After capture, Douglas Argent was imprisoned in PG21 Chieti which was taken over by the Germans after the Armistice. The PoWs were loaded into cattle trucks for train transportation to another prison camp. Douglas writes detailed descriptions of his exciting escape from the train, shelter by Italians on the route south-east, encounters with other PoWs, poor weather and health and narrow escapes from the enemy. He crossed the Allied lines near Termoli.
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 ITALY.
21st September 1943
Chieti camp taken over by the Germans.
23rd September 1943
Whole Camp moved by lorry to Sulmona.
30th September 1943
All Officers were ordered to assemble on the Football Ground. Assembled at about 1600 hours, there were then about 270 Officers missing, the majority of whom were hiding in the various buildings of the Camp. We were then divided into groups of 30 and put on to lorries and driven down to the Station, at the Station there was a very strong guard all armed with automatic weapons, one Officer, Captain Short, made a break for it and was immediately shot dead.
We filed past a table where particulars were taken, and then we were escorted to cattle trucks (of the closed type with sliding doors). Thirty Officers were put into each truck and the door was locked, it was then about 5.30 p.m. and just getting dusk. While we were there the door was opened and rations for 4 days were passed in and the door closed again.
We were allowed out of the truck once during the evening to attend to nature. At about 11.30 p.m. we started to move. The guards, as far as we knew, were in trucks to themselves somewhere along the train. Several of us started to look for means of escape.
Lt. K.A. Hewison—Smith told me he had a half inch chisel in his pocket. There was a garden seat in the truck and by means of this we examined the roof and decided to try and cut through it at the extreme end, this four of us commenced to do by using the chisel.
At 0100 hrs. the train stopped, and by looking out through the ventilator we could see we were back in Sulmona Station and so we had to cease work. When the train started we recommenced operations taking it in turns hacking at the roof. It was a wonderful thrill when we first saw the night sky through the first hole. By about 0400 hrs. we had a hole about 18 inches square, in the meantime we had cut up an Italian blanket and knotted it together to form a rope long enough to go through the hole in the roof, trail over the side and down the outside of the truck.
Lt. Hewison-Smith was the first to leave, we helped him through the hole and he sat on the roof until the train started to slacken speed, he then slid over the side and ran along the side of the train and let go. The train then stopped. Hewison—Smith went out as it was gathering speed and successfully landed outside. It was then my turn to go, I clambered up and sat on the edge of the hole for about half an hour while the train sped through many tunnels. I had my greatcoat on and a Red Cross parcel tied across my shoulders. As the train started to slacken I climbed to the edge of the roof and slid over the side, unfortunately the blanket did not take the strain and both the blanket and I landed with a thud at the side of the line. I picked myself up and gathered the remains of the blanket and scrambled to the side of the track. I collided with a barbed wire fence, wriggled through it and another fence and sat behind a tree. I had previously arranged to contact Birchett who was following me out. The train stopped.
In the meantime Birchett was left without a blanket, others in the truck made another, and he climbed out as the train was starting off, having thrown his parcel out first. As soon as the train moved off I started along the line to meet Mike as arranged, after about five minutes I met him – busy looking for his parcel. We hunted all around for about an hour without success and eventually gave it up. We climbed the hill at the side of the track, it was then quite light, about half way up we saw a young fellow walking, he came across to us.
With difficulty I asked him if there were any Germans (Tedeschi) near, he replied that there was a lot of German transport on the main road, the other side of the railway, going both ways.
We continued up the hill until we came to some bushes and rocks. We sat there for the rest of the morning, an old man and his son and daughter brought us bread and a large pail of milk, various Italians came along to have a look at us. They said they would take us to a place where we could find more shelter for the night, in the early evening they took us along the hill to a large overhanging rock surrounded by bushes, we could see the main road clearly from here.
We had a meal from the Red Cross parcel and prepared for the night. This was spent in close proximity to each other under my greatcoat, very little of the night was passed sleeping.
2nd October 1943.
The majority of the day was spent near our “lodging place”.
We were again visited by many Italians who brought us bread. Mike went and scrounged some milk off an Iti who was tending some cows nearby. We had quite decent meals from the parcel and some hot cocoa and tea. One small boy said he would take us to his home, we tried to find out from him if his Mother knew he was going to take us back with him. Eventually he said he would come back for us. We did not see him again. We then decided we would have to pass the night as before. Unfortunately the weather was unkind and rain came pouring down the rock onto us so most of the night was passed in a
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most uncomfortable position under the greatcoat, we decided that we would move off the next day.
3rd October 1943.
