Just two weeks after the Italian armistice in 1943, Thomas Harris Matthews, along with Norman Gates and Alec Keay, became some of the first escapees to reach Switzerland. Despite the tough conditions and constant danger of recapture by German officers, Harris Matthews kept pace with his companions to reach the wire on the Swiss-Italian border on 20th September 1943.
Assisted on their journey through Northern Italy by a range of people including farmers, nurses and priests, the group relied on the generosity and knowledge of local people to safely reach the border, the first step of their long passage home. Norman Gates’ own story is in the archives and can be accessed via this website.
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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Thomas Harris Matthews, Norman Gates and Alec Keay by making a quick decision and immediately setting off to implement must have been among the first to be free – 2 weeks after the Italian Armistice by reaching Switzerland. As were all others they were surprised at the immediate and generous hospitality by the Italians, usually very poor along the route. The managed to get ferried across the Po and forded other rivers, they were short of food – is sometimes very basic – bread and grapes. Even money was given them by the very poor. Gates set the pace which Harris Matthews finds, not having been among the exercise fanatics in the Fontanellato Camp, hard to match. Not until they reach Casago [Cassago] 12 miles from the Swiss border near Como, does the pace really speed up as they are taken in hand by a priest and the rest of the village and guide is found. At one stage they ride bicycles, with their owners – two young girls on the handle bars but they do not reach the border before curfew. With the guide lost two farming brothers lead them to and help them under the wire into Switzerland two weeks after the Armistice on 21st September.
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[handwritten text by KK]
16 [September 1943] at Cassago – a young priest helps to plan the last part of route. Things tied up. Their packs are made into brown paper parcels. A guide goes ahead at a cracking pace towards Como – 12 miles away – in order to get to the border before the curfew. At one point they ride with two girls on their bicycles. Alec appears with them. The guide leaves them at farm and says border is just ahead. Guide returns at 5am then leads them again but is obviously lost. 2 sons of a farmer take them to the wire and help them under. They then meet Swiss Guard. And so, two weeks after the Armistice, they are among the very first to make it out.
Norman Gates. Made notes at time.
Confirms radio announcement for Swiss Frontier should be their goal.
3 [3rd September] Ian English mentioned as going South. Money given to them. Hit Po and meet K. of Zibello. From advice on radio, told to make for Como and Switzerland. Mussolini signed documents that POWs should be given up. Paths of three escaping along the main. Alec, Tom and Gates – Liechtenstein.
‘Ours seems to
have been the simplest escape of the lot’
Norman Gates repatriated – November 1944
Tom – being ‘younger in service’ – January 1945
Alec Keay did not keep in touch.
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text by KK]
Given by Jane Harris Matthews. Fontanellato.
Diary of Thomas Harris Matthews. 8th September – 22nd September 1944
Diary of Norman Gates. 8th September 1943 – 29th September 1943
Left with Capt with H.Q. Party
Italian Commandant arrested, camp looted. With Alec Keay decide to go North. Stop at Farm some 12 kilometres away. A very frightened family keep and hide them, gives them food when they leave at the night. There is a 9 o’clock curfew. Fisherman ferries them across the Po. Greeted and helped along the way. H. M. had not joined the hearty POWs doing exercisers in the camp and paid for it as N. G. could stride ahead of them. They aim between Milan and Brescia. Not always an easy route crossing railways and roads.
Spirane. They leave chits. River Adda.
1944] Cross Milan-Bergamo Autostrada. [River] Adda at Suisso.
15th [September 1944] Stop in Verderio – commune of families living on a large farm. Lonagno and Casatanuova. Round Monticello.
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Diaries of Thomas Harris Mathews [Matthews] (21 pages) and Norman Gates (10).both escaped from the Fontanellato (not used by Ian English) and got together in Switzerland in about the shortest time possible – TWO WEEKS after armistice.
Norman Gates sums it up by saying ‘Ours seems to have been the simplest escape of the lot’. If that were so it was because they took the immediate decision to go to Switzerland and did not waver from that. All along they were welcomed and fed by the usually very poor Italians. Though seldom mentioned Alec Keay, like N.G. [Norman Gates] a signals officer goes with them (A.K. [Alec Keay] not listed by I.E. [Ian English]) They keep moving getting across the Po (by ferry) and wading other rivers. Harris Matthews admits that he paid the price for not joining the exercise enthusiasts in the Camp and has a, hard job to keep up. They complain bitterly of the mass of flies near all farms. They leave chits with their helpers. They aim between Milan and Brescia They stop for a night at a huge farm where many families live together. 12 Miles from Como at CASAGO [Cassago] they hit the difficult bit. Their packs are turned into paper parcels – looking more Italian. A guide goes ahead at a cracking pace in order to get to border -12 miles away before curfew. They do not make it. Guide comes back for them in morning but is obviously lost but he finds a family and two sons offer to guide them next morning to wire which is lifted and they get over. – TWO WEEKS AFTER ARMISTICE. (Most probably fastest in archives of the Trust.)
Gates mentions that Ian English is reported as ‘going south’. Very soon leaflets – signed by Mussolini – were warning the Italians not to help POWs but everywhere they had been welcomed. Money was even given them by obviously very poor.
GATES reports, as does H.. [Harris] that at one point they rode bicycles with the owners – girls – happily riding on the handle bars. He reports that he was repatriated Nov [November] 1944. ‘Tom, being younger in service Jan. ’45 [January 1945] (Alec Keay did not keep in touch.
K.K. – who thought that after the Allies reached, through France, the French border in early autumn ’44  all POWs were soon repatriated.
Manuscripts given to K.K. by Jane Harris-Matthews,
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Diary 8th September 1943 – 22nd September
See Norman Gates
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Italy 1943 Sept. [September]
Dinner finished and standing about in hall waiting for the rest of bridge party to turn up, when someone rushed in to say that armistice had been signed. Everyone rushed to the windows to see the Italians, terribly excited, running here and there, and throwing their hats in the air. Appears that news has been received from radio – the Italians seem as pleased as we are. S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] assembles the whole camp – tells us that armistice is not necessary peace – essential to keep calm and not provoke the Italians. Wild rumours of Allied landings in North Italy. Everyone is wondering what the Germans will do but no one doubts but what we shall be home in the next few days. Lie awake most of the night thinking of homecoming and making plans.
S.B.O.’s [Senior British Officers] parade at 0930 hrs. Told us of possibility of Germans arriving to take us off to Germany – Italian Commandant has stated that he will defend the camp against the Germans and that if necessary he will release us. Orders to hold ourselves in readiness. To take only kit that can be easily carried, and emergency rations consisting of tin of biscuits and tin of bully beef. All other kit to be packed up and left on beds. Gap cut in wire fence, and Italians prepare defences in half-hearted way. A few shallow trenches and light machine guns. Not calculated to inspire confidence – we know them too well. Still rumours of Allied landings in La Spezia, Pisa, and Trieste.
