Robert (Bobby) Blake (later historian Lord Blake) 1916–2003. Ranges from when he joined up in 1939 to his return to the UK from Italy in February 1944. Captured after fall of Tobruk in June 1942, he spent a month in transit camp at Bari, then moved to PG 21 at Chieti. At the Italian surrender in September 1943 and the arrival of Germans, he transferred to Sulmona (PG 78), from where he escaped with George Burnett and Arthur Dodds after hiding in the roof of one of the huts for 18 days. Sheltered by a family in Sulmona, the group walked over the Maiella in January 1944, led by the shepherd Alfredo, crossing the lines at an outpost of the Royal West Kent Regiment.
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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[Summary of the account written by Keith Kilby in July 2006]
Lt. Bobby Blake (later Lord Blake). Having got an Oxford First he need not have joined up but did join R.A. with Keith Joseph. At Larkhill then 50th Div T.T. and was with George Burnett (see Sulmona episode). Then a long sea journey out into Atlantic and South Africa and Tewfik and Canal Zone and then Cyprus. Then after two months his Brigade moved to Palestine, via Baghdad and Kirkuk to Iraq, then back via Baalbek to the Desert. After leaving his luggage at Shepheard’s, he forgot right-hand traffic and was knocked over.
‘We now trundled slowly via El Alamein along the road to the Gazala Line and to one of the great military disasters of the Desert War.’ There the 50th Division took up its stance in February 1942. RB sees miniature flowers spring up from the sand with the help of morning dew only to fade in an hour or two.
26 May ‘Balloon went up’. Brief account of battle and route, see also KK, who was inside the ‘Cauldron’. Entered Tobruk on 16 June. An excellent account of the shamble that ensued without any clear leadership anywhere. Captured. Petty behaviour of Italians – in taking watches, pens, etc., but one offered a swig of rum. Taken back in dangerous lorry rides. At Benghazi has to use his cheque book as ‘loo paper’.
Digital pages 39–42 This is a good summary of the chaos in the British Army. After reading Michael Carver’s books ‘Tobruk’ (1964) and ‘Dilemmas of the Desert War’ (1986): ‘dilatoriness in the Battle of the Cauldron on 12 June was largely responsible for a defeat at the turning point in the campaign from which the 8th Army never recovered.’ Rommel was always in control of all his forces (including Italians – not very legally). Touchy commanders were in control of Australian, New Zealanders, South African and Indian units. Landed by plane at Lecce 26 June. Then Bari for a month. Then Chieti. Bullying fascist adjutant (Croce, surely). Blake too tall to be a tunneller. 300 Americans and 1000 British officers. (Among PoWs was Arthur Dodds of the RAF who wrote ‘Desert Harvest’ 1993). Colonel William Marshall, the CO, threatened court martial for anyone trying to escape.
Digital pages 53-54 is the story of Brigadier Crockatt’s (MI9) stupid order and refusal to change until too late. Lamb’s revelation: ‘I would gladly jump on Crockatt’s grave if I knew its whereabouts and was not confined to a wheelchair – which makes jumping on graves difficult.’
Digital page 54 Moved to Sulmona Camp. With four others he decides to hide in the roof rather than be taken to Germany (See Burnett account of storage of food – and at a distance latrine.) In the end they stayed there, virtually immobile for 18 days and nights. Account as for Burnett but Blake had one moment of vital decision. On ‘night watch’ he heard Germans coming down the huts throwing hand grenades into them. Should he or should he not wake the others and tell them that they must give themselves up. He waited until grenades were thrown in either side but not their hut. When they finally get out they can hardly walk let alone run. Two get captured immediately. They hide on hillside above camp then taken into Sulmona itself and were [missing text off the page] The three and son of the house slept in the letto matrimoniale and two women in another bed at the end. All three hide in toilet when Germans call. After ten weeks, leave the house (in centre of Sulmona facing the Duomo) on 12 January to be led through the lines by a paid guide. Pass through Pettorano – an empty village – and then Palena, with wolves audible. Albert leaves them briefly but is caught up to work for Germans. B.B. collapses at one point but is helped through to meet the Royal West Kents. They had got through with a mixture of Italians and Allied soldiers.
‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ for giving the times of trains at Sulmona station, which was then bombed.
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Part II War
When war broke out on 3 September, I was in no doubt what to do. Hugh Shillito, a solicitor, son of the local parson and a school friend, was in MI5 and offered to get me a job there. People with Oxford Firsts should not be wasted, he said. I disagreed. Many years later, reading Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Sword of Honour’, greatest of all World War II novels, I realised that Guy Crouchback was expressing in far better words what I felt at this time. I was sure I should be in one of the Services. I could have applied for deferment, as I was in the middle of a two-year course of reading for a degree in Law, and the rules of call-up allowed me to continue till I took the exams. But I had no desire to do this. Keith Joseph, with whom I was planning to share lodgings on the Iffley Road, made the same decision. We cancelled our tenancy and both joined the Royal Artillery, but the vagaries of different postings meant that we did not meet again till 1946. While I was escaping as a prisoner of war in Italy, 1943–44, he was fighting his way up the peninsula in the 8th Army, whose outposts I reached in January 1944. It would have been fun to have met and I wish we had.
I have sometimes been asked by those of a younger generation what mine really felt about the war. Of course we felt different things. At times Southey’s ‘Blenheim’ came to my mind, and I was ‘Old Caspar’ replying to his grandson.
Now tell us what ’twas all about,
Young Peterkin, he cries …
Now tell us all about the war,
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And what they killed each other for …
…Why that I cannot tell, said he,
But ’twas a famous victory.
But I did not feel like that for long, even in my gloomier moments in the bleak post-war years. We were fighting for – or at least against – something even if it was not exactly what starry-eyed idealists thought. Most of us regarded ourselves as fighting a war for national survival. The moment of truth, the sense that war was inevitable, came on 15 March 1939 when Hitler occupied rump Czechoslovakia. It was no longer possible to believe that his purpose was limited to the unification of the German-speaking peoples. It was not irredentism but conquest which he threatened.
Public opinion made a total volte face. Writing of that moment forty-six years later, I used words applicable a fortiori to 3 September:
‘There was, however, none of the enthusiasm and idealism of 1914. The war ahead would not be one to end all wars or make the world safe for democracy. It would not be for a “cause” … the real issue was patriotism, the survival of a Britain which despite its defects inspired the love and devotion of ninety-nine per cent of its citizens. The British would fight for self-preservation in order to crush a ruthless nihilistic power before it crushed them. In March 1939 joyless but determined the new war generation with a sombre sense of destiny and obligation accepted its duty.’ 1
1. ‘The Decline of Power’ (1985), 220-21
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It was a war for survival, not to make a ‘land fit for heroes to live in’, as Lloyd George proclaimed in 1918. At the end of it Britannia would be able to say ‘j’ai vécu’ but she could not say she had created a better world.
I was at home in Brundall (Norfolk) when Neville Chamberlain made his uninspiring call to arms. I repaired to the Oxford recruiting centre to join, I hoped, the Navy (Admiral Blake!), but my sight was not good enough, and I applied for the Royal Artillery in which my mother’s brother, Gilbert Daynes, had served in World War I. The rule laid down by Whitehall as a sop to democracy was for potential Officer Cadets to do a couple of months in the ranks before admission to an OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit). I was ordered to attend at the Artillery Barracks in Dover early in October.
My companions were a mixed bunch of young men from what used to be called ‘the Officer class’ – some quite rich, others like myself without a bean. In the former group was one Teddy Rice, son of an oil magnate. ‘Good God’, he exclaimed on arrival, unpacking a very smart suitcase, ‘My Man has forgotten my pyjamas’.
My closest friend in the Army whom I met for the first time at Dover was to be Dick Henniker-Major, younger son of the then Lord Henniker, of Thornham Magna in North Suffolk. He had a law degree from my college’s Cambridge namesake (spelt with an ‘e’ at the end). I had played cricket and hockey against them but not rugger, which was his game. He was a big man, very East Anglian in appearance. He had a dry sense of humour and was a most congenial companion and we laughed at the same jokes. We served in the same regiment till the disaster at Tobruk and have
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remained life-long friends. He knew a bit about army drill, having been in the OTC at Stowe, whereas I was a complete greenhorn. There was no OTC at Norwich. My two months in the ranks passed quickly enough. There was plenty of hard work but the weather was warm – a deceptive prelude to what was to be the worst winter for fifty years. The Sergeant who drilled us, one Macqueen, was a very nice man and a keen golfer. When we had time off, he and Dick and I and a few others would play at Rye or Deal or some other Kent coast course.
Passed for entry into an OCTU in January, I went on a short preliminary Christmas leave at home. Either then or just afterwards the weather suddenly changed. Frost and ice clamped down for weeks on end. The OCTU was at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. This dismal and desolate spot, bleak and windswept, was to be my abode for the next six months learning to be a gunner officer. I can remember little about my time except a remarkable silver frost which encased branches and telephone wires and brought them down with its own weight. We trained on antiquated Great War field guns – 18 pounders adapted to fire 25-pound shells. Not that we actually ever fired any – which was probably just as well.
We went on regular route marches – echoes of Kipling’s ‘Boots…’. We sang as we marched, mostly songs of World War I. Although we sometimes hung out ‘our washing on the Siegfried line’, we did not do so often after May 1940. It was usually a matter of the old chestnuts; the distance to Tipperary, the number and size of rats in the Quartermaster’s store, the shortage of good whores in Mobile (this latter some sort of carry-over perhaps from the ‘Doughboys’ of 1918), a wish to go back to ‘dear old Blighty’, and ‘we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because…’ As Evelyn Waugh makes Frank de Souza say, in ‘Men at Arms’, ‘Last war songs were
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all eminently lacking in what’s called morale-building qualities’. Did any better emerge from World War II? If so, I never heard them.
Training at Larkhill was tedious but thorough. I can remember little about our Instructors except one of them, Gordon Campbell, who was under twenty and known as the ‘Boy Subaltern’, not in any derogatory sense but because he really was considerably younger than most of his pupils. After a gallant war record, in which he was highly decorated and lost both legs, he entered politics, became Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland and then a life peer as Lord Campbell of Croy. After I was myself ‘elevated’, we had one or two enjoyable talks in the House about our OCTU days.
When we first arrived the phony war still prevailed. Casualties were caused not by the German bombs but by the blackout which doubled road deaths in a month. Apart from the Battle of the River Plate, the capture of the prison ship ‘Altmark’ and an irrelevant war between Russia and Finland, nothing much happened.
Then in April 1940 the war suddenly became real. Hitler invaded Norway, seized all the ports and drove out the British forces. On 9 May Churchill replaced Chamberlain. I remember cheering as we crowded round the camp wireless sets for news. Next day Hitler launched his long expected attack on France. What was not expected was the disastrous result – capitulation on 22 June. There were a few who uttered the foolish mantra ‘Better off without them’. Meanwhile 26 May-2 June occurred the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ when the larger part of the BEF was evacuated, minus all but side arms, across the Channel by a flotilla of small boats. A group of the rescued soldiers was given temporary quarters at Larkhill. I almost felt guilty at the
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contrast between our own well-fed condition and theirs: drawn, exhausted and emaciated. The war now seemed very real – the more so when I heard the news of the death in action of John (‘Bill’) Garnett, a close Magdalen friend with whom I used to open the bowling for the college. When he left Oxford he had become a regular soldier in the Welsh Fusiliers, his father’s regiment. It was at his house in Northern Ireland that I was staying for a tennis tournament in 1938 when I got the news of my First in PPE.
Our squad was passed out at the end of June. We were duly commissioned as 2nd lieutenants and posted to various units according to the whim of the War Office. Six of us were ordered to Knutsford in Cheshire where the 124th Field Regiment was billeted. But they were already due to move south to the Bournemouth area to guard a section of south coast against invasion.
Dick and I were posted to 287 Battery, I to ‘A’ Troop, he to ‘B’ Troop. There were three batteries, each consisting of three Troops of four guns; eventually 25 pounders, but temporarily French seventy-fives of World War I rebuilt to fire 18-pounder shells. ‘A’ Troop was stationed east of Bournemouth, ‘B’ Troop was intended to protect Poole Harbour. It was a very makeshift business, and one can be thankful that no German invasion occurred.
The 124th Regiment was the second line to the 72nd based territorially on Newcastle. It was the artillery support of 69 Infantry Brigade, the Green Howards and East Yorks regiments. Along with 150 and 151 Brigades it constituted the later famous 50th Division with T.T. (Tyne and Tees) as their shoulder badges, under the command of General Ramsden.
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We OCTU products were warily welcomed, ‘foreigners’ in a tribal land whose inhabitants all seemed to know each other. Most of the officers had been in civil life on the early rungs of professional or business careers, and had left school at eighteen to begin earning their living. Few of them had been to a university. The commander of 287 Battery was a Newcastle solicitor, Harold Branson, who was highly efficient, if not entirely likeable. My Troop Commander was George Burnett, twin son of a colliery manager at Esh Winning near Newcastle and himself in the National and Provincial Bank. The ‘B’ Troop Commander was Clifford Wilton who was ‘in shipping’ and, exceptionally, a university man and a Cambridge rugger blue. Burnett was to be one of my two partners in escaping from Sulmona Prison Camp in 1943 and became a life-long friend. He tragically lost his twin brother killed in Egypt while he was a prisoner of war.
I was aware that an Oxford First might be regarded with a certain suspicion among some of my brother officers. So without denying it, if asked I kept that particular light under a bushel. I soon found myself accepted and did my best to fit into an unfamiliar ambience. Dick and I gradually picked up the usages, folklore and traditions of a county which neither of us had ever visited. And the songs too. There was ‘the Lampton Worm’ and ‘the Herrings’ Guts’, the opening verse of what seemed like an endless dirge being ‘what shall we dee wi’ the Herring’s Guts we’ll tarn them into laddies, bea-uts (Geordie for boots) and al manner o’things.’ The herring’s fins became needles and pins, the herring’s scales buckets and pails, and so on ad infinitum. The Newcastle anthem was ‘The Blaydon Races’ sung with a splendid rollicking tune which even someone as unmusical as myself could not forget.
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Class distinctions and regional accents in those days were much more marked than they are today. The Newcastle working class from which the other ranks were drawn spoke with an accent so broad as to be almost incomprehensible to southerners like myself. It was as difficult to understand as Glaswegian. I managed to get the hang of it to some extent, for they modified it a bit when speaking to an officer, but I was baffled to the end when they were talking to each other.
At an early stage that autumn I was transferred to RHQ as Regimental Survey Officer, probably because I was considered ‘brainy’, an ambivalent quality in military esteem. My function was to be a good map-reader, act as a sort of pathfinder at the head of the Regimental convoy, and to be responsible for the accuracy of ‘predicted shoots’. The latter task was to hit a target invisible to forward observation of fall of fire. This required a rudimentary knowledge of trigonometry. Sines and cosines puzzled me as much as decimal points – ‘those damned dots’ – had puzzled Lord Randolph Churchill. There were also complicated tables to cope with, temperature, strength of wind, air pressure etc. Luckily I had a survey sergeant who understood all this. I cannot say I liked him. He was a weedy whinger with the hang-dog look of a bullied school ‘swot’, but he was sound on cosines and our only predicted shoot, part of an exercise on Salisbury Plain, hit the target.
RHQ was in a hotel in Swanage. I struck up a cordial friendship with the Assistant Adjutant Noel Lockerby who had a sardonic sense of humour and was efficient – which was more than could be said of the rest of RHQ. Our C.O. Colonel Swales was about to be replaced, but how the Second in Command, Brook Townsend, survived in post through to the Gazala Campaign I never understood. It was War Office policy to replace Territorial C.O.s with regulars – in our case Colonel Charles Neville.
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During the interregnum discipline at RHQ became, I must admit, somewhat slack. When Colonel Neville arrived at night and ahead of his scheduled time, deliberately no doubt, the order ‘Turn out the Guard’ resulted in some of those turned out appearing in pyjamas, ill-concealed by battle dress jackets. Colonel Neville, a large and formidable man, was not amused. Nor was he next morning at breakfast, supposed to be at 7.30, when he found himself the only officer there. Most of us treated the time as ‘for 8.00’ like a drinks party. I did manage 7.40 on this occasion but received an acid greeting, as did subsequent arrivals. Having made his point, the Colonel did not himself later bother too much about punctuality. But he saw to it that others did – and not only at meals. Along with a new Adjutant, Paul Parbury, whom he brought with him, Charles Neville transformed us from a body of amateurs into a regiment of professionals, insofar as this could be done with a Territorial unit. He had the indefinable gift of leadership. He was a disciplinarian but never a martinet. He knew when to turn the blind eye. Officers and men alike were devoted to him.
