English, Ian – The Greatest Escape


Ian English (Durham Light Infantry) escaped from Fontanellato PG49 at the mass break-out on September 9th 1943. He travelled approximately 400 miles south, crossing the lines near Casoli south of the River Sangro on 23rd December.

Ian was accompanied by Scotty White, Jack Moore and Jimmy James, until the latter – a doctor – was recaptured helping a gravely ill British soldier. The story is unusual for the fact that these Allied escapers crossed the lines with a woman, having been joined towards the end of their trek by Douglas de Cent and Gillian Weatherdon. A detailed account of Ian’s escape and long walk to the Allied Lines can be found in his account ‘Assisted Passage’ (privately published 1994).

Ian English was also chiefly responsible for collecting and editing the stories of several Fontanellato escapees, ‘Home by Christmas?’ (1997, revised and re-published 2017). The following document is an edited transcript of an interview with Ian English that was conducted in June 1999 for a television programme ‘The Greatest Escape’. The interview starts with his capture in North Africa and focuses on the time between his escape from PoW camp and rejoining British forces.

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.

Transcript of interview with Ian English in 1999 for programme “The Greatest Escape”

IE: I was in the Eighth Battalion the Durham Light Infantry (DLI). I joined the Territorial Army (TA) before the war, 1938; that was a territorial battalion, in other words part-time soldiers. The brigade was all DLI, the 6th, 9th Battalions as well and they were all TA battalions. We went to France in 1940 and came out through Dunkirk and then in 1941 went to the Middle East, arrived in the desert in June 1942 and then back to Alamein and then after the Battle of Alamein the 8th Army advanced along the North African coast… captured Tripoli and went into Tunisia. Well, the route was blocked by a line which the French had built before the war, I think to keep the Italians out of Tunis, called the Mareth Line. And this was built on a river system and concrete fortifications of all sorts, the Germans improved on it and dug an anti-tank ditch and littered it with mines and all the rest of it and it was a very strong position. Anyway, the Brigade was ordered to attack this and we did so at first successfully but after 3 days, and a dreadful battle with the opposition, were driven in and the final morning I was taken prisoner. I had said to myself, ‘well, I must tie up with my company on my right and arrange the fire plan and so on and I went along this anti-tank ditch and was most surprised to find no soldiers at all. And I went on a bit further and around a corner and ran into 6 Panza Grenadiers. We looked at each other for a bit in considerable surprise and I’d pulled my revolver out and tried to shoot them but wholly unsuccessfully. I think I hit one in the foot. And then threw my revolver on the ground and so I was taken prisoner. I was very fortunate; I think I could have been shot out of hand. I think my guardian angel was with me on that occasion. And I heard afterwards that the battalion had been ordered to withdraw over this wadi, but the message had never reached my company, or another company on my left and that’s what led to all the trouble. Anyway, I was taken back through this battlefield, it was a ghastly sight and back to a German headquarters where I was interviewed by a very good English- speaking German intelligence officer who was very charming – no nastiness at all. And then eventually we were put on cattle trucks; there weren’t a lot of us, about 20 or 30. Taken gradually through Sousse and Sfax and up to Tunis, where we were put into a place that had been a rubber factory and where there were a lot of prisoners, mostly 1st Army. And we were there for 5 or 6 days, I think. And then we were told there’s a ship ready to take us to Italy. There was an arrangement between the Germans and Italians that whoever, it didn’t matter who, had captured Allied servicemen, that they would be handed over to the Italians. And so they took over and we went on board this ship and down into the holds and waited for, of I don’t know it felt like an age, but I think it must be 2 or 3 days at the most. And the sailors were going would with their life jackets on and their boots undone, fully expecting to jump ship, because the British navy and RAF were sinking ships – about half the ships that crossed the channel between Tunis and Italy. I shouldn’t think that if they had done that many of us would have got out of the hold. Anyway, it didn’t happen, so there’s no need to worry about that now. We got taken to Naples and then quite a short trip to a prisoner of war (PoW) camp which was more or less a transit camp, at Capua. Not a good camp at all, really, but we were in huts there and I was there about a month and then we were told to pack up and were put on a train. We didn’t know where we were going, and finished up – I think I’m right in saying – at Piacenza which is in the Lombardy Plain. And from there we were taken to a little town called Fontanellato. And there was a camp there, a fairly new camp, it had only been opened I think in March 1943 and I’d been taken prisoner on 23rd March, so it was quite a new camp. A very fine building, it had been designed before the war as an orphanage and had big columns at the front and a marble staircase and a large meeting hall and I think that if one had to be a prisoner, that would be the place to be… It must have been one of the better camps… we weren’t all in bunks one top of the other like most PoW camps are, certainly in Germany. We had beds and we had a little cupboard beside each bed, there were about 20 in the room I was in. Some of them were down to about 6 or 8 smaller ones. And the catering was all done centrally and that was marvellous. All the Red Cross parcels were all pooled … well it was the Italian rations of course which were pretty sparse but there was a certain amount of trade outside with probably the medium of cigarettes, I would think that was the currency. And quite honestly we ate simply but adequately and I don’t think there was any question of anybody being hungry in that camp. We had been a bit hungry in the first camp but nothing more than one would have expected, partly because when one arrived in a camp it was sometime before the organisation could work that you received a Red Cross parcel. And of course Red Cross during the war kept many Allied servicemen, British servicemen, alive because, with their parcels, absolutely amazing. So that was the set up. I was only there for 6 months because it all blew up on 8th September 1943.

