Forster, Binks

Summary

Binks Forster worked in India as a tea planter, and volunteered with the Territorial Army while still out in India, joining the Royal Artillery when the Second World War started. Following fighting in Eritrea, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and Iraq in 1941, he was then captured at the Gazala line in Libya in 1942. He was moved to Tripoli, then flown to Capua, transferred to Rezzanelo, and then to Fontanellato POW Camp. When Italy surrenders in September 1943, there is a mass breakout from Fontanellato. Seven of his regiment escape and headed for Bardi, where they split up.

Binks and two others headed south through Florence, Assisi, Aquila and Popoli, where they met up with another POW, Rex. They eventually cross the Sangro river, entering the Sangro valley where they meet up with British troops, successfully completing their escape.


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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Binks Forster. Capt T.D. [Territorial Decoration] R.A. [Royal Artillery] 5th Indian captured 6th June Gazala Line after serving in Eritrea and Abyssinia.

Rezzanelo then Fontanellato. Rather vague about exit. Soon 7 of them set off and remain around Bardi and find many English speaking Italians. (Jo Drayson, Henry Armstrong, Eric Hampson, Bill Reid, Maurice Goddard.) Good welcome at Bardi and get civilian clothes and – to their regret – shoes. They divide into three groups, Forster with Reid and Armstrong.

Route very vague but near Florence they find a shot down plane and a Map of Italy soon lost when left in hay, farmer cuts it up for cattle fodder, Assisi, Aquila but then mention of finding hospitality in a Monastery Popoli a POW living as a monk [sentence meaning is unclear]. They meet Rex Ord so Forster goes with him. Hid near Villetta Barrea and fed etc by Falco Celidonio though he has Germans in house, F.C. advises on approach to Sangro river and then takes them and supplies to a cave from where they should be able to cross in 24 hours. 13th November they set forth about midday and by stealth and careful watching and good luck they observe but avoid Germans and minefield. They take off socks and trousers and wade through Sangro. They notice heel marks of British Army boots, they hide while one British patrol passes by and then they see the glow of several cigarettes and they are through.

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[Page title] Binks Forster – War time experiences

Working as a tea planter for the Assam Frontier Tea Co having sailed from London in mid September 1938 (aged 21) arriving in Bombay 13th October 1938. A 2 day journey by train saw us in Calcutta then a further 2 days by train and river steamer (across the Bramaputra River) and a few narrow gauge rail trips to Tinsukia in Upper Assam.

During the rather short time before joining the Army in early 1940 the life of a planter appealed to me a lot, apart from the long hours there were many opportunities for sport, tennis, football, rugger (in season), golf, polo, fishing and being a member of the T.A. [Territorial Army] equivalent the Assam Valley Light Horse which I joined in October 1938 having transferred from the London Scottish Regiment T.A. 1936.

Being in the T.A. it was easy to get away when War started and after initial training at Belguam (South of Bombay) then to the school of Artillery at Kakul (North West Frontier Province) for 2 months I joined the regular Royal Artillery 28th Field Regiment at Mhow (Central India).

As part of the 5th Indian Division we sailed for Port Sudan and subsequently took part in the East African campaign defeating the Italians in Eritrea and Abyssinia. The battle for Keren being the bloodiest and longest, 53 days of bitter fighting. The Italians suffered over 3000 deaths and over 2 divisions (4th and 5th Indian) over 2000 deaths. On May 17th 1941 the Italians surrendered with the fall of the mountain fortress of Amba Alagi (Abyssinia) and Italian supremo the Duke of Aosta.

August 1941 sailed from Masawa (Eritrea) for Egypt. Reequipped with new guns etc then on to Western desert, only to be called back for a long journey to Iraq where trouble had started in the oil fields of Kirkuk and Mosul. After 6 weeks – back to Palestine and embarked from Haifa to Cyprus after Crete had fallen.

November 1941 – March 1942 in Cyprus then back to Egypt.

