Tom S Craig was captured in Tobruk, Libya in June 1942, and then moved to Benghazi, before being flown to Lecce in South Italy. He was then transferred to camp PG 49 near Fontanellato in North Italy.
Following the Armistice in September 1943, he and several other prisoners of war escaped from PG49, and headed south through German occupied Italy. Their escape takes several months, eventually landing up at Casoli in central Italy in January 1944, before leaving Naples via ship.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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Escape from Campo PG49 Fontanellato. Northern Italy.
An escape and evasion walk down German occupied Italy
Sept. 1943- Jan. 1944 Tom Col. T.S.Craig M.B.E M.C.
Fontanellato to Casoli. (Map) . (Parents interned in Germany as they lived in Jersey) captured West. of Tobruk June 1942. Flown to Lecce from Benghazi, Capua then Rezzanello (North of Genoa) then Fontanellato. Spiteful and petty treatment by Italians at the beginning. De Burgh organised an orderly exit at Armistice. Tony Roncaroni – of Italian extraction – went all the way by train to Bari immediately. TSC[Tom Craig] stayed with Tubby Williams and Jack Kempton. Girls came from F [Fontanellato] Village came to say the Germans had raided the camp but left and offered hospitality from parents. Only account in which escapers, having obtained maps + planned their route before departure – and stuck to it.
North of railline to Rimini then s. near Forli, Urbino, Jesi, Fermo, Teramo. Averaged 12 miles a day. Ate all types of food but especially remember Polenta.
Suddenly confronted by Carabineri who immediately call out ‘All right English we are with you’. The carabineri take them to the palatial villa of a Marquis who gives them an excellent reception but as his wife is American they stay in a nearby farmhouse where the family have 19 children – PoWs in India. Near Urbino feel earthquake. Meet 2 L.R. [Long Range] Desert Group then given a most generous welcome in the house of the Mayor of Offida – who was made an O.B.E. (honorary) after the war for his help to PoWs. Meet others from, PG49 who decide to try getting away by sea – and do so. Because of septic foot TSC and another hide up but the third gets through. An American OSS Officer radios for new boots for TSC which arrive in next drop as does an Italian soldier, fortunately into a snow drift as his parachute does not open properly. They are given a deserter from the German army to get through – after he takes off his uniform. He is Czech. A party of British, American and Italians are led through lines near Guardiagrele and told to wait until the Allies stop shelling the cemetery from which the Germans withdrew at night and then go through and down to Casoli. TSC gives his new boots to the shepherd guide so he can continue to help others. On way meets an elderly naval officer who had been ill and with white beard had been put in the bed with the grandmother of the family in case the Germans came. Sailed from Naples immediately after arrival there.(JKK)
[Handwritten marginal note]: As the crow flies F. to Casoli 500 K’metres = 300 miles. Due to hills, rivers, diversions etc. PoWs walked 3 to 4 times ‘crow’.
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ESCAPE FROM CAMPO PG49, FONTANELLATO, NORTH ITALY
AN ESCAPE AND EVASION WALK DOWN GERMAN OCCUPIED ITALY
SEPTEMBER 1943 – JANUARY 1944
by Col. T.S. Craig, MBE, MC, RTR [Royal Tank Regiment] (Rtd)
I was taken prisoner during the ill-fated attack by 32nd Tank Brigade on the Sidra Ridge, South West of Tobruk in Libya on 6th June 1942. The ridge was held by 21st Panzer Division and a screen of 88mm anti-tank guns. I was commanding ‘D’ Squadron of 7th RTR, which Regiment, together with 42nd RTR [Royal Tank Regiment] and ‘C’ Squadron of 8th RTR, made up this “ad hoc” brigade at this time. They were equipped with Matilda and Valentine tanks, about 80 before the battle. Only 12 survived. My own tank was hit and on fire, and a breech loading 3 inch mortar was its only armament. Totally surrounded by German tanks, I had no option but to surrender. We were lucky to survive. Many did not.
