Alan Hurst-Brown volunteered for the Army when he was 18 years old. He was sent to Eygpt as part of the 2nd Armoured Division to fight against Rommel’s Nazi desert forces. He is captured and spends the rest of the war in various P.O.W. camps in Italy, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Germany.
His war memoirs concentrate on the various escape attempts that were made during his captivity as well as any unusual or interesting events. He escapes from Padula P.O.W. camp in October 1942 but is re-captured again after several weeks later. His war memoirs end at Brunswick P.O.W camp in Germany when he is liberated by the Americans in the spring of 1945.
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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Alan Hurst Brown. Escape from Padula one year before Armistice. Caught on Adriatic Coast.
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[Handwritten note] War memories. Alan Hurst Brown. Wellington School. Called up at 18. [2 words illegible]. Arrived Egypt, January 1941. In very frontline when Germans [1 word illegible]. No contact with British in Dessert. Captured at ?Merta Bridge. Taken to Tripoli – 5 days of [1 word illegible].
Allied Bombing 17 officers and 200 ?ORs [Other Ranks] taken
to [3 words missing].
Officer section at top of Sulmona Camp – April 1941 – May 1942. Then to Padula where he helps to make the tunnel through which 14 escape – before Armistice.
With Peter Bateman and Roy Howard they make off for the Adriatic to get a boat to get across to Yugoslavia. It was autumn – they could live on ripe corn, grapes, figs etc, water in the hills was difficult. They once follow a shepherd boy to find some but when he leads them to a farm they disappear. (They realised that their escape had been found out as the lights of the camp -in the distance by then – had gone on at 2,am). Their next encounter was when in a thunderstorm to keep their clothes dry they took them off and put them under a rock and were gallivanting around in the heavy rain when an alarmed charcoal burner went by on his donkey. Later while picking grapes a man appeared and they explained they were German officers taking. a ‘walking; holiday’. He took them to the village – but they disappeared on the way. They finally saw the Adriatic at Bsiceglie – only perhaps 150 kilometres as the crow files but up and down the hills they too more than three times as far in 13 days. From a distance they examined the boats in the small harbour and decided which one their Naval expert Peter B, thought best but, late at night getting near it they were quickly arrested as ‘the last three from Padula’. After Gavi, the security Jail of Italy, was surrounded before the Armistice was announced by Germans. H.B [Hurst-Brown] having helped make a hole in the cattle wagon to Germany was No 8 to jump but only six [1 word illegible]. Batemen in another truck was killed trying to escape. [2 lines overwritten and illegible].
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[Letter to Keith Killby from Alan Hurst Brown of Itchen Abbas, Hampshire]
23 August 1997
Dear Keith Killby,
I’ll be as brief as I can, and I have done my best to answer your questions on a sheet of paper which I have enclosed. The background to the whole situation was that three young men, myself and Peter Bateman, aged 20 and Roy Howard aged about
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23 had been involved in digging a tunnel in Sulmona. This was discovered by the Italians. We were then moved to Padula in about May 1942. The three of us looked for “opportunities” and found an ideal spot for starting a tunnel in an underground chamber in the old Monastery. We approached the eight senior Officers (Major at most) who lived in the room nearby and they immediately supported us and asked to join in. So eleven of us dug the most beautiful tunnel at great speed because we had no earth disposal problem. There was much organisation to be done and we had splendid support from the Escape Committee.
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We completed the tunnel in mid September and were asked by the Escape Committee to allow two New Zealand Officers (called Craig and Redpath, if my memory serves me correctly) to go out with us on the first night. They had helped many British Troops to escape from Crete and apparently the authorities wanted them “out”. So they were allowed out at Numbers 12 and 13!!
Peter Bateman, who was half Romanian had been to Dartmouth and his ship was bombed and sank off Crete. He spoke a Slavic language and when three Michaelovich (!Spelling!) [Mikhailovich] Officers arrived at Padula he found out from them the names of two or three places where British submarines were landing arms in Yugoslavia from Alexandria. So Roy, Peter
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and I decided we’d try to get to one of them, only crossing the Apennines and stealing a boat to cross the Adriatic. We had to get north of a line Naples to Bari as we were told that South of that line all boats were locked up and destroyed because of Commando raids from Malta. We got to a little village on the coast about 15 miles North of Bari, but unfortunately ran into a guard post in the harbour where we were selecting the boat which Peter B thought most suitable!
Unfortunately Roy Howard died about two years ago and poor Peter Bateman was shot and killed during a ghastly journey which we had from Hari? to Germany. The other eight escapees were all caught within a week and we three were out for exactly two weeks.
So there it is. Once again please excuse my delay in answering.
Alan Hurst Brown.
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Answers to your questions in your letter of 16 May 1997
1. I think we covered something like 150 miles as the crow files, but it was many many more miles as we flow. We had to cross the Apennines and believe you me it was very rough going, both in terms of the mountains and the thick scrub and bushes in some areas. We knew that our escape had been spotted about a couple of hours after we got out. Three of us were on the foothills above the camp when all the lights came on and cars and motor cycles dashed in all directions! So we never used a road; just tracks when available.
2. We had baked “cakes” out of crushed Red Cross parcel biscuits mixed with Marmite or treacle under instruction from our Doctors in the camp. They said we should eat one meat and one sweet one each day for as long as they lasted, In fact we didn’t use them at all as there was plenty of young sweet corn, figs, grapes, apples, pears etc in the valleys which we crossed. Water was much our worst problem for drinking.
We tried to sleep by day. We started up the nearest high point at daybreak and found a suitable clearing where we curled up on the ground. We started walking again at dusk.
3. We had some maps, a compass and some Lira. None of them were much help. The map enabled us to spot roughly where we were as we could recognise major villages and towns – Potenza for example. The compass was useless as we couldn’t walk on a bearing because of the terrain. Fortunately Peter Bateman knew how to use the stars.
4. We wore a non-descript mixture of clothing mostly from clothing parcels. I wore gym shoes for the whole journey. We spoke fairly fluent but bad Italian. We only saw three people on our journey. Our story was that we were German merchant seamen who had been given leave to get off out boat at Pesara and to pick it up again at Bari. The Italians were terrified of the Germans! The third man we saw was very funny. We were high up in a clearing at about tea time when a tremendous convection thunderstorm burst all around us. We stripped naked, put our clothes into our haversacks and put them under a thick bush hoping they would stay dry. Then in order to keep warm we were dashing around doing exercises when an old charcoal burner rode out of the trees on his mule. What he thought and what he told the local villagers I don’t know but he fairly flogged his poor mule and dashed off back into the woods!!
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Alan Hurst-Brown – War Memoirs
[Photograph of a young man – probably Alan Hurst Brown]
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Table of Contents
|August 1939 to December 1940||7|
|Alexandria To The Front Line||14|
|From Front Line And Capture To Prison Camp at Sulmona||20|
|Sulmona (April 23rd 1941 – May 10th 1942)||26|
|Padula (11th May 1942 – 8th October 1942)||34|
|The Drains and The Tunnel||39|
|Freedom – But Short Lived!||47|
|From Padula to The Third Reich||54|
|From Austria to Czechoslovakia||65|
|The Last Few Days||82|
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I am dedicating these ramblings to my dear wife June, and to my children, who together persuaded me to write them down. I have specifically avoided discussing the personalities or characters of the friends and fellow Prisoners of War with whom I came into contact. However I would like to put on record my gratitude to them for keeping me going and keeping me sane through many strange and difficult situations. In particular I thank Roy Howard, Malise Cruickshank, Gerald Williams, Peter Bateman, Tom Llewellyn Lloyd, Noel Wilkinson, Micky Bollon and Derek Willis. Finally I would like to thank Kerry Dyke (now Mrs Douglas) for her merry and patient guidance and help with the typing and binding of this little story.
