Summary of Bobby Walker-Brown
Captain Bob Walker-Brown DSO (1919–2009), Highland Light Infantry, was wounded and captured at the Battle of the Cauldron in North Africa, 10 June 1942, and intially spent time in Lucca prison hospital. He arrived at PG 21 Chieti in the autumn of 1942. This account begins with a description (pp. 1–2) of digging a tunnel [no. 3] there in the spring of 1943 and how a group of PoWs hid in it when the Germans occupied the camp. Walker-Brown writes briefly (p. 3) about his escape and how he reached the Allied lines. He then joined the SAS and led Operation Gallia [Galia] in the hills north of La Spezia (27 December 1944–10 February 1945), described on pp. 4–8.
Liaising with Major Gordon Lett, who led an SOE mission in the Rossano valley, the small force managed to overcome the winter weather to carry out a series of raids, hitting German transport targets and enemy posts. Walker-Brown describes in particular an attack on a German column on the road south from Pontremoli on 19/20 January, the SAS party’s evasion of capture, and their subsequent exfiltration to Allied lines. Walker-Brown was awarded the DSO for his role in this operation. The mission is described in Brian Lett’s “SAS in Tuscany 1943–1945”, Pen & Sword, 2011.
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. The story starts mid-sentence as the preceding page is missing. A copy of the original magazine of ‘Mars and Minerva’, 2001 cannot be found.]
with both shoulders rubbing the sides: it was high enough just, and only just, to bring the knees under oneself. Turning was impossible. The bottom was slimy, cold clay.
After some days’ progress spoil handling became difficult. An improvised sled was made from some slats from our wooden, bug-ridden, three-tier bunks. With the aid of string it then became possible to haul filled boxes from the face, and to return the sled with empty ones; this saved a lot of time.
The Italians were becoming increasingly suspicious. With the probability of snap searches work was slowed; we had, nevertheless, made good progress with some twenty feet dug in three weeks. The end of the pavement was only a few feet away.
The sight and smell of naked clay-covered men jumping through the ablution windows evoked very little sympathy from the majority of PWs, many of whom resented our activities as a threat to a peaceful life. Of a PW complement of some 900 officers, including some two or three hundred South Africans taken at Tobruk, fewer than forty were engaged in active escape attempts.
At the end of five weeks digging the shaft had reached the end of the pavement. It was now necessary to make a deep-level chamber in order to strike off at the right estimated depth safely to tunnel under the perimeter track and, eventually, the wall foundations. Digging now required the limited use of more bed slats at places where the clay seemed less secure; this entailed a security risk, but there was no alternative; there was always the spectre of being trapped by a collapsed section behind one. Being unable to turn, the face worker would have had no chance.
The digging of the deep-level chamber promised to tax our capacity to get rid of the spoil. It had to be pulled back over ever increasing distances; there was too much surface activity and the cavity walls were filling up. An additional problem was that the air was so foul that the small improvised oil lamp flickered out after less than twenty minutes. For some time all work was carried out in total darkness until an air pipe made from Red Cross food tins, sealed with clay, was completed, with an air pump made from a tin and an old boot.
[Drawing of cross-section of the tunnel with caption] ESCAPE TUNNEL CAMPO PRIGIONIERI DI GUERRA, NO 21 CHIETI
Diagrammatic – not to Scale
A Latrines & Ablutions for 200 PW
B Sump & Entrance
C Deep Level Chamber
E Wall Sentries – Perimeter Wall
F Fig Tree
Striking forward from the deep-level chamber the face worker soon reported a solid object. This proved, with light again, to be the side of a sewer made from pre-cast concrete slabs; when one of these was gingerly broken the stench was overpowering. The sewer carried the effluent from latrines used by some 300 Italian soldiery and an equal number of PWs. Fortunately there was no flooding as the faeces flowed below the gap in the side of the sewer we had opened. As we contemplated the possible use of the sewer for dumping spoil, there were signs of intense Italian suspicion; work was stopped just in time.
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Normal muster parades were at 0800 and 1700 hours. One morning the morning parade was itself surrounded, as were all the accommodation blocks, by a whole battalion of Alpini. Every prisoner was stripped and searched; the blocks were pulled apart, almost. Two abandoned tunnel attempts were found together with concealed escape rations, home-made compasses and other escape items. An extra muster at 1200 hours was then introduced; more snap searches were anticipated. In order to plan for this the first shift now of six, went down from after the first muster until eleven; the second from after the mid-day parade until four o clock; the last shift from after the last muster until just before last light. Night working was impossible as any movement out of doors was fired on; sentries could not, therefore, be posted.
