Ted Faulkes was captured in July 1942 at El-Alamein. He spent the first five months of captivity in appalling desert PoW camps, before being transported to PC 57 Gruppignano in Italy. Here they worked in the surrounding rice fields, where he contracted malaria and was surprised to hear that local peasants thought that all Australians were black. As the Allies advanced through Sicily the guards became more lax and three of the Aussies – against the advice of their companions – decided to escape through a drain on a rainy night.
As they were sheltering with an Italian family, they narrowly escaped being recaptured and continued on their way to Switzerland, crossing the Monte Moro Pass. This story is notable for the locations through which they passed and a dramatic description of a frightful traversing of a glacier before they were able to descend into Switzerland. It also offers a detailed description of life as an internee in Switzerland and the long journey back to Australia. Ted Faulkes also describes his return to Italy and Switzerland in 1962.
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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Route clearly named.
JE Faulkes, Albany, Western Australia
Captured July 1942. After bad treatment in desert etc., up to Udine and then to rice fields. Escaped from Camp 27th August. In Switzerland 12th September 1943
Captured near Alamein 5 months in dreadful conditions in PoW Camps in desert then 3 days with only water and no latrines with 500 others to Brindisi in hold of ship. At Brindisi in old worn and lice invested clothes, marched through the town to be spat at. Taken up to PC 57 Gruppignano (near Udine where most New Zealanders and Aussies were.) May ’43 in groups of 100. Taken off to the rice field, in working camps in Piedmont or Lombardia, where when they spoke to the old men or women working near them were surprised as they thought Aussies were black. Guards slowly changed and replaced by returnees from Russian front. Heard of the defeats in Sicily and then from one of their guards that the Germans might take them to Germany. Three of them – against the advice of their companions – decided to escape through a drain on a rainy night. After about 10 miles hid up. Took Red Cross food with them and later they found apples and grapes. After 2 or 3 nights they move by day and meet an old man who soon says to them ‘You boys are English’ – the inevitable ‘Americano’. He invites them home where others are hiding. After less than 24 hours cries of ‘Tedeschi’ and all run for it. Fortunately, the Americano had told them before to make for Switzerland keeping Monte Rosa on their left. Soon after their very hasty escape they met up with the 2 New Zealanders mentioned by the Americano. On a track they find other Italians escaping who show them a map which confirms they were on route for the Monte Moro Pass. At last they reach the top and look down into Sass Tal (2,800 metres below). They descend, crossing 2 glaciers and are suddenly faced by 4 soldiers dressed in grey with German helmets and speaking German. They had made it to Switzerland.
Letters with resume.
JKK May 1996
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[Letter from JE Faulkes to Keith Killby]
19 November 2001
At last I have got around to replying to your letter of 20 October 2001 and all the interesting information contained in it, and the copy you send to Bill Rudd regarding the doings of the Monte San Martino trust. It is a very splendid job your group are carrying out and I am sure your efforts are appreciated by the recipients.
You certainly had a rough time being caught twice. I find it difficult to realise that it was happening 59 years ago. How time flies by! In your letter you said you would like a description of Vercelli hospital etc so I will put it on a separate page in case you want to photocopy it. I am not into typing and computers etc. so I hope my writing is legible to you.
I am sending you copies of 8 photos which I thought may be of interest instead of just the 4 relating to the Saas Tal valley. Each photo is numbered and is described on a separate page of paper.
My wife and I keep busy as we are involved in several
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Local voluntary organisations in the town of Albany, which
has now become a city. A lot of people retire down to Albany from the hotter
inland areas, especially farmers. Albany is on 35 degrees south latitude and we
have mild summers and winters. In winter if the temperature goes down to 15
degrees C we think it is too cold. Summer temperatures are usually around 25
degrees C maximum, similar to southern Italy I think.
Well Keith, I will end this now and get onto the Vercelli hospital.
All our best wishes to you for Christmas and the New Year and I’ll keep in touch with you.
Arriverderci, Auf Wiedersehen und alles schön. Nicht vergessen; auf den Bergen ist Freiheit
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[Page heading] Information on photos with the numbers on the back of each
No. 1. Mattmark in the Sass Tal valley in southern Switzerland, south of Almagel [illegible] and Stalden. The building was known as the Hotel Mattmark and was used by mountaineers prior to the war. The Swiss frontier guards were billeted in this building in 1943 and were intercepting escaping prisoners of war who were coming in from Italy to the South.
The frontier is on Monte Moro in the background, at 9984 feet above sea level.
The original photos no. 1 and 2 were given to me by a Swiss friend in the village of Wald Kanton Zurich. He used to do mountain climbing in that area before the war and he was amazed that we PoWs had gone over in such frugal clothing and also suffering from malnutrition.
No.2 This is the same valley and the old hotel would be on the far left side (not visible). Note the glacier in the foreground. In the 1960s the valley was dammed for hydro-electric purposes.
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No, 3 and No. 4. These 2 coloured photos were sent to me recently by a Swiss friend who had just visited the area last northern summer. On number 3 the wall of the dam is shown and the restaurant below it. Number 4 just shows the water in dam. My friend was advised by local authorities in the town of Stalden that the old Mattmark Hotel was demolished before the dam was built.
No. 5. This is a copy of a photo I took in 1943 with a small Kodak camera I was able to purchase from our weekly allowance.
It is a disused factory in the village of Wald in Kanton Zurich, where a mixed group of ‘evadés’, as we were called, were billeted. We had loose straw for beds, as can be seen, and our clothing was hung on ropes suspended between the steel columns. There were Australians, New Zealanders, English, South Africans and several Polish soldiers here. Our food was prepared and eaten in the Schweizerhof hotel in Wald, the same rations as the Swiss soldiers had (very good after Italy).
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No. 6. This is a copy of a photo taken by an Italian PoW working camp guard at the camp in the village of Collobiano about 8 miles north of the large town of Vercelli. I can just be seen on the extreme right of the group inside the wire.
The guard charged us a cake of soap out of our Red Cross food parcels for a photo. As we could not eat the soap we did not mind, and the Italians could not get soap apparently.
No.7. This is also a copy of a photo taken by an Italian guard of a group of PoWs who were taken into Vercelli Hospital, all suffering from malaria fever which was endemic in that region then. Huge areas of the Lombardy plain were being irrigated to grow rice and the malaria-carrying mosquitoes were in plague proportions. The lady at the right of picture was a nurse. I am the third from the left in this photo. The cost again was a cake of soap. Three guards were keeping us well under observation.
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No. 8 This photo was also a copy of a second one taken at the Vercelli Hospital ie Ospedale.
In this one I am at the right of the group, with my legs hanging down showing my unsightly boots which spoil the photo?
The man standing at the top of the steps was an Italian soldier. There were quite a few Italian soldiers in the hospital at that time as well and we were able to fraternise with them under supervision of the guards.
Cost of photo = 1 cake of soap.
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Our group of 100 PoWs were firstly in a working group named Brianco and we were working on a very large rice growing farm which was owned by a man named Signore Luigi Buongiorno. He was a very nice man and when he came into the camp and saw our meagre rations he was amazed and immediately took steps to have them doubled. We were very grateful to him.
Mosquitoes were there in plague proportions due to the huge area under irrigation. After several weeks I began to feel weaker and more sluggish than usual and started to get attacks of severe shivering and then breaking out in sweating and then hallucinating. Several other men also started doing the same.
We had a sergeant Wally Mills in the camp and he had had experience of malaria when in Syria and he diagnosed us as having malaria. Sgt. Wally Mills then alerted the Italian Commandant who then called in the padrone, Signore Buongiorno. They then called in higher Italian army people.
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By this time 5 of us had the complaint, so we were put on a military truck and taken to the Vercelli hospital.