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Chapter One: Pre-War
My life from birth to the age of eighteen was very conventional. Pre-prep in Reading, then the Dragon School from age nine to thirteen, then Wellington College from age thirteen to eighteen. There was however one particular holiday in the winter of 1938-39 which had quite an influence on my own and subsequently my own family’s holiday plans, when I was asked to go skiing by the Allen family. They had taken a chalet in Wengen.
Three days before the end of the Christmas term the Headmaster of Wellington (Bobby Longdon) had walked from his seat by the entrance door at morning chapel up to the alter steps from which he announced that three boys had just been diagnosed as having poliomyelitis. All our parents had been informed by telephone or telegram and had been told they could fetch us home as soon as they liked. We lived at Ascot, which was only about twenty minutes away from the school, and my Mother arrived to pick me up about half an hour later!
Anyhow, I then went off for two weeks in Wengen and started to learn to ski on rather heavy wooden skis on which your main manoeuvres were achieved by stemming or doing a telemark. I was very fit at the time because I was in the 1st XV rugby team at Wellington, and I just loved this new sporting challenge even though it meant a lot of crashing about. In fact I had three weeks in Wengen because my Father called to say that I could stay on for another week because Wellington College was being
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fumigated, and the Easter term was starting a week later. Twenty one boys had developed poliomyelitis! Anyhow, I was determined that I would ski again, and this I surely did after the war every year, except the one when I had a partial gastrectomy, until my 76th birthday. On that last occasion, to the great amusement of the family, I was given my ‘abonnement’ for nothing by the French at Meribel because I was over seventy five!
By this time the political situation in Europe was becoming very unstable, with Hitler on the rampage. This brought me into contact with a rather interesting piece of history, which also had quite a dramatic effect on my life. My father had started a firm of Stockbrokers in 1919. About a year later he was joined by Owen Buckmaster who had been at Winchester College with him. Owen’s father,. Viscount Buckmaster, had been the Lord Chancellor. Owen succeeded him in December 1934, and took a great interest in politics and particularly in foreign affairs. In 1938 he felt the situation in Europe was so serious that he twice put down a motion in the House of Lords that conscription should be introduced. On the first occasion Lord Stanhope, who was Leader of the House of Lords, and on the second occasion Lord Chatfield who was Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, begged Owen to withdraw the motion as the Government could not house, clothe or arm four hundred thousand young men, so Owen withdrew his motions. On the 28th April 1939 the situation looked even worse so Owen put his motion down again and refused to withdraw. I was given a ticket for the gallery in the House of Lords, and went to listen to my Father’s partner making his speech. However, he never made it because Lord Stanhope opened the days proceedings by announcing that the situation was so serious that His Majesty’s
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Government had decided to introduce conscription.
Britain had never before had conscription in peacetime. I was shortly to become eighteen and a half which was, I think, initially the age at which you were called up, so this naturally set me thinking, as I didn’t like the idea of being conscripted. My Father suggested that I went and had a talk with Colonel Trimmer Thompson who was the Colonel of the Berkshire Regiment Territorial Battalion. I knew him quite well and had often been to his lovely home, Cayton Park, because his son Adrian was a good friend of mine; we played a lot of tennis and rackets together. The Colonel said I was just what he needed for his Battalion, as he had to have men with Certificate A in their School Corps for his Intelligence section, and I had this qualification, I explained that I was going up to Christchurch College, Oxford in the autumn, but he said that didn’t matter because I was excused Territorial parades during term time if I joined the Corps at Oxford. So I was ‘sworn in’ in early August. The only contingency I hadn’t thought about was what would happen if war broke out before the Oxford term began. In fact the Army was mobilised at the end of August, and I became Private Hurst-Brown!
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Chapter Two: August 1939 to December 1940
I will now write about one or two interesting or amusing incidents which occurred during the period between my being ‘called up’ and finally embarking for the Middle East.
The task given to the Berkshire Regiment Territorial Battalion was to mount guards on the two large Bomber Command aerodromes at Benson and Harwell and the big R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] equipment dump at Didcot. We were guarding them not so much against the Germans as against the IRA [Irish Republican Army], who were very active in the UK at that time and were blowing up places like railway left luggage offices at major stations, and pillar boxes in the High Street.
One day I was given a map of Harwell aerodrome by the Major in charge of the Intelligence Section and was instructed to go to Harwell and write a report on the situation of the Company there. I was told to mark on this map where their caravans and tents were, where the Bren gun positions were and so on, and also how the troops were managing over bathing arrangements, feeding etc. I turned up at the main gate on a Saturday morning in my Father’s black Austin 10, for which I was paid mileage, because the Army had no transport to spare! The R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] Regiment guard at the main gate was a little surprised, but having heard my story let me in. I drove down to the bomb dump at the far end of the airfield where our Company was living and asked if I could speak to the Company Commander. He wasn’t there at the time, but the Company Sergeant Major
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was quite friendly and was helping me with my map when the Company Commander stormed in, pointed at me and shouted “Arrest that bugger!” As I had only been in the Battalion for a few short weeks no one there knew me, and I was marched off to a cell at the main gate protesting my innocence to no avail At my request they tried to contact my Major, but he couldn’t be found because he was away shooting pheasants for the weekend! So I spent the night in solitary confinement with strict instructions that no one was to speak to me. Fortunately fairly early the next morning I was looking through my cell bars towards the main gate and I saw Colonel Trimmer- Thompson coming to visit our Company there, so I banged and shouted and he got me released.
In January 1940, shortly after my nineteenth birthday, I was sent to an O.C.T.U. [Officer Cadet Training Unit] in Farnborough. We had a very busy four months during which we were supposed to cover the whole Sandhurst cadets’ training course. We seemed to be hard at it most days and nights, and I played rugby for the O.C.T.U. [Officer Cadet Training Unit] in between parades and night operations. My Platoon Commander Instructor was a Bruce Lockhart and a famous Scottish Rugby International. With his help I passed out with an A1 rating!
There however one very funny incident at the end of the course. One had to fill in a form early on stating your first and second choice for which Regiment you would like to be commissioned into, and I had put down a) The Rifle Brigade and b) The Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. I soon learnt that the odds of my getting into the Rifle Brigade were very slim as they were enormously over subscribed. Only one other Cadet had put it down because his father was a senior
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Officer in the R.B’s [Rifle Brigade]. However the initial German assault on France took place while I was at Farnborough, so my chance of obtaining my first choice began to improve fairly dramatically.
When, at the end of our course, the great day came for us to be told which Regiment I would be joining, I and the one other R.B. [Rifle Brigade] candidate waited with baited breath, while all the other appointments to the line Regiments were read out. To our horror the list passed the Rifle Brigade slot, and we were both told we would be commissioned into the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders! This so ridiculously unlikely that with great daring we challenged the Regimental Sergeant Major who was in charge of the list, and after a certain amount of aggravation he agreed to ring the War Office. Even he could see that if we had gone and kitted ourselves out in kilts and all the other paraphernalia, we would have looked pretty stupid if it was then discovered that a mistake had been made. Well, there had been a typing error at the War Office and we were both in the Rifle Brigade!
I went from Farnborough to the R.B.’s [Rifle Brigade] Training Battalion at Tidworth. Whilst there the famous siege of Calais took place, and the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade was virtually wiped out. On the morning of the last day of the siege the Training Battalion was told that it was going to try to relieve Calais. This was a fascinating concept as we were all as green as could be and had no idea how we were to set about this splendid task. Anyhow, we were marched down to the station at Tidworth with a band leading us, and put into a train. We sat there for an hour or two, and I remember being given a glass of Champagne from the Officers’ Mess as a sort of ‘send off’. We were then informed that a message had just been received to say that
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Calais had surrendered, and we were marched back to barracks!
