This text describes Alfred Hackett or Alf during his time as part of the British Royal Artillery. After being posted in the horn of Africa, his regiment had experienced an extensive defeat by the German Afrika Korps. Taken prisoner, Alf found himself on his way to a Prisoner of War camp in Italy.
After finding an opportunity to escape, he joined with one Italian making for Foggia, travelling through the hills only to be confronted by a gun – of a member of the SAS sent in to help the POWs. He joined some 40 others similarly being herded to the coast. After crossing the road and rail, which still runs close to the sea they took a rowing boat to a larger ship and were thankfully behind Allied lines once more.
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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Alfred Hackett 850751
31st Field Regiment Royal Artillery
Escaped as POW from PG 29 Veano Italy 10th September 1943
Born 11th May 1916 Deceased 22th April 2002
[Photograph with caption] Photo taken in Cairo 1940
In 1935 I joined the Royal Artillery at the age of 19 in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire and was posted to Norwich. I married Gertrude Berry in Norwich and we had a daughter Shelia in 1938. I was with the 30th Field Regiment R.A. when war broke out in September 1939.
The regiment moved out to go to France in late September 1939, but I with a number of others moved into billets before being posted to Egypt in October 1939. There I joined the 31st Field Regiment RA in the 4th Indian Division stationed at Mena Sands under canvas. On Christmas Day 1939 armed with a bottle of pilsner beer I climbed the pyramids at El Giza.
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[Title] Battle, Capture, Escape and Evasion of Alfred Hackett
Though following the pattern of many other POWs [Prisoners of War] on the run Hackett has in a few piquant pages, left an excellent account of battle in the desert and then his walk from POW Camp until meeting the SAS [Special Air Service] and being the last to be rowed out to a boat to take him south of the battle line in Italy.
Having joined the R.A. in 1935 and in 1939 ready to go to France. He was posted to Egypt instead and climbed the pyramids with a bottle of Pilsner on Christmas Day… After being in the battle at Sidi Barrani at the end of the year he was in Ethiopia.
In May 1941, back in the desert he met Rommel’s guns at Halfaya Pass (Hellfire Pass, to the Allied forces) but in November in that year at Hamza he saw his battery wiped out around him as the use of 25 Pounders against tanks proved too costly. Wounded and a prisoner he tried to take a bath but was rewarded by being sent with other prisoners to Italy and the Camp at Servigliano known to this reviewer and still with its walls intact lies in the valley below Monte San Martino.
At the Italian Armistice Hackett found himself in the small POW Camp at Veano, near Bologna. “Just a wee walk of 300 miles plus 75 by sea all in 35 days was before him.” He joined with one Italian making for Foggia, his home town, but after negotiating many hills and rivers he was suddenly confronted by a gun – of a member of the SAS sent in to help the POWs. He joined some 40 others similarly being herded to the coast. After crossing the road and rail, which still runs close to the sea. They had stopped for a night on the way and a farmer’s wife had fed them all. A rowing boat appeared to take them out to something bigger. Hackett was fortunate to be in the third but last load to go out, leaving the others for another night. Seasick but safe behind Allied lines he landed at Termoli.
Viz North Africa Hackett got home to find that, while he was climbing the Italian hills his wife had died and his daughter was living with an aunt. Hackett married again and his son has conserved his sometimes richly detailed memoirs, leaving this reader to wish that he had written more.
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[Letter to Nigel Hackett from Keith Killby]
18th November 2010
Dear Nigel Hackett,
Veano was, we believe a fairly small camp for officers – who at the Italian Armistice were helped to escape into the hills by the Italian Officer in charge. However we have little about it in the archives and would be most interested if your father left any papers about the camp or the exit from it.
Your father was indeed persistent and he was fortunate to meet some of the SAS I expect who had been sent through the lines to help POWs. I was not so fortunate, I had been captured in Sardinia while with the SAS and then the two dozen of us were taken to the mainland and to Servigliano camp only some ten days before the armistice. Suffering from malaria I could not keep up with them but was joined by two Americans from the camp. After very many kilometres up and down hills we were recaptured but I escaped in the night only to hit the last petrol before it fell back from the front line. After being in Rome’s still notorious civilian prison. I was taken to Germany where besides improving my German I learnt Russian with the help of a Russian friend. We were removed from the advancing Russians and finally liberated, near Switzerland, by Americans. At school I had learnt some German, enough to speak to the Germans who overran the Field Ambulance at the battle of Knightsbridge so that they calmed down and left us to work for the mostly German wounded and then to walk back to our lines.
