Richard was captured 7 November 1942 during the advance from El Alamein. He was flown to Italy, and spent time in PG75 (Bari) transit camp, PG 38 (Poppi), and PG 49 (Fontanellato). At the Armistice he set off south with Lt. Col. Tony Macdonnell and ten others. On their journey they stopped at monasteries at Eremo (de Camaldoli), La Verna and Fonte Avellana; they passed through Civitaquana, crossed the Pescara river dam and River Sangro; and reached Roccaselegna and Atessa. They met Lord Ranfurly (ADC to Generals Neame and O’Connor), Major Gordon (ex PG 29), South African Lieutenant Jim Gill, and hid with Donato de Gregorio. He reached the Allied lines in December 1943.
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]
BEHIND THE LINES IN ITALY
A Personal Account of my time as a Prisoner of War in 1942/3
Colonel Richard Carver
‘Behind the Lines in Italy’ Colonel Richard Carver, step son of ‘Monty’.
Captured in advance from Alamein. Flown to Italy. PG75, PG38 and Fontenallato. First set out with 10 then divided. Kept East of Florence and Arezo, but West of Ascoli and Termoli. Given map by ex Italian soldier. Called at 3 Monasteries and where the General were. Heard of sea rescue while in land on the Pescara River. MT Boat attacked coming in but naval officer got fishing boat back to Termoli – not enough care – house of Italian burnt by Germans. Crossed Pescaro River by dam as did many others. Hidden for a week or two by Donato de Gregorio in front line, bogged down by rain. Mayor of Civitquanta helped. Advised by Italians to keep off roads as they look too much like PoWs (especially with Carver over 6 ft) Hearing Atessa was liberated, crossed Sangro to freedom.
[Handwritten line] Asked by Monty why we had been so long!
[Digital page 2]
Copyright Richard Carver. Printed June 1989
[Digital page 3]
Behind the Lines in Italy
Capture in the Desert
On the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 I was in India, aged 25, serving as a Captain in the Royal Engineers, seconded to the Indian Army. The war seemed far away and life continued much as before; a pleasant mixture of military training, sport, especially polo, and the social round. However, pressure slowly increased as the Indian Army started to expand and early in 1940 I was sent to Razmak on the NW Frontier and then to GHQ at Delhi. In the summer of 1941 there still did not seem to be much chance of seeing active service, so I agitated to go to the Middle East and was in due course posted to Iraq. Several divisions of the Indian Army were in that country to defend the oil wells and Persian Gulf ports against a possible attack from the north. The following summer, after a course at the Middle East Staff College at Haifa, I was posted to Headquarters, Eighth Army, as a Staff Officer (Major) for liaison duties in the Western Desert. I felt very green and “undesertworthy” compared with most of the staff who had been in the desert for many months.
Since the start of the war the Army had advanced and retreated along the coast of North Africa and it was now back on the Alamein line between the Qattara Depression and the sea. Field Marshal Montgomery (my stepfather) had recently taken over command and had brought about an immediate change in morale by his “no withdrawal” order and his clear grasp of what was needed to win a decisive victory. The battle of Alamein started on 23rd October, 1942 and lasted for twelve days. I did not see much of Monty during the battle as he was normally forward at his small tactical headquarters or out visiting troops, while I was at Main Army HQ. However, when I did see him he always appeared calm and confident, even though the battle did not go precisely according to plan and there were some pretty worrying moments.
At last, on November 4th, after some very tough fighting, leading elements of our armoured divisions broke through the enemy minefields and the battle was won. Large numbers of prisoners were rounded up; mainly Italian, as the Germans took most of the transport. I was sent forward, on November 5th, to reconnoitre a new location for Army Headquarters and on my way encountered a lot of Italians still in their trenches and dugouts. They surrendered quite readily and I sent about two hundred of them back in charge of two military policemen. I was told I should find a place near the sea, but that proved difficult and, as time was short, I had to compromise on a site which had little to recommend it except that it was flat. I guided the long column of vehicles up during the night and there was a bit of grumbling from the old hands as the track was pretty rough. However, they all got in and settled down eventually.
Monty went forward the next day in his tank and formed the over optimistic impression that the enemy would not try to make a stand until they reached the Egyptian frontier at Sollum. He liked to have his tactical headquarters well forward
[Digital page 4]
[Hand-drawn map of Mediterranean Sea] Caption: Map 1. The Break-out from Alamein.
[Digital page 5]
and so it came about that I and Lt. Col. Hugh Mainwaring set out in a staff car during the night of November 6th/7th to find a suitable location. We had not been going for long when it started to rain heavily and, unknown to us, the armoured divisions became bogged down in the desert mud some way south of the road which we were on. At dawn there was little to be seen or heard. In fact it was all eerily quiet. We had difficulty in getting the car across some flooded nalas (dry river beds). I was driving and as we dipped down into one of these nalas, I saw a truck with men in “coalscuttle” helmets sitting in it, whom at first glance I took to be our prisoners. But that impression quickly changed when they turned their guns on us and shouted at us to stop and get out of the car with our hands up. There was not much option. We had been well and truly ambushed and it was a very bad moment – one of the worst that I can remember. We were put in the back of an open truck, with a big German leutenant standing facing us holding a pistol in his hand and were driven back at great speed to Deutsche Afrika Korps HQ.
