Swan, William (Bill)

Summary of William Swan

Bill Swan, of Royal Durban Light Infantry, was captured at Tobruk, in July 1942. He ended up in a camp in Modena having been transferred via Benghazi, Lecce, Bari and Chieti. He was joined at Modena by Peter Campbell. Bill and Peter escaped with 3 others and headed into the Apennines. Arriving at Ranoccio, they were assisted by some Italians, who sent them by train to Florence with their young son as guide. Their journey to Bari went via Tarantula, Lake Trasimeno, Tevere, Assisi, the river Volturno, Mt. Africa, the Rapido River, and Luchera. They eventually made it back to South Africa via Cairo.

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.

[Editor’s note: The pdf file contains many spelling errors as well as handwritten corrections. These have been corrected in the edited file into standard English]

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[Handwritten note at top of page]: Bill Swan was the friend with whom Peter Campbell escaped.


Bill Swan was captured at Tobruk on 22nd June 1942.

There were Italian forces in front of us. German forces came through the Eastern side of our defences and captured more or less the whole garrison. My regiment was the RDLI – Royal Durban Light Infantry. I was a Lieutenant at the time. Rounded up by the Germans, we were put into lorries and driven into the desert. I carried Major A C Martin’s suitcase which was very heavy as it was full of books. He was 2nd in Command (2 I.C.) of the RDLI. In the evening he called me across and gave me a gin – no water.

The next day we were driven down to Derna travelling on excellent roads built by the Italians which went around the cliff to the sea at the bottom where we were held in a small village. One of my men, Ortmann, acted as interpreter. I was in command of a 3ins Mortar Battery. [handwritten text correction unclear. Could be platoon]?

We were then taken on to Benghazi where we were bombed by our own Air Force who did not realise who we were. After three days there, we were put on Italian Air Force planes and flown across to Italy. We spent the day in a cigarette factory at Lecce. We were then bussed to a proper camp at Bari. I was sitting near the inside fence when the guard on the other side told me to move: I moved but the chap next to me did not and he was bayonetted through the fence. I found many of my friends in the camp besides the officers of my regiment. Officers were kept in separate camps from the other ranks

After a month at Bari we were taken by train to Chieti. Here we started organising lectures and other activities including studying Italian. We also formed a trout Club and one of the members was Tony Ogden Smith, son of the owner of the famous fishing tackle shop – Ogden Smiths – in London. I placed an order with him for a trout rod to be made for me. This was delivered to me back in South Africa after the war and cost me twenty pounds – wonderful service.

After three months or so, we were moved by train to Modena. This is situated on the Via Emilia, north of the Apennine mountains, halfway between Parma and Bologna.

We were a camp of mixed nationals here – New Zealanders and South Africans. One of the New Zealanders was Captain Charlie Upham who had a double VC. It was here my old friend Peter Campbell turned up. He was in the South African Air Force, 40 Squadron, doing co-operation work. They flew Hurricanes and Peter was shot down in the desert, captured and transferred to Italy by submarines. In fact, Peter spent Christmas in the submarine – an experience not to be repeated.

There was lots of sport on the go in Camp – basketball, a type of baseball, etc. Peter and I took up unarmed combat taught by Lt. Co. [Lieutenant Colonel] Malan. This went quite well until I threw Peter and he landed badly. The senior officer in the camp was Lt. Co. Geddes Page and his adjutant was Sir de Villiers Graaf. All escape plans had to be approved by the Escape Committee. In one of the plans, two officers faked illness and went to the hospital in the camp. It was snowing at the time so they covered themselves with snow, crawled to the wire, cut it and got out. However, they were soon recaptured.

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Red Cross parcels arrived every month. This was a great occasion for us. A parcel usually contained tinned meat, butter, chocolates, biscuits, powder milk in tins, etc. The tins were very useful and were turned into cooking utensils and also made other handy gadgets.

Another escape that was tried occurred when we were sent out to collect timber from trucks standing on the railway line alongside the camp. The timber was for burning in the stoves in the camp kitchen and the stoves in our huts. Some chaps had the bright idea of tacking up a blanket at the side and end of the truck and hiding behind it. They smuggled the blanket out and put the plan into operation but the guards spotted them and pulled them out. Certain people who escaped and were recaptured were sent to Camp V.

