A.E.G. Clapson was captured in Tobruk during the Western Desert Campaign in June 1942. Taken as a P.O.W. to Italy, Clapson spent time at camps in Tripoli and Naples, at the Rome Military Hospital to recover from bronchial pneumonia, and then at Camp 54, Fara Sabina. He escaped Camp 54 with an unnamed companion, referred to only as his ‘Geordie friend’, in September 1943, shortly after the Italian armistice.
Clapson and his companion took refuge in the region for several weeks before deciding in mid-November to head south and attempt to join the Allied lines. Soon into their walk, they were joined by Quarter Master Sergeant Bill Davis, who had been at a second compound at Camp 54. The group travelled together until their recapture by the Germans in December 1943 in the Villetta Barrea area on the River Sangro, at which point Davis was removed from the group; Clapson was then parted from his ‘Geordie friend’ during their subsequent transfer to Moosburg, Germany, and brought by train on a cattle truck to Stalag 4B in Muhlberg near the Elbe River.
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]
Sent by Pauline Samuelson from Red Cross archives, Ugley Hall, Ugley, Bishop Stortford. CH22 6JB
A.E.G. Clapson. From break out from SFORZA COSTA to final recapture near Sangro.
Describes how the whole camp suddenly defied the Italians threw blankets over the wire and went. C. gathered his kit first and picked up tin of condensed milk and a tin of biscuits in the empty Red Cross store. C. could imagine ‘How a bird felt when he found the door of his cage open, what to do, where to go.’ C. had not been out for nine months. Companion never named. They stay in the area where there are many Germans and therefore many Fascists supporting them. Struck by extreme poverty and when in the half light they are told to pull up to the table and eat they do not distinguish the polenta from the table top onto which it is poured.
R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] drop leaflets giving news and very valuable maps. After nine weeks they decide to leave the area of the Sabine Hills. They cross a road between German lorries and then wade through a river, all in view of the Germans and they are in B. Uniform. Come to the Rome Pescara Road. After sleeping in an empty church they got to a roadside house at a sort of garage. They are taken to the back and look down on Germans and their vehicles but still given food. P. 233 Meet two German deserters and get excellent food and hiding but after 24 hours shake them off and they find a group of South Africans being well looked after – but they are not encouraged to stay. They head for Sora ( W. of N. Park) go into a house and given boiled potatoes – luxury – but cannot stay there the night as German soldiers come to the house to chat up the two daughters. They hear that there are a lot of Indian soldiers at Villa Valle Longa (sic) [Villa Vallelonga].
In the N. Park they go through a large culvert as a convoy of mule carts with Germans pass overhead. 10th December stop on edge of wood as German very close checks a telephone wire. Come Viletta Barea [Barrea] and hear gunfire.
262 Walk into 3 German officers the English speaking one tells them if they had taken another path they would have been in nomans’ [no man’s] land. Soon join 30 others then the number goes up to 45 from 10 Nations. Taken to an evacuated Frosinone and then back to SFORZA COSTA and then on to Mooseberg [Moosburg] – in tents on the ground with snow around. (KK remembers but as he had malaria was fortunate to be taken into hospital.)
[Handwritten note] They had seen Rome in the distance being bombed from P. Camp.
[Digital page 2]
[Handwritten note] Period after Italy capitulated. Still Fascists in Italy. German forces still fighting.
The Mass Escape
It was around four o’clock in the afternoon, and my pal and I were in the marquee wondering what would happen now that the excitement of the morning had worn off and we were still there. The camp had been uncannily quiet for the last hour or so when a lot of noise and shouting down at the bottom side of the camp seemed worth a look. Going outside I saw a large crowd of P.O.Ws had gathered and were throwing blankets onto the barbed wire fence to cover the barbs, and the fence was being pushed over by sheer weight of men. Whilst this was happening the Italian guards were coming down from the lookout posts. Whoever threw the first blankets over the wire fencing were very brave indeed, the risk of being shot was so great, especially as the guards appeared to be very unsure of the situation themselves.
We both returned to the marquee to collect our blanket and any food we had left. This was it, we were on our way. It only took a few seconds to gather our few belongings and get outside again to find the camp was almost deserted. We lost no time in crossing over
[Digital page 3]
the carpet of blankets covering the flattened wire fences. The main group from the camp were fast disappearing across the open ground to the foot of what looked like high mountains in the distance.
Passing by the Red Cross parcel store outside the camp I looked in at the open door and saw some tins of condensed milk on the floor and a half-pound tin of biscuits. I picked up two tins of milk and the tin of biscuits as I had no idea where our next meal was coming from, having already eaten our bread ration that day. Also we had no idea how far we might have to walk to find our lines. I picked up an Italian groundsheet that lay on the floor, these were the same as the ones we had in Tripoli and I thought it might be handy to lie on at night. Actually it proved very useful later to tie to the bushes for us to shelter under from the rain at night. Not that I thought of that at the time. Most of the lads had left the camp empty-handed, they must have had more faith than I had of finding our troops around the next corner. To the best of our knowledge our troops were at Pescara on the opposite side of the country.
The main group had gone now and we were intent on putting as much ground between us and that camp as possible before nightfall. I can honestly say I never
[Digital page 4]
looked back. When we were taken to the camp from hospital we were in covered trucks and so I do not know what it looked like from the outside.
The two of us were on our way towards the distant mountains that towered high in the sky from our view in camp. Now that our dream of troops at the gate was dashed we thought just the two of us would stand a chance of getting through to our lines, or we might be passed by when our troops advanced and find we were in the right place at the right time. I knew where we were from what I remembered of maps of Italy, Rome was about half way up the country and I had seen Rome bombed from the camp, or rather the cloud of dust that hung over the city for about two days. The guards told us the raid was on Rome, any information such as this would be useful now that we were free. We knew we were twenty miles or so from Rome and the sun set that way. I had never thought of escaping by tunnelling, although I admired those who tried. My idea of escaping was to walk away if on a working party.
Now, suddenly having our freedom, I could understand how a bird in a cage must feel when someone leaves the cage door open – not quite sure what to do next. The idea was to get as far away in as short a time as it would take. We walked all evening and it was
[Digital page 5]
getting dark by about eight o’clock when we came to a narrow road which led uphill in the direction we wanted to go. Walking in the dark now, we arrived at a cluster of houses and we could hear groups of people talking in Italian. It was so dark we could barely see them and decided to carry on as we had no reason to stop.
It must have been almost midnight and I felt I could go no longer and my pal agreed with me. We were going up a ‘blind’ alley, it was so dark. It was very strange to be walking on a road for the first time since Naples, when I went from Capua to the train in December 1942. That was nine months without walking on a hard road. Climbing over a low wall at the roadside we found we were in a small orchard with apples on the ground. We felt them squash as we walked on them. I tried one as we had not eaten for the last twelve hours, and that was only the scoop of soup at the camp. Fortunately for both of us I still had a full water bottle; I had hung on to that bottle from the desert days. After having a drink we lay down under the stars without wire around us; my head on the haversack I had made at Camp 54 from part of a discarded foreign overcoat.
[Digital page 6]
We must have slept for two or three hours at least when something must have disturbed us. I awoke to what I thought was the dawn and jumped up expecting the Germans to be around every corner and tree. I need not have rushed to get mobile, it was the false dawn and in a few minutes it was again black as pitch. We started to walk on the grass verge beside the road whilst stopping at intervals to listen; we had been P.O.Ws long enough to know being careless was not going to keep our freedom. After a few hundred yards, we heard what sounded like horse-drawn carts going “clock clock”, “clock clock”, as the wheels rocked on the axles. I had heard these noises as a boy as the carts went up the lane by my home in the country. Through the darkness we could see sparks on what we thought was the road ahead from horse or mule shoes. We were sure it was German infantry on the move. As we carried on walking on the grass verge I almost fell over a body; the body had an English voice when I enquired who he was, and he said he was a P.O.W. from Camp 54. It became clear to me then that the sparks and the noise had come from a group of P.O.Ws getting their kit together after resting for the night. It was their army boots causing the sparks and noise as they stumbled on the rocks in the darkness.
[Digital page 7]
The men we had caught up with were from the bottom compound that adjoined the one I was in at Camp 54 and I didn’t know any of them. They were being led by a medical officer who invited us to join them if we wanted to. This I thought was worth a try, we had only our common sense to guide us but he might know the country. It was broad daylight now and the whole group started to walk up the valley when out of the blue sky came an aeroplane that was identified as a German spotter plane – something like our Lysander spotter plane of that period. The M.O. decided we had probably been seen and thought it best if we split up, every man for himself.
My pal and I were back to square one. We made for the trees at the side of the valley and in a short while arrived back on the road we had left at dawn to join the group of P.O.Ws in the valley. Crossing the road we climbed a steep slope that led to a coppice. With all of the P.O.Ws in the area I thought it would be foolish to carry on walking – we were likely to walk head on into the enemy. After much deliberation we decided to stay put for a day or so until the others had gone on their way. From the spot we had chosen to stay at we had a good view of the road through the trees. This would enable us to see our troops should they arrive – or the enemy if they were looking for
[Digital page 8]
us, for that matter. There was an almost sheer climb up the bank to get to us and should the occasion arise, we could get away over the hill through the undergrowth. We now realised we had very little food or water and it was difficult to know what to do for the best.
[Digital page 9]
Living in the Mountains
Having spent most of the day wandering around to see if we could find a better place to stay, we returned to our first choice. Night was almost upon us when we put the groundsheet down between some bushes, where we lay down and fell asleep. It was a beautiful night which turned to rain, whereupon we got up and tied the groundsheet we had brought to lie on to the bushes by the four corners. By tying the sheet about three feet above the ground we were able to crawl under it and go back to sleep again.
It rained quite heavily and we woke up to find the sheet sagging in the middle. Being waterproof it solved our water shortage problem. I bailed the water out with my mess tin and filled my water bottle and our mess tins. We then searched under the bushes for dry twigs to make a fire. The twigs needed to be dry, firstly, to burn well, but the main reason was to get a fire without smoke. We were strangers in a strange land and we needed to keep hidden for a while, any smoke from a fire would be a giveaway. The fire burned
[Digital page 10]
all right, and I had an Italian mess tin with a handle, this allowed it to be hung over the flames by putting a stick through the handle. I could not have done this with an English mess tin as they were flat with the handle at the end. When the water boiled I added a pinch of tea from a one-ounce packet I’d had in a Red Cross parcel, condensed milk from the tins I had picked up at the camp, and biscuits from the tin also found on the floor of the Red Cross hut at camp. All set, breakfast was served, our first as free men.
The biscuits were in a sealed tin a little bigger than a one-pound baked bean tin. Fortunately I had acquired a tin opener in exchange for cigarettes at camp. It was made from a piece of a door hinge – and it worked. Without the tin opener it would have been difficult to get at the biscuits. Normally I would have cut the tin open with a large pocket knife I had bartered cigarettes for in camp. It was at this time I discovered that I had lost it. It must have fallen from my pocket when I lay down to sleep in the orchard the night before. This was a great loss in the present situation. Also, I must say, to light a fire was a big decision to make. We only had four matches between us. Matches were always scarce in camp, the only way to get any was to barter for them through the medium of a guard for Italian tobacco. As I have mentioned, the
[Digital page 11]
tobacco was currency and the guards were always short of matches. The only ones available were wax-coated string, about an inch and a quarter in length, with a red head that would strike on a rough surface. I always kept two or three in a safe place in case I ever got away. A fire was most important in my estimation, perhaps to keep warm. With breakfast over, just tea and biscuits had left us a bit hungry, but we were not too worried. We had had less than that in the past. Both of us agreed it was best to stay where we were for the time being and hope our forces would bypass us and leave us in British-held Italy, the thing that bothered us most being the lack of planes flying over, or any sort of gunfire.
It was during the early part of the second night in this coppice that something came crashing through the bushes. After recovering from the initial shock we discovered it was a white horse that had come to keep us company; we had no idea a horse could be around with no sign of habitation visible. At daybreak, yet more noise in the bushes from the same direction. We lay low, and to our surprise the figure of a man came into view. This man was tall with a lean body, he wore a trilby hat and corduroy trousers, not a typical Italian at all. He was the first person we had seen in this area. When we showed ourselves he looked quite
[Digital page 12]
shocked, seeing two men in uniform. I tried speaking to him in Italian as best I could, and told him we were British P.O.Ws on the run from the Germans. The ‘British’ part seemed to mean something to him, he replied in broken English saying he was looking for his horse – presumably the one that sounded like a herd of elephants prowling around half the night. I told him it was around and that I was pleased he could speak some English, to which he replied, ‘l no speak English, I speak American.’ It appeared he had been a sailor and spent time in Boston, Massachusetts. I asked him where his home was and he pointed up the road and said he lived in the village of Monte Flavio [Monteflavio], some half a kilometre away.