All in all I had an interesting war. I do hope that you father wrote down his experiences. If so we would very much appreciate a copy for the Archives of the Trust.
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[Photograph with caption] Photo taken close to the Pyramids
late 1939/early 1940
Whilst in Cairo in 1940 I was hit by a lorry crossing the road and spent some weeks in after injuring my hip.
[Photograph with caption] Lady Lampson (in white) visiting
Princess Alexandra ? Hospital Cairo 1940.
My first action was during an operation planned by Wavell and known as “Corps Exercise” which began on the 6th December 1940 at Sidi Barrani. I was part of what became known as Wavells “Thirty Thousand”.
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This operation involved the advance of Wavell’s outnumbered army for 100 miles across a waterless desert in great secrecy to attack the fortified position of the Italians. 20,000 Italians were taken prisoner at a cost of 700 casualties within the 4th Indian Division.
Following the success at Sidi Barrani the Division halted and then moved back to defensive positions near Mersa Matruh. By 15th December the regiment was back at Garawala where it immediately packed up and the next day proceeded to the Sudan.
Source 31st Field Regiment – A Record – Owen Roberts
Between January to April 1941 the 4th Indian Division went on to Eritrea in Ethiopia. We were in the thick of it at the battle of Keren. I was very lucky to get out alive, as I was detailed to take a radio forward with another soldier to an observation post. We were under heavy fire and I was lucky to get out alive. After the eventual victory we returned to Egypt. On 15th May 1941 the regiment was at Halfaya Pass (nicknamed Hellfire Pass) as part of Operation Brevity. It was our first encounter with Rommel and his 88mm guns and tanks. We were just blasted out and fortunate to survive.
Our next action was during Operation Battleaxe on the 15th June 1941 and again we were very lucky to get out of this. It was Rommel once more who we were up against and twenty four Maryland Bombers destroyed his pincer movement against us and we made our escape. On 18th November 1941 Operation Crusader began as we tried to push Rommel out of Cyrenaica. The regiment was attached to 11th Indian Infantry Brigade and were engaged in several successful actions but 27 days into the operation on 15th December my world was to change forever.
[Map of Operation Battleaxe and frontier area]
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By chance the 31st Field Regiment RA and the Buffs [Royal East Kent Regiment, formerly the 3rd Regiment of Foot] had pushed through the Gazala Line between two Italian Divisions the day before and had then camped overnight. Alf thought they had been deliberately put in a position to attract an attack. “Sprat to catch a mackerel” was his words. However it appears that in the fog of war the situation was misunderstood by HQ and the 31st and the Buffs were left to their fate alone.
Although Rommel was in retreat it appears he thought we were the advance party of a major attack. After some minor engagements on the morning of 15th we were attacked by Stuka dive bombers. Rommel then brought the strength of 15th Panzer Afrika Korps against us. Our infantry support of The Buffs was decimated and driven back though our gun lines. We engaged the panzers with our 25 pounders at short range. Eventually with our ammunition running low all of the guns in our battery were put out of action. When my gun was hit I was the only survivor and all my pals were killed. I was out of my mind in desperation and picked up a rifle and started firing wildly at the oncoming tanks. I was hit by shrapnel and a shell blast blew me off my feet. My face was cut and bleeding and legs were numbed. I could not move and German soldiers picked me up and placed me onto the side of tank and took me prisoner.
The official record of the battle of Alem Hamza is as follows:
[Title]The Battle of Alem Hamza.
December 14th and 15th 1941
POINT 204 14th DECEMBER 1941
At Point 204 on the morning of the 14th considerable enemy movement was seen to the north. A large number of Italian infantry were seen advancing on a small ridge. They were shelled by E Troop and attacked by a company of the Buffs (Buffs was the name of the Kent Infantry Regiment). The column was still deployed for the advance. Information had been received of the parlous state of the enemy’s armour and, in the words of the Battery Commander of 116/118 Battery, who later was to become acting Commanding Officer of the regiment, “We were in confident expectation of continuing the advance any hour”. The Divisional Commander visited HQ 5 Indian Infantry Brigade at 1630 hours and outlined his plans for the advance on the following day. What was not known was that Rommel was not prepared to pull back at this stage, and that he had in fact planned a heavy counter attack. His intention was apparently to free the Italian Motor Corps from the attack which was obviously about to be made upon it. During the afternoon of the 14th about ten enemy tanks attacked from the south. A Troop of 116/118 Battery were overrun after expending all of their ammunition, but three or four tanks were hit, some of them by D Troop which supported A Troop. E Troop was unable to assist as the attack was not visible from their position. Further attempts were then made to dig in but the best that could be done in the rocky ground was to throw up ramps in front of the guns and dig shallow slit trenches for the detachments.
