Braithwaite, George

Summary

After capture near Benghazi George Braithwaite was sent to camp P.G 65 near Bari. He was later moved, in 1943, to P.G70 near Monterano. He escaped in September 1943 with a Canadian named Schubert and worked his way South through Italy before coming across the Canadian army, where he was able to make himself known. He was taken by the British to Algiers and then to Scotland. His Army service finally finished at a training camp near Perbright Surrey.


The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.

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Photograph caption for page 1: Schubert marked with ‘X’ Centre Chap I do not know. I believe he shared Red Cross parcels with Schubert, one between two. Me George Braithwaite, taken in PG70 about July 1943.

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Signor Benito Torte
Chiete, Schiavi, D’Abruzzo

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[5 lines of Italian – illegible]

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Mary Josephine Mayall

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Villa Ghilina, St Giuliano Nuovo, (Prov) Alessandria, Italy.

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[Half a page of an image of a young man and woman]

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Paul Bottone, Schiavi D’Abruzzo, Chieti, Italy

College Arc “Istonio”, Istonio, Chieti, Italy

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Dear Sir,

Having just read and noting that they were The Crucible of War, recent Edit Western Desert 1941, and then followed up with The Year of Alamein 1942, and having been engaged in both “Crusader”, and Gazala Line Campaigns I must confess to having been unable to put either books down, but am writing to you to see if you are interested in a side line of the story of one of the 150 Brigade May/June 1942, this was sparked off by the line about “The Infantry smashed their rifles”.

My job since joining the 7th Medums Field Artillery at “The Citadel” Cairo, in 1941, was to drive and maintain a gun tower an A.E.C. Matador, whose crew, kit, ammunition was also aboard. The shells which were stacked on the floor were loose, not in boxes, as each one weighed about 57 lbs. After lots of running around in the desert then up nearly to winning our particular war, we were on the run again, finishing up May 1942 in one of the “Boxes” 150 Brigade.

I had dropped the gun, unloaded the ammunition at the gun site, then everybody was given the order to “dig in” this meant long and hard work for everybody concerned as the guns, and Matadors are on the large size; with my Matador the hole was shaped like a loading bay with the front as low as possible to protect radiator, engine and the tyres had to be protected from flying splinters and the fuel tank as well. This was done, Camouflage nets were thrown over the lot, then some time later, the fun commenced with shelling both ways Stuka attacks on our positions, this was the pattern for some time and we were beginning to realise we were trapped and also had run out of ammunition. Then on 1st June the Sergeant Major came to the wagon lines at about 1.00.pm. and I was ordered to take the wagon and collect any defective shells from the other wagons and deliver them to the guns. Defective Ammo could not be used on safety grounds damaged in some way. This I did collecting some 16 shells in all which I distributed around the guns, my presence was not welcome as it drew extra fire and I was told “to get to hell out of here”. Having accomplished this and managing to get back O.K. all drivers

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were told to stand by for further orders, when these did come we knew it was the end; “burn the wagons” and the gunners “spike the guns”; in between setting fire to the Matador I was watching the guns with the gunners back some way to the rear with a long lanyard then a flash the gun jumped as the barrel split wide open I again focused full attention to the wagon having removed my small kit but foolishly which I much regretted later forgot my overcoat, I passed a flame around, opened the fuel tank and dropped it in, then a colleague named Stephen and myself knowing that it was all over decided to head through a mine field hoping to get away but at the edge the enemy was waiting for us and after a quick search (having only shirt and shorts on that did not take long) we were then bundled into a large, very high sided Italian wagon where there was already other prisoners with their guards. Over the desert for hour after hour it was awful, some were already dying of thirst. Eventually after what seemed to be days the lorry stopped at a wire encampment my first P.O.W. camp which I found out was just outside Benghazi. Here there were very bad conditions, queing for water for hours, there was an issue of a tin of meat which turned out to be goats meat in olive oil which quickly brought on tummy troubles. After a few days of this ghastly experience some of us were taken down to Benghazi harbour and put on board ship, by now our spirits were very low and so it seemed were the Italian sailors – none wore their shoes but had them hanging around the neck.

