Air Vice Marshal Owen Tudor Boyd was in a Wellington bomber heading for Malta in November 1940, when forced to land in Sicily due to a fuel shortage. He was taken to the Prisoner of War camp at Sulmona, a town some 70 miles east of Rome. Along with other senior British officers, he was housed in the Villa Orsini. With the arrival of more senior officers, the villa became crowded, and in September 1941 all the senior officers were moved to the Castello di Vincigliata, in the hills above Florence.
From September 1942 to March 1943 an escape tunnel was constructed within the castle. On 29th March, Boyd along with five other senior officers escaped through the tunnel. (The other 5 were: Lieutenant-General Adrian Carton de Wiart, Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, Brigadier John Combe, Brigadier James Hargest and Brigadier Reginald Miles.) Boyd and three others were recaptured within a few days. Boyd was returned to Vincigliata and spent 30 days in solitary confinement.
In September 1943, Italy surrendered and an armistice was announced. Boyd was one of those who promptly left the camp, and he would spend the next 3 months moving through central Italy, trying to get through the Frontier to the British side. Digital pages 3-11 are from a talk given by his son, Keith Boyd.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
[Digital page 1]
- “Three years in Italy” – notes from a talk given by KT Boyd to his Probus Club.
- General’s camp – OT Boyd’s account of his landing in Italy and capture (transcription by his brother, AK Boyd, from manuscript by OTB and recollections of conversations between them).
- “Notes on the March Escape” – OT Boyd’s account of the digging of the tunnel and the March escape from Vincigliata.
- “Post-Armistice Wanderings” – OT Boyd’s account of post-armistice wanderings (transcribed by AK Boyd).
- Details of “Post-Armistice Wanderings”.
- Places visited and people met along the way.
- Rino Spada’s account of post-armistice movements of the generals.
12/03/1941 – Letter from John Leeming to Mrs IM Boyd (wife), written from Sulmona
02/05/1943 – Letter from F/L John Leeming to Mrs IM Boyd (wife)
02/03/1944 – Letter from Sgt. Bain to OTB
01/04/1944 – Letter from Gussy (Lieut. Augusto Ricciardi) to OTB
14/04/1944 – Letter from Sgt. EL Prewett to OTB
01/07/1944 – Letter from Gussie (Lieut. Augusto Ricciardi) to OTB
04/12/1944 – Letter from Major General Neame to Mrs IM Boyd (wife)
11/12/1944 – Letter from F/L John Leeming to Mrs IM Boyd (wife)
30/04/1945 – Letter from AK Boyd (brother) to Colonel Todhunter
06/12/1945 – Letter from F/O SB Girling to AK Boyd (brother)
01/01/1946 – Letter from Avv. Comandini to unnamed RAF Officer
[Digital page 2]
23/02/1946 – Letter from Avv. Comandini to AK Boyd (brother) ENGLISH
23/02/1946 – Letter from Avv. Comandini to AK Boyd (brother) ITALIAN
14/03/1946 – Letter from Avv. Comandini to AK Boyd (brother) ENGLISH
14/03/1946 – Letter from Avv. Comandini to AK Boyd (brother) ITALIAN
05/04/1946 – Letter from Alan Napier to unknown
25/04/1946 – Letter from Alan Napier
22/09/1946 – Letter from AK Boyd (brother) to Avv. Comandini
27/12/1946 – Letter from Avv. Comandini to (presumably) AK Boyd (brother) FRENCH
22/11/2003 – Letter from Keith Boyd (son) to KK
30/11/2003 – Letter from KK to Keith Boyd (son)
30/11/2003 – Letter from KK to Keith Boyd (son)
12/12/2003 – Letter from KK to Keith Boyd (son)
[Digital page 3]
THREE YEARS IN ITALY.
A talk given by Keith Tudor Boyd to PROBUS Club 3, Northampton
On Tuesday 13th April 1999
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THREE YEARS IN ITALY.
1/. Although I intend to talk mainly about my father’s capture and escape from his prisoner of war camp in Italy, I think it is worthwhile to give a brief account of his life as a background to how he got into his predicament.
[Photograph with caption] Figure 1. OTB [Owen Boyd] in Indian Cavalry uniform circa 1910.
- Born 1889.
- Commissioned from Sandhurst 1909.
- Joined 5th Indian Cavalry.
- In early 1914 was selected & accepted as a future pilot.
- Reached France (without his Regiment) in time to be awarded the Mons Star.
- Attached to the Signals Corps.
- Sent to Upavon in 1916 to learn to fly. Crashed!
- Awarded the Military Cross in France, was in Iraq at the end of the War fighting the Turks. Awarded O.B.E. in December 1918 and mentioned in Dispatches in January, 1919.
- Was commanding the RAF School of Army Cooperation at Old Sarum when I was born.
- Was at the Army Staff College in Camberley as a pupil in 1927, and was appointed to the Directing Staff immediately when his course was completed.
[Photograph with caption] Figure 2. Army staff college course photograph, Camberley 1927. Front row is the directing staff (4th from left is O’Connor, 3rd from right is Bernard Montgomery). OTB [Owen Boyd] is to the right of the Royal Navy officer in the back row, and to the left of him is Alexander, later to become Earl Alexander of Tunis.
- Early in 1939 he was promoted to AVM [Air Vice Marshal] and appointed as Air Officer Commanding Balloon Command. He had one officer on his staff – a Group Captain – and between them they managed to have quite a few balloons protecting
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- [continued from previous page] important places by September when the Second World War started. By then he had quite a large HQ at Stanmore.
- In November 1940, he was promoted Air Marshal and posted to Cairo as second-in-command to Air Chief Marshal Longmore who commanded the Air Forces in the Middle East.
[Photograph with caption] Figure 3. John Leeming and OTB [Owen Boyd] at Villa Orsini, Sulmona.
2/. By this time he had acquired a Personal Assistant by the name of Flight Lieutenant John Leeming, the owner of a cotton factory in Manchester, an expert on delphiniums, and a writer of children’s books. He was also a keen civil pilot.
3/. On a cold night in November 1940 my father and Leeming boarded a Wellington bomber which had already been loaded with £250,000 belonging to the British Government and bound for Malta. The loading had been done by a bunch of alarming looking men with guns. The aircraft had an all-officer crew with a Squadron Leader captain. And so they set off on the first leg of their journey to Cairo. It was a long journey as France was partially occupied by the enemy, which forced them to avoid places known to be defended by the enemy.
4/. At about 11 o’clock next morning – “a perfect day, cloudless deep blue sky, a gentle breeze, pleasantly warm”, according to Leeming, the captain came back to my father and said he had just crossed a coast, didn’t know where it was, and had 20 minutes fuel left. What should he do? My father said, “Fly out to sea, and ditch alongside if you see a ship – we’ll have to hope for the best. Otherwise, come back and land.” They came back, but not before they had spent a nerve racking time pushing the heavy boxes of money out through the bomb doors into the sea.
5/. After they had set the plane on fire, they were greeted by about 15 men carrying axes, looking like fairytale brigands, and speaking Italian: they were in Sicily. Luckily, the men were not as fierce as they seemed, but were not unnaturally a bit concerned that the plane might be carrying bombs which were about to go off. Reassured on this point, there was a loud “Bang!” from the wreckage, a mishap which did nothing to endear them to their captors – they had forgotten about the oxygen bottles! By this time the local mayor had appeared on the scene. His contribution to their jollity was to ask if they needed the services of a priest!
6/. The formalities were eventually completed, and Leeming and my father were taken to Sulmona (a town some 70 miles east of Rome) and were housed in the Villa Orsini. They used to go for walks in the surrounding countryside under guard, of course, and were positively embarrassed by the reception from villagers who invited them into their houses for coffee or wine. On one occasion their walk took them to a small lake and, it being very hot, the guards asked them to look after their rifles while they enjoyed a swim.
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7/. In April they were joined by two Lt.-Generals (Neame and O’Connor), Maj. General Gambier-Parry, Brigadier Combe, and Col. Younghusband. They were all captured in North Africa – Neame and O’Connor in the same car when they ran into a German patrol in the middle of the night.
8/. This influx left the Villa Orsini rather crowded, so on 24 September, 1941, they were all moved to the Castello Di Vincigliata in Fiesole in the hills above Florence. The building was a reconstruction in the 19th century of the medieval castle that had once stood there. This was carried out by a wealthy Englishman called Temple-Leader.
[Photograph with caption] Figure 4. Walls of Castello Di Vincigliata.
[Photographs with caption] Figure 5. Keep of Castello Di Vincigliata.
9/. Plans to escape began to be formulated almost immediately. O’Connor made the first attempt by himself. He got over the inner wall of the castle, but then found himself looking down the wrong end of an Italian rifle. Fortunately, this man kept his head and did not fire, but all the other Italians went mad, shouting and running in all directions. When everything quietened down again and it was found that no one had actually escaped, the commandant was removed and the sentry was rewarded by an Italian general for his presence of mind, but the prisoners were rather more carefully watched in future.
10/. Some of the rooms in the castle were below ground level, and the observant Neame noticed one day that a corridor in this part had what looked like a doorway that had been recently blocked and plastered over. This was surely worth investigating, so Leeming was deputed to remove some plaster and see what was behind. This turned out to be fresh brickwork so Leeming persevered and made a hole he could climb
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through. Everyone was thrilled when he found a passage, but, sadly, this was quite short and finished just above the water in the well whose head was in the castle courtyard. Leeming had already looked down this well and seen what appeared to be an opening near the bottom, and my father had been lowered on a rope to confirm this. Unfortunately, he started spinning and could not reach the walls to stop himself so he had to be hauled up to recover from his giddiness. Next day O’Connor, lighter, and better prepared, was lowered and found a passage blocked by a recently built wall – the one Leeming climbed through from the other side a few days later! Repairing this wall to avoid discovery was a great problem. The bricks could be jammed in, but how to replace the plastering? This was solved by the ingenious Sgt. Bain who rushed off to the kitchen (manned by British cooks) and came back with a cooked rice pudding which served very well as plaster. The deception was never spotted, though the Italians did remark on the dampness of the passage evidenced by the fungus growing on a patch of plaster!
[Photograph with caption] Figure 6. OTB [Owen Boyd], Lt. Smith, ‘MICKEY’, Younghusband, Leeming, Neame and Gambier-Parry at the back.
11/. The prisoners knew that the castle contained a chapel on the ground floor against an outside wall, but the doorway was concreted up. On the first floor was the castle dining room which had an electrically operated service lift to the kitchen below the chapel. It was found that this lift could be stopped between floors, outside the chapel, indeed. By making a hole in the back of the lift and one to correspond in the chapel wall, they could get into the vestry. At this point the experience of Neame, a Sapper who had won a V.C. [Victoria Cross] in the first World War, became invaluable (another prisoner, Maj. General Carton de Wiart, was another WW1 winner of the V.C.). With great ingenuity and the assistance of Sgt. Bain, Neame devised instruments that allowed him to design a tunnel from the chapel to a point outside the walls. It comprised a shaft 10 feet deep and 4 feet square from the floor of the vestry, followed by a sloping tunnel 4 feet high, 2 feet wide, and 36 feet long. Neame was “Chief Engineer”, my father (then O’Connor when he returned from ‘solitary’) was “Head of Operations” and a digger with Brig. Miles. The other digging teams were: Combe and Todhunter, and Stirling and Hargest. Carton de Wiart was in charge of ‘Watchers’. The best rate of progress was about 2 feet a week between mid-September, 1942, to 20 March, 1943. A kitchen knife was their main tool, and they worked for two hours in the early morning and for another two hours in the afternoon. These were the only times when they felt fairly safe from discovery.
12/. On 29th March, 1943, Combe, Miles, my father, Hargest, O’Connor, and Carton de Wiart escaped through the tunnel. The first four of these walked to Florence and took a train to Milan. They intended to cross the Alps on foot into Switzerland. On a tram in Milan, my father thought someone was looking at him suspiciously, so he got off the tram and did not see the others again. He got to Como,
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but decided he could not walk over the Alps alone as he was suffering from night blindness. He watched trains from Como going over the border, noticing that they all stopped in a cutting for a few minutes and then went on. He jumped on to one of these – which went straight back into Como station. While he was trying to get out, someone tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he was a British General. He returned to Vincigliata and 30 days solitary. By now, the dog that the prisoners had befriended had dug up the exit from the tunnel and so rendered it useless for any more escapes.
[Photograph with caption] Figure 8. Della Robbia’s Annunciation.
13/. While all this was going on, Leeming decided he was bored with being a POW and he would therefore escape! The method he chose was both difficult and dangerous – he would feign a mental breakdown. To his friends’ amazement, he succeeded, and was recommended for repatriation by a Medical Board on 1 May, 1942, 8 months after he began his ‘breakdown’ routine, but did not leave Italy until the following February. No wonder he called his book about all these events “Always Tomorrow”!
14/. On 8th September, 1943, an armistice was announced. On 10th, 11 officers and 14 other ranks proceeded to Italian Corps H.Q. in Florence. They were told the Germans were advancing on the city. The Italian General said he would send them by special train to Arezzo, 60 miles to the south, where they would be released and have to fend for themselves. When they got to Arezzo they went to the Italian Officers School where the local police chief told them that the Germans were approaching. He arranged two police buses to take them all to Camaldoli, a monastery in the Apennines. The Prior had been a German prisoner in the 1914-1918 war and was sympathetic. But after 4 days they had to move because there was too much gossip and rumour. They went to the Eremo Monastery a thousand feet higher up the mountain where the Prior-General of the order lived. He was most kind and brave, detailing one of the brothers of his order, Don Leoni, to act as special liaison between himself and the British escapees and giving them all the help in his power. He arranged for them to go to a nearby foresters encampment at Strabatenza, right in the heart of the forest and with Don Leoni still keeping in touch.
[Photograph with caption] Figure 7. Typical Northern Italian countryside.
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[Photograph with caption] Figure 9. The monastery of La Verna.
