion returned to blot out the agony.
Some time afterwards he awoke to find himself surrounded by fire; bright red leaping flames, jumping and diving towards him, – chattering, gabbling, hysterical voices, – head pounding, – room
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spinning, – he thought he was in Hell!
Someone was wiping his face with a blood-red rag and trying to pour something down his throat. He became aware of a variety of police and military uniforms and could ascertain the word “Tedesche” being repeated.
A doctor arrived and ordering the room to be cleared, set about, in a non-too-gentle fashion, to give him a thorough examination. He cut the hair around the head wound and placed a padded bandage in place. The damaged thigh was disinfected and covered whilst broken ribs and minor abrasions were left untreated.
Placed on a stretcher, he was carried to an ambulance outside where a crowd of villagers murmured their sympathy as a group of Carabinieri merely seethed with rage, mindful that their German masters were now in charge. (Charlie afterwards learned that his “Visit to Hell” was when he was laid in front of the local baker’s open furnace.)
He was taken to La Spezia Civil Hospital which had a German Commandant and a special wing for military invalids. Here, he was given immediate attention. Fifteen stitches were inserted into the gash in his head and a surgeon operated on the badly damaged thigh. Broken ribs were bound and all abrasions cleansed. He was given a sedative and it was late in the afternoon of the following day before he awoke with a Carabiniere officer sitting by his bed. Another stood outside the door. For some considerable time he lay there, pretending
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to sleep, as he turned over in his mind the traumatic events which had brought him to this situation.
He turned towards his guard and said, “I need a bottle. To piss.” The outside man was sent to find a nurse who arrived with the necessary article. She held his wrist, checking his pulse and asked in Italian, “Are you German?” “No,” he replied, “English.” He wished she would go, for he knew he couldn’t do anything in her presence. Observing his discomfiture she left the room and he eased his bladder.
A few minutes later she arrived with a nun who brought a cup of ‘ersatz’ coffee which he drank greedily. At least it was wet and warm. “Are you English?” asked the nun. “Yes,” he replied, “I was a prisoner of war.” “You are not well enough to answer questions,” she went on, “These people do not like you. They think you are a German deserter. Close your eyes if you see any military visitors come in. Pretend to sleep and think carefully of your story now before you are interrogated. Forget all names and places.” Abruptly she left.
He felt rotten, as if he had been run over by a bus. He began to think of her warning and advice. Never before had he spoken to a nun. This one seemed very worldly and not exactly pro-German.
For a while he dozed and then found that the nurse had returned with a bowl of minestrone and some bread. She had to feed him and it was a difficult task, slowly achieved. She spoke haltingly in English on a couple of occasions and when she stood up to leave, he realised that she
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was very tall for an Italian and a very bonny lass too.
The following day an irate, theatrically dressed Chief of Police arrived to interrogate his prisoner, but Charlie claimed he couldn’t understand the interpreter’s English as his head was buzzing strangely. In threatening manner the policeman warned him that he would be shot as a spy. The questions came angrily, “Where have you come from? Where are you going? Who has helped you since September? Where did you get the Italian money? Whom do you know in the Communist Party? Bruto Bastardo!” he finally screamed. Charlie turned to the interpreter and informed him that the International Red Cross in Geneva had already been informed of his presence in this hospital and soon that Organisation would be told of this visit and be given the names of everyone concerned. On the arrival of the Allies, retribution would certainly come. The response was a vitriolic tirade before the party withdrew.
During the following week he was interrogated daily by an Italian officer and then a civilian arrived to question further. He was obviously a Gestapo agent, Charlie continued to plead that there was something wrong with his head and could remember very little of the past weeks. In fact his head was healing nicely but the leg wound was giving concern.
As the weeks passed by that wound refused to heal and he began to wonder if he would lose his leg. His only consolation was the
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kindness of his first nurse, Anna Maria Ricciotti, the daughter of an Italian Naval Officer, as well as a number of her personal friends on the administrative staff of the hospital.
When things were looking really bad, an X ray was taken and this revealed small pieces of rock embedded near the bone. An operation was performed and the whole area thoroughly cleansed. Thereafter, his general health improved. He went out of his way to be friendly to everyone, even to the police who so closely guarded him. Among those was Amos Azzani, a resident of Genoa who had a pathological hatred of all Germans. He kept Charlie informed of the BBC News Bulletins and even presented him with a knife, supposedly for the peeling of fruit. His friendship with Anna Maria was developing apace and they helped each other in the study of their respective languages. She promised to help him escape and prepared adequate clothing and money.