To our disappointment the Germans seemed to have the situation well under control; there was no sign of a panic withdrawal. In fact, it looked as if they intended to fight a delaying action in that area.
We had hoped to see our tanks come in in a left hook but there was no sign. We were given a mug of ersatz coffee and then a Staff Officer stepped out of his caravan, looking immaculate and wearing medals, which was a strange sight to our eyes in the middle of the desert. After the usual formal questions he shut up and, amazing to say, we were never interrogated again! So fortunately they never discovered my connection with Monty. In the afternoon we were moved to Panzer Armee HQ somewhere near Sollum. We did not see Rommel, the German Army Commander, who was probably up at the front; but we were given a few blankets and had to spend the night in a small trench guarded by two sentries. There was really no chance of escape. The next morning, instead of the stiff interrogation which we expected, we were driven off to an airstrip and flown back to Tobruk and from there in a larger plane to an airfield in the south of Italy. All Allied prisoners captured in the desert either by the Germans or Italians, were taken to Italy.
Italian POW Camps
We were driven away from the airfield in a truck under German escort and handed over to the Italians at a large soldiers’ camp, but when they saw we were officers a great argument broke out over what to do with us, until the German NCO told them to shut up and get on with it. In the end they decided to put us in the Infirmary and someone actually came and asked us what we would like for supper! When we recovered from our astonishment we readily agreed to a large plate of macaroni stew, bread, cheese and vino which we devoured with gusto. However, after that gloom settled on both of us. We were now really “in the bag,” confined in a small room in a guarded POW camp in the enemy’s home country.
Next morning we managed to get a shave and felt a bit better, especially when the British Camp RSM arrived with a Red Cross parcel and some warm underclothes. Next day we were told we were to be moved and were squashed with our guards into a
[Digital page 6]
little horse-drawn cart which fortunately had a cover as it was pouring with rain. As soon as we got out of the gate the reins broke causing utter confusion and Hugh and I collapsed with laughter, much to the annoyance of the Italian guards. We travelled by train to Bari in a first-class compartment, but were evidently not expected; as there was no one to meet us and we waited in the station for a couple of hours until a small boy arrived on a bicycle to guide us to our camp. It was then about 11 p.m. The boy missed the way, for which he was heartily cursed by the guards, and we found we had to march about 6 miles.
Eventually we arrived at PG 75, a transit camp, and were ushered into a hut which appeared to be crammed full of sleeping bodies. However, we managed to find a space at the bottom of a two-tier wooden bunk which was slightly better than the floor. We touched bottom at Bari, which perhaps was a good thing as other camps seemed better by comparison. Food was minimal, no Red Cross parcels and we had to make our mugs out of old tins. Breakfast consisted of black ersatz coffee and a little stewed onion or apple. The exercise area was small and muddy and the outlook beyond the double barbed-wire fence was entirely of grey olive trees.
After three weeks of these squalid conditions we were told that 30 senior officers were to be moved to another camp. So we left Bari without regrets and travelled by train through the beautiful Italian countryside past Naples and Rome and on to Arezzo. Then in a funny little train up the Arno valley to Bibiena and Poppi. The Tenente (Lieutenant) in charge of us on the journey talked about povera Italia and how she had been forced into the war because she had no raw materials of her own, a theme we often heard repeated later on.
PG 38 – Poppi
From the station we marched uphill to the Villa Assunzione, an old convent building enclosed in barbed wire which was to be our residence for the next six months. It seemed like heaven compared with Bari. We had beds with mattresses and only six in a room. The food was not too bad and it was supplemented by Red Cross parcels.
There were only 90 officers in the camp so we got to know each other pretty well. The building had been a convent and it had views all round from the upper windows. We could take some exercise in the small garden, but one longed to go for walks outside and these were only organised once a fortnight.
We soon arranged classes in Italian, German, Farming, etc. I was appointed class organiser and also took on myself the role of officiating padre since no one else seemed prepared to do it. We held our first service on Christmas Day and I chalked up the words of the hymns on a ping-pong table top as we only had one hymn book in the camp. Later on we made manuscript copies of about 20 hymns and some psalms. For Christmas we put up decorations and had a very cheerful time with turkey and Asti Spumanti produced by the Italians and plum pudding from the Red Cross parcels. An apostolic delegate from the Pope visited us and presented us with a concertina which was much appreciated. I carried on with the Sunday services until Palm Sunday when two English padres arrived.
[Digital page 7]
The prospect of building a tunnel did not seem promising as the convent was an old building with thick, solid walls. However, a RAOC Colonel came up with a plan and I and one other joined the digging party. The plan was to drive a vertical shaft down through the dining-room floor, then a horizontal tunnel out through what we supposed to be a blocked up doorway, the top of which was just visible outside. The shaft was less than 2 feet square and our only tools were an old table knife and a broken spade. So it was slow and tiring work. We had an elaborate system of alarms and a cover which looked like the floor tiles ready to slip on in emergency. Disposal of the earth was difficult and after trying various ideas, it was decided to carry it upstairs in Red Cross boxes and deposit it under the floor-boards of the attic.
We had got down about 10 feet and were starting to break out horizontally towards the supposed doorway, when it was announced that we were to be moved to another camp. It was decided to leave the tunnel as it was for the benefit of possible successors. But to dispose of the last boxful of earth in the attic the officer in charge of that operation foolishly stamped on it and cracks immediately started to appear in the ceiling below. I rushed upstairs to see the damage and as I arrived on the top floor the cracks suddenly widened and a large section of the ceiling, about 50 feet long, suddenly crashed down with a colossal bang, creating clouds of dust.