One other amusing incident occurred when I was on a route march on Salisbury Plain with my thirty two man Platoon of men all some years older than me. They thought they would play me up by singing a bawdy song as we marched through a village. So first of all I shouted ‘quick march’ which meant they had to change to quick step, and then followed that up with the command ‘gas’ which meant that they all had to put their gas masks on. It was the last time I ever had any trouble of that sort!
In due course I was sent to join the Tower Hamlet Rifles, a territorial Battalion which had become the 9th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, and which was a part of the 2nd Armoured Division. They were at Hinxton in Cambridgeshire and were under canvas in the park of a large country house. It was a few miles north of Saffron Walden to which my headmaster from Wellington days had retired. I visited him there on several occasions and played tennis with one or other of his two youngest daughters who were about my age. I had a bit of a ‘thing’ about the youngest who was known by us boys as ‘BUBS’ for reasons which I will allow you to work out for yourselves!
It was at the time of the Battle of Britain and whilst on an exercise one day a red alert was sounded. I was in the outskirts of a village with my Platoon, and one of the Battalion Bren gun carriers had broken down there and was stuck at the roadside near us. The driver and his number two had their heads in the engine, and their bottoms up in the air, when the village
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policeman arrived on his bicycle blowing a whistle and shouting “Red alert”. The Riflemen with their heads in the carrier’s engine took no notice, so the policeman stopped and got off his bicycle and shouted “Red alert” again and blew his whistle. One of the Riflemen then turned his head around and shouted quite simply “What the f—king hell do you expect us to do? Take off?!!”
So then it was off to Wellingborough for embarkation for ‘we knew not where’ except that we were all issued with tropical kit. I was billeted in the house of Mr Saxby of Saxby’s Pork Pies! We left Wellingborough for Liverpool on the night of the famous German air raid on Coventry, so our journey a very roundabout one as a number of railway lines had been blown up. We were supposed to be boarding the Empress of Britain, a very large liner of over forty thousand tons I think, but she was bombed and sunk off Northern Ireland on her way home. So we were allocated to the Duchess of Athol, a Cunard liner about half the size of the Empress of Britain, and built to sail the North Atlantic routes, but not in the tropics! She was known as the Drunken Duchess because she rolled so badly in rough weather.
When we got to Liverpool the ship was still full of carpenters etc. banging in enough bunks and so on to accommodate our Battalion and various other groups who were to travel with us. We were in a very large convoy and we soon discovered that we had the Naval Officer in charge of it all on our ship, so we were in the middle of the convoy, which was rather safer than being on the outside. Another important person on our ship was Prince Philip. He had just finished his training at Dartmouth and was going with us to Alexandria and then on to join the
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Greek navy. He never got there, because the Germans attacked Greece while we were still on our way to Egypt. We were incidentally part of the 2nd Armoured Division, and whilst we were still at sea, I think, it was decided that half the Division would go and try to help the Greeks. My Battalion was in the half that was to go to the desert.
There was one extraordinary coincidence that occurred when we boarded the Duchess of Athol I discovered that until that time she had been used to take evacuee children to the USA and Canada. My youngest sister Nancy was in the Junior House at Roedean, and the whole house had been evacuated to a sister school in Windsor, Nova Scotia. I well remember going to Liverpool Street station to see her off shortly after I got my commission. Anyhow, I went to the ship’s Purser, and he kindly looked up the lists, which were all secret, and found that Nancy had been evacuated to Canada on the same ship that I was sailing around the Cape of Good Hope for Egypt. What a coincidence.
The voyage took six weeks and was without any incident of real note. We sailed out into the Atlantic around the north coast of Ireland into quite a nasty storm, and I remember how one or two men in my Platoon were so seasick that they had to be virtually carried out to our station on the main deck for our daily ‘lifeboat drill’. We sailed nearly to Greenland and then due south in order to avoid the main hunting area for the U- boats. Then we swung practically due east and went into Freetown on the coast of Africa to stock up with food and fuel, but we were not allowed ashore. We then went around the Cape of Good Hope and stopped for three days (I think) at Durban. We were allowed ashore and the local people were
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most hospitable. On our way south we had gradually shed our Navy escort until it consisted of just one cruiser.
When we got near to Djibouti we had to wait for nightfall, and then we dashed at full speed through the narrows in single file as Ethiopia was still Italian territory, and the Italians had big guns mounted there which could shell ships going through. Fortunately none of our convoy were shelled. I had my twentieth birthday in the Red Sea, and we then went through the Suez Canal and docked in Alexandria on the 1st January 1941.
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Chapter Three: Alexandria to the Front Line
On leaving the ship at Alexandria the Battalion was sent straight to a camp at Ishmalia from which we embarked on various training exercises to get used to desert conditions. Two incidents in which I was involved, and which took place there, are perhaps worth recording.
The first was that I shared a tent with four other Subalterns, and one night one of them came to bed rather later than the rest of us, and fell asleep while smoking. He dropped the lighted cigarette onto the tent flap near his bed and set it on fire. There was a thick, damp fog outside, so the material didn’t burst into flames; it simply smouldered quietly outwards creating a huge, bright red ring. I was woken by the appalling, choking smell of burning hemp. Anyhow we put it out and no-one was hurt.
The second incident occurred when my turn came to inspect the guard posts all around the Battalion area in the middle of the night. It was important that the guards remained really vigilant, because the Arabs would come in and steal anything from a 15 cwt [Hundredweight] truck downwards, if given the chance. One had to go to the Adjutants office in the evening to be given the time at which the tour of inspection was to take place so that the troops didn’t know what time you would be coming round. I seem to remember that my time was 2.00am!
It was pitch dark and there was a pea soup fog. I set forth all alone, and although I had a good torch I found it extremely
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difficult to find the various guard posts. Anyhow, about half way round there was suddenly a huge explosion in the middle of the camp. I thought that it must be one of the big, delayed fuse mines which the Germans had been dropping from the air into and near the Suez Canal. But no; what had happened was that it was a very cold night, and there was a very large boiler in the wash rooms in the middle of the camp which was stoked and looked after by some Arabs. They had stoked it right up to keep themselves warm and were sitting or sleeping around the boiler. Exactly why it exploded I don’t know, but I think they had not got enough water in the main boiler and it had filled with steam and exploded. Anyhow several of the poor Arabs were killed.
After a short while we set off up the coast road from Alexandria to relieve the famous 7th Armoured Division which had driven the Italian army well back to the west of Benghasi. We had only half of the 2nd Armoured Division, as the other half had been sent at the last minute to help the Greeks. They were being invaded by the Germans after the Greeks had given the Italians a good hiding. We were supposed to be being reinforced by the 2nd Indian Division which was just completing the defeat of the Italians at Entrea.
We spent a couple of days at the pyramids which I was able to visit, and then on through all the places which had become quite well known names as a result of General Wavel’s famous victories over the Italians. Exactly where we stopped and for how long I don’t remember, but we passed through El Alamein, Matruh, Sidi Barrani, Bardia, Tobruk and so on. There were lots of wrecked Italian tanks and trucks and a vast number of unexploded Italian shells simply lying around where they had
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landed; there were also lots of little Italian hand grenades which we had strict instructions to leave alone as they tended to be very unstable and could easily blow your hand off.
We moved on to Derna and were beginning to experience some Stuka dive bombing raids on our enormously lengthy Battalion column strung out for miles along the only road. Each vehicle had to keep two hundred yards behind the one in front to try to minimise any bomb or machine gun damage. Each platoon had four fifteen hundred weight trucks, and a motorbike dispatch rider and so occupied about half a mile of road. The prime targets were the water and petrol tankers, as the destruction of one of them could cause considerable complications.