At a fairly early hour we set off on a South-Easterly course along the hill diagonally climbing. By early evening, after a very strenuous day, we breasted the hill amongst some woods wherein a clearing we found a charcoal burning site. We looked around, but could find no-one, after standing about for a few moments we heard someone moving in the trees and an Italian appeared carrying a sporting rifle. I asked him if it was possible for him to give us something to eat and drink (we had had nothing to drink all day as neither of us had a water bottle). He told me to follow him. This I did, leaving Mike sitting on a log.
After about ten minutes’ walk we came to another clearing in which stood a number of wooden huts. We went to the first of these where there was a woman and many children. She gave me some water which I drank. I then asked if we could spend the night there and they told us we could.
I then took some water back and collected Mike. We returned to the huts and sat around the fire and they gave us a very good meal of hot stew. After a while they took us over to one of the other huts in which there were two beds made of wood with string as a mattress, they brought us many covers and there was a large wood fire burning, with stacks of wood for the night. We spent a very comfortable night, the only annoyance were the mice – which insisted on walking over my face. We kept a lovely fire going all night. In the morning they gave us another meal and told us to wait until noon when they would make us some bread. At about 11.3O we had some coffee and something else to eat. They then presented us with two very large loaves and detailed one of the Charcoal Burners to take us through the woods and put us on our route. They said that they would have liked us to stay with them for some time, but that it very dangerous, as the Germans occasionally came up there to order Charcoal and steal all sorts of things.
On the way through the woods we passed the home of our guide and his wife insisted upon us taking another new loaf of bread. So, heavily loaded with bread, we continued. Our guide left us at the fringe of the woods. We offered our hosts an Egyptian Pound but they would not take it and asked if we needed any more money. We continued on our way through fairly open country passing several flocks of sheep and shepherds. At about 4 o’clock we saw a fairly opulent Iti sitting on the ground talking to a shepherd. We approached and asked him if he had anywhere where we could get cover for the night. He said we could sleep at his cabin, and then the two of them roared with laughter. We also appreciated the joke later.
We wandered off with our host and came to a wood and leaf cabin. There were some shelf beds at one end. Various flocks of sheep, each attended by a man or boy, began to arrive. All the sheep were put in pens near the cabin. We then realised with a shock that there were 17 of us to get into this small hut, in which they lighted a fire at one end. It was the most amazing sight I have ever seen when it came to bedtime and they started to turn in. Sardines had nothing on us.
We lay on the floor with three lads tucked under the shelf just behind us. No sooner had everyone settled down than one of the lads behind us decided to attend to nature, he scrambled out, his boots going on to the most tender spots of our anatomy. Immediately he was back another came out. This was repeated a third time. They then began to chatter. Mike and I got most rude to them which seemed to amuse them, so they started to giggle. Luckily we then began to see why the other two had laughed when we asked if we could SLEEP with them, and we began to laugh. Soon everyone realised that sleep was impossible and we all finished the night sitting around the fire. We made ourselves a hot drink and set off again in a South-Easterly direction. After crossing a lot of open ground we found it very difficult to keep to the tracks, we followed a track up a wooded hill, it was then about midday so we decided to make some tea and have something to eat. We got a fire going with difficulty and made some tea in an old tin can. As we were eating our meal a figure in khaki appeared over the hill looking completely fagged out, he was carrying a colossal pack on his back, we immediately recognised him as Maurice Rustin from our Camp. We helped him off with his pack and gave him some tea, which at once revived him. We then started off in the direction of the nearest village.
By dusk we had not yet seen any sign of a village, we were then on the top of a mountain. We decided that we would have to make the best of the night where we were, we found some bushes and collected enough wood to last us for the night. We got a fire going and arranged that one would remain awake for two hours while the others slept in the two greatcoats. The ground was so hard and the night so cold that we finished up by all three huddling round the fire.
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We set off as soon as it was light enough, we came to the top of the valley and what seemed miles below we could discern a small village, we could see one small road leading away from it. We skirted the top of the valley and began to climb down, we had to give up as there was a sheer drop for several hundred feet. We climbed back and continued along the top until we came to what looked like a dried up stream, we began to climb down this and after terrific difficulty with much scratching and slipping we arrived at the bottom. Here we made some tea and had something to eat. We then started towards the village (Vallepietra) which was at the other end of the valley. Soon after we had started we saw two young women working on an allotment. Maurice went over and asked them if they knew of anywhere in the village where we could get something to eat and spend the night. They were very frightened at first because they thought we were Germans. They told us that there were no Germans or Fascists in the village, and that if we would wait until they had finished their work they would take us to their Mother’s house where we could stay. They gave us some Maize bread and we sat down to wait. After a time they said they were ready and we walked with them to the village, this was situated on a small hill, the road we had seen came as far as the bottom of the hill, the street up into the village consisted of wide steps up which it was impossible to take vehicles.