12:40 hrs Alarm signal sounded – whole camp building deserted in 5 minutes. Alarm caused by (a) Two low-flying JU52s which flew over the camp and (b)Report that German troops were a few kilometres away. Camp marched off in North-Westerly direction, in four companies. I left last in small Headquarters party. Italian captain and Lt interpreters came with us. Amazed by the warm reception given us by the local inhabitants. They crowd along side us with offers of food and assistance. The whole village has turned out to see us leave. About 15:30 hrs reach destination already reconnoitred by Italian interpreter – a dried up stream – high banks or bunds, and thickly wooded, offers excellent cover. Companies spread out along this stream, I remain at central point with HQ & Intelligence staff to deal with communication between companies. We are to remain here at least till the next day. From reports of Italians & own intelligence learn that Germans have been to the camp later in the day. They are furious at our escape and are searching for us. The Italian Comdt [Commandant] has been arrested and the camp looted. 21:00 hrs HQ moved to new position up-stream. I remained at central post with 2 intelligence officers, this post to be maintained for liaison with Italians & intelligence. Night spent in watching and sleeping or rather resting – the ground was pretty damp
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and the mosquitos of a particularly potent brand – but I foxed them by fixing a large handkerchief over my face and tying my pullover sleeves round my hands. A good deal of machine-gun fire and explosions heard during the night.
0800 hrs – Newspaper reports confirm only landings in Naples – no mention of Spezia or Livorno. Coy. [Company] Commanders conference – food problem. CAMINO promises help from the civilians of food and clothing. Decided that 3 Coy [Company]will move off at night going south while remainder will remain for the moment hidden in the bund. Reports that Germans have now left FONTENALLA [FONTANELLATO] after completely looting and wrecking the camp. They have promised to return with reinforcements and start a search for us.
12:00 hrs – Civilians arriving in large numbers bringing food and clothing salvaged from camp – and bread of their own baking. I spend a very busy afternoon sorting out supplies and keeping groups of excited Italians off the sky-line. Seems obvious that our hiding place cannot last much longer. Germans reported established at PIACENZA and PARMA – Col. WHEELER & other Italian speaking officers in civilian clothes acting as liaison with Italians. Many Italians offering hideouts & billets – officers changing into civilian clothes and departing with new hosts. Notice increasing disaffection among officers – many wish to move off south individually. Can understand this as our hiding place is becoming more dangerous every hour. Difficulty is that road-railway PIACENZA -PARMA immediately to the south, is reported heavily guarded. Others wish to disperse & hide on farms. Tomorrow supplies of food will begin to get difficult.
17:00 hrs – S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] decides that he can no longer hold together as a body and gives permission for officers to break off in small groups and either make south or find hiding places on farms. Col [Colonel] WHEELER will remain behind with CAMINO and find farms for anyone who stays. Since leaving the camp I have been with NORMAN GATES & ALEC KEAY both Signal Officers, and we decide to go off together. We go into conference and decide a plan of campaign. We decide that as most people will go South or East, it will be best if we go North-East for about 10 miles, hide on a farm and await developments. We have a small reserve of tinned biscuits and cheese, and some rather shabby civilian clothes, which we put on over our battle-dress. This, we hope, will be our proof, if we happen, to be caught, and may save us being shot, tho’ I can’t help feeling that if we meet an irate German he is not likely to worry about a minor point of International Law.
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Decided to wait until really dark before starting. About 21:00 hrs that is. Saw Pat Davis for a few moments about 7 o’clock. We just had time for a word or two, and to exchange a drink of milk for a drink of vino. I should have liked to have asked him to join our party, but we had agreed that more than three was too dangerous, and all plans were made. Norman told me afterwards that he had felt the same way about Cushy Craddock.
21:00 hrs – Just sufficiently dark to set off. Very little moon. Kept only to fields and took very great care in crossing roads. Fortunately the vines almost always run from north to south, I suppose to get the maximum sun during the day. This is a great help for keeping accurately on one’s bearing Had one scare when we saw someone moving furtively along a hedge near us, but apparently he had no wish to meet us either.
02:00 hrs (about) – Decided that we had travelled far enough and began to look for a likely farm to lie up. After reconnoitring one or two, decided on a prosperous looking farmhouse with out-buildings. Thank Heavens they don’t go in much for dogs in this country. Climbed a rather rickety ladder into the hay-loft, and had no difficulty in dropping off to sleep in the sweet smelling hay.
Awoke about 05:30 hrs to the sound of people moving below in the farm-yard I lie for a few minutes wondering how its all going to turn out, at the very worst we shall have enjoyed a few days freedom, and that’s worth a good deal. The others wake up and Alec elects to try his little Italian on the locals. In daylight the place is not nearly as big as we had thought, – about one third of what we thought was the farm-house, is really cattle stalls. Our reception proves somewhat cold, these people are obviously puzzled and a little frightened. We still have on our battle-dress and they are suspicious of all uniforms. However, while we are still discussing the situation, another Italian man arrives. He proves to be a soldier who has escaped from CREMONA where the Germans besieged and took over the garrison the previous day, shooting and taking prisoner many Italians in the process. It seems that all over the north of Italy, Italian soldiers are getting into civilian clothes and fleeing to their homes to escape being conscripted by the Germans. Thus the Germans are looking for all men of military age in mufti, which is not going to make things any easier for us. However this particular one proves a blessing. He speaks normal Italian rather than dialect and can explain our wants to the farmer:-that we want to stay on the farm for an indefinite period, and that we will work in the fields to earn our food, and also as an effective means of disguise. The Contadine is willing enough to keep us, but is dubious about the work. Thinks that as he and his family normally work the farm we will be too obvious. Eventually the soldier continues on his way to try and reach his home in PARMA, and we are invited to share breakfast with the family in the farmhouse.
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The family consists of farmer and wife, 4 girls and 3 boys, and the grandfather & grandmother. They all seem friendly disposed towards us, and we soon break down the shyness of the children. Breakfast consists of bread and milk, followed by grapes and bread ad.lib.
Spend morning gleaning information, and practising our pigeon Italian on the farm people – or rather Norman and Alec do the latter. I know absolutely none and don’t think I am going to start now. I shall have to rely on the others. An elderly neighbour calls and leaves us some more bread and grapes. It seems to be the principal diet of these people. This man tells us that he has a son prisoner of war in South Africa, he gets news fairly frequently and is satisfied that he is being treated well.
