After the Italian Armistice, Bill Bowder, RAF, and his friend, Peter Ellis, make their way from the POW camp at Fontanellato South towards, where rumour had it, the Allies had made landings. They made good progress in spite of disintegrating footwear resulting in very painful sore feet, and even managed to pay a quick short visit to San Marino. Their footwear became a very large problem, but they were unable to find suitable replacements and, at times, found themselves barefooted. They were sheltered and fed along the way by many Italians, who, despite the danger to themselves, insisted on helping. The final part of their escape was by sailing boat into Termoli, accompanied by a dozen Italians, including the Italian officer who arranged that part of the journey.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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BILL BOWDER, R.A.F. from Fontanellato with PETER MILLS [This is probably Peter Ellis]. Given by Rev. Bill Bowder, son.
This is rich in detail of the sort of experiences that very many POWs went through – until the end when the 2 met with rather inefficient paratroops brought in to help them get out but on their own initiative they finally make it by BOAT round the front line. BOOTS or lack of them is the overriding handicap but few had more luck in not being spotted, when they got into civilian clothes, by the many Germans they almost encountered.
Report of camera being used to record their exit from Camp. (Ronnie Noble informed KK that it proved to have no film in it.) BB and PM decide it is stupid to move off from hideout as a platoon and decide to make for Adriatic. Eat many grapes but are given eggs and bread and a map torn out of a school book. At first travel by night and then by day. At one point get a boat across a river as the many canals and rivers leading into the Po hinder them. The lack of BOOTS is their main handicap.
They hear radio and that they should leave chits with those who help them so that the Allies, when they arrive may reward them. 14th Sept -6th Day – already near Modena, and still have to shake loose from the road and rail on both of which there are many Germans. Move into the hills and reach their goal -San Marino. (Page 15) They are allowed to stay for only 12 hours and advised not to see the President as he was negotiating with Germans. They buy very cheap and shoddy shoes with BB’s watch. They get a lift on a lorry towards Ancona, while pretending to be Yugoslavs. Go into Macerata and meet many POWs in area. (/ Camps at Forzacosta, Monturano and Servigliano.) Rubber boots are disintegrating.
Hear a very low flying airplane at night. Next day hear that Parachutists have landed to help POWs. Find half a dozen of them with Guards Officer and a dozen POWs near Chieti. Told to make for Ortona where there is a boat coming in at night. They bribe an Italian to take them in a buggy to the mouth of the Foro River. They creep and crawl as do other POWs between the road, rail and beach – but no boat. Meet two Italians very helpful – Sebastian and Nicolas and are taken to find British soldiers all fast asleep including officers as they too had returned from the beach but with no guard. They have plenty of cigarettes, but no boots. They are given a meal and meet a partisan leader. The 2 are invited back for ‘tea’ – very welcome but sounding rather odd. They find a large crowd of POWs and one wounded soldier who has to be carried that night to get a boat with the POWs. 30 POWs, the Captain and 6 parachutists go, carrying the wounded soldier with 2 Officers escaped from Chieti Camp (they hear of its tragic taking over as they were not allowed by British CO to go), make way to beach at night. No boat comes. BB and PM after another failure of boat to arrive decide to go it alone and next day pass farm where POWs and soldiers are asleep and find the Italian owner frantic. BB finally is walking in bare feet. They hear the English radio news – almost all bad. At Fossacesia they find a boat owner who calmly leads them past Germans to his own house. Son of owner has already taken others to Allied lines at Termoli and agrees to take them. On way back to hideout they are stopped by Polizei – but allowed to go and to return next day to take boat. But Fossacesia is being systematically blown up by the Germans and all are fleeing.
They find 2 Italians are looking for them. One an Army Officer from Venice had met the other on a train down from Ancona – a wealthy businessman and they both wish to get through the lines. They meet a third Italian who had been a guard at POW camp and he had found a boat at San Vito. They browbeat the owner to take them the next night. They find the family in tears as the men are all going. They row for an hour and then raise the sail but are not sure that Termoli is in Allied hands until a German plane is fired on. They hail a ship in the harbour and the reply is in English. It had taken 5 weeks.
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R.G.M. (Bill) Bowder, R.A
Camp 49 was a large stone structure, built by the Fascist Government as an Orphanage, but had never been used as such. In fact no one had ever lived in it until early April 1943, when British Officers, Prisoners of War, were sent there from a number of Prison Camps in various parts of Italy. By the end of June of the same year there were five hundred British Officers in the camp and about one hundred and twenty other ranks, mostly South Africans, doing servant duties.
The camp, as far as Prison Camps went, was a good one. The Italian Commandant was a fair-minded man, and it was entirely due to him that so many of the officers and men were given the chance of escaping into Switzerland or to the British and American lines in the south of Italy, after the Italian Armistice on Sept. 9th, 1943.
The situation in Italy just before the Armistice was, as everyone knows, rather desperate. British troops had landed in Calabria soon after the collapse in Sicily. Mussolini had fallen from power on the 26th July, and ever since that date we in the camp itself and also the Italians with whom we came into contact, were expecting a total collapse at any moment.
Six weeks were to pass however from the date of the downfall of Mussolini to the signing of the Italian Armistice. At about seven o’clock in the evening of Sept. 8th, a feeling of suppressed excitement pervaded the camp, rumours of this armistice had reached us. Most of the officers were uncertain whether to believe it or not, and I for one was inclined to be rather sceptical, refusing to take the story seriously until I had heard something from official sources.
Outside the barbed wire, however, things were very different. The Italians sentries were wild with joy and Italian officers and men were shaking hands, embracing and clapping each other on the back, as though a great victory had been won by Italian arms, and we had not seen anything like it since the fall of Tobruk to the Axis troops in June 1942. We watched these scenes for some while, then all members of the camp were summoned to the Assembly room, where the Senior British Officer, Lt. Col. De Burgh, R.H.A. addressed us. He had just returned from an interview with the Italian Commandant who had told him there was nothing official so far to suggest that the rumours were true. Col. De Burgh requested us to behave ourselves and not give way to our feelings. He would keep in touch with the Commandant and let us know as soon as anything transpired.
I had arranged to play solo that night with three other officers, and I went off to keep my appointment. We didn’t play for long, however, as we were all in rather an excited frame of mind, and could not concentrate on the cards. Later there was still no definite news, so I went to bed, much too excited to sleep.
The next morning, the 9th September, there was no usual Roll Call bugle to wake us; this of course was a very good sign. I hurriedly dressed and went downstairs where I was smartly saluted by an Italian sentry, another very good sign. I walked round the enclosure with an officer friend, who told me that
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there was definitely an Armistice, but he did not like the way the Italians outside were being armed with light automatics and organising themselves. There were parties of them digging trenches around the camp. Loud explosions could be heard coming from the direction of Parma where it was reported that the Italians were offering some sort of resistance to the German garrison.
About nine o’clock, all officers and men were summoned to a Roll Call held by the Senior British Officer. He told us that he had kept in constant touch with the Commandant who had informed him that the Germans at Parma were expected to attack the camp, in which case the Commandant would order his troops to fight in defence of the Camp and would give us, the Prisoners, sufficient warning of the approach of the enemy.
The Senior British Officer had thought of helping the Italians to defend the camp against the Germans; on second thoughts he had decided that it would be best for us all to clear out as soon as the warning was given. He had made his plans known to the Commandant who had told him that a gap would be made in the barbed wire to facilitate our get-away. Col. De Burgh said that a British Officer together with one of the Italian Officers had already gone off to make a reconnaissance for a likely hiding place, and that when found we should all go and lie up there until the hue and cry was over, and if practicable we should all come back to the camp for the night. In the event of our having to leave the camp for good we must all be prepared to look after ourselves.
The Colonel said we must all go straight away and change into our battle dress and be ready to move at a minute’s notice. I went and packed, in an Italian army haversack, my shaving gear, towel and several bars of Yardley’s scented soap which I had received in a parcel from home some weeks before.
I noticed Italian soldiers digging trenches covering the main road which ran past the camp, and another party was making a gap in the barbed wire in preparation for our escape. The explosions from the Parma direction were continuing. Next I went and collected some light rations, consisting of one tin of biscuits, one tin of bully beef, one slab of chocolate, and two small apples.
At mid-day, I was standing with several officers chatting about events when we heard the alarm sounded followed immediately by the roar of aeroplanes overhead. We all rushed off and collected our belongings, and went out into the enclosure where the other prisoners were foregathering.
More German aeroplanes were flying over the camp as the whole six hundred of us formed up into separate companies and platoons; one of the Prisoners, a War Correspondent, was taking photographs with the camera he had in his possession when captured over a year before. The camera had been confiscated at the time, but given back to him luckily that very morning.
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In a few minutes we all started marching out through the gap in the wire, and in a very short time we were walking in vineyards and eating large quantities of grapes. Three Italian interpreters were with us, and they led us to the hiding place which had been discovered earlier on in the morning.
This hide-out was only about two miles from the camp; it consisted of a river bed thickly overgrown with trees; there was a little water, about two feet deep running through the middle of it. We all crowded into this thicket until we felt ourselves completely invisible to the outside world. Our plan was to stay there during the day and go back to the camp when darkness fell, should the alarm be over.
At sunset, however, news came which made our return out of the question; the Germans were furious with the Italians for letting us go, and had imprisoned all the officers including the Commandant. The Germans had occupied the camp and taken everything of value including about five thousand Red Cross food and tobacco parcels.
The six hundred of us occupied about one mile of the river bed, and that night sleep was impossible. It grew cold, and mosquitoes became very troublesome. We took it in turns to keep watch, and during my hour I could hear German transport on the road and shots being fired all through the night, by whom, or at whom, I have no idea.
At the time of our departure from the camp, Italian civilians told us that there had been Allied landings at Genoa and Trieste. We all believed these stories, and we thought that nothing worse could happen to us than an enforced halt in our present hiding place for a few days, when we would surely be rescued. The next day brought no confirmation of the rumour of the day before, concerning any Allied landings in Northern Italy.
As the day wore on, we began to realise that it would be every man for himself. Some boiled potatoes were scrounged from a friendly farm, and those together with half a tin of bully and some biscuits were all I had had to eat for nearly two days. Suggestions were made about splitting up into twos and threes and clearing out that night, but the Major in Command of my platoon would not hear of it, and prohibited any individual action, saying that the whole force would move as a body, that night, towards the South and the Appenines.
I went into conference with my friend Peter Ellis, and we both agreed that this scheme was sheer lunacy, so we decided that when it grew dark we would leave the main body and set off by ourselves. We drew a rough map of our position, as we knew it; we were roughly some thirty miles south of Milan, and about twenty miles northwest of Parma. A few miles to the north of us ran the River Po. We were about sixty miles as the crow flies from the Gulf of Genoa, and about one hundred miles from the Adriatic Sea. The frontier with Switzerland was less than seventy miles to the North.
Two alternatives were open to us: to make for Switzerland or to make for the South and join the Allied forces which we hoped would advance quickly
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so that we should not have a tremendous distance to walk. We chose the latter alternative and decided that to avoid running into the larger concentrations of German troops we must make for the Adriatic coast. We still hoped that the rumours of landings at Genoa and Trieste were true, as if this were so we argued we should be safe in no time, as most of the fighting would be taking place behind us.
When darkness came, and the company had started to move, Peter and I dropped out, and as soon as the force had passed us by, we turned in a Northerly direction and walked through the night by moonlight.
That first night’s march comes back to my mind as a haunting dream of vineyard after vineyard of grapes – purple, blue, green and yellow – long stretches of lonely road; the solitude of it all! The barking of dogs disturbed by our footsteps; swarms of mosquitoes which bit and buzzed and worried incessantly. We walked all night, resting for ten minutes every hour, and smoking the few cigarettes we had brought with us. We sat on a canal bank and watched the sun rise; we felt very sleepy and hungry.
We walked along the canal bank for a while, and then coming to a small cottage, we thought we would ask for some food and possibly shelter. In the yard at the back of cottage we found an old man and asked him for some food. I had learnt a certain amount of Italian during my captivity but a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. After a few minutes’ conversation with the old man I told Peter gleefully that he was going to give us some eggs. “I shan’t be sorry” said Peter, “for a change of diet after all those grapes.” The old man returned beaming with goodwill, and pressed into our hands not eggs but a miserable handful of rather sour looking grapes, and half the size of those we had been feeding on all night! I learnt that ‘eggs’ and ‘grapes’ in Italian have much the same sound, at least to the ear of the amateur. However, we cheered up when he directed us to a nearby farm where he said we might get a drink of milk.
We found the farm and as we entered the farmyard, we realised we had come at the right time as milking was in progress. Two or three boys and girls were busy with the milking, whilst a woman in her thirties appeared to be putting the milk into churns. We approached this woman and wished her good morning. She viewed us in a very suspicious manner and when we told her we were English she called out a very fierce looking dog. We saw no point in loitering on those premises; the dog escorted us out, and I had the satisfaction of hitting it with a brick.
We thought this rather a poor beginning; if that was a sample of the hospitality we were likely to receive we might as well give ourselves up right away, as grapes alone and nothing but grapes would hardly keep us alive. However, we determined to try the next farm we came to, hoping to receive better treatment. We didn’t have far to go before we reached another farm, and there the reception was indeed much better. An elderly man was in charge there and when we had told him who we were he took compassion on us, for we must have been by this time a sorry sight, and offered us a glass of milk each. He also gave us bread which we soaked in the milk and ate with much enjoyment. I asked him if we could
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possibly have some rest in his loft. He assured us that we would be very welcome. We climbed into the hayloft, lay down in the warm hay, and in a very short time were fast asleep.
About mid-day the farmer and his son came and woke us, and asked if we were ready for something more to eat. We said we were and he said he would send his son back with a dish of spaghetti and bread. Half an hour later the lad, a boy of about fifteen, returned with the food and a map of Italy torn from an atlas. After we had eaten the food we studied the map; we noticed the main road and railway running from Milan in a south easterly direction to the Adriatic sea at Rimini. We thought it would be easy to follow this railway, keeping in the plains on its northern side until it ran close to the Apennines east of Bologna; we should then have to take to the hills until we reached the sea, and then turn due south keeping the sea in sight on our left.
Having made these plans we went down to the yard again where we had a good wash and shave. The farmer’s wife presented us with two eggs each, and in return I gave her a bar of scented soap, which pleased her greatly, as soap had become very scarce in Italy.