Eventually after crossing the Med. we docked at either Taranto or Brindisi we were not sure. Then came one of the black spots in my life, we, Stephen and I were still in shorts and shirt and in a really awful condition and hair and head full of sand, all the prisoners were paraded around the town amid the jeers of the crowds, we were then marched up a very long hill to Barracks or Naval headquarters, here we were stripped, our clothes put into a numbered basket which was taken away then my hair was cut off to leave me practically bald followed up by being pushed under a shower, this part was an absolute luxury I must admit, fresh water it also tasted very nice, after drying off I felt cleaner than I can remember for a very long time. Previously it was with salt water and “salt soap water for the use of at El Dava I think it was in

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1941. Our own clothes were issued back to us cleaner but smelling different.

Up into lorries and then taken to my first Italian P.O.W. camp P.G.65. near Bari. This consisted of 5 separate compounds into which our party was placed, then we were informed that; Italy existed on a scale of rationing for different grades of which we were on the lowest as unemployed personnel. 200 grammes, consisting of a small roll of bread 150 grammes, sometimes made with potato flour, cheese ration as big as your thumb nail so that was issued once in 5 days, coffee made from bark of trees, one cup after roll call at 5.30. am until it finished anything from half an hour to 2 hours. Then after evening roll call a soup made up of everybody’s remaining 50 grammes, onion greens, rice, anything that was issued, this was boiled up in a very large pot with plenty of water added then issued out with a scoop into whatever container one had been able to obtain. One issue we had was an aluminium spoon and 2 half size blankets, back to the soup, after each scoop the huge pot was given a stir so that the rice etc, would not stay at the bottom trying to give everybody a fair share.

We spent Christmas in these miserable surroundings but Christmas was brightened by a fellow P.O.W. with a really glorious voice, coming around the bunks singing carols, I still heave a sigh when I hear (Holy Night) Silent Night.

Sometime in 1943 we were moved further North to another camp P.G.70. This was situated inland from a place called Porto St.Giorgio, we could see a town on a hill, this was called Monterano. In this camp, which was much better, we had some Red Cross parcels, which helped a lot, and it was here that I met and became very friendly with a Canadian Radio Officer, Schubert by name, from Vancouver, British Colombia. He had had an adventurous life looking for gold, working on the Alaska Highway to mention just two.

Escape was one of our main subjects as we walked around the compound sifting ideas, news had drifted in about Africa and we both thought that the invasion of Italy was next so that South would be our objective. As time passed we noticed that the guards were more lax

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they seemed to be talking more when they met on Patrols and leaving gaps. A spot was marked, the corner of the compound quite near to bushes, trees, this led we knew down to a river, Schubert could swim I could not but the River would be very low at this time of the year, anyway – September very hot and dry. Then suddenly the chance was there I gathered a few things, met Schubert then crept down to the corner, kicked and knocked away the earth and bottom wire, we then crawled through, crept down to the river, which we found very low indeed, crossed, crept up the bank the other side then forward over lots of rough going, we kept it up for several hours going up hill all the time, then just before light stopped in what seemed a secluded spot to rest and recover. At dawn we saw that we were fairly well hidden and had come through all grape vines, we settled down and being fairly high up plotted our course for the next stage and saw quite a good way off but still on the side of the hill some woods, waiting until late evening and then set off. Remember there are no fences in Italy not even hedges, the woods were safely reached and we rested under a tree, suddenly we hear noises coming our way. We sat up, possibly two people, then into our line of vision appeared two men, one of which was wearing battledress blouse khaki, I also was wearing the same having managed to obtain a complete battledress for cigarettes, Populari. Taking a chance we showed ourselves and found all was well, one was a corporal who lived in Oxford, the other who was only about 18 years of age, was from Submarines. After some talking found out they had slipped off from an outside working party from another P.O.W. camp. We decided to band together as they were also going southwards and as the Corporal knew some words of Italian which went with mine it would help in our search for food. Then came the planning, was there a curfew? Yes, then we walked by day, had a slacking off by the guards been noticed by them? Yes, that meant that some of the natives were friendly, so we rested up that night. Next morning we set off aiming for a village in which we walked-boldly causing quite a stir, somebody there said the village was called Montalto and spoke of an English lady to whom he escorted us. Her name way Mayall or Myall but after talking for a few minutes we saw there was some fear which caused a worry, so we gave the lady my only packet of Tea (red cross) and started off, not without some Bread, Cheese and Vino that was brought to us, then we scarpered off, this was to be the forerunner of many such incidents