From time to time he had lots of unofficial visitors. There was no shortage of gifts including fruit, wine, books and money.
He ought to have made his escape during the New Year festivities for Anna already had his boots and clothing hidden on the premises. However, he was persuaded to wait for better weather in the Spring.
Official visits by senior police officers became infrequent, no charges were laid against him and he began to think the law had forgotten him.
Totally unexpected, they came for him at 4.30A.M., in the
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darkness of a cold February morning, a German ‘Feldwebel’ and two Carabinieri. Ordered to dress quickly and pick up his toilet bag, he was handcuffed to a policeman and hustled out to a ‘carozza’, (horse-drawn carriage) waiting by the main entrance. They were driven to the railway station and located in a reserved compartment of a train on the point of leaving for Parma. There was no chance of escape for he was handcuffed even in the toilet.
Arriving in the midst of an air raid, they boarded a train for Mantua where he was handed over to the Commandant of a German Prisoner of War Camp. Thoroughly searched, he was taken to a huge garage filled with two-tier bunks. Here he met up with fellow Coldstreamer, Sergeant Cyril Gaff and a Scots Guardsman. With three South Africans they formed an escape group with the avowed intention of making a break if they were moved to Germany.
Conditions were grim. The food was vile and the cold intense. Eventually fifty British and Commonwealth prisoners of war who had all been escapees, were taken to the station under heavy guard for transportation to Germany. They were all locked in a goods wagon which was lined with straw and had a toilet bucket in one corner.
Their first task was to warn everyone that an escape was planned. When darkness fell, members of the group took it in turn to start cutting an exit in the front of the wagon. Their only tools were Amos Azzini’s knife and a broken hack-saw blade, but they persevered
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despite blistered palms.
On the second day, as the train stood in a siding, they were ordered outside. They now observed that they were travelling northwards through the Alps. Ringed by sullen guards, they were given bread and sausage and told to get water from a running tap nearby. They emptied and washed out their improvised toilet and all too soon were ordered inside. The ‘Feldwebel’ who checked the nominal roll, failed to notice the work done by the prisoners.
Next day they were accorded another feeding stop. All went well until the engine gave a jolt which dislodged two capes which had been fastened over the damaged woodwork, revealing a large “V” shape. It was quickly spotted by a guard who fired his ‘Schmeiser’ pistol into the air. In threatening manner the Germans closed in on their prisoners. The Officer in Charge ordered each man in turn to enter the wagon, threatening Charlie whom he guessed was the leader. Satisfied that all were present, he locked the door. After some delay they heard hammering outside, telling them that their labours had been in vain.
It was on the fourth day that they arrived in Minsburg [? Moosburg] and were marched into Stalag 17B, just as typhus was decimating Russian prisoners in the adjoining compound.
Charlie was once more “in the bag” but, at least, he was out of the clutches of the Carabiniere.
I managed to survive, despite having a price on my head. Moving
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South in September 1944, aided by guides provided by M.I.9., I crossed the battle zone at Massa Carrara to be welcomed by men of General Mark Clark’s American 5th Army on Thanksgiving Day.
Turkey and cranberry all round!
In 1950 Charlie married Anna Maria Ricciotti and emigrated to Canada where, in British Columbia, they have prospered and lived happily. Now retired, they have a son and a daughter and two grandchildren.
W H Strachan
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[Letter from W.H Strachan of Tyne and Wear to Charlie and Anna Maria]
22 April 1994
I have just completed my story of the Sesta Godana incident and have pleasure in enclosing a copy for your comments. It is, of course, fiction based on fact and I hope that my author’s licence does not detract too much from the real thing. If I have included anything which gives offence, please let me know.
Last time I wrote I included a letter from “Topper” Brown of Liverpool. It was the last he sent. He died unexpectedly on April 8th, his aorta having disintegrated and nothing could be done for him. I did not go down to the funeral as I feared it would mean too much stress for my own condition.
All goes reasonably well for us. Last week we saw John Osborne’s “Look Back in anger” in Newcastle. Not my cup of tea, but Susanne liked it. This week we’ve seen “An Inspector Calls” by J.B Priestly. This is an old favourite and was particularly well portrayed. We have bookings for five shows during June.
On Friday 15th, 80 members of the Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Ashington Branches of the Association attended the Passing Out Parade of the Brigade Squad at the Infantry Training Battalion Barracks at Catterick. Major Hingston, Second in Command, proffered the invitation. It was a bitterly cold day with a strong, blustery north wind making life uncomfortable. The Regimental Band was on parade.