At sunset we said goodbye to these good people and set off towards the rising moon. We had only walked about half-a-mile, however, when two men talking outside a house shouted at us and asked where we were going. At first we pretended to take no notice, but they were most insistent and coming up to us repeated their questioning. They were very friendly and we gathered they were trying to help us. We told them that we were British Officers from the Prison camp at Fontanellato and that we were going down South to join the Allied troops.
The younger of the two men said it was foolishness travelling at night as we would quite likely blunder into trouble, because within less than a mile we would come upon a German post. He told us to come into his house where we could talk things over. After some hesitation we followed him into the house. The other man shook us both by the hand, wished us luck, and left.
In the living room of the house we met our new friend’s family. His mother and father both well over sixty, his wife, in the early thirties and a baby daughter. There was also a middle aged woman – an evacuee from Turin. She had a son, a prisoner in Allied hands, and she made us promise that when we were safe we would put in a good word for her thereby helping her son who was in a camp in Algeria.
The family was very friendly and eager to help us in every way possible. The women started preparing a meal and a girl in the early twenties who appeared to be the man’s sister was most eager that we should go to her house and spend the night there. I asked if I could see a newspaper and when one was brought Peter and I were most disappointed to read that the only landing that had taken place was in the Salerno Bay, and that there was every possibility that our forces would be thrown back into the sea.
All in the house, except Peter and myself, were must confident that the Allies would reach North Italy within a week and they suggested that we should remain there as guests for that period. We declined the very generous offer with
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thanks, and said that we must get on as fast as we could.
The young man then said that with civilian clothes we be able to travel by day without fear, whereas at present in uniform we must perforce travel at night. He said he could let us have civilian clothes in exchange for our battledress, and went off and returned with one boiler suit; one pair of trousers, and one jacket to match the trousers.
The jacket and trousers were much too small for me, so Peter had to have them, the boiler suit was nearer my size. We went into an adjoining room and changed into these clothes. The young man said that now we would certainly pass for Italians except for our boots which would certainly give us away. He said he would change our boots for shoes. He went off and returned with three or four pairs of very cheap looking shoes. Peter and I didn’t very much like the idea of giving our boots away, it was quite possible we would have to walk quite a long way, and the shoes offered us in exchange wouldn’t stand up to very hard work. However, the young man persuaded us that the boots would be sure to give us away, so finally we found a pair to fit us more or less and handed the Italian our boots. This of course was a fatal mistake and very nearly cost us our freedom.
Now that we were dressed in civilian clothes we didn’t see why we shouldn’t travel by day and rest by night. We had been told that the country was full of Italian soldiers in civilian clothes making their way to their own homes. The young man who had given us the clothes was himself a soldier having returned home directly he heard about the Armistice. Peter and I thought we could pass ourselves off as a couple of Italian soldiers and when questioned say we were going to our homes in Southern Italy. Peter was given a cap to cover his blond hair, and I think we both looked our part.
After we had eaten a very good meal we were readily persuaded to stay the night. Peter and I shared the double bed in the best bedroom; it had of course been previously occupied by the young man and his wife, but they wouldn’t listen to our protests. We slept exceedingly well that night, and in the morning we awoke ready to meet anything the future might hold in store for us.
That morning, after another meal consisting of bread soaked in ersatz coffee, we asked if the eggs which the woman at the first farm had given us might be boiled, and when this was done we said goodbye and set off through a countryside full of vineyards. We picked and ate the grapes as we walked.
We passed a number of people who showed a certain amount of curiosity, but on the whole they confined their questions to “Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?” To the first we replied “Milan”, and to the latter “Foggia”, which drew from most of them a low whistle; some of the questioners tumbled to the fact that we weren’t Italians and they of course became more curious, but we didn’t linger to give any further details.
About midday we came across a wide river which proved quite an obstacle.
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It was too deep to wade across, so we walked along the bank for about a mile until we came to a small cottage by the water-side, and moored alongside was a little boat. We enquired at the cottage if we might row across the river in the boat, and the man who answered the door said that he would row us across when he had finished his meal, in the meantime would we come inside and sit down. We entered the living room of the tiny cottage where the man, his wife, and about half-a-dozen children of all ages were having a meal. We sat talking to them for about half-an-hour, and of course we had to tell them who we were. While we were sitting talking a man wheeling a bicycle and carrying a suitcase came to the cottage. He proved to be one of the sentries from the camp, and was on his way home; he told us that the Germans, when they found that the prisoners had escaped, only remained a few hours, and that when they had gone the Italians had all deserted.
We rowed across the river and set off at a brisk walk, and in a couple of hours came to our second obstacle, a deep muddy canal. Peter took off his shoes and stockings, rolled up his trousers above the knees and attempted to wade across, but gave up the attempt when he found himself sinking into the mud. We walked down the canal bank about half a mile and came across some children bathing in the canal. The water here appeared to be shallower, and we waded across quite easily. The children hurriedly dressed themselves and made off towards a village. We walked on for about ten minutes, when we heard shouting behind us, and on looking round we say the same children running towards us and shouting to us to come back.
One boy ran up to us. “Who are you?” he shouted. I replied that we were soldiers. “Italian soldiers?” he said. “No.” “Then are you Germans?” I said “No we are English”. This seemed to make him very happy and he wanted us to come back and meet his mother, and pointed to a woman who was hurrying towards us; when she reached us breathless, she begged us to go back to her house and remain there the night, for longer if we wanted. She would look after us, she said, but we declined her kind offer, and told her that we had to get on.
We moved on through the vineyards passing numbers of Italians, who eyed us with much curiosity, though in no unfriendly manner; judging by their wild gesticulations no direction was safe from Germans. Wherever we went they turned us back – “No, no,” they would cry. “The Germans are there, it is not safe – you will be caught”. A few of the more sensible said the Germans were only using the roads and were billeted in the towns, and large villages, and that we should be safe in the countryside. We called at occasional farmhouses to ask for water; eating grapes we found made us very thirsty. It grew dark and as there was going to be a bright moon we decided to go on through the night.
We crossed another river, not so difficult as the one before, and came to a farmhouse where a man and his wife and three children offered us wine and bread. We asked if they had a radio and if so might we listen to the B.B.C. as we badly wanted some authentic news. We had heard nothing but rumours so far. The farmer said he had no set but that there was one in a house in the neighbouring village. Another man who had come to listen to our conversation said he would direct us. We followed this man to a little hamlet where he knocked on the door of a house and told the woman in a very loud voice who and
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what we were, and in a very short time the entire population crowded round us. A nasty little man who appeared to have some authority became suspicious and told us it was against the law to listen to London. I think he was frightened by our general appearance and being of a suspicious nature thought that we might be Germans in civilian clothes. We drank some water at the village pump and left.
The moon was well up in the sky by this time, and we made steady progress but it was not easy to walk in country cut by canals every half mile, all running northwards into the River Po, and as we were heading East we had to find a way across every one of them, in consequence we walked many miles further than necessary.
About midnight, exhausted, we lay down in the middle of a ploughed field and decided to eat our bread and eggs. The mosquitoes were the worst I had encountered in any part of the world, and in a very short time we were bitten from head to foot. When we had finished our meal, we put our spare pair of socks over our bare hands and spread our handkerchiefs over our faces and tried to sleep. It was quite hopeless, and after an hour of torment we gave it up and decided to go on walking. We continued through the vineyards and over the canals, for another three hours, covering several miles not all in the right direction, and decided that in future we should avoid walking by night. Just before dawn we lay down on a canal bank and covering ourselves up as before, dozed for an hour, in spite of mosquitoes and the cold.
When we awoke the sun was rising and we noticed a nearby farm. We walked towards it and on entering the yard saw that milking was in progress. An old man and a lad of about fifteen seemed to be the only people about. I immediately told the old man who we were and that we wanted food and rest. The lad was the old man’s son, and they both proved to be very friendly. They gave us a drink of milk and a piece of bread, and said we could rest in the hayloft where we would be quite safe. The old man said he had a radio and listened frequently to the B.B.C. Radio London had broadcast that all Italians should aid escaping prisoners in every way possible, and that all prisoners in the North of Italy should be urged to make for Switzerland. Also that prisoners on receiving help from the Italians should present them when leaving with a note to the effect that they had received help, so that the Italians would be recompensed when the Allies occupied their part of the country.
The farmer said that the B.B.C. broadcast in English was at mid-day, and that we should listen to it that day. In the meantime, we must go and sleep, and he would send his son to waken us. He gave us a couple of blankets, and we lay down in the hay of a dark loft, and very soon we were fast asleep.
At about eleven o’clock, the boy came and told us to come into the house for a meal. We were shown into a back room, and the farmer’s wife and daughter served us a very nice meal of spaghetti and cheese cooked in olive oil, and spread with
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tomato sauce, a bottle of local wine, and a large red apple was placed in front of each of us. We did justice to this lovely meal, except for the apples which we decided to keep for the road. When we had finished we asked for pencil and paper and I wrote a letter to the effect that we had been kindly treated by this family.
The farmer’s daughter, a girl in her late ‘teens, brought in a large wireless set, and we thought now at last we were going to hear some authentic news. The girl fiddled with the numerous knobs on the set, but the only sounds that came out of it were squeaks and groans, and finally she gave it up with an apologetic smile.
We were disappointed at not hearing the B.B.C. but were very thankful for the meal which we had just enjoyed. As we sat contemplating our beautiful apples we heard the sound of a car drive up to the house and stop. We heard someone go to the door, and a few seconds later the door of our room flew open. The old farmer burst in; we could see he had received a terrible shock as his face was as white as a sheet. We were soon to receive a shock ourselves, for the old man, hardly able to speak, whispered ‘Tedesche” (Germans). Peter and I jumped up from the table, and grabbing our apples, we were out through the back premises and into the back garden like a couple of rabbits. We dived into the undergrowth and lay hidden for a few minutes; we heard a car engine start up and drive away, and the farmer reappeared smiling, but still pale, and told us that some Germans had come and demanded wine, and having got it they had driven away. The incident had shaken the old man, however, and he regretted he could not have us in the house again. His son brought us our belongings and in a few minutes we were on the road again.
We continued walking the whole of that day. It was the 13th September, and we had been free now for five whole days, and enjoying ourselves immensely. The countryside was pleasant and full of vineyards which offered both food, in the shape of luscious grapes, and good cover. We seldom travelled on roads, and when we had to cross them we were careful to see that there was no-one to see us do so. Peter and I couldn’t see why, if we continued in the same way, we shouldn’t make good progress, and if only the Allies would advance quickly, and keep the warfare fluid, there shouldn’t be much difficulty in crossing the German lines, when the time came to do so.
With pleasant thoughts in our heads, we journeyed on. There was, however, a little worry at the back of our minds – our cheap Italian shoes were already beginning to show signs of wear, and it was quite certain they wouldn’t last very much longer. We had no idea what we would do when they wore out, we had very little money, shoes were very scarce in Italy at that time, and the Italians valued them highly, so we were not likely to be given a pair.
Towards evening on the 13th September, we came to a very small farm. Two old men who were brothers owned the place, and their wives vied with each other in making us comfortable. These two families were very poor, and ignorant, but naturally kind hearted, and appeared to be very happy in their ignorance. I remember one of the
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old men wanting to know if England was in Italy; his brother laughed him to scorn and said it was much nearer France. He had served in the last war, and remembered the British as allies, and he said that as soon as Mussolini declared war on England he had become very sad, and knew that Italy would lose the war, in the end, as England could never be defeated.
These good people killed a chicken especially for us, and very good it tasted too. We were shown to our beds in an outhouse already occupied by a vast old sow, and we lay down in the straw, but sleep would not come; the pig grunted abnormally and the mosquitoes were very troublesome; it was very hot. We each took an armful of straw, and went out into the open where the breeze helped to keep the mosquitoes away, and far from the grunting pig we slept in snatches of a few minutes at a time. Early the next morning, we washed and shaved, and when we were ready said goodbye to the old people. I gave the two old women a bar of lux soap each; they appreciated this very much saying they had not seen any soap for over two years.
We were now in the neighbourhood of Modena, where we knew there was a large Prisoner of War camp for Allied officers, and Peter and I wondered what their fate had been. We sincerely hoped they had been as lucky as us. The countryside was very fertile and flat, so we made good progress. We hoped to keep up an average of twenty miles a day, and I think we must have done that, and rather more at times. We seemed to have everything in our favour. The climate, the friendly peasants, and the abundant vineyards with luscious grapes to give us energy.
The peasant women were especially friendly, calling out greetings as we passed, and when one would ascertain our nationality, she would pass on the information, and many would come running to wish us luck, carrying bunches of grapes, and jugs of wine. One girl, seeing that I was bareheaded, took off her cap, an old Gor blimey, and insisted that I wear it.
These people never seemed to drink water, and there were times when we had to insist on water, because we found ourselves getting quite drunk and sleepy on the wine. In this country we would cross never less than two rivers a day and several canals. It had been a particularly dry summer, and the rivers were shallow, so we were able to cross in most cases by simply rolling up our trousers about the knees and wading across.
One evening we came to a particularly nice clean farmhouse, occupied by a large family. They made us very welcome. They were rather more well-to-do people than we had associated with so far. A visitor there, a man of about fifty, had decidedly fascist views, but even he appeared quite friendly, and gave us some tobacco which we rolled into cigarettes. He talked politics in quite a broadminded manner, blaming a clique of Italian generals for Italy’s defeat. He was quite certain that Germany would be victorious in the end. I remember also, a very pretty girl, as friendly as she was pretty, but both she and the fascist left before nightfall, and we hoped that the fascist wasn’t going to “spill the beans”. However our hosts seemed to trust him, so we thought everything must be alright.
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We had a good wash and shave and sat down to a wonderful meal consisting of spaghetti, cooked in olive oil, and as a special treat, a poached egg. While we were enjoying this meal the head of the house came and told us that he had just heard that the Germans were offering a reward for the recapture of escaped prisoners, and that any Italians helping prisoners in any way would be very severely dealt with. Peter and I at once suspected our fascist friend of telling the farmer this, but we may have been wrong.
We told the farmer that we were very grateful for what he had already done for us, and that we would find another shelter for the night if he wished, but the women in the house would not hear of our moving, and gave us very comfortable beds in the straw in a barn, where in due course we slept like the dead for we were very tired.
In the morning I wrote out a letter addressed to the British Authorities and gave it to the farmer. I told him to hand it to an Allied officer when that part of Italy should be liberated. I told him that it was all we could do in repayment for their kindness.