Six non-digging officers pretended to be sick in bed. Their names were handed to the Italians each day on a nominal roll. However, they paraded, their places being taken by dummies to cover the six people in the tunnel. Surprisingly, this ruse succeeded on the several occasions when there was a snap search.
The sewer was now used for dumping spoil; however, to avoid a blockage and subsequent investigation there was nothing for it but to crawl into the sewer and fit improvised duck boarding. This, made from bed slats, allowed the effluent to flow beneath the slats while the spoil was placed on top. This was no place for the squeamish. Later, however, spoil had to be offloaded directly into the sewer. Conditions at the face and in the sewer were highly unpleasant. The dimensions of the sewer, which was roughly triangular in section, were similar to the tunnel itself in terms of working space.
Working conditions became very arduous and the first of three cases of fainting occurred at the face, a serious problem; in one instance nearly fatal. Work in the tunnel, having driven forward of the sewer, consisted of one face worker digging; one man hauling back filled Red Cross boxes to the sewer opening; one man inside the sewer taking in the boxes; a second man in the sewer, further up, hauling a sled with filled boxes which he emptied on the duck boards; one man operating the air pump and a sixth man, as contact, back at the tunnel entrance.
There was a very dangerous time when the shifts surfaced. They were in the most dreadful state of filth and stink, dripping with filth in the case of those who had been in the sewer. Getting them through the windows, washing them down, cleaning up inside and outside and sealing the tunnel lid all had to be done in less than three minutes, the maximum warning time. Had a snap search taken place at this critical moment, all would have been lost.
After some three months digging the wall was reached. The foundations were about an estimated six feet deep and only just above the water table. Digging underneath proved difficult; there was upward moisture seepage and the muddy clay was slow to handle. The soil on the far side was somewhat less firm and safe, but shoring-up would have been impractical, so fingers were crossed. As the shaft progressed the roots of plants, shrubs probably, appeared. Using an improvised level it was assumed that the ground sloped away; the angle of the shaft was altered slightly in order to prevent possible collapse.
Eventually, after four months and in early September, our measuring string indicated 140 feet. The construction of the break-out chamber, from a depth of seven feet, was the most difficult operation of all. The soil became drier and drier, as we were near the fig tree, and threatened to collapse from the top. A risk was taken; a complete bunk was stripped and the four posts were dragged up the tunnel to support a sort of canopy with a central hole. Through the hole soil was scraped by hand; the height of the canopy was slowly raised by a system of wedges and a lever, all from the bunk. At last, by pushing up a home-made periscope, we realised that we had made it; but, at the same time, we prayed for no observant eyes.
Preparations now went ahead for escape proper. Rations and escape aids were stored below. We suspected, but did not know if the Italians patrolled outside the perimeter wall. The break out point was visible by day to at least one of the wall sentries.
Events in Italy were now very difficult to assess from inside the camp, as we had no source of news. However, we could hear the sound of moving columns of transport and tracked vehicles on the main road just outside the camp. We knew that the Allies had landed in Italy, but had no knowledge of the battle situation. In view of the nervous behaviour of the Italian camp staff it was decided to wait for a short period; an additional reason was that the Senior British Officer refused permission for escape attempts. Two or three days later, after hearing rifle shots during the night, we awoke to find that the camp had been taken over by a company of German parachutists who presented a very different picture to the low-category Italians. The German company commander ordered an assembly for the evacuation of the camp. Although the SBO refused to rescind his ban on escaping, we decided that it was time to go.
As the prisoners formed up we went below, the lid of the tunnel being sealed by a few of our companions who, at the last moment, decided not to use the tunnel. The break out was somewhat of an anti-climax; after waiting underground for several hours we assumed that the camp was empty, and made a trouble-free break out at night.