In the afternoon we are visited by K. an Italian youth of about 22 years of age. From him we get a certain amount of useful information, and are able to fix approximately our position, tho’ as yet we have no map. Our farm is about 2 kilometres from SAN SECONDO, a large village some 10 to 15 kilometre north west of FONTANELLATO. A small patrol of German soldiers are stationed in SAN SECONDO. K. has heard on the English radio that the Italian fleet has surrendered and is now in GIBRALTAR and MALTA, he also confirms that there are no Allied landings north of NAPLES. ROME and MILAN are already in German hands, and battles are expected between ROME and NAPLES. K. also gets us a paper, but as this part of Italy is German controlled now, the news in it is very doubtful. We learn that the Naples landing is the largest of the war.
The farmer invites us in to supper which consisted of “polento”, and a meat and potato dish. Lashings of bread and vino – and what vino! Infinitely better than the stuff we had in camp, and how good to sit down once again to a real size loaf of bread. Afterwards we returned to our hayloft and slept like logs.
Today is Sunday, and to conform with the customs of the country, we can shave today. It’s quite a job hacking off four days growth, and one razor between the three. We are interrupted by one of the farmer’s daughters arriving with some breakfast – hot milk, and the inevitable bread and grapes This last is an excellent way of taking nourishment and we have now by careful watching learned the correct way of eating them. One gets a piece of bread well chewed, and then throws in a handful of grapes. The grapes keep moist the bread, and the whole lot goes down together, skin, pips and all. I’ve often thought what a nuisance the pips of grapes are, this solves the whole problem.
Being Domenica the minimum of work is done on the farm, and the family, even father, is decked out in best clothes. The girls look charming in colourful dresses, and make-up. One cannot but admire how these peasant girls, even the poorest, and in the loneliest farms, always dress up and
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take pride in making themselves look pretty on Sundays. The father of the POW. in South Africa pays us another visit and insists on giving us 60 liras. We are sure that he cannot afford it, but he will brook no refusal. The CAPPELLIS invite us to share their midday meal, which consists of mines [minestra] a kind of savoury macaroni stew.
K. arrives in the afternoon, and true to promise, brings us maps, food, clothing, and a little money. We have a stock-take, and find that we have enough emergency rations in Red Cross tins to last the three of us for two days, or perhaps three at a pinch. These we decide to keep intact as long as possible. Norman and I have enough tobacco to last us about two weeks, and in addition Norman has about a hundred cigarettes. Alec is practically a non-smoker.
During the afternoon we have a visit from a nurse who is working in SAN SECONDO. She thinks it dangerous for us to remain on the farm during the day, and thinks we would be wise to spend it hidden in the fields. We entirely agree, and decide to do so from tomorrow. It is most important not to involve the farmer. In the event of being caught- he would probably be shot. The nurse is in contact with the Germans in the course of her work and promises to warn us if our hiding place gets too dangerous. K. tells us of four British officers hiding on a farm in the vicinity, and we send a guarded note to them.
Prepare to take to the fields at dawn, removing all traces of occupation of the hay loft, but CAPPELLI insists on giving us breakfast before we start We find ourselves a comfortable hiding place among the vines and settle down to discuss plans. During the morning the nurse arrives, she has run most of the way to the farm to tell us that the Germans in large numbers have requisitioned carts and bicycles, and are organizing a search of the neighbourhood. This was inevitable sooner or later, too many people know of our presence here. We decide to take to the trees as the best hiding place The vine rows are studded with mulberry trees, very leafy ones, and obviously we think, the Germans cannot search the mall. So we choose a tree each, within hailing distance, and make ourselves comfortable. CAPPELLI has promised to send us warning of their approach.
Later on K. pays us a visit, he is in very dejected spirits, and has a long note written out for us in French. This he says, he has written himself, to make it easier for us to understand, but it is pretty obvious that he is lying. We come to the conclusion that he has discussed us with his father, who is mayor of the village, and his father has written this note and forbidden him to have anything more to do with us. He seems to have the wind-up pretty badly, and insists on us removing his name from our diaries, and from the maps that he has given us. However, the note
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says that the B.B.C. has broadcast a message to all prisoners of war, saying that some time must elapse before Italy is cleared up and prisoners should make their way to the Swiss frontier. This ties up with a report we have had from another Italian. The letter advises us to leave the district as soon as possible, either going north or south. K, tells us – and this is probably the reason he is so frightened – that German parachutists have succeeded in liberating Mussolini, and he has set up another government in Germany. We manage to get K. (not without some persuasion) to give us a note in Italian asking fishermen on the PO to help us across. We visualise that if we go north this will be our principal obstacle. K’s note also reveals that the English officers that we wrote to, were ENGLISH, MOORE, JAMES, and one other. They proposed moving off that night – probably south.
Later PIA, the second daughter, arrives in haste to say that Germans are approaching the farm. We worm our way well into our trees, and hope for the best. The worst danger is that someone will give us away – but however, after awhile the all-clear went. It appears that only a few Germans came to the farm and made only a perfunctory search. To make sure, we remain hidden till the late afternoon, and eventually descend very stiff and sore.
After a long conference, we decide that to remain here would be too dangerous and we must move off to-night. We reason that as the B.B.C. has given instructions to go to SWITZERLAND there will be some means of getting us back to ENGLAND. It seems infinitely better than either going south, or staying put. The chances in the former case are far too small, and the latter is too dangerous as, the wait may be of long duration.
Towards dusk, the family bring us a meal, together with a bottle of very good white sparkling wine, which tasted like champagne, and had obviously been carefully guarded for years. Various neighbours gather to wish us “auguri” and press upon us loaves of bread, far more than we can carry in fact in our three small Italian haversacks, but it’s impossible to refuse, they are immediately offended. The family all come to say goodbye -LUIGI and wife, Nanno and Nannina, MARIA, PIA, LUISA, ANGELA, PRIMO, ALBERTO,and PIERRINO. Then father and grandfather stay to put us on our way. Father insists on giving us 100 Liras. We try to refuse, he is only a simple peasant -but he insists.
21:45 hrs – We start off on our way to the PO, which we intend to cross near ZIBELLO. It is a beautiful clear moonlight night, so it will be necessary to keep well in the shade of hedges and vines etc. We each have a small Italian military haversack full of bread, wine, and our emergency rations. It is rather warm walking especially as we have battle-dress trousers under our civilian ones. We soon find that it is by no means an easy journey to make. The country here being the irrigation country of the Po, it is
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constantly necessary to search for bridges to get across the irrigation canal. Also, there being a 9 o’clock curfew in force, we are suspected even if seen from some way away. It’s slow work, detouring villages, and once or twice where detour is not possible we spend some tedious half-hours on our bellies behind hedges, waiting for people having their late night chat, to go indoors to bed. At other places, where it appears to be quiet, we take a chance and march straight through the village – and how army boots sound on cobbled streets! And how murderous one feels towards the dogs that bark.