Our shoes about this time began to show signs of serious wear, and we became very apprehensive. We had between us about one hundred lire, less than fifteen shillings, and in Italy at that time we learned the cost of a cheap pair of shoes was eight hundred lire. Our clothes too were becoming ragged.
The next few days passed in a very similar way to the ones I have tried to describe. We were now in the Bologna area and we had decided to by-pass the town to the East, cross the main road and railway, between that town and Imola and then head due South into the Apennines, with the object of reaching the tiny republic of San Marino where it might be possible we thought to ask for help, as we were under the impression that the Republic was neutral.
It was while we were in the neighbourhood of Bologna that we met our first English speaking Italian. We called at a farmhouse to beg a drink of water, and while we were helping ourselves at the pump a rather pretty woman of about twenty-five or so came up and started asking the usual questions, from where had we come? and where were we going? We gave the stock replies. We had come from Parma and we were going to Foggia. This woman got from us the information that we were British Prisoners and telling us to remain where we were ran off into the house, and reappeared in a few minutes with a short, dark man, who started to question us in the same way as the woman had done.
Our questions appeared to satisfy him, for he broke into quite fluent English, with a strong American accent, and invited us into the house. He told us that he had lately deserted from his Regiment in Yugoslavia and had only returned to his home, which was in Bologna two days ago, but he found living in Bologna for the likes of him not too healthy at the present. He had come out into the country bringing his wife with him. He urged us to remain in the farm
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until the Allies should arrive, a matter of a few days, a week at the most he thought. He and his wife would look after us for that period and we should be quite safe.
I thought this a most attractive offer, but Peter didn’t like the look of it, so we decided not to accept. We thought that this Italian had rather more faith in Allied arms than we had; however they were very disappointed, and tried hard to make us change our minds. He went off to another part of the house and returned in a few minutes with an armful of old clothes. The clothes Peter had on were in a rather better condition than mine, so I changed from my tattered boiler suit into his clothes, while Peter selected a dark suit of very poor material which fitted him quite well. The trousers Peter had been wearing were much too short for me, and I looked rather like a chinaman with trousers cut off at the shins. I also donned an open collar shirt for which I was very thankful. The woman brought me a black imitation leather shopping bag, and I transferred my few belongings from the Italian army haversack into this bag, hoping it wouldn’t look quite so conspicuous.
The Italian said he had a brother living a mile or so away, who had a radio set to which we could listen if we liked. He was going there now and would tell his brother to prepare a meal for us. He said he would return in half-on-hour, meanwhile his wife would entertain us. He jumped on a bicycle and was gone. As soon as he was out of sight, not very much to our surprise, his wife started flirting outrageously, and tried to gain our sympathy by telling us about the dreadful bombing of Bologna where she had been working in a store, while her husband was away in Yugoslavia. I was sorry for her, but Peter was firm and said as soon as the man returned we were going, if not before.
At length our friend returned with a man whom he introduced as his brother; they looked nothing like each other. He said they had been listening to Radio London and that the Allies were advancing at a tremendous rate up the Peninsula, and that we really must stay, it would only be for a matter of two or three days, and then we would be safe. Peter had come to dislike this fellow intensely and told me to be rude to him. I told Peter I didn’t know the Italian for the words he wanted me to use, so he would have to be content with my telling the Italian that we were both determined to go on right away.
We had walked about two miles away from the farm when we were caught up by the two brothers on bicycles. They begged us to come back; they said it was madness our trying to get through on our own, the Boche would get us and would be sure to shoot us. Even I had become somewhat suspicious by this time; these two were much too good to be true, and I rather abruptly told them that we were determined to go on, and on we went.
That night we spent at the house of an Italian soldier, his wife, and children. A number of his friends dropped in; they were all deserters from the Italian army. Our host had been stationed on an anti-Aircraft gun in Milan and was a great admirer of the R.A.F. These people seemed not to bear the slightest
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animosity towards us nor did they feel any sort of shame at having lost the war. A rather rowdy card party developed and was going strong as Peter and I sought our beds in the hayloft.
We started off early the next morning and while crossing a main road ran slap into the middle of a German Convoy moving along the road. The German soldiers in the lorries did not take the slightest notice of us however, so we simply crossed the road and went on our way towards the great main road and railway which runs from North of Milan in a straight line South East to Rimini via Bologna. We crossed this highway at about midday on the following day, near the town of Imola and immediately started to climb the Apennines. It became increasingly apparent as we climbed that our shoes were done for, but we were in high good humour, as Peter remarked “Now at last we are going to meet the 8th Army”, for here in the hills we felt considerably safer, and there were still grapes in abundance. The farms however were much smaller and the peasants poorer and did not seem to be quite so friendly towards us.
Our feeling of security didn’t last however as a woman we spoke to told us that only the evening before an English Prisoner had been recaptured by the Germans in a house only a few hundred yards away, and that German patrols roamed the hills.
The going in the hills was very hard work; it was a case of climbing, sometimes on our hands and knees up the steep sides and once on the top, sliding and scrambling down the reverse sides. Towards evening on our first day in the Apennines we came to a small village where outside a house we saw an Italian reading a newspaper. We had a craving for news and I went up to him and asked him for the loan of his paper. He was a tall man for an Italian and well dressed and I couldn’t help admiring his good brown leather boots. I put him down to be a keeper of some sort for he had a double barrelled shot gun by his side. He viewed us with a certain amount of suspicion and started questioning me very thoroughly until I began to feel I had made a bit of a bloomer talking to this man at all. When he seemed to have satisfied himself he started to read from his newspaper a proclamation by the Germans offering a reward of £20 sterling or 1800 lire to any Italian giving information leading to the recapture of British and American Prisoners-of-War, and threatening Italians with trial by Military Tribunal should they offer assistance in any way to escaping prisoners. We did not like the look of this man at all but he was good enough to give us the paper; I think he had rather an abrupt manner but was at heart quite friendly towards us. A woman took pity on us and gave us a meal of bread and macaroni and a couple of cigarettes each. She told us that the man we had been speaking to was not a fascist and we need have no fears concerning him.
We left that village just as night was falling. We climbed to the top of a high hill and there sat down by the setting sun; we read the paper we had been given. We were certainly not very encouraged by what we read. Allied troops on the beaches at Salerno were about to be pushed back into the sea and the Eighth Army was still in Calabria, a very long way away from us. I read the German proclamation concerning prisoners again, just to cheer us up, and then feeling thoroughly miserable we sought a couple of small haystacks, made a hole in each of them, and went off to sleep, under a bright and starry sky.
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We set off at sunrise the next morning and after about an hour’s walking or rather climbing, up the side of one hill and scrambling down the side of another we sat down to our usual breakfast of bread and grapes and became very much aware of the fact that we badly needed a bath. The days had been hot, we had sweated freely even in the plains and here in the Apennines we were in a lather of perspiration. We decided that at the next convenient river we should have a really good wash down. Our chance came at mid-day when after descending into a valley we found a nice quiet stream with a sandy bottom. We stripped and washed ourselves all over. Feeling much better for this bath we donned our clothes and set off again in the direction of San Marino. We calculated that it was still some three days’ march away. We thought our shoes might just last that time.
My right foot began worrying me about this time; the ankle was swollen and felt hot to touch. I hoped fervently it would get no worse; it was probably due to the rotten condition of my shoes. I took the opportunity of bathing my feet at every stream we came to, and I was thankful to see an improvement after a few days of this treatment. Peter also had blisters on both his feet and was literally walking on his uppers.
I remember one day particularly, about this time – a Sunday. At midday we arrived at a farm just as it was starting to rain. There was a large family here, three young men with their wives and children making about a dozen in all. The young men were soldiers, or rather ex-soldiers, for now they had exchanged the plough for the sword. They invited us to partake of their midday meal and there was as much to eat as we wanted; in fact it was the first time I had had a belly-full since I had been captured seventeen months before. The young men had been serving on the Russian front and had a very healthy respect for the Russian army.
We thanked them and set off again; it had stopped raining but the going had become very heavy and often we would slither down the sides of hills from top to bottom on our backsides to the detriment of our clothes.
We called at a farmhouse at about four o’clock to beg a drink of water and were given the usual glass of wine. While we were drinking an old lady came out and spoke to us in English; she said she had a house in Forli but had evacuated it when the Germans had occupied the town and had come up here to live with two young nieces, girls of about twenty. She was very halting in her English as she had not spoken it for a number of years, but she seemed to enjoy speaking to us and we encouraged her. Imagine our surprise when she asked us to stay to tea. Tea was the last thing in the world we expected here; we knew that Italians very seldom drank it and of course in wartime Italy it was unheard of. We must have shown surprise in our faces, for the old lady smiled and said that her nephew had brought it back to Italy from N. Africa; she little thought that it would be put to such good use in the end. We helped the old lady and her nieces in the making of it for they were not very expert, and while the water was boiling we asked for water to wash and shave in; when this had been done five of us sat down to tea on the terrace of the house overlooking range on range of hills right to the Adriatic Sea which we could just make out away in the distance. They had made us some buttered toast as well. I think they must have used up nearly all their rations, but they seemed to be enjoying the situation as much as us.
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As the shadows began to fall we thanked these kind people and made our way down the hill in search of a bed for the night. While we were walking along a lane a boy of about fifteen riding a bicycle caught us up, dismounted and started talking in a friendly way. He soon found out we were British and was thrilled. He produced from his coat pocket a large leaflet, which he said had been dropped by the R.A.F. The leaflet depicted a large German Jackboot trampling on a map of Italy and appealing to the Italians to throw off the Nazi yoke. This lad was most enthusiastic and said he was going to stick the leaflet up in some conspicuous place for all to see.
We were not successful at finding shelter that night; we were refused at two farms, the people were obviously frightened by the proclamations the Germans had made in the papers about giving help to British POWs. We were lucky in finding a rather dirty straw-rick as it was becoming too dark to see, and we made that our bed for the night. Before we went to sleep we thought we had better change our nationalities to Yugoslavs as the Germans were not offering any rewards for Yugoslavs so we thought we stood less chance of being given away than if we retained our British nationality. We didn’t adopt Yugoslavian nationality until three days later.
The next day a very high peak came into view; it stood well above the surrounding hills, and on enquiry we learnt that this was the Republic of San Marino. We pushed on towards it and by mid-day on the day following we began to climb up the winding track which led up to the town which is situated on the summit of the mountain. Peter’s feet were in a bad way and our progress was slow; it took us several hours to climb this hill. We at last arrived outside a typical Frontier post and standing on the road outside a small building were two men dressed up in chocolate soldier uniforms. We approached them and I questioned the elder of the two, the other was a mere boy. I enquired if we were in San Marino and was told that we were. I told this gentleman who turned out to be a representative of the San Marino Police Force, who we were and that we were badly in need of shoes; we asked if it would be possible to enter the Republic, which we understood to be neutral, and see what we could do about getting ourselves some footwear. I also asked him if it would be possible to have an interview with the President of the Republic.
The Policeman told us that we were welcome and hoped that our stay in San Marino would be a happy one, but unfortunately it would have to be a short one as foreigners were only allowed to stay within the Republic for twelve hours; another fly in the ointment was the fact that a number of German officers came to the town sightseeing and should we be arrested by these officers, it was unlikely that anything could be done about it. He said that there was a market in the new town and that shoes were sold there, but that they were very expensive; however there was no harm in examining the goods. As to having an interview with the President, he, the Policeman, did not think it would be very advisable, as he had heard that German officers were received officially by the President and that it was possible that some were closeted with him even now. We thanked this gentleman for his information and walked on up the hill towards the town. The new town was built on the slopes of the hill below the old town, the battlemented towers of which were visible on the summit of the mountain.
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[Black and white photograph of San Marino with the caption]: ‘Looking like the proverbial castle in the air, the town of San Marino, capital of the Republic sprawls atop Mt. Titanus. At the peak is the tower of Cesta, the town’s ancient castle which is now empty.’
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We noticed that embossed on the walls of all public buildings was the emblem of a three turreted castle with the motto ‘Libertas’. This heartened us considerably and we decided there and then that we would go to the old city and demand to see the President and ask for protection and help. An old man driving a rickshaw got into conversation with us and on learning who we were told us that it would be madness to go to the Old City as the President was known to be entertaining German officers at this very moment, so we quickly changed our minds and asked to be directed, instead, to the market.
The market was being held in a square in the centre of the little town. The stalls seemed to have quite a lot of commodities for sale. Cars were running about the streets and the people looked fairly well dressed and prosperous. We noticed a stall with shoes for sale, cheap, brown imitation leather shoes and also a pile of second hand Italian Army boots. We realised of course we couldn’t hope to buy the shoes as we only had 100 lire between us; but we thought we might be able to strike a bargain for the old boots. Peter and I both had very good silver watches, and watches also were very rare and costly in Italy at that time. We approached the vendor, a man in his fifties, who had a boy of about fifteen assisting him. I enquired the price of the cheap looking shoes and wasn’t really surprised when he said 800 lire, about £11 at the pre-armistice rate of exchange. The price of the old Italian army boots were 100 lire a pair but they were in rotten condition and the leather was as hard as board and we knew we couldn’t wear them. I told the vendor who we were and what were our intentions. I told as good a story as I could and was listened to most sympathetically and when I had finished, just to cheer us up he told us that only that very morning he had seen a great number of British prisoners of war passing through Rimini station on their way to Germany. However, he did produce four or five pairs of frightful looking rubber boots which he said he would let us have for 100 lire a pair. I told him that we had no money but we would barter our watches for the rubber boots. I handed him my watch, a very fine silver one which had been given to me by my father some twelve years before, and kept excellent time. The fellow examined it and gave me to understand that he was content, so Peter and I tried on the rubber boots and discovered that all pairs were much too big for us; I think they were meant to wear over the top of shoes in wet weather, but anything was better than the foul shoes we already had, so we laced them up and Peter made to undo his watch strap to hand over in exchange for his pair of boots when it struck me that the Italian had misunderstood me, not a difficult thing to do, and was content with my watch for the two pairs of boots. I quickly told Peter to hang on to his watch, before the man realised his mistake or rather my mistake for he would certainly have taken Peter’s watch as well if given the chance.
So once again, this time with our feet protected by rubber, we set off. We walked down the reverse side of the mountain we had climbed earlier on in the day. The Sammarinese were very friendly people and I well remember two pretty girls, who invited us to have a meal in their home speak of the British as “Our Friends”.
