Bill Blewitt’s story is told here in a series of newspaper articles reproduced by kind permission of the ‘Newcastle Journal’. Excerpts from his own unpublished account follow the newspaper cuttings. A private in the Sherwood Foresters, Bill was captured in June 1942 in the Western Desert.
He was first imprisoned at Suani Ben Adem, Tripoli where the conditions were so bad that many died. He was then moved to Camp 66 in Capua and Camp 53 at Macerata before being taken to a working camp near Verona. It was from here following the Armistice in September 1943. His story recounts his multiple escape attempts, his capture by the Germans, by Italian Fascists and Italian Partisans, who mistook him for a spy. He was imprisoned at Fara Sabina. And also Laterino. One year after his first capture he made it through to the Allied Lines.
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.
[Digital page 1]
[Handwritten notes at the head of the page]
Newcastle “Journal” articles
Sat 24th June 1989
[Handwritten note by Keith Killby: Perhaps the “most captured” POW.
And Manuscript “A Year Behind German Lines”
2 copies of Summary]
Bill Blewett. Series of articles explaining his many captures. Escapes 4 times.
Captured 6th June ’42. Bombed by British. In very bad Italian Camp. After 5 months taken across to Italy in coal ship Capua PG66. Then 53 – Costa Sforza. Then near Verona where they became ‘difficult farm workers and sun worshippers’ At Armistice helped by farmer for whom they had worked. Guided to Po by Italian girl and cross underneath a bridge.
Get near Florence and meet others. Divide up and two get shot. Hide around Veiano (near ROME) for a time but captured in a cave by fascists and Germans, Sent to Fara in Sabina. On train to Germany when it is bombed. Three get away but recaptured by fascists who ill treat them and threaten to shoot them. A priest intervenes but he is hit and a mob ill treats them but a German arrives and takes over. Escapes again from Laterina. Meets Partisans on Pratomagno who, in order to be sure they are POWs pretend to be fascists and threaten to shoot them. Nearly gets captured again in a German ‘rastrellamento’. Meets up with German deserter Willy Lorenz near Giorgetti. Allies arrive.
Dede Kennedy. Newspaper article (Newcastle ’90’s ?). Lived in England since the war. Her family were hosts of POWs in Rome network and afterwards Dede worked with the Allied Commission to recompense Italians for help given.(See ‘Be not fearful’.)
[Handwritten notes at the foot of the page] : Wartime photos. See also tape and interviews by A.M.
And also cutting re Dede Kennedy – resident Newcastle Area whose family hid POWs as part of Rome network. Also worked for Allied Commission
[Digital page 2]
Newcastle “Journal” articles
[This is a newspaper page from the Newcastle Journal broken into boxed sections. The main feature is titled “From a desert hell to the fields of Italy”. The central boxed section is a captioned photograph of Bill Blewitt entitled “Bill Blewitt’s War”. On the right is a map of Italy. At the foot of the page are two boxed sections entitled “Farm whip round” and “Price of theft”]
[Title] THE JOURNAL Monday June 26 1989
[Subtitle] From a desert hell to the fields of Italy
After the filth and drabness of Suani Ben Adem, Tripoli, with its white buildings seemed to glisten in the sunlight. Our skeletal figures, clad only in rags, unwashed and lice-ridden, contrasted sharply with our surroundings.
Most of us hadn’t had a real wash since our capture in June and it was now November. The dysentery cases were still dressed as they had been in Suani, pieces of torn, dirty blanket adorning their midriffs.
As we dismounted, the newsreel cameras were there to take pictures of the men of the Eighth Army. No doubt on the cinema screens they would be portrayed as a ragged mob, recently captured. There were catcalls and jeers from some civilians but I noticed also that some women in the crowd were shedding a tear. After being counted, the sentries hustled us along the dock towards a dirty looking boat. It was in fact a coal boat. Our journey to Italy was not to be a pleasant one.
My friend Jack Yarrow and I sat at the port side in the hold, near the steel ladder which led up to the deck. The ladder was already crowded with people trying to get on deck to relieve themselves. As yet, no buckets had been put in the hold for this purpose. The really bad dysentery cases were unable to control themselves and it was pitiful to see them trying to hide their shame.
At last, however, the long-awaited buckets were passed into the hold, the figures on the ladder dispersed and the hold was completely battened down. No longer could we see the welcome chink of light at the top of the ladder. It was total darkness. We tried to sleep but for most of us this was impossible. We had too many things on our minds, most of all fear.(There was a likelihood of being attacked by the Royal Navy).
The prisoners eventually reached their destination — PoW Camp 66, at Capua, near Naples, where they received Red Cross parcels and clothing and were also able to shower. Compared with Suani, it was “like a holiday camp”. Later they were moved again to PoW Camp 53 at the town of Macerata — a “truly depressing place”. Thereafter, in June 1943, some, including Bill Blewitt, were moved yet again to a working camp near Verona, from where they were drafted out each day to work on local farms.
Before starting to work for the Italians, our group had agreed that we should do as little work as possible, to hinder when we could and, if this was not possible without incurring reprisals, to be slow and appear ignorant. We got away with murder and in fact were secretly admired by the rest of the farm workers.
We had our lighter moments too at work, misunderstanding instructions, going off into the wrong field to work, using the wrong tools and generally baiting the Italians when the opportunity arose. We even convinced them that we worshipped the sun and would hold the work up at the busiest of times to hold our “prayer sessions”.
The foreman would rant and rave but the sentries said nothing, afraid they might inflame an already tricky situation. Whatever happened, no amount of cajoling interrupted our “prayers”. The only ones who seemed to enjoy our performances were the females, who seemed to know we were only play acting. They were also glad of the brief respite from their work.
On September 8, 1943, the prisoners heard Italy had signed a separate peace treaty with the Allies but the Germans were to continue fighting in Italy. The order from Allied High Command was that Allied prisoners of war should stay in their camps until being liberated. Hearing that the Allies had landed in Italy, Bill Blewitt reckoned the Germans would rapidly round up prisoners of war to ship back to Germany. Along with a friend, Alf Barber from Manchester, he decided to try and join the Allies.
Bill was confined to camp because he had told the commandant in no uncertain terms that once out he wasn’t returning. Fortunately Signor Gandini, who owned the farm on which Bill was working, demanded his release and took him by horse and trap to the farm where there was much celebrating due to the signing of the armistice. Next morning Bill returned to fetch his kit from the camp.
The village was very quiet as I walked through it on my way to the camp and I noticed that a number of people peered at me as I passed by their windows. It was as if they were afraid and I was to learn later that this was indeed the case. The Germans and Fascists had issued warnings about what would happen to anyone helping escaped prisoners.
Arriving at the camp, I saw that the gate was open and I made my way to our sleeping quarters upstairs. Our billet looked as if a hurricane had swept through it. Most of the beds had been upended, palliases, most of them ripped open, had been scattered all over the place, empty Red Cross parcels, blankets and items of clothing were strewn everywhere.
I found nothing of mine except a photograph of my wife and one of my parents. In despair I sat on the end of my bed and it was there I heard the sound of motor traffic in the distance. The sound galvanized me into action. For a brief moment, I thought the Allies had already arrived but dismissed this idea immediately. More likely, it was the Germans scouring the camps in the area. I ran downstairs not waiting to find out.
Once out of the camp, I ran away from the sound of the traffic. I ran towards the open fields, taking refuge in an irrigation ditch. It was wet and muddy but I felt fairly secure as I lay panting and considering my next move. Suddenly I heard voices coming from the vicinity of the camp, and although I expected the worst I was near panic-stricken when I heard the guttural tones of the German language.
I broke cover and began running towards the farm on which I had worked. There was a lot of shouting behind me but I kept going until I came within sight of the farm. I would now have to be extra cautious as it was possible the Germans had already paid a visit. After a short vigil, I was pleased to see some farm workers and prisoners walking around quite freely. I ran towards them to tell them about the Germans and to seek out Alf.
The two men, clad in labourers’ clothes supplied by the friendly farm workers, and equipped with food, drink and money, embarked on the hazardous journey which they hoped would eventually see them reunited with the Allies, currently making inroads over 600 miles away.
[Inset boxed feature with a photograph of Bill Blewitt]
[Title] BILL BLEWITT’S WAR
Captured in the Western Desert, Tyneside Private Bill Blewitt has finally been moved from a “hell hole” of a prison camp called Suani Ben Adem, in North Africa.
The second part of our serialisation of Bill’s previously unpublished experiences takes up the story as he is shipped to Italy, hoping for better treatment.
[Inset boxed map of Italy showing both Bill’s route as prisoner of war and his route as an escaper.]
Bill Blewitt’s “tour” of Italy – as a prisoner of war and then as an escaper.
[Inset boxed feature]
[Title] Farm Whip Round
After about six weeks working on the farm I had done most of the jobs. What never ceased to amaze me was the way the farm hands handled the oxen.
These white, long-horned animals were used for all types of work where brute strength was needed but mainly they were used for pulling the various farm implements used for tilling the land. Though gaunt and thin, they were extremely strong, and because they looked so docile I had a strong ambition to drive a pair of them.
My job was to follow in the wake of a pair of oxen and plant seeds in a furrow they had made. My Italian co-worker was a friendly type so I asked him to allow me to try my hand at driving the oxen.
I tried to set the beasts in motion by cracking the whip but could not produce the slightest sound. I remembered that in the end of the stock of the whip there was a sharp pointed nail which was used as a last resort if the whip itself failed to move the oxen.
So, with a vicious lunge, I jabbed the point of the nail into the rear end of one of the oxen. The effect was startling. The ox I had jabbed took off like a charging elephant, dragging its mate along with it while I hung on desperately to the farm implement behind.
At full pelt we careered down the field with the driver in hot pursuit while other workers scattered in all directions. The oxen managed to clear a ditch but the farm implement, with me clinging to it, landed inside. The machine was a write-off and I emerged from the trench bruised and badly shaken to face the driver, a very angry man indeed.
[Inset boxed feature]
[Title] Price of Theft
ONLY the ship’s engines broke the silence but then other sounds reached our ears, sounds of scuffling and raised voices. Cries of “String him up” could be plainly heard above the din.
This commotion was taking place some distance from us but when we found out what was happening our voices too were raised in anger. Someone had been caught stealing. What, we never knew, but that was not important.
The thief had to be punished severely. We joined in the chorus of “String him up” and an ugly situation began to develop. Fighting broke out.
Then, above the uproar, an authoritative voice called for silence. It belonged to a regimental sergeant major from the Royal Tank Regiment. At last silence was restored and an enquiry took place. The RSM was appointed judge.
It was difficult to hear everything that was said but we could sense the mood of those who knew what had happened and their feelings were that he should be flogged. A flogging to any of us in our weak condition could have resulted in death, and the RSM pointed this out, adding that a number could find themselves in deep trouble.
The punishment decided upon was that the culprit should be hung by his wrists from a beam, that he should receive no water and that no-one was to help him in any way.
It was duly carried out but after a while the Italians discovered what was going on and he was taken down. However, his real punishment was to come later when we were settled in permanent camps. He was known everywhere as a thief and that must have been very hard to live with.
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[A newspaper page divided into a main feature entitled “Gestapo raid ends secret life in a cave” with 3 boxed insets. The first is entitled “Bill Blewitt’s War”, the second is a photograph of Bill with one of the Italians who hid him, the third is entitled “Drinking with the Germans”]
[Title] THE JOURNAL Tuesday June 27 1989
[Sub title] Gestapo raid ends secret life in a cave.
The door was opened by a girl of perhaps 14 years of age. Without asking any questions, she invited us in. A woman in her thirties was bending over a cooking pot. Looking up, she invited us to sit at the table and placed two extra plates down.
Apologising for the poor fare, she handed us some bread and cheese and a glass of watery wine, and then she began to ask questions. After listening to our story she told us that her husband was somewhere in the south of Italy and was probably now fighting with the Allied forces. She insisted we stay and sleep in the barn.
The following night we had another meal of bean soup and then she told us her daughter would show us a way over the bridge and we could trust her completely. She cried as we thanked her and said our goodbyes.
We followed our young guide from a distance but met no-one on the way and soon after reaching the river bank heard the sound of traffic. Keeping to the shadows, we walked towards the bridge and, once under it, were alarmed at the proximity of the Germans, who we could hear talking above us.
The bridge supports were embedded into the river bank and the girl scrambled on to one of them and motioned us to follow. Not daring to breath, and sweating profusely, we did so to find ourselves on the girders spanning the bridge.
As our eyes became accustomed to the gloom we saw that the girders were very wide. In fact ours looked like some kind of inspection platform. Our guide asked us to follow her but we decided that she had taken plenty of risks and persuaded her to return home. She was reluctant but finally, with a whispered “Buono Fortuna”, she slid off into the shadows. Using supporting girders as handrails we commenced our journey across the River Po.
It was an eerie crossing, and in spite of the warm stillness of the night I shivered as I looked down. There was nothing to be seen so I concentrated on looking ahead of me. Above us the traffic still rolled by, adding to the intense fear I felt within me. I felt like screaming and at times all but turned back.
After what seemed like hours, we saw faint lights at the other side. Soon we scrambled down a girder onto the riverbank and, keeping out of sight of a sentry box, clambered away from the river. Finding a secure hiding place we lay up for the night exhausted but happy. We had overcome our first hurdle thanks to a teenage girl. Tomorrow we would be heading for the Apennine mountains.
Making their way steadily south across mountainous terrain, avoiding German and Fascist patrols and putting their faith in Italian villagers for food and shelter, Bill and Alf found they were starting to get on each other’s nerves. Alf was ultra-cautious whereas Bill was “willing to take more risks”.
If I had cared to admit it, the main reason for my discontent was that I was so dependent on Alf. When he was engaged in conversation with the Italians I could understand very little of what was being said and at times I felt peeved about this and a little jealous.
In spite of these upsets we continued to make good time and soon on the plains below us we caught our first glimpse of Florence. The city itself, the green of the valley and the sparkling River Arno which ran through it all looked so very inviting, but we had to skirt the city and keep to the hills.
There was no doubt in our minds that Florence and the countryside around it would hold a large concentration of Germans and Fascists. Nevertheless, if we were to reach our lines we had to cross the Arno so we began our descent into the valley, the Valderno.
It was as we scrambled down a shallow, dried up gulch that we spotted a hut below us. Outside it stood four men of about our own age. Three of them were blond and I felt somewhat afraid. However, it was too late to go back and for a minute or so the six of us eyed each other suspiciously.
At last one of the four spoke with an unmistakeable South African accent. They invited us into the hut and we found one of the four was a Tynesider (Bill Aiston, who had emigrated from Blaydon to South Africa in 1935). They invited us inside the hut and told us they were quite confident it would only be a matter of a week or so before our forces were fighting in the Valdarno. But we had heard news of heavy fighting in southern Italy and so they began to have their doubts.
Two of the South Africans decided to travel with Bill and Alf. They opted to proceed in pairs, Alf and Howard setting off first and the two Bills following two hours later. With the help of an Italian farm hand, they crossed the Arno without incident.
One afternoon while passing through some woods on the outskirts of a fairly large village we all but collided with four youths running away, sweating and near panic stricken. They seemed afraid of Bill and myself but we persuaded them to stop and talk. They said it was quite common in Italy for the Fascists to raid villages and try to round up young people for war work or even deportation to Germany for slave labour.
That morning they had returned to the village after spending the night in the woods when it was raided by Fascists. They had managed to get away but many others had been caught in the net. They told us that two foreigners had been caught also and these were said to be British. These had been shot out of hand and their bodies put on display in the village to deter anyone helping prisoners.
We had to assume that it was our two mates who had come to this sad end. I could not believe that this had happened to Alf as he was always so careful. From then on I was more of a fatalist than I had ever been before.
After more brushes with the enemy. Bill Aiston contracted malaria and the two escapers were forced to hole up in a village called Veiano, situated midway between Rome and Viterbo, where the locals hid them in a cave, fed them and even invited them for meals in their homes, risking their own lives in the process. This comparative idyll was to end sharply.
I was ahead of Bill as I neared the door of the cave and caught the smell of tobacco smoke. A terrible sense of foreboding overtook me. We had been away from the cave for a number of days so this could only mean we had visitors. I half turned away from the door and shouted to Bill to run for it but I was too late.
A dark figure jumped from inside the cave and buried a pistol in my stomach, ordering me to put my hands in the air. A second figure was doing the same to Bill. There was no doubt they meant business as they shone torches into our faces and then ordered us back into the cave. Once inside we saw there was another person present and he pushed us roughly against the wall while screaming abuse at us in Italian.
All three were dressed in civilian clothes: long coats with upturned collars and trilbys. not unlike the American gangsters of the cinema. There were two Germans and one Italian and because we did not answer their questions quickly enough we came in for some rough treatment. They wanted to know if we had any arms or a radio receiver but more than anything they wanted to know who had been feeding us.
When we said the villagers knew nothing of our existence this brought a further bout of beatings. Tired of their sport at last, they pushed us from the cave letting us know in no uncertain terms that they would get the answers they wanted in some other place.
Bruised and bleeding, we stumbled down the path towards the main road, the Italian and I leading the way. This vicious thug kept warning me what to expect if I tried to escape and as if to emphasise his point kept pushing me to the ground, and then kicking me viciously in the ribs as I tried to get up. Not caring whether I lived or died, we came at last to the main road where a German truck stood waiting.
There were perhaps a dozen German soldiers on board the truck and in spite of my condition I gleaned some satisfaction from the fact that it had taken all these soldiers plus three civilians — two of whom, I was to learn later, were members of the Gestapo, the third a member of the Fascist Secret Police — to capture two British Army privates.
[Inset boxed feature] Bill Blewitt’s War
In the third part of our serialisation of Tynesider Bill Blewitt’s previously unpublished war experiences, the story continues against the backdrop of Italy’s treaty with the Allies. Bill and his pal, Alf Barber, from Manchester, are on a perilous journey south, aiming to rejoin the Allied invasion force which is rumoured to be engaged in heavy fighting at the foot of Italy.
[Inset photograph of two men shaking hands. Text reads..]
Peacetime reunion – Bill Blewitt, left, returns to Italy in 1975 to meet Guiseppe Cristofari, who hid him in a stable and later a cave near Veiano.
[Inset boxed feature] Drinking with the Germans.
One evening on entering the osteria in Veiano I sensed that something was wrong. As I ordered coffee, the woman behind the counter seemed rooted to the spot and trembled with fear.
She whispered that some Germans were in the small back room and asked us to leave immediately. That indeed would have been my intention too but it was too late. Bill had already gone into the room and I had no choice but to follow him.
I was amazed at what I saw. Bill was shaking hands with one of the Germans and in a fashion speaking to them in his own language.
Having spent a number of years in South Africa, he had learned quite a bit of the Afrikaans language. I was invited to sit down and there began the strangest of conversations — in part English, part German, part Afrikaans and part Italian.
The generosity of these two Germans knew no bounds. They bought us food and wine and supplied us with cigarettes, and as they left the osteria they promised to meet us the next night.
Of course we were suspicious of them and before meeting them the following night we kept watch on the osteria to make sure they arrived alone. The second night they brought us more cigarettes and some German beer.
They said they were from a small detachment of troops about six miles out of Veiano and were in fact out of bounds. They told us they knew we were escaped prisoners but that it was no concern of theirs. However, they told us to be extra careful because the SS and Fascists were very active in the area.
Both of these two hated the war and condemned with equal ferocity the leaders of those countries involved. More than anything, their hatred of Hitler was intense. To the amazement of the locals who frequented the osteria we sat and drank with the Germans for about 10 nights.
[Digital page 4]
[Part of a page of the Journal of Wednesday, 28th June 1989. The article has one inset panel]
[Title of main text] Pleas of a village priest saved escapers’ lives
As soon as we settled down in the truck a council of war was held to find out how many of the 50 of us packed inside wished to try and escape. About 12 said they would have a go. We began examining the floorboards.
Beside my hacksaw blade (stolen from a prison carpenter) one or two others had small knives and pieces of metal. It was while we were trying to force these objects through the floorboards that someone shouted: “Look what I’ve found” while holding aloft a short iron bar, pointed at one end.
This was a welcome surprise. It had plainly been put in the truck by one of the Italian workers who had had the task of putting straw and water aboard. Feeling very excited, we 12 waited impatiently for the train to move off and drew lots to see in which order we would leave the train.
I drew third place, Arthur drew fifth while Bob was in tenth position. At last with much shouting from the guards and the shrill whistle of the engine, we got underway. Off to the “Fatherland”? We hoped not.
The train gathered speed and the cold wind whistled through the hole in the floor where we had removed some of the boards. There were complaints about the bitter cold from some of those not involved but no-one took any notice of them. It wasn’t the cold that bothered me as I listened to the wheels thundering along the track. It was fear. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach.
We had stopped in open country and as soon as our feet touched the ground we were ringed by sentries. Fearfully we stood wondering what was going to happen next and I for one thought we should have been more careful as we levered the boards because there was no doubt in my mind that the Germans had heard us.
Two guards went into the truck and when they emerged one was carrying the crowbar. Suddenly we were galvanised into action by the guards who made us strip naked. We were thoroughly searched and then our footwear and belts were taken from us. These, we were told, would be returned to us in Germany.
The floor of our truck was mended and as we waited to re-embark a NCO chalked something on the side. I did not understand it but someone who knew a bit of German said it meant “house-breakers – no rations”. After getting back on board the truck was encircled with barbed wire.
The following day the prisoners’ worst fears were realised when the train came under attack from Allied planes.
Suddenly the truck shook violently and one of the doors was partly loosened. Efforts were made to open it fully but this was impossible because of the barbed wire. However, a large enough space was made to allow one person at a time to get out.
There was only one in front of me and he was already half way out when a wave of fighter bombers began strafing the train. He began screaming and tried to clamber back in. This, of course, made an already tense situation much worse and there was a danger that panic would spread throughout the train.
Then there was a shout of “Kick him out”. I didn’t hesitate, and placing my bare foot against his chest gave him a push. He fell with a scream and his clothing caught in the barbed wire. Fortunately it didn’t hold him and he fell down an embankment. I followed immediately behind him, flinging myself clear of the wire as I jumped.
But as I landed, a bomb fell close by and I was flung with some considerable force onto my back. In a dazed condition, I tried to get up but I couldn’t.
Numb from the waist down, and without shoes, Bill was helped away by Arthur and Bob – Bill Aiston having disappeared – and they made for the cover of some trees. Very few appeared to have survived the air attack but the German guards who remained were quick to embark on a search, aided by bands of Italian Fascists.
It was while I sought food at a lonely farm house that I read about the bombing of the train. It said more than 300 prisoners had been killed by the American “assassins” and rewards were being offered for the recapture of any escapers, who were now being classed as spies and rebels. Because of the danger we might bring to ourselves and to innocent people we decided to go back into the woods and stay there until things quietened down.
As the escapers strove to survive on what food and drink they could beg from houses they passed, the winter weather deteriorated. Eventually, lost and in a state of near-collapse, they took a chance and entered a remote osteria (inn).
It was while I was asking for a place to shelter and something to eat that I turned to look for my companions. They were sitting near the doorway in conversation with a rather too well dressed Italian. As I watched he got up and went outside. One of the men at my table advised me to leave immediately. The man, he said, was a Fascist spy. Throwing caution to the winds I called to Arthur and Bob and we ran from the osteria.
We had just reached some low bushes when there was a lot of noise from behind. Orders were being barked in Italian and there were screams of rage. Worse than this, a machine gun opened up in front of us while from behind came rifle fire.
We fell to the ground and were immediately surrounded by shadowy figures. With kicks and rifle butt blows to the ribs we were dragged to our feet and hauled back to the vicinity of the osteria, where a smartly dressed Italian officer confronted us. His first action was to scream and give each of us a backhander across the face – but worse was to follow.
Others of his gang began kicking, spitting and hurling abuse at us until we slumped to the ground under their savage attacks. Eventually we were stood up against a wall and there, barely able to stand up but supported on either side, our punishment was pronounced by the officer.
We were charged with being spies and rebels and we were to be shot immediately. I was relaying this to Arthur and Bob when the village priest appeared and began to plead with the officer to spare our lives.
He came from out of the darkness, this shabbily dressed, frail looking figure and stood bravely amongst the mob who were half crazed with drink and thirsting for a killing. He remonstrated with their leader and was spat upon and reviled. The mob cursed the Church and the Pope, and this small figure in black stood defiantly amongst them, and continued to plead with them not to commit murder, even when pushed to the ground.
It seemed as if all was lost when the priest said that if they shot us here and now the village would be desecrated. It would be better if they took us to their superiors who would no doubt carry out the death penalty in a proper manner.
The officer, thinking maybe that he could be in trouble if he gave the order for us to be shot in cold blood, chased the priest out of it and announced that we were to be taken to the local gaol.
The officer, however, was also trying to please everyone, and so his men formed up into two ranks facing inwards and he gave the order for us to run the gauntlet.
There were about 30 of these thugs waiting with sticks and rifle butts to attack us as we passed through them. Back and forth they pushed us until they were tired of their sport. Bruised and bleeding, and almost unconscious, we were thrown on the back of a lorry and driven off.
The British escapers were interrogated by Fascist leaders who were keen to find out which local people had helped them. When they refused to co-operate, the Fascists said they would be shot within two days. Then, out of the blue, a German patrol arrived at the gaol and took the prisoners away to be interrogated yet again.
I was the last one to be taken for interrogation and found myself before an elderly-looking sergeant. He spoke very good English and began his interrogation in the usual manner: number, rank and name. I was hesitant in replying and he wanted to know the reason. I told him I had always believed that any prisoner captured for the third time in the same theatre of war could expect the death sentence.
He laughed when I said this and added that he had been a prisoner in the Great War, but because England was an island, escape by most prisoners was thought to be impossible. Nevertheless, escape was always considered to be the duty of any prisoner of war.
Having said that, he explained that there would be no escapes from our new camp (near Spoleto). The Commandant had been in charge of a camp housing more than 10,000 Russian prisoners and not one had escaped. He was quite sure the same would apply here (although two of our number got over the wire that very night!).
Now convinced that I could safely give my correct name, I did so and hoped the Red Cross would get word to the British Government, and through them to my family, that I was still alive.
[Inset boxed feature with photograph] Bill Blewitt’s War
Captured by the Gestapo at Veiano, Tynesider Bill Blewitt and his pal, Bill Aiston, were interrogated and sent to a transit camp, Fara Sabina. There they were separated and Bill Blewitt teamed up with another prisoner, Arthur Gigson, from Cowgate, Newcastle, on the right of Bill in the picture.
In the fourth part of our serialisation of Bill’s war experiences the story continues as, along with a third man called Bob, they plan to escape while en route to Germany by train.
[Digital page 5]
[Newspaper article with 2 insets, one of them a photograph] The Journal Thursday June 29 1989
[Title of main feature] Living with the partisans – and then liberation.
We were now on a part of the mountain which was clothed in trees. It was still trying to snow as we made for a charcoal burner’s hut set in a clearing and we had just about reached it when there was a cry of “Halt”.
From the trees four or five figures emerged. They were roughly dressed, some in Italian uniforms with the badges of rank removed, others in peasant clothing. But all had a red star stitched onto their hats or some other part of their clothing. Except for a bandolier over their shoulders, and maybe a knife in their belts, they didn’t seem to be carrying any other arms. This, then, was our first meeting with the partisans. What now?
After being searched, they took us to a hamlet where they had set up what could be called a command post. (Both Germans and Fascists employed large numbers of troops to round up youngsters of military age for war work. A lot of these youngsters took to the hills and so was born the Italian partisan. At first they were badly armed but were a thorn in the side of the Germans. Later, better armed and organised, they fought with great distinction on the side of the Allies.)
Life with the partisans meant always being at least one step ahead of the German or Fascist patrols. Badly armed as we were, it was not possible to make a determined stand against well-armed troops but on the other hand the enemy was never sure how many we were in number or how well armed we were.
The escapers remained with the group until getting wind of a concerted effort to rid the area, the Pratomagno, of partisans. Evidence of their presence would lead to serious reprisals. The pair took off again and later joined up with three other escapers, one of them an American named William O’Neill, from Pittsburgh.
WJ O’Neill — or, as he became known to us, the Yank — was the most unlikely escaper I had ever seen. He looked more like an American tourist. He was fair haired, wore steel rimmed glasses and was very well dressed in what could be termed mountain clothes. He wore a beautiful pair of stout walking boots and to complete his attire wore a ridiculous-looking hat. It was white and not unlike a sailor’s.
The five escapers made good progress south until apprehended by a group of men who looked like partisans.
The five of us were marched up to one of a group of stone buildings in a clearing and pushed roughly inside. The door was closed and a guard positioned outside. I was told we had to stay there until after our interrogation by their leader.
We did not have to wait long. Two guards came into the building and began asking questions. When they saw I was the only one answering I was hauled roughly to my feet and pushed outside. Dragged to one of the larger buildings, I found myself face to face with their leader. The man who sat at a table before me was about 30 years old and had a military bearing. I gave him all the details concerning Arthur and myself and when we had all been questioned we were escorted back to the first building to await whatever decision was reached. None of us was too happy.
I was taken to see the leader again, who now had another half dozen men sitting with him. The leader broke the silence saying he believed we were deserters from the German Army. He pointed out how blond Arthur and the Yank were. He said we were to be shot and that I was to convey this message back to my companions. In a daze I was taken back to my friends.
At first they treated the whole matter as a joke but seeing how serious I remained they realised everything was not as it should be. Lives were cheap behind the lines in Italy.
The first surprise next day came when the door was thrown open and, framed in the doorway, stood the figure of a uniformed Fascist. Once again I was pushed outside and noticed that some of the others were wearing the same uniform.
I was escorted to their leader. When I repeated my story he said his band were not in fact partisans but a Fascist patrol on the look out for partisans. I didn’t know what to make of this new situation but kept quiet while trying to gather my wits. He asked again if I was British and, when I said I was, he said the five of us would be taken into the woods, separated and shot in turn, beginning with the officer (the Yank had been mistaken for an officer). We were escorted into the woods.
When we stopped I was handed a spade and ordered to dig. The soil was soft and soon I had made a shallow depression in the ground. I was then stopped and told that after the “officer” had been shot it would be my turn. Had I any last requests? I asked for paper and pencil and wrote to my wife and my parents. I asked to see my companions and they took me to each of them in turn except the Yank whom they wouldn’t let me see.
I was convinced they were partisans and were bluffing — that is, until I heard a single shot being fired and someone scream (the Yank?). Before anyone could say anything I was hustled off to where I had been digging and was blindfolded. Something cold was pressed to my head.
When this happened I almost shouted out that it was all a mistake and that I was in fact a German. I was petrified with fear and when I was again asked my identity I found it impossible to speak. My tongue seemed glued to the roof of my mouth.
One of my guards began shouting at me and I knew I had to give an answer. Steeling myself and hoping for the best, I whispered, “Inglese”. This one word could mean life or death. Had I done the right thing?
It seemed like eternity but could have only been seconds before my blindfold was removed and I was embraced by my guard. Shouting “Bravo, bravo”, they kept firing their pistols in the air and I was taken back to their camp. Almost immediately my companions joined me and there was much hand shaking and back slapping. We were now invited to join their band and room was made for us to sleep in one of the stone buildings.
After several days the escapers, accompanied by the partisans, headed south towards the Allies. All went well until they were ambushed at night by the enemy.
As we rounded a bend in the road, a flare shot into the night sky, turning night into day. At the same time our column was raked with machine gun fire from an armoured vehicle straddling the road. Rifle fire opened up on us from the surrounding bushes. George (McPherson) and I dived into the undergrowth on the left of the road while Arthur, Ted (Moran) and the Yank dived to the right. There began a desperate game of hide and seek.
George and I found ourselves in some thick undergrowth and we seemed to be in a valley. The ground fell away quite sharply as we plunged about trying to get our bearings. All around us could be heard the snapping of twigs as some of our comrades sought shelter. It seemed as if the Germans had the place surrounded.
We lay panting and suddenly the valley was bathed in light as a flare shot into the sky, giving the signal for some machine gunners on the bank opposite us to go into action. They raked the hillside while we frantically tried to bury ourselves in the ground.
Other flares went up and although some bullets thudded into the ground too close for comfort, we had no option other than to lie still. It seemed like hours but could only have been minutes before the firing stopped. We made our way downwards and almost fell into a ditch filled with water, and this proved to be our saviour. The ditch was thick with reeds and the water reached almost to our necks. The water felt icy but in the dim light we thought we had the perfect hiding place.
Eventually, after beating through the surrounding bushes, the Germans moved away. The two escapers, finding no sign of their companions, found a barn to sleep in and then decided to make their way back to the Pratomagno, the area they had previously left, to await the advancing Allies. There they teamed up with a Nazi-hating German deserter called Willy Lorenz, whom Bill later recalled as “one of the finest men I ever met”. Their last refuge was near a village called Giorgiti.
It was as well that we had some food because it was too dangerous to go into Giorgiti. It was on the second or third day that one of the men from the village came to tell us the Germans had left. His arrival coincided with a barrage of artillery fire, the shells landing higher up the mountain. It was a welcoming but frightening sound. We now knew for sure that the Allies had finally arrived and we made our way down into the village quite openly.
There was a lot of rejoicing in Giorgiti. Like ourselves, the people couldn’t believe they had at last been liberated. The best wine and food which had been kept hidden from the Germans was unearthed and it was like carnival time. We naturally joined in the spirit of things but the realisation that we could not consider ourselves to be truly free until we were actually back in our own lines made us anxious to be on our way.
There were some tearful scenes as we left the village and on our way down into the valley we met a man leading a donkey laden with wood. He was smoking a cigarette and asked if we wanted a smoke. He handed us cigarettes from a packet of Senior Service. We looked at him in astonishment but he merely said; “Il Inglesi avere arrivato” (The English have arrived). These were the words which for 12 months I had been longing to hear.
Surprisingly, crossing the front line was no more exciting than an afternoon stroll. We walked into a village at the foot of the Pratomagno. In the centre stood a bren carrier surrounded by Italians begging or trying to buy food. We stood and watched for a few minutes before making ourselves known. Then, when the crew realised we were in fact British escapers, we were immediately showered with food and cigarettes. A brew of hot sweet tea was then enjoyed and an officer came on the scene. I had finally made it.
In late September or early October 1944, Bill Blewitt sailed out of Naples, bound for Britain, on a ship he believes was called the Orion. On platform 10 at Newcastle Central Station, he was “almost bowled over” by his wife. Rhoda, whom he hadn’t seen for nearly four years. Now there was time for reflection.
I thought of Alf Barber, with whom I had made my first escape. Had he really been killed by the Fascists? Bill Aiston — had he escaped the bombing of the train? Arthur Gibson, Ted Moran and WJ O’Niell (the Yank) — did they manage to escape the ambush? And where was Willy Lorenz, my German friend (he had been escorted away by the Military Police). I knew he was alive but wondered what had become of him.
I thought of the teenage girl who had helped me cross the River Po and the servant of a countess who had brought food right under the noses of a German anti-aircraft battery. Then there was the very brave woman who hid Arthur Gibson and myself in two outside ovens while being pursued by a Fascist patrol. Also the unknown Italian who had put the crowbar in the cattle truck bound for Germany.
Finally the people of Veiano who fed and sheltered Bill and I for nearly three months. All these people risked their lives for me and had it not been for their bravery, myself and many other escapers on the run in Italy would have died or finished up in prison camps in Germany.
I would never forget these brave and kind Italians and hoped some day to return and thank them for helping to save my life.
In 1975, after retiring from the Post Office, Bill did in fact return to Veiano to a warm welcome.
[Inset panel] BILL BLEWITT’S WAR
Bill Blewitt and Arthur Gibson wasted little time in effecting a daring night escape under the wire from their supposedly escape-proof new camp, Laterina.
Barefoot, they made their way to a farm where they were given food and shelter while their erstwhile captors searched vainly.
The final instalment of Tynesider Bill Blewitt’s unpublished war journal finds the men heading into the mountains to seek the company of the partisans.
[Inset picture of 4 men]
[Caption] Four behind the lines, a picture taken by an Italian civilian – left to right, the Yank, George McPherson, Bill Blewitt and Ted Moran.
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[title] “A Year Behind German Lines” Private Bill Blewitt. Sherwood Foresters.
Captured when with 50th Div. June 1942 in Battle of Cauldron.
Prisoner column bombed and shelled. After 3 days without water the Italians sold it for watches etc. But 1 Italian took Bill Blewitt aside and gave him water to drink and to wash. Finally arrive at the notorious Camp at Suani Ben Adem – a piece of desert surrounded by wire. They learn the meaning of ‘Domani’ (perhaps) & Dopro Domani (never). Lice, fleas, dysentery from which many die, others just die. Bill Blewitt and 2 others reconnoitre escape. Bill Blewitt cuts his leg badly and gives up the project. One of the others gets shot and the other recaptured. Except that they did not have to work the camp was similar to those of the Japanese.
In rags taken to the hold of a coal ship with buckets which all cannot reach in time. At Naples newsreels record their arrival.