Q: What was life like in the camp?

IE: Yes, well, the first thing of course was the roll call. And when I got there everything was very slack really. I think some of the prisoners who’s been there a long time – most of them were captured in ’42 and in 1 or 2 cases, even in 1941. They thought it was a good thing to make it as difficult as possible for the Italians and so these roll calls took ages. And they weren’t satisfied that it wasn’t being done right and one had to file past someone who counted us…. Later on, all that was altered. We got a new SBO (Senior British Officer) who organised the whole thing on a proper military basis into platoons and companies and everybody could be counted off very easily and the roll call took about 20 minutes instead of about 2 and a half hours.  And after that it was breakfast and then it was entirely up to you. There was a lot of classes run, all sorts, and I joined a class run by a Lincolnshire farmer and we studied agriculture. The most serious good way one could imagine; one sat around and talked about farming… we didn’t have any books and of course we couldn’t go out in the field. But there was languages and an active theatre group who put shows on. There were people studying for exams… I believe in Germany people actually qualified as lawyers whilst in Germany. And there was a library, which was quite good. Some books were sent out. The British Embassy supplied some. And then of course people swapped around and brought books from other camps and it was quite good. I read quite a lot while I was there. And one very good thing was that we, once a week or thereabouts, we were allowed out for a walk. And although we had given our parole – in other words we said we wouldn’t escape on the walk – and we had at least 6 Italian guards with us. Well, these people quite naturally of course weren’t front-line soldiers, they weren’t very fit medically and we used to walk really fast in threes – partly to get some good exercise and also I think to annoy the Italians a little bit because the little men in the front were running and those at the back were 3 or 400 yards behind because they couldn’t keep up, but we used to go out into the Lombardy plain and that was great and then we constructed a playing field… then some ground became available and we played rugger, 5-a-side rugger and 6-a-side football, and then there was basketball and that sort of thing. And then there was a stream running through and all the betting fraternity used to run a book on which little boat was going to get first past the post – and that sort of thing. So most people passed the time fairly agreeably. There were one or two who just did nothing really except mope, so it was up to you.

Q: It sounds like you had a fairly enlightened commandant at the camp?

IE: Yes, yes we did. We were very fortunate. He was an Italian colonel who, we were told, had actually played bridge for Italy amongst other things, but he was very efficient officer. He made it absolutely certain, took every precaution that there would be no escaping, but nevertheless he was fair and the second SBO we got made it his business to get on well with this man, without in any way kowtowing to him at all, but make certain that the thing was done in a proper way and we had all the dues and privileges that – if that’s the right word – that we were entitled to. So yes – and his number 2 was an officer who had lived in England for a long time, in fact I think he ran a business in England who spoke very good English of course. And there was only one that I think of the staff who was rather disagreeable but… so again we were fortunate, we could have been a lot worse. Some camps in Italy, the commandants were very nasty.

Q: What about the make-up of the camp… how many officers and what nationalities did you have in the camp with you?

IE: Yes, it was a camp for officers, perhaps one of the smaller ones, just over 600 officers there and there were about 50 other ranks who did a lot of the cooking and various sorts of jobs of that sort. About two-thirds of those were South African actually. And the SBO was a Lieutenant Colonel and there were 5 or 6 other Lieutenant Colonels and when this organisation came out, they were commanders of the companies. Quite a lot of majors and down to 2nd lieutenants. I think most of them had been captured at the disastrous battle of Gazala in June ’42 and some a little bit earlier and a few later but there were 3 or 4 of us that had been captured in the Mareth do and I think there may have been 1 or 2 who had actually been in Sicily, so very recent. One of the officers was a lieutenant colonel who had been in G-1 operations in other words General Staff Officer Operations, in Eighth Army Headquarters and he gave us some very interesting talks about these battles….because when one is in a battle you see what’s going on around you just immediately and really – even half a mile away – you don’t know what’s going on, never mind the big picture, you know, you know, what the whole scene is, so he gave us some very interesting talks about these battles from a higher point of view. So that was the makeup. I only knew a few people, maybe half a dozen or so, or maybe a dozen or 15 on an acquaintance basis. And I didn’t get to know in the short time I was there very many at all, but there were some extremely interesting people and very talented.

Q: Can you describe the sequence of events on 21st July when Mussolini was deposed?

