R. S. (Bob) Hooper, from Tarragindi in Queensland, served with the 2/7th Field Company Australian Engineers and was captured at Ruweisat Ridge (Ruin Ridge), near El Alamein, on 28 July 1942. This account covers his seven escape attempts, from the first at Benghazi to the last in Germany, two months before the end of the war. His second escape was with 18 others through a tunnel they had dug at PG 57 at Gruppignano, near Udine, on 30 October 1942 (he was soon recaptured). The account includes contributions from other inmates of Gruppignano. Bob Hooper’s further escape attempts were made after he was taken north to Stalag 18A Wolfsberg and other camps, including a brick factory at Trieben (Camp 940 GW) and the disciplinary camps at Gross Reifling (Camp 7010 GW) and Leitzen (Liezen?).
Note: Hooper’s story is also told in Colin Burgess’s “Freedom or Death: Australia’s Greatest Escape Stories from Two World Wars”, Allen & Unwin, Australia, 1994, chapter 5 (pp. 120–45).
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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7 Escapes: Sapper R.S. Hooper with 2/7 Field Company Australian Engineers (supplied by Ken Ward Harvey)
Captured July ’42 Alamein. At Benghazi Camp, escaped but immediately recaptured. He and colleague suspended with hands behind their backs and beaten.
2nd Escape. Account contributed by several of tunnel at Campo 57 Gruppignano. Good description of camp and tunnelling. Done in six weeks! Nineteen escaped, seven others helped in opening and closing the tunnel. Weather turned very bad and soon all were recaptured. Usual reprisals. The Italians who had befriended Hooper but had had to report him to local police contacted him in 1956. Some severely beaten. Two other POWs were shot in cold blood by the guards at different times.
Hooper later escaped in Germany and got to the Swiss Border. Then again from camp at Gross Reifling. Retaken and put in prison cell and made 5th Attempt. Gets back near former camp but inmates refuse to give food as his previous escape had caused them hardship – they later relented. On way to disciplinary camp escaped with another from train, then joins a train to near Innsbruck but captured again and taken once more back to the Bunker at Stalag 18A, Landeck. Changes with another to go on a work party but they refuse to work as it is an ammunition factory; all kept without food or water for four days. Having purposely broken toe, ends up in the hospital of Stalag 18A. Some, waiting for repatriation, are killed by air raid. Hooper found out and put to work in hospital. Some two months before the war ended, together with a Paratrooper from Arnhem, Hooker set off in the turmoil and got back to Britain some weeks before VE Day.
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Following is the story of Sapper R.S. Hooper, QX 930, and his attempts to escape while a prisoner of war. He volunteered for service with the Australian Imperial Force and joined the 2/7 Field Company RAE, a Queensland engineer unit, on 16/1O/4O at 18 years of age. With this unit he sailed to the Middle East and served in Cyrenaica and through the months of the Tobruk siege in 1941.
Early in 1942 the Coy moved from Palestine to Syria, to relieve Australian 7 Div troops returning to fight the Japanese. In June, 9 Aust Div was rushed from Lebanon to El Alamein to help stem the Axis advance threatening Alexandria and the Nile Delta at that time. This Engineer Company was very much involved throughout July in counter attacks by all three Battalions of 24 Aust Infantry Brigade. These actions helped stem the Axis advance, and the front was consolidated west of El Alamein railway station.
With sixteen fellow sappers Hooper was taken prisoner when, through a mix up in orders and lacking planned tank support, the 2/28 Battalion and attached troops, after achieving the objective of their attack, were forced to surrender on Ruin [Ruweisat] Ridge south-west of El Alamein at daybreak on 28 July 1942. This was the last of the planned attacks on the German defences before the build up of new forces made the major El Alamein Battle possible in October 1942, which broke the Axis strength in North Africa.
As told by Bob Hooper
My first escape attempt was at Benghazi prison camp. Our food was brought in by truck late in the afternoon, so I suggested to my Sergeant, Jack Bollington, that we lay along the chassis under the truck to get out of the camp. But we were discovered by the guards, taken to their quarters with our hands tied behind our backs, and then given the treatment by the Carabinieri (equivalent Italian to the SS) boots and all. Afterwards we were held up and tied to the posts each side of the camp’s Main Gates, with our feet off the ground.
The prisoners inside the camp began to shout at the Italians, and were thinking to try and rescue us, but I told them to calm down, as they as well as us would probably be wiped out by the guards. After dark the royalist soldiers (remember them; they were the ones that used to get in our way in an attack on the Germans, and give themselves up in hundreds as they waved white sheets and screamed for mercy) put stones under our feet to stand on, and told us to kick them away if the Carabinieri came back. They also gave us a drink of water and some grapes. Meanwhile we could hear the Carabinieri celebrating in their huts, probably drinking vino. We wondered what the future held for us, however about midnight the Commandant came and told the guards to let us down. We were allowed to go back inside our prison compound, where to our surprise, the Royalist soldiers had given other prisoners some grapes and cigarettes to give to us. Some consolation I suppose.
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SECOND ATTEMPT: ESCAPE FROM PG 57
This account has been compiled by Colin Burgess of Bonnet Bay, NSW, from information supplied by various inmates of Campo PG 57, 1942–43.
Campo PG 57 at Gruppignano in north-east Italy was represented to the prisoners by their captors as ‘the best camp in Italy’. Their added arrogance in declaring the camp ‘escape proof’ provided the necessary spur to the Australian and New Zealand occupants, who rose to the challenge.
Surrounded by alluring snow-capped mountains, the camp was on a flat river plain north of Udine, in the province of Cividale. Just over ten kilometres to the north rose the foothills of the Julian Alps. To the distant west and north-west stood the mighty Dolomites and the Swiss, Austrian and Bavarian Alps. Yugoslavia lay to the east. By September 1942 there were some 2,500 prisoners of war at Gruppignano, including 1,200 Australians and 1,000 New Zealanders.