Everyone thought it was a great joke except for the Commandante who had hoped to get through our six months incarceration without any unpleasant incidents. Now he was afraid this would get to the ears of the authorities in Rome. However, when questioned we denied all knowledge and suggested that it might have been put there by the New Zealanders who were in the camp before us and whose excavations had been found. So all the earth, etc., including some large stones, was carried downstairs and packed into these holes. Amazing to say, it just fitted in, so honour was satisfied!
[Photograph and caption]: PG 38 Poppi
[Digital page 8]
The night before we left, two officers and one of the “batmen” decided to hide in the attic and an elaborate mock escape was staged to cover their disappearance. However, the Italians were not entirely convinced and searched the house from bottom to top, eventually discovering them at 1.00 a.m. We journeyed north by train to Bologna and special precautions were taken to ensure that no one escaped on the way. Little did we think as we chugged up the pass through the Appennines that it would present one of the most difficult obstacles to us on our route south when we eventually escaped.
[Photograph and caption]: PG 49 Fontanellato]
PG 49 – Fontanellato
We arrived at a small railway station about 30 miles from Parma at 9.00 a.m. on May 30th and were met by the Camp Commandante and the interpreter who knew England well and had acquired some English habits. We marched the 4 miles to the Camp along a hot and dusty road through flat, rich countryside, but received rather a shock when we got there. We had expected a small senior officers camp but this place housed 500 officers with 100 soldiers to do the cooking, etc. We were allotted rooms of six and I was lucky to get in with a good lot, one of whom was Hugh Mainwaring.
There was not much space for the numbers in the camp, so everything had to be highly organised and seven-a-side football went on almost continuously. I used to get my exercise by walking round the field. Two advantages of the camp were a good library and excellent plays, staged very professionally about once a fortnight. We had organised walks once a week, 120 officers at a time. On one occasion the head of the column had tried to march the Italian guards off their feet by pushing the rate up to 140 a minute, and always, after that, they kept us down to a snail’s pace.
[Digital page 9]
There were educational courses of all kinds, even a mini-Staff College course on which I did some instructing, also bridge and poker clubs. But prolonged study was difficult probably due to the poor diet. Social activities went by rooms and parties were given to celebrate a birthday or some other occasion, by saving up the weekly vino ration supplemented perhaps by some smuggled in Vermouth.
As senior Sapper officer I was asked by the Escape Committee to investigate the possibilities of a tunnel, but I turned it down because of the high water table. However, some adventurous souls started digging and after they had gone about 20 feet I was asked to inspect. It was only about 18 inches high because of the water table and although they had revetted it with firewood, the overhead cover was such that if many men or a vehicle had gone over it, it would have caved in. I considered it to be dangerous and was relieved when shortly after this it was discovered by the guards.
Although we had no secret intelligence about how the war was going it was clear from the Italian papers that the Allies would soon be landing in Italy. On July 29th Mussolini was kicked out and replaced by Marshal Badoglio as head of government. We all thought the Italians would then sign an armistice. But this did not happen for about six weeks and in the meantime German troops started to pour into the country. Some came by our camp and bivouacked in a neighbouring field. They were mostly very young and looked fit, marching past our camp singing army songs. The Italians kept well out of their way.
The Mass Walk-out
News of the Italian armistice came through on the evening of September 8th, 1943. Everyone was very excited wondering what would happen to us. In fact the order sent to the Commandant of British POW camps by Marshal Badoglio was that if it appeared that the Germans were going to take the camp over, the prisoners should be released.
We were organised in four companies of officers and one of soldiers under the Senior British Officer (SBO), a Gunner Lieutenant-Colonel. Early the next morning he warned us that we must be ready to move out at short notice but could only take the minimum of kit and rations with us. Sadly, I had to leave behind a store of chocolate which I had saved from Red Cross parcels, as it was held in the Quartermaster’s Store which there was not time to get at.
About midday word came through that a party of Germans was coming out from Parma in our direction. The wire was accordingly cut by the Italian guards and we marched out into the open country. It was a strange feeling after being cooped up for so long. No one knew how soon the Germans would arrive so everyone had a natural desire to get away from the camp as fast as possible. But fortunately discipline was preserved as it would have been disastrous if we had scattered in all directions across the countryside. Hugh Mainwaring had gone out early and reconnoitred a lying up place about 3 miles from the camp and we moved there in single file following the hedgerows.
It was a large drainage ditch, overgrown with bushes and offering good cover so we all settled down there and waited for news. About 4.00 p.m. a report came through
[Digital page 10]
that the Germans had arrived in the camp and were furious to find “the birds” had flown, but were making the most of the loot including our store of Red Cross parcels. Later we heard that they had taken the Commandante prisoner and were starting a search of the area. We heard vehicles moving around on the roads, but fortunately the Italians did not give us away and none of the 600 British POWs were picked up at that time.