IE: Yes, there was suddenly this, well you might almost call it a rumpus, really, in the guard house. There was a guard hut in the forecourt of this camp – and there was a lot of shouting going on and people came out and soldiers and clapped each other on the back and all the rest of it and we really didn’t know what was going on, but then of course we had a news service in the camp that was run by a man called Larry Allen, who was an American journalist and he’d been on the Ark Royal when it been sunk in the Mediterranean. And he ran this service and there was also, of course, we knew – but nobody knew where it was except 2 or 3 – a radio that had been built in the camp and the only thing that was smuggled in was valves. And with this radio we could get World Service and that sort of thing, but he interspersed the information of the radio with the Italian newspapers… all very well, but one could read through the lines a bit and on that day that Mussolini was deposed, he started off all the messages with: FLASH – and he said ‘BENITO FINITO! And there was a short thing about how he was deposed – absolutely brilliant. Most of them – 90% were British – there was the odd New Zealander – don’t think we had any Australians and 1 or 2 South Africans and the odd Indian, but there were quite  number of Indian Army – British officers in the Indian Army: that was the make-up.

Q: What happened from 8th September?

E: Well, it was obvious from the news we’d got that things were getting extremely bad for Italy. We heard about the Sicily campaign being successfully concluded and then on 8th September in the afternoon there was again this tremendous outburst of shouting amongst the guards. They were throwing their caps in the air and shouting ‘Pace’. And there was a fellow in the room I was in looking out of the window and he said ‘I think they’re shouting Pace. And he said ‘That means peace, doesn’t it?’ And I said ‘Oh I don’t think it means that.’ Anyway, that’s what it was and the word got round very quickly that there was an Armistice and we were all called down to the big hall where the SBO said that he’s been talking to the commandant, that the Italians had signed an Armistice with the Allies – the immediate future was not clear at all – whether we’d stay there or move or what. And he said everybody must behave in a disciplined manner but be ready to move at a quarter of an hour’s notice from the camp. Well there was quite – we were allowed a certain amount of drink – there was some dreadful vino which we were allowed to have – Italian – the worst dregs of Italian red wine which IO couldn’t drink at all but we did have a certain amount of vermouth and there was quite a party in the little bar we had that night. I don’t think anyone slept a lot that night but anyway, the next morning soon after breakfast the alarm went… and everybody got their kit – just what they could carry and now fell in on the… where we did the roll calls and of course everyone being organised in a proper manner. This could take place in just a few minutes and we – I think my company was the first off – and we marched out, led by Captain Cammino as he was called, who was the Number 2 in the camp. And what had happened behind the scenes was – we didn’t know about it at that particular time, was that the SBO had reminded the Italian Commandant that he was responsible for the prisoners’ safety – and actually, which was another factor which I only learned a few years ago when collecting information for the book ‘Home by Christmas?’, was that the Italian government had told all the camp commandants that they must not allow their prisoners to fall in the hands of the Germans. Now at that time there was a now infamous War Office order which was sent to all camps in Italy – by clandestine means – that in the event of an Armistice everyone should stay put and not wander around in the countryside. I think the theory was that in 1918 this had happened to some extent and some people got into a lot of trouble and also it was alleged that Montgomery had said that he didn’t want a lot of prisoners interfering with his operation. But our SBO realised that that was not a tenable order because the Germans would be very anxious to take as many British prisoners as they could back to Germany. And so that was arranged and we marched out in threes from the camp – a big gap having been cut in the wire by the Italian guards. Now, other camps were not nearly as fortunate; at Chieti camp for instance the SBO said no one will leave the camp, those are my orders. He said , ’If anybody tries to leave the camp they will be court martialled’. And virtually 90% of that camp was carted off to Germany. And in one or two other cases, nearly as bad. Anyway, we were I think one of the only 2 camps in Italy that everybody got away. And this officer who had been at 8th Army HQ he had been out and found a good hiding area about 5 or 6 miles from Fontanellato and we hid up there along the stream bank and about an hour after we’d left, the Germans arrived. They arrested the Italian commandant and more or less ransacked the camp and were furious that they found no prisoners. The poor commandant was taken to Germany and had the most dreadful time in Germany – he did come back to Italy after the war but I’m afraid his health … he suffered so much that he died soon after. But they took what they wanted and moved off. And the Italian people from Fontanellato started to come out and see us and they told us about this. And they brought various bits of Red Cross parcels and food and that sort of thing for us.

Q: Were you surprised by the response from the Italian civilians?

IE: Yes indeed. After 3 days it was quite obvious that we – 600-odd people couldn’t stay together in that area, it was far too dangerous. And so the order was given to move away and break up into small parties. And people went their various ways and everybody didn’t really know what to expect. I mean, up to that time the majority of British people had despised the Italian soldiers anyway because they were so totally useless really, and there had been 1 or 2 nasty incidents. There was one at Capua some months before I got there where 2 British officers were shot … so we really didn’t know and we were really most surprised when we’d go past these farms and people would say ‘come in, would you like some food or something?’ And we really didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t know whether we were going to have to rely on our own resources or what was going to happen, but it’s absolutely certain that if it hadn’t been for the Italian people and, in most cases, small peasant farmers, that almost nobody would have survived … they couldn’t have found the food and that sort of thing…. And for the next few months they provided enough food to keep us alive, anyway, and in some cases people actually fed quite well.