POINT 204 15th DECEMBER 1941
Both gun troops of 105/119 Battery moved out of leaguer before first light on the morning of the 15th. E Troop moved to a position some 400 yards south of their position of the previous day in order to get a clear field of fire for anti tank shoots to the west D Troop was at the south west corner of the square formation in roughly the same position as the previous day, although all three remaining troops of the regiment were ordered to swing anti clockwise to cover the absence of A Troop. The enemy were still apparently in the area of the former A Troop position and there were enemy to the south. As dawn came D Troop could see eleven enemy tanks evenly-spaced along a ridge about 1500 yards in front of then. Also seen, were three or four vehicles with a large number of men around then apparently having their breakfast. Both D and E Troops opened fire
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and the tanks withdrew to hull down positions behind the ridge. To the North West a company of infantry were seen and engaged by S Troop as were a large number of enemy infantry and some fifty motorcyclists. These troops were undoubtedly Italian as the German War Diary records that the Commander of the Italian Motor Corps 19 reported an attack on Point 204 on the morning of the 15th. During the morning long range enemy guns began to shell the position. The fire intensified as the morning wore on and there was a lot of air burst HE [High explosive]. Stuka dive bombers attacked and a number of bombs fell between D and E Troops but fortunately without much effect. Casualties from the shelling were mounting however and some transport was hit. At about noon two enemy light tanks approached. One was knocked out by an anti tank gun of the Buffs and a prisoner was taken. He said that an attack by fifty tanks, supported by infantry, was scheduled for this morning. He could not understand why it had not already started. All of this information was passed to HQ 5 Indian Infantry Brigade but the column was told not to worry as armoured support was on its way. The Commanding Officer of 31 Field Regiment was then ordered to be prepared to advance at 1305 hours. He commented that it seemed a rather odd time.
The German War Diaries show that orders had been given at 0830 hours for the Attack Group of 15 Panzer Division to carry out the attack. This Group, commanded by Colonel Menny, consisted of 8 Panzer Regiment and 2 Machine Gun Battalion but reinforcements of an Infantry Regiment and a heavy and a light battery had been promised. By 1100 hours the Attack Group had arrived in the area north west of Bir Temrad and at 1210 hours orders were given by Colonel Menny. 2 Machine Gun Battalion was to move ahead of the Panzer Regiment to eliminate anti tank weapons. The Panzer Regiment was to move in once the Machine Gun Battalion had broken through. 1st Battery of 33 Artillery Regiment was to support the Machine Gun Battalion and a troop of 33 Anti Tank Regiment was to be under command of the battalion. 1st Battery of 33 Artillery Regiment was to take up a position to the east to support the Machine Gun Battalion during the opening stages of the attack after which they were to move to give close support to the Panzer Regiment. At Point 204 shelling and bombing continued and by 1230 hours had intensified again. A No 1 of D Troop reported that it was the worst he had ever known. Before the ground attack developed the detachment on this gun were down to three men. Enemy infantry were seen digging in to the north east and were shelled, with good effect, by E Troop. Three armoured cars and a tank to the north west of E Troop fired on one of the Observation Posts (Ops) and a party of Italian Infantry advancing towards the OP were dispersed by rifle fire.
At about 1300 hours the OP’s to the west and North West reported twenty, then thirty and finally fifty German tanks approaching from the west. Enemy infantry also approached D and E Troops and were engaged by rifle fire. At the same time the tanks, now supported by Self Propelled guns, were engaging the 25 pounder field guns. Major Molesworth, now the acting Commanding Officer of 31 Field Regiment, appealed to the column commander for infantry assistance to keep the enemy infantry off the guns. At the same time the tanks, which had arrived with the ammunition column the previous evening, were ordered to counter attack but they were quickly driven back by the more powerful Mark III and Mark IV Panzers. A company of the Buffs was sent to support D and E Troops together with some 2 pdr anti tank guns but, about to be overwhelmed by the enemy armour, they had to withdraw through the gun lines, the 2 pdr guns and their crews shot to pieces.