The writer, with two companions, moving only at night, headed South along a long spine of hills some
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ten miles inland from the Adriatic. German patrols had to be avoided while fording some of the wide, fast-flowing rivers; of Germans in strength, however, there was no sign. After walking for ten days the sound of gunfire could be heard which became louder and louder. Eventually, armour was seen on a crest at first light. As we pondered if it was friend or foe we were surprised and captured by a section of German infantry, complete with MG 42 and an ammunition-smothered mule. The section commander was suspicious, as well he might, and ordered us to dig a slit trench while mounting the MG 42 facing us. Unpleasant thoughts crossed our minds. However, “luckily” we all came under fire and the Germans departed – in very good order. Waiting, very uncomfortably, for the tide of battle to pass us, we at last met the leading companies of a battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment, who were equally suspicious of us.
R.W.B. [Robert Walker Brown]
[Editor’s note: end of ‘Mars and Minerva’ Magazine article]
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2nd SAS-OPERATION GALLIA
In late December 1944 the German division holding the Right of the Gothic Line mounted a reconnaissance-in-strength against the 91st US Negro Division, 5th US Army, holding the Allied Left. This division abandoned its positions and fled in disorder to the rear. In view of the probability of enemy exploitation the British 8th Indian Division was moved from the 8th Army to restore the situation.
No 3 Sqn 2nd SAS was at once deployed from the UK to Bari in Southern Italy. It had just exfiltrated from France. It was at once decided to mount a deception operation in order to make the enemy think that the 2nd Parachute Brigade, which had just left Italy for Greece, had returned. My Troop was ordered to parachute behind the advancing enemy division and to attack enemy main supply routes behind the Gothic Line with or without partisan support. It was hoped that the enemy would be persuaded, for a short time, that a substantial airborne operation was being mounted in their rear.
A SOE Mission consisting of an officer and signaller were located at the mountain village of Rossano, North of La Spezia. They were in contact with local partisan forces. The officer was Major Gordon Lett, whom I knew, having been a PW with him in the same camp [PG 21]. Instead of making for the Allied lines like myself, he stayed with the partisans and was taken on by SOE.
My briefing was:
We were to operate in front of the US 5th Army.
Enemy Forces consisted of one German Division (148 Pz Gren Div), one composite German/Italian division, Fascist Militia and unidentified elements. (It was an underestimate. The German 13th Mountain Corps was in the area.)
Friendly Forces consisted of Partisan bands of varying effectiveness and reliability, and a SOE Mission at Rossano.
Because of an unusual radio transmission pattern from Gordon Lett’s signaller, it was thought that the SOE mission had been captured, transmitting under duress. (In fact the signaller was suffering from frost bite to his fingers.)
Nevertheless, on the 26th December, it was decided to drop my troop, of 31, as a matter of urgency, in dreadful flying conditions. We took off from Bari in four C49s with fighter escort. The DZ was very difficult to identify, the mountains being under deep snow. A guinea-pig officer, Capt Chris Leng, SOE, was detailed to drop first. Green signal light: drop. No green signal: choose random DZ from the air and drop. The green signal was observed and the troop jumped. The DZ was the side of a terraced vineyard, grossly unsuitable, and we had several minor injuries. My leg bag broke free at about 400ft, smashing my carbine.
The leading aircraft made a farewell pass over the DZ and, in 9/10th cloud, flew straight into a mountainside. On quickly establishing that the SOE mission was present and no enemy, our first task was to locate the aircraft and bury the brave American crew.
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Gordon Lett, with an excellent knowledge of the terrain and the situation gave a first rate brief:
The enemy was in the deep valleys some four hours march away.
The mountain passes were covered in thick snow and ice.
There were no motorable roads (in contrast to today).
Some partisan bands were well disposed; others, the Communist Red Brigades, were unreliable.
News of our arrival would reach the enemy rapidly via informers, suitably greatly exaggerated, as we hoped.
With such an excellent brief there was no need to waste a moment. Tasks were therefore given to the three sticks (patrols) of ten as follows:
By descending into the valleys, to attack enemy transport.
To attack by fire isolated posts.
To use limited explosives as opportunity allowed.
Above all, to maintain a high level of activity.
Sticks were to split into two patrols of five as required.
Troop HQ with 3” Mortar acted as a patrol.
Within 24 hours all patrols had successful shoots, except one half stick which made the classic mistake of moving into an empty building while waiting to ford the River Taro at night. It was spotted by Fascisti and surrounded. The partisan guide was summarily shot. Five SAS were put in the bag, but not handed over to the Germans who would have shot them.