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Major General Gordon Lennox of HQ London District took the salute, gave an inspiring talk and presented prizes, all of which were won by Coldstreamers. The youngsters were quite magnificent with their marching and arms drill. I came away most impressed. Whoever decided to join Guards and Paras in one training battalion, hit on a splendid idea. The rivalry is even greater than that of Coley v. Bill Browns in our day.
H.M Queen is to visit Coldstream on July 6th. Ashington Branch have been invited to meet her. I hope to be there. As yet I have not managed to get seats for the Trooping of the Colour. If none arrive I’ll have to be content to watch it on television. What a mess we have created in Bosnia! I feel sorry for Mike Rose.
You mentioned a Partisan Medal. Do you have one? If so, tell me about it.
We continue to be plagued by strong winds and there seems to be no let-up from winter. The new increased taxation has just come into effect and the jolt upon the purse strings is very evident. In your next letter will you tell me how many miles you are from Port Coquitlam? I think I told you that we know a family in that town.
I will close at this point, wishing you all everything that you would wish for yourselves.
P.S Don’t forget! It’s fiction!
Bill and Susanne.
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THE MILITARY MEDAL
2656614 SGT [Sergeant] STRACHAN, WILLIAM HUNTER
Captured whilst trying to break out of Tobruk on the 21st June 1942, Sgt Strachan was imprisoned in, Benghazi, Capua, Benevento and Chiavari (camp 52)
On the 2nd of May 1943, he escaped from Chiavari. Having organised a “bogus” fatigue party for the Red Cross store which was outside the camp he successfully past the guards. He was however caught on the Rome-Turin express three days later. His high moral which had been praised by two Naval prisoners of War at Chiavari was not impaired by the brutal treatment he received as a result of this attempt to escape.
He was still at Chiavari when it was occupied by the German’s and on the evening of the 9th September 1943, he cut the wire of the rear fence even though it was illuminated by search lights and was within 50 yards of a sentry. He invited others to accompany him but only two availed themselves of the opportunity. The three men were not seen by the Guards. Gradually they made their way to Croce d’ Orero, where in November 1943 they joined a partisan band.
At the beginning of December 1943, Sgt Strachan and another prisoner of War were caught by a Fascist, but Sgt Strachan succeeded in breaking away.
His service with the partisans, although mainly confined to minor activities against Fascists, was continuous until his journey to Allied lines was arranged. He was included in a party of prisoners of War who were guided to American forces near Seravezza on 23rd November 1944. For this he was awarded the Military Medal.
LCPL [Lance-Corporal] Bingley
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[Letter from Ferdinando Charlie Kuhn of Canada to Keith Killby]
22 April 1996
Dear Keith Killby,
I received a letter you wrote to Tom Vickers about Bill Strachan’s “Disaster at Sesta Godana”. I am Ferdinando Kuhn. “Charlie” is my nickname.
I have enclosed my story which I wrote for Bill Strachan after I got home in 1945. I have enclosed a copy of Bill Strachan’s letter to me about his article and the word “fiction”. Bill Strachan looked for me for a long time, for me to give him information, and lots of things, which he wrote are wrong. If you can read my writing you will see the difference.
After my return to England I married an English girl. I had known her for six years and we married and parted after six weeks. I left England in 1947 and went to Canada. My wife had started divorce proceedings and we were divorced. I lived at this time in a
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logging camp in Northern Ontario. I wrote to Anna Maria Ricciotta. From there I left Northern Ontario in August 1947 and headed west for British Columbia. I ended up in another logging camp called ?Sarita River on the west coast of Vancouver Island, 28 miles from Port Alberni by boat – no road. Anna Maria and I corresponded and we agreed to marry. We were married in August 1949. We were married in Vancouver, British Columbia. We lived in a house in the logging camp at Sarita.
It was hard for Anna Maria, an English husband, a different language, out in the Bush, different from Rome where she had been living, working in the Italian Foreign Ministry, different food and you had to make a shopping list as groceries came once a week by boat. We lived there until 1954 and moved to Port Alberni. Our home is in Port Alberni now. Life in Serita was not too bad. We knew all the families, everyone helped each other. There were dances, two film shows as week and a bridge club. We lived in a nice house with a garden. We could see the whales swimming in the Bay. It was different from Italy. Anna Maria learned English fast and became a Canadian. For 50 years I had no word about the
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Regiment, until Bill contacted me.