The hospital was very large and was surrounded on 3 sides by very high stone walls. Its front entrance area was a magnificent piece of architecture. I think it was 2 storeys high. It was set out in the form of a cross + with the administration and nurse stations in the centre and the wards branching out from the centre.
It had one wing which was for military personnel ie Italians, but we were put in one section of that wing, with an armed guard watching us 24 hours a day. They were quite friendly to us and vice versa.
The nurses in charge were nuns of the Catholic Church and were dressed as nuns. But the lower nurses were dressed in normal white uniforms. They all treated us very well and dished out our medication, which was mainly quinine, precisely on time. We were given the same food as the guards and other Italian soldiers who were patients, and we had no complaint about our treatment.
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I was in the hospital for 3 weeks and during that time a few more PoWs were brought in, also with malaria, and they also were amazed at how well we were all being treated.
We still received our Red Cross food parcels whilst there, and gave the nurses and guards some presents like cigarettes, proper coffee and soap, for which they were very grateful. This episode took place during the month of June 1943. I forgot to mention though that there were a lot of bed bugs in the hospital and they became very active at night.
When I got back to the camp at Brianco they were just preparing to move out and we were then taken to the work camp at the village of Collobianco about 8 miles north of Vercelli. It was from there that we made our way via Monte Moro in September 1943.
In 1962 I revisited Italy and naturally included a visit to the hospital. To my amazement one of the nuns who was in the wing I had been a patient in was still at the hospital. The receptionist sent out
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a message for the nun to come to the office, which she did. I was surprised that such an elderly lady was still working there. I was only 40 then.
The receptionist told her that I was a Prigioniero di Guerra who had been in the hospital inn 1943 and had come back to visit them. The poor lady burst into tears and embraced me and I did likewise. She then took me by the arm and took me through every wing and ward of the hospital, calling out ‘This man was here in 1943 as a Prigioniero di Guerra with malaria and has come from Australia to visit us.’ There was a lot of hand clapping and it was a very emotional situation. All I could keep saying was ‘mille grazie, mille grazie’ and ‘Viva Italia, viva Italia’.
[Text in side margin] I forgot to say that the nun telephoned a lady who had been a nurse there at the time and she came rushing into the hospital to see me also. She was the nurse who is standing on the steps in the photo.
[Main text resumes] From the hospital I then caught a bus to Collobiano 8 miles away to have a look to see if the old building we had been put in was still there, but minus the barbed wire fencing. There I met an old man who lived nearby and when I told him I had been there as a PoW in 1943, he also got very emotional, so did I and we shook hands and embraced each other also.
Viva Italia. Edward Faulkes.
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From Campo Concentramento PG 106 Vercelli, northern Italy to ‘Internisten Lager’ Zurich Switzerland 1943.
Name: John Edward Faulkes
Regimental Number: WX 17240
Unit: 2/32 Battalion 9th Division AIF
Date of capture: 17 July 1942, El Alamein.
The remains of our Company ‘A’ was surrounded by German tanks and the OC surrendered. The following day Germans handed us over to the Italians and wished us good luck.
During the next 4 days we were taken (standing up) in trucks to the big PoW camp at Benina, about 5 miles south of Benghazi.
In late November 1942 walked to Benghazi Port and put on cargo ship down in the holds. About 500 PoWs on board, including a lot of Indians and South Africans. Water issued but not any food. No latrines provided.
After 3 days’ sailing the ship berthed at the port of Brindisi in the south of Italy. We had to walk in our rotting shirts and shorts and covered in lice through the streets of Brindisi. The civilian population were jeering, spitting on us and pelting us with garbage.
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After one month in a camp near Brindisi we were taken by train (in cattle wagons) to a camp PG 57 at Gruppignano in North-eastern Italy near Udine and not far from the Yugoslavian border. It was here that we received our first Red Cross parcels. It was like paradise to taste proper food again.
In May 1943 groups of 100 prisoners were taken by train from Campo PG57 across the north of Italy to working camps in the Piedmonte and Lombardia areas between Milan and Turin. The provincial town of Vercelli was the main centre and HQ for the camps which were scattered around. There were 100 prisoners in each camp and I think there were 10 camps in all. These camps were designated as PG106. This area was the main rice growing area for Italy and the PoWs had to make the long bank for the rice paddies which were irrigated with water from the river Po a few miles to the south.
In these camps the rations were doubled ie 2 ladles of boiled rice twice per day and 2 pane per day instead of 1. They also delivered the Red Cross food parcels regularly each week.
Travelling groups of women land workers would be brought around to plant the rice seedlings after the paddies were flooded. Other old men would be working cutting meadow hay with scythes and we would have to rake it up into heaps etc. All this work was done with armed guards surrounding us. No talking was permitted between civilians and PoWs.
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It took us some time to convince the old civilians that we were Australians as they were quite certain that Australians were black and were also cannibals. About this time all the guards at our camp were changed from Sicilians to more normal types who had been brought back from the Russian front ie wounded etc. Also the Thousand Bomber raids on Milano and Torino were taking place 2 or 3 nights a week and also leaflets were being dropped in the millions, it seemed to us.
Some of the civilians whispered to us that Sicilia was ‘finita’ and next would be ‘Bella Italia’. As time went by we could detect a change in the guards and the civilian workers and they were becoming very apprehensive and restive. One day, one of the old men told us that the ‘Tedeschi’ were starting to take PoWs to Germany. When our little group of 20 were taken back to the camp that afternoon at Collobiano, we told the others what we had been told. Some believed it, some didn’t. Two of my friends and I decided that we should try to escape rather than be taken to Germany where anything could befall us.
At this camp an irrigation drain about 1 yard wide and 1 yard deep ran across the compound yard. In on one side and out the other side. Built over the outward end of the drain was a latrine. At the inlet side of the drain we carried out our ablutions.
The building we were housed in was made of stone and had been a barn. We slept
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on double decker bunks. At sundown each night we were counted and then the sergeant of the guard would bolt and lock the door for the night. When this was done, 2 of the 3 perimeter guards would be relieved, leaving one guard only outside the compound.
On the night of 27-28th August 1943 our opportunity to escape came. Our guards decided to have a party. They were drinking plenty of ‘vino’, playing their piano accordions and mandolins and singing away happily in their quarters. I don’t know if it was some special occasion or not. As it was almost dark, we could see that only one guard was on the perimeter fence. We also realised that there had been no count at sundown and that the door had not been bolted and padlocked by the sergeant in charge. I and my 2 friends then decided this was our golden opportunity to go. We told the corporal of our group and he announced to the others our decision. Some tried to talk us out of it, saying we would be shot etc. when caught. About 9 pm we were ready to go and arranged to go out one by one and into the irrigation drain that ran through the compound (previously described). We then made our way down the drain, under the barbed wire and crept down the drain until we were several hundred yards from the camp. Eventually we crawled out, wet through and pretty cold. All night we walked across open ground, rice fields and fields containing freshly cut meadow hay, in a general northerly direction. As soon as dawn arrived
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We moved into a wooded area, made ourselves as comfortable as possible and as invisible as possible, to sleep and eat some of the Red Cross items we had carried with us. All day we were expecting search parties to come along, but none came. We estimated we had travelled 8-10 miles from the camp.
During the day we could hear traffic moving slowly along a road and decided that, when it got dark again, we would head for the road, which we did. By nightfall there was no traffic movement on the road and we walked on the side of this road and discovered that in the fields on either side, there were vineyards loaded with grapes already ripe. Needless to say, we gorged ourselves on these. Also, we came upon some apples, so some apples were put in our bags. After 2 nights‘ walking we came to the outskirts of the small town of Gatinara and once again we hid up for the day successfully. We heard people and road traffic but ourselves were hidden. By now the foothills of the Alps were getting very clear and we realised that when we got into them we would have to travel by day and rest at night. From Gatinara we made our way to Crevacuore along the roadside at night and still eating fresh grapes and apples.