The March to the Hills
I was in charge of a platoon of 14 Sapper officers and our Company Commander was Lt. Colonel Macdonnell of the Green Howards, commonly known as “The Dean” (from the well known figure Dean Inge called “The Gloomy Dean”). After an uncomfortable night among the bushes in the ditch the camp interpreter appeared with a lot of civilian clothes and some food. He said that the Germans had given up the search after a few hours, but they might come back again. However he had arranged for some officers and soldiers to go to local farms. This showed the goodwill which many Italians felt towards the British, partly because of their loathing for the Germans who they considered had let them down by dragging them into the war in the first place and then leaving their troops behind in the desert to be captured.
Nine officers out of my platoon decided to go off to farms or make their own way. Two, in particular, I thought had a good chance as they spoke Italian well and had maps of a kind. But sadly all except three were picked up at some point and taken to Germany. The next day reports came in of difficulty in crossing the main Bologna-Milan railway line as it was said to be well guarded. Perhaps partly because of this some people decided to make their way north to the Swiss frontier.
I took a vote of the remainder of my platoon and they were all in favour of trying to make our way south in the hope of meeting up with Allied landings which we thought might take place in the Gulf of Genoa. Lt. Col. Macdonnell, “The Dean,” whom I knew as Tony after the war, decided to join my party together with five of his headquarters, so we were twelve altogether. The Dean was content that I should lead the party as I had a map and compass and could speak elementary Italian.
We set off at 10 p.m. walking in single file across the fields, well spaced out so as to have ample warning if someone ran into trouble. It was a clear night with a full moon and we felt very conspicuous. However the hedgerows and vines provided a certain amount of cover. We came up to the main railway line near a small station and I sent two scouts forward to see if the coast was clear. One spotted a sentry but managed to get away without being seen. Dogs were always a danger and one started to bark near me. So we decided to pull back and try another place. This time we were lucky and all crossed the railway line safely and then the main road. When it started to get light we settled down in a dry river bed and lay up for the day.
We were a bit short of water and had to ration that as well as food. However in the evening I cautiously approached a farm and found the people well-disposed, so we all went up in turn and had a welcome drink and wash under the pump. I then went
[Digital page 11]
on to another farm where they had a radio and heard a bit of the news in English from London (Radio Londra) – a great thrill; but unfortunately I missed the bit about our forces in Italy. We still hoped they might have landed up in the north, as there were rumours to that effect before we left Fontanellato; but it became clear fairly soon that these were only rumours which might have been spread by our agents to deceive the Germans.
We set off again at dusk, still marching south towards the Appennines. The country had become more broken and we made more use of small roads and tracks. At one place the people ran into their houses as soon as they saw us coming, thinking we were Germans, and it was only with great difficulty that I managed to coax them out. When they realised we were English they couldn’t do enough for us and wine was handed round though it was near midnight. The next evening, as we were approaching a little village, we were stopped by some kind people who warned us
[Photograph and caption]: Lt Col Tony Macdonnell (The Dean)
[Digital page 12]
that there was a German soldier in the village sitting on the end of a telephone line. So we gave it a wide berth and went on until midnight when we found an isolated farmhouse with a barn where we slept. The following night we arrived at a little isolated village in the hills called Contile, where the people were very hospitable, so we decided to stay there the next day, resting in a nearby field and making plans.
We managed to hear some news in English and what we heard was depressing. The landing at Salerno did not seem to be going very well and there was no mention of anything further north. So we decided to split up into small parties, as our numbers made us conspicuous and also made it difficult to get food from a single farmhouse. It was not an easy matter as some of the party felt they were being deserted, but I considered that my “responsibility” had finished now that we had reached a fairly remote area in the hills and it was up to each individual to decide for himself on the best course to take. It seemed to me that The Dean with his experience as a battalion commander was the most important person to get back and, as he and I appeared to get on quite well, we decided to go together. There was 20 years difference in age between us (49 and 29) which I think was probably a good thing as we might have argued and fallen out if we had been the same age. We had a strong bond in religion, although differing in the observance of it as he was an RC. Although appearing rather gloomy, he had a dry sense of humour which, when it did blossom forth, was worth more than many simple jokes. The others split up in twos and threes, but regrettably most of them were recaptured at some stage and taken to Germany. Two of the Sappers got through but not until January.
The Long Walk down the Appennines
So, after sharing out what remained of our food and a few medical supplies, The Dean and I set off on September 16th. Our first aim was to change our battle-dress for civilian clothes. We enquired at a large farmhouse and received an encouraging reply; so we spent a comfortable night in a hayloft and in the morning various odd garments were produced for us. I procured a very thin blue suit with trousers which were too short even aften lengthening, also a tattered white shirt. I managed to retain my battledress jacket and was very glad I did when the weather got colder later on. We made ourselves rucksacks to carry our reserve rations and clothing, mine from an old grain sack. These showed that we were people on the move, but we could not have done without them.
Being taller than the average Italian, we tried to pass off as Yugoslavs, but when we asked for food or lodging, I would always say that we were British. When people enquired further about our rank I said we were a Captain and a Lieutenant. A Lieut. Colonel would have sounded too grand and attracted attention. A favourite question was “Di quale classe?” and for a long time I could not gather what this meant, but of course it referred to the call-up date. When I said we were “Soldati di carriera” (career soldiers) they thought we were very “odd fish.”
We tried to do at least 10 miles a day but often it was very rough going with a lot of “su” and “giu” (up and down hill). Fortunately we had good Army boots.
[Digital page 13]
[Hand drawn map of central Italy from Parma South to Pescara].