It was quite daylight by now and he told us he was going to plough a small plot of land on the other side of the road now that he had found his horse. We walked over to watch him at work, naturally I thought he would use the horse but instead he had a bullock, or ox, attached to the plough. It was as if we were back in Egypt again. The plough was quite primitive, just a curved wooden affair with a spike to break up the soil.
As we stood watching the ploughing a young lady came down the road with a bundle of cloth in each hand. He walked over with her to where we stood watching him
[Digital page 13]
working, and said she was his daughter with his breakfast. She gave him his on a plate which was in one cloth – it was bread soaked in gravy with beans and tomatoes, and then to our delight she passed the other plateful to us to share. I think it was to have been her meal. We enjoyed the unexpected food, having only had a few biscuits for two days. It was our first food from a plate in about fifteen months. The daughter gathered up the empty plates and went back up the road again. We soon discovered in this country the people went to work on the land very early in the morning and ate when they had time to do so. The father told us how to find his house in the village and said we could make our way there after dark. We had no idea the village was so near to our hiding place and we could hardly wait for night to fall.
The directions we were given proved to be very clear, especially as we had never seen the village even from a distance. The house lights were blacked out and the main street in complete darkness. We had to be as quiet as possible with our iron shod army boots on the cobbles. His home was at the far end of the village and stood apart with an alleyway each side of it, which helped us to find it. This was to be our first experience of going into an Italian home. His wife was how I imagined a typical Italian housewife would be.
[Digital page 14]
The house was spotless inside, everything scrubbed that could be scrubbed. They were both quite relaxed in their manner and we were even shown the bread cabinet that resembled a chest of drawers with a tiny oil lamp burning on the bottom shelf. They explained the warmth from the very small flame kept the bread fresh as they only baked bread once a week in a communal oven at the lower end of the village. Faggots were used to heat the ovens and the women would carry the dough on trays from their homes to be cooked. It was beautiful bread, with no additives I’m sure. I’m wandering again.
I filled my water bottle and we had a drink from their water containers. The water came from a fountain and tasted very good after the rainwater from our groundsheet. We were given a loaf of bread to take away whereupon I said we had nothing to give for it. I was told the only thing the husband would like was my overcoat when our troops arrived. Thanking them for the food, we left and went back to sleep under the stars at our woodland home, with a full stomach for a change, two meals in one day.
It may seem strange to some folks how careful we were to stay out of sight. The problem in Italy was the Fascists. They were still around, although the Italians had given in. We were told later in our
[Digital page 15]
travels a reward was paid by the Germans for our recapture. As escaped P.O.Ws we had no idea how we would be treated by the Germans if we were taken prisoner again, they did not have much in their favour as far as we were concerned, especially after our treatment in the desert compound. Any sort of freedom was better than that.
After dark each night we would walk up to the high ground for exercise; and from there on moonlit nights we could see to the west, to Rome, across the lowland. I think it must have been the river Tiber winding for miles like a silver ribbon. This was a wonderful view and even now I still feel a little sentimental over that area. Being free I suppose made it so special and the fact that we were living with hope for tomorrow.
We soon discovered in this area the people were very close to nature. They had a hard life; the children had very little to eat, and most of them were without shoes we discovered later when we were welcomed into so many homes. Wonderful people in spite of the unbelievable poverty, even by wartime standards, and we were very fortunate to have them share their little enough food with us, who only weeks before were their enemies. The system of food distribution was not as we had it in Britain.
[Digital page 16]
Whenever we went to the village, which was always after dark to try for food, our first inquiry was always to ask the whereabouts of the Germans. In Italy they were called ‘Tedesco’. We would get the reply ‘Niente Tedesco’, or ‘Molto’. The latter was bad news. We would ask about our front line and it was always a look of despair, hands held out, heads shaken and the shoulders shrugged. The English line was perhaps one hundred kilometres or more away, would be the reply.
It was now around the end of September and food and water were getting more difficult to come by. We had heard planes passing overhead at night, which we thought might be a sign that the push by the Allies up through Italy had started. Our hopes rose one beautiful sunny afternoon when a number of military trucks appeared on the road below our hiding place. We both peered through the trees, almost believing it was the Allies who had arrived. We did not have to wait long before we were convinced they were enemy trucks after all. The following ten minutes was like a Wild West show; there was gunfire right and left, and men running in all directions. Some men were running across the open ground toward our hideout and it seemed to us they were being shot at by the amount of gunfire and shouting. We were about to get out of the coppice by the back way through the undergrowth when a cloud
[Digital page 17]
came so low over the mountain top it blacked out the sunlight and it poured with rain. Orders were now being shouted from the roadway and the trucks were driven away, and peace reigned once more. Within minutes the rain had ceased and the sun was shining again. I still think the Lord works in a wonderful way. Such a small cloud to make it so dark. We had no idea if the Germans had been rounding up Italians for forced labour or Allied escaped P.O.Ws.
Soon after this event [Handwritten note] Towards the end of September [End of note] we met up with an Italian who proved a good friend and helper. I will refer to him as ‘Tony’. One evening we saw this man riding a mule and leading another behind coming down a track right opposite our position in the coppice. I went down to the steep bank and attracted his attention in the only way I knew, ‘Pssst’, and calling out ‘Tony’; Italians always answered to that.
He crossed the road to me, I was some six feet about his head in the trees, he was as surprised as our previous benefactor to see me in uniform. I explained to him that the two of us were escaped P.O.Ws. He spoke no English at all whilst I tried my best to ask in Italian if the Germans were around. He assured me by word and signs that there were no enemy around, or,
[Digital page 18]
at that time, in the village. He said he would come back after dark and take us to his home.
We waited for his return in a different place in case he had unwanted friends. He arrived by himself and we showed ourselves. He took us up the road to his home which was about half way up the one and only street. His home was very poor indeed, he had a wife and two children. It appeared he had been away in the army; the whole family were very thin and the children were without shoes.
They gave us a slice of bread and some black beans, and water to drink, which was very welcome. He told us of a raid by the Germans on the village for food. The soldiers had arrived on a motor cycle combination to raid the area for any livestock. When they went to a chicken pen on the village green they caught two escaped P.O.Ws who had hidden in the henhouse when they heard the sound of a vehicle coming their way as they were crossing the village green. That was hard luck for them, the Germans were only expecting chickens inside.
This man proved a great help to us, he said he worked for the Germans and would know if they were going to raid the area. He explained to us that he
[Digital page 19]
carried wood for their camp fires using his mules. We walked down the street that night, there was no likelihood of vehicular traffic as the main street was cobbled and in steps some ten feet long. Therefore it was only used by people, mules, donkeys, and a bullock or two. As we made our way back to the coppice we realised it had rained heavily and our spot for sleeping would be wet. For that reason we decided to spend the night in a tiny cabin beside the track opposite our hideout. The cabin was built against the side of the hill with stone walls and a straw roof. We went to our hideout and collected our kit, which we had put out of sight in case anyone should pass that way whilst we were at the village. We were getting a bit concerned that two families now knew of our position among the trees.
Crossing the road to the cabin we found it was quite snug, with straw at one end. The whole thing was only eight feet by six feet and the door three feet high, the roof not much more at the front. It was a very dark night and when we got inside the cabin we found it pitch black. We were accustomed to sleeping under the night sky that lights up the ground a little. I struck a match and laid the groundsheet on the straw for both of us to lie on, and we each spread our own blanket
[Digital page 20]
over us. The cabin was quite hot as the sun had warmed it before the rain came, and we were soon asleep.
The next thing I knew my finger was being bitten. I struck another precious match to see the damage. Whatever had attacked my finger had gone, my nail proved too much for it. I think it saved the tip of my finger from being a meal for a rat. It bled well and I sucked it to clean it, and went back to sleep again.
Now, we had planned to leave the shack at first light, as it was so close to the road and the mule track, although both were dead ends and not likely to be used early in the morning. But having been disturbed, and with darkness inside, we overdid it. We woke to the sound of Germans giving orders, and two or three lorry engines were running. Both of us were soon down on hands and knees peering through a gap at the top of the low door. It was still quite dark outside, making it difficult to see what was going on. It appeared some men had gone up to our woodland hideout whilst others went up the mountain path ten feet from us. All we could do was hope for the best as we were trapped in the cabin.
We heard gunfire. The Germans, we discovered later, would shoot through the roofs of the innumerable cabins
[Digital page 21]
in the mountains when searching for ex-P.O.Ws. One guard who stood by a truck walked up the track to the gate that led to our shack, stood his rifle against the wall, leaned on the gate post and took ages to get out a cigarette and light it; the smoke curled up in the morning air. It was gradually getting light now. We were sure he was looking at our cabin. He stood there for perhaps ten minutes. This was a bit much to stop and search so close to our woodland hideout. We thought we must have been given away. The men were returning from all directions and we could now see an officer in a black uniform with a red band on his cap. He was undoubtedly an Italian Fascist. He walked to the soldier by the gate and said something to him, and he replied, waving his arms around as if saying he had searched this area or perhaps the cabin. A lot of men boarded the trucks which were then driven up the road a short distance, turned around and went back the way they had come. Phew!! That was going to be our last night in that cabin. It seemed to us that if we had stayed that night in the coppice we would have been captured, and so it was all for the best.
That same evening we went to the village via the rough ground, making sure to stay clear of the road, and told our new friend Tony the story. [Handwritten note] One day Tony [End of note] invited us to stay in his kitchen for the night and said he would
[Digital page 22]
take us to a safer cabin higher up the mountain the next morning when on his way to work. That night was also one to remember. After some beans and boiled chestnuts for a meal and a drink of water (they had no coffee or tea), the family went up to bed and left us to lie on the brick floor in the one and only room downstairs. It was turning quite cold and we tried to get as near as possible to a dying fire of wood embers. It was only about 8:00 pm when Tony went to bed as he had to be up at 4:30 am each morning to go to work with his two mules.
We had settled down as best we could on the floor when we heard the clanging of a hand bell and a voice coming from the street. Tony came downstairs and told us to be quiet, he wanted to hear what the ‘village crier’ was saying. It was, he said, a warning from the Germans to the effect that if any Italians were caught sheltering or feeding Allied P.O.Ws they, the Italians, would be shot. We volunteered to go right away, but he said ‘No, wait until morning’. We settled down again, looking forward to 4:30 am as we were anxious to go, especially as the floor was cold and hard. When sleeping in the open we would gather brushwood to put on the ground, it was a bit softer and kept us from the damp, cold ground. Trying to stay healthy was
[Digital page 23]
important as there was no chance of help if one was ill.
It must have been about midnight when we were awakened from a doze by two chickens chasing one another around the room. We discovered they had been roosting on the waste pipe under a stone sink, to where they returned and disagreed at intervals for the rest of the night. Tony had said he would rise at 4:30 am and he did. He put a piece of bread in his pocket and gave us a piece each, and away we went to his stable at the lower end of the village. He disappeared into the stable and within a few minutes returned with the two mules. He jumped on the leading one, side-saddle, and we walked behind. When we arrived at the track that passed by the cabin where we had had our near miss with the German search party, he stopped and invited us to get onto the second mule. It seemed the track ahead was steep and rough and the mules would be better at climbing than we would. I tried to get on the beast but it just shuddered all over and off I came again. We both gave up and walked. Tony told us to hold on to the mule’s tail, but I thought it might object to that and lash out. I stayed clear and walked all the way. At 5:00 am it is hard going over a track that had its share of boulders. The mules were marvellous. I’ve
[Digital page 24]
been told since then that a mule will pull a man up a mountain track if he hangs on to its tail.