By about 4 o’clock I begin to feel pretty well worn out. I have ricked my knee wading across a ploughed field, and it is giving me hell. Doubtless I am the weakest member of the party. Alec, of course, has only been a prisoner of war for six months, and Norman always did a certain amount of exercise in camp -whereas I, for sixteen months haven’t done a thing except lie on my bed and read. Not that I regret it a bit – exercise for exercise sake, is one of the deadliest things possible. However, I take surreptitious pulls at the wine bottle throughout the night, and I firmly believe that it was the only thing that kept me going. Nothing seems to tire Alec, he is always well in front and going strong.
We struck the PO just as dawn was breaking, and skirted along it to reconnoitre means and places of crossing. At a kind of construction works we awoke the night watchman, who came to the door of his hut, looking somewhat comical in a long nightshirt. He directed us to a belt of trees some two kilometres along the river, where he thought we might be able to find a boat. On reaching there, we found a farmhouse and decided to try the farmer. Our luck was still with us -he turned out to be, pro-British. There were some half-dozen Italian soldiers hiding here, waiting for an opportunity to reach their homes. The Germans came to the farm about two hours previous to our arrival, looking for Italian soldiers and British ex-prisoners, but our host was equal to the occasion and had his guests well hidden. He agreed to take us across as soon as he had finished the milking. We were very glad of the rest, and settled down to talk to the soldiers, and partake of a bowl of milk warm from the cow. For the first time we learn that thousands of British prisoners have been taken direct from the camps, and transported straight to Germany by train.
The milk works wonders on our fatigue, and in ten minutes we are ready to start with the farmer. The PO here is about 200 metres wide, and we are ferried across in a flat-bottomed boat, with the farmer poling. The other side is rather flat, and after alighting we scuttle fairly quickly to cover. But there does not seem to be anyone about, and we make our way leisurely through the woods, looking for the nearest farm house where we can lie up for the day. It’s a great relief, and something of a surprise to have crossed
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the PO with so little difficulty. We had thought it would be heavily guarded. The first farm we come to looks prosperous enough, but the population seems somewhat dumb. However they are not hostile, and this is no time to be fussy and we bed down in the hay loft without any more ado.
In the afternoon we wake up to find that Il padrone della azienda is paying a visit to the farm, one BREGADINI. Here is a far more intelligent type. He produces bread and grapes – but what is much more interesting B.B.C. news. He confirms that the B.B.C. has given instructions to POWs to make for Switzerland, contacting, if possible contrabandieri, who will help them to cross the frontier. This finally dispels any remaining doubts we had as to the advisability of going north. BREGADINI thinks that it would be wiser to travel by day, and we, after some discussion agree. Travelling by night is so slow, and time is of the essence of the contract, for the Germans will soon be rather thick on the ground in this northern part of Italy. He promises to supply us with some more food, maps, and a hat for Alec. (This latter is rather important, as Alec is very blond, in fact a typical Nordic type – no-one would ever be deceived into thinking him an Italian – whereas I can easily pass for an Italian after not shaving for several days – and Norman without his glasses is not too conspicuous.) This means another night’s stay at SANTA DANIELLE, and I am nothing loth, being still very tired.
Left S. DANIELLE at 0600 hrs and after about twenty minutes walking reached B’s farm. He is not yet up when we arrive, and we breakfast off bread and cheese while waiting. A very excited and dishevelled BREGADINI eventually appears, waving a newspaper and saying “You can’t go to Switzerland – Quite impossible!” We fear the worst. After much incoherency, we manage to secure the newspaper, to find that all the excitement is due to a report in the paper which says that one German officer and 13 O.Rs [Other Ranks] have been sent to COMO to take over the Swiss Frontier. We have considerable difficulty in convincing him that this is not sufficiently serious to deter us from going. Adding as a bit of gentle propaganda that anyway three British officers are more than a match for fourteen Germans. This rather a typical example of the mentality of the Italians, they are much too excitable to stop and weigh the Pros and cons.
About 9 o’clock we made a start, heading North and keeping as far as possible to footpaths or minor roads. This is our first travelling by day, and it’s a little exciting at first, to see how the population are going to take us. However, we need have no fears, they are extremely friendly, even at times taking us for Italians. There are lots of Italian soldiers on the road, making for their casa. Our greatest danger is from stray parties of Germans, and we are not yet sure on whose side the Carierbani [Carabinieri] are.
First stop is at a farm at GODESCO where we are invited into the home of
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the Padrone. These farms north of the PO are much bigger and more prosperous than those of the south. The farmers house, the barns, and the houses of the farm labourers form a hollow square, of buildings, with a cemented yard in the centre where the maize is put out to dry, the dung spread, etc. This fellow D. is a first-class type, rather after the style of the English yeoman farmer,- he invites us into his house, and treats us as honoured guests. Lunch of minestra, good salami, cheese, and lashings of wine, goes down very well. His son has just returned from military service in PARMA. We listen to the B.B.C. but can only get a programme in German, but our host confirms the news we have already heard as to the instructions given to prisoners of war. Strange to think that only a month ago these people were liable to be shot for listening in to such a programme – but then it is all strange – a month ago, every man’s hand would have been against us. And these people could not possibly be more charming.
After a rest of about an hour we are off again – father and son see us on our way, waving us out of sight. Their local knowledge is invaluable, and the shortcuts they give us save several miles walking. The peasants we meet on the way are very pleasant, and call out consoling remarks. When we pass near to them they always recognise us as British, but we avoid talking to them as far as possible, not only because of time, but also it is not wise for too many people to know our circumstances. I, being usually 20 or 30 yards behind the others and looking pretty tired always, get lots of sympathetic glances and the remark which sounds like “siete multo stanko”, which I am told means “you are very tired” – and they are not very far wrong either. One man we passed, sweeping the autumn leaves from the road turned out to be a B.O.R. [British Other Rank] – he had recognised the army boots and came over to speak to us. Not a very bright type – we give him as much information as possible, and advise him to do the same thing as we are doing, but he is content to stay put and await events, for the time being. There must be thousands of troops doing the same thing about here. Probably most of the men in working camps have managed to get away. Owing to the many irrigation canals, have some difficulty in reaching the river OGLIO which is our first objective – but having found it, it is not difficult to find the main CREMONA -BRESCIA road which we cross, not without trepidation, south of ROBECCO, and stop for the night at a large farm. Here are three or four B.O.Rs [British Other Ranks] working, who were at working camps at the time of the armistice and had no difficulty in escaping. They say they have made an attempt already to reach Switzerland, but turned back after getting nearly to COMO because of a story of heavy fighting there The contestants were not specified, but apparently thousands of Germans with tanks, armoured cars, etc. This is obviously a typical Italian rumour story, and it is surprising that they should have been taken in so readily. On the whole, they don’t seem to have behaved very intelligently. We are ensconced in
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a small wooden hut at the end of the Padrone’s garden, and very comfortable it is too, with plenty of clean straw. Il Padrone produces the usual wine, bread, and salami, and during the meal the B.O.Rs [British Other Ranks] kept bringing tit-bits of fruit walnuts etc. -eager to see some of their own kind again. We give them all the information we have, and our future route and plans and advise them to do likewise. One of them had such a lovely cockney accent, it was good to hear it again and made me homesick for London – I asked him, “Where do you come from – Bow?” “No Sir, ‘Oxton” was the reply. It seemed very unreal in this lovely Italian twilight, pregnant with all the harvest smells, to hear a voice in the distance singing, “I’m going to lock my ‘eart and frow away the key.” The incongruity of it made me suddenly want to laugh.