We as a crew, and all the others captured, were well treated by the Germans, but were handed over to the Italian infantry who shipped us by truck away West to an old fort near Dema. Then on to Barce to a barracks (to which I returned, with 5th RTR, twelve years later in happier times), and then to Benghazi from where we were flown in three-engined Savoia transport planes to Lecce in the heel of Italy.
We were then moved by train to a camp near Capua, just North of Naples where we stayed for some months. We then went on North to Rezzanello, an old castello in the Apennines, North of Genoa, overlooking the Po Valley with the Alps visible on clear days, and finally down into the valley to Fontanellato, just North of the main East/West railway and autostrada, between Piacenza and Parma, an ex-orphanage next to a convent, and a modern, well appointed building. We remained in this camp – PG49 – for the spring and summer of 1943. There were 600 officers in the camp.
We were to begin with spitefully and pettily treated by the Italians, but the nearer the end, for them in the war, came, the more pleasant and friendly they became. At least in this final camp we were comfortable, fairly treated and adequately fed, thanks largely to Red Cross and other parcels from home.
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Following the Allied Landings at Salerno in September 1943, Italy surrendered, but the German Army, reinforced, remained in occupation.
Officially, by radio and other means, all PoWs in Italy were advised, indeed ordered, by London to stay where we were in our camps. The occupants of many other camps followed these orders to the letter, and were regrettably simply packed off by goods train to Germany by the Germans, who took over.
We in PG49 were most fortunate in having, as the Senior British Officer, Lt. Col. H.G. de Burgh, OBE, MC, a first class Officer of the Royal Artillery (who himself later made a marvellous and hazardous escape over the Alps into Switzerland). (Note: Full account in Blackwood’s Magazine No. 1561 – Nov. 1945). Weeks before the surrender, the SBO had made contingency plans and had organised us all with preparations for a mass escape when it was becoming obvious that the Allies, already in Sicily, would make a landing somewhere in Italy.
On September 8th, the Armistice was announced and our Italian guards, mostly old or medically down-graded, equipped only with ancient rifles, started digging trenches at the front of the building “to defend and protect us from the Germans”! Knowing what the Germans would do to them, this was clearly a useless exercise, and the Italian Commandant agreed to deploy them away from the camp, but within bugle call, on the main approaches to give us warning of the approach of any Germans.
On September 9th the alarm went, the wire at the rear of the camp exercise ground was cut, and in good order, as rehearsed, we marched out and dispersed into the countryside. Of the 600 who got out, only about 10% were known to have successfully reached the Allied lines in Southern Italy, or to have got into Switzerland, where they were interned, very well looked after, and released in late 1944 when the Allies reached the Swiss Frontier in Eastern France, after the Normandy Invasion. Several officers reached Switzerland by bicycle within a week, but first prize must be given to one enterprising officer of Italian ancestry, but a well known English rugby player, Tony Roncaroni, who on Day One got on a train in Parma and in the confusion then prevailing all over Italy, got the whole way to Bari almost in British hands in one day! Most, however, did it the hard way, on their feet, and this took weeks and months with all the
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attendant risks of recapture in an enemy controlled country. Perhaps the longest effort by an officer, also RTR but not from PG49, was round the North of the Adriatic to join the partisans in Yugoslavia, and eventually home through Greece!
After the break-out. Jack Kempton, “Tubby” Wilson (also officers from 7th RTR) and myself found ourselves walking together to get as far away from PG49 as quickly as possible. A few miles away we found a stream with high, densely wooded banks, which seemed a safe spot to rest, take stock of the situation and decide what to do next. As “arm-chair” strategists in the camp, cut off from proper honest news and up-to-date allied military capabilities, we could not believe that the Allies would continue to fight from South to North, all the way up Italy, but imagined they would land either near Genoa on the North West coast, or Rimini at the end of the Po Valley on the Adriatic Sea, thus cutting of all the Germans in the South. So we decided to wait and see how things developed. The alternatives were to try to cross into Switzerland, the shortest, and apart from the Alps, the easiest and quickest way out of Italy, but with, at that time, the prospect of internment for the duration of the war! The second course was to walk all the way South and attempt to get through the German and Allied lines. Most of the country was mountainous and this would be much longer, take time and be more risky, particularly where the German Army was positioned in strength.