May/June 1942 Rejoined 8th Army in May 1942. Taken prisoner at the Gazala line battle on 6th June 1942. (now aged 24) Taken back to Tripoli and subsequently flown to Lecce (S Italy) then to Capua (North of the 1st POW camp at Naples). Bad conditions: no hygiene, lack of food, bed bugs, lice and the rest.

October 1942 moved by rail to North Italy near Milan camp number 2 Rezzanelo. Conditions better, but very cold during winter 42/43. Moved again in May 1943 to 3rd camp at Piacenza (between Milan and Parma) called Fontanellato. This was the best camp for facilities. At this time in 1942 the Germans and Italian were in retreat in Africa. Conditions for POWs softened when they thought they could be beaten in the end.

Fontanellato was a 4 storey building which had been a ‘Mussolini’ orphanage, there were a number of attempted escapes but no avail. At this time the Italians were falling back in Africa and started to concentrate several POW camps in to one. At Fontanellato we had 500 Officers and 30 S African and other ranks all from three different camps.

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By September 1943 it was obvious the Italians wanted to capitulate so we organised ourselves for a mass break out at the opportune time. This came on 8th September, 1943.

The guards having heard of the Italian surrender decided to over indulge in ‘vino’ and were all exceedingly incapacitated. During this lapse, when their posts were not manned, the Escape committee (all previously planned) together with the Sapper Officers in the camp, managed to get a large hole cut in the double apron fence, and in the early hours of the morning on the 8th Sept we marched through the wire in organised parties of about 20 at a time. 7 of our Regiment from the 28th Field kept together, namely Jo Drayson(died 1983), Henry Armstrong, Eric Hampson, Bill Reid, Maurice Goddard, George Mathieson and myself. Free at last was our first thought, until when dawn broke we (7 of our Regiment kept together) decided to make for the nearest hills as the Germans would certainly come to take over the Camp and we would be sent to Germany as prisoners.

Having hidden up in a barn during the rest of the day we set off before sun set and walked through the night, crossing the main and road between Milan and Parma, before reaching the foot hills. (Walking West). We were fortunate to pass through many vineyards and many bunches of grapes were consumed as we hastened to leave as much distance as possible between us and the Camp. As dawn broke on the 9th September we found ourselves amongst small farms. It had been cool during the night but as the sun rose it soon became warm.

Though peasants going to the fields saw us, they were the first civilians that we had met during our 17 months in Italy. At first they were surprised to hear that we were British but were eager to help with food, which they brought from their houses on a tray! At first we wondered what this orange coloured cold porridge could be. It didn’t taste like anything we knew but we devoured it with great glee. The Italians called it ‘Polento Gran Trisco’ which turned out to be maize cooked like porridge and then left to cool. With it they brought several bunches of grapes which helped to wash the mass down. Not having a map, we asked how to get a high village where we could possibly stay for a while and where we could get civilian clothes. The name Bardi was given, being about 1.5 days walk and where there were a lot of English speaking Italians, all called back from Scotland and England when Italy entered the war in 1940.

On our arrival at the outskirts of Bardi, the word soon got around that there were 7 escaped ‘Inglaisee’. So after they had had a look at us they arranged for us to be looked after, 2’s and 3’s in each house. We met up from time to time to discuss future plans.

It amazed us to listen to the differing English accents spoken by these people. It transpired that many of the people from Bardi had gone to the UK over the years to make their fortune in ice cream etc. They were all very kind and friendly and helped us to get civilian clothes in exchange for our Battle Dress. I had a good pair of brown cord trousers sent to me by my mother, these I kept, not only because they were good quality but were warm for the colder weather to come. We were a motley crew when finally dressed in peasants attire. By good fortune we all kept our Army boots, though the temptation was to get rid of them as they were easily identified. Many others did so, to their regret as Italian war time shoes lasted under 1 week of steady walking.

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By this time in mid September with our forces established on Italian soil in the South, rumours were rife that a landing was to take place to cut off the leg of Italy and so deprive the enemy of reinforcements. To us this seemed to be a possible next move, and of course would have made it much simpler for us to join up with our own troops without either heading for Switzerland or the long trail South.