We had our own bank in the camp run by Co [Colonel]? Wennt ? [word unclear] and Captain Les McGough. The Italians paid us a salary of 1700 [amount unclear] lire a month in accordance with the Geneva Convention. This did entitle them to use us as labourers. They paid the money into our bank and we could then withdraw it and buy tickets which we used to buy drink from a room next to the kitchen. The drinks consisted of Vermouth or Marsala. The bottle store was open from 5.00 pm – 6.00 pm daily. Pat Thompson invited me for a drink on his birthday.

We had our Own cookhouse run by our officers with several other ranks assisting. Breakfast consisted of mealie meal porridge, lunch was pasta – plain – and a bread roll. These meals were eaten in the dining mess. The evening meal was eaten outside our huts. The other ranks brought the large pails of food down and this consisted of plain rice and a bucket of water.

We were allowed out for a walk once a week. On one occasion we were all counted, as usual, before leaving camp and those who could speak Italian were told by our officers to walk on and talk to the guards and distract them. The SBO (Senior British Officer), Col. Geddes Page and one other officer had civilian clothes on underneath their khaki uniforms. On the way back they had people walking behind them who helped to remove the khakis leaving them in the civvies. The khaki jacket had been altered so that it came apart in one movement and the trousers similarly. The two men then turned round and coolly walked past the guards. On our return the count was taken again and the guards were informed that they had made a mistake in the original count. Unfortunately the two escapees were picked up at the station.

The guards were growing potatoes in an area behind the kitchen. This area was fenced off with netting one foot high to prevent the prisoners getting too close to the wall. One night Peter crawled along the ground and lifted a dozen or so spuds. We

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cooked them on a small stove and had a wonderful time eating them – a welcome change from pasta and rice. I don’t know what the guards must have thought when they saw the potato plants lying wilting on top of the ground.

I made a compass in the Bag which I have to this day and it still works perfectly. I bought a tin of shoe polish and when the polish was finished, cleaned it out nicely and stuck an old gramophone needle through the centre of the bottom. Then I took two sewing needles and magnetized them on the magnetic handle of my razor. This I then sewed onto a round card from a tin of Wills cigarettes – the needles had to be reversed, head to tail. The gramophone fitted into a press stud sewn onto the centre of the cardboard on which the signs of the compass were drawn. The guards used to carry out inspections regularly but they never found my compass. Peter and I put in our plan for an escape but were informed that it should be held over for the present. The plan was that we were going to pretend to be drunk and be sent to the cells in the Italian quarter. There we would break into the ceiling which was a type of rhinoboard, climb up and remove the roof tiles and so get out. In the meantime I had been told that in the event of a mass break-out, I, with two other RDLI officers were to move to the other ranks camp and take charge.

On 7th September 1943, the Germans took over the Camp as the Italians had capitulated. I was called to an ?ordnance [word is unclear] meeting, there I was told that the plan for a mass breakout would no longer take place. I stood up and said Peter and I wanted to escape anyway and would take our chances. Peter was waiting for me outside so I collected my pack. The Germans were already in the camp at this stage and were all over the place but had not manned the outside sentry box. We went to the wall. Peter climbed on my shoulders and got on top, then three others came along and we helped them over then they pulled me up. We then pulled up the barbed wire and crawled under. We turned East, crossed a field, then walked about a mile down a tarred road where we came to a house. The people were friendly and gave us civilian clothes in exchange for our uniforms. In the mid afternoon we were still walking along the road looking for somewhere to hole up for the night. We approached one house but the lady there said she also had Germans lodging there.

I had just rejoined Peter who was waiting in the road when a German patrol motored into her yard. These alarms were things we were to suffer frequently on our escape and never became used to them. It was now getting dark and still no place to sleep and we were being bitten by mosquitoes. We approached another big house and were invited in. I did all the speaking because I could speak a bit of Italian. This house belonged to an Italian General but his wife kindly invited us to have supper. After the meal we were taken to Catholic Chapel and slept there. We could hear German tanks passing outside.