It was almost half a mile from the road when Tony stopped at a patch of land with a stone wall around it, and in one corner a [Handwritten note] was a [end of note] cabin. Being dark it did not look too promising as we were not sure if we could be seen from the road below. Tony left us and hurriedly retraced his steps to the road. As it was still dark we went into the cabin and struck a match to see our way, and settled down on some grass or hay to await daylight. As it got light we could see the walls were only about eighteen inches high and built of stone. The roof had a very sharp pitch about seven feet high and the door was only two and a half feet high, it was down on hands and knees to get in and out. We spent most of the morning gathering grass to put on the floor for bedding. It seemed we could not be seen from the road providing we went no higher up the mountainside, and these really were mountains, several thousand feet high.
Tony had invited us to his home again, in spite of the warning from the Germans via the village crier. We waited until dusk and took a direct line along the side of the mountain to the village to avoid getting near the road. After getting to Tony’s we thanked him for
[Digital page 25]
his effort in providing shelter. He said it would soon be too cold to sleep out up there. I told him we would stay a little longer, but if our troops did not make any advance we would perhaps make for Pescara on the Adriatic side of the country. I asked him if he could loan us a water container of some sort and a small axe or chopper to enable me to cut some brushwood to keep us off the ground when sleeping on the floor of the cabin. He produced a small wooden barrel that held a little over half a gallon of water and a chopper to cut wood. With extra water and some firewood we could have a wash. Help such as this was very generous indeed. I told Tony we wanted a bath. At this he said ‘It’s much too cold for a bath (bagno), you will catch your death of cold.’ With the tool to cut wood, we intended to make a wind break on the other side of the hill. This shelter would allow us to spend the daylight hours away from the cabin. It was becoming too risky to be seen near any kind of shelter, however primitive. Also having extra water and perhaps a little more bread we could reduce our trips to the village. The people were very good to us, we had nothing to give them for food, but they still gave us what they could. We were living on hope and a slice of bread most days.
On one visit to the village we thought we would try another house for food as we realised Tony had children
[Digital page 26]
to feed on very poor rations. Upon going down a very dark side alley we saw a light in a window. It was just an oil lamp on a table with three men and a girl sitting round it. I opened the door and asked if I might come in. They all looked quite scared until I told them who we were, whereupon they all burst out laughing. I asked them what was so funny. The girl pointed to our faces; we had not had a shave for a month as we had no razor blades or soap. I told them why we had beards; and the girl got up, walked into another room and returned to hand me a Palmolive razor blade, made in Milan and the packet printed in English. They made it plain that they had no food to spare for us and we returned to the main street to try our luck at another house. We did not go down alleyways too often, besides being a trap if we should be confronted by anyone hostile to us, the alleyways were used as a lavatory area. Even when walking down a street it was worth staying in the middle of the road. I was given to understand some villages had communal lavatories on the edge of the villages, unfortunately lots of the inhabitants did not seem to walk that far.
Whilst on that subject, it reminds me that some months later I met two New Zealanders who had been trying to make it to our lines. They went to a mountain village one night and found a guard on the
[Digital page 27]
main entrance. The village was built on a small hill as so many are in parts of Italy. They made their way to the other side and attempted to climb uphill to get in that way. They really did come unstuck, or rather stuck up. Being dark they had chosen the local lavatory and were trying to walk up an absolute glacier of human excrement. These two chaps found it very funny to relate to others. I guess they did not think so at the time.
Getting off that subject, we were back in the main street quite close to our first benefactor’s house. A chink of light from a window across the way looked interesting. I knocked on the door and stood in the shadows, to be sure we would not be seen against the light by anyone across the road when the door was opened. After a few seconds a man in civilian clothes came out onto the doorstep. We stepped forward into the light and he was quite taken aback when he saw our uniforms. I asked him if there were any Germans around as we were escaped P.O.Ws. At that he pulled us inside the house and closed the door. I told him we were in search of food and could he help us, perhaps with bread. He talked to his wife and invited us to sit down. His wife put a saucepan on the fire. Trying to make conversation was difficult, his English was nil,
[Digital page 28]
and I tried in my Italian with hand signs. His wife meanwhile was bustling around.
After a while we were invited to pull our chairs up to a scrubbed white table, set with knives and forks. We sat looking around for the food to be brought in on plates. Our host persisted in saying ‘Mangiare, mangiare’, which we understood was to eat. I said ‘Si si’ and under my breath ‘The sooner the better’. We both suddenly realised the food was on the table. It was cooked maize meal poured on to the wooden table top. All we had to do was cut pieces off and eat it with forks. The food being cream in colour blended with the wooden table top, which had made it difficult to see owing to the poor lighting. It was just a matter of eating one’s way towards whoever sat opposite.
I must mention now that the lighting in these homes was very poor. The electricity must have been either free or on a fixed charge. It appeared to us the light was never switched off. At least they had electricity, in my home at that time we only had paraffin lamps and gas lighting in the nearby village.
After eating the food we thanked them both for their kindness and decided to go on our way. We were given
[Digital page 29]
some bread to take back to our cabin in the hills, to which we returned with a full feeling inside.
The following morning, having been given the new razor blade, we boiled some water and had a welcome clean-up. My pal had a pair of scissors, and with these we cut off most of our beards. Even then to shave was quite painful as we hadn’t any soap to soften our beards, but it was worth it.
I had quite a hard time with the language, these mountain folks either spoke very quickly or in a slow, beautiful, melodious voice. I got on much better with the latter. I often asked the fast talkers to slow down a bit, ‘Piano, piano’, but they seemed to relate that with work in Italy, not speech. In Germany it was just the opposite, everybody worked and they insisted prisoners of all nationalities must work harder (more about that later).
After a couple of nights in this cabin, high up in the mountains, we heard very heavy planes fly over. When we rose at first light to get clear of the cabin for safety, we found the hillside strewn with large leaflets about the size of a page of our tabloids of today. It was the first printed paper I had seen in about sixteen months, apart from the printed note I
[Digital page 30]
sent home from the pen in Tripoli, and in Rome hospital. We gathered up about twenty of them. They were printed in Italian with a map showing where our troops were. The R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] had supplied the first newsprint we had seen in a year and a half. These news sheets were a blessing, they gave us information we lacked, the whereabouts of our lines. The paper had quite a number of uses for us, including, yes, that’s right, toilet paper!
The maps of the country were useful, they confirmed our position in relation to Rome. These maps were only about two inches square with some main road markings, but that did not matter, roads were not for us. The paper was useful to roll tobacco in when we were given some raw leaf on occasions. When the tobacco was cut up and rolled in newspaper it was like breathing forked lightning. I soon became a non-smoker of that type of cigarette.
As I have mentioned, we went over to the other side of the hill to spend our days well out of sight of the road that led the village. From this hill top looking eastwards there was mile upon mile of tree tops, as far as the eye could see. I have always been interested in wildlife, but strangely up there nothing moved apart from the tops of the taller trees swaying in the
[Digital page 31]
breeze. It was so quiet and very uncanny after the noise of life in a prison camp. Never once did I see any birds, not even a sparrow on those mountains.
At this point in time we had the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] leaflet maps to refer to. We were now certain our troops were at Pescara on the Adriatic coast. That was east of our position and to get there we would have to cross the backbone of Italy. The alternative was to go south, that meant going over one hundred miles to find the Americans we understood were around the Campobasso area. Our main object was to get to lower ground before winter set in. We had both been in hospital only nine months before.
The Germans were raiding the area more often now. The Italian people informed us the Germans were very thick on the ground on the lowlands south of Rome. The Germans were not only looking for P.O.Ws, they were still taking food from the local people who had little enough for their own survival, I could vouch for that. We were told the local priest from a village close by went to the German H.Q. where these marauders were stationed. He asked for it to stop as it was causing so much hardship in these isolated villages. If these local folks had it to give they would have given it to us. At times we only had a small piece of bread for a
[Digital page 32]
whole day. If we were recaptured we would have fared no better.
After a few more days, about the middle of November we had a word with our friend Tony. He said it was very cold in December and January in the mountains at that altitude. He thought we would not survive on the food we were getting. With his words in mind I wrote a note in English for him to give to the first Allied officer he saw. I worded it to the effect that he had fed and sheltered the two of us and should be compensated if at all possible.
By making a call on another house that night we managed to get some extra bread and some all important matches, the two most essential things apart from water. We decided it was best not to tell Tony we were leaving in the morning, the less anyone knew about us the better if they should be questioned. I have always regretted taking his wood chopper (handbill) and the water barrel. If we had given them back it would have indicated our move, also I thought they would be useful on our journey.
The following morning was bright and sunny. After keeping watch on the road for a while to be sure no Germans had passed that way, we agreed to go south.
[Digital page 33]
This meant going through part of the village to avoid climbing over the hills that surrounded it. By walking across the mountainside we entered the village at the top end. From there it was just a short walk to a fountain. Arriving there we found the local women were filling their pails and jugs. Upon seeing us they invited us to fill our water bottles and the small barrel. The water ran very slowly and the women became quite agitated and said ‘Presto, Fascista, Fascista’ these people were running a grave risk to themselves allowing us to take the water. The Fascists were not very popular with these people, or us for that matter. Now that the little barrel and my water bottle were filled we thanked them and went on our way along the track that led out of the village. Judging by the position of the sun it was about nine o’clock and we were heading south east, which suited us very well.
Having walked two hundred yards we were confronted by a British P.O.W. in uniform. He introduced himself as Quarter Master Sergeant Bill Davis, he was from the other compound at Camp 54 which we had left in a hurry nine weeks before. When we told him of our intentions to go to find our forces he asked if he might join us. We could only agree, he was on his own and proved to be a very pleasant chap. My only thought against there being three of us was the added problem of
[Digital page 34]
acquiring food, also keeping out of sight might be more difficult. After consulting our leaflet maps it was decided we should go to the Rome-Pescara road and turn left, that would be east, and follow the road, thereby hoping we should find habitation for food. By doing so we thought we may get through to our lines on their flank.
We set off feeling quite light-hearted, the sun was shining and it was quite warm, in every way a beautiful morning. We soon reached the summit of the hill at the end of the valley, from where there was a pretty view over open country. The track ran beside a shallow stream with a very rocky bed, and we stopped, took off our boots and washed our feet in the water. It was our first paddle for two years, but it was not the last during the next few weeks. As we dried our feet we decided to have a slice of bread and a drink of water as time was going by. Looking southwards we could see in the distance a railway viaduct with steam engines shunting trucks to and fro. It soon became clear we could not go any further in that direction as we could see soldiers walking along the parapet of the viaduct. It appeared to us it could be marshalling yards and we decided to go east of them for safety. This meant leaving the stream that may have led us to some sort of habitation.
[Digital page 35]
The new way was quite pleasant as we were able to follow the goat tracks across the hillside. We had not travelled very far when we came upon an Italian boy with a herd of goats, and he assured us the Germans were by the railway track. We told him we would need some food for our journey, whereupon he put his hand into his coat pocket and produced a piece of bread and offered us half of it. I thanked him and told him we had enough for the day, and went on our way. This was just another instance of the kindness shown to us in Italy.
The track we were on led us down to some tall trees on the edge of a steep bank overlooking a busy main road. This we decided was the Rome to Pescara highway. That was fine until we realised all the vehicles passing along it were German lorries and tanks. The vehicles were travelling in convoy going eastwards and disappearing into a tunnel. It was plain to see why after getting through the trees to the edge of the road; the tunnel went through a mountain. That was quite a deterrent to our journey eastwards.
There was only one thing to do, cross the road well away from the entrance to the tunnel and so stay well clear of the soldiers on guard there. We sat a while in the warm sunlight whilst the vehicles passed by with
[Digital page 36]
soldiers sitting on top of the tanks. Walking westwards from the tunnel entrance we came upon a railway level crossing, complete with an Italian crossing keeper. We wished him good-day in Italian and crossed over his railway lines to the road. It was now or never, and we carried on walking slowly and hoping for a gap in the convoy with only fifty yards to go. As we drew nearer to the road it looked very much wider than we thought at first sight. There was no alternative but to keep going and cross between the vehicles to the grass verge on the other side, where a steep bank took us down to a grass covered field.
The lower ground left us quite exposed to view from the road for some distance. There was no point in looking back, we relied on the Germans not being interested in three men in British uniforms. As we were crossing the field it was an odd feeling knowing the Germans might well be looking at our backs. Having walked about two hundred yards across the field we were confronted by a river, about ten feet wide. The banks were steep and the water appeared to be about two feet deep. Sitting down on the bank we removed our boots and socks and rolled our trouser legs up to our knees. The water was very cold, but we had no trouble in wading across. That was the easy part, getting our socks on to our wet feet proved difficult, whilst we
[Digital page 37]
were sure we were being watched from the road; that did not make it any easier for us. This was the first time as escaped P.O.Ws we had been gazed upon by the enemy. Prior to this we had watched them from our hiding places when they were searching for us at Monte Flavio.