In late October or early November we moved north to Frome. RHQ was in a large 1920s-style house requisitioned by the Army, ‘The White House’. It was about a mile from the town centre and commanded a splendid view across the Somerset fields. There was a hard tennis court. We were enjoying the warm weather of a St Martin’s summer, and played many a set. But most of our time was spent in training and exercise, and inter alia learning to ride a motorbike – a singularly useless accomplishment for desert war.
As for leisure, drink and sex, if obtainable, were the major occupations. The Signals Officer was an indefatigable womanizer.
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Four of us in RHQ including ‘Sigs’ had pitched our camp beds etc. in the big master bedroom. Signals officers had a dual nationality of loyalty to the unit where they had been posted and to their own Royal Corps. ‘Sigs’ could thus get away with almost anything. After dinner he would announce his intention to walk down to Frome where he had discovered an unexpected equivalent to a red light district. ‘I must go and get my end away’ – a euphemism for sex that was new to me. When he returned late and noisy we would challenge him. Had he got his end away? Yes was the usual smug answer, but on one occasion ‘No, I was so pissed I could not even get it up. But she was decent and only charged half price.’
Pubs and restaurants in Frome were dismal. Some of us would occasionally make an illicit foray to Bath – an eatery called, I think, ‘The Hole in the Wall’, which was not too bad. The full austerity of war rationing had not yet set in, as it had when I got back to England in 1944 and the waitress’s stock reply was ‘Spam is off’ or ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on’. It was once after a late dinner there that we found our truck’s radiator had run dry. What to do? The restaurant had been ostentatiously bolted and barred – we were rather noisy – as soon as we left. Then one of us, Fred Adamson, had the bright idea of peeing into the radiator. We took it in turns to supply the liquid, enough to keep the truck going till we reached a filling station, avoiding a tricky situation as we had no right to use army transport and a vacancy in the parking area at Frome would have got us into trouble.
By early spring 1941 it was clear that the Division would soon go abroad on active service, and the issue of khaki drill uniforms left little doubt where. The only theatre of operations was the Middle East. Greece had capitulated on 14 April. Before we
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left Frome we suffered one heavy blow. Colonel Neville, medically examined like all of us, was pronounced to have a heart ‘murmur’, and had to stay in England. His replacement, Colonel ‘Rosie’ Ripley, was competent enough but fussy about details and lacking Neville’s cutting edge.
I think we had some sort of embarkation leave. We then headed for Gourock on the Clyde where we boarded the SS Orduna, a passenger liner which had in peacetime sailed between London and Buenos Aires. Life for the officers was by no means bad. Stewards served us at meals, there was a good Spanish American wine list and our cabins were comfortable. The contrast with the conditions for the ORs – hammocks slung in steerage, ill-cooked food and inadequate ‘heads’ (nautical jargon for lavatories) could not have been greater. The voyage was for the most part very boring. The officers played bridge into which I was inducted and poker dice which I knew already. The men played ‘housey-housey’. We tried to keep fit by various exercises but not very successfully. By the time we reached Suez via the Cape and Durban I was not alone in being flabby and out of condition. Our route took us almost to the other side of the Atlantic to avoid U-boats and then doubled back to Freetown and thence to Cape Town.
There was one excitement at the beginning. We were escorted by the cruiser Exeter and at least six destroyers. One morning we awoke to find that all the destroyers had vanished and only Exeter remained. What had happened was that on 24 May the Bismarck, the most powerful battleship afloat, had sunk the Hood off Iceland with the loss of all but three of its crew of two thousand, and was racing back to base on the French coast. Every available naval vessel sailed in pursuit and on 27
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May Bismarck was caught and sunk. Her intended course cut across ours and she would no doubt have destroyed most of the convoy if she had escaped.
We put in briefly at Cape Town just after seeing an albatross, the only time I ever have; then docked for a week at Durban. It was winter, cool, bright and sparkling. There was no blackout. Lights blazed all night. We were made honorary members of the Durban Club whose Indian servants produced the most delicious curries I have ever eaten. Private hospitality too was lavish. Durban was and is the most Anglophile of South Africa’s big cities.
The second half of our ten-week voyage was, if possible, even more boring than the first. We disembarked at Port Tewfik at the end of June. Shortly before, on 22 June, the news came through of Hitler’s invasion of Russia. In retrospect a turning point of the war, this left me and most of my friends devoid of enthusiasm; it would be another walkover in the dreary sequence of Poland, France and the Balkans. Russia, in the light of the execution of its leading pre-war generals and its poor showing against Finland in winter 1939-40, did not seem a promising ally.
We spent about a month in the Canal Zone. It was stiflingly hot. Flies and ‘gyppy tummy’ are my main memories. At the end of July we were shipped to Famagusta ‘and the hidden sun that rings black Cyprus with a lake of fire’ [James Elroy Flecker]. The German seizure of Crete had provoked the fear of a repeat performance in Cyprus. In fact, the distances were far too great. Moreover, though this was not known at the time, Hitler was so appalled at his losses in Crete that he vetoed any future foray by airborne troops on their own.
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Cyprus was much the most enjoyable interlude in my war. The weather was perfect, there was excellent bathing at Limassol where we were stationed. We duly dug ourselves in against the non-existent threat of an enemy parachute descent, and proceeded to enjoy ourselves. The food in restaurants was adequate, though the wine was fairly bad, and as for Cyprus brandy, ‘fire water’ was the mot juste; literally – for a match would set it alight like petrol even if cold, and was a wise preliminary for drinking it after blowing out the flame. There were plenty of brothels; several men and more than one officer ‘picked up a nail’, as the saying went.
We had one gunnery exercise, along the coast off Paphos. The C.R.A. Brigadier Martin was present. It was, alas, the downfall of Clifford Wilton who commanded ‘B’ Troop. He performed after ‘A’ Troop which under George Burnett had put up an excellent show. In gunnery if aiming x degrees to the right of the line of fire one says ‘more x degrees’ and if aiming to the left ‘less x degrees’. I never understood why but there it was. Clifford Wilton must have said ‘less’ when he meant ‘more’. Two rounds fell successively further out to sea when they should have been hitting imaginary invaders landing on the beach. Brigadier Martin could bear it no longer, threw his hat on the ground shouting ‘This isn’t a bloody duck shoot’ and told Wilton to stop. He was later transferred to take charge of stores as Battery Captain, and replaced by a new Troop Commander.
Cyprus was too good to last. After two months of agreeable loafing and no sign of a hostile parachutist we sailed to Haifa. The reason was to prepare for a long journey into Iraq to counter another imaginary threat, a German thrust through Turkey or the Caucasus to seize the vital oil fields. We were there for the whole of September. Before our departure there was a chance to draw lots for a brief visit to Jerusalem. I
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was unlucky. I have always regretted missing ‘old’ Jerusalem. It was nearly forty years before I saw the Holy City for the first time. By then from all accounts it was a very different place. By October the weather was becoming cooler and wetter. Lots of disagreeable creepy-crawlies began to emerge around and in our tents. Before going to bed it was as well to check that one’s batman had inspected one’s sleeping bag for scorpions and to keep one’s boots well protected. At last we set out on the long journey to Kirkuk. As Regimental Survey Officer it fell to me to guide the convoy. This was not too difficult. I simply had to follow the pipeline for most of the route. I shared with the Assistant Adjutant, Noel Lockerby, an eight-hundred-weight truck, a Dodge made in the US. We had a driver but his job was essentially as a mechanic. Lockerby and I shared spells at the wheel. I have never driven a more awkward vehicle. To change gear one had to do what no one ever needs to do nowadays, to double declutch every time. Not once in the whole journey did I do this without a hideous grinding clash of gears. I like to believe that this was not just my ineptitude. Noel Lockerby was just as bad as I was.
We drove up the escarpment behind Haifa and reached the pipeline at Mafraq in Jordan, the threshold to the six-hundred-mile journey to Kirkuk. The landscape was as dismal as one could imagine – totally flat in various shades of brown, grey and dirty ochre. Winter was closing in. The sun seldom shone, there was an occasional chilly shower, and nights were cold, relieved for the officers, not the men of course, by a tot or two of whisky in our nightly ‘brew up’.
There was only one touch of colour. We diverged from the pipeline south to Habbaniyah, the RAF base which controlled Iraq in the interwar years. There across some dunes I saw the unexpected
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sight of a pack of hounds followed by riders in top hats, pink (i.e. red) or black coats, white breeches and highly polished boots. It might have been the Quorn – ‘Jorrocks in Arabia’, I thought. The riders were from the regular garrison, in pursuit not of the fox but the jackal.
The flash of colour soon vanished. We continued via Baghdad to Kirkuk where I was laid low with jaundice and sent to a tented hospital outside Basra. There I passed a depressing birthday and Christmas – nothing fried or roast allowed, no alcohol except a mini-tot of whisky as a nightcap. I rejoined the regiment at Kirkuk only to find that we were no longer needed to defend Iraq. We were now to go to the Western Desert as soon as possible. So we set off back on the long return journey, this time by a more northern route through Syria. At one stage we camped at Palmyra. The R.S.O. when not surveying or guiding was regarded as a convenient dogsbody for unwanted tasks. Some of our stores had been pilfered by local Arabs in a nearby village. I was deputed with an interpreter to recover them. When I arrived a teenage boy suspect was being given the bastinado lying on his back with his legs propped up vertically while a village elder whipped the soles of his feet with a bundle of twigs. I got the impression that it was a bit of a put-up job for my benefit and not very serious. We recovered a few tins of bully but nothing like the full schedule of missing goods. Much more agreeable was a brief visit to the ruins of Baalbek, one of the great survivals of a vanished civilisation.
Passing near Beirut we turned south along the coast road. I remember my naïve surprise at seeing on English-style signposts directions to Tyre and Sidon just as they might have been at home to Yarmouth and Lowestoft. When I murmured
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something of the romance of these associations with biblical antiquity my co-driver morosely said: ‘I suppose it will be Sodom and Gomorrah at the next turn’.
Now that it was going to see active service the regiment had to travel light with the minimum of surplus baggage. Since it could hardly lose its way on the road from Palestine via Ismailia to the coastal road, the R.S.O.’s services were not needed. I was ordered with a few men to diverge south to Cairo and deposit the luggage at Shepheard’s Hotel. After signing an infinite number of receipts in triplicate, and a good dinner, I strolled out into the velvet darkness of semi-blacked out Cairo only to be knocked down by a car driven by an Egyptian judge. I had forgotten the rule of the road. He could not have been more helpful, took me to the military hospital, where a minor head injury was quickly dealt with, and gave me his card on which I scrawled my thanks. Months later, on the assumption that ‘wogs’ must always be in the wrong, some clerk sent me a letter asking in tones which suggested the answer was yes, whether I wished to prefer a charge against the Judge. I was happy to reply no.
I rejoined the regiment, subject to a certain amount of badinage about my alleged alcoholic state when the accident occurred. We now trundled slowly via El Alamein along the road to the Gazala Line and to one of the great military disasters of the Desert War.
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There never had been nor will be anything like the Desert War. Nearly all previous wars had in one way or another been basically fought by infantry standing shoulder to shoulder – or almost – behind a barrage of artillery fire whether in defence or attack. This had been the pattern in the American Civil War, in World War I and was to be in Normandy in 1944. But it supplied no guidance in the desert. Given fairly equal capacity in armaments – and this was largely the case between 1940 and 1942 – victory would go to the side which was better led, more adaptable and less hidebound by tradition. And that for most of the time meant Rommel’s Afrika Korps, not the 8th Army of Auchinleck and Ritchie.
Why were we fighting Germany in the desert anyway? The basic reason was Mussolini’s decision to come to the rescue of the victors in the summer of 1940 and the potential threat, posed by his forces in the Italian colonies of North Africa, to British control of the Suez Canal and the oil fields of Iraq. The Italian army was useless and Wavell commanding an amalgam of British, Australian, Indian, New Zealand and South African troops in 1940 had no difficulty in driving it, despite its superior numbers, from the Egyptian frontier to El Agheila, the gateway to Tripoli. Hitler decided that he could not abandon Mussolini. Early in 1941 Rommel arrived in Tripoli and the Afrika Korps drove the Allied forces all the way back to the Egyptian frontier, though it failed to capture Tobruk. In the autumn the Allies turned the tables and in Operation Crusader forced Rommel to retreat to El Agheila, relieving Tobruk on the way and occupying Benghazi. But Rommel achieved a partial bounce back, recapturing Benghazi and halting at Gazala late in January 1942, which was
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where 50th Division took up its stance in February. The pendulum for the moment had ceased to swing.
The Desert was not at all like my mental picture. I envisaged miles and miles of more or less flat sand rather like the area between the sea and the dunes on the north Norfolk coast multiplied many times over. I had once won an elocution prize at school reciting Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, ending ‘boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away’. Boundless and bare perhaps but not level. The apparent flatness concealed many hollows, wadis i.e. dried-up water courses, and hidden folds; and the coastal belt, ten to twenty miles deep, where most of the fighting occurred, featured formidable ridges or escarpments, rocky steps which could be very steep and had to be negotiated before climbing to the Desert plateau. The romantic notion that tanks were ‘ships of the Desert’ and could manoeuvre with the freedom of naval vessels on the ocean was a delusion inspired, like much nonsense about the Desert, by a misreading of T. E. Lawrence.
Two features of the Desert War deserve emphasis. Everything had to be transported by motor to the ‘front’, insofar as there was one, and moved by motor when it got there. This applied to both sides and included all the basic necessities of life as well as the materials of war, food, water, clothing, ammunition, petrol and spare parts. Hence the immense ‘tail’ of which Churchill complained: it was indeed far longer for the 8th Army than the Afrika Korps but this was only because the distance of Alexandria from the field of most of the fighting was much longer than from Tripoli.
The other peculiar feature was the problem of identification. ‘It may seem odd that in a country where nothing could be hidden it should yet be so difficult to know
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where anybody was, who they were and what they were doing’, writes Lord Carver in his highly percipient book ‘Tobruk’.2 The reason was the continual desert haze, the product of smoke and sandstorms stirred up by battle and by the khamsin, a ferocious wind which would blow at unpredictable moments. What seemed to be the rear of a column of friendly vehicles could all too easily turn out to be the vanguard of a German armoured brigade. Nor did air reconnaissance help; it was little more use than a ground probe. From the sky it was often even more difficult than on the ground to distinguish Allied from Axis forces. Both sides had to face the same problems. To quote Lord Carver again, ‘At every level the distinguishing characteristic of these battles was a bewilderment about what was going on, the greatest difficulty in telling friend from foe, and in sifting accurate and timely information…from wildly inaccurate and often out of date reports’. It was a world of mirages and hallucinations. ‘It is little wonder that the battles almost ceased to have a pattern at all, and to those taking part it all seemed a hopeless muddle.’ 3
Experience of battle still lay ahead for 50th Division. Our immediate task was to dig in on our allotted sector of the Gazala Line where we arrived on 6 February 1942 and remained for the next three and a half months. The war of movement had become a stalemate. The Gazala Line ran from a point on the coast thirty miles west of Tobruk southwards for fifty miles to Bir Hacheim. It was not a ‘line’ but was, in its northern sector, a series of dug-in fortified static positions called ‘boxes’, in theory able to give each other supporting fire, though not always in practice. The whole ‘line’ was protected by mine fields. From the coast southward was the 1st South
2. ‘Tobruk’ (1964) p. 27. This book published in 1964 and his ‘Dilemmas of the Desert War’ (1986), where he takes account of Ultra, are the most authoritative works on the run-up to Tobruk. Lord Carver at the time was GSO1, 7th Armoured Division, and knows what he is talking about.
3. Ibid., p 28.
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African Division flanked on its left by 50th Division under General Ramsden containing 151 Brigade on its right, 69 Brigade in the centre, 150 Brigade on its left. 124th Regiment was the field artillery support of 69 Brigade. The two divisions made up 13 Corps under General Gott.
To the south from the 150 Brigade ‘box’ there ran unprotected mine fields for fifteen miles to Bir Hacheim, the ‘box’ of the Free French. This and a number of armoured brigades constituted General Norrie’s 30 Corps. We took it for granted that Rommel would attack sooner or later but just when or where a regimental officer could only guess while he concentrated on digging and training and not getting bored.
Meanwhile I had my first taste of action. The Brigade sent a column to eliminate an OP based on a small hill we called ‘the Pimple’. A ‘column’ was composed of a company of motorised infantry and a troop or battery of 25 pounders to support armoured cars on reconnaissance. Such units had been successful in skirmishes a year before against fleeing Italian at Beda Fomm, but were useless against Rommel. However, we were not dealing with the Afrika Korps. It was my job to guide the column to a dawn position. After a brief exchange of fire the ‘Pimple’ surrendered. But a shell splinter hit one of our troop commanders full in the face. I was the only officer, apart from the M.O. ‘Doc Fairlie’, at the casualty clearing centre when he was brought in on a stretcher. He was a terrible sight. ‘Surely he can’t live.’ ‘No, he may. I’ve seen cases from the last war – lived for years, in rubber muzzles, couldn’t speak, see, eat or drink – kept alive by tubes. I shall put him out.’ And he did with a hefty dose of morphia. It was his responsibility, but I would have done the same, if it had been mine.