Q: What was the state of the Italian people?

IE: Well, I don’t know what the situation was like in the towns because we kept well away from towns but in the countryside and in the villages, we were dealing with peasant people – real peasants, I mean the like of which we haven’t seen in this country for probably 200 years – who lived by the sweat of their brow. Largish families. Everyone worked every hour that God sent to keep themselves and their families. And I think they had a philosophy too to help travellers, or people who they thought were worse off than they were. And they were very adept, particularly later on when the Germans would come and raid these farms for food, they were very adept at concealing stocks of grain and pigs and that sort of thing. And so they would be able to provide us with food and in some cases they would carry a meal up, a long way up a mountain to somewhere where they knew prisoners on the run were hiding and that sort of thing – absolutely amazing.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about the risks the Italians were taking?

IE: Yes, I think it was 20th September they issued an order and this was put up on bills and notice boards all over the place, that anyone, it was a capital offence to help any escaped prisoner and also of course the same order they summoned the young men of Italy to report for duty with a labour corps or whatever. And of course, the Italians ignored this and so their young men became on the run and so at that this time, September and October, there were thousands, literally thousands of people on the move in Italy. There had been 80-,000, nearly 80,000 Allied prisoners – in September – about 50,000 of those got out originally, there was the majority of the Italian army who demobilised itself and soldiers walked home, they were moving through the countryside. There were sundry Russians and Yugoslavs and the odd Free French and all this business and they would come up to these poor people and say ‘can you give us something to eat?’ And so, really they were looking after these extra thousands of nomads – a very remarkable fact – and some of the Allied British prisoners, they found a good place and maybe stayed for months and months. Others wanted to move, of which I was one. But immediately after we got out the rumours were rife, everybody had a different story, most confusing; there were supposed to be Allied landings at Spezia for instance, or Livorno and on the other coast at Ancona and none of these stories, of course, proved true. So we didn’t know what to do. Should we stay put… it’s only going to be a week or so before the British Army is here, that sort of thing; the other alternative is to go to Switzerland. Well, from the camp we were fairly well in the north, just south of the Po. And that was the nearest place to go and quite a number did; in fact, 2 from our camp got into Switzerland within five and a half days of getting out of the prison camp. I didn’t want to go there and several others didn’t because we thought we would have been interned, as we would have been in fact. A lot of people just stayed about, in the countryside. And most of these I regret to say were recaptured sooner or later, probably sooner rather than later. We decided to go into the hills and we set off on the night of 11th-12th September and reached the hills in a couple of days. Well, the problem still remained that once we’d got there it may have been safer – it was – than down in the plan, but what was to happen – were we to stay there, were we going to wait for the British? The other alternative was to try to get a boat and get down to southern Italy or across to Corsica perhaps. Or, the partisans hadn’t really reared their head at that point – we did meet a man who said he was a leader of the partisans and he was rallying a group and all this sort of thing and we should join him. Well, we didn’t want to do that. And so we stayed around that area which was near Bardi, Varsi and Pietramoli Valley for about 3 weeks. And then we heard, we – there were 4 of us actually – we had – there was a Durham Light Infantry lad in the 9th who had been captured more or less the same time as me, a very young, fine man in the Northumberland Hussars who got a Military Medal in the desert and who’d been commissioned and he spoke a bit of Italian, and he joined us. And then I thought, well, it’d be a good thing if we had a doctor because one never knew whether you were going to succumb to some disease or other or break a leg or whatever, and so there were 4 of us. Well, then we heard when we were walking around from one village to another that there was a British soldier lying very ill in a village a few miles away and so we said, oh well, we’ll go and see him. And the doctor was this man called Jimmy James who went to see this chap and realised that he had a very acute appendicitis. Quite an old man he was – 42 – old for a soldier, let’s say, and unless he had an operation pretty soon, he was going to die. So they took him down on a sledge to a railway which ran from Spezia to Parma at a station called Val Mozulla and there were 2 Germans more or less looking after the station and this chap – he explained the situation to these Germans, they had to be taken to Parma immediately. And so, they arranged it but this soldier really pleaded with Jimmy James not to leave him – and so Jimmy James went with him and of course was recaptured. Well, we waited a week just to see if he would re-appear and then we set off walking. We decided by then, we’d all come to the conclusion that nothing was going to happen in the north very much and the only way to go was to walk south and join the British Army, which was at that time about some 400 miles south, I suppose.

Q: Was that south of Rome?