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until as we went into one Village was warned of “Fascisti”, made our way (ever Southwards) until we came to a large farm, friend or foe? Taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, we went to it together and we were welcomed. This proved to be a haven indeed, we were invited in for the evening meal. What an eye opener, there must have been about 20 all-together standing each side of a well scrubbed table, first of all forks were put on the table and we all took one, then a lady came in with a very large ladle, this was turned upside down onto the table the contents spread out and solidified just like a large pancake (macaroni I expect), then tomato puree went onto this, followed up with a grated cheese, at a sign we started cutting off small pieces and eating them, and could some of those folks go, the flashing fork and the bending arm set up a terrific rhythm, it tasted delicious. When it was all finished with a sigh we put down our forks, and we all sat somewhere drinking wine, and we were asked about our plans, we just said towards the South. Then somehow it was made known to us with great demonstrations that it would be foolish to go on in uniform and that civilian clothes would be given to us if we wanted to exchange. This was finally agreed upon with much misgiving, hoping that we would not be captured again so that it would not go against us. So it was settled we were to leave in the morning. The morning came, we had some bread, cheese and wine, and adorned in our civvy clothes, me minus a hat which was a policy I had adopted, even in the desert, my hair was absolutely blonde with the elements by now.

Accompanied by three of the men who were to guide us to and help us over a river some half an hour’s walk away, we set off. All went well and over the river we went, here we said our farewells, expressed our thanks to the best of our ability and set off south. Our way lay through the town of Chieti and relying on our appearance but as we walked in things looked wrong, we could sense a tension but we continued to walk straight ahead but we were getting looks from people. Suddenly to our utter astonishment a well dressed gentleman as he was passing us whispered “follow me and watch out” praying it was not a trap we followed. This we did keeping a little way back for room to manoeuvre he led down a quieter turning then slowed down, so we could catch up, then as we were passing a doorway the door was opened and we were quickly hustled inside, our

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fears were soon dispelled and we knew we were with, to us, good people. The place looked very prosperous and as we met some of the family asked how was it that we were recognised for British? It seems several of the family had spent a long time in England before the war on business trips and also there was a loathing of the Fascist and Germans. We were given a meal and then a general discussion about our plans in which they were informed we were making southwards. They generally agreed this would be best and decided we were to be hidden in the attic for the night. We were aroused when it was still dark and told that there was a slight change of plans for us. We were to be accompanied to the station where tickets had been purchased for us for a station which was a good way down the line in our direction, we were to separate, remember we had no papers, and if on the journey there seemed to be any trouble disappear if possible; all went according to plan, we arrived at the station and spread out mingling with the Other people at the barrier. When the train arrived this was boarded with us staying fairly near to each other in case of trouble so that we knew of events. The time and alighting station had been well chosen and all went well, if you can count the number of times my heart stopped beating with all those different uniforms, and leaving the electric train and the town behind singly made for the open country side on the hills. In our consultation of the night before we had been told to make for Foggia. This was a town and airport at the start of the lowlands. Continuing our journey south we wandered into a village and had a shock, a motorised German column could be seen at the other end so as inconspicuous as possible about turn and back the way we came and then we scattered, but I finished up with the young submariner and presumed that the corporal and Schubert were together somewhere. We stayed on the hillside for the night hidden behind some bushes. Next morning the two of us were off and giving the village and roadway a very wide berth as we had done to P.O.W. camps higher up. As we were walking in the hills we were fortunate to meet an Italian man who was quite willing to stop and talk, by now I had quite a good smattering of Italian and providing that I slowed them down could understand some things, but I had to pay a lot of attention to directions as their arm movements were different to ours. I enquired the way to Foggia and was informed it was still a long way south, but that there were lots of Tedeschi in between (Germans) and he suggested to us that to