In fact, Allied strategy was dictated largely by the range of our fighter aircraft, then based in Sicily, and Salerno was as far North as complete air superiority could be guaranteed for the landings. This we had no knowledge of, and in fact the only landing further up Italy by sea was at Anzio later in the winter of 1943, just South of Rome on the West coast.
We spent our first night under the trees by the stream. Fortunately the weather was warm, as we only had battle dress to wear. Next day, we were spotted by a girl from a nearby farm and were taken there, given Minestrone soup and bread, and put in the bam for the night, which was a change for the better. The following day, back in the woods, three girls led by a teenager, who called herself Gina Setti, from near Fontanellato village, arrived. They said that the Germans had been and gone from the camp, and that their parents had offered to look after us, and that they would go home and get bicycles for us. With some misgivings, we accepted this offer.
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In due course they returned, each wheeling two bicycles, and at intervals, each following a girl, we rode past the camp again, where there was no sign of anybody, and on for a mile or two, well into the country. Here we stopped at Gina’s house and it transpired that her father was an estate manager or factor, and we were then farmed out to “Contadini” (tenant farmers). Jack was with Ernesto Foglio, and “Tubby” and I were with Ernesto Fagandini, his wife Irma and their two teenage daughters, Pera and Conchita, and their “simple” old farm labourer, pigs, cows, hens and a horse, all together!
We were made very welcome and given a huge meal of pasta, lots of grapes and rough red Vino. We slept in the house for a day or two until German patrols became active again, and we were moved out into an old bam well out on the farm, hidden by vines. Our uniforms were taken away and we were given old suits and other civilian clothing, but we retained our army boots and socks. As the weather was good, we helped with the harvest on the farm as much as we could. We had plenty of grapes to pick and eat – pips, skins and all! – and enjoyed the wine making. What a wonderful lot these poor Italians were, invariably cheerful, happy and hardworking, and always laughing. I shall never forget the kindness of these people, nor their courage in hiding us on their property. It soon became obvious that most Italians, in particular the poorer and older ones who had fought with us in the First War 1914/18, were anti-fascist and anti-German, and had, overnight, demonstrated that they were very pro-British and pro-American, in whose countries many had relations. They did not want the war against us. They took great risks in helping us, and many of us owe our lives to them, me included, and many of us who were helped have since subscribed to the “Monte San Martino Trust”, to help students with bursaries. All the students (over 50, so far) are direct descendants of Italians who helped escapees, and the grandparents of four of these were shot by the Germans when betrayed or given away. The rewards given by our government to those who helped all who escaped, were given in the most miserly fashion, with hand-outs of, on the average, only about £5!
The language was a difficulty at first, but most of us had learned the basic essentials during our time as PoWs. In the North West of Italy, to begin with, the local Italian patois and, broadly speaking, French, were similar, and as at the time I spoke French fluently, I picked up Italian fairly quickly as we went along.
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By this time it was obvious from listening to the BBC World Service, to which all Italians listened, that the war in Italy was going to be a long slow battle all the way up to the end of the war, so now, re-equipped with basic civilian clothing, some Italian maps as well as the issue “handkerchief flimsy map” smuggled in before the armistice to us all, we decided to walk South at the end of September, before the winter weather set in.
We planned to go East towards the Adriatic, keeping South of the River Po on the flat lands and North of the main Milan-Rimini railway and autostrada, keeping North of Parma, Modena, Bologna, Imola and Faenza, then South near Forli, and into the hills to the South and by-passing to the west of San Marino. Then on in the foothills of the Apennines on a line inland of Urbino-Jesi-Macerata-Fermo-Offida (all in the Marche Province) and on to Teramo in the Abbruzzi Province.
The Allies had, by this time, reached a line North of Naples to North East of Foggia near the Gargano Peninsula on the Adriatic (the spur on the heel of Italy). As far as possible, we intended to go cross-country, always moving by day and avoiding towns and villages, and obviously main roads. For food and shelter we would “live on the land” for fruit and vegetables if possible, and otherwise rely on the kindness of the “Contadini”.