The whole village seemed to know who we were, half way up the street a man who spoke good English invited us to his house, our escort went on to their own house and said they would call back for us. Our host said he was an Italian Captain, he was in “paintings” (something to do with Art Paintings) and had often been to London. He said he did not think it would be long before our troops arrived and told us it would be quite safe to stay in the village until they arrived. He gave us an English cigarette each (they were marked “British Red Cross and St.John”) and some wine. We were then called for and taken up to the other house. We entered and saw a large number of people sitting on the floor stripping Maize, there was an old lady dressed in black sitting on a little stool, in front of a big wood fire, she was busy stirring some pale yellow liquid in a terrific cauldron which was hanging over the fire. We were installed on some wooden seats near the fire. After a few minutes the food was apparently ready and the table was brought up, the cauldron was lifted off the fire and much to our amazement the contents were poured onto the top of the table and spread out.
We were then given a fork each and told “mangate’ (eat) as we were pretty hungry. We did as we were told with some amused glances at each other. While we were eating two men came in dressed in civilian clothes. They were two South African ORs [other ranks], they also had something to eat, they told us they were living in the village and that there were a lot of prisoners in the area and also that there was an Italian Officer and his Mother who did all the organising of the meals for the prisoners. It was arranged that we should sleep in the house that night and go to the barn, where there were two S.A. [South African] Officers, first thing in the morning. After the meal the room was cleared up and a lot of sheep’s wool was brought from upstairs and spread on the floor, this was covered with a carpet of sorts and some rugs were brought. We all three slept very comfortably on this bed. We were woken by the old man just before dawn, they made us some coffee and toast for our breakfast, we were then taken to a barn just a little way from the house, there we found the two S.A. Officers and the other two S.As. We spent the day in the barn, only going outside for meals which were served just outside the barn by villagers, after dark we went back to the house and slept there as before.
We became very friendly with Bob and Jerry, the two S.A. officers. About the 8th or 9th of October an Italian Officer in mufti came to see us and said that he was going through the lines with a guide and would any of us like to go with him. I personally would not have trusted myself with this man, anyhow Rustin decided to risk it, he acquired some civilian clothes in the village and left on the morning of the 10th. Soon after Rustin had left two more Italian Officers arrived and said they knew their way through and would take anyone in Mufti so Bob and Jerry decided to go with them, they left early on October 14th. The whole time we were in the barn there had been many British OR’s passing through just staying a night or two. Mike and I would also have moved but we were both suffering from rotten colds. About the 16th we managed to get civilian clothes of a sort. The Germans visited the village on one occasion, we went out on to the hillside, all the younger members of the village did the same, also for some unknown reason did many old women and very young children, the Germans came to visit the electric light works.
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There were no sanitary arrangements at all in this village, the streets were all used as conveniences. About the 18th the old man suggested we should go and live in a little stone barrack he had about 4 kms outside the village, he took us out there, we stayed there until about the 25th. We slept in some straw above the goat pen. The old man or one of the family used to bring us food out and he also used to give us goat’s milk. On the 25th he moved us to another stone barrack on the other side of the village, here we slept in Maize foliage, again above goats (Pooh! What a smell). While we were out at these barracks an Italian Student was very good to us, he used to walk out and bring us some decent wine, sometimes some apples and he also brought us some meat occasionally. About the 13th November the old folks insisted that we should go back to the village as our ’bedroom’ had been leaking and we had had a lot of snow. By this time I had got dysentery rather badly, I managed to get some medicine from a friend of the Student. While we were in the village we met Benson from our Camp, he was with a S.A.S.M. He told us he was leaving on the 18th. Mike and I had a very long discussion and eventually decided to go with Benson, and so on the morning of the 18th amidst great wailing and gnashing of teeth from our dear old folks the four of us left X to make for the next village (Filentino).
One of the old man’s sons came with us to guide us over the snow-covered mountains. After a long trek over the mountain of 5000ft we came to the top of the valley in which the next village was situated, here our guide left us and we began the very slippery descent; we reached the bottom having travelled the majority of the way on our bottoms, we met a young lad who told us that there were Germans in the village and showed us an empty cow stall where he said we would be alright for the night. While Benson went into the village to do a reccy, we three collected wood so that we could keep the fire going all night. Benson returned and said he had been through the village, and we decided to pass through the village next morning before light. We left our “lodging” at about 4.15 a.m. and passed safely through the village in twos at about 5 a.m. On the other side of the village we met two Italians who said they would escort us to our next port of call, however they travelled so fast that we got them to tell us the route and we had a rest before tackling the next mountain. After we had rested and eaten some snow to quench our thirst we set out on the climb of 6500ft.