It was several miles north of Crevacuore in daylight and in the foothills that we came upon an elderly man resting on a pathway through the bush. He had a knapsack on his back. We were all surprised and very suspicious. However, we spoke to him in
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In the few Italian words we knew, when he suddenly said in America English ‘You boys aren’t Italian, you’re English’. We had to agree with him of course and asked him who he was. It turned out that his name was Angelo Zanninetti and that he was living on the slopes of Monte Barone. He spoke perfect English and said that he had lived in the USA for 40 years and had just come back to Italy before the war started. We were invited to go to his house, have a few days’ rest and he would point us in the right direction to get to the Swiss border. He also advised us that someone was trying to organise a group of partisans up there and that already 2 New Zealanders were in the area.
We decided to go with him and after several hours arrived at his house. There was a group of about 6 men there who were claiming to be the partisans he had spoken of. At this stage there was no sign of the 2 New Zealanders Angelo had spoken about. He said the were hiding in a hut some distance away.
The following day as we were having our midday meal of polenta and cheese, two of the partisans rushed in shouting ‘Tedeschi, Tedeschi!’ ie ‘Germans, Germans!’ Those of us inside jumped up and rushed out and started running to get over the brow of a hill nearby. In order to run faster I threw away a piece of blanket which I had been using as a cape, as I was only in a short-sleeved shirt.
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As we got near the top of the hill, we could hear shooting and a lot of shouting. My 2 friends and I kept running to get over the hill where we felt safer, but we kept going as fast as possible.
Far down below us we saw 2 other men running in the same direction as us. Eventually we got close enough to them to call out to them, as we had realised that they were also escapees. It turned out that they were the 2 New Zealanders Angelo had spoken about. They were Mr Lionel Hood of Te-Puke Bay of Plenty, New Zealand (still living) and Mr Roy Lunn of Motueka South Island New Zealand (now deceased). By nightfall that day we had got down to Valley of the Sesia river at the village of Scapello. Our landmark of Monte Rosa was very clear now, and we remembered that Angelo Zanninetti had told us to keep it on our left as we travelled north.
We made our way up the Sesia river valley, avoiding several small villages until we got to Alagna where we renewed our supply of apples from the trees. From Alagna we crossed more mountain country to the village of Macugnaga which took all of one day. In a field near this village we saw a shed filled with meadow hay and as it was getting dark, we went in and spent the night sleeping on the hay. On the north side of the village there was a well- defined track leading northwards towards the mountains
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again, so we decided to follow it as Monte Rosa was still on our left. After travelling for an hour or so on this track, we came upon 2 men and 2 women who were resting. They were Italians and had suitcases and rucksacks. We asked them where they were going and they said they were fleeing from Italy and going to Switzerland because they were frightened of the Germans who were taking over Italy. We informed them that we were also trying to get to the Swiss frontier but we did not know if we were going on the right track or not. One of the men produced a map and assured us that we followed the track we were on, we should get to the Monte Moro Pass before nightfall. We decided to go on and leave the Italians as they were making very slow progress. In the late afternoon we came upon a dilapidated stone building which was deserted. There were signs that it had been used by soldiers as there were some steel helmets lying around and various pieces of rotting clothing. We thought it may have been a frontier post. In any case we slept in the hut for that night but the group behind us did not appear. It was very cold and we had nothing to make a fire with.
The following morning, as soon as it was daylight, we set off again, still ascending for several hours on the track which by now was only a single file path. Eventually we got to the summit and in front of us the land dropped away forming a huge valley extending as far as we could see. There were 2 glaciers which we crossed on our way downwards. We did
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not know it then, but we were actually in Switzerland and had crossed the Monte Moro Pass (altitude 2800 metres) and were in the Sass Tal valley which runs down to the town of Visp on the river Rhone. As we made our way down towards the floor of the valley and still on the narrow pathway winding among huge granite rocks, we were suddenly confronted by 4 soldiers with their rifles pointed at us. They shouted out in German ‘Halt und Hände hoch!’ As these soldiers were dressed in grey uniforms, had helmets identical to the Germans we thought we were back in the bag. We could not speak in German to them so we said to them ‘English, English’. Eventually one of the soldiers was sent away and returned in about an hour with an officer. This officer then asked us in perfect English who we were and did we have identification. We were able to satisfy him who we were and then asked him who they were. He said that they were Swiss frontier guards and that his men had been watching us all the morning coming down from Monte Moro.
We said ‘But why do you speak in German?’ He said ‘We are from the German-speaking area of Switzerland and we are stationed here for our annual army service.’ This was all news to us as we didn’t know then that Switzerland had 4 languages.
They then walked us down the valley for about another mile or so to where they were billeted. The building was a very old stone building which had been a small
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mountain hotel. The building was still there when I went back in 1962, but it will be gone now, as a big hydro-electric dam has been built there. The area is called Mattmark, just above Stalden.
When the guards got us back to their billets, they lit a big fire for us to keep warm outside the building. They then gave us as much bread and cheese, hot soup and hot cocoa as we could consume. Before nightfall we were walked down to Stalden where we spent the night in a school room, sleeping on loose straw. The following day we were taken to Brig by bus, delouses, had hot showers and had our hair shaved off. Then we were given new clothes supplied by the Red Cross and kept in quarantine for 3 weeks.
After this we were taken to a village by the name of Wald in Kanton Zurich where we spent one year in open internment. The Swiss treated us very well. I was there from 12th September 1943 to 23rd September 1944.
When the Americans got to the Swiss border after the landings in the south of France in 1944 w were taken to Geneva and handed over to them.
We all arrived back in Australia on November 17th 1944.
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JE Faulkes, Western Australian.
Good on place names and dates.
Captured at El Alamein, July 1942. In desert camps until end of November. After dreadful reception at Brindisi up to Gruppignano, then to rice fields near Vercelli. Hear of Armistice on 10th September. Heads for Switzerland and told to go via Monte Moro. Taken to partisans but quickly leaves them and finds family whose 16-year old son will lead them to frontier. He leaves them in sight of Italian guard post (abandoned). They go up to look down into Switzerland but a glacier, 300 yards wide, is between them and the large valley heading north. One of their number – 4 – has bouts of malaria. They manage to cross the glacier – mostly holding hands but on their bottoms and start to descend into the valley when 4 German-speaking and-attired guards stop them. They are Swiss in the German speaking area. After various amps, schools etc. Faulkes goes to work as chef in Chillon College above Glion where he has half a day off a week. 20th September 1944 Americans reach Swiss border. Sent down to Geneva and then via Marseilles, Naples, Suez to Melbourne in 52 days. On way have as companions, Mongols force to fight for Germans going back to be shot, Italians fighting for the Allies and Chinese.
Written in 1990s? Returned to Italy 1962. Excellent account for dates and places and photos in supplement.
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As a Prisoner of War in Italy and an Internee in Switzerland
John Edward Faulkes
2/32 Bn. A.I.F.
17th July 1942-23rd September 1944
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21 at the time.
John Edward Faulkes A.F.
PoW, 17th July 1942 El Alamein.
Hid behind German tank from Allied shelling.
In Camp ?? outside Benghazi until end November. Dreadful board and then dreadful march through Brindisi, spat upon.
After 6 months [illegible] cattle wagons to Gruppignano, de-louses, hot showers. April 1943 Vercelli then Brianco. Malaria in Vercelli hospital and then Collo Biano. Bombing raids [illegible].
Told of Armistice on 10th September. [illegible] Faulkes and 2 others walked towards Switzerland (route very clear) via Monte Moro. Taken to partisans [illegible]. Find family whose 16-year old will led them to frontier.