So we set off, having had tearful farewells with all the Settis, Foglios and Fagandinis, promising to write after the war, writing chits to hand to the Allies when they eventually arrived, and expressing, above all, our thanks. We also promised to send coded messages on the BBC World Service if we got through the line safely. Mine was “Tomaso va bene” (“All well with Tom”) and this was done in due course.
At first the going was easy. The only obstacles were water filled drainage ditches and streams, which caused frequent removals of boots, socks and trousers for crossing. The land itself was flat and dry and mostly dense vineyards, so direction keeping was difficult. The weather was pleasant and we were never short of grapes and occasional pears and apples. We averaged about 12 miles a day, I suppose.
Our first night was to set a pattern for nightly rest and food, which with one or two exceptions we followed throughout our journey South. Having arrived, in the evening, at a likely looking house – not a modern one or too big a one as they were
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probably Fascist owned; not too poor a house either as it was likely to be unable to spare much food and would be owned, generally by timid people – something in between was always best. One friend of ours later told us that they chose their house by the number of haystacks in the yard, in the manner of AA Star classification. One stack too poor, two stacks just right, three stacks too rich – Fascisti! Anyway, playing safe, having made our choice, we took it in turns to go forward to ask for shelter each night. The other two would stay back out of sight, in case of trouble (which only happened once later on). We always identified ourselves as escaped British officers, and asked if we could sleep in the cowshed. Nine times out of ten we were welcomed immediately, and invariably given food without us asking’ for it. If, on rare occasions, we had to ask for food, we were also asked to pay for it.
By the end of our travels we must have sampled pasta, spaghetti, macaroni, gnocchi and polenta in every size, shape or form produced in Italy. Polenta (maize meal porridge) was particularly amusing to eat. In the poorer houses it was a plain meal, hot thankfully. But in the better homes, if we were lucky, it was garnished with tomato sauce, parmesan or pecorina grated cheese and perhaps the odd slice of salami, mushrooms or vegetables. It was served on a large scrubbed wooden table, and when all were seated, with fork at the ready, the farmer’s wife swooshed it down the table from an enormous pot, garnished it, said Grace, and we were “off” on what we came to call “the big race”, working our way towards the middle of the table as fast as we could. The quicker you ate, the more you got. At least it was warm and filling!
We invariably spent the night in the cowshed huddled together, fully clothed, alongside the animals, with an old blanket and lots of straw. It was always lovely and warm, but also there were lots of fleas, other insects and little animals scampering around.
We continued Eastwards, not doing great mileage, and decided to try the occasional small lane in order to speed things up if the lane was in the right direction. This was our first mistake, fortunately with a happy ending. As we rounded a corner we walked slap into a Carabinieri Patrol, fully armed with sub-machine guns. We didn’t know whether to run, surrender or to try to bluff it out, but what a surprise it was when the Brigadieri (Corporal in charge) shouted “Inglesi, don’t be frightened, we are now on your side and will help you.” What a relief, as I then had fair hair and a moustache, and
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at 6ft tall could hardly pass as an Italian. He went on to say he would take us to a farm where we would be safe, and get in touch with a Marquese whose wife was American.
So, in due course, we were picked up by no less than the Marquese Rangoni Machiavelli himself, who came in a tiny Fiat CinqueCento with a huge gas bag on top, and ferried us to his country seat, the Castello Crescenti di Modena, near a small town called Carpi, North of Modena. He spoke perfect English, as did the American born Marquesa. We had a great welcome, baths, clean clothes and were fed in style, waited on by a butler with white gloves. Quite a change from the cowshed to which we returned after two or three days of luxury, as the Marquesa, quite understandably, was worried about her position and that of her small son, Brandino, should the Germans get to know of our presence. So after much kindness and advice, including instructions as to where his brother lived further south in the March Province, we moved out for one night into the house of one of his tenant farmers, who, after he had welcomed us, showed us into a bedroom with three beds. I then asked him where the “loo” was. He pointed to a large chamber pot and said “use that”. “What then?” I said. He answered with a smile, “Chuck it out of the window!” Sanitation was always pretty basic! His wife was an enormous lady and very proud of her 19 children, fortunately mostly grown up and not at home. Two of their sons were PoWs in India, having been captured in Libya by the British.
