Upon hearing of the Armistice the British in the Fontanellato camp left the camp with the intention of returning to it within a couple of days. Douglas Clarke and Johnnie Birkbeck, RA decided to head for Switzerland rather than to return to the camp. After much walking and help from local Italians they reached the Italian border, which they crossed before being challenged and allowed through by the Swiss border guards.
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]
Account of escape to Switzerland from Fontanellato September 9th
– 15th 1943. By Captain Douglas Clarke RASC [Royal Army Service
[4 lines of handwritten text , which is illegible]
[digital page 2]
[Title] Narrative of Capt. Douglas Clarke RASC (1943)
In Fontanellato we heard of Wednesday September 8th that Armistice had been signed.
On Thursday 9th, the Italian Commandant [said] that the Germans had taken Parma, our nearest town, and he had information that they were coming to take over the Camp, but that in this event, he intended to let us out through the wire, and defend the camp.
We were issued with one day’s haversack rations and told to put on battledress, and be ready to move out. All our kit we packed up and left on our beds.
At about 12.30, I was in the bar having a vermouth, when a German bomber flew very low over the Camp, and at the same time the alarm was sounded. It was amusing to see the Eyeties cowering in their slit trenches, obviously not knowing what to expect, or where.
We immediately fell in, in companies, in the field at the back and marched out through a gap which had been cut in the wire. One officer who had a broken ankle was provided with a horse and our press photographer Ronnie Noble took photos of the march out. All very spectacular! There were approximately 500 officers and 130 batmen.
We left through the fields and vineyards in Indian file, guided by two Italian interpreters who carried mufti clothes with them. The local population were very friendly and waved us adieu.
Needless to say, some 650 in single file took a bit of time getting away from the Camp, and it didn’t seem a very good idea, with the Germans not far away. However, we eventually got out about
[digital page 3]
3 or 4 miles and dispersed in sections, lying down under the vines. I was with half a dozen in one little group. We learned from HQ that the idea seemed to be to lie hid all day and return to the Camp when it seemed advisable.
At about 2 o’clock, Johnny B (Lt. J.W.G. Birkbeck RA [Royal Artillery]) sidled up and told me that ‘he and I have had it’ and it was time for us to be off! He had heard that news had come in that the Jerries had arrived and taken over the Camp with the Commandant. We decided that it was time to disappear, although the ‘sauve qui peut’ had not been given and I believe was not put into effect for a few days.
As we pushed off, trying to avoid being seen by our own people, who were all over the place, in case were ran into a senior officer who might not see eye to eye with us over this point. We were determined not to be taken to Germany.
When we got clear, we hid in the bushes and put on civilian shirts and light khaki shorts which we had taken the precaution to bring and we buried out battledress etc. I had a small haversack with rations and odds and ends and Johnny the same, plus a Red Cross box full of tinned meats etc.
We headed north across the fields and eventually arrived at Saragna, a small village, only about 5 miles by road from Fontanellato. On the foot-bridge there we met a woman who stopped and spoke to us in very good English. We told her who we were and that we wanted a place where we could lie up until we could get a pair of civilian trousers apiece.
She sent someone off who soon returned and said we
[digital page 4]
could sleep in a farmhouse nearby for the night. I must say here that Johnnie speaks very fluent Italian, which was invaluable all the way.
The farm people were very kind and gave us a meal to which we subscribed a tin of sausages. Our first lady friend had promised to return with trousers in the morning. We slept the night in a double bed and felt very superior, thinking of all our friends lying out in the vineyards.
September 10th Next morning we were given hot coffee and bread and then went out to lie under cover by the canal until the women arrived with two pairs of grey flannels which fitted us both admirably. Well, we started off in a westerly direction, more or less cross-country, at 10 o’clock. There was no sun and we quickly lost our sense of direction. We knew that the Germans had taken the entire camp Bussetto not far north of us and we wanted to avoid it. We questioned workers in a field and eventually decided to head for the River Po and Switzerland, thinking rather stupidly that once we got there, we should be able to get home to England after a month or so.