That night just on the San Marino side of the Border we slept in a farm house where the family did everything possible to make us comfortable. The next morning we crossed into Italy again and headed for Ancona on the Adriatic. We kept in the hills overlooking the sea; there were only small farms dotted about and we felt fairly safe, but after two days of this we found signs of wear in our rubber boots.
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They were most uncomfortable to walk in making our feet hot and sweaty; mine had developed a crack right across the soles and I knew it wouldn’t be long before they were finished.
Soon after we left San Marino we began calling ourselves Yugoslavs and one day while walking along a road we stopped one of the very few Italian lorries which were still about and begged a lift into Ancona which we said we wanted to reach in the hopes of finding a ship to take us across the Adriatic to Yugoslavia. We scrambled aboard sacks of coal in the back and got a lift for some thirty miles along the road to Ancona. The man riding in front came and sat with us at the back and told us that he had seen service in Yugoslavia and did we come from Croatia; I said no our homes were in the mountains of Montenegro and that we had been prisoners since the beginning of hostilities. He gave us some tobacco and we made cigarettes out of brown paper and had our first smoke in days. We dropped off the lorry a few miles North of Ancona where we were again lucky in finding food and shelter for the night. The next day we avoided Ancona by keeping well in the hills. The days following were very much the same as the ones preceding.
One day we met a band of three Yugoslavs bound for a port on the Adriatic where they hoped to get a boat to carry them across to Yugoslavia. One of them said they had come across a German truck unattended by the roadside and after throwing all the contents in the ditch had upset the truck and then bolted. We viewed this with mixed feelings hoping that if the Germans were looking for the Yugoslavs they wouldn’t find us by mistake.
Another day we met two Italian soldiers who had journeyed down from the Brenner Pass and were on their way to Sicily. We joined forces for a few miles but one of them was very suspicious of us and lagged several hundred yards behind. His pal told us that he thought we were Germans in civilian clothes and was afraid that we might lead them into a trap. At a house we stopped at to enquire the way the owner learning Peter and I were British invited us in and gave us a drink of good wine and a cigarette, while the two Italians were left outside to drink the usual raw wine; this had a further adverse affect on the Italians who thought it would be better if we parted. We were not sorry as though they were useful in speaking to their countrymen they were inclined to panic thereby making us jumpy so we went off on our own.
Another day we found ourselves in the middle of a fairly large town, Macerata, and saw, now twenty yards from us, a German Sentry standing outside a building. We halted wondering whether to go back the way we had come, which meant a detour of several miles or risk it and walk past the sentry. Across the road opposite him were some boys playing in the street and the real risk was that if these should gather we were not Italians they might give us away without really meaning to. We decided to risk it in the end and as it was getting late and we should soon have to be looking out for a place for the night.
With our hearts in our mouths we strolled past the sentry; when we passed the boys one of them shouted at us but we pretended not to hear and were soon out of earshot. After that we did our best days’ march between Macerata and Jesi, a distance of over 40 kilometres and hard going all the way.
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It was on this particular march that we met two other British POWs. They had come from the other Ranks Camp near Macerata and said they and several hundred others had broken out just before the Germans had taken over the camp and still hundreds of them were lying about the countryside waiting to be relieved by the Allies. Many of them were working on the farms in the neighbourhood and were quite happy. Peter and I wished we had had the same chance these fellows had had; we thought we might have been free by now. It was the fact that there were so many escaped POWs about that made us push on as hard as we could as we considered this a dangerous area. Another day while passing through a village, a long straggling one, we had come through most of it without incident but while passing a wine shop things began to happen. Two men jumped at us and before I knew what was happening we were inside the wine shop being slapped on the back and drinking quantities of wine, good stuff too. Two of the large crowd which had collected spoke a sort of English having been in America. They told us that at Ascoli Piceno, a nearby town, many Germans had been killed that day by Partisans operating in the hills and if we liked they would lead us to their stronghold and we could join them. I remember a one-armed man, the very image of Peter Lorre, giving us details as to what would happen to any Germans who set foot in Apenigino. I remember a young priest who was no less bloodthirsty; he brought out of his gown a packet of twenty cigarettes and offered them to us. We hadn’t smoked for days; there was a tremendous crowd staring in at us from the window. The whole situation beggars description; it seemed to me so unreal like being in the middle of some robber stronghold. In about ten minutes we were both very nearly drunk and didn’t care what became of us. We were introduced to two pretty girls who said they would come to England with us. We understood there were quite a lot of British POWs in hiding near this village and were told we could stay for as long as we liked, they would hide us. We said we wanted shelter for that night and tomorrow, we would see about the rest. The one-armed man who looked like Peter Lorre, and several others led us off to a farmhouse where we were given a meal consisting of bread, cheese, nuts and more wine. I remember Peter Lorre’s effort at Tipperary and telling us that tomorrow we would have a real party.
That night we slept in a farm cart with some straw and next morning woke with a shocking hangover, both of us. We planned that we would get out of this area as quickly as possible, because if all what was told us about Jerrys being killed by Partisans was true this was likely to become a very unhealthy place for the likes of us. So we told the farmer we were off and he appeared very disappointed at the thought that we were not to remain for that night’s party.
We walked that morning along a river bed; the stones did our rubber boots no good and tears began to appear on the soles; however we pushed on. We met two other POWs who were still in battledress, both of them Cockneys who told us they had very nearly been captured that day having hid on one side of a hedge while the Germans searched the other side. We suggested that it might make any passing Germans less suspicious if they changed their battledress for civilian clothes. Later on that evening we met three flashily dressed Italians in a buggy. The driver, a young swarthy looking fellow dressed in brown breeches and riding boots, green tweed sports coat, red tie and brown cloth cap, told us he was an Italian Artillery Officer from Pescara. He had evacuated his wife and child to a village nearby and he would be only too pleased to give us food and shelter for the night. He told us to walk on towards the village which was about 5 kilometres away and wait outside it for him as he had some business to do. We thanked him and walked on towards the village where we arrived just before dark and hadn’t been waiting long before we heard the buggy coming down the road.
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The flashily dressed Italian stopped when he saw us and gave us instructions to meet him by the fountain in the village but we were not to tell anyone who we were or what we were doing. The whole atmosphere by this time had become very cloak and dagger; we let the Italian go on and we followed. We hadn’t gone far when we heard a woman’s voice calling “Signori” behind us; as we turned she beckoned to us; we walked back towards her and saw she was a woman of about forty and by this time a girl of about 14 had joined her. She asked us in Italian if we were English and to our reply, she speaking in English, told us she was an Australian Refugee who, with her husband and daughter had been interred by the Italians in this village since the beginning of the war. Her husband had been for some time in a fortress but he had lately been restored to her. She had been not too badly treated as the Italians in this village had been friendly all along and most of them wanted the British to arrive as quickly as possible. She said there were still quite a lot of fascist spies about and one couldn’t be too careful. She directed us to the fountain in the village and wished us “God speed”.
The flashy fellow appeared out of the night and beckoned us to follow him. We went along the main village street and into a doorway then we were shown into a small sitting room and introduced to his wife, a rather plump girl of about thirty and his little son. About six men turned up including the two that we had met earlier on in the buggy. We all sat down to a meal of spaghetti and cheese and plenty of wine and cigarettes were handed round and everything was very fine and pally. Our host was continually boasting of how, in his capacity as an Artillery Officer, he had thrown spanners in the Fascist War Machine and said he had for some time been in communication with London by radio. We took this with a pinch of salt. The youngest man present, a fellow of about 25, said he was a University Student and had a very little English which he kept practising on us. We had taken quite a lot of wine and the party began to get rowdy with a considerable amount of back slapping.
Late that night our host told us to follow him and assuming his old “Cloak & Dagger” appearance went out into the night. We followed him through the village to a small farm where by continual knocking on the door he woke a man who came grumbling to the door. After a certain amount of arguing we found ourselves a bed in the straw in a room and soon were fast asleep and early next morning were on the road again. Our boots were in a very bad way by this time and it could only be a matter of time before we would have to walk barefooted. We were really worried now knowing that we still had a long way to go with the most dangerous part of our journey still to come, that is the crossing of the German lines, and if our feet gave things would become distinctly awkward. Peter’s feet had already large and painful blisters on them but mine were not too bad. However we hobbled on for another couple of days passing through some very mountainous country including the Gran Sasso, a large mountain mass of over 10 thousand feet where Mussolini had been imprisoned by the Bodoglio Government and subsequently rescued by German Paratroops.
One evening we were forced to take shelter in a rather squalid farmhouse from a heavy downpour of rain in which we had been caught. There were at least three families living in a three roomed building and we counted some nine children all under five or six years, all naked, crawling about the floor and there was hardly a clean space in the one living room to sit.
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However, our hosts were kind-hearted and gave us a meal of macaroni and as the rain continued we asked to stay the night. They gave us some straw in an out building which was crawling with vermin and we spent a very uncomfortable night. Before we turned in we heard an aeroplane fly very low. We didn’t take much notice however as we thought it to be a German plane looking for its landing ground at Pescara or Chieti. We woke next morning to rather a gloomy world. It was still raining and while I was pulling on my boots they literally came to pieces in my hand so I decided I should start barefooted.
The rain turned out to be a Godsend for it had softened the earth and I found I could make good progress across plough. Peter’s boots became clogged with mud and eventually fell to pieces before we had done a mile so there we were, both barefooted; we couldn’t help feeling miserable that we were rather far from Home in a hostile world. We trudged on through a small dirty village where one young man told us that British Parachutists had been dropped in the neighbourhood last night and when we appeared sceptical he ran off and came back with an empty condensed milk tin which he said he had found that morning. He thought this was proof positive as such delicacies were not seen in Italy any longer. However we didn’t see at that moment how we would benefit even supposing the young man’s story was true. What we were interested in more than anything was getting hold of some footgear and as they couldn’t help us in that village, we pushed on. We crossed some very stony ground and then some stubble about three or four inches high which slowed us up considerably until at length we didn’t see the point of going on in the drizzle and seeing a small cottage on a nearby hill we thought we would ask for shelter until the rain stopped.
We met a man outside the cottage and asked if we could stay in an outbuilding. He was very curious indeed and repeated the story we had heard previously about the parachutists; he even told us that an officer and ten men had been dropped last night only about half a mile away and that he knew where they were at the moment. We recollected the low flying plane of the night before and feeling that we had nothing to lose we asked him if he could show us where they were. He told us to follow him and for about half a mile led us over the fields to another building; looking over the crest of a hill we thought we saw a figure about a quarter of a mile away scrambling up a hill. Peter thought this figure was in uniform and carrying what might have been a tommy gun in his hand. We were quite excited by this time. We were shown into a room by a young Italian. There was a table and a couple of chairs in the centre of the room and stacked in a corner were eight to ten bundles which on examination proved to be parachutes, red in colour.
The youngster told us that ten men and an officer, Americans, had landed that night and slept there. They had been gone about an hour but would be back if we would care to wait; his brother would make us some tea and give us something to eat. This seemed too good to be true. We hadn’t tasted tea for a long time and were very hungry; in a few minutes a woman came in with two mugs of tea and army biscuits which had been brought by the parachutists. When we had drunk the tea and eaten a few biscuits a young man in civilian clothes entered; he was obviously not an Italian. He wouldn’t speak to us however and went out again.
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I followed him out and to my amazement ran slap into a man dressed in overalls with a pistol strapped to his thigh and carrying a tommy gun and wearing the round steel helmet of the paratroops. He asked who we were and on learning that we were POWs told us to follow him. He led us to behind a hay stack, where were gathered a group of twelve men in civilian clothes like ourselves. The Officer speaking in fluent Italian told the curious Italians who had also gathered to clear off, that he only wanted to speak to the English prisoners and that everyone else was to clear off and that they were not to speak about what they had seen as it would be very dangerous if the Germans got to hear of it, both for the Italians and for him.
When they had gone I introduced Peter and myself and he introduced himself as Lieut. S. of the American Parachute Regiment and said he had been dropped last night with ten men to contact Allied POWs and give them certain information. He then brought out a large map of that part of Italy and pointed out our present position. We were about twelve miles N.W. from Chieti as the crow flies and about twenty from the coastal town of Pescara. As he was speaking we heard the sound of heavy bombing from that direction. He then told us to make for the Coast and go to the mouth of the River Foro just north of Ortona where on alternate nights between 12 and 1 o’clock boats would come in and pick us up. He told us the first day would be the 4th October and that today was the 3rd and that probably we shouldn’t make the 4th but should make the 6th. He also told us that our own men would be there to help us and that we were to scatter and clear out of this area as quickly as possible, that there was plenty of food and cigarettes in the cottage, we could take as much as we liked and get moving. I asked him if he could help us in the way of footwear but he couldn’t. All the time he was speaking we got the impression that he was metaphorically looking over his shoulder and wanted to get the job over quickly.
Peter and I and a representative from the other twelve POWs who was a Sergeant Major of the R.A.S.C. and got out of the large camp at Macerata, went back to the cottage where in a bedroom upstairs we found a large box of rations. Peter and I stuffed our pockets with two tins of cigarettes and as many chocolate biscuits as we could carry and told the Sgt.Maj. to share the rest of the rations out among the men and in a few minutes we were ready to move. Peter and I reckoned we had at least 40 miles to go before we got to the mouth of the River Foro. We thought that if we kept moving steadily and if we had some luck we should make it by the next evening and that would mean we should be there to meet the first boats to come in. It was still raining slightly when we set off and we kept on plough as possible and were able to make quite good headway. We stopped in the shelter of a vineyard and ate our chocolate biscuits and smoked a couple of English cigarettes, the first for three weeks, and by the time we were ready to move again our morale was terrific.
We began to notice about this time that many of the older men in this district spoke a few words of English a lot of them having been in America in their youth and all of them were very willing to help as much as they could; some of them were very stupid however and inclined to panic on the slightest provocation. Our first difficulty that day came when we got to the River Pescara.
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So far on our journey we had been able to wade across all rivers but the Pescara was a different proposition. We waded into the stream but in a very short distance we were well over the knees and the stream was running very fast and it was most unlikely that we could swim it. The only alternative was to cross boldly over by the main bridge two miles upstream. This bridge ran straight on to the Rome-Pescara road and we could see a continual stream of German traffic passing along it. We walked along the river bank towards the bridge and when we got near enough to see both ends we made sure there were no sentries and when there was a lull in the traffic we walked aimlessly across; once safely across we cut back along the bank of the river and made for the main road by a covered approach. We again waited our chance to cross the road and did so at the first opportunity making into the high ground on the far side.