IE: Yes, the operations of course in Italy didn’t go very quickly – the 8th Army had landed more or less on the toe of Italy and the Germans, as was their normal way, very skilfully delayed them as much as possible with demolitions and all this, and then there’s been the landings at Salerno by the American Army with a British Corps… and the two were due to join up which they did eventually and then they continued the advance and the Germans were withdrawing gradually. And so the thing was fairly fluid at that time and that really was the ideal time to try and get through the line. There was this officer, Colonel Mannering, who had been in 8th Army HQ, he took a Greek who’d been in the British Army with him and another chap who spoke Italian fluently and they set off more or less from the place we’d dispersed near Fontanellato, straightaway and went south and there were 4 other officers from the camp who did the same. And they just walked every day and they got through on I think 15th October and they were still in battledress. And when they got right down to the south, the line wasn’t fixed at all, the fighting was fairly mobile and it was easier to get through on that basis. After about the middle of November or perhaps even earlier, beginning of November, things became very static. The Germans went into their winter line as they call it – the Gustav Line – which ran along the Sangro River – crossing in the mountains – Castel del Sangro and then gradually east, went to Cassino and the Garagliano River and that was an extremely position. The 8th Army during December – they crossed the Sangro but couldn’t get much father and the weather was terrible and the thing came to a halt and so of course by the time that we got through, everything was very static and was that much more difficult I suppose. But we just couldn’t make up our minds what to do further north – that was the hardest thing.

Q: At any time during this period were there ever any near recaptures for you?

IE: Yes, on 1 or 2 occasions we were very careful about crossing main roads and rivers. We’d sit up and watch for a time to see what the German traffic was and that sort of thing, and look for a route down. Sometimes one could get in a culvert and go underneath of roads and railways, but there were – we heard of people walking along roads who’d been spotted and Germans had re-taken them. We tried to avoid main roads, absolutely like the plague – we kept to small tracks and small by-roads and that sort of thing – in the general direction we wanted to go. But we had come to a place called Poggio Cancelli which was a little bit southeast of Aquila – Aquila’s a big Italian city of course – and that was being attacked by the RAF and we watched an attack and German anti-aircraft fire and all the rest of it. But we got, when we walked into this little village – there’d been an others ranks’ camp there, they were sent to work on a big water scheme making a dam – and they, soldiers from there didn’t really have a leader and they didn’t want to go on 8th September and some of them moved into this village. And the Italian officer who was an interpreter in this camp, he moved into this village and he kept things going for them really; he organised the villagers and food and that sort of thing. Anyway, we arrived in this place and there had been 1 or 2 other people walking that had passed through. Anyway, the snow came – I absolutely dreaded being snowed up – and we were stuck there for 3 days and then the 4th day it looked a bit better and so we set off and we had to go over a fairly big hill and we got involved in the snow walking up to our waists in snow for a time. Anyway, eventually we got down the other side and came to a road which led in the right direction and everyone thought ‘I’m not going to walk in any more snow’ and so we were walking along this road and started being passed by German staff cars and lorries and things and we thought, well, you know this is really too dangerous for words so we shot off down a track and unfortunately this track led us back to the road a bit farther on. Anyway we were lucky and then that evening it was getting dark and we met a boy and said, ‘are there Germans in this next village?’ and he said ‘yes’. And we thought, I wonder if he really knows. Anyway, we asked another man and said are there Germans about and he said, ‘oh yes, in this village’. So we thought, ah well we’re going to have spend a night out. Now we had changed into civilian clothes. Initially, when we were near Fontanellato a lot of the Italian people came with clothing and said you want to change. And a lot of colleagues did – they made themselves look like Italians. I was against it because I thought – rightly or wrongly – wrongly as it happened – that if we were caught in civilian clothes, we might be called spies and probably shot. So we kept our battledress but we did change into civilian clothes on 4th December and it became obvious to me that were a bit of a risk – we were risking the Italians really because we were in British uniform and so we changed our nice warm battledress for what the Italians offered us which was pretty thin things of various sorts and we looked quite a sight. But anyway, we kidded ourselves that we looked like Italians. So we said ‘oh we can probably walk along the roads now’ and we were coming to a little town and we were passed by a horse-drawn bus which was absolutely packed with people and the driver lent down and said ‘Are ya going to town Johnnie?’ So much for looking like Italians! And actually, it was one of the factors really that was our salvation. The Italians could tell instantly that we weren’t Italian. The Germans couldn’t. In the last few days when we were getting very near the Line – in fact more or less living in the German gun line – we saw Germans every day…. By then we were 5, we’d been joined by another British officer and an English young woman who had been married to an Italian. And we were trying to make a meal outside a little hut up this mountain and, as we were doing this, there was a German soldier who came around with his rifle held out like this, and I said, ‘well this is it, isn’t it’. Anyway, we just carried on with what we were doing and after a few minutes of him wandering around looking at us, Gillian – who was this girl – asked him in Italian what he wanted. He obviously didn’t understand Italian so he didn’t say anything. Anyway, then he went and got a pal of is and they both came and looked at us and eventually pushed off. And there were several other occasions where we ran into Germans and they more or less ignored us.

Q: Do you remember when you met Gillian, and was it Douglas, her partner, and were you surprised to see a woman on the road?