I don’t remember details of our first walk but we kept to very small roads or lanes. We very soon found that our baggage and food was much too cumbersome and suspicious-looking, so we jettisoned all our tinned food except 2 tins, hoping to get food on our way and we merely carried our very few belongings, I in a sick handkerchief and Johnnie B. in an old shirt.
We had been told that we could cross the Po at Ragazuola. I think we hit the Po after about 4 hours walking, where we turned right and followed it until we came to a small ‘port’ with a dozen small rowboats. There were two boys there who offered to row us across, as it was much
[digital page 5]
too wide to swim. We felt very pleased when we got across at having jumped the first fence.
We continued north and after a while came to an inn where we stopped for a drink of water. Here we met several youths, deserters from the Italian army. They were in a great state of panic and said that the Germans were about 2 miles up the road and that it was impossible for us to go on. They themselves knew of a hut in the woods where they intended to lie up and they invited us to stay with them, offering to feed us etc.
They all jabbered away at once like monkeys and made a frightful noise and I told Johnny B. that couldn’t live with them for 5 minutes and further didn’t trust them. He agreed, so we decided to go on.
Towards evening we fell in with a once-armed man on a bicycle, with a young woman on the carrier. He was a decent sort, evidently a smuggler in a small way, who had recently returned from the Swiss frontier. He offered to put us up for the night, so we accepted gratefully. About a mile from his village we were met by small boys on bicycles and two of them offered us a lift, so we perched precariously on the handlebars and arrived in a state, in the village of Cappella, which is just south of the Cremona-Mantova main road.
‘One-arm’ was most hospitable and his wife produced a good meal with plenty of wine. Later on, 4 girls of about 17 came in to look us over, and they all chattered away in the Italian manner, all talking at once. Johnny had to bear the brunt of this attack as I knew very little Italian and I had to produce a photo of my wife, which was passed round and duly approved. This subsequently became my favourite parlour trick, as we were always asked if we were married
[digital page 6]
and how many children we possessed. These girls seemed curious to know if we didn’t miss feminine society and we had to confess we were feeling rather tired! After they had gone other new friends arrived and we had lengthy arguments as to the best way to go to reach the frontier.
Maps were produced and a route decided on which, however, we didn’t stick to. Two letters of introduction were given to us by One-arm, but here again, we didn’t use them as we found it too dangerous to go the villages in question.
Our host had a piano of which he was very proud and he would keep trying to play it, with disastrous effects.
September 11th We left next morning at 8.0. One-arm had fixed me up with a hat as he said my fair hair would give me away. He put us on our way and saw us safely across the main road, on which we saw one or two Jerry vehicles passing.
We kept to small by-roads and paths all day. Soon after midday we came to the River Oglio which we swam across with our clothes tied on our heads. It was a lovely day and I enjoyed the bathe very much. I can’t remember the details of our walk that day. Our object was to keep away from towns, main roads and railways and just to keep heading north. We eventually came to a village called Cignano at 6.0. and having walked since 8.0 am thought we’d had enough. We called on the parish priest there and asked him to find us a cottage where we could stay the night. He didn’t seem very gracious, but eventually found us a man who said he’d take us.
We followed him to his small farmhouse and the kitchen was soon full of his neighbours who came to inspect us.
[digital page 7]
Johnny had to talk to them all but I couldn’t, so after producing my photo again, I had a shave. We thought we were getting too much publicity. The farmer kept asking us for our ‘papers’. We got rather tired of all this and threatened to leave at once but this quietened them down. After something to eat we retired to bed on a hay rick. I always will remember that night, it was so funny. There were several tame rabbits who shared the place with us and they were loose.
Well, Johnny just doesn’t like rabbits or anyway sleeping with them. They were hopping about and chewing all night and every time one landed on us, Johnny screamed!
September 12th We left next morning at 6 o’clock, heading in the direction of Rovato. During the morning, we managed to get hold of a paper which said that the Italians of military age were being picked up by the Germans and we determined more than ever to keep to the country. On arriving near Rovato we had to cross a railway bridge and then make a circuit to avoid the town itself which we knew was occupied by Germans. We eventually arrived at a small village called Torbiato which is south of Lake Iseo. Just through the village we stopped at a farmhouse and as it was 6 o’clock we decided to stay for the night. However, after something to eat, provided by the farmer’s wife, Johnny got talking to the man of the house who said we would do well to get a boat part of the way up the lake. We had no money so Johnny offered him a pair of gold cufflinks if he would find us a boat that night. He agreed, so we set off again.