Once the infantry were clear the 25 pdrs had an open field of fire. At the D Troop position the tanks were initially engaged at 700 yards. The tanks stopped for a while but then moved forward again shooting as they moved. Then they charged. This was at about 1400 hours and seems to have been a second group of tanks which approached from the south west. From the flanks came the lorried infantry sweeping the gun lines with machine gun fire. A No 1 of D Troop has recorded, “The tracer was so thick it was like a snow-storm and I’m not exaggerating men dropped like ninepins”. Ammunition was now very short and the tanks very close. One was hit at 50 yards. The effect, as the No 1 said was tremendous but there were too many of them and they swept through the gun lines of D Troop. No 3 gun of this troop had the shield holed in a dozen places, one shield bracket had gone and both tyres were flat. There was a hole the size of a plate in the trail.
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Of the sights there was no sign. The layer was dead and all that was left of the detachment was the No 1 and one gunner. They made off with the breech and firing mechanism in a quad which arrived on the position as it was getting dark. The Troop Commander of D Troop, Captain H Porter, had initially directed troop fire on to the advancing tanks and infantry when he saw that there was no advantage in holding fire. The troop position was under well directed HE air-burst fire. After a couple of minutes the tanks were clearly visible to the No 1 and Captain Porter ordered “Gun Control”. He then saw the attack veering off to the right flank of his troop and thought that the tanks were going to drive into the gap between D and E Troops. To counter this Major Moles worth ordered E Troop, commanded by Captain E H Morgan, to move a section to cover the gap. Two guns were moved and went into action. It was during this phase that Captain Morgan was killed whilst acting as a gun number after being hit several times. The remainder of E Troop was taken in the flank and eventually succumbed, as had D Troop, to the hail of fire from the panzers and their supporting infantry.
The Historical Records of the Buffs records, “Proportionately the biggest sufferer in killed and wounded was the 31 Field Regiment, which was to reform on the basis of a weak battery… they fought with magnificent courage and the conduct of all ranks had been beyond praise.” Another source says, “The gunners had kept on firing til the tanks were right on top of them.”
THE COST OF THE ACTION
The casualty figures for 105/119 Battery are not separately available but those of 31 Field Regiment are summarised as follows:
- Killed 2 Officers, 24 NCOs [Non Commissioned Officer] and Men
- Wounded 7 Officers, 48 NCOs and Men
- Missing 12 Officers, 180 NCOs and Men
Added to these were the casualties sustained the previous day:
- Killed 1 Officer, 8 NCOs and Men
- Wounded 2 Officers, 5 NCOs and Men.
It should be noted that the figure quoted for the wounded has only taken into account those evacuated beyond the Advanced Dressing Station and does not therefore include minor injuries. Those reported missing were in fact all taken prisoner. The majority of the casualties on 15th December were from 105/119 Battery and only one officer and a small number of men were present when the roll of the survivors was called on the evening of the 15th at HQ 5 Indian Infantry Brigade. It would seem that most of those taken prisoner were actually on the gun lines. The Battery had already begun to run out of small arms ammunition during the engagement of the enemy infantry with small arms fire. Those who did get away were mainly from the echelon area, escaping in what little transport there was left after the heavy shelling. In this escape they were aided by the pall of smoke from the burning vehicles but there was not much chance of escape for those on the gun lines, engulfed as they were by the enemy armour and infantry.
THE ENEMY’S APPRECIATION OF THE ACTION
So fiercely were the enemy held off that it would appear that their losses in men and equipment were so severe that they could not exploit their success. The number of enemy tanks destroyed during the action is reported as 9 or possibly 12, out of the 23 with which 8 Panzer Regiment had started the day. One report says that the lorried infantry regiment ceased to exist. Suffice to say that the enemy had made their final thrust and within 24 hours began the withdrawal from Cyrenaica.
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The component units of the German force have already been noted and although at this stage in the battle unit and formation titles bore little relation to the strength of men and equipment on the ground, it is relevant to record the organisation of the units concerned. 8 Panzer Regiment consisted of two battalions which should have fielded, at full strength, about 100 tanks. The Official History records that this regiment reported only 23 serviceable tanks on the morning of 15th December. 2 Machine Gun Battalion was organised into companies equipped with vehicle and motorcycle mounted machine guns. As such it was far more mobile than the British Machine Gun Battalion. 115 Lorried Infantry Regiment had three battalions and was therefore roughly equivalent to a British brigade except that there was organic artillery in the heavy company of each battalion besides the lighter anti tank weapons in the other companies. 33 Artillery Regiment consisted of three batteries but, unlike the British Regiment’s, was equipped with several kinds of guns. In view of the number of enemy tanks reported making the attack it would appear that some of them may have been either German SP guns [Self-propelled artillery], which frequently accompanied the tanks, or Italian tanks probably from the Ariete Armoured Division. The Commander of the Italian Motor Corps (Trieste Motor and Ariete Armoured Divisions) did in fact report to HQ Panzer-armee Afrika that his troops had taken part in the attack. The German account of the action in the German War Diaries mentions the strong and effective British Artillery fire and shows that at least part of the attacking force, a battalion of 115 Regiment was unable to advance, and that because of this lack of support the Panzer Regiment was unable to proceed any further.