15/. The policeman in Arezzo who had brought them to Camaldoli came again to tell them that they must leave at once as he believed the Germans suspected where they were and had put a large price on their heads. They were recommended to go to the monastery of La Verna which is about 15 miles away but very mountainous and thickly wooded. The monastery is very big and very famous having been founded by St. Francis of Assisi who lived and died there. At some stage they had encountered an Italian officer, man called Bruno Vailati, who volunteered to go through the German lines with a message to Alexander, the Commander in Chief, telling him what was happening. Bruno was recommended by Neame for a Military Cross for this. Alexander said he would do whatever he could to help my father, Neame, and O’Connor, but not the others, because the party would become too big and conspicuous if he did. He arranged to send a submarine to pick them up at a defined point and date on the Adriatic coast. So the three of them with the help of some bicycles went as fast as they could to Pesaro, about 70 miles away. They did it in about 2 days which I think is remarkable as they were all in their fifties and not accustomed to that form of exercise. The rendezvous with the submarine was unsuccessful.
[Photograph with caption] Figure 10. Rossi, Ranfurly, Combe, Spazzoli, Neame, Vailati, Nanni, Father Leoni, Todhunter, O’Connor, OTB [Owen Boyd].
16/. They were blessed all this time with the most marvellously brave and competent friends, many of them Communist trades unionists, and they were constantly moving to and fro, dodging German patrols, finding shelter, and, of course, food – not plentiful at that time in Northern Italy – as well as coping with the constant threat of betrayal. There can be no doubt that their helpers were risking
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their lives and very likely those of all the people in the villages they lived in. The Germans did not love their former allies.
[Photograph with caption] Figure 11. Neame, O’Connor, OTB [Owen Boyd].
[Photograph with caption] Figure 12. Map of Italy showing the escape route.
17/. The problem the escapees now faced was to find a boat to take them south along the Adriatic coast and round the battle front. The Germans, too had thought of this idea and kept a very strict eye on any boats leaving the many harbours along this shore. Eventually a man was found in Riccione who was prepared to risk it, and they left on 19th December, 1943. By now there were 12 people in the party; two Generals and my father, two other British officers, a South African trooper, and six Italians, including a woman, who had been helping British escapees. They were battened down in the fish hold, not allowed on deck, the weather was very rough, and the journey lasted nearly 36 hours. One can imagine how they looked on arrival at Termoli. They were immediately arrested by the British, but when the officer in charge arrived it turned out that he and O’Connor had worked together in the same office at one time. While he and the others were enjoying a much needed wash and a shave, GHQ [General Headquarters] and Alexander were informed. Alexander invited the three senior members of the party to stay with him. When they had completed their ‘goodbyes’ at Termoli they set off for Bari where Alexander had his HQ. They arrived just in time for dinner and were greeted by Alexander who said, “Don’t bother about not changing! Just wash if you want to – we have a few people dining who will be interested to see you.” The ‘few people’ were Eisenhower and his chief planning staff from Supreme HQ. The evening was marred because on his way to his room after dinner, poor O’Connor stumbled in the dark over a foot scraper, fell, and needed nine stitches in a cut above his nose. My father was able to vouch for his sobriety! This was 22nd December, and they were decked out with battledress and flew that afternoon to Tunis to be met by Air Chief Marshal Tedder who was the possible alternative to my father for the job in Cairo and had
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replaced him when he was captured. He was now Eisenhower’s deputy. Churchill was convalescing after pneumonia in Tunis and asked to see them. He talked to them for nearly an hour and a half, bringing them up to date with three years’ news.
18/. They arrived at Prestwick on Christmas Day but could not fly on to London immediately because of the weather. The next evening my father spoke to me on the telephone in the Mess at Bruntingthorpe where I was stationed, asking if I could get a little leave and join him in the suite he was in at Claridges. As the Station Commander was in the Mess at the time, that was soon arranged.
[Photograph with caption] Figure 13. ‘Leaving some of my fellow prisoners was hard… I felt that if I ever did see them again we should all be different. And worst of all was the hurt of leaving Boyd – Boyd, who had seen his whole promising career smashed and had never once grumbled, who had never once grumbled, who had gone on helping others far better off than himself, Boyd, who had become my real friend – a deep, understanding friendship that only comes once or twice in a lifetime.’
Extract from ‘Always Tomorrow’ John F Leeming
GSM [General Service Medal]: Iraq, Kurdistan, S Persia
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[Photograph showing Owen Boyd] Photograph of Owen Boyd
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Landing Sicily, 20th November 1940.
Surrounded by swarthy little men with axes, jabbering unintelligibly, protesting against burning of aeroplane, but enlarged circle precipitously when the fire had caught, for fear of bombs bursting. Took us to neighbouring village and gave us bread and wine. Wine good, bread too stale to be eatable.
Coastguards arrived shortly afterwards, and party became more formal. After the carabinieri – a type of civil and military police combined, whom we subsequently called “caribs” – arrived, we were taken to cars. Our baggage – slightly looted by our hosts – accompanied us. Taken to a coastguard station, where we were given a handsome lunch by an Italian merchant skipper, who spoke excellent English. Then proceeded by car to Catania, where John and I were lodged in the HQ of the General commanding the Air Force in Sicily. Remainder of crew taken to aerodrome, where they were well treated by the officers. Baggage searched, and we were confined to our rooms, with guards outside the doors. Considered possibility of climbing down walls – we were on first floor – but decided impracticable. More experience would have suggested sheets.
Taken for occasional drives in General’s car, but no facilities for exercise.
After about a week, we were told that two officers were coming to see us from Rome, and a small, serious and very bald man with glasses, and a large fat and jovial one, were ushered in. Called the little man Professor Moriarty after Sherlock Holmes’ villain. Moriarty made a long speech in Italian, standing smartly to attention the while. Of course this quite unintelligible to us, but it appeared that the large man whom we found later was called Macini, was an interpreter. Speech translated: “‘E want to know if you want a priest”! It looked a bit ominous, and we had visions of firing squads at dawn. However, it subsequently transpired that the speech was a sort of welcome to Italy, and that the consolations of religion was only one of the amenities offered. The main point was that we were to be taken to Rome, and that our two visitors would conduct us there.
The following day we started, and accompanied by the rest of the crew and many “caribs”, we went by road to Messina, and crossed the straits in a naval picket boat. At Reggio Calabria we were entrained, and by dawn arrived at Rome. On the journey our two guards looked on the wine while it was red, and became distinctly cheerful. Moriarty showed a more jovial side of his character, and in fact a good time was had by all except unfortunately, the “caribs”, who remained distressingly sober and vigilant.
We were motored through Rome to Centocelle aerodrome, where
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we were put in a detached villa, presumably one of the officers quarters. It was a gloomy place, particularly as it was at first lighted exclusively by blue bulbs. These we subsequently got replaced. Besides John and me, for the first ten days the three officers of the crew shared the villa with us, but later they were removed to the Prisoner of War camp at Sulmona. We discussed escape in a desultory manner, but really there was no chance, as our patch of garden – 32 times round to the mile – was thoroughly wired in and watched by three sentries. It was not a pleasant time. We were still suffering a little from the shock of capture, and finding it difficult to adjust ourselves to new conditions. The weather was bitterly cold, we noticed the sap from some recently pruned little trees in the garden was frozen. For warmth we had to crowd round a minute stove in the hall, which was usually short of fuel, or go to bed. Our food, brought from the officer’s mess 200 yards away consisted mainly of tepid macaroni. Our visitors consisted of officers from the aerodrome, but as few of these spoke any language but Italian, social intercourse was apt to lag. There was one, however, who liked to air his English, and told us stories of the Englishman, Scotsman and Irishman type, of which I don’t think he ever saw the point. Owing to his almost incomprehensible English, we never did. Another frequent visitor was the aerodrome doctor-dentist, who spoke French slightly worse than I did, a difficult feat, and who was an ardent fascist. He obliged me however, by pulling out one of my teeth, and distressed John by telling him his teeth were appalling. Occasionally we had a visit from Marini, who, we learn, belonged to the Intelligence Branch of the Italian War Office. We had no doubt that he came to pump us, but I hope he gleaned nothing except that they had an unshakeable faith in final victory, which I think, genuinely surprised him. He like all Italians at that time, and until much later, were convinced that the German army not only were undefeatable, but also that it never had been defeated. Goebbels with his propaganda, had inverted the order of events at the end of the last war, and all Europe now believe that the rebellion in Germany preceded the collapse of the German Army. To assert that this was not the case only produced superior and slightly commiserating smiles. I think that instilling this belief was the high water mark of German pre-war propaganda, unless we accept its other great achievement of convincing the world, including the majority of English people that the Treaty of Versailles was hard and into Germany.
It was Marine who first told us of the British advance into Libya. He told us of our magnificent tanks – air conditioned, among other things, of the immense number of them and of our incomparable replacement and supply services. We were much impressed, and it was not until we were joined some months later by Neame, O’Connor and others from the Middle East, that we learnt with what a ramshackle machine the advance had been carried out!
In the mean time our “carib” guards were getting more friendly, and when no one was about, were prepared to accept a drink from us. This gave us the idea of trying to make them celebrate Christmas
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night and of making them drunk. I doubt if it would have worked, but John had some powerful drugs in his kit which dissolved in the liquor which we were able to obtain from the adjoining Officers Mess, might have proved effective. Had it done so we intended to walk to the Vatican, who would probably have been most embarrassed by our arrival! I felt sure then and later, when the question of escape to the Vatican was under discussion, that politically we would have been unwelcome there, but I do not know whether this was in fact the case.
However, we were prevented from putting our scheme to the test because early on the morning of Christmas Eve a harassed crowd of officials arrived including Moriarty and Marini, to tell us that we were to leave for Sulmona immediately. I was in bed at the time and refused to be hustled, and even insisted on having a bath before dressing. However, in due course we were ready, and our scanty baggage was packed and we set off by car for the station at Rome, driving through a heavy snow storm to get there. Accompanied by Marini and a numerous escort of caribs, we completed the four hour train journey and reached Sulmona, where heavy snow had fallen. At the station we were presented to our chief jailer – a fat and cheerful and kindly colonel, who commanded the local military district. His name was Mazzuchitti, but this was too much of a mouthful for our tongues, unaccustomed then to Italian names, and he was duly christened Mazzawattee. Our relations were generally pleasant, but although well meaning and pretty idle, Mazzawattee was astute enough to realise the value of masterly inactivity where my minor complaints and requests were concerned. Hence when I demanded something from him face to face he agreed heartily that it should be done – and nothing happened; if I wrote to him I got no reply to my letter. It was infuriating at times and I appreciated what St. Paul meant by “kicking against the pricks”. Another of his methods of evading the issue was to stay away from our villa, and I once caught him tiptoeing under my window to visit Sussce (the Italian Office in immediate charge of us) in the hope that I would not know that he was there!
We drove through deep snow to the Villa Orsini about a mile outside Sulmona which had been prepared for us. Unfortunately the authorities at Rome had omitted to warn Mazzawattee that we were coming until an hour or two before our arrival. In consequence we found it bitterly cold, and that no catering arrangements had been made. However, some food was scratched up, and at a late hour, John and I sat down to dinner. Up till now we had had Italian soldiers to act as waiters and batmen, so that when we found a bearded man in Italian uniform waiting at the table we were surprised when he offered an apology for the food in excellent English. I asked him where he had learnt it, and was overjoyed to discover that he was an RAF sergeant observer called Bain who had been shot down in North Africa! From him we learned
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that the staff consisted of Sgt. Baxter, and McWhinny, both shot down in a Sunderland. McWhinny had to leave us later owing to temporary sickness, and was replaced by Prewett, a Gloucestershire Hussar, and a printer in private life. The two airmen ex boy apprentices and these three were with us for over two years, until they were moved to another camp for their supposed complicity in an escape. A finer lot of men it will never be my good fortune to meet. Nothing was too much to ask of them, whether it was merely for our comfort or in more serious matters. They were the nucleus of a team of batmen that eventually grew to 15, a grand team, but I always felt that much was due to the tone set by Baxter, Bain and Prewett.
The next day was Christmas day. It was difficult to work up a genuine Christmas spirit, but we worked up the “goodwill to all men” part of it by asking the Italian Officer who lived alone in a room in the villa to join us at dinner. This was Augusto Ricciardi, a dangerous and likeable young man, who was to be with us for over two years. He was dangerous because he was so likeable, and professed, which I believe was true, a real love of the English acquired from his mother and an English Governess. He was dangerous too because he was extremely intelligent and the quickest observer of trivial details that I have ever met. He spoke English fluently but inaccurately, and although young was endowed with such a remarkable amount of tact that he was able to handle us – often rather difficult senior and elderly officers in a truly masterly way, which we were the first to admit. Although we had no doubt that he would do his duty in reporting titbits of information that we might let fall in an unguarded moment, or that he would do his utmost to prevent us escaping, we liked and admired him. If he tries he will make a name for himself as a diplomat. We always affectionately addressed him as Gussie. It was noticeable that our men, while seldom giving a rank or other prefix to the majority of our Italian officers when speaking to me, invariably called Gussie Mr. Ricciardi. His contribution to our Christmas dinner was a bottle of Italian champagne – a nasty drink, but it tended to produce the right atmosphere.
From now on life settled down to a steady routine. Occasional walks were allowed, and I got down to learning Italian grammar. A few English books were produced by the Italian Red Cross for which we were grateful. By the time of the Armistice we had accumulated a very respectable library, through the generosity of our friends in England, the British Red Cross and kindred societies, and on one momentous occasion, at least from His Majesty the King. But in the early days books were scarce and the choice limited.
Meanwhile affairs had taken a turn for the worse in N. Africa, and the Italian papers, which we were allowed to purchase, and which by now I was able to read without much difficulty, were jubilant. However, we discounted much that they said, and particularly a report which said that six British Generals had been captured. But alas, it was only too true, and on Easter Monday, Philip Neame, Dick O’Connor (an old friend of mine), Michael Gambier-Parry, John Combe, Ted Todhunter and George Younghusband arrived at our villa.