At Capua Camp with Red Cross parcels and showers luxurious not so at Campo 55 Sforza Costa near Macerata, where lice abound. One feature remembered by all the KLIM TIN Clock, made by a POW. Hardly any Red Cross Parcels but when there were much bartering with Italians especially with soap and tea. The former sometimes Italian soap wrapped in Red Cross paper and the teas – dried dregs. Sent to working Camp near VERONA. Introduced to farm work they earned the admiration of Italian colleagues when they insisted on interruptions for their ritual ‘Sun worship’. Worked to rule – their own. Even before the Armistice Italian students were coming to suggest escape to Switzerland.
At Armistice provided by their co-workers with civilian clothes Bill and a colleague decided south 600 miles rather than interment in Switzerland.
A German patrol stops just short of the bushes where they were hidden. At the Po boatman says it is too dangerous to row them across and they shelter at a poor farm where after a good meal and sleep the 14 year old daughter leads them to the girders under a huge bridge which they cross out of sight of guards. In the hills there are fewer German or fascist patrols but more need for shelter. Persuaded by an Italian Officer that there has been a landing at Livorno they veer west but find their diversion wasted. Towards Florence they head and meet 4 South Africans from Campo 82 in Laterino. Bill goes on with one of them and companion with another. 2 days later the other two are rounded up by Fascists and shot. With a road with too much traffic to cross they crawl through a long culvert but the exit, though showing light, is barred at the end.
In the end they reach Veiano 40 miles north of Rome, his companion weak with malaria where at the local osteria they are given help and conducted to a home to which the local Doctor comes – his fascist connection being good cover for his work. Bill Blewitt, completely unshod, is now provided with clogs. With the line static it is dangerous to stay in village, in spite of being well looked after, they are taken to a cave – surprisingly warm – from the sheep in a cave below. Food was brought regularly and often they visited friends in the village at night. Even in one osteria they meet a few times two German soldiers, out of bounds themselves and in German, Italian and English they are most friendly. A swoop by the fascists forces them to sleep in a field. (On his return in 1975 he hears that the fascists were only looking for blackmarketeers). On returning to their cave from a few days of Christmas festivities 2 Gestapo and a Fascist hold them at gunpoint and beat them up but fortunately they are taken to awaiting truck where there are more sympathetic German soldiers waiting.
After various threats taken to the old camp at Fara-in Sabina. POWs in three groups, those who had tried Switzerland, those who had stayed with families near their camps and those who had headed south. Poking his nose into one hut Bill asked ‘Are there any Geordies here’, ‘No, mate, a young soldier replied, ‘We’re English.’. Bill joins later with another Geordie and a Londoner and acquires a small hacksaw blade, both only recently captured in Italy. When taken to a siding to be loaded in cattle trucks for Germany they are fortunate to be in one of the few wooden and not metal trucks. Only about half of the forty plus men wanted to know of escape. After two days boards in the floor were free but the Germans had them out and found the damage. The carriage was caged with barbed wire and “Housebreakers, No Rations” chalked on the door – but the German soldiers slipped them almost double rations. But their boots and belts had been taken. The train stops for a distant air raid then suddenly the train is bombed, they squeeze out of the damaged truck – and roll down the embankment. Bill Blewitt is blasted and immobilised by another bomb. They crawl away to cover seeing several smashed coaches and some in the river they were crossing. Two other ‘first time prisoners’ help Arthur get Bill through a waist high stream. Without footwear, their clothes soaked with rain they slept in woods
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First house approached in the evening panics because Fascists are looking for POW which they soon heard when again in the countryside but a poor family takes them in, bathes their wounds and finds ointment, bandages, sacking for their feet, and old clothes for the two new POWs in exchange for their uniform. (A newspaper report states 300 POWs killed on train.) Next day still trying to get further away they are recaptured by fascists who are going to shoot them immediately. A frail shabby priest intervenes and even after being knocked to the ground continues to plead for them then suggests they should be taken to HQ, to be formally charged first, which on second thoughts the Fascist agrees to but lets his men beat them up again first. Thrown into trucks they were toured the area to point out houses which had helped them. At an HQ all but Bill are thrown into a cell while Bill is told they will be shot in two days. Later in their cell they hear a lorry and angry German voices. Taken out they are loaded on to lorries by German soldiers, who hearing they were in the bombed train become more sympathetic – until a plane starts to strafe them and they try to get away but are encouraged back by machine gun fire.
At another POW camp Allied planes strafed it but avoided the area of POWs. Then on to big almost empty camp at Laterina with only a few huts carefully guarded and a German patrol with cogs round the perimeter fence Bill’s companion works out that they can make their way from empty hut to empty hut to the perimeter wire. Joining a group of Coloured American POWs being conducted to the latrines they willingly create a diversion while the two make for the first hut where the door is open. The other huts they have to crawl under until finally they watch from 20 feet as the German and dog pass the perimeter wire they dig frantically with a piece of wood under it and are away. They walk along a river bank in their bare feet still before sleeping a little to awake frozen and to find the road ahead is full of German troops. It began to rain but they find a hut with plenty of empty sacks to crawl under until discovered by a farm hand. He suggests they should join the partisans in the hills but first getting permission he takes them to the farmhouse where the mother of the family bursts into tears at their condition but provides hot water and ointment for their feet and hot food. When a vehicle stops outside they are bundled onto a back balcony while a fascist tells the family of the penalties of helping POWs. For three days they remain hidden and well fed – with supplies from what they call the Blue Kitchen in the hut.
They have no difficulty in finding the partisans on Pratomagno for they are suddenly called to halt and taken to be interrogated by the leader who being satisfied gives them shoes – of a kind. When a rastellamento is threatened Bill and his colleague decide to cross the cloud covered Pratomagno and at a village on the other side many greet them until automatic gunfire scatters them, about to flee their hostess leads them through back streets to the village ovens and pushes them inside. They decide to return to the seemingly safer area of their ‘Blue Kitchen’ collecting on the way a Coloured South African, another Englishman and later a very fancifully dressed American – but all are made welcome.
Once more Bill and his mixed party crossed the Arno. South of Siena a lone figure emerges from the woods, a Red Star revealed his Communist Partisan connection, and marched them back into the woods. Pushed into a bare stone building they were told to wait until the leader had time to interrogate them which they were finally in another such building. Returned to their own stone hut they felt very dejected and Bill was taken out again to be informed that they were all considered to be Germans in disguise and were to be shot – such news was not at first believed by his companions when Bill relayed it to them. The night wore on and next morning they were faced by partisans and armed fascists to be told the group was really Fascist and that the POWs would be shot starting with the officer – the well dressed Yank. One of the guards taking them to the woods carried a spade.
Halted he was told the Officer had been shot and that he Bill should dig his own grave and was given pencil and paper to write his last note to his family. In the distance was a single shot and a scream. Bill was blindfolded and with a gun at his head was again asked who he was. Tempted – to ensure a quick end – to say he was German he managed a whispered ‘Inglese’. The blindfold was whipped from his head and he was embraced by his erstwhile executioners.
Fed and rested the partisans said they wanted to join them in getting through the lines, but to Bill’s consternation in conjunction with the POWs and then on the second evening at dusk with lighted lanterns. Suddenly a flare shot up, gun fire raked them and an armoured car was across the road. A game of hide and seek developed.
Further flares and bullets raked around them. Bill and the one companion who remained in contact with him decided to make for the rendezvous. But the barn was empty not surprisingly as they had been greeted on the way with a friendly wave and ‘Buongiorno’ from a German guarding an AckAck Battery. In the barn they found plenty of hay and raw
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potatoes to eat but no colleagues. Believing it was better to await the arrival of the Allies rather than further venture into the front lines they recross the Arno and make their way to the area of the ‘Blue Kitchen’. At the village of Giorgetti where he meets and finally accepts the word of Willy Lorenz – a German imprisoned as was his father for anti nazism he had been in a penal Battalion at Cassino and escaped from there, Bill was later to vouch for him. After a rest and being well fed they climb again as Germans are passing through the area but when it is quieter they venture down to Giorgetti again and on the way meet a man with his donkey. The man offers them a cigarette from a full packet of Senior Serivce ‘Si,Inglesi arrivati’.
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[Title page of a manuscript] A YEAR BEHIND GERMAN LINES
by Private W. Blewitt, 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters
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When the Allies and Italy signed a separate peace agreement in September 1943, orders were issued to all prisoner of war camps in Italy that Allied prisoners of war were to remain in their camps until liberated. This was an order from the Allied High Command who must have assumed that the Germans would offer little resistance after the Allied landings. How wrong they were! Some of the most savage fighting took place in Italy during World War Two, and names like Anzio, Monte Cassino and others will forever be remembered. But what of the prisoners of war?
Many believed that liberation was imminent, and obeyed what was known as the “stay put order”. They were soon rounded up by the Germans and transported to Germany. However, thousands did disobey. Disorganised and disorientated, and many in poor health, most were rounded up and they also were to end the war in German prison camps. Of those who did escape, some made for Switzerland, some made an attempt to join the Allies in the south, whilst others stayed and worked on farms to await the arrival of the Allies. Many never made it; some were recaptured and ended up in Germany, and some killed in later escape attempts, but in almost all cases, they were helped by the Italians in their efforts to reach their goal. Many escapees owe their lives to “Il Contadini”, the peasants of Italy. The following account of my own experience is by way of a tribute to those brave Italians, who, even though threatened by severe punishment, including the death penalty, continued to aid escapees such as myself.
This account is dedicated to all those who helped me from the time of my first escape from Verona, but a special mention must be made of the villagers of Veiano (Viterbo), the villagers of La Rocca Ricchiarda, Giorgetti, Trappola, and other hamlets in the Pratomagno, the mountains above Arezzo. Nor will I forget the peasants in the vicinity of Terni for their kindness after my escape from the bombed cattle truck on the bridge of Alerona. Likewise, the peasants of the Valdarno, the valley of the River Arno, after my escape from Laterina prison camp. Without the help of these very brave people, I would not have survived.
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[Subtitle] CHAPTER 1: INTO CAPTIVITY
Captured by the Germans whilst a Private with the 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters near Gazala in the Western Desert. Endured a waterless march to Tmimi, where I was handed over to the Italians. From there, it was a forced march of hundreds of miles to Libya, and many were killed or died on the way. Our anti tank gun had been knocked out very early, on the morning of 6th June 1942, and even after capture, the full horrors of war still persisted. Bombed and strafed by our own planes and shelled by our own artillery, the words “For you the war is over, Tommy” had a hollow ring. Worse was to come on that march in the desert. Many fainted through lack of water, especially the walking wounded. Some Indian troops were shot trying to drink petrol! There was no respite, but always the promise of water kept us going. Tmimi was the promised land, but even there the water shortage was acute and the meagre rations went nowhere near slaking our thirsts. A new place became our goal as we trudged forever northwards, Suani Ben Adem, but in spite of all our hopes, Suani Ben Adem turned out to be even worse than Tmimi.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 2: SUANI BEN ADEM
After leaving Tmimi, travelling now in huge diesel trucks with trailers, we passed through such famous places as Derna, Benghasi, Homs and Tarhuna, among others, eventually arriving at Suani Ben Adem. This was situated, I think, not far from Castel Benito, and was just a compound in the desert. There were no amenities whatsoever, despite the promises of the Italians. Very soon we discovered that the place was swarming with lice and fleas. (There had, I think been previous occupants). For most of
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us, this was to be our “home” for the next five months, and many were to die in Suani. No tears were shed on leaving Suani, except for those who had died there.
Some time after the war, a meeting was held in Newcastle by the survivors of this camp, and there was some talk of trying to obtain compensation from the Italian Government for those still suffering because of the conditions in the camp. We had left things far too late, and in any event, in my opinion, would have achieved nothing even if we had tried earlier, because of the political climate which prevailed after the armistice with Italy.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 3: TO ITALY, A REAL POW CAMP AT LAST
In November 1942, after five months in Suani Ben Adem, we sailed from Tripoli, en route to Naples. We were held in the hold of a coal boat, battened down, with only a few buckets for sanitation purposes. Packed in like sardines, we would have had no chance of survival had the ship come under attack from the Royal Navy, not an uncommon occurrence. The hold stank and it was impossible to find a resting place on the steel plates. As we were all at starvation level, and as many were suffering from dysentery, it was a nightmare voyage. But even under these conditions, one event stood out above all else. One man, caught stealing, was hung by his wrists from a beam, his cries for pity unheard; luckily, not only for him, but for all of us, the Italians eventually heard his pleas, cut him down and took him on deck.
On arrival in Naples, the Italian Newsmen, with their cameras, awaited us, and what a pitiable sight we were; all of us without any real clothing, the dysentery cases dressed only in pieces of blankets around their waists, their clothing having been used in an effort to keep themselves clean. What wonderful propaganda it must have been; the men of the Eighth Army in rags, and starving from lack of food.
We then journeyed by train to a camp near Naples, Capua, Camp 66. After being a prisoner for five months, I was, at last, going to have a shower, receive some clean
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clothes and a straw palliase on which to sleep, and above all, to receive a Red Cross food parcel, something I didn’t know existed at that time.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 4: CAMPO 53, MACERATA
In December we were moved further north to Campo 53, Macerata, near the Adriatic. We were given a Red Cross food parcel for Christmas, but after Christmas, they were few and far between. Camp 53 was almost as bad as Suani Ben Adem, except now we had a roof over our heads, but the main pastime was still catching lice and fleas.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 5: LIFE AT A WORKING CAMP
In the summer of 1943, working parties began to leave Camp 53 to work mainly on farms in northern Italy. In June, seventy of us were sent to work on farms in the Verona area. We received extra food for working, and regular food parcels, and very soon we began to feel much fitter, so much so that some of us began to think of things other than food, escape.
I teamed up with a Mancunian, Alf Barber, and we both had ideas of making for the not too distant Swiss border. However, we missed a golden opportunity of being guided across the border by delaying our escape attempt and, because of the changed circumstances after the armistice on 8th September 1943, we decided to try to link up with the allies to the south, instead of making for Switzerland.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 6: FIRST GOAL, THE RIVER PO
After many narrow escapes in our attempts to avoid German patrols, we reached the River Po, very wide and difficult to cross, in a highly fortified area. We tried to persuade boatmen to take us across but they were afraid of the Germans and Fascists. In the end a
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young girl of school age showed us how to cross under the roadway, whilst the Germans patrolled overhead.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 7: THROUGH TUSCANY, ARRIVAL IN VEIANO
After crossing the Po we meet many more fellow travellers, mainly disarmed Italian soldiers. We are told that escaped prisoners have a price on their head, 1,800 lire [about £20], a vast sum of money to an Italian peasant. The Fascists had now joined forces with the German SS, hunting down escaped prisoners and Italian youths for war work.
On reaching a place south of Florence, Alf and I part company; he teams up with a white South African, and I with another member of the South African forces, who had emigrated from Tyneside before the war. Bill Aiston from Blaydon, near Newcastle. In two pairs we continue to head south, with Alf and his companion ahead. Later, we are informed that our mates have been killed by a Fascist patrol. About this time Bill contracts a bout of malaria, and we seek aid in the village of Veiano, about equal distance between Rome and Viterbo.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 8: RECAPTURE IN VEIANO
In Veiano, at first we were hidden in a stable, where Bill received medical attention from the village doctor. Later, we moved to a cave outside the village, and despite the villagers’ poverty, the fact that we had a price on our heads, and the constant danger of being shot for harbouring escapers, we were fed throughout our stay in the cave. On the 6th January 1944 our fortunes changed for the worse.
On that night, the last night of the Christmas festivities, on returning to the cave from the village, we were captured by three armed civilians, two Germans and one Italian. I was later informed that the Germans were members of the Gestapo, and the Italian was of the Fascist Secret Police. We received some very rough treatment indeed, before being taken
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for interrogation to a large house near Rome, and then to a prison camp not far from Rome, named Fara Sabina. In Fara Sabina, Bill is taken to the South African compound, while I am sent to the British compound. I never see Bill again.
However, I am lucky enough to meet up with another Tynesider, Arthur Gibson, and a Londoner by the name of Bob, whose surname I never knew. Both Arthur and Bob were newly captured prisoners but, on hearing my tales of life beyond the wire, expressed a desire to join me in any future escape attempt. This was our frame of mind as we were about to entrain for Germany.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 9: A POW AGAIN; ESCAPE FROM A TRAIN
It was late January when we left Fara Sabina for Germany, travelling in cattle trucks. The three of us found ourselves in a wooden truck, which suited our plans, because with others in the truck we had decided to attempt an escape somewhere on the journey. We partly succeeded, but were caught by guards who stripped and searched us, removed our footwear and belts and, after encircling the truck with barbed wire, locked us in again and we continued on our journey. Later, whilst crossing a bridge, the train was bombed and strafed by Allied planes. According to German estimates, about 300 prisoners were killed. Luckily for my mates and I, and in spite of injuring my back when jumping clear of the train, we escaped into the open countryside.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 10: RECAPTURED BY FASCISTS, SAVED BY GERMANS.
Without shoes and because of my injured back, our progress in escaping from the train was slow and extremely difficult. It was bitterly cold and rained non stop. We wandered about for days, lost in a wood. Eventually, we came upon a small country inn where we sought shelter, only for our presence to be reported to a Fascist patrol; prisoners again.
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About to be shot as spies, an old priest intervened, we were spared and taken to a prison near Terni. Here we were sentenced to die, but again our lives were spared, when a German patrol hunting escapers from the train demanded our release. Eventually, via various other camps, we were taken to Laterina camp, situated near the River Arno, between Florence and Arezzo.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 11: ESCAPE, JOIN THE PARTISANS.
In Laterina Bob opts out of any future escape attempts, so Arthur and myself discuss various plans with an officer and a sergeant from one of the Guards Regiments. Neither thought much of Arthur’s plan to escape under the perimeter wire so he and I decided to go it alone and we succeed. Clear of the camp, we make for the mountains where we join the partisans. Later, in the company of three other escapers, we decide once again to attempt to get through the lines. Our new companions are an Englishman, an American and a black South African.
[Subtitle] CHAPTER 12: SHOT UP BY THE GERMANS, BUT WE FINALLY MAKE IT.
A few miles south of Arezzo we are again recaptured, but this time by partisans, who mistake us for Germans. Separated, we are taken deep into some woods. As spokesman, I explain that we are escaped prisoners, but obviously I am not believed as I am instructed to dig my own grave. Blindfolded, tied to a tree, I continue to protest that we are British and at last they believe me.
A feast is prepared as celebration and we join the band of partisans. Later, whilst out on patrol, we are shot up by the Germans. In the confusion. Bill, (George) McPherson, the South African and I escape and make our way back into the Pratomagno mountains.
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It is now August 1944, and I finally make it through the allied lines nearly a year since my first escape from Verona, accompanied by four others. Bill McPherson, a Scot named Gallagher [known of course as Jock] a German deserter named Willy Lorenz, and a Pole whose name I never knew, who vanished immediately on reaching our lines. Once through the lines we make our own way south, towards Naples. Willy had previously been taken away near Rome by the Military Police. Bill was flown home, shortly after arriving at number 2 Repatriation Centre, Naples. Jock took ill and was detained in Naples and, about five weeks later, I finally set sail for England.
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[title] A YEAR BEHIND THE GERMAN LINES, by W Blewitt.
Chapter 1. INTO CAPTIVITY
The day, for me, began just after first light on 6th June 1942 near Gazala, in the Western Desert. A Private Soldier, I was a member of an Anti Tank Gun Crew in D Company, 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters. Early that morning we engaged a column of German tanks, at first with some success but now, even though it was only ten in the morning, our interest in the battle which raged around us was over, and we sat around awaiting the inevitable. Our gun had been destroyed and our truck lay in flames only yards away. Then, above the sound of battle, a screech of tyres, a cloud of sand and dust, and the harsh cry of “Raus”, a German armoured car skidded to a halt near our trench. Standing in the car, pistol in hand, we saw a typical Afrika Corps Officer. My life as a prisoner of war had begun.
The slit trench had been inhospitable, hot, dusty and swarming with flies, but now that I had been forced to vacate it, and saw the scene around me, I longed to be back there. Devastation and chaos was all around; knocked out tanks, burning trucks and all manner of equipment were scattered everywhere. Dazed prisoners wandered aimlessly seeking comrades from whom they had been separated. The cries of the wounded were pitiable, cries of pain, their pleading for water falling on deaf ears, water being in very short supply. Both British and German medical teams worked untiringly, but not all the wounded could receive attention they so badly needed. Some were left to suffer.
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Then, with much shouting and pushing with rifle butts, those of us that were able, including the walking wounded, were assembled in some sort of order and began, what turned out to be, a forced march across hundreds of miles of desert. Many were to die on that terrible journey.
Before beginning the march, I was to witness both an act of great courage and a cowardly act of cruelty, proving that there is good and bad in all of us no matter what our race or creed. From a British tank came screams of terror, whereupon a German jumped from a small truck, ran to the tank and helped out a wounded British soldier and ensured that he was stretchered to a medical post. I was astounded by this deed as I had believed, until that moment, that all Germans were murderers. On the other hand I saw also that they could be cowardly. A prisoner made signs to a guard that he wished to retrieve his small pack and water bottle from his damaged truck which lay nearby. The guard gave his permission, and just as the prisoner reached the truck, the guard shot him dead. The guard was only a youngster, but maybe he was a typical Nazi; I don’t know but I hope retribution came his way for this cowardly act of murder. I didn’t know at the time but I was to see even worse atrocities before I eventually returned to England.
It was time to move on, so we were formed into a column and marched off, behind the German lines. I never knew how many prisoners were taken that day, although there must have been thousands, stretched out in a long straggling column. Immediately behind the German lines we came upon a large number of bloated stinking corpses, swarming with flies. A little further on we suffered even more casualties, caused by our own planes bombing the column. As the planes approached, some of the prisoners waved, but as soon as we realised they were about to attack us, there were cries of “hit the deck”. Just as our guards did, we scattered in the desert, but not all managed to escape, large numbers being killed, and many wounded.
The Germans pushed us along quickly, but not quick enough to escape being shelled by our own 25 pounders. Again, we suffered more casualties, more walking wounded to be
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helped along, hindering our progress even further. Then, at last we were clear of the battle area and our thoughts turned to other matters; thirst. At first, an ordinary thirst, just as one would experience on a typical English summer day, but this soon developed into a raging thirst, when all one could think about, even dream about, was water, fresh cool water, gushing as a mountain stream. We stumbled along with promises of water at our first halt. There was none, and we were on our way again by dawn the following morning, still thirsty!
On the Sunday morning, the second day of my captivity, I had a most remarkable experience. We were just about to move off when I heard a voice asking if there were any Tynesiders in our column. I remained quiet remembering the old saying “Volunteer for nothing”, while trying to keep away from the sound of the voice which I was to find out belonged to a German officer. It was no good though, the officer tapped me on the shoulder, saying as he did, that he had recognised my dialect. He took me to one side, away from a crowd of prisoners, and I saw in his hand a packet of Players cigarettes. He politely asked me which regiment I was from, but I would not say, I was only prepared to state my number, rank and name. He accepted this and we briefly discussed the fighting in the desert. He then changed the subject and we began discussing England, especially Tyneside. He asked me where I came from and I informed him West Allotment, a small mining village on Tyneside. He then asked if I knew of Wallsend and when I replied that Wallsend was only about 2 miles from my own home, he began speaking with a Geordie accent.
His accent was perfect. When I asked him about this, he explained that he and his family had moved to Tyneside shortly after the end of the first World War. His father had worked since then in Wallsend but the family had retained their German nationality. Whilst on holiday in Germany, when the war clouds were gathering, he was recruited in to the German Army. After a while we parted; he shook me by the hand, gave me his packet of Players, and wished me luck, and warned me to hide any valuables before we reached Tmimi as we were to be handed over to the Italians. To this day, I still think of this
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incident and wonder if he survived the war. Perhaps some of his relatives still live in Wallsend, although I never made any enquiries on my return home.
I rejoined the column and we set off for Tmimi with the promise of water aplenty. As we trudged along, I heard shots being fired from time to time, and wondered what it was all about. I soon found out. A number of German trucks had halted ahead of us, and as they did, some Indian prisoners ran towards them, obviously looking for water. Without hesitation, the Germans opened fire and many were killed or wounded, although how many I never knew. We were hustled along at a greater pace, away from the scene of the shooting. On we continued, helping each other along, towards the promised land Tmimi. There we would find plenty of food and water. At this stage, food, or lack of it, was only a minor problem. We would suffer the pangs of hunger, even starvation later; for the present, our desperate need was for water. Some prisoners were falling out of the ranks due to thirst, so the Germans were obliged to provide transport for the worst cases. The only alternative was to leave them in the desert to die. Finally, more transport became available, although not enough for everyone, so we took turns riding in the back of the trucks. In this fashion, we arrived at Tmimi on the second or third day of our march. I’m not sure, but I do remember that I was riding aboard a truck on our arrival. At Tmimi, we were handed over to the Italians.
Tmimi was a tented camp and, as we approached it, Italian soldiers came to meet us. They were carrying small cans and, as they neared our truck, I realised the cans contained water. At last, I thought, partial relief from my dreadful thirst, but I was sadly mistaken. The water was for sale and the asking price for a small can of brackish water was a quality watch or some other item of value. I had nothing of value and watched in anguish as those lucky enough to be able to afford it had their can of water. Suddenly, there was a commotion on the truck and some of us began jumping over the sides, somebody having noticed that the wheel ruts in the sand contained water, or to be more precise, a watery sludge! But no matter, it was wet and very quickly I was on my knees, hands cupped, trying to slake my thirst. Just as quickly, I recoiled in horror at the salty
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taste. As I knelt in the sand, an Italian soldier came up to me with a can of water and I put out my cupped hands to receive it. When he saw I had nothing of value, he poured it out in front of me, laughing as he did so. I was nearly crazy, and I’m sure that if I’d had the strength, I would have killed him. However, there was nothing I could do, so slowly getting to my feet, I made my way towards the tents. As I reached the tents, I was to learn, once again, that there is good and bad in all people.
Walking between the tents, not caring whether I lived or died, I noticed I was being beckoned forward by an Italian soldier. Without thinking, or even caring, I went towards him, whereupon he took me to the rear of the tent and motioned me to sit in the shade. I sat down and he took my tin helmet from me. I had already removed the inner lining to make it into a drinking bowl of sorts and it was now to serve that very purpose. He returned and sat next to me, my helmet brimming with water but, before he allowed me to drink, he washed the sand and grime from my face. He then refilled the helmet, and allowed me to drink, but only slowly at first. After sating my thirst, I began to feel hungry for the first time as a prisoner. I was then given some bread, more water, and for good measure, a few cigarettes. He shook me by the hand as we parted and, still feeling bewildered, I rejoined my comrades who were being assembled for our first roll call.
This first roll call was chaotic, the forerunner of hundreds like it during my time as a prisoner. The Italians simply did not seem able to organise a straightforward head count. We did everything we could to assist on this occasion, knowing that the sooner it was over, the sooner we would be fed and allowed to settle down. On most other occasions, however, we did all we could to hinder the operation; we moved about in the ranks and developed many other ruses to hinder and upset our captors, their antics causing much merriment among our ranks. After roll call was over we were given a hard biscuit and a small tin of watery, gristly meat, to be shared between two. After this “meal” we settled down for the night, with the promise that we were to be taken, by motorised transport, to a Prisoner of War camp near Tripoli. Here there would be proper food and
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accommodation, in line with the rules of the Geneva Convention. We were to be sadly disillusioned.
Shortly after dawn the following morning, we were roused from our slumbers, paraded for roll call and, after an issue of one biscuit and a half tin of meat, which was to be all we received for the next twenty four hours, we climbed aboard the huge diesel trucks and continued our journey northwards. From what little we had learned of the Italians since being handed over to them, it appeared to us that as far as organisation was concerned they were the world’s worst! By the time we set off the sun was high in the sky.
Off we went along what seemed to be the only road, at times at breakneck speed. The civilian drivers certainly knew how to handle their trucks, but for us, it was no picnic riding in the back. Packed together like sardines we could scarcely move, but this was probably the very reason none of us were tipped overboard. At times we had to move off the road to allow German reinforcements, on their way to the front, to pass and on these halts it was usual for the Germans to throw cigarettes or some other luxury our way. Most night stops were spent under the stars, but on odd occasions we did spend the night in a desert town. One such town was Benghasi, and it was here that some of us, the most fortunate, were shipped off to Italy.
Life as a Prisoner of War means constantly sharing with comrades; that was the system. At that time, I was sharing my meat ration with a Gunner from the Royal Artillery, known only to me as “Brummy”, for he was from the Midlands. Thanks to “Brummy”, I was to have a hot meal in Benghasi.
After roll call and after receiving our rations “Brummy” and I were sitting near to a hut, about to share a tin of meat. As we sat there, the smell of cooking from the Italian cookhouse drifted our way. It was a sensational smell and certainly stirred our taste buds. We both thought it would be wonderful to make a stew of sorts, with our biscuits and meat, but this, of course, was out of the question. We had no fuel to make a fire. By
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chance I managed to look through a window into the hut, a workshop of some kind, and on the floor I saw pieces of wood and wood shavings. Within minutes we were into the hut, after breaking a window, and had all the fuel we needed. In next to no time we had a fire going and, with a helmet for a cooking pot, our stew was soon simmering and we proceeded to enjoy a delicious hot meal. Of course, our mates saw what was happening and pretty soon they were all at it. Sensing that the Italians would disapprove “Brummy” and I left the scene of the “crime” just in time. There was such an uproar when the broken window was discovered but, not being able to discover who the culprits were, the matter was forgotten. We stayed in Benghasi for three days and then, after the lucky ones were shipped off to Italy, we recommenced our journey towards Tripoli. On the way we stopped at other desert towns, towns like Homs, Barce, and Tarhuna. The terrain was much better here than in Egypt, much greener and more fertile, having been colonised by the Italians. Perhaps Mussolini’s only achievement! The colonists seemed friendly, waving to us as we passed by their neat homes. From the sentries we learned that we would soon be in our new camp, the romantically sounding Suani Ben Adem. I was in for a big surprise! It looked tidy and hospitable enough as we approached the barrack like buildings, but hope turned to despair when I eventually saw the place which was to be “home” for the next five months. We were not to be interned in the barracks, but rather in a wired compound in the desert, a compound of sand and one or two trees. Dejectedly, we dismounted from the trucks.
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Chapter 2. SUANI BEN ADEM
After dismounting from the trucks, we were immediately lined up for the inevitable roll call and, after a number of miscounts, we were allowed to enter the camp. Once inside our guards issued us with one groundsheet, one telescopic metal pole, a mess tin and a spoon. The object of the groundsheet and pole was for a number of prisoners to form a platoon, join the groundsheets together, and with the poles to make a communal tent. Our Warrant Officers then approached the camp authorities with a view to getting us all a hot meal, as we had noticed a number of boilers in a ramshackle building as we entered the camp. Unfortunately, the Camp Commandant was very sorry but there was no wood with which to make fires, nor was there any water, as the water cart had not yet delivered any, so there would be no issue of rations until the next day. As from now, our lives were to be plagued by the word “domani”, meaning tomorrow, or even worse, “dopo domani”, meaning after tomorrow which, of course, could mean never!
Before arriving at Suani, our shortened name for the camp from now on, I became separated from Brummy, my mate from the Midlands, and had now teamed up with someone from my own regiment, Spud Spademan. He too was in D Company and came from the Midlands. Spud and I decided to do a recce of the camp.
To the left as you entered the camp was the cookhouse, or to be more precise the ramshackle shed referred to earlier. Near the cookhouse was a wooden hut used to store bread. On to the next wire, towards the right, the smell of chlorine lime was almost overpowering. On walking further, we discovered that the smell came from some open trenches, the latrines. Judging from the smell it was apparent that we weren’t the first occupants of this camp. Beyond the wire was another compound where we were required to parade before being counted back into camp for roll call. There was a further smaller compound containing a tent, a short distance away, this being the punishment compound.
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To the right, outside the wire, we found the Italian quarters and barracks. In this area we noticed a few trees and sparse shrubs, just about the only vegetation to be seen anywhere. The camp was encircled by barbed wire with coils of barbed wire inside the perimeter. A trip wire about eighteen inches high was positioned roughly eight feet before the barbed wire coils and to step over the wire ran the risk of being shot at by the sentries. Another barbed wire fence surrounded the cookhouse. Thus we gained our first impressions of Suani. After we had completed our recce of the camp we returned to our newly formed platoon to assist with the erection of the platoon tent with our groundsheets and poles.
Later that night, when the makeshift tents had been erected, most of us were ready to turn in for the night. Even though it was so late, the weather was still extremely hot, and we then discovered that the ground over which our tent was pitched was swarming with fleas. It was so bad that Spud and I decided to find another place to sleep; under a tree some distance away. From now on this was to be our own sleeping place; we never spent a single night in the tent. On our second night in camp we discovered that most of the other prisoners, some three thousand in total, had done likewise and were sleeping in the open, the majority of the tents having been dismantled.
Sleeping under the stars did not mean that we were free from fleas; they were active all over the camp even in the open air but at least, by sleeping alone, you did not have to share someone else’s vermin; what you had was your own!
Camp routine began for us early on the first morning after our arrival in Suani and it was to vary little throughout the next five months. Awakened early, usually after a sleepless night, we queued for a ladle of unsweetened black coffee, probably made from acorns. The taste was extremely bitter, but at least it was hot. We blamed the Italians for not providing sugar but we later learned that our own cooks kept the sugar for themselves and a few close friends, to make sweet rice puddings. After coffee we had our first roll call; the second being held late each afternoon.
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As mentioned earlier, roll calls took place in a second, adjoining compound. The count could take hours to complete, depending on the mood of the Italians, and usually, they appeared to have difficulty in getting their figures to tally; all this time we were left standing in the blazing hot sun, waiting for roll call to be completed so that we could receive our morning ration of bread. On the other hand, there were times when the delays were down to us prisoners; for instance, if our bread ration had been distributed before roll call, as it occasionally was, we had no need to hurry, as our next meal was not due till late afternoon.
Bread was issued to each platoon, and then further divided, to be shared by groups of six. It was dirty looking, a browny-grey colour, weighing approximately two hundred grams and usually full of dead weevils. In no way did this deter us from enjoying it. Our afternoon or early evening meal consisted of one ladleful of rice, with maybe a few vegetables mixed in and once a week we sometimes found a piece of meat in the stew. We also received a small piece of cheese daily. However the portion was so small that we usually saved it and ate it maybe once or twice per week. At first our rice issue was very watery and tasteless due to lack of salt. We soon found out the reason; the South African cooks were keeping the salt for themselves, so they had to be replaced. Eventually, we surrounded the cookhouse, threatening to remove the South Africans by force but the Italians responded by mounting machine guns to protect them, but they finally relented and British cooks were installed, to our great satisfaction. A great victory…or was it? For a very short time there was a slight improvement in our food but it wasn’t to last.
I could never understand how the new cooks were chosen. Maybe some had previously been cooks in their units but I am sure that others were selected purely because of friendship with some of the Warrant Officers. Because there were more British prisoners than other nationalities, it transpired that the new cooks had more friends to look after. At least they did learn how to cook the rice to everyone’s satisfaction, though this may have been quite by chance. One particular day, we were on roll call until well into the evening. The rice had been cooked in the afternoon, as normal, but by the time we were able to
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start our meal, it had thickened up quite considerably, giving the impression of a much more substantial meal. From that day, the rice was always cooked in the morning and allowed to stand all day. It may have tasted a little sour and could possibly have contributed to the many deaths from dysentery but for now it was more filling and nobody was complaining. We lived for “today” and as time went by the food got gradually worse. Eventually, we found out that the cooks were bartering our rations with the Italians for such luxuries as eggs, cigarettes and wine. To make matters worse, rations were being stolen from us before reaching the camp! On one particular occasion, the cooks had to have their heads shaven, having contracted a skin disease after using Olive Oil as hair oil; Olive Oil that had been intended for our rations! There is no doubt in my mind, some of our own men were partly responsible for the terrible conditions which existed in Suani Ben Adem.
There were a large number of Tynesiders in the camp, and to my surprise I discovered that six of us actually came from Shiremoor, a small mining village or the surrounding area. I became particularly friendly with Jack Yarrow of the 4th Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. Much later, he and I were to find ourselves in the same POW camp in Italy, Camp number 66, near Capua, Naples, where we were to share our first Red Cross food parcel. Another surprise in Suani was to meet my wife’s uncle, Duncan, also from the 4th Battalion, RNF. A sergeant, and a reservist, he was nicknamed Peachy. I hadn’t seen him since we last met at my mother in laws, on his return from Dunkirk, shortly before I left for the Middle East. Duncan’s close companion was Dave Foster, his Company Sergeant Major, another Tynesider. Already, they were discussing the possibility of escape. About this time, I actually found myself volunteering for a task, one of the very few times I ever volunteered, either whilst in the Army, or as a prisoner.