Having succeeded in getting our socks and boots on we were soon on our way again. From about half way across the open ground we could see a village on the high ground directly in front of us. There were mountains on our left and hills in front of us. After crossing a deserted road we found a very muddy mule track that led up to the village. Our next thought was to find a cabin to stay in for the night as it was getting quite cold. As we arrived at the first houses it appeared to us the village was in three parts stretching up the hill, with houses on each side of the track. There were pigs routing in the gutters, which was an unusual sight to us.
Our thoughts were always to replenish our water bottles, but the water in the fountain was very dirty and we carried on uphill where we came upon a second one which was cleaner. I decided to try to get some food and walked around to the back door of a large house. My knock on the door was answered by a nun. I explained to her who I was and that I was walking to
[Digital page 38]
the Allied front line, and could she perhaps supply me with some food. (This was our first try for food since leaving Monte Flavio.) She rushed away and returned with some bread and a piece of cheese, and in no uncertain terms told me to be on my way! She looked terrified and said the Germans would be around. This was a bit of a shock.
I told my two pals about her frightened manner as we walked up to a third fountain where we found the water to be crystal clear. After filling our water containers we carried on to the top of the hill, from where there was a good view of the area we had crossed. In the distance we could see the mountain the tunnel went through, and in the valley a clear view of the river, railway and a road all going southwards. The range of hills we were now on also went in that direction, but on the other side of the valley.
As we passed the last of the houses we came upon a herd of goats that were feeding on the scrub bushes in front of a run-down church. A young lad was wandering around who I thought might be the goatherd. I told him who we were, and he was a great help. He told us the village was called ‘Villa Romana’ (that is how it sounded to us). He assured us the Germans never came to the village as the only way was by the mule track we
[Digital page 39]
had walked up – that was fine by us. We believed him; the pigs in the village running loose proved that; livestock was usually hidden from view to safeguard them from the Germans. It was getting dark and white frost was settling on the grass when we asked if there was a cabin close by we could sleep in for the night. He said the church was empty and we could sleep in there. He came with us inside and showed us some planks we could lay on the dirt floor that was covered in pebbles and grass. An altar at the far end gave us our direction, that being to the east. We knew from here we needed to go south east in the morning. Suddenly we found the lad was missing and the church bell started to ring in the little bell tower. We almost panicked in case he had drawn attention to us. I called him down and asked him why he had rung the bell. He said ‘Everyone knows it’s me, I often ring it.’ With that he went home with his goats. Cutting some scrub bush with the chopper we lit a fire on the church floor. It was dark now and the only light we had was from the fire. As it was very high ground and the middle of November, it was very cold and after a long day we felt chilled. I put a mess tin of water on the fire to boil. Whenever possible we boiled water before drinking it, having lost lots of our friends with dysentery in P.O.W. camps.
[Digital page 40]
When the water cooled we had a drink with the bread and cheese the nun had given me. After putting the planks near the fire to lie on we were soon asleep; it had been a long day. At first light we were up and about with our first job to return the planks to where we had found them. The next thing was to clear the ashes away from our fire. As dawn broke we went on our way, quite refreshed after our night’s sleep. Having slept fully dressed with one blanket and our overcoats we had managed to keep warm in what was a very draughty church.
Our first day now over and we had covered about ten miles. Our new companion had a watch which was quite an asset. About 11:00 am a heavy mist came down on us and we were soon very wet. The track was muddy and there was no sign of habitation for shelter. Our main concern was with our direction. After a discussion it was agreed we should go down the hillside to the road we had seen earlier. The descent was quite hectic, foresters had been cutting down large trees and sending them down to the road below suspended on cables attached to pylons or gantries. The tree trunks had cut large furrows in the soil. It soon became clear we had chosen quite a difficult spot to make our way down. As it was thick mist, we could not see a better way.
[Digital page 41]
Suddenly we found ourselves by a low wall at the roadside. Out of the mist we could hear voices, not the usual ‘sing-song’ voices of country Italians but the harsh voices of Germans. The mist cleared a little and we could see across the road to a row of terraced houses with steps up to the front doors. To the right of them, what looked like a petrol filling station and there on the forecourt three or four men in the uniform of the enemy. We stood still until the mist rolled down again and then made a dash for the nearest door across the road. We all ran up the steps. I knocked on the door and to our relief it was opened by an Italian civilian. I told him who we were, whereupon he hurried us through to the kitchen at the back. Two women were in the room and they looked very alarmed to see three men in uniform. The man said something to us about the number of Germans in the area.
The people talked among themselves. We told them how wet we were and needed shelter for a while, and food if they could provide it. They came to a decision and opened a back door and hurried us across a yard to an outside stone stairway that took us up to a loft. What a difference after the wet and cold day outside; it had a wooden floor, boxes, barrels, and tools standing around, with a large pile of hay under a skylight. The Italian, who it seemed was the head of
[Digital page 42]
the house, pointed to a window low down on one side of the loft and indicated for us to be quiet. We could see through the window into a farmyard. Instead of cattle it had a number of German tanks parked there with soldiers working on them and others sitting out and about, almost eye level with the window we were looking through. Those Germans had no idea three Englishmen were watching them. We had a good view of them now that the mist had cleared.
One of the women brought a bowl of food up to us. It was full to the brim with steaming hot potatoes, spaghetti, tomatoes and some kind of chopped meat, all in a thick soup. What a welcome meal after mainly bread for several days. She took our coats and jackets saying she would dry them. We were reluctant to part with them, but the Italian people were so sympathetic to us as P.O.Ws we learned to trust them. With the meal over we settled back in the hay for warmth to await the return of our clothing. Within a short space of time one of the ladies brought everything back, quite dry and warm for us to put on again.
When we explained to the people we wanted to get to Pescara to try to join our forces there, they seemed very much against this. The area eastwards, they pointed out, was very wet and what looked like floods
[Digital page 43]
could be clearly seen with a road running across it. We were able to see quite a long way from the loft windows. Also we were told many Germans were in that area as it was flat country. We were more accustomed to being in the mountains and open ground would not be to our advantage.
It was afternoon when we found the mist returning and decided to take advantage of it to go on our way again. I told these folks of our intentions to leave and thanked them for the food and kindness. To have stayed the night would have put them in more danger as the yard at the back still had its unwelcome occupants. If we had been discovered we would have lost our freedom and they would possibly have been shot on the spot, or taken to a concentration camp. We realised how brave they were.
Going to the front door we waited for the mist to thicken as it was rolling down from the hillside. Crossing the road as quietly as possible and climbing over the low wall, we started back up the hill again. We resisted the temptation to look back at the garage with its unwanted occupants. Fortunately the mist, as we thought, was now rolling down the valley and we were soon above it. The climb back up was quite difficult but the meal and the rest had given us a renewed energy
[Digital page 44]
that was welcome. We had filled our water bottles and now we needed a place for the night.
Arriving back at the track we had left in the morning, we found it had dried out and the sun still shone a little. It was now a beautiful evening for November. By turning left which was roughly south, we went on our way. After a while we could see a number of outbuildings and a house about a hundred yards ahead. By now we were well away from the road in the valley and we thought the likelihood of any presence of the enemy very remote.
Two civilians were coming towards us – it was now only half light and we wished them goodnight in Italian. They answered to our dismay in the unmistakable voices of Germans trying- to speak Italian. We were not too concerned, there were three of us; if they were not armed all would be well. Coming back to us they spoke to us in Italian which was as poor as ours. They produced their pay books and after a battle of words in three languages we concluded they were deserters from the German army. This certainly took the biscuit! I thought I had seen and heard most things by now. So they had deserters in their army! When we told them who we were they seemed to think they could help us. It was almost dark now. These two said
[Digital page 45]
they knew the people in the house, and we could stay the night in one of the outbuildings. They said they would go to the home in the valley where they were staying to fetch food for us.
We all walked to one of the outbuildings and opened the door. Inside were the usual smallholding tools and equipment, plus a pile of sweetcorn, or maize as I knew it. Also a heap of straw; this was always a welcome sight, a comfortable warm night’s rest if all was well. It was a difficult position to be in as we did not trust these two Germans, they were far too friendly and outspoken. They insisted we stay in the building whilst they went to fetch the food. As soon as they had gone from our view, the three of us agreed we would wait in the shadows outside for their return. By now it was very dark and cold.
After twenty or thirty minutes, two lights appeared coming up the path from the valley. The lights were unusual a torch light would have been constant but these lights were bright one minute and dim the next; the lights were accompanied by a whirring sound that was getting progressively louder as they came closer to us. We remained out of sight as the two Germans went into the building. When we were sure they had not brought ‘friends’ with them, we followed them in. The
[Digital page 46]
mystery of the lights soon resolved itself, they were hand-operated dynamo lamps. The Germans continued to operate them whilst handing out the food and drink from a wicker shopping basket. They had brought bread rolls, cheese, sausage, wine, milk and some fruit. It was by far the best food for many a day and we made short work of most of it. Our next problem was explaining to them we were about to settle down in the straw for the night, whereupon they insisted we go into the house to meet the lady who would give us shelter by her fireside for the night, as the nights were colder now.
Going to the house the two Germans opened the door and called out to the occupants. The woman came to the door and they had a few words, whereupon we were invited in. The two Germans told us they would return at dawn, (that would be about seven o’clock at this time of year), when they would take us down to the valley and get us across the road, river and railway to a ‘safe’ house the other side. They explained they knew where the guards were on the bridges. All of this conversation took place in German, Italian and sign language, i.e. arm waving. We were still worried it might be a trap and they were going to collect the reward for our capture.
[Digital page 47]
At this time the Germans treated the Italians in general as their enemies. When we talked to the Italian civilians they gave us the impression that the Fascists expected the Germans to win the war even at this stage. If they believed that, I suppose that was their reason for being collaborators. This made it difficult for us when seeking food or shelter, we could well try at the wrong house.
The night in this house was one we would not forget in a hurry. The two Germans had taken their leave of us. The room we were in had a double bed, two children, two chairs and a roaring fire in the grate. The lady of the house, our hostess, told us her husband was in hospital. At about eight o’clock she told the children to go to bed. To our surprise they put on their overcoats and climbed on to the bed plus their very worn out shoes. The electric light was still on in spite of the poverty. The woman then pulled out a mattress from under the bed and said we could rest on it. It was clear to us we would have been better off in the barn, but we never turned our backs on any kindness offered. Having propped the mattress about a foot up the wall, the three of us sat on the remainder and leaned back, hoping to doze off. That did not prove to be the case, for within a short while we were attacked by the hungriest lot of fleas we had
[Digital page 48]
encountered since our Tripoli camp days. Our one aim now was to get away from that mattress. At six o’clock, well before dawn, we decided to go on our way without waiting for the deserters who we thought might bring unwanted friends with them. It was the fleas that helped us to make up our minds.
We said our goodbyes and thanks to the lady and went on our way with our ‘lodgers’ still trying to eat us. The Germans had provided us with a good meal the previous evening, and having saved some bread we felt we had done rather well during the last twenty-four hours. Our diet was mainly bread and water. After a year and a half as P.O.Ws our freedom was most important. We had been hungry before and some days we were getting a better supply of food than when behind the wire. That was how P.O.W. life was described (‘behind the wire’). When the sun came up we found a warm spot in some bushes and got rid of our unwelcome ‘lodgers’.
It really was a grand morning. There seemed to be quite a number of farmsteads in this area and not so bleak as the land we had passed through. It was our third day on the walk and we felt we had covered about thirty miles in all. The three of us agreed we were
[Digital page 49]
fortunate to be invited into the Italian homes to share their food.
The woman with the flea-infested mattress meant well, she could not be blamed for the vermin. They had no soap, or dusting powders to help rid themselves of the problem. We all know now the Axis powers were waging total war, which is perhaps hard to understand in these more prosperous days. Coffee, if any, was synthetic, being made from burnt grain, we were told. Tea was unheard of. The country was in chaos, the Germans removing all they could lay hands on including able-bodied Italian men who were taken prisoner and sent to Germany to prison camps. Proof of this came one afternoon when the three of us went across some open land towards a village situated on a steep hillside. We could see men running away from the village up into the woodland higher up. When we asked why the men had run away we were told by the women that the Germans had raided the village only the week before and taken away all the young men they could find. That explained the sudden exodus to the hills. We had been mistaken for the enemy as we wore uniforms.