When we at last got to the other side we contacted a man who was with some sheep and he kindly said he would arrange for us to spend the night quite near (Lameta), he took Mike and I to a friend’s house and Benson and the SM went to his house.
We were just about to have something to eat when a small boy came running in to say a Fascist was coming up to the house, Mike and I slipped our boots on and bolted with the little boy to a shed nearby, after about an hour the son came and said we could go back to the house. We had a lot of wine and some quite good meals to celebrate my birthday. The next day we spent in a barn nearby, and went back to the house in the evening and arranged to leave the next day. The old man said he would take us down the valley and show us where we could cross the river, railway and road. This we did successfully, one at a time. We then climbed the hill on the other side. We continued along the hillside towards the next village (Civita Dantina). We met a girl who said we could stay the night in the village and sent us to a house where there were about seven other prisoners. They had been there some weeks. We all four slept in a barn nearby. We decided that we would continue in twos from then onwards. Benson and the SM left early the next morning and Mike and I followed later. We continued along the side of the valley to a small village to which there was no road, we called in at a house and they gave us some wine and a meal, we then met another prisoner who had been living in the village some weeks, we went with him to see the local priest, they told us where to go for a meal that night. We slept with other prisoners on lousy straw on the floor of an empty house. We delayed in this village for a few days owing to torrential rains. We met here Barry Jackson from our Camp and he told us that there was a guide in the next village. We left the next day with two SA’s and two Italians. We entered the village and met a very nice lady from Florence who spoke perfect English, she took us along to the priest’s house and sent for the guide. The guide said he could take us over the next mountains and put us on the track for the village we wanted. We all set out to climb the next mountain of 5000ft, the guide took us over the mountain, we then met an Indian OR, he took us to meet some Indian Officers who were living on the hillside, he then showed us the way to the village, it was then dusk. After a long walk we saw some more Indians who took us into the village (Ville Vallelonga). After a lot of trouble a man gave us some rice and told us to take it to another house to get it cooked. This we did. we found this house and an SA who had been there some weeks. The old lady cooked us some food.
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The next day we went out into surrounding hills until dusk when we returned to the same house. We then made enquiries about a guide, we were taken to a man who said he would take us through the line for £50.
I was not yet fit, and so we arranged to be fed by the guide’s family and sleep over a nearby stable with the two SA’s. Mike was taken ill with dysentery. I spent the days out in the country with the S.A’s, Mike stayed in the loft. About the 4th December John arrived. We arranged to move back to the town (Tresacco) he had just left and tried to get medical attention for Mike, we fixed up with a lorry to take us at 10.30 on the 6th.
At about 4a.m. on the morning of the 6th we heard some lorries enter the village, then there was loud knocking on the door and cries from the Italians of Scapare Tedeschi (Flee! Germans). By this time we could hear machine guns going on all sides of the village, so we decided to dig ourselves into the straw. After we had got well under cover the old lady who owned the stall came along in a terrific state saying that the Germans were setting fire to all stalls and sticking bayonets into all straw. So one by one we left the stall and crawled to a pigsty just out behind the houses and here we had to stay until 5 o’clock in the evening.
By that time the village was in such a state of fright that we decided to leave at once for the town about 8 miles away.
We skirted one village by crossing the fields; towards the end we had to help Mike who was still feeling pretty bad. John took us to the people who had helped him before. They were not very pleased to see us, they had of course heard the most fantastic rumours about the raid on the village we had just left. They told us that there were about 1500 Germans in the town. After a lot of persuasion they said we could stay the night in the stable, they also loaned us some covers. The next day John went out and arranged for the doctor to come and see Mike, this he did later in the day and brought medicine and injections. Our host at this time was most unpleasant, and told us that we must find somewhere else to go.
However, we slept the night there, and the doctor gave us the name of a friend of his who was a farmer outside the town, and John and I decided to walk out and see him. We walked out the next day and found the place, the people were extremely nice and gave us a meal and they took us to some small wooden buildings out on the fields and told us that we could live in any one we liked. We told them that Mike was ill, and they suggested that John and I should walk out each day and get the place ready an then move out later.