Just as we were turning in to bed one soldier came to us and asked if we would take him with us. We refuse, reluctantly, for he seems a good type of bloke -but by now it has become obvious that three is the limit that can safely move about. We recall how we would have liked to have asked Pat Davis and Cushy Craddock to come with us, but did not, for the same reason However we give him as detailed instructions as we can, and place on him the responsibility of getting the others through.
Thursday- Left at approx. 06:00 hours and succeeded in losing our way in the fields. When the sun came up – found we were walking exactly due south instead of north. This means nearly two hours lost – but we manage to find the railway, and crossing it the road. A Roman Catholic priest walks a little way along the road with us, and introduces us at a farm where we get breakfast.
People always look up from the fields as we pass, and greet us -and as long as we are not too near, we feel that often they take us for Italian soldiers- but just as soon as a conversation starts they tumble to us; We always try to get away as soon as possible, not that we don’t trust them (they are mostly all simple and good-hearted peasants) but we know Nazi and Fascist methods of getting information – nobody can be expected to hold out against them. But these peasants are very useful in pointing out short cuts, and paths, which we should never be able to find ourselves. It is interesting to see the deep hatred of Fascism everywhere The release of feelings bottled up for 20 years -Throughout the country the “fasces” has been torn down, even hewn from marble monuments – and at the mention of Mussolini’s name, people spit and draw a finger significantly across their throats. But one must not forget how volatile a race it is – they could quite conceivably welcome him without stretched arms were he to return bringing success. Politics must be terribly difficult with a people of this temperament especially any form of Democracy. Mussolini’s method, if not the most moral, was certainly the
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most effective way of controlling a nation with these characteristics.
We lunch at a farm near GENIVOLTA and after a rest of about an hour move on again. For the first time since starting the country has become slightly undulating, and it is something of a relief – one gets tired of the everlasting flatness.
We walk in spells of about two hours, then take ten minutes rest. My sixteen months’ of prison life tells badly on me – I am so exhausted that by the afternoon, I am usually walking in a state of numbness, like an automaton. When we stop all my muscles stiffen up, and for the first few hundred metres afterwards I am almost on all-fours until they loosen up again. Alec is still in fine fettle, and strides off at great pace after our halts. It makes me quite unreasonably furious with him every time it happens.
Picked up some leaflets today, which have been dropped by Allied aircraft, explaining to the Italians the true situation – we keep them to be used as propaganda later if necessary.
We were somewhat shaken this afternoon by a rather narrow escape. Standing beside a road discussing routes, a German staff car came by – with four German officers in it. Fortunately they were laughing and talking at the time and did not notice us – but it was a nasty moment. I don’t think there is any doubt that if they had seen us they would have stopped – for although we are not obviously British, we are pretty obviously suspicious looking characters.
In making our plan we have decided that we cannot hope to come out successfully from a search or an interrogation, and have based our hopes on not getting caught. Having decided on this, means that we can carry our reserve rations in Red Cross tins – our maps etc.
However, our luck has held once again, and we decide to get as far away from the town of SONCINO as soon as possible. Just as we are taking to the fields, a Junkers 52 flies low over the town and drops leaflets. It is rather an attractive sight – caught in the rays of the setting sun they look like a rain of golden leaves. But this is an added reason for putting as far as possible between us and the town before resting the night, for these leaflets are probably placing a price on our head.
Following the left bank of the OGLIO eventually brings us to a likely looking farmhouse, which turns out to be one of our best finds to date. The padrone’s wife, pretty, plump, and jolly, is only too anxious to help A fast-flowing stream at the back of the house provides our first bath since the journey started. The good lady provides a magnificent supper of minestra, eggs, and tomatoes, seated at a table with a table-cloth, and table
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napkins, a real luxury. The evening, punctuated with liberal helpings of red wine, develops into quite a boisterous affair, and our Italian provides much amusement. The arrival of the Grappa (a particularly poisonous and potent spirit, peculiar to this country) puts the finishing touches on me, and I have to have ten minutes in the fresh air before being able to continue. We have no difficulty in dropping off to sleep in our very comfortable beds in the hayloft.
Friday. – Hot milk with a dash of coffee before leaving at 06:30 hours. The latter a real luxury -and shows the amazing generosity of these people, Great lovers of coffee as they are, they haven’t been able to get real coffee for years, and for the last year not even the ersatz. I well remember when being brought over from Benghazi to Italy as a prisoner of war, by air, the pilot of the ‘plane had the pockets of his flying coat filled with coffee beans – the most valuable thing he could find to take home with him. These people have given us from the slender stock they have been guarding for years.
We are now taking a more westerly direction, with the object of passing between MILAN and BRESCIA, while keeping as far as possible from both towns. This morning cross the main Milan-Brescia railway. It is so easy to write quite simply “crossed this or this railway or main road”, but actually it was always rather a ticklish business, because these were the places guarded. It nearly always involved a long reconnoitre, sometimes on the tummy, by one of us, then we crossed at discreet intervals. However, so far the luck has been with us.
The farms in this area are smaller and not very prosperous looking It is scorching hot today, and walking is tiring work – it doesn’t improve my temper. My thoughts go continually towards Switzerland, I try to imagine what it is like, whether we shall ever really make it, and how long it will take to arrange a passage home. Today, all that I can imagine of Switzerland, is myself sitting on a hotel balcony, looking at enormous mountains, in the background and drinking large quantities of iced beer. At the moment this is the summit of my ambition.