I spent about a week outside Derna in one of the Italian ‘Ente Colonizatzione’ little group of white concrete administration buildings doing practice platoon patrols and acting as a sort of police force to keep some sort of order amongst the Arab population; any civilian authority had of course disappeared. I did however manage to pay a visit to the remarkable Roman ruins there. Whilst there my Company Commander, Major Clayton, was asked by the local Arab Chief to go and have tea in his fort on a nearby hill. He took me and another Subaltern with him, and we were met by the Chief on a donkey. During the little introductory ceremony he wished Major Clayton to have forty sons! As he wasn’t then married the story quickly caused quite a giggle around the Company. Anyhow we were shown into a small, dark room, and the other young officer and I were bidden to sit down on a low sort of bench. We soon realised that it was in fact an anti-tank rifle box! Lots of weapons had been shipped through to the Arabs in Tripolitania so that they could beat up the Italians, and we were then
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supposed to be getting them back so that they didn’t start sniping at us. However, we weren’t so rude as to show that we had noticed!! Then it was on to Benghasi for about ten days, where we performed a similar sort of role. First of all I was in a deserted police station in the town, where I had a terrible time with the bed bugs! Then for the last few days on the perimeter of the large military aerodrome outside the town. Whilst there I managed to go and see the remarkable underground Waters of Lieti.
We then set off through El Agheila to a small village called Mersa Brega, where there was a sweet water well and a few little stone buildings right by the sea. There we took over the front line from a New Zealand Division. Fortunately they had already dug a fairly extensive trench system for us on the west side of the village, but we arrived in a nasty sandstorm and I and my batman dug a slit trench in which to put my camp bed! It was now about the middle of March and we had motored about one thousand miles from Alexandria.
The road at Mersa Brega was, I would guess, about half a mile from the sea, and my job was to defend this gap with my Platoon, helped by two machine guns manned by Northumberland Fusiliers. There was a gap of several hundred yards between each of my sections, and the little trench systems were dug along the top of a rise just to the west of the village. The ground sloped gradually away in front of us for about five hundred yards before one came to some huge very soft sand hills which stretched right from the sea to the road. Our tank officers came and inspected these hills and were of the opinion that no tank could possibly cross them. On the other side of the road a famous and very large salt marsh which stretched
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away down to the south and the eastern boundary was a little way behind the line of my Platoon. The rest of my Battalion were behind this salt marsh. The road was blocked slightly ahead of my position with the very few mines which the Division had been given.
After a few days there, during which we had several visitations from the Stukas, my Company Commander (Major Clayton) sent for me and said he wanted me to carry out a night patrol. We had very few aeroplanes in North Africa at the time, probably fifteen or twenty Hurricanes which were used purely for reconnaissance, and about the same number of Wellington bombers which used to make occasional raids on the various enemy harbours along the north coast. The Hurricanes had reported that there was a German tank on the road about fifteen miles in front of us and I was to take half a dozen of my men and destroy the tank! Fortunately about half an hour before we were due to set forth I got a message to say that the report about the tank was several days old and it had now gone! But we still had to go on the patrol and liaise with the XI Hussars, whose scout cars had been out patrolling the desert all day and were spending the night out in ‘no man’s land’ a mile or two short of the German line, which was about twenty miles in front of us. Our main job was to guard them while it was dark So five or six of us set off in a 15 cwt [Hundredweight] truck and fairly soon had a bit of excitement. After about sixteen miles we came across what looked like a tank about one hundred yards to the right of the road, and there was a lighted fire burning beside it. I got the Bren gunner to cover me and approached the object with my revolver at the ready! Fairly soon I realised that it was a burnt out armoured car lying on its side, but why the fire? So I crept up to it and shouted for anyone in it to come out with
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their hands up. It turned out to be completely empty; wandering Arabs must have been sheltering there and had bolted when they heard us coming! Our second night patrol a few days later went off without unpleasant incident. Our job was to guard the scout cars that had been keeping watch out in ‘no-mans’ land all day, but could not protect themselves at night. The only problem was that we were getting very tired, and one or two of my men kept falling asleep and snoring loudly, which is not the best thing to do when you are fairly close to German lines!
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Chapter Four: From Front Line and Capture to Prison Camp at Sulmona
In about July 1944 the Red Cross provided us all with little books called a War Time Log, in which we could write our war time memoirs. From this point onwards, until shortly before my escape from Padula, the detail of what I shall write is taken basically from that log book which I still have. Most of it should therefore be reasonably accurate as it is not being written with fifty five years of hindsight!
On the morning of 31st March we ‘stood to’ at dawn as usual At about 08.30 hours a Greek reporter arrived to write a little article about us for his newspaper. I was in the middle of telling him how we were in excellent spirits, and was showing him around our trenches when there was a loud explosion over by the road, and roughly where our few landmines had been laid, I told the reporter that I thought some careless riflemen must have driven into the little minefield by mistake; it had happened once before. The last intelligence report I had seen suggested that the Germans would not attack until the beginning of May, because they were having difficulty getting their Army across the Mediterranean owing to British Naval activity.
However shortly after the first explosion there was the screech of a shell and a loud explosion just behind us. The Greek reporter hurried away! The Germans first assault in the desert had begun, and the artillery were trying to get the range of our
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Fairly soon I noticed that we were being fired at by some sort of artillery from the very top of the sand hills in front of us. Having been told that tanks could not get over these hills I thought that the Germans must have dragged some light artillery up there. So I sent my motorcyclist, in our 15 cwt [Hundredweight] truck with a message to my Company Commander to tell him what was happening. I told him to take our truck because I reckoned that his motorcycle would be nearly impossible to control over the rough ground with all the shells and bullets flying around. But it wasn’t long before these ‘guns’ started to move towards us, and they turned out to be German medium tanks carrying troops behind their turrets. We were being attacked by the famous German 90th Light Division.
We had a terrible and very noisy day, with heavy artillery shells, Stuka dive bombing, medium tank shells, machine gun fire and rifle fire continually pounding us. As a very professional force they must have assumed that we had a minefield in front of us because the tanks, of which I think there were six, moved forward until they were about two hundred and fifty yards away, and then stopped, and the troops jumped off the back and took up firing positions near them. The two machine guns supporting us were knocked out early in the day, and it wasn’t long before our anti-tank rifle and our Bren gun got completely choked with sand, so we had just our 303 rifles. By that time I was using my batman’s rifle as something had struck him on his steel helmet which split along the side and had cut his head quite nastily.
The tanks were firing tracer shells, and it is a curious fact that
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you can just register that there is one coming your way, but you cannot possibly move out of the way in time! Twice in the afternoon as I was firing my rifle one of these shells stuck the parapet almost under the point of my rifle hurling me back under a mountain of sand into the bottom of the trench. The second one actually shattered the woodwork on the front of my rifle and a small piece of something went through the back of the middle finger of my left hand; fortunately it didn’t damage the bone. By then the Germans had knocked out the two sections between us and the sea and we had rifle fire coming straight up our trench from time to time, and one of these bullets drilled a hole clean through the woodwork of my rifle, but somehow it missed me.
Darkness came and the Germans were in the buildings behind us and were firing numerous ‘Verey’ lights into the air. We were all very stunned and I was almost stone deaf from the explosions. I climbed out of the trench and covered the few yards behind us to my Platoon HQ [Head Quarters] trench where I collected my Sergeant (Druce by name) and one soldier with him and we all set off in single file to try to get to the road which by then seemed to be the only line of escape. We had to crawl much of the time because the Germans kept on firing ‘Verey’ lights into the sky. After a little while the soldier behind me tapped me on the heel and I looked up to see about twenty German troops standing almost on top of us. I think they had walked onto us by accident, and we were all so dazed and deaf from the pounding we had taken all day that we didn’t even hear them coming. So we were prisoners of war and were marched off to one of the buildings in Mersa Brega which didn’t even have a roof on it by then. We were then made to stand up against the wall with our hands up, and I must say I thought they were
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going to shoot us, but it was only to search us to make sure we hadn’t any hidden weapons. We had a terribly cold night as we only had on our desert shorts and shirts and temperatures in the desert at night in early April tend to drop to nearly freezing point!