Except for the cooks, there was no work for anyone else in the camp. However, there were odd occasions when the Italians needed fatigue parties for one job or another, outside the camp. The reward for working was a ladle of stew from the Italian cookhouse, much better, of course, than our own skilly. To be considered for one of these working
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parties one had to hang about near the entrance gate and hope to be selected by the Italians. Jack and I had three reasons for wanting to volunteer for work. Like everyone else we badly needed extra food. Secondly, we wanted to repay a Coldstream Guardsman who had shared his rations with us, having been out to work, and thirdly, after about ten weeks in the camp we just wanted a look outside. As the Italians came to the gate to select a working party, we pushed ourselves to the front hoping to be noticed, and were lucky enough to be selected. About a dozen of us were then paraded on the road outside the camp.
It was very hot as we began walking away from the camp accompanied by three sentries. Overjoyed at being outside the camp we began to sing as we walked along but we soon gave up as our feet began to drag. Lack of both food and exercise began to take its toll. After about one hour we left the road and found ourselves on the edge of a quarry. Here we halted, were led to a wooden shed, where we were issued with picks and shovels. It seemed that we were to be in for a hard day’s work before qualifying for our extra rations. Surprisingly, our guards did not seem to know what work we should have been doing and apparently cared even less as they soon found a shady spot for themselves and, while one kept watch, the other two stretched out and dozed off. Of course, we did not know what was required of us, and, we cared even less than our guards so, while a couple of us went through the motions with our picks and shovels, the rest of us followed the guards’ example and found a shady spot for ourselves. And so the day passed until it was nearly time for us to return to camp. Before we were due to leave we suddenly heard the wail of a siren in the distance causing our guards to immediately spring to life, hustling us away from the quarry, ready for the walk back to the camp. Whatever the reason for the early finish, we could only think of the extra rations, so we hurried, as fast as we could, back to the camp.
On arriving at the camp gate we found that a roll call was in progress and, once inside the camp, we learned the reason for the wailing siren: two prisoners were supposed to have escaped. I don’t know how long we stood on roll call, but it seemed like hours.
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When it was over, the Italians found the two missing persons; they had forgotten to include two seriously sick prisoners who had been excused roll call. As soon as roll call was over, our fatigue party hurried over to the gate expecting to be allowed out to the Italian cook house for the extra rations we’d been promised, but despite our pleas, we received nothing. Jack and I were sorry that we couldn’t repay our Guardsman friend, but at least we had learned our lesson, and there was to be no more volunteering!
Although Jack and Spud were my closest friends in the camp, I did spend a lot of my time with Peachy Dunn, my wife’s uncle. Related only through marriage, we still had family ties. It came as a surprise to me when one day Peachy confided in me that he and Dave Foster were planning to escape. Furthermore, he said he was willing to include me in the escape plan provided Dave was agreeable. As it later turned out, Dave did agree to my joining, but only on condition that I told no-one, not even Jack or Spud. I thought the matter over and the following day agreed to join with them. I could understand the reasons for secrecy but it was extremely difficult to keep the secret from my two mates. After much discussion we decided the best way out was to crawl under the wire during the hours of darkness. We then began to note the movements of the sentries at nightfall but, on my first recce of the wire, I came to grief and could no longer be considered a potential escaper, at least for the time being.
It was now late September or early October and conditions in the camp were worsening each day. Death through dysentery and other causes were commonplace, an added spur for us to get out of the camp. Likely weak spots were noted during the day and Peachy and Dave tried to get a closer look after dark. I was finally able to join them, and found myself lying hidden in the scrub, as near as possible to the trip wire, listening to the sentries as they passed by. After they had moved on, we left our cover in order to examine the perimeter wire more closely. I had just stepped over the trip wire when disaster struck; my leg became entangled in the coiled wire, causing assorted tin cans attached to the wire to start rattling loudly. The three of us leaped back for the shelter of the scrub, and reached it just in time as the sentries began calling out to each other.
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There was lots of shouting and running to and fro outside the wire all of this unheard by the majority of other prisoners who were all listening to a sing-song some distance away. At last, the sentries seemed to calm down and resumed their patrol. This was our opportunity to make our way back and join the audience listening to the singing. Later, by the light of a fire, I was able to examine my ankle, which I found was very badly gashed. There were no medical supplies, not even bandages, so I had to tear up my shirt to fashion a makeshift bandage for the wound. The following morning my damaged foot had swollen to almost twice its normal size, and already, the wound was beginning to fester. I was unable to put a boot on and was forced to go barefoot for some considerable time afterwards.
Because of the condition of my foot, I now had to accept that it would be impossible for me to attempt an escape with Peachy and Dave and they reluctantly agreed. Even if I had managed to get out of the camp, I would have had to attempt crossing hundreds of miles of desert before reaching freedom. Peachy and Dave began thinking of other means of escape. It was thought possible that two men might be able to get away hidden in the water cart which left the camp each day but this idea was abandoned after it was discovered that the cart was thoroughly searched on every occasion. The ration wagon was similarly searched when leaving the camp, so it was finally decided that the only way out was by crawling under the wire during darkness. More recces took place and at last they decided on a place to make the break.
The escape attempt took place late one Saturday night, or to be more precise, early on the Sunday morning. I left their company late on the Saturday, not saying good-bye, as they said they would wake me before they made their break. They did not do so and I was never to see Dave Foster alive again. As for Peachy, he was recaptured; I did see him in the punishment compound but I was unable to speak to him until we met up again, much later, in a camp in Italy. I never did hear the shots which killed Dave, but early the following morning I approached a crowd gathered at the place of the proposed escape, and to my horror saw a body spread-eagled across the wire. On looking closer, I saw
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that it was Dave. Sorrowful and totally disheartened I turned away, wondering what had become of Peachy. At the same time I realised how fortunate I was; had I been fit enough there could have been two bodies across the wire. Dave’s body was left on the wire for two days, maybe more; I cannot recall exactly. After Peachy’s recapture he received some very rough treatment indeed in the punishment compound before finally being taken to Italy. As for me, all thoughts of escape were banished. My injured foot became gradually worse, and conditions in the camp worsened even more. Death in the camp became more frequent and dysentery wasn’t the only cause.
Some of us became so ill that it was an effort to get up from the ground, and some of those that managed to stand up soon toppled over. Even though we were starving, some were too ill to eat and seemed to lay down and die. They were past caring and beyond all help. Ben [I never knew his surname] from the Green Howards was a typical example. When he was first captured he was a big, robust bloke about six feet tall. He gave up eating and when he died his body was covered in desert sores; he was carried in a blanket to his grave by two men. There were many Bens in Suani!
The dysentery cases were truly a pitiful sight. With only a piece of dark blanket wrapped around their midriff, they just sat, almost motionless, near to the latrines, and when they died, just like Ben, their bodies were removed in a blanket. Dysentery wasn’t the only killer! Many more died as a result of an epidemic which rapidly swept through the camp; one day a prisoner would appear to be as normal as the next, the following day, his body bloated beyond recognition; death usually followed within a day or so.
Just like our health, the weather too became much worse. The majority of us were still dressed in the uniforms we wore when captured, summer uniforms now turned to rags. Just like most of the other prisoners, I was dressed only in a pair of shorts, my shirt having been torn to pieces, and used as bandages. Still, we were better off than the walking dysentery cases, clad only in a piece of blanket, their shirts and shorts having been used for toilet purposes. At night, it was bitterly cold, and at times very wet, so
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clad as we were, it was virtually impossible to sleep. Remarkably, the cold and wet had no effect on the lice and fleas; they still flourished and multiplied whatever the climate! However things were gradually changing; drafts began leaving for Italy and as for myself, despite the bad conditions, my ankle wound began to heal gradually.
The drafts were taken in alphabetical order and, because of my surname beginning with the letter “B”, I expected that I would be one of the first to leave Suani, but I was mistaken. After the second or third draft had left, I raised the matter with the sergeant major who had been given the task of calling out the names. I was not satisfied with his explanation as to why I had been omitted from the draft and we had a blazing row. Had I been in my own lines, I’m sure I would have landed in the guard room. I was sorry for my outburst afterwards, because he was one of the most popular men in the camp and, as it later transpired, my omission from the first set of drafts could possibly have saved my life; at least one of the ships taking the prisoners to Italy was actually sunk by the Royal Navy. It was now late October or early November and there were only about a thousand or so left in the camp. Sickness and death were still regular happenings and we all longed for Italy. At last, one morning, after roll call, the Italians told us to be ready to move that day. An issue of shirts was made to those in need, and some, but not all, received a pair of shorts. We then paraded outside the camp and eventually climbed aboard huge diesel trucks which were to take us to our port of departure, Tripoli. It was good-bye to Suani Ben Adem without any misgivings as it was hard to imagine a worse place anywhere on earth. However, my happiness was tinged with deep sorrow as I thought of the hundreds who had died in that hell hole through sheer neglect. And the Allies, if they were to be believed, never knew that Suani Ben Adem ever existed.
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Chapter 3. TO ITALY, AT LAST A REAL POW CAMP.
After the filth and drabness of Suani Ben Adem, Tripoli, with its white buildings seemed to glisten in the sunlight. Our skeleton like figures, clad only in rags, unwashed and lice ridden, contrasted sharply with our surroundings. Most of us had not had a real wash since our capture in June and it was now November. Those suffering with dysentery were still dressed as they had been in Suani, a piece of torn, dirty blanket adorned their midriffs. As we dismounted at the quayside, the newsreel cameras were there, taking pictures of the men of the Eighth Army. No doubt we would be portrayed on the cinema screens as a ragged mob, recently captured. The fact that we had survived five months in a desert hell hole would not be mentioned. There were cat calls and jeering from some of the civilians, but I did notice that some women in the crowd were actually shedding tears. After being counted, our guards hustled us along the dock towards a dirty looking boat; it was in fact a coal boat. Our journey to Italy was not to be a pleasant one.
Once on board ship, we were immediately herded down steel steps into the hold, a dark, dismal and smelly place lit only by an occasional dim light bulb. Judging by the smell in the hold, there must have been previous occupants. On reaching the bottom of the steps I called out, hoping to locate one of my companions, and was overjoyed to hear the voice of Jack Yarrow coming from what I judged to be the port side. Sitting down beside him, we discussed the forthcoming journey and the very real possibility of our being attacked by ships of our own Royal Navy. We were aware that many enemy ships had been sunk trying to cross from Tripoli to Naples and we prayed that we would be lucky and that our ship would survive.
Before embarking we had been issued with the usual hard biscuit and a tin of meat, the latter to be shared between two. Jack and I decided to eat some of our ration before we set sail, foolishly as it turned out. The meat was very salty, and as there was little or no water
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to be had in the hold, we ate nothing more till our arrival in Italy. Prior to getting into the hold, we were instructed by one of the ship’s officers as to our conduct in the event of an attack at sea. We would be battened down and, if an attack did take place, absolute silence had to be maintained. We were warned that the guards were under strict orders to shoot to kill at the first sign of any disorder on our part. Should the order to abandon ship ever be made, then we were under strict instructions to behave in an orderly fashion. I have no doubt that if the ship were attacked, there would certainly have been no way out of the hold for any of us prisoners. We were all apprehensive as we waited for the ship to get under way.
Jack and I found space to sit at the port side near to the steel ladder leading up to the deck. The ladder was already crowded with men trying to get on deck in order to relieve themselves; at that time buckets had not yet been placed in the hold for this purpose. Those suffering badly from dysentery were unable to control themselves and it was pitiful to see these skeleton like figures trying to hide their shame. As darkness fell, we could hear the sound of voices on the quay side, male and female, calling out to each other; the female voices no doubt belonging to the good-time girls of Tripoli, selling their wares. Sounds of laughter, singing, and the sound of our guards on parade; all of these sounds belonged to another world, whilst the skeletons of our world clung shakily to the steel ladder in the ship’s hold. At last the long awaited buckets were passed down to us, those clinging to the ladder dispersed and the hold was battened down. No longer could we see the welcome chink of light at the top of the ladder; we were in darkness, except for the eerie glow of a small number of dim light bulbs. Some of us tried to sleep but this proved a near impossibility; we had too much on our minds, most of all fear!
After what seemed like hours there was, at last, activity on board ship. Engines began to turn over, the sound of winches and voices giving orders could be heard, a ship’s siren sounded and, with a shuddering of steel plates, we began to move. No one knew the time; night or day, it made little difference, but as the ship began to move an excited hubbub spread throughout the hold and as we gathered speed the sirens of other ships
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could be clearly heard. These sirens were like music to our ears for it meant we would be travelling in convoy. Our spirits seemed to rise visibly; at last we had something going for us. The question in all our minds was now “How long would the journey take?”
Once underway and happy to be travelling in convoy we began to talk excitedly of Italy. None of us had much idea of what to expect but the popular belief was that Italy was the land of near perpetual sunshine with fruit in abundance, so that our hunger would be a thing of the past. In such a climate even clothing would be of minor importance. True, we would still be behind the wire, but after Suani this would be no hardship and we would be clean again.
As we toyed with these thoughts, living in a world of pure fantasy, our vision of Utopia was suddenly shattered by the fearful sound of gunfire and shelling. The ships engines came to a halt, and then, worse than the sound of gunfire, was the terrible silence that followed. Seconds later sirens sounded and orders could be heard from the upper deck. We waited fearfully, expecting at any time to be blasted out of the water. I do not know how long the waiting took but finally the engines were restarted and we were under way again. As the ship had not suffered a hit we guessed that one of the nearby towns on the North African coast had been receiving the attention of the Royal Navy. Now that the shelling was over, our thoughts turned, once more, to our future life in Italy. Later our guards actually opened the hatch a little and allowed us on deck, one or two prisoners at a time. It was great to see the sunlight again and to be able to breathe fresh air again. We were also overjoyed that the opening of the hatch indicated that we were out of the danger zone. Nearby, someone began to sing.
Whatever the circumstances, wherever soldiers are gathered it only needs one voice to be raised in song to start everyone else singing. However, after one or two feeble attempts we lapsed into silence; even talking was proving to be hard work. Only the ship’s engines could be heard. Shortly afterwards we heard the sound of scuffling and voices raised in anger, mainly indistinct, but cries of “string him up” could clearly be heard above the din.
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The commotion was taking place some distance from where we were sitting and it was a while before we were to realise what was happening. When we did find out the reason, our voices were also raised in anger for someone had been caught stealing; we did not know what had been stolen, but that was not important. The thief had to be punished, and punished severely. An ugly and frightening situation began to develop, fighting broke out, and just as it seemed that the situation was getting out of control, an authoritative voice could be heard above the din, calling for silence and demanding to know what was going on. The voice belonged to a Regimental Sergeant Major from the Royal Tank Regiment, a popular RSM, generally well liked. It took some time, but finally order was restored, and an enquiry into the incident was started. The RSM was appointed judge but he was warned that the punishment must fit the crime otherwise it was possible that the mob would take over again.
It was difficult to hear everything from where we sat, but we could sense the mood of those who were in the know, and they were calling for the “defendant” to be flogged. Flogging, in our weakened condition, could easily have resulted in death, and the RSM went to great pains to make everyone aware of this, adding also that if death did occur, someone would be held to be responsible, and not only would punishment be meted out by the Italians, it was inevitable that our own authorities would learn of the incident. Common sense prevailed and it was decided that the culprit should be hung by his wrists from a beam, that he was to be given no water, and that no one was to try to help him in any way. The punishment was duly carried out, but after a while the Italians discovered what was happening so he was eventually released. However, the real punishment was to come much later; once settled in permanent camps he was known by all as a thief, something he found very difficult to live with.
Although there was bitter resentment at the Italians for having released our prisoner, it was for the best; had he been allowed to hang from the beam with his feet barely touching the floor for any length of time, there’s no knowing what the outcome might have been. Now that he was no longer with us, things, more or less, returned to normal.
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Once again we discussed our future, asking ourselves the same questions as before, but the question uppermost in just about all our minds was “Would we escape the attentions of the Royal Navy?”, because if we did not, then every other question regarding our life in Italy would be hypothetical! Day turned to night as we lay in the darkness, twisting and turning in an effort to find a resting place. Meanwhile, the less fortunate, chronically ill stood in queues, waiting for their turn to use one of the buckets and not all of them made it in time. The night dragged on in this fashion and through to the early hours of the following morning but finally, after about two hours of daylight, there came sounds from the upper deck indicating to us that the ship must be nearing port. Sirens sounded, winches could be heard and orders were being shouted on deck. The hatches were completely uncovered as we sailed into Naples harbour. We had arrived in sunny Italy at last; it was cold and raining heavily! Leaving the ship, we lined up on the quay side and, despite our sorry plight, we all gave an ironic cheer as the sentries began counting us. Roll call over, we moved off into the streets of Naples.
It continued to rain heavily as we shuffled along watched by curious crowds lining the streets, amongst whom were newsreel camera men taking shots for the cinema screens. Still in our desert rags and helping each other as we walked, we must have looked a pitiful sight. Whilst some of the crowd jeered at us, many others had tears in their eyes, obviously upset at our plight. Before we set out from the docks I had put on my boots for the march, but very soon I had to remove my left boot, as the wound in my ankle had opened up again and I could barely hobble. There were many others, besides myself, who walked barefoot and it was a relief when we arrived at a railway station. At last we were able to rest and, even though it was still raining, we sat and waited for the train which was to take us nearer our destination.
The train, an ordinary passenger train with wooden seats, duly arrived and we clambered aboard. I was lucky enough to get a seat. Our journey started almost immediately but, even as we moved off, those suffering from dysentery sat with their backsides protruding from the carriage windows. They sat like that until we reached the first stop, which turned
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out to be our final destination. It was growing dark as we alighted from the train and fell in for the march to our first proper POW camp, five months after I was first captured. More sentries met the train and we trudged off into the gloom. How far we walked I do not know, but we eventually reached our final destination, Campo Concentramento PG 66, POW Camp 66, situated at Capua near Naples.
The very first thing I noticed as we entered the camp were the beams of light shining intermittently into the camp interior from the watchtowers which straddled the perimeter wire. In the watchtowers could be seen the muzzles of mounted guns. Although it was now dark, there was sufficient light to see that the camp consisted of a number of wooden huts. There was an open space between huts, obviously used for roll calls, and it was towards this space that we were hustled by our guards. We lined up, waiting for the count to begin, when suddenly there was a commotion; on to the parade ground strode just about the smartest soldier I was ever likely to see. He was immaculate, but more than that he was British, in fact a Regimental Sergeant Major. He welcomed us to the camp, expressing sorrow at our present condition. He explained that there was to be no roll call, that the sick would receive some attention, as quickly as possible, whilst the rest of us would retire to our allocated huts for the night where we would be given a meal and ersatz coffee. The following day we were to have a shower, be issued with fresh clothing, fifty cigarettes each, and a Red Cross food parcel. I don’t believe any of us had ever heard of Red Cross parcels! That night we slept in a bed for the first time for months, double decker bunks, with straw mattresses. This, indeed, was a welcome change from the treatment we had received in Suani; it seemed that Italy really was a wonderful place after all.
Not many of us slept well that night, our first night in our new camp. We found it difficult to settle in our bunks after sleeping out in the open for so long and we couldn’t sleep for thinking about the delights awaiting us the following day, so most of us were up and about early the next morning, eagerly awaiting the coffee issue. With coffee, we received the standard bread ration and then we paraded for a shower and change of
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clothing. My first real wash for more than five months was a sheer delight, my skin tingled as the steaming hot water poured over me. And after the shower, clean clothes! This, however, was a real pantomime; clothing from every nationality, military uniforms, some black, some blue, even red. The lucky ones actually received trousers and tunic of the same colour; a motley crowd we must have appeared as we queued for the next and most important event of the day, the issue of Red Cross food parcels!
Red Cross food parcels were paid for by voluntary organisations both in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth, and distributed by the International Red Cross. They were supposed to be delivered on the basis of one parcel per prisoner each week but, because of the chaotic conditions which prevailed on the Italian railways, few prisoners, if any, received a regular supply. Camp 66 was the exception; during the four weeks I was there, we received our parcels on a regular basis. Parcels were issued after roll call, and this was one occasion when we did not hinder our guards as they took the count. Although the parcel issue was one per week, per prisoner, the Italians issued them twice a week, to be shared by two, so after roll call Jack Yarrow and I hurried off to collect our parcel, which we were to share.
By this time we had spoken to some of the camp staff and they had described the contents of a typical food parcel to us. Most of us were highly sceptical, but when Jack and I opened our first parcel, we soon changed our minds. The parcel must have weighed about ten pounds and contained, among other things, dry tea, meat stew or pudding, meat roll, bacon, a sweet pudding, cheese, sweetened milk, sugar, jam and chocolate and, if the parcel had originated in Scotland, dried oats for making porridge. In addition, each parcel contained fifty cigarettes, or a tin of tobacco for the pipe smoker. Jack and I shared the parcel by cutting the solid items in half, and sharing out spoon for spoon, such items as milk and jam. After the share out, I went out to brew up, whilst Jack guarded the parcel.
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It was wonderful to be able to enjoy good food and a cup of tea again and, whilst we sat eating our fill, it was time for our Italian rations, which the majority of us in the hut actually refused. As it happened that was the one and only time I was to refuse food whilst I remained a prisoner! It was late in the evening by the time we had finally satisfied our appetites but, to our horror, most of us could not sleep, having eaten so much rich food. We spent most of the night writhing on our bunks with stomach pains or dashing to and from the latrines. We were glad when it was daybreak. I suppose the sickness was only to be expected after five months of virtual starvation; the food was nice whilst it lasted but there was a price to pay for our folly.
After five months in the Suani hell hole, Camp 66 was like a holiday camp. In addition to the Red Cross parcels, our diet was much more varied; two or three days a week, we had macaroni instead of rice, and the coffee each morning, although not real coffee, was sweet. The sick received treatment for their various ailments and, although some did die at Camp 66 and other camps later on, those that survived gradually got better. I was supplied with bandages and ointment for my legs, and soon I was able to wear my boots without too much discomfort. However, like all good things, our stay in Camp 66 ended all too quickly. One day, after roll call, the Camp Leader, the RSM who had greeted us on our arrival, told us to stand by for a move to another camp. He expected that we would be moving the following morning, and so it turned out. After first roll call, our names were called in alphabetical order, we were issued with one day’s bread ration, and were lined up near the camp gates ready to move off.
Because the names had been called alphabetically, Jack Yarrow and I became separated; this meant we both had to find new partners. As I was looking around, I heard my name being called, and on looking over at a group of prisoners standing nearby, I recognised someone from the next village to mine back home. It was Charlie Murray of the 1st Battalion Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. He came over to join me and from that day until I was sent to a working camp at Verona in June 1943, we mucked in together. As we were walking to the railway station, we each discussed our adventures since leaving
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home. Charlie had been in hospital at Caserta and, now that he was well again, he was eager to get to an established camp. My heart was heavy as we left. It was seven to ten days before Christmas 1942 when we boarded the train for a place called Macerata, on or near the Adriatic coast.
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Chapter 4. CAMPO 53 MACERATA.
The train which took us from Capua to Macerata, or Sforza Costa as it was also known, was similar to that in which we had travelled from Naples to Capua. However, this time, we were in much better shape and we’d learned some of the tricks of being prisoners of war. We had a few items left from our food parcels, which we were able to exchange for bread with our guards. Cigarettes were in big demand and the non smokers had a field day. Soap too was a commodity for which the Italians were prepared to pay a big price and, because soap was included in our food parcels, we had great bargaining power. Somewhat different from the days when we were first captured; we were firmly in the driving seat this time. Certainly none of us went hungry on our journey from Capua to Macerata.
On arrival at Macerata the usual roll call took place on the station platform before we eventually moved off down a country road to our new home. This time we had a spring in our step as we walked but the watching civilians must have wondered just who we were due to our ill-matching and mixed uniforms. Our spirits were high as we approached Camp 53, or Campo Concentramento PG 53, to give it its full title. We expected the same type of camp and similar conditions to Capua; a shock awaited us!
It appeared that Camp 53 had originally been built as a type of mill. There were three sectors and in each sector there were two or three huge buildings which turned out to be our sleeping quarters. A large field was used for roll call and for exercise. The camp could hold about seven thousand prisoners. There was a sick bay but this was totally inadequate for treating so many sick prisoners. The water supply was bad, the taps could not be used, and the showers were in shocking condition. Ventilation in the sleeping quarters was terrible; in winter time the wind would howl through gaps and openings in the walls near the roof, whilst in summer time it became nearly impossible to breathe, the
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three tier bunks being packed so closely together. The toilets stank and were a haven for all kinds of vermin and insects. Around three sides of the camp perimeter was an extremely high brick wall, the remaining side being a barbed wire fencing almost as high as the wall. A truly depressing place; Camp 53.
Darkness was falling as we entered the camp gates. After roll call we were split into groups to join the different sectors within the camp. Charlie and I were sent into Number 2 Settore [Sector], which for some strange reason was known as D Bungalow. Our first task was to find a bunk and, leaving what we had left from our food parcels, we went off to fill our palliases with straw. Of course, we should have known better. We were only gone a few minutes, but on our return our parcels had disappeared. It was no use crying over spilt milk but we were to go hungry before the next parcel issue. That first night in Camp 53 we lay and shivered, hardly sleeping, our only covering being a small thin blanket.
The following morning most of us were up and about before reveille waiting for the promised cup of acorn coffee; we hadn’t been able to sleep for the cold. Before the coffee was issued I decided to have a wash, only to find that the taps had run dry, which turned out to be a common occurrence during my stay in Camp 53. The first drink of coffee turned out to be the same sugarless liquid that we’d been accustomed to during our stay in Suani so it came as no surprise to discover that some of the old cooks were employed in 53. There was no set time for the issue of our bread ration but on this our first morning in 53, the bread was issued immediately after roll call. Each platoon was issued with bread which was subsequently subdivided between each section. From the outset, a system was devised whereby each prisoner took his turn to have first choice of the small loaves; the cards were cut on the first morning and thus a rota was established. The same system was devised for sharing any buckshee food left in the bin after the rice had been issued. The cheese ration was shared in the same manner as it had been in Suani; two shared the weeks ration between them twice a week. There were no Red Cross food parcels but an
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issue was expected sometime before Christmas. Later on an entertainment committee was formed.
Gradually we settled down to our new life in Camp 53. There was no comparison with Capua; in fact, were it not for the fact that we had a roof over our heads, Camp 53 was more like Suani Ben Adem! A few days after our arrival we paraded for showers, after which our clothing was taken from us to be deloused. We looked forward to the showers but we weren’t too sure about being deloused. I learned from some earlier arrivals at the camp that the attempts at delousing had been a complete and utter failure. In fact, instead of killing the vermin, it was found that the process actually hatched more of the vermin eggs, thus increasing the problem instead of solving it. To my disgust the prediction was true; I actually spent most of my time trying to kill lice, usually found in the seams of my clothing; it proved an almost impossible task.
Rumours abounded; bad news would bring on a sense of doom and gloom, throughout the camp apathy and despondency prevailed. Good news had the opposite effect! The mood would be lifted, the camp would hum with activity as prisoners turned to industry. The most remarkable things were fashioned out of scrap tin, with nothing more than a piece of stone to use as a tool. Stoves complete with small ovens were quite common, but the finest object manufactured was a wall clock, in full working order, fashioned out of KLIM tins from the Canadian Red Cross parcels. KLIM, of course, is milk spelled backwards. This clock was the best time keeper in the camp! It was rumoured the inventor also constructed a radio but minus valves, which weren’t available, it could never be used.
Three days before Christmas it was announced that Christmas food parcels had been delivered and would be issued the following day. That night nobody slept; noise reigned throughout the camp, sounds of cans being bashed continued till the small hours and started up again the following morning; such was the excitement.
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The day before Christmas Eve the parcels were distributed as promised. They were British parcels and whilst they weighed no more than the normal parcels, they contained a certain amount of Christmas fare. Charlie and I vowed not to eat all of the contents of the parcel that day, deciding to keep most until the big day.
Christmas morning arrived. We breakfasted on porridge and meat roll, whilst in the afternoon we feasted on a couple of shortbread biscuits washed down with a cup of hot, sweet tea. The day ended with community singing and a concert of sorts and by the end of the proceedings there was hardly a dry eye in the camp as our thoughts turned to home. However, the day was marred, as could only be expected. A strong rumour had circulated in the days leading up to Christmas, that we were to receive double rations on Christmas Day. Sadly that’s all it turned out to be, a rumour! Nevertheless we enjoyed our special day, and it was just as well for the Christmas parcel was the last one we would see in Camp 53 for many, many weeks.
About this time I decided to try and find out whether or not Peachy Dunn was in the camp, and after many enquiries, I found him in No 1 Sector. It was nice to see each other again and we had lots to talk about. By this time Peachy had received some mail from home and he told me that his sister, my wife’s mother, had written to say that everyone was concerned because I was still posted as missing. I had written home from Camp 66 on my arrival in Italy but it was plainly obvious that mail from the UK was taking some time to reach us because my mother in law’s letter to Peachy had been sent whilst I was still in Suani Ben Adem. I hoped that my first letter home would reach my wife before Christmas Eve, our second wedding anniversary.
Peachy gave me all the details of his escape from Suani and the killing of Dave Foster. He had managed to crawl under the perimeter wire okay, but Dave somehow caught the bottom strand with his clothing causing the tin cans attached to the wire to rattle loudly, which alerted the sentry, who shot him at point blank range. Of course. Peachy could not stay too long to see whether or not Dave was alive or dead as he would have received the
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same treatment, so he made off through the second compound and hid for the night. Without map or compass he was completely lost and decided to make for the coast but, because of his weak condition caused by the starvation diet in Suani, he did not get very far and was picked up near Tripoli. After his recapture he was treated with kindness by his captors but he received some very rough treatment in the punishment compound on his return to Suani. It was a relief when he was eventually shipped off to Italy and to be treated as any other prisoner.
It was very cold that winter in Camp 53 and, without food parcels, we were again on a starvation diet. The camp was truly depressing and, except when rumours began to circulate, we existed in almost total silence. We couldn’t even have a cup of tea, our supplies of dry tea having long since finished. Then one day to my great surprise my name was called and I was informed that there was a cigarette parcel for me in the magazine and that I was to go and collect it. As I hadn’t yet received a letter from home I was sure that there was a mistake. However, on my arrival at the magazine I found that there was no mistake, there was indeed a parcel of 200 Woodbines waiting for me. This was a Godsend; not only could Charlie and I have a smoke, we would be able to use some of the cigarettes as currency to buy some much needed bread from one of the cooks. By a strange quirk of fate I was the only prisoner in the camp to receive a cigarette parcel that day. For some reason, of which no one was aware at that time, the Italians had imposed restrictions on the issue of parcels. That parcel, which my wife had sent me, was now the most valuable commodity in the camp; by imposing the restrictions the Italians had done me a good turn. I would be able to barter my smokes for bread at my price; or so I thought!
On returning to my own sector, Charlie and I got together and, after a quick discussion, decided that our most pressing need was for bread. Taking sixty cigarettes, which at that time was equivalent to six small loaves at the prevailing exchange rate, I set off for the cook house, thinking to myself how lucky I was to be able to deal with someone from my own village back home. Suspicion was aroused whenever anyone was seen lurking
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around the cook house, so I shouted for the NCO in charge, asking him if I could speak to Private “so and so”. My request was granted and my friend from back home came outside to see me. I explained that I had sixty cigarettes and wished to exchange them for six loaves. He merely smiled and apologised, saying that once the cigarettes were issued the following day, he would be able to get twenty or even thirty cigarettes for a loaf, not just ten. From someone who did not smoke, such a reaction truly amazed me. In his privileged position he could buy such luxuries as wine or eggs in exchange for cigarettes. As I walked away I vowed that I would never forget him and I’m pleased to say that some years after the war I was able to keep my promise. With heavy heart I rejoined Charlie; we had two hundred cigarettes, but we were still hungry!
I made numerous visits to number 1 sector to see Peachy, mainly to find out what news he had of home, and later on when I began to receive letters from my wife and parents there were always topics we had in common to discuss. On one such visit the idea of escape was first raised. We both agreed that escape over the wall or through the barbed wire was virtually impossible. We even considered trying to get out by hiding in the camp rubbish, but discovered that the guards actually inspected the truck very carefully before it was allowed to leave the camp. There were no actual outside working parties at Camp 53 but, from time to time, fatigue parties did go to the railway station to assist in unloading supplies intended for the camp. In the hope of being picked for one of the fatigue parties, we approached one of the senior Warrant Officers to see if it could be arranged, at the same time making our intentions known to him, that if the opportunity presented itself we intended making a break. He sympathised but pointed out that, because of Peachy’s previous escape attempt, the Italians would not allow him out of the camp under any circumstances and, as for myself, I was way down the list of seniority to be considered for any fatigues that were going. Our hopes were dashed and whilst we did discuss other escape schemes most of them hair-brained, the thought of escape gradually disappeared from our minds. One item of good news helped us overcome our disappointment at having to shelve our escape plans; we learned that food parcels had
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been delivered to the railway station. Only one thing on our minds now; food. After weeks of starvation, life would be worth living again!
The “tin bashers” were at it again, the hikers were seeing how many times they could walk around the exercise field; even those who had never bothered about their personal appearance were clean shaven. Yes! It was true. Food parcels were at the railway station and fatigue parties were already unloading them. The camp buzzed with excitement as we waited for the parcels to be issued, and what a surprise was in store for us! Rumour had it that the parcels were none other than Canadian parcels, and the rumour proved to be correct, as we discovered the next day when the parcels were issued.
All Red Cross parcels were excellent but none were as good as the Canadian parcels reflecting the fact that there was no food rationing in Canada at the time. Each parcel contained generous helpings of corned beef, spam, salmon, cheese and butter, as well as jam, powdered milk, chocolate and coffee. We prisoners didn’t go much for coffee at first, until we found out that our guards would swap almost anything for a packet of coffee. In addition, each parcel contained fifty cigarettes or tobacco and a bar of soap, the latter item, like coffee, also much cherished by our guards. When bartering with the guards, we had the upper hand. Such was the great demand for our coffee and soap, the “exchange rate” was always in our favour. It was even sometimes possible to swap used coffee for bread, and one favourite trick was to wrap Italian soap in the Red Cross wrapper and pass it off as the real thing. We couldn’t lose; the trade was illegal so the guards could not report our trickery to their officers, as they, themselves, would be in trouble. Being able to fool our guards was also good for morale, ours, not theirs.
As well as trading with the guards, “market” days were held whenever parcels were issued. Each sector held its own market where items could be sold or exchanged for something more desirable. Some prisoners were known to spend all day at the market buying and selling, bartering all day, and it wasn’t unknown for a prisoner to end the day with the same goods as he started with that morning. Obviously, when bartering the main
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aim was to achieve a bargain. Certain goods like meat were highly sought after, whilst a tin of tomatoes or something similar was much less desirable. I remember one market day I was on the edge of the crowd holding a tin of tomatoes and a small tin of cheese on the lookout for a mug, but not expecting to find one. To my surprise I was approached by a prisoner in British battle dress, obviously newly captured, who actually offered me a tin of bacon in exchange for my tomatoes. Without hesitation, the deal was struck and I rushed back to my hut, where Charlie was eagerly waiting to see how I’d done at the market. Needless to say, he was delighted with the result of my foray to the market that day.
Such was prison camp life; one day, good news and morale was high, the next day not so good news and morale would be at its lowest. Perhaps there would be an issue of oranges or even onions and there would be an immediate stir of excitement. The orange would be eaten whole, including the peel, and the onions were normally eaten raw. One day there was great excitement. It was announced that there was to be an issue of Argentinean meat biscuits the next day. No one had heard of an Argentinean meat biscuit, never mind tasted one, but rumour had it that they actually weighed half a pound and, if left to soak overnight in water, they actually doubled in size. Imagine then our disappointment when the biscuits were finally issued; they were about the size of a cream cracker and, worst of all, they had to be shared between six. This proved an impossibility, so the cards were cut, the winner being able to keep the biscuit for himself. Had Charlie or I won, we would have tried to share the biscuit but we were unlucky so I was never able to find out how an Argentinean meat biscuit tasted.
The weather began to improve and soon it became possible to remove some of our lice ridden clothing during the day; the cold weather had done nothing to rid us of this vermin. With the arrival of spring there was talk of some prisoners being sent out to work on farms and in May drafts began leaving the camp for unknown destinations. Charlie and I had always tried to stick together but in June I was selected to go to work on a farm; my partnership, with one of the best mates I ever had, or was likely to have,
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was at an end. Before leaving, I went across to Number 1 sector to say good-bye to Peachy.