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I have another and less unhappy memory of the Pimple foray. Early after breakfast carrying a spade I had walked alone a decent distance from our position for what used to be politely called ‘a natural purpose’. I noticed as I walked back a little hollow surprisingly full of tiny flowers. Spring in the desert was accompanied by the occasional brief shower and this was the result. They were just like the wild flowers I used to gather as a child with my mother, but only about a fifth of the size. They would soon shrivel away under the rays of an implacable sun. I suddenly became rather weepy, thinking of home, my sister and my parents fearful that having lost one son they might lose another, and thinking too of the sheer awfulness of war. I felt ashamed of crying, but I remembered Virgil’s untranslatable line ‘Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent.’ I wiped my eyes. There were one or two curious looks on my return but no one said anything. The mood soon passed as the practicalities of army life reasserted themselves with all their tedious routine.
Another and closer loss came a few days later. Harold Branson, George Burnett, Noel Lockerby and I were engaged in some routine job outside our ‘box’ when we heard the roar of a low flying plane. We threw ourselves on the ground to escape machine gun fire. Branson and I were unscathed. So was George despite a bullet through each elbow of his jacket. But Noel was dead with a bullet through his heart. Branson swore that the plane was one of ours, but, as he said, there could be no proof, and the RAF would certainly deny it. I had the job of going through Noel’s personal effects to be sent with a letter to his next of kin. I duly did so, discarding items that might be personally embarrassing like the packet of French letters which most of us kept in our wallets with a view to leave in Cairo; I said nothing about ‘friendly fire’, as it was later termed, in my letter of condolence.
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The next three months, as Churchill wrote in a different context, can be described as a ‘loaded pause’. RHQ settled into a routine. The Division dug in, and the Regiment engaged in rather desultory training which Colonel Ripley from time to time inspected. Food was adequate, alleged to be better at RHQ than in the Batteries. Brook Townsend, second in command and in charge of supplies, saw to it that Rosie Ripley did not lack the ration appropriate to his rank of pink gin and whisky.
I got to know the padre for the first time, the Revd… (I forget the initials) Budgen. He wore his religion lightly and would have loved to be an active soldier. He was reputed to be rich and to drive or be driven around Newcastle in a Rolls Royce – a car which few clergy could or can afford. Later I learnt from him how this occurred. He was quite candid. Plenty of people whom I know have married for money, but Padre Budgen is the only one who has avowedly admitted it. His wife was the heiress of a rich northern coal owner. ‘It has worked out very well’, he used to say. It certainly seemed to have done in his case.
On 26 May the balloon went up. Rommel led his forces in brilliant moonlight south-east from his base at Segnali outflanking the French at Bir Hacheim – a sort of giant right hook running east and then northwards to envelope the Gazala Line, overrunning in the process the ill-equipped 3rd Indian Brigade. His force included 21st and 15th Panzer divisions and 90th Light Division – virtually the whole of his armour, 567 tanks, and a formidable number of anti-tank weapons including 48 of the dreaded 88 mm converted anti-aircraft guns and a number of the scarcely less lethal long-barrelled 50 mm weapons. His armour was supported by some 10,000 supply and maintenance vehicles. Of course we did not know these facts and figures at the time. But the noise made by this gigantic convoy clanking across the
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desert and audible in rising and falling volume many miles away left one in no doubt that ‘something was up’.
I shall not attempt to describe in any detail the vicissitudes of 287 Battery of which at a date which eludes me I became Command Post Officer slightly before the battle began. Describing the history of a battle, Wellington once said, is like telling the history of a ball. Things become blurred; times become confused; the order of events fades from the memory; who said what to whom and when becomes harder and harder to disentangle; and in the desert the khamsin with its attendant sandstorms makes the picture even more hazy and obscure. So I can only give impressions of what it was like to have my first and only experience of ‘fighting’. Otherwise, to help the reader I have given a summary in the light of what I have subsequently learned of the campaign in a brief appendix to this chapter.
Apart from the occasional lull we were in continuous action from 27 May till the fall of Tobruk on 21 June. My job was to relay to the battery firing orders from George Burnett. The enemy opposite 69 Brigade’s sector of the line were Italian but no major hostilities occurred; it was largely a matter of harassing fire aimed at their vehicles. The nearest we came to ‘serious’ fighting in the early days of the battle was in giving support on the fringes of the desperate resistance of 150 Brigade which was dug in some three miles to the south of 69 Brigade and which Rommel had to eliminate if he was to get his supplies through. By 12 noon on 1 June he had succeeded, largely thanks to lack of Allied support from nearby armoured units and a failure in communications. Dick Henniker, who was commanding ‘B’ Troop which had been detached from 287 Battery, was taken prisoner that day when his OP was
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overrun. We thought he had been killed. I was much relieved to meet him some weeks later at Bari PoW camp.
About 9/10 June 287 Battery was detached from 50 Division and ordered to come under command of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade (Valentines and Matildas). None of us was pleased at this transfer. We would have been even less pleased if we had foreseen the consequences. After the disastrous battle of Knightsbridge on 12/13 June – the turning point in the whole campaign – the two infantry divisions, 1st South African and 50th British, were in danger of being cut off. They were ordered to retreat from the Gazala Line to the Egyptian frontier, 1st South African along the coast road, 50th Division south-east through scattered groups of Italian vehicles. The withdrawal was achieved with scarcely any casualties on the night of 14 June. By this time 32nd Army Tank Brigade with such tanks as it still had was heading for Tobruk, 287 Battery following. Our separation from 50th Division was to do us no good as events turned out.
At about this time I had my only contact with any of the Top Brass. General Lumsden rode up on a Crusader tank to my position where we were busy cleaning and repairing vehicles and equipment. He was the commander of the 1st Armoured Division and asked for directions to Brigade HQ. I was able to give them and made bold to ask ‘How are we doing, Sir?’ He paused and I wondered whether I had gone too far. But he replied after a moment ‘I’m afraid we haven’t been very clever, my boy.’ He told his driver to go on and his tank disappeared in a cloud of dust.
When we entered Tobruk on 16 June another change of command had been made. We ceased to be under 32nd Army Tank Brigade and were ordered by CRA Tobruk to
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join the 25th Field Regiment. We were now stationed in a hollow a few hundred yards east of the El Adem road a mile behind the Tobruk perimeter defence line. There was a welcome lull in fighting, and we had a chance to have some rest – we were desperately short of sleep – and to attend to the repair and maintenance of guns, vehicles and wireless sets. Everything was curiously quiet. Our patrols brought no news of enemy activity near the perimeter, but the very flatness of the desert above the northern escarpment concealed more than it revealed because of the shimmering heat haze. Air reconnaissance might have helped a bit, but not much. Anyway we had no planes. During early evening that Friday 19 June George Burnett, who was patrolling in his carrier outside the perimeter, captured an Italian officer whose truck had broken down. He was passed back for interrogation. We decided to invite the neighbouring battery commander to our mess for a drink to celebrate this extremely modest success. One thing led to another. We had a noisy evening. There was no shortage of gin and whisky. Our guest decided to guide himself back through the darkness by firing some Verey lights. There were severe comments over the telephone from RHQ, but we firmly denied all knowledge. I went into my tent at midnight in something of a blur and slept heavily.
I was woken up with a bit of a hangover by a tremendous noise of gunfire. The dawn was cool, almost refreshing as it always was even in mid-summer. Gradually the dark shapes of vehicles and tents took their familiar forms and the sun rose with theatrical splendour. I rang the adjutant of 25 Field to find out what was happening and whether there were any orders. He knew as little as I did. Lack of orders was to be a feature of the long day which lay ahead. I took a leisurely breakfast on my own at the battered mess table – the last decent meal, if I had known it, that I was to eat for eighteen months. And in the absence of instructions I surveyed the scene.
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Despite the usual heat haze which settled down at about 10 am it was easy to see that all was far from well. I hoped that George on patrol just outside the perimeter was all right, and, knowing that my Battery Commander after the night’s drinking might not be in the best of humour when he came to inspect our position, got on with the numerous routine duties of a CPO.
By now at about 9 am it was clear that communications were very bad – telephone lines cut by shelling and highly unreliable wireless sets. As the morning wore on the noise of battle rose and through the haze I could see something which always made blood run cold even in the desert heat – the shapes of German tanks which somehow looked as if they had been there for quite a time and were moving very slowly roughly south-east to north-west across our line of vision two or three miles away and out of our effective range and theirs.
By some quirk of the climate the view suddenly became clearer – normally the heat haze was getting worse by then – and I had a grandstand view of the advance of what must have been 15th Panzer Division. It was a wonderfully impressive operation. An artillery barrage followed by motorised infantry with anti-tank guns and Panzer support moving through the gap in the perimeter defences made earlier by German engineers silently at dawn. Then came wave after wave of dive bombers, the terrifying Stukas dropping their load just ahead of the barrage. The purpose was not only to hit the defenders but to blast a passage through the defences by exploding the mines which blew up in a sort of chain reaction. There were smoke signals, often violet in colour I seem to remember, emitted to warn the Stukas against bombing their own advance guard. The Germans had complete control of the air. The RAF was nowhere to be seen throughout the long day. Nor
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were our tanks much in evidence. This kind of close co-operation between air, artillery, infantry and armour was something never, as far as I know, practised in the 8th Army at that time. Even as I watched I thought what a bunch of amateurs we were compared with the Afrika Korps. Everything I have read since about the Gazala and Tobruk battles has only served to confirm this impression.
The day wore on. At last we made contact with George Burnett. The battle had now moved in our direction and Rommel’s tanks were engaged in mopping up our artillery positions. It was not difficult. Twenty-five pounders had a very limited anti-tank range, even if they had armour-piercing shells. The German tanks only had to keep outside it and could easily knock out our troop positions gun by gun. ‘A’ Troop was in a desperate plight. I heard the GPO (Gun Position Officer) say that they had three out of four knocked out, and then the wireless went off. He was killed a few minutes later. Meanwhile our own Battery HQ position was in peril for some of the enemy tanks had worked round behind us and threatened to cut us off from the guns of ‘B’ Troop. We had been under continuous shell fire for some time and now the hostile tanks had crept to within machine gun range. Bullets went by with a curious high-pitched whine rather like an irritated gnat and kicked up little puffs of sand all round. ‘B’ Troop guns were still firing, but it was obviously only a matter of time before they would be overrun. Branson gave orders for HQ to withdraw.
Just before this we had our first sight of British tanks at all close. A few Valentines appeared but they made no attempt to engage the enemy, merely waited behind us. One could hardly blame them; they had little chance of surviving an exchange with German tanks. But, if all were behaving as they seemed to be in our sector, letting one gun position after another go, the prospect for Tobruk was pretty bleak.
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We moved into another hollow a few hundred yards west of the El Adem road. I was very thirsty but as usual water was in short supply. By now men as well as officers realised how serious the situation was. Faces were grim under their covering of sweat and sand. It was hard to appreciate that these were ordinary young men, some hardly more than boys who could smile and joke, so much older, almost gaunt they looked.
George Burnett now arrived. He had escaped after all his guns had been knocked out. He did not know what had happened to Frank Hunworth, his GPO, or his Section Officer, John Blackah, who were the last to leave the position. It was about 2.30 pm. The dust and mirage were worse than ever. Enemy tanks had now cut us off from ‘B’ Troop. George who went in his carrier on a brief recce reported that they were completely surrounded. We could not get a sound out of them on the wireless; their guns were still firing but not for long. The small group of us, Harold Branson, George Burnett, Clifford Wilton, myself and a few drivers and wireless operators were now a headquarters with nothing to be head of. We tried to make contact with our regimental parent. There was only silence, except from one of the other batteries which was in the process of being overrun by German infantry mopping up survivors. We could hear the battery commander who was hiding in a slit trench and giving a running commentary on his plight. ‘I believe they’ve missed me’, then ‘No, the buggers have spotted me after all, I am smashing the set. Off.’ We drove on in search of 25 Field HQ. We passed by the Guards Brigade, the alleged mobile reserve and the one unit in Tobruk equipped with six pounder anti-tank guns which were the only effective Allied weapon against German armour. Under Rommel’s command they would have been on the move with anti-tank guns in the fore. But
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they remained static, perhaps for lack of orders, although one might have expected some sign of initiative. The spirit of ‘Up Guards and at ’em’ was singularly lacking. They had behaved with similar passivity in the Cauldron.
We did not find 25th Regiment HQ which, we later heard, had been overrun. We were now out of the main theatre of battle and very tired; after a brew-up George and I took a brief nap with our heads in the narrow patch of shade cast by our truck. We were soon on the move and reached the edge of the northern escarpment where we had a commanding view of the whole garrison area covered with vehicles, some burning, through to the town and the sea beyond. I had another grandstand view of the German attack heading towards the town itself – anti-tank guns well in the fore on a level with the tanks themselves, Stukas bombing ahead of a clearly defined line of coloured smoke.
As I sat by my truck my eye fell on my driver who was enjoying some sleep. He was about my age. With his fair hair, unshaven chin, face caked with sweat and dust, dirty khaki drill shorts and shirt he might have been the epitome of the young descendants of north European tribes who were trying to kill each other in a land so desolate that it was barely possible to exist there, let alone fight. What a bizarre turn of events that Britons and Germans should be locked in mortal combat hundreds of miles south of their own green and pleasant lands.
We were soon on the move again, Branson restlessly seeking some sort of Command HQ to give us orders and tell us what was happening. Eventually we reached a South African post near a stony outcrop where there was a big cave partly below the ground. I got out of my truck and went down some roughly hewn steps
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to see if I could discover what was happening. The cave was being used as a field hospital dimly lit by candles and hurricane lamps with hastily improvised beds and with stretchers laid across packing cases. A surgeon was operating in one corner by the light of a Tilly Lamp. His patient had a terrible stomach wound which made me almost sick to look at. I doubted whether he had long to live. All around one heard uneasy stirrings and stifled cries of pain. One man suddenly stood up raving at the top of his voice. No one paid any attention. Black and Cape Coloured orderlies hurried to and fro in the shadows bringing water and generally ministering to the needs of the wounded men. If one could judge by the indescribable smell the place had only the most rudimentary sanitation. There was no reason to linger and I turned to go up the steps. I had to stand aside for a moment while yet another wounded man was carried down. He lay on a stretcher, his body and legs covered with a blanket, but as the orderlies carried him past me the blanket slipped half off, exposing the whole of his left leg as a mass of blood and splintered bone mingled with scorched fragments of his khaki shorts. His boyish face was immobile and he seemed unconscious. I heard the surgeon say ‘Christ! That looks bad. We’ll have to have it off, but I doubt if he’ll pull through’. I stumbled up the steps into the fresh air.
The light was beginning to go now. We decided to laager with the HQ of a South African regiment. The colonel asked us for such men as we could spare to help hold his defence line in the event of a dawn attack. Clifford Wilton and I went along to show the men where to position themselves behind a low stone wall where with rifles and bren guns the South Africans hoped to make a stand. They settled down for the night after a meal of bully beef. George, Clifford and I sat down with Branson near his truck, and drank the remainder of our gin. It was chilly. I put on a
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battle dress tunic and then trousers over my shorts. We were depressed at our losses, but hopefully discussed the problems of re-forming 287 Battery. We did not even then realise how desperate was the plight of the Tobruk garrison. We were encouraged by the rumour that General Gott with an armoured brigade was moving to our rescue. The story was of course untrue. It may have been a garbled version of the fact that some days earlier Gott had offered Ritchie to take command of the Tobruk garrison himself – an offer which Ritchie refused. Or it may have been wishful thinking based on nothing at all.
We talked for half an hour, settled down at about midnight. I wriggled my way into my sleeping bag divesting myself only of my boots. For a few minutes I gazed up. The dust had died down. The atmosphere was incredibly clear. The stars in the dark blue-black sky were immensely bright. Those stars! No one who has slept in the desert can forget them, and, if unable to close his eyes, watching their dignified and slow wanderings through the heavens. No wonder the ancients tried to find recondite significancies in their patterns, the Great Square of Pegasus, the Bear, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Orion and his Belt and…but sleep overcame me.