[illegible] Tom Bullock has malaria. Boy leaves them and points towards Swiss border. Find abandoned Swiss border guard station [illegible] glacier. Decide to slide on their bottoms but holding hands [illegible] and go down hill. Suddenly 4 soldiers (stopped them). Down Sass Tal at Magez village, Stalden to Visp.
Crossed 27th September.
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[Envelope addressed to Keith Killby]
At [illegible] new British uniform. [illegible] as chef at Chillon College above [illegible] 6 ½ days a week
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J.E. Faulkes (Ted) taken PoW with A Coy of 2/32 Bn on 17th July 1942 near [illegible] 22 at Rain Ridge El Alamein.
We had taken our objective the night before, but instead of staying put at that point, we were ordered to go further forwards. Subsequently we were surrounded by German tanks and armoured cards and were completely cut off. After quite a hammering our Company Commander surrendered to the German forces.
After being searched we were made to walk westwards, being guarded by several armoured cards. After several miles walking we came to a large gathering of German tanks and at the same time our own artillery opened up and were dropping shells all around us. The Germans then halted and allowed us to take shelter on the lee side of their tanks until the barrage was over. We were very surprised at their generosity. During our walk we were given a water ration and we finally got to El Daba and our first barbed wire cage.
The following day a German officer informed us, in very good English ‘For you the war is over unless you act silly or do something rash.’ We understood his message. He also told us that the war in Africa was the Italians’ war but they were there to help their good friends, the Italians, and the arrangement was that all prisoners had to
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[Page heading] North Africa
Be looked after by the Italians and therefore he was going to hand us over to them at El Daba and he wished us ‘good luck’.
From El Daba we were taken by trucks (standing all day) vis Mersa Matruh, Tobru, Sidi Barrani, Derna and Barce to the Palms camp outside Benghazi. This took 4 days and we were in PoW cages at night. Everyone was very thirsty and hungry as the rations were very meagre.
As well as being hungry and thirsty we were also by now being eaten alive by lice which were as big as white ants.
After about one month at the Palms camp we were trucked to the big main Benghazi camp near the Benina airport, which is about 5 miles from the port town o Benghazi. In the camp there were several thousand PoWs including Australians, Indians, Senegalese and Cypriots. We were in the open desert here but some were lucky enough to have small 2-man tents. Food and water rations were extremely light ie 2 Italian army biscuits per day per man and one very small tin of horseflesh between 2 men per day. Some prisoners with dysentery died in this camp. Flies, lice and fleas were unbearable. Also, from their camp we could see the American ‘Liberator’ bombers sinking Axis shipping in Benghazi harbour.
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[Page heading] Italy
Towards the end of November 1942 a very emaciated group of us, all nationalities, number about 500, in in our rotting shirts and shorts, we walked the 5 miles to Benghazi port. Here we were herded down into the holds of a very rusty and dilapidated ship. We had already heard stories from some of the survivors of the ‘Nino Bixio’ which had been full of PoWs and had been torpedoed as it was nearing Greece and we thought a similar fate could be awaiting us.
The bottom of the hold I was in soon was awash with excreta, urine and vomit, so they decided to transfer some of us out of that hold. As I was going up the ladder the guard at the top on deck began shouting at me, ‘Basta Basta’. I didn’t know if he was calling me a bastard or wanted me to go faster, so I kept going up. When I got close to the top he hit me in the chest with his rifle butt, knocking me down about 10 to 12 feet. My back was badly injured and I could hardly walk for several days. I eventually found out that ‘basta’ meant ‘enough’.
We landed at Brindisi after 3 days, and as we staggered through the streets we were spat upon, abused and pelted with garbage. We had not eaten for 3 days and the guards enjoyed it. From Brindisi we were taken in railways wagons, to w camp called Santa Fara near the port of Bari. In Brindisi 12 months later, the New Zealanders in 8th Army were welcomed with open arms and garlands of flowers and shouts of ‘Viva!’
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[Page heading] Italy
At Santa Fara we received our first Red Cross food parcels but we only had a small taste of ‘proper food’ as it was 1 parcel to 10 prisoners. Also we were issues with British Army battledress clothing, also courtesy of the Red Cross. It was here that we had a proper wash after 6 months without one.
After about one month at Santa Fara, where for the first time I saw men eating grass and leaves of olive trees, we were again walked back to Bari, a distance of probably 5 miles. Once again, we were put on a train in cattle wagons. The only ventilation in these wagons were four apertures about 12 inches square, with bars and one situated at each top corner of the wagon, and impossible to see out of. Two days and two nights were spent in these wagons as the train headed northwards. No food or water was issued and the stench was unimaginable. Eventually we arrived at Campo Prigioniero Gruppignano near Cividale and Udine, 75 miles north east of Venice. On arrival there we were instructed to remove all our clothing which was then put through the de-lousing machines to kill the lie we were covered in, also we were put through hot showers, the first for over 6 months. Then to
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[Page heading] Italy, PG 57
really make us feel like human beings again, we were taken to wooden huts containing wooden double decker bunks equipped with paliasse and blankets. When we were settled in, the next big surprise that day was the issue of one Canadian food parcel per man. Each food parcel weighed 10 lbs and their issue was eagerly awaited each week. Some of the prisoners gorged themselves because we were so hungry, but they became very ill as our stomachs had shrunk so much. The Red Cross food parcels were a supplement to rations supplied by the Italians. If one exercises willpower it was possible to make a parcel last about 4-5 days. The ration supplied by the Italians was as follows:-
7.30 am: One ladle black imitation coffee and one 200 gram bread roll
10.30 am: 1 ladle of boiled rice or macaroni
4.30 pm: 1 ladle of boiled turnip tops or similar.
We had to parade at 8 am and 4 pm each day to be counted in rows of five.
In December, January and February the ground froze at night and during the day it thawed out into a quagmire. Standing waiting to be counted we nearly froze.
During this time, I developed
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[Page heading] Italy PG 57
severe chilblains on both ears and was in a lot of pain with them. I was wearing a Jugoslav type of forage cap which had high flaps front and back. One day w waiting to be counted, my ears were giving me a lot of trouble and I had a very bright idea. I turned the cap sideways and pulled the flaps down over my ears. This reduced the pain considerably. Then as we walked past ‘Il Commandante’ I saw him point me out to his interpreter. I was at the end of the row nearest to him. The interpreter followed me along and after the count he said ‘I want your name and your hut number’. I said to him ‘What have I done wrong?’ He said’ ‘You have insulted the Commandant and will go to prison’. When I asked him what did I do to insult him, he said that the way I was wearing the hat was the trouble. I told the interpreter the problem with my ears but it made no difference, a few days later the famous Carabinieri came along to the hut and escorted me to the prison within a prison. It was a cold concrete building with about 20 cells. When you were put in they didn’t tell you how long you were in for. I was in for 8 days. There was a sloping wooden platform to sleep on or sit. Two blankets were thrown in at 9pmm and were taken away
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[Page heading] Italy PG 57
at 6am the following morning. The minimum gaol term was 7 days and the maximum was 90 was 90 days, but no one ever knew how long their sentence was. When the prisoners’ food was brought into the prison, it was possible to see, through the door grilles, the guards filling up their dixies first, before it was brought along to the cells. The guards were on a good racket because as well as getting their own rations they were ‘double di[ping’ into the prisoners’ meagre rations.
[Section heading] PG 106 Vercelli
Sometime in April 1943 several hundred prisoners were taken by train (again in cattle wagons) west across the north of Italy to the Vercelli area which is about midway between Milan and Turin in the province of Piemonte. This was only virtually an overnight journey. At several small villages in the area, groups of 100 prisoners were taken off the train and walked to previously prepared small PoW camps. The group I was in de-trained at Brianco. In this area of Italy, a lot of rice was grown under irrigation from the rivers Po and Sesia, and I believe it still is. Our job was to wheelbarrow soil to make the paddy fields embankments. This was done under the supervision of
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[Page heading] Italy PG 106
an elderly Italian foreman. We had to walk about 2 miles each way to and from the work area, accompanied by armed guards. There were quite a few civilian farm workers also working on the farm we were on. The owner or ‘padrone’ was a Mr. Buongiovani who was a reasonable type of person. The civilian workers were hard to convince that we were Australians, as they were under the impression that all Australians were black and also cannibals.