We were then told that an estate truck was going to Cento early next morning with a load of farm produce. As Cento was almost due East between Bologna and Argenta, we said we would like a lift. So we were up early and soon hidden in the truck – behind crates and bags of vegetables and fruit. After clearing one road check safely, we reached the area of Cento, stopped outside the town and got out with no one in sight, thanked the driver and pushed off South East into the countryside again.
Having checked the map, we realised that we were further North West than we had hoped, and that Forli, our target before the mountains, was on the far side of several miles of delta country, navigable canals, marshes, ponds, rivers and deep ditches, and finding ways across these obstacles and rice fields slowed us down considerably. After many diversions to find isolated ferries, punts and rickety foot bridges, we eventually reached the area of Forli on the autostrada, but as before the locals were kind and helpful. Later, post-war research showed me that this area of many waterways
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between the Appenines and Lake Comacchio was the final German defence position, known as the Genghis Khan Line, with the Argenta gap at the North end, where the last major battles of the Italian campaign took place.
We crossed the autostrada and railway just East of Forli, taking care to avoid many German convoys of trucks, armoured cars, etc., and immediately headed South up into the Appenines foothills, West of San Marino, which in due course we looked down on from mountains to the South of it. On one gorgeous sunny afternoon we watched enthralled as Maryland and Mitchell US Air Force bombers raided Rimini and Ancona ports quite unopposed. We were now in the area of the Marche Province where the German Gothic Line of defence was being built by the TODT organisation, so had to be careful to avoid the Germans. In the Marche we called on the Marquese Rangoni’s brother. We had a pleasant evening with them before sleeping on one of his farms. In this area also, whilst in a house near Urbino, there was an earthquake which caused some excitement among the locals.
In the hills we soon discovered how unfit we were. After being prisoners for a year, we hadn’t done much walking and no one had walked up or down any hills since 1939, the desert in Egypt and Libya being mostly flat Going up wasn’t too bad, but going down steep slopes was agony. Fortunately we got used to it, which was just as well as all the hills and valleys in Eastern Italy run East and West. Rivers too, were a problem as the main bridges were guarded and we always had to look for fordable places and out of the way light bridges. Sometimes, near farms, steel cables had been strung across tightly, one above the other, and having watched Italian women crossing loaded with shopping, carrying children and occasionally a bicycle, we followed their example amid much hilarity. Surprisingly we saw very few Germans, and only when near main roads or towns did we occasionally have to run for cover and keep out of sight until all was clear. This was so, right up to and including the area of the front lines, of which more anon.
Somewhere in this area we fell in with two British soldiers of the Long Range Desert Group, which was later to become the SAS [Special Air Service]. They were seeking out and dealing with Fascist war criminals, and other behind-the-lines activities. When we told them that we preferred to walk cross-country by day, they said this was too slow and that it was much quicker by night on minor roads. So we tried this, until one night we walked slap
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into a German sentry on the end of a very long bridge. Luckily he did not recognise us as British in the dark, and after a few words in our broken Italian, he indicated that we should go across the bridge and report to the Guard house at the far end. Halfway across, we realised he was not following us, and as the river was almost dry except in the middle, we climbed over the side, slid down a buttress and walked quietly downstream till well away. We had learned our lesson, and were back to cross-country daylight walking next day. I suppose if caught in an ambush, the SAS would have shot their way out!
We were now well into November, with the weather colder and wetter, with snow on the highest mountains. By accident, when we were passing a house in the country South of Offida, we were greeted in English by a delightful Italian gentleman and his wife and young daughters, who looked after us most hospitably. Asked what we would like to eat and offered eggs we said “yes, please”, and were shortly shocked each to receive a soup plate with two or three fried eggs on bread, floating in a quarter inch of pure olive oil! We were so hungry we scoffed the lot! His name was Luigi Stipa and he was, at that time. Mayor of Offida, but his “normal” profession was that of aircraft designer and engineer, and he was also a Professor of that subject at Rome University. He had, in pre-war days, been a member of the team which designed and built the first jet engined Caproni fighter aircraft, which flew before the war, but never got into production. Of course we had no idea what he was talking about when he asked us about British jets. In fact, I only discovered what a jet plane was when I eventually got back to England and was stationed near the RAE [Royal Air Establishment] at Farnborough, Hants, where the first De Havilland Vampire jets were to be seen flying on test runs. Stipa, it turned out later, was organising an escape line to assist ex PoWs. He gave us much advice and help, and we were glad to hear after the war that he had been made an honorary OBE for his efforts.