At this time the camp was divided into two occupied compounds, containing several newly constructed sleeping huts, well lit, and with surprisingly good ventilation, which became a distinct disadvantage in the colder months, when icy winds swept down from the Alps. There was a cookhouse in each compound, a canteen of sorts, adequate toilet and ablution facilities, and an area for washing clothes. Water was relatively plentiful. Each compound was under the control of a senior prisoner NCO with a small but efficient administrative staff. The official history of New Zealand in the Second World War, in the volume “Prisoners of War” by W. Wynne Mason (War History Branch, Dept of NZ Internal Affairs, 1954), says of conditions in PG 57 at that time: “There were plenty of Red Cross food parcels on hand…the canteen was well stocked and parcels of tobacco were beginning to arrive freely from New Zealand House and private sources.”
“Not so!” was the emphatic rebuttal of Bill Kelly of the 2/8 Field Ambulance. “There was only one time when we bought food [at the canteen] and that was when there was a surplus of onions. The canteen catered mainly for tooth paste and razor blades. Camp money, printed specially for PG 57, was used and we couldn’t get paid our one lire a week until we had spent it in the canteen, which was difficult to do! Camp money was ever only good for playing two-up. And there were never even tobacco supplies in the canteen.”
George (Snowy) Drew from 2/15 Battalion was captured at Derna, and he spent several months in PG 57. His memory of the prison camp is still quite vivid: “When I arrived at Campo 57 it consisted of two compounds, each containing approximately 26 huts. These huts were of a wooden construction lined with a malthoid type of material. Heating in winter was by means of a centrally situated stove fuelled by wood and coke. Each hut housed about sixty men. Bunks were of wooden construction in two tiers, four on the bottom and four on top. At the end of each hut were two separate rooms which housed the senior NCO and Warrant Officer, the senior of which was hut commander.
“The Senior British Officer of the camp was Major Binns, a medical officer with 2/8 Field Ambulance – a South Australian unit. The Senior Warrant Officer was Arthur Cottman of 2/15 Bn. Arthur Cottman featured in an incident when the camp was first occupied. The Commandant ordered the men to have all their hair clipped off. This they refused to do, so Arthur and other ringleaders were handcuffed to posts in the open overnight. Then guards and barbers were brought in and the men had their hair cut.
“Red Cross parcels, which came at irregular intervals, were a great supplement to our meagre diet, which consisted mainly of a watery mess containing some sort of greens, with occasionally the addition of a little macaroni or sometimes mangelwurzels – a type of white beetroot. Everyday life was quite boring if one couldn’t find some activity to occupy the time.
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“Card games were a good pastime, the main games being bridge, euchre and crib. Once a fortnight, a hut at a time, we were taken to a bath house to have a hot shower. The only other highlights in the camp were the arrivals of Red Cross parcels, or the occasional arrival of new prisoners with fresh news of the war.”
“Our first guards were Alpine troops, some of Italy’s best,” recalls Mason Clark of 2/43 Bn, who was captured after an attack on German positions in the salient of Tobruk. “Our Commandant was one Colonel Calcaterra, a sadistic fat little monster. This lovable little character had a motto [emplaced over the gate] ‘Cursed be the British, but more cursed be the Italian who treats them well’. He made life as miserable as possible for us, and his great delight was ‘the boob’ or ‘Bastille’. This gaol within a gaol was built at one end of the camp, and the Colonel saw to it that no cell remained empty for long.”
Commandant Calcaterra, a disliked, strict disciplinarian from the Carabinieri, ran Campo 57 effectively but with a heavy hand. Brutality was not discouraged among the guards, and the camp had a bad record over the ill treatment of the internees. A.V.W.(‘Bluey’) Rymer, a wireless operator/air gunner from No.70 Squadron, was a little more succinct in his appraisal of Calcaterra: “He was a short-arsed, fat gutted little shit. If you were sitting on one side of the camp and you did not get up and stand to attention it was into the Boob, bread and water!”
Prisoners caught in escape attempts were killed or wounded. Calcaterra prided himself on the fact that no-one had been able to breach the formidable three-metre high, double barbed-wire perimeter fencing. Early in the winter of 1942 a New Zealand infantryman, Private Wright, had been shot at close range while attempting to crawl through the wire at night. The bullet entered the base of the neck and there was no exit wound, which led to the suspicion that he was shot with a dum-dum bullet. When this suspicion was conveyed to Calcaterra he paraded all Senior NCO’s in the camp church where he pointed out that in the First World War no prisoner escaped from Italy, and that none would escape in this one. Former Flight Sergeant T.E. Canning (3 & 6 Squadrons RAF) attended the highly emotional meeting.
“In regard to the bullet which killed Private Wright, and demonstrating a similar cartridge, he said that it was a shrapnel bullet consisting of a tube of brass encasing nine cylindrical steel pellets. When fired the rifling cut the brass into longitudinal strips, and these plus the nine pellets went on their roving way. He claimed the projectile to be sanctified by international law, but it seemed to his audience that it was a considerable improvement on the dum-dum, at least at close range. He spent some time proclaiming that no-one would escape from his camp, and the fate of Private Wright awaited whoever attempted it! The confidence of the Colonel stimulated ambition to prove him wrong.”
Any scheme for crawling the wire perimeter, which was well lit and heavily guarded, were regarded as both difficult and dangerous, so a small group of Australians conceived an idea for a tunnel. According to Eric Canning, the planning group comprised himself, Ted Comins (38 Squadron RAF), Dick Head (2/10 Bn) and Bill Kelly (2/8 Fd Ambulance).
“In digging a sewerage pit in No.2 Compound the deep soil was found to be heavily compacted alluvium – far too hard for tunnelling – and it wasn’t until a new compound was opened to house prisoners taken in the battle of El Alamein that we were able to sample the earth under the hut closest to the wire, when it was found that the alluvium at about twelve feet was friable enough to enable a tunnel to be commenced.”