[Caption] Map 2. Route down Italy.
[Digital page 14]
That evening we met up with two escapees from another camp who had “jumped” the train which was carting them off to Germany, but we did not stay with them. Our principle was to go to isolated farmhouses and never stay more than one night in the same place. We were usually offered a barn or outhouse of some kind. Once we had a pig-sty and two or three times we were lucky enough to get beds.
One day, after crossing a main road, we went down a lane to a little village where there was a small inn. We were asked to go in and have a glass of wine which was very tempting as it was a hot day. As usual a crowd started to collect, and as they were jabbering away and asking us questions through the window: suddenly a woman rushed in and said two Germans were approaching. The crowd immediately scattered in all directions and we were bundled out of the back door. We jumped over a fence at the end of the garden and dashed down a little valley, not pausing until we found cover among bushes in a dry river bed. Fortunately we heard no sound of pursuit and it may all have been a false alarm, as the peasants tend to suspect any strangers of being Germans. But they will talk and word gets back to the Fascist police or collaborators who report it to the Germans.
For food we had to rely entirely on the kindness of the peasants (i contadini), and if we were accepted at a farmhouse they would always share their evening meal with us. This was usually minestrone and bread, occasionally accompanied by polenta (maize pudding) and a glass of rough wine. For green vegetables they had pepperoni, which I was told by a doctor, supplied all the vitamins needed. One woman, whose son was a POW in British hands, gave us two hard-boiled eggs and a small cheese to take with us on our way but this was quite exceptional. We only had meat once or twice in the whole three months.
After we had been going for about a week we came to the main Bologna-Pistoia road with a river and railway running alongside it in a wooded valley. There did not seem to be any guards about, but just after we crossed the road a lorry full of German troops came by. Three days later we crossed the Bologna-Florence road and railway. This time we had to make a long detour to avoid a German camp and as we walked up through woods on the far side of the valley we heard shots behind us which sounded alarming, but which we were told later were probably caused by soldiers shooting pheasants with rifles. It then came on to rain heavily and we were soaked to the skin before we eventually found a farmhouse.
Unless there was paura (fear) about due to rumours of house searches and arrests, the contadini were almost invariably kind and hospitable. On one occasion an Italian soldier from Florence, on hearing who we were, rushed in and embraced us on both cheeks saying, “The English are the deliverers of our country.” He then presented us with a tin of bully beef and two cakes of soap; also – after a little persuasion – kindly gave us his Touring Club map. This was a help in showing us a general line of march and especially places we should avoid. In one place we were directed to a house where the Signore was said to have helped many British prisoners. But he was away in Florence and we got a hostile reception from his family. There were said to be spies in the area: a dozen British soldiers had been rounded up recently due, they thought, to information given by spies. There were
[Digital page 15]
always rumours going around and often kind-hearted people would warn us not to go on because of danger ahead and try to persuade us to stay with them. However, our principle was never to stay more than one night in the same place.
We tried several monasteries and met with varying receptions, depending mainly on how remote they were. The best was Eremo, hidden amid pine forests high up in the mountains east of Florence. We approached it cautiously to ensure no one saw us enter, but the lay-brother who welcomed us was amused at our caution and said there were no spies round there. They were very hospitable, giving us food and beds for the night. After making sure that we were what we professed to be, they asked if we would like to see another British officer who was staying there and conducted us to a room in the inner part of the monastery where, to our surprise, we found an officer lying in a bed with sheets. He turned out to be Lord Ranfurly, the ADC to Generals Neame and O’Connor, who was suffering from a cold. Apparently he and the generals had been guided to Eremo straight from their camp which was not far away and had been able to carry out Red Cross parcels and other luxuries. He kindly gave us some cigarettes and razor blades, also a thick vest each which proved very useful later on. Unfortunately, we never met the generals as they were away for a few days making a reconnaissance and we heard later that they had been safely guided back to our lines.
Shortly after this we visited the Franciscan monastery of La Verna where St. Francis received the stigmata, and we were able to look down from there on our erstwhile camp at Poppi. The monks here were afraid of the Germans searching the place, as I believe they did later on. So they would not let us in, but gave us a meal with other poor travellers. However, word got around and two charming English spinsters, Miss Clark and Miss Robinson, who had earlier been interned, came to see us. They insisted on giving us some money as well as a cardigan and a mackintosh coat, which was kind of them, as I do not think they had very much.
One day we came across a priest sitting outside his little church, studying the gospels in Greek and Latin. I was very impressed as most of the priests we met did not seem well educated. He gave me a copy of the gospels in Italian which I carried with me most of the way and was able to compare with my own New Testament.
After some rather slow progress, when we were both feeling a bit lame, we came to the Monastery of Fonte Avellana, under the towering heights of Monte Catria. The monks were not keen to let us in as they had had Germans there a few days before, but they directed us to a house where a Scots-Canadian girl gave us an excellent meal. While we were there a middle-aged Englishman named Oulton and his Italian friend, Count de Rouvier appeared. They were both hiding in the monastery and when we said we wanted somewhere to sleep they obtained permission from the prior and then conducted us to a room in the monastery in the greatest secrecy. Oulton apparently was an opera singer and had lived in Italy for many years. He and his friend were very kind to us, bringing us a meal and water to wash in, as they did not want it to be known that we were staying there.