The Germans thought that the force they had destroyed was 22 Guards Brigade. There is some justification for this, for the Germans undoubtedly identified the Buffs after the action and German Intelligence might well have noted them as part of 22 Guards Brigade, for the Buffs had indeed been part of that Brigade up until September 1941. Whatever the Germans thought the formation was, they obviously considered it to be a strong force and a particularly dangerous one, since it had pierced the junction between the Ariete and Trieste Divisions.
Units of the Italian Motor Corps appear to have taken part in the attack only towards the end, although the Commander General Piazonni sent a message to Panzergruppe Afrika at 1830 hours implying that his Corps had taken a major part. In fact the Italian Corps had already claimed to have succeeded in an attack on Point 204 earlier in the morning, 15 Panzer Division War Diary laconically records, “This information, as on the previous day, turned out to be incorrect.” This does however suggest that perhaps the attacks on the 14th were made by the Italians.
There are numerous instances of panzer versus 25 pdr actions in the earlier part of the Western Desert campaign, in many of which, great gallantry was shown by the gunners. In the early days the panzers would close in on the guns and as a result were frequently badly mauled before being beaten off. They soon began to learn their lesson however and later tended to stand off and subject the gun lines to withering tank and machine gun fire, frequently supported by SP, field artillery and 88mm fire, before moving in. The action at Alem Hamza was one of these occasions.
The use of the 25 pdr as an anti tank gun was becoming increasingly costly at this time; on this occasion the cost was twenty three guns and very many casualties. Alarming also was the fact that those personnel not immediately killed or wounded during the course of the action, were all too vulnerable to capture, especially when the panzer attack, as at Alem Hamza, was followed up by lorried infantry. It is indeed surprising under the circumstances that so many escaped.
The Battery and indeed the whole of the Buffs column had been placed in a very difficult position. Their deployment area was not selected for ease of defence but simply as a leaguer area before continuing the advance, which everybody, from the Brigade Commander downwards, confidently expected to proceed on the next day. In fact what had actually happened was that the column, unknowingly, had pierced the junction between two of the Italian Divisions holding the Gazala
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Line; the German Command decided that this thrust was too dangerous to accept, even if there was the intention of an early German withdrawal. They therefore assembled an extremely strong force and destroyed what they thought was the spearhead of the attack a formation which they believed to be of brigade strength. This belief stemmed not purely from intelligence sources but also from the fight put up by the column. The Germans were obviously intent on following up their success at Point 204, and perhaps sweeping through the remainder of the brigade deployed to the south of the Alem Hamza ridge. That they were unable to do so stems, in no little measure, from the fact that one of the supporting lorried infantry battalions was unable to make any headway against the gun defences at Point 204 and only arrived on the position in time to mop up what remained of the column.
It is very possible that the fight put up by the Gunners of 105/119 Field Battery, became the turning point of the Gazala Line Battle. Because the Attack Group of 15 Panzer Division was unable to exploit their success at Point 204, this final German thrust was blunted and within 24 hours they withdrew from the Gazala Line. This withdrawal did not end until they were out of Cyrenaica.
Source: Application for the honour title “Alem Hamza 1973”
This battle on 15th December 1941 although technically part of Operation Crusader has now become known as Alem Hamza and took place at nearby point 204. In 1973 the 31st Field Regiment Royal Artillery was awarded a battle honour in recognition of its brave resistance that day which had severely delayed Rommell and destroyed a significant number of his panzer tanks. The honour which is the last one to be awarded the Royal Artillery was granted after the Rommel papers were released. These confirmed the heroism of the gunners that day. In fact so much damage was inflicted on the Knabe battle group the commander reported that he was unable to continue with his attack.