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They arrived worn, hungry, and not unnaturally, depressed at this unkind blow of fate. John and I fed them and housed them to the best of our ability, but it was difficult to find much with which to cheer them. However, the human mind is extraordinarily adaptable, and in a surprisingly short time, all settled down, unwillingly maybe, to our humdrum existence.
Before long we were to have yet another recruit to our coterie in Carton de Wiart. The aeroplane in which he was travelling had been forced to land by engine failure in the Mediterranean. The landing was made in the dark with a rough sea running but fortunately just off the African coast, and the crew and Carton managed to reach the shore and were made prisoner by the Italians. Only two days previously the shore on which they landed had been in British hands but had had to be abandoned in consequence of Rommel’s first advance. The fates had not been kind. In spite of his one eye and one arm, a much injured leg and other trophies of the 1914-1918 war, and his 60 adventurous years, Carton reached us little the worse for wear and quite imperturbable.
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Notes on the March Escape.
Tunnel started towards end September, 1942.
Iron bars found in previously opened well chamber.
Two kitchen carving knives, blades to which I fitted wooden handles.
A sort of trowel used for breaking ice.
Spikes made from croquet hoops found in chapel, and to which wooden handles were fitted.
Buckets for moving soil – later replaced for silence, by canvas buckets made from fabric of broken deck chairs.
Spirit level, using aspirin tablet tube for water bubble.
Level gauge let into side of tunnel to check slope.
Chapel filled with surplus furniture, pictures and objet d’art – some possibly valuable.
Only entrance doorway to chapel bricked up before we arrived.
Entrance effected at back of lift shaft between kitchen and dining room.
Work difficult and noisy as hole had to be made through well built stone wall 2 1/2 feet thick.
Work had to be carried out standing on top of lift, which was lowered to suitable position. Danger of damaging lift and cable which did not appear too strong. Later when hole finished, entrance by crawling across a plank which was left in chapel, and pulled out when required. Thus undue wear on lift mechanism avoided.
Hole on level of dining room. Hence, when lift in up position, it was covered but always danger that Italians might lower it. Actually done on several occasions, but not before suitable cover had been fitted over hole.
Hole about fifteen inches by 12 inches – a tight fit. Calculated that where my shoulders would go, Jim’s [James Hargest] backside would go, and vice versa. Remainder fitted more easily. Cover made of three-ply wood with crossed battens behind to keep it rigid. Three-ply overlapped hole by about two inches all round, and was let in flush with whitewashed plaster with which walls of lift shaft rendered. Over three-ply was gummed a sheet of fine sand paper, which overlapped by 1/2 inch all round, thus giving almost flush finish, and covering rough edges of plaster when three-ply let in. Whole then whitewashed – original colour of lift shaft, and one or two streaks of grease from lift cable connected up from shaft walls proper over cover.
Cover kept in position by a string attached to the middle of battens at back to a bottle filled with water, which hung over far side of hole and was free to move up and down in a casing. Result – almost impossible to see.
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Left shaft hole led into sort of tiled annex, and not the chapel itself, which was approached through archway.
First job to stack furniture in the chapel to make space for excavated soil. Difficult to do quietly, sentry at times within about 6 yards of window. Found full sized ping-pong table in chapel, which laid against heaped furniture made one good retaining wall. Other made with coconut matting – large roll found – propped up with lengths of firewood 4 foot long.
Found also length of thick rope – most useful for hauling up big excavated stones – some weighed about 200 lbs [pounds] or more.
Vertical shaft of tunnel started by prizing up tiles in chapel annex. Dimensions of vertical shaft decided 3 feet by 4 feet, and depth was to be 10 feet.
Determining length and depth of tunnel.
Certain measurements could definitely be fixed. Shaft started near outside wall of annex, which from measurements of windows, etc. we knew to be 2 1/2 feet thick. Measured distance from outside of annex to inside of main surrounding castle wall exactly under eyes of sentries by pretending to measure out a deck tennis court. This was 27 feet.
Unknown was thickness of base of outer wall – which tapered from base upwards, and more important, height of ground outside walls, and hence probable depth of foundations. Inside walls a gravel drive raised to artificial height; thus inside height of wall no indication of outside height. Level of ground outside found as it turned out very accurately by homemade inclinometer.
Hence decided to make a shaft 10 feet deep. Thence gallery falling 1 foot in eight. Hoped to reach inside foundation of outer wall in 30 feet. Dimensions of gallery at beginning 4 feet by 2 feet. This standard not maintained, but never less than 3 1/2 feet by 1 1/2 feet.
Worked in shifts of two.
Working hours 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2.15 p.m to 4.15 p.m. Times chosen as being least likely to be interrupted and also because tunnelling noises could be covered by extraneous noises sometimes quite artificial.
Watches during hours of work always maintained, one to watch gates by which Italians might enter our part of grounds, and other to watch sentries on walks, particularly important as tunnel approached and went under outer wall. Sentries sunning themselves a great nuisance.
Watchers gave signals to workers by electric bell in tunnel actuated by normal bell pushes in a bedroom from which the entrances were overlooked, and from a bathroom from which sentries on wall over tunnel could be seen. These connected to bell in tunnel by juggling with the wires on bell indicator board. Sgt. Bain and Sgt. Pitt did the work. Bain also provided electric light in tunnel.
Work proceeded mainly smoothly with occasional hectic moments. Workers sometimes kept in chapel for longish periods, because, owing to Italians being in castle, impossible to get them out in safety. Always came out very dirty which might have given the show away. Bain once had to remain for nearly half an hour standing on lift with door shut, while wireless experts accompanied by two “caribs” worked in dining room next door.
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Progress varied, three feet a week good, but seldom attained, owing to difficulty of excavating large stone, some very troublesome.
Crocky’s weekly inspection, dressed in white silk pyjamas over his other clothes. Irreverently known by men as “Ghost goes West”. Measured length to correct optimistic estimates, checked fall – 1 foot in 8 feet – and examined roof and sides for safety.
In one place only was it necessary to shore up roof.
Great day when we got to near side foundations of outer wall, actually about 1 foot too low.
Worked with wall overhead till we reached outer edge.
Then question how far we were below outside ground level, and how to excavate upwards without causing the upper surface to fall in.
The first problem solved by prodding upwards with hollow stair rod through which a piece of wire pushed to clear it. At first rod not long enough – not surprising as subsequently found that we were 5 feet below ground level.
Question of preventing premature fall of top surface required much anxious thought. Finally decided to make wooden framework consisting of three uprights on each side. To inside of each of them were screwed other uprights, on top of each pair of which was a detachable plank of wood about 2 feet long by 6 inches wide. Thus when the three planks were in position they formed a roof.
Next one plank was taken down and the inner upright unscrewed. The soil above this was dug out, up to a height of about 6 inches. The inner uprights were pushed up into the cavity and screwed again to the outer and the roofing plank replaced. Same process then carried out with next roofing plank, and so on. Thus no large area of the soil of the roof was unsupported at one time.
Digging upwards unpleasant. Thick mud, it had rained heavily at about this period, went in eyes and down neck accompanied by quite sizeable stones on the top of the head.
Halfway up struck serious snag in form of a very large boulder overhead, weighing probably 200 lbs [pounds], and covering entire roof. Difficult and rather dangerous to get down. Also noise of its fall might be considerable. Eventually it was dug and eased out and by a system of sloping baulks of timber it came down harmlessly and reasonably quietly.
After this no further trouble and the shaft, 2 feet by 18 inches which was just sufficient for any of us to get through with comfort, was driven upwards till it was within 5 inches, by the stair rod, from the surface. Thus, by the middle of March 1943, after 5 months work, the tunnel was finished and ready, as the last 5 inches of soil – well supported – was to be left in position until the night the tunnel was to be used. Calculated, and correctly so, that it would be opened up in a matter of 15 minutes to half an hour. It only remained to fit a vertical ladder in the exit shaft, and the tunnel was ready.
The problem now arose as to how the exit of the tunnel was to be concealed. It would not have done to leave a gaping hole which sentries on wall would see at daybreak. Another three-ply slab, again strengthened with cross battens, was made, larger than the hole, but overall dimensions limited to length of diagonal of shaft in order that it
[Digital page 21]
could be pushed up. Outline of three-ply cut, not in a straight line but zigzag curves, for better camouflage. Did not know nature of ground outside walls, but as exit would he close to fir trees, assumed that soil would be covered with pine needles and devoid of vegetation. Consequently, three-ply coated heavily with brown paint and this covered over while still wet with pine needles and top soil from under pine trees within castle walls. Paint, apart from giving background of right colour, considered better than glue as it would stand rain. Finally collected bag of pine needles to be passed up with cover and to be spread over by last comer to cover up edges of board. Board kept in place by a large stone suspended from a hook let into the middle of the cross battens. Proved most successful and exit only discovered by a dog digging it up (Micky).
While tunnel being dug other preparations went forward. Civilian clothing. [Brigadier Reginald] Miles made in all three coats out of blanket material. Of course, no sewing machine and so all done by hand. Took endless trouble and produced surprisingly effective results. Need for secrecy made work more difficult. When finished, could he hidden in manhole in men’s dining room. Brought down to drawing room during lunch hour in case of search of bedrooms which always took place after lunch. Also made caps for himself and Jim. I had a hat of a sort of tweed fishing variety, made very excellently by [unnamed], G.P.’s servant – very clever with needle, and most successful. Dick a golf jacket, and Carton an overcoat bought in comparatively lax Sulmona days. John Combe nondescript mackintosh and felt hat.
Maps copied and mounted by G.P., who also with incredible skill forged identity cards, copying two which had been received from U.K. Photographs for them cut out of Italian Illustrated papers, portraits being selected which bore slight resemblance to ultimate holders. I used in my card portrait of Antenesco, Romanian Premier. G.P. drew most realistic official rubber stamps with a compass. Forgeries hardly distinguishable from originals and those of Carton and Dick subjected to several inspections.
Steps to delay discovery of escape. Inspection carried out by Italian officer each night, visited each room and switched torch onto us in bed – anytime between midnight and 4 a.m. Fortunately, mosquitoes became troublesome very early that year, and mosquito curtains were almost necessary. We all took advantage of this, and started to use these regularly as it is difficult to see through gauze with flash light outside. Developed this advantage by producing dummies. Batmen, led by Prewett, who was first to make a dummy, entered enthusiastically into scheme. Not just bolsters in beds, but bolsters adjusted to conform with the way each of us habitually slept, and on the pillows of each escaper’s bed was a head which conformed in a most life-like way to the real head. Thus a bald head was to be found on Carton’s pillow, a black head with a bald patch at the back on Jim’s, and a blonde head with a less bald patch on mine. Had one or two dress rehearsals of dummies, and even without the help of mosquito nets, almost impossible to distinguish that they were not real. Proved completely successful. Italians convinced that we had left after the night check, and not before, as
[Digital page 22]
in fact we did.
Conferences were held to fix details such as times of departure. Early and late schools, but eventually all came round to early school, chiefly because of confidence in dummies. Earliest possible zero day – must be no snow on Como passes – 25th March 1943. Order of exit had to be arranged and duties of each before and after exit. John to reconnoitre passage over outside wall – an awkward if not serious obstacle if door could not be opened – he found it could. The kit had to be passed up in right order so that in dark we would get our own. Carton owing to disabilities required some help. Jim to be responsible for placing cover over hole and spreading pine needles over it – not forgetting to dispose of empty bag. Dan undertook to dig out last 5 inches of soil – he was muddy from head to foot when finished – and to hook stone onto hook of cover. Also arranged that Dan should send chit to Italians as soon as we were away asking that Red Cross parcels should be opened following morning. This to create diversion as all Italian officers were supposed to be present at these occasions, and hence morning check might be more lax. This worked admirably, and check was so desultory that absence of 6 out of 12 officers not spotted.
Neame always took chair at these conferences – mess meetings if Italians broke in on them – and most successful he proved in reconciling differences. On experience of our first abortive attempt we realised that there would inevitably be differences of opinion as to when and whether the night was suitable, and so unanimously agreed that Neame should be the sole and final arbiter.
Now only remained to wait for suitable night. As before, considered essential to have rain in order that sentries should be in their boxes. While in them, unable to look over outside of wall, and also hoped that rain on wooden roof would blanket any slight noise we might make.
Evening of Sunday 28th March looked promising, and as darkness fell a nice steady rain was falling with a certain amount of wind. Neame anxiously surveyed sky and we no less so, but leaving decision to him. At about 7.30 we ate a hasty supper, and at 7.45, Neame decided it was on. He and Dan disappeared through lift shaft to open hole, while the escapers rushed up to dress. The watchers took up their positions. By 8.15 Neame reported hole successfully opened, and we assembled in dining room. Just as first man was about to go into lift shaft, alarm was given that Italian officers were coming in. Indescribable scramble followed. Those of us in civilian clothes trying to get back to our rooms. Made worse because well intentioned person switched off light, which added greatly to confusion, and muttered blasphemies. However, alarm proved false, and orderly proceeding resumed.
All henceforth, went most gratifyingly according to plan. Lighting inside castle enclosure brilliant, but outside, dim. Enough to see by, but difficult for sentries to see us. But anyway, it was still raining, and they remained safely inside their boxes. Combe’s reconnaissance successful, and he succeeded in opening big iron covered gates. Collected under shadow of gate archway behind wall, which shielded us from view of sentries had they been looking. As rain had subsided to a fine drizzle, danger that they might come out. When
[Digital page 23]
all ready, packs – which had to be passed up shaft, adjusted on Dick and Carton, we filed through gate. Difficulty in shutting this, and eventually came to with clang loud enough to awaken dead – but sentries did not hear. We knew that a patrol of caribs walked round outside of castle throughout night, but did not put in an appearance – probably sheltering from rain. Moved off downhill through woods to bridge crossing a stream in the valley. Gave us a kick to see lighted castle behind us, and offered up fervent prayers that it was the last time we would see it. For most of us prayer was not to be answered.