Peachy was sorry to hear that I was leaving, it was like breaking a link with home for both of us. Over a brew, we talked of home. Peachy asked if I knew where I was being sent and, when I told him I didn’t, he said he would speak to the Camp Leader to see if he knew the destination of any of the working parties. On his return his face was wreathed in smiles: he had found out that Camp 53 working parties were being sent to the Verona area. This meant nothing to me until he pointed out that Verona was near to the border with Switzerland. Maybe the opportunity would now present itself whereby a successful escape attempt could be made. To be sent to a camp within easy walking distance of the Swiss border was a chance not to be missed. Feeling much better now I took my leave of Peachy, returning to my own sector to prepare for the move to Verona. Before leaving Peachy, who was a non smoker, gave me fifty cigarettes which I could use on the journey to exchange for food. Bearing in mind that, at that time, fifty cigarettes had a value roughly equivalent to five Italian loaves, then this was indeed a generous gesture on the part of Peachy but a gesture so typical of him. I was not to see Peachy again till we met at my mother in law’s house after the war on his return from a prison camp in Germany.
That night was the last I spent in Camp 53 and the following morning after roll call I said good-bye to Charlie. Life had been hard, very hard, since the day of my capture, and maybe the future was a little brighter, but I was still sorry to be leaving such good mates.
Our draft was then paraded in Sector 1 where we had a shower and were deloused. Hard tack rations were issued and soon we were off through the camp gates on our way to the railway station. On arrival at the station one of the guards informed us that our destination was a working camp near Verona which bore the official title, “Campo Concentramento Prigionieri di Guerra 148/V” [Prisoner of War Camp 148/V]. After boarding the train, a typical passenger train, I teamed up with a fellow prisoner from
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County Durham I only knew as Tommy. He was to be the billet orderly in our new camp so, although we slept in adjoining bunks, I was to get to know very little of him. It was now June 1943 and the night was extremely hot as we moved off having spent the best part of the day in a railway siding.
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Chapter 5. LIFE AT A WORKING CAMP.
As we began our journey the cooling night air brought some relief from the stifling heat but it was still uncomfortably warm as we settled down to try and get some sleep. After travelling for about thirty minutes or so the train came to a halt outside a small station and our guards began to eat some of their rations. I bartered some cigarettes for some bread and one of our party, who spoke Italian, asked if we could brew up using hot water from the engine’s boiler. At first, the guards refused but, when we offered them some real coffee, they quickly changed their minds. After coffee the train moved off again and everyone, including the guards, seemed to be in a much more cheerful frame of mind; the brew up had done us all good. The guards seemed more friendly and they were even trying to tell us where we were headed and what to expect at our new camp. Refreshed but tired, I eventually fell asleep helped by the rocking motion of the train. I woke early next morning to bright sunlight and the sound of church bells not too far away. We alighted from the train on a June Sunday morning.
Leaving the station, our group of seventy prisoners were led down a country lane at a leisurely pace to our new camp. On each side of the lane were deep irrigation trenches and I later learned that these trenches were extremely common in the surrounding area. As we neared our destination the sound of the church bells became louder and, on reaching a small village, we were in time to see the villagers entering a small church. The village was named Massaggata [the spelling may differ], situated a few miles south of Verona. On leaving the village we entered a small compound through a high barbed wire gate; we were in Camp 148/V, and our new home was a barn!
Within the compound there was a small office where the Camp Commandant and an interpreter carried out their duties. This office also housed the storeroom where Red Cross clothing and food parcels were kept. To one side there was a separate building,
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used as a washroom and latrine. Our sleeping quarters were on the second storey of the barn. This completed the picture of our new camp, surrounded on all sides by other buildings and the high barbed wire gate mentioned earlier. On going upstairs we were pleased to see that we were to sleep in single bunks, arranged in pairs. Tommy, my new partner, secured two bunks situated next to a barred window, where it was hoped we would be cooler at night. However, the window was directly above a cesspool, and as the pool began to fill, our billet suffered from the stench. At first the stink was overwhelming but we soon got used to it.
Once settled in food rations were issued and, having being used to the starvation rations in Suani and Camp 53, the new rations were a vast improvement. Our first meal was macaroni with tomato puree, cooked in oil and, much to our surprise, a little meat; there were even second helpings! The meal was followed by acorn coffee, which didn’t taste too bad as we were allowed plenty of sugar to take away the bitterness. After our meal we paraded for clothing, each prisoner being issued with a pair of British Army battle dress trousers with a large red patch stitched onto the right leg. We also received shirts and, those most in need, a new pair of British Army boots. Barely had we recovered from this astonishing treatment when another parade was held, this time for the issue of Canadian Red Cross food parcels and again we were in for a surprise. Previously our captors had always punctured tinned food so that the food could not be stored and possibly used to sustain an escape. This time, when the chances of escape had improved considerably, they did not bother to puncture the tins. That night we had real coffee before retiring and, for the first time since my capture, I slept not thinking about food. Reveille was at six the following morning and it came all too soon.
The sergeant in charge of the camp roused us, he himself having been woken by the guards and already he had a fire going, with coffee on the boil. Because we were no longer able to brew up individually, it had been decided to pool the tea or coffee from our food parcels. After coffee and a biscuit we washed and were paraded in the courtyard where we were split up into smaller groups, and assigned to the various farms in the
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locality. I was in a group of ten chosen to work on a farm about two miles distant from the camp. Once we were ready, two sentries to each group, we marched out of the camp down a country road towards our place of work. Luigi, one of our guards, a real happy-go-lucky character, was a compassionate posting, and lived near the camp. In total contrast, his partner, Agrapino, an avowed Fascist, came from the south. There was no love lost between these two, nor did the civilian farm workers care too much about Agrapino, although he was held in a certain amount of fear, but above all, nobody trusted him.
Having marched for about forty five minutes, we finally arrived at the farm where we were split into smaller groups shared among the civilian farm workers to be instructed in the art of farming. My first task was haymaking. None of us were up to doing any heavy work and I was glad when midday arrived, glad too for the three hour siesta. After resting it was back to work till seven in the evening and then the march back to camp. For the first week or so it was straight to bed after the evening meal, we were so tired. However, because of the improved diet, we became stronger and fitter daily, and gradually we became just as fit as the civilian farm workers. A variety of produce was grown on the farm; vegetables such as potatoes and beans, fruits including melons, peaches and figs, even tobacco. Thanks to our twelve hour day on the farm time passed very quickly.
Before we started working for the Italians we had agreed that we should do as little as possible, that we should hinder the work whenever we could and, if this proved impossible, that we should be slow to do our work and even act ignorant. However, two of our group disagreed and they, in fact, worked harder than the civilian workers and, whilst they were highly praised for their efforts, the rest of us did not suffer by comparison; in fact we got away with murder to such an extent that the civilians secretly admired us. On one occasion whilst we were lined up ready for the walk back to camp, a huge truck, stacked high with sacks of grain, was driven into the farmyard and the civilian workers immediately set about unloading the truck. In an obvious attempt to
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curry favour, our “mates” decided to help, urging the rest of us to join them. Of course none of us moved and, to our chorus of catcalls, they began the task of unloading the truck. Even our guards were displeased at being held up and tried to stop them working but the foreman in charge, only too glad of the extra help, overruled the guards and they carried on with their task, much to all our disgust, even the civilians I suspect. Whilst heaving a sack of grain into the shed one of our “mates” tripped and fell headlong and was pinned, face down, to the ground by the heavy sack. His mate rushed to his aid calling on the rest of us to do likewise, but we stood our ground and it was left to the foreman to help in removing the sack from his back. This achieved he rose unsteadily to his feet, obviously injured. Arrangements were made for him to be carried back to camp on a flat cart and, of course, the rest of us took advantage of the situation and joined him on the cart, enjoying a free ride back to camp. Two or three days’ rest, a couple of days light work, and he was back to normal, working even harder than before, as if trying to make up for lost time.
Of course, we had our lighter moments from time to time; deliberately misunderstanding instructions, setting off for the wrong field, using the wrong tools and generally taking the “mickey” out of the Italians. At one time we even convinced them we were sun-worshippers and would stop work at the busiest of times to hold our “prayer sessions”. This would cause the foreman to rant and rave at us and, if we happened to be loading a truck, the truck driver would sit in his cab fuming with rage at the delay. On the other hand our guards would say nothing and stay well clear, afraid they might inflame an already tricky situation. However, whatever happened, no amount of bullying and cajoling would interrupt our “prayers”. It seemed the only ones to enjoy our performances were the female workers who sensed we were only play acting, but nevertheless they were glad of the respite from work.
As well as dodging at work, we tried all sorts of ruses to get a day off; stomach pains, headaches, back aches were all tried, and sometimes were successful. However, one day the interpreter entered our billet and found one of our party not well enough for work
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that morning due to violent stomach pains, sitting on his bunk enjoying a meat roll liberally spread with butter and a pot of tea. After this episode the Italians adopted a much stricter attitude, it became more and more difficult for us to get time off work. Once, three of us put in a request for urgent dental treatment and after waiting for about one week we were informed that the doctor would be calling to see to our teeth and that we had to stay in camp until his arrival. It was mid-morning when he arrived and he set up “surgery” in the shower block. The first patient was called in whilst the other patient and I watched from the open doorway. A chair had been set up by one of the guards, so the first patient lay back in the chair and pointed to the troublesome tooth. The doctor, with his back to us, took out various instruments from his bag and suddenly there was an almighty yell from his patient who shot out of the chair and made a bee-line for the stairs leading to our billet. The doctor then came to the doorway and, through the interpreter, asked who was next. I was next but, having taken one look at the doctor, and having heard my mate’s cries, I told the interpreter that my teeth no longer bothered me and that I was quite ready for work. The three of us were taken off to work and it was some considerable time before any of us attempted to scrounge a day off work.
After about six weeks working on the farm I had done most of the jobs, like hay-making, picking peas, beans, potatoes, and other crops peculiar to that part of Italy. However, what never ceased to amaze me was the way the farm hands handled the oxen. These white, long-horned animals were used for all types of work where brute strength was required but, in the main, they were used for pulling the various heavy farm implements used in tilling the land. Though gaunt and thin looking, they were extremely strong and, because they looked so docile I had a strong ambition to drive a pair of these animals. One day I achieved my ambition with comic and, for me, frightening results.
It was after siesta time one afternoon when I was sent with one of the farm hands to do some planting in a nearby field. My job was to follow in the wake of a pair of oxen, planting seeds in the furrow behind them. My Italian co-worker was a friendly type so I asked if I could be allowed to try my hand at driving the oxen. At first he refused but he
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finally agreed, handing me the whip. I tried to set the beasts in motion by cracking the whip just as I’d seen the farm hands do, but I could not produce a sound. I was angry with myself and somewhat humiliated at my failure. Then I remembered that there was a sharp pointed nail in the end of the stock of the whip used as a last resort if the noise of the whipcrack failed to move the oxen so, with a vicious lunge, I jabbed the point of the nail into the rear of one of the oxen. The effect was startling; the ox took off like a charging elephant, dragging its mate with it and dragging me behind hanging on to the plough. Of course, the sensible thing to do would have been for me to let go but, for some strange reason, I was afraid. At full pelt we careered across the field, the driver in hot pursuit, whilst the other workers in the field scattered in all directions. The stampede ended almost as soon as it had started, with the oxen managing to clear a ditch, whilst the plough, with me clinging on to it, landed in the ditch. The plough was damaged beyond repair, whilst I emerged from the ditch badly bruised and shaken to be faced with a very angry driver. Afterwards, there was an official enquiry into the incident and I was threatened with all sorts of punishment but the driver, probably to save his own skin, stood by me and after a few days the incident was soon forgotten.
About the end of July or early August it was time for the annual tobacco harvest to begin. Before starting on this task we were given very strict instructions as to how the work was to be done. We were instructed to carry the tobacco leaves, most carefully, to a flat cart, where the leaves were to be gently laid flat with the veins face down, this to avoid the plants “bleeding” which would virtually spoil the crop. Only a very light load was placed on the cart, again to avoid too much pressure on the leaves. Once loaded, the cart was taken to a communal drying shed where the leaves were hung from the rafters. The foreman made a mistake when he instructed us to handle the tobacco leaves with kid-gloves because we deliberately mis-handled them, causing as much damage as we could possibly get away with. 1943 was a very bad year for the Italian tobacco crop!
Our next job was harvesting melons, much different to harvesting tobacco. The job had to be done as quickly as possible, to ensure that the fruit reached the market in time, and
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the farm labourers worked extremely hard, but not as hard as our two “friends”! The melons were gathered into sacks and taken to the top of the field where a wagon was waiting ready to cart them off to market. The civilian workers managed to carry anything from nine to a dozen melons whilst our “friends” would struggle up the field, sometimes carrying as many as fourteen. At this particular time my working partner was a little Scotsman and, between us, we had decided that our maximum load would be four melons, but only two if they were on the large side. Nobody objected to our small loads, nor did they object when we broke a melon to eat or quench our thirst. It seemed as if the foreman in charge was quite prepared to put up with Jock and me, just as long as our partners did more that their fare share of the work; his main concern was to see that the melons got to the market as quickly as possible. So everybody was happy, at least until Agrapino, the guard, put in an appearance. Not that he tried to persuade us to carry more melons; he was sensible enough to realise that we wouldn’t but, what he did do, was to scoff our efforts and generally goad us in front of the female workers. This went on for some considerable time until finally I told Jock that I was going to try to get him off our backs. As we drank our water and vino I explained to Jock that I wanted him to help me load ten or so melons into my sack, onto my back, and I then proposed to drop the lot at Agrapino’s feet, hoping that this could stop the constant scoffing and goading.
After we had finished our drinks and short break I approached Agrapino and, mainly by using sign language, I managed to make him understand that I intended to try and increase my workload. He was delighted with this apparent change of attitude and, slapping me across the shoulders, he shouted “Bravo, Bravo”, turning to the civilian workers with a beam across his face as if he had won a moral victory. As we resumed our work under the watchful eye of Agrapino, Jock helping me load the sack, I’m sure he suspected some trickery. Nevertheless, when we had ten or so melons in the sack, Jock helped me lift the sack to my shoulder. After a couple of paces I stumbled and let go of the sack causing the melons to crash to the ground most of them being smashed to pulp. I stood still uncertain what to do next, when suddenly Jock called out to me, telling me not to move. I heard the holt of a rifle being drawn back, and turning around slowly, I
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faced Agrapino, his face livid. I was scared stiff, the palms of my hands were wet with sweat; I wanted to say something but, it was as if I’d been rendered speechless. In fact nobody made a sound; they had never seen Agrapino in such a rage and it seemed all of us were afraid of what he might do. I don’t know how long the suspense lasted but eventually he lowered his rifle and came and stood right in front of me. I fully expected a blow from the rifle, but he merely glared at me, and with words and signs he made me understand that I would be severely punished for my misdeeds. Strangely enough neither Jock nor I were punished, although we were relegated to more menial tasks, such as picking apples, peaches and figs with the women, whilst our mates were given back-breaking work such as potato picking. Perhaps the Italians thought Jock and I to be below par? However, there may have been another reason for our lenient treatment; soon rumours began to circulate in the camp, rumours that began to boost our hopes of an early release from captivity.
Since our arrival at Camp 184/V we’d often had large numbers of civilian visitors who came to see us, especially on Sundays. They seemed to be of farming stock and were always very friendly towards us but, just lately, we received other visitors usually much better dressed, and it seemed obvious that they were from the city. They were always anxious to speak with us and seemed interested in our work on the farm. Strangely, there were no objections from our guards, Luigi or Agrapino. We later learned that this new batch of visitors were students from the nearby city of Verona and, in their broken English, they told us that the Allies had landed on islands to the south of Italy; the island of Pantalleria was mentioned. About one week later, they told us that fighting was taking place in Sicily. Even more exciting for us; they asked if any of us fancied trying to escape to Switzerland; they even offered to provide us with guides for the journey. I was overjoyed at the prospect of possible escape and looked around for someone to accompany me. I got in touch with a Mancunian, Alf Barber, and soon we got down to discussing our future on the run. Of course, it was a difficult decision to make; we would be putting our lives in the hands of total strangers. Pretty soon the
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escape was cancelled; the decision had been made for us. We learned that Mussolini had been overthrown, and Italy had signed a peace pact with the Allies.
It was 8 September 1943, a day so different to all of the days that had gone before during my life as a prisoner. We’d been to work on the farm, but not much work was done that day, and nobody seemed to care! On our return to the camp that evening a crowd of Italians had gathered at the camp gates. As we entered the camp there was much joy, cheering and laughing and, after we had finished our evening meal, we were told the news. The war was over; we would all be home soon! In reality, however, it wasn’t quite like that. True, it was reported that Mussolini had been ousted, that Marshall Badoglio had formed a new government and had signed a separate peace pact with the Allies, but the Germans were to continue the fighting in Italy. The orders from Allied High Command concerning Allied prisoners of war was that we had to stay in our camps until released. The majority in Campo 148/V were happy to go along with this; in fact, rumours were rife that the Allies had landed at various places along the Italian coasts and it would only be a matter of days till our release. Neither Alf nor I believed that things could be so easy; in our opinion the Germans would waste no time rounding up as many prisoners as possible for onward shipment to Germany. Because of these fears we approached the Camp Commandant and our own Camp Leader asking if the camp gates could be opened to allow those of us who wanted to go, the chance to escape. Our request was refused so that night we slept little, wondering and worrying about what was to become of us.
Most of that night Alf and I discussed our future and we decided that if we were lucky enough to get out of the camp we would head South, trying to link up with our own forces in the South, as we knew that the Allies had landed in southern Italy. We realised that this would mean walking some six hundred miles through the mountains of Italy compared to the ninety miles or so to the border with Switzerland, but Switzerland would mean internment and neither of us wanted this to happen; it was to be freedom or nothing! The following morning we paraded for work as usual but, to my surprise, I
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was not to be allowed out of the camp. The previous day I had been more vociferous than most in my demands to be let out of the camp and this was to be my punishment. I pleaded to be allowed out but nothing I could say would change their minds. However, at about 10.00am that morning the farm boss drove up to the camp on a pony and trap, demanded that I be allowed out to work and, quick as a flash, with a crack of the whip, I was off to work with the boss.
As we sped along my companion chatted incessantly and, every now and again, he would laugh aloud as if enjoying a huge joke. Of course, I did not understand a word but I joined in his merriment; after all, I was out of the camp and, with a bit of luck, on my way to freedom. It was a time to be happy. However, one thing bothered me. Just a few days before I had received my first clothing parcel from my wife via the Red Cross and in the parcel was a brand new pair of British Army boots; these would be invaluable for my planned trek through the Appennines. I resolved to return to the camp to retrieve my kit before setting out on my journey south with Alf.
When we drove into the farmyard I was immediately struck by the silence. Normally it was a noisy, industrious place but today the yard appeared deserted. However, from a field close by we heard the sounds of music, laughter and singing. While I waited the farmer saw that the horses were stabled and returned carrying a shotgun and what appeared to be a huge painting. Beckoning me to follow, we approached the field and taking the picture, which turned out to be a portrait of Benito Mussolini, which he placed next to a hay rick, he proceeded to blast at it with the shotgun. I did not see Agrapino join in the fun but Luigi certainly did, firing several rounds at the portrait with his rifle and, after breaking the stock, he hurled the gun at the painting. Everyone cheered loudly and as the accordion player struck up another tune, bottles of vino, bread, cheese and fruit were handed round. By mid afternoon everyone had drunk more than their fill and, whilst the civilians returned to their homes, no doubt to sleep it off, we returned to the farmyard to consider our next course of action.
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We held a council of war in one of the farm buildings and were joined by the students from Verona. They repeated that their offer to assist anyone wanting to escape to Switzerland still stood and three or four of those present decided to take them up on this. The farmer offered to provide a hiding place for those that wished to stay on the farm till the Allies arrived and almost all accepted, except myself. I had, of course, decided to link up with our troops to the South, along with Alf, who worked at a different farm. Having made our decisions we split up and headed for the fields where we hid for the remainder of the day. That evening I met up with Alf and we strolled down to the nearby village where most of the farm workers lived. We had a meal in one of the houses then returned to our respective farms for the night. Before parting from Alf, I told him that I intended to return to the camp for my kit and that I would see him again on my return. Choosing a hay rick, I settled down for the night, my first night of freedom in fifteen months.
The following morning I awoke early and was soon on my way to the camp. The village was very quiet as I walked through it but I did notice a number of villagers peering at me as I passed by their windows. It was almost as if they were afraid and, I was to learn later that this, indeed, was the case. The Germans and Fascists had already issued warnings of dire consequences should anyone be found to have aided escaped prisoners. Judging by some of the events that took place later they had good reason to be frightened.
On arriving at the camp, the gate was open so I made my way to our sleeping quarters upstairs. It looked as if our billet had been struck by a tropical storm; beds had been upended, palliases had been torn apart, empty Red Cross parcels, blankets and items of clothing were scattered all over the place. It was sheer chaos but, in the hope that I might find my clothing parcel, I searched around what had been my bed space; I found nothing except two photographs, one of my wife the other of my parents, my only reminders of home. In despair I sat on the edge of what had been my bed when suddenly I heard the sound of motor traffic some way in the distance. I was immediately galvanised into action. For a brief moment I thought maybe the Allies had arrived but realised it was
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more likely to be Germans scouring the prison camps in the area; I fled down the stairs not waiting to find out.
Once outside the camp, I ran off in the opposite direction to where I gauged the sound of traffic to be coming from. I ran through the deserted village towards the open fields taking refuge in a muddy irrigation ditch. I felt fairly secure as I lay there panting considering my next move. I could no longer hear the traffic so I assumed that whoever was approaching must be approaching on foot. As I lay still listening for any sound, I heard voices coming from the direction of the camp. Although I had expected the worst, I was near panic stricken on hearing the guttural tones of the German language. I immediately broke cover and, keeping to the shelter of a hedge, began to run in the direction of the farm where I’d worked. I had arranged to meet up with Alf at the farm before we started our journey south. As I was running I was aware of shouting behind me but I kept on going until I came in sight of the farm. I would now have to be extra cautious as, quite possibly, the Germans might have already visited the farm before they moved on to the camp. Taking up position behind a hedge from where I could see the farm buildings, I watched for any sign of life and, after a short vigil, I was pleased to see that some of the farmworkers and prisoners were walking about quite freely. I sped towards them to give them the news of the Germans and to seek out Alf.
Of the ten prisoners who had worked on the farm there were only three remaining; the rest were out in the fields in hiding. Luigi, our good natured guard, had got rid of his uniform and was now dressed as a farm worker. However, there was no sign of the little Fascist, Agrapino; no doubt he was biding his time somewhere awaiting the opportunity of joining the winning side. Almost everyone was worried sick that the Germans were so near and we wondered whether or not any of the missing prisoners had been captured. This question was partly answered shortly afterwards when Alf showed up; it seemed that his farm had escaped the notice of the Germans. We discussed the options open to us; those who had decided to try for Switzerland were to give the students from Verona a little more time but, if the students failed to turn up, the prisoners would set off for
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Switzerland themselves. Others, who had decided to stay put until the arrival of the Allies, went off to find safer places to hide whilst Alf and I decided not to waste any more time and depart immediately. Neither of us had suitable kit but, because the Germans were so close to us, we could not delay our departure any longer. We were still dressed as prisoners of war, a red patch above one knee, dirty and dishevelled, but two of the farm workers supplied us with labourer’s clothing and, once we were ready, we said our good-byes.
It was an emotional scene as we shook hands and embraced these wonderful people who had helped us so much and, even now, were trying to persuade us to stay. We were each given a cloth bag filled with food and drink and money was pressed into our hands. Tears were streaming down the faces of some of the older women and, as I turned to wave a last farewell before passing through the farm gates, a lump came to my throat.
On leaving the farm we turned left. A right turn would have taken us in the direction of Switzerland, less than one hundred miles away and, with the aid of a guide, a journey that could be completed in less than a week. But we had chosen to go in the opposite direction, a distance of some six hundred miles to which could be added a further one hundred because of having to cross the mountains. A formidable task indeed and, as we were to learn, a journey fraught with danger. We were aware of the risks but we were of the opinion that any risk would be worthwhile if we were to reach our lines and gain freedom. Time alone would tell if we’d made the right decision.
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Chapter 6. FIRST GOAL, THE RIVER PO.
The weather was perfect as we set off on the first part of our journey. We had plenty of food, at least enough to last us for two or three days and, at this time of the year, we believed there would be no problem living off the land. In addition, the nights were still warm enough for us to sleep in the open under the stars. Apart from photographs of our families we carried one other useful item; a map. Inferior in quality, maybe, but good enough for us to identify the major towns as we approached them. We were optimistic at our chances of reaching the Allies in the south who, we had been informed, had landed at Salerno, although we had a long way to go and many miles of difficult terrain to cover. The prison camp lay in the direction we were travelling so we gave it a wide berth keeping to the hedges whenever possible.
It was really peaceful as we walked along and the peasants working in the fields called and waved to us as we passed. It was difficult to believe that to the south, in the toe of Italy, fierce battles were being fought. We maintained a good pace in order to get as far away as possible from the camp as quickly as we could. After walking for three hours or so we were surprised to come across a young girl in an extremely distressed state. She was in tears as she told us that the Germans were searching the area looking for escaped prisoners. She was in a state of panic as the Germans had made it known that anyone found to have assisted escaped prisoners would face severe punishment; not only the individual would suffer, the family would also be punished. They faced execution or, at the very least, deportation to Germany to be used as slave labour. She told us that she had actually given some food to an escaper and she was scared out of her wits in case somebody should report her; there were still many Fascist sympathisers in the area. We failed in our attempts to calm her down so we decided to look for a hiding place for ourselves, choosing an irrigation ditch abundant with reeds, providing us with excellent
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cover. It was fairly obvious that there were other POW camps in the area so we decided to lay low until we could be fairly certain that the coast was clear.
As we lay in the ditch, hidden by the reeds, we could hear every sound for miles around, or at least we thought we could. When we had set off things had been so peaceful but, lying in the ditch, all sounds seemed to be magnified although we probably imagined a lot of what we heard. At first we chatted to each other in whispers but, after a while, we became bored and lapsed into silence. The tension was almost unbearable. I longed for something to happen; anything must be better than lying in a ditch half filled with water, afraid to make a move. All of a sudden panic set in; we could hear voices and there was no mistaking who the harsh guttural voices belonged to; Germans! The girl had been right; German patrols were sweeping the area rounding up escaped prisoners.
I didn’t know how Alf was feeling at that time but my reaction was to jump from the ditch and make a run for it. However, after a while I calmed down somewhat and lay, waiting for the Germans to make a move. They approached, line abreast, gradually nearing our hiding place, stopping just short of the ditch. They stood around, some smoking, whilst being given further orders. To our astonishment, they then moved off in the opposite direction, away from our hiding place. Had they conducted their search with any semblance of efficiency I have no doubt we would have been discovered. Perhaps they were tired and hungry, sick of chasing unseen quarries. Had the positions been reversed, I have no doubt that I would have felt exactly the same. This was our second encounter with a German patrol since leaving the camp but I was to find out later that being hunted by the ordinary soldier was a vastly different proposition to being hunted by the German SS or the Fascist Squadristi! We lay in the ditch until we were absolutely certain that the coast would be clear, finally emerging, wet and bedraggled to find somewhere where we could strip and dry out our clothing. After drying out we continued on our way keeping close to the hedgerows to avoid discovery, all the while looking for a clear stream, or a well, where we could get a drink.
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We walked on for what seemed like miles despairing of ever finding water fit to drink. We had some food but thirst was becoming a major problem. It seemed that we would have to find somewhere to settle down for the night without slaking our thirst when, in the distance, we saw a faint light and, as we approached nearer, found that it was an isolated cottage. Uncertain as to what our reception would be, we decided to wait until it was completely dark, till the occupants had settled down for the night, when we would try to find a well from which we would be able to draw water. Fortunately for us, Italian workers would usually retire early each night, so we did not have to wait too long before all the lights in the cottage went out. Giving them time to fall asleep, we made our way into the farmyard in search of water. Alf discovered the well and was soon lowering a bucket attached to a rope. The bucket hit the water with a loud splash and, immediately, a dog started barking, waking the whole household. Lights went on at the windows and voices could be heard shouting and, even though still parched, we soon lost interest in the well and fled from the farmyard not stopping until we could no longer see the lights of the cottage. In the darkness we came across some shrubs and, using these as cover, we settled down for the night. So ended my first day of freedom, tired, thirsty and hungry but happier than I had been for many months.
The excitement of the previous day had tired us out completely and the sun was fairly high in the sky when we woke from our slumbers. Though stiff and aching in every limb, my immediate concern was for a drink of water. Peering from our cover we found that we had spent the night next to a cart track and in the next field peasants were busy at their work. After discussing our next move, with our need for water becoming desperate, we decided to throw caution to the wind and ask the farm workers for something to drink. Leaving the shrubbery, we tidied ourselves as best we could and made our way into the field. We exchanged greetings and explained our predicament and were immediately handed a bottle of water and wine. They crowded around asking questions and Alf told them truthfully who we were and where we were from. Their reaction was wonderful; they plied us with more drink and, after filling more bottles from a nearby spring, they directed us on our way. They stressed that we must keep clear of all towns,
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large villages and not to go near any large houses. The Germans were everywhere but, even worse, the Fascists had joined forces with the Germans and were busy rounding up escaped prisoners and young Italians of military age. Now feeling refreshed we thanked the workers for their kindness, leaving them, covering many more miles that day without further mishap. That night we settled down early in a hay field in order to give ourselves an early start the following morning. We believed it would be best if we travelled early morning and early evening and, like the Italians, taking a siesta each afternoon. Adopting the same habits as the Italians we hoped would make us less conspicuous.
Our plan was to cross the River Po and then travel down the Apennine mountains towards Florence and from there to continue south to meet up with the Allied forces. We hoped that once we were south of Florence, the Allies would be in the vicinity of Rome. We intended to cross the Po south of Mantova, north of Parma but, if enemy troops were heavily concentrated in that area, we would head south west, towards the river source. Before setting off the students from Verona had told us that Bologna was about one hundred and thirty kilometres from Verona so, according to our calculations, we expected to reach the river in five or six days, even allowing for detours around towns and villages north of Parma. We reckoned our intended crossing point to be just under one hundred kilometres away.
On the third day of our journey we met up with a number of Italian soldiers who had been disbanded and were attempting to reach their homes and rejoin their families. Most were dressed just the same as Alf and myself, the Germans having stripped them of their uniforms. They had some terrible tales to tell of German and Fascist atrocities; tales of shootings and round-ups for forced labour either in Germany, or at the front line. On our walk, both Alf and I had noticed that the majority of workers in the fields we passed were either women or old men. We were told that the young men had taken to the mountains to avoid being snatched from their homes. We learned, too, that the Fascists were to be more feared than the Germans; by all accounts, they were extremely cruel! By now, I was beginning to grasp some of the Italian language and with the aid of sign language I
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found I could carry on a reasonable conversation whenever we met up with anyone on the road. Strangely, we never came across any other British escaped prisoners.
Late on the evening of the fourth day we came in sight of Mantova. After finding somewhere to sleep for the night we made plans to try to bypass Mantova the following morning. Because of the large amount of traffic, mainly German, we decided we should make for higher ground. Whilst this meant adding miles to our journey, we would be much safer. After a night’s rest, we set off the following morning and found that there were springs from which we were able to replenish our water supplies on the higher ground. Unfortunately, our food supplies were just about finished, so we determined that we would try to buy some bread. Shortly after siesta time we came in sight of a lonely cottage and, throwing caution to the wind, we knocked on the door. The door was opened by an elderly woman and, when Alf asked if she would sell us some bread, she called to someone else and a man of similar age came to the door. We told him that we were escaped prisoners and, on hearing this, he embraced us both opened the door wide and invited us into his home. Bread, cheese and wine were placed on the table before us and we sat down to eat. After we had eaten we told him we wished to bypass Mantova before nightfall and he showed us an entirely different route to the one we had planned thus shortening our journey considerably. The woman then gave us more bread, cheese, salami and a bottle of wine refusing to take any payment. Thanking them for the kindness, we continued on our journey and succeeded in passing Mantova later that night.
The following day we kept to the higher ground and, with a good supply of food and water, we made good time. Late in the afternoon we caught our first glimpse of the River Po appearing calm and peaceful, wending its way across the plain below us. However, we were very concerned at the amount of traffic we could see on the roads below. Deciding to try to get nearer the river before it became too dark, we started to descend, taking care to avoid the roads and keeping clear of built up areas. Before darkness fell we found ourselves a small copse overlooking the river and a bridge which spanned it.
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We hoped that this bridge would be our means of crossing the river. We lay in the bushes trying to sleep, but couldn’t, excited at having reached what we considered to be our most difficult hurdle on this part of our journey. Once across the river, we felt we could make for the mountains where we thought travelling would be much safer. A little before sunrise we started to make our way down to the bridge.
At first the mist was low over the river obscuring the bridge from our sight. As we got nearer the sun broke through and, what we had pictured to be a large stream meandering across the plain, turned out to be a grey, turbulent mass of water and, at this point, very wide. The bridge came into our view and, as we came closer, we saw that traffic across the bridge was already busy. We noticed two huts at either side of the bridge and, as we examined the scene more closely, saw that all civilians were stopped at these huts before being allowed to cross the bridge. It was obvious that identity papers were being checked and, if we were to be successful in crossing the bridge, we would need papers. Without papers crossing the bridge would be impossible so it appeared that we would have to resort to our alternative plan; to hike upstream towards the source of the river where it would be narrower and, hopefully, not so well guarded. However, before we retraced our steps to higher ground, we decided to look around for a boatman possibly to ferry us across the river so we made our way down to the river bank where a number of small boats were moored. Here we waited until the boatmen put in an appearance.
As we sat and waited we even considered taking a boat ourselves but, as neither of us had any experience, there was the real possibility of foundering in mid stream, risking the chance of drowning or recapture. We had come too far to take that kind of risk so patiently we awaited the arrival of the boatmen. When, eventually, they did arrive they greeted us politely enough but with great caution. Alf explained that we were escaped prisoners and wanted to cross the river. When he told them we had escaped from a camp near Verona they appeared most suspicious and wanted to know why we had chosen this route in preference to making for Switzerland which was, of course, much nearer and where we could have spent the remainder of the war in safety. They turned us down flat,
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saying the river was too rough but, in reality, I think they were afraid. We approached another group of boatmen and they too refused to help, but at least we learned the reason why. Apparently, the Germans and Fascists suspected the boatmen of aiding young Italians on the run, so three or four Fascists, posing as youngsters evading military service, enlisted the help of a father and son to ferry them across the river. Thus, the father and son were conscripted for forced labour and none of the boatmen we spoke to knew of their whereabouts. Under these circumstances it was not surprising that we failed to obtain any assistance. Disappointed, we made our way back to the higher ground and, as darkness began to fall, we approached another lonely cottage. We needed more food if we were to continue our journey!
The door to the cottage was opened by a young girl of about fourteen and, without asking any questions, invited us in. As we entered, a woman in her thirties was bending over a cooking pot and, on looking up, she immediately invited us to sit at the table. She scarcely uttered a word before placing two extra plates on the table and apologising for the poor fare. She handed us some bread and the four of us had a meal of bean soup. After the soup we had bread and cheese and a glass of watery wine. The meal finished, she began to ask questions and, once we’d told our story, she told us that her husband was somewhere in the south of Italy and that he was probably now fighting with the Allied Forces although she was certain that he would be home soon. Since the Armistice, she explained that she’d had little or no money, and she was finding it very difficult to make ends meet. Thanking her for her hospitality we prepared to leave, but she insisted that we stay and sleep in the barn, adding that a way would be found the following night for us to cross the river. Because the cottage was so remote we accepted her offer of shelter and slept soundly, with a donkey for company. It was the donkey that woke us the next morning and, after breakfast of bread and milk, we set off into the woods, there to spend the rest of the day until nightfall.
Spending the day in this manner was like having a day off work so, finding a stream, we bathed and washed our clothes. It was pleasant to relax, but we found that the time
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Chapter 7. THROUGH TUSCANY, ARRIVAL IN VEIANO.
Once clear of the River Po, we chose the direction of Modena as our next goal. Looking at the map, it seemed to be more or less a straight line from there to Florence and this way would give us the added security of travelling on higher ground. All sorts of rumours abounded in Italy at this time and the people we met all offered us different advice depending on the rumours they, themselves, had heard. Some advised us to make for Yugoslavia where, they said, there were many partisans. We did give this some thought but it would have meant retracing our steps which, of course, meant another crossing of the River Po. We decided to stick to our original plan and head for our lines. Giving Parma and Modena a wide berth, we began our climb into the Apennine mountains.
The weather was still fine but the higher we climbed, the cooler it became and at night we found it positively cold, so much so that we had to find a barn, or similar building, in which to sleep each night. Food was much scarcer now but we found that whenever we called at a house for assistance, we were invariably offered a share of what little was to be had. At times, if we had no option, we would seek help at one of the larger houses and, as a rule, we always received good treatment although we always felt ill at ease in such places and we never stayed the night, choosing to sleep well away, although sometimes sleep was almost impossible due to the extreme cold. One night, having dined rather well on rabbit and good wine followed by a real cigarette, the “padrone”, the master of the house, ask us if we wished to listen to the news from London. On replying that we would like nothing better, he invited us to a small room where a radio stood on the table. When he switched on the set I heard for the first time, words that were to become very familiar to me during my stay behind the lines; “Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Radio Londra, Radio Londra.” Then followed the news in Italian and what Alf could not understand was translated for us by our host. He appeared optimistic although we didn’t feel the same as our forces were meeting fierce resistance from the Germans.