On Stipa’s advice, we headed for a village called Porcia in the North of the Abbruzzi Province, where we stayed for a week or more, and after contacting an Italian speaking American officer of the OSS [Office of Strategic Services], who was collecting British and American escapees to get them off by sea, we spent two or three long cold nights lying on the beach near Porto Giulanova, with the American signalling to boats we could see, but which did not stop for us as allegedly arranged, so we went back into the hills to Porcia. Here we met up with Tom Wildy and “Jock” Donagher, also ex “49-ers”. “Tubby” and “Jock”, being the
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oldest, were fed up with walking, and wanted another go at the sea passage, whilst Jack, Tom and I wanted to get on with the walking South. As luck would have it, after we left they got off by sea at their next try, and were landed at Termoli safely some 70 miles South in Allied lines the next day, and were home in England long before us. Sod’s law!
When walking on, another problem soon hit me. The scar of an old mosquito bite had been rubbed by my boot on my right ankle and had gone septic and painful, so I had to rest. Jack then said he would go on on his own and send messages home if he got through safely. Then Tom and I hobbled back to Porcia where the American also confirmed my order for boots by radio, as well as antibiotics, clean socks, and all his own party’s usual requirements. A day or two later I was woken and told the drop had been made in the night, and handed me my new boots, socks and a few “goodies”. Unfortunately, the Italian soldier working with the OSS who accompanied the OSS supplies on the drop, had trouble with his parachute which did not open properly, but by the grace of God and good fortune, he landed in a deep snowdrift on the side of a hill and was unhurt apart from shock and a few bruises. Later he thought it was a great joke and wonderful experience! He also told us Jack had got safely through the lines, which was great news.
Tom Wildy and I now decided to make a real determined effort to get through the lines, now only 3 or 4 days distant, and on our way we had another strange experience in that at a farm at which we had stayed earlier, the farmer said he was hiding a German deserter and would we take him with us? We thought we had better meet him, and had a shock when a soldier in full German field grey uniform, coal-scuttle tin hat and rifle marched into the room, saluted and announced that he was a Czechoslovakian conscript who hated Germans and wanted to join the British army to fight with us. So we took him along, now dressed as a civilian, and we had great fun singing away, and at one time he taught us to do the goose step! He was a nice lad. He got through with us and I hope he survived the war and got home.
We spent our last night before the crossing in a farm on the Pescara river, about 25 miles South West of Pescara town itself, and early next morning crossed the river by bridge in a rain storm, with umbrellas we had acquired hiding our faces from the guards who were sheltering indoors, and pressed on into the hills looking for a shepherd known as “Manga Peccore” (the sheep eater). We eventually found him in a tumble-down
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house in which, much to our surprise, were several British and American soldiers who had escaped, as well as a few Italian young men fleeing the Germans. “Manga Peccore” was a local shepherd who was now engaged in guiding escapees through the lines, and we had no option but to follow him.
As soon as it was dark, we set off cross-country, led by “Manga Peccore”, up the hillsides to Guardiagrele, a small mountain village on the lower slopes of “Monte Amaro”, 2794 metres high, the second highest peak in the Apennines, and there was snow on the ground. The village was high up on the North side of the Sangro River valley, and the German front line ran through it. The British were based on Casoli, about 7 miles on the other side of the valley to the South.