Arrived at bridge, train and walking parties separated, with whispered wishes of good luck. Entrainees took road to Florence, led by Miles, who had made careful study of map extracted from a guide book to Florence we had succeeded in getting hold of, supplemented and checked by long periods of observation of what we could see of Florence from top of castle. Without hesitation he led us to the station. The station at Florence is new, and built in confusing design, because we found ourselves in an immense hall with no sign of platform or trains. Eventually found that to gain access to platform one passed through a single swing door, where tickets were punched. Found a prominent notice that a train left for Venice at about 1 a.m., but that the next train to Milan was not till after 3 a.m. However, Venice train stopped at Bologna, and as most unwilling to hang about Florence, in case absence discovered, decided to take first train, and change at Bologna. Combe, who flattered himself that he looked like a commercial traveller, had determined to go second class. Other three of us considered that on appearance third was the utmost we could aspire to. Combe bought his ticket successfully, and I then approached to buy three thirds. Unfortunately I suppose I failed to make myself clear, as the booking clerk started to talk. One thing I wished to avoid, and hadn’t the least idea what he was talking about. Muttering that I’d think about it, I shuffled away, and rejoined others who were in dark outside station. Rather a setback, but Miles, whose Italian was worse than mine, then tried and was successful.
Anxious time passing ticket collector at swing door, as we did not know the form, and did not wish to appear not to know it. Thought we might be required to produce passes for instance. However, we had no trouble, and we passed through separately and congregated again on the platform. Long and tedious wait but train eventually pulled in. Already apparently full to capacity, but with many others succeeded in cramming ourselves in. Like a tube train during rush hours. Found myself wedged into lavatory. Sounds commodious, but there were at least seven others standing there already. After two hours reached Bologna, and decanted ourselves onto platform. Had a wait of about two hours there, but feeling better in that Florence well behind us. Then Milan train arrived, as crowded as previous one, and again fought our way in. By now about 5 a.m., and wedged together in a solid mass we completed four hours to Milan, where we arrived shortly after 9 a.m. Impressed and somewhat alarmed by cheerful way in which Italians accepted discomforts of journey. Alarmed because all talked and laughed with each other, and I emphatically did not wish to be in-
[Digital page 24]
cluded in party spirit. However, by looking unsociable as possible and muttering “sordo” (deaf) to the few attempts to speak to me, I managed to keep myself to myself.
At Milan had a difference of opinion which might well have led to disaster. Had found out that two railway lines ran from Milan to Como, each starting from a different station – one from Milan Central where we were, and the other from Milan Nord. We discovered from timetable in station that no train left from Milan Central till midday. Obviously undesirable to hang about till then, yet did not know where Milan Nord was, or if earlier train went from there. Jim was for trying to get a taxi to take us to Como direct, but rest of us not for it. Miles wanted to wait at Milan Central till midday train left, and inspired by his success as a ticket buyer at Florence, even went so far as to buy four tickets. John wanted to go from Milan Nord. I didn’t really care much either way, but was above all things anxious to get something settled. A heated argument carried out in hoarse whispers, the group of arguers breaking up at frequent intervals, whenever we thought we were being observed, not conducive to clear statement of a case, or of convincing an opponent. Trouble increased because Miles insisted in whispering in Italian, a language that he could read, but which, to the best of my belief, he had never tried to speak before. Finally agreed that we should split into two parties, Jim and Miles in one, and John and I in the other, and try to get to Milan Nord by taxi. When John and I got outside there were no taxis, but I saw a tram with Milan Nord written on it. I tried to call John’s attention to it, but he continued to walk away from me at a rapid pace. It appeared afterwards that he had seen an Italian watching me suspiciously, and very rightly thought that I was not a person to consort with just then. I turned back to the tram terminus just in time to see Jim and Miles clambering into one. I could not follow them because of the crowd, but managed to get on to the next one on that route that came along a few minutes later. I bought a ticket without difficulty, but before I had travelled far thought I was attracting undue attention. Thinking it over, I have come to the conclusion that this was largely imagination, induced by a guilty conscience. But I decided to slip off the tram at the next stop, and to follow the tram route on foot.
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O [Owen Boyd] got off the tram and caught a train to Como at a run. No time to choose compartment, and getting in a hurry, found himself seated between two policemen! He surveyed his RAF uniform trousers with some anxiety. Seated next to the door which everyone who passed down the coach left open, causing a hideous draught. Had to get up each time and shut it attracting much undesirable notice. But apparently no suspicions aroused. No sign of Hargest and Miles. Heard afterwards that Combe had been stopped and interrogated on entering Milan Nord station (for some reason I forget) and had been identified. Arrived at Como, still no sign of Hargest and Miles – could not hang about too long looking for them. Their plan was to walk across frontier at night. O [Owen Boyd] could not do this alone on account of night blindness, 2nd string was to jump on empty goods train – had heard from intelligence sources that several stopped outside Como station and crossed frontier without examination. (Hargest and Miles got across to Switzerland without trouble and was interned. Both later got across France to Spain, where Miles committed suicide (? in depression at leaving O [Owen Boyd] behind). Hargest killed in France in Sept 1944). O [Owen Boyd] must have arrived in Como at midday or thereabouts on Monday 29 March. Very difficult to fill in time till dark. Could not buy food – spent some time in church – then lay up in wood? At nightfall went to place outside station where goods trains stopped – had to crawl along line on stomach. One goods train came and stopped but he could not board because 2 people were holding conversation on a raised path above where he lay on the ground. Pinned down till train went on. Another train stopped, but as he was planning to board, guard got out and held conversation on line with someone till train moved on. Next train did not stop but slowed down, he managed to board an open freight car while it was going. Sat in corner. Train stop in Como station, but no one bothered him. At last started on 4 miles to frontier. Got about half way, stopped, backed down to Como goods yard. Now just before dawn on Tuesday 30th March. Very tired and had had little food (only chocolate ate) since Sunday and 2 sleepless nights. Decided to try to walk out of station. Stopped by sentry on gate and immediately suspected (news of escape was out of course). Taken to guard room and then police station, where one of the policemen he saw was one of those he had sat next to in the train
[Digital page 26]
from Milan to Como. He said he had suspected nothing. Taken back to Vincigliata and got 1 months solitary. A very sad time, what with reaction and disappointment. Got messages from the other prisoners by means of ingenious devices – notes inserted into rolls, stuck on bottom of tea cup, etc.
No further chance of escape – tunnel (found by dog because of alarm bell) filled with concrete. Outside of castle floodlit and a barbed wire fence erected outside wall. 120 Italians finally required to guard a dozen officers.
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POST ARMISTICE WANDERINGS.
Armistice told to us confidentially by Italian Captain at 10 p.m. on 8th September 1943.
Announced officially at 8 a.m. on 9th September. Guard cheered vociferously. Busy day packing and arranging porters and rendezvous in case of having to make sudden get away if any signs of Germans arriving. Ropes hung over wall so that we could slip out by back door – so to speak – if Germans came in by front.
At 9 a.m. on 10th September summoned to H.Q. in Florence of General Chiappi, local Corps Commander. Dressed in uniform. Cars and lorries provided for us and our kit. On arrival all of us officers ushered into his office where he told us that German columns approaching Florence from direction of Pisa and Bologna, that he released us and would provide a special train to take us to Arezzo, about 50 miles south on the railway to Rome, and then he must wash his hands of us. Asked if we had money. Glad to assure him in affirmative as his people had been assiduously searching our rooms for it for months! Shook hands all round and wished us luck.
Rejoined cars and taken to Florence Campo di Marte Station – not main one. Here fivested ourselves of uniforms and by process of barter and purchase secured civilian clothes from Italians, who appeared in large numbers on the platform. By time train arrived, about 45 minutes later, no one could possibly have mistaken us for senior British Officers, though there was danger of being arrested as vagrants without visible means of support. Packed into train and made non-stop run to Arezzo. On arrival met by Italian Colonel who was startled to see what British Generals looked like after a few years of captivity. Military authorities not much help, but police rose to occasion and suggested hostel at Camaldoli about 30 miles away a good place to go to. Went further and sent someone in car to warn the monks of our impending arrival, and arranged transport to take us there in evening. In meanwhile trailed out of town in small parties and lay up for the day in neighbouring vineyards in case Germans should appear.
Transport duly arrived at rendezvous in evening and taken to Camaldoli Monastery where most hospitably welcomed by monks.
Camaldoli a tiny village set in a valley between high wooded mountains. The monastery is the headquarters of a brotherhood which takes its name from it – Camaldolese – one or two other monasteries in Italy and others in Brazil and New York. Dressed in white monks robes.
Here spent four days but came to conclusion that our presence too well known in neighbourhood to be safe. Two miles further up the road lies Hermitage of Eremo. It was decided that Neame, O’Connor, Todhunter and myself should betake ourselves there, while the remainder should be disposed of by our monkish friends in farms some way beyond. Padre Leone, who proved a tower of strength throughout, and was especially detailed by the Prior General to look after us, conducted the remainder of the party to outlying districts and arranged for their accommodation.
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Details of post-armistice wanderings.
Left Eremo (? Camaldoli) just before 200 Germans came to search.
Extreme crudity of life with peasants. Segatina – attempts to get off by boat unsuccessful – 7th successful.
Came through lines with instructions for O [Owen Boyd], Neame, O’Connor.
[word obscured] on foot and bike and in cars
[word obscured] and at seaside when German officer came to look for billets – proposing to burst indoors when ? saved situation by promising to get key later.
Finally embarked on fish boat at dusk – lay up in hold all night. O [Owen Boyd], Neame, O’Connor, refugee monk Jew and wife.
Landed Bari! Dinner (as they were) with Alexander and Eisenhower – saw Winston in bed at Tunis.
Brandy and soda.
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Ports of call:
Arezzo – Camaldoli – Eremo – Segantina – Casa Nuova and farms beyond – landing ground – hut.
? Monastery – Pesaro – Cattolica – San Giovanni church – Cesena – Forli – Cervia (Savio River)
Rimini (Arpesella) – Cingoli
Cattolica – Termoli – Bari
Camaldoli. Don Antonio and ex-fascist
Eremo. Prior-General – Don Leone – organist. [2 words unclear] search by Huns.
Segantina. Lorenzo Rossi – Giovanni Rossi [3 words unclear] – Bruno Vailati, Nanni, [1 word unclear] Tolloy Spazzoli [1 word unclear] Julia [1 word unclear]
Casa Nuova. Maurizio Guido
Pesaro. Cagnazzo – Fergusson
Cattolica. Spada, Tolloy
San Giovanni. Priest, Count Spina
Cesena. Comandini, Magnani
Forli. Spazzoli – Arturo and brother. Advocate
Cervia. Soveia, ?Telesso – the anarchist – the hospital [1 word unclear]
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South of Rimini. [word unclear] and wife. [2 words obscured] officers. Taxi driver. Journalist ? – Advocato Juliano.
?Cingoli. Conti. [word unclear] people. Italian Generals Some arrived under false names. [word unclear] and Bruno.
South of Rimini. 2 Italian officers. Capt of few [word unclear] boot. Spada.
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Rino Spada’s account of post-armistice movements of the generals.
[Written by Rino Spada]
I was informed at a meeting held at the end of September 1943 by some of the leading spirits in the “U.L.I.”, a secret organisation, that a group of British generals who had been prisoners of war at a castle outside Florence had made contact with our organisation which, at that time, was dedicating much of its activities towards helping the numerous prisoners of war roaming about the Apennines in Tuscany and Romagna?
I gathered, though without any details, that these generals had been freed on September 8th by the Italian Authorities, conducted by special train first to Prato and then by police car to Camaldoli where they had been housed in the monastery. Some days later, however, the generals had been removed at a moment’s notice, their presence at the monastery having been mysteriously reported to the German Command. The prior had, in fact, just heard in time to prevent their capture by the SS who, I was told, invaded the monastery only a few hours after they had left. Hidden in the surrounding woods the fugitives were looked after for some days by the monks of Camaldoli, but as the Germans began a search of the neighbourhood there was no time to be lost in removing the prisoners. A certain advocate Nanni, who was subsequently killed at S. Sofia, took charge of the case and made arrangements to hide them amongst the peasants living in the upper valley of the Bidente. Other friends of ours, foremost amongst them being the late Tonino Spazzoli, who was subsequently hung by the Nazi-fascists at Forli, arranged for their care by the “U.L.I.”.
At that time I was attending to other duties which did not include the care of prisoners of war and this was all that I had heard about the case.
About a month later during one of our secret meetings at Forli I was told that the generals were persistently asking to meet those in charge of “U.L.I.”. They also desired, if possible, to meet an Italian officer in order to discuss certain plans they had in mind but of which they gave no details.
The meeting decided to agree to their request and the task of representing “U.L.I.” was entrusted to Lami and myself. We were to take with us a certain Major Tolloy, a staff officer who was to act as military adviser.
As mentioned above I had no first hand information about the matter and I was therefore glad of the opportunity to learn about the generals.
I was informed that there were nine British generals and about thirty other allied officers in the Bidente valley and neighbouring country. The generals were divided into two groups: the first consisting of Generals Neame and O’Connell (or O’Connor) and Air Vice Marshal Boyd were in hiding at Segantina; the other party composed of six generals, was at Strapotenza. I was told furthermore that a young Italian officer, named Bruno Vailati, who had been with them, had left about a fortnight earlier for the south with the object of crossing the lines and taking a message from General Neame to General Alexander. No news had been received of Vailati since he had left and we concluded that it was anxiety on this score that had let the generals to ask to see us. Furthermore if Vailati’s mission had failed it was clear that the prisoners desired to find some other means of contact with the 8th Army.