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We felt slightly disheartened at the news as, just like the Italians, we had hoped that our troops would be able to sweep through Italy with little or no resistance until they reached the vicinity of Rome. However, it appeared that there were to be many fierce battles before the Germans were to be driven out of Italy.
Our own progress was now much slower, not because our pace had slackened in any way, but we found the terrain much tougher. A distance of say one mile as the crow flies, now stretched to two or more miles. Wherever possible we followed trails along the mountain sides but still we found that we had to descend into the valleys and then start to climb another mountain. There were forests too and, without a compass, we found it difficult to keep to a southerly direction and there were occasions we found ourselves completely off course. Strange as it may seem, no matter how remote the area, we always came across some habitation be it a small hamlet, a cottage, or maybe just a charcoal burner’s hut, but we were always made welcome. In one such place we were introduced to a dish called Polenta made, I think, from Indian corn; it was completely tasteless but not unlike porridge and very filling. Higher up in the mountains we tasted a similar dish, this time chocolate in colour and very very sweet. This dish was made from chestnuts and jokingly called “Cioccolata Inglese”, English chocolate.
We continued to hear differing rumours from the people we met and one of these rumours resulted in our changing course. We heard from an Italian officer like us on the run that an Allied force had landed at Livorno. He spoke excellent English and he was convinced that what he told us was true. We believed him and headed away from the mountains in the direction of the coast. We traversed the plain, narrowly avoiding Germans and Fascists from time to time, eventually reaching a place called Massa Carrara where we learned that no Allied landings had taken place. Dejected at having wasted so much time, we made our back to our original course determined not to take heed of any further rumours.
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At about this time Alf and I began to get on each other’s nerves. I was sick and tired of having to be so careful all of the time and willing to take more risks in an effort to speed up our progress south. Alf, on the other hand, had more patience and preferred the more cautious approach; better to be safe than sorry. Of course, he was right but due to my stubbornness we began to have our little differences. Looking back and being honest I feel the main cause of my discontent was that I relied on Alf so much; when he conversed with the Italians I could understand little of what was being said and not only was I peeved at this I was also a little jealous. In spite of these upsets we continued to make reasonably good time and soon, on the plains below, we caught our first glimpse of Florence. From above the city the green valley and the sparkling river Arno all looked so inviting but, of course, we had to avoid the whole area and keep to the hills. There was no doubt in our minds that Florence and the surrounding countryside would be crawling with Germans and Fascists. Nevertheless, if we were to reach our lines the river Arno must be crossed so we began our descent into the valley, the Valdarno, and as we made our way down we met the first Allied prisoners to cross our path since leaving Verona.
As we were scrambling down a shallow, dried up gulch we caught sight of a hut immediately below us and next to the hut stood four men about the same age as us. I spotted that three of them were fair-headed, unlike the Italians, and suddenly I was afraid. It was too late to turn back so, for a minute or so the six of us eyed one another suspiciously. At last one of them spoke, with an unmistakable South African accent, asking us where we had come from. We explained that we’d escaped from near Verona and that we had walked through the Apennines. They stared at us in disbelief, obviously doubting our tale. After a short while they invited us to enter the hut and began to ply us with questions and, as we talked, any lingering doubts they may have had about us suddenly vanished. It turned out that one of the four was originally from Tyneside and clearly recognised my Geordie accent. They then began to tell us their story.
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On the 8th September, the date the Allies signed the peace treaty with the Italians, some of the inmates of Camp 82 in Laterina, situated near the river Arno, had broken camp. It was a large camp with thousands of prisoners and, just as in our case, some had escaped to the hills, some made for the front, whilst others had decided to head for Switzerland. The four men we were now talking to had chanced their luck in the hills and were now waiting for the front line to pass them by. They were confident that it would only be a matter of a few weeks till the Allies were fighting in the Valdarno. When we told them of the news we’d heard from London, of the heavy fighting taking place in southern Italy, they began to have their doubts about waiting for the Allies. Before escaping from the camp, they had stocked up with Red Cross food parcels, including dried tea, coffee and cigarettes, and now one of them began to prepare a stew. Over an excellent meal we discussed our hopes for the future and we discovered that all four were of British descent. In fact, the one who spoke with a Tyneside accent had only emigrated to South Africa as recently as 1935. His name was Bill Alston, originally from Blaydon on Tyne, about five miles west of Newcastle. Of the others, I can only remember one name, Howard O’Neill, who was of Irish descent. We talked through the night and by the morning Bill and Howard decided to try their luck with Alf and myself, purely because of what we’d told them about the fighting in the south. Alf and I agreed that they could come along with us but we decided that we should travel in pairs; Howard was to accompany Alf whilst Bill, my new found Geordie friend, would travel with me. I noticed that Bill had no teeth, and he explained that they had been lost in the Western Desert. I now realised that I was going to have to learn to speak Italian and I was going to have to learn it the hard way!
The following morning we had breakfast consisting of porridge followed by tinned bacon and sausages with tomatoes, Canadian biscuits smothered in butter and jam to fill up any gaps and finally hot sweet tea completed the menu, all courtesy of the Red Cross. Afterwards, the four of us who were leaving prepared to make a start. Alf and Howard were to go on ahead, whilst Bill and I were to follow about two hours later. Each couple had a map and Bill and I would do our best to follow in their tracks. Setting off down
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the mountain we could see our first hurdle ahead of us, the river Arno and, as I looked down, I hoped that crossing the Arno would not be as hazardous as crossing the river Po. Once we were in the valley we made very good time, not having to stop for food or drink, our appetites having been satisfied by the huge breakfast we’d enjoyed that morning. We had to proceed with caution due to the military traffic using the roads but we managed to reach the river without incident late in the evening. I approached an old farm hand and, with my first attempt at the Italian language, was able to make myself understood when the old man led us to a small bridge where we were able to cross the river without any difficulty. How very different, I thought, to crossing the river Po. Once over the river we, once again, headed for the higher ground.
Due to the cold weather we now found it necessary to find shelter whenever we stopped for the night and, normally, we managed without any problems. We still avoided the well to do looking houses but we still succeeded in finding accommodation, usually at a remote farmhouse where we would be allowed to sleep in the barn or stable. Whenever we stopped we always asked if two Englishmen had passed before us, and on most occasions we were told “Yes, one tall and dark, the other small and blond”. This description fitted Alf and Howard, so it was pleasing to know that we had not lost contact with our friends. One other thing pleased me personally; without Alf I was forced to try and speak Italian whenever necessary and, to my surprise, I was managing quite well. Bill also tried his luck with the language but, without any teeth, he had little or no success so the talking was left mainly to me.
One afternoon while passing through some woods on the outskirts of a fairly large village we all but collided with four youths running away from the village. They were sweating, near panic stricken and appeared to be afraid of Bill and myself. They did not want to stop but when we persuaded them to do so after explaining that we were escaped British prisoners, they calmed down. I understood only a little of what they had to say but it was sufficient for Bill and I to hurry off with them deeper into the woods, where,
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when we thought it was safe, we stopped and, with much waving of arms, they told us why they were running away from the village.
They explained that Fascists were raiding the villages in the area rounding up young people for war work or even deportation to Germany to work as slave labour. They told us that they lived in the nearby village but slept in the woods at night, only returning to the village during the day to seek food. That morning they had just returned to the village after a night in the woods when it was raided by Fascists. They had succeeded in escaping but many others had been caught. What alarmed Bill and I more than anything was the news that two foreigners had also been caught and these were said to be British. We were shocked to learn that they had been shot out of hand and their bodies put on display in the village, obviously to deter anyone from aiding escaped prisoners. Hoping for the best, but fearing the worst, Bill and I were determined to find out whether or not the two who had been murdered were, in fact, Alf and Howard. That night there was no sleep for any of us, and at daybreak the following morning, while our four young friends sought a more secure hiding place, Bill and I made our way cautiously down to the village.
Of course, it would have been foolhardy in the extreme for us to walk straight in to the village, so we hid in some scrub near to a path leading in to the woods. By the look of it, the path was obviously used by donkeys which were probably used to carry brushwood and, before long, a peasant appeared leading a donkey, making his way towards the woods. When we emerged from the bushes he was both alarmed and frightened, glancing nervously over his shoulder. I explained, as best as I could, that we were escaped British prisoners but this only seemed to make him even more afraid and nothing I could say or do could persuade him to stop and talk to us. Retreating once again to our hiding place, we waited for someone else to come along the path. Soon a young boy aged about twelve came by and, unlike the man with the donkey, was happy to speak with us. He told us of the events of the previous day and confirmed that two foreigners, believed to be British, had been shot and killed by the Fascists. He, himself
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had not seen the foreigners but from others in the village he had learned that one was tall and dark, and the other short and blond. On hearing this we had no choice other than to assume that our two mates had come to this sad end. We were to hear no more of Alf and Howard when we resumed our journey giving more weight to the fact that they were indeed dead. I found this difficult to believe as Alf had always been so careful and from then on I became even more of a fatalist than I had ever been before.
The further south we travelled the more German and Fascist traffic we encountered so that crossing even the minor roads now became a problem for us. Whenever we approached a road we had to stop and listen before proceeding with extreme caution. On one occasion we came to a road heavy with German traffic so we hid in a well concealed ditch waiting for a lull in the traffic. However, after some considerable time with no lull in the traffic, we decided that we’d try to find an alternative and easier crossing and, as we crawled along the ditch, Bill discovered a culvert running beneath the road. It was overgrown with weeds, dank, and the smell was nauseating, but as daylight could be seen at the other side, we decided to use the culvert as a means of crossing the road. As we entered the culvert we could see and hear small slimy animals scuttling before us and once we were under the road proper we could plainly hear the noise of the traffic above us. The noise was terrifying, and it seemed that at any moment the road would cave in. Slipping and sliding on our hands and knees we reached the other side at last only to discover that our way was barred by an iron grill covering the exit. I was near to tears and in my anger I grasped the grill, trying to loosen it. However, it held fast so there was nothing for us to do other than to retrace our steps. We found it difficult to turn around but, at last, we made our way back through the slime with the traffic still roaring overhead. Covered in mud, we collapsed, exhausted, into the ditch and lay awhile considering other ways to cross the road. Either we had to make a detour of this particular stretch of road or we had to wait for nightfall, hoping the traffic would ease off. We chose the latter course, for no other reason than the state we were in; we were dishevelled and smelly and walking about in such a state we would have been bound to have
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attracted unwanted attention. As darkness came the traffic died down, just as we had hoped, and we were finally able to cross the road in safety.
The weather deteriorated; it started to rain heavily and pretty soon the woods became dark and damp. Worse, however, was the condition of my shoes. By this time I’d covered about two hundred miles through some very rough country and now my shoes were worn out. The arrival of the wet weather was the last straw, causing the soles and uppers to part company. Without proper footwear it became almost impossible for me to continue so it became imperative that I find a decent pair of shoes or boots. Damp and miserable, we were desperate for somewhere to rest when we came across a tiny dry-stone building of sorts and as we’d come across nothing better, and as beggars can’t be choosers, we decided to rest there for a while.
Except for a light covering of straw on the floor, the shelter was completely empty, devoid of any furnishings, and the door hung loosely in the frame. It was evident that there had been a fire in one corner but there was no chimney. We set about making the hut as comfortable as we were able, searching the undergrowth for dry wood with which to make a fire. We also found two fair sized stones to put next to the fire so that our clothes could be laid out to dry. When we lit the fire we expected the hut to fill up with smoke but this did not happen, the smoke finding its way out through the cracks in the walls and roof. Soon we were warm and cosy even though we were only dressed in slacks and a thin shirt which had dried out very quickly. Next we scraped the straw into a heap and, using Bill’s army greatcoat as a blanket, we fell asleep. Next morning, in bright sunshine, we emerged from the hut and took stock of our surroundings.
Immediately we were outside we heard the sound of running water and, discovering a small stream nearby, we bathed and washed our clothes, laying them out to dry again in the warm sunshine. Later on, and dressed, we ventured past the hut searching for any sign of life. Because I was now barefoot, Bill walked on ahead but he soon came back to tell me he’d discovered a cottage not too far away and beyond that a large house. We
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stood about undecided what to do next when suddenly we heard a female voice calling and, on looking up, we saw a girl of about eighteen, tall and blond, walking towards us. Her colouring made us slightly suspicious. She asked us where we were from and if we were hungry and when we told her we had spent the night in the hut and we were famished, she told us to wait in the hut and she promised to return with some food. We were still suspicious so we hid in some bushes near to the hut but when we saw her carrying a huge bowl of food and wine, on her return, we had to apologise. She understood our reasons for hiding and soon we were tucking into polenta covered in a rich sauce. Seeing that I was barefoot, she offered to take my shoes to see if they could be mended and, if they couldn’t, she said she would try and get me some others. She advised us to stay out of sight, explaining that the Germans often visited the big house nearby and promised she’d return the next day with more food.
It was not until the following afternoon that we next saw our benefactor and this time she brought bread and cheese with the polenta and, much to our surprise, some cigarettes. By now we trusted her completely, so we admitted to her that we were British escaped prisoners of war. She seemed delighted and then she began to tell us a little of herself. She told us that she was called Teresa, that she was a Swiss national and that at the outbreak of war she had been studying in Italy. She explained that she was a companion to the Countess who lived in the big house and, in fact, was actually related to her. We talked of our home countries and, whilst it was difficult to follow everything she said, I’m sure she inferred that we would have been much better off in Switzerland than wandering the mountains and forests of Italy. As I sat, barefoot, in this desolate place miles from the front line, she almost convinced me that she was right.
We were out seeking wood for our fire when next Teresa put in an appearance. It was early on the morning of the third day and this time, along with the food, she had also brought my shoes. They had been patched and stitched but would be good for another few miles. She had another surprise in store for us. She wanted to know if we would like a bath and, if so, she instructed us to go to the big house at dusk when no one would be
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about and a bath would be prepared for us in the servants’ quarters. That evening we went up to the house where we were met by Teresa who showed us into a scullery like place, a fire burning in the grate, with a huge cauldron of water boiling above the fire. A large tin bath stood nearby and after she left us alone, Bill bathed first and I followed in more clean water. Though we had washed our clothes in the stream earlier, we took advantage of the hot water this time to give them a proper wash. With towels around our waists, waiting for our clothes to dry, Teresa brought us some biscuits which we enjoyed with steaming hot coffee and so ended one of the most pleasant days I’d spent since being on the run. During the time we spent in the house we neither saw nor heard anything of the Countess.
On our fourth day at the hut with the weather improving and now that I had some shoes, we decided it was time to move on. We would inform Teresa when she came to visit us and we began to make plans. However whatever plans we had made for an orderly departure were thrown into disarray when Teresa told us that the Germans had installed an anti aircraft battery on some flat ground some thirty yards or so above our hut. It certainly was time for us to move on without delay, so accepting the food Teresa had brought for us, under the very noses of the Germans, we thanked her for her kindness and wished her goodbye. Despite the fact that the Germans were a very real threat, she wanted us to stay in some other hide-out which she was sure she could find for us and where she would continue to bring us food till the arrival of our troops. When I pointed out that the consequences, not only for her but also the Countess, would be dire should it be discovered that she’d been assisting escaped prisoners she finally accepted that we had no choice other than to move on. As we returned to the hut to retrieve Bill’s greatcoat, the sound of heavy traffic could be heard on the road above us.
Our path through the woods brought us close to a village through which ran a fairly good road which the Germans would be sure to be using because it appeared that they had a large concentration of troops in the area. We had to avoid the road and the village at all costs. After we’d by-passed the village, leaving it behind us, we came across a group of
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workmen, returning home after their day’s work. They stopped us, and when I explained that we were British, one of the group, a fairly old man, stepped forward and began to speak in unbelievably bad English or, as he put it himself, in American. Probably as much to impress his friends as anything else, he insisted that we accompany him to his home where he said we could hide from the Germans. It was impossible to refuse his offer without causing a scene so we returned to the village, mingling with the workers, trying to be inconspicuous. On the way, we passed a number of Germans but they took no notice of what they thought to be just a group of excited Italians. It would have been different, probably, had we encountered a squad of armed Fascists, but we didn’t and managed to reach the old man’s home in safety. We went inside closely followed by a number of the group who’d accompanied us to the village.
The old man was a widower living with his son and daughter in law. He told us that he’d spent a number of years in America before the war and used what little English he had to curse and denounce the Germans and Fascists. This was all very well, of course, provided that there were no Fascist sympathisers within earshot but even Satan had his disciples and I was certain that not all those gathered in the room at that time were pro British. As we listened to the old man’s tirade we tried to think of a way of getting out of a tricky situation without causing upset. The problem was solved for us just as we were about to sit down for something to eat. The soup was already on the table when a woman ran into the house screaming that some uniformed Fascists had arrived in the village. This was our cue to leave and, forgetting all about the meal, we made for the door. Nobody tried to stop us; it was obvious that they were more afraid of the Fascists than they were of the Germans. It was dusk as we ran away up the village street, away from the sounds of motor traffic in the village square.
We weren’t followed as we fled the village aiming to put as much distance between the village and ourselves before nightfall. Soon, by pure chance, we came across a charcoal burner’s hut and there we spent the night. When we woke the next morning it was raining heavily and the woods were dank and miserable. Nevertheless, we had to push
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on, so we set off in what we hoped was a southerly direction. The sky above us, through the thick foliage, was leaden grey and stormy and, once we’d left our shelter of the previous night, we saw no further sign of habitation during the whole of that day. That night, unable to find shelter, we tried to rest in some bushes but we were unable to sleep. Bill was particularly restless and when morning came he was shivering violently; it did not need a doctor to diagnose that he was really ill. There was no point in staying where we were although Bill did not feel like moving, but we had to find shelter as a matter of urgency. Slowly we trudged along and by mid morning we stumbled upon another charcoal burner’s hut. Gratefully we crawled inside and found that there was sufficient dry brushwood to start a fire. We dried our clothing and then Bill, sure he had contracted malaria, sat wrapped in his greatcoat trying desperately to keep warm. That night, after I’d brought in more brushwood and although Bill’s condition had not improved much, I did manage to get some sleep. Much later, during the middle of the night I heard the sound of a steam train; a railway line was bound to lead somewhere so I decided to carry out a recce of the area the following day. Similar sounds could be heard the next morning quite near at hand so, whilst out gathering more brushwood for the fire to keep Bill warm, I set off in the direction of the noise. I was reluctant to leave Bill alone because he seemed so ill but I had no other choice; we had to get help somewhere, even if it meant surrendering to the Germans.
I did not have to go far before coming in sight of the railway but I was disappointed not to discover any other sign of life. Some way down the line I spotted a set of signals with a ladder leading up to them so, proceeding with great caution, I made my way towards the signals and once there climbed the ladder to gain a better view of the surrounding area. I first noticed smoke curling up from what were obviously chimneys and, climbing higher, I saw a small number of houses set on a hill previously obscured by the trees. Looking around I could also make out our hut and calculated that from the hut to the village was no more than two miles. I hurried back to the hut to tell Bill that we would be okay but on getting there found it to be full of smoke. I thought for a moment that it was on fire but on closer inspection discovered that Bill, in his efforts to keep warm, had piled too
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much brushwood on top of the fire. It was lucky that I got back to the hut when I did as Bill had inhaled an awful lot of smoke making his condition much worse. Dragging the fire outside, I doused the flames as best I could and then, supporting Bill, we set off for the village. Our path merged with a cart track and eventually we came upon the road leading to the village which we could see higher up the hill. By this time Bill was near delirious as we walked along the road not caring if we were seen or not. In fact, I almost hoped there would be Germans in the village as he was in obvious need of medical attention. We walked right into the village square and slumped down next to a fountain. Immediately, a group of women came to us quickly followed by some men of the village, whereupon we were hustled into the osteria, the village inn. We had arrived in Veiano in the province of Viterbo, some forty miles or so from Rome.
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Chapter 8. RECAPTURE IN VEIANO.
The inn was crowded as we sat down at one of the tables and one of the men, with only one arm, put some wine before us. He was the padrone, the proprietor, and he was puzzled when we pushed the wine away from us. We needed a hot drink and when one of the bystanders realised this, hot coffee laced with cognac was brought and as I drank I felt the blood coursing through my veins. I certainly felt better but Bill was still shivering even after drinking the coffee. The Italians could see that Bill was in pretty bad shape and showed real concern. They spoke too quickly for me to understand everything that was being said but I did hear the word “dottore” mentioned and I was pleased that Bill would maybe soon receive some medical attention. Until now the villagers had no idea who we were and when I explained that we were British, and escaped prisoners, they gaped at us in disbelief. I told them that it was our intention to give ourselves up to the Germans but they would not hear tell of such a thing. They discussed our situation amongst themselves for a while and then one man offered to take us to his home where a doctor would be able to attend to Bill. We would be also given something to eat and a place would be found for us to hide from the Germans and Fascists. As we walked the short distance across the square I stumbled and almost fell and, looking down, I saw that the soles and uppers of my shoes had parted company again. My next shoes were to be wooden clogs.
On entering the house, a woman aged about forty greeted us and she immediately started to cry when she saw our condition. She was particularly sorry for Bill and, putting more logs on the fire, she invited him to huddle up close to it. After draping his shoulders with a coarse woollen blanket, she set about preparing a meal. In the meantime her husband brought us some wine from the cellar but before allowing us to drink the wine, he gave us a small glass of colourless liquid which, he said, would help keep out the cold. It was indeed a fiery liquid and it soon produced a burning sensation in my stomach, but after a
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while a warm glowing feeling came over me and I felt better than I had done for days. After we had finished our meal the doctor arrived and was able to confirm what Bill and I already suspected; he had malaria. It was absolutely essential for him to be kept as warm as possible until the fever departed. The doctor, a small man with a pointed beard, gave Bill some quinine tablets which, he said, had been given to him by the Germans who often visited his home situated on the main road. They also supplied him with other drugs which were in short supply and, on hearing this, I became suspicious. I could not figure out why the Germans should supply a village doctor in Italy with expensive drugs but, with Bill in urgent need of on-going attention, I did not ask any questions. The most important thing at that time was that Bill needed quinine, regardless of where it came from. Later on, I was to discover that any suspicions I may have had against the doctor were totally unfounded; both he and his wife helped us in any way they could and, in time, became valued friends and allies. After the doctor had finished attending to Bill, Guiseppe, our host, prepared a bed of clean straw in the stable and, after a final tot of grappa, the colourless liquid we had drunk earlier, Bill and I went to sleep. We slept so soundly that Guiseppe was able to take his mule from the stable the following morning and set off for work without disturbing us.
When we finally roused, Bill felt slightly better but, taking the advice of the doctor, he stayed indoors. I was now without any footwear at all so, after asking directions of Guiseppe’s wife, I went off to the cobblers, making sure to avoid the village square in case any Germans should be about. I found the cobbler’s workshop, without any difficulty but was dismayed to learn that he had no shoes in stock. He was very apologetic, blaming Hitler and Mussolini for such a state of affairs, but he was able to offer me a pair of “zoccoli”, wooden clogs, and I was grateful to accept his offer. I offered to pay for the clogs with money I had been given both at Verona and whilst walking down the Apennines, but he flatly refused to accept payment. Thanking him profusely, I hobbled from the workshop hoping that I would soon get used to my new footwear. Returning to the house of Guiseppe, I found Bill sitting by the fire whilst Guiseppe sat at the
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kitchen table cutting up tobacco leaves. Helping Guiseppe was his brother in law, introduced to me as Onorino.
Onorino was slightly younger than Guiseppe, who was about forty, and he was forever laughing. In fact, both of them were happy go lucky types, didn’t seem to have a care in the world and neither the Germans or the Fascists seemed to hold any fear for them. The tobacco leaves, which were in their raw state had just been stolen from somewhere. I watched them as they prepared the leaves for smoking. After cutting off the stalks and thick veins, the leaves were cut up very finely, soaked in wine and, whilst wet, shredded even more finely and then left to dry in a warm place. I had a smoke of the finished product and, whilst not exactly tasting like “Players”, the cigarettes were quite reasonable and I was soon to get used to smoking them.
We stayed with Guiseppe for about one week and during this time Onorino was a constant visitor, bringing food and other stuff whenever he came. Bill’s condition had improved, so much so, that we decided to tell Guiseppe that it was time for us to move on. For Guiseppe this was out of the question. The news, according to Radio Londra, from the front was bad; the Germans were strongly resisting the Allied advance, which had in fact been halted. Also, the German news announced that the front line was static and would remain so until the spring. We pointed out that whatever the news we could not stay in Veiano. It was too dangerous, not only for ourselves, but also for the villagers who were harbouring us. Guiseppe explained that the villagers were aware of the danger having discussed our predicament since the day we had arrived and, if we agreed, they knew of a cave, a short distance away, where we could spend the remainder of the winter until the finer weather arrived. They told us that food would be brought to us by a young shepherd and after they warned us that the weather could indeed be severe during the winter, we decided to accept the offer of these kind people. Preparations were made for us to be taken to the cave the next day but before we were to leave we were both given a haircut and fresh clothing.
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At dusk the following day we left the village accompanied by Guiseppe and Onorino. We took plenty food and drink with us as well as candles, matches and, of course, tobacco and cigarette papers. Arriving at the cave, we thanked our two friends for all they had done for us and entering the cave we lit a candle and examined our new home.
It is difficult to describe a cave. After all, a cave is just a hole in the side of a hillside, either natural or man-made. Just like our cave, a hole in the hillside, but this one had a wooden door. In one corner was a narrow raised wooden platform covered with straw which was to be our bed. Even though it was now late October or early November the cave was quite warm which, to me, was rather surprising. And so we settled down for the night in comparative comfort, to be woken by the sound of bleating sheep very early next morning. On looking outside, we found that our new home was one of a number of fairly large caves and that one cave, directly underneath ours, was full of sheep. Without doubt, these were the sheep that had awoken us from our slumbers and they were also the reason why our cave was so warm. Curious, we entered the sheep’s cave, where we were met by a rough looking individual dressed in peasant clothing complete with leggings and a leather apron. Shaking hands, he introduced himself as Angelo and told us that he was to be our contact with the village along with another young shepherd boy named Roberto. We watched in surprise as he began to milk the sheep and, once he had finished, he beckoned us over to where he was beginning to kindle a small fire. By this time the milk was in a huge black cauldron which he hung on a hook over the fire. Whilst the milk was gradually brought to the boil our host began to ask us questions all about England and South Africa.
As the milk boiled, a pure white substance, not unlike cream, rose to the top. Angelo produced three bowls with thick slices of bread lining the bottom of the bowls and, skimming the cream-like substance from the top of the milk, covered the bread with it. He then handed us each a spoon and wishing us “buon appetito”, he began to eat the mixture. We did likewise, to enjoy what was to be our daily breakfast during our time in the cave. After we had finished eating, Angelo rolled up his sleeves and plunged his arms
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into the liquid which had cooled by this time. After a while, during which he appeared to be squeezing something with his hands, he pulled out a soggy looking mess from the milk, which he told us was cheese. This he put into a circular mould which he covered with gauze and left it to dry. Much later the mould would be either buried or put into some dark place to allow it to mature. Bill and I asked on a number of different occasions if we could be allowed to try our hand at cheese making but Angelo would never allow it.
I remember the winter of 1943 at Veiano as being particularly cold and wet but, in spite of this, our cave remained warm and dry. Although we did not dare go into the village for the first few weeks we did not go hungry. Food and drink was supplied by the villagers and brought to us by Guiseppe and Onorino, accompanied on most occasions by their nephew, Roberto. Both Bill and I were well aware that the villagers were making sacrifices in order to feed us so, after a while, we began to forage around neighbouring farms to seek our own food, perhaps relieving the villagers of part of their burden. At first, they did not take too kindly to our efforts but as winter wore on and food became scarcer, they began to appreciate our efforts. As the weather began to worsen, causing our foraging expeditions to become less and less frequent, we started to receive invitations from different families within the village to have a meal with them in the evenings. Young Roberto would tell us when the coast was clear and off we would go up to the village. After spending so much time with one another, Bill and I found it a pleasant change to sit by the fire, just listening to the family chatting and laughing. Even though they spoke in a strange tongue, it was still a reminder of home for us.
As time passed, more and more of the villagers became aware of our presence in the cave so we received even more invitations to eat at their homes. We had to be careful not to cause offence by visiting one particular house in preference to the rest as, although Guiseppe, Onorino and Roberto were our true guardians, the villagers would vie with each other to see who could put on the best show for us and provide the best meal. However, whichever house we visited, the villagers were unstinting in their kindness
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towards us. A meal in Veiano in 1943 could consist of a pan of boiled potatoes in their jackets, accompanied by bread and a glass of wine or, if dining with the doctor, soup followed by chicken or rabbit, good wine, cheese and fruit. At the doctor’s house we could also listen to the latest news from London, usually ending the evening by listening to music on the gramophone. Of course, danger was ever present wherever we spent the evening but it was more dangerous at the doctor’s house, it being situated alongside the main road. On more than one occasion, whilst having a meal in the back room, Germans stopped at the house and were entertained by the doctor in the front room. Fortunately, whenever the Germans visited they stayed in the front room. It was a nerve racking experience, not only for Bill and I, but also for the doctor, his wife, and their young son, as we sat listening to the laughter and guttural tones of the German soldiers. How brave were these villagers because, in spite of the ever present danger and our protests, they were forever insisting that we join them for a meal.
On occasions during the dark winter nights young Roberto would visit us at the cave and then escort us to the osteria where we would have a meal of bread and cheese, with wine and where we were able to relax with the men of the village. From time to time, three or four Germans would come for a drink in the osteria but they kept themselves to themselves and at no time did we feel in any danger. However, one night three Germans sat at the same table as Bill and I, set down their schmeisers and ordered drinks all round. Neither the locals nor we wished to drink with them but it was obvious that they had drunk more than was good for them and, had we refused, an ugly situation would have resulted. They were very young and gave the impression of being ardent Nazis because every time we raised our glasses we had to toast the health of Adolf Hitler. At last they left the osteria, and as they tore through the village at great speed, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Of course, not all Germans were alike. Once we met two others in a different osteria, much older than the ardent young Nazis and we became quite friendly with them.
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It was raining heavily the night we entered the second osteria, in fact it was blowing a storm and few people were about. The moment we entered the place I sensed that something was wrong. As I was ordering coffee, the woman behind the counter seemed rooted to the spot and she appeared to be trembling with fear. I asked her what the trouble was and she whispered that there were some Germans in the small room at the rear of the osteria and she begged us to leave immediately. That, of course, was my intention, but I was too late. Unknown to me, Bill had wandered into the back room so I was left with no choice other than to follow him. To my absolute astonishment, Bill was actually shaking hands with one of the Germans and speaking to him in his own language, after a fashion. Of course, Bill had spent a number of years working in South Africa, as well as being a soldier in the South African army, so he understood the Afrikaans language reasonably well, well enough to carry on a conversation in the German language. I was invited to have a seat and I sat for a while listening in amazement to the strangest conversation, parts in German, Afrikaans, Italian, even English. To my further astonishment, these two German soldiers bought food and wine for us and even plied us with tailor made cigarettes; their generosity knew no bounds! As they left the osteria, they even invited us to join them again the following night. Naturally we were most suspicious of them, so before we met them the following night, we kept watch on the osteria to make sure they arrived alone. Even then they could have captured us at will, but they could have done so the first night as they were armed whilst we were completely defenceless. We decided to take a chance and meet up with them again; we felt they could be trusted.
The second night they brought us more cigarettes and some German beer, telling us they were from a small detachment of German troops about six miles out of Veiano and that they were, in fact, out of bounds. They told us they knew we were escaped prisoners but that it did not concern them. However, they did warn us to be extra vigilant as the SS and the Fascists were very active in the area around Viterbo, as well as the regions nearer to Rome, Veiano being about equal distance from both these cities. They were both vehement in their hatred of the war, their disdain for all leaders of the countries involved,
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but above all they despised Adolf Hitler. To the obvious astonishment of the local villagers, we continued our meetings with the two Germans for a number of nights eating and drinking with them and smoking their cigarettes. Suddenly, their visits to Veiano came to an abrupt halt and we actually missed their company, as well as the gifts they brought us. We never found out what happened to our German friends. Maybe their detachment had moved on, perhaps they had been discovered breaking bounds but, whatever happened to them, they had been kind to us and wherever they were our best wishes went with them.
Rumours now began to circulate of escaped prisoners and young Italians being rounded up for war work so we had no choice other than to alter our pattern of living. We no longer spent every night in our cave, spending nights in sheds and outhouses outside the village returning only when Roberto thought it safe for us to do so. I could not figure out how but he seemed to have an uncanny knowledge of the whereabouts of the Germans and by heeding his advice we came to no harm. It appeared that the Germans were predictable, but not so the Fascists. They would swoop on a village without any warning and were far more successful in catching their prey. On one raid Bill and I were almost caught in their net and they weren’t even looking for escapers they were after black marketeers. We spent a bitterly cold night huddled in a field and, although some arrests were made, we managed to keep out of trouble. Not until I returned to Veiano in 1975 did I learn of the real reason for that raid. I met up with one of those who had been arrested and, as we sat over a cup of coffee in the very osteria that Bill and I had met up with our German friends, he told me that he had spent some time in prison but he considered himself lucky not to have been sent to work at the front or even deported to Germany. Until that day in 1975 I thought the real reason for the raid had been to round up escaped prisoners.
So time passed and Christmas arrived. On Christmas Eve I borrowed some decent clothes and went to Midnight Mass. I actually rubbed shoulders with some German soldiers but saw nothing of our two friends. Over the Christmas festivities the villagers
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were kinder than ever. We had meals at various houses, including the doctors, and at night we slept in stables or huts either within the village or on the outskirts. For a few days we returned to the cave but on New Years Eve we were again invited to the doctor’s house for supper, so spending the New Year much the same as we had spent Christmas. In fact, it was rather difficult finding the time to visit all of our friends, we were so much in demand. On the last night of the festivities, that great feast of the church, the feast of the Epiphany, we were again at the doctors and we had one of our best meals ever. The doctor’s wife made us a meal of roast chicken served with roast potatoes, almost English style, followed by cheese and biscuits, coffee and cognac. That night we were almost overcome with emotion as we listened to the news from London, news that wasn’t good as far as the Italian front was concerned. It was late when we left our hosts and raining heavily but we were in a cheerful mood; as well as being well fed, we carried with us a good stock of supplies. Our cave was up a fairly steep embankment which that night was a virtual sea of mud, making it extremely difficult for me to stay on my feet especially in my wooden clogs. I slipped and slithered up the incline but stayed ahead of Bill and, as I neared the door of the cave, I caught the smell of tobacco smoke. A terrible sense of foreboding came over me; we had been away from the cave for a number of days so the smell could only mean that we had visitors. I half turned away from the door and shouted to Bill to run for it, but I was too late. A dark figure jumped out from inside the cave sinking a pistol into my stomach and ordered me to put up my hands. At the same time a second figure had emerged and I saw that Bill was in the same predicament. There was no doubt that they meant business as they shone torches into our faces and ordered us into the cave. Once inside we saw that there was a third person present and he pushed us roughly against the wall while screaming abuse at us in Italian. At last the abuse came to a halt and, after a candle had been lit, we took stock of our captors.
All three were dressed in civilian clothes, long overcoats, collars upturned and trilby like hats, not unlike the American gangster as portrayed on the cinema screen. There were two Germans and one Italian and because we were unable to answer their questions quickly enough we came in for some very rough treatment. They wanted to know whether or not we had any weapons or a radio but, above all, they wanted to know
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who had been feeding us. When we told them that we had foraged for food outside the village and that the villagers knew nothing of our existence, they beat us even more severely. Seemingly tired of their sport they pushed us roughly out of the cave threatening us that they would get the answers to their questions some other place. Bruised and bleeding, we stumbled down the path towards the main road with the vicious Italian thug and I leading the way. He kept warning me to expect the worst if I tried to escape and, as if to emphasise his point, he kept pushing me to the ground. When I tried to get up he would kick me viciously in the ribs. Not caring whether I lived or died we finally came to the main road where a German truck stood waiting. Bill and I were dragged aboard the truck.
On board the truck there were perhaps a dozen German soldiers and, in spite of my condition, I did glean some satisfaction that it had taken all these soldiers and three civilians to capture two British Army Privates. I learned later that two of the civilians were members of the Gestapo and the third a member of the Fascist Secret Police. All told, it had taken fourteen or fifteen men to capture us! The soldiers questioned us and when we told them we had been originally captured in the Western Desert, they gave us cigarettes saying that they too had been in the same theatre of war. They were sorry to see us in such a state explaining that the Gestapo often resorted to methods totally alien to the German army in order to extract information. As front line soldiers they actually detested what they were now doing but they had to carry out their orders. Bill asked where they were taking us and one of them replied that first of all we would be taken to Police headquarters near Rome where a decision would be made as to our future. They couldn’t really tell us much more and eventually our journey came to an end. The truck drew to a halt in the grounds of a large house and, as we dismounted, our temporary guards shook our hands and wished us luck. As if from nowhere two other guards appeared and marched us towards a blacked out building. Unlike our former guards they did not speak at all and soon we were stood outside a door in a dimly lit corridor where two other guards stationed themselves on either side of us and told us to wait. Cold, sore and disheartened, my face caked with dried blood, I awaited the next turn of events.