During the following eighteen days we kept up continuous attacks against transport on main supply routes and on small enemy posts. Because of the bitter weather it was impossible to use the ice-covered mule and goat tracks by night. The descent of the steep mountains, with much slipping and noise, had to be by day against a background of fresh snow. The approaches to the valleys were few and under enemy observation. One had a limited time to carry out a shoot before a pair of field guns went into action, firing over open sights at ranges of about 1500-2000 yards.
Scrambling up the steep, icy tracks under fire was bad for the adrenalin. However, we had several effective 3” mortar shoots, including direct hits on a horse-drawn field battery (stationary).
Ammunition expenditure was high and there was difficulty getting bombs and mules near the mortar base-plate. With severe weather and poor flying conditions air resupply was a constant problem. DZs were sometimes refused or changed at the last minute, often entailing forced marches through the snow and much wastage of time and security. Red Brigade parties sometimes put out false ground signals in order to steal SAS supplies. A long burst from a Browning HMG put a stop to that, but did not improve relations.
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With four experienced gunners in the troop a 75mm pack howitzer was requested and dropped. Firing in the general direction of La Spezia caused few casualties, but greatly impressed the partisans. It also caused the enemy to react, as intended.
With the troop concentrated, there was a report, via Gordon Lett, that Mussolini was at the town of Pontremoli, with a strong escort of Germans, en route to visit the Monte Rosa Division. This was a composite German/ Italian Alpini formation in the Gothic Line.
Leaving four sick with Gordon Lett and Chris Leng at Rossano the troop marched with maximum speed to a deserted village overlooking Pontremoli. From the church tower it was possible to select a fire position south of the town on the road leading towards the Gothic Line. The position selected was on a bend in the road with a fast flowing river between the road and the ambush position. There was a drop of about twenty feet to the river, with a steep bank opposite. A good position, there was a long field of fire. The approach was down a steep, ice covered mule track.
Soon after taking position at first light the next day, the head of a long column of vehicles approached from Pontremoli. At the same time a battery of horse-drawn field artillery appeared moving towards the town. Waiting for both columns to meet we opened up with two Vickers MMGs and LMGs at a range of about 300 yards. With vehicles on fire, horses bolting and men trying to escape into the river, we inflicted substantial casualties.
At the height of the action I fortunately noticed movement on our side of the river. Through binoculars it proved to be a column of German mountain troops in dirty snow smocks, carrying skis. Had the smocks been clean I would not have seen them until too late. The column was approaching us.
This was an extreme emergency. We pulled out rapidly and, as the enemy was less than 1000 yards away, we had to use the track we had approached by in the interests of speed, extremely dangerous though it was.
On reaching the track, leading into the mountains, I was horrified to find ourselves some 200 yards behind the rear of a German column. Simultaneously a message came from the rear of the troop that we were followed by a second column of enemy. To avoid immediate identification we left the track and plunged into waist-deep snow, heading for the deserted village, on a high ridge, where we had left mules, ammunition and radio.
On reaching the village, after an exhausting climb through deep snow, there was no sign of enemy. In a state of extreme fatigue, having been on the move for 36 hours, I ordered everyone to rest for a short period while I posted myself as sentry. Ten minutes later I spotted two companies of Germans in extended order advancing towards us about 1000 yards away and some 500 feet below us. There was nothing for it but to split into groups of four and head for a previously briefed RV. Before doing so, in order to travel as light as possible in the thick snow we smashed the radio, buried and destroyed the codes in deep snow, abandoned the mules, ammunition, MMGs and LMGs, first throwing weapon essential parts away. As we moved off we were observed and came under heavy small arms and mortar fire.
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Leaving the RV we headed for Rossano, avoiding tracks, but we bumped into a German patrol and took two prisoners. One, a feldwebel, said that two German Mountain Regiments, Fascist units, Ukrainians and Mongols were engaged in a search and destroy operation for 400 British parachutists. We were suitably flattered. The situation, however, was very dangerous. The sound of automatic fire could be heard and columns of smoke from burning villages could be seen. Any village suspected of harbouring SAS or Partisans was destroyed; suspected Partisans were shot out of hand.
I later saw 20 young men and girls who had been machine gunned to death against a cemetery wall.
In order to gain some height advantage we headed for the summit of Monte Gottero, about 7000 feet and reached there after a continuous forced march through deep snow of just over 57 hours since leaving the RV. It was necessary to change the leading man every five minutes, the snow being waist-deep for much of the way.