On the appointed date we left Forli by the afternoon bus; slept the night at S. Sofia and at daybreak left by car for Isola. Here Lami met us with a guide and three mules. We set off and towards 9 o’clock reached the mill at Teresona where Nanni awaited us. We snatched a hurried meal and then proceeded on our way; going became very hard as we reached the highest part of the valley lying beneath Mount Campigna. The mule track we were following was in fact so bad at times as to call for oaths on the part of both man and beast!
“U.L.I.” Unione Lavoratori Italiani or Union of Italian Workers
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In compensation, however, the day was wonderful and the scenery magnificent. Every now and again we came across an English prisoner who greeted us and enquired for the way to the south…
We arrived at Segantina towards midday. Some two hundred yards before reaching the farm a man suddenly came out from behind some bushes and greeted Nanni who was riding ahead of us. At the time I imagined he was one of the peasants who lived up there for he was wearing a flannel shirt of a large checked design and a pair of patched trousers. It was General O’Connell who was doing his sentry duty! Preceded by him we continued our climb and suddenly found ourselves in the yard of a farm. Whilst I was dismounting I noticed on the open space in front some ten men similarly dressed, amongst them stood out the massive frame of a man I afterwards knew to be Air Marshal Boyd. In front of them was General Neame whom Nanni introduced to us and with whom we immediately retired into a nearby room.
After some preliminary explanations which we made in order to remove any doubt as to why we were intervening in favour of allied prisoners – our action being dictated solely by our desire to show our solidarity with free men, we began our discussions.
For reasons which it is unnecessary to explain, General Neame had decided to proceed south on foot together with Generals Boyd and O’Connell, but he wanted first of all to consult an Italian officer.
It was, however, at once evident that the generals were ill-informed both as regards the posting of German troops in Italy and as regards the difficulties of their itinerary which the approach of winter rendered harsh and impassable. In fact after listening to a clear account by Major Tolloy of all the obstacles they would be called upon to face, they decided to abandon the scheme and wait another fortnight in the hope that news would meanwhile come of Vailati’s mission.
After our talk with General Neame we conversed with the other generals whilst awaiting our dinner.
In the enormous farm kitchen they had prepared, with the help of packing cases and other odds and ends, a long table to seat sixteen people and it was a funny sight to see General Neame, dressed like a tramp, dispensing the honours of the house, show us into our places? The other eight tramps, who were also generals, acted too as our hosts. We might have been at some state banquet at a castle in Old England, but instead we were at a lonely farm, up in the mountains surrounded and hunted by the enemy!
A week later I was at Cattolica in Major Tolloy’s house. Before my return I had already heard that a certain civil engineer named Cagnazzo, a Jew, who at the beginning of October had succeeded in escaping to the south by means of a fishing boat from Cattolica, had returned there with an English officer. Whilst passing through Cattolica he had called on Major Tolloy in order to warn him that a few days later he would be returning with some English generals to place in hiding.
Two days later, in fact, just as it was getting dark Cagnazzo arrived at Tolloy’s house together with Generals Neame, O’Connell and Boyd. Whilst, they were being fed, since they were completely exhausted, Signor Cagnazzo related to us an account of his wanderings.
Before leaving Cattolica on his first trip south, Cagnazzo had learnt from one of the monks at Camaldoli that there were some English generals up in the Apennines, so as soon as he reached allied territory, he hastened to inform English Headquarters; at the same time he offered to recross the lines and bring the generals over. He told us that the Intelligence Service had planned to have a boat cruising off Cattolica that very night between midnight and two a.m. in order to pick up the fugitives and take them to safety.
Meanwhile Cagnazzo had warned his friends to make arrangements for a boat to be ready at the beach to take the prisoners out to sea. Nothing further remained to be done than to wait for the appointed hour.
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It was 11 p.m. when the prisoners, creeping along in the dark in order not to be fired at by the German patrols, left Tolloy’s house. They showed obvious signs of suppressed excitement at the thought of their imminent liberation, for which they had waited so anxiously. But towards 3 a.m. we saw them return, wet to the skin and overcome with fatigue; the English ship had never appeared and whilst they waited a rough sea had got up and rendered their return to the shore a difficult matter. Eventually in order to land they had been obliged to jump into the water and abandon the boat!
However they had succeeded in returning safely and nothing else mattered; now they had only to wait for the second appointment fixed for 48 hours later.
Some improvised beds were rigged up in Major Tolloy’s house to enable the fugitives to rest after their labours of the last few days and in the meantime we made further plans for their flight. It was decided to choose a lighter boat and another part of the shore at which to embark.
But once again the English boat never showed up!
Things had certainly taken a turn for the worse. For many reasons it was impossible for the prisoners to remain any longer in Tolloy’s house which was already suspect and consequently unsafe. Nor was it an easy matter to find an alternative place of refuge as it was impossible to say how long it would be necessary to house the fugitives as no further appointments had been made for the English boats to meet them.
It is quite true that in the event of failure, Cagnazzo had arranged with British Headquarters for a member of the Intelligence Service to come to Pesaro, but the latter failed to turn up on the appointed day and thus all contact with the Allies was, to all intents and purposes, broken.
Major Tolloy, together with some anti-fascists from Cattolica, set about to find some boatmen who would agree to attempt a crossing. But this was extremely difficult firstly because of the close watch kept on all fishing boats and secondly because of the dreaded reprisals which the Germans exacted on the families of those who fled with their boats.
Nevertheless there was good hope of success, only negotiations had of necessity to be carried on with caution and they took time. In the meanwhile every day it became more important to find another hiding place for the generals.
Some years ago I had known a priest who lived at San Giovanni in Marignano, some three kilometres from Cattolica. He was to my knowledge seriously minded and opposed to the fascist regime. After trying in vain to approach him by indirect methods I met him and found that he was prepared to help. Unfortunately just at that time the whole neighbourhood was filled to overflowing with evacuees from Rimini and Ancona which had been heavily bombed and in consequence there was no accommodation to be had for love or money. The priest had refugees living in the passages of his own vicarage. The only place where the prisoners could be hidden was in a small family chapel belonging to a certain Count Spina; this was situated on a hill outside the village. We decided to disguise the generals as Swiss commercial travellers who had fled from Ancona on account of the bombing and in this disguise the good priest obtained permission from Count Spina for them to occupy the chapel for a few days.
The following day I accompanied the generals up there. We arranged the benches so as to form beds and borrowed mattresses and blankets from the peasants. A local inn keeper undertook to take the meals up to the ‘Swiss business men’ who acted their parts remarkably well. The only misfortune, and this aroused a certain amount of curiosity and suspicion, was the fact that none of the party spoke any fluent Italian. For this reason we left them to themselves as little as possible and one of us was always there to answer any questions, harmless or otherwise, which might be put to them by the Italian military police, the fascists or anybody who happened to pass by the chapel.
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During those two weeks – the generals remained a whole fortnight in Count Spina’s private chapel – I spent nearly all my time up there and got to know those men intimately and best of all Marshal Boyd whose steadfast optimism, open and frank nature devoid of all expression of superiority, seemed to me to be nearest to us Italians; the sympathetic interest he showed in the tragic position of our country was for me one of the few comforts during those heart-rending days.
Whilst the generals were at San Giovanni, Major Tolloy completed his plans for engaging a fishing vessel to leave Cattolica. Everything was, in fact, arranged except the actual date when suddenly we learnt that the Germans had introduced a new system of control over the fishing boats which rendered it practically impossible to embark the fugitives. Departure was suspended and we were thinking how we could overcome the difficulty when suddenly the unexpected happened!
Lami and Casadei arrived at Cattolica bringing with them Vailati who had just returned from his mission to the south. He told us that after a series of exciting events he had crossed the lines and made contact with the headquarters of the 8th Army. He had now returned with a plan of escape elaborated by the Intelligence Service. Once again it was to be an English boat which was to embark the generals a month later at Cervia. Two days had been selected and the times, signals, etc agreed upon. The only obscure point was the fact that whilst the Intelligence Service had chosen a strip of coast north of Cervia for the point of embarkation, on the grounds that no German troops were supposed to be stationed there, we knew from personal experience that at that very spot there were Slovak divisions with a considerable number of shore batteries and in addition a handful of mounted patrols which swept the beach day and night!
We decided to leave it to the generals to decide whether they would like to carry on with our idea of escaping from Cattolica or whether they would prefer to wait and leave via Cervia. They opted unanimously for the former and so we hurried on with our local plans hoping that we should quickly succeed.
All appeared to be ready and the departure imminent when unfortunately the weather broke and all fishing vessels were held up in port. Every day we woke up hoping to find a calm sea and every morning the sea seemed to grow rougher!
These delays got on our nerves; moreover the generals had already been too long in the chapel. News reached our ears of rumours, anything but reassuring, amongst the inhabitants of San Giovanni.
One evening at about 9 I arrived at the chapel, after being all day at Cattolica, and I found the generals considerably disconcerted. They told me that they had received a visit from the priest, that the latter had been called by Count Spina who had expressed his suspicions as to the identity of the fugitives and had said that if by 6 a.m. on the following morning the chapel had not been evacuated he would without more ado warn the German command. For this reason the priest had gone to see them and had implored them to vacate the chapel during the night.
I quickly made arrangements with the generals and hurried off to Cattolica telling them that I would be back at 5 a.m. to take them away.
At Cattolica I consulted Tolloy and, as there was not a single place in the neighbourhood where they could take refuge, we decided to move the generals to Forli where we could easily hide them.
During the night, in spite of the curfew, we succeeded in procuring three bicycles from friends in Cattolica and at 5 a.m. Major Tolloy and I were up at the chapel. We found the generals had packed their few belongings and were waiting for us. We gave each one a cycle and agreed upon our marching orders. I was to lead, a hundred yards behind me was to follow General Boyd, a hundred yards behind him Generals Neame and O’Connell brought up the rear. We had to cover, at one stretch, the thirty odd miles which separated San Giovanni from Cesena and get through the two
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barriers at Rimini which I knew to be garrisoned by Germans and fascist soldiers.
The journey passed off without incident but we all, and particularly General Neame, suffered from the cold. Towards 10 a.m. we stopped at a country inn near Savignano and pretending to be cattle merchants were able to get an excellent meal without our ration cards. At 1 o’clock we reached Cesena where we found refuge in the house of Signor Magnani, an artist. Here the generals remained until the night of the next day sleeping in the house of Advocate Comandini. The latter was able to take some photographs of them; with these we were able to fit them out with certificates of identity, of which they had none.
The following night, guided by Werther, they left for Forli where they remained some three weeks in Toni Spazzoli’s house.
At this point my actual participation in the episode came to an end. But I was kept informed of every detail of the various attempts which were made up to their actual escape, so I can easily give a rough description of events.
When the time came for the flight as planned by the Intelligence Service, details of which had been brought by Vailati the generals were taken to Milano Marittima, near Cervia and entrusted to Dr Spallici and his son who hid them away in a disused villa. The day before they embarked Major Tolloy went there. After many precautions and a certain amount of danger, it was possible to give the arranged signals and get the fugitives ready for embarkation. Vailati and Marshal Boyd actually went out to sea in a boat for fear that from the shore they would not be able to see the signals from the English ship. But once again, as at Cattolica, no ship appeared at the appointed point. Two evenings later, as arranged, all was ready, all were in waiting, but once again all was to no purpose, the English never came and consequently all contact with the Allies was severed.
During the time that the generals were at Forli, Lieut. Vailati and Sig. Cagnazzo had been negotiating for the purpose of a small fishing craft at Pesaro and as the deal had almost been completed and it was expected that they might be able to leave in a day or so, the generals were taken by Vailati and Cagnazzo to Riccione, where they were lodged in the house of a certain Dr De Filippo. Unfortunately when it came to clinching the sale of the boat, the intermediary, who had been dealing with Vailati and Cagnazzo, suddenly lost his nerve and in order to prevent an event for which he feared he would be held responsible, warned the Germans. The latter sequestered the boat and set about pursuing Vailati and Cagnazzo, who succeeded in escaping to Cattolica.
In the meanwhile De Filippo at Riccione could not hope to hide the three generals for very long in his little house consisting of only a few rooms, in which his wife and children were also living, applied to a certain Signor Arpesella to find more suitable quarters which the latter agreed to do.
As all hope of an early escape had, as the result of what happened at Pesaro, now faded away, Arpesella took the generals to Cingoli where the partisans owned a wireless transmitting set. From there several messages were sent out to Generals Montgomery and Alexander, but they were probably never picked up, as no reply was ever received.
During all this time Vailati and Cagnazzo had remained at Cattolica and in conjunction with a certain Signor Cavalluzzi had picked up the threads of the arrangement made by Tolloy with one of the fishing boat owners, the same man in fact who was to have provided the first means of escape. Vailati and Cagnazzo succeeded this time and the fisherman declared his readiness to leave at any time.
I was at Forli when I received warning that the departure was imminent and that a visit from me would be opportune.
The generals had then been removed from Cingoli to Riccione and here it was that I saw them for the last time, as they left that night.
With them the following also sailed. Captain Fergusson,
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another British Captain, Signor Cagnazzo, Vailati, Cagnazzo’s wife, and a monk from Camaldoli who had informed Cagnazzo of the generals whereabouts and who was now sought by the Germans.
From what we subsequently heard the journey went off well and 24 hours after leaving the fugitives disembarked in territory occupied by allied troops.
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[Letter from John Leeming to Mrs IM Boyd (wife), written from Sulmona]
March 12th 1941
I thought you would like to have a note from me confirming that the Air Marshal is well and comfortable. He is standing up to his trial magnificently, always manages to laugh at our difficulties. Keeps cheery and bright. He is comfortable here and has good food – and you need not worry about him. There is not much he can do here but he spends the time learning Italian, reading, playing draughts, and manages to keep occupied. I can tell you with perfect honesty that after four months alone together, I have greater respect and affection for him than I have ever had. He is a grand chap and his example is a real [word obscured] and help to me. Naturally I am sorry to be a prisoner, but I am truthful when I say that if the A.M. [Air Marshal] had to be one I am glad I am with him. I would rather be here and able to help him a little than be a S/L [Squadron Leader] at the Air Ministry.