Lance Sergeant Noel Ross (2/13 Fd Coy), a bridge contractor from Queensland, was in charge of the actual tunnelling. The tunnel, driven out from a vertical shaft, was to be about 80 metres long, starting under the floorboards beneath the central bunk in an empty hut in No.3 compound. The hut was situated within 30 metres of the barbed wire, on the north-east corner of the compound. This corner was well away from any barracks or administrative buildings outside of the wire, so escaping prisoners had a reasonable chance of getting away undetected.
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On the other side of the wire an Italian farmer had grown a patch of maize, and it was planned to slope the tunnel up gradually to the surface, with the exit hole in this patch.
The steady influx of new prisoners to the compound upset the normal search routine, and the work went ahead unhindered. The tunnel team had earlier managed to steal a short-handled pick, and tin hats were used as shovels. The spoil was placed in boxes which were hauled back to the exit shaft, lifted out and spread over the two-foot gap under the floorboards of the hut, or surreptitiously over dirt pathways and a cricket pitch being prepared for the new compound. The tunnel itself was about 30 inches high and 20 inches wide.
Mason Clark and two fellow prisoners were amazed when Eric Canning and Dick Head told them of the tunnel, and that it had been under way for several weeks. “We were told that only the men actually working on the tunnel knew of its existence. Secrecy was a must, as there were some eighty Cypriots in the camp, and some of them could not be trusted. Once they knew of it our Italian captors would soon be told. We had been picked as likely escapees, and because we were known to keep ourselves fit, with as much exercise and boxing as the meagre rations allowed, we would be handy as workers in the tunnel. Fit men were needed for the work; it was very arduous and dangerous. We three new recruits were quite excited that evening meeting our fellow escapees. The tunnellers were all Aussies and New Zealanders with the exception of two Scotch-born Aussies, Jock Noble (2/24 Bn) and Scotty King from the Pioneers.
“We learned that our fellow escapees had formed groups of two or three, and several were going alone. All had made careful plans and had been saving some chocolate from the occasional Red Cross food parcels. Bill Thurling, Johnny O’Hearne and I had to start from scratch, but we eventually agreed on a plan to strike out for Yugoslavia once clear of the camp. Several of the others intended to do the same, hoping to meet up with the very active Yugoslav Partisans. Some of the others intended making the long hike across northern Italy to Switzerland. As we were situated north of Trieste, and close to the Yugoslav border, we thought the partisans our best bet.
“Supplying fresh air to the tunnellers was a continuing problem, especially as the tunnel grew longer and the diggers moved further from the shaft. The initial arrangement was crude; football and punch-ball bladders were inflated by someone on the surface, and the air let out at the digging face.
“Then we stole tubing and conduit from some of the toilets and washrooms, and made a pipeline from the surface deep into the tunnel. Bellows were made by some handyman, and so a new air supply was born. A man on the surface worked the bellows which pumped air through the pipe to the air-starved men in the black tunnel. Then too flex and wire was stolen, the electric light globes taken from the centre of the hut, and light was introduced into the lengthening tunnel. We couldn’t use light down there during the day unfortunately, as the power was switched off.”
Several cave-ins occurred during the tunnelling, but nothing too serious. Progress was slow, especially when clay was encountered. The men at the face worked hard, the long drag back to the shaft with the spoil becoming slower all the time. Fighting claustrophobia, cramp and exhaustion, the men toiled away in the darkness, struggling to inflate their lungs in the fetid air, which caused them blinding headaches. Bathed in perspiration, their lacerated knees deep in the dirt and slop, their backs bloodied from continually scraping the roof of the tunnel, they drove on with grim determination. Each afternoon at a certain time tools were collected, boxes, bellows and buckets placed in the tunnel, boards lowered, and all dirt on the floor carefully swept away before replacing the heavy bunk. The retching half-blinded diggers dragged clothes over their naked dirt-covered bodies. Singly and in pairs the men then slipped out of the hut and returned to their own compound. After a quick cold-water clean up in the wash troughs, it was time for the afternoon check parade. Then a new complication arose, as explained by Mason Clark.
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“Prisoners from the bitter El Alamein fighting began to arrive, and one evening a batch of new men were allotted to our escape hut. They were men of the 2/28 Battalion, West Australians who had fought out from El Alamein, being eventually cut off and surrounded by hordes of German infantry and tanks.
“Our Sergeants visited these men the following day, and they were told of the tunnel which reached out from under the floorboards of their hut. They were asked for their co-operation, which was eagerly given, and sworn to secrecy. These gallant men proved dinkum Aussies, helped us in the work on the tunnel and sentry duty, and dirt disposal. With the added help the work speeded up and the tunnel was finished on time.” In all the tunnel had taken six weeks to dig.
“We had one terrible fright towards the end,” remembers Bill Kelly. “Pud Poidevin, who would be first out of the tunnel, decided to make a visual check as to where it would break. While we watched from the hut window he poked a thick stick up through the ground from the end of the tunnel. But we couldn’t see the stick, so the message to poke it higher was passed down the shaft. We still couldn’t see it, so again a message was passed along the tunnel. Suddenly we saw this stick waving about thirty feet across from where it was meant to be. We had a few anxious moments as word was hurriedly sent down to pull the stick back down.”
The escaping team, meantime, had undergone some changes. Mason Clark, weak with dysentery, was unable to escape, and his two friends would not go without him. Noel Ross too had to give up his plans of getting out, while Bill Kelly, one of those who had first conceived the idea of the tunnel, reluctantly but gallantly gave up his place. Bill, an RAASC driver attached to the 2/8 Field Ambulance, had been given word that an exchange of non-military personnel was imminent, and he did not want to jeopardise the chances of other men for repatriation. He had previously escaped from captivity twice and felt this tunnel was a marvellous chance for freedom, so it was with the greatest reluctance that he informed the escape team of his decision. “One of the most courageous and wonderful men I have known,” says Dick Head by way of tribute to his friend, who now lives on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Two of the helpers from the 2/28th, Corporal John Costello and Private Stan Long were given places in the escaping team.