We felt comparatively safe there and by sundown had found a friendly farmer who said he would put us up for the night. He gave us a good meal and fixed up a couple of beds and sheets and blankets in a store-room and we retired, but not to sleep. The blankets were crawling with bugs and although we were worn out we scratched and swore all night, smoking one cigarette after another. We were thankful when dawn came and we were able to set out.
We still had a good twenty miles to go and it was our intention to go South till we struck the Foro River then follow it to the sea. We came to a farmhouse where we were told there were some POWs hiding so, thinking we should pass on information, we contacted four men lying in the straw of a barn and told them what we knew. They were not very interested and said they were quite happy where they were and when we learnt they had only come from a camp less than thirty miles away and had been weeks only getting so far, we left them feeling that they didn’t deserve to get through. We walked on over plough and stubble alternating with rocky tracks over hills; the going was hard over these hills. It was a question of climbing about 2000 feet then down to sea level into a gorge and immediately across the gorge start climbing again. By about midday we came to the Mono River and on enquiry there were told that the Foro was about five kilometres further on and in another couple of hours we reached a stream when we took to be the Foro and turned East along its banks towards the sea. We made good going here as the country was comparatively flat and we were lucky in finding a footpath for much of the way. In a few hours this footpath petered out and we tried to struggle along in the undergrowth but we only made slow and painful progress. The alternative to this was to cross the stream and take to the main road which approximately followed the stream a few hundred yards on the other side. We decided to risk this and set off along the road keeping our ears and eyes skinned for German traffic. When a truck was heard approaching we would duck off the road into cover and let the truck go by. On one occasion we hear a truck approaching very fast and on looking round saw it coming round a bend in the road. I leapt through a hedge on top of a man in the act of relieving himself. I was surprised, but I think he was both surprised and frightened for pulling up his trousers he ran off like a horse. Peter had not had time to jump for it and had walked on; the truck was only an Italian Police truck and it went on without taking any notice of us.
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We went on and some time later coming to a forked road I thought I had better ask the way from a group outside a wine shop. I was just about to when I heard an urgent whisper from Peter to come on; I then noticed a man in Fascist uniform sitting on a chair with a tommy gun across his knees. We hurried on past them and made for cover when we were round a bend and found ourselves back alongside the Foro again; the sun was beginning to set and we became doubtful about reaching the mouth before darkness, however we passed on.
We stopped to talk to some people by a small mill and while we were enquiring the way an old man in a buggy came along. It struck us that it might be possible to get a lift in the buggy for the last 50 lire we had. I told one of the men to whom we had been talking what was our intention and he persuaded the old man to turn his buggy round; in we got and trotted off along the main road towards the sea. We kept up a fairly smart pace and in about 45 minutes we reached the main road which runs along the Adriatic Coast for the whole length of Italy; the railway runs alongside it and the sea, never more than 1/4 mile away. The Germans were using this road and railway for sending supplies to their forces facing the ‘8th Army’. We had turned South and rode down this main road and in a short while we saw the River Foro running into the sea. We paid the driver 50 lire and thanked him.
We decided to go into the high ground nearby and wait there until it was dark and then go to the mouth of the river and be concealed in the long grass which was growing between the railway and the sea. We went and sat on a hill behind some houses and watched the German transport going along the main road and the occasional train. We hadn’t been there long when an Italian soldier in civilian clothes came to talk to us and this led to a small crowd gathering among whom was a one armed man who spoke a little English he having been in America in his youth. They were all very friendly and the one armed man asked us to take a meal in a house to which we repaired and after a good meal we were offered a shakedown in a hayloft at a farm close by. We told our friends something of our plans and told them not to breathe a word to any one because sooner or later unfriendly elements would be bound to get to know and then the fat would be in the fire for all of us. The one-armed man whose name was Nicolas and the farmer Sebastian both swore they would tell no one and said they would both come back at about 10 o’clock to conduct us to the beach.
The hayloft was only about fifty yards from the main road and about seventy from the railway and as we lay in the hay we could quite easily see and hear the German traffic going South and of course coming back from the front. Although it was risky we smoked and talked of our chances that night. We hoped the scheme was being carried out by the Royal Navy in which we had a lot of confidence.
At about 10 o’clock we heard a subdued cough below and went down to find Sebastian and Nicolas waiting for us. The night as I remember was fairly dark and we crossed the road and railway without any mishap. We reached the beach and walked along it for about 1/4 mile until we came to the mouth of the river. We sat under cover of the reeds and waited. We hadn’t been there more than 20 minutes when we saw movement on the other side of the stream.
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Nicolas immediately stood up in his white clothes with a lighted cigarette in his mouth and in a loud stage whisper said something about our friends were here; Peter swore at him in English and pulled him down again. We watched the figures trying to cross the stream and when they started approaching we said a hasty farewell to Sebastian and Nicolas and told them to clear out. They went wishing us good luck. The figures went down to the sea and past us. We had no idea who they might be so we waited until we noticed that they were coming back our way and when they were about ten yards away I challenged them, to my “who goes there” in English, the reply came friend. Three young men came up to us and told us that they were also POWs and had got the same instructions from Parachutists as we had had the day before but from a different batch of Parachutists. They were convinced of the success of the undertaking so we all lay on the sands and under cover of the reeds we smoked. As the hours passed the night grew colder and one or two other POWs came along at intervals until by midnight there were 13 of us. Between 12 and 1 we lay gazing out to sea in a state of repressed excitement, but nothing happened and by 2 in the morning our spirits were very low. Peter and I decided to go back to our friendly loft and get some sleep and try again on the night of the 6th Oct. We reached the loft O.K. and slept tired out in the hay. The next morning Sebastian came to see if we were still there and when he learned that nothing had happened was sympathetic and went off to fetch us something to eat, returning with hot spaghetti and coffee for which we were very grateful. He said we could stay there as long as we liked and we told him we should like to stay until the next day.
Sebastian went off and we lay, smoked and watched the German traffic on the road, and then suddenly a thought struck me like a thunderbolt. I remembered what the Parachutist had said about a rendezvous at the mouth of the river Foro between 12 and 1 on the 184.108.40.206. Now between 12 and 1 is obviously the dawn of a new day, so it was possible that the boat might be coming in on the early morning of 220.127.116.11., that is perhaps we had missed the first rendezvous and that the second would be between 12 and 1 that night. This I thought might have accounted for the Parachutist saying we should not be able to make the first rendezvous. I told Peter what I had thought of and he immediately said that was obviously the answer and we should have to go down to the beach again that night. When Sebastian came back to feed us later on in the day we told him we intended going down to the beach again that night. He then told us that he had been speaking to a neighbouring farmer who had confided in him that there was a British Officer with six men hiding in his farm, that they had been landed two days before behind the German lines by boat. Sebastian told us that his friend didn’t know what their job was exactly but he knew them to be well armed and Sebastian thought that it might be a good idea if we went along and saw for ourselves. Peter and I talked this over and decided against going that day, one reason was that we only half believed the story and another was that as we were going down to the beach that night in the hopes of being taken off we couldn’t see what good we could do by going on what might be a fool’s errand. We told Sebastian that we intended in remaining where we were but should we still be here the next day we would go along with him to his friend’s house and see if there was anything in the story, and even if there wasn’t we told him that it would probably be better if we left this locality as the longer we stayed in one place the more likely in became of the Germans finding us.
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Again that night after 10 o’clock we set out from our hayloft and made our way down to the beach. We found it extremely cold and not a soul on the beach and this made us think we had guessed wrong. When we were sure we were wrong and we decided to go back and get a good night’s rest and clear out next morning.
The next morning Sebastian came back and reported that the British Soldiers were still at his friend’s house, and that after he had given us something to eat he would take us to see them. When we were ready we set out after Sebastian up a hill behind his house, and in 15 minutes had reached another farm where we met a young farmer to whom Sebastian spoke asking him if the British Soldiers were still there. The farmer replied yes, but that they were still sleeping and didn’t want to be disturbed. I then told him that they were most certainly going to be disturbed and that I wished to be taken to where they were. The young man then showed Peter and me into an out-house where the most amazing sight met out eyes. Fast asleep on a double bed in the centre of the room were two men covered in blankets, and at the foot of the bed on the floor there were a further 6 men also fast asleep wrapped in blankets and scattered about all over the room were arms and equipment. The time was about 9:0 o’clock on a bright day and here were 8 men with small arms fast asleep with Germans within a couple of miles of their hiding place and not even a sentry posted to give warning of any kind. These soldiers were the first British Troops I had seen since my capture 17 months before, and I certainly was glad to see them, but I must admit I expected something better than this. On our entrance into the room one of the men on the bed woke up, and as I began to talk in English telling him who we were he motioned to us to be silent and sit down, immediately turned over in bed and went to sleep. Peter and I just sat and stared at one another and in a couple of minutes we laughed so much that the tears ran down our cheeks, and when we regained control of ourselves we smoked and examined the assorted variety of arms and equipment lying all over the room and again thought to ourselves what an easy thing it would be to take all eight of the sleeping men prisoners if we had turned out to be Germans instead of what we were.
In about half an hour there was some considerable commotion outside, the door opened and our old friend Sebastian poked his head inside and told me there was an Italian gentleman who would like to speak to us. I went outside and saw a small crowd of Italians consisting of half a dozen men and two or three women and children all talking at the same time. One of the party came towards me and spoke in perfect English introducing himself and saying he had had the pleasure of at one time being an interior decorator for Lord Willingdon when he was Viceroy of India. He had in fact been born in Bombay and had only returned to Italy just before the war and was now living in Ortona. He would like to help us in any way he could. I thanked him of course and told him it would be a great help if he was to send the crowd that he had gathered away as it was becoming obvious that people were talking too much and in a very short time the Germans would be on our trail and then it would be just too bad for all of us, him included. He agreed and made some effort at clearing the crowd. The women and children went away but the men remained saying that they certainly wouldn’t talk. I then asked our new friend what he could do about giving us some clothes and shoes and to my intense surprise he said he could send us some shoes and clothes at Sebastian’s farm, and that if we would go back there at mid-day we could collect them.
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I thanked him again and told him that I should give him a letter which he could hand to the British Authorities when they arrived. We talked sometime about the war and I learnt that he with several of his friends had always been pro-British and at times had said so to his own cost. I said goodbye to him and then went inside again.
One or two of the men on the floor had woken up and were talking to Peter. They said that they had been on the beach until 4:0 o’clock in the morning expecting the boats to come in as it was definitely the night they had been given in their orders. They had heard a motor boat engine out to sea and had flashed a torch out to sea, but nothing had happened. They were convinced it was the boat and said perhaps it had not seen the signal.
At about this time a sudden diversion took place. A man was ushered into the room by the owner of the farm who introduced him to all and sundry as the representative of the local Partisan band and that he wished to have a conversation with the Captain. The farmer then withdrew and the representative addressed the large double bed, speaking in rapid Italian; with many brave gestures he informed the bed that he had been sent by his chief to be co-operative with the British who were known to be in hiding here; should this co-operation take place he was sure that the German Force could be wiped out. He went on in this strain for some time and at last a sleepy at the same time angry voice came from the bed demanding what all the “bloody row” was about. The other sleeper woke up about this time and addressed the Partisan in good Italian telling him not to speak so loud and to begin from the beginning. After the Representative had gone through his story again the second sleeper much to our surprise addressed the first sleeper in French telling him what the Italian had said. The first sleeper, in a thoroughly bad temper by this time started speaking in halting French saying he was not prepared to listen to any “bloody” nonsense at this hour of the morning, and if there was anything in it, why the hell hadn’t the Chief Rebel himself come. This was translated from the French to Italian and the Partisan Representative said he would go straight away and bring his chief who was not far away. He bowed politely and vanished. Conversation between the two men in the bed continued for a little while in French. We were at a loss to understand why the conversation should be in French and Peter asked one of the men on the floor why this should be so. We were told that one of the men, whom he called Joseph was actually a Pole who knew no English but could speak French and Italian well, and was acting as interpreter for the party.
By this time people had started waking up and dressing themselves and cleaning guns and checking ammunition etc. The leader had got out of bed and at last condescended to recognise us. We told him who we were and he started to take a little more notice; he introduced himself as Captain B., of the Grenadier Guards and now of the Parachute Regiment. He had been landed by boat with his men two nights previously his job being to contact POWs and lead them to boats which were supposed to come in and take us off. He was sure that a boat had been there the night before, but could not understand why it had not answered his signals. Anyway he would try again tonight although
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he knew it was the wrong date and didn’t expect anything, but he was sure it would come in the next night i.e. the night of 7-8 October.
At about this time there was a further commotion and our friend the Guerrilla came in with another man who he introduced as Major So and So, chief of the Partisans. Conversations started in three languages again. The Major talked in Italian of how he had some hundred men with arms and ammunition in the village of Francavilla on the coast. He was keen that the British Force should join him in harassing the Germans. This was translated into French by Joseph the Pole to Captain “B”, who deliberated in English and then answered in French, very haltingly, saying that he had other work to do first but it was quite possible he would join the Major when his job was successfully finished. The conversations lasted for some 1/2 hour, and everything seemed to be amicably settled. The Major and his henchman left and we all sat down to a meal from the rations which the parachutists had brought with them. Captain “B” then told us that if we could come back to tea about 5:0 o’clock we could, then after dark we could all go down to the sea again and see if anything turned up. To Peter and me this invitation to afternoon tea sounded extremely funny but the gallant Captain was quite serious about it. We said we would be back and went off back to contact Sebastian. We arrived at the house and there found a man waiting for us with some clothes, which he had brought from Ortona from the English speaking Italian. We eagerly tried the clothes on, and especially the shoes. The latter were much too tight but would be better than nothing. I cut away the heels of my pair and made gaps on either sides of the toe caps, which made them fit fairly comfortably. I tried on the suit of clothes, which were far superior to the ones already I had on, and when we were dressed both of us looked fairly smart street corner Italians. The man who had brought the clothes then asked me if I would write a letter of appreciation addressed to the British Authorities. I did so saying that we had been helped by these men at some personal risk to themselves and suggested that they should be given some recompense when the Allies arrived. We said goodbye to the man and thanked him, we had a meal and told Sebastian we should probably be back again that night to sleep in his hayloft, as we didn’t really expect to get away that night. We shook the good Sebastian by the hand, he had been our best friend so far and about 5:0 o’clock set off to contact Captain “B”.