When we got back to the town an Italian who spoke English came along and said that he had a small building with straw in it that we could live in until the other place was ready. We moved in that night. From this time onwards we began to see lots of Germans and we decided that the best plan was to walk as near as possible to them and say “Good-day” as this seemed the best way to allay suspicion. I must admit that I was terribly nervous the first time I did this, after a time it seemed quite the natural thing to do. Mike was very comfortable in our new house and had lots of visitors and a nice fire to sit by. The second day we went to the farm, but when we got near we could see some German lorries in the yard, we waited until these had moved off. We then went in and we were told the Germans had been after potatoes. We were asked to lunch. We had got about half way through the meal when three German lorries pulled up outside, the farmer jumped from the table and was just in time to stop a German Officer in the next room before he entered the one we were in. The family showed great presence of mind and we all continued our meal. The Germans took the farmer back to the town as he was apparently cutting up rough about the pinching of potatoes. John and I often used to go to various houses in the town for meals in the evening. Mike at this time was on a diet and on one occasion we were sitting in front of a fire in a kitchen when a German Officer and N.C.O. walked in to do some billeting, they politely saluted us and said “Bouna Sera” to which we replied “Bouna Sera Senor” (Good Evening Sir). They had a look round the house and left.
John and I were getting very restless at this time as we wanted to push and make an attempt to cross the line, but we could see that Mike would not be fit to make the long journey. We talked it over with Mike and he admitted he did not feel fit enough to do anything strenuous, but that he was fit enough be left. John and I decided to try and acquire bicycles as they would give us an excuse for being on the main roads and would not look so suspicious as walking about with bundles on our backs.
John cycled into a nearby town and had his photograph taken and Mike’s and mine enlarged from a group I had done in the camp, we then forged some Italian papers in case we were ever stopped.
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I sold my Army Greatcoat to raise some money for the purchase of bicycles. We bought one for 1500 lire and gave a receipt for another. Neither of them had any brakes but they were better than nothing. We had also borrowed some money off our farmer friend. John and I decided to make South-East and attempt to cross the lines on the 8th Army front for at this time there was quite considerable movement going on at this Front.
At about 3 o’clock on the afternoon of December 23rd we set out from the town we had lived in for more than a fortnight. The roads were very muddy and we had been given a route to a little village about seven miles away. The bike were not a great success in the thick mud and we had not been going very long when there was a loud explosion from John’s back tyre, we pushed the bikes for about a mile and asked if we could go into a barn and mend the puncture. On extracting the inner tube we found that there were already 26 patches on this tube, however we added one more and set off again. It was just getting dusk when my tyre went, as we were then about three miles away we decided that John should cycle on and try and arrange a place to sleep and that I should push my bike along the road. John set off as best as he could on the bad road which was running under about three inches of water and inches of mud. I plodded on with water and mud round my ankles and after a most uncomfortable 3 miles I heard footsteps approaching in the dark.
I stopped and whistled softly and heard John reply. He told me he had contacted the local Caribeneri and had arranged for us to sleep in the stable with his horse and chickens. He told me the Carib. was very suspicious of him and said that he might quite easily be a German. When I arrived in the house they all seemed very nervous, I produced the group I had taken in the Camp and after many questions they seemed more satisfied. We sat round the fire and took off our boots and socks and dried them as best we could. They gave us a very good meal and a lot of wine, several villagers came and had a look at us. We told them we were making East as we had some addresses over on the coast, the Carib. gave us some more addresses at a town nearer the coast. We mended our punctures and generally overhauled the bikes as best we could. We turned in fairly early and had a comparatively decent night on some straw beside the horse. The cockerel was rather an early riser! In the rooming they gave us a very good breakfast and packed us some food to take with us. We left about 9.30 with a few tears from our hosts and headed for the main road from Rome to Pescara on which we were going to make East. We joined the main road and turned right. Most of our journey was spent pushing the bikes as the hills were too steep to ride up and as we had no brakes we dare not risk riding down.
While on the main road we saw large numbers of German transport going both ways. In the towns we passed through we saw many German soldiers. Just as it was getting dusk we were approaching a large town (Popoli) so decided to look for a lodging outside, we saw a farmhouse a little way away from the road. We pushed our bikes up the track towards it and went in and asked if they could sleep us for the night. They were not very keen, but agreed to let us stay. The family was fairly large and had been evacuated from a village on the line. They gave us a meal of the usual “boiled dough” followed by nuts and wine. Not a very appetising meal for Christmas Eve but quite acceptable. We retired for the night with six of the family to the straw in the loft above the sheep. We did not get a lot of sleep as there seemed to be a terrific amount of livestock in the straw. We were up fairly early on Christmas morning, they had told us that civilians were not allowed through the next town on our route East, so we had decided to make for the town South of us where we had an address from the Carib. They were unable to give us any food for breakfast so we ate the remaining packet of biscuits I had kept from my Red Cross parcel, and we set out for our next port of call, the town South of us down the main road. We had not been cycling long when a German Despatch Rider drew up alongside John and asked him the way to the nearest station.