“It would have been a lovely dream to make it an open highway,” recalls Dick Head, “but our planning showed only a limited time at night before the Carabinieri dog patrols did their tours through the huts after ‘lights out’. Within that time an allowance for the searchlights doing their revolving sweeps, the ground patrols along the wire, and the unknown timing of the roving patrols further out, put a low limit to the numbers.”
In the early planning stages the escape leaders decided not to break the tunnel unless it was raining. They believed the guards would be less alert and seek shelter from the rain, and the searchlights would be less effective in delineating objects. But with the tunnel virtually ready to break the troops involved in the escape expressed their keen desire to go, irrespective of weather conditions. “Their resolve was clear,” according to Dick Head. “Good or bad conditions, we can do it. There was an unspoken feeling – the greater the challenge the greater the incentive.”
The night before the break Bill Kelly and Noel Ross placed a wooden mushroom baffle beneath the thin ceiling layer of dirt and grass at the end of the tunnel, and using a bayonet cut an exit hole around the baffle. This was then carefully lowered, “I stuck my head and shoulders out for a look around,” says Bill Kelly. “It was a beautiful feeling; the air just seemed so much fresher that side of the wire. I felt very jealous of the blokes who were going out.” The mushroom baffle was then replaced.
On the day of the planned exodus from PG 57, South Australian Kevin O’Connell requested an urgent audience with Dick Head, Tom Comins and Eric Canning. He told the escape leaders of a twice-recurrent nightmare, in which he was trapped by searchlights after leaving the exit hole. He was so genuinely concerned his dream might become reality that he offered to withdraw
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rather than spoil it for the remainder. The three men appreciated his concern, and in order to reassure O’Connell, who had been a hard worker in the scheme, they arranged for him to be one of the last out. Mason Clark, whose illness precluded his own escape described the breaking of the tunnel on 30 October:
“The escape was set for a moonlight night before the cold weather set in. The day before the escape we had a fright. An Italian appeared in the patch of maize and started to cut it. We watched him in anguish, expecting him to disappear down our hole at any moment. To our relief he left the patch without stumbling on the hole.
“On the day of the escape the last earth was removed and the tunnel was now ready. That evening Bill Thurling, Johnny O’Hearne and I went to the tunnel to make sure that no one ‘jumped the gun’ and tried to use the tunnel. The escapees came to the hut singly, with their provisions. They looked a motley crew as they came in, some with old hats and berets, and an assortment of clothes. We lowered them one by one into the tunnel, they then crawled forward to the front of the tunnel.”
“All of the escapers had to be away, the tunnel closed with boards down, and the helping team back in their huts by ‘lights out’ at 9 p.m. It was a time of nervous tension, but finally the nineteen escapers, plus the seven opening and closing helpers, were all in the tunnel. Although he was not supposed to know of the escape, a Catholic padre, Father Lynch, had made his way to the hut and blessed each man as he lowered himself through the floorboards. The occupants of the hut were singing lustily to drown out any noises, while outside the hut ‘stooges’ were posted to warn of any approaching sentries. Several men were watching the nearest sentry. If he happened to notice any prisoners emerging from the tunnel behind him and made to shoot, this team under Bill Kelly would throw stones at him to distract his aim. In the darkness of the hut nearest the machine [gun] and searchlight, other men were posted with stones, ready to distract the post if they opened fire.”
“When all was ready, word was passed along the tunnel and the first group crawled up and out into freedom. We all held our breath, but not a sound was heard. At intervals the others slipped out and away, to reform into their groups and slip into the darkness. At last they were all away, and the tunnel closed, and we were back in our huts for ‘lights out’. The beds of escapees were made up. The guards and Carabinieri strolled through the huts and then lights went out. It was a success. After weeks of work, this was a thrilling moment. We lay sleepless, thinking of the boys making their way to freedom.”
For one escaper, Kevin O’Connell, his recurring nightmares almost became a reality. As he exited the hole he was caught in the beam of a searchlight. Fortunately he recalled his infantry training: when trapped in a searchlight you ‘freeze’ to avoid a long moving shadow. Being an excellent soldier he froze, his skin prickling, waiting for the first shots to ring out. Then the searchlight swept on, and he moved off undetected, a much relieved man.
The dullness of everyday life at PG 57 was shattered the following morning when word was passed around of the escape, and the wise took food with them on the early morning parade in anticipation of being there for some time. The Italians counted the men on parade, and finally they came to realise what most prisoners already knew – there were quite a few absentees. Parades in both compounds were subjected to a multiplicity of counts. The enraged Italians screamed abuse, but did not quite know what to do. Finally they formed a squad of guards in a ring working around the barbed wire. They eventually found the tunnel outlet and a guard, with obvious trepidation, crawled back through it.
“We were held on parade all day: our belongings were searched, and all other huts torn apart for signs of a tunnel. We had no food that day, and anyone who smiled was rushed to the ‘Bastille’. However, we cheered occasionally, and booed when anyone was marched to the ‘Bastille’. The air was electric as prisoners became more rebellious, and guards fingered their
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rifles more itchily. One act of violence could have caused a general charge at the guards and the wire. We were eventually herded back to our huts.”
“Activity was tremendous during the following days, as search parties of police and guards came to the camp, were briefed and sent away. Planes were overhead in the search for the escapees, and we were told that the whole countryside was alerted to watch for the ‘dangerous Australianos’.”