Lunch at a farm near CORTUNUOVA [CORTENUOVA], where we find some five or six Serbs, ex-prisoners, working. Have a chat with them over lunch, bread and milk provided by the farmer. It is difficult to enjoy any food during the day unless one is in the country, well away from houses. If one eats in a house it is positively nauseating the number of flies that share ones meal. I have seen far more in this last week, than I ever saw in Africa, or even Egypt, where God knows the Wogs are dirty enough. This fighting to get every piece of food to one’s mouth, flyless, is sufficient to take away all hunger. The locals do not seem to mind a bit, and the children wander about,
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their faces covered with flies.
Cross river SERIO which fortunately turns out to be completely dried up. Hear a bit of intermittent machine-gun firing to the east – We decide to make for SPIRANE [SPIRANO] before stopping for the night. There, it should be possible to get some advice re. crossing the river ADDA, which seems to be our next major obstacle. Spirane [Spirano], however, proves to be rather a murky sort of place, and as our identity is immediately recognised, we deem it wise to move on hurriedly.
To reach the next farm involves a longish detour to the south, and it is beginning to get dark by the time we find a suitable place. Eventually select a likely looking block of farms, but on stopping find the proprietor, a not very attractive type of bloke. However, it is too late to push on unless absolutely necessary, so we attempt to get on the right side of him. He allots us a small woodshed, and some fresh straw, but insists on locking up the enclosure in which the shed stands. This isn’t at all to our liking, but the natives, who as usual, have crowded round to stare at us, assure us that he really is not as cantankerous as he looks. Once the farmer has left they become very friendly, bring us a minestra supper, and give us the latest news, or as much of it as they know. We can now begin to understand the proprietor’s attitude a bit more – the Germans have been dropping pamphlets, threatening to shoot anyone harbouring ex-prisoners of war. They also call upon all young Italians of military age to report for service. These are signed by Mussolini. We learn too, that the B.B.C. has broadcast to Italians asking them to shelter and feed British prisoners, and to take their names and addresses. We have always thought the latter a good idea, and have left our names and addresses all over the place – then if one disappears, there is always a possibility of them being useful for record purposes after the war.
Spend a reasonably comfortable night, after first carefully reconnoitring the ground for a quick exit if the need should arise. I think I shall always remember the daughter of the farmer here. She was a girl of about fifteen, but already mature – with raven hair hanging in two plaits, she was the most beautiful girl I have seen in years. A madonna like face, and grave expression which never changed. She stood a little aloof from the crowd of peasants surrounding us, the whole time with the same enigmatic look, expressing neither friendliness, or disapproval.
Saturday – Left about 0700 hours after breakfast of bread and milk in the house of one of the peasants. A youth has agreed to accompany us for the first few kilometres as the route is rather tricky. He proves useful for after an hour’s walking he hails a passing milk-float going into town and we get a lift of about six or seven kilometres. This is also an excellent disguise.
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For the first time since starting we are striking bad weather. It started to cloud over about 10 o’clock, and by 11 the rain overtakes us. We shelter each time it comes down too hard, as there is no point in getting wet through and walking the rest of the day in wet clothes. Our various sheltering places vary from church porches to hen roosts.
After one of our stops we had another lucky escape. We had been talking to an Italian peasant, also sheltering from the rain, and discussing the best routes with him. He tumbled very quickly to our identity, but was very willing to help. We had left him and gone some 100 metres down the road, when an extraordinary bellowing noise made me turn round. There was the old boy jumping up and down in the road, and gesticulating wildly. This could only mean one thing, and we scrambled through the hedge, and fell flat in the long – and very wet – grass, just as a car came round the corner driven by a German officer with a Carabinieri as passenger. To make matters worse it stopped just level with our hiding place – but it proved to be engine trouble and after a couple of minutes they drove on again. We now know that the Carabinieri are definitely against us – something that up to now we were not sure of.
Cross MILAN – BERGAMO Autostrada without incident. The terrain is rapidly changing – more broken up type of country – thickly populated, with smaller farms and larger villages. The mountains loom well into view today and it is comforting to at least be able to see ones destination.
Our biggest task today seems to be the crossing of the western leg of the river ADDA. We have no idea of its depth or width, so decide to cross at SUISSO [SUISIO], hoping that it may be almost dried up as the SERIO was. On arrival however, find that it is more than a 100 metres across and looks rather formidable. Several women are doing their washing in the pools by the side of the river and from them we learn that it is wadeable. We hope so, for it is either that or swimming – the nearest bridge is more than five kilometres downstream, and in any case is almost certainly guarded by Germans. So, with trousers rolled as high as possible, boots round our necks, we take to the water, I for once in the lead. It did not take me long, however to put my foot on a sharp stone, and tumble in. The others laughed so much that they very nearly did the same. Anyway, once wet I could not get any wetter, so I plunged straight across, and retired to the bushes to strip and wring out my clothes as well as I could. We cannot afford to stop for very long, so I dress, and we continue, me with my clothes sticking to me and in none too cheerful a frame of mind.
The country here is not very easy going, and what with our various difficulties today (rain, rivers, and not to mention my wet trousers) we decide to cut our losses and stop at the first suitable-looking place. Our
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way is much impeded by well-meaning people who insist that the Germans are in every place except just the where we are standing. However some of the less hysterical locals are very helpful in showing us which places to avoid, and the best tracks and footpaths to take.
Our lodging for tonight is a farm in the neighbourhood of VERDERIO, and it proves to be a type of farm new to us. A hollow square of buildings with about 13 families living there, but no “padrone”. It seems to be a form of communism, rather after the style of the colonies one sees dotted over Palestine, only of course, not nearly as prosperous. The produce is equally shared, or shared according to the amounts of labour put in. Despite their equality however, there seems to be one man to whom they look for leadership, as is usually the way in communistic communities and having run him to earth we explain our needs. After convincing themselves that we are not Germans in disguise they are willing enough to help us, and allocate us a woodshed and fresh straw just away from the farm. Some dry clothes work wonders with my temper, and a huge meal of risotto, far more than we can eat, puts us at peace with the world. The Italians crowd around us in large numbers in the usual way to discuss the war and things that are happening.
It is funny how they always come round to the same old theme – how poor they are, and the bad food they always have to eat, whereas the English are rich and eat meat every day. The result I suspect of continuous large doses of Fascist propaganda. One somehow can’t tell them that it is their own fault for accepting Mussolini and Fascism for so long, it would be like hitting someone who cannot hit back. But one cannot help feeling that a conducted tour of the East-end of London, or the Irish quarter of Glasgow before the war would make them think a bit. They show us the manifestoes that the Allies have dropped from planes, and the notices the Germans have given out, the latter demanding the handing over of all war material, demanding the call up of all persons of military age, and putting a price on our heads.
A marvellous night, and we sit outside and talk for a while and smoke a final pipe before retiring about eleven o’clock.