IE: Yes, we were. We had been told by somebody that there was an English woman who’d crossed the Pescara river shortly before, that’s all we knew and I think it was the second night we got up into this – it was really the Monte Maiella which lies between the Pescara river and the Sangro river – we were on the shoulders of that and living in a little stone sort of place and trying to get a charcoal fire going and these two walked past us and I put my head out and told them who we were and it was the next morning that we met her. We talked to Douglas or a bit that night and then we met them and after a day or two, we used to borrow a cooking pot from them and they had a little bit of meat which she’d been able to get from the nearest village. And after 2 or 3 days we decided to join up and so we went into a hut with them for the rest of our time there before we decided to make a break for it.

Q: Were you concerned that there was a woman who might not be able to cope with the rigours of the road?

IE: I was, yes. I dare say the others were. I thought the actual getting through the Line, well, it was obviously going to be dangerous and it might involve difficulties which a woman might not be able to cope with, but you know, she was grand. And it’s 1 or 2 occasions, you know, we had to help her along a it but when we – suddenly, I think it was 22nd December, the mists cleared – we’d been living in this cloud for about 9 days – and it suddenly cleared and we could see everything. Well, that did one’s morale a bit of good for a start. But also, we could look down below us and here is the battle going on – I think it was the New Zealand Division were attacking a place and of course the medium bombers came first. We saw all that and then the light bombers and then the artillery and we watched the whole thing – a sort of grandstand view – and we saw where the Germans were shooting from. There was a German gun which we’d passed on more than one occasion just down below and there were several there and we knew where they were and then we could see where the shells were landing and so we knew more or less where the British were. And Jack Moore, this chap in the Durham Hussars said I think we should go tonight – and we had provisionally agreed amongst us that we should try and make it through the lines on 23rd or 24th December on the supposition that the Germans might be celebrating Christmas rather than look for escaped prisoners. And I said ‘Yes, I agree, let’s go now.’ And Scotty White who was this chap in the DLI thought a bit and said ‘Yes, I’ll go with the majority’. But Douglas said ‘’No we shouldn’t, you know, we’ve agreed it’s going to be Christmas Eve, I don’t think we should go.’ And Gillian said ‘Well, what’s one day or two, what difference does it make?’, so we eventually decided to go. So then we sat up at this point and planned our route and of course it was essential to go at night. In other parts and particularly earlier on when the Line was more fluid, one or two people got through in the daytime, quite a lot actually. But in our case, there was no possibility of going through in the daylight and so we set off at 6 o’clock I think. And crept slowly past this German gun and the night became intensely dark, you just could not see anything – anyway, we found our way, we thought, as we planned, but we realised after a bit that we’d gone much too far to the right. And we got involved – the ground of course everywhere was absolutely soaking, I mean we had had so much rain – and we got involved in a very steep ascent of some bare clay ground. Sort of screes and we had a most terrible struggle getting up this and I remember on that occasion, Gillian could neither get forward or back and we had to go and help her there. And then we got to the top and we couldn’t get down, either it was all sliding or you didn’t know where to put your foot. Anyway, I don’t know after how long, it must have been well over an hour, we eventually got to the end of these clay screes and you could see by that time the clouds cleared a bit and there was some starlight and you could see this massive feature, it was the town of Guardiagrele, which we knew we had to keep on our left, and we could see the stream below us which we were going to follow which led us from the German positions right into the British positions. And we knew if we followed that we’d find a way. And so we got down to near this stream and Jack Moore and I were leading and we saw some figures in front. Well, we immediately ot down and the ground was so muddy and sticky that it was impossible to walk quietly – anyway we lay there and they stopped and laid down and we lay there looking at each other for about 10 minutes to a quarter of an hour, I should think, and eventually they got up and moved off. Well now, who they were we definitely don’t know to this day. It was probable that it was a German patrol but we don’t know. It might even have been a British – it might have been Italian civilians but I think it’s unlikely. Anyway, after we got moving again…

Q: So the patrol moved off, you don’t know who they were, what happened next?

IE: Well, when we got moving again Scotty White came to me and said ‘what was all that about?’ (because we’d signalled to them to get down. And we said ‘oh there’re some Germans in front – because we thought they’d been Germans – and they couldn’t see – they didn’t know what had happened. Anyway, we carried on then relatively uneventfully – it seemed ages and ages – of course by that stage we were very tired. And then we knew – we were pretty certain of the direction, there was a hill on our right which we thought the British were holding (from what we’d observed earlier in the day) and we kept going down this valley and then we noticed a British truck and a motorcycle and shortly after that there was a fellow who stepped out and said ‘Halt, who goes there?’ You see, the time-honoured thing and we said ‘Friend’. He said ‘Give the password’. So I said ‘We are British officers, escaped prisoners of war and we do not know the password.’ And he thought for a bit and then he went and got the Guard Commander. And he came and had a look at us and absolute scarecrows we must have looked because I mean we were pretty scruffy anyway but all our fronts were covered in mud from those clay screes and we told him, you know, where we’d come from and he said ‘alright’ and ‘come in’. So we went into their little house place where there had a guard – these were some gunners – Royal Artillery, from the First Airborne Division. And so that was more or less that.