I met Gordon Lett at the time he was starting activities in Italy.
If I had never met him, my future life would have been so different and I might not have lived either. I do not recommend marriage between English and Italians. The two are so different and love [does] not conquer all. We have two very successful children, Paul and Rita. Rita is a School Teacher specialising in French Immersion and Paul owns an Art Gallery in Calgary, Alberta, [Canada]. Anna Maria has been back to Italy. We went back in 1986 to Sesta Godana. It was different. I would not have found the place where I fell if it had not been for the grand-son of one of the men who pulled me out. The Bakery owner was alive but everybody else was dead and I think you are a lot later, over 50 years, if you want to write about War time escapes.
There were two other men who made many attempts of escape from PG 52. One was a Sergeant Major from the RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] who got to Milan. The other was a Sergeant in the RAF [Royal Air Force]. He made four
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or five attempts and finally made it to freedom. He fooled the Italians by speaking Welsh and saying he was a Romanian. The Man of Confidence (leader was a RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] of the Inns of Court Regiment, London. I cannot remember the names but I can remember the details.
How I escaped:
The Camp was taken over by the Germans. As we were being marched to the rail station The roads were all bends. I noticed that at times at certain points for a few seconds some of us were unguarded. I waited for my chance, I gave my back pack to the man next to me. I dashed across the road through the front door of a house, out the back door, out of the garden and up the side of a hill and away. The enemy shot at us and a South African followed me. When we stopped for a rest I thought that my heart would jump out of my chest, it was pumping so hard.
We came to a farm house, who gave us food and we slept in the barn and the farmer dyed our uniforms dark blue. I cannot remember where, or their names, and we were passed to other people in the mountains.
I hope this will enlighten you a little.
Ferdinando Charlie Kuhn.
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Charlie Kuhn’s Story, 1946
After we had knocked out the Carabinieri and got rid of his body by tossing it into a ditch, we looked around and saw, to our dismay, four other Carabinieri making their way towards us.
Bill summed up the situation in a moment and shouted “leave the shit”. We started running and the Carabinieri started shooting. I still had the pistol, which we took from the Carabinieri, in my hand, and as we passed a small building on our right, which afforded a little cover, I looked around and stopped with half an idea to dire back at the Carabinieri. I could hear the bullets flying over head and thudding into the ground nearby and I decided against shooting back at the Police.
I knew we had to cross the river, which ran parallel with the road and I shouted to Bill, who was in front, to make for the river and cross it and at the same time we would be sheltered from the fire from the Carabinieri. The river ran through a steep gorge at this point and so I was ?shrinking down. I missed my footing and fell. As I fell I must have hit my head on a rock and I completely passed out. The next thing I remembered was that I had a brief spell of consciousness and remember that I was laid on the back of an Italian peasant and a man behind was pushing me. My right leg was paining me like the devil and I shouted in Italian, “mind my leg” and also there was a rope around me and another Italian on top of the gorge pulling me and helping the man who was carrying me at the same time. I then passed out again.
The next thing I can remember is that I was in a room and a very pretty girl was pouring something very warm and sweet down my throat and sat the same time I felt a terrific longing to kiss the girl and then passed out again. When I fully regained consciousness which was two hours later I found that I was in a room with a huge fire half way up the wall and that I was aching all over. I suddenly realised that I was in a bake house lying on a stretcher and guarded by two Carabinieri. They say that I was awake and they
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started to speak to me and asked me how I felt and why I had beaten the Carabinieri. I told them that he had tried to stop us and that we had been on our way to Pescara to cross into the Allied lines. The Carabinieri were quite sympathetic and they informed me that if I had told the Carabiniero that we were English he would not have stopped us but that remains to be seen. The time now was about eleven at night and the police told me that I was going to be taken to Hospital in La Spezia. During the time I was unconscious many people had brought me food and little parcels and one person had put Lira 200 in my pocket. This 200 Lira caused me a lot of trouble later on.
At about 11.30pm an ambulance came to take me to Hospital and the whole Carabinieri Force of Sesta Godana turned out from the C.O downwards, and all the village came to see me go. The ambulance was very modern and in a short while we arrived at La Spezia Civil Hospital. I was taken into the dressing station and two doctors started to patch me up. They put fifteen stitches into my head and bandaged my right leg and hand. In my leg there was a large gaping hole and it was giving me quite a lot of pain. When the doctors had finished with me I was given a cup of coffee by a nun and put in a room by myself and went to sleep. The doctors were very kind and gave me every attention and said it was tough luck to be caught again and also informed me that I had fallen 50 meters, which is about 150 ft, in all and that I was lucky to be alive.