On 2rd August 1985 Luke Cowie of Darlington wrote:
“On 15th December 1941 left alone near Belhammel by Army Command 31st Field Regiment was set upon by battle group Knabe, a strong formation of Panzers, artillery and infantry. Assisted by Stukas the Germans wreaked their vengeance for the “defeat on the wire”. Machine gunned, dive bombed, shelled and attacked by tanks the gallant regiment fought to the end. There was to be no surrender. When we retook the site two days later the gunlayers were dead in their seats and the gun crews scattered around each gun. With them perished the Colonel and almost every officer of the regiment. Escaped 54 men including NCOs and one officer Bertie May who we picked up when his vehicle broke down.”
I was taken to a German Field Dressing Tent I stayed the first night in Rommel’s camp where I saw his caravan. From there I was moved by ambulance to Derna Hospital (The White House) and then onwards to Tripoli before eventually arriving at Caserta Hospital in January 1942. I was there for about a month. The Germans treated us well. I was desperate for a proper wash and when the German military doctor heard that I had climbed out of bed and made my way for a bath (I had not bathed properly for several months) he ordered me to be discharged and my journey to Italy and imprisonment as a prisoner of war began. I was handed over to Italian guards and a ship took me to Italy. My first impression of my Italian captors was not good as I was unnecessarily threatened and forced along with a bayonet in my backside. After landing in Italy I was taken to Camp 59 Servigliano in the Province of Macerta. This was very overcrowded and in June 1942 I was moved to camp 29 at Veano Just south of Piacenza in the Po valley. The camp was an officer’s camp and there was also a compound for other ranks that were expected to act as cooks and orderlies.
After the Italian Armistice of 8th September 1943 there was considerable confusion and consternation in POW camps across Italy in view of the “Stay Put” order issued by British Military Intelligence MI9. Camp 29 was no exception but by 10th September many POWs had decided to escape. It appears there were differences of opinion as to whether staying put, escaping to Switzerland, waiting in the nearby hills for the allies to land possibly near Genoa or heading South towards the allied lines was the best course of action. Alf left the following notes of his escape:
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Escape from Camp 29 – Notes left by A Hackett:
Just a wee walk 300 miles plus 75 by sea in 35 days.
10th September 1943
Just after 12 noon I realised that I would have to leave the camp on my own, so I went through into the officers’ enclosure turned right at the wire fence, which was already down, I walked for 400 to 500 yards crossing the road that led down to Ponte dell Olio railway station. Whilst walking up the hillside to a farmhouse I was confronted by a girl about 19 years old. I told her that I was English and had got away from the Camp. The girl went away and came back within four minutes. She took me to a haystack which was under cover and said I could hide there. They took me to a spot overlooking the camp which gave me all-round vision. It was not long before I saw two figures running towards me, one was Major Dawnay and the other Major Fieldhouse. They had managed to get out of the camp as the Germans entered. Within two minutes they went on their way running.
11th September 1943
Next morning the farmer came to me and after a few minutes he wanted to swap a checked shirt and a pair of grey flannel slacks for my battledress etc. I changed into the shirt and slacks promptly and he said, “Bene Italiano” (Alf had black hair and brown eyes and his skin turned very brown in the summer). I also gave him my army boots putting a pair of brown walking out shoes that had come to me in a parcel from England. Out of six parcels sent to me, only one reached me. I spent another night in the haystack and told the farmer, the girl and a boy that I was moving on the next day. I said goodbyes there and then.
12th September 1943
With a haversack of Red Cross food on my back at the crack of dawn I set off for the railway station at Ponte dell Olio with the intention of taking a train to Piacenza. I bought a single ticket for that city. I had stood there about ten minutes feeling a little uneasy seeing all the Italians in group of two, three, four or more. I turned round to my right and saw one man coming in my direction. He came straight up to me and said in Italian.
I said “Si”
He then said, “Don’t go on the train as the Germans are demanding to see everyone’s identity cards. Go to the mountains and the woods all the time. Travel all the time on the top of the mountains as it will be safe.” I thanked him and gave my ticket to a young boy standing by, and then I set off up the path which took me to the mountain.