A rather incredible sight met our eyes when we arrived. The quiet farm was swarming with men in all kinds of garb, most of them in some sort of civilian clothes but some in battle-dress and Army overcoats. There were quite twenty men and there seemed to be no curb on their high spirits. They all seemed to be out to enjoy themselves. “B” came up to us and told us some more POWs had arrived and he was soon going to have difficulty in putting them up if any more arrived. All these present were going to stay in the farm. He also told us that one of his men had shot himself through the foot while cleaning his tommy gun; this was rather unfortunate. “B” came up to us and said it meant that the wounded man would have to be put on the boat with us and that would only leave him four sound men and he had a lot of work to do when he got rid of us. Peter and I considered that he had a tremendous amount of work to do while we were still there, and if the present row continued we should have Jerry about our ears in a very short while.
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We stayed in the farm and drank tea which the Paratroopers had brought with them and smoked their cigarettes. The POWs continued to make a considerable noise singing Tipperary and other popular songs. The farmer had very kindly given them an outhouse and barn in which to spend the night but I could see he was becoming a little apprehensive. As it grew dark Captain “B” took Peter and I to see the lad who had shot himself through the foot. He was lying in some straw in an outhouse and had a field-dressing bound round his foot. Joseph the Pole was nursing him. The lad was quite cheerful, but was obviously in pain. Captain “B” said we should have to carry him down to the beach tonight on the chance of the boat coming in. It was decided that only the Paratroops and Peter and I with the wounded man would go down to the beach as we were less likely to make a noise than if the whole party went down, some twenty of us. Then if the boats came in we could send back for the others. About 11:0 o’clock the six of us carrying the wounded man set out for the beach in single file and reached it in about a half hour.
We lay amongst the rough grass between the main road and the beach and Captain “B” went down to the water’s edge and commenced flashing his torch out to sea. We noticed some movement on the beach and on investigation we found two more POWs had arrived. They proved to be American Soldiers who had come from an American Camp in Central Italy. They had met some Parachutists a few days previously in the hills and had been directed to this point on the coast the same as we had. Peter and I were convinced that nothing would happen that night and soon after midnight we told “B” we were going back to our billets and that we would meet him the next night on the beaches. “B” was convinced that the boats would come in on the night of 7-8 October.
We found our way back to our barn and were thankful to climb into the straw. We were asleep in a very short while. The next morning Sebastian was even more disappointed than we were that we hadn’t got away that night. We told him that even if they didn’t come that night we would be going on the next day as we considered it to be too risky staying here for so long. Sebastian said that more and more people were getting to know of the presence of British Soldiers and POWs in this region and sooner or later the Germans would be bound to hear of it. We should be wise to clear out as soon as possible. All that day we lay in the hayloft overlooking the road and watched the German traffic passing by. We both wished very much that we could get some authentic news and resolved to hear a radio at the earliest opportunity. We knew that a lot of Italians were listening to Radio London, but so far we had been unlucky.
Towards nightfall Nicolas and Sebastian both came to see us. The former in a considerable flap. He had been in Chieti that day and seen lorry loads of British Prisoners being taken away by the Germans. He kept rolling his eyes and saying that it would be death for all of us if Peter and I were caught here. He was in a blue funk and so characteristically Italian; he had changed round completely and said the Germans were much too strong and that our troops would never break through. Nicolas was very despondent and considered our chances of getting through very slim indeed. He had the wind-up badly and told us that we might stay for that night but we
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must go the next morning early. Sebastian was made of sterner stuff and was genuinely sorry for us, but he also agreed with Nicolas and said that already too many people knew we were in the area and the Germans would be sure to get to know sooner or later and the best thing we could do for all concerned was to leave the next morning. Sebastian told us of his brother captured by the British in Tunisia; he told us his name and the POW Camp address in Algiers and we said that if ever we got through we would do what we could to help. Sebastian gave us a good feed of macaroni and grapes and bread that night and at about ten o’clock we set out for the beach. On the beach that night there were some thirty prisoners-of-war and Captain ‘B’s six paratroopers together with the wounded man. That night I met three other Officers from the POW Camp at Chieti. A large camp of some 1300 Officers out of which only about 40 had managed to escape before the Germans took over the camp. This was a great tragedy as all the Officers from this camp could have got away from the camp before the Germans took it over, and then it would have been only a matter of a week’s trek before these Officers rejoined the British Forces advancing from the South. The story of why these British & American Officers did not leave the camp is not for me to tell, but the tale as told to me from the lips of a few of the Officers who did escape from P.G.21 prove that certain British Officers in that camp lacked initiative and consequently the remainder of the camp were taken away to Germany to languish in Prison Camps for the rest of the War.
Hopes were high on the beach that night as many of the POWs there had met different groups of Paratroopers in the hills and on comparing notes we found we all had the same dates, so we waited, suppressed excitement and Captain ‘B’ began signalling at midnight but received no answering flashes from the sea. Our hopes began to die as the minutes passed by and after a couple of hours Peter and I resolved to go back to our hayloft and sleep the rest of the night and make our own way as best we could in the morning. We were very disappointed as we considered we had wasted four valuable days here and thought that if we had never met the Paratroopers we stood a good chance of having been safe in Allied hands by now or anyway much nearer safety than we were in the present circumstances. We had heard a rumour that the British Forces had landed and occupied Termoli, and that if this was true we only had some [fifty] or sixty miles to go and now that we had shoes again we thought we could do that distance in three days quite easily. On the morning of 9th October Peter and I took our leave from Sebastian who gave us a good meal and we set off. As Captain ‘B’s hiding place was on the way we called in with the intention of telling him we were off on our own. When we got there only the farmer was about; he came straight up to us and wringing his hands told us that everyone for miles around knew he was sheltering British Troops and it was only a question of time before he was found out. He said that he was now harbouring about 30 POWs and it appeared to us to be entirely against his will. He showed us into the room occupied by ‘B’ and on this morning there were at least a dozen men lying about the floor all asleep. The farmer then took us to another room and in there, there was a mass of humanity lying about the floor all asleep. The sun was well up in the heaven by this time, and a small German Patrol could have approached and retaken the whole lot; there were no sentries of any sort posted. I wrote ‘B’ a note telling him Peter and I were off and wished him luck. I told the farmer to hand the note to the Captain when he awoke, and I also told the farmer that I quite saw his point of view, but that we could do nothing about it. It would be far better if he spoke to the Captain himself.
Peter and I set off towards the South and began to feel much better the further we progressed away from what we considered a very dangerous area. We continued on our way for several miles always keeping some four or five miles from the sea on our left.
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We also began to realise that the nature of the ground had changed somewhat. Here instead of climbing up two or three thousand feet on one side of a hill then immediately down the other side, we would walk for perhaps half a mile or so on flat ground then descend steeply to sea level cross a stream at the bottom and then climb steeply to a thousand feet or so to flat ground at the top. We began to realise what wonderful country this was for defensive fighting, with each of these deep ravines a perfectly natural Anti-tank ditch. Each of these descents into the depths and steep climbs began to tire us, and the ill-fitting shoes began to chafe our feet. In a very short time Peter’s feet were in a very bad state.
About mid-day on the 9th October we began to skirt the town of Ortona and as we were walking along a road a man came towards us and started speaking. He soon rumbled to the fact that we were not Italians and on learning that we were British POWs, told us to follow him as he worked for some well-to-do Italians who would be well disposed towards us. We followed him to a large house a little way off the road and there met three young men obviously of a much better type; they were all very friendly and the eldest a man of about thirty-two spoke excellent English, the two younger ones also spoke some English. The Eldest was an Officer in one of the Alpini Regiments and had deserted from Rome after the Armistice. This house was his home and the two younger men were cousins; they had been students in Rome University and all of them were now in hiding from the Germans who were rounding up all able-bodied Italians to do forced work for them. They asked us to stay for a meal and we sat in a well-appointed sitting room while it was being prepared. We conversed about the political situation and the Alpini Officer said he had been in Rome at the time of the Armistice and had been given orders with the rest of the Italian Troops there to resist the Germans who were in the outskirts of the city. There had indeed been some fighting for a few hours on the 8th September against the Germans but there was a tremendous amount of 5th column activity on behalf of the Germans and all sorts of confused orders had been given out and in a very short time the situation was hopeless and the whole Italian Army in Rome had just disintegrated. While we were speaking a man burst into the room and said there were some Germans going from house to house in the village looking for men for forced labour; there was some considerable panic and everyone dashed out of the room except the Alpini Officer, who said that he would stay as he could speak German, but he told Peter and I to go with the young men who would hide us. We followed them out of the house and ran into some vineyards about half-a-mile from the house where we found several other young men. We remained among the vines and ate grapes for about an hour then a boy came along and told us the coast was clear. So we went back to the house. Our host said the Germans had not approached his house, but had been to a few of the houses in the village and had gone away after a fruitless search, as all young men immediately went into hiding and the Germans didn’t have enough time or the men to look for them in the country.
An old female servant came and said that the meal was ready and we were taken upstairs to wash and brush up. These people didn’t seem to lack for much as the place was nice and clean and they seemed to have sufficient soap, the first we had seen since we had been on our travels.
They gave us an excellent meal of well cooked spaghetti and roast meat and good wine. We chatted for an hour-or-two and exchanged names & addresses; when we were ready to leave the Officer sent a boy with us to put us on the right track.
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We made good headway that afternoon, occasionally getting lost and have to retrace our steps but on the whole we did fairly well asking directions at isolated farmhouses where we were always given wine. We could hear explosions in the distance which we found out later were demolitions being carried out by the Germans, but most of the Italian Peasantry took to be shell-fire and would remark to one another “At last the English are coming”; it was pathetic the faith these poor people put in the Allies and they all thought that their own particular village or farm would be spared the ravages of war. They were in a bad way then, in early October; what they must have been like when the war eventually did reach them several months later, I can’t imagine. Towards evening on this day we skirted a village on a hill top which we had been told was occupied by German Troops, so we thought we should probably have some difficulty in finding shelter for that night; about two miles past the village, we asked an old farmer if we could sleep in his hay-stack for the night; the old man didn’t seem too keen, but he told us to wait till his son came back from the village and we could ask him as it was his farm. Peter and I waited for about half-an-hour until a young man in a pony and trap arrived. We asked him the same question and he said we could certainly stay the night but that we should have to be off early in the morning as the Germans usually sent out foraging parties early in the mornings. There was a fairly large family in this farm, and they were poor, but they did their best for us giving us a good meal of macaroni and bread and we eventually went to sleep on a table with a couple of blankets in the living room.
The next morning we set off with the rising sun. The old farmer saw us off his land and gave us an egg each and wished us good luck. Peter’s feet were in a bad way; he had blisters on the joints of his toes and his heels were raw, he had tied rag round his feet, but the friction of his shoes kept wearing the rag loose and we had to keep stopping to attend to them. My own feet were in much better shape, but the ill-fitting shoes were causing blisters on my heels and we were always ready for a rest. About ten o’clock we came to a farm where the good woman cooked our eggs in olive oil and gave us bread and wine and plenty of walnuts. The farm was situated alongside on [one] of the main lateral roads running across the country from East to West and as we ate our breakfast we watched the German motor traffic going past us. It never seemed to enter the heads of these kind people to give us away to the Germans although they knew there was a reward offered for our recapture and that the death penalty would be inflicted for harbouring us if they were caught. These kind people sent a lad with us to put us on the correct track.
The hills were not so steep in this part of the country, but they were more frequent. At this time we didn’t really know how much further we had to go. We had heard the rumour about Termoli being in our hands but we didn’t know this to be correct. Termoli was some forty or fifty miles from us and as we were getting nearer the front we must expect to run into bigger concentrations of Germans than hitherto. We had two alternatives. The first was to strike well inland towards Mt. Nicuella which we could see in the distance and then try and cross the German lines by night. We thought the lines were likely to be thinner in more mountainous country. The second alternative was to keep close to the seas as the going was likely to be easier and then when we were sufficiently close up to the German Lines go into hiding and seize an opportunity at night to slip across although we thought that the Germans would be concentrated more thickly on the coastal belt.
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Both of us favoured the first alternative and we resolved to make our way westwards towards the mass of Mount Nicuella which we could see some twenty miles away. However we were not to get very much further towards Mt. Nicuella. Our speed decreased considerably on account of the poor condition of Peter’s feet, and at about mid-day we arrived at a farm in the yard of which there were a number of young Italians most of them lads of about twenty or so. We had come to recognise the signs by now and we knew these fellows were also in hiding from the Germans. We approached and wished them good-day and asked for water and to our surprise after some hesitation an old man went to a pump and brought us water in a ladle; this was the first time we had been given water instead of wine. We noticed that two or three of the young men had drifted away and the remainder had become very quiet. The man who had brought us water asked us where we had come from and where were we going, and after a few more questions I gathered that these people thought we were Germans in civilian clothes, hence the unfriendly reception. I explained to them that we were British POWs and that they need have no fear of us, but this was received with some scepticism and one of the young men asked Peter and I to speak in English to each other. So Peter and I conversed in English and I told Peter to start dressing his feet thinking this would be sure to draw some sympathy from the crowd and allay suspicion. This did the trick and everyone became more friendly and began telling us that they were all from a small town a few miles away which the Germans had occupied, so the male population had cleared out to escape forced labour. We chatted for some while and then a woman came to us and asked us to come into the house and have a meal to which we gratefully consented. Macaroni and bread were produced and we set to with a will; while we were eating a man of about forty-five was shown into the room and just stood and stared at us for several minutes. I tumbled to it that the good people were still suspicious so we conversed easily in English and at last the suspicious one appeared to be satisfied and spoke to us in English with a very marked American accent. His command of the language was bad but he could just make himself understood; we became quite friendly and he went out and I presume gave the O.K. signal because after that there was no more suspicions and the man who had brought us water in the first place came and told us he was the owner of the farm and that he would be very pleased if we would stay for as long as we pleased. “In fact”, he said “stay until your friends come”.
I told him that Peter was in no shape to go much further that day and that we should like very much to stay for the night and if possible I should like to listen to Radio London. He said that there was a man he knew in the village of Rocca di San Giovanni who had a wireless and that at night he would send his son with me to the village, and I could listen to London in his friend’s house. Unfortunately I have forgotten this good man’s name; I shall call him Angello. He had been on leave from the French Riviera when the Armistice was signed and had not returned to his unit wisely. He shared this farm with his brother who had a family of two boys and a baby girl. There appeared to be about three women in the house and altogether there were about half-a-dozen children and I never found out which of the two brothers any of them belonged to.