I digress. Back to the lovely morning, we passed by orchards that had been stripped of fruit, being the middle of November. This area was much more prosperous
[Digital page 50]
than Monte Flavio where we had spent nine weeks. The tomatoes were still ripening in the open air. The track we were on led to a pretty farmhouse set in an orchard. It appeared to us this must be the end of the track as there was a sheer drop to the valley below a short distance past the house.
It was now about eleven o’clock in the morning when the three of us walked to the front door of the house. Before I could knock on the door it was opened by a middle-aged woman. I told her who we were and asked if she could supply us with food and water. I was told they had no spare food but we were welcome to come inside. Whereupon she led the way into a very well- kept dining room with a table and chairs, and even a velvet table cover, and a vase of flowers on it. It was the best home we had seen on our journey to date.
A middle-aged man who, judging by his clothing, could be a farmer sat at the head of the table. He just looked us over and said nothing, and carried on drinking wine from a glass which he refilled from a bottle on the table. The lady offered us each a chair at the table – the man appeared to be drunk; his mouth hung open and his eyes rolled around and he mumbled a lot to himself. We decided if he was not drunk he was perhaps mental, or both. Another woman
[Digital page 51]
came into the room and asked us how far we had travelled and where in England did we live, were we married and so on. Whereupon we all showed her photographs of our folks at home. The man was not interested in the conversation, he just sat lolling about in his chair. Suddenly he sat up straight and said ‘Buono, buono!’ (‘Good’ or ‘All’s well’) to the women. He was quite sober and sensible, and explained to us he thought we were Germans trying to trick them to see if they were helping escaped P.O.Ws.
They gave us some food and came outside and pointed out to us a white house across the valley about a mile away, and told us it was a ‘safe house’ for P.O.Ws. He also showed us a narrow path down the steep hillside that led to the ‘Cassa Bianco’, as he called it. We were to tell the people there that a relative of theirs had sent us.
With farewells and many thanks we took our leave and started the descent which was quite uneventful. We arrived at the white house within the hour. As we were going up the front path a voice from the upstairs window greeted us. Looking up to the window we saw it was an elderly woman there, and I told her a relative had sent us from across the valley. The woman disappeared at once and in no time at all the front
[Digital page 52]
door was opened and we were told to come inside quickly.
An old gent sat by the fire smoking a pipe. He had a most pleasant soft voice and spoke very slowly as only Italians can when they want to. He talked about everything under the sun, presumably to find out what we knew. We told him we thought we should go east as we had been given to understand going south to Campobasso was not possible now as the Germans had heavy concentrations of troops in that area. These people talked amongst themselves a lot, it seemed they did not think much of our chances trying to get through to our forces. They did a lot of head shaking and hand signs of despair for us. With our poor knowledge of the Italian language, conversation was often difficult to follow. Finally they decided we should stay for a night or two, to rest up and they would send us on our way, we hoped, to another safe house.
We were taken to a side door that opened into a lean-to barn built on to the house. We were quite surprised to see three oxen with horns at least eighteen inches long standing in the stalls inside. These type of animals were to be seen in those days hitched to ploughs as I mentioned when I was at Monte Flavio. We had to climb up onto a manger to get to a
[Digital page 53]
ladder fastened to a blank wall. From there we climbed up through a trap door into a loft above. The man told us to make ourselves comfortable in the hay and said he would send up some food.
After a while the food was passed to us through the trap doorway. We were not encouraged to come down from the loft at all. Whilst passing the food up to us we were told some of our comrades had spent time with them. We realised by now this was an underground effort to help P.O.Ws. Being very tired after our last experience with the German deserters, and the sleepless night caused by the horde of fleas, we were soon fast asleep.
The next morning food arrived – not much, but it was very acceptable. In all we spent the day and another night there waiting to be told to go on. These folks seemed reluctant to say much at all. We felt very concerned for them, should we be recaptured by the Germans. The following morning we were given some bread to take with us on our journey, with directions for a passage south-eastwards. It was about 8:00 am when we took our leave, but without any mention of a safe house to go to. Our stay there had been uneventful; the most dangerous part was avoiding harpooning ourselves on the horns of the oxen when
[Digital page 54]
going down the ladder to answer the calls of nature. These animals were quite friendly it seemed, but one could not make a fuss of them as with a horse.
We made good progress that morning. It was flat country and we did not like that a lot, with no place to go if things went against us. In the mountains we could disappear quite easily. Quite high mountains loomed in the distance on our left and in front of us which we thought might be to our advantage.
[Handwritten note] One often a few days late
During the afternoon we came across a large farmhouse beside the track on higher ground, with woodland to the rear of it. An old Italian answered our knock on the door, and he had no hesitation in asking us to go into a huge room. A large log fire was blazing in the fireplace, and around it stood at least a dozen men all dressed in dark civilian clothes, and most of them had trilby hats pulled down over their foreheads. They all remained silent whilst we told our host who we were. When I enquired about these fellows standing around one of them broke their silence and asked us if we were British, and we said we were. He then told us that all of these fellows were escaped P.O.Ws and were South Africans, and had been there some weeks. To us they looked more like Italians than Italians. The Italian then became very talkative for
[Digital page 55]
some reason, he took us through to the back of the house to a large store-room that was lit by electricity. Almost all of the floor was covered to a depth of three feet with bales of straw. He pulled a bale of straw aside and exposed a tunnel which he said led to the woods at the back of the building and was a way of escape for the ex-P.O.Ws should the Germans raid the farmhouse. They could, he said, hide in the woods until it was safe to return. He went on about this and that for a while; all of this was not helping us with a meal and a place for the night, but we had to listen in the hope that we might get help. He went to the other end of the room and pulled at another bale of straw and then dragged out two sacks of sugar. Now sugar was black market in these quantities and by now we realised he was a racketeer of some sort. The South Africans came through to the store and made it clear we would not be welcomed by them to stay around at all. Why we were shown the tunnel and the sugar I do not know; it was three extra pairs of eyes to know about it.
We took our leave of the odd Italian and the equally odd South Africans and went on our way. That night it rained hard and the only shelter we could find was a cabin on the bank of a river, the water had flowed through it quite recently and was still lapping all around it. It was only a lean-to shack with no front
[Digital page 56]
end. After cutting some boughs of wood we lay them on the floor to keep us from the damp soil. Not the best of shacks, but at least we had shelter for the night. We could not light a fire as it was very close to a well trodden path, and we had no idea of the whereabouts of the enemy.
At dawn we rose and crossed a plank bridge over the river, and after consulting our map from the news leaflets it seemed we were heading for Sora. We could not be sure as we had been off course at times for various reasons. At least we were making some headway southwards. We had no idea of the problems that were going to hold up the advance of our forces, including bad weather, and we learned later of the battle for Monti [Monte] Cassino. Our main aim was still the same, to get far enough south of the line from Pescara to Rome as possible, hoping the Allies would cut off the German retreat and we would be rescued that way.
We were making good progress by afternoon and were back among the trees on a hillside. When rounding a bend we came upon a pack-horse bridge over a very swift flowing river. Not the mountain village this, but quite a prosperous look about it; cobbled streets and quite nice type of houses. The area we could see was clean and tidy and most noticeable was the absence of
[Digital page 57]
any people on the streets. All through our travels we noticed the absence of litter in the streets, not so much the tidy people, but paper was so scarce in Italy and very little food to have paper wrappings, I never saw a newspaper or a shop of any sort, all the foodstuff in the homes was in jars or earthenware containers. The monthly issue of jam the Italians call ‘Marmellata’ was in a solidified block wrapped in a waxproof type of paper and had to have water mixed with it before using it as a spread on bread.
We had stopped before crossing the bridge to get the layout of the place, and tried to make up our minds which house to make our objective for food and shelter. Seeing an inviting doorway that also gave us an escape route if we should not be welcome, we made for it and knocked on the door. A lady in her forties opened it and stood with hands on hips; she was spotlessly clean. I asked if she could give us food and shelter for the night. I told her who we were and I inquired if the Germans were in the area. She did not answer the last question and invited us to come inside and sit by the fireside.
This was a nice home, vases and pots on the mantelpiece, a flagstone floor with rush mats. Over the fire a copper cauldron hung on a chain, the
[Digital page 58]
cauldron was steaming away merrily and looked promising foodwise. She said the village, or town, whatever, was Castle Fiume. The name was not important as our maps only had the larger towns marked. Two young ladies walked into the room, they were eighteen or twenty years old and we were told they were her daughters. They sat down by the fire with us, this house had plenty of chairs for a change. The mother drained the water from the pot over the fire that was full of potatoes cooked in their skins. We were given a plate each and some salt, that was welcome as we had seen very little salt for a long while. The woman told us to help ourselves to the potatoes and we did, dipping them into the salt. This was quite a finger-burning performance as we had to get on with it in case the pot was removed to the kitchen – one could hardly say ‘Hold on, I’ve not had my fill’ if that happened. These potatoes were the second lot I had seen in Italy as they were a very scarce food.
I asked if there was perhaps an outhouse we could spend the night in, or a loft. At this request the mother threw up her hands and told us the German soldiers visited her daughters in the evenings. She then told us there were quite a number of German troops at the far end of the village. With that information we could not think of a better reason to leave that
[Digital page 59]
house. We all got up and headed for the door. One of the daughters then said an uncle lived across the way by the pack-horse bridge and we could stay the night with him. That was fine by us, as we had decided to go back over the bridge and rejoin the track we had left earlier as it led up to the hills away from the river and the habitation.
One of the young ladies took us across to the uncle’s place. And what a quaint little house it was. She opened the door and we all went in. The house was triangular in shape, determined by the houses each side almost at right angles. Whoever had built it had simply built a front wall with a door and window, and a roof over the top.
The old chap sat by a wood fire at the far end of the room. The young lady told him who we were, and could we sleep upstairs for the night. He just pointed to a door, whereupon the young lady opened it to reveal a rickety staircase. We bid them goodnight, as we had nowhere else to go we went up to a bare room. This was going to be a cold night with bare boards to lie on.
I went down and asked the old chap if he had a lavatory, he just shrugged his shoulders and said with
[Digital page 60]
words and signs ‘Use the window should the need arise during the night’, or words to that effect.
The old chap had a bed in the room downstairs, his only light was the fire and a candle. Upstairs there was no light at all, apart from the light of the moon through the window. It had been a long day and we soon got down to sleep. During the night, what with the cold floor and having eaten quite a lot of potatoes with salt, and drunk quite a lot of water, we needed the toilet and did as we were told and opened the window, whereupon the glass fell out onto the cobbled street below. The noise was the loudest broken glass noise one could imagine. There were no vehicles in these villages to drown out such a crash, and being a cold moonlight night made it worse. We waited for somebody to come to see what the noise was, but nothing happened and we went back to sleep.
We had no trouble waking up in the morning, and left before it was light to get over the bridge whilst it was still dark. Going down the stairs we found ‘Uncle’ was fast asleep, and we made our way to the front door and let ourselves out as quietly as we could. We lost no time in crossing the bridge and turned left. After walking a short distance up the track we sat on a low wall to wait for daylight. It was a relief to be out
[Digital page 61]
of that village, we felt it was a trap with the river to cross one side and a maze of alleyways the other side of the house. It got light quite quickly and we were able to get our bearings. The river went eastwards and the track southwards beside a stone wall. A screen of bushes hid the view of the village from us. Coming to a gap in the bushes, we could see by looking over the wall, some forty feet below our level, a number of buildings and a courtyard. There was a large house and buildings that I thought were stables and a grain or hay store with a weather vane on the roof.