John told him as best he could, and he rode away and we breathed again. By this time we were beginning to feel quite peckish so we decided to call at the first likely looking house and ask for a drink and something to eat. We stopped at a house and knocked at the door, a young Italian answered and gave us some water to drink, just as we were going a girl came out of the room and gave us a slice of bread each with half a fish on it to take with us. We moved up the road about a hundred yards and sat on the bank and ate our “brunch”, while we were sitting there we saw
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two Germans go across the road to the house we had been to and come away eating something. They looked up the road at us but continued across and disappeared down the lane opposite. After we had eaten we continued down the road towards the town we decided to ask the first reasonable looking individual if they could tell us where to find the address we wanted.
Just outside the town (Sulmona) we saw a young fellow wearing an Alpini hat. John went over to him and asked for the address. After a few moments conversation John called me over, he told me the Alpini had asked if we were P.O.W’s, this John had admitted and he had then told him that he had been through to the British Lines with some Officers before, and that he was going again in two days’ time and would we like to go with him. We, of course, jumped at the opportunity although we were a wee bit apprehensive for we knew nothing whatever about this fellow, but thought the chance worth taking.
The guide told us that he was then going off to see another British Officer who was also coming through. He told us to go up into the town and down a side road and he would come to us there. He warned us that the town was full of German spies, some of whom were in civilian clothes and passing themselves off as British P.O.W’s and that the local population were scared stiff. Two British Officers had been shot two days before. (Further outlook unsettled). He then left us and we went on to the side road as arranged.
We stopped down the road and smoked a cigarette the guide had given us. People came and stared at us and after a little while a “nice young thing” came and asked if we would like a glass of wine. She suggested we should go into their back yard to get away from the curious glances of the other people, and she said she was afraid of spies. We went round to the back and they brought us some wine and some pasta. We were in the middle of eating this when another girl came running into the yard and said there was a spy coming along the road. There then ensued a terrific “flap”. The mother, who was nearly having hysterics, screamed that we should climb the fence and run out into the country and leave our bikes and never come into the town again. Another person then arrived and said it was not a spy, but our guide. The atmosphere was so tense by this time that we decided it was best to get out, so we left the yard with the guide and walked down the road a little pushing our bikes.
We had had about two mouthfuls of pasta for our Christmas Dinner. We arranged with the guide to meet him after dark that evening near a little bridge and he would tell us where we could sleep; he advised us to go out of the town for the rest of the day. We them left him and went back the way we had come.
At the house we had been to, we were stopped by our “girl friend” and various neighbours. They then began to stuff food into our pockets, they produced some anchovies, another had some home made biscuits, another some bread, another some cooked meat inside bread and another a bottle of wine, and the girl made us have a small drink of liqueur which was very good. So with pockets full and fond farewells we cycled out into the country. We found a little lane overlooking the railway line and sat down to finish our meal. After we had eaten we played two handed bridge for an hour or so. I then noticed that one of the tyres was flat. John went on down the lane to a farm and came back and said we were invited to go there for an hour or so and that we could mend the tyre there. We pushed the bikes down to the farm. The farmer could speak quite good English. He brought us some wine while we were mending the puncture. Then we went in by the fire and had some nuts. While we were there the farmer kept telling us that if the Germans came and found us there they would shoot us, him, his wife and their daughter. The whole time he kept either his wife or daughter outside on the lookout in case anyone approached. By about 4 o’clock we were so “browned off” with his cheerful forecasts about everyone being shot that we left them and once again sat at the side of the lane and played bridge.
After some while we made our way back to the town to keep our appointment with the guide. The whole afternoon, although neither of us mentioned it to the other, I think we were both wondering if the guide would show up or perhaps show up with some Germans. However, our worries were baseless; the guide met us as arranged at the little bridge. He told us that we would find a couple of reed huts just above us on the hill and that we could stay there, he said he would be leaving in the early morning of the 27th and he would feed us. He suggested that I stayed where I was and that John would go with him and get us some food and leave the bikes at his house. I wandered up the hill and found one of the huts and then returned to the river to await John, he soon turned up and we made our way up the hill to the hut I had found, it was full of faggots which we moved outside to make room for us to lie down. Underneath we found a rifle hidden we made room and then had a meal of bread and cheese
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as we could have no light we sat and talked and then tried to sleep, the ground was mighty hard and neither of us slept much. As soon as it was light enough we looked round for the other hut, we found it nearby and moved over to it, there were some bales of straw here which made things better, we were very visible from the Town so decided that it would be best if we did not go outside at all during the day. We had given the guide 100 lire to buy us cigarettes and about midday the guide’s wife arrived with some hot food and some cigarettes.