The 7 of us had been in the Bardi area for 10 – 14 days awaiting further developments in the North, not only were we warned about our identities being passed to the Carabinieri {Italian Police} but if we were to make the journey South we had to make a start before the end of September, as we reckoned it would take us 10 – 11 weeks to reach our own troops in the South. Finally we decided about 28th September to make a start.

We drew lots as to find out who our walking partners would be. It turned out as follows:
Bill, Henry and Binks, Maurice and Eric, Jo and George. It was decided that we should leave at hourly intervals in order that we should not be on top of each other. As our party was of 3, we went off first, having shaken hands with our friends and all wished each other good luck, and see each other again ‘back home’, and who ever made it first would inform all our parents of the latest news.

The decisions having been made we set off with great gusto, but our apprehensions were, shall we get food, will our boots last out, and how friendly will the local peasants be. Every day, long before it got dark ( 5.30 pm) we looked our for a lonely farmstead which we would approach with great care. A knock on the door usually brought an elderly woman. Our Italian was limited, but we always started with “Buon giorno, Noi prigionieri di Guerra Inglesi. Noi multo fame” This was the standard phrase used at each and every house, “Good afternoon, we are English prisoners of war and we are hungry”. Most often it was a case of “Come in we haven’t got much ourselves but you will get a share of ours.” On reflection the Italian peasantry were not only kindly but looked after us with great personal risk to themselves. Had the Germans found out that these people had helped us they would almost certainly have been shot.

After some food of perhaps bread, grapes, and cheese, they would ask us to leave their house and take us to an out house where it was either straw or hay for a bed and that was first rate accommodation. We were always asked to leave before day light, having been given some bread and cheese for the journey.

Very often we walked by night and slept during the day, but as we became more confident in ourselves and more able to spot likely danger we then started to walk through the day. The main mountain range in Italy runs North – South so this suited us well and as a result we were able to keep to the high ground at most times. The first objective was to make for Florence which took us about 3 weeks. North of Florence we were told that one of our planes had been shot down. By luck we found it and we were able to find a map of Italy which helped tremendously. Sadly about 2-3 weeks later it went through a hay cutting machine whilst we slept in a barn!! We emptied our pockets at night, so as to be more comfortable, unknown to us, the farmer came in to the barn before dawn and started to put hay through his cutting machine. All we found in the morning was small pieces of our precious map.

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Although we walked mostly at around 1000 – 2000 ft it was not unusual to suddenly be hidden in the clouds at 5000 ft. Monte Cimone was 7000 ft. Having crossed numerous rivers before reaching the outskirts of Florence it was decided not to venture into Florence itself. This was the most direct route, but the city would have been full of Germans. The route around the city added a further 3 days to our journey south. Torrential rain also held us up for 2 days East of Florence and during our stay in a small town an Italian befriended us and as good will gesture opened a bottle of whisky which he intended to keep until the end of the war. We did insist that we should only take one nip each and that we did.

After the Florence area the next objective was Assisi which took a further 3 weeks. It was during this period whilst in a small farm house that we saw a homemade cheese walk off a shelf above the fireplace, full of cheese maggots. We eagerly picked both cheese and maggots off the floor and stuck in to the lot!!

At times, when crossing a main road, we would have to wait until German convoys passed. There were other times when we had no alternative but to walk passed them. Since we were dressed as peasants we were ignored. Had they challenged us the chances were that they would not understand Italian anyway.

Our next goal after the Assisi area was Aquila. Our trek through these hills gave us the opportunity of keeping ourselves fairly clean. There were numerous small burns in which to wash, not only ourselves but our socks as well, which was vital. The sun was still hot enough to dry most things in a short time. After such a clean up, our steps lengthened and we all felt so much better.