At this moment an Italian came along the track towards us, and we wished him good-day in Italian; he stopped and asked us where we were going. When I told him we thought of heading for Sora he shook his head and said it was impossible to get through that way now. He also told us he was an ex-soldier and that the Germans were in large numbers around Sora. He gave us some raw leaf tobacco, which was welcome as we had not had a cigarette for at least two months. After crushing it in our hands we rolled it in a piece of news leaflet. When we lit our hand-made cigarettes the results were alarming, all three of us went swimmy-headed. The Italian thought it very amusing; we did not and became non-smokers again. The most useful items were the matches he provided us with. The next
[Digital page 62]
question was – did he know if any Germans were around. To answer the question he pointed to the courtyard that had been deserted and there, lo and behold, were Germans in uniform going about their business. He also pointed out a wireless aerial in the yard and said it was some sort of headquarters for the enemy. Soldiers were now strutting around like peacocks with steel helmets and rifles. We saw why, after we had bid him good-day and gone on our way, the whole area was guarded, even a sentry in a box by the entrance to the place. The track took us close by the sentry, we just walked on and did not give him a look. On occasions like this we felt very uncomfortable, thinking perhaps we would be challenged.
That day seemed a long one after a bad night; we were now in open country again and seeing far too many people for safety. Whenever we inquired about a route to our front the answer was always the same, ‘Tedesco’, the word for Germans. At one house we called at for food the man of the house told us lot of Indian P.O.Ws from our army had taken refuge at ‘Villa Valley Longa’ [Villavallelonga]. We thought it was a wonderful name for a place. It was in the mountains on the other side of the valley we were in. He also told us many of them had been recaptured.
[Digital page 63]
At this point we decided we must make an effort to cover more miles each day. By walking across the lowland we could soon turn eastwards to the mountains. This was beautiful countryside with cabins here and there to sleep in, but not much luck with food. Coming to the top of a hill we came across a shack close to the path and as it was getting dark we settled for that for the night. We had a good view of the track each way. Coming towards us was a man in civilian clothes, we asked him the usual questions and all seemed right to us. He told us several P.O.Ws had slept in the cabin just recently. With that he went on his way and we crawled inside for the night.
Leaving the shack at first light we walked to the top of the ridge to find it was a steep descent to the area below us. It was a wonderful view in the morning sunlight of the early morning mist that stretched for miles. We were well above it and could see the roofs of houses of some three or four villages glistening above the mist in the sunlight. This was the area where the villages were built on small hills I mentioned earlier, where the two New Zealanders had the miserable experience with the local sewage project.
It took us the whole day to cross the area to get to the foot of the mountains with snow on the tops of
[Digital page 64]
them. Our direction was now east with the mountains between us and the river Sangro, where the British were holding the flank on the Adriatic side of the country. Night was almost upon us, with a road confronting us, the road being cut into the side of the mountain and disappearing round a sharp bend.
As we stood wondering about our next move and where to spend the night, one of my pals spotted a shed built of stones with a thatched roof. It was only about eight feet square without a front to it. Nevertheless it was a roof over our heads should it rain. There were a number of houses in a row close by and the shed was at the bottom end of one of the gardens. We decided against asking for food from any of the occupants as we had no idea if they were friend or foe. There was no movement of any sort, and as we were tired a night’s sleep would do us fine. The shed was warm and sheltered by shrubs of some sort, tomatoes were still on the plants and looked ripe. This was proof it was a warm spot to stay for a night. We ate our slice of bread and had a drink of water, and crawled in onto some straw litter in the shed and slept until daybreak.
It was agreed by the three of us we must get over or around the mountain to the river Sangro. All our hopes of getting to Campobasso were now dashed by the
[Digital page 65]
stories of heavy fighting and the concentration of German troops between us and our forces.
Even now we had no idea how we would be able to get past the German defences, we hoped it would resolve itself once we could get where the action was. All three of us had been in action and realised it would be our best chance to get through when chaos reigned which it usually did when things warmed up. It was the problem of a quiet spell that bothered us with both sides watching each other.
The mountains here it seemed were the natural defence for both sides. Our hope was to get round or over them first and then down to the low country of the east.
The sun was up when we left the garden shed, nobody any the wiser for our stay. Making for the road which was some twenty feet above our level, we found a culvert or pipe under the road. Going through this brought us to a rocky gully on the mountain side of the road. Walking onto the road it was a most odd feeling, we were not accustomed to it, the crunching of the gravel sounded so loud. Setting off towards the bend eastwards all was well until we realised the mountain on our left rose almost vertical and on the right a
[Digital page 66]
sheer drop over the edge. Now, if a truck load of the enemy came round this very long bend we would be trapped. This may sound odd, but we all three stopped at the same time, looked at each other, turned about and headed back the way we had come, back to the rock strewn gully. We could not get off that road quickly enough. As soon as we arrived back at the gully we started the climb which must have been a gradient of about one in four. This was going to be the hard way. As we climbed higher the sun was coming round onto our backs and we were getting hot. Not forgetting we were in full view from the open country we had crossed the day before should anyone look our way, that alone caused us to hurry.
There had been no sign of an Italian in the last forty-eight hours to ask the whereabouts of the enemy. The absence of civilians usually indicated the Germans were around. The news sheet maps were our only guide, whilst the one thing we were sure of was the need to be out of sight as soon as possible and get to a place for food and shelter.
This was our fourteenth or fifteenth day on our walk with but little enough food, we were walking on hope I am sure. I have studied maps since then and realised these mountains were five thousand feet high in places.
[Digital page 67]
Resting a while, we could see the snow line above us. The cold was very noticeable and as we were very hot this meant we must press on. When we got to the snow we realised a night up here would be out of the question, and it was almost midday. The snow was about a foot deep, it meant no stopping now. At one point we came across very large paw marks in the snow and one of my pals said ‘My word, they have big dogs up here’. I have read since, as this was the Abruzzo mountain area, there are small bears there and wolves. We had not thought of any animals like that when we lay down to sleep at night. A case of ‘if you don’t know you don’t worry’.
After what we thought was a very hard climb we were at the summit where the snow was only a few inches deep. Upon going down the other side we found it heavily wooded and much darker. It was clear of snow but very cold, as the sun would never reach this northeast side of the mountain.
We made good time going down through the trees to where we could see a road. This road, we thought, could be the one we had left that same morning in a hurry. The sun had gone now, the trees and the mountain blotted it out. What a day! The sun too hot on our backs during the morning, and now it was below
[Digital page 68]
freezing point. Looking across the road we could see a shack some two hundred yards away. That was all we would need for a good night’s rest and an early start. We had not eaten much all day as we only had a small amount of bread between us.
Making our way to the edge of the road, a drainage pipe under the road looked just right to get us to the grass down on the other side. Climbing down to the pipe which was big enough to stand up in, we walked through to the other end and stopped to size things up. The hut looked to be made of small poles, not the usual stone and thatch. It was then that we became aware of a noise on the road above that sounded like the rumble of wagon wheels. I thought perhaps it was an Italian farm cart and I stepped out into the open and looked up to the road above. The noise came from mule carts and the drivers were in German uniforms. Fortunately it was growing dusk and I hurried back into the pipe out of sight. We waited until the rumble of wheels had died away before I looked out again to see the string of wagons going round a bend in the road. The presence of the convoy meant the enemy could not be far away and we must stay away from the road.
It was almost dark now and we made our way across to the cabin, with no prospect of getting any food we had
[Digital page 69]
to make the best of it. The journey had taken us all of seven hours and we were cold. The wait in that pipe was like being in an ice box, the draught blowing straight through it. What a contrast to the night before in the garden. The cabin was a poor affair, being made solely of sticks about two inches thick. When inside we could see out through the slots between the sticks. Nothing for it but to get some rest, walking any further that night was risky enough without the prospect of going round in circles. This was the coldest night to date, about the 10th December 1943. Normally we would have lit a fire to heat water to drink, but with the road being so close that was not on. The moon shone down so brightly we soon realised how cold and frosty the night would be.
Having spent a miserable night we were up and walking about to try and keep warm well before first light. We three went from that shelter without any sorrow. I think it was perhaps a charcoal-burner’s shelter, we came across these people at times in the hills. The walk to the lower end of the valley soon warmed us, it was about half a mile and brought us to a river about eight feet wide where a plank bridge lay across the water. As near as I could tell by our map, it was the Sangro, or a tributary of it.
[Digital page 70]
It rained soon after we arrived at the river and we walked until we were very wet. The morning was quite uneventful and very slow progress indeed. There was no shortage of water, but our food was almost gone. With no sign of life at all the three of us had the feeling we were being watched. A bit like the quiet before the storm.
We were travelling just below the belt of trees when we came to a well-trodden track, this was worrying, it meant troops for sure. Standing looking through the trees to see what the prospects were for making our way through them, a movement at the edge of the trees caught our eye. We all stood quite still as a German soldier complete with steel helmet was bending to pick up and check a cable as he walked. He appeared to be looking for a break. We just stood quite still, not even blinking as be passed by within twenty feet of us. We were on higher ground than he was, his head was about level with our feet. Fortunately for us he was concentrating on that cable and passed us by.
By afternoon we were very wet and decided to head up to higher ground and get dried out before nightfall. We had got to the stage when we did not know quite what to do next. Going up through the trees we came to a miniature canyon, all rocks and stone ledges, with
[Digital page 71]
plenty of dry wood under the overhanging rocks. Fortunately the sun came out as we came upon a lean-to shelter built against a rock wall that looked inviting. Gathering some dry wood that would be smokeless, we made a fire in the cabin and set about drying out. I gathered some rocks to put around the fire to spread our clothes on to dry. This shelter was the sort that shepherds or goatherds made to pass the time and to provide shelter from the wind – a very crude shack.
It was quite high up here, but below the snow line, much better than our last night’s stay. We decided to stay the night and eat what little bread we had, and make a go for it in the morning. It was the only thing we could do apart from turning back to get food. This area was deserted with regard to homes or buildings. During the afternoon we could hear faint but heavy gunfire in the direction we would be heading for the next morning.
We had a fair night’s sleep and the morning sun was bright and warm. The explosions or gunfire sounded nearer now; this was to be the day for us. The enemy opened up quite close to us. Our objective was to get to the receiving end of the missiles that were going to our lines. As we were going downhill in the direction we had decided upon, which was east, we could see a break in the mountain range that looked like a ravine.
[Digital page 72]
We learned later this was the area of Villetta Barrea on the river Sangro.
[Digital page 73]
[Stamp] British Red Cross Archives AAce X/295 Acc No 93/228 Class G 61
Recaptured by the Germans
After a short walk we came upon a well trodden mule track. The only way to get around the hillside was to stay on it for a while. A short distance ahead were some clumps of bushes and we walked to these to get a better view ahead. To our amazement there stood three German officers who had their hands on their handguns when they saw us. They were as surprised as we were. One of them spoke English and asked us what unit we were with. As we were in uniform they, I guess, thought we were a patrol from the Allied lines. When they realised we were unarmed and ill-equipped they understood when we said we were escaped P.O.Ws. We had no alternative but to say who we were. The English-speaking German told the other two who we were, and turned to the three of us saying ‘If you had got just one more kilometre through those trees you would have been home for Christmas.’ It was the 13th December, 1943, as near as I can remember. What the Germans did not say was that the area ahead was mined with antipersonnel mines, the type that go off very readily when stepped upon. We learned this afterwards from some other P.O.Ws who also were captured in the front line.
[Digital page 74]
Well, I for one did not feel so miserable as I did the day I was taken prisoner in the desert. Our thoughts now were centred on how to get away again if at all possible. All the way to the German H.Q. the three of us lost our tongues, so to speak, firstly because the one officer who understood English would be listening, and secondly we had very little to talk about, feeling our efforts had been in vain. As we walked we took stock of our surroundings, being quite sure our forces were nearby. Another shock was in store for us when we were handed over to a German N.C.O. [non-commissioned officer] who took us to a barn in a farmyard and unlocked the door. It was very dark inside, and there, to top it all, were about thirty ex-P.O.Ws who had, like us, failed to make the grade to our lines.
The three of us were searched by an English-speaking German soldier, it was just a quick frisk over. He was not liked by our lads, his English was much too good, he even looked English. An officer came in and spoke to him – one of our lads said he was mentioning weapons. I still had my ‘chopper’ – to be caught with that later might prove difficult and it was too big to keep any longer. I put my hand over my shoulder and pulled it out from my haversack. The fellow who was supposed to have searched us got a real good telling off from the officer for not having found it.
[Digital page 75]
I remembered the Italians searching the camps for tools of any sort, even large nails they confiscated, but they made no fuss about them. I had no idea how the Germans would react if I had kept it. I had hidden my steel kitchen knife in the felt cover of my army issue water bottle that was safe. That water bottle was worth its weight in gold to me. A sip of water was welcome from a water bottle, it helped to get one off to sleep at times, sleep was a great help to stave off hunger pains and pass the time away.