From a distance the Julian Alps, thickly wooded to the snow line, appeared to present a reasonable refuge, but were in fact heavily populated. In addition to alerting local residents and the police, three divisions of Italian troops deployed in the region were notified of the mass break out. The first two escapees were recaptured the following day, followed by others at various intervals. To make matters worse for the prisoners, it began to rain heavily. “It was like someone standing on a roof and pouring buckets water over you,” remembers Bob Hooper of the 2/7 Field Engineers. Two days after his escape, wet through and trembling violently, Hooper was discovered in the passageway of a farmer’s home in Primulacco, eight kilometres from Udine. Some domestic fowls (“the place was a bloody menagerie!”) set up a strident rumpus, and the owner confronted him with a trembling shotgun. The farmer, soon convinced that his sick captive presented no danger to him or his wife, led Hooper into the kitchen by the fire, where they drank Hooper’s coffee and ate chestnuts while his clothes dried. The owner, with abject regrets, then handed the escapee over to the local police. This was to be the second of Bob Hooper’s seven eventual escape attempts from captivity until he finally gained his freedom. [This Italian again made contact with Bob Hooper in 1956 by writing to the Repatriation Department. His letter requesting they forward the letter to Bob said: “I have a good remembrance of this honest fellow.”]
The odds were greatly stacked against all the escapers, who were rounded up, one by one; the last two were returned to Campo 57 on the fifth day after the mass break out. The decision to escape in their uniforms, which made them all the more conspicuous, was certainly a big factor in the rapid recapture of the prisoners, but in formulating the escape plans the men had to be worried that if they were captured in civilian clothing they might have been shot. The escape committee certainly did not want a massacre of recaptured prisoners to occur. As it turned out, the weather was the biggest factor against them. Heavy rain caused the already cold rivers to run quite swiftly, and guards were mounted on the bridges to prevent the men crossing.
Colonel Calcaterra was fortunate enough to have been away on leave when the breakout occurred, and he managed to apportion the blame amongst his staff when he was summoned back to take command of the camp. He imposed severe restrictions on the prisoners, and made their life more of a misery than before. Searches of the huts and the men’s belongings became almost a daily affair, but he was certainly closing the gate after the horse had bolted.
“It probably didn’t do his chances of promotion much good”, declared Eric Canning. “But he only had a short time to live, as word has it he was shot by the partisans shortly after Italy capitulated late in 1943.”
Canning, Tom Comins and Dick Head were fortunate in that they escaped the mandatory beating when recaptured by some Italian troops. Their colonel had himself been a successful prison escaper from the Germans in the First World War, and sympathised with the three prisoners. He arranged an ostensible beating for the benefit of the authorities, and the men were returned to the camp unharmed.
The nineteen escapers, some of whom were first beaten severely in the camp cells, were stripped naked or semi-naked, chained and given one month in the cells on reduced rations. Afterwards they were secured in a hut in an uninhabited compound, and put to hard physical work. But at least they had gotten free of the camp for a time, and as Mason Clark reflects, were recaptured “mercifully without loss of life”.
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“We had achieved something, however,” he adds. “We had accepted the challenge of the ‘escape proof camp’. Our tunnel had done wonders for the morale of the camp; boredom was broken. We had shown defiance and spirit, even though we were wired in. Some of the information gained from those who had escaped helped the rest of us who were fortunate enough to escape later, so the long weeks of work in the tunnel and the escape had not after all been in vain.”
Mason Clark was later permitted to transfer to a work camp, from which he eventually escaped and got clear away across Northern Italy to Switzerland and freedom.
Eric Canning summed up the difficulties inherent in any such mass escape attempt: “The escape finished as most such episodes do, by recapture of the participants. It is almost impossible to plan movement in a hostile country without assistance by at least some members of the community, and unlike the escape channels organised in France for shot-down airmen, no such possibility existed in Italy while it was an active member of the Axis. After Italy’s capitulation, assistance given to PoWs by Italian civilians under penalty of severe German reprisals was in many instances heroic. To the best of my knowledge our effort had the distinction of being the greatest mass break out in Italy.”
Life resumed at Gruppignano, but under far tighter security. Red Cross parcels were opened upon distribution and all cans punctured by the Italians, both to prevent food hoarding and further escape attempts. As a consequence all perishable food had to be eaten straight away. While daily counts in most Italian camps were relatively lax affairs, in PG 57 the counts were a full military parade. Battle dress had to be worn in the heat of summer, and in winter the icy wind sweeping down from the Dolomites and Julian Alps was bitter.
Another wearisome exercise took place every two or three weeks, lasting a whole day: the complete contents of each hut were taken out, the double-decker beds dismantled, and all bedding and personal gear removed. The hut floors had been laid in sections and these were all pulled up in turn while the guards checked to see no tunnels were being dug.
“Two things I remember most about Udine were the lice and the cold,” recalls Bluey Rymer. “The lice got into the lining of your clothes and laid their eggs. You had to pick them out and kill them between your fingernails. The bloody Sikhs in the compound next door used to pick them out and drop them on the ground – they would not kill them on religious grounds!”
“Winter time was bad, especially at the 0600 parade. Blokes already ill from beri-beri used to pass out when it was really cold. It was so cold that the sentries on duty, in their half-closed sentry boxes on stilts, could not last more than two hours’ duty; they stamped and screamed with the cold. It was the most goddam cold place I have ever been in my life. We were in a windy hut, and all we had was one worn-out blanket. It was even too cold to go to the toilet; some hardy souls managed to make it to the door to urinate, others did it in the aisles. Have you ever been so cold and desperate that you simply pissed yourself in bed?”
Acts of barbarism still occurred at the Camp. On 20 May  Corporal Edward Symons (2/32 Bn) from Kalgoorlie was shot dead when he refused to accompany a Carabinieri guard to the detention cells. “He shot Symons without any provocation,” recorded an angry Francis Sullivan, a former private from 2/15 Bn. captured at Derna. Symons had made no attempt to assault or molest him in any way. The guard had no need to shoot in self-defence. Symons was shot at point-blank range by the guard, who had objected to his loud barracking at a cricket match organised by two PoW teams in No.2 Compound. Motioned to go to the cells, Symons objected; the guard raised bis rifle and shot the young [aged 41] Corporal in the chest. “Two Australian medical orderlies and a camp doctor arrived and took him to the camp hospital. About twenty minutes later I heard that he was dead.”