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follow the pegla strada (sheep trail) south, but it did cut across some roads and to be extra careful; thanking him and with a slightly lighter heart as this was something definite we set off and following his directions found ourselves on a wide grassy track, this we followed ever south (we hoped) knowing that we were in a very dangerous area, the track lead to a large grassy area and it was very open. We could see it crossed a road then continued through open country again for about five hundred yards or so then disappearing round the side of a hill. This was all viewed from where we were in a wood resting, suddenly we saw a small column driving along the road, to our consternation it was going left to right which, knowing Italian roads, meant we would probably meet it again. We waited until it disappeared around the bend, what to do now? There seem to be no alternative, nothing else being around we would risk it, so down across the field then the road then the other field, then following the track on the side of the hill and then around the bend, my heart which was already pounding suddenly stopped, the convoy had halted over on our right about 100 yards away there were three or four figures walking about, the track was veering left so taking it nice and easy we shambled on, now with our backs to the Germans, we were waiting for an engine to start up, or a shouted command to stop, or as we hoped they were too busy to worry about us, or could be a couple of farm labourers. As no notice was taken of us we kept going until we cleared the area, our boots would have bound to be noticed, as if the Italians wore any at all they were bright brown or tan and made of I am sure, compressed cardboard. After a while we were glad to rest, I was wringing wet with perspiration. On again following the track hoping it was the right direction. We passed the night amid some grape vines. That is how we had mostly got by, grapes and tomatoes. The next morning away again after a few hours the track led to a road again and in the distance, a river, and a bridge across, and helmetted figures moving about. One at a time, we crossed the road and kept parallel with the river, which was on our right but over 300 yards away. We were aiming for a spot where the river took a bend to the right which we hoped would cover us and also serve as a fording place. It did both and we were on the other side now. I wondered about the road, by now I had reached almost the peak of observation, and probably had one of the most suspicious minds there was, owing to the survival status of the

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last few years. In my own opinion we were too far left for comfort, but there was still plenty of high country around and by bearing to the right we managed to find the sheep trail again, very cautiously we continued on again. After some hours walking, the track started to widen and then to run along side a road which at the moment was clear, then we heard the clip clop of a horse. This turned out to be a horse and two wheeled cart and going the same way as us. So risking all we went to it and indicated that a lift was wanted, the driver indicated that we could sit on the back of the cart, down the road we went, and after about 20 minutes or so could hear lots of noise from the front of us, engines running, we froze in the cart then sank as low as possible and decided to bluff things out, it was too late for anything else anyway. The cart was pulled to a halt and suddenly we were engulfed with infantry walking by both sides of the road wearing khaki battledress, quickly it dawned on us that we were through the front line. The activity we had seen earlier had been the rear guard at the bridge with the Germans retreating earlier, they were now being followed up by the shoulder flashes said Canada, everybody ignored the cart (such is war). We decided to carry on with him and when it was clear enough we were off again. When we saw trucks stationary we shouted out thanks to the cart driver and jumped down waving goodbye, then we tried to make ourselves known to some Canadians but they really did not want to know, but told us to keep going until we saw an Officer and report to him. This we did, we told him our story, then he handed us over to a Sergeant who kept us until a Captain arrived, who sent us off to the British contacts. After questions and answers we were sent to Som H.Q near Foggia so we reached our goal. More questions and answers then I said goodbye to my companion whom I presume was taken to naval authorities and to my knowledge I have never seen again. Another round of questions and answers to end the day followed up by leaving in the morning and taken to a seaport and put aboard a landing craft onboard of which I was very seasick indeed as the darn thing seemed to pitch for and aft and at the same time roll from left to right then right to left. Eventually we berthed at Tunisia and after being taken over again with questions and answers there I stayed for about a day and a half. I was issued with some blankets and rations, and was taken down to the railway and was given a goods wagon part of the train all to myself, the first time I had been alone for over