It was on this lap of the journey that we found ourselves not far from a monastery perched on top of a hill. It was mid day and as usual we were hungry. We thought the monks would help, and so they did. We ate in the open courtyard with about 30 monks in their habits (brown). During the meal, we noticed one monk who said very little, and when we said our farewells and thanks the quiet monk came over to us and in English said “Where are you chaps off to ?” He had been hiding with the monks for 6 weeks and intended staying until our troops arrived from the South. I wonder what ever happened to him!

By this time it was late October and with less of the warm sun of the Italian summer it was important to find a place to eat and sleep rather earlier than in the past weeks. It was in late October that we found ourselves near Popoli in the Abruzzi region. This was close to the highest mountain in Italy The Gran Sasso (9500 ft) It was a magnificent sight as we passed near by one morning with the sun shining on the peak.

From this area on our way South it became more difficult to get accommodation and food and more so because there were 3 of us. At about this time we met up with another escapee, Rex Ord, who had been in our camp and was on his own. His companion had hurt a leg and was lying up with an Italian family. It was decided that Rex should join us but that we would continue in 2’s. The inevitable straws were drawn, I was to leave my friends Henry and Bill and continue with Rex.

It was with sadness that we parted but by now at least we were nearer our original goal to meet up with our own troops. It was at this time we heard that a line had been established on the Sangro River and Cassino.

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It was not long before I discovered that Rex was hell bent on getting on as speedily as possible, always in mind that the days were shortening and the nights colder. Rex had been a tea planter in Ceylon. I did the same in Assam, so we had many discussions as to the merits of Assam and Ceylon teas, but foremost in our minds was to press on to the front line.

The locals were certainly more jittery by now and it became more difficult both to get shelter and food and it proved right that we had split into 2’s.

By the 7th November we had reached an area 6-7 miles from the known front line on the Sangro River. It was in the village of Villetta Barrea that we stayed for 6 – 7 days in the woods by day and at night in the house of Falco Celidonio (letter in officers release book, Falco is his first name Celidonio his family name). They were an outstandingly brave family to give us a bed in their home each night, with the Germans occupying the village and only about 6 miles from the Sangro front.

By day we watched German convoys on the roads below the village and could hear gun fire from both our boys and the enemy. Our talks with Falco made it clear that from now on there would be no chance of food and shelter as all villages South had been evacuated by the Germans. Falco gave us directions as to the approach to the German lines. This entailed a steep climb into a nearby mountain called Monte Chiarano ( 5500 ft). From our stain in Villetta we could see the snow getting lower each day. It was impossible to do the final trip in one day so with the help of Falco we took food forward to a cave on the lower slopes of the mountain. This was to be our resting place prior to the final attempt at getting through the German positions on the Sangro River, which was about 3 miles from our cave.

Our thanks and farewells to Falco for his kindness and help, we set off from Villetta on 13th November, 1943. A cold night was spent in the cave but at least we had some food which had already been carried forward. On the morning about mid day on 14th November, having stuffed our pockets with food we set off knowing that there would be no return. Tired and cold, but with the thought of reaching our own lines soon gave us both further strength. The only person to cross our path was an Italian shepherd tending a flock of sheep. We knew that he would have a German pass to be in the area and suggested he might let us have it, but no success. The sheep were destined for the German cook house. At about 2000 ft the snow was not too thick and we were able to make slow but steady progress. By about 3.00 pm, having crossed over a shoulder of the hill we found ourselves looking down to the Sangro Valley. It was about this time that we saw some telephone lines going up the hillside to higher ground to our right. Being a gunner, I said to Rex, “That will be going up to German O.P.” (Observation Post).

Our first reaction was to cut the lines, but with what. We had no knife, and on second thoughts had we done so it would certainly have brought out a line party for repairs, and at this stage the last thing we wanted was to draw attention to ourselves. Shortly afterwards we saw some Germans to our left and lower down the hill. As luck would have it some scrub trees gave us protection and we were able to move on unseen.