We came to another farmhouse where a long conversation took place on a fearful dialect, the outcome of which
[digital page 8]
was that our man said he couldn’t go into Clusane, the town on the lake, that night owing to the curfew. However, he promised to return and pick us up next morning at 5 o’clock, so we stayed put and slept the night in a hay loft there. There were no rabbits that night, only a few rats.
September 13th True to his word, our friend turned up next morning and took us to the lakeside, where we remained hidden while he went on into Clusane. He turned up with a rowboat at 7.30, belonging to a man with his small son. He then opened his wallet and gave the owner of the boat 300 lire. I appreciated his gesture so much, that I gave him my signet ring. Rather a wrench, but worth it. I think we rowed for about 2 hours and were put on shore a little north of Tavernola. Not very far really but it saved several hours’ walk round the lakeside. Also just before we landed, we saw a German staff car pass along the road which we should have taken. We then took to the hills and walked on and on. I think it was that day that my feet ‘packed in’. I was wearing an old pair of Italian shoes and had been producing blisters in every available place and had to walk on the side of my feet. One could keep going but it was most uncomfortable and every time one stopped for a rest, the pain was extraordinary. Johnny was also producing had blisters by this time.
In the afternoon, we passed through Rovetta and started to climb, on the road, over the ? Giogo della Cantoniera. We fell in with a carrier in his mule cart and although he couldn’t give us a lift up the hill, when we eventually got to the top, we piled in, or rather on top and he took us to a little inn at the village of ? Costello, where we arrived at 8.30 pm.
[digital page 9]
I seem to remember that Johnny had adopted the bullying stage by then! He made me shave that night and during the day made me eat dry bread and bully, much against my inclination. At least he thought he did, but I put most of it in my pocket when he wasn’t looking. My main concern was water. It was very hot every day and we drank literally gallons every day, from every conceivable place, pumps, streams, where cattle bathed and women washed their clothes, rivers, lakes and even puddles. One just couldn’t drink enough.
September 14th We left again at 6 o’clock next day heading for Schilpario, from where we had to leave the road and climb over the Passo del Venerocolo. On passing through the village of Barzesto, a woman followed us and stopped us, asking if we were English. She was an English woman who had married an Italian and lived there for many years.
She said that she had a British soldier there and asked us to take him along with us. So we went in and met Gunner Metcalfe, who very sensibly had arrived that far by train and bus! We were given some raw eggs to swallow which I found the best way of getting food down me. I just didn’t feel hungry but Johnny used to eat like a horse.
This woman told us that two Italians had just left to cross the mountains and advised us to try and catch them.
Well, I couldn’t for I was only hobbling along, but Johnny got his long legs moving and they are long, too, and he caught them, which I thought was a very good effort. The two Italians, however, although willing to guide us wouldn’t wait for anyone, so Johnny went on with them,
[digital page 10]
and Metcalfe and I toiled along behind. It was very hot and rough going and all uphill. I tried to keep the others in sight, but my feet were pretty bad and I’m afraid I stopped for a good many rests.
At last we reached the top and I didn’t know which way to go as there were two paths. However, I was lucky and took then right one and eventually found Johnny waiting for us. The two wops had gone on, having pointed out roughly the direction of Tirano, which was our final objective. After a rest we started to climb down and along the valley. We left Aprica on our right and Johnny was setting a fearful pace, as he wanted to find a guide that night to take us over the frontier the next morning.
We finally got to the river which had to be crossed, but Johnny wouldn’t entertain the idea of using the ridge. We found that Metcalfe couldn’t swim, so Johnny being taller and a stronger swimmer undressed, tied his clothes on his head and went in to test the depth for wading.
He got half way across and then the current got him and swept him away downstream. He struck out and got to the opposite bank. Well, that put it out of the question for us to cross there, so I shouted across that we would walk upstream, where we believed there was a second bridge.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t climb back to the road and had to walk along on big stones the whole way for about a mile. This really made me swear. At one place I took off my shoes and trousers and tried to wade across, but I was nearly swept away by the current, so came back. We finally found the bridge and waited on the other side for Johnny who had had to make a
[digital page 11]
long detour to reach us. It was quite dark by then, so we were lucky to meet.