I woke just before dawn, a cold breeze down my neck. Soon everyone was stirring, and when the sun came up, brewing up for breakfast now that the flames could give nothing away. Suddenly something struck me as odd; there was no sound of gunfire or bombs though dawn was normally the time when battle raged most noisily. Then another strange thing occurred. A German JU 88 flew overhead. Bofors and bren guns were fired from the ground. The plane suddenly dipped its wings from side to side – the normal recognition signal made by British planes when as all too often they were fired at by our own Ack Ack. Shortly after this a message
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came through our own wireless – General Klopper’s order to surrender. We were stunned. We could hardly believe it. What to do next? Harold Branson gathered together the remnants of HQ. He told us to destroy all vehicles and equipment. I cannot remember why we had to destroy our only mobile means of escape – perhaps because we were almost out of petrol. We were to try and get away, irrespective of General Klopper’s orders, every man for himself. Vast clouds of smoke from burning trucks and carriers almost obliterated the sun and the town of Tobruk was invisible though one could locate it from the sound of exploding ammunition dumps.
We (Branson, Wilton, Burnett and myself) decided to tramp on foot as far as we could in an easterly direction and lie up in any shade we could find when the heat became too much. We would then resume our trek in the cool of evening and night. We walked for three hours till we were about four miles south-west of the perimeter. We met no one and twice crossed the coast road without seeing an enemy vehicle. Then at about 11 am we saw in the distance what looked like an enemy convoy and decided to lie up in some slit trenches in the hope of concealment and shade. We now had very little water. The next three hours were most uncomfortable. I had lost my tin hat and solar topee when leading the Battery in a hasty withdrawal from hostile tank fire near Knightsbridge. They had fallen out of my truck and I had neither time nor inclination to pick them up. A side hat is no use as a protection against the sun. There is not much shade in a slit trench and it cut one off from whatever faint breeze there might have been above ground. I dreamed of cold water and an iced ‘John Collins’ at Shepheard’s Hotel – a reverie cut short by the sound of an approaching vehicle. It stopped fairly near, there was silence, then the sound of foreign voices getting closer and louder. Then came shouts of glee as one
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by one my companions were discovered by Italian soldiers. I hoped I would not be caught, but in vain. I was the last to be found but that was no consolation.
We were bundled off in a lorry under guard to the HQ of what I think was the Trento Division where I was interrogated politely by an Intelligence Officer. I simply gave, as ordered by King’s Regulations, my name, rank and number, to which he nodded assent and asked me no more questions. He then gave me some delicious cold water – a better gift at that moment than anything else I could have had.
We were shepherded into a wired pen and then bundled into an open lorry westwards along the tarmac coast road meeting a stream of traffic going the other way, towards Tobruk – German, Italian and captured British vehicles driven much faster than we were ever permitted. The drivers and their crews radiated a busy cheerfulness but no jubilation or triumphalism. They did not seem to have bothered much about desert camouflage. Many were painted dark grey. Every now and then a German Mark III tank would rumble along. With their 50 mm gun positioned in the turret they contrasted with our best model, the American Grant, which had its main weapon, a 75 mm, mounted on the side. It thus had a limited traverse and could not fire from a hull down position. Another liability, we were told, was that it ran on high octane petrol which was much more inflammable than diesel.
But I did not reflect for long on the rival armour, rather on how very closely the German troops resembled ours, especially if as was often the case they were wearing captured British khaki drill. Stephen Crane, the American author of that great book about the Civil War, ‘The Red Badge of Courage’, speaks of the strange fascination which even the most ordinary details of life on the other side of the
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enemy line hold for those who find themselves there. It is a forbidden land where somehow everything is invested with the atmosphere of the super normal. So it is with a faint and illogical sense of shock that one finds the enemy’s mode of life so like one’s own; illogical because nothing should be less surprising than to discover that armies everywhere, being organised for the same purpose, resemble each other far more than they differ. Yet it took me quite a time to become accustomed to see the Germans doing just what we had done, laughing, singing, whistling, brewing up and eating their rations as they sat or lay in the shade of their vehicles.
The lorry pulled up at a solitary stone building in the Gazala area known as ‘the Half Way House’. We were ordered to go in under the guard of young fascisti of the worst type, arrogant, offensive and many half drunk. They proceeded to strip us of our watches and other removable paraphernalia. I was lucky. A guard took it, looked at it and gave it back, presumably because the face was cracked, though the mechanism worked all right. I sat down on the stone floor utterly exhausted and very depressed. Then I received an unexpected act of kindness. One of the guards proffered a bottle of rum and invited me to take whatever the Italian is for a ‘swig’, which I gratefully accepted. I felt temporarily slightly better.
A few minutes later we were herded into a large lorry covered at the back by canvass. It was driven by a German youth with a face like a muffin. He was an atrocious driver. We were so crowded that we had to stand. If anyone did sit he made the crush all the worse – which of course did not stop some people doing it. We had no guards. At one stage the driver and his mate who were unarmed halted for a pee. It struck me how easily we could have overpowered them, but to what purpose? There were miles of empty desert between us and any sort of base. Most
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of us were by now completely exhausted. The journey was resumed only to end with a crash which pitched us in a heap to the cab end of the lorry. The driver had hit a stationary truck. Water poured from his radiator. ‘Kaput’, he superfluously observed. We sat disconsolately by the road side watching the sun go down and feeling a slight breeze – pleasant at first but the precursor as we well knew to a chilly night. It was then that I became conscious of how little I and my companions had in the way of clothing – just a shirt, shorts and stockings, and a handkerchief, not even a battle dress jacket. I had a razor and the survivor of two packets of blades – one had been pinched by a guard. I also had a glass water bottle, my army equivalent having been mislaid long before, but it had no water in it.
After hours of waiting a lorry arrived to convey us to Tmimi. It was dark by now but one could see a huge crowd of captured prisoners. Officers were separated from men. I lay down on a stony bit of ground shivering. Even at the height of summer it could be very cold at night in Libya and we had no blankets. Next day we were packed like the proverbial sardines into lorries taking us to Derna. It was now very hot, and when there was a halt for water, there were signs of discipline collapsing and something of an ugly rush, only quelled by a tough colonel who called us to order. The approach to Derna took us away from the desert. There were signs of cultivation, occasional olive groves and greenish fields. We passed through Derna airfield and took the steep descent into the town. The white houses and the cluster of small boats in the harbour set against a dazzling blue sky made a pleasant change from the endless arid brown landscape. Our lorry drew up at dusk by the gates of what was called ‘the Old Fort’ – a square of white walls enclosing a dilapidated barracks. It was reminiscent of ‘Beau Geste’ and the Foreign Legion. I passed a very uncomfortable night with my companions in a long low stone building – again no
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blankets, no bedding and unglazed windows which let in an icy draught. The sanitation was indescribable. The hum of flies round the urinal was audible yards away. I was glad that acute constipation made it unnecessary for me to visit the region beyond. The next leg of our seemingly endless journey took us to Barce where conditions were much better – Italian bully and cooked vegetables to eat, beds, blankets and straw palliasses to sleep on. I had a reasonably good night.
Next day we were once more put into lorries, this time for the last leg of our journey to Italy. We were to be flown there from Benghazi. The ORs were to go by ship. One trivial but disagreeable accident occurred. I was sitting – there was less of a crush this time – with my back against that of a South African officer who was rather incongruously wearing a Sam Brown belt. He suddenly stood up and a stud on the belt tore a gaping hole in the back of my shirt. I was angry and showed it. The shirt was my only one. He mumbled some sort of cursory apology. I did not reply. It was dusk when we reached Benghazi. It had been heavily bombed by the RAF and we were greeted by such members of the public as were about with hisses and catcalls. Our rations when we were taken to a gloomy warehouse were surprisingly good – tinned tunny fish – not the coarse salty stuff of which we were to get our fill later but the real article, which used to be quite expensive in England. Our only complaint was that there was not enough. When I retired later to the latrines I was confronted with a dilemma. There was no paper. All I had was the leaves of a cheque book and a few Egyptian pound notes. I chose the cheques, which did not seem likely to be of much other use in the foreseeable future. During the night the RAF was active. The more patriotic of us cheered at every explosion to annoy our guards. I was unashamedly glad when the bombardment ended.
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Next day, after a somewhat broken night, we were conveyed to the airport and split into groups of sixteen to board Savoia Marchettis, the normal Italian transport plane. I had never flown before, but it was a pleasant experience, blue sky and perfect weather. Luckily no British planes were in evidence. After about five hours we landed at Lecce in the ‘Heel of Italy’. I was trying to adjust myself mentally to an indefinite captivity, but I soon fell asleep. I was still, like all of us, very, very tired.
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Appendix to Part II, Chapter 2
This is a summary of what I now know or believe were the causes of the fiasco at Gazala. It is largely based on Lord Carver’s two books ‘Tobruk’ (1964) and ‘Dilemmas of the Desert War’ (1986). They have to be read in conjunction, as there are several references in the second to the earlier one. In the 1986 book Lord Carver was able to acknowledge the role played by ‘Ultra’, the decoding of German radio communications, which till a few years earlier had been a closely guarded secret. He was also able to speak with greater candour about the principal British commanders who by then had all died, the last being General Sir Neil Ritchie in December 1983. Lord Carver, unlike the academic historians, was personally involved as GSO of 7th Armoured Brigade and knew what he was talking about.
The history of the Desert War has been the subject of two controversies. One of these, ‘Auchinleck v Montgomery’, concerns the Battle of El Alamein. It is irrelevant as far as this book is concerned. I was ‘in the bag’ well before that occurred. The other, which is relevant, is ‘Auchinleck v Ritchie’. Auchinleck before he died authorised an account of the Gazala campaign by John Connell 4 which is highly critical of Ritchie and greatly distressed him, though he refused to stir up controversy by defending himself publicly.
Lord Carver, while fully admitting Ritchie’s mistakes, argues that he was far from being the only person to blame for a disastrous defeat. Above him there was Auchinleck based on Cairo, too remote, often out of touch, and constantly harried by Churchill. Beneath him were his two Corps commanders, Generals Norrie, 30th Corps
4. Connell, ‘Auchinleck’ (1959)
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and Gott, 13th. They were close friends but Norrie was indecisive and Gott, though the opposite, often made the wrong decisions. Lower in the chain of command were Generals Lumsden and Messervy, 1st and 7th Armoured Brigades, whose dilatoriness in the Battle of the Cauldron on 12 June was largely responsible for a defeat at the turning point in the campaign from which 8th Army never recovered. Ritchie was not responsible for this nor for General Klopper’s mismanagement of the defence of Tobruk on 21 June. There were unfortunate personality clashes, notably between Ritchie and his two corps commanders who believed Ritchie to be too much under the thumb of Auchinleck. Ritchie had been Auchinleck’s Brigadier General Staff (BGS) and, in Lord Carver’s words, ‘never recovered from starting off on the wrong foot with Auchinleck – as a chargé d’affaires, not a plenipotentiary’.
Rommel suffered from no similar difficulties in his chain of command. He kept his Italian allies under firm control whereas Ritchie had to cope with a widely disparate collection of Australian, New Zealand, South African and Indian contingents as well as the British. Rommel was not harassed by Hitler. His eyes were fixed on the Russian campaign and he regarded North Africa as a side show. Rommel had another advantage over Ritchie. His radio was far more efficient. The wireless sets used by 8th Army were very unreliable, and the conduct of its operations was throughout bedevilled by failures in communication. Did he have a similar superiority in planes, guns and armour, as most of us at the regimental level believed?
The answer is in general no, with one important exception — so important that it largely determined the course of the battle. Tank for tank the Afrika Korps was roughly on a par with British armour, and Ritchie had a considerable numerical
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superiority. What gave Rommel the edge was better anti-tank guns and bolder use of them – often at the front of his attack, even ahead of his own tanks. In the smoke, heat-haze and sandstorms it was difficult to know whence the flashes of enemy gun fire emanated. British tank commanders tended to assume the source to be enemy tanks. Partly because their own 2 pounders were ineffective they underestimated the power of Rommel’s anti-tank weapons, the 88 mm and the long-barrelled 50 mm, which were the real danger. The British 6 pounder was to be their equal, but only a few arrived in time for the Gazala battle, and they were dug in to protect static ‘boxes’ which the German tanks sensibly circumvented. They were never used in the mobile and aggressive style of the Afrika Korps, of which I had a personal view in Tobruk (see digital pp. 27-28).
The various branches of Rommel’s army, Stukas, tanks, anti-tank guns, field artillery and motorised infantry, were much better co-ordinated than the forces under Ritchie. Rommel himself had been an army instructor, an artillery officer and a tank commander. He trained his soldiers to act as a team in combined operations. He was bold to the point of recklessness. But against the slow lumbering Allied forces his risks nearly always paid off.
The British army had not been trained for combined operations. Neither at Larkhill nor later in exercises at Frome or on Salisbury Plain were we taught anything about branches other than field artillery. All accounts of peace-time soldiering agree that ‘I’ tanks, cruisers, infantry and artillery had little practice in working together and, partly owing to social snobbery and atavistic tribal loyalty, little inclination to do so.
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There were three further difficulties for 8th Army. The Gazala line was intended not only for defence but also as a springboard for an attack which was never mounted. The deployment of the Allied forces was thus ambivalent. Huge dumps of supplies were positioned near the battle zone and their protection hampered the whole plan of defence. Auchinleck believed too much in morale-raising language and put excessively optimistic interpretations on the sporadic and garbled news of battle which got through to Cairo. Ritchie kept his headquarters too far away from the front, unlike Rommel who on occasions led the attack in person and was much more aware of what was happening on the ground. Rommel concentrated his tanks and guns, fewer numerically than Ritchie’s diffused total, but decisive where it mattered.
Both sides were faced with a war in unique conditions for which no precedent or guidelines existed. The verdict must be that at Gazala, the Germans displayed an adaptability and initiative which 8th Army for all its courage and effort never came near to emulating.
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We landed on Lecce airfield about 7 pm on 26 June and were taken in lorries to the town centre. From there we were marched for a few hundred yards to our quarters for the night – a big empty hotel. A large crowd assembled to watch us, but there was no triumphalism. They seemed if anything rather sorry for us: ‘Come sono belli’, I heard a woman say. I thought her standard of male beauty must be fairly low. None of us looked exactly at our best. I felt especially disreputable with the huge tear down the back of my shirt.
After a reasonably comfortable night we were taken next day to Bari, the principal transit camp for PoWs. The journey seemed interminable and we arrived fairly late but before turning in had to submit to a lengthy search. My wallet was closely examined. I happened to have in it one of those plastic cards issued in those days by the Wine Society with years marked horizontally at the top and generic names of wine vertically on the left with points on merit marked 0 to 9 horizontally against each year so that one could e.g. read, say, 1928, Champagne, 9. The NCO searching me pounced on this with glee deeming it no doubt to be some sort of cypher and hauled me before the Camp Commandant, an elderly Alpino with a feather in his hat. Although the card was not likely to be of any practical use in the foreseeable future I did not want to lose it, and I explained its purpose through an interpreter. The Commandant, looking at me with rather less dislike than at first, said, ’Ah, Cognitore di vino’. I gave him a slightly mendacious assent, and he returned it to me. I kept it till quite recently as a souvenir but have lost it now.
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We were in Bari all July. It was very hot. Day after day brought blue skies and a glaring sun. For the first ten days we were theoretically in quarantine, our huts in a barbed-wire enclosure a bit away from and above the main camp. Our quarters were very overcrowded, double-decker wooden bunks so close together that it was difficult to walk between them. The smell at night was revolting. I felt ravenously hungry. We had been well fed in the desert almost to the end, and the sudden change was very unpleasant. Later most of us found that our stomachs became adapted to some extent. The pangs of hunger and obsessive dreams of food did not disappear but they were never so acute and vivid as in Bari.
A typical day began with coffee – ersatz of course – brought by Cypriot orderlies at about 7 am and many theories were held about its basis – acorns, grain or even more unsavoury elements, but it was better than nothing. After that there was little to do except munch what fragments one had kept from the day before by a great effort of will so as to have a bite for breakfast. At first I used to lie on my bunk to make up for the many sleepless nights since the Gazala campaign began. That soon palled. The heat was oppressive, the flies innumerable, replacing by day the bed bugs which plagued us by night. The first meal was in theory at 12 noon, the second at 6.30 pm. But they were, especially the first varying from 12.30 pm to two o’clock, moveable feasts. Not that there was anything festive about a diet in which the midday meal was a thin vegetable soup with small quantities of rice or macaroni floating in it and a daily ration of six ounces of tasteless bread – fruit if there was any or tomatoes, and a minute ration of meat twice a week. The evening meal was the same but without the bread. This regime was to be much the same in Chieti, though relieved later there by Red Cross food parcels. We sometimes had unsalted pumpkin, about a nasty a dish as one could meet in a month of Sundays.
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The frequency of tomatoes has given me a lasting distaste for that vegetable/fruit. We had mess tins, a mug and a fork and spoon, but no knives. Not that there was anything to cut, as I observed to a companion. ‘Except our throats’, he morosely replied.