Early the next morning I was taken to the German General’s caravan for questioning. I told him that under the Geneva Convention I only proposed to give him my name, number and rank. He accepted this and boasted that he would be in Cairo in a week. He smiled when I told him that he wouldn’t get to Cairo in a week even if there was nobody trying to stop him, because his tanks and motorised equipment would wear out and get sand into their works long before he got there. Anyhow, he soon realised that I was not in very good shape and gave me a cup of tea laced with rum which perked me up a bit!
I was then driven to Sirte and flown in a J.U. 52 [Junkers] with my few troops to an Officers P.O.W. compound in Tripoli. There I met a Major Clayton, who had been the instigator and in command of the Long Range Desert Group, and who in my opinion has never received the recognition which he should have had. He was the forerunner of David Stirling’s operations behind enemy lines. Also there was a Roy Howard of the King’s Dragoon Guards, who became a great friend of mine, and was in the same rooms in the same camps for the rest of my prison ‘career’.
The following day, what I’m sure was a mixture of a really bad chill and delayed concussion, I became delirious and couldn’t even stand up. The Italians couldn’t produce a doctor but they found a vet, who arrived with a great sort of horse thermometer
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which fortunately he put under my arm! This registered something fairly horrific and I was taken off to hospital in an ambulance.
I was put into a ward with seven Italian Officers, and everyone was very kind. I was a bit of a curiosity as at that point in time a British Officer P.O.W. was a rare species. I was there for a little over a week with my own private guard seated by my bed both day and night despite the fact that I was hardly in any condition to try to escape. I was there on Easter day, when an Italian film star came round to give the Italian Officers an Easter egg. She very graciously gave me one also! After just over a week I was taken back to the compound in Tripoli where I met all the officers of ‘B’ Company and a few others. Sad though it was to hear of their fate, it was wonderful to see again, some people who you know. They were more than surprised to see me walk in, as they had been informed that I had been killed!
The next day seventeen Officers and two hundred other ranks were taken down to the harbour and were put aboard a small Adriatic line pleasure steamer of perhaps two and a half thousand tons. We remained in the harbour for five days owing to the presence of a British destroyer force on a raiding party somewhere outside the harbour. On our third day there bits of a convoy came in and we understood that they had lost five ships to our destroyers. This caused considerable panic amongst ‘i nostri valorosi’ who were guarding us. We were bombed by Wellington bombers every night that we were in Tripoli harbour, but luckily they only hit one ship while we were there and it wasn’t ours!
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The Italian Officers and crew on the boat were most friendly and kind and several spoke quite good English. We Officers were put into first class cabins, and were waited upon by efficient stewards who did everything for us including making our beds and waiting on us at table in the first class dining saloon, where we had excellent meals. We were also allowed to exercise on deck more or less as we wished. This was all rather surprising until we learned that the ship had been in Malta when Italy attacked France. Much of the workforce in the large naval dockyard in Valetta were Italian and they lived there with their families. The British authorities didn’t want to have to feed all the women and children so they interned the men and sent their families back to Naples on our little ship. The crew of course also got away and so they naturally felt well disposed towards us. It took us two days to reach Naples and then on by train to my first P.O.W. camp at Sulmona which was in the valley not far from the Gran Sasso between Rome and Pescara.
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Chapter Five: Sulmona (April 23rd 1941 – May 10th 1942)
One of the seventeen Officers in our party on its way to Sulmona was General Garton de Wyatt He was a well-known warrior of Polish descent, I think, and had lost an arm and an eye in battle. He was our Military Attache in Poland, and when Hitler launched his attack on that country he had managed to get away via Hungary and the Middle East and then back to England. Funnily enough a boy in the Murray at Wellington with me called Bob Barry, who had been ‘sacked’ after being allowed to take his School Certificate, because he had been caught with a bottle of whisky in his room, was on the General’s staff. I met Bob after the war and he confirmed the story of their escape through Hungary.
Anyhow the General was being sent out to Egypt in a flying boat with a view to going to Yugoslavia to try and help General Michailovich. Unfortunately his plane had to come down in the sea just off the shore at Derna. He and the crew got out of the plane safely and were just within their depth. They managed to wade ashore, but in so doing the General lost his shoes and his hat. When they got ashore Derna was deserted; we had retreated from it and the Germans hadn’t yet arrived. They found some shops from which the General managed to extract a pair of white gym shoes, and an Italian Officer’s hat around which he tied some red ribbon. With this ensemble and a uniform which had been totally immersed in sea water I can assure you he looked a terrifying sight. On our train journey from Naples, when the train stopped for any reasonably long
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period he demanded to be allowed out to exercise by walking up and down the platform, and the Italian guards were so overawed that they allowed him to do this! He did not remain with us, but was sent to the Generals’ camp where Generals Neame and O’Connor were already in residence. As a matter of historic interest General Garton de Wyatt was flown to Madrid by the Italians in September 1943 to take part in the peace negotiations.
We had to walk from Sulmona railway station to the prison camp, but, as I had nothing except the clothes I stood up in it was not a very arduous task. As we came over a rise in the ground I saw a series of red roofed brick huts arranged in two great straight rows up the hillside, and looking for all the world like a large modern chicken farm with great wire fences and machine gun towers all around it. It was at the foot of a precipice several thousand feet high, which formed part of one of the highest ranges in the Apennines, it was in fact not far from the Gran Sasso where Mussolini holed up at the time of the collapse of Italy. This was to be my home for the next year. In the 1914-18 war it had been used as a P.O.W. camp for Austrian prisoners, and then until 1939 as a depot for an Italian gunner unit. It was divided into two parts. At the top end there was room for about two hundred Officers. Below that were a large number of huts which held about two thousand other ranks.
Roy Howard had been sent to Sulmona with an earlier small group from Tripoli, and he was waiting for me at the gate and took me in tow. I won’t go into the somewhat boring detail of our accommodation and our daily sort of routine of meal times in the mess, exercise periods, periodic searches and so on. The
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total compliment of the Officers part at that time was about ninety of whom some twenty five were Army, thirty were Navy for the main part from ships sunk off Crete, and the rest from the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] and Fleet Air Arm. The latter had mostly been shot down in their Sword Fish aircraft during the famous and successful raid on Taranto harbour where they did a lot of damage to the Italian fleet.
Amongst the Army contingent were Major (Tag) Pritchard and his little group of Paratroop Officers, including the incredible Tony Dean Drummond, whose subsequent adventures were almost unbelievable. He was one of the very few Officers, perhaps two or three, who succeeded in escaping from Italy prior to the armistice in September 1943. They had been dropped, in what was probably the first such raid by our forces during the war, to blow up an important aqueduct outside Naples. They achieved their objective, and were supposed then to rendezvous with a submarine from Malta. Unfortunately, through some radio problem I think, the submarine was compromised and ordered to turn back, so the poor parachutists were stranded and captured.