The next morning the Chief of Police in the La Spezia area came along and started questioning me; who I was, where I had been; where I was going to; who had helped me and hundreds of other awkward questions. This all took place in Italian and it was difficult at first to understand him and I lied to him about everything and he lost his temper and in turn threatened and pleaded with me. The Lira 200 in my pocket caused a lot of trouble and I was called a liar and I, in turn, threatened him
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and told him what would happen to him when the Allies arrived in his part of the world. He did not get much information out of me and he finally packed up after four hours. I was not sorry I can assure you. All the time I was in Hospital I was guarded night and day by two Carabinieri. I was moved into a padded cell out of the way from the civilian patients by myself and I cannot tell you how depressed I was and I wondered what had happened to Bill and the rest of my comrades in the mountains.
After three days in the padded cell I was moved into the top story of another part of the Hospital. One end of this storey had been hit by an English incendiary bomb and was burned out but the other half was o.k to live in apart from broken windows and broken glass strewn all over the place. I was placed in a little room with iron bars on the window. I had the use of a big room with windows overlooking La Spezia Bay, here I used to sit in the sun and watch what went on in the outside world. By this time I had become very friendly with a Red Cross nurse. She expressed a desire to learn English and I wanted to better my Italian so we gave each other lessons. Her name was Anna Maria Ricciotti, she was very tall for an Italian, dark with beautiful eyes and, altogether, she was a very pleasant person and we got along together very well indeed and you will see in later chapters of this story. Her father was a captain in the Italian Navy and was attached to the Italian Consulate in Turkey at Messina [word is corrected to Symrna (Izmir in Turkey) in the original]. Anna Maria was an antifascist and the only thing she was looking to was the return of her father from abroad.
I also made friends with many of the orderlies and clerks that worked in the Hospital and I also had two friends in the Carabinieri. One of these, his name was Amos Azzani and he came from Genoa and was an ardent anti-fascist and a real hater of the Germans. When he was on duty guarding me, if you like to put it that way, he used to tell me all the English news and was in very high spirits when Berlin received a thousand plane bomber raid.
I also made friends with a clerk by the name of Lidia
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and her friend Rena. Lidia was engaged to marry an American at time serving in Southern Italy, and Rena was engaged to marry an Italian sailor who sailed with the Italian Fleet to surrender to the Allies at Malta. Rena was forever asking me when the war would end and when her fiancé Remo would return. These two girls were good friends but my real friend was Anna Maria Ricciotti.
At this time I had become very friendly with Anna Maria and I knew I could trust her and I asked her if she could help me to escape. This she agreed to do. All the time I was in Hospital my clothes and boots were taken from me and all I had to wear was a pair of pyjamas, a pullover and a pair of slippers two sizes too small. I could wander round in the [1 word illegible] I was without the Police worrying and there were plenty of places where I could hide clothes and boots. I told Anna Maria this and she said she would bring clothes and boots and conceal them in the Hospital when the time was ripe. I had been in Hospital for a month and my leg refused to heal up. I have to thank Lidia as she persuaded the Professor to give me an X Ray. I had an X Ray and it revealed a piece of rock lodged in my leg next to the bone. I was operated on and the leg began to heal. By this time the Germans had a ward below and I had a few German visitors as well as civilians to come and see me. The civilians bought me wine and fruit and other things and the Germans [1 word illegible] like wise. The Germans tried to pump propaganda into me and I told them they hadn’t got a meatballs’ chance in Hell to win the war, they told me I was mad.
One Sunday afternoon Anna Maria came to see me and we were talking when a crowd of Germans and Republican Fascist soldiers came to see me. We started talking and arguing and telling each other what we thought of each other and nearly came to blows. This was between me and the Fascists – the Germans did not understand Italian well. Anna Maria was forbidden to come and see me by the German Commandant of the Hospital but she still came to see me at night. One afternoon a German Military Policeman came to see me and asked how I was. I told him I was getting well.
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My leg was getting better and I had hopes of escaping soon. I was wakened one morning at 4.30 by the German Military Policeman and two Carabinieri I had not seen before and I was told to get dressed. My clothes and what else that had been salvaged when I was captured was brought to me. When I was dressed my hands were handcuffed behind me and I left the Hospital chained like a criminal in the darkness of a cold February morning. Outside the Hospital a “carozza” – a horse carriage – was waiting and we drove away to the railway station. I found out from the Carabinieri that I was being taken to Mantova. A compartment was reserved for us but the damned Hunn would not take my handcuffs off. When I went to the lavatory on board the train my handcuffs were taken off but a Carabiniero came with me and covered me with a revolver. I think they must have thought I was a superman to escape from a fast moving train with a half healed leg.