I hope you and your son are not having too bad a time and that someday we may all meet again so that I can tell Keith what a good reason he has to be proud of his father.
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[Letter from F/L John Leeming to Mrs IM Boyd (wife)]
Sunday May 2nd 1943.
Dear Mrs Boyd,
Very many thanks for your letter which I only received on my return from London yesterday. I arrived home on Sunday last but was recalled to the Air Ministry on Tuesday – am to return there next week. (All this is happening while I am supposed to be on 3 weeks “sick leave”!)
I left the Air Marshal on March 10 – he was then in excellent health – very cheerful. The brave way he has faced his troubles – his encouragement to others has been a wonderful example to us all. As perhaps you know I was deeply attached to the Air Marshal – perhaps you will best understand if I say that after 2 1/2 years in the same house, seeing him every day – having every meal with him, when I left I had a deeper respect and affection for him than I had when we left [1 word unclear].
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I can only pray that God will continue to protect him – that he will return to us soon. He is a great man – I am the better for having known him. Forgive me if I say you have reason to be proud of such a fine son.
With all good wishes,
John F Leeming
P.S. Will you let the Marshal know you have heard from me as I fear I shall not be allowed to write him?
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[Letter from Sgt. Bain to OTB]
O. BOYD ESQ.
Vor- und Zuname: RONALD A. BAIN
Lager-Bezeichnung: M.-Stammlager Luft 3
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Sir. We were particularly pleased to hear that you had finally managed to get thro’ that last course. Five of us are here, McWhinnie turning up in January. All the army ORs [Other Ranks] go on working parties so we have lost touch with Prewett and co, but they were all well when we parted in Sept. Howes didn’t come with us but took his own road; and we called him stupid! I read that CW [possibly Carton de Wiart] is learning to use chopsticks. May we hope you also will be as quickly, tho’ not necessarily similarly employed. Sincerely BAIN
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[Letter from Gussy (Lieut. Augusto Ricciardi) to OTB]
April 1st 1944
My dear Sir
Only this morning I was relieved from the anxiety which had got hold of me on the day of the armistice. I have been worrying a lot thinking that you and all the others might have fallen in German hands.
Just a few days before I succeeded in getting through the front I learned that you had probably succeeded in this attempt. That was about two months ago. But when I saw this morning on the “Union Jack” a British paper published in Italy your smiling photo which reminded me exactly how I have seen you throughout 18 months, I was nearly driven crazy by joy. I simply didn’t know what to say and all I could do was to thank God for having saved you, whom I have always had, since I met you, amongst my dearest friends.
All you must do now, sir, is write to me so that I shall learn from you that you are still fit and cheerful.
I don’t have your address here so I am addressing this letter to the Air Ministry and asking the Military
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Mission to forward it.
My address in Naples is Parco Margherita 28.
I am going to spend a twenty days leave there within two or three days, and shall write to you again.
I wrote to General Carton and to John as soon as I got here, but I would be very grateful to you if you gave them my regards.
I don’t know yet how I shall be employed but I am hoping that are attached to the 8th Army.
It’s nearly time I joined it, after having followed its show during so many months isn’t it? My wireless set is in German hands now. I am sorry because I was very affectionate to it. And I believe you were to!
Hope you are enjoying a good rest in England now, and that your family, Keith (he should have finished his Cambridge course now, I believe) are alright.
Good luck to you, sir, and believe me always your old friend.
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[Letter from Sgt. EL Prewett to OTB]
Vor- und Zuname: EDWARD LLOYD PREWETT
Lager-Bezeichung: M.-Stammlager IV D – Arbeits-Kommando-Nr: L.25
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Dear Sir, words cannot express how much your letter was appreciated by me, of course I shared it with Blackwell who is the only one of the castle staff left with me, we like it much better here than our last place of work, mainly because the camp is a good one and the hours and the work not so arduous. Blackwell is mixing enamel for bath tubs and I am operating a lathe. In the camp we live twenty two men to a room, our spare moments are not wasted as we work in the garden and have now quite a presentable view from our windows, it really will be pretty soon. We get a shower once every week but can have a good wash down every day as there is always hot water. Our news, we get from the issue POW news, similar to the one we got in Italy! You will shudder when I tell you that reveille is at four thirty a.m.! I had a go in Italy sir, but before long found myself looking down the barrel of an ugly Tommy gun which inspired me to hurry back with all speed, since when I have renewed my vow to follow your example and always wear a smile. I thank you sir for writing to my wife and parents they treasure your letter as do I. My father’s chest measurements I know have grown considerably since it arrived at his door!
Thank you also sir for your offer to send me anything that I should require all I can say is, that for me your letter is prize enough.
Your devoted and obedient servant
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[Letter from Gussie (Lieut. Augusto Ricciardi) to OTB]
July 1st 1944
My Dear Air Marshal
I am wondering whether you have received my previous letters or not. I wrote to you as soon as I learned that you had got through safely with Gen. Neame and Gen. O’Connor and wrote to you again a short time after. I shall not repeat here what I wrote to you then telling you how happy I was when I saw your photograph on the paper. Knowing my feelings for you, you can easily imagine that.
Please let me know what you want me to do with the notes you gave me to keep for you. I don’t know if after so long you still need them or not. So, just let me know whether I should send them to you and how, or destroy them.
I am writing to John at the same time so to get your private address. I am sending the present letter as the previous ones to the Air Ministry, as you told me to do in case I lost your address. Unfortunately I had to get rid of my notebook where I had noted all your addresses, before making my way down towards the German lines in order to try and get through.
Have you seen John lately? Is he serving? or what? I hope he has recovered completely. I would be very grateful to you if you could send me Gen. Carton’s address in China – and Gen. O’Connor’s too – I heard nothing from them.
Give me also news of your people, of Keith.
I always think of you with the greatest affection
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and the deepest gratitude.
I owe you very much life perhaps and the fact that I am now serving in a unit of your army.
Hope to receive very soon a letter from you, if you haven’t forgotten your old friend.
P.S. I wrote to John at the following address near Altrincham, Cheshire.
Is that correct?
To Air Marshal Owen T. BOYD
From Lt Augusto Ricciardi
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[Letter from Major General Neame to Mrs IM Boyd (wife)]
Dear Mrs Boyd
I was with Air Marshal Boyd in Italy from April 1941 until our final successful escape to the British Army in Dec. 1943.
When I first joined him in captivity at Sulmona, he always appeared to me extremely fit and healthy. But I noticed a definite and increasing deterioration in his physical condition after we moved to Florence in Sept. 1941. By the winter of 1942/1943 there is now no doubt in my mind that there was something wrong with him. We used to play fairly strenuous games of “deck tennis” in the castle garden, and I can recollect three definite occasions when he had some sort of heart attack producing a kind of “black out” and had to sit down and recover himself. I remember the first time this
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happened I urged him to rest and not play again, and he said to me: “It’s nothing much I shall soon be all right, it’s happened to me several times before.” I think the [word unclear] must have got worse, for the last time he was quite ready to stop playing the game for the afternoon. So far as I recollect he would not see a doctor or have himself examined.
From Sept. to Dec. 1943 we were hiding and wandering together in the Apennine Mountains and on the Adriatic Coast, and finally escaped to the British lines on 19th Dec.
On several occasions we had very severe physical strains to undergo and severe exposure to bad weather and cold. On one occasion, in order to meet a British Agent at a fixed rendezvous, we had to travel 100 miles in 30 hours, 20 miles across the mountains on foot, followed by just over 80 miles bicycling on mountainous roads on old and heavy bicycles. On another
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occasion when the Germans came to surround the mountain village we were hiding in, we slipped out and had an all day march in pouring rain along slippery and precipitous mountain slopes, wading streams, and finally spent all night soaked to the skin in a flooded cattle hut. These are only examples and we spent many nights sleeping in cow stalls or on stone floored shelters, etc, with quite inadequate clothes.
All this must have been a greatly added strain on the Air Marshal’s already affected heart.
I recollect very well that from about Jan. 1943 the Air Marshal became mentally irritable and difficult. Being the Senior Officer in our Prisoner of War camp, I was worried about this for it was far more than just the effect of prolonged imprisonment, which I suppose affected all of us from time to time. I have not the least doubt this was due to his gradually deteriorating physical condition which however he would not disclose. When
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we were first together the Air Marshal was quite different and extremely well balanced mentally and easy to deal with.
Another factor that I consider affected the Air Marshal’s health very much, was shortage of food through one winter, when for five months we received no Red Cross parcels, and had to depend solely on Italian POW rations which were quite inadequate for a man of the Air Marshal’s build and normal weight. I believe he lost 2 stone or more in weight during the period he was a prisoner, principally during the time we were at Florence when his health was evidently deteriorating.
I have the very clearest recollection of all the above events.
(Major General P. NEAME. Acting Lt. General during the period above.)
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[Letter from F/L John Leeming to Mrs IM Boyd (wife)]
11th December, 1944
Dear Mrs Boyd,
In reply to your enquiry as to the state of health during the time I knew him of the late Air Marshal O.T. Boyd I would state:-
I served as Personal Assistant to Air Marshal Boyd and knew him intimately from April 1940 until November 1940. During that time I considered his health to be excellent – I knew him to be a very fit man.
On November 20th 1940 he and I were taken prisoner by the Italians and I remained with the Air Marshal until I left Italy in April 1943. We were together in the same house and for some time we shared the same bedroom. During the time we were in Italy I saw his health deteriorate and I realised the rigour of our imprisonment and the heavy physical work he did seriously effected him.
I know that while he was a very fit man when we were taken prisoner in 1940 he was by April 1943 a sick man.
I am not at liberty to disclose the nature of the strain enforced upon him as these are secret, but the Pensions Board could no doubt obtain details in confidence from the proper authorities. I think I may be allowed to say that Air Marshal Boyd was involved in several attempts to escape and that on one occasion he crossed Italy and reached the Frontier before being recaptured. These escapes put a great strain on him. In addition he did for six months some very exhausting physical work; this was in connection with an attempt to escape.
I have no hesitation in saying that in my opinion Air Marshal Boyd’s health was ruined while he was a prisoner as a result of the exhausting work he undertook, the strain of escaping and the shortage of food, etc.
John F. Leeming.
F/Lt. [Flight Lieutenant] RAF
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[Letter from AK Boyd (brother) to Colonel Todhunter]
30 April 1945
Dear Colonel Todhunter
I must thank you very much indeed for your two letters, and for all the trouble you have taken in trying to trace my brother’s watch and other personal effects he may have left in Italy. I was deferring an answer till the situation might have moved a little in Italy, but now it has moved so fast and so far that you have probably moved with it out of reach. I have not heard anything from the Air Ministry of the kit collected at Eremo Monastery, but the machinery moves slowly and no doubt it will turn up in due course. I can quite understand that the
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prospects of finding the watch or anything else at Sandrio are pretty remote, but I am very grateful to you for your efforts. I write at the moment when Himmler is deciding whom he will surrender to, and no doubt it will be all over before you get this.
With very many thanks
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[Letter from F/O SB Girling to AK Boyd (brother)]
Thursday 6 December 1945
A K Boyd Esq
Thank you for your letter of 30th [word unclear] in answer to mine.
I am enclosing Avvocato Comandini’s letter from which you will be able to take his name and address. I shall be glad if you will be so kind as to return to me this document after you have finished with it.
In reply to your query as to how I obtained Miss Boyd’s address, I have to tell you that
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I have lived at ?Haslemere for twelve years, being in “civvy street”, the cashier at the Midland Bank. I did not, however, connect Miss Boyd, of whom I knew by name, with her late gallant brother. I wrote to my wife telling her of Signor Comandini’s letter, and asking her to hunt the telephone directories to see if she could get a clue that way. She replied that she was sure that Miss Boyd of Fernhurst would be a relation of the late Air Marshal.
I will write to Signor Comandini on your behalf if you wish asking him for the photograph, and a loan of the negative, unless you would prefer to communicate with him direct; but as you will gather from his letter to me, he is unacquainted with English.
[subsequent page(s) missing]
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[Letter from Avv. Comandini to unnamed RAF Officer]
[Wrote 1st Jan 1946, to be translated by Alan Napier.]
Avv. Alberto Comandini, Cesena.
To an RAF officer, formerly in Italy
I have from little Pina Battari your greetings and your address. I am writing to thank you for your regards and to ask of you a favour.
In Nov 1943 I had the opportunity of meeting three English officers who, from a camp in Tuscany, where they had been liberated in July, had come to Romagna. Welcomed by the Political Organisation with which I was associated they had been helped together with a very great number of other ex-prisoners. I had already met them in the vicinity of Cattolica where, having passed themselves off as Swiss merchants hailing from Ancona, they had been hidden in a private chapel to await a boat which according to the arrangements, the 8th Army had promised to send. The various and adventurous attempts to get them across by sea having failed, it was decided for safety’s sake to get them away from Cattolica, and to hide them
[Digital page 58]
temporarily at Forli.
Having got as far as Cesena they stopped there tired from the journey which they had been obliged to make on bicycles in order to evade better the road blocks instituted by the Germans at Rimini. And since the vigilance on the roads had just been intensified I took photographs of the three said officers to affix to forged identity cards – a system widely in force to aid those who, required by the Political Police were obliged to change their residence.
The photographs turned out pretty well, and I still have the negatives of them.
I do not know how to spell in English the names of the three officers. The pronunciations according to Italian rules is as follows: General Nim [Neame], General O’Conner [O’Connor], Air Marshal Boid [Boyd]. The first the most senior in rank had been captured in Libya
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by Rommel. The second had been taken in the same circumstances. The third had been captured in Sicily where his pilot had landed owing to an error of navigation, thinking to be at Malta.
After many vicissitudes, having embarked at Cattolica on a small fishing boat, they succeeded in landing in central Italy. Of the first two, I have heard no more; of the third I read that in Summer 1944 he had fallen in Normandy.