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a year. Eventually the train pulled out and shortly was rambling along the plains at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. When we stopped for water I would take my can with some tea in it to the engine where the driver would fill it up with boiling water for me. The train rumbled on and, eventually reached Algiers, which was my destination. Alighting, with my blankets, I made my way to Enquiries Army Personnel. After a brief interlude I was taken to the racetrack. This had been taken over by H.Q. and for the very first time somebody had time to spare and fully checked up on me. Who knows I might even be a deserter. I then made some enquiries re. my companions and was informed that Schubert had made it but had been sent to Canada by plane only the day before. No information was given to me regarding the Corporal, he and the submariner just faded out of my life from that moment on.

Time passed fairly pleasantly at Algiers, open air concerts, and walks around the town including the “Casbah” a very old part with dark little places and smells. I did not know it but we were waiting for a convoy of ships to arrive, meanwhile I had again started to accumulate possessions with some army issue. Eventually the convoy arrived, we were all ushered aboard leaving Algiers behind. After ploughing along for day after day we arrived in Scotland. What a welcome awaited all the Personnel, bands playing, and lots of cheers, and welcomes by some top brass, all on the quayside, this was like being a hero. We were transferred into Glasgow with a welcoming lunch and then was taken to Hampden Park to see a football match, also of course the “Hampden Roar”. All good things coming to an end and with more kit issue I was off on a six week leave armed with travel warrant and ration cards (it still being only 1943). Away I went, arriving at my London Station just as it was getting dark, had a job to find a taxi but managed it and went to the address to where my wife was living with her parents. The taxi waited, I knocked at the door, it was opened by my father-in-law who nearly had a heart attack. I had beaten all the telegrams so to their knowledge I was still a P.O.W. Even the taxi driver was moved by the welcome and joined in.

So the leave passed by with visits here and there and at the end had to report back to a place at Leeds where I met some very bolshy soldiers who thought they were entitled to be late for parades

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etc., the time was spent with lots of outings to such places as battle schools – here everything at the double even to meals, and strict discipline was the order of the day. We went to cotton mills where the noise was awful, a visit by Monty. All these things gradually brought some of the lads back to normal without any punishment. War effort was the order of the day it seemed.

There at Leeds we were sorted out, I was sent to Catterick on a course with tanks, the object being self propelled guns or S.Ps as they were called. This proved my undoing, the dust created by the tracks then being sucked into the tank by the cooling fans started off again my pre war history of Poly?, this brought a visit to Catterick Hospital there I had an operation of the back of the nose. When I had recuperated at Barnard Castle my grading was lowered most considerable. My Army service finally finished at a training camp near Pirbright Surrey.

Schubert, who as I said lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, never answered the couple of letters I sent.

I heard that the inmates of P.G.70 were rounded up by the Germans and whisked off to Germany.

Obviously we were much helped by the unrest in Italy at the time of our escape, also to having been right in the countryside at the time of the main German withdrawal, plus our Guardian Angels.

[Handwritten note:]
Previously Driver Mechanic, G. A Braithwaite,
Number 1086125 25/6 Battery
7th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery.

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