After a few days of the hard labour we were doing, we were getting very weak due to the meagre rations of boiled watery rice or macaroni and the small bread roll. One of the group who could speak a bit of Italian, spoke to the padrone Mr Buongiovani and asked him to come and see for himself how little food we were getting. Our saviour was Mr Phil Loffman 2/28 Bn. who persuaded the padrone to come to the camp when our ration was being dished out. When he saw how little we got, he was amazed and immediately agree to approach the authorities, which he did. Consequently, our rations were doubled, and the Red Cross food parcels were delivered regularly thereafter.
In this area malaria fever was endemic and the mosquitoes were there in plague proportions. I think I was the first one to go down with malaria fever
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[Page heading] Italy PG 106
but others soon followed. In this camp was a corporal Wally Mills 2/28 Bn. and he diagnosed us as having malaria. Phill Loffman and Wally Mills then convinced the Italian officer in charge of the camp that we needed urgent hospital treatment. As a result, we were taken to Vercelli ‘Ospedale’ hospital. On arrival at the hospital we were put in a wing which was for military personnel, which included PoWs as well as Italian ‘soldati’. There were already other PoWs there, mainly with malaria, but we were kept in separate wards to the Italian. There was a 24-hour guard on us. They were quite friendly to us and gave us news of the progress of the Allied Forces in southern Italy and quite freely told us that they wished the ‘americani’ would hurry up and chase the ‘tedeschi’ Germans out of Italy. This was about June 1943.
The treatment at the hospital was dispensed mainly by nuns, who were very efficient and sympathetic towards us. We were given large doses of quinine tablets and also injections. After about 3 weeks I was discharged and taken back to the Brianco camp. I still had re-occurrences occasionally until 1946. Shortly after this the camp at Brianco was closed and we were split up and I was in the group which was
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[Page heading] Italy PG 106
taken to a new camp (by horses and carts) on the outskirts of the village of Collobiano, which is about 3 to 4 miles north of Vercelli. The barracks here was similar to the last one ie a large stone building which had at one time obviously had been used as a stable and barn. The beds were still the double decker bunks and were quite adequate for us. I think it was at this camp that we first saw the travelling teams of rice planting women known as the ‘mondini’ who worked all day up to their knees in water and bending over planting the young rice seedlings as they still do in China today. They sang all day and seemed to be quite happy.
We were able to converse with some of the old men farmhands and some of them had been fighting on our side during the 1914-1918 war.
It was while we were in this camp that the Thousand Bomber raids started bombing Milan and Turin, usually at night-time. Although we were about 35 miles from each city, we could hear the explosions and feel the ground vibrating, even at that distance.
Lots of leaflets were also dropped, telling the Italians to give up before their country was destroyed completely. The family of the Italian officer in charge of
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[Page heading] Italy PG 106
was killed during one of these raids on Turin. We never saw him again.
About the middle of August 1943 the Italian farm workers started telling us that the Germans had started moving PoWs from Italy to Germany. This was not good news for us and they also managed to tell us that Mussolini was ‘finito’, finished.
Not wanting to end up in Germany some of us decided that we should try to escape to Switzerland, which was only 50 miles to the North of us, but through the Alps which were up to 12,000 feet at Monte Rosa abd 10,0000 feet at Monte Moro. We could always see Monta Rosa from the plains and it was permanently capped in snow.
The next exciting episode for us was when we were advised by a high-ranking Italian officer that Italy had capitulated and that they were no longer our enemies. This occurred on 10th September 1943, the day after the capitulation. We were also told that we had to remain in the camp for the time being until arrangement could be made for our repatriation. However, the Germans had other ideas and we were tipped off that some other work camps had already rounded up the PoWs taken to Germany. It was at this stage that T.E (Tom) Bullock 2/28 Bn,
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[Page heading] Italy PG 106, Freedom
W. (Bill) Morgan 2/28 Bn. and myself decided to escape and head for the mountains, to escape the Germans and wait for our forces t arrive. We did not realise that they were meeting such resistance from the Germans and that it would take them a very long time to get to the north of Italy.
By now our guards had lost interest and were very slack, thinking more about their own fate. We set off from Collobiano and our mates said ‘’You’ll be shot for sure.’ Later we heard that those who styed in the camp were rounded up the next day by the Germans and taken to Germany where they were held for another 20 months.
Our route to the mountains took us through the villages and towns of Buronzo, Gattinara, Crevacuore, Scopello vis Monte Barone, Mollia, Alagna, Macagnana, to Monte Moro at 10,000 feet altitude on the Italian-Swiss border.
On the flat country we travelled at night and luckily for us it was moonlight and the grapes in the vineyards were ripe, likewise the apples and pears in the orchard. We gorged ourselves on the fruit.
Knowing there were a lot of German troops around, we skirted the centre of the villages, and also we had been told by some of the Italian civilians that there was a lot of Fascist Blackshirt troops in the region, looking for escaped prisoners. Apparently, there was a reward out to
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[Page heading] Italy Freedom
Anyone responsible for having prisoners recaptured. The reward was the equivalent of £18 in Italian lire ie 1500 lire. This was a very tempting offer for the poverty-stricken people in those times.
By now we were into the foothills of the Alps and the last 4 villages previously mentioned were situated in the valleys, so we walked up on the hillsides from Crevacuore to Scopello via Monte Barone.
I omitted to mention earlier that on the 2nd day after leaving camp at Collobiano, we befriended some families who gave us food and suggested that we should discard our very obvious military-type shirts and trousers, especially as the trousers were English army battledress. Although we had removed the red diamond patches which had been on the trousers above the left knee, the unfaded areas stood out very clearly. We exchanged our shirts and trousers, not realising that it was a breach of ‘The International Convention of War’. Had we been caught by the Germans we could have been short as spies behind the enemy lines as we were in civilian clothes.
[Section heading] Back to Monte Barone
From Scopello there was a very well-defined pathway leading up Monte Barone which we followed. Late in the day we noticed a fairly large building in front of us.
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[Page heading] Italy Monte Barone
It was much too big to be an ordinary family house, so we decided to sit back and observe it for a while. The only people we saw going in and out was a man and a woman, and working in a garden. After satisfying ourselves it was clear of Germans or Blackshirts we approached them and said ‘Buongiorno, come va?’ We were stunned by the reply from the man. He said with a very pronounced American accent ‘You guys aren’t Italians, who are you?’ We then informed him that we were Australians trying to make our way to Switzerland after being PoWs at Vercelli.
He was very suspicious of Bill Morgan who had blond hair and blue eyes and he thought we were Germans trying to trap him. Poor Bill Morgan could easily have passed for a German at that time. After we satisfied the man that we were not ‘tedeschi’ he introduced himself as Mr Zaninetti and said that he had lived in America for 30 years and had retired and returned to Italy to live with his sister who was the lady we had seen. It transpired that the place he was living in had been a small hotel before the war, where people from the plains could spend time holidaying in the mountains. They gave us a very good meal of polenta, bread and cheese and fruit and let us spend
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[Page heading] Italy Monte Barone
the night on some hay in one of the outbuildings. In the morning he told us that only a few hours’ walk away there was a group of partisans being formed and that there were some New Zealanders already with them. He offered to take us to them if we wanted to go, so we decided to go after he assured us that the partisans were anti-German and pro-General Badoglio who was now working with the Italian forces who had changed sides and were anti-German and pro-Allies. These partisans were all set up in another very large building.