We arrived at Parma in the middle of an air raid and then changed trains for Mantova. We arrived in Mantova at dusk and what I could see it was full of Germans and Fascist troops with Fascist slogans in the walls everywhere. To make the place more miserable a [1 word illegible] fog descended and my morale was not very high, I can tell you. We finally arrived at the prison camp and I had my last look around at the free world and then I was behind barbed wire again. I was taken into a room and was searched. All my kit was laid on the floor when a German unter-officer cane and started shouting “lans” “lans” which I took to mean get a move on. I picked up my kit and was given four blankets and taken into the Compound. The place in which we slept was a huge garage with double decker beds in it and it was damned cold.
The first person I met was a Serb guardsman who asked me “did the Fascists get you?” I told him my adventures and he told me his and I met my fellow prisoners. In this Camp there were men from all over the world and all colours. There were men from the British and French Empires, from French West Africa and men from the South Sea Island. We were dressed in all kinds of clothes, some fellows looked smart and elegant from the cities,
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fellows like myself who had been living in the mountains, men who looked like out of work poets. There were even a couple of Colonels of the Carabinieri there and many hundreds of Italian Alpine Troops who refused to fight for the Huns. There was a party of Free French who had blown up two German hospital trains. There were two Parachute Officers who had walked the length of Italy from the Brenner to the Allied Lines twice and were caught again.
The food was horrible, there were two meals a day consisting of a stew made from offal which in England is thrown away, i.e lungs and wind pipes etc and a few potatoes thrown in for good luck. A piece of ?sour aged bread and a little jam completed the meal.
We were told that when there were enough of us we would be sent to Germany. We got the tip that we were moving to Germany in a couple of days’ time so we made plans to escape again. I had met a fellow Coldstreamer Cyril Gaff and we decided to escape again. Four other fellows and me [1 word illegible] made a party and we decided to attempt to escape from the train. I had a knife and found a piece of cord ?saw and one of the other boys had a small file. The day came when we had to leave for Germany and we knew we would be very thoroughly searched before we left. I concealed my knife in a tube of shaving cream and I attached the piece of cord ?saw to the sole of my naked foot with a piece of adhesive plastic tape. The boy with the file – he was a south African – hid his file by putting it up his rectum, much to our amusement but no picnic for him. We got through the search o.k and were then marched to the station and put aboard the waiting waggons ready to go to Germany. Fifty of us were put aboard a waggon. In the waggon there was straw to lie on and a wooden box to be used as a latrine. In the carriage behind us some of the Germans who were guarding us were stationed.
Our party of six informed the other forty four occupants of our carriage that we were going to break out of the carriage and get away, and anybody who wanted could follow us but we would broke no
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interference from anybody. I produced my knife and proceeded to make a long V shaped cut in the rear of the coach, we all took turns and very soon all we had to do was to tap the woodwork and a hole big enough for any man would appear. All we had to do was to jump off the train and there to freedom or so we hoped.
The train moved off and soon we were crossing the Plains of Lombardy. To conceal the newly made cuts in the coach we hung a couple of “mantilles” or cloaks in the cuts.
The train stopped and a ?feldrelel came in and made everybody stand up and he had a look around to see if everything was in order. He did not spot the cuts and we heard a sigh of relief. We were all prepared and ready to jump when the train stopped again. The door opened and the ?“feldrelel” appeared again and started to look round again. At the most inopportune moment the train gave a jerk and the two cloaks fell down and revealed the newly cut wood. The German ?feldrelel went literally mad and stated shouting and waving his pistol around and I took the [2 words illegible] for the whole truck. A German officer appeared on the scene and pointed his pistol to me and said “Nein ?beter ?freund” sabotage and I was made to understand I was in for a rough time in Germany when we arrived there.
The two Huns departed and locked the door and we could hear sounds of hammering going on, on the outside of the waggon. The whole truck was completely wired around and extra sentries posted and we knew then that we were doomed for Germany. After a horrible ride of four days and nights we arrived at Muisberg [near Munich]. We were marched into Stalag 17A and arrived in the middle of a typhus epidemic and the Russian prisoners were dying like flies. We were well and truly in the bag, as the expression goes.