We kept mostly to mountain tracks, which sometimes petered out and then the little compass which I made in camp, came in useful; as it did on a mountain pass
[Digital page 16]
when we were lost in a mist and started to go down the track we had come up. Once we were misdirected and found we had to walk along a via provinciale for about 10 kilometres through a narrow gorge where it was not possible to get off the road. One German lorry passed us but took no notice. On another occasion, when we thought we would risk walking on the road, a civilian car stopped in front of us and we thought they must be Germans as nearly all cars had been requisitioned. However the occupants proved to be a civilian engineer and his friend who warned us that we looked obviously like escaped prisoners and it was madness to walk along the road.
When crossing a main road one day we ran right into two Italian “Milizia” who looked as if they had been posted there to stop escaped prisoners and Italian deserters, but we wished them Buon Giorno and they let us go by. However, there were more of these “Milizia” about and the people would not take us into their houses, so we spent a cold night in a shepherd’s hut with only brushwood for covering.
Near a place called Colfiorito we walked across an unusual bit of country. It was a wide open pasture at a height of 1500-2000 feet, with no sign of life or habitation. We climbed over a mountain which must have been about 7000 feet high and came down to a little village called Castelluccio perched on a hill in the middle of a broad valley. There were a lot of Yugoslavs and Italian deserters in the place which made it difficult to get in anywhere. There seemed to be only one barn and that was full of people sleeping in the hay. When they were asked to let us in there was some grumbling until a Yugoslav let out at an Italian soldier and told him to make room for the British soldiers “who were on their way to rejoin the army which was freeing his country from the horrible Germans.”
After this we walked for some days through the Spanish chestnut forests which is a particularly poor part and we had difficulty finding places for the night, but the chestnuts were a useful addition to our food. At one farmhouse the woman gave us some spiced pig’s lard to take on our way and wrapped it up in the bill poster they were supposed to put up in the village. I hoped to bring this home as a memento, but in the end it had to be used for other essential purposes, paper being a rare commodity. It was an order signed by the German C-in-C Marshal Kesselring giving a long list of offences and the penalties to be meted out which, in most cases, was death and house burning. These included helping British or American prisoners in any way. A few days later we passed a village which had been raided by Germans in the night. Several prisoners had been rounded up and we were told that one or two people had been shot; but that may not have been true. However there were certainly cases where houses had been burnt down.
We passed close to the Gran Sasso mountains which were a magnificent sight capped in snow, but made us wonder whether we would get through to the Allied lines before winter set in. We met some American parachutists in a wood. Part of their role seemed to be to help POWs, but they could not tell us much about what lay ahead. The Pescara River seemed to be the next major obstacle, which the Italians said was closely guarded. A lot of POWs had settled down in the area which made accommodation difficult After a short prayer for guidance, we both decided the right thing was to go on.
[Digital page 17]
Approaching the Battle Front
The next day we met Major Gordon (Royal Signals) who was with me at the “Shop” (RMA Woolwich). He had escaped from PG 29 at Chieti, which was not far away. The sad story of that camp was that the Senior British Officer (SBO) had followed the coded instructions from the War Office, intended for a different situation, and had allowed no one to leave the camp in the period after the Italian armistice and before the Germans arrived. The result was that practically all the prisoners were carted off to Germany. Gordon got away by hiding for 48 hours in a tunnel. When we met him he had established his base in a farmhouse and, despite only speaking a few words of Italian, seemed to have got quite a good intelligence system working. He seemed to think the best “bet” was to stay around in the area, waiting for our troops to arrive or to get away in a rescue party by sea, and had advised some of our soldier ex-POWs to do the same. We stayed with him for a night in the house at Carpineto which he had made his headquarters. There was an old matriarch there, very ancient and wizened but always working, who would do anything for Gordon.
The next day we set out separately to reconnoitre the crossings over the Pescara river. The Dean stayed back at the house in case any messages came through about sea rescue parties. I set out at 3.00 a.m. on a pitch black night and arrived on a ridge at first light from where I could see flares dropped by our planes. It was the first indication that I was at last approaching the battle zone, which was quite a thrill. Soon I met a friendly little shepherd boy who took me to his house where his father proved very helpful. He took me down to a point near the river where we could see the bridge and dam at Torre de Passeri and the main Pescara-Popoli road beyond. There was a lot of traffic on the road, but the bridge surprisingly did not appear to be guarded. I stayed that night at a house where an old man came home drunk, complaining that some German soldiers had stolen his umbrella. I had to sleep in the pigsty, but it had not been used as such for some time.
When I met up again with The Dean and Gordon we got news that a really good sea rescue was to be laid on, so Gordon and I decided to go round the area “rounding up” POWs, while The Dean went down to the rendezvous on the coast with our guide.
We were sorry to part but it seemed the best plan as the last part of our trek overland was obviously going to be the most arduous and I had private doubts about the sea rescue. However, that seemed to be the best chance for the soldiers who had been lying up in the area for a long time. The Dean kindly gave me his pipe and watch and said he would send a message to Monty when he got back, which we thought would be in a couple of days. But sadly this was not to be. As I learnt afterwards, the MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat) was intercepted and sunk and the people who had collected on the beach quickly dispersed. The Naval officer in charge of the MTB had managed to swim ashore and he invited The Dean and some others to join him in a scheme to commandeer a fishing boat, which they eventually did and managed to reach the port of Termoli behind Allied lines on November 7th.