With no communications and short of rations it was ten days before the enemy operation appeared to slacken. Without radio it was now essential to establish contact with Gordon Lett, his signaller, radio and the four SAS sick, hoping that they had survived, but there was a strong possibility that they had been captured.
Making a cautious recce at night I approached a mountain village, down an icy track. There was full moonlight. Approaching the first house there was a shouted challenge and a long burst from the distinctive German MG 42. The burst missed me by inches. The next day most of the enemy left the area.
Arriving at Rossano we found that Gordon Lett and party had also evaded capture. Using the SOE radio I signalled for a complete re-supply, weapons, ammunition, radio, clothing etc., in order to resume offensive operations as rapidly as possible.
Following re-supply and the dropping of a MO, the previous pattern of attacks on transport was resumed. However, we had lost surprise and, following the savage reaction of the enemy, local Italian support diminished. I therefore signalled a request to exfiltrate with a view to re-deployment. This was agreed and I was given a point in the Gothic Line, between two German regiments, for the passage through the strongly held enemy positions. The location of the forward Allied unit was also given.
The approach to the rear of the Gothic Line took several nights of cautious movement in the valleys. As a recently escaped PW I had had useful experience. Particularly hazardous moments were the night fording of deep, fast flowing rivers, with linked arms to avoid being swept away, without knowing if enemy were on the far bank.
On one crossing a German hauptmann was found in over-friendly contact with an Italian girl. He came with us. Before fording that river my troop signaller, hoping to keep more or less dry, sat on what he thought was a low wall and removed his trousers. He was actually sitting on the side of a well and dropped his pants into it.
He wanted the German officer’s trousers. But I firmly said NO. The German, with my pistol at his back, was to say the right things if we bumped [into] an enemy patrol. He would not have looked the part without trousers. My signaller may have been the first
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man to cross the enemy lines without any trousers. It took him a long time to live it down.
The transit of the Gothic Line had to be made in one night, using old shepherds’ tracks. Twice enemy patrols were met, but we parted by mutual consent with the hauptmann in the lead. Just before first light I thought that we were close to the Allied forward position. Suddenly the German activated a trip flare. Instead of artillery defensive fire, nothing happened. Another hundred yards and the same thing happened, with no reaction.
Some minutes later the outline of a village could be seen. Carefully approaching it there seemed no sign of occupation. Thinking it might be the wrong place we covered a house and threw stones at a window. Seconds later a complete platoon of our old friends, the 91st US Negro Division, came out with their hands up. Their gunners must have been asleep as well.
Moving to the rear on an ammunition track we were in a happy mood, having exfiltrated without casualties except for five prisoners, until we attracted the attention of the La Spezia coast battery of 14” guns, which could fire inland. Two very near salvos brought us back to the real life of soldiering.
Operation GALLIA was considered to be successful. According to HQ 5th US Army some 6000 enemy troops had been deployed to carry out search and destroy operations lasting two weeks, the only SAS operation to have provoked a major enemy reaction. Additionally, we had accounted for about 60 vehicles and a substantial number of casualties. It is unlikely that the deception plan worked. It took eighteen days of intensive action to provoke the enemy reaction, although the strong enemy reconnaissance was halted soon after we dropped. Had a complete squadron been deployed the enemy response would probably have been much quicker.
The principal lesson to be learnt is that if you irritate the enemy, SAS mobility is vital. Mobility is a relative factor. Although the distances covered on this operation were small, there were exceptionally difficult conditions of terrain and weather. In spite of a forced march of 57 hours without halt, except for one enemy contact, things could have been much worse had the German ski troops used their skis, which they carried, but did not use.
At that time radio communications were primitive. Troop HQ had one set in contact with the joint SOE/SAS HQ at Florence. Each stick (patrol) had a one-way receive-only set which could pick up coded signals via the BBC. I could only send simple signals to the sticks by going via Florence, HQ SAS Brigade at home, and the BBC. There was no means of knowing if a signal had been received.
All SAS operations were carried out with the background of Hitler’s personal Order that all enemy commandos, parachutists and similar troops captured away from the immediate battle zone were to be shot immediately. Any German officer who failed to comply with that order was himself to be shot. This policy was carried out. My fellow troop commander in Italy was captured with his signaller. Both were executed.