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Chapter 9. A POW AGAIN, ESCAPE FROM A TRAIN.
It seemed as if we stood for hours outside that door and then, all of a sudden, it was opened and Bill was pushed inside an office. I was forced to remain outside standing to attention with my hands on my head. After a considerable length of time Bill came out and it was my turn to be pushed inside. After the gloom of the corridor I was dazzled by the bright lights of the room and it was a while before I gained my bearings. When my eyes were focused properly I found that I was in a large room furnished sparsely with a desk and two chairs. Behind the desk sat a German officer and I was ordered to sit in the chair facing him. He began his questioning by asking my name, rank and number after which he wanted details of my life as a prisoner since the day of my capture in the Western Desert. He then asked about my escape and, when I said that I’d escaped from near Verona, he wanted to know why I had not tried to get into Switzerland. I replied that I had not wished to be interned and wished instead to try and join up with the Allies in the south. He asked many more questions about my journey down the Apennines and whether or not I’d encountered any partisans and to this last question I answered truthfully that I had not. He wrote down all of my answers, suddenly looked up at me and, after asking where I had obtained my civilian clothes, he told me that he could have me shot as a spy. I was taken aback at this remark because, up until that moment, he had seemed reasonably friendly. However, he appeared to be satisfied with my answers to his questions and motioned to the guard to take me outside. Bill was still waiting in the corridor and from there we were taken outside to a smaller building which I took to be the guard room.
There were some ribald comments from the occupants when we got inside but this was probably only to be expected; we must have looked a shocking sight. In spite of the laughter one of the guards took us to get cleaned up and, after a hot drink, we were issued with a blanket and locked up in one of the cells. We found it impossible to sleep,
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not just because it was so cold, but mainly because of the uncertainty about our future. We sat in the cell in the depths of despair until just after daybreak when we heard the sound of marching which somehow eased the tension. Looking through the barred window of our cell, we were amazed to see a squad of soldiers goose-stepping backwards and forwards. I couldn’t help but feel a certain amount of sympathy for them, as they were obviously defaulters and I had done a fair amount of “jankers” myself. As we looked out the window the cell door was opened and a soldier motioned us out into the guard room and then took us down to the toilets where we were able to have a wash. On our return to the guard room we were given some black bread and coffee whilst the NCO in charge told us that we were to be taken to the orderly room, there to face further interrogation. It was later that morning when two smartly dressed soldiers, not unlike our own Regimental Police, escorted us back to the main building in which was housed the orderly room.
This room gave out an air of quiet efficiency, staffed in the main by female clerks. At first nobody took any notice of us until one of the male clerks introduced himself as our interpreter telling us he would be present during our interrogations. He spoke perfect English, actually putting me to shame speaking, as I do, with a broad Tyneside accent. Of course, I was proud of my accent but it was galling to be spoken to by a foreigner with a better understanding of my native language; indeed, he found it extremely difficult to follow what I was saying. We waited a short while outside the Commanding Officer’s office and I was first to be marched in. Again I was asked about my capture in the Western Desert and my adventures since escaping. The officer obviously found it difficult to believe that I had opted for the long and dangerous trek south through the Apennines instead of taking the comparatively easy route to Switzerland. He then told me that I would be taken to a POW camp near Rome and then on to Germany. Although dejected at being recaptured, I at was least heartened by the fact that I was still to be treated as a prisoner of war rather than a spy as had been suggested at my first interrogation. After Bill’s interrogation we were given a meal of boiled beef and jacket potatoes by the interpreter and then taken outside to await the arrival of the transport
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which was to take us to the prison camp near Rome. Just before our departure, and away from prying eyes, the interpreter gave us some cigarettes and wished us luck.
The car which was to take us to the prison camp was about the same size as a modern day Mini. There were two armed soldiers bearing rifles with bayonets fixed and, as they alighted, Bill and I moved forward as if to occupy the rear seats. The guards were no fools; they quickly realised that if Bill and I had occupied the rear seats, it would have been relatively easy for us to attack and overcome them from behind, even though they were armed. Therefore, Bill was made to sit in the front seat next to the driver, whilst I sat in the back with the other guard. I still thought that maybe we should try and overpower our guards and when I suggested this to Bill he agreed; in such a confined space a rifle could, in fact, prove a hindrance. Just in case, I spoke to Bill in my broad Tyneside accent, difficult enough for the English to understand and I was sure our guards understood nothing of what was being said. In spite of this, just before we moved off, the guard next to me immediately behind Bill, put a round up the muzzle of his rifle resting it against the nape of Bill’s neck; any false move on my part and Bill would be a dead man. Our journey started and continued in silence until we arrived at our destination, a prison camp named Fara Sabina, not many miles from Rome.
Fara Sabina, or Campo PG 54, as it was known before the Armistice, was now being used by the Germans as a transit camp for newly captured prisoners from the Italian front and also for escapers like Bill and myself who had been unlucky enough to be recaptured. On arrival and after being further interrogated, Bill and I were separated; he was taken to a sector containing escaped South African prisoners and I was put in the British sector. That was the last I was to see of Bill and meant that I now had to find new comrades; I hoped I would be as lucky as I’d been in the past. I was escorted to one of the huts and as I approached I thought I had never seen such a motley crowd of prisoners.
My new comrades were a mixed bag alright! Those who had been captured for the first time were, of course, still in uniform whilst most of the others, like myself, were dressed
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in ragged peasant garb. A small number were dressed in decent clothing and they really looked out of place. I introduced myself and, after being asked a number of extremely searching questions, discovered that quite a number of those present had been originally captured in the desert and some had even been in the same camps as I had, including Suani Ben Adem. I also learned that the prisoners in my new hut were split into three distinct groups: firstly, the newly captured prisoners; secondly the Squatters, prisoners who had escaped at the time of the Armistice and who had lodged with Italian families waiting until the front line passed them by, and finally a group known as the Alpinis. This latter group were known by that name as they had taken to the mountains and headed south in order to link up with the Allies. Having walked through the Apennines I was invited to link up with the Alpinis and I was very proud to do so. Tales of escape and attempted escape were commonplace with this group and we even had our own song! Sung in a mixture of English and Italian to the tune of the “Ovaltinies” it went something like:
“We are the old Alpinis, merry mountaineers.
To cross front we all intended but Tedesci came and prendered.
Now we’re back behind the wire feeling molto fam,
The Hun gives us mangiare niente, how we miss the old polenta,
Scapare via ancora ma stare attenta.
Up the mountaineers”.
Roughly translated, it meant that we, the Alpinis, intended getting through to the front line but were taken [prendered by the Germans [Tedeschi]. We are now back in a prison camp, feeling very hungry [molto fame], because the Hun gives us nothing to eat [mangare niente], and we miss very much, even the Indian corn [polenta]. Now we must escape again but this time be more careful [Scapare via ma stare attenta]. Up the mountaineers!
It did not take long for me to settle down again into the old prison camp routine. Old escapers were not allowed to do any work outside the wire, and fatigues like working in the German cookhouse were barred to us, so we missed out on any extra rations that
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might be going. Because of the very poor rations we received this was a real hardship, but worse than being hungry all the time was the fact that our movements were so restricted that we had little chance of looking for possible means of escape and this was almost the sole aim of those who had already tasted freedom. On one occasion I did manage to get outside the wire by reporting sick but, when I began to wander away from the sick queue pretending to be an Italian civilian, I was very quickly pulled up by the guard. However, my time on sick parade was not entirely wasted because the treatment I received for crabs and lice from the German medical orderly completely rid me of those horrible vermin and I was never again bothered with them for the rest of my time behind the lines.
Newly captured prisoners were being brought into the camp on a daily basis; the Germans would keep them separate from the rest of us until after they had been interrogated. Initially, they would be confined to a particular hut and, once the interrogation was over, they would then be distributed throughout the camp. Being taken prisoner is a numbing experience and it is some time before reality finally sinks in. This was clearly demonstrated one day when I climbed to look through a window where a number of new prisoners were being kept prior to interrogation. Poking my head through the window I called out and asked if there were any Geordies among them; in reply a tired looking young soldier with a far away look in his eyes muttered “No mate, we’re all English in here”. As it happened, there were some Geordies in this new batch of prisoners and, after they had been interrogated, a number of them were allocated to the same hut as myself. I teamed up with one of them, Arthur Gibson, from the west end of Newcastle, and he and I were to become firm friends.
Arthur, who was about twenty two and was in the Recce Corps, had been in Italy for only a few months before he was captured after the crossing of the river Garigliano. It was exciting to meet someone recently out of England, particularly Tyneside, and the news he brought from home certainly boosted the morale. From the same regiment as Arthur and his closest friend, was a Londoner I only knew as Bob, and the two of them, after
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listening to my tales of life behind the lines, asked if I would be prepared to make a threesome and try to escape again. I was more than happy to agree to this suggestion and to give them the benefit of my own experience. Being new prisoners, Arthur and Bob were allowed out of the camp on fatigues and anything they were able to pick up whilst outside the wire was shared between the three of us. When we were together our sole topic of conversation was escape and many and varied were the suggestions we came up with. Once I suggested that we try to get out by hiding in the camp rubbish but Arthur had seen the camp guards bayoneting the rubbish so, of course, this idea was a non starter. After much discussion and after listening to tales of escapes and attempted escapes from cattle trucks, we decided to bide our time and try to make a break for it while en route for Germany.
As well as new prisoners, more and more escapers were being apprehended and brought to the camp and, as the numbers increased, it became obvious that a move to Germany was imminent. Not only were the Germans transporting prisoners they were also shipping anything of value to the Fatherland and so Italian workmen, under supervision of the guards, were actually dismantling the camp, piece by piece, for eventual shipment to Germany. One day one of the workmen left his tool bag unattended for a few minutes and this, of course, was a direct challenge to us prisoners. In those few short minutes the tools were taken from the bag and quickly hidden away. To his credit, the Italian did not report the theft immediately but when the Germans eventually found out they threatened us with almost every punishment imaginable. However, the tools were never found and after a few days the incident was soon forgotten. I don’t believe the workman was punished either as he continued to work in the camp. My share of the haul was a hacksaw from which I removed the blade and hid it on my person. Strong rumours about the move to Germany now began to circulate and, after I had been in the camp for about three weeks, orders came for the move. Suddenly one morning after roll call it happened; a loaf of black bread was issued between five men along with some ersatz butter and jam. We were informed there would be water on the train, together with straw and a bucket for calls of nature. Searches were instigated and one or two of the stolen items
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were found but, more by good luck than management, I was able to keep my hacksaw blade hidden and intact. After the searches were over we were paraded outside the camp ready for the march to the railway siding where a train of cattle trucks awaited us.
Most of us were deep in thought on our way to the train which, although it could be seen quite easily, was some distance away. To the newly captured prisoners this was just another new phase in their life as a prisoner of war, another step on the way to a permanent prison camp. On the other hand, to those of us who had been on the run and recaptured, the train meant danger. I, myself, had witnessed attacks by the Allied Air Forces where trains, railways and sidings had been blasted and I did not mind admitting that the prospect of a rail journey to Germany filled me with dread. At this stage of the war, the Allies were in total command of the skies and anything that moved on the ground was a target for the Allied firepower.
As I walked between Arthur and Bob we discussed the possibility of escaping from the train. We had previously talked with other prisoners and it all seemed so easy. All one had to do was to loosen the floorboards of the truck, wait for darkness and until the train slowed down, and then just slip out of the truck on to the tracks below. Of course, no one knew how the floorboards were to be loosened and as I walked, fingering the hacksaw blade, I thought that it might come in useful but I was not over optimistic. As we neared the train another problem became immediately apparent; the first three trucks were constructed of steel and all the hacksaw blades in the world would be of no use at all if we were to be incarcerated in one of these trucks. Even worse, if the train came under attack from the air, those inside would stand no chance of survival. Our chance of escape all depended on the procedures for filling the train, from the front, or from the back. However, as we were about in the centre of the column, it was all down to pot luck as to where we would finally end up. There was talk that the Germans intended putting the escapers in the steel trucks and I shuddered at this prospect. When we eventually arrived at the siding our guards began loading the trucks from the front mixing old and new prisoners so we kept as far to the rear as we possibly could and luckily found that we
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were to occupy the second from last truck. From here we imagined that any escape attempt would be easier but, once we were on board, a surprise was in store for us. As soon as we settled down a council of war was held to find out how many of the fifty or so in the truck wished to try to escape. Twelve of us said we would have a go, so Arthur, Bob and I sat together with the other nine and we began to examine the floorboards. In addition to my hacksaw blade some of the others had small knives or pieces of metal and, while we were trying to prise the floorboards apart one of the crowd shouted out, “Look what I’ve found”, waving aloft a short iron bar pointed at one end. This was indeed a pleasant surprise as our task of prising open the floorboards of the truck would be that much simpler. Clearly, the bar had been left on the truck by one of the Italian workers whilst putting the straw and water on board. Elated, the twelve of us waited impatiently for the train to move off and, as we waited we drew lots to decide in which order each of us would leave the truck. I drew third place, Arthur fifth, with Bob in twelfth position. At last, with much shouting from the guards and the shrill whistle of the engine, the train was under way. Off to the Fatherland! We certainly hoped not!
As we slowly chugged along the three of us discussed the forthcoming escape attempt and, remembering how difficult the crossing of the River Po had been on my way from Verona, I suggested that if at all possible we should escape before reaching the river in order to head south again in an effort to rejoin our troops. On the other hand, if escape proved impossible till after crossing the Po, we would have to head for Switzerland. Both Arthur and Bob agreed with this suggestion. Soon, all twelve of us were eagerly discussing as to when it would be best for us to start on the floorboards. A small minority who had set their sights on Switzerland wanted to defer the breakout until we were much further north, but the rest of us were all for making a break just as soon as possible. For obvious reasons I was with the majority as I had previously walked hundreds of miles through very rough country and I did not want to start such a journey all over again; nor did I have any great desire to go to Switzerland. Of course the majority won the day and we set to work with the crowbar in order to be ready for the breakout in darkness when hopefully the train would be travelling slowly. We started to
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gather speed and the wind whistled through the hole in the floor where we’d already removed one of the floorboards. Some of those not involved in the escape attempt complained about the bitter cold but none of us took any notice of them. It wasn’t the cold that bothered me; as I listened to the sound of the wheels thundering along the track I felt sick with fear. I wondered how many of the others felt as I did.
The train slowed again and time dragged as we journeyed at a snail’s pace, stopping frequently and being shunted off the main line to allow free passage for more important cargo. The loose board had been replaced hopefully to avoid detection but it was still bitterly cold because the wind easily found the other gaps in the floor where we had tried to loosen some of the other floorboards ready for lifting out. During some stops the sound of aircraft overhead could plainly be heard and we sat in complete silence, as if our silence would hinder their chances of locating us. Fear of being bombed or strafed made us long for the darkness, when we hoped we would be able to make our break, but our luck was out that night. Before darkness arrived we pulled to a halt in a siding and remained there till the next morning. Through the bars of the truck we could see that sentries had been posted so getting away that night, while the train stood still, was completely out of the question. We were issued with a water ration before settling down for the night.
It was barely daylight when we set off again the following morning and the pattern of our journey was much the same as the previous day; frequent stops and being shunted off into the sidings. There appeared to be more aircraft about and again we found ourselves longing for nightfall. The fear of being bombed had persuaded some of the others to throw in their lot with us and now there were about twenty potential escapers in the truck. Late in the afternoon we removed another two or three floorboards and, in doing so, made a lot of noise. However, our journey continued with no mishaps so we were convinced that the Germans had not heard anything above the noise of the train. Just before darkness the train was brought to a sudden halt and immediately we knew that this was not a routine stop. The door to the truck was flung open and we were hounded
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out of the truck. We had stopped in open countryside and, as soon as our feet hit the ground, we were surrounded by armed sentries.
Fearfully, we stood wondering what was to happen next. I knew we should have been more careful in levering the floorboards because I had no doubt that the Germans had heard the racket, but I had to admit that I was just as keen as the next man to get on with the job. As we stood watching, two of the guards entered the truck and when they emerged moments later one of them was carrying the crowbar. Another guard searched underneath the truck and, when he emerged, we knew for certain that he had discovered the hole in the floor. We had watched this happening in silence when suddenly we were galvanised into action by the guards who forced us to strip naked, and then proceeded to search both our persons and our clothing. They took our footwear and belts away from us, telling us that these would be returned once we reached Germany. The floorboards in the truck were fixed back into place and, as we waited to re-embark, a NCO chalked something on the side of the truck. I could not understand the meaning of the sign but one of the others, who understood a little German, told me he had written the words “Housebreakers” and underneath, another two words, “No Rations”. After getting back on board, the truck was encircled with barbed wire.
When we set off again next morning, there was an understandable atmosphere of depression throughout our truck. Those who had been against the escape attempt were understandably resentful at having to share our punishment and, although nothing was said aloud, the tension could be felt. We began to sing, hoping to lighten the mood, but soon lapsed into silence again, the singing not having helped matters. More stops, being shunted into sidings, more aircraft noise overhead; would it never end? At one stop we heard Italian voices; what could it mean? One of the prisoners clambered up to look out through the iron grill and reported to the rest of us that the train had stopped just before a bridge. The engine had been uncoupled and had been driven across the bridge alone, whilst the Italians were engaged in manually pushing each truck across, one by one. The bridge had been so badly damaged by bombing that it could not withstand the full weight
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of the train, only one truck at a time. Of course, we shouted and cheered loudly as we were pushed across the bridge, but deep down we were glad to reach the other side in one piece; gliding silently on a railway in space is not a pleasant experience.
Once we were over the bridge, we were joined by the last truck and so we set off again, continuing our journey as before with frequent stops. Nightfall came and, once again, the train was shunted off into a siding. Hungry, but remembering that we were not to receive any rations, we settled down for the night. After a short while, the door to our truck was silently eased open, we heard someone whisper “Tommy”, and to our astonishment we found that one of the guards had pushed bread and water into the truck before closing the door again. On inspecting our windfall we found that he’d left about double the ration we would have expected to receive, so one result of our escapade was that we would be better fed than the rest of the train. I believe the reason for this kind act was that our guards were “front-line” soldiers and at least they recognised that it was our duty to try to escape. They risked severe punishment by going against orders, but to me the act showed a certain amount of admiration for our efforts. By receiving this unexpected gift of food, not only was our hunger alleviated, but the atmosphere on board the truck improved no end; those not involved in the escape stopped grumbling so much and once more it seemed we were all comrades again. During the night the sound of heavy bombing could be clearly heard, and when daylight arrived our fears of attack by Allied planes were once again uppermost in our minds.
It wasn’t too bad when we were on the move but when we were laid up in a siding the silence was terrifying; any moment I expected to hear the scream of bombs or the sound of machine gun fire. Having once witnessed an air attack on a goods yard, I doubted very much that we would have any chance of survival should we come under a similar attack. It was always a relief to be on the move but strangely that’s when the attack on the train took place. I knew nothing about it until suddenly a huge piece of shrapnel buried itself into the side of the truck just above Arthur’s head. Until that moment I’d heard neither bombs nor machine gun fire and then all hell was let loose. There was a short lull while I
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buried my head in my arms and then another wave of bombers attacked the train, this time with more ferocity. Most of us got to our feet trying to keep calm but somehow we had to find a way of getting out. Suddenly the truck shook violently and one of the doors was partly loosened. We tried to prise it open fully but our task proved impossible due to the barbed wire but we did manage to enlarge the gap sufficient for one person at a time to squeeze through, so we formed an orderly queue in order to make our escape from the train.
We did not panic as we awaited our turn to get out. Arthur and Bob were ahead of me and by the time I reached the opening they were already clear. There was only one prisoner in front of me when another wave of fighter bombers began to strafe the train. Obviously he was in a particularly vulnerable position, being half in and half out of the truck and panic seemed to seize him as he tried to force his way back into the truck. This of course made the whole situation worse and there was a danger that the panic would spread throughout the rest of us. Suddenly someone shouted “kick him out”, and as I was the nearest to him it was left to me to perform this task. I did not hesitate and, placing my bare foot against his chest, I heaved with all my might. He fell with a scream and because he was trying to remain on board by clutching at the side of the truck, his clothing snagged in the barbed wire. Fortunately it did not hold and he fell down the embankment, followed by myself. I flung myself as far clear of the wire as I could manage but, just as I landed a bomb exploded close by flinging me with considerable force on to my back. Dazed, I tried to get up but found that I could not.
My whole body shuddered as I hit the ground but, as I felt no pain in my legs, I could not understand how it was not possible for me to regain my feet. However, I felt numb from the waist down. I was panic stricken; the train was still under attack and I was unable to move. Just then I heard Arthur calling me so I began to crawl in the direction of his voice. He came to my assistance and together we made it to the stanchion of the bridge, half uprooted by the bombing. Here, together with Bob and an American, we took stock of our situation. Soon the American left us and it was obvious that soon we would also
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have to make a move. I still felt numb in my legs, particularly the left leg, but I suggested to Arthur that I could perhaps get away from the vicinity of the bombing where I could possible lay up for a while until I felt better. He and Bob agreed and together we crawled away from the disaster scene.
Some distance away we could see trees and we made these our goal believing that we could hide among the trees, valuable cover in our efforts to hide from the Germans when they began to round up the escaped prisoners as surely they would. It was raining and bitterly cold that January day as we made our way across the coarse and stubby grass. We crawled and half walked across the desolate landscape, feet and knees bleeding. I cursed the Germans for removing our footwear, even though mine were only wooden clogs. The feeling gradually returned to my legs but I was cursed with severe pains in the left leg and also in the lower regions of my back. After what seemed like an age, we finally reached our destination on higher ground where we were able to look back on the scene of devastation we’d left behind.
From our vantage point we could see that the train had been hit by the bombers just as it had been crossing the bridge. The engine and one or two trucks had safely reached the other side while the last two trucks, ours included, had not even reached the bridge. This meant that most of the other trucks forming part of the train were now lying at the bottom of the gorge over which the bridge crossed. With one exception; one truck could still be seen, hanging crazily over the edge of the gorge. There was no doubt in my mind that very few survived that tragic day. As we watched, we heard the sound of gunfire and saw a large number of Germans coming towards us, line abreast. The hunt was on and it was time for us to find some place to hide; a barn, a pig sty, or even some dry straw in a field would have been welcome, but there was no sign of habitation in that God forsaken place. However, one thing did cheer me in spite of all our adversities; once again, I was outside the wire.
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Chapter 10. RECAPTURED BY FASCISTS; SAVED BY GERMANS.
We turned our backs on the carnage and headed for the trees hoping to find shelter and a hiding place from the pursuing German soldiers. We were sorely disappointed to find that the trees provided virtually no shelter at all, being tall and slender with very little foliage. We kept going, feeling that as darkness approached the Germans would give up the chase. The next obstacle to overcome was a wide stream, not that deep, with the water only reaching our thighs but freezing cold, causing us even more discomfort. My back and left leg were now extremely painful and I believed I was now a hindrance to Arthur and Bob, but they did not complain as they helped me along. Next we came to a large wood, in fact it was more like a forest and this was indeed welcome to us. Just as it was turning dark we felt we had found the ideal hiding place. Going deeper into the woods, we came to a hollow and settled down to rest in the damp undergrowth. Completely exhausted, we lay there till the next morning. Stiff and sore, we awoke and decided that if we were ever going to reach our lines then we would have to get some help somewhere. Already, scratches on Bob’s legs which had been caused during our crawl through the field the previous day were becoming inflamed. There was no longer any sign of the Germans so we retraced our steps to the edge of the forest and then took what we hoped was a southerly direction.
It was still cold and miserable and our wet clothing clung to us, chilling us to the bone. Arthur and Bob were, of course, still in battle dress but I was clad only in a thin shirt and a pair of slacks. None of us had any footwear, so our progress was slow and painful. In addition, we had to make numerous stops in order to rest my legs and back. Eventually we came to a small cluster of houses so we decided to wait until darkness a short distance from them, when we planned to approach the inhabitants, seeking help. I was glad of the rest, even though I was freezing, and as soon as darkness arrived I approached the nearest house while Arthur and Bob remained out of sight. In answer to my knock,
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the door was opened by a middle aged man who, after looking nervously outside, invited me in. There were a number of other men present in the house. When asked my identity, I said that I was Italian, from near Verona and that I had escaped from a German labour camp. At first this was accepted, until that is, one of them mentioned the train being bombed so, on being questioned more closely, I decided to tell the truth admitting that I was an escaped British prisoner and that my two companions were outside. On hearing this panic set in; seemingly, they had just been paid a visit by armed Fascists searching for escaped prisoners and they’d been left in no doubt of the dire consequences should any villager be suspected of providing shelter or food. In spite of this, I was given food and drink for the three of us but I declined their kind invitation to spend the night in one of the outhouses. Returning to Arthur and Bob, we all agreed that it would be safer to put as much distance between ourselves and these houses as quickly as possible. We had gone only a short distance when suddenly we heard the sound of shouting and gunfire behind us. We also saw the flash of torchlights which seemed to be getting closer. We took shelter in some nearby bushes and although we clearly heard voices and more shots being fired in the undergrowth, we remained undetected. There was no doubt that we’d had a narrow escape and it was obvious to us that the Fascists were doing all they could to recapture those who had escaped from the train.
The following day the rain had stopped and by mid morning the sun began to shine. It was still cold but the fact that the sun was shining cheered us up somewhat and gave us new hope. We approached a group of houses and, as we asked for help at the first house, we were immediately invited inside without any questions; it appeared our luck was changing! I truthfully explained our predicament to the family but the fact that we were escaped prisoners being hunted by the Fascists made no difference; they seemed to have no fear. Water was heated and before we could even think of food, we were able to wash our legs and let our feet soak in the warm water. Afterwards our cuts and bruises were smeared with a greasy ointment and coarse bandages were applied. We then had our fill, enjoying a meal of steaming hot soup with plenty of bread. Arthur and Bob were given some peasant clothing and they quickly changed out of their uniforms, whilst my shirt
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and slacks were laid out to dry and I was given a warm woollen jumper. Our hosts wanted us to stay and rest for a day or so, but I declined, explaining that it would be too dangerous for them and us. Before we left our feet and legs were again smeared with ointment and attempts were made to fix us up with some footwear but, even after asking around the neighbourhood, we were out of luck. However, our feet were swathed with coarse sacking, tied with string and even though it was ungainly, it was better than nothing.
Now feeling better for the first time since our escape we thanked our benefactors and, after asking directions and consulting a makeshift map, we set off in the direction of Rome where, we had been told, many prisoners were in hiding in the Vatican. We had been given some food for our journey and now that the weather had improved we had hoped to make better progress but, in truth, we were hindered by our footwear and our progress remained much the same as before. As we trudged along there were more signs of habitation, more houses and we met many more peasants. Whoever we spoke to the news was always the same; Fascist patrols were scouring the area searching for escaped prisoners and everyone was afraid of the consequences should they be discovered having helped escapers. While I was seeking food at a lonely farmhouse I happened to see a newspaper and read of the bombing of the train. The article said that more than three hundred prisoners had been killed [“murdered” was the word used], by the American assassins and rewards were being offered for the recapture of any prisoners, now being classified as spies and rebels. Because of the ever present danger, not only to ourselves but also to innocent people, we decided to return to the woods and to stay there until things quietened down.
Living in the woods was not all hardship; occasionally we would come across a hut used by charcoal burners or for storing wood and there we were able to shelter from the worst of the weather. With it being winter we could not live off the land, so our main problem was the difficulty in obtaining food and water but fortunately we did not starve, managing to get just enough to keep us going. Another major problem we encountered
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was in keeping our sense of direction in the gloomy woods; there were no landmarks to be seen and at times I felt we were walking around in circles. Gradually though the scene changed, the trees were thinner on the ground and it became noticeably cooler. More by luck than by good judgement we had reached the higher ground. At this level there were fewer houses but, on the other hand, we came across more charcoal burners’ huts. The weather deteriorated, sleet and light snow kept us bogged down for two days and, when we were eventually able to move on, we found we were completely lost. We stumbled on through the woods until we were exhausted and in a state of near collapse. Sheltering in a gully for the night attempting to seek shelter from the biting wind, we noticed a dim light not too far ahead of us so forgetting our troubles we set off towards the light.
After a stiff and arduous climb we eventually came to the source of the light and found that we had stumbled into the midst of a small group of houses, only one of which showed any light. It was the largest of the buildings and from inside came the sounds of talking and laughter. I had no doubt that this must be the village inn, the osteria. Looking through a window I saw no sign of a uniform only peasants drinking and playing cards so, cautioning Arthur and Bob about speaking English, I pushed the door open and we went inside. Looks of surprise were on the faces of those inside as I walked over to one of the tables, Arthur and Bob staying near the door. I told the men seated at the table that we were lost and that we needed help and I was invited to join them. I did not disclose our identities, nor did anyone ask, as I drank a glass of wine. While I was asking for food and a place to shelter, I turned to look for my two companions who were sitting near the door deep in conversation with a rather well-dressed Italian. As I looked the Italian rose and went outside and, at this, one of the men at my table advised me to leave immediately informing me that the man who had just left was a Fascist. Throwing caution to the wind I shouted out to Arthur and Bob and we fled from the osteria.
Although it was dim inside the osteria we could barely see anything as we ran outside. Blindly, we ran in what we hoped was the way out of the village but just as we reached
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some low bushes we heard a commotion behind us. Orders were being barked in Italian, there were screams of rage, but worse, a machine gun opened fire in front of us while from the rear came the bark of rifle fire. By now our eyes were accustomed to the dark and, from our position in the bushes, we could just make out that we were a few yards from the edge of a wood. Preparing to make a dash for the woods we sprang to our feet when there was a sudden burst of fire from the machine gun ahead of us. We fell to the ground and were immediately set upon by shadowy figures. With kicks and rifle butts to the ribs we were dragged to our feet and, with much yelling and jeering, they hauled us back to the osteria where a smartly dressed Italian officer stood before us. He screamed at us before giving each of us a backhander across the face, but much worse was to follow.
After this introduction, other members of the gang began kicking us, spitting, and generally hurling abuse at us until we slumped to the ground under their savage attack. Eventually, propped up against the wall unable to stand without support from our captors, the officer pronounced our punishment. We were charged with being spies and rebels and consequently could not be granted the privileges of a prisoner of war. Under the laws of the state, we were sentenced to be shot, the sentence to be carried out immediately. As I was relaying this terrifying news to Arthur and Bob the proceedings were interrupted by the village priest pleading with the officer to spare our lives.
Shabbily dressed and frail looking, the priest stood bravely amongst the mob, who were half crazed with drink and thirsting for a killing. He remonstrated with the leader, and for his pains he was reviled and spat upon. They cursed the Church, the Pope and this small figure in black who stood defiantly among them and even when knocked to the ground he rose and continued to plead with them not to commit murder. They took no notice, but when he said the village would be desecrated if they carried out their threat to shoot us there and then, they seemed to have second thoughts. Far better, he said, to take us to the commanding officer who would no doubt order the death penalty, but in the proper manner. It was obvious that the priest was playing for time, and it worked! The officer in
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charge of the mob clearly thinking that if he gave the order for us to be shot in cold blood, especially with witnesses present, and perhaps trying to demonstrate to all that he was in charge of the situation, brought some semblance of order to the rabble, chased the priest away and ordered us to be taken to the local gaol. Voices were raised in protest demanding that we be punished, so the officer, still trying to show his authority, whilst also pleasing his men, ordered that they line up in two lines facing inwards and then he forced us to run the gauntlet. And so we ran back and forth between these thirty or so thugs as they attacked us with sticks and rifle butts. Finally, exhausted of their sport, the officer called a halt and we were bundled, bruised and bleeding, on to the back of a truck and driven off.
It was in the early hours of the morning that we arrived at the gaol. It was a small building not too far from Terni as I was to learn later so, in fact, we had not covered much ground since escaping from the train. The gate into the courtyard was opened for us by a weary looking uniformed figure and then through a stout wooden door we were led into a cell. There was no furniture in the cell, only a raised sleeping platform and there were no blankets; there was not even a place to wash, but just before the cell door clanged shut, a bucket was thrown into the cell. Sleep was impossible that night; we were all aching from head to toe and it was bitterly cold. Daylight brought little relief but at least we had a chance to examine our cuts and bruises. I was cut mainly about the legs, had a nasty swelling over one eye and had numerous bruises on my back and shoulders. However, my worst injuries seemed to be to my ribs, because every breath I took caused me great pain. My two companions were in much the same state as I was and I considered the beating I took in the cave near Veiano was nothing compared to what I had suffered the previous night at the hands of these Fascist thugs. Later that morning we had a visitor. He looked like the weary guard who had admitted us to the gaol in the early hours of the morning but he brought neither food or drink for us as we had hoped. However, he did push another prisoner into the cell and a more elegant prisoner I have never seen! He was dressed in a smart suit, shirt and tie, with shining shoes and he spoke perfect English. Indeed, I would say without hesitation that he was English, but he
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was an obvious plant and after asking many questions to which he received no answers he was quickly removed from our company. He was not gone long when the gaoler returned and I was taken away, alone, for interrogation.
Between two gaolers, I was escorted up a flight of stairs to a room where an army officer sat at a desk flanked on either side by two black shirted soldiers, vicious looking thugs. I expected a repetition of the events which took place after our capture in the village, but I was wrong. In an almost friendly tone, the officer asked me to sit before him at the desk. Totally amazed at the attitude I sat and was immediately offered a cigarette and, while I sat smoking, the officer began to talk about family life and the horrors of war. I sat throughout all this silent, pretending I did not understand much of what was being said, but he was a true expert and, after praising the British and saying how much he admired us, he quietly asked me whereabouts in England I was from. Lulled into a false sense of security, I told him I was from Newcastle and then the real interrogation began. Had I been a spy, or perhaps someone involved in subversive activities, I don’t think, for one moment, I would have fallen for his blandishments, but I was only a Private soldier and, although I had been interrogated on a number of previous occasions I had not previously encountered such a cunning interrogator.
Still in his quiet manner he told me that it was useless for me to pretend that I did not understand Italian and, that if he thought I was hedging in any way, one of his soldiers would help me understand! Still sore from the beatings and knowing that this was no idle threat, I decided to answer his questions, maybe not truthfully in every detail but hopefully in a manner that he would accept. His first questions concerned my capture in the desert and my escape from Verona and these I answered truthfully; there was no one else involved and I had nothing to hide. Although he asked about the time I was captured in the cave at Veiano, he did not appear particularly interested; perhaps Veiano was not in his area. However, he was very interested in what had happened since I escaped from the train and when he began these questions his mask slipped revealing his true nature, a typical Fascist thug.
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He wanted to know who had helped us after our escape and, in particular, where we had obtained our clothing. I told him that the clothes Arthur and Bob were wearing had been stolen and that I’d procured my own clothes near Verona. At this he flew into a rage saying that he did not believe we’d stolen any clothing and, as for my story about wanting to reach the Allied lines to the south, he told me he did not believe one word! He argued that anyone concerned for their own safety would not have chosen to take on a difficult walk of hundreds of miles when the comparative safety of Switzerland was less than one hundred miles from Verona. In his opinion, I was involved in subversive activities against the state and was encouraging others to do likewise. It was obvious that he did not believe anything I said, right from the start, and that our future had been decided even before the interrogation began. He told me, with relish, that I was to inform my comrades that we were still under the sentence of death but if we were to tell him where we had obtained our clothes, the sentence could be rescinded. The following day we were to be taken on a tour of the area where we had been captured after our escape and we were to point out the houses where we had received assistance. I half expected another beating but nothing happened and, once the interrogation was over, I was rather subdued as I was returned to my cell. I related to Bob and Arthur all that had taken place during my interrogation and we decided that, whatever happened, we would not disclose our sources of help after our escape. There was nothing heroic about our decision; in the first place it was doubtful whether we would recognise again any of the places where we’d received help, and secondly, we had no doubt that informing on others would not save our own skins. Having made up our minds we awaited with trepidation, the arrival of the guards for our expected tour of the area.