The Germans left us and locked the door of the barn which was without windows, just the cracks in the door and the wooden walls for any light or air. We introduced ourselves and swapped stories of our last three months on the run since the capitulation. Many of the lads told the same story, having had a hard time to get food owing to the collapse of the Italian government and the presence of the Germans, who seemed to take anything they needed.
I spotted a chap I had known in Camp 54. I never knew his name, he was from North London. He told me he had been cared for in Montorio, that was the next village to Monte Flavio where I had spent nine weeks in the mountains. He told me how the Germans had raided the village searching for P.O.Ws and had shot an old
[Digital page 76]
man when he protested at the search of his home. I remembered this chap had been pals with a ginger-haired fellow. I asked about him and I was told he had been struck down with appendicitis when on the run in the mountains. His friends carried him down to the nearest hospital and left him on the hospital door steps. It must have been a long carry from such a remote place as Montorio. He told me the Germans would not allow the Italians at the hospital to operate on the poor fellow and he died as a result. He was very upset about it when he told me, which I could well understand – a very sad end.
The sun was shining through the cracks in the walls and here I was locked in this barn with my fellow men, who, thank goodness, were looking on the bright side and planning to escape if at all possible. We knew our troops were not far off and we were hoping perhaps they might be about to advance on us, and prevent us being shipped off to Germany.
After an hour or so we were ‘raused’ out by a German with the business end of a rifle pointing our way. Twenty of us were marched up the road to a line of Fiat lorries. Our hearts sank a bit, we thought we were on our way out of this area so soon. Every mile nearer
[Digital page 77]
Germany was not going to help us if we should be able to get away again.
But this was not so, to our disgust we were ordered to unload the vehicles which were loaded with huge shells in wicker baskets. The shells were about three feet long and about six to eight inches in diameter, one in each basket. It took two of us to lift one shell. We were told to pass them over the side of the trucks to other lads who were to stack them on the grass verge. Immediately we all protested to the guards saying it was a violation of the Geneva agreement to make prisoners unload ammunition in the front line. Their answer to this was to aim their rifles our way and shout ‘raus raus!’, and lots of unpleasant words which at that time I did not understand.
We did not worry what they said too much, the very thought of being P.O.Ws again made us all very hard to scare, and the protest was getting us nowhere. I looked along the line of trucks to see some of our lads were tipping the missiles over the side of the trucks onto the road. We followed suit, lifting the shells on to the side of the truck body and letting go of them. We had got to the point of not caring if they did go off. Rather foolish, perhaps, if one exploded I would
[Digital page 78]
not be here to tell the tale. The guards got well away and one of them went for an officer. When he arrived he stopped the proceedings and ordered us off the trucks. He and the guards went into a huddle. He then turned to us and said there had been a mistake, we should be unloading the ration vehicles.
Now that sounded more like it. We had not been given any food at all, in fact our last bread we had eaten was the day before we were recaptured. We were watched very closely whilst unloading the food, giving us no opportunity to help ourselves. The trucks were loaded with white bread, butter, cheese and vegetables. It seemed the German rations were very good on active service (we saw the rations in Germany later, it was black bread and very little else for their own men at home). From there we were sent to unload a small pickup truck that was loaded with loose oranges. To do this two of us were given stable manure forks, the ones with many tines. I need say no more. With that job finished we were escorted back to the barn. On the way we passed by the ammunition trucks I mentioned earlier and we were very sad to see the Germans were making the Italian prisoners unload them. Life was hard for the Italian soldiers – one day fighting beside the Germans and the following day they were prisoners.
[Digital page 79]
They were treated very badly, we were told later in Germany.
About an hour later the Allied P.O.Ws, of which I was one, were ordered to get on to a truck and taken a few miles northwards to a private dwelling house in a pretty green valley. We were still in what I now know as the Abruzzo National Park, somewhere near Opi. Seeing this private house we thought we were in for a bit of comfort. Not so – we were sent down a side path to a row of hen-houses in the back garden where a sentry was leaning on a rifle. We were beginning to notice how some of these Germans looked bored and their green uniforms were quite faded, but they still had guns and ammunition. The sentry pointed to a shed door and indicated for us to go inside. The shed was about 15 ft by 20 ft with one small window. It had a concrete floor and on it sat ten or fifteen ex-P.O.Ws who also had been recaptured. Now with thirty of us it was getting a bit cramped, to say the least.
After a chin-wag we came to realise there were about ten nationalities out of about forty-five men. One fellow was a ‘Congo Belge’ (they were his words). He was in charge of a cooking pot in the garden over a fire. Later we were given some soup from this container and a slice of black bread, the first food
[Digital page 80]
for over twenty-four hours. It was here that I heard a story about one of our escaped P.O.Ws. He was living in a village with an Italian family when the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] bombed the highway nearby. When the Germans rounded up all the local people to fill in the bomb craters, he was roped in as well as he was in civilian clothes. He kept quiet and worked until the end of the day when the Germans gave each worker a slice of black bread. He accepted it and went home with the family again. Quite a near miss, one could say.
The next morning we were all assembled at the rear door of the house and sent in one at a time. Very disconcerting this was to us, why one at a time? As each prisoner came out he was sent back to the henhouse. My turn came, I went into the back room – in it was a table and an overweight German officer sitting there who spoke English. It was quite straightforward, ‘Name, number, and was I an ex-P.O.W?’, nothing else.
When we were all back together again a soup was given to us, it was almost clear water with something floating in it. We were not fussy, we had lived on a couple of slices of bread a day for a long time when we were free. Under the Germans, this scoop of whatever it was and a slice of bread was all we had to eat each day. We could not blame the cook, he was one of us.
[Digital page 81]
Up until now we had been living on hope, but now we were beginning to feel rather down, physically and mentally. The colour sergeant who had joined us on our walk from Monte Flavio had been whisked away from our group. W.Os [Warrant officers] and officers were always kept apart from other ranks. I was still with my Geordie friend from the days in Rome Hospital and Camp 54. This life behind the wire was going to be a bit difficult after three months of freedom. The date now, about the middle of December 1943, a year and a half since I was first taken prisoner in the desert.
After the so-called soup, myself with three others were ‘raused’ out to the front of the house. Sorry to refer to it as ‘raused’, but that was the only word the guards seemed to know. Prisoners are not asked ‘Would you kindly come with me?’. The four of us were then ‘invited’ to push a small Opal staff car out of the mud it was bogged down in. The officer who had checked us over in the house sat in the seat like an overweight wrestler. I went to one side and two lads went behind. The German screamed the engine – the wheels spun round and smothered both of the lads with very wet mud. It was the only time I ever saw a German laugh. He said in English ‘Beautiful Italia all over them’. What he did not know was that most P.O.Ws thought Italy was beautiful after the way the people
[Digital page 82]
had shared their meagre rations with us as escaped P.O.Ws.
Our outing was short-lived, it was back to the henhouse. After another cold night on bare concrete we were transported by road to Frosinone, to a military barracks. It was occupied by Allied P.O.Ws; mostly the old hands recaptured. There was just one new prisoner in a brand new uniform with the creases still in his trousers. He had a paratrooper’s badge on his sleeve. He talked far too much and was generally given a wide berth; most of the old hands thought he might be a plant to find out where the escapers had been fed and sheltered for three months. Incidentally, I never once heard a prisoner say out loud where he had stayed or name his benefactors, most of us still hoped to get away and perhaps return to the mountain villages.
These barracks were most unpleasant, with bare concrete floors to lie on and nothing to sit on, which was not unusual. There was not even a blanket issue, and the food was very poor, even by prison camp standards.
The following day a British sergeant called out for volunteers for a fatigue party. I was away on this like a shot, thinking perhaps it might be an
[Digital page 83]
opportunity to walk off, or it might give me an idea of our surroundings. The work was simple, a small lorry with a pile of gravel in the back and two shovels between ten of us, and almost as many guards to watch over us. We walked behind the lorry as it crawled down the road that was badly pot-holed. Our task was to throw a shovelful of gravel into each hole as the lorry passed along the road. Even working as slowly as we dared and trying to make the job last as long as possible, the gravel was gone within about forty minutes. With escape in mind we were all keeping our eyes open whilst the guards were strolling along looking bored. There were four or five of them on each side of the road chatting to each other. When the gravel was used up we expected to be taken back to the barracks. It was a grand sunny winter’s day, as so many days are during the winter months in Italy, The guards sent the truck away and pointed to an empty house and indicated to us to go to it. The door was open and we walked into a room at the back and sat on the floor. The guards followed us in and also sat on the floor in a group, chatting amongst themselves. I did not understand their language at that point in time.
This sort of day would be boring under normal circumstances, but as a P.O.W one just sat back and
[Digital page 84]
tried to enjoy it. There were about ten Germans watching the same number of P.O.Ws. At least we were helping the war effort in our little way, we thought, by having to be watched over. The whole area around about us appeared to have been cleared of all civilians. It gave us an idea perhaps Frosinone was to be the next objective for the Allied advance. A very sad sight to see all of these Italian homes abandoned like this just so that men could shoot at each other. That was the only joy in the Western Desert war I was in, women and children were not directly involved apart from their loved ones losing their lives at the front, and in turn those at home being bombed in Britain. I have wandered again.
We had left the barracks around mid-morning and it was now about 3:00 pm and we had not eaten since the day before. Sitting in this back room was not helping in any way; the prospect of walking off was getting less with so many guards in the room. Finally we were ordered out onto the road to find the lorry had not returned with more gravel. The guards then decided to escort us back to the barracks. As we arrived we had a good look at the outside. It was a miserable looking building with iron bars up at the windows.
[Digital page 85]
As we arrived back behind bars we were just in time for an issue of soup, mostly water with floating leaves in it, plus a daily slice of bread. Whilst we were on the run as escaped P.O.Ws the Italians had given us white bread, with no mention of payment or reward. This black bread the German troops were living on was sour most of the time and nearly always covered in blue and green mould. We learned later it had a large percentage of potato flour in it. German officers had white bread whilst the lower ranks had black.
The following morning I found I had a very bad cold, the first for a long time. In P.O.W. camps colds were very rare as contact with outsiders was also rare, and consequently colds were not passed on. I stayed in the barracks all day, even when workers were wanted. I hated working for the enemy but getting out was the main objective.
A day or two later I felt better and I was down in the courtyard when planes roared overhead. It was the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] paying us a visit and they left their visiting cards in the shape of a couple of bombs that hit the corner of the barracks and caused quite a bit of damage. Fortunately none of our lads were injured. This attack lifted the morale somewhat, rumours were going round that the attack on the area was about to
[Digital page 86]
begin. P.O.Ws were strange fellows, we always hoped we would be bombed or shelled, or, as on the boat, torpedoed.
A day or two went by without any more excitement of any sort, not even an enemy plane passing over – or a friendly one for that matter. One morning about two hundred of us were gathered together and taken by road to a place we thought we would never see again. It was the old Camp 54 where we had escaped from three months earlier. It was now derelict; the marquees falling down and mud everywhere – but yes, you’ve guessed it, the wire had been put back up at the lower end of the compound from where we had taken our leave of the place. Being winter and in the Sabina Mountains it was wet and cold. The beds had all gone, which left us the dirt floors to lie on. After two unpleasant days here we were moved to a camp near Rieti. This was also an abandoned P.O.W. camp in a sad state. There were so many of our chaps there it was standing room only in the tents on dirt floors. My Geordie pal and I had been parted during the move and this left me solo for the first time in nine months.
At this camp I met some of the men from my regiment, including our R.S.M. [Regimental sergeant major]. He was roaming around with the other ranks which was quite unusual. I was going from
[Digital page 87]
one marquee to another to see if any of my friends were around when I saw clouds of smoke coming from a marquee. I thought it might be a good place to get warmed up. Standing by the entrance was a Gurkha who I thought I had met before; it was difficult to know one from another. He was a friendly little fellow and when I asked him if he had a cigarette he turned and took me into the marquee with the smoke coming out through the flaps. By getting almost down on our hands and knees to avoid the smoke, I could see about twenty Gurkhas sitting around a fire on the ground. They were grinning like Cheshire cats at my problem with the smoke. They gave me some tobacco, for which I thanked them and quickly made for the fresh air outside. They seemed quite happy inside, being short they had the advantage over me.