Next day we set off for the Apennines, the big mountain range that runs down Italy like a spine. We found a small hotel and spent some of our precious money on a meal there. We carried on still aiming for the mountains until eventually we came to a place called Ranoccio. I was not feeling too well – general exhaustion and malnutrition – and collapsed on the side of the road. Peter was very concerned as he said my eyes rolled back and he thought I was dying. Fortunately a friendly girl came along the road and Peter asked her to take us to her house which she did. She and Peter helped me along. We spent three days there and I recovered my strength. These Italians suggested their young son should accompany us. He bought tickets on the train for us to Florence. We alighted at the station before Florence and walked up the street which led to Fiesole, a high overlooking Florence. Going down the other side, we came to a large house and rang the bell. A servant

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came out and took us inside. The owner said he could not help us but he did give us a couple of hundred lire which were very welcome. There was a 9.00 pm curfew so we had to hurry up and find somewhere to spend the night. Incidentally, the other three chaps had left us at Ranoccio so we were just the three of us – Sesto, the young Italian boy, Peter and I. We eventually arrived at a house with a small farmyard on the edge of the town. The lady was a Colonel’s wife and we were allowed to listen to the BBC news that night – the first news we had heard for some time. She allowed us to bed down in the cow byre in the hay racks above the cows. The next morning we were taken by one of her servants to the station and put on the train and alighted at a place called Tarantula. This was fairly close to a large lake called Lake Trasimeno. Once again, we approached a house and were taken in. The son of the house was a soldier at an air force base which had flying boats on Lake Trasimeno. Peter, of course, was keen on stealing a flying boat and taking off, as he had never flown one. I was not too interested. We had been given an address by the Colonel’s wife to contact an Italian general called Murro. We had to retrace our steps to find him. When we arrived at his house and rang the bell a servant answered but would not let us in. While we were arguing at the gate, someone passed and said a German patrol was coming along the road. We dashed into a field and then into a steep, donga-like ditch full of brambles. Peter went first then Sesto who got hooked up in the brambles and, in his struggles, landed on Peter and they both fell through to the bottom, scratched, angry and afraid. I followed more sedately.

We followed a course round Lake Trasimeno and eventually came to a charcoal burner’s cottage. We spent the night there. The next morning we were confronted by the charcoal burner and an Italian gentleman, with a shotgun story. He spoke good English and said he would take us down to his home but unfortunately it was occupied by Germans. However, eventually, he sent up tea for us and another pair of trousers for Peter as his old trousers had worn out in the seat. I was really pleased that I would not have to look up at Peter’s bottom as we climbed the mountains! Peter always led going uphill and I led going down. Count Gianni also gave us a map which I still have.

We continued round the Lake until we reached Tevere (Italian for Tiber). We caught the train again and rode it for a couple of hours. We left the train and returned to the mountains. It was not safe to stay too long in the valleys as all the main roads ran here and were swarming with Germans. It was pretty cold now with a good deal of rain but no snow.

At one spot in the mountains we again asked at a house for shelter and food. We waited there until the husband turned up. To our horror he was dressed in uniform with an armband that said ‘Polizie’ and was evidently employed by the Germans. However it made no difference to him and he asked us in to share their meal of grapes and figs picked on the way and not always very ripe.

Another amusing incident I remember, although it was not so funny at the time occurred in a different village. We saw a barber shop so I thought I would avail myself of his services and have a cut. I left Peter outside and he soon drifted off and cadged cheese and lots of wine. By the time I came out he was pretty drunk so I thought I had better get him off the street. The barber took us into his house and his wife gave us pasta to eat. Peter was singing and talking loudly in English and missing his mouth with the spaghetti which was draped round his ears. This was all very funny but I was very anxious as had the Germans arrived, Peter would have

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given us away. Eventually, in desperation, I spoke sternly to him and said, “Peter, remember you are a British Officer!” This penetrated, but to the day he died, he remembered this story and loved to pull my leg about it.