I managed to contact about nine British soldiers, but it was a depressing and difficult task, partly because of the weather, as it rained continuously, and partly because of the difficulty in making enquiries owing to stories about German decoys.
[Digital page 18]
After three days I returned to Civitaquana suffering from dysentery. Fortunately, a man called Umberto offered me a bed in his cellar and fed me on milk. It was a large bed and at night a British and an American soldier shared it with me. I was lucky in having a copy of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, which provided wonderful escapist reading. The podesta (mayor) of Civitaquana came to see me after dark and gave me some castor oil and a suit of thicker clothes for which I was most grateful. After three days I got up and tried to discover what had happened to the sea rescue party. Gordon had stayed on the coast but sent back the sad news that the scheme had failed. Also the whole area near the mountains had been searched by a strong party of German troops and Italian fascists; several POWs had been caught, including one who was carrying a note for Gordon, and the house where he was staying had been raided and burnt down.
It was now the beginning of November and the snow was creeping lower on the mountains. By good luck I met Jim Gill, a South African lieutenant who also wanted to walk south. He proved to be a very good companion for the last phase, being younger and fitter than The Dean who I do not think would have “made it.” We set off at 5.00 a.m. and reached the dam on the Pescara River, which I had previously reconnoitred, at first light. The Italian keeper said he had helped many ex-prisoners to cross that way and it was surprising that it was not guarded. At the next hamlet we collected as much bread as we could as we thought the food situation would become increasingly difficult. I discarded my sacco, an improvised rucksack, and dispensed with all but the barest essentials which I put in an old string bag. I also carried a zappetta or small hoe to appear more like a farm labourer. My army boots by this time were in a pretty bad way, the soles very thin and the uppers only just hanging together. However, they were still boots, whereas Jim only had thin shoes.
We spent three nights in mountain huts, one with a shepherd who had brought his sheep up into the mountains to avoid them being taken by the Germans. We managed to light a fire in one but it went out when we went to sleep and with only brushwood to cover us we spent a pretty chilly night. The snow was about a foot deep on one of the passes which made it hard going. At one point we came upon a party of Italians excavating holes in a rock face, supervised by a German in uniform and concluded this was part of the defensive line we had heard about further back.
We then decided to try to skirt round the east flank of the German army on the River Sangro, where we thought their troops would be thin on the ground and get in behind them, hoping to meet up with our own troops when the Germans pulled out. The only alternative seemed to be to make a long detour into the mountains, which we did not fancy as they were now covered in snow. We thought it would be safer to walk by night, so having rested all day, we set off to make a bid for it in late afternoon. As we crossed a main road we met a German horse-drawn wagon with soldiers walking alongside. They looked at us rather suspiciously, but walked on and we did not wait to answer questions. A little further on we stopped at a farmhouse where they gave us a plate of hot pastasciutta which we ate in the cowshed. It was just what we needed for the march ahead. It was heavy going in the valley but fortunately there was a moon. We waded across a river at midnight and came across an apple tree by a deserted farm. The ground below was covered in yellow apples, shining in the
[Digital page 19]
moonlight, and we collected as many as we could carry. Shortly after this we noticed a signal cable running up our path. We followed it cautiously as it seemed to be the only way through the dense bushes; but stopped short when we heard a sentry humming a tune about 30 yards away. So we rapidly beat a retreat and then started to look around for somewhere to lie up as it was starting to get light.
The Cave and the Last Lap
At dawn on November 12th we found ourselves in a deep valley dominated by a village perched on a crag, which we later discovered was Roccascalegna. We hid among bushes in the bottom of the valley and were resting in the sun when suddenly a young man came dashing through the bushes followed by a boy crying. Apparently the Germans had just taken their mother’s only pig; and a few minutes later we saw a party of soldiers driving the pig before them. They stayed and talked for a bit and the young man asked us to come up to their farmhouse that evening.
We went and were very fortunate in finding there a remarkable man, Donato de Gregorio who took the risk of sheltering us for the next few weeks. This was his parents’ farm and he had come from Naples to look after them. He was a distinguished looking man, self-educated and with strongly liberal views. I carried on a spasmodic correspondence with him until he died in about 1960. The family’s information about the German positions and the nearness of the Allied advance was not very good, but they had heard on Radio Bari that the British had captured Atessa which was only about 10 km away as the crow flies. So we thought we would try to get through to our lines that night and set out after supper. But it was a brilliant moonlight night and quite still, so after going a short distance we decided it was taking too big a risk after coming so far and turned back to Donato’s house. He had already offered to hide us and we gratefully accepted his kind offer, thinking it would be for only a few days.
[Map and Caption]: Map 3. Position of Forces on River Sangro – November 1943.
[Digital page 20]
We stayed the rest of the night in his barn and before daybreak he took us down to the “cave.” This was not really a cave but a narrow slit between two enormous boulders, one of which had an overhang which gave some protection from the rain, though one had to avoid the drips. The entrance was quite well concealed by bushes and we felt fairly secure, but it was far from being comfortable or warm. Donato came down after dark when he deemed the coast was clear and took us up to the farm where we had a hot meal and slept in the barn.
The next day the rain started and continued for several days. As we afterwards learnt, this caused a disastrous flood on the River Sangro which washed away all the 8th Army’s assault bridges. So the British advance across the river to the north and east of us, which we thought would cause the Germans to withdraw, was delayed for more than two weeks.