About one hour after my interrogation, after we’d had a meal of bread and water, a truck drew up in the courtyard and six or so guards alighted. They waited while a gaoler took us from our cell and then, with much laughter, threw us bodily into the back of the truck. Our tour of the area began at the bombed out bridge. From there we scoured the countryside in all directions stopping at a number of houses. Each time we stopped we
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were asked the same question; “Did you receive help at this house?”, and each time the answer was the same, “No”. Our refusal to co-operate with our captors caused them to become very angry but there was nothing they could do, except maybe deliver another punch or two to our ribs. Strange as it may seem we were becoming immune to their savage attacks. Finally, the sergeant in charge called off the time wasting exercise and we were returned to the gaol. Arthur and Bob were put into the cells but I was taken upstairs to see the officer who, by this time, was in an absolute rage. At first, because of the way he was waving his revolver about in front of my face, I thought that I was to be shot out of hand but eventually he calmed down and in a most sinister manner, he told me that we were to be shot within the next two days in view of our total lack of co-operation. Back in the cell I gave my companions an account of what had taken place and we were in no doubt that the Fascists would carry out the planned execution. It appeared that our fate was sealed but we were about to receive help from an unexpected quarter.
We spent a sleepless night, unable to sleep, not only because of the dire situation we now found ourselves to be in but also because of the cold and nagging hunger pains. It seemed to us that the Fascists must have a policy of not feeding condemned prisoners because no food at all was brought to us that morning. However, about mid-day we heard the sound of motor cycles and a truck screeching to a halt in the courtyard. Then came the sound of German voices, apparently raised in anger. To our great surprise our cell door was flung open and we were ordered outside. The previous night we had removed the sacking from our feet and, as we were being hustled outside, we tried to replace the sacking but our gaoler would not allow it. We were hurried barefoot into the courtyard where two Germans astride motor cycles, with another four standing beside a truck, were awaiting us. At a signal we were ordered to board the truck and, with an escort beside us, we left the gaol. The motor cyclists roared off in another direction.
It was a massive relief to be out of gaol but our future was still clouded with uncertainty. We could not understand why the Germans had “rescued” us, but perhaps a more sinister
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fate was in store for us. However, we were not in the charge of the SS and this, at least, was encouraging. As we were passing the bombed bridge, one of the guards pointed at us and at the bridge, as if he was asking if we had been on the train which had been bombed. In a mixture of sign language and Italian I indicated that we had. Soon their attitude towards us became much friendlier and, handing out cigarettes, they let it be known that they were heartily sick of the war and very much afraid of the Allied aircraft; this fear was demonstrated by an incident which occurred later on during our journey. Although seemingly humorous the consequences could have been serious for Arthur, Bob and me.
The road surface was excellent but with lots of twists and turns. We seemed to be climbing steadily as we drove slowly along, and to the side of us there was what appeared to be a cliff face dotted with recesses or small caves. The day was fine, the sky clear but it was bitterly cold as we climbed higher. Suddenly, above the sound of the truck’s engine we heard the sound of aircraft. Immediately the truck came to an abrupt stop and the Germans were over the tailboard and sprinting for the shelter of the cliff side and the caves as the first plane went into its dive. We jumped clear but, instead of running for shelter, we ran back down the road towards a bend in the road which we hoped to reach before the Germans recovered their wits. Unfortunately we were out of luck; just as we were about to reach the bend, there came the sound of small arms fire and cries of “halt”. It was no use. With our hands above our heads and feeling somewhat sheepish we were forced to return and seek shelter alongside the Germans. They seemed to treat the whole matter as a huge joke, but I’m sure it was all a front, their way of concealing their fear. After the air-raid was over, the truck still in one piece, we continued our journey and soon we came in sight of familiar looking buildings surrounded by barbed wire with sentry boxes at each corner. This was to be our next stop; another prisoner of war camp. After entering the camp through the main gate we were locked in an empty hut, there to await interrogation which was to take place later in the Orderly Room.
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I was the last one to be taken for interrogation and found myself before an elderly looking sergeant. After being ordered to sit down and flanked by two soldiers my interrogator, in excellent English, began with the usual questions; number, rank and name. I was hesitant in replying and he wanted to know the reason for this. As best as I could I explained that I had always believed that any prisoner captured for the third time could expect the death sentence. To this he laughed, adding that he, himself, had been a prisoner in the Great War and even though England is an island and escape thought to be impossible, he considered that to attempt to escape was the duty of all prisoners. With that said, he went on to say that there would be no escape from this camp and informed me that the Commandant had previously been in charge of a camp housing more than ten thousand Russian prisoners and not one had escaped; he was quite sure the same would apply in this camp. Now more at ease and convinced I was no longer in danger, I gave my number, rank and name. I hoped that the Red Cross would get word to the British Government and, through the Government to my family that I was safe and well. Once the interrogations were over the three of us were taken into the main camp just in time to receive a plate of watery looking stew; watery but hot, the first hot food we’d had since being recaptured.
I was never certain of the location of our new camp but I was told it was near the town of Spoleto. A camp of wooden huts, it lay in the shelter of a range of hills. In each hut were the usual three-tiered bunks but not all of the huts were occupied. In fact, there seemed to be less than two hundred prisoners in the camp, some newly captured and others, like myself, having been picked up while on the run. In fact it was one of the many transit camps used by the Germans. The senior British rank in the camp was, I think, a sergeant in the Royal Air Force and when he saw that we had no footwear he approached the Commandant in an effort to get something to cover our feet, without success. He was told that we were less likely to attempt to escape without shoes.
There were three roll calls each day in Spoleto, morning, afternoon and evening, and on the morning of our third day in the camp it was discovered that two prisoners had
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escaped. We were all kept on parade until the arrival of the Commandant who, almost tearfully, told us of his exploits in Russia and how he had controlled ten thousand Russian prisoners. Now in Italy with less than two hundred prisoners in his charge, two were missing. He said he could not understand us, now that we were out of the war, well fed [cheers] and soon we would be away from warfare completely, working in Germany where conditions for everyone would be ideal. He wanted us to promise not to attempt any further escapes [more cheers], but seeing that we were not taking any notice he stormed angrily off the parade ground with instructions that we were to be kept there for the rest of the day. We were kept standing there for a further two hours or so and on being dismissed we were given a ration of black bread and ersatz coffee. That night, in addition to the usual sentries, the camp was patrolled by guards with dogs. The next day it was rumoured that the two escapees had been recaptured but, as they did not return to the camp, it seemed to us as if the rumour had been deliberately circulated throughout the camp by the Germans for propaganda purposes.
There were a number of air raids while we were in Spoleto and during the raids all prisoners were instructed to stay in their huts. We obeyed these instructions, except when the raids took place in the near vicinity of the camp when we would assemble outside the huts and, in spite of threats from our guards, we would wave madly at the planes. This was the only way we could warn the Allies that there were still prisoners in the camp, and it worked! One day two aircraft bombed and strafed the German quarters which almost adjoined the camp, they machine gunned the perimeter wire and the sentry boxes and, as we stood about cheering, they flew off dipping their wings in acknowledgement. That day, there were a number of German casualties but none of the prisoners were injured. There were no more raids during the remainder of our stay in Spoleto and after another three days or so we were off again on the next stage of our journey to the Fatherland.
Again we travelled by truck, the railways being almost unusable, and for this we were grateful; those of us who had been on the bombed train did not relish travelling on another train. The first night of our journey we stopped at a camp the name of which I
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ever knew. The following night we came to a camp by a river set on a plain in the shadow of some mountains. I was to find out the day after our arrival from an Italian worker, that it was situated in the valley known as Valdarno, the valley of the river Arno, between Florence and Arezzo; it was named Laterina. The mountains towering above were known as the Pratomagno and the camp, before the armistice with Italy, was known as Campo 82, the very camp from which my former companion, Bill Alston, had escaped. I thought of Bill as we went through the gates into the sparsely occupied camp and I hoped that he had survived the bombing of the train.
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Chapter 11. ESCAPE; JOIN THE PARTISANS.
Our arrival in Laterina only increased the number of prisoners to about three hundred and these were quite easily housed in three or four huts. Guarding the prisoners was a simple task; we were not allowed to move from the vicinity of our hut, not even to go to the toilet, unless we were accompanied by a guard. After roll call each night we were locked in our respective huts and guards patrolled throughout the night. Because of the relatively small number of prisoners and the fact that our movements were so severely restricted, the Germans must have thought it unnecessary to man the watch towers on the perimeter wire. However, there were dog patrols outside the wire. It seemed that it would not be easy to escape from Laterina.
There were a number of different nationalities in the camp including a few black Americans, the first I had encountered during the war. These, and a small number of British other ranks were newly captured, whilst the rest of us were old escapers. Bob had decided against any further escape attempts but Arthur and I were still eager to be outside the wire so we joined forces with two others of like mind. One, who claimed to be an officer, had just been recaptured having been on the run since the previous September. The other was a sergeant in one of the Guards regiments. When discussing the possibilities of escape I expected leadership from the officer but his contribution was practically nil. On the other hand the sergeant came up with some hare-brained schemes, one of which was to rush the sentries, disarm them and release all the prisoners. Arthur and I pointed out that such an idea could result in the deaths of many prisoners but he continued to nurse the idea. In the end, Arthur and I decided that we would go it alone; yes, we wished to escape, but in one piece. We would look for the half chance and, when it came, we would have a go. That half chance was to come sooner than we expected.
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On about the third day of our stay in Laterina I decided to seek medical attention for a boil on the back of my neck which had been bothering me for a few days. To get the necessary attention I had to show one of the guards my neck and seek permission to go on sick parade. I would then be escorted to the camp gate, be handed over to another guard in charge of the sick queue and from there be taken to the German medical room. Just as I was about to join the queue Arthur came up to me, saying in an excited manner that he’d thought of a way of getting out of the camp. Although my neck was giving me some pain, I listened eagerly to what he had to say and, having heard, I informed the guard that I had changed my mind about going sick. The guard seemed to understand what I was telling him because he shrugged his shoulders as if to say “It’s your neck”, before he walked away. Arthur and I returned to our hut where he gave me more details of his escape plan. It all sounded so simple that we planned to carry out our attempt the following day; the sooner the better we thought as any day now the whole camp could be on the move to Germany.
The huts in the part of the camp we occupied were raised from the ground on bricks and the door of the empty hut next to ours was open. Arthur’s plan was to find some way of distracting the guards and then to work our way from hut to hut hoping that they would all be open but, if they were not, then to crawl beneath those that were closed until we reached the last hut, which was about thirty feet from the wire. Having safely reached the last hut, we would wait until the dog patrol had passed, crawl to the wire and hopefully find that the earth would be soft enough for us to scrape away and scramble underneath. We would have to make our attempt after the last roll call which was late in the afternoon before we were locked up for the night. There was a danger that the prisoners would be counted as they were being locked up in the huts but this was a chance we thought we had to take. Our next step was to find some way of distracting the guards but how this could be achieved would have to be left till nearer the time of the break out. Out of courtesy we told the officer and sergeant of our plan without disclosing when we were going but they both seemed totally disinterested except to warn us that we would
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not get far in our bare feet. Their disinterest only acted to spur us on and we waited eagerly for the next day.
It was a practice of our captors that each group of prisoners would be kept to their respective huts; there was no mixing of one group of prisoners with another. When not in the huts, the prisoners were kept under close scrutiny by two guards except when it was necessary to go to the latrine. Even then, our guards would wait until there was a group of eight or ten before one of the guards would accompany the group to the latrine. We had to make our break when there was only one guard to contend with and we had to think of a way of distracting his attention. We would only need about ten seconds to get to the first empty hut and there wait until the return of the guard with the latrine party, and then make our way from hut to hut. While we were pondering over how we could distract the guard, I noticed that two of them were having a good time teasing a group of coloured Americans. It occurred to me that the Americans could help us by causing a distraction and, after talking it over with Arthur, I approached some of the coloureds and asked if they would distract the guards while we entered an empty hut to steal some wood. They readily agreed so Arthur and I settled down to await the last roll call of the day, hopefully our last roll call as prisoners.
The day dragged but at last, after our final meal of watery soup, we waited impatiently for roll call. This was a worrying time for us because the Germans could change the time of the roll call or even change the routine by counting us individually into our huts. We were on tenterhooks as we waited but finally there was a cry of “on parade”, and we lined up, ready to be counted. The count did not take too long and soon we were stood outside our own hut to wait until there was a party ready to go to the latrines. When they were on their way and we were guarded by only one sentry, I would get two or three of the black Americans to begin their routine which we hoped would distract the sentry. Five, six, seven, eight; now there were nine lined up for the latrines, and YES, the guard was moving them off. Once their backs were turned I nodded to our American friends and they immediately began their routine, a sort of shuffling dance and, as they moved
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slightly away from the hut, there were loud cheers. Of course, Arthur and I only had eyes for the guard and as soon as he turned to gaze at the dancers we were off and within seconds had entered the first empty hut. With hearts pounding, we awaited the return of the second guard with his party. One down, and only another eight huts to go before we reached the wire!
After all the apprehension it had all been so easy slipping into the first hut and we hoped that we’d find the rest of the huts open too. However, it was not to be; of the other eight huts, three were closed and we encountered serious difficulties whilst crawling beneath them. In order to make progress we discovered we had to remove all manner of debris from our path, a tiresome task which considerably slowed our progress; and of course, time was not on our side. In spite of all the obstacles we finally reached the last hut before dark and we waited there till the first dog patrol had passed. While waiting we tore some planks of wood from the three tiered bunks in the hut to use as digging tools to burrow under the wire. It was almost dark when we heard the low whine of a dog; it was the patrol; not long now!
We had no idea how long it would take the patrol to complete the circuit of the perimeter wire; in fact, there could possibly be more than one patrol so we decided to wait until they came round a second time or, if there turned out to be more than one patrol, to wait until the second patrol had passed and then to rush to the wire. More than anything we had to remain patient; after all we had reached the wire without there being any hue and cry and by now the rest of the prisoners would be safely locked up for the night. It seemed we had not been missed and so we could now take our time. Again we heard the low whine of a dog, it could be the patrol returning or perhaps a different one; we did not know but it was now time to make our move.
Like shadows, the dog and its handler passed within twenty feet of our hiding place and, after giving them about five minutes, we crawled from the hut to the wire. The wire was adjacent to a river bank and we were pleased to find that the earth was soft and damp. The
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rolls of barbed wire which would normally be found inside the perimeter wire of any prison camp had been removed during the gradual dismantling of the camp, so we found we only had a single wire to contend with. We dug furiously with the wooden planks and after what seemed ages we were able to scramble out on to the river bank. We were out and we now had to put as much distance as we could between ourselves and the camp and find a place to hide for the night.
There were no sounds coming from the camp as we walked cautiously along the riverbank. We were dreading to hear the sound of dogs barking but as we heard none, we assumed that the hole in the wire had not been discovered. When we had discussed our escape attempt whilst in the camp we had determined to cross the river Arno, but neither of us were strong swimmers and in the darkness the river appeared foreboding. We kept to the riverbank for some considerable distance eventually leaving it, circling the camp and heading in the direction of what we hoped would be the mountains. When we were sure we were well clear of the camp, we stopped and hid under a hedgerow for the night. Travelling barefoot in darkness in strange terrain was asking for trouble and if we were to reach higher ground it was essential that we find something for our feet without much delay. That night as we lay under the hedge we almost froze but at least we were happy. As daylight broke we heard the sound of dogs barking in the distance but as the sound did not get any nearer we continued on our way towards the mountains which were now just discernible in the dim light.
We were anxious to leave the valley far behind us, certain that the whole area would be crawling with German and Fascist troops. Even though it was still early morning we could hear the sound of traffic not too far away so, whenever possible, we would have to avoid crossing any major roads. We were able to cross the valley without mishap and without need to seek help at any of the farmhouses which we passed on the way. Eventually we reached the road at the foot of the mountains and, to our dismay, discovered that there was a continuous stream of traffic ferrying German troops to the front, the road was impossible to cross; our route to the mountains which appeared so
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invitingly near was effectively barred. Soon it began pouring with rain and not knowing how long it would take before there would be a lull in the traffic, we sought shelter in a small shed fifty or so yards from a farmhouse. Inside we found a number of sacks used for carrying farm produce to market which were a real Godsend to Arthur and myself. We covered ourselves with the sacks and, snug and warm, soon fell asleep in spite of the sound of traffic outside. We were still asleep when discovered by a farm labourer some hours later.
It would be difficult to imagine who was the most surprised; the farmworker or us! Rummaging among the sacks to discover two sleeping bodies, he must have been frightened out of his wits. As for Arthur and I, we thought we had been recaptured. We slowly emerged from our hiding place as he stood by the doorway clearly shocked. Finally finding his tongue, he asked what we were doing in the hut. I decided that he had to be told the truth and explained that we were British prisoners of war and that we had escaped from Laterina prison camp the previous night. On hearing this he appeared almost panic stricken, telling us to leave the valley without delay, as the whole area was swarming with Germans and Fascists. He explained that the safest place for us was with the partisans in the mountains. I replied that we were heading for the mountains but we were unable to get across the road. I told him that not only were we desperate for help, we needed food and something with which to cover our feet. Seeing the condition of our feet, he instructed us to wait in the hut while he spoke with the “signora” in the farmhouse. Not trusting him completely, we ignored his instructions to stay put but when he returned alone we decided that we had no alternative other than to trust him. We followed him to the farmhouse, keeping well behind and out of sight. We entered the building and were shown upstairs into a warm, comfortable kitchen where we were greeted by a motherly looking woman of about fifty. Her reaction on seeing us was to cry, uncontrollably.
The first thing that caught my eye in the kitchen/living room of the house was a huge table, the table legs painted blue. Later we were to meet others, like ourselves on the
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run, at this same house when we came down from the mountains in search of food. We never knew, nor did we wish to know, the name of this family, or in fact any family that gave us assistance but we christened this house “Blue Table”. The room was spotless, gleaming brasswork and holy pictures adorned the walls and in the fireplace the wood fire crackled and burned brightly; the room was truly warm and welcoming. We were shown to a niche near the fireplace and invited to sit while the woman began to heat some water.
When the water was hot enough, two large bowls were filled and we gratefully soaked our feet. After this, much the same as followed our escape from the train, a greasy ointment was applied to our feet and legs which were then wrapped in bandages. Then we were given bread soaked in warm milk, followed by coffee laced with grappa. The effect of the food, drink and the warmth from the fireplace made us feel so drowsy and soon we were asleep. Later we were awoken from our slumbers by the excited chatter of voices and were greeted by two men, accompanied by two teenage girls and a young boy, aged about seven. The tantalising aroma of food being prepared also assailed our senses. The newcomers to the house began to hurl questions at us but they were silenced by the signora as she told them that we must eat first. As she spoke, she showed us to the table where I had the finest meal I’d tasted since leaving home. After the meal, a discussion about our future took place and it was during this discussion that I learned just how brave the Italians really were.
As we sat smoking, drinking coffee and cognac, we heard the sound of a vehicle pulling up in the yard. No-one took too much notice till there was a loud knocking at the door at the bottom of the stairs. All of us froze in our seats but the signora quickly took charge of the situation instructing the girls to clear the table, while we were ushered into another room and onto a small veranda where the window was closed behind us. The veranda was at the back of the house so unless the house was searched we would not be seen. We could neither see nor hear what was going on at the front of the house, but soon we heard voices coming from the kitchen. I could not make out everything that was said, but what I
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did hear disturbed me. I heard talk of rewards for information leading to the recapture of escaped prisoners and of punishments meted out to those who gave them assistance. I could not be sure how our benefactors actually reacted to what was being said but after a while we heard the Fascists leave, the sound of the door being bolted and we were able to emerge from our hiding place. If the Fascist patrol had bothered to search the house and we had been discovered, the building would have been burned to the ground and it is almost certain that the men of the family would have been shot or deported for slave labour. The interruption over, we again gathered round the table and the signora decided that we would be hidden in the hut where the farm hand had found us and when we were well enough we could make our way to join the partisans. We stayed in the hut for two or three days and during that time we had plenty to eat, blankets to keep us warm and our feet and legs were cared for. We were most reluctant to leave our cosy haven but early one morning, our feet bound with strapping, we crossed the road at the foot of the mountains whilst there was no traffic and set off again on the long climb up the Pratomagno towards the village of Rocco Ricciarda, the highest village in the mountains. The village was to become known to us as The Rock and reputed to be occupied by the partisans.
Once we were in the mountains we felt much safer and we did not hesitate to seek food and shelter at the few houses we came across. Although the people were extremely poor they shared whatever little food they had with us and they always found us somewhere to sleep, even though it sometimes meant sleeping alongside the sheep or goats. During one of our stops we learned that some South Africans who had escaped from Laterina, were living somewhere in the foothills. They were supposedly fairly well off, dressed in Italian officers’ uniforms and rode around the country on horseback. It was suggested that they may be able to supply us with some footwear so we decided to try and find them. This turned out to be a simple task because everyone knew of their whereabouts.
It was a bitterly cold afternoon when we eventually came across the South Africans. They were staying in a remote stone building outside of which two horses were grazing.
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We were invited inside and astonished to see the cosy nest they had for themselves. Complete with tables, chairs and iron beds, they were better off than most of the Italians living in the area. They were clean, well clothed and shod and it was obvious they were living off the fat of the land, but it was plain by their attitude that they did not want anyone else to share the good life with them. We did share a good meal with them but, in spite of the fact that there were now snow flurries about, we were not invited to stay the night, nor did they offer us any footwear. The mountain was bleak and uninviting but if we were to find shelter before nightfall we had to move on. Bidding the South Africans goodbye we took to the narrow path which led higher up the mountains. During my stay behind the lines I met many different kinds of people: the kindness of the Italians I would never forget; nor would I forget the cruelty of the Fascists, which in a way I could understand. However, I would never be able to understand the callous and inhuman attitude of these two South Africans who turned us away in our time of need; after all, we were fighting for the same cause. Our next shelter that night was with an old couple who had little more than boiled potatoes to eat but which they willingly shared with us. The next day we repaid some of their kindness by giving them some bread and pasta which we had begged from a nearby farmhouse.
As we climbed higher it became colder and the mountain was now bathed in mist. We could no longer see our landmark the Croce di Pratomagno
[the Cross of the Pratomagno]
, which was a huge cross on the very summit of the mountain and could be seen from miles around and a most welcome sight during our wanderings in the Pratomagno. We were now on part of the mountain which we found to be heavily forested. It was trying to snow as we made for a charcoal burner’s hut set in a clearing and just as were about to reach the hut there was a cry of “halt” and four or five figures emerged from the trees. They were roughly dressed, some in Italian uniforms with the badges of rank removed, whilst the others were dressed in peasant clothing, but they had a red star stitched to their hat or clothing. Except for a bandolier over their shoulders and perhaps a knife stuck in their belt they were not heavily armed. This then was our first encounter with the partisans. What now?
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After searching us they took us to a small hamlet where they had set up their command post. We were to discover later that there were a number of other such groups, usually about twenty in number, constantly on the lookout for Germans or Fascists. Normally they were poorly armed but they did have a great nuisance value. Both the Germans and the Fascists employed large numbers of troops in their efforts to round up youngsters of military age, escaped prisoners and anyone else unlucky enough to be caught in the net, for war work. Large numbers of these youngsters and some escapers took to the hills to avoid being captured and thus was born the Italian partisan. Poorly armed at first but always a thorn in the side of the Germans, but later on better armed and organised they fought with honour and distinction on the side of the Allies and many thousands lost their lives.
The particular band that we had come in contact with were housed in a stone building and, after being interrogated by their leader and one of his officers, we were given something to eat and had our feet and legs attended to; we were even given a pair of shoes each. The shoes were second hand of course and it was some days before we were able to wear them, given the state of our feet, but they served their purpose and soon we could get about without too much discomfort. Some days after meeting up with the partisans we were asked if we wished to join them. We agreed, provided that there would be no objections should we decide to leave and try our luck in reaching our lines. They agreed readily and so began our life with the partisans in Pratomagno.
Life with the partisans meant always being at least one step ahead of the Germans and Fascists. Due to the relative lack of weapons it was not possible for us to make a determined stand against well armed and disciplined troops but at least we had the advantage whereby the enemy did not know how many we were, nor did they know how well or poorly we were armed. Because of their uncertainty they rarely ventured into the mountains, unless in great numbers, and this again worked to our advantage; their manoeuvres could not be carried out in secrecy and by the time they got anywhere near
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us, we would have scattered across a wide area of countryside. Whenever Arthur and I ventured down into the valley we would often smile to ourselves; we heard rumours about how strong the partisans were and how the Allies were forever dropping food and arms to them and we did nothing to dispel these rumours, bearing in mind the enemy also heard the very same rumours.
Of course, we did have our skirmishes with enemy patrols and one day, after an unsuccessful attempt was made by a Fascist patrol to round us up, we received news that a joint effort was to be made by the Germans and Fascists to rid the Pratomagno of the partisans. Because there was no doubting the source of this information, our group decided to split up and seek safety elsewhere. We did this, not only for our own safety, but also to protect the villagers in the mountains. If the enemy had raided the villages and found any evidence that we had been there, there is no doubt that severe retribution would have been taken against the villagers, including possibly the destruction of the very villages. The decision to split having been made, Arthur and I decided to attempt to cross over the summit of the mountain beyond the huge cross, the Croce di Pratomagno, and down into the valley on the other side. If we found it impossible to obtain shelter in the valley then we would return to the mountain side, the Casentino I think it was called, and remain there until the heat was off at La Rocca.
The summit of the Pratomagno was bathed in mist and the cross invisible as we set off. As we climbed higher the moisture clung to our clothes and we were chilled to the bone. Progress was difficult because our landmark, the cross, was obscured from our vision so it was a case of climbing till we reached the ridge at the summit. When we did eventually reach the summit we found ourselves in low cloud unable to see more than a few yards, in fact it felt as if we were on another planet. However, there was only one way to go and that was down the other side. Soon we left the cloud behind and once we could see through the mist we could make out the shape of houses in the valley below. We could also see a few houses much nearer to us, actually on the mountain side, to which we hurried hoping to find a shed or something similar where we would be able to shelter for
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the night. We were lucky to come across a small brick building, well away from the houses, where we spent the night and left early the following morning before the inhabitants were awake.
Food was no problem as we had brought sufficient with us when we left La Rocca, so we travelled throughout the day without coming into contact with anyone else. It was early evening before we came across any habitation worthy of mention. Larger than the settlement we had left that morning, the small village lay in the shelter of the hillside and, with lights flickering at the windows of the houses, it was a most welcoming sight. We watched the houses for some time for signs of activity but there were none so, as it became darker, we decided to seek out somewhere to spend the night. We reached the first house unnoticed, or so we thought till we heard the sound of a dog barking; suddenly the door opened and we found ourselves bathed in light, we stood there, in fear of the dog, when a man’s voice shouted to us to come forward which we did. By the time we reached the doorway a woman and some children were by his side. Before they were able to ask any questions I explained that we were two escaped prisoners and that we needed a place to sleep for the night; a barn or a hut, indeed anywhere to shelter from the cold night air. They quickly discussed our predicament between themselves, before we knew it we were inside the house sitting warming ourselves before a brightly burning fire. Then followed the usual welcome; a glass of wine, the shedding of a tear by the woman, whilst a place was prepared for us at the dinner table. Before we had a chance to sit at the dinner table the house was crowded with other villagers who’d come to see the two Englishmen, probably the first foreigners they’d set their eyes on.
After the meal was finished we sat by the fire drinking wine surrounded by our new friends as we answered their questions about England but looking forward to a bed we had been promised in one of the other houses in the village. I asked them about the whereabouts of any German or Fascist patrols in the area but they dismissed the idea of the enemy coming to their village. As we sat there, warm and relaxed, with the wine beginning to take effect we were lulled into a false sense of security. As I watched the
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[Handwritten insert] The original manuscript says “We had come across what appeared to be the village ovens” Line 14
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flickering flames in the fireplace I felt as if I didn’t have a care in the world. Suddenly, the peace was shattered by the sound of automatic gunfire and all hell broke loose. The villagers fled the house immediately in a state of panic. Arthur and I sat for a few moments undecided and then we made for the door anxious to get away, not only for our own sakes but also to protect the villagers from any repercussions. Just as we reached the door, the woman of the house held out her hand to stop us and, after putting something on her head, indicated that we were to follow her.
It was pitch black outside as she led us down a winding street amid the din of much shouting as the sound of gunfire came nearer; it almost seemed as if the village was surrounded. As we hurried along behind our guide she told us that they must be Fascists and I was inclined to agree not having heard German voices. We reached the outskirts of the village and stopped as we came to what appeared to be a wall and it was with much surprise that she told us to get inside two semi-circular openings. We had come across the village ovens used for baking the communal bread. Realising that we had no other option, we clambered into the inky blackness as our helper left us with a whispered “buona fortuna”. We lay still in the darkness listening to the Fascists shouting as they searched every house in the village; we were afraid that one of the children might give the game away but gradually the noise died down and, after waiting some considerable time, we emerged from our hiding place. Whilst we would have wished to thank the woman personally for her bravery in helping us, we thought it would be wise not to do so and so we went off into the night leaving the village behind us. Over the next few days we heard nothing of Fascist reprisals against any of the villages where we’d sought shelter so we thought it safe to assume that no trace of our presence had been found during the many searches.
We travelled alone and continued to keep on the move after leaving the village. Rumours were rife concerning enemy activities; patrols were reported to be everywhere and, because of these rumours, we kept well clear of the larger villages. We begged for food at remote houses and slept wherever we could find shelter but at no time did we enter any
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of the houses, even though it was so cold and miserable being outside all of the time. News was scarce too; it had been a long time since we had heard the familiar “Boom, Boom, Boom, Radio Londra, Radio Londra”, so we knew nothing of the events at the front. From time to time we met other fellow travellers and from them heard rumours that the Allies had made landings north of Rome. Because [of this] and having nothing to lose, we decided to return to the Pratomagno; to La Rocca first to find out what the situation was on the other side of the mountain and then, if it was not too dangerous, to head for the coast. If we discovered that the rumours about the landings were not true then we could still head south in the direction of Monte Cassino. So once again using “La Croce” as a landmark, we set off over the mountain.
Since escaping from Laterina we had heard many stories about an airman whose plane had crashed on the summit of the Pratomagno between the wars and in whose memory a sort of monument had been erected. We heard varying accounts as to his nationality; Some said he was a German, others that he was American, whilst others said he was English. It was not until 1978 that I learned the truth about the monument on the Pratomagno. Whilst reading the January 1975 issue of Blackwoods Magazine I came across an article by Leslie Gardner entitled “Fall of the Lone Eagle”, the true story of the pilot who crashed on the Pratomagno and I believe some of the tale is worth telling here.
Bert Hinkler was from Queensland, Australia and during the 1914-18 war he had served in the Royal Naval Air Service, first as an aircraft mechanic and later as an aerial gunlayer, as the pilot’s assistant was called. He won the DSM, and later took a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. After the war he was employed by A.V. Roe in Manchester and bought an old Avro Baby which, in fact, had been written off. He restored the plane and flew the six hundred miles from Croydon to Turin, a journey which had never before been made by air. He was selected by the Royal Air Force for the Schneider Trophy team in 1925 and in 1928 he slashed the England to Australia record by half, for which he was paid £2,000. With the aid of this money he built his own “touring monoplane” the Ibis. In addition, he was promoted to the rank of Squadron
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Leader in the Royal Australian Air Force. A shy man, he was renowned amongst his peers for his flying skills and for navigating across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but these skills brought no financial reward. He received no sponsorship, his only asset being his aeroplane. In fact, for his second attempt on the England-Australia record, he was unable to raise the £150 insurance premium to cover his second hand Puss Moth. It was on the 7th January 1933 that Hinkler left Southampton in an effort to beat C.W.A. Scott’s record time of nine days which he aimed to cut to six or seven days. His first stop was to have been Athens which he never reached. In April, after the snows had cleared, the body of Bert Hinkler was found near his wrecked aircraft in the mountainous country south of Florence close to the Croce di Pratomagno. It would have been interesting to have seen a monument to such a brave man but, like Leslie Gardiner who searched for it for some years after the war, it was impossible for us to find in such inhospitable terrain.
Eventually we arrived safely in La Rocca to be greeted with the news that another escaped prisoner was in hiding in a house in the village. He was, the villagers told us, a black man named Giorgio. I asked the villagers about the latest situation in La Rocca and the surrounding villages and was pleased to learn that the enemy patrols had long since departed and that none of the villagers had suffered during the raids. It was just like coming home; all of the villagers were pleased to see us. Whilst arrangements were being made for us to spend the night, Arthur and I went off in search of the coloured escaper, Giorgio.
George McPherson, from Bloemfontein in South Africa, originally captured in Tobruk in June 1942, had escaped from Laterina in September 1943 at the time of the armistice when most of the prisoners had fled before the arrival of the Germans. He had spent a lonely life in the mountains since escaping. He was delighted to meet us and when he asked if he could team up with Arthur and myself we readily agreed. I did ask why he had not joined the white South Africans we’d come across after our escape and for an answer he merely pointed to his skin! I understood and asked no more questions. After spending the night in La Rocca, we set off early the next morning for the Valdarno and
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the house with the blue table. We knew we would be welcome there provided of course there was no danger and, more important, we would learn the latest war news and whether or not there had been any landings on the coast.
It was evening when we reached the valley and, as the road at the foot of the mountains was void of any traffic, we had no difficulty in getting across. Soon we crossed the fields in the direction of the house with the blue table. I went on alone and knocked on the door at the foot of the stairs. One of the teenage daughters came to the door and, without opening it, asked who was there. I answered “Gugliemo” the name by which they knew me. She ran back up the stairs, quickly returning with her father. I was greeted like a long-lost son and was invited inside. Before entering I explained that “Arturo” and a newcomer named “Giorgio” were with me. Without any hesitation I was told to bring them along and once we were upstairs, after the questions and embraces from the women, I introduced them to George. It must have been a Saturday night because after an excellent meal and after the women had retired, we sat with the men of the house drinking wine till the early hours. There was no question of work that day! Later we snatched a few hours of sleep and by breakfast time we were anxious to be on our way. We had learned that there had been no Allied landings and that our troops were still bogged down at Cassino. In the circumstances we felt it would be wiser to return to the mountains and then head south. As food was being prepared for our journey we received a visitor, a farmer we had met previously who lived quite near. He told us of another escaper sheltering with him and wondered if we would like to meet him. I went off with the farmer and, over a glass of wine in his house, I was introduced to Ted Moran, from Devon. He was a private in the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry and had been captured in the desert in 1942. He too had escaped at the time of the armistice, but from which camp I never knew. When I told him we were trying to get through the lines he asked if he could join us and I readily agreed. Arthur and I visited more of our friends in the valley and later, after the four of us had a huge meal at the house with the blue table, we finally set off for the mountains and our journey south. The villagers even provided us with fresh clothing! We found it difficult to say goodbye to these kind people who
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clearly wanted us to stay but to stay would have proved dangerous for them, especially now that there were four of us. Leaving behind a tearful scene, we set off once more for the mountains. At the village of Gorgiti we were joined by another escaper, an American named William Joseph O’Neill from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the most unlikely escaper I have ever seen.
W J O’Neill, or Yank as he became known to us, looked more like an American tourist than an escaped prisoner of war. He had escaped from Laterina some weeks after Arthur and I and since then had been well cared for wherever he had roamed. He was fair haired, wore steel rimmed glasses and was very well dressed in what could be termed mountain clothes. He wore a beautiful pair of stout walking boots and, to complete his attire, he had on his head a ridiculous looking white hat, not unlike a sailor’s hat. He was about twenty one years of age and expressed a desire to join forces with us. To this we agreed and the five of us set off but, for the sake of safety, we split up; Arthur and myself went on ahead, the others following some distance behind.
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Chapter 12. SHOT UP BY THE GERMANS BUT FINALLY MAKE IT.
The weather was now much improved. For the first time since our escape from the train Arthur and I had decent clothing and footwear and after our stay with the partisans of the Pratomagno we now felt much fitter. To head south we had to cross the river Arno and so we left the mountains north of Arezzo and headed in the direction of Siena. It was our intention to head in a south westerly direction and by doing so we could make the coastline our destination if there were any reported Allied landings. Travelling was easier in the valley but not that much quicker. We were forced to make a wide detour of most of the villages where there would almost certainly be Germans or Fascists. We took heed of every rumour we heard and there were many. After the treatment Arthur and I had received at the hands of the Fascists after our escape from the train, we had no wish to meet up with any of these thugs again. We heard many stories of punishments meted out to recaptured prisoners and, from my own experience, I was inclined to believe every single story. One such tale concerned a white South African called Pietro living on a farm in the valley. He was unfortunate enough to have been captured in one of the villages and, according to reports, had been bound, dragged through the streets and stoned before being put to death. In spite of all the threats to their lives and property, the farmers of Valdarno helped us all they could while we crossed the valley and it was with the help of one of these farmers that we were able to cross the river Arno in safety; how different to the crossing of the river Po!