Before he left us, Angeloi Zaninetti pointed out the best direction to the Swiss border. He pointed out snow-capped Monte Rosa and said ‘you always keep that on your left and Mone Moro is to the right of that and you must go over Monte Moro’. We memorised those instructions well and truly as we had no maps of coure.
We stayed the rest of that day and night with the partisans and had met the 2 Kiwis who didn’t know whether to stay with the partisans or go on to Switzerland. The 2 Kiwis were Lionel Hood now of Te Puke north Island N.Z. and Roy Lunn South Island, now deceased.
Our minds were quickly made up when suddenly a terrified woman came running up the hill shouting ‘tedeschi, tedeschi’ ie Germans, Germans.
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[Page heading] Italy Monte Barone
Apparently, a German patrol was on its way up. People were running in all directions. Tom Bullock and I and the 2 Kiwis headed for the top of the nearest rise and kept on going as fast as possible. We heard gunfire behind us (machine gun fire) and wondered how Bill Morgan was faring. He got away alright and he turned up in Switzerland several months later. Just before dark we descended down into the valley at Scopello. That night we slept in the local cemetery as we didn’t think anyone would be wandering around there at night. Luckily the weather was still dry and occasionally warm.
It took us 2 days to walk from Scopello at Alagna and by calling in at isolated houses, we were welcomed as ‘Inglesi’, English soldiers and given meals consisting mainly of polenta, bread and goats’ cheese, which was like chewing rubber but it was very welcome to empty stomachs. The people in this area were very kind to us and even let us sleep in their hay sheds on newly cut meadow hay.
We made a point of walking into Alagna village just after dark and as we walked past a building, we heard loud voices in Italian and then one voice with an Australian accent talking in pidgeon Italian. We called out in English to the Australian and after talking through the closed door for a minute or so, the door
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[Page heading] Italy Alagna-Macugnaga
Was opened and we were greeted by a very thin fellow who told us he was Harold Daglish of 2/28 Bn. Tom Bullock knew him immediately. We were taken inside and 2 Italian men and 2 Italian women. One of the men and his wife were also going to try to get into Switzerland and the man of the house was going to guide them over the mountains with Harold Daglish. The man who was going to guide them didn’t want us in his party as well, and we agreed with him, mainly because the woman didn’t look very capable of walking up and down mountains for several days. In the morning he pointed out to us the direction to take to get across the mountains to the next valley and the village at the head of it ie Macugnaga. As the crow flies the distance is about 8-10 miles. Anyway, it took us all day to go across and we were also taking turns to carry a bag of apples. It was at this stage that Tom Bullock started getting a re-occurrence of malaria fever.
Once again, we approached a house just outside the main village and told the occupants who we were. By this time of course we were very scruffy persons, unwashed, unshaven and in very tattered clothes. We were made welcome and were immediately asked of we were ‘fame’ ie hungry, to which we
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[Page heading] Italy Monte Moro
replied ‘Si, si’, yes. Another meal of polenta, bread and goats’ cheese was dished up and soon devoured. After this we told them our plan of crossing into Switzerland via Monte Moro which by now was very visible and only about 6 miles to the north of us. The man said he would get his son (aged about 16) to lead us up to the frontier border the next morning, starting at 5 am. We agreed to this and he said he would wake us up at 4 am. Before going into the hay barn to sleep, we asked him for a pencil and paper and we wrote a letter to the Allied forces, praising the help we had received from this family etc. We all signed it and included our units and regimental numbers.
Next morning, we were woken up before daylight, had some food, bread and cheese and a hot drink. When it was daylight, probably about 6 am, the boy was given instructions by his father and we set off to head for the Monte Moro Pass and the Swiss border. Checking on maps later the distance to the border is only about 8 miles but it was all up, a very steep climb. It started to drizzle with rain after we had been going for a while and Tom Bullock began to complain that he was having trouble breathing and that he thought the malaria was affecting him also. We slowed down a bit and kept coaxing him
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[Page heading] Italy Monte Moro
along, and had to stop to let him rest. He was 12 years older than us and I was only 21. By this time we were well above the tree line and we were starting to feel the cold as well, in our short-sleeved shirts. Eventually the boy pointed out to nus a large clump of rocks and said ‘that is where the frontier is and I will leave you now and go home, because there will be guards up there.’ We thanked him profusely and carried on walking. After about another hour we could see a stone building and thought that would be where the frontier guards would be, but when we got to it there was no sign of anyone. The only door in the place was open so we went in. Inside there were Italian tin hats lying around and also other items of Italian military equipment and old books and papers, but no food. It had obviously been abandoned in a hurry. There were several wooden bunks and a table, so we decided to let Tom Bullock rest for a while. After about an hour we set off again and it was extremely cold by now and when we stopped to wait for Tom we had to flap our arms around to keep warm. Still heading north we came to the top of a ridge and were suddenly confronted by a huge glacier and beyond it we could see a big valley heading away to the north. To get into the valley it was
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[Page heading] Italy Monte Moro
Necessary to cross the glacier, which looked to be about 300 yards wide, because the huge rock outcrops were too difficult to walk on.
We soon realised how difficult it was to walk on the ice, with our nearly worn out army boots, as we began slipping and sliding on the rough – and places jagged – surface. Also after a short while we noticed crevasses 2 to 3 feet wide in places and the colour of the ice in them turned from a muddy brown colour on top to a green bluey colour. In order to avoid sliding into a crevasse and certain death, we found that by slithering along on our backsides and holding on to each other when we saw a crevasse below us. When we saw a crevasse below us, we could control our movements more easily. Eventually we got across it but needless to say our trousers were in tatters and we had a lot of skin off in places. It was quite a relief to get across it alive and we much preferred wobbling along the rocky ground.
From here on it was all downhill and we went along the edge of a water course, which we could see in the distance joined a larger water course further down the valley. We had no idea a of how far it was, or when we would come across signs of human habitation n in such a wild, cold and windswept area.
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[Page heading] Switzerland Monte Moro
By now we estimated it was past midday and we were getting pretty weak and suffering from the cold in our tattered shirts and trousers.
Suddenly, as we followed the watercourse around some huge boulders, we were confronted by 4 soldiers with their rifles levelled at us. One of them called out ‘Halt’ which we promptly did. They were dressed in a very dark grey uniform and tin hats which were identical to the German helmets. We stood there with our hands in the air and they were talking among themselves in German and asked us questions which we could not understand. I kept saying to them ‘English, English, non italiano’.
After a few minutes one of them was sent away while the others kept us covered. We were allowed to drop our arms. About half an hour later the one who was sent away came back with an officer. This officer then said to us ‘Do you speak English?’ I said to him ‘Yes, we do but we are 2 Australians and 2 New Zealand soldiers who were prisoners of war in Italy and have escaped.’ He then asked ‘Do you have identification?’ We then showed him our identification discs around our necks which satisfied him. At that stage I asked the officer who they were
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[Page heading] Switzerland Monte Moro
Date 26th September 1943
and were they Germans. He said ‘No, we are Swiss.’ I then said ‘But you and your men are speaking in German’ to which he replied ‘We are Swiss from the north canton of Switzerland and the German language is our language also.’
He also informed us that they were doing their annual 3 months’ military service for the country. The guards escorted us for about half a mile through very huge boulders country and suddenly we could see a fairly large but old stone building and this was where the guards were camped and there were more inside. The officer then told us that his men had been watching us come down the mountain all morning.
The next thing that happened after a lot of shouting by the officer, was two of them started carrying wood out and they lit a big fire and told us to stand around it and get warm. While we were doing this, another guard brought us a big mug of hot cocoa each, which was then followed by big bowls of hot soup, bread, cheese and onions. It was better than a Christmas dinner and we thanked them profusely. Later in the afternoon they walked us further down the Saas Tal valley to the village of Almagel, a distance of about 4-5 miles.