The days in the cave were very long and dreary, only made endurable by the hope that perhaps tomorrow the Germans would pull out and we would get through to our lines. There was not much room to move around and we lay down most of the time. Washing was difficult and we inevitably developed lice. The only English book we had was my New Testament. Donato lent us some Italian books which I tried to read but missed a lot of the sense without a dictionary. We played various word games and I made up a crossword puzzle.
One day we had a bad scare: I was sitting just outside the cave behind a bush in the sun when I saw four Germans coming down the other side of the valley. They stopped about 100 yards away and the NCO appeared to be pointing straight at me as he gave out his orders. Then they came on and when they were out of sight, crossing the stream, I got back into the cave and warned Jim. We tried to get out of sight from the entrance to the cave and lay there with beating hearts as we heard the Germans coming up the slope towards us. We heard one soldier beating the bushes as he walked right past the cave. Then, after what seemed an age, we heard the NCO barking out orders further up the valley. They stayed around for the rest of the day and even after dark there was someone loitering near the farm, so that Donato did not dare to come for us until nearly midnight and it was 1.0 a.m. before we got a meal. According to Donato the Germans had shouted “Venite, venite, buono Americano,” because there had been an American in the valley about a fortnight before, but it seemed unlikely that they would expect him to appear when called.
The days dragged on with no sign of a major Allied attack. When our planes flew overhead the German “flak” would open up and we heard the sound of bombing or artillery fire. One simply existed during the day and only lived when Donato took us up to the house and we got warm by the fire and had a good meal of minestra. Although brought up in the Abruzzi, Donato spoke good Italian and used to tell amusing stories and occasionally sing Neapolitan songs such as “O sole mio.” He was not deeply religious, but a sincere liberalist and humanitarian. He said he had been disgusted that his own people had not had the spirit to rebel against Mussolini.
On November 26th we heard explosions not far away and we were told that the Germans had evacuated Roccascalegna and blown up the road leading north. However, the next day we found that there were still German patrols around. That night we heard sounds of a heavy artillery barrage to the north.
[Digital page 21]
On November 28th Donato brought the sad news that his brother Antonio had died after being concussed by an Allied bomb. “D” intended to come with us when we tried to get through as he wanted to get back to his wife in Naples. He now felt obliged to wait for his brother’s funeral and I said I would wait with him. But Jim was impatient to get back to South Africa for Christmas and decided to try on his own. So he went off on the night of November 29th and I am glad to say, as I heard much later, he got through safely.
The Germans really seemed to have left the valley, though we still heard one rumour of a patrol. As I was waiting for the funeral I went up to Roccascalegna and had a celebratory lunch with Dottore Cicchini, a friend of Donato’s, who had also been in hiding. He complained that the Germans had taken his best wine and some of his furniture and cutlery; but he still seemed to have quite a lot left.
At last at 8.0 a.m. on December 3rd Donato and I set forth. He had decided to leave his small son, Vicenzo, behind with his grandparents, much to my relief, as he would have been a great burden. It was a glorious sunny day and I felt confident we would get through. “D” was apprehensive about minefields but, in fact, we did not encounter any. Our main obstacle was the River Sangro which was in flood and fast flowing. The Germans had destroyed all the bridges, but we found one railway bridge where the track was still intact and hanging down in loops. Donato did not much like the idea of crawling across on the sleepers, but as it seemed the only way, he agreed to risk it. After this was successfully accomplished we walked on to a small town called Atessa without meeting any of our own forward troops or even minefields. The troops had all moved north to the main part of the River Sangro. When I realised that I was indeed back in Allied lines I felt truly thankful to God for bringing me safely all this way. I suppose it was about 500 miles altogether of rough going. Our motto used to be “Piano, Piano, ma Sicuro, Sicuro” (“Slow but sure”) which had paid off.
[Photograph and caption]: Donato de Gregorio
[Digital page 22]
The main unit in this town was an American AMGOT (Allied Military Government) Headquarters. So I walked into that and greeted the officer in charge, who was very surprised when I told him that his unit was the first Allied unit I had encountered. I dined with them that evening on British rations, which tasted wonderful after eternal minestra and I slept the night in the New Zealanders’ Military Police guardroom. Donato found a bed with a friend.
Next morning one of the AMGOT officers took us to Vasto in his army car. There I had to leave Donato as the only way for him to get food was from the AMGOT refugee organisation. I got them to give him a pass to travel by military vehicle to Naples, but as I learnt afterwards, he did not have an easy time getting there. Then I went to Main Army Headquarters and fortunately one of the military policemen recognised me, so I quickly established my identity. A Liaison Officer drove me forward to Tactical Headquarters, where Monty came out to greet me and was obviously delighted to see me. He wanted to know why I had taken so long (!) as some others from the POW camp had come through much earlier, namely Hugh Mainwaring and Carol Mather. But I explained that I had had to conduct a party up to the hills to start with and things had become increasingly difficult with the colder weather and the slowing up of the Army’s advance.
I spent two nights in his guest caravan and got fitted out with battledress. Then I left for home, staying with General Alexander, the Army Group Commander on the way. On December 12th I arrived back in England, which looked really wonderful after six years away.
[Photograph and caption]: Myself with Monty at 8th Army Tac HQ on the River Sangro.