Once across the Arno, we again made for higher ground and, having reached it, we thought it would be safe enough for us to travel as a group. Not having gone very far we came across a fairly large house where we were made more than welcome by the occupants. In fact, they wished us to stay on their land until the arrival of the Allies. We were to be housed in two huts, three of us in one, two in the other, they promised us enough to eat and, provided we stayed out of sight, there would be no danger. The offer
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was tempting but we had received similar offers previously when there were only two of us and we had decided against accepting as we considered it too dangerous to stay in one particular place for any length of time. Of course, I had stayed in the cave in Veiano for a number of weeks but this had only been because my companion had been ill suffering from malaria and, in any event, staying so long in Veiano had eventually led to our recapture. I was also worried that the villagers of Veiano had been punished for helping Bill Alston and myself. Because of this I was against staying anywhere longer than was necessary and, after some discussion, the others agreed. However, we did agree that we would meet at this house if by any chance we ran into trouble and were forced to split up. Our meeting place was to be a shed used for storing hay about a mile distant from the house itself. Little did we know as we recommenced our journey that trouble was in fact just around the corner and was to come from the least expected source.
Pleased with our progress we were in a happy frame of mind as we quickly walked along a fairly decent mountain path just south of Siena, I guess. Suddenly, a lone figure emerged from the woods dressed as a partisan complete with a red star on his hat, armed to the teeth. He had an automatic weapon in his hands pointed in our direction in a most business like fashion. He did not have to utter a word; we stopped dead in our tracks! He whistled loudly and in no time he was joined by another five or six similarly clad figures who quickly surrounded us. With the single word “avanti” we were marched off into the woods.
The partisans, for that is what they appeared to be, had a camp in the clearing in the woods. In the clearing stood three or four small stone buildings but, unlike La Rocca in the Pratomagno, there was no sign of any villagers. The five of us were marched to the smallest building, roughly pushed inside and the door slammed behind us as a guard stood outside. I protested at the treatment we were receiving only to be told by the guard that we were to be kept there until their leader wished to interrogate us. The building was completely void of any furniture so we sat on the floor to await the next turn of events. However, we did not have long to wait. Two guards entered the building and began
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asking questions. When they saw that I was the only one responding to their questions, I was hauled roughly to my feet and pushed outside. Physically dragged to one of the other buildings, I found myself face to face with their leader.
Sitting at a table before me, he was about thirty years old and, even sitting down, he had a military bearing about him and obviously commanded respect. In answer to his questions I gave him all the information concerning Arthur and myself since our original meeting in Fara Sabina. In addition, I told him all I could about our other three companions. After my interrogation was over, the others were brought in one at a time and, except for George McPherson who could speak Italian, I acted as interpreter. When the interrogations were over we were escorted back to the building we had previously occupied, there to await whatever decision was reached concerning us. None of us were too happy as we sat around waiting. In fact, I believed we were in a very serious situation as I had gained the impression that the leader seemed to doubt just about everything I had told him. In this frame of mind I was again taken to see him but this time he was not alone; another six or seven men sat around the table with him.
I felt like a prisoner about to be sentenced as I stood before these men and I could tell from the expressions on their faces that I would not like what I was about to be told. The leader broke the silence when he informed me that he had not believed a word that I’d said, but worse was to follow. He told me that he believed we were deserters from the German army, referring to the blond hair of Arthur and the Yank, and he said that whilst Ted and I were not as fair, in his opinion, we resembled Germans. As for George, he merely stated that just as the British, the Germans also had recruited different nationalities to their armed forces. Not once did he raise his voice which made the situation even more frightening when he informed me that the decision reached by himself and his officers was that we were to be shot and that I was to convey the message to my companions. In a daze I was taken back to my friends where I related the events of the last hour to them.
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At first they tried to treat the matter as a joke but they eventually realised that I was being serious. After all, life was cheap behind the lines in Italy during the war and if a mistake was made and we were actually shot, then it would be “just one of those things”, these were sobering thoughts as we sat through the night, wondering what daybreak would bring. Life behind the lines had for me been full of surprises but nothing could compare to what was to happen to us on the second day following our capture by the partisans. Suddenly, the cell door was flung open and framed in the doorway stood the figure of a uniformed Fascist. Again I was pushed outside and to my surprise I saw that some of the Italians were dressed in Fascist uniform whilst others, the majority, were dressed as partisans. I was then escorted to meet the leader.
There were three or four others present when I stood before the leader and he came straight to the point. I was asked what nationalities we were so I repeated my story of the previous day. As soon as he realised that I was to persist with my claim that we were escaped prisoners of war he informed me that his band were not partisans but were, in fact, Fascists on the lookout for partisans reported to be in the area. If his intention was to confuse me then he certainly succeeded. I did not know what to make of the latest turn of events but I remained quiet while trying to gather my wits. Again he asked me if I was British and, when I insisted that I was, he told me that the five of us were to be taken to the woods, separated and shot in turn starting with the officer. As in the Pratomagno the Yank had been mistaken for an officer. When I was returned to my companions I told them what had happened; they were convinced that our captors were bluffing. Soon we were escorted into the woods and I don’t know if any of the others noticed at the time but one of the guards was carrying a spade.
We had not gone very far before being brought to a halt where I was handed the spade and ordered to dig. The soil was soft and soon I had made a shallow depression on the ground. I was told to stop digging and informed that after the “officer” had been shot, I was to be next. I was asked if I had any last requests so, after requesting paper and a pencil, I quickly wrote a note each to my wife and to my parents. I then requested to be
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able to speak with my companions, which was allowed. Whilst we were all afraid of what was to become of us we still had the feeling that they were bluffing, that is until we heard the sound of a single shot being fired, immediately followed by a scream. Before any of us could utter another word, I was hustled back to the spot where I had been digging, blindfolded and soon I was to feel something cold pressed to my head. Again I was asked my identity and my first reaction was to shout out that I was German and that it had all been a mistake. However, I was so petrified that I found it impossible to speak; my tongue seemed glued to the roof of my mouth. One of the guards began screaming in my ear and I knew that I had to give an answer. Steeling myself and hoping for the best, I whispered “Inglese”, one word which could mean life or death for the five of us. Had I done the right thing? After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only seconds, the blindfold was removed and I was embraced by the guards. Shouting “bravo, bravo”, they fired their guns in the air as I was taken back to the camp. Almost immediately I was joined by my companions and there followed much hand shaking and back slapping; how much different the outcome could have been had I given the wrong answer. We were now invited to join the band and, after accepting, room was made for us to sleep in one of the stone buildings. After a most satisfying meal, we retired for the night.
The next few days passed quietly whilst we got to know our new comrades some of whom were young Italians or ex soldiers of the Italian army waiting to fight on the side of the Allies. During this time we did our share of guard duties and fatigues. Whenever we spoke with the partisans we made it clear that our intention was still to get through the lines and join up with the Allies and some of them expressed a wish to come with us. It came as a surprise to us when it was suggested by their leader that we all go together and shoot up some Germans or Fascists on the way. We were not too happy at this suggestion, feeling that the five of us would stand a better chance as a small group but we fell in with the idea and so after a few days preparation we struck camp and set off on our journey south to link up with the Allies.
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We left camp early in the morning, travelling on fairly good mountain roads. It was a great help travelling with people who knew the area so well but on the other hand, twenty or so men walking in single file could be seen for miles around. I had heard rumours about the German commandant responsible for the region around Arezzo, mainly concerning his treatment of captured partisans or escaped prisoners of war. If the rumours were true, and there was certainly no reason to doubt that they were, then I had no wish to fall in to the hands of the SS troops. In spite of my fears, the first day of our journey proved uneventful.
On the second we again made an early start but, after reaching a small village at about mid-day, we decided to rest awhile and to re-start our journey early that evening. After a good rest and a substantial meal we felt refreshed as we set off again. Our spirits were high as we marched along each side of the road singing partisan songs and other popular songs of the day. In fact, we were not unlike British soldiers on a route march. When darkness fell, lanterns were lit, which worried me greatly but when I voiced my concern to our leader, he brushed aside my objections, seeming to believe that the Germans or Fascists would not dare tackle us on our own ground. We five escaped prisoners were not happy at this attitude but there was nothing much we could do so we continued our march behind the swinging lights ahead of us.
How far we had marched I do not know but after a while the singing stopped and all our strength was conserved for the march. It was still dark and, had it not been for the lights ahead of us, I’m sure we would have been lost when suddenly, as we rounded a bend in the road a flare shot into the night sky and night was turned into day. At the same time machine gun fire raked our column from an armoured vehicle straddled across the road. Rifle fire also rained on us from the surrounding bushes. Taken completely by surprise we had no option other than to dive for cover; we were certainly no match for evidently heavily armed German or Fascist troops! George McPherson and I dived into the undergrowth to the left of the road whilst Arthur, Ted Moran and the Yank dived to the opposite side. Then began a desperate game of hide and seek.
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After diving into the undergrowth, thick with shrubbery, George and I scrambled down a steep incline into a hollow, desperately trying to get our bearings in the darkness. Heavy firing continued above us, a complete waste of ammunition it seemed as those of us who had escaped the initial onslaught would surely have reached cover by this time. All around could be heard the sound of dry wood and twigs snapping as our comrades sought shelter in the undergrowth. George and I decided to try and get out of the hollow but, as we made our way upwards, we heard the sound of German voices above us. It appeared that the Germans had the whole area surrounded. Undecided what to do next we lay still, gasping for breath, when suddenly all around us was lit up like daylight as another flare was fired into the night sky. This was the signal for machine gunners on the opposite side of the hollow to commence firing indiscriminately. The bullets raked the ground around us as we frantically scrambled around trying to keep under cover; in fact we almost buried ourselves. More flares were set off and, though bullets thudded into the ground around us, we had no option other than to remain completely still. It seemed that we had lain for hours as the firing raged around us and when suddenly it stopped we slid downwards, deep into the hollow in search of somewhere to hide. On reaching the bottom, we almost fell into a water filled ditch and this was to be the saving of us.
The ditch was thick with reeds and other vegetation and the water was so deep it reached almost to our necks. After the exertions of the last hour or so the water felt icy cold but in the darkness we thought we’d found the perfect place to hide. The firing started again and continued for a considerable time and every now and again we heard the Germans searching among the undergrowth and calling to one another. At times they appeared to be too close for comfort and we felt sure that we would be discovered but gradually the sounds died away, the sun rose and we heard the sound of a tracked vehicle on the road above us. The sound of the engine finally faded away and all was peace and quiet but the sun was high in the sky before we dared venture from our shelter and climb the steep incline out of the hollow. We looked around for any survivors from the previous night’s mayhem before making our way to the pre-arranged meeting place in the hope that our three companions had also escaped.
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Soon we were climbing a small wooded hill and, as we avoided a small cluster of houses, we came within yards of a German anti aircraft battery, a German soldier, rifle slung over his shoulder enjoying the sunshine. Amazingly he looked our way, waved cheerily, wishing us “buon giorno”. We acknowledged his greeting and almost ran down the hill in our haste to get out of his sight. The events of the past twenty four hours had, it seemed, numbed our senses; we would have to be much more careful in future. Once out of sight of the German gun battery we began looking around for landmarks in our search for the farm where we had arranged to meet up with our other three companions. I recalled a railway line and, coming across it, we kept it in our sight until we came upon our objective. The actual meeting place was a large outbuilding used for storing hay some distance from the actual farmhouse. We neared the building in the hope that one of our mates would come out to greet us but the building was empty. After searching the ground floor we climbed into the loft, pulled the ladder up after us, burying ourselves in the hay where we immediately fell asleep.
We slept undisturbed until the following morning but there was still no sign of our companions. We spent the best part of the day in the loft but still they did not turn up, so either they could not find our meeting place if they had escaped, or worse, they had been shot or captured by the SS. From our vantage point in the loft we could see the mountains of the Pratomagno and so, because of the change in circumstances and because we knew the region so well, we decided to return to the Pratomagno, there to hide out and wait the arrival of our troops. Food was our first priority; we had not eaten, nor had we had a drink for more than twenty four hours but we decided not to approach the farmhouse nearby. We searched the hay loft to find nothing to eat but downstairs we discovered some potatoes which we ate raw, easing our hunger and thirst at the same time. We were now ready for our journey back to the Pratomagno, a journey we hoped we would make in a day.
Soon we were on familiar ground and, after crossing the river Arno without difficulty, we came to a friendly village where were able to wash ourselves and tidy up our clothes;
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we even had the luxury of a shave and a haircut, before having something to eat. The villagers were most concerned about Arthur, Ted and the Yank and they told us that prayers would be offered up in church for their safety, we could have stayed there as long as we wished but we were anxious to move on and seek the safety of the mountains. Crossing the Valdarno, everyone was really pleased to see us again but sorry that our friends were not with us. In the valley food was more plentiful and we had some excellent meals at all of the houses we visited but none were as sumptuous as the meal we enjoyed at the last house before we departed again for the mountains. The house with the blue table laid on a feast fit for a king, with plenty to drink. In fact, we were rather tipsy as we crossed the last main road at the foot of the Pratomagno. La Rocca was our goal but on the way we intended to stop for the night in a hut near to the village of Gorgiti. Here I was to meet someone who was to be one of my truest friends, a German from Berlin by the name of Willy Lorenz.
We met Willy in Gorgiti the morning after our arrival and, to put it mildly, we were each most suspicious of one another. Naturally we British were suspicious of any Germans and of course Willy was equally wary of anyone who had been connected with the Partisans. However, the ice was broken over a glass of vino and Willy told us his story. Willy and his family were staunch anti Nazi and before the war both him and his father had been imprisoned for their beliefs. At the outbreak of war Willy was still in prison but in 1943 he was sent to the Italian front to penal battalion. He had deserted near Monte Cassino and had decided to hide out in the mountains. Because he was a German, life for him was too dangerous near the front line, so he had made his way to the Apennines and here, in that part of the Apennines known as the Pratomagno, he had met the first friends he had known since his desertion. And Willy was to prove a really good friend to me; before we were able to move off to La Rocca my back trouble returned and I was laid up in a mountain hut for a number of days. During my period of inactivity, both Willy and George looked after me, keeping me supplied with food and cigarettes. Of course, it was dangerous for both of them, scouring the countryside, but it was especially dangerous for Willy; if they had been caught George would have been returned to a
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prison camp, although nothing was certain at this stage of the war with the Germans fighting a rearguard action, but Willy’s fate would have been the firing squad or maybe worse.
During my enforced stay in the hut I was visited almost daily by a brother and sister from Gorgiti. Their family name was Coccolini and, along with their father and mother, they had been evacuated from Florence. They regularly brought the three of us hot meals and, during their visits, I passed the time trying to teach them English. However, it is doubtful if anyone could have understood an Englishman speaking Italian with a pronounced Tyneside accent! Some progress was made but I was to benefit the most from the lessons; my Italian improved immensely. With rest, my injured back gradually improved until it was decided that I would be able to make it to higher ground, to La Rocca.
The main reason for heading for La Rocca was the increased German activity in the area. There was no doubt that they were retreating and as they did they took whatever could be carried with them. Confusion now reigned in the Valdarno; it was reported that packs of Germans were crossing over the Apennines on foot, pillaging and generally causing havoc wherever they went. We hoped that La Rocca would not be in their path but, if it was, maybe the partisans would put up some sort of resistance. However, when we finally arrived at La Rocca we found that most of the partisans had left, reportedly to join a larger, more organised band near Florence. We did meet up with another two escaped prisoners, a Scot by the name of Gallagher I think, and a Pole whose name I never knew; nor did I ever speak to him as he could not speak one word of English, Italian or German but we did manage to converse, in a way, by sign language. Fortunately the Germans did not come anywhere near La Rocca, but sensing that the front must now be very near to Arezzo and the villages in the Valdarno, we decided to return to the valley, there to await the arrival of our troops. The villagers of La Rocca did not want us to leave but, when they realised that we had to go, they made us take a share of what little food they possessed. It was early one morning when we said goodbye to the villagers and set
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off once more for Gorgiti from where it was only a short distance to the valley where we hoped we would meet up with the Allies. On arrival in Gorgiti we learned that there were still a number of Germans in the area just below the village so we decided to hide out a mile or so on the other side of the village. It was just as well that we had some food as it was far too dangerous to go into Gorgiti. Two or three days later one of the villagers came to tell us that the Germans had left and, just as he arrived, a barrage of artillery shells burst on the mountainside a little higher up from our position. It was a welcoming but frightening sound and fortunately the barrage did not last too long. We now knew for sure that the Allies had finally arrived so we made our way down to the village quite openly.
There was much rejoicing in Gorgiti; like ourselves the villagers could hardly believe that they had been liberated at last. The best wine and food, which had been hidden from the Germans, was produced and what followed was almost a carnival. Naturally we joined in the celebrations, but the realisation that we could not consider ourselves to be free until we were with our own troops made us anxious to be on our way. There were tearful scenes as we left the village. On our way down into the valley we met up with a man leading a donkey laden with wood. He was smoking a cigarette and asked us if we wanted one, to which we replied that we did. We were astonished to be given a cigarette from a twenty packet of Senior Service. To our unspoken questions he merely said, “Il Inglesi avere arrivato”; “The English have arrived”. These were the words I had been longing to hear for twelve months. With a cheery wave he continued on his way while we hurried down into the valley.
Surprisingly, crossing the lines was no more exciting than taking an afternoon stroll. We walked into a village at the foot of the Pratomagno, a village called, I think, Loro Ciuffena, pronounced Shoofena, a place we would not have ventured near during the German occupation. In the centre of the village stood a bren carrier surrounded by Italians begging for or trying to buy food. We stood and watched for a few minutes before making ourselves known and when the bren carrier crew realised that we were in
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fact British escaped prisoners of war, we were immediately showered with food and cigarettes and a brew of hot, sweet tea was enjoyed before an officer came on the scene. At last, a few days short of one year behind the lines, I had finally made it. I took one last look up at the Croce di Pratomagno, La Rocca, Gorgiti, and the other mountain villages and I wondered would I ever see them again?
We were questioned briefly by the officer and he took down the details of our regiments, our escapes and briefly how we had spent our time behind the lines. When he turned to question Willy, I had to interrupt and explain that he was German. At first the officer did not believe me and in fact for a moment I thought he was going to book me for insubordination, this when I had only been back in my own lines for less than an hour! When he realised that I was telling the truth, immediate arrangements were made to transport us further behind the lines. I asked if George, Willy and myself could be allowed to say farewell to the farmers of the Valdarno, particularly the people in the house with the blue table to thank them all for their kindness, but my request was refused. I believe the regulations were that all escaped prisoners of war who had reached their own lines were to be taken to a place of safety as soon as it was practicable so, after all, the officer was only carrying out orders. I was upset at the decision but came to realise that it was for the best. After all, if the Germans had launched a counter-attack, we could have been in deep trouble. And so it was arranged that we were to be taken by truck to a fairly large village further behind the lines and, just as we were boarding the truck I noticed that we were one man short; there was no sign of the Pole. It was just as if he had vanished.
On arrival at our next stop we were taken for interrogation and I had to vouch for Willy and the missing Pole. The officer was not too pleased that one of our party was missing and pressed me for more details about him. Unfortunately, because of the language barrier that had existed between us, there was very little I was able to tell the officer. I cannot recall exactly the sequence of events which took place after our interrogation but we were fed, showered and medically examined and, much to my surprise, we were
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not issued with any new clothing except a pair of boots. We were then instructed to make our own way to Naples, to a Repatriation Unit for escaped prisoners of war. On arrival we would be paid, kitted out and then, when space was available, would be sent home on a homeward bound troopship. In the meantime, our next of kin would be informed that we were now safe in our own lines. We were allocated a tent and some bedding and allowed free time on our first night. We still had a small amount of Italian money and spent a pleasant night “on the Town” without having to look over our shoulders every few minutes.
It was strange to be awoken the next morning by the bugler sounding Reveille; stranger still to be able to have a wash and shave, toiletries having been issued, and from there to go to the dining hall for a typical British Army breakfast. We received a few funny looks as we stood in line for breakfast. After breakfast we made our way to the MT Section, sought out an officer, asking if there was any transport going in the direction of Naples. The officer sent a runner to the Orderly Room in order to verify our story and, once he was satisfied, he informed us that a truck was leaving shortly for a place near Rome and that we were welcome to a lift. We accepted and by mid afternoon we arrived at another transit camp not too far from Rome. We were interrogated yet again before being offered a meal and issued with bedding. The four of us were really enjoying ourselves; it was like being on the run without the ever present danger. We had food and drink, a place to sleep and we were not hindered by petty rules. But that was soon to change; that very night, or to be more precise, in the early hours of the following morning.
The weather was hot and sultry when we returned to the camp after a night out in a nearby village. In fact, it was so hot we put our bedding in the open and settled down for the night under the stars. Sleep came quickly, but just as quickly I was awoken from my slumbers by a military policeman; he wanted to know where the German was! I pointed to the sleeping figure next to me and shook Willy to wake him. The redcap then ordered Willy to get dressed and, while he was dressing, I asked the redcap what was likely to happen to him. I reminded him that he was a deserter from the German Army and that he
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would be in terrible danger if he was interned in a regular POW camp. The redcap replied that he could not be certain but the most likely outcome would be that, once Willy’s story had been thoroughly checked, he would be given work behind our lines. I asked if I could go along with Willy but my request was refused, so the rest of us wished Willy the best of luck as we said our good-byes and he was taken off into the night. I was truly sorry to be parted from one of the finest men I ever knew. There was no sleep for the rest of that night and by early morning we set off on the final leg of our journey.
We arrived about mid-day in Naples at the Number 2 Allied Prisoner of War Repatriation Unit and, although I don’t remember too much about the place, I certainly knew I was back in the Army. First of all, of course, was the inevitable interrogation, although this time I had to provide a written account of my adventures starting with the day I was captured in the Western Desert. Next I was given a thorough medical examination and, after a hot shower, I was fitted out with a complete new uniform including a pair of khaki drill shorts and slacks and the added luxury of socks and underwear. I felt a new man! The three of us then met in the wet canteen to enjoy our first drink of beer and, while we sat supping, there was a call for George. He went off to find out what it was all about returning after about thirty minutes, his face beaming; he had just been told that he was to be flown home later that day. There followed more good-byes and another sad parting from a good mate and then Jock and I were told we were to be taken to an Army rest camp the following day there to await our transport home to the UK. The camp was in Salerno, I think, and there we spent a really restful holiday with no restrictions whatsoever and after about one month we returned to Naples ready to embark for England. However there was to be one final parting before I left the shores of Italy. Jock Gallagher, the remaining one of the five of us who had crossed the lines together, was taken ill and detained in Italy and so I was now on my own. I did, of course, make other friends but they could not compare with the friends I had known behind the lines. Significantly I do not remember any of their names.
It was late September, or early October 1944, when we sailed out of Naples harbour; the name of the ship, I seem to recall, was the Orion. There were other repatriates on board,
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some of them wounded, but the bulk of the troops were homeward bound before being sent to the Second Front. I was back in the army now with all the red tape, guard duties and chores to perform but because nobody seemed to want to take responsibility for the few escapers on board, we were banished to the ship’s galley. Here we received the same food as the crew with a few little perks such as the occasional tot of rum, but it was a constant round of kitchen duties, washing up and so on. It was a relief to get back on deck and breathe in the fresh sea air. I remember that when I sailed from England for the Middle East it became almost a ritual for me to stand at the stern of the ship each evening, thinking of home. Now the reverse was the case; I stood on deck each night thinking of the mates I had been with during my time behind the lines and of the kind and brave Italians who had assisted me and made my escape possible.
I thought of Alf Barber with whom I’d made my first escape from Verona, and wondered had he really been killed by the Fascists? I hoped not but would never know for sure. Bill Alston; had he escaped the bombing of the train? Again, I would never be sure. Arthur Gibson, Ted Moran and W J O’Neil, the Yank; did they manage to get away when we were ambushed by the Germans? And where was Willy Lorenz, my German friend? Of course, I knew that he was alive but I wondered what had become of him. I thought too of the teenage girl who had helped me cross the river Po after my first escape. The servant of the Countess who had brought food for Bill and I almost in the shadow of a German anti aircraft battery and the unknown Italian who had hidden the crowbar in the cattle truck in which I was bound for Germany. The old priest and those who had helped us after we had made our escape from that train, the people of Veiano who fed and sheltered Bill and I for almost three months and finally the farmers of the Valdarno, and the mountain villagers who, in spite of their poverty, never turned us away from their door. I would never forget these brave people and hoped that some day I would return to personally thank them all for helping to save my life.
The voyage out to the Middle East had taken several weeks because of having to go around the Cape but the journey home was much quicker and would last only a matter of
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days. We passed through the Bay of Biscay where I expected rough weather but the sea was like a mill pond and a few days after passing through the Bay we came in sight of land. I asked one of the crew if it was England and he replied that we were actually in sight of Liverpool, the port from which I’d sailed so long ago. Later we docked to the sound of a military band welcoming us home to England.
After disembarking we ex-prisoners were first off the ship and, without any formalities, a bus was waiting to take us to the transit camp where we were to spend the night before proceeding on leave the following morning. On arrival at the camp, after a thorough medical examination, we were given £8 wages and some ration cards for six weeks leave. In addition, we received chocolate, some boiled sweets and cigarettes. We spent the night in a pub and the following morning, after an early reveille, entrained for the final leg of the journey home. Before getting on the train I sent a telegram to my wife to say that I would be home later that day.
I forget exactly how long it took to get home but, after changing at York, I do remember some delay at Durham. My excitement knew no bounds as I waited for the train to restart and at last we were on the way and very soon I was alighting at number 10 platform, Newcastle Central Station to be almost bowled over by my wife, Rhoda, as she ran along the platform to greet me. It had been almost four years since we were last together.
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I did meet up again with Arthur Gibson after the war and we spent some pleasant evenings together until his death some years ago. I received a letter from Bill O’Neill [the Yank] in 1948. Of course George McPherson and I reached the Allied Lines together so, except for Ted Moran, four out of five reached safety after our clash with the Germans whilst with the Partisans. I have made enquiries of Ted’s regiment and other ex-service channels including letters to Italy in an effort to trace him without success.
Bill Alston died in South Africa in the seventies; notices of his death appeared in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle.
I do regret not having tried to trace my special German friend, Willy Lorenz, but I still think about him and will never forget how kind he was.
In 1993 I enquired about Alf Barber in the Manchester Evening News and was more than delighted to receive a telephone call from him to say that he had reached the Allied Lines. He knew nothing of the reported shootings of the two escaped prisoners.
With my wife, I returned to Veiano in 1975 and was given a wonderful, if emotional welcome. From 1947 I had corresponded with the shepherd boy, Roberto Cristofari, and in 1976 I was overjoyed when he and his friend, Luigi Moi, visited my home.
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[This is a newspaper page from the ‘Newcastle Journal’ broken into boxed sections. The main feature is entitled “Desert battle which ended in a hell camp”. The central boxed section is a captioned photograph of Bill Blewitt entitled “Bill Blewitt’s War”. On the right is a wartime picture of Bill Blewitt. At the foot of the page are two boxed sections entitled “The Geordie German” and “A diet of weevil bread”]
[Title] THE JOURNAL Saturday June 24 1989
THE Journal Saturday Magazine with full weekend TV and Radio Guide
[Handwritten note marked with an asterisk]:The underlined is a misquote
[Main feature] Desert battle which ended in a hell camp
The day for me had begun just after first light on June 6th, 1942 near Gazala in the Western Desert. A private soldier of the 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters, I was a member of an anti-tank gun crew in D Company. We had engaged a column of German tanks, at first with some success, but now, even though it was barely 10am, we had no further interest in the battle which raged around us.
We lay in a slit trench to await the inevitable, our knocked-out gun and blazing truck only yards from us. Then, above the sounds of battle, came a screech of tyres, a cloud of sand and dust and a harsh cry of “Raus”. A German armoured car skidded to a halt near the trench and, standing up in it, pistol in hand, was an Afrika Korps officer. My life as a prisoner of war had begun.
The slit trench had been an inhospitable shelter, hot and dusty and swarming with flies, but now, as I viewed the scene around me, I longed to be back there.
It was a scene of devastation and chaos. Knocked out tanks and burning trucks and equipment lay all around. Dazed prisoners wandered aimlessly about seeking comrades from whom they had become separated. The cries of the wounded were pitiable — cries of pain. Their pleas for water also fell mainly on deaf ears. Water was in very short supply and medical teams were overworked. Both British and German teams worked tirelessly but not all the wounded could get the attention they so badly needed. Some were left to suffer.
Then, with much shouting and pushing with rifle butts, those of us who could walk were assembled in some sort of order to begin what was to be a forced march across hundreds of miles of desert. Many were to die on that journey.
I never knew how many prisoners were taken that day. Some thousands, I would say, and they stretched out in a long straggling column. Immediately behind the German lines we passed a large number of dead bodies, bloated, swarming with flies. And then, further on, we had our own first casualties which came as a result of bombing by our own planes.
As the planes came over there was some waving from among our ranks at first, but as they peeled off to attack there were cries of “Hit the deck”. Like our guards, we scattered in the desert but not all escaped. A large number were killed and many wounded.
The Germans pushed us along quite quickly but not quickly enough to escape being shelled by our own 25-pounders. Again we suffered casualties – more walking wounded to be helped along making our progress slower. But at last we were out of the battle area and our thoughts turned to other things, mainly thirst. It developed into a raging thirst when all one could think about and imagine were rivers and gushing waters.
We stumbled along with promises of water in abundance at our first halt. But there was none the night of our first stop and we were on our way again by dawn.
As we trudged along I heard shots being fired from time to time and wondered what it could he. I soon learned the reason for the shooting. Some German trucks ahead of us came to a stop and, as they did so, some Indian troops ran towards them in search of water. Without hesitation, the Germans opened fire on them and a number fell. How many were killed and wounded I never knew. We were hustled away from the scene of the shooting.
Eventually, after an arduous journey north and many more hardships, Bill Blewitt and his fellow prisoners arrived at a camp called Suani Ben Adem. It sounded, he thought “attractive and rather romantic”. Soon he was to learn the truth. It was a hell hole, surrounded by barbed wire and a trip wire, and it was to be “home” for five months.
There was as yet no wood in the camp with which to make fires. Nor had the water cart delivered any water so there would be no issue of rations until the next day. From now on our lives were to be plagued by the word “domani”, meaning tomorrow. Even worse was the phrase “dopo domani” meaning after tomorrow, which, of course, could mean never.
There were a lot of Tynesiders in the camp and I was surprised to learn there were six of us who were from the mining village of Shiremoor or thereabouts. I became particularly friendly with Jack Yarrow, of the 4th Battalion Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
Another surprise was meeting up with my wife’s Uncle Duncan — nicknamed Peachy — a sergeant in the 4th RNF. We had last met at home on his return from Dunkirk. His closest friend was Dave Foster, his company sergeant major, another Tynesider. One day Peachy confided in me that he and Dave were planning to escape and were willing to include me in their plans if I agreed to tell no-one, not even my closest mates.
After much discussion we decided that the best way out was to crawl under the wire during the hours of darkness. We then began noting the movements of the sentries at nightfall but on my first real recce of the wire I came to grief and could no longer be considered a potential escapee.
It was late September or early October and conditions in the camp were worsening each day. Deaths through dysentery were commonplace and were an added spur to get out. Places for a possible break-out were noted during the day and Peachy and Dave had been examining them more closely after dark. I now joined them in this task, lying hidden in the scrub as near as possible to the trip wire and listening to the sentries as they passed by.
After they had moved on, we left our cover, and I had just stepped over the trip wire when disaster struck. My leg became entangled in the coiled wire and this rattled the tin cans which the Italians had tied to the wire. We sprang back for the shelter of the scrub and reached it just as the sentries began calling out to each other.
Later, by the light of a fire, I examined my ankle, which was really badly gashed. There were no medical supplies or bandages available so I had to tear up my shirt to bind the wound.
Next morning my foot was swollen to nearly twice its size and the wound was already beginning to fester. I was unable to get my boot on and for some considerable time was forced to go barefoot. It was now impossible for me to try and escape because there were hundreds of miles of desert between ourselves and freedom.
It was in the early hours of Sunday morning that the escape took place. I left Peachy and Dave late on Saturday night, not saying goodbye because they said they would wake me before they made their break. They didn’t — and I was never to see Dave Foster alive again.
I didn’t hear the shots which killed Dave but early the following morning I approached a crowd gathered at the place of the proposed escape and to my horror saw a body spreadeagled on the wire. Looking closer, I saw that it was Dave. Sorrowfully, and utterly disheartened, I turned away wondering what had happened to Peachy, and also thinking how lucky I was. Had I been fit enough there might have been two bodies hanging on the wire.
Dave’s body was left on the wire for two days or maybe more. Peachy was recaptured and put in the punishment compound where he received some very rough treatment before being taken to Italy. As for me, all thoughts of escape left my head. Indeed, my foot got gradually worse and conditions in the camp worsened even further.
Our condition became so bad that when rising from the ground it was not uncommon for us to topple over again. Even though we were starving, some of those who were really ill just stopped eating. When this happened, they just sat and died, past caring and beyond all help. The dysentery cases were now a pitiful sight. With only pieces of dark blanket around their midriffs, they sat almost motionless near to the latrines. When they died, they were carried out in a blanket.
The weather, too, became much worse. Most of us were still in the clothes in which we were captured, our summer clothing for the desert. This was now in rags. At night it was bitterly cold and at times very wet. Consequently it was nigh on impossible to sleep. Remarkably these conditions had no effect on the lice and fleas which seemed to flourish and multiply.
But things were changing. Drafts began to leave the camp for Italy. As for myself, in spite of the bad conditions, my ankle began to heal.
Eventually, Bill Blewitt’s name appeared on the draft list. After being issued with a shirt, he was herded into a large diesel truck en route for Tripoli, departure point for Italy.
It was goodbye to Suani Ben Adem without any misgivings. No place on earth could be worse, I thought. But I was sad too as I thought of the hundreds who had died in that hell hole through sheer neglect. And the Allies, if they were to be believed, never knew that the place even existed.
[Photograph with caption]: A wartime picture of Bill Blewitt – taken by a friendly Italian civilian behind enemy lines.
[Inset boxed feature with a picture of an older Bill]
[Subtitle] Bill Blewitt’s War
The 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War is nearing, and from that conflict emerged countless stories of triumph and tragedy. Many have since been told in print and on screen and some have become legend.
Beginning today, and continuing next week, we serialise one story which has never been published – that of an ordinary private soldier from the North-East who spent 12 months behind enemy lines after escaping from his captors.
Bill Blewitt, of Beal Drive, Palmersville, North Tyneside, was a window cleaner when, at the age of 20, he volunteered for the Territorials in May 1939. In January 1941 he was drafted to the Middle East with the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. Just over a year later, having transferred to the Sherwood Foresters, he was captured in the Western Desert.
Now a retired Post Office telephonist, Bill, above, looks back on his wartime adventures and insists: “I wasn’t particularly brave. To be honest, I only escaped because I fancied a good feed”
[* here indicates the underlined misquote referred to at the top of the page]
[Inset boxed feature on bottom left]
[Subtitle] The Geordie German
On the second day of my captivity I had a most remarkable experience. We were just about to move off when I heard a voice asking if there were any Tynesiders in our column. I kept quiet, remembering the old saying, “Volunteer for nothing”.
The voice was that of a German officer. He tapped me on the shoulder saying he recognised my dialect and would I go with him. He was quite polite about it and I noticed he had a packet of Players cigarettes.
We moved away from the crowd of prisoners and he asked what regiment I was in. I said that so far as I was aware I did not need to give him that information — only my number, rank and name. He accepted this and we talked mainly of the latest fighting in the desert.
He then changed the subject and began talking about England, especially Tyneside. He asked me where I came from and I said West Allotment. He asked me if I knew Wallsend, and when I said it was only two miles away he began speaking to me in my own dialect.
He spoke Geordie perfectly and said he and his family came to Tyneside shortly after the First World War. His father obtained employment in Wallsend but the family retained their German nationality, with the result that when he was on holiday in Germany as the war clouds were gathering he was recruited into the German Army.
As we parted he gave me the packet of Players, shook me by the hand and wished me luck. To this day I still think of the incident and wonder if he survived the war.
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[Subtitle] A diet of weevil bread
Bread was issued to each platoon and then to each group of six men. It was dirty in colour, kind of browny grey, weighed about 200 grammes and as a rule was full of dead weevils. This in no way deterred us from enjoying it.
Our meal in the afternoon or early evening consisted of one ladleful of rice with maybe a few vegetables mixed in. Once a week there would possibly be some meat in the stew.
At first our rice was very watery, and insipid due to a shortage of salt. The blame for this was laid at the door of the South African cooks and we tried to get rid of them, gathering round the cookhouse wire in a threatening manner. The Italians responded by mounting machine guns to protect the cooks but in the end they gave in and British cooks were installed. A great victory — or was it?
The British cooks did at least find out how to cook the rice to everyone’s satisfaction, though this may have been because they let it sit all day in the sun. We lived for today, but as time went by in Suani the food got gradually worse.
This was because the cooks bartered our rations with the Italians for such luxuries as eggs, cigarettes and wine. This was in addition to what was stolen before reaching the camp. I recall one incident when the cooks had to have their hair shaved off. They had been using the olive oil intended for our rations for hair oil and had contracted some sort of skin disease.
There is no doubt, in my opinion, that some of our own men were partly responsible for the terrible conditions in the camp.