Bari was essentially a transit camp. No one was going to be there for very long. The ordered framework which sustained one in army service had collapsed. ‘Every man for himself’ was too often the mantra. There was no Senior British Officer (SBO), no proper chain of command as there would be in permanent PoW camps like Chieti.
Selfishness was exemplified by a RASC colonel (name of Cameron Cook) who before being taken prisoner had been lucky enough to pack a holdall with various extra comforts including some spare blankets and a large supply of cigarettes. No one could cavil at it. We would all have done the same, given the chance. Cigarettes were common currency, and he was rumoured to secure extra food by exchange with the Cypriot orderlies who formed part of the camp staff. One evening an officer, Guy Gouriet, of the 12th Lancers was brought in slightly wounded. The camp authorities, bloody-minded as ever, refused, since it was after ‘closing time’ for the camp store, to issue blankets. Someone went up to the colonel, who had made no secret of his reserve supplies, to ask him to lend a blanket to Gouriet for the night. He refused point blank, and, when some personal remarks of a highly insubordinate nature were made, threatened: ‘I shall see to it when we get back that you will account for this’ and proceeded to make a note of some of the names. The incident in retrospect seems almost incredible, but it was only the most flagrant of several others.
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The month I spent in Bari was the most hateful period of my life. The humiliation, the squalor, the despair at being a prisoner, the heat, the revolting food, the sheer boredom, the indefinite prospective period of incarceration, all combined to induce a mood of black despondency, such as I have never experienced before or since. I did not feel quite like this in Chieti, our next camp. By then I had become more resigned and acclimatised; there was an ordered regime, plenty to occupy one’s time. It was an extra-ordinary irony of fate that, when eighteen months later, I and my two friends escaped and were being sent back to base from the 8th Army front south of the Apennines, it should be Bari of all places, now in British hands, that was the transit camp in reverse for those en route for Taranto and the voyage to Britain (see below). Of course the conditions were quite different. But my temporary euphoria at having escaped evaporated into a mood of anger and self-pity, deplorable no doubt but, I think, forgivable in the circumstances.
The only silver lining at Bari was the sight in a separate compound of Dick Henniker in a queue for medical treatment. He had after all survived the destruction of 150 Brigade. ‘Hullo Dick’ someone shouted ‘why aren’t you dead?’ ‘No, I was only pinked in the arse. I’m going to have it dressed’ and he shuffled on with that inimitable unmilitary slouch which distinguished him 100 yards away. He was destined for a different prison camp from the one to which I was sent. We did not meet again till after the war.
After about a month we were moved to Chieti, a permanent PoW camp. Chieti is in the Abruzzi region about eight miles from the Adriatic port of Pescara and on roughly the same latitude as Rome. The camp was well guarded with a high wall
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surmounted by barbed wire, and sentries every fifty yards or so. It was illuminated by arc lights at night. Any escape over the wall was impossible. The camp was not too bad. Recently built, its two-tier wooden bunks were not much infested by bed bugs. Sanitation was reasonable. One had to squat Arab-wise over holes in a concrete floor and supplies of water were just adequate. One was given a shower at intervals and there was some sort of trough at which one could wash and shave. Our captors were reasonably tolerant with the exception of a bullying fascist adjutant [Captain Mario Croce] who dominated the easy-going camp commandant and deliberately held up mail and Red Cross parcels. But the Italians adhered to the Geneva Convention. There were far more Italian prisoners in British hands than vice versa, and a Red Cross official who visited the camp put a stop to the worst malpractices.
Escape, food and ennui were the leitmotifs of our waking hours, the last two of everyone’s, the first of a minority. Escape could not be a free-for-all. Individual initiative had to be carefully controlled as in every other PoW camp. Chieti had its escape committee responsible to the Senior British Officer. It co-ordinated and decided upon escape projects. Only a limited number could be authorised. I was not involved. Tunnelling was the only plausible method. I suffer from mild claustrophobia and being over six feet did not have the ideal physique. One seldom saw a tall miner when such people as miners existed. I took my turn as a lookout to warn tunnellers to hide their surface traces when a guard was anywhere near. The plan was a bit like the famous “Wooden Horse” only with black-boards as an apparent aid to lecturers in the courtyards at the back of each of the four residential blocks. Each had a well, and the soil was emptied down it. None of the four tunnels had reached, as intended, the bushes round the perimeter of the camp when the Germans took
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over in September 1943, but I heard later that a number of escapers made their way upwards in the dark and managed to join the outposts of the 8th Army.
Food, one of the other two themes of our existences, was never far from mind. We were not starved but were certainly under nourished. The diet was much the same as in Bari. Like most of us, I dreamed, not of castles in the air but menus on the table, especially roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Although short of protein, I was never ill except once early in our sojourn. This had nothing to do with diet. I had a painful abscess in a tooth.
There was a RAMC dentist in the camp. He borrowed the necessary instruments from the camp’s medical authorities but they could not or would not provide anaesthetics. Would I be willing to do without? The pain was now so acute that I said yes. He added that there was plenty of rough brandy available, and this might help. I vaguely recalled reading how in Nelson’s navy amputees were sedated with heavy doses of rum. The brandy did help – up to a point. But I shivered all day after the extraction though the temperature must have been in the high eighties or more – shock, I suppose. The experience was the most painful of my life till twenty-five years later bathing off the Norfolk coast I trod on a weaver fish. That really was agonising, though happily it did not last very long.
Boredom was endemic in the early weeks. There were perpetual rumours and gossip about people, events and the progress of war. ‘Have you heard …’ was the constant refrain in the interminable queuing before meals. I and another officer who shall be nameless (but only because I have forgotten his name) thought it might be fun to start a rumour and see how soon it got back to us. Our ‘Have you heard …?’ was
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that two officers in the block furthest away from ours had been caught flagrante delicto in an improper embrace and had been summoned to see the SBO. This was at the breakfast queue. Sure enough, by the time of the supper queue ten hours later it had become common currency. Somebody asked their names but, not surprisingly, no one seemed to know. I relate this discreditable story only to show the expedients to which some of us were reduced in order to relieve boredom.
Both hunger and boredom were alleviated when Red Cross parcels began sporadically to arrive despite the obstruction of the fascist adjutant. Food parcels – one for every two prisoners – were what mattered. My memory is of tinned meat, biscuits, sugar, cheese, butter and a sort of iron-ration chocolate bar. There were cigarettes too which non-smokers like me could use as barter for food from the nicotine addicts. I was once asked whether I had any qualms about this exchange which was obviously bad for the smokers whose diet was even further reduced. ‘None whatever’, was my reply, adding if in a biblical mood ‘I am not my brother’s keeper’. Of course, one did not know then about the perils of lung cancer, but I fear that my reply would have been just the same if I had known. Eventually clothes, rudimentary sports equipment, playing cards, chess sets and books came via the Red Cross as well as food. Chess and bridge, particularly the latter, were the great time killers. Culbertson’s ‘Red Book’ was much in demand. I was taught bridge on the voyage from Gourock. I became competent but had no real flair for it or chess and played little of either after the war.
Books were what really mattered. The parcels were a miscellaneous lot largely dog eared copies of inter-war novels – Edgar Wallace, E. Phillips Oppenheim, Warwick Deeping, Ethel M. Dell, P. C. Wren and if one was lucky the occasional John Buchan
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or P. G. Wodehouse. But there were serious books as well. I read the whole of the Bible (omitting Genesis 36!), most of Macaulay’s ‘History’ and Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall’, the latter in two volumes with parallel columns of very bad print on each page. I got through all Shakespeare’s plays, discovering how bad some of them were and recalling George III’s dictum: ‘Sad stuff Shakespeare, Eh what. But we mustn’t say so must we. What, what, what!’
There were about 300 American and 1000 British officers in the camp and a sprinkling of ORs to do the chores. Field Officers, i.e. majors and above, had been hived off at Bari and sent to a separate camp, the only exception being an Indian Army colonel by the name of Marshall who was the Senior British Officer. He had the task of representing us to the camp authorities and transmitting their orders. He was elderly, pickled in gin and whisky, and not above getting ‘perks’ on the side from the Camp Commandant. We had little respect for him. Another group of PoWs at Bari was the large contingent of South Africans taken at Tobruk. They were moved to a separate camp as being supposedly more amenable to Axis indoctrination than the British. It was true that South Africa, which came into the war by only one parliamentary vote, contained a number of Afrikaner sympathisers with Nazism – their racial doctrines were not dissimilar – but the South African army were all volunteers. I doubt if the Italian authorities got much change out of them.
The inmates of Chieti were, as one would expect, a mixed bag, a cross section of social classes. The ‘upper crust’ were old Etonian guardees, many of them caught when their ‘boxes’ were overrun in the Cauldron of Tobruk. They were pleasant enough, and, if they tended to keep themselves to themselves, this was only natural in a group, most of whom knew each other well from school and family connections.
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I remember two: one was Hamish St Clair Erskine, who barely concealed his surprise that a Territorial gunner should have been a friend of his cousin Tony (Lord) Loughborough, whom I knew well at Magdalen. Hamish Erskine became a conspicuous bohemian society figure after the war. The other was Tony Maxtone Graham, older than most of us, who wrote a witty one-act play, which was acted in the improvised camp theatre. It was set in Victorian club land and largely turned on the rules of an obsolete card game, Ecarté, which I understood at the time but have now totally forgotten. At the opposite end of the social spectrum there were one or two officers promoted from the ranks. I remember Lieutenant Lilley, whose command of barrack-room language belied the purity associated with his name. When asked to do something with which he was already familiar, his reply was a variant on the proverbial admonition about grandmothers and eggs. ‘Don’t teach your father to f…’.
We soon settled down into an organised routine. There were lectures on almost every subject. There was sport; football but on medical advice only ten minutes in each half; there was even cricket played on the asphalt path through the camp. Among our number were two eminent Test players, F. R. (Freddy) Brown and Bill Bowes, the famous Yorkshire fast bowler. Amateur theatricals were another pastime. More seriously there were regular church services, not the less moving for being conducted with an improvised altar of old packing cases, the congregation squatting on the floor – very different from Magdalen College Chapel but no further, one hopes, from God.
Four of us in adjacent bunks formed a sort of ‘mess’. Three were from my battery; Clifford Wilton, the battery captain and an ex-Cambridge rugger blue, George
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Burnett, my troop commander and a banker, and myself, his command post officer (CPO). The fourth and youngest was Arthur Dodds, RAF, navigator and bomb aimer whose Wellington had been shot down near Derna in the western desert. He was an athlete and a good fast bowler. He was also deeply religious and believed he had heard the call of God. He later took Holy Orders. I have freely drawn on his impressive book ‘Desert Harvest’, which has jogged my memory in a host of ways.
The fifteen months of Chieti were monotonous and frustrating. Nothing changed except the seasons, two baking summers, one pleasant spring and one wet and cold winter when we shivered in our thin blankets. ‘What did you do about sex?’ an elderly and somewhat prurient don asked me over the port in the Christ Church Common Room soon after I became a member in 1946. My reply was that my libido and testosterone on a prison diet were not high, but I did what most young men do in crowded quarters with no female company and no inclination towards a male alternative viz revert to the practices of adolescence, in plain language wanking.
The spring of 1943 brought some hope. Even the Italian press could not conceal the massive German surrender in Tunisia on 7 May. The SBO, like most others, had clandestine links with BBC News. The Allied seizure of Sicily and the fall of Mussolini on 25 July gave us an euphoric hope for our own liberation. No such luck! The armistice signed by the new Italian government was followed by German occupation of the whole of northern and middle Italy. In Chieti the Italian guards vanished overnight. For forty-eight hours we could have walked out of the camp but we were given categorical orders by the SBO, said to have emanated from London, that we should stay put. Colonel Marshall was so zealous in carrying these out that he threatened court martial for disobedience and even had officers patrolling the camp
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to prevent escape – a truly Gilbertian reversal of form. One or two ignored this nonsense and did in fact walk out. I have always been ashamed that I was one of the vast majority of sheep who remained in situ. At the start of the third day we woke to find the walls of the camp manned by German paratroopers.
The story of the orders to stay in the camp is amazing and scandalous. It only emerged many years later, first in M.R.D. Foot’s history of MI9 (1979), the War Office Department responsible for POWs, and much more fully in the late Richard Lamb’s ‘War in Italy’ (1993) 5. There are few if any references to it in the Memoirs of the British leaders, Churchill, Alexander, Montgomery, Alanbrooke, Eden, Macmillan etc. Small wonder, for it was a disgraceful episode. The key order through secret radio and encoded letters was made on 7 June 1943 by MI9, which informed Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ) in Algiers and Cairo of a fait accompli ‘we cannot authorise [mass breakouts] owing to possible danger mass reprisals’ 6. Brigadier (later Major-General) Richard Crockatt, one of the Deputy Directors of MI9, was responsible for what Lamb describes as ‘this atrocious order’. Lamb adds that ‘it is impossible to find out from the archives whether he consulted with superiors before sending it’ 7 . Crockatt’s order was disputed by the Middle East Defence Committee in Cairo and by Lieutenant-Colonel Simonds who was in Sicily and responsible with a minuscule staff for PoWs escapes 8. He had a rational rescue plan of his own. Crockatt would have none of it, burbling on about the danger, for which there was no evidence at all, of mass reprisals (against whom?).
5. Lamb, ‘War in Italy’, Chapter 9, pp. 160-75 passim
6. Quoted Lamb 160
7. Ibid. 161. It is hard to believe that such significant orders had no authority beyond that of an MI9 Deputy Director
8. See ‘Times’ Obituary 12 January 1999
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Far too late in the day there was a change of heart. During the armistice negotiations Churchill had insisted that the Badoglio government should do all it could to prevent Allied prisoners falling into German hands. Orders to that effect were given by the Italian War Office to Camp Commandants. It is doubtful whether they got through to any but a few of the 72 camps. On 8 September, the day of the Salerno landings, Crockatt countermanded his earlier orders. By then the pass had been sold. The Germans had seized nearly all the camps in Italy. As a result most of the 60,000 Allied POWs were conveyed to Germany and spent the next eighteen months in captivity. A few escaped before the move – I with my group was one – but far more would have done so if Brigadier Crockatt’s insane order had not been given. Writing over sixty years later my blood still boils at this piece of War Office ineptitude. I would gladly jump on Crockatt’s grave if I knew its whereabouts and was not confined to a wheelchair – which makes jumping on graves difficult.
On 23 September we were moved from Chieti to Sulmona. It was immensely hot when we were dumped about midday on the parade ground-cum-football pitch at the northern end of Sulmona Camp; a blazing sun and a brazen sky. My morale was very low as I squatted, with my few possessions in a haversack and a cardboard box tied with string, awaiting one of those interminable roll calls which were a bane of PoW life. There was no shade, and it became intolerably hot as the day wore on. There was a tap in one of the huts by the parade ground. We were allowed in small groups to fill whatever containers we had with water; it tasted like nectar. At last we were dismissed to find places in one of the large number of long single storied huts with red tiles and white walls which filled the vast camp. It had been built some twenty-five years earlier to house Austrian PoWs taken in the campaign of 1917-18. It was quaintly named ‘Campo di Concentramento Fonte dell’ Amore’. It
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was situated two or three miles from the town of Sulmona, an undistinguished place notable only as the birth place of Ovid whose selected poems, with the omission of the Ars Amatoria, I had been taught to read at school in Latin lessons. I soon got hold of the forbidden verses – harmless erotica which, however, stimulated my study of Latin far more effectively than the usual boring stuff one gets in set books. Sulmona’s only other claim to fame is manufacture of sugared almonds, said to be the best in Italy.
The town lies in the Abruzzi in a valley about 700 ft above sea level and is almost surrounded by a ring of mountains rising up to 6,500 ft. To the north beyond them we could see the Gran Sasso d’Italia (9,500 ft). On 12 September, a few days before our arrival, Mussolini, who had been interned by the Badoglio government in a winter sports hotel near the summit, was ‘rescued’ by a glider force under a gigantic flamboyant SS officer, Otto Skorzeny and flown to Rome. The operation was a complete sham. The Germans were by then in total control of the whole area. Mussolini could have been transported by an ordinary motor car, but Hitler wanted a dramatic gesture. We knew about the ‘rescue’, but naturally not what lay behind it.