After we had eaten sufficiently Peter and I climbed into a hayloft and went to sleep for a few hours; when we awoke the sun was going down. We had a good wash and shave and I was ready for my expedition to the village of Rocca where I hoped to listen to the B.B.C. and find out what was happening in the world. Peter was not coming with me. He was going to stay and rest his feet. It was about this time we made the acquaintance of another English speaking Italian. He had only come back to Italy just before the war and so could still speak good English with a strong American accent. The four days we remained in this farm we had long conversations with the man and he used to invite us over to his home and feed us on walnuts and wine.
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By the light of the moon I set off with Angello’s son, a lad of about fourteen and an older friend for the village of Rocca di San Giovanni, the distance was about 1 1/2 miles, but there were three hills and streams to negotiate and it took us nearly an hour. The path was very stony and I found the going very difficult and painful in my ill-fitting shoes. When we got to the village the streets were deserted. We went straight up to a house and knocked. We were let in by a young man and led into a living room full of people sitting round a radio which was switched on; there was apparently nothing interesting on at the moment as everyone was talking.
I was invited to take a seat by the radio and fiddle with the set. For a long time I fiddled in vain, but could not get an English station. When I had nearly given it up in despair I suddenly got a commentary on a football match. One of the teams playing was the Arsenal and I knew I had hit the B.B.C. This was the first English Broadcast I had heard since my capture 17 months before and I was thrilled. I listened intently to the Broadcast and when it came to an end I held my breath hoping that the news would be broadcast next. There were a few minutes’ agonising silence and then a woman announcer said that the news would be broadcast in a few moments. I listened intently and heard that the Germans had brought a Panzer Division, I remember it was the 16th, across Italy and was attacking our Bridgehead at Termoli and had made some progress. This sounded most ominous to me. The Prime Minister had also said that if the Germans did not abide by the Geneva Convention in the event of the recapture of Allied POWs known to be at large in Italy reprisals would be taken by H.M. Government. This again sounded most ominous. After I had listened to the news all I could be certain of was that Termoli was in our hands at that moment, but we were in grave danger of losing it.
I thanked the house-owner for letting me listen and for his hospitality and set off back to the farm with Angello’s son to guide me. On arrival back at the farm I found that a bed had been made up in straw in an outhouse and Peter was lying down covered by a couple of blankets. He wasn’t asleep however, as the straw or the blankets, were crawling with fleas making sleep most difficult. I told Peter what I had heard on the radio and then tried to get some sleep without much success. The next day Angello gave us a meal and told us his wife would wash our socks and under-clothes if we would just hand them to her. He also made one of the women dress Peter’s feet and he said he hoped we weren’t thinking of leaving the farm. I then asked Angello if he knew of anybody who possessed a boat of any sort. After some thought he said there was a man in the village of Fossacesia about four miles away who had a fishing boat. For some time the possibility of making the last stage of my journey by boat had been in my mind, and I determined to make enquiries in that direction.
The Germans were in Fossacesia and some element of risk would have to be taken in going there, but I had the whole day before me and I thought I would make a reconnaissance in that direction. I told Peter to rest his feet while I went off to the sea which we could see quite easily from our farm. I left about ten o’clock in the morning and after a couple of hours hard slogging seemed to get no nearer to the shore. The sea was much further off than I had thought. However I did get to high ground overlooking the beach and there I sat for some while and watched; a single track railway line ran along parallel to the sea and the beach was no more than thirty yards wide. I stayed there for sometime but no trains passed and I thought maybe trains did not run south of Ortona any more.
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I decided that it was too late to go on to Fossacesia that day so I retraced my steps and arrived back at the farm in the late afternoon. I questioned Angello further about the man who owned the boat in Fossacesia. He told me his name and said he could be trusted and that tomorrow his son would lead me to the village. Another night passed, and early next morning Angello’s son and I left for Fossacesia. We arrived at the Sea and walked along the railway line towards the small port. As we got nearer the village I noticed signs of nervousness in Angello’s son, so I told him to return home. I would find my way quite easily by myself. The lad returned home and I continued by myself. While still a little way from the village I noticed German Transport being driven in the single street, so I approached cautiously and crossed the street and made for the backs of some houses. I walked along the little pathway and went up to the first woman I saw doing some housework just outside a house, and enquired for the boat owner whose name I had forgotten. To my surprise she said he was inside, would I come in. This was an astounding bit of luck. I could quite easily have gone to any one of several houses in that village. I walked inside and met quite a well set up man in a white sweater and the peaked cap worn by sailors.
I introduced myself and told him that I had come in search of him as I had heard he had a boat and might be willing to take me to Termoli by night. He answered me in good English having been he said in America for 10 years. “Yes” he had a boat, would I come along to his own house a little way down the main street where we could talk. So I followed him down the street for about two hundred yards during which we passed about 30 German Troops loading boxes into lorries. I was encouraged to see that this man didn’t show any signs of panic and I congratulated myself on my good luck. We entered his house and went upstairs to a living room, where he gave me some wine and prepared me a meal of a couple of eggs cooked in olive oil and some bread. While I was eating he told me that a few days before his son had taken a small party of Italian Officers by boat to Termoli, but while there he had very nearly lost his boat in a German bombing raid and that he wasn’t very keen on taking the risk again. I told him that Peter and I would both pay him well once we were safe in Allied hands and that it was quite probable that the British Government would also reward him. He said it was entirely up to his son. I had better speak to him. He was away at the moment but would be back soon. For the next half-hour I painted rosy pictures of how well he would be rewarded once we had been landed safe at Termoli.
In my zeal I told him that the British Government would probably give him a motor for his boat and then look how easy his fishing would become. This line went down very well and seeing that I had struck the nail on the head I enlarged on this theme and got from him the promise that he would try and persuade his son. Soon after this the son, a tall well built fellow arrived and the father explained the situation. The son then told me of his trip a few days before to Termoli by night with the Italian Officers. He said that he was willing to go again but it was out of the question to go that night as the sea was much too rough and that he would need a whole day to prepare his boat, but if the weather was calmer tomorrow he would take us. So I said I should be back the next evening, and very bucked with myself I set off back to tell Peter the good news. I followed the railway line back and ran slap into a patrol of Fascist Police who stopped me. They had arm bands marked POLIZEI. One of their number, there were four of them, asked me from where had I come so I said from Foggia and to the question where was I going, I said to North Italy. He then asked me if I was a soldier and I said “Yes, why”?
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He shrugged his shoulders and said “nothing”, so I walked on and even now I have no idea what they were looking for, but I know I thanked my lucky stars that I was so Italian looking and that I could speak a fair amount of the language. I left the railway line after a couple of miles and took to the high ground and immediately lost myself completely. I climbed up and down the hills and valleys for several hours before I found my way back to the farm just as it was getting dark. I told Peter all that had happened and we decided to set off for Fossacesia the next day so that we arrived just before dark. We were only now some thirty miles behind the front line. The river Sangro which was to be the scene of such bloody fighting some months later, was less than ten miles from us. We were often cheered by the sight of our own fighters over head and used to hear them strafing the roads at night. The Germans at this time were busy preparing demolitions and from the direction of Ortona, loud explosions could be heard and we could see plumes of smoke rising over the town.
About midday on the following day we left Angello and his family who were very sorry to see us go, but agreed with us that we should take the opportunity offered to us and also Angello told us that the village of Roccadi San Pisbanni had been occupied by Germans the night before and there was a general exodus from the village towards his farm and he was likely to be very busy looking after these people. He told us we were to return if ever we were in difficulties, and we would always find food and shelter in his house.
We made our way slowly down to the sea and arriving at the railway line we turned south along it; while crossing over a railway bridge we noticed large holes dug by the side of the track; they had not been there when I passed over this bridge the day before. These holes were obviously for laying charges of dynamite in so that the bridges could be blown when the time came. We walked slowly over the bridge looking in the holes; when we were nearly over we noticed neatly stacked against the bridge wall several German rifles and uniform coats and haversacks; at the side of the track just below the bridge was a wooden shack from which was coming the sound of voices. We didn’t wait to enquire further; we scuttled off back over the bridge like a couple of rabbits, made for the beach and hurried along close to the sea, until we had left the bridge well behind.
As we approached Fossacesia we heard explosions coming from that neighbourhood and I fervently hoped the Germans were not destroying the town, as this would be sure to empty the place of the inhabitants and with the inhabitants the chances of our trip by sea to safety. This however was the case. Some Italian youths shouted at us from the top of a hill telling us not to go further towards the village. During the whole of our trip through Italy the people thinking we were Italians had tried to give us friendly warnings of this kind and at first we used to heed them and in consequence had on occasions gone many miles out of our way needlessly. Lately however we had not taken any notice of these warnings but instead had gone in the very directions that we had been told not to go without ill befalling us.
On this occasion the youths on the hill were most insistent that we stop going towards the port, and as we took no notice of their appeals and as we continued walking they became frantic. Peter and I came to a halt under a tree and motioned the youths to come down from off the hill and talk to us. He started running down towards us and while he was on his way, I told Peter that we would give this lad a shock by saying that we were Germans
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and that we were on the lookout for Italians to work for us. I told Peter to remove his cap and show his mop of fair to add a bit of colour to my story. The young Italian, a man in his late teens came running towards us and told us the usual story, that there were Germans in Fossacesia, that they were carrying out extensive demolitions and that they were hunting down all male Italians to work for them and that practically all the young men had run away into the hills. I then told my story, that I was well aware of all that he had said for the simple reason that we ourselves were Germans and that we had been sent out by the Commandant in Fossacesia in civilian clothes to round up as many of the males as we could get hold of to do work. The poor fellow was considerably shaken and what with my bad Italian and Peter’s blond hair he swallowed my tale hook-line and sinker. He pleaded that he may be excused work today because he had worked the whole of yesterday and his hands were blistered. He showed us his hands which didn’t appear to have anything wrong with them. I told him that we had had our orders and we should have to take him along, but the young fellow’s distress was so evident that Peter told me to tell him the truth, which I did immediately; he was exceeding relieved and shook us both by the hands and shouted for the other young men to come off the hills and when two or three of them had gathered told them about the joke we had played on him and everyone seemed to be happy.
Meanwhile loud explosions continued to come from Fossacesia and we were concerned to hear that the Germans had done considerable damage in the small port and that many houses had been wrecked. We decided to stay in the present company until it began to get dark and then go into the town and look for ourselves. It was still possible that our boatman had not panicked like the rest of the others and that he might be keener than ever to sail tonight to get away from the Germans. More and more people began to gather and in a couple of hours there was quite a curious gathering and among them was the usual elderly man who had a few words of English having been in America many years ago. These few words he proceeded to practise on us in front of an admiring audience. This man gave us to understand he wasn’t a bit afraid of the Germans and tonight he would lead us into the village.
As the shadows began to lengthen I suggested that we go into the village; and our friend agreed but he said Peter had better not come because he had no Italian and what was more he didn’t look like one. Anyway the three of us went to his house just outside the town. Peter stayed while the Italian and I went along a side road; as we were about thirty yards from a railway bridge there was a loud explosion and a shower of rock and stones fell around us. This appeared to unsettle the Italian a little and he said that when we got into the main street of the little town he would walk ahead and I was to follow behind some twenty yards or so and under no circumstances was I to talk to him. He went off ahead and I followed in two minutes. He was back and said it would be foolish to go on as there were far too many Germans about, so I told him to go back to his house and that I would go on and come back, and I hoped that he would give Peter and I food and shelter for the night if we needed it. He said Yes, he would do that.
I entered the main street and walked down it passing a few Germans who appeared much too concerned with their own business than worry about a rather dirty looking Italian, so I went on down the street and noticed a tremendous amount of destruction; the Germans had blown up the little railway station and the water tower and this had caused quite a lot of damage to houses. I entered the house of my boatman friend and went straight up to the room, to which I had been before.
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Plaster from the ceiling covered the stairs and doors were blown from their hinges. I entered the room in which he had entertained me before and found him there packing his belongings. He apologised profusely but he said his first duty was to his family who had all gone away to the hills and that he was off immediately to join them with as many of his belongings as he could. I saw it was hopeless arguing with him, so I shook him by the hand and left him.
I returned to Peter and reported the failure. That night we slept on the hard floor in the living room of a home on the outskirts of the small town. We shared it with a number of other people who had evacuated themselves. Being tired we slept well and were not troubled by an Allied Air Raid on the town. Next morning we were given breakfast, bread soaked in coffee, by our English speaking friend who told us he would also give us a meal at midday if we would come back. He suggested in the meanwhile we would be safe; at the same time we could watch all that was going on. We took his advice and went off to the hills behind the little house where we sat for a number of hours watching the demolitions along the railway and in the town.
About midday we felt hungry so we thought we would go back and have the meal that had been promised us. Oh the way down we met a number of refugees who all said that they had been told to get out of Fossacesia by six o’clock that night and that the Germans would forcibly eject them after that hour. These refugees were a pitiful sight as they trudged away with small bundles in their hands, or on their heads, most of them had nowhere to go and were just walking aimlessly. The Germans had also told them that heavy Allied Air raids were expected. This increased their panic. Among this crowd we met our young friend of the day before, the one we had so badly frightened by telling him we were Germans. He invited us to his house which was some way, about 2 miles out of the town and stood by itself. He said there was no point in going to the town as everyone was leaving except the Germans. This was unfortunately only too true.
We went with him to his house, a very small bungalow of three or four rooms and there met his brother, deserter from the Italian Navy, and sister who had a babe in arms. His mother and father, both rather ancient. After a little while we found ourselves alone in the house, everyone seemed to have disappeared, except for the mother holding the baby in her arms. It was inclined to rain (so we lit a fire of sticks and wondered what we were going to do). We had absolutely no plans at all. We had been sitting there for about an hour, perhaps more, when our young friend burst into the room and in great panic shouted “Germans! Get out”. Peter and I didn’t take the slightest notice and the young fellow became very agitated and told us to come out and look for ourselves. We went outside and saw about a mile down the road German troops moving along the road in our direction and running in front of them darting in and out among the trees were numbers of the male population of Fossacesia; as these figures came towards us we saw they were in considerable panic and our young friend implored us to go away and if we liked come back when it was dark. So, more to please him than anything, for we did not believe there was really any danger, we went on up the hill again and talked to another Italian for some time. There was a slight rain falling; as it got darker the panic seemed to die away, so we made our way down the hill again back to the house we had left in search of shelter.