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“I didn’t see the shooting, but everyone knew what had happened,” added John Foxlee of Brisbane, a Corporal with 2/15 Bn. “It was just cold-blooded murder. So far as I know no-one was ever punished for the death of ’Socks’. I only knew the guard who shot him as ‘Strawberry Neck’. None of us knew his real name.”
[In an earlier incident at Campo 106, Carpanetto, Private John E. Law was deliberately shot dead by a guard. Evidence points to the guard shooting Law after he had been bribed to ‘look the other way’ during an escape attempt over a courtyard wall one night. The guard was posted under the wall waiting for Law to appear just after midnight. He then shot the escaper through the head in cold blood. The Italian authorities had a standing reward of a thousand lire and a week’s leave for any guard who prevented a prisoner from escaping. The guard in question was absent from the camp soon after for seven days. There is no indication that this man, whose name was given to War Crimes Authorities after the war, was ever charged or punished by the Italians.]
THE GRUPPIGNANO ESCAPERS
W/Off. NOBLE, Archibald
Sgt. WILLIAMS, Albert
Sgt. POIDEVIN, Gordon C.
Sgt. HEAD, Richard L.
Cpl. COSTELLO, John D.
Priv. LANG, Stanley J.
L/Cpl. KING, David
Spr. HOOPER, Robert St.Q. (2/7 Fd Coy)
Priv. O’CONNELL, Kevin F.
L/Cpl. LIND, Charles
Priv. DWYER, John A.
Priv. COTTER, George
F/Sgt. CANNING, T.E. (RAAF)
F/Sgt. COMINS, Thomas B. (RAAF)
W/OFF. BOULT, Leslie F.
Sgt. O’BRIEN, John F.
Spr. NATUSCH, Roy S.
Priv. BRIEN, Hector A.
Priv. SLOAN, William
This account has been included as part of the book “Barbed Wire and Bamboo” by Colin Burgess and Hugh Clarke, published last year  by Allen & Unwin. It is re-typed here from an early draft sent to Bob Hooper in 1988, with permission from Colin Burgess.
Burgess, who combines his Qantas duties with being a Military and Space Flight Historian, has also compiled the full story of Bob Hooper’s numerous escape attempts in his book “Freedom or Death”, due to be published by Allen & Unwin in April 1995 [published 1994].
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Bob Hooper’s account resumes
At Trieben, Archie Noble and another fellow, Eric Oliver, had the job of loading bricks into enclosed railway wagons which were sent to various parts of Europe. We worked out a scheme to wait for one being loaded for France and hide in it to escape.
These wagons were sealed at the main door when loaded, and put on the rail siding. However, they had a small window high on each end, which could be locked inside the wagon. Our idea was to jam this window closed with a piece of wood, but you could push it inward from the outside, even though it appeared locked. The opportunity at last came but we were chased by our German guards as we fled the camp, and had to take to the hills. It had been snowing for a couple of days, and was still snowing. We had to discard most of our food, but we managed to elude our guards in the hills, and later returned to the siding, pushed in the window, climbed in, and locked the window from the inside.
Later that night we were joined up to a goods train, and on our way to France and, we hoped, the underground Resistance forces. However, after several days of shunting, and being rejoined to trains again, we were out of the bit of food we had managed to save. We arrived at Bregenz on Lake Constance and could see the lights of the Swiss border, which was lit up at night. Being without food we thought we would abandon the train that night and have a go for Switzerland as it was very cold in the train. We managed to get to the border and thought we were safe as the lights were behind us, but were captured by a German dog patrol, as we hadn’t crossed the Swiss border as we thought.
We were locked up in a prison and at daylight could see the Swiss farmers ploughing their fields. A guard told me if we had gone about a half mile further south we would have crossed the perimeter without much trouble. Small consolation to us at this time! After a couple of days we were sent to Landeck interrogation centre. The small solitary cells were about four feet by eight feet, then after about two weeks were returned to Stalag 18A. There we did the usual one month in Bunker (gaol) – four days bread and water, then one day ordinary food (bread and water was more filling). After that into the Stalag discipline compound – where only the bad boys were kept.
Actually, the compound was not too bad at 18A, as Hauptmann Steiner, the Hun in charge, was in the 1914–18 war and severely wounded. He said he would like to have a regiment of dedicated soldiers like the disciplinaires, and perhaps Germany could win the war! The four thousand other men in the camp – Russians, Poles, Australian, N.Z. etc. – had to parade in the snow for morning roll call, but we were counted in our barracks. Sometimes some of us stayed in our beds when it was very cold. At least we got our Red Cross parcels again. In the disciplinary compound you seldom got them, but the good boys in Stalags and workcamps got them every week. As the Germans used to say “Krieg ist Krieg” (War is War).
The next time was when sent from Stalag to Gross Reifling. (It was supposed to be the toughest punishment camp of them all. Leitzen was the next worst.) Gross Reifling was called the second front by the disciplinaires, and the Commandant was known as Two-Gun Pete. I never knew his name. I just called him Pete. They put us to work on the railway lines, and when the munitions trains came through we put ashes in their grease boxes on the axles, hoping they would get a hot-box and break down.
After a while I refused to work, and Pete was always picking on me. If you worked you got small favours, such as boot polish, etc. Pete was always complaining that I did not polish my boots, and told me to get some polish from the other prisoners. I told him we Australians didn’t bludge off our mates.
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In the meantime I was digging a tunnel, but only at night time. I had a piece of string tied to my big toe, and my mate, Ron Hilton VX11673, of Railway Rd, Quakers Hill, NSW, used to give it a sharp tug when the guards were near, and two tugs for the all clear.
One day Pete was having a go at me and I told him to open the gate and let me go if he wasn’t satisfied, but anyway I was going to escape soon. He said “let me know when you are going and I will give you some bread and sausage.” I said I hope you Huns keep your promises. The night before I went (by the way Ron Hinton was coming with me), I was polishing my boots when Pete came to lock up our dormitory, and he said “Was ist mit the Hooper?” I said “I am getting ready to escape. What about my extra bread and sausage?” He said “No need for that. You will here for a long time yet.” I said, “No I won’t. The moon is getting full so I will be able to see my way over the mountains, and you Huns don’t keep your promises.”