At another place called Cascata di Marmore we sat down at a pavement restaurant – ristorante in Italian – to have a meal paid for with cash given us by the diplomat in Florence. In no time, the other tables filled up with Germans. We behaved as naturally as our quaking hearts would let us and got away with it. We caught the train again and when we arrived at the next station, there was a German patrol on the platform. We thought if we waited until all the passengers had gone, the patrol would go too but not so. Peter was wearing Desert boots – a dead giveaway if noticed. We walked confidently past and again got away with it.

We spent that night in a small hut made of branches on the hillside. Next day it started raining and we pressed on to a village in the mountains. We were taking shelter there when a man told us that a German patrol was coming. He led us down to the road and over a small bank to some cowsheds. The patrol went past and over the top and once again our luck held. We came down from the mountains to a place called Assisi (St. Francis of Assisi) which was also full of Germans. Some kind Italians took us up to a cowshed on the mountains and again we slept in the hayrack above the cows. Every now and again they would reach up to pull down straw to eat which gave us a strange feeling and certainly disturbed out sleep.

We came across some Italian partisans but did not think much of them, particularly as they defecated all round their tent. On another occasion, we entered a village on the slopes of the mountain, passed through and on the other side met an old woman outside her house. We managed to talk her into giving us one of her fowls. We knocked off its head, plucked and cleaned it and put it in a pot of boiling water. It had probably only boiled for half an hour when there was a shout that a German patrol was coming. We grabbed the chicken and ran. When we tried to eat it later, our teeth literally bounced off! It was so tough we had to throw it away – such a waste and we were so very hungry.

We pressed on up the mountain and came to another small village where a kind woman cooked us some delicious meat. After this meal we walked on up the mountain and about half an hour later suddenly spotted a German patrol coming down the path towards us, they had binoculars and were obviously looking for us. Fortunately the bush was quite thick on either side of the path so we were able to dive off the path and hide while they walked on down past us.

Shortly after this we reached the Volturno River. This had an island in the middle and an area in the centre of the island planted with tomatoes. We went across and picked out fill – they certainly went down well after the meal we had eaten for lunch.

High in the mountains again we stayed with a few Italians who were very kind to us. Peter developed dysentery here and was very unwell; it was my turn to nurse him. They had no toilet so Peter had to go among the vines and use vine leaves for toilet paper! This didn’t embarrass the Italians at all and the women would sit on the wall and talk to Peter while he was busy. He certainly did not appreciate this attention. The news that we were there soon got around and every evening a young girl called Ebe, who worked in the Municipal Offices in the village down in the valley, used to climb up to us and bring us cigarettes which she had cadged off the Germans.

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I forgot to mention that just before we reached this place, we had stayed the night with a Catholic priest. He had mealies lying around in a back room to feed the people with food was really scarce at this stage so we were very appreciative when they shared with us. The priest liked my army boots so I promised to send him a pair when I got out. I was able to do this when I returned to rejoin the RDLI and we had a break after we had relieved Florence.

We slept down below in one of the brush huts on an allotment. The next morning some young Italians came along to say that a British officer was in the village. They brought him down to us – his name was Denis Hickman. I was not too keen on taking him along with us as I felt three was a big enough party. Peter, however, had seen his kit bag which looked promisingly full and this encouraged [Editor’s note: text is missing at this point.] and their SBO had followed the instructions issued at all the camps and received over wirelesses smuggled into camp. They were told not to try and leave the camps as we had been told. He like us disobeyed the order and escaped. All those who stayed were loaded onto trains and taken through to Germany where they stayed until the end of the war. Hickman escaped from the train. He had a chisel and made a hole in the floor of the truck and dropped out.

We stopped in a village and tried to persuade Hickman to get out of his uniform into civilian clothes but he refused. During the day a German patrol came round the village and this caused him to change his mind. Nevertheless, he still refused to part with his Saville Row greatcoat. When we set off next day he could not keep up with us and eventually Peter had to carry the coat which was folded into a bag and was very heavy and the extra weight exhausted Peter on the steep mountain passes. So the following day we made Hickman carry it himself. After two hours of travelling he gave it to an Italian woman. A few days later he was not very well and we stopped in a house in a village. The peasants were always very kind to us. While he was resting up, Peter and I went swimming in the river and enjoyed a much needed bath surrounded by all the girls who were happily entertained. Peter and I used to smoke a pipe occasionally. Peter had a tin of Three Nuns tobacco. However, Hickman had cigarettes in his pack and chocolates which he shared with us. While here we could hear the cannons firing from the British landing at Salerno. We were getting fairly close to the battle line now so one evening we came across several Italian women and their children in the mountains and gave them our Emergency Rations which consisted of a large slab of black chocolate – needless to say they were delighted.