Q: What was your feeling when you finally made it back to freedom?

IE: Well, I suppose nowadays everyone would dancer around and hug each other. We didn’t do that really. We just, you know, we just smiled and some of us shook hands and we were just so relieved really, that we got back to the British Army. I think we, obviously when one’s in that sort of situation almost constantly in a state of tension, and that was all relieved and then the next sensation was how desperately tired we were. But they looked after us very well and then we were taken back to Brigade Headquarters and I was asked to go and see the Brigadier. I said ‘I can’t possibly go and see the Brigadier the way I am looking.’ And of course, I should add that for about 3 or 4 weeks we were realised we were ‘lousy’. I think most prisoners were at one stage or another and one couldn’t stop scratching . So anyway I went to him and told him where we’d been and what happened and he asked us a bit about the German positions and he said ‘we’ll go back to HQ and show them where the guns are’ and we did that. And I was conscious of the fact that I was standing there in this dreadful kit and scratching and one thing and another, anyway he was very nice about it. And then we were taken back to Corps Maintenance area at Atessa, the nearest place I suppose to where we got through the Lines was a little town called Casoli. And that, like many towns in the Abruzzi province of Italy, is perched right on top of a hill as if it had grown out of a rock and we went into that and then were taken to this place at Atessa, where we had the best thing of all, I think of the most pleasant, physically, experiences I’d ever had was a hot bath and burnt our clothes and all the rest of it.

Q: In your book you mention that out of the 50,000 men on the run, only 5,000 made it to freedom, that’s only 10%. Why do you think so few actually got through?

IE: Yes, well, a lot were re-taken – and now I’m not saying that they did anything wrong – some of them stayed about the camp, the area of Fontanellato, which I personally wouldn’t have done and were re-taken.  Others, you know, were just unlucky. Quite a number at the time we got through which was the day before Christmas ’43, there were still a lot in the Italian countryside, hiding or being sheltered or whatever and then there were of course quite a number over the months in Rome. But I think, eventually, by the finish, certainly after the capture of Rome, I think the numbers had gone up to about 10,000 who’d either got to Switzerland or had come into the Allies again. I mean the people in Rome were just taken off in trucks back to their British bases. I need to check the figures but I think by the time we’d got through the Lines, there’d been about not quite a thousand that had actually got through the Line. No, the Germans must have taken, by the end of the war, they must have taken two thirds of those who’d been on the run back to Germany.

Q: What happened to you? I read in your book that you went back to Algeria…

IE: Yes, we had Christmas at this Corps Maintenance Area and then on New Year’s Eve, we got on a ship to Algiers and we were there a month waiting for a convoy back to Britain. And so at the end of January we sailed and arrived early February in England again and I was given 2 months’ leave and then I pulled some strings and managed to get back to my battalion who by that time had the end of this Sicily campaign, the 50th Division had been brought home for Normandy. So I rejoined my battalion in Southampton in early May and we went to Normandy on D-Day, so I was very fortunate.

I think there is one thing I should possibly say, and that applied to a lot of prisoners, virtually all prisoners of war, and that is the question of boots. Now we were in ordinary British Army issue boots, which I’d been wearing before capture in the desert. And they were in fairly good order but the walk south, eventually they were totally worn out, they were cracked across the instep, one of the soles was nearly off – and most people’s boots were like that. Now the one thing you couldn’t get in Italy was boots. One or two people managed to have some repairs done in villages. We came to a chap who said he would repair them and he looked at them and he said, well, they’re not worth repairing. But that was a considerable factor, some people wore Italian footwear which didn’t stand up to the job at all and either didn’t fit and they all got sore feet. I think 1 or 2 people came through in their stocking feet, it was a real problem and we all 3 of us were paddling around in footwear that was absolute scrap.

Q: Coming back to the D-Day landings, did you see the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’? I wanted to ask you if you thought I fairly depicted what happened?

IE: No, it wasn’t really at all. It was a depiction of what I suppose might have happened on Omaha beach – there were 5 beaches. On the other American beach the landings went pretty well as planned and the same on the British beaches. I mean there was some fighting but they weren’t pinned down like they were on Omaha beach and that was a result of unfortunate circumstances really. There was a German reserve infantry division doing some anti-invasion training just at that time and they were there and 1 or 2 other things went wrong, well they had a terrible time. Now whether what was shown in Private Ryan was actually typical. But I mean if it had all been like that the thing would have failed.