I walked in the region often miles that day and just before darkness I stopped at a farmhouse and asked for aqua. There was a gathering of people and I began to get uneasy. Then a little old lady came towards me and said, “What do you want my son?” I just said, “Oh you speak English. Thank goodness.” Her reply was that she had spent 20 years in the USA. She took me into the farmhouse and made me feel at home. I gave her a packet of tea. And some other items which I could not use. She was delighted with everything and said, “Would you like a drink of tea instead of water?” I just said, “Yes please.” From all accents they had not seen any tea for ages. We talked for three hours or so then she said. “I have moved one of my girls into the other’s room.” The girls’ names were Elvira and Albina. So I slept in a bed between sheets for the first time since leaving hospital at Casserta in January 1942. She begged me to stay but I told her of my intention to get back to England. Anyhow I did stay for three days and three nights. For two days I helped with the harvest. It turned out that I was the only able bodied man there, as most of them were crippled, very young or very old. Her daughter called Albina tore a map of Italy out of a school book to help me find my way
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south. I got all my things together that night to go first light the next day. She gave me her son’s address who lived in London. I said that it would not be wise for me to give her my address; just in case someone came across it otherwise she would be in trouble.
Her name was Mariana Bergonzi, Travale, Morfasso, Piacenza Italy. I told her that I would write to her son in London, also that I would write to her as soon as it was safe to do so.
Alf wrote to her son John Leccucanni in Dulwich, London in 1943 following his return to England and got a reply, although as John and Mariana had different surnames it is assumed that she had remarried. In his letter of 21st December 1943 John asks if Alf had any news of his three brothers. Alf contacted Mariana Bergonzi after the war ended and received a reply dated 22nd November 1945. Mariana must have had at least nine children as she wrote to say that her three sons had arrived home from Germany. She also mentioned that she had a daughter Annie Ingani in Brampton Hill, London and two more sons in the USA.
I was all ready to go when there was a loud banging on the door. I hid myself as Mariana went to the door. She came back to say that two Italians were asking for food. They were two Italian Army deserters who were on their way south. Straight away I said, “ask them where to”. She came back to say that one was from San Marino and the other from Foggia to which I said, “Fine, ask them if I could go a long with them”. They said “Yes”. I then met them; one was called Enrico and the other Giovanni.
Mrs Bergonzi talked with them for about ten minutes, I suppose telling them not to desert me etc. We said goodbye and Mrs Bergonzi kissed me with tears in her eyes. The two girls looked on with sad faces. I did not have to use the map and have it to this day fifty years on. We only walked in daylight, by doing so we were able to cover ten to fifteen miles. Each day just before darkness fell, the two Italians found a place where we could stay the night, in a barn or stable, but only if they thought we would be safe. At most farms we managed to get something to eat, but did move away sometimes to sleep elsewhere – no fun sleeping up trees, in the hedge bottom etc. I did share my Red Cross food with them which of course pleased them to no end.
So from the morning of 16th September I did not speak a word of English until 13th October: in all a total of 27 days. We managed to eat grapes, walnuts and also tomatoes. There we many incidents but I am just going to mention those that had us worried at the time. The first was when a train load of Germans with Tiger tanks aboard started using small arms fire. I shouted “avanti” and ran down to the shelter of the viaduct. The train was coming from Florence on its way to Bologna.
The next incident was when the two Italians decided on a house which was well lit and where we could get something to eat and no doubt somewhere to sleep. We managed to cross the road and the bridge over the river. Enrico knocked on the door. We went inside and about thirty or so people sat at tables – a meeting of some sort. Anyhow we went through into another room. Within a minute a young boy came in and said “via via, Fascisti”. The two Italians turned white. Anyhow we managed to get through a small transom window and we set off up the mountainside and walked and stumbled in the dark until we got right to the top, safe and sound. We managed to find shelter in a shed near a big house, but we had mice running over us for the rest of the night. They certainly know how to nip.
As dawn broke we had some food and moved on. We came across an Italian women carry a large basket of washing on her head. Enrico asked her for directions. She walked about half a mile with us and took us to a spot safe enough to cross a railway line on the river. Then she went on her way. Coming down to the valley was always dangerous. We came across a small number of people shouting and wailing. One girl was very upset. We left in a hurry. Enrico told me that the girl had got news that her brother had been killed in Libya by the English that is why we made ourselves scarce.
[Digital page 13]
We continued to make good progress each day, and we had just got below Forli when Enrico said his goodbyes. He no doubt could smell the air of San Marino, so I was left with Giovanni from Foggia. He was younger than me. We avoided more people than ever now. How I wished at that time to have been able to converse in Italian.
13th October 1943
After a few more days of walking we came across a peasant farmer who told us not to go through the Montagna di Fiore as the Italian Partisans and British Prisoners of War were fighting the Germans. We made a detour and got below Ascoli Piceno sticking to the bushes and undergrowths for cover. It was about three o’clock on the afternoon when I walked through the bushes and all of a sudden I had a gun stuck in my throat. I put my hands in the air and said in English:
“I am a British Prisoner of War”. The soldier just stood there and said, “Good for you mate”. He was a London Cockney – one of the Paratroopers dropped to find us prisoners and get us out.