I think it is worth making the point here that inevitably in our P.O.W. camps you had an incredible group of experts in practically everything. The majority were Territorials or Conscripts and included Professors from Universities, and skilled and experienced operators from almost any manufacturing or service industry as well as regular Army, Navy and Air Force specialists. This meant that we were able to organise things to try and make life bearable and keep our minds in some sort of order. You could often attend classes in languages, or accountancy or about some trade like the wine
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trade. Also we took a lot of physical exercise which naturally had to vary according to the nature and size of the camp. At Sulmona there was only room for walking repeatedly up and down the compound, but there was also just room for a basketball and volleyball pitch and I played a lot of both. Roy and I were both in the Army basketball team, and we had very keen matches against the Navy and Air Force.
A week or two after arriving at Sulmona I noticed that the hair on three places on my head was going completely white. There was a patch about the size of the new £2 coin just behind my left temple, a streak at the very front of the right hand side of my parting, which was on the left side of my head, and a small patch on the bottom right of my jaw if I had grown a beard! It seems that the blast of the tank shells which blew me up while I was firing a rifle had of course hit me hard on the left side of my face and had killed some of my pigment cells. Later on I had another physical problem, when Robbie Robson, our dentist, using a foot driven drill provided by the Italians, inadvertently knocked an old stopping off the top of a nerve cavity. He did not have the materials to close it off again safely and said there were two alternatives neither of which were pleasant as we had no form of anaesthetic. Either the tooth must come out, or the nerve must be removed, and I chose the latter. Peter Bateman volunteered to come along and hold me down by the shoulders, and I must say it wasn’t very funny. However quickly, if excruciatingly painfully, Robbie extracted the little nerve which was still wriggling as he held it up triumphantly in his tweezers!
My year at Sulmona was divided into three periods particularly as far as food was concerned, as this would inevitably be one of
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our worst problems as the war dragged on. From May through to the autumn the Messing Officer could buy all sorts of things over and above the base Italian ration. Most of it came from a sort of black market and was very expensive; southern Italy is of course a very fertile area. We were even allowed a vino ration; it was not particularly generous on a day to day basis, but by saving up ones quota it was possible to have a bit of a party every now and again, though as you can imagine the vino was not exactly vintage quality!
August 1st was a real red letter day for me as I got my first mail from home after waiting for four months. This told me that originally my parents had simply received a message from the War Office saying that I was missing; and it was some days before they learnt, from the Red Cross I seem to remember, that I had been in hospital in Tripoli and had then been sent to a P.O.W. camp in Italy. Anyhow by then I was having a bit of a problem with my Desert Boots which were the only footwear which I had, and the soles had worn right through, partly obviously because of playing basketball. Fortunately there was another chap who had a pair of similar boots of which the top part had come to pieces, so he gave them to me and I took off the soles and tried to sow them onto the top part of mine. Unfortunately his feet were a few sizes smaller than mine, so I had to cut the soles into two pieces across the instep and sow on the toe and heel separately leaving an open gap between them! This wasn’t too bad unless it rained hard, or worse still when the snow came.
About the middle of October food rather suddenly started to get scarce. Apparently one of our number had written in a letter, which was of course censored by the Italians, complaining that
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we were being fed “potate, potate, sempre potate”, and the Commandant used it as a splendid excuse to announce at Roll Call that the potato ration was to be cut. It certainly was and we hardly saw a potato or much other decent food right through until the following April except on Christmas day when the Italian authorities saw to it that we had a really good meal. I well remember a barrow load of offal being wheeled into the cook house where the British Doctor (we luckily had Dr Steptoe, who was a Naval Officer, and who after the war achieved considerable notoriety with his work on infertility), had to sort out the edible bits. Cows lung stew once a week became a great treat! My diary says that Red Cross parcels ceased to arrive for sixteen weeks, though we did get a little relief when some bulk delivery of Red Cross food reached the camp. Otherwise small helpings of pickled vegetables and mouldy dried figs were virtually all we had to supplement our daily bread ration of 150 grams. It is fair to say that the Italians were short of food also; we were in a fairly high mountain pass, a war was on, the Italian organisation wasn’t good and the railway line was full of snow. It was during this period that I developed my duodenal ulcer, and Dr Steptoe gave me what advice he could about coping with it. As April arrived things started to improve because local crops started to get going and the road and rail situation became easier.
I think it is worthwhile to explain here that one of the worst points of being a P.O.W. at that time was that it was impossible to see how the war was ever going to end, particularly for us British, and I was only just twenty years old. Hitler had missed his chance of invading England, and it hardly seemed possible that we would be able to invade the Continent even after Hitler invaded Russia (22nd June 1941) and the USA were brought
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into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (8th December 1941). Anyhow the only answer seemed to me to be to try and keep one’s mind and body going, and as one exercise I decided to learn to play bridge quite seriously. Luckily there was a young Subaltern in the KRRC [King’s Royal Rifle Corps] called Tom Llewellyn Lloyd who had a fine mind, was an excellent player and a very good teacher, and he took me under his wing. June and I went to his 80th birthday party not long ago and we still meet him and his wife once or twice a year to this day. I also went to Italian classes run by a Cambridge University Professor, accountancy classes run by Derek Willis who after the war became a Director of Lazards, and classes on the types of wine and how they are made by Tim Derouet. During some of these classes I also could do my knitting, making myself a splendid cable stitch jumper from wool sent out from home augmented by stripping the wool from socks where the feet had worn out!
One other situation occurred which kept me both busy and physically active when in June I was asked by Major Holroyd (from B Company: of my Battalion) if I would help in digging a tunnel. Naturally I said I would do so, and it really was hard physical work. What had happened was that a tunnel had been started and had been discovered before we arrived at Sulmona. The Italians had simply tipped concrete into the shaft and the first yard or so of the tunnel which had actually got to somewhere not far from the perimeter wire.
We now sank a new shaft in an area separated from the old one down to the same depth of about twelve feet, and then dug at right angles into the old tunnel so that we could use most of the work that had already been done. It was a very small diameter tunnel and one had to sort of drag oneself along it upon ones
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elbows and push with ones feet. It got very hot down there and one was only allowed to dig for a limited period because of the lack of oxygen and because the candle wouldn’t stay alight if there was too much human activity. It was definitely not a situation for anyone who suffered from claustrophobia!
After about six weeks of really hard work in one’s underpants it was broken to me that if the tunnel was successfully completed I wouldn’t be allowed out of the wretched thing on the first night; it was a ‘camp show’ and there were others more important than I who had to go first! I was both cross and disappointed but agreed to go on digging, and it was implied that if we were able to fake the next morning and evening roll calls I would probably be in the party on the second night.
The great difficulty with tunnel digging in a prison camp is how to get rid of the massive amounts of earth, rocks and stones. Most of this was done by putting the earth into large false pockets in prisoners’ clothing and as they took their exercise walk they gradually released it. But of course it doesn’t always match the ground onto which it is being dropped and clues of this sort were picked up by our guards. Anyhow in August the Italians found the tunnel, so that was that!
In April 1942 we were suddenly informed that all Officers except the Australians were to be moved. About sixty of us junior Officers were to go to Padula, a further sixty more senior Lieutenants and Captains were to go to Montalbo, and Majors upwards were to go to Viano. This move actually took place on May 10th1942, and we arrived in our new camp at about 8.30am on May 11th after an uneventful train journey.
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Chapter Six: Padula (11th May 1942- 8th October 1942)
Padula lies in the foothills of the southern end of the Apennines, about twenty five miles from the west coast of Italy and about fifty miles south of Salerno; in terms of latitude it is somewhat south of Taranto. The mountains to the east of the camp rise to between five and six thousand feet in some places. Most of what I shall describe in this chapter is taken more or less directly from the diary which I wrote in 1944.
What a contrast to the chicken farm of Sulmona. The camp turned out to be an old Benedictine monastery, which in its day had housed a Friar and twenty six monks. Then early in this century it became a school for orphans. They had been moved out to make room for some five hundred British Officer P.O.W.’s. Part of the buildings date back as far as the 14th Century, and it is to this day one of Italy’s well known cultural monuments.