Q: Attitudes towards prisoners of war has changed so much …

IE: The whole atmosphere and the whole thinking about war and what happens has changed. I should first make the point that although people who are captured by the enemy are called PoWs, our experience as prisoners of the Italians and the Germans who more or less followed the tenets of the Geneva Convention, compared with what happened to people in Japan, and indeed the Russians captured by the Germans and the Germans captured by the Russians, a totally different planet. We were very fortunate. People now throw up their hands at the thought of casualties, well, now I’ve seen enough casualties in my time and nobody wants them, but if you’re going to carry out a military operation you have to expect some casualties and you do everything possible to reduce that number. But there is a feeling particularly in America and it may be in this country, that if you start bringing bodies back home, well then finish, you can’t do that, stop. And it’s the same thing with prisoners….. Another example of this was the casualties a few British soldiers had from ‘friendly fire’ in the Gulf. There weren’t many, there were some. And that is of course a very bad thing but in the Second World War, this was happening frequently. I’m not excusing it, but it’s the exigencies of the situation that it occasionally happened and well, not all that infrequently either. Either one gun would be slightly off its aim or planes you came over and thought you were the enemy and it was this sort of thing…..

Q: You’ve experienced war, what is it really like? is it really like what we see in a film?

IE: Well, it’s like that to an extent, but bear in mind the film is made or in many cases a book is written or nowadays anyway, unless we’re talking about proper historians to sell the film or the book and if it’s sensational in one form or the other, that’s what’s going to sell it. I mean, you know, there were ghastly things and people being mutilated and killed and all the rest of it, but it happened, it probably happens over a longer period than you could put in a film – I mean a film with 3 hours or something at most – and therefore it looks as if it’s all telescoped together. I suppose that makes a certain amount of difference and the other thing is that what you’re seeing isn’t happening everywhere. There may be – 100 yards away maybe – maybe a different situation… so it isn’t like that everywhere and all the time…. I mean well, you know we’re getting into a question of stress and battle fatigue and that sort of thing. I’m a great believer in the theory that everyone has a container of so much courage and you draw on that by your experiences in battle and unless that’s occasionally topped up again, eventually you reach the stage where it’s empty and – I don’t mind who it is – that man’s then finished completely and if it’s topped up again, taking people out for a rest and possibly a bit of leave and that sort of thing, but keeping the man with the people he knows, with his friends… I mean there are many examples and I did it myself, one goes back to one’s unit, although you may well know you’re going into another battle because your friends are there, that’s what you want to be. For most people, anyway.

Q: In that period you were in the camps and during your escape, what was the best thing that happened to you and what was the worst?

IE: Well, I suppose the best thing was actually when we realised we were through the Line and back with the British. I don’t know, it’s hard to say what was the worst. I mean, on some days things were totally uneventful apart from the business of keeping walking and particularly in the last 6 or 7 weeks, more often than not soaking wet because we had no waterproofs or anything and we were very often soaked to the skin. I suppose the worst was when we’d been going all day and maybe had done 15 or 20 miles up hill and down dale, being in rain most of the time and coming dusk and we couldn’t find anywhere to spend the night. I don’t think on any occasion – we eventually found somewhere – somebody befriended us or we found a barn or something, so we never actually had to spend a night out, at least not once the winter started, but I suppose the thought of having to sleep out and, as I say, when we were absolutely soaked and carrying almost no food with us – it was perhaps that that was the worst, but it didn’t really happen more than once or twice.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say, say if the Italians are watching this?

IE: Well, I think you know already the way the great majority looked after prisoners on the run. There were a few who turned people away, but it was very few. We found almost the poorest people were the kindest anyway. If we looked at a village and we’d say ‘oh that house looks a bit posh, we’d go to a little one somewhere else and the priests – we found them helpful in a great majority of cases, although some people didn’t find them to be helpful at all, but we found them helpful and in one or two cases we stayed with a priest for a night or so. In other cases, we stayed in the house of the padrone, the man who looked after the glebe lands – the priest’s farm – and quite often we’d go there and either hear the Italian or sometimes British radio which was excellent. And also, very often he had a map. If we could see a map, we knew the general direction we wanted to go, we made a note of the places on that route and then set off in that direction – those were probably towns – of course we’d avoid the towns but we’d ask people as we got nearer you know the ways from one place to another and so we kept to our route pretty well, really. Although we were mostly up in the Apennines.

Q: By the sounds of it you were very lucky.

IE: Yes, we were absolutely, absolutely very fortunate indeed. I mean you could so easily have rounded a corner and run into Germans as people did. I mean, several of the people who’d been in the same camp were re-caught for one reason or another, the main cause being sheer bad luck, in some cases given away by Fascist-minded folk of which there were some. But the majority of the peasant people, they hated the landowner and his sort of factor chap – they hated him, they hated the government that passed laws they didn’t understand and above all, they hated and absolutely feared the Germans. And they said ‘well you hate them as well, so we’re really all on the same side.’ I think that was part of the thinking and in some cases, also, the Italian families had one of their number a prisoner in Russia or at least they’d joined the Italian forces that had gone to Russia and they hadn’t heard from them for weeks and weeks, there was no mail at all, and so they said, we trust that someone is looking after our son in the same way as we look after you, so that was another motive they had.

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