After lights out the next night we got set to go, but I was a bit worried about Ron getting stuck in the exit, as it was not very large, and he was a big fellow. Anyhow I broke through, and Ron got jammed in the hole with his head and shoulders out, but his arms still in. Just then a guard came around the corner and let fly with a shot. I got my hands under Ron’s arms, pulled him out like a cork, and ran for our lives.
About fifty yards out was a tripwire. We crashed on hitting it and lost our bundle of food but kept going and hid under a creek bank while the guards ran past, and we lost them. We climbed a mountain covered in snow all the rest of the night, and before dawn crawled into a hay shed to hide. When daylight came we looked out from under the hay, and there was the camp about 400 yards away. We had climbed up and down the same side of the mountain!
About 3 p.m. a horse and cart came to the door of the barn with an old man and a girl in it. We hid under the hay, and the girl began to pitchfork the hay on to the cart. She came a bit close for comfort, so not wishing to be impaled by it, we leapt up from under the hay. She cried out and leapt out of the bam. We then spoke to her and her father, and they asked if we were escaped prisoners. The girl said her brother had just returned from the Russian front minus both his legs, and they were not very impressed with the war. She said she would get into the village that night and see if they had given up the search for us. We had no option but to trust them.
Sometime later that night the girt rattled on the door and called, “Yo Ho, ich rufen” (I am calling). We got out from under the hay and wondered if she had the guards with her, however she had some hot coffee and boiled eggs, and told us they had given up the search for us. She was a nice girl, and would you believe it, we didn’t try to molest her. We left the barn about midnight and were caught crossing the mountain by a German with his dog and a shotgun, looking for snow rabbits to shoot.
We were put in a local lock-up, and the next day a guard from Gross Reifling came to take us back. He was a middle-aged German whom we called ‘the General’. He had been wounded in action, and asked us not to escape from him on the way back by train as he would be sent to the Russian Front if we did. He said we were to be put in the local prison, and he would do things for us if we did not try to get away from him. We accepted, and he kept his promise, as we kept ours. I asked him to bring a pencil and paper to the prison when he came with our food, and he did this. I wrote a note to one of my mates in the camp, and asked them to get a screwdriver, pliers, and half a hacksaw blade, which I had hidden in a half barrel of sand in the prison camp, in which we had to urinate when locked in our dormitory at night. I told my mate to wash them well and put them in the big pot of sauerkraut which they brought down for our afternoon meal. There were five prisoners in our cell.
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My old enemy, the Commandant, Two-Gun Pete, had not come to see us yet, and if he had he would have been too late, as that night we broke out of the prison. Of the five of us imprisoned only three of us escaped as the other two said they were too unwell. The one who came with us was an Englishman named Bob Gardiner, he also was not in the best of health. (Incidentally he traced me through Rapat after the war and wrote to me while I lived in New Guinea for about five years. He gave me Ron Hinton and Arch Noble’s particulars, but I have only seen Ron Hinton who came to see me in Brisbane about four years ago.) We only had a loaf of bread between us and when we started to tackle the mountains Bob Gardiner said he was too ill to go on, so we gave him half the bread, and he went back on his own. In his letter he told me he gave himself up at a place called Heiflau.
Ron Hinton and I managed to cross the mountains and came down in a valley at a place called Rottermann. Would you believe there were wolves in the mountains. We heard them and saw their big paw marks, but luckily didn’t meet up with them, or should I say them with us. For the past two days we had only eaten snow, and Ron Hinton became very ill, probably from eating too much of it. (That’s what we were told later on.) I calculated we were only a few miles from Trieben (Attempt 3) so we made our way to near there and hid in an abandoned shed. At night I approached the brick factory where the prisoners were working on a three-shift basis, and asked one of them for food. He said he would see the Camp Leader and see what they could spare. I told him I would contact him at the same place next night. When I contacted him next night he said they had had a meeting, and the majority decided as I had escaped from there before, and they were punished by not being allowed to play soccer for six months, they would not help me. I told him I would report this after the war, and they might be punished. He gave me three biscuits he had. This fellow was English as were nearly all those in this camp.
Being now desperate for food, I approached some young Ukrainian girts who worked in the factory and lived in a hut not far away. They gave me food, and told me to come back next night for more. Evidently they said something to the other prisoners, because next night they had relented and gave the Ukrainian girls food from their Red Cross parcels for us. After about three days Ron Hinton improved, so I stole a push bike belonging to one of the German factory workers, and doubled Ron to near Innsbruck, from where we made our way south of Graz, near the Yugoslav border, but were caught by the Germans when Americans bombed a forest we were hiding in. The Yanks probably thought there was an ammunition dump there, or were just jettisoning their bombs. Anyway the Germans came to see what happened, and that was the end of another tourist trip. Then to Landeck, interrogation, again Stalag 18A.
In Stalag 18A we had a New Zealand Salvation Army Padre named Johnny Ledgerwood, who was also a prisoner, but was allowed to visit small outside prison camps for religious services. I told him what had happened at Trieben, and I believe he went there and gave them a good old dressing down.
This time I was on my way up to Leitzen disciplinaire camp by train, but I had made up my mind I was not going to do the full journey. Another prisoner I knew as Snowy Schultz, a NSW artilleryman, was going to escape with me. The idea was to jump out of the train windows. As we got near Leitzen I said “Let’s go” and out I went, but I landed hard and rolled down a bank, then took off for the hills and hid in a field of wheat until nightfall. Then I went to a creek, and put my ankle in the cold water, as I had sprained or injured it on landing, I made my way to a small watering point, where trains used to call for the engines to take on water, and concealed myself in the brake van on the end of one of the wagons. These brake cabins are used by railway workers to slow trains moving down the mountainous country.