The most beautiful and interesting parts of the monastery were occupied by our Italian guards, but I managed to inspect them pretty thoroughly on both conducted (by our Italian guards) and ‘unconducted’ tours (which you will hear about later). First and foremost there was a really beautiful Chapel with some magnificent carved woodwork along either side where the monks used to sit, and a truly wonderful mosaic alter. Then there was a Friars’ courtyard, with cloisters both upstairs and downstairs, with rooms opening onto it which were being used as offices, bedrooms and so on for the Italian Officers in charge
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of our guards. Then there was a Friars’ kitchen. There was also a library with many very old books, beautiful doors and interesting works of art such as arches, busts, monuments, and a few pictures. Unfortunately nearly all the really valuable pictures were stolen and taken to Paris in Napoleon’s time, and when the restoration of all such treasures had been ordered by the Treaty of Vienna, the masterpieces from Padula, like those from so many other places, could not be found. All over the monastery there were therefore great scrollwork plaster frames on the walls with no pictures in them.
The British Officer P.O.W.’s lived in that part of the monastery which had been built to house the twenty six monks! It was composed of an enormous rectangular courtyard with a great wide pillared cloister all round it, and onto this cloister opened the front doors of a series of flats, each with a small private garden. Each flat housed eight Officers of the rank of Captain or above. Over part of the flats and cloisters, running right around the four sides of the courtyard, was a great wide covered corridor where the monks used to walk and meditate and this served as house and home for the rest of us. There were therefore four great dormitories with something like seventy five to a hundred beds in each wing. On the ground floor, at the end of the rectangle where our guards lived, there was a magnificent refectory in which we fed in two sittings.
At the other end of the rectangle there was a field which was enclosed within the main perimeter fence, and which was only open during daylight hours. There we made a football pitch of sorts, and the walking fraternity soon wore a good track around the boundaries which I suppose had a circumference of three or four hundred yards. There was a basketball pitch within the
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courtyard, and P.T. [Physical Training] classes were also conducted there. So for those prepared to make the effort it was not difficult to keep fairly fit.
The food situation was really comic. When we arrived there were a number of fairly new prisoners who had been taken in the German push in the desert in the winter of 1941. They had already developed a roaring, somewhat disorganised and very expensive black market from which virtually all the important Italian Officers took a ‘rake off’. They included the Commandant, the Interpreter, and the Jesuit Priest! The meat, of which we had plenty, was arranged by the local Fascist Food Control Officer, and all went well until after a few months one of the local butchers thought he was being cut out, and sneaked to the authorities. The head of the Carabiniere arrived from Rome with some of his men with a view to searching the camp. He naturally was housed by the Commandant and would say to him something like “This morning we will be searching the kitchen area”. The Commandant was terrified of being implicated, and would immediately arrange for a small group of his soldiers to dash into the camp and warn us what was to happen, and help us to cart crates of food out of the kitchen area and tuck it away at the other end of the camp! A wonderful description of this sort of activity together with some splendid anecdotes can be found in George Miller’s most interesting and amusing book called ‘Horned Pigeon’
Two other very amusing incidents occurred whilst I was in Padula. One night the Carabiniere guards, of whom there were always one if not two pairs patrolling inside the camp, were looking through the locked iron grill door which led out of the rectangle onto the playing field at about 2am and saw
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something moving in the long grass. It was in fact a couple of sheep which had been acquired on the black market, but they assumed it was prisoners crawling along in an attempt to escape and they opened fire. They missed the sheep, but very nearly hit one of their soldiers guarding the perimeter wire! He rather naturally assumed that we had acquired some arms and fired back. A wonderful fusillade started up with nervous sentries around the whole camp loosing off shots in all directions. We were all soon woken by the noise, and to add to the din the sentry in the big clock tower that rose high over the camp was tolling his alarm bell madly.
The Italian soldiers rushed into the camp in a great state of excitement; I can see them now running into our dormitory with bayonets fixed and rifles loaded, but finding us still all peacefully in bed the excitement soon died down. The funny and unlikely sequel to this came the following day at morning roll call in the form of an abject apology from the Commandant deploring the “disgraceful behaviour” of his troops and promising that such an incident would never happen again!
The other incident concerned our arch enemy among the Italians. His name was Capitano Benecasa and he was the very pompous Security Officer. One day he produced quite a big and rather ugly looking black, smooth haired dog. He claimed it was very fierce and would smell and track down efforts to escape. We soon discovered that it was in fact quite a good natured young dog, and someone got hold of it one day just before roll call. They gave it a nice mouthful of tinned Spam from a Red Cross parcel, put a pair of dark glasses on its nose and a Rifle Brigade side hat, held in place with a piece of tape tied in a bow under its chin, on its head. It was then released
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with its tail wagging with pleasure in front of the whole parade. We naturally roared with laughter; the Commandant and Capitano Benecasa were not amused! In the end the Capitano got his just reward when the black market scandal broke and he was amongst those who were implicated. I never found out what happened to him mainly because, as you will learn from my next chapter, I was moved to pastures new in early October.
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Chapter Seven: The Drains and the Tunnel
Soon after our arrival at Padula, Roy Howard, Peter Bateman and I, who had all been involved in digging the tunnel at Sulmona, started looking around for possible exits from this old monastery. I suppose the middle of 1942 was about the nadir of the Allies’ fortunes in the War. The Russians were fighting for their very existence at Stalingrad, Rommel was nearly at the gates of Cairo, and the Japanese were on the borders of India. From our point of view it looked as if we might be incarcerated for a very long time, and it seemed worth taking considerable risks to try to get away.
The most likely way out seemed to us to be through the large complex of the Friars’ quarters which were occupied by the Italian Officers. In a small courtyard near our refectory there was a very large and heavy manhole cover which we discovered was an entry to a big underground drainage system for the whole monastery. It was not unlike the pictures you see of the drains under parts of London; in some places you could stand up and walk along a sort of path alongside the actual drain. From the main drain smaller ones, along which we mostly had to crawl, led off in various directions going under the wash rooms, kitchens and so on. I won’t go into a lot of boring detail, but we carried out several explorations of the system and it soon became clear that the drains in themselves would not provide an exit.
However, there were one or two other smaller manholes in the
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Italian end of the monastery and this enabled us to get above ground again into the area we wanted to explore. One of them came up in a little chamber from which a staircase led to the upper level of the Friars’ Cloister. The three of us made several exploratory trips down these drains, but the entry manhole cover in the camp was very heavy and we couldn’t lift it from inside the drain, so we always had to arrange for some good friend like Tom Llewellyn Lloyd to be present to lift the stone at a fixed time for our return to the compound Fortunately only once on our trips was a plug pulled at an unfortunate moment, and it was poor Roy who caught the brunt of it!
We were able to get quite a lot of information about the layout of the Italian Officers’ quarters because in all camps there would be one of our Officers who was in charge of the post, the rations and so on, and they used to go to help the Italians with these aspects of our lives. From them we learnt that there was a corridor from the corner of the upper cloister of the Friars’ Cloister opposite to where our staircase came out. This corridor, with Italian Officers’ bedrooms running off one side, eventually finished in a window onto the road outside the front of the monastery and some distance from the main gate. Our plan was to try to get to this window in the middle of the night and drop quietly onto the road, which was in any case used by the civilian population outside.