By this time we were mighty hungry and very pleased to see her, she said her husband would come and see us in the evening and bring us some more food. We played bridge most of the afternoon. In the early evening the wife arrived again with more food and wine and told us to go to the guide’s house at 4 o’clock the next morning and that we would leave then. John and I spent the majority of the night listening to the town clock. We got up at about
3.30a.m. and set off for the guide’s house. When we arrived there there were several others already there. The guide said he was sorry, but that we would not be going until the next morning. We asked him why and he mentioned something about snow. We were most annoyed as we did not relish another day in the hut. However, there seemed nothing we could do about it.
We wandered back towards the hut and just as we arrived there we heard someone whistle us and the guide came running up and said we were going after all. He told us to wait by the bridge and he would be there with food etc. in about a quarter of an hour. We saw several others waiting near the bridge, one was a British OR from Chieti none of the others were English. The guide arrived and there were several women to say Goodbye, we gave our blankets to the guide’s wife as we were not sleeping at all on the way. The party consisted of the guide, one Italian Major, 43 Italian Tenenti, one free Frenchman, one British OR and John and I. We set off along little pathways towards the high mountain we had got to cross.
It was still dark and the going was very rough, there being many rocks and much mud on the track. We made fairly good progress and crossed the main road before it was really light, we passed through a little village and started to climb. Soon after the start of the climb we had a few minutes rest and a drink of wine and set off again. The Italians and Frenchman seemed to find it pretty rough going but we had so much to gain by getting along as fast as possible that we felt fine. The snow was very low and before long we were walking through fairly deep snow. The Italians were now becoming very difficult they wanted to rest every few yards and seemed to be very much out of condition. This annoyed the guide and ourselves very much, for by now the atmosphere was getting intensely cold and as soon as one stopped walking one got chilled right through.
The free Frenchman was also having a lot of trouble for he apparently suffered from heart and was finding breathing very difficult as we gained height. All the Italians and the “Froggie” were all carrying too much kit. The “Froggie” dumped a lot of his but the others hung on to theirs.
We stopped for a little food and a drink and waited for “Froggie” to catch up. We came across some charcoal burners with a lovely fire going, we stopped for a chat. They told us that there had been a German Patrol on the peak of the mountain the day before and that sometimes they stayed up there. They advised us to skirt the peak but the guide thought otherwise. When we crossed over the peak (over 8,000ft high) we saw a newly built hut on our right, we went past very quietly, but saw no-one.
The “Froggie” by this time was in a very poor state, he kept collapsing, and John and I took it in turns of taking him by the arm and walking with him and helping him along. It was about midday when we crossed the peak, our slacks were completely frozen and felt as though we were wearing metal pipes as they knocked together when we walked. With much difficulty and urging the Italians on we eventually reached a hut well down on the other side of the mountain.
We went in and had a meal and a good rest. The guide had brought us a sweet blackcurrant drink of sorts and it was very good. The OR during the latter part of this journey had twisted his knee and had to be helped occasionally but he managed very well. After we had rested we continued downhill until we left the snow behind and came to a blown up sewer pipe from behind which we could see the main road and a village beyond.
From this vantage point we could see some German transport in the village. To cross the road we had to climb down a bank to a wall in which there was a gate, through this across the road and down the other side. We decided to cross in twos, the guide leading with two of the Italians immediately behind him, the next two to leave when the first party was over, and so on. John and I were the third couple to cross, we saw the others over and started off to join them, just as we reached the wall we heard someone coming along the road and over the wall I saw a German. We hid down behind the gate while two very young Germans went past, whistling merrily, with
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a number of sheep, we waited until they had rounded the next bend, we then crossed and joined the others.
When we were all gathered together again we decided to continue in twos at a reasonable interval along a little track running East towards a small village where we hoped to be able to rest until dark. This we did, and after a short while arrived at the village, this village was completely in ruins, having been blown to pieces when the Germans had finished with it. We were told that German patrols still visited it to collect eggs and whatever was worth taking. We were taken to a house where there was a fire and we sat round this until nearly ten. The guide told us that three other Italians who all knew the area were joining the party.
He suggested that we should all try to sleep for a couple of hours and start off again at midnight, it would then give us plenty of time to get through the German lines before dawn. John and I went to the morgue in which there were about a dozen women and children sleeping and we dozed off for an hour or so. At about 12.30 a.m.we went along to the house to see if everyone was ready, but of course the Italian Officers were far from ready and it was not until about 2 a.m. that we were ready to start off again.
This late start was most unfortunate for it meant that if anyone fell by the way they would have to be left, or otherwise the safety of the whole party would be jeopardised for one man. We got the guide to explain this to everyone. Our party was now twelve and we set off on the final lap. Our plan was to follow the river and do loops where there was any danger of bumping into Germans. The night was very dark, there was sleet, rain and snow at times and a high wind. The weather was perfect for our task. The going was more difficult than ever, deep mud and slush Inches deep, and large rocks. Soon after we had started the OR’s knee gave way again. I helped him along for a bit, but eventually he decided to give up and rest for a day and come through later, (he succeeded the next day).