After walking along level land for a while we climbed again and walked along until we skirted Mt. Africa which is just behind Cassino. We went down the other side and met an Italian who took us out of the village until evening. He then fetched us back to his home and gave us food. We passed along the Rapido River, they fetched Peter and me up the mountain again, coming down the other side we saw a German patrol and hid and saw three Germans talking behind a house. We carried on cautiously and at about 11.00 am saw another village ahead. While we were hiding in the bushes watching out for German activity, Peter got such a fright he nearly took off – a cow rang its bell just behind him! We eventually walked into the village and found a company of a Canadian Regiment had taken it the previous night. Imagine our joy to meet up with troops on our side at last. We passed on all the information we had picked up on our way down on German troop movements, etc. That evening we were out with a patrol of soldiers with mules to collect food and ammunition for the company. I remember the password that night was “Jack” and the reply was “Hobbs” We got

[Handwritten addition at bottom of page re Mt. Africa]: M. Altiera or M. Cairo

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on fine until a battery of 25lb guns opened fire and panicked the mules. We reached the Regimental Headquarters and spoke to the Colonel and his Adjutant. After coffee, the Adjutant took us down to the Signals’ quarters. This was in a small building and before we entered the Adjutant called out for them to turn out the light before they opened the door. When we were all in and the door shut again, they turned the lights on again. The Signals Officer looked at us in horror and said “Holy Jesus, you’re not bringing these lousy bastards in here”. The Adjutant explained who we were and all was well. To excuse the Signals Officer, I should explain that by this time we were dirty, in old peasant clothes and smelled.

The next day we took off in a lorry to Luchera. On the station platform there we found several large bales of American all wool army blankets. We broke one open and helped ourselves to a couple each. I still have a remnant of one – they were fine soft blankets. We travelled on from here to Bari and there we said goodbye to Sesto, our young Italian friend who had stuck to us bravely the whole way down and had been an invaluable help. He had relations in Bari. The Town was H/Q For 30/40000 Allied Prisoners to have been housed in adjoining camps but this had not happened because the vast majority had been sent to Germany.

SAAF [South Africa Air Force] Advanced Headquarters was in the area so Peter arranged that we should be flown to Cairo. Here we were put into Mrs Carey’s Convalescent Home for Soldiers. Whilst here I walked into the Officer’s Club in Cairo and one of the first people I bumped into there in the foyer was my brother. Jack. I walked straight up to him and said “Hello Jack”. He turned round to face me not knowing who the person was that greeted him! He did not recognise his own very thin and emaciated brother at all. From Cairo we flew to Johannesburg and travelled by train to Durban where we were met by my father and mother and Peter by his mother, Mrs. Campbell. I spent one week at home but felt that no one at home was in touch with reality which for me was the War and I was anxious to rejoin my regiment. I saw Colonel Butler Porter at Natal Command and managed to join the new RDLI as a Captain and we sailed for Egypt once again. We went through a refresher training course in Egypt for about two months, then on to Italy eventually landing at a spot below Monte Cassino which I had seen before on my way down with Peter.

Denis Hickman who escaped with us was a member of the Royal Army Supply Corp and was awarded an MC for his escape by the British Army. I received an MBE for my service before and at Tobruk.

I have only met two people who escaped from Modena so Peter and I were extremely lucky. It was, the Bible says – 40 days to get through. We must have walked 500 miles from Modena to Guardia Reggia near Campo Basso where we got through, not counting the several trips on trains. Had it not been for the help of the Italian peasant, Sesto, we would not have heard those fateful words “for you the war is over.”

[Handwritten notes re Guardia Reggia]: This is not near Cassino

[Handwritten note by Keith Killby] Could he have returned to Cairo, S. Africa & then been on a course in Egypt for 2 months and then returned again near Cassino?

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