This news saddened me very much because the temperament of Air Marshal Boid was so serene and cordial that I seemed to have in him a friend not withstanding that I had the means of meeting him only 3 or 4 times. I remember for example when in the morning (that night they had slept at my house) he left with me his very soiled shirt and put on one of mine which was terribly small for him, too tight at the collar and of which the sleeves arrived
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halfway up his forearms. Instead of being disconcerted at this, he presented himself before his laughing colleagues with a face so full of good humour that he amused everyone.
Now the favour which I would be so bold as to ask of you is this:- to obtain the address of Marshal Boid’s family. It might be that my photograph, be it for its own sake, be it because of the circumstances in which it was taken would give them pleasure. I would be delighted therefore to offer it.
I trust that the quest for the address, which I imagine not difficult by means of the Air Ministry, will not trouble you excessively. In this case do not hesitate to renounce it.
If, however, you obtain the said address, the best plan would be if you, without doing anything else, would write
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saying that an Italian known to you (there is no need to mention my name) is in possession of the aforementioned photograph and, if it would please them, there would certainly be no difficulty about obtaining it. If from the eventual reply you judge it worthwhile, let me know, and I will send it to you. I have suggested this way because in such manner one would overcome the difficulty of the language; also because if it be that the relations are not keen to have it, I would prefer to keep the photograph; finally because I would not wish that the relations should feel themselves in some way obligated to me, which would not be possible if they did not even know my name.
[Digital page 62]
[Letter from Avv. Comandini to AK Boyd (brother) ENGLISH]
From Alberto Comandini
23 February 1946
Please excuse me for still using Italian in writing to you, but I note that the gentleman who translated my previous letter knows my language better than I know French.
I am enclosing two negatives. As they were done in a great hurry and without adequate facilities, two have come out very faint, but a good photographer will manage to print them so that you will see the image well enough. That of the group, taken in Magnani’s house, could possibly be strengthened (darkened?).
I am grateful to you and to the memory of your brother for the kind things you say about what we were able to do to help him and the other ex-prisoners escaped from the concentration camps. With the collaboration of friends who aided their flight more than myself, I will give you an exact account of the complex (arrangements) which accompanied it.
And now let me make a few observations of a general character which will perhaps help to (show) to you the spirit which guided us in organising aid to your co-nationals. I can in the first place assure you that, among the Italian people, there were few in favour of the war. Germany in general found little sympathy, and towards England, notwithstanding the continuous propaganda, there was no hostility, except in those few who, confusing fascism and patriotism, feared her victory. When, therefore, war had broken out and the shameful Greek campaign finally made it clear that fascism had deceived the people, they reacted, placing themselves in antagonism to the government. Everyone then began to regard England with sympathy, and let themselves be won over completely by the propaganda of radio London.
The course of events, the marvellous spectacle offered by the English people, their stupendous capacity for resisting, for recovering, and for initiating the second phase, the victorious one, of the war – all this filled the hearts of all with admiration (for you), and even with affection. I assure you that seventy percent of Italians were ready, without arrangement, to risk their lives for your victory, (which we felt was our own), against the common enemy. Only the soldiers, especially those serving on fronts far from the fatherland, remained backward with regard to this evolutionary process in the nation, either because they had been brought up in the fascist school, or because war creates particular bonds among those who fight and a strong spirit of solidarity with the living and with the dead, so that, through immediate necessity, the foe is always he against whom one is at the moment fighting.
After July 25th, 1943, the people impatiently demanded the cessation of hostilities. At the same time it was too stunned by its regained freedom to have the strength to impose its will. On the other hand it was evidently most desirable to strengthen relations with the Allies in order to avoid our country being uselessly transformed into a battlefield still too distant from the heart of Germany.
September 8th – that is, the armistice – was no surprise. Instead everyone was greatly shocked to realise that Badaglio and the monarchy had been unable to make any useful provision against the German reaction, and that they had fled, leaving us without orders (di sorta?), in conditions of which, to one who did not see them, it is difficult to imagine the gravity. And so the army disbanded, the Germans got the time they needed to face the situation. Mussolini was set free, the “fascio” came out again athirst for revenge, and the peninsular was slowly overrun by fighting armies, in a struggle which was terribly exhausting for our people.
In any case England for us was a second country, and we had for you all the affection which one might have for an elder brother. I am sure that if you ever have occasion to speak with
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other prisoners who escaped on September 8th, and who lived among the people during the rising Nazi-fascist (period) you will have confirmation of all I have written to you.
You will probably not get quite the same reply if you ask the soldiers who came with the army of occupation. And that is because the spirit of the Italian people changed during the occupation, and the blame is in part ours and in part yours. It is ours inasmuch as the majority had taken as Gospel all that was transmitted by radio London, and expected the Anglo-American forces to be made up of friends, of brothers even, animated solely by the desire to alleviate their (the Italians’) sufferings. Without reflecting that soldiers forced, through our fault too, to fight for long years far from home, could not treat us with excessive benevolence, very many Italians, realising this, were stunned and disillusioned. It is yours, inasmuch as your soldiers did not know how to choose from among Italians those who deserved to be trusted. We saw that … (soleste?) English military police … those men who had distinguished themselves most of all in the anti-German struggle, were treated not as friends in whom it is right to put faith, but as suspected persons. More than that, we saw too often people politically compromised but clever and unscrupulous, obtain concessions in no way justifiable. All this caused great bitterness, not because rewards were desired, but because after risking our lives a hundred times, some of us believed we had the right to be considered friends, and above all because our hearts were overflowing with sincere friendship for your soldiers. I shall never forget the first English troops I saw, and the wave of joy and emotion when I shook them by the hand – although a few moments previously they had charged against me, my wife and my children with automatic weapons and grenades in their hands!
Please forgive me, esteemed sir, for (trying) to write all this to you. I have only (done) so because I fear lest some English soldiers, returning home, may report (as they said to us) that we showed ourselves friendly only through subservience to the victor. I should be sorry that such opinions should spread because they would be unjust. To give the lie to them it will be sufficient to ask how the Italian people behaved to the prisoners who escaped on September 8th, during the time of the fiercest Nazi-fascist reaction.
Perhaps you will be good enough, after using them as you please, to return the negatives to me. I should be grateful because I too would like to have prints from them – a very difficult matter here owing to the great scarcity of photographic material. Very pleased to have made this contact with you, please accept my best salutations.
[Digital page 64]
[Letter from Avv. Comandini to AK Boyd (brother) ITALIAN]
Avv. Alberto Comandini, Cesena, 23 February 1946
Perdoni se uso ancora, scrivendole, l’italiano, ma ho constatato che quell signore che le ha tradotto la precedente mia lettera conosce la mia lingua meglio di quel che op conosca il francese.
Accludo tre negative Siccome furono fatte in gran fretta e senza mezzi adeguati, due sono riuscite molto deboli, ma un buon fotografo riuscirà a stamparle in maniera da lasciar vedere abbastanza bene l’immagine. Quella in gruppo, fatta in case di Magnani, potrebbe anche essere rinforzata.
Sono grato a Lei e alla memoria di suo fratello delle cortesi espressioni per quel che abbiamo potuto fare in aiuto di lui e degli altri ex-prigionieri sfuggiti ai campi di concentramento.
Con la collaborazione di amici che più di me hanno favorito la loro fuga, le farò tenere un resoconto esatto delle complesse vicende che l’hanno accompagnata.
Per ora mi consenta alcuni accenni di carattere generale che forse contribuiranno a spiegarle l’animo che ci guidava nel prestare aiuti ai suoi connazionali. Posso anzitutto assicurarle che la guerra aveva, fra il popolo italiano, pochi favorevoli. In genere la Germania riscuotava sparse simpatie e verso l’Inghilterra, non ostante la propaganda continua, non vera ostilità fuorchè in quei pochi che, confondendo fra fascimo e patria, temevano la sua vittoria. Quando poi la guerra è scoppiata e la vergognosa campagna di Gregia ha finalmente reso evidente Che il fascismo aveva ingannato il popolo, questo ha reagito ponendosi in antagonismo col governo. Tutti allora hanno cominciato a guardare con simpatia verso l’Inghilterra e si sono lasciati completamente soggiogare dalla propaganda di radio Londra.
Lo svolgersi degli avvenimenti, lo spettacolo meraviglioso offerto dal popolo inglese, la sue stupenda capacità di resistere, di risollevarsi e di iniziare la sedonda fase, quella vittoriosa, della guerra, ha riempito l’animo di tutti di ammirazone e adirittura, anzi, di affetto. Le assicuro che settanta su cento italiano erano pronti, senza discutere, a rischiar la vita per la vostra vittoria (che noi sentivamo come nostra) contro il nemico comune. Solo i milirari, specie quelli dislocati sui fronti lontani dalla patria, sono rimasti indietro rispetto al processo evolutivo della nazione sia perchè cresciuti alla sculoa fascista, sia perchè la guerra crea dei vincoli particolari fra i combatenti e un saldo spirito di solidarietà coi vivi e coi morti, sicchè per necessità immediata, il nemico è pur sempre quello contro il quale in quel momento si combatte.
Dopo il 25 Lugilo 1943, il popolo impazientemente ha chiesto la cessazione delle ostilità. Tuttavia era troppo stordito dalla riacquistata libertà per avere la forza di imporre il suo volere. D’altra parte era evidente che occorreva stingere accordi con gli alleati per evitare che il nostro territorio si trasformasse inutilmente in un lungo campo di battaglia ancora troppo lontano dal cuore della Germania.
L’8 settembre – cioè l’armistizio – non ha meravigliato. Ha invece grandemente stupito il constatare come Badoglio e la monarchia non abbiano saptuo utilmente provvedere control la reazione tedesca e siano fuggiti lasciandoci senza ordini di sorta, in condizioni quali è difficile, a chi non le ha vissute, immaginare la tremenda gravità. Così l’escito si è sbandato, i tedeschi hanno
[Digital page 65]
avuto il temp necessario a [1 word obscured] la situazione, Mussolini è stato liberato, il fascio è risorto assetato di vendetta e la penisola è stata lentamente percorsa dagli eserciti combattenti in una lotta che, per il nosro popolo, è stata quanta mai estenuante.
In ogni modo per noi L’Inghilterra era la nostra seconda patria e noi avevamo per voi tutto l’affetto che si può avere per fratelli più grandi.
Sono certo, se avrà occasione di parlare con altri prigionieri sfuggiti L’8 settembre e vissuto fra il popolo nel risorgente terror nazi-fascista, che avrà conferma di quanto le ho scritto.
Forse non avrà uguale risposta se ne chiederà ai militari venuti con l’esercito d’occupazione. Ciò perchè L’animo del popolo italiano si è mutato durante l’occupazione e la colpa è in parte nostra e in parte vostra.
E’ nostra in quanto i più avevano preso per oro colato tutto quando radio Londra trasmetteva e si aspettavano che le truppe anglo-americane fossero formate de amici, anzi de fratelli animati solo dal desidero di lenire i loro mali. Senza riflettere che soldati costretti, anche per colpa nostra, a combattere per lunchi anno lontani dalla patria, non potevano trattarci con eccessiva benevolenza, moltissimi italiani, constatando ciò, sono rimasti stupiti e delusi.
E’ vostra in quanto i vostri miliatari non hanno saputo scegliere fra gli italiani quelli che meritavano fiducia. Noi vedevamo che, di frnot alla solerta polizia militare ingelse, anche gli uomini che maggiormente se erano distinit nella lotta antitedesca, erano trattati no come anici, dei quali era giusto fidarsi, am come persone sospette. Per di più vedevamo troppo spesso gente politicamente compromessa, ma abile e di pochi scrupoli, ottenere una condiscendendza non del tutto giustificabile. Tutto ciò ha dato una profonda amarezza, non perchè si volessere premi, ma perchè si credeva per aver rischiato cento volte la vita, di aver diritto ad essere considerati amici, e sopratutto perchè l’animo nostro era colmo di schietta, sincera amiciza per i vostri soldati. Io non dimenticherò mai la prima pattuglia inglese che ha visto e l’ondata de gioia e di commozione nello stringere le loro mani – benchè pochi istanti prima avessero sparato contro me, mia moglie e i miei bambini con armi automatiche e granate a mano!
Mi perdonerà, egregio signore, se ho coluto scriverle queste cose. L’ho fatto solo perchè temo che taluni militari ingelsi, tornando in patria, possano riferire (come dicevano a noi) che ci eravamo mostrati amici solo per viltà verso i vincitori. Mi dispiacerebbe che tale opinione si diffondesse perchè sarebbe ingiusta. Per smentirla basterà chiedere come si è comportato il popolo italiano verso i prigionieri scappati l’8 sttembre e cioè nei tempi di più feroce reazione nazi-fascista.
Se crederà, dopo averne usato come vorrà, di ritornarmi le negative, le sarò grato perchè desiderei anch’io estrarne una copia – cosa attualmente qui molto difficile per la grande scarsità di materiale fotograpafico.
Molto lieto dell’incontro accetti i miei migliori saluti
[Digital page 66]
[Letter from Avv. Comandini to AK Boyd (brother) ENGLISH]
Translation of Signor Comandini’s covering letter.
My Dear Sirs,
As promised you in my letter under cover of which I sent you the negatives, and which I hope you have received, I am now forwarding a story of the flight, from territory occupied by the Germans, of your late brother.
The account was written by Signor Rino Spada, who lives here and is a friend of mine; in 1943 he was one of the leading spirits of the “U.L.I.”.
In concluding this account Spada wrote “With this Dear Alberto, I end the story of the three Generals Neame, Boyd and O’Connell [O’Connor]. I have hurriedly committed it to type, and I hope that you will extract the juice and throw away all which may appear to you of no interest”.
I have thought it best not to modify the account in any way as it seems to me clear and informative. I have only added the footnote on the first page.