The woman with the child was the only person there and the fire had nearly gone out, so we relit it, and made ourselves at home. We hadn’t been there many minutes when two men came in and appeared very pleased to see us. One was a tall fair man of about twenty-seven or eight and the other a rather portly gentleman of about fifty-five.
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They came up to us straight away and shook us warmly by the hands saying they had been looking for us all day and now they had found us our troubles were over, and indeed so they were, but we didn’t know it then. The tall one introduced himself as a Captain in the Italian Army who had left Venice a few days before having travelled by train as far as Chieti. The stout one whom Peter and I called “Fatty” from then onwards appeared to be quite a wealthy civilian from Ancona. They had met on the train and as they both had the same object in view, that is reaching the Allied occupied part of Italy, had joined forces. They had both been apprehended the night before in Rocca di San Giovanni by the Germans but had got away during the night and while wandering about had picked up our trail and found us. They said they had also made contact with a man who had a boat and that we should all sail tonight from the little port of Sanbito about a mile south of Ortona. They also kept talking about a friend who they were waiting for; as soon as he arrived we would be off. The Captain said his father was a General in the Italian Army and they both of them had a considerable amount of money on them. We, Peter and I were quite overcome by all this, but were quite content to let things continue.
By this time the family had returned to the house and the Captain ordered the ancient woman to prepare the best meal she could for which she would be well paid. We had thought there was practically no food in the house, but from nowhere a chicken appeared and the old woman began to prepare a meal. Meanwhile we talked of our chances of getting a boat that night. The Captain was most optimistic. I never knew him otherwise, and he kept telling us to leave everything to him. While we were talking thus, another man appeared on the scene. A thin pale fellow of about thirty. The three Italians talked among themselves for a while and then the latest arrival was brought across to us and introduced. He was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Italian Army and had at one time been on the staff at the Prisoner of War Camp at Bari and could speak a little English. He told us that he had come from his home in North Italy and was going to the British to ask for arms and equipment for his brother who was head of a Partisan Group. He had been busy that day arranging for a boat and said that he had managed to find a man who would be willing to take us if we paid enough. It was arranged that when we had had a meal we should all go to Sanbito where the man with the boat was and bargain on the spot. We gathered then that in fact there was actually no boat in readiness, but only a chance of one if we had sufficient money. Anyway we made a hearty meal out of the chicken and spaghetti and bread and when the Captain had paid we set off for Sanbito in the dark following the railway lines.
We passed a considerable amount of refugees, many of them lying down in the open waiting for the threatened Air Raid on Fossacesia. Peter found the going difficult over the railway sleepers in the dark, his feet paining him considerably and making him very irritable. However there was nothing for it but to push on and this we did until we eventually reached the coast road which led into Ortona. The going on the main road was easier and we started passing houses one of which was pointed out to us with some pride as being the birthplace of Gabrielle D’Anunzio the Italian Adventurer Poet. We at last came to a fairly large house and we all trooped in. We were shown into a large well lighted room where I remember there was a large well built man of Viking appearance and his three equally well built sons all between the ages of twenty & thirty. The Captain did most of the talking but Fatty insisted on being heard which annoyed Peter considerably because he thought that he was crabbing the issue. It appeared that this family owned a couple of very small boats with sail, but it would be foolish to put to sea on a night like this however.
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They knew of another man in Sanbito who had a larger and more sea-worthy boat and if he was willing to risk his boat the three sons would be willing to sail it. We all turned out into the night again with the three men to lead us. After a walk of another mile or so we came to another house and we all walked in. Here was a considerable gathering, we understood the house was crowded with evacuees from Ortona. The Captain again broached the subject and was met by a point blank refusal. Our hopes were dashed to the ground, but the Captain went on talking, he pleaded, bribed and threatened but the answer was the same, under no circumstances would the boat-owner allow his boat to be put to sea. However the Captain persisted and Peter and I were brought into the discussion. We were described as a couple of important British Officers and the Allied Government would be very grateful for our safe return and would give a big reward to our Saviours over and above the fact that we were, each of us willing, to pay £20 on our safe arrival in Allied hands. This seemed to have the desired effect; it gave cause for thought and eventually it was decided that the sea was much too rough that night, but if we came back the next night and the sea was calm we should set off. This was explained to us by the Captain and the English speaking officer. Peter and I took it with a pinch of salt but the other seemed to be satisfied; anyway there was nothing further we could do, if the man was not willing to let us have his boat that was an end to it.
The three young men who had conducted us to this house told us that if we would like to go back with them they would give us shelter for the night. So off we went and trudged back the way we had come, and slept the night in a room in the house of our three newly found friends. The next day broke clear and bright with practically no sea running and a very light breeze. The Captain was most optimistic of our chances that night, but Peter and I who already had had so many disappointments were not so optimistic.
The family which had given us shelter for the night also had two little boats, small rowing boats with one small sail; they were drawn up on the beach no more than 100 yards from us. We spent the morning chatting to one of the owners of these boats, the eldest of the three brothers a fine big fellow, deserter from the Italian Navy. We asked him if he would be willing to venture out that night in one of his little boats should the project of the previous night fall through. He said “Yes”, he would, that he intended leaving German occupied territory as soon as possible and his brothers were of the same mind.
The Italian Captain said he would come with us but that Fatty and the other Officer would have to be left behind as there was not sufficient room in the little boat for more than six at the most. However we all hoped that it would not be necessary to use a small boat; with any luck we would be going in a larger one, but there was no harm in having two strings to the bow.
As the morning wore on, we watched some of our planes circling high above Ortona on reconnaissance. I remember one plane left a vapour trail in a complete circle about the town which caused considerable panic among the Italians as they thought it was some sort of marker for bombing to come. We did our best to dispel these fears. We also watched German engineers carrying out demolitions. They were very thorough. The railway ran immediately below the house so we could see everything. A charge was placed beneath every join of the lines and blown so that there was a gap of about a foot between every length of rail. Every telegraph pole and signal standard was destroyed and every bridge and culvert blown. We watched this going on the whole morning and at midday our hosts invited us into the house for a meal.
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We hadn’t quite finished this when a woman, the wife of one of the three brothers came bursting in and said the Boche were coming. Everybody started flapping madly. Peter and I were hustled out through a vineyard at the back of the house and told not to come back until told to do so. We sat among the vines and ate grapes and watched some Boche get out of a Scout-car and examine a fairly large bridge a little way from the house; this was obviously to be prepared to demolition and we wondered what would happen to the house of our kind friends when this was done. When the Germans had left the immediate vicinity of the house we went back and finished our meal. When we had done this it was suggested that Peter and I went away from the house for the whole of the afternoon and then come back about six o’clock for another meal and then when it was dark we should go there again, where we had been last night, in the hopes that all would be in readiness. We set off up the hill together with the 2nd Lieut. (Italian), behind the house and stayed there all afternoon, anxiously watching the sea and the wind, both of which remained calm. The hills were full of refugees of all kinds including large numbers of young men who appeared to live in a perpetual state of terror and would scamper about like rabbits when even single Germans were seen.
The hours passed and just before six 6 o’clock we made our way down again to the house where we found all the others waiting for us. We ate another good meal which was paid for by the Italian Captain, and then when all the goodbyes were said we set off as it began to get dark. There were nine of us by this time. Besides Peter and myself, the two Italian Officers and Fatty, two sailor brothers were to come with us to sail the boat. Then there were a couple of hanger’s on, two Italians whose homes were in Sicily and had taken this opportunity of getting there. In the dark we walked the 1 1/2 miles and I for one was excited, yet I couldn’t help feeling that the whole thing would fall flat as soon as we got there, but the Italian Captain was most optimistic, so we walked on in silence.
We got to the house at last where there seemed to be a considerable amount of commotion. A number of women seemed to be weeping and everyone talked at once; nobody took any notice of Peter and I and it took us sometime to find out that everything was in readiness and that we were actually going to sail. We found out that the boat owner’s two sons were also coming with us and that the boat would not return home until the Allies had occupied this part of Italy, hence the tears of the women. They were saying Goodbye to their husbands and sons. At last everything seemed to be ready and we moved down the cliff in single file. The night was very dark although a moon was due to rise later. We eventually reached the beach and came across a boat. I should say it was some 15 or 16 feet long; there was one mast for a mainsail. There was a certain amount of confusion as orders were given by the boat-owner in a very loud stage whisper to push the boat down the beach into the sea. Everyone pushed and whispered at the same time and little by little the boat started to move over the shingle and after one last effort the boat was sea-borne.
Everyone clambered on board and two men with oars forward, started rowing lustily out to sea while one man aft, steered. Ortona was about a mile to the north and I felt that we had made enough row to raise the dead. The moon started to rise and we felt very exposed to any prying eyes. We had not got more than three hundred yards off the beach when a considerable amount of shouting came from the beach and my first thoughts were that we had been discovered, and to my horror one of the two sons of the boat owner said that we must go back; the boat was turned round and we slowly made our way back. As our prow touched on the beach something came hurtling on board, a large coil of rope. The boat had gone back for a coil of rope. The boat was turned again and with whispered encouragement from the man steering, we headed slowly out to sea again. It was necessary to get a mile offshore before raising sail as we were in a small bay and there was no wind until we pulled out of it, also a sail close inland
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might cause unwelcome attention from the shore. It took about an hour’s hard rowing before we were sufficiently far from the shore to risk raising the sail. When this was done, very efficiently for the sailors certainly knew their job, we caught the wind and headed out to sea for about four or five miles and then sailed South, with the Italian Coastline just in sight. The moon was very bright, the sea was calm and a very steady breeze blew in the right direction. Our nerves were quietened down considerably and we began to enjoy the situation. Fatty was very sick and the Italian Captain made him worse by talking about fat pork.
I had kept a tin of bully and a tin of biscuits right from the start of our trek and this I decided to open and share out between the twelve of us. We sailed on steadily through the night making a good four or five knots. From Ortona to Termoli by land is about fifty miles. This distance would be reduced to about thirty by sea. So with any luck we should make Termoli before sun-rise. The only thing that was worrying me was whether we should find Termoli safe in British hands or had it been recaptured. We had no definite news since I had listened to the radio six days before. One of the sailors had heard the Fascist Radio declare that Termoli was in German hands again. If this was so then it would mean that we should have to sail on well past Termoli and also we would have to sail well out to sea as it would be foolish to sail close inland by day, and another thing how were we to know in whose hands Termoli was? The hours went slowly by and in the very early morning we could hear the sounds of shelling, see tracer being fired inland. As we went on further South these sights and sounds became more frequent and at one period the Italians in the boat thought that we were the target.
About four o’clock in the morning the sail was lowered and the anchor dropped. The Italian sailors said that we were off Termoli. It had become very dark again as the moon had gone down; from the boat we could only see the dim outline of the coast and flashes of gun-fire. There was nothing for it but to wait for the dawn. So we waited.
About 6 o’clock the sun started to rise and slowly objects began to make themselves clear on land. We were lying off about two or three miles and as it got lighter we began to make out shipping in the small harbour and houses on land and the town of Termoli itself. We were still very uncertain whether to sail in or not and I for one was for putting out to sea again and sailing further south for the whole of the day if necessary, rather than take the risk of sailing into a German held Termoli.
We were in this uncertain mood when we heard the approach of an aeroplane from the east out of the sun. We looked and saw approaching very fast towards us and no more than two hundred feet above the sea a two engined aeroplane which Peter at once said was a Junkers, but the Italians in the boat said was Inglesi. I thought they would know nothing having been for three years on the same side as the Boche. So I told Peter he was an alarmist and that if he was joking that it was in very poor taste. We couldn’t make out any markings on the ‘plane. It flew in towards Termoli circled above the port and then flew out to sea again and then making a wide circle flew very low over the boat and we very clearly saw black crosses painted on the wings and fuselage. Over Termoli it dropped some incendiaries and was met by light Ack Ack fire. The plane flew out to sea again and low over our boat; by this time the Italians were all for throwing themselves out of the boat. But the Boche wasn’t going to worry about a small fishing boat and he flew off pursued a few minutes later by about twelve fighters which had come from the South. The Ack Ack fire against the Boche ‘plane definitely told us that Termoli was held by us, so it was quite safe to sail in, but even then I wasn’t quite satisfied; I wanted more proof.
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I suppose the frame of mind I was in must have had something to do with it. About a mile from us was a small Destroyer and I asked the boatman to sail towards her, the idea was to get near enough for us to recognise her nationality. We slowly sailed nearer and even when we were a few hundred yards from her we were still in ignorance. There were sailors on board but they quite easily might have been German.
There was a flag aft, but it was furled round its staff and we couldn’t make it out. At a distance of about a hundred yards I decided to hail the ship. I did so and asked if it was a British Ship and to my intense relief the reply came back “Yes”. I then shouted that we were two escaped British Prisoners of War and could we come aboard. The reply came back “Yes, certainly”. So I told the Italian to take us alongside. When this manoeuvre had been completed, Peter and I and the three Italian Officers including Fatty climbed on board. This was a great moment for Peter and myself. We introduced ourselves to the R.N.V.R. Lieutenant and to his Sub, and together with the three Italians we were invited down to the wardroom for breakfast.
This is really the end of my story. The date was the 16th October. We had escaped from Camp on the 9th September. We must have covered near on seven hundred miles. Looking back on that five weeks, I think I enjoyed it, but there were times when I felt I would have given my right arm to be where I found myself on the 16th October.
Peter and I were more fortunate than most. Our journey had only taken five weeks. There were many who were recaptured after nine months.
The remainder of the story is quickly told. After breakfast on the little ship we boarded our little sailing boat again and sailed into Termoli. We reported to Divisional Headquarters where we were questioned by an Intelligence Officer. We were sent by road to Foggia the same day, where we got a bath and changed into Khaki again and had dinner at an R.A.M.C. Mess and a couple of stretchers made up as bunks in the office of an Egyptian Doctor. The next day we were sent off to Taranto by road and given facilities for writing Home. We stayed in Taranto two days and then put aboard an American L.S.T. for Bizerta. Three days in Bizerta and then a four day train journey to Algiers, where we were told we should have to wait for an indefinite number of days for a convoy going Home. I managed however to get a seat on a large American Transport ‘plane bound for the U.K. via Marakesh; a day’s wait and then at 9 o’clock on the night of 4th November, I left Marakesh and at 7 o ‘clock in the morning of 5th November I landed at Prestwick aerodrome.
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