Alf told me that when the gun had been put to his throat he thought he had been recaptured by the Germans. He had never seen a paratrooper before in full battle dress and it was a frightening sight. I assume this was part of Operation Begonia although the information I have seems to suggest that the SAS and Airborne Operation Begonia took place between 6th-8th October.
He turned to look at Giovanni and said, “Who is that fellow?” I told him that he was an Italian Army deserter. He just turned to him and said: “On your way Bluebell. I don’t want you”. He then took me about fifty yards to a concealed space in the bushes. There was a bunch of POWs already to move out. I made the number up to forty. They gave me food and drink then told everyone that they had arranged for a boat to take us off at Giulianova but first we had to walk fifteen miles to the coast. Of course I said that I had already walked ten miles that day. “Sorry,” they said. Then an officer came and gave last minute orders to the two Paras who would be our escort to the coast. As darkness fell we walked in the fifteen miles to Giulianova with one Para in front and the other bringing up the rear. We had our orders not to make any noise, we also would have to go through any water we encountered also that we had to keep below the river bank at all times. We made it before daylight came.
14th October 1943
We then had to rest up all that day with one bank of the river shielded by trees, still keeping our heads down. One Paratrooper left us just before midday. He went over the fields to a farmhouse. He came back with a farmer’s wife loaded up with a large basket of food on her head. She stayed until we had eaten, collected her basket of food on her head and went back home. That evening as a darkness came we moved out to cross the coastal road and the railway line. We managed to get ourselves onto the beach. We were about half a mile from the port where the fishing boat was. The boat came up and stood off shore. Then a rowing boat with two Italians came to take us off. It could only take six of us at a time, so away went six; then it came back and took another six. The rowing boat started to take water and they were having to bale out the water. Anyhow they came a third time taking another six. The sailor said “Questo finito”. I realised that it meant that they would not be coming back, so I got into the boat. By bailing out the water we reached the fishing boat. I had understood what those two words meant. He wanted to make port before daylight but because he was late in sailing he failed to do so. Anyhow of course we were sitting ducks for aircraft, but the sky was clear of German aircraft and we were about five miles from Termoli. What a relief for me. I had been seasick all seventy five miles.
15th October 1943
Navy Intelligence got us all together and all those who could give any information regarding troop movements etc. were asked to do so. We had left about twenty two of the prisoners on the beach. What happened to those chaps I don’t know. From all accounts that area got some attention from the bombers.
[Digital page 14]
After that we moved to Foggia where Giovanni lived. I thought to myself he was still somewhere back there having left him on 13th October. We were taken into a large warehouse and told to change our clothes. But no way was I going to put a dead Canadian’s clothes on. We then pulled out and landed at Taranto where we stayed for one week. I managed to get a shower, my feet were bleeding and red raw, but no other kit was available so I had to put the clothes back on me. After a week in Taranto we were taken by Infantry landing craft past Sicily and across the Med to Bizerta in Tunisia. We stayed there another week. I managed to get another shower but the water was cold, but I did manage to get new KD [Khaki Drill], underwear, socks, boots etc. Our next move was a seven day train journey to Algiers only to wait another seven days before a boat picked us up to bring us back to the UK. We landed at Glasgow and after the usual preliminaries and the care from the WRVSI was on my way home after four and a quarter years away. It was now 10th December 1943.
There were many small incidents and scary moments not mentioned though.
On arriving back in the UK in December 1943 Alf was to discover that his wife Gertrude had died in the September of 1943 (unknown to him and just as he was escaping along the Italian mountains). By now his daughter Sheila was living with her aunt Queenie. She was 5 years old had lived through the doodlebug attacks, she sleep walked and had repeated nightmares. Her mother had died and she did not know her father. However, Alf was still a soldier and in early 1944 he was sent to retrain at Beckett Park College Leeds. He went on a blind date with a friend to Woodhouse Feast. There he met Lily Bradley (my mother) and after only 6 weeks they married. Just before she died Lily’s mother made her promise to bring Sheila up. Alfs new life began.
[Photograph with caption] Photo taken March 1944 probably at Aldershot
For my father Alfred Hackett (Alf) and for his great grandchildren – Nigel Hackett 1st January 2011