Sunday – Leave at about 07:00 hours while most people are at mass. Germans reported to be at MERATA [MERATE], so keep well south to cross road and railway. The going is rather bad – ground drenched and we miss the shortest route. Make LONAGNO [LOMAGNA] and carry on to CASATANUOVA [CASATENOVO] but are stopped just before getting there by locals who tell us there are some Germans located there – so we take to the country as far as MONTECELLO [MONTICELLO]. At a crossroads just near we call in at a peasant’s house to fill our water bottle, but they insist on filling our water bottle with vino and give us another two bottles with it. We would have preferred water, for one cannot walk on wine, but it is impossible to refuse these people.
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After listening in to Radio Londra in Italian, and leaving our names and addresses, we leave, laden with bread and grapes and cheese, not to mention a bunch of flowers from a small girl.
We walk round MONTICELLO, where some Carabinieri are stationed, and make for CASAGO [CASSAGO] by footpath. On the way meet three Milanese youths on holiday, who insist on guiding us to Casago [Cassago] by the shortest route. Once arrived they take us to the “ostria” for a drink, but in typical Italian style they tell everybody who we are, and we are soon the centre of a large crowd. Eventually the village priest arrived, a young man who reminded me vividly of my wireless instructor at OCTU [Officer Cadet Training Unit] in England. He spoke French, and we were able to make clear our position, and our needs. He seemed to be a pretty practical sort of man, and in no time began to organise the last part of the journey for us.
And this is where the whole of our good work nearly came unstuck. Whether we were especially tired, or it was the wine, or perhaps a combination of the two; but from this point onwards everything seemed to go in a whirl, and we did not come to earth for about two hours. In no time a man was found who was going to COMO that day, and could guide us to the frontier, now about 12 miles distant. We were bustled into a nearby house by the priest, and had a wash and took the worst of our beards off. The people of the house gave us clean shirts and generally made us presentable, tying our haversacks into brown paper parcels so as not to appear too conspicuous.
Within an hour we were tramping along the main BERGAMO – COMO road, brown paper parcels under our arms, following a man walking with his bicycle, and committed to walking another 12 miles in three hours, for it was essential to reach the frontier before the operation of the curfew. And all this after the 12 miles rough-going we had already done that day.
By the end of an hour we are just beginning to realise what absolute fools we are. Highly suspicious-looking characters walking along this very important main road; tired and thus very vulnerable, on a crazy scheme not even worked out in detail, and after all the care we have taken up to now. Even if any passing Germans don’t realise who we are, they will become suspicious from the way the Italians look at us, for they always seem to know that we are not Italian.
Norman and I decide that we must call a halt and think up something better, but by this time Alec is some 200 metres ahead with the guide, and we cannot attract his attention. So Norman pushes on to try and catch them up. I by this time, have reached the stage where I cannot go any faster, and if I stopped I would never be able to start again. I am very near the end of my tether and walking in a sort of monotonous rhythm
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Our guide is by occupation, a doorkeeper of some establishment in COMO, and the phrase from the Psalms keeps jingling monotonously through my head, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord, than dwell in the tents of the ungodly” I suppose I have become a bit light-headed from fatigue. Norman is not much better, and he never seems to get more than halfway between the others and myself.
At this point an amusing interlude occurred, which cheered us up considerably, and incidentally helped us along on our way. Two girls came along on men’s bicycles, and our guide asked them if they would give us a lift. They readily acquiesced, and in a couple of minutes there we were, Norman and I, bowling along each with a plump young lady on our handle-bars. Alec was on the bar of the guide. Nothing could be more pleasant, and no finer disguise, but it was too good to last and after about four kilometres my back tyre burst. So once again back to shank’s pony, leaving our pretty benefactresses in the lurch. Soon after this a German staff car passed us, but fortunately did not notice us.
At last we get on to a minor road, and go into conference, and get fuller details of our guide’s plan of action. It appears that he lives at BRECCA [BRECCIA], a small place some 4 kilometres from the frontier wire. He wants to reach there before curfew time, and push us over the wire during the hours of darkness, but we are very doubtful of our ability to make it before 21:00 hours. However we decide to try it, and push on, tho’ we decide that if possible we will lie up for 24 hours before attempting the actual crossing. It will very probably involve a good deal of Infantry work on our tummies, and we don’t want to spoil our chances just at this stage.
Actually we are just reaching the outskirts of COMO when 9 o’clock arrives, and our guide (I never succeeded in learning in learning his name) stops at a largish house to try and get us a lodging for the night. In response to his knocking a woman’s head appears at the bedroom window, and the usual Italian excited volley of conversation takes place, with the difference that this woman appears to have some very bad impediment in her speech, a cleft palate I should think, and the continuous snorting noise recalls all the jokes about people with cleft palates. Leaning against the fence feeling pretty exhausted the situation suddenly strikes me as particularly ludicrous and I have difficulty in stopping myself laughing aloud. Anyway she won’t take us in, because she is alone in the house, so on we go again.
Our guide takes us to a farmhouse that he knows just on the edge of the town itself. The people are at first very dubious, but on making
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absolutely sure that we are not Germans in disguise they allow us to sleep in the hay-loft, providing we leave before daybreak. Our guide promises to return at 0500 hours and lead us as far as the wire. Our hosts prove quite friendly and give us some supper, and we lose no time in “hitting the hay” after this our longest day of nearly 40 kilometres.
Monday – We rise at 05:00 hours and prepare our departure. As the actual crossing is likely to be a tricky business, we decide to take only one haversack, packed with essentials, and to leave behind the rest of our stuff -consisting mainly of tinned rations and clothes. It will be something of a recompense for our night’s lodging. (A little later I discovered that I had left my Rolex watch in the bottom of one of the haversacks, so it was rather a good recompense). The farmer has not woken up after all, so we must leave without our promised bread and milk breakfast.
The guide arrives very punctually, and proceeds to lead us through the town of COMO. There has been much thunder and rain during the night, the moon is still overcast, and it is very dark. However, he leads us unerringly through small streets, past railway crossings, and across main streets. A few people are stirring, but it is still too dark to see them clearly, and once we pass a church with people going in and out from early mass. We do not speak a word to each other – it is all rather eerie and a bit tense as we know there are Germans about.
Once out of the town however, our guide does not seem to be so sure of his route. We strike across country till we come to a small but very steep hill. Just beyond this we are told, lies the frontier. The guide has to leave us here, in order to get to his work in time.
Having climbed to the top of this however, under cover of the trees, we find no sign of any wire. Eventually we come across a pub, and after watching it a while, decide that it looks safe enough to make some enquiries.
Disappointed to learn we still have two or three [kilometres] to do. So there is nothing else to do but plod on – but it has upset all our plans as we had hoped to get across under cover of darkness, and it is already almost daylight.