It was a long walk of about 15 miles, with more to come later. We only had one alarm on the way up, when a German patrol was spotted on a nearby road, but we got into houses in the village safely. Once there, the line crossing drill was explained. We were told that the village cemetery, the highest point for miles around, was usually shelled around midnight by the British, as it was such a good observation post for the Germans. Before this time the Germans pulled out and did not return till daylight. This was the time when we would pass through the cemetery and go down the wooded slopes towards the British lines, still some distance away, and we were to do it on our own from the cemetery on. As we were waiting, the shepherd pointed to my new boots and then to his own, which were falling to bits. He wanted mine, and said he could then go on helping others to escape. I could have his, which with luck I reckoned would last another few miles. I agreed, and we swapped. Actually, they didn’t last the course and I finished the last few hundred yards in the snow in socks only. Also while waiting, I came across an elderly British Naval Officer, Commander Cobley, who had escaped and had been ill in the village for some time. As he was and looked quite old with grey hair and beard, his hosts kept him in a double bed with their granny, who was ancient, took his false teeth out and told him to groan if the Germans searched the house! He was lucky and able to come with us that night.
Sure enough, around midnight shells rained down on the cemetery, and the moment they stopped we were led out, shoved through the cemetery gates and away as quickly and quietly as we could. It was quite difficult to scramble down steep slopes in the dark, but we eventually got to the bottom of the valley. We saw no Germans or
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British during the night, and apart from a flap when we were confronted by a marked British minefield and a freezing stream to cross, there were no problems. As it got light, we got onto what was the small local road to Casoli, which we could see. We were then spotted by soldiers of the Parachute Regiment and escorted to a Military Police Post for identification. We still had our Army Identity Cards and as officers we were taken to the Parachute Brigade HQ. “WE HAD MADE IT SUCCESSFULLY!” What a wonderful feeling and sense of achievement and freedom it was.
After debriefing, a good meal and a wash, and I had scrounged a pair of gym shoes, we were taken by truck a few miles back to a special Reception Camp at Atessa, where we had medical inspections, lovely long hot showers, complete outfits of new clothing – battledress, underclothes, socks – right down to toothbrush and soap and razor, and medal ribbons if entitled. It was nice to get the Africa Star, which we hadn’t heard of! What a joy it was to be clean, as by this stage we really were smelly, dirty and lousy! Also, we so enjoyed British food again, cigarettes and other “luxuries”. I don’t remember the date, but it was early January 1944 as we had spent New Year’s Day just North of the Pescara river.
Next day we boarded an American truck and were driven South, past the great American Air Base at Foggia, and across Central Italy to Naples where we arrived after dark at a lovely Transit Hotel on the sea. South of the City, run by the South African Army Medical Corps. More showers and full medical checks, documentation and messages sent home and so on, and best of all to be reunited with Jack Kempton, who was delighted to see us and had already sent a message home to his mother to pass to my girlfriend. Daphne Coutts, that I would be home soon. Even better was the news that we were all to get passages together on a convoy sailing for the UK with the Canadian Division the very next day. So it was that we boarded a very crowded troopship, the former Nelson Line “Highland Chieftain”, pre-war on the South American run. After a passage of about 2 or 3 weeks, with a long turn out into the North Atlantic, we arrived safely in Liverpool in February 1944.
So ended a rather hectic adventure, and once again I express my heartfelt thanks to all those wonderful, kind and courageous Italians, who risked so much to help us. They aren’t best known for their soldier-like qualities, but they certainly have guts and humanity. Bless them all!
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On landing, I went straight up to Scotland to stay with my Aunt Meg, who was my next of kin, my Mother and Father having been interned in Germany, taken away from Jersey, Channel Islands. All my kit had been sent home from Egypt to Scotland, and after a week or two up there, I went down to London and was met by Daphne, who I hadn’t seen for four years. We had dinner and danced at the Mirabelle that evening. I stayed in Bailey’s Hotel and Daphne returned to her “billet” in Kensington! We were engaged a few days later, and married on 5th April 1944. Jack Kempton was my best man, and is still my oldest friend. Tom Wildy and his wife were at the wedding too, but we lost touch. We have now had over 52 years of happy and worthwhile marriage, and not too many bad moments! Another phase of my life began, but that’s another story – read my Obituary in due course!
Tom Craig June 1996
[Digital page 15]
[Map showing the main cities of Italy and routes between them from Naples northwards]