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The train pulled up at Innsbruck, and I was chased from the train by railway security police, but managed to elude them by dodging between railway carriages at the goods yard at the station. I found a big vegetable garden in the railway yards. It probably belonged to the station master, and I hid there for the night and the next day, in the meantime enjoying some of the plentiful and nice young green peas in the pod.
The next night I moved on, but was not game to try and jump a goods train again as it was too risky, so I took to the hills and followed them south towards Yugoslavia. In the daytime I hid wherever I could find shelter. I ran out of food and came across a fellow working in a field. I approached him, and he asked me if I was a flieger (flyer or pilot). I told him “No” – I think he was a French civilian worker or something similar. I was captured the next day by soldiers exercising in the hills with a Hitler Youth Group. The same old story – Landeck, interrogation Bunker, Stalag 18A, disciplinary compound.
I was called before the Commandant at 18A and informed that as I was continually escaping I would be kept in the Stalag, so I thought I would at least get my regular Red Cross parcels. After about a month of this lazy lifestyle I began to think of ways out of this predicament, but to no avail.
Then one day a large number of disciplinaires were being sent to Leitzen Struflage, and the light flashed in my brain. Why not try and change names and prisoner numbers with one of the other disciplinaires, my number being 6376. I found one who wanted to remain in Stalag, and got into the group, staying well back and answering when the new name and number acquired was called.
The Huns tried to make us work on digging out dirt and rock for extensions to a factory. We were put to work, but discovered it was a munitions factory, casting shells for their guns. We went on strike and about twenty of us were put in an underground cell. They left us without food and water for about four days, and used to run their bayonets over the bars to keep us awake. They would try and annoy us by calling out ‘wasser, wasser’ (water, water). They released us at last and I said to a mate of mine that I would get one of the lads to smash my toe with a piece of water pipe. It really made a mess and was certainly painful. I was taken to a German hospital at Rottermann, and a kind Polish doctor helped me by putting the whole leg in plaster from toe to knee. I had one of those finger breaking machines in the camp and I reckon it would have been less painful to use it. They say you can tell a lot of ex-PoWs by looking at their hands for broken fingers. A lot of the boys got out of work by using them. When they heard I was enjoying a holiday in hospital, one of the boys, Ken Livingstone from NSW, I heard later chopped off one of his fingers so he could join me, but unfortunately I had a fight with a German in the hospital (he kicked me) so I hit him, and Ken missed out. I was marched off to a railway station through snow with my leg still in plaster, so you can imagine how my foot got a touch of frostbite. Back to Stalag 18A into the Stalag hospital.
About a week later I was still in hospital and a bit run down, so ah, Well, wouldn’t you guess. Six American bombers came over the camp and bombed us, hitting the hospital, killing two of the doctors and some of the patients, three of whom were tuberculosis sufferers in a group shortly to be shifted to near Berlin, and possibly repatriated home via Switzerland. I was put in place of one of those killed, and a couple of days later was on the train to a place called Chemnitz, near the Czecho-Slovak border, about 70 miles south of Berlin. I believe the name has now been changed. Anyway, it was found out I was a ‘ring in’ and didn’t have TB, so I was put to work; in the Hospital Camp. One good job I had was cleaning the floors and washing up in the Officers’ and Doctors’ mess. I got some real good food for a change, even some grog.
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After another couple of months they shifted me to another hospital camp, also with me was another Australian, Jerry Woods, and a Scottish paratrooper who was captured when he was dropped and wounded at the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem in Holland. I met Jerry Woods again after the war. He remembered I used to work for Dalgety’s in Brisbane, and came from NSW to see me.
We were shifted again three or four times, and by this time I had regained my correct name and number. We heard that things were going pretty well after the Normandy landings, so the paratrooper and I decided to plan a get away and join the advancing armies. His surname I can’t remember, but his first name was Bob, the same as mine. For some reason the Huns decided to split up the size of the hospital, and I was one who had to move, so this was about to spoil our escape plans, so Jerry Woods volunteered to change names with me and go in my place. A few nights later we decided to take off for freedom and join the advancing army.
This was about two months before the end of the war in Europe. We didn’t have much trouble. As a matter of fact we often saw Germans in uniform running in the opposite direction to the way we were going. We eventually met up with an American in a Jeep. He was a despatch rider, and gave us a lift to an American Unit at Charleroi in Belgium. We remained with the American Unit for about ten days, and they and the Belgian people gave us lots of white wine and food. Due to the hangovers we felt at times it may have been better if we had stopped in prison camp, as our health was pretty run down. The Yanks then told us the railway line to Brussels would be repaired in a couple of days and that the planes were flying into the airport there with supplies. So we got on a train and went to Brussels, were interrogated, deloused, and given papers to say we were Ex-Prisoners, and where we were originally captured. Then we got on an empty plane for England.
Now this was OK for my mate, as he was back in his own country, but they didn’t know what to do with me and and eventually placed me with an English Army Unit in Surrey. They gave me a clean English uniform and money, but I didn’t have to attend parades or anything like that. The only place I could go to was the pub, and the Australians were very popular at that time, so more hangovers.
Eventually word came through that Lady Blamey (the wife of Australia’s GOC, and a Red Cross worker) had arrived in England and was taking over guest houses and hotels on the South Coast: Brighton, Eastbourne, etc., for the use of prisoners of war when they came back. I was sent down to tell the English cooks what the men would like to eat. (What a stupid job.) Anyway I told them plenty of meat, and then I enjoyed four months holiday in England. On VE Day and night I was at a little village called Snodland, about twelve miles from Maidstone, in Kent…What a party that was!
I came home by ship through the Panama Canal, Hawaii and New Zealand, and arrived home in Brisbane shortly afterwards. The war with Japan also soon finished. It was quite hilarious how the Australian Army mind worked. When Australian Intelligence Officers interrogated me after the war, I became a subsidised tourist in Germany, for I was paid five shillings for every day I was out, even though I didn’t spend any money on any escape.