Tobacco was very scarce. We had not been able to acquire any since our recapture by the Germans. The Italians, when in charge of us, occasionally issued some tobacco and the guards would converse with us. This was different, it seemed our German guards did not intend to speak, apart from yelling orders, which we soon came to accept as their normal behaviour. If a P.O.W. asked for any information the answer was ‘give nothing’. In German it sounded like ‘Gibbs Nish’. It was not long before I began to understand a little of
[Digital page 88]
the language. After being with the Italian mountain folk with their soft voices, it was such a contrast. It was difficult to follow the way of the enemy’s thoughts, as they were still dropping bombs on Britain.
But back to this derelict camp where I saw my Gurkha friend on occasions with some of his pals. I never knew which one was he until he pointed to himself, and gave his wonderful grin. We were having a very rough time as prisoners in German hands; our treatment under the Italians was poor but now this was going to take a lot of willpower to survive. It was now, upon reflection, I was beginning to wish we had sat tight a little longer in the mountain villages. When we escaped from Camp 54 I for one did not expect to get so much help from the Italian people. We did what we thought would be for the best, but unfortunately, here we were.
[Digital page 89]
The Journey to Germany
Fortunately for all of us our stay at Rieti was only a matter of days. It was a miserable place and it was quite a relief when we were all marched out of the camp to a railway siding. The weather had improved and the sun was shining, making it quite a warm day for December, We arrived at the siding to see about thirty cattle trucks parked there beside an area of open ground. We all knew what that meant, but we had not experienced the German method. The Italians left the doors open and a guard was posted inside with the P.O.Ws.
When we arrived there was already a number of groups of P.O.Ws there. We were counted off in groups of fifty and told to get in the trucks. It was such a beautiful sunny day, this, area being much lower than the previous areas we had been in made it much warmer, in fact the trucks were like ovens. As the last man came in, the door was slammed and bolted on the outside. It was dark inside apart from the light from the slits in the ventilators. There was a tub in the middle of
[Digital page 90]
the floor for both duties, and a bale of straw for bedding for fifty men. What a depressing situation after three months of freedom. Even so, nobody seemed too downhearted.
Word went round that a hole was to be made in the end of the truck to enable us to escape onto the buffers one at a time. I produced my steel knife; another lad had a large stone whilst another had a six-inch nail and a broken hacksaw blade. Everything outside seemed to be quiet, no German voices to be heard, and so a start was made about three feet up from the floor at the front end of the truck. Now it so happened we were a little too hasty in starting. We could hear voices coming from outside; the German guards were on to us. The door was thrown back and the business end of a rifle pointing our way.
The sun was so bright we were blinking like owls after the darkness inside, and we had only been there an hour. Every truck was emptied of P.O.Ws whilst the guards went in and searched through the straw. I had returned my knife to the felt casing on my water bottle. The searchers did not find much as each owner of the offending ‘bits’ had held onto them in case we had to change trucks.
[Digital page 91]
Whilst this was going on we were standing in our groups being watched by about twenty Italian women who had been working close by. The German officer in charge yelled something to the guards and we were then told to strip off all our clothes, right down to our socks. There were hundreds of us. The Italian women were not at all bashful, they enjoyed it, not every day hundreds of P.O.Ws put to this sort of test of dignity. Our lads still had a sense of humour. I will leave it at that. The guards then beat our clothes with bayonets and searched our haversacks, if one possessed one. We then dressed as slowly as we dared and were ordered back into the cattle trucks; everyone seemed to have retained their knives, nails and hacksaw blades. We all had a laugh over the latter, the lad had tucked it between his legs to save it from being confiscated.
It was decided to settle down until we were on the move before any further attempt on the escape hole. Settling down was not easy, it was very hot in the truck with the sun full on it. No water to drink unless one had a bottle, as I had. Even then I was reluctant to drink it, having no idea of our final destination, or how long before the door would be opened. We had heard about the treatment of people in Europe by the Germans, but at that time never taken it very seriously. By now it was growing dark, the date
[Digital page 92]
about 22nd December 1943, and darkness fell, I suppose, about five o’clock. The doors were being unlocked, one never knew what to expect next. Half a dozen loaves of bread were shoved inside and the door shut and bolted again. Still no water to drink. Fortunately we still had a knife or two between us to cut the bread. When bread was cut up, for example between ten men, the man who was elected to cut it up always had the last choice, it encouraged him to be very exact indeed.
Soon afterwards we felt a jolt, this was the engine being coupled to the trucks. We found as P.O.Ws it was always an age before anything further happened, especially as we were all anxious to get hacking on the hole. Finally, we were on the move, how many trucks had been filled with P.O.Ws we did not know. Fifty men to a truck soon added up to quite a lot of men. It was quite dark by this time, as I have said, the only light, if any, filtered in through the ventilators.
The night air was cold and the straw on the floor did not allow much for each man. The work on the hole proved difficult; the initial hole was a problem, the boards were some two inches thick as the trucks were constructed to carry cattle. There were plenty of volunteers to work on it, I hardly got a look in; my main contribution was the steel-handled kitchen knife
[Digital page 93]
which had the tip broken off. This served very well as a chisel. The one thing that bothered us was that some trucks had a cabin similar to a sentry-box mounted over the buffers, which we thought perhaps served as a lookout for our guards. If we were unlucky enough to be near one of these when we broke through the game would be up for us.
Whenever the train slowed down or stopped, there was a lot of gunfire and a great deal of swearing in German. We had no way of knowing if any of our lads had escaped. The train stopped for quite a long time during the night and there was a lot of hammering which puzzled us at first. It became clear later it was the guards nailing barbed wire and boards over the holes our lads were attempting to make in the trucks.
I had managed to grow a number of nasty boils on my thighs which I guess were the result of our poor diet. In the darkness it was difficult to lie down to sleep with fifty other men. At one point somebody fell heavily against me and burst two or three of them. The pain was excruciating, one boil was the size of a table-tennis ball. The pain went off, but the worst was to come, having nothing to dress a sore with, and of course I had problems when they dried to my very
[Digital page 94]
dirty clothing. We had no way of washing for weeks before or since we had been recaptured.
The tub in the middle of the floor leaked like a sieve, and each man, when he had a call of nature, used the crack in the bottom of the sliding door. We had been without a drink for the last twenty-four hours, which helped in that respect. All in all it was a most unpleasant ride. It was night again by the time the lads got the hole to about a foot square. The train stopped and there was a lot of gunfire and shouting and more hammering. This time boards were being nailed over our escape hole, our efforts had been discovered. The guards were carrying on alarmingly. We felt safe from them inside. On one occasion we could hear men running along the track and we learned later that some of the lads had cut a hole through the floor of their truck and were caught in the act. The Germans had taken them out of it and put them all in another truck, making a hundred men in one truck. That must have been very cramped. It was snowing heavily and the guards were nailing boards and barbed wire over no end of holes. They let us know how displeased they were, their language was awful.
When daylight came and we were well on our way again, some of the lads helped one fellow up to look
[Digital page 95]
through the slots in the ventilators to see where we were, he said we were going through a pass which might be the Brenner Pass. He could see railway engines and rolling stock on their sides and a lot of bomb damage. One engine was standing up on end, that sort of observation was good news to us, it was evident the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] had paid a call.
At around noon the train stopped and the doors were unlocked and opened. As near as I can remember we had spent two nights and a whole day in that truck. It was now about 10:00 am. One of the lads thought we were near Munich. We were given a piece of bread and some hot drink that was supposed to be mint tea (no sugar or milk). P.O.Ws do not get spoiled, believe me, if you had not got a tin can mug you did not get a drink. I had a tin can and a mess tin which I loaned to another fellow.
Within a few minutes we were sent back into the truck and the doors closed and locked again. The train moved off and travelled for about half an hour. Finally it stopped in what could have been a field. Whatever it was, it was covered in snow. We discovered this when the doors were opened and the yelling started by the guards (we were getting used to this now). ‘Raus, raus!’.
[Digital page 96]
There were dozens of soldiers outside, each armed with a rifle or a machine gun. And what was new to us, about a dozen Alsatian dogs to watch over us. As we were marched away from the train through the snow that was at least a foot deep, we could see the efforts of the German guards on the trucks with the barbed wire and boards, blocking up the attempted escape holes.
Rumour had it that the Germans had shot some of our lads in one attempted escape during one of the many stops on our journey. We took this with a ‘pinch of salt’, the Germans were good at starting this sort of rumour, we soon discovered. I think they thought it might deter escape attempts. I also learned, when in a working camp later, the penalty for allowing a P.O.W. to escape was for the guard responsible to be sent to the Russian front, that prospect made the guards very keen and trigger-happy.
In all there were several hundred of us and we were marched through the snow, which was a very wet and cold welcome after Italy. On our way to wherever we were going I saw a German guard with the inevitable rifle walking through the snow, and a short distance in front of him a row of shoulders and heads with greenish side hats on their heads. These were only just above the snow, which as I have said was over a foot deep. It
[Digital page 97]
was a most odd sight. When they got to us I could see why. There were several Russian P.O.W. soldiers who had lost their legs to the knees, and only had curved pads to walk on. This was a very sad sight, they had such brave looks on their faces, and it brought home to us even more what a shocking war it was.
It was only a short march to a P.O.W. camp which we learned was Moosburg, Germany. The compound was a miserable looking place with some huts in one corner and in another area a number of large white tents, some fifty feet long and twenty feet wide. These tents had been pitched on snow by some unfortunate prisoners, I guess. Inside the tents it was ankle deep in slush. A large bale of soaking wet wood shavings stood in the corner of the compound. We were told to use this to put on the slush in the tents. The bale was bound with steel bonds and we had no way of breaking them. The shavings, being wet, had swollen up which made it difficult to pull bits out to release the pressure with our bare fingers being so cold. Finally, we broke it apart and carried the shavings into the tent, whereupon it just vanished into the mud and slush.
Our food ration for the last three days had only been two slices of bread and the scoop of mint tea. It was almost dark by now, not that it mattered, the
[Digital page 98]
Germans always had plenty of electricity for P.O.W. camps and barbed wire, they did not worry about food or water it seemed for anyone other than themselves, and by what I saw they did not get overfed either.
We had nobody to represent us here as we would in a proper camp. A dozen of us made our way towards the huts that housed other P.O.Ws to see if we could find somebody who could speak for us. Having walked only a short distance from the tents we found our way barred by Alsatian dogs that stood at intervals of about ten feet across the compound. They just snarled as we approached, so that was out – trying that way.
By this time there was about five hundred of us and after a very long wait in the cold of Germany, we were given some hot vegetable water and a slice of black bread. We were all beginning to feel the cold and it was just twelve months almost to the day that I had found myself in Rome Military Hospital with bronchial pneumonia – and here I was again frozen to the marrow.
The Germans all had earmuffs and woollen gloves, not forgetting they also had firearms. We tried to keep warm by walking around. The trouble with exercise, it starts off hunger pains, besides making one weary.
[Digital page 99]
That night was a very long one indeed, in the cattle trucks the number of bodies kept us warm, but here the cold was getting to us. After it got light we were sent over to the huts in the corner to find they were bulging with P.O.Ws of all nationalities. I saw a face in one of the huts I recognised. A lad named Green. I said to him ‘I know you, you’re the fellow that was brought into the ward I was in in Rome hospital. You had your mouth wide open and were unable to close it.’ He laughed at that. I suppose it was a funny way of knowing him. Actually he was only in for a day or so, they took him to the operating theatre and he was back in the ward in a short while, his jaw working well again.
The following day we were all marched out again from the camp to the railway siding and into the usual cattle trucks. These people seemed to have an endless supply of cattle trucks, but no cattle to put in them. Once again into the trucks and on our way to where, we knew not. We had been told by some P.O.Ws that some of our chaps had ended up in Poland.
At this stage I had not a friend to turn to or talk to, the constant moves and being in transit so much accounted for this. Not forgetting it was only in permanent camps that the Red Cross could represent us.
[Digital page 100]
Being on my own I met some interesting characters to chat to. I was lucky in that respect as it could be a very lonely life, even in the company of so many. I have spent many holidays camping in Britain and have enjoyed chatting to other people when you have something in common. One fellow I met in Germany was keen on ‘Esperanto’ and another had learned to speak German at school. I soon learned quite a few useful words such as water, food, matches and shelter. Those words I had learned to speak in Italian and when I escaped they served me in good stead. (I have wandered again.)