The four of us who had ‘messed’ together at Chieti, Wilton, Burnett, Dodds and myself, together with a commando officer, John Craven, who had been captured much later than we, in Algeria, made up a quintet. We agreed that our last chance of escape had come and co-opted two gunners from 67 Medium Regiment, Ken Lowe and the Adjutant, Beverley Edge, as reserves. There were three possibilities, tunnelling being ruled out for lack of time: (1) eluding the guards by some trick, (2) ‘jumping’ the train to Germany, (3) hiding somewhere in the camp pending the expected arrival of advancing Allied troops from the south and in the hope that the
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Germans, having as they believed despatched almost all the PoWs northwards, would use the camp as a staging post for their own troops but relax the strict guard – an armed sentry on the walls at fifty-yard intervals – needed to prevent escapes. This was the option we chose, encouraged by the fact that in two places, one on the east, the other on the west, the wall had been partly demolished by earlier escapes. In the event our calculation proved correct. Guards were reduced to a minimum and no one repaired the gaps, though the arc lamps floodlighting the walls were kept on, no doubt to put off Allied bombers and give the impression that the place was still a PoW camp.
The question was where to hide. The camp was full of rubbish, cardboard boxes, tables, discarded wooden bunks, planks of all sizes and a vast amount of general debris left from previous occupations including, incredibly, a small improvised ladder made by some earlier hopeful escapee. These gave some possible though not very promising hideouts. But we agreed that the best hope was to hide in the rafters above the ceiling of our hut. We were not the only prisoners to have that idea, but most made their entry into the rafters from below inside their huts, leaving a clear sign to any searchers. We resolved to get in from outside and, having got in, block our entry so as to leave no external traces.
There were two lines of bricks between the eaves and the top of the wall of the hut. There was plenty of space horizontally, but only the height of the bricks vertically. The aperture when we had removed the bricks, by standing on an old table and a rickety ladder, looked very narrow. The process was slow because there were perpetual alarms about being spotted by soldiers wandering about the camp on desultory and sporadic patrols. Eventually the coast seemed clear and first George,
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then Arthur and myself, who had thin figures, made the experiment of entry, rather like posting ourselves through a letterbox. But letter boxes do not take parcels; John Crawford and Clifford Wilton who had played rugger for Cambridge – and looked like it – were too deep in the chest to get in. There was no way of enlarging the entry vertically. So our two reserves, Ken Lowe who was very tall (6 ft 4 in) and thin and Beverley Edge, also thin, took their places.
We now had two tasks. The first was to insert planks to make a partial platform resting on the transverse rafter beams. We could lie or sit on these without danger of falling through the lath and plaster ceiling of the hut below us. Our second task was to fill the area with as much food and water as we could master and to plan the sanitary arrangements for our sojourn which would be, we optimistically reckoned, be reasonably brief.
We stored water in cylindrical pint tins, which had originally contained powdered milk and came in Canadian Red Cross parcels. KLIM was the acronym, though I never knew what it stood for [MILK spelt backwards – Ed]. There were any number lying about. The idea was to drink and use the emptied ones to pee into. Beverley Edge says in his diary that we thus fortified ourselves with 60 pints of water – twelve for each of us. We also inserted into the rafter area as much food as we could get hold of, again largely the contents of Red Cross parcels – tinned meats, biscuits, cheese, margarine. We made a sort of catwalk of planks to the most distant corner of the area where we put an earth box – a very large biscuit tin in which we put a suitable quantity of soil and anti-flea powder which, we hoped, would have some kind of disinfectant property. This was our loo, toilet, lavatory bowl or whatever you wish to call the vessel into which one defecates. The morning journey was exhausting and
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uncomfortable. The roof at its highest pitch was only about three feet above the planks. And we soon were all afflicted with acute constipation, though this had its advantages. The less one put in the less came out – and usually in the form of hard pellets which did not exude too bad a smell.
Having made these preparations we relaxed for about a week, spending our time in the usual occupations of cards, reading, gossip and exercise. The interlude ended on Thursday 30 September, which happened to be George’s birthday; at 12.15 pm, the ‘grub queue’, as we called it, was interrupted by a summons to an unexpected roll call on the parade ground. We reckoned that this meant the move to Germany. The five of us at once made for the hut and climbed in. Wilton and Crawford attended the roll call, which was indeed the prelude to a move to Germany. Like the rest they were given a short time to collect their belongings; they used part of it to tell us the form and, along with Gunner Spall, Edge’s driver, to brick us in and remove any outward signs of entry. We wished them good luck in their journey and settled down for what we hoped would be a week at most. In the event it was to be eighteen days. Had I known this at the time I doubt whether I would have taken my place on the roof.
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As the sounds of activity in the camp died away we took stock of our situation. It was cramped and uncomfortable lying on the planks. We could see nothing of what was going on outside, depending entirely on our hearing, which by the end of our stay in the roof had become preternaturally acute. The only light came through small chinks between the roof tiles. Arthur studied the Bible, and George his much loved Culbertson’s Book of Bridge. We had a pack of cards and tried to play patience, occasionally even bridge. My only reading was a pocket English-Italian dictionary to improve my Italian – more practical use than the Good Book or Culbertson. My rudimentary acquired knowledge of the language was to come in handy when we eventually got out of the camp, for the others did not know a word at that stage and I had to do all the talking.
Beverley Edge describes the scene in his diary entry for Monday 4 October:
‘It is pretty quiet now (1.30 pm). Ken (Lowe) is lying on his back studying the roof – George has just tired of Poker Patience and is following Ken’s example – Bobby is sitting with hands round his knees, head slightly bent to avoid the roof, casting a vacant scowl at our small dark world. Arthur is reading the Bible by the small beam of light that comes in under the tiles through the loose bricks where we made our entrance. I am writing this by the same beam. The light is very bad, and it is only possible to read, write or play cards when the sun is at its brightest; if a cloud passes over work must be temporarily abandoned.’
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It was in this ‘small dark world’ that we were to live with little change for eighteen days of boredom, discomfort, fear and hope. I am sorry I surveyed it with ‘a vacant scowl’ but I dare say a vacant smile would have been even more irritating to my companions! It was certainly not a scene to give one much cheer. Through some trick of the light the faces of my companions, and me too no doubt, looked like the cadaverous elongated visages of an El Greco painting.
Writing at the age of eighty-six, fifty-nine years after this experience, I am sitting on the terrace of my Norfolk house enjoying the lengthening shadows of a warm September afternoon and the view over my sloping lawns of the Yare and the marshes beyond – a far cry from the rafters of our hut in Sulmona. I have before me on the table a photocopy of Beverley Edge’s diary. He kept it throughout our eighteen days and left it in the rafters when we finally baled out. Nineteen years later, in 1962, through the help of the Italian War Office, it was restored to him fully intact and in good condition. It is the most authentic account, being written contemporaneously. I also have George Burnett’s story written soon after our escape, my own account written about two years later and Arthur Dodd’s published version in ‘Desert Harvest’. From these I could reconstruct a detailed day to day history of our ‘Eighteen Days’. But it would make tedious reading. So I shall single out the more memorable episodes and try to give a general impression of my experience, which still seems detached from all my other memories. I know it happened. I can remember bits of it vividly. They come to me occasionally in dreams or more often at times of insomnia. But there is a curious sense of unreality about those days in retrospect. They stand apart from anything that happened before or after. War disturbs everyone’s equilibrium, routine and prospects. It was strange to cease to be a law student at Magdalen, to be an OCTU cadet in Larkhill,
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to be in a Geordie gunner regiment, moving from England to Egypt, Cyprus, Palestine, Iraq, back again to Egypt, thence to Libya and to captivity in Italy. Nor had anything prepared me – why should it have – for life in Campo PG 21 – a sort of cross between remand home and a gaol. And, jumping forward three weeks, I had no idea what it would be like to live as a fugitive in German-occupied Italy for nearly three months. Yet, strange though all these episodes in my life were, they do not quite have the same dreamlike sense of unreality as those eighteen days in the rafters. ‘Give me back my eighteen days’, I sometimes murmur, like the populace in 18th-century England who, when the Gregorian replaced the Julian calendar and 2–13 September 1752 were expunged, cried ‘Give us back our eleven days’.
This is a digression. Back to our first day in the rafters. I was not cheerful. We had surmounted one hurdle but our chances of escaping discovery seemed remote. All we would have to show for our efforts would be the loss of possessions we had left beneath us. This meant a lot to PoWs – things that we had acquired over the past fifteen months, warm underclothes, pullovers, books etc., which made the difference between poverty and wealth in that restricted world. I remembered shivering in our first winter in Chieti. Captured in the height of the Libyan summer we wore only KD [Khaki Drill] shorts and shirts and had to keep warm with blankets round our shoulders. And winter was again near.
Whatever hopes we had of seeing our treasured trivialities vanished next day when a horde of OR prisoners entered the hut for loot. ‘Stingy bastards’, one said, ‘they’ve taken the lot’. But we hadn’t, and a triumphant note of glee was sounded when they seized a pullover – probably mine which I had left on my bunk. ‘They’re like a swarm of bloody locusts’ said Arthur, applying his eye to our only peep hole and
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using words not entirely suitable for a future ordinand. We should have been glad that our men rather than the ‘enemy’ – ‘Ites’ [Italians] or Boches – were benefiting. But we were not glad about it – or about anything.
The next day (2 October) a Sapper officer, Lieut. Ripley Duggan, who was at large in the camp, moving from one hiding place to another, and knew where we were, called out from below with the latest ‘griff’ (news) about the war. Naples had fallen and the 8th Army was at Avellino. An hour or so later the German guards using some sort of battering ram knocked a large hole in the roof of the hut just below us, looked into ours, luckily did nothing, and then gave the same treatment to the hut above us. Both these huts had been entered from below and the ceilings showed the signs. We complacently congratulated ourselves on our prudence in making the entry into our rafters from outside – leaving minimum traces.
There were sporadic searches by the guards for the next few days, much tapping of walls and floors. They luckily seemed more tunnel-minded than roof-minded. By 4 October all the remaining PoWs had been evacuated, so Ripley Duggan told us. Perhaps the searches would relax. But in the late afternoon another threat surfaced. German troops, Duggan said, were going to occupy some of the huts. Would one of them be ours?
Arthur, who was on guard at the peep hole which commanded most of the hut except the area immediately below, whispered that some German soldiers had entered the hut, ‘they’re quite a number. My God they’re opening the doors.’ There was a roar as of a heavy truck in low gear. ‘They’re backing the bloody thing in here. But they may not sleep here.’ ‘They’re sure to leave a guard of some kind’ I
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said, ‘but if they don’t sleep things may not be too bad.’ ‘They’re bringing in blankets. They’re here to stay’. They were and the next three days were hell. There were about a dozen soldiers, apparently in charge of some sort of repair unit (in British military jargon LAD or Light Aid Detachment). They lived below us for three days. The days were very noisy, shouting and hammering, and playing a gramophone with apparently only one record, ‘The Lambeth Walk’, repeated ad nauseum. So we could move and talk with reasonable security.
But when they turned in for the night at about 9 pm silence descended save for a sentry pacing up and down and every now and then flashing his torch up to the ceiling so that slim slivers of light played among the rafters. This was disconcerting though he could not possibly have seen anything. We took turns to keep awake. Ken Lowe and Arthur Dodds had heavy colds. It was on one of those nights that I remember deplorably whispering when on guard to one of them. ‘If you sneeze or cough I will murder you’ – a ridiculous threat but a symptom of one’s edgy nerves. Then on 7 October they suddenly departed, leaving on one of the walls some sort of unit sign.
But our sense of relief was soon broken by the voice of Ripley Duggan shouting in a hut somewhere below us. ‘I have been recaptured’. He spoke in a wooden tone. ‘The Camp Commandant…’. The voice came nearer as he repeated his message to every hut. At last he reached ours. ‘The Camp Commandant has told me to say that he knows that there are prisoners hiding in the camp. He advises them to give themselves up before eleven. If not a party will come round with guns and grenades and blow them out. I am saying this at the Commandant’s request. I do
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not know whether it is bluff or not’. And he went on from hut to hut repeating the words till they died away in the distance.
Was it bluff? After a council of war we half-decided that grenades might be risked but if the German showed signs of tommy-gunning the ceiling we would bale out. But the decision would be left to whomever’s turn it was to keep watch at the peep hole. The rest would disperse themselves at the edge and on top of what seemed the most solid supporting timbers to minimise blast. The peep-hole observer was the most vulnerable. At eleven o’clock it was my turn. Two minutes later there was a big bang in the upper i.e. southern area of the camp. ‘It may be a truck back-firing’ murmured some optimist. It was not. The bangs grew louder. There was an explosion and the noise of falling plaster in the hut above us. ‘What are my orders?’ ‘We leave it to you, Bobby’. A disagreeable responsibility. A group of Germans came in, one holding a basket, full presumably of grenades. No sign of tommy-guns. The leader came half way into the hut and looked around. I remembered the old army adage, ‘if in doubt what to do, do nothing’. I was half paralysed by fear. To bale out would be to give up the fruit of all our efforts. Not to do so might be fatal. The basket holder retraced his steps and turning round flung some sort of object – it turned out to be an old boot – into the hut. The party then moved on and slung hand grenades into the hut below us, and continued the process downwards till the bangs became less noisy. I was covered in sweat. ‘For Christ’s sake relieve me.’ Arthur took his turn in my place. ‘I know why we’ve been so lucky. They must have spotted the Boche sign on the wall, and assumed there couldn’t be any escapers here.’ He was probably right. It explained why for the second time our hut was the lucky one between two others which had been suspected. We were to have further
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nights from time to time with unwelcome tenants of the hut below us, but no one seems to have suspected anything.
On 12 October after twelve days in the rafters we reduced the daily water ration from half a pint to two fifths and eventually to one third, which is very low indeed. Our food rations were also becoming very thin, but thirst was even more debilitating than hunger. We could not stay in the roof much longer, but we still vacillated. Then an event took place which decided us. Early in the morning of 17 October we were wakened from our uneasy slumbers by the scream of a shell overhead, then another and yet another. There seemed to be some sort of systematic bombardment for about one and a half hours from 7.30 am onwards – we guessed by 75 mm field guns. It was not clear where the shells were falling but apparently somewhere in the upper or southern sectors of the camp. In fact, as we later learned, the shelling was part of a gunnery practice exercise and the target was a deserted shrine or hermitage several hundred yards up the slopes beyond the southern perimeter of the camp. But it seemed much nearer. Were the Germans shelling the upper end of the camp with a view to flushing out PoWs? It seemed improbable, but, in our fevered minds not impossible. We must bale out as soon as we could.
It had long been our plan to make our getaway on a night so windy and stormy that any noises would be drowned. There had been one or two such nights, but perversely the weather was now still and dead calm prevailed. We gave ourselves one more night. But the fine weather continued. Our food and water had finally run out. So on 18 October we had to break out. This was not too easy. It was important not only to remove the bricks which had blocked our entry but to lever
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them back into the rafters rather than push them out, which would have been easy but they would fall on a pile of disordered tins and other rubbish and make a clattering noise which might give the whole game away. George Burnett and Beverley Edge managed this exhausting operation with complete success about 8.30 pm.
It was agreed that Ken Lowe would go out first backwards so that he could just reach with his feet the windowsill below. Then we would pass out a plank by which the rest of us would descend. Ken Lowe did his part to perfection, got over the pile of tins silently and had his feet on the ground. ‘What’s it like?’ A pause, ‘OK, I am just getting my breath back. I feel rather groggy.’ No wonder after eighteen days of immobility. ‘Can we put the plank out?’ ‘In a moment. I don’t feel too good’… OK, shove it out’. We pushed it through with elaborate care. ‘All right, it’s safe as far as I can tell. I can’t hear a sound in the camp.’ We cautiously slid down one by one, the last man remaining to push down our bundles of kit, followed by himself.
It was a strange feeling. We were, like Ken Lowe, very shaky on our feet. It was a brilliantly starlit night with a thin rising moon. The lamps were still on. There was complete silence but for distant sporadic singing from the direction of the guard room. A more welcome sound was the drip, drip of a tap nearby. It came from one of the wash places. We made for it at once and I drank and drank and drank. I had once read that this is a very bad thing to do after being short of water for a long while. Rubbish! I drank my fill and felt all the better though I did feel slightly sick after a second drinking bout and decided that pro tem enough was enough.
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We now did a recce of the camp. As we had already observed there were two places, one on the eastern, one on the western perimeter, where earlier PoWs had broken down the wall. They were dead ground for sentries, if any, posted at any of the corners of the vast quadrilateral of the camp. As far as we could ascertain there were none on the eastern, western or southern perimeters, though clearly the northern and the guard-room area would be protected. We decided to divide our forces – safety in the minimum of numbers. Edge and Lowe would try crawling out by the western gap, George, Arthur and I would after half an hour’s interval attempt the eastern gap. We did not see our companions again till after the war. Edge and Lowe made their way out at 1 am under the wire, but, as we heard much later, ran almost at once into a German patrol and were recaptured. It was sheer bad luck and could equally well have happened to us after we had crossed the wire.