The Italian Officers were moaning the whole time about the pace and the route. After passing through another blown up village we stopped to see if the party was complete. The OR, the “Froggie” and one Italian Officer were missing. We waited five minutes and then continued as we could not risk waiting longer. We did some long and very difficult loops to skirt suspected German Posts. We stopped at a derelict hut for a rest and a drink. By this time one Italian Officer had a fever and the Major was pretty fagged. John and I were carrying some of their kit so that we could make then keep up our pace. Before we started off again the guide told us we were coming to the most dangerous area and that there was to be completely silent. We started off and the going was worse than ever, everyone was falling headlong every few minutes. John who was walking ahead of me suddenly disappeared and I next saw him stretched out in deep mud about eight or nine feet below – he had missed the path. He had landed expertly and was unhurt. The Major then went “a purler”. I then witnessed the most amazing behaviour of a man I have ever seen. He lay on the ground crying to John “Giovanne, Giovanne, Mia Gamba, Mia Gamba” (“John, John, My leg, my leg”) and then proceeded to cry for about 20 minutes. We picked him up but there seemed to be little damage. We continued with John half carrying the crying Major, who kept crying at the top of his voice in spite of the guide telling him to be quiet as it was dangerous. After a while the Major managed to get along a bit quicker, but he was still talking and sometimes flashing his torch; he was also holding up the pace of the party. The guide, John and I then held a conference and decided that for the safety of the party we would have to leave one of the guides with the Major and the rest would push on at our speed, leaving the other two to follow as best they could. The guide was a bit adamant about leaving him, but we pointed out that the guide was in charge of the party, and that Major or no Major he had been talking and flashing his light against the orders of the guide.
At last we got going again with John and I in front with the guide setting a cracking pace. The other two Italian Officers kept up somehow hanging on to each other for mutual support, John and I were carrying their baggage. By about 8 a.m. we saw a village on the other side of the river which the guide told us was in British hands but there were no British actually in there at the moment.
We pushed on feeling greatly relieved and came to a demolished bridge over a river and climbed up on to the road. We then had about 8 kms to cover to get to the town where there were many British troops. We went into a cottage and had a rest, we told then we were escaped P.O.Ws. I think they believed us after a while, but they told us that the week before six men had said the same thing and had then shot about eight Italians and then gone away, this turned out to be a German Patrol.
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After a little while we decided to push on to the town. There was a terrific gale blowing up now, but it was fine. I do not think any distance was ever so long as those final kms, they seemed hundreds of miles. Eventually we got into the town and asked a British OR for an English cigarette, he gave John and I a 20 packet of Senior Service each. They tasted absolutely marvellous. Our guide then took us to an office where we saw a member of the Intelligence Corps. We told him who we were, and he sent us to a Battalion Headquarters where I saw the C.O.
John was put in the care of the R.S.M. and the Adjutant was detailed to look after me.
He took me to the Mess where I had tea, bread and butter and jam. I then went to his room and had a wash and shave. After this he took me to the Q.M. and I was supplied with a complete set of clothing. We then had lunch at the Mess after which the Colonel insisted that I should have his bath. It was glorious to get into a proper bath again. The amount of dirt that came off in my first bath for over three months was nobody’s business. I got the batman to burn all my clothes, and beautifully arrayed in a new Battledress I descended to the Mess again. I was then told there was a truck waiting for me. I went outside to find John who had had similar treatment waiting for me. We were then taken to an Intelligence Office and interrogated about the immediate front. There I met Tony Haugh from Chieti who had also come though that day. We were then taken to an F.M.C. for the night.
The next day we went to Termoli, saw an ENSA show that evening. Caught the night Hospital Train and arrived at Bari the next afternoon. Supplied with all sorts of things by the Red Cross, and fully Interrogated. After a few days we went to Tarranto, stayed a few days and then to Phillipville, two days there and then by train to Algiers, ten days there and caught a ship for Heaven on January 29th, arrived at Liverpool on 8th February, met by Major General who welcomed us home on behalf of the War Office. Sent to a transit camp for the night, rang up my Wife and told her I would be home the next day.
Caught the 2 p.m. express to London, arrived at Liverpool Street Station to see my train just disappearing. Again rang my Wife that I would be on the next one. Had a meal and caught train. Arrived at Ipswich about 11.45 p.m. and met by Mary, which made everything well worthwhile.
During the last part of our journey we covered 50 miles in less than 36 hours. Our boots were worn through when we arrived. John had no socks and a great gash in the side of one boot through which you could see his foot.