We have not gone very far when we run into our guide again – who realising that he has made a mistake, has come back to try and find us. He arrived just in time to steer us clear of a village in which German soldiers have taken up residence this morning. But after about an hour’s walking, he finds that he is quite out of his depth, and as it has started to rain, he dumps us on a farm, explaining our predicament. The farmer and his two sons promise to guide us over, after they have finished the morning’s wine pressing. The farmer’s wife gives us a meal
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of bread wine and grapes, and we curl up in the hay loft for a sleep until things begin to move again.
About one o’clock the two sons pronounce themselves ready, and off we go. They have the right ideas, and stick to the fields and hedges – but there is an awful sense of being spied on from the surrounding hills, when one has to cross an open space. After three quarters of an hour’s marching, come to a pine wood, and half way up a slope in this wood, we espy for the first time, the wire and a sentry box. It is somewhat unexpected, and we freeze to the ground, despite the assurances of our guides, that this particular stretch of fence is unguarded. It is best to be sure however, and we approach cautiously the wire. The guides hold up the bottom wire, and in turn we slip through. It sets tinkling all the spring bells on the wire fence, and after a hasty “Grazie – Auguri” we lose no time in scrambling up the steep hill beyond and hiding well in the bushes. There seems to be no hue and crie – so after a few minutes rest we emerge to take stock of our situation.
The view from this first hill in Switzerland is indelible in the memory. A wide green valley dotted with white houses – a white road winding round the foot of the hills – – deep clefts in the hills themselves, where are unseen lakes, and in the background the giant snow clad Alps.
We plan to follow the regular procedure for prison escapees that is to get as far as possible into the country, without being stopped, and contact a British Consulate. This in case anyone feels inclined to throw is back. But our plan is nearly spoiled at the beginning, for we almost walk into a Swiss Frontier Guard’s camp, and have to go to ground about 10 or 12 yards from some Swiss soldiers strolling about outside. We make use of the occasional gusts of wind in the trees, to crawl away, till it is safe enough to stand up and bear off in another direction.
After about an hour’s walking we strike a house with a telephone, and determine to try and telephone the British Consulate at CHIASSO – But the peasant working in the garden, whom we approach, just goes round the corner and whistles up a Swiss officer, and the die is cast. He is quite friendly, and after “frisking” us for arms, carts us off to the nearest police post. There seems to be sentries at about 10 yard intervals along this lane – so we should almost certainly have been caught anyway.
At the police post we give the usual particulars, and prove identity. I have no identity disks, but cheerfully produce a prison
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camp bank note, on which I had written my name and address, and it seems to do the trick all right. We are to be taken to the frontier town of Chiasso, but first the Swiss officer takes us into the adjacent tavern and buys us a beer -the first beer for many a long month, and how marvellous it tastes.
The guard who accompanies us, leads us proudly through the streets of CHIASSO as though we are some new type of animal he is anxious to show off. And what a reception! On all sides people try to stop us and ask questions. Our guard proudly tells them “Offizieri Inglesi”, and then they want to know if we are 8th Army, or one of General Montgomery’s men, and push cigarettes on us and slap us on the back. This is the first indication we have had of the popularity of the 8th Army and Montgomery.
The frontier here runs right through the middle of the town, and the guard being rather dumb and not knowing where we are to be taken, leads us right up to the wire. For one brief moment I had a wild thought that we are going to be thrown back, and look round for likely streets to duck into. But he finds out his mistake, and we are able to “cock a surreptitious snoot” at the German officers on the other side before being led all the way through the town again, much to the delight of the population.
We finally fetch up at a transit camp, just outside the town. Here we get a medical examination and a shower. The examination is something of a farce, in my case at any rate. It consists of a long discussion between the doctor and myself, mainly in sign language, as to whether I have any itch. Having spent five minutes in trying to explain to me what he means, he is so triumphant at having succeeded, that he passes me out as fit. The shower is spoiled by not having anything in the shape of a towel, but a large pocket handkerchief does the trick, and at last we are passed through to the main body of the camp.
Here we find the most motley assembly standing around. British, Free French, Cenagalese [Senegalese], Pacific Islanders, Serbs, Cypriots, Yugo-Slavs and Wops. About 100 in all. From the Britishers we learn that a British representative has been to the camp that morning, and has said that everyone will soon be sent to a camp in German Switzerland in a few days – that it is commanded by an English Brigadier – and that conditions are good. But no word of repatriation which is what chiefly interests us. We hope that we have not just hopped from one bag to another, if so all we can hope for is a
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better bag. One of the Swiss officers tells us that we shall be interned, which is not so very funny. Still, I still keep faith in the idea I have tucked away in the back of mind, that escapees cannot be interned if they escape to a neutral country. All our requests to see or telephone the Consulate are refused, so we turn our attention to supper. This consists of bread, cheese, and a plate (yes plate!) of weak tea.
After talking for a bit, we turn in. The dormitory is a long wooden hut with straw. It is pretty cold, and most of the straw has been taken by the other people, and as we try and curl up on the boards our spirits are somewhat lower than when we first surveyed the wire from the Swiss side.
We keep close together for warmth, but it is difficult to do more than doze. I wake from one of these dozes, to see a telegraph boy walking round the room, shouting “telegram for Dr. Meyer from Addis Ababa”- I think- “This must be a nightmare”, I get up and look at his telegram, and it is true enough. He has a cable for a Dr. Meyer sent off the previous day from Addis Ababa. Nobody however knows where the doctor is, and he pushes off again.
Tuesday – We are glad to get up after a lousy night, and gladder to see hot coffee and bread arrive. Odd parties of O.Rs [Other Ranks] come in all the morning. Get a negative response to all requests to see a Consulate official. -Lunch of Barley broth, meat and potatoes; is very good though cold by the time one has lined up for it.
During the afternoon several local ladies arrive, and they gives us paper and envelopes, and promise that letters will be sent home via the Red Cross. We manage to give one of them a letter to the local British representative, asking him to call and see us.
Rumours of a move all the afternoon, and eventually at 23:30 hours we are lined up to move off. March to the station and entrain about a quarter past twelve. Gather our destination is the German part of Switzerland.
Wednesday – Arrive at Wil near Zurich at 09:00 hours and are met by two officers who were in our camp in Italy. Three other officers we know are on another part of the same train. The soldiers are put in charge of a Sergeant, and we are taken off to a hotel, where over breakfast we meet a New Zealand brigadier, who outlines to us the situation and future plans.
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[4 photographs – clockwise from top left – Tom Harris-Matthews, unknown sitter, Norman Gates in Switzerland, Tom Harris-Matthews in Switzerland.]