Peter Barshall was captured in Algiers and passed through two camps (the second being Chieti) before arriving at PG49 Fontanellato. He escaped from here when the armistice was signed. Hiding in the mountains he contacted an Italian business partner of his father from Milan. He received a gift of money and clothes and was able to cross into Switzerland.
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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MEMORIES OF A P.O.W. (ANON)
So many, years have passed and so much has been published about those war years, and many accounts about prisoners of war. Having agreed to write a short recollection of my experiences,I do so as a tribute to those who tried and those succeeded in their efforts to escape.
I am sure there are many who never got the opportunity – but I remember very many who believed that for them the ‘war is over’. So, I write this, as a message to those who face the many problems with which one is faced, that in whatever situation in life, there is seldom a valid reason, not to think positively and ‘ have a go!.
I was a gunner forward observation officer, supporting a Guards regiment in a failed attack on Longstop Hill in Algeria. In the inevitable confusion, I wanted to keep out of sight until darkness. Not a great success.
I was captured hiding in a haystack by some Algerians, who evidently spotted me and went and informed an attacking German tank crew. I was well treated and had Christmas dinner in their Mess. From then on life was less comfortable.
The many guardsmen and myself were shipped to Palermo, and locked into a local horse menage. Then by train to Capua, near Naples. There, all the officers, English, American etc. were in a large hutted camp with virtually no facilities. Alongside, an even bigger camp for the ‘other ranks.’ A Para officer and I escaped; this was quite exciting – but ended by us being recaptured. Waiting on the platform of the local railway, with tickets to Naples, my partner needed urgently to relieve himself – but in the darkness we went into the ‘Ladies’ and were spotted by one of the station guards. A Court Martial sentenced us to solitary confinement; but there was nowhere available – so the matter was forgotten. The only outcome was that we were designated as “pericoloso” in big red letters on our documenti and sent off to another big camp in Chieti. Much tunneling but no success. And then another long train journey north to Fontenellato north of the Po valley. Fortunately, the pericolosi were included.
This was an officers camp of maybe 200, well organized by the SBO, Col. de Burgh. He had good relations with a Commandante, who was not unfriendly to the Brits. Tunneling made good progress and kept, those interested, busy, when not playing Bridge.
Eventually the Commandante heard of the Allied landings in the South, and reckoned his job was done. He allowed the wire to be cut – and all the inmates were let loose into the countryside. Sadly, the Germans were pretty angry and shot him.
The exit was well organized. Five men teams under a more senior officer set off with high hopes. I led my party south. Had to find a drainage ditch to cross the main Via Appia, solid with German transport. And so ended up in the foot hills, not occupied by soldiers, but rather unpleasant Carabinieri. Got to find local farmers, whom we could trust; they gave us a bit of food, and hay lofts to sleep in. We did what work they wanted, and the best was treading grapes; resulting in some hangovers.
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Before the war, my father had a business partner in Milan. So, I wrote him a guarded letter, without location; but a friendly cell was indicated as a point of contact. Local friends of course were in personal danger for helping us. Eventually, to my surprise, a courier turned up with civilian clothes for two, and money. We were helped by locals to make plans to move on. In the event my companions were not really motivated; the weather had turned cold, and they were neither fit nor keen to move on South. So I asked an older officer to join me to try to get through to Switzerland. The locals and partigiani were very helpful and brave. So, we went down into Fidenza and took a train to Como. A long exciting journey, trying to took Italian, and pretending to sleep. A few near disasters were luckily avoided. Como station bristled with Germans inspecting people off the train. Having no documents, this was frightening, so we just looked as if we owned the place and marched out. There we made contact with local contrabandieri (smugglers). That night we went by car to a place on the north side of the lake, got into a small boat, and off we rowed across in the dark. Money helped. Then up the mountain. A snow storm and local dog patrols were a bit hazardous – but the smugglers knew their business. Next day got down to Chiasso, arrested – but free!
A colonel at the British Legation, arranged for me to go Bern and work for the Military Attache’s team. In a neutral country this was ‘interesting’.
I was set to organize the exodus of several thousands of ‘evadee de guerre’; They were allowed to go under the Geneva Convention, as opposed to the internees. But they too had to be got out. So, eventually flew back home and ended up in Germany.
Nothing special about this story, except for me & that I got away with it.