It is noteworthy that Spada’s opinion of your brother tallies exactly with my own. It is obvious that his upright and cordial nature, and his level-headedness impressed themselves on all who had the good fortune to meet him. I assure you that the news of his death, published at the time by the fascist newspapers, (and naturally a lying version), truly saddened all those of my friends who had known him.
Please accept my kindest regards,
(Signed) Alberto Comandini
[Digital page 67]
[Letter from Avv. Alberto Comandini to AK Boyd (brother) ITALIAN]
14 March 1946
Come le avevo promesso nella lettera con la quale ho accompagnato le negative e che spero avrà già ricevuto, unisco una cronaca dell’evasione, dal territorio occupato dai tedeschi, del suo compianto fratello.
Il racconto è stato scritto dal Signor Rino Spada, mio concittadino e amico e, nel 1943, uno dei pià attivi dirigenti dell “U.L.I”.
Lo Spada, terminato il racconto, aggiungeva :”Con ciò, caro Alberto, è finita la cronaca della fuga dei tre generali Neame, Boyd e O’Connell. L’ho buttata giù a macchina, di getto, e spero che tu voglia rifarla spremendone il succo e scartando tutto ciò che a tuo giudizio non interessa.
Ho creduto invece di non dover modificare il racconto che mi è sembrato chiaro ed efficace. Ho aggiunto solo alcune note nella prima pagina.
Notevole il fatto che il giudizio che lo Spada dà di suo fratello è perfettamente concorde con quello che anch’io ho pensato di lui. Evidentemente la natura schietta e cordiale, e la serenità del suo temperamento si imponevano a chiunque aveva la ventura di incontrarlo. Le assicuro infatti che le noe [letters missing from page] tizia della sua morte, data dai giornali fascisti di allora, (e naturalmente f[letters missing]sificando la verità) ha sinceramente addolorato tutti quei miei amici che lo avevano conosciuto.
La prego di gradire i miei migliori saluti.
Avv Alberto Comandini.
[Digital page 68]
[Letter from Alan Napier to unknown]
[Attached typed translation]
April 5 1946.
It would be interesting to know if the names of the gallant Italians mentioned in this account were ever brought to the notice of H.M.G. [His Majesty’s Government] with a view to their receiving an official expression of thanks.
It seems to me, on the face of the risks taken notably by Rino Spada, Ing. Cagnazzo, and Lieut. Vailati – not to mention the parish priest of S. Giovanni in Marignano – that some official recognition or possibly decorations are due.
Formerly a member of H.M. Consular Service in Italy.
[Digital page 69]
[Letter from Alan Napier]
Apr. 25. 1946
Dear Mrs Boyd
I am returning herewith your letter of the 22nd to Avv. Comandini. I have written your letter in Italian and I think it would be better if you signed the letter rather than enclose it as a translation. I fear your silence will have produced
[Digital page 70]
a very regrettable effect in the avvocato’s feelings. I have in fact heard that there have been cases of the partisans in Italy [word unclear] destroying the certificates of thanks issued to them by the British authorities as a sign of their disgust at the way the allies have treated their co-belligerents! So I fear we have lost any ‘simpatia’ we may previously have enjoyed amongst those who fought with us.
[Digital page 71]
[Letter from AK Boyd (brother) to Avv. Comandini]
[Translated and sent registered with negatives, 28 Sept 1946.]
Letter to Avv. Alberto Comandini
22 September 1946
I owe you an ample apology for not having returned to you before the photographic negatives of my brother, Air Marshal O.T. Boyd, which you so kindly sent, and not acknowledging sooner your letter of last March. I can only plead that I have been engaged in the writing of a book against time, so that all my private correspondence has suffered in consequence. But it has been a poor return for your very great kindness
[Digital page 72]
in sending me that long and thrilling account of my brother’s escape from occupied Italy, with its record of gallantry and disinterested devotion on the part of your compatriots and yourself. I feel that anything I can say must be a most inadequate expression of gratitude for such services, but I do assure I am fully conscious of the debt which we owe to you and others who took their lives in their hands to help strangers in their hour of need and danger. I could wish that the official relations of our two countries showed a more
[Digital page 73]
generous recognition of the services to the allied cause of many of your countrymen, but that unfortunately is a matter outside my power.
I should be glad if you would communicate to Signor Rino Spada in particular, as well as to any other actors in that dangerous drama with whom you may come in contact, my very deep gratitude for what they did; and also to Signor Spada my especial thanks for the trouble he took in writing the narrative of events, the extraordinary interest of which
[Digital page 74]
to all my brother’s family cannot be overestimated. If my brother were still alive I know the matter would not have ended in a mere letter of thanks, but I am unable to take action which would have been easier to one of his rank. I only hope that if you ever come to England in more settled times you will communicate with me, as I certainly shall with you if I ever have the good fortune to revisit Italy.
With renewed thanks and all good wishes for your health and prosperity
Yours very sincerely
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[Letter from Avv. Comandini to (presumably) AK Boyd (brother) FRENCH]
27 December 1946
Gentil monsieur Boyd – J’ai reçu votre [1 word illegible] lettre avec les photographies et je vous en remercie, même [2 words unclear] de mes amies.
Je [1 word unclear] l’occasion pour vous [1 word unclear] d’agréer les meilleurs [1 word illegible] de bonne année.
[Digital page 76]
[Letter from Keith Boyd (son) to KK]
22 November, 2003
Dear Namesake [Keith Killby]
My wife and I have sorted through my father’s papers. We have extracted accounts and letters concerning his time as a POW in Italy, and have prepared the enclosed folder. I hope they may be a useful addition to your library and perhaps be of some interest.
A few years ago we spent a week near Florence, when we visited both Camaldoli and l’Eremo, and were able to get a flavour of the countryside in which my father and his companions were given refuge. At that time Vincigliata was not open to the public, but this summer our younger son and his family were able to go there. It is now a place for corporate events and weddings, and so forth, but they were shown some parts of the building. Unfortunately they could not see the chapel (the starting place for the tunnel), and Charles told us it was a very emotional experience for him to be standing where his grandfather had been imprisoned.
I wonder if you have any record of the Italians who did receive official thanks and recognition for their bravery in assisting our POWs? From Avv. Comandini’s comments (23 Feb 1946) it does not appear that he or his friends received any official acknowledgement.
[Digital page 77]
[Letter from KK to Keith Boyd (son)]
[for Air Vice Marshal Boyd, see especially Pat Spooner, one of 2 who went back behind lines to help others out, KK]
30th November 2003
Very many thanks for giving the Trust a copy of your father’s papers.
I have not read them yet as whenever I get new material for the archives I tried to read it with a piece of paper beside me to make rough notes to write up a brief summary of ‘contents’. As I may have said we have near a hundred books and well over that number of manuscripts. Finding a time when I can do that – without falling asleep these days I fear is a little difficult.
A year ago a Neapolitan whom I have known for over 20 years came to stay, on condition that he updated the archives. He had previously used them to help him get his degree with a thesis on Allied POWs and the Italians in the Rome area. At the moment Giuseppe Millozzi, son of the Trust’s most efficient ‘man in Italy’, is doing the same for his thesis on Allied POWs and the help given them in the Marche. Torre di Palme from which the ‘generals’ were taken off is in the Tenna Valle which goes up to Amandola passing Monte San Martino and joined there by the Tennacola then further east is Servigliano – from the camp there I escaped.
So far I have in front of me an account by Pat Spooner, one of the junior officers who, after getting through the lines volunteered to go back to help get out the ‘generals’. I have a copy of Neame’s book ‘Playing with Strife’ first World War, in the Army in India but mostly of his big game hunting with lots of photos of dead tigers, etc. The last ninety pages deal with WWII and their escape. Most importantly there is ‘La Romagna e I Generali Inglesi’. The last mentioned though not published until 1982 is an introduction it says that Neame’s autobiography published in 1947 was the ‘cue’. I think we would say the ‘spur’.
I am fairly accustomed to reading accounts by Italians – and also, of necessity – ‘reading between the lines’. This account in Italian I felt was as authentic as any such document could be – for even in battle on the right side of the line one soldier’s view can easily seem to contradict the view of another. It depends on the angle at which one looks at something. This was all the more so concerning POWs on the run for each man – whatever rank – had to give himself ‘orders of the day’.
As regards your last paragraph of your letter of 22nd November I am not sure whether you are asking whether the actual Italians who helped in the escape got any rewards afterwards or Italians generally
[Digital page 78]
who had helped POWs. It paid out a million pounds and for instance often assigned ex-army vehicles to those who helped.
Unfortunately I think the archives concerning the Allied Screening Commission are for some reason kept in the USA – America making its contribution – I was on the run with 2 Americans. I can hardly think that the ‘generals’ did not see that their helpers received recognition. Also the ‘helpers’ received an Alexander Certificate – signed by General Alexander. Many of the students have produced copies of such certificates which are held with pride by so many families.
You may have gathered from the above that I do not hold Neame in high regard. In my brief summary in English of the Italian book I have written “It seems to be excellently researched and is an essential corrective to Neame’s egotistical account. Neame for instance complains that the two junior officers who had volunteered to come back through the lines to help get them through did not speak Italian. Also Neame was insistent on taking his diary with him. (Had that been captured it could have condemned many Italians to death.) As it is many of their helpers were caught and shot and others taken to Germany or died fighting with the partisans.” Further I have written “This account sounds very genuine and is not the usual puffed up report of so called ‘partisans’.”
I hope before I send this off to be able to photocopy one or two photos in the Italian report to enclose with this letter.
Not connected with your father is the story of the six who got out of Vincigliata. O’Connor and de Wiart soon got captured, two got captured very near Switzerland, a New Zealander – an MP in NZ – got through to Switzerland and then volunteering to go into France was killed there – his son had been killed in Italy. However, two who suffered a great deal were an Italian and his English wife who lived not far from Vincigliata. Thinking they had helped they were put in prison – the English girl in the woman’s prison in Florence and then, at the fall of Mussolini up near the Tenna Valley. When the Armistice came she told one of the guards to get her a taxi! She later got through the lines with three officer POWs and later married one of them – who when he died left three widows. I knew two of them, including the one who got through the lines. She came here once and also was present with some 40 POWs were also present at the Italian Embassy when the Ambassador gave the Trust a reception.
As you can see my typing is getting worse and worse so it is time I stopped. In spite of immense pressure from family and Trust supporters, I refuse to be updated into new fangled machines knowing that if it stopped so did I. I am much better at controlling sheep and cattle than machines as before the war I was a cowboy – roustabout in NZ.
Unfortunately I cannot lend you any of the three documents we have in the archives as we only have one copy, but I would be very pleased for you to come and spend some time here looking at the archives – which the Imperial War Museum have said they would like to take over if the Trust cannot house them.
Thank you again for adding to those archives.
[Digital page 79]
[Letter from KK to Keith Boyd (son)]
[Also sent forty pages of Pat Spooner, KK]
30th November 2003
Very many thanks for giving the Trust a copy of your father’s papers.
I could not resist looking at several pieces but I have not yet read them seriously to make notes and write them up before putting them into the Archives of the Trust. As I have said we have nearly 100 books and in excess of that number of manuscripts, etc. Finding the time these days when I can read and note and write up my notes is a little difficult these days as too often I fall asleep when I do not want to do so.
A year ago a Neapolitan whom I have known for 20 years came to stay on condition that he updated and put in order the archives which he had used for his thesis on the Italians and the POWs helped by them in the area of Rome. At the moment the son of ‘our man in Italy’ is doing the same thing but in the Marche. The ‘generals’ finally got away from Torre di Palme almost at Porto San Giorgio and near the mouth of the Tenna. The Tenna comes down from the Sibillini mountains and passes Monte San Martino where it is joined by the Tennacola, then passing Servigliano – from the prison camp there I and some 2000 escaped.
So far I have in front of me an account by Pat Spooner, one of the junior officers who, after getting through the lines volunteered to go back to help get out the ‘generals’. I have a copy of Neame’s book ‘Playing with Strife’. It deals with his 1st WW experiences but mostly about big game hunting – with lots of photos of tigers, etc. – and only some 90 pages on WWII and the escape. However most important, in my opinion there is ‘La Romagna e I Generali Inglesi’. The last mentioned though not published until 1982 says that Neame’s book, published in 1947 was the ‘cue’. I think I would say the ‘spur’.
I am fairly accustomed to reading accounts by Italians and of course of necessity reading between the lines. This account in Italian I felt was as authentic as any such document could be. Even in battle – on the right side of the line – one soldier’s view can easily seem to contradict the view of another. It depends on the angle from which one looks at it. This was all the more so for POWs ‘on the run’ for each man – whatever the rank – had to give himself ‘orders for the day’.
As regards your last paragraph, I am not sure whether you are asking whether the actual Italians who helped the escape got any rewards of Italians generally.
Enclosed you will find two rough copies of what I intend to put in for the Annual Report for next year. In them you will see mention of the Allied Screening Commission. It was set up the day after Rome fell to try and recognise and reward in some way the thousands of Italians
[subsequent page(s) missing]
[Digital page 80]
[Letter from KK to Keith Boyd (son)]
12th December 2003
Dear Keith Boyd
You will have picked up the mistakes I have made in trying to put together your father’s story. First and foremost I had forgotten that your father was one of the six who escaped from Vincigliata but was so unfortunately recaptured so near to freedom.
I have now read the copies of the variety of papers you have sent for the archives of the Trust. Thanks largely to your speech to Probus I have been able to piece together your father’s story.
I noted in particular something which I had gathered by reading between the lines in several places and is best expressed by Rino Spada on page 4 of his account.
Your father was obviously the least complaining and demanding but always ready to do the dirty work. The humour and the humanity in his account of his first captivity, which must have made him realise his career was at a standstill, is outstanding. Those qualities must have been greatly appreciated by and helped the morale of those around him.
I did not realise that your father had tragically died so soon after his return home.
Thank you again for the excellent documentation you have provided for the archives of the Trust.