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[Page heading] Switzerland Brig-Wil
On arrival in Almagel we were put in a room at the village school and were given more food and some loose straw to sleep on.
The following day ie 27th September 1943 a small post bus arrived at the village and we were put aboard and taken further down the valley through the village of Stalden to the town of Visp which is at the junction of the Sass Tal and the Rhome valleys. At Visp we were put on a train which took us to the large town of Brig which is in the upper reaches of the Rhone river valley.
In Brig we were houses in the gymnasium of a large school (not occupied at that time). During the 3 weeks at Brig we were ‘de-loused’, had our hair cut off and were issued with new clothing and footwear, which was British army battle dress mand boots also under clothing. All this was from Red Cross HQ at Geneva. During this 3-week period it was virtually a quarantine period.
From Brig we were taken to a large town called Wil, 25 miles northeast of the city of Zurich, which is in the German-speaking north of Switzerland and from the region of which the frontier guards had come from.
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[Page heading] Switzerland Wil to Wald
In Wil we were again billeted in an empty school for about 10 days and we were given the same food as was being sledded up to the Swiss guards who were looking after us. At this time, we had become great curiosities for the Swiss civilians who spent quite a bit of time trying to talk to us in their unusual Swiss-German dialect ‘Switzer-Deutsch’. The main food here was: breakfast – Ersatz, imitation coffee or proper cocoa and a large bread roll. Lunch – large bowl of soup and bread rolls. Evening meal – soup, potatoes, bread and cheese. On Sunday evenings a small piece of meat also.
It was while we were at Wil that a few more escapees (‘evadés’ as we were called by the Swiss) joined our group. The ones I remember most vividly were Frank Nelligan, Pat Simmons, Cyril Pratt and Harold Daglish who married a Swiss girl who lived in the village of Wald, where we finally ended up. Her parents owned the restaurant ‘Toggenburg’ where most of the ‘evadés’ spent their weekly pay of 15 francs on ‘Möst’ (apple cider) and wine. The money was deducted from our army pay books. Beer was also available, light or dark, in German ‘helle oder dunkel’.
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[Page heading] Switzerland Wald
In Wald all the ‘Internisten’ as we had then become known as, were billeted in a disused factory. Our beds were, as usual, loose hay on the floor but it was quite comfortable. Between the columns supporting the roof we fixed wires to hang our clothes and towels on. Plenty of blankets were supplied. Wald became quite a big camp for escapees from Italy and Germany who included Australians, English, South Africans and a few Cypriots.
An English captain was put in charge of us. His name was Mitchell. A very nice bloke and very easy to get on with. His job was to liaise between the Swiss authorities and us. We were classed as being in ‘open internment’ which meant that we could walk anywhere within a 5-kilometre radius of the Town Hall 7 days a week. The rules were that we had to be in the ‘Fabrik’ ie factory at 9pm and could not leave it before 8am the following day. It was Captain Mitchell’s duty to see that this rule was complied with and to report to the Swiss army officer after roll call. As we were all dressed in English army battle dress, we were all called ‘Engländer’ by the Swiss, which is the German name for English people.
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[Page heading] Switzerland Wald – Montreux
It was about mid-November 1943 that we were settled into the village of Wald.
Our group of 4 got a job at the local aged persons’ home ‘Altesheim’ and the Matron in charge was a very friendly and considerate lady and made sure we got plenty of food whilst working there. She called herself our ‘Schweizermutter’ ie Swiss mother. Her husband also worked there as the general manager. Their names were Ernst and Klara Altwegg.
In March 1944 I met an English couple, Mr and Mrs Gwyn Roberts who told me that they were the owners of a college near Montreux on the Lake of Geneva. They were looking for someone to work in the kitchen, so I offered my services to them, because I knew there would be plenty of good food available in such a place.
Arrangements were then made for me to go down there, through the British Consul in Bern and in early April 1944 I was an employee at Chillon College in Glion above Montreux. I worked from 7am until about 9pm 6 ½ days per week for 5 Swiss francs per day and keep. The franc was equivalent then to one shilling and 3 pence.
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[Page heading] Switzerland Montreux
The Swiss government tax on my 5 francs per day was 50%.
As Montreux is in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, I had to try to learn a bit of French. Not very easy. German was much easier.
On June 6th 1944 (D-Day) we heard on the radio that the invasion of Europe had been launched, and needless to say the Roberts kept me fully informed of the Allies’ progress. I made several good friends with families in Montreux and used to visit them on my weekly half a day off. We kept in touch over the years and my wife Carole and I revisited them in 1983. During my time with the Roberts at Chillon College I had to report to the police station in Glion once per week to let them see I was still there. By this time, I had also acquired some civilian clothes and when I went out, I could blend in quite well with the local population until it came to ‘parlez-ing francais’.
In mid-August 1944 I received orders from the British Consul in Bern to report within 3 days to the Officer in charge of a group of internees who were based in the Caux Palace Hotel further up the mountain. This hotel was huge
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[Page heading] Switzerland Montreux
and was reported to have 800 bedrooms. I never counted them. There were also 3 other very large hotels in the vicinity. This village was serviced by a cog wheel railway train known as the ‘Blue Train’. It is still running I believe, from Montreux to Rochers de Naye, a ski resort. I am writing this in September 1998.
From Glion and Caux it was possible to look across the eastern end of the lake of Geneva, a distance of about 4 miles, and see the Germans burning the French villages of Evian, Bellerie and Locum. A lot of refugees made their way into Switzerland through St. Gingolph which straddled the Swiss-French borderline.
At this time the tourist hotels were not operating, due to the war, so that is how the Palace Hotel came to house the internees.
[Section heading] Homeward bound
On 20th September 1944 we heard the BBC radio announce that the American army had reached the Swiss-French border near Geneva. This was the Operation ‘Torch’ group which had invaded the South of France and had fought their way north.
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[Page heading] Homeward Bound
On 21st September 1944 we were told to prepare to move out and be on stand-by. On the afternoon of 23rd September 1944 instructions were given that we were going by train that night to Geneva and would be handed over to the Americans next morning, 24th September. That duly happened to us and everything went like clockwork. Three days short of 1 year.
The Americans told us that they were going to take us down to Marseilles by train and it would be a very slow trip because the line had been wrecked by bombing and it was not properly repaired yet.
Before we got on the train, they issued one of us with a big pack of their famous K Rations, which contained food which we had not seen for years including bags of lollies and chocolates. The 200-mile trip down to Marseilles took about 12 hours to complete.
After a few days in Marseilles we were put on a LST( Landing Ship Tanks) and taken to Naples in Italy. During the crossing a violent storm occurred and even the crew were seasick. Southern Italy was in Allied hands by now and we had to wait in Naples for a week to join a convoy heading for Port Said in Egypt.
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[Page heading] Homeward Bound
The ship we were put on in Naples was an ex-passenger liner ‘Reina del Pacifico’ ie Queen of the Pacific.
[Section heading] Russian deserters
Before the convoy sailed, 100 Russians were escorted abroad under heavy guard. As they were all wearing full German uniforms, we thought they were Germans until we noticed their features were Mongolian. According to the English soldiers guarding them, the Russians had been taken prisoner by the Germans on the Russian front. Then, after a short while the Germans gave them the choice of being shot or joining the German army and going to the war zone in Italy. The Russians decided to join the Germans and take their chance in Italy. As a consequence, when they got to Italy they were again captured by the Eighth Army. They were now being shipped back to Russia and certain execution. Apparently, there were several thousand more to come out of Italy. Most of them were from Siberia, hence their Mongolian features.
We disembarked at Port Said after a 2-day pleasant cruise from Naples.