At about 1.30 am we set out for our chosen gap in the wall. George led the way and we crawled under the wire pushing our satchels and blankets in front of us, each in turn lifting the wire for the next man. We crossed the earth track outside the wall and negotiated a second wire barrier when the camp lights suddenly blacked out. This was somewhat disconcerting but was probably a power cut. They soon came on again. It was about 2.30 am by now and we walked away as fast as we could making a detour round the southern perimeter and heading upwards toward the lower slopes of the mountains. Our long immobile stay in the roof was about the worst possible preparation for a scramble through the stones and scrub of the foothills.
When we had been walking for some time I looked round and saw a patch of water, probably a reservoir, far below, between us and the camp, reflecting the moonlight.
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I had a temporary sense of euphoria. I had no idea where we were heading and what the future held. But we were FREE. Even if we were recaptured next day, it would have been worthwhile enduring all the hardships of our escape for a few hours of liberty.
‘We can’t stop any longer’, said George, ‘we’ve got to get clear of the camp and up into the hills before dawn.’ George was our leader. We plunged on and as we climbed higher the noise of stones sliding under our feet seemed a certain give away, but we had to risk it. The light of the setting moon gradually merged into that of dawn. We lay down for a rest behind some bushes. At that moment a tremendous noise of Germans shouting, lorries revving up and an occasional shot distracted us and seemed alarmingly near. But it faded away. It may have been the occasion of the recapture of Edge and Lowe. I think the episode occurred far further away than we realised with our acute sense of hearing, the result of so many days in semi-darkness.
The next 48 hours are a blur in my mind. We wandered higher up the slope, rested under some bushes hoping to descend at dusk and contact friendly Italians down in the fields. We could see a few white-walled houses and people working near them, but we could also see German trucks moving back and fro on a track in front of them. We called out to a woman working in the fields ‘Acqua per favore, Signoria, ‘Molto sete’. ‘Shosho guarda bene, Molti Tedeschi.’ But she brought us on her head a pitcher of water. We settled down for the night on the stone floor of the ruins of a broken-down dwelling. On the way I passed out altogether and when I came to I felt incapable of any action. It is at times like these that one is so grateful for companionship. George and Arthur were stronger than I was at this particular
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moment. On my own I would have ‘thrown in the sponge’. They kept me going at the darkest moment of my life. My gratitude is infinite, however inexpressible.
Hiding in a ditch next day we were contacted by an elderly peasant farmer, a relation of the woman who gave us water. He was a grizzled gnome-like figure, small and earthy. ‘English?’ he said, ‘Prigionieri di Guerra?’ We nodded assent. ‘I speak English, thirty years in America.’ He did but in an accent which was barely comprehensible. His name was Antonio (Toni) Cercone. He and one of his female relations brought us, carried on her head, an enormous basket with a cooked lunch of gnocchi – a luxury indeed – accompanied by plenty of bread and a flagon of rough red wine. The Cerconis were genuinely shocked by our appearance which was certainly not much to look at – bloodshot eyes, a pallid complexion, eighteen-days growth, a straggly beard. Toni urged us to stay for the (alleged) advancing Allied forces and directed us to sleep at what he called a ‘capanna’. ‘What’s a capanna?’ ‘It is for grapes.’ ‘Well, if we’re hungry, we can, I suppose eat our beds’ said someone. ‘Bobby, you know Italian. What’s he talking about?’ ‘I’ve no idea. But we can’t be worse off than here. We’d better follow him.’
The capanna turned out to be a small straw hut used for the storage of grapes, but luckily now empty. It was a tight fit but the three of us were able to lie on a straw-covered floor in reasonable comfort. At least it was better than the rafters of the prison hut or the stony slopes of the hills. And for the first time we had met genuine help and charity. The days were hot but the autumnal nights were chilly. We had a couple of greatcoats and some blankets to keep us warm. We were in full view of a large white-walled farmhouse used by the Germans as a billet; much traffic moved to and fro in our field of vision. We hid by day, and were brought supplies by the
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Cerconis. We issued forth at night to wash in a stream close by. The water flowing from the hills was almost icy. We were there, and later in another capanna, two fields away, for nearly a fortnight. The Cercone family washed our shirts and underclothes, brought us food and wine and some patched-up civvy clothes. There were quite a number of escapees wandering about; some of them made contact with us.
We were by no means sure what to do next. We were well fed and felt far fitter and stronger than we had been. But we possessed no map and had only the vaguest idea of our whereabouts. What was clear was that we could not stay indefinitely in the fields. As winter drew on it would be much too cold. On 29 October we were contacted by a young man called Mario di Cesare. He had, he said, been looking for us at the behest of one of our ‘camerate’ and was charged with the task of giving us help. He was eighteen years old, employed as a telegraphist on the Ferrovia – the Italian state railways – and had a German pass. He gave us what purported to be the latest news from the Front. Isernia had been taken by the 5th Army and Vasto by the 8th. His story was a bit mysterious and my Italian (I was the only one of our trio who could speak it at all) was very rudimentary. One of the ORs who had contacted us at the capanna referred vaguely to some sort of escaping organisation in Sulmona. It may be that a member of it knew about us and had primed Mario, or there may have been a misunderstanding. The next day Mario brought us some hot food which ought to have been welcome but meant that we would be gorged before the Cercone contribution, due to arrive one and a half hours later, provided us with a second meal. However, we managed somehow. We had by now moved to yet another capanna much higher and more comfortable and with a roof that did not leak. The only snag at night was the rustle in the straw of mice and rats. A cat would have
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been welcome but one cannot, as George philosophically if platitudinously observed, ‘have everything’.
Mario offered to put us up in Sulmona. I envisaged a house in the suburbs which would not be much more dangerous than our lodging in the fields. I had no idea that it would be a flat in the centre of the town, still less that it would be our abode in a German-occupied area for the next ten weeks (5 November 1943 to 13 January 1944). None of us entirely trusted Mario, who seemed bumptious and boastful. But we had to move. The weather was cold and wet and not likely to improve. I furnished Antonio with a long letter which expressed our thanks for his help and which he could use to claim a financial reward from the relevant Allied authorities if they ever reached Sulmona. Mario promised to guide us into the town on 4 November, in the afternoon. We did such packing as we could. The day passed by – no sign of Mario. So we settled in for the night, worried at his absence. Next day he turned up at about 8 am looking flustered and anxious. There had been what he called a ‘rastrellamento’ in Sulmona the previous day – literally a ‘combing out’ – to conscript young Italian males to work as labourers for the German army. It had not been safe to wander into the fields. It was, he said, ‘sicuro’ now and he wanted us to move at once. The morning was grey and misty. Mario led the way with George, who being shortish and black-haired was the only one who might have passed as an Italian. Arthur and I who could scarcely have looked less Italian were told to follow at an interval of a hundred metres.
After an hour or so Mario dumped us near another capanna and said he would go ahead and see whether it was safe to proceed. He came back at 10.30 taking George with him into the town, promising to return for Arthur and me, which in due
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course he did, bringing with him a swarthy figure of villainous appearance in fascist uniform, ‘mio zio’ (uncle) he said. Mario went ahead with Arthur. I was to follow a hundred yards or so behind with ‘lo zio’. Suddenly, just before we reached the main Sulmona-Aquila road, the uncle, saying something about spies and being suspected abruptly departed telling me to follow the others who were now at least two hundred yards ahead crossing the bridge into Sulmona. I dared not run or even walk too fast for fear of arousing suspicion. But I was terrified of losing Arthur and Mario, for without the uncle to guide me I had not got the faintest notion where to go. There was plenty of military transport on the road, but the drivers ignored me not surprisingly and the occasional Italian pedestrian looked at me curiously, no doubt guessing that I was an escapee, but said nothing beyond ‘buon giorno’.
I crossed the bridge and as I did so Mario and Arthur disappeared round a bend in the road. Mario of course believed that I was under the safe care of his uncle. I passed two or three groups of Luftwaffe soldiers. Wearing blue side caps and khaki drill shorts, for it was now quite hot, they could have come straight from the RAF. They did not give me a second glance though I felt and probably looked highly guilty. There was no sign of Mario, as I came to a three-way junction. Should I follow the left turn with its tramways, to the town centre or the right fork to the railway station or the middle route toward a narrow side street? I plumped for the tramlines, correctly as it turned out, for Mario appeared from a door on the right and beckoned to me. In two minutes I rejoined George and Arthur in the Di Cesare flat on the first floor. Seldom have I felt a greater sense of relief.
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The flat was to be our home for the next ten weeks (5 November 1943 – 13 January 1944). We were at once introduced to Mario’s mother, Signora di Cesare, the widow, so Mario claimed, of a general – which I somehow doubted. She was, as Arthur Dodds described her in his book (Desert Harvest, p. 35), ‘quite a well-built lady, with a large heart and plenty of courage’. Our debt to her is beyond price. She shared the flat with her sister-in-law who ‘was a small nervy creature, as excitable as Signora di Cesare was calm’. I refer to them henceforth as the Signora and the Signorina. Mario took after his mother in stature and appearance but not in character. He was ‘boastful, bumptious and, at times, rude’. I never liked him or entirely trusted him, but we owe him our thanks all the same. His motive in sheltering us was one of insurance against accusations of being pro-German as he had taken in laundry from some soldiers to be washed by his mother and also entertained one or two of them in the flat – actions for which he was under constant suspicion from ‘friends’ and neighbours. A written certificate of his help to escaped PoWs would be a talisman when Allied troops ‘liberated’ Sulmona, if they ever did. But I was determined not to give it till we had some chance of being guided to the 8th Army outposts. I had a feeling shared by George and Arthur that the Di Cesare [family] wanted to keep us as testimony in person to their endeavours to help us.
As the only one who could speak any Italian at all I got the full benefit of her [the Signora’s] oratory. She explained why the spare bedroom in the flat had been walled up by a large cupboard against the door. It was there that their valuables were hidden to avoid plunder by the ‘Tedeschi’ (Germans). They had, she said, pillaged everything in the flat of someone in a neighbouring ‘palazzo’, as she called the blocks of flats on
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the main street. I became weary of her constant: ‘hanno rubato tutto, Signor Roberto, matterasse di lana, poltrone (armchairs) biciclette…tutto, tutto, tutto…tutto, tootuto …’ her voice rising to a crescendo on the last ‘tutto’, all uttered in unbelievably rapid succession. ‘Terribile, terribile’, I would reply, but not always with enough conviction to forestall another outburst to make sure that I had got the message.
It was not a welcome one, for she was explaining why all six of us – the three escapees, she, her sister-in-law and Mario would have to sleep in the same bedroom next to the sitting room-cum-kitchen where we spent most of our day. There was a large ‘letto matrimoniale’ to accommodate the four men and a smaller bed for the sisters. The proprieties were [kept] by the escapees and Mario, if not on night duty, going to bed first. Then a hand would come from behind the door, and switch out the light, and the ladies in their slips would occupy the small bed, always getting up very early so that the men could later dress themselves undisturbed and attend to their ablutions etc. on their own.
The flat consisted, apart from the big bedroom, of a living room-cum-kitchen with a charcoal cooker, a sink, chairs and a table. There was a small loo at one end. The living room with a big window had a good view of the street, and a café at the corner much patronised by German soldiers and one could just see Sulmona cathedral. We were near but could not actually see the railway station, though we could easily hear the sound of the trains and even see their smoke. Sulmona was an important junction for supplies to the southern front. It occurred to me that one ought to memorise the times of the trains, whether there was a regular pattern or timetable, so that if we did escape it would be possible to convey the details to the relevant authorities when we got home. It would of course be folly to write anything on paper. I was deputed to be the ‘memoriser’ [and] when I
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was ‘de-briefed’ after arriving in England in January (1944), I was able to give information which, as I learned later, enabled the RAF to hit a German ammunition train or trains in Sulmona. I only hope that there were no civilian casualties. Arthur and George did not leave it only to me but used their own memories too.
The letto matrimoniale was wide though not enough to accommodate four side by side. But it was also long and there was space for someone to sleep transversally at the bottom below the feet of the others. Mario was not one for doing much washing. The odour was strong. It was agreed – by a vote of two to one – that the duty of being the transverse sleeper should go to Arthur whose sense of smell was diminished by the catarrh which he had never shaken off and which had prompted one to threaten murder if he sneezed in the camp rafters while German troops slept below us (see digital p. 63). He accepted the decision with Christian fortitude. Fortunately these odious arrangements did not last too long. Signora di Cesare relented over the blocked spare bedroom and Mario occupied it, much to our relief and, I imagine, his too.
Our existence centred on the living room table where we ate, played cards and read such books as we had. It soon became clear that we were far from being the only prisoners on the run in Sulmona, and we had numerous visitors including two officers accompanied by a couple of girls whom the Signora described as ‘fallen women’. We discouraged further visits, not on moral but security grounds. Prostitutes might well confer their favours on German soldiers and give the game away. The food which the Signora provided was bread and milk for breakfast, minestrone for lunch and some sort of stew for supper. From time to time Antonio Cercone or one of his relations, who had fed us in the fields, turned up with further
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supplies. We managed to have an occasional bath in a large wooden tub conjured up from somewhere and filled with hot water. The Germans did not seem to be worrying much about PoWs. But one day just after lunch we heard the heavy tread of army boots and were hurried by the Signora into the loo. Some five Germans came into the living room with Italian carabinieri and stayed talking for quite a time, though I could not make out what it was all about. They departed, fortunately without paying a visit to the loo – which would have been fatal to our chances. The chief danger for us was what was called a ‘rastrellamento’, literally a ‘combing out’. It was a matter of press-ganging young Italians into temporary forced labour to dig trenches etc. for the Germans. They were not on the lookout for PoWs but a search of the flats was as likely to catch us as the Italian youths they were looking for.
I came to dread the cry of ‘rastrellamento’, for it meant climbing through a trap door above the loo into the soffitto, the roof – we had had enough of roofs by then – and waiting cold, covered with dust and cobwebs, for hours till the all clear was announced. Sometimes we were ushered into the neighbouring flat of a family called di Berardo who had a sort of love-hate relationship with the Di Cesares. They had had something to do with branding Mario as a collaborator. We called them the ‘Black Beetles’ as they were all small, round and dark. There were four sons whose ages ranged from 23 to 10 and whose names all began with E – Enzo, Ennio, Elegio and Ermano. The elder two had been ‘per forza’, as they said, members of the Fascist Youth Party and its Youth Movement, the GIL. But they uttered, for our benefit, blood-curdling threats of what they would do to the Fascists when the Allies arrived. I nodded assent.
We now turned our minds towards the practicalities of escape. A first need was to have our khaki trousers and jacket dyed black and on 7 November the process was
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set in train. But it was not easy to know what to do next or whom to believe. There was an enigmatic character called Josef [Pollak] who was a Czech and had been a hospital orderly at Chieti. He spoke Italian ‘come un Italiano’, as the Signora said and a host of other languages too. He claimed to have contacts who would put us in touch with organisers of an escape route through the southern Apennines. By now, thanks to illicit wireless sets in the palazzo, we had some idea where the Allied 8th Army had reached, along with strong indications that it was settling into winter quarters. At this stage we finally decided that, whatever the optimistic stories about Sulmona soon being ‘liberated’, we had got to make our own way to the British outposts, although the Di Cesares were very reluctant to agree. In fact the Allied forces did not reach Sulmona for about eight months. We tried to find out from the various prisoners and other characters ‘on the run’ whom we met what arrangements there were for escapers. Our most promising contact was Josef. But he had been arrested on suspicion. He was released, however, and though he had not given anything away he decided that the place was too hot to hold him and made his way to Rome where the Vatican City was full of PoWs and others who were fleeing German rule. We had to hope for some other contact.
Meanwhile life was one of boredom interspersed by continuous alarms – Sulmona was to be evacuated and the able bodied to be scooped up in a giant rastrellamento. Alternatively, it was to be garrisoned by fresh troops and governed by strict military rule with the severest penalties for harbouring prisoners of war. Or…but the rumours proliferated, and nothing came of them. We played endless card games: ‘Tre Setto with the Italian ten-card suit which the Di Cesares taught us, and ‘Slippery Sand’ with English packs which we taught them. Both games were very tedious and I have forgotten the rules, but the Italians never tired of them.
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I did not keep a detailed diary of life in the flat. So my memory is one of kaleidoscopic and disconnected images – some of them distorted by memory. For example, I have a vivid picture of myself, George and Mario playing bar billiards with a German soldier in a crowded café nearby. The game really did happen and George was furious at Mario inveigling him into such a risk. But although I can see it so vividly I was not in fact there at all. I have evidently conflated it with a later episode when I too was persuaded by Mario to have a drink on my own with him in the same café which was again full of German soldiers, again contrary to Mario’s categorical guarantee, but there was no question of setting cue to ball or talking to any Germans. It is a measure of how bored we were that we took such risks at all. Arthur wisely did not join on either occasion, though he did once go for a walk in the park with George.