We then walked to the main road on which lies the village called Villa di Tirano, a few miles west of Tirano itself.
Ironically enough, we went into a small pub right on the road and asked for accommodation for the night. We had a goodish meal and bathed our feet, which was a great joy, as we’d been on the go for 14 hours that day. Johnny’s clothes being wet, the landlord had rigged him out in a pair of drain-pipe pantaloons and a long shirt hanging outside and he really looked magnificent.
Then began the search for a guide. It took a lot of persuasion to send for anyone, but eventually two young men arrived in the pub and offered their services. Tremendous bartering took place and at last terms were agreed. We offered all we had, my gold wristwatch, Johnny’s wristwatch, signet ring and gold pin. We had a bed apiece that night and Metcalfe provided the cash for the bill.
September 15th Well, the great day had arrived and it was rather exhilarating to think that we should be in Switzerland today.
Our guides arrived at 5 o’clock and off we started to climb straight up and over the mountain. It was quite a climb for us, particularly as we were both pretty lame, and for us it necessitated using hands and feet, though our guides went up like mountain goats.
We had very frequent rests, when our guides produced large flagons of wine, which they passed round with the words ‘Coraggio! Coraggio!’.
[digital page 12]
We saw the Italian frontier guard post on our right and soon after that our guides said it wasn’t so very much farther to the frontier and they wanted paying so that they could run off if we were spotted.
They then said that we were not giving enough and argued and refused to take us any further. However, we had nothing else to offer and one of them wasn’t a bad sort and persuaded the others to see the job through. So we handed over our valuables and went on again.
Soon they pointed out the red and white frontier posts. We said goodbye to them and I gave the decent one my ‘Pope’s medal’ which I had won in a raffle as a POW. I’d always kept it as I thought it might be worth something in such an emergency. I don’t know why, but I felt rather superstitious about it and twice on the journey I’d lost it and was very worried till it was found again, once in a hay rick!
We had nearly covered the last few hundred yards, when suddenly a soldier stepped out from behind a tree and challenged us.
This was rather a shock as we didn’t really know if we’d passed the actual Italian boundary or not, and this sentry might have been a German for all we knew. However, he was Swiss and shook us warmly by the hand when he learned who we were.
I think we crossed the frontier at about 11 o’clock and had taken 5 and a half days, not counting the first day near the camp, during which time we had walked about 120 miles.
[digital page 13]
We had to wait for another frontier guard to come and escort us to
the guard post and we sat in the sun on the Swiss side of the posts, feeling, I
suppose, rather bucked that we were ‘free’ after 2 and a half years.
[digital page 14]
F.10 Saragna. Crossed Po at Ragazuola, vidiceti, [2 words unclear]
Derovere. Night with 1-arm (Gino Sandrimi) at Cappella, just South of Cicognola on Cremona-Mentova Road.
S.11 Sandolara – Germone – Robecco (bicycle girl) (crossed main road and railway). Waded across R. Oglio. Veranuovo – La Bada – night at Cignano, just short of Dello (Rabbit’s)
S.12 Dello – Lungleno – Lograto (crossed main road and saw paper) – Berlingo – over railway bridge and round Rovato. Night at Torbriato (Adio) Benedini who got boat.
M.13 Boat from Clusane to a little north of Tavernola. Took to hills – through Sovere – berete alta – Rovetta (drink in middle of town)Castione – Brato met Dr – joined mule-man; over Giogo della Cantoniera. Night at Osteria at Castello.
T.14 To Bresso – St Andrea, Barzesto where we met Florrie, Morendi and Metcalfe. Over Passo del Venerocolo, left Aprica on right, through Motta, over river and railway right on main road at Villa di Tirano.
W.15 Crossed ? Frontier, dropped down to Campa Cologno. Night in ?
T.16 To Samaden
F.17 Still there – shopping etc
S.18 Saw ? Tonsure – To Wil
M.20 To Bütschwil