By 4.00 pm we had descended into a tree covered valley and could hear some timber cutting ahead. Beyond the trees we could now make out the valley and the river below. As it was dark by around 5.00 pm it was essential that we got into a

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position to make the final crossing in darkness. The tree chopping became nearer when from nowhere 2 Germans appeared some 100 yards ahead. We froze behind a tree, they hadn’t seen us and moved on to the tree felling. To our right we noticed an outcrop of rocks and crouching down we made a run for them some 150 yards away. Luckily the rocks were huge and offered us some good protection. After a time to compose ourselves it was a case of listening and watching and also to plan our route, in darkness, to the river. All sorts of noises greeted us as we lay still and motionless. A whistle blew to let the troops know that grub was up at the German cook house. The tree cutting earlier on was to fuel the fires and we were able to watch men leaving their positions and making their way to the cookhouse. We were shaken when just below us we heard voices, and they too went off for food.

It so happened it was a clear night. The moon was almost full, which helped us to pick out the route decided on before darkness. At about 11.00 pm. Having taken off our boots and tied them round our necks we left our hideout and moved with great care down the rock face, always with the thought that a loose stone dropping would alert someone. All went according to plan until voices were heard nearby. At this stage there was only one thought, that of reaching the river would be our only chance. As we sat we noticed a viaduct some 400 yards below and it was to be this bridge that was to be our line of approach to the river. We continued to move slowly on the a grassy area which was to lead us towards the viaduct. Suddenly we felt something touch us at about knee height, only to find that it was a single wire fence. At once we decided that this wire was put there by the Germans to prevent them going into a mined area that they had laid. This of course made us change our plans, and we decided to follow the fence which brought us to a path. The same path on which we had seen some German troops moving up to the cook house earlier on. There was now no option but to follow down this path with the hope that no one was coming towards us. Luck was on our side and eventually we reached the River Sangro. Off came our socks and trousers and into the icy water. A crossing of about 30 yards and then we were In no-mans-land on the far side of the bank. We decided to keep going as we were wanting to distance ourselves from the river.

300 – 400 yards on and extremely cold we decided to rest and dry ourselves with the relatively dry trousers from around our necks. Feeling somewhat warmer we moved on across fairly flat ground from where we could see the flash of our guns hidden behind a ridge in front. Our next hurdle was what to do when confronted with our own troops. This was not to be long, as we walked along a rough track we noticed the heel marks of British Army boots, which told us that our patrols had been forward to this area.

Soon after, whilst walking along the side of the track we heard noises on the higher ground to our left. Immediately we froze and hid on the bank to our left and listened. The noise lessened and we had a quick look up and saw what appeared to be one of our fighting patrols heading in the direction that we had come from. Once they had passed by we continued on our track and on rounding a bend saw ahead several cigarettes glowing. It could only be British Troops and we reckoned that they were probably a section left behind to guard the track up which we were walking. After a quick appraisal of the situation it was decided that we should slowly advance in the middle of the track towards the glow of cigarettes. Thoughts went through our minds, “It would be terrible to be shot by one of our own troops having got so far”. All was well, they called us to halt and asked for the code of the day. All we could say was that we were escaped Prisoners of War. The whole time we were being covered by 5 chaps with shots up the spout. They decided to hold their fire and having had a

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good look at us said that they had orders to look out for escaped P.O.Ws. They escorted us back to a forward gun position where we tasted some good hot and sweet tea together with some biscuits. They were keen to hear of the German gun positions and this we were able to point out on their maps.

At about 2.00 am they sent us back in RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] transport that had been forward with ammunition etc. The driver of my truck asked where I came from, I replied Broughty Ferry. He said, “I know who you are. I used to work for Reids the grocers, and delivered the messages to your Mother twice a week!!!”

That night we returned to Division H.Q. where we were given a bed and some clean battle dress, and some more food and cigarettes. Next morning we were transported to Corps H.Q. where we were to be interrogated. The interviewing Officer asked for my name, rank , Regiment, and home address. Just like the chap before, he said , “I think I know you!! You are Binks Forster.” He gave me a clue, and said, “I am a twin,” and I said, “I suspect you are a Kennedy” and his reply was “Right, and that is the interrogation over, because I know you are telling the truth!”. Two coincidences in a short period of time.

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