With the approach of Christmas the weather became colder and wetter. The Di Cesares were keen to celebrate the Festive Season and my birthday which is on the 23rd. The two celebrations are now rather confused in my mind. At one of them – or both! – I got very drunk. And at one of them – not both – I had to be supported to bed. A notable delicacy at Christmas lunch was promised – half a sheep’s head, the piece de resistance being the eye. I am told that the correct way to eat it is to swallow it like an oyster but none of us three felt like making the experiment and at the risk of offending the Signora gladly relinquished our claim to Mario, who gobbled it up with relish.
After Christmas things began to move. We were contacted by an Italian officer who had deserted. He was called Dino and was accompanied by a youth called Gino who
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looked remarkably un-Italian with ginger hair and blue eyes. The Di Cesares did not trust either. ‘Questo biondo non mi piace’ (I don’t like the look of that blond boy), said Signora Di Cesare when they had gone. He was probably descended from a by-blow of one of the innumerable northern soldiers who have descended on Italy via the Alps over many centuries. But that was no reason to distrust him, and he proved to be a reliable support. When Dino was arrested by the police, fortunately without any incriminating papers, his side-kick could not have been more helpful.
After a New Year’s Eve spent in much discomfort with the ‘Black Beetles’, for fear of another rastrellamento, we were told by Mario that there were plans for an escape party headed by one, Alberto, a shepherd known as the ‘wolf of the Mountains’ who would guide us through the Maiella Pass to the nearest Allied military outpost. It had been snowing for some days but with any luck the snow would freeze giving us a reasonably firm surface to walk on. Would we join the party? We agreed with alacrity. It seemed our best chance. As far as we could find out, Alberto was reliable and there was no reason to suspect a trap. We prepared for a cold night. Dino had brought us overcoats, and we still had our battle dress under which we wore as many pullovers and sweaters as we could stuff in. I was hampered by my wretchedly thin footwear. The others had boots but there were no spares. In the event my shoes just lasted long enough. After one postponement on 4 January because of lack of frost, we said farewell on 12 January to the Di Cesare family except Mario who was to guide us to the rendezvous with Alberto. There were many tearful embraces. The Signora was genuinely sorry to lose us, but I hope she was privately relieved, for Dino’s arrest and increased activity by the Carabinieri were making her and the Signorina’s position more and more precarious. I left a letter
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which she could show to the British authorities if and when they reached Sulmona, imploring her to take the utmost care in hiding it.
Dusk in January was at about 4.30 pm. We spent the day packing. We each had haversacks, Arthur in addition had a small suitcase. Into these we put our valuables, and some of our food. George keeping his Culbertson’s Gold Book as a sort of talisman. At four o’clock we set out, Mario and Arthur taking the lead while George and I followed about a hundred yards behind. Mario and Arthur walked at a speed with which George and I could barely keep up. Indeed we lost sight of them in the twilight and took the wrong turning where the paths out of Sulmona forked. Luckily Mario came back and we had to walk even faster because of the time lost by our detour. Eventually we got ourselves to the rendezvous, an isolated farm house about two miles out of Sulmona. There we met Alberto for the first time heading a group of about twenty-five – a mixture of military escapees of diverse nationalities and Italian civilians wanting to get out of occupied Italy for a variety of reasons. They were there on sufferance. Alberto gave them a low priority. He was paid for escorting Allied PoWs but nothing for his fellow countrymen. It was a cold clear night. The moon had not yet risen. Alberto briefly addressed us. Within twenty-four hours we should be in friendly territory. It was vital to keep together. Stragglers would have to take their chance. Alberto was a tough, stocky mountaineer and a man of few words, unlike his voluble compatriots. He could have been a shepherd from the Highlands or the Dales and there was something about him that inspired confidence, well justified as events were to prove.
We started at once on our journey, Alberto setting a pace which we found very hard to keep up with. At an early stage we jettisoned the suitcase which we had taken
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turns to carry. This meant abandoning some of the food which the Di Cesares had provided but we were buoyed up by the promise that we would only have to stay one night in the mountains before reaching our goal, and reckoned that we had just enough. It also meant abandoning George’s Culbertson. He was more distressed at that than the loss of food. Arthur stuck on to his pocket Bible and I to my pocket Italian dictionary, in case we were recaptured.
The first break Alberto allowed us was just after we had passed though a deserted village, Pettorano, I think, and were beginning to climb up the Maiella Pass on the side of a steepish slope. Down it in the valley lay a few houses and the mountains rose steeply on the other side, still hidden in shadow as we were. Then I saw one of the most lovely sights I ever remember. The moon had just risen though one could not see it and its rays suddenly struck the tops of the mountains across the valley to the south. The sunny peaks were covered in a misty silver glow of incredible beauty. For a moment or so I stood entranced at the spectacle. Then as the moon rose the shadows lessened on the other side, the magic moment went, and the mountains looked like ordinary snow-covered mountains in moonlight. The moonlight on the snow shining on us too made one feel alarmingly conspicuous.
Soon after our halt I realised how extremely cold it was. From profusely sweating I quickly started shivering and thanked my stars for the overcoat which Dino had given each of us. George who had chucked his away a bit earlier because of its weight looked very cold indeed. We began walking again and continued on a winding track now up, now down, but the prevailing direction was a steady climb. The valley lay always on our right and the mountains on the other side towered above us, never seeming to change from whatever angle we looked at them. At one
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moment there was an alarm because German sentries were said to keep observation on the track. We halted and then moved on again at fifty-yard intervals. We were on the edge of quite a steep cliff and could see the tops of trees below us and occasionally the dark shape of a house. Nothing happened but it was an eerie moment coming out of the shadows into the moonlight and wondering whether a shot would go off. Eventually we closed up and took a break in the shadow of some pine trees.
I was astonished after a few minutes to see another party as large as ours following along the same path which we had taken. We now met Gino again. He had expected us to be in the rear, misinformed – typically – by Mario. He gave me a swig of brandy from his flask and some wine from another bottle. But no one seemed to have any water which was what we all really wanted. I realised for the first time that melting snow in one’s mouth and swallowing it does nothing to quench one’s thirst. It merely makes you feel sick.
At last a general cry of ‘avanti’ was passed along the line and we were off again at about 9.30 pm. We plunged on through even deeper snow and more precipitous paths. The going got worse as we encountered bushes and pine trees. I already felt very tired as the column wound its way before and behind me, black figures cut out against the moonlit snow like those in a picture by Lowry. It suddenly struck me what a weird adventure it all was and how abruptly it could end with a single cry of ‘Alt’ from a German soldier. Then back to the old routine of the prison camp, though in Germany not Italy. But at least there would be regular meals even if they barely assuaged one’s hunger, one would not be too cold, one would have a bunk to lie on, books to read, cards and chess for recreation. Perhaps it would not be too bad after
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all…I then pulled myself together. Escapees should never think that life as a prisoner is ‘not too bad after all’. This is to echo the defeatism of the great areas of Europe which had succumbed without a struggle, the French under Pétain and many others. There was no turning back. We simply had to get through and we would.
These rather sententious reflections were abruptly ended by an unexpected sound and sight. There was a discordant cross between a howl and a wail from a ridge about 200 yards to our right and silhouetted against the moonlight we saw a couple of wolves. I was brought up as a boy on Macaulay’s ‘Lays [of Ancient Rome]’ and at one time knew chunks of Horatius by heart; I remembered:
…And in the nights of winter,
When the cold north winds blow
And the long howling of the wolves
Is heard amidst the snow …
We could see others from the pack, their eyes gleaming red. Signora Di Cesare had warned us about wolves as a hazard in the mountains, but I had not really believed her. The pack shadowed us for a mile or two. I was not unduly frightened for I had read somewhere that even a pack will not attack a body of men as long as they keep together. A straggler would be another matter. I walked more carefully than ever. It was vital not to sprain one’s ankle – which, with thin leather soles, would be quite easy to do, especially as one was walking on ground which sloped to the left and gave an insecure foothold. However, the wolves soon abandoned us as a bad job and disappeared higher up the mountain.
At our next halt I had a chance of seeing some of the group who had, along with Gino, joined us. There were three officers who, like us, had escaped at some stage
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and had been living in Sulmona: Fergus Panton of the Indian Army, David Roberts and Rodney Hill who were both gunners. I think it was at this stage, about 2 am, that Alberto firmly declared that because of a heavy fall of snow we could not make it to the 8th Army that night. We would have to get as far as we could before daylight and lay up in some suitable place for the next day till dusk when we would make the final effort to reach our destination. This was gloomy news and caused some consternation in the party. Most of the PoWs were beginning to feel very exhausted. After much palaver Alberto determined to press on, but a good many of his followers decided to turn back. Our party now consisted of two guides, Alberto and a younger sidekick, Francesco, together with Gino and eight Italian civilians. The British consisted of Bombardier Rosen who we had met in Sulmona and who was fluent in Italian, we six officers and ten British other ranks – about thirty all told.
We walked on up towards the saddle of the Maiella – the Cucci Pass which separates the Sulmona from the Sangro valley to the south. The last stages of the climb were fairly steep. The light was that queer mixture of brilliant moonlight and whitening dawn which slowly merges into day without one quite realising it. Gradually I could see the mountain landscape behind us take shape. At first the peaks deep in shadow seemed almost black despite the snow, the whole scene looking like an etching or a pencil sketch in black and white. Then in almost theatrical display the sun turned the snow into the peculiar shade of pink which no painter would dare to imitate for fear of being an out and out vulgarian but which is so peculiarly lovely ‘in real life’.
14 January was a miserable day. Despite bright sun it was intensely cold and the wind seemed to follow the sun round so that it was impossible to be both in the
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sunshine and out of a freezing wind. We laid up in a sort of semi-scrub. Some of the party lighted fires from the pines and brambles in which we hid. They produced plenty of smoke but little heat. I tried to dry my wet socks but the wind at first froze them into a solid lump. The fires were useless, but after being hung in the sunshine my socks did get a bit drier eventually.
The Italian members of the party were in high spirits. ‘They say it is only ten kilometres to go and downhill all the way. It will be easy, we shall be there before midnight, “sicuro”.’ In fact none of us knew except Alberto, who after an hour or so of rest had gone ahead to ‘recce’ the route. The plan was for the other guides to lead us after dusk to a rendezvous down the slope where we were intended to meet Alberto. The journey involved passing near a village called Palena where there were said to be Germans and Alberto’s mission was to find a safe path round the village. The day passed slowly. In order to rest most of us longed to lie down, but lying in the snow is very uncomfortable, especially as the wind grew stronger and colder blowing little clouds of powdered snow across the flat bottom of the shallow hollow where we lay. I was just too exhausted to sleep although dog-tired.
I was not sorry when at about 3 pm the guides decided to move down a few hundred yards to a ruined house. It had no roof but at least there were walls which gave some shelter. We crowded in and began to eat what food remained. Not much since George, Arthur and I had thrown a lot away to lighten our haversacks, optimistically believing the confident prophecy that the journey would only take one night. However, Gino seeing that we were short, generously passed food on to us as did other Italians, some of whom seemed to be carrying almost a week’s rations. There was no water, we had to rely on melted snow and the occasional sip of
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grappa from a friendly flask. I took more than I should and found it hard to swallow the dry bread on offer.
Shortly after four o’clock we set off again. We could now see nothing of the valley to our south. It was covered with clouds – a flat fleecy platform some hundreds of feet below us, stretching as far as one could see. The sun still shone above. So we had the sort of view familiar to mountaineers and airmen but quite novel to me at that time. Alberto had gone ahead to reconnoitre a route round a Palena, said to be occupied at times by Germans whose fresh ski tracks reminded us of our peril. At about 4 pm we set out again led by Francesco to a hut which was our rendezvous. Six o’clock and no sign of Alberto. Should we continue without him? We assumed that Francesco knew the way but after a lengthy colloquia – Bombardier Rosen told us that he was in fact not at all sure of the route. Alberto was the only person who did know it. We had better wait. The moon came up shortly before midnight, and at last Alberto appeared. He had been caught in a rastrellamento and spent several hours shovelling snow for the Germans. There was a shepherd’s hut nearby inhabited by friendly Italians who fed Alberto. After a short rest we set out again to try and get as far as we could before daylight.
My memory of the next few hours is blurred. I recall negotiating a mountain stream where one had to jump to a rock in the middle and take another jump to get to the other side. George fell in and got soaked to the waist, Arthur who was a good long jumper at school managed easily. I scrambled across somehow but in the process badly stubbed the big toe of my right foot. It was not too painful at the time but was to give me hell later after we had reached safety. At some stage, soon after dawn, I had a complete blackout, fell down and lost consciousness altogether.
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According to George’s diary I looked ‘absolutely frightful’, which I can well believe. By now we were beyond the German outposts and there were no more ski tracks, which always filled us with alarm. We were in a sort of ‘no man’s land’. An hour or so later we reached an 8th Army outpost manned by the Royal West Kent regiment. They had been following with binoculars and much suspicion the course of our journey. We were driven to their RHQ at Casoli where I was delighted to meet ‘Bin’ (Robin) Baillieu, a Magdalen contemporary who was very nice, and also as it happens very rich, being a scion of a wealthy Australian family. We had a bath, a decent meal and clean clothes for the first time for what seemed ages. Next day we were driven to 14 Corps HQ at Paglieta and closely interrogated, especially on our information about the times of German trains at Sulmona.
This did in the event prove to be of some use. Many weeks later the RAF bombed Sulmona station and blew up an ammunition train, basing their timing on our information. For this modest contribution to the war effort we all three received the lowest military honour a ‘Mention in Dispatches’ which entitled one to an oak leaf on the relevant campaign medal. Nothing much to boast of, but I confess to mild irritation when I overheard the following conversation at the bar of my club. ‘I believe Charles got a Mention.’ ‘Oh that’s all. It comes up with the rations I’m told.’ Years later I told the story to Keith Joseph without knowing that he had had exactly the same experience. He was much amused.
Escaped PoWs were always returned to England. We were due to be shipped from Taranto in the ‘Heel’ of Italy but the process of getting there was anything but speedy. After the first euphoria induced by successful escape I had a sharp mental reaction. Depression set in and was not alleviated by the curious chance that one of
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the transit camps in which we were accommodated was in Bari, the very same camp which had received us as PoWs eighteen months earlier. It was of course more comfortable – it could hardly have been less than it was at our previous sojourn. But in my rather gloomy frame of mind it somehow seemed the last straw. My companions went out to savour whatever delights the town could provide at night. I stayed behind – my toe was giving me acute pain – and sat down to read one of the few books which were lying about. It did not exactly cheer me up – John Buchan’s ‘Sick Heart River’, the last novel he wrote. He was an ill man and the story of his hero stricken by fatal disease trying to find a vanished tribe in Canada, of which Buchan was Governor General, was not calculated to revive my spirits. P. G. Wodehouse would have been more appropriate.
My stubbed big toe had now become very swollen. The Medical Officer at Taranto camp said that he would have to remove the toe nail or else the whole foot might become infected and have to be amputated. He did it with a local anaesthetic. When its effects wore off the pain was as bad as ever. ‘It’ll wear off of its own accord before long’, he cheerfully said, adding that on the troopship I would have plenty of duty-free alcohol for a pain killer. Alas, when on 26 January we boarded the P & O Liner SS Ranchi I soon discovered she was ‘dry’. So that particular relief was not available. However, the M.O. was right on one thing. I woke up, just after we went through the Straits of Gibraltar, to find the pain had vanished during the night of its own accord, and it did not recur.
We landed at Gourock early in February, and were at once entrained for London. There we three were separated. Arthur was sent to the Air Ministry for interrogation. George and I were told to report at the Selsdon Park Hotel for
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debriefing before leave. The hotel, somewhere south of London, attained a short-lived celebrity in 1969-70 as the scene of a Conservative Party meeting under Ted Heath’s chairmanship. A general election was imminent and the Party issued a manifesto which the Labour leaders then in office claimed to be so reactionary that the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, gave the Tories the collective sobriquet of ‘Selsdon Man’ on the analogy of Piltdown Man. We went through a fairly tough cross-examination – PoWs were regarded as potential defectors – but passed it satisfactorily. We were then granted leave. To my surprise and pleasure I got six months whereas most officers seemed to be getting only three. At the time I attributed this to my medical report, for I was only skin and bone and looked about as unfit as anyone could be who was still standing on two legs. In fact, as I learned after the war, this was not the reason. My first cousin Guy Daynes, a doctor, had a desk job in Whitehall at the time. One of his duties was to vet applications for sick leave. Seeing my name with three months against it he promptly substituted six, and no one queried the change. As a result of this commendable piece of nepotism I had time off till July instead of April to spend at my leisure before the Army claimed my services again.