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[Page heading] Homeward Bound
From Port Said we were taken down the Suez canal by trucks to Port Tewfik at the southern end of the canal near Suez.
After several days in a transit camp at Tewfik waiting for a convoy to leave, we went aboard the P and O Liner ‘Orontes’ which had been used as troop ship since the war started.
In the transit camp at Tewfik we were amazed to see hundreds of former of former Italian PoWs who were now classed as our allies, since they changed sides, strutting around with Italian army colour patches and the word ‘Italy’ on both shoulders of the British Army uniforms they were wearing. In the canteen, needless to say, there was a lot of shouting and arguing going on, especially as we knew quite a bit of the Italian ‘lingo’ by now.
Eventually the convoy of ships left Tewfik and sailed down the Red Sea to the port of Aden where some of the ships took on coal etc. At Aden several destroyers joined the convoy and escorted it across the Arabian Sea to the port of Bombay in India. That leg of the voyage took about 4 days. On our arrival in Bombay we were put on trucks and taken to a British army camp on Malaba Hill. There would have been about 100
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[Page heading] Homeward Bound
Australians in our group by now.
Our stay in Bombay lasted about 4 days, during which time we were allowed out on leave into the city of Bombay. Whilst in the camp we were given money which was later deducted from our pay books, so we were able to buy a few presents, in the Navy and Army store, to bring home to our relatives.
We left Bombay on board an American troopship ie ‘Liberty Ship’.To our amazement it travelled alone and unescorted. On board there were hundreds of American troops and also a lot of Chinese soldiers. The food was excellent and very plentiful. Shortly after sailing, it was announced over the loud speaker system that if anyone fell overboard the ship would not stop or even slow down in an effort to rescue them. After we had been sailing for several days suddenly the loud speaker system burst into life and a voice shouted ‘Man overboard’. Everybody rushed to the ship’s deck railings and we could see a man in the water astern. Two lifebuoys were tossed over the side, but by now the unfortunate man was too far behind the ship for him to reach them. The ship just sailed on.
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[Page heading] Homeward Bound
We were later informed that the man was one of the Chinese troops who were exercising on deck near the stern and he was doing handsprings and went over the rail. By now the ship was well out into the Indian Ocean where there was the ever likely chance of an attack by a Japanese submarine. The Australians on board the S.S. General Anderson reckoned we were heading for Australian but of course the ship’s destination had not been revealed. We worked out that we were on a south-south-easterly course and were probably going to Fremantle. But our guess was incorrect. However, as we sailed down the Indian Ocean during the first few days of November, it was suddenly announced over the P.A. system on board that we were within radio range of Australian radio stations and that they (the Americans) just put the broadcast of the Melbourne Cup over the P.A. system, which they did. It was a very touching time for us and we realised we were nearly home. Two days before we arrived in Melbourne (after sailing due north for 3 days) we suddenly became aware of the smell of burning gum leaves but we could not see any smoke. This really made us aware that we were in close proximity to Australia. What a lovely smell.
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[Page heading] Homeward Bound – Home
The Liberty ship S.S General Anderson berthed in Melbourne on 17th November 1944. It had taken us 52 days from Geneva to Melbourne.
On the afternoon before arrival in Melbourne an American soldier who was being taken back to America for a Court Martial, was being exercised on deck under guard. Suddenly he made a run across the deck and jumped overboard. Once again, the P.A. system blared out ‘Man overboard, Man overboard’. Several lifebuoys were thrown out, but once again the ship did not slow down or stop. Japanese submarines were still a risk.
Several days were spent in camp at Royal Park in Melbourne where us Australians were re-issued with new uniforms. The New Zealanders had to wait until they got to New Zealand. We all spent time saying farewell to our friends of several years before us west Australians were put on a troop train for Perth which took about 5 days to get there. Those who lived in Perth had friends or relatives to meet them. What excitement!
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[Page heading] Switzerland and Italy Revisited June-July 1962 After 19 years
In June and July of 1962 I had the good fortune to make a pilgrimage back to Italy and Switzerland. I travelled on the P and O liner ‘Fremantle’ to Naples via Singapore, Bombay, Suez Canal to Naples ie ‘Bella Napoli’. From Naples I went by train to Milan and then to Vercelli where I booked into a small hotel, and luckily for me the owner could speak a few words of English and I still a few words of ‘italiano’. When I started asking him about transport to Collobiano and Brianco etc. he wanted to know ‘How do you know this place?’ so I broke the news to him that I had been a ‘prigioniero di guerra’, PoW, there in 1943 and worked in the ‘campagna di riso’. He was stunned at this and called his wife and then shouted out to his customers who were sitting in an adjoining room, to come and see the Australian who had been a prigioniero in 1943 and had come back after all this time.
Naturally the ‘vino rosso’ flowed quite freely and everybody was very happy.
The following days as I walked along the streets near the hotel, I would hear the words ‘Australiano’ and ‘Prigioniero’ being discussed.
I managed to locate the bus which ran through the village of Collobiano, on the edge of which had
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[Page heading] Italy – Vercelli Revisited
been our second working camp in 1943. The main road ran through this small village and when I got off the bus, I was able to get my bearings immediately and make my way towards the stone building in which we had been houses in 1943. It looked exactly as it had been then, but of course the barbed wire fence had been removed.
As I stood there with my camera, an old man came out of another building across the road. He would have been about 80 and I was 40 then. I greeted him with the words ‘Buongiorno’ and he replied with the same. I hen told him I was an ‘Australiano’ and had been there as a prisoner of war. He immediately burst into tears, shook me by the hand and then hugged me, and said he remembered the ‘Australiani’ very well. I was taken into his house to meet his wife and they insisted I stop and have lunch with them, which I did. When it was time for me to leave them to catch a bus back to Vercelli, they both burst into tears as they hugged me and then I burst into tears as well. It was very sad for us all.
Before I went back to Vercelli I decided to walk about a mile to have a look at the actual fields we had been working on in 1943. When I got there
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[Page heading] Italy – Vercelli Revisited
I saw several men and women at work in one of the rice fields. I told them who I was etc. and one of the men said he was a boy when we were there and he remembered us quite well. He told me they were the Caccianotti family and had owned the land during the war. I took their photos, and we wrote to each other for several years after that.
The following day I revisited the Vercelli Hospital where I had spent several weeks with other prisoners who had caught malaria fever whilst we worked in the rice fields. Apparently, malaria was endemic in northern Italy during those years. The lay-out of the hospital is in the form of a huge cross ie 4 very long wings. I went straight to the wing I had been in and I saw an elderly nun in a small office. When I told her I had been in the hospital in 1943 as an Australian PoW with malaria fever, she burst into tears and said ‘I remember, I remember it all very well.’ It was quite an emotional reunion and we hugged each other.
She then took my hand and led me through each wing of the hospital and announced to all the patients who I was and that I had come back to visit the hospital that I had been in 19 years before.
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[Page heading] Italy – Vercelli Revisited
She then insisted that I stayed and had some lunch with the other nuns and some of the other nursing staff. Before lunch she got on the telephone and called a retired nurse who had been working in the ward us prisoners had been in. This nurse also remembered us being there and was also pleased to know that they had been remembered.
[Section heading] Switzerland Revisited
Following several days at Vercelli I caught a train to Milan and from there another train to Zurich. I spent about 3 weeks in Switzerland visiting people I had known in Wald, Montreux, Glion (where I worked at the school) and the travelling around the rest of the country.
[Section heading] England
When I left Switzerland, I travelled to England and met up with my old friend Mr Roberts who had employed me to work in the kitchen of their ‘Chillon College’ in Glion in 1944. This was also an emotional reunion.
My journey home again was on the P and O Liner ‘Oriana’, Southampton to Fremantle via Suez 18 days.