We got permission from the Escape Committee to go ahead with our plan; this was essential as it avoided the risk of two escape efforts taking place at the same time, and one of them being discovered which could easily lead to the other one being compromised and possibly people getting shot. Then we had
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also to explain to the Committee how we proposed to get out of the country, which my earlier description of the geographical position of the camp shows was always going to be very difficult. One day shortly after we arrived at Padula we were surprised by the arrival of three Yugoslavian Officers from Michaelovich’s forces. Peter Bateman’s mother was a Rumanian aristocrat and he had been brought up in the royal circle of that country. So he was able to talk to these partisans, and he found out from them the names of contacts in two places where our submarines were landing arms for them. So we planned to try and cross the Apennines, steal a boat and sail across the Adriatic and find one of these places and hopefully get taken back to Alexandria by submarine. Unfortunately the Committee, which approved our plan, also told us that their information was that we must get north of a line from Bari to Naples; south of that line all boats were locked up and harbours heavily guarded because of Commando raids from Malta. This meant that we had to plan for a rather longer walk than we had hoped, but that was just a relatively small setback. Roy and I were to steer Peter across the mountains and Peter as a good Dartmouth trained Midshipman was to choose the boat and sail us across the sea.
A short while before all this Roy had suddenly received a dartboard sent out from England by his sister, who I think was working at the time in an Army Intelligence Unit. This seemed curious as he hadn’t written and asked for it. but the Italians were satisfied that it was alright for us to play darts. So we got the dartboard and pulled it to pieces and duly found a compass, a nice bundle of Lira notes, and some silk maps. We had already made some splendid biscuit type of food under guidance from the English Doctor by grinding up our Red
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Cross biscuits and mixing them with Marmite or condensed milk and baking them in our Stufa (a metal oven made by beating out our empty Red Cross parcel tins). By then we all had gym shoes, spare socks, trousers, pullover etc; so we got packed up and on the approved night in early September we set forth down our drain asking Tom Llewellyn Lloyd to be sure to be waiting at the manhole the next morning in case we failed. We had to get back by 8am in order to be in time for roll call.
We got into the upper corner of the Friars’ Cloister at about midnight without any problems, and then we had to crawl very slowly around the square so that we could see the door opening onto the corridor on the opposite corner. To our horror there was a bed across the door with the relief sentry for the guard on the clock tower right above us, and he was fast asleep. Peter, who was certainly one of the bravest men I have ever met, wanted to creep up and knock him out, but Roy and I were against this, as if we made a mess of it or got caught if we had got away, we would have been court martialled by the Italians and would probably have been shot So after a whispered council of war we agreed to wait until 2am when the guard changed, and when the man in the bed got up and went up the circular staircase to the top of the tower we would slip through the door. We hadn’t reckoned with the likely behaviour of the Italian soldiers, and when the time came the guard came down from the tower and woke up the man in the bed, sent him up to the tower, and got into the bed! So we had to crawl back to our sewer and wait for Tom at 8am. However our disappointment was not as bad as it might have been, because we had another card up our sleeves about which I did not write in my diary because even in 1944 I was still in enemy hands and at that time it might have given away secret information.
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When we got to Padula it looked to the three of us that there would almost certainly be some really good tunnelling site somewhere in such an old building. The whole monastery was built across ground that sloped from the mountains down towards the sea. As a result of this there was a series of rooms under the flats in which the more senior Officers lived on the lower or west side of the monastery. These rooms had been entered from the outside of the whole walled complex, and I believe were used for storing farm carts and other farming equipment. The monks had many acres of farmland around the monastery and the whole area was surrounded by a great high wall to shut it off from the public. It was still being farmed by someone when we were there. We got permission from the Senior Officers in one of these flats, which pointed out towards the perimeter wire, and which was as far away from the machine gun towers as possible, to remove a very heavy flat stone from the passage outside the wash room to see what was in the sealed off chamber underneath. As we had hoped it was the ideal place from which to tunnel as it provided the perfect answer to the main problem of earth disposal, and the shaft would be behind a wall which was relatively near to the perimeter wire. We started digging in July.
The eight Captains in the flat asked if they could join us and we all worked very hard for long hours. We had a properly organised shift rota which meant that one started at 6.30am every other day with the second team covering the intervening early shift. The eleven of us did all the digging, but we had excellent logistical support from the Escape Committee who obtained much useful equipment for us, and great help also from an Army engineer who inspected the tunnel for safety etc;
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and from a number of good friends who took part in the endless business of warning us when any Italian was approaching our area of the camp. It still makes me smile when I think of the man we had sitting in a deck chair in the quadrangle supposedly reading a book, but who, at the first sign of danger used to blow his nose! This message was then transmitted to us and we would take whatever action became appropriate. There was also a window at the end of the passage in the flat from which we had removed the stone slab, which looked onto the perimeter wire; we covered this with mosquito netting so that our man could look out, but the guards outside couldn’t see him. He warned us every time the guards patrolled up and down between the two lines of the perimeter fence, because the noise of somebody digging quite deep below the surface can be heard very easily, and we would stop digging until the sentries returned to their boxes. We had a series of alarms and panics, but the enterprise survived.
We started digging in mid July and had to hurry as we wanted to get out in the middle of September when it would be possible to get a lot of food off the land such as sweetcorn, figs, some apples, masses of grapes of all sorts and so on. Also the moon would be getting fuller and would help us when moving at night. We dug a shaft fifteen feet deep, which with hindsight should have been rather deeper because of the slope of the ground. The tunnel itself was quite large as we could easily get rid of the earth, and even at my height of about 6ft 2 ins I could kneel up on one knee with my head bent well down. As we moved forward we built a wooden miniature railway line with a sleigh and a long rope attached to each end of it. The sleigh was then pulled up to the face where the bucket full of earth was put on it; this was pulled back to the bottom of the shaft
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and then taken up and emptied in the chamber whilst the other empty bucket, which had been placed on the sleigh, was pulled up to the face for filling again.
When we calculated we were just beyond the perimeter fence the Italians for some reason suspected something, and they turned off the electricity during daylight hours. We could therefore no longer use the electric light and had to resort to candles. This meant that not only was it much more difficult to see, but it also made the problem of lack of oxygen quite serious, and it forced us to restrict each shift at the face to twenty minutes. However we managed to alleviate this problem a bit because the Italians had supplied our dentist with a couple of old foot drill machines. The Escape Committee got one of these for us and someone constructed a form of pump to which we attached hoses made out of our sheets. These were soaked in water and then one of us pushed the foot drill pedal up and down and pumped air up to the face.
By the first week in September we realised we were getting dangerously near the surface because of the downward slope of the ground above us. Fortunately there was a big field of sweetcorn outside the wire and directly above us, so that when a rod was poked up through the earth to see how deep we were it did not give us away. We then started to slope the tunnel gently upwards so that when we opened the end it would be fairly easy to get out dragging a haversack with one. Then we made a flat platform so that someone following behind the last of the first night of escapees could fill in the hole with bags stuffed with straw from our palliasses, and the last man leaving the tunnel could sweep earth onto them and so cover up the hole. If all went according to plan the tunnel could then be
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used on a second night.
So the great day came and we drew lots amongst the eleven of us for the order in which we would go out, and for the person who was to go down after evening roll call to make the final exit hole. This latter role fell to Richard Carr, of the famous biscuit family, whose business was taken over by Huntley and Palmer after the war, with Richard as one of their important executives. I shall never forget him coming back absolutely filthy because of course the earth had fallen in onto him. He was grinning like a Cheshire cat and brandishing two great sweetcorn plants! We were asked by the Escape Committee to allow two New Zealand Officers to go out as numbers twelve and thirteen on the first night. They were named Redpath and Craig and they had been involved in helping a number of our soldiers out of Crete when the Germans captured the island. So everyone got their gear ready to start the exit at about midnight. This was easy for Peter, Roy and myself as we had already had a dummy run about ten days earlier down the drains. We were numbers six, seven and eight to go out.
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Chapter Eight: Freedom – But Short Lived!
What follows is written from memory as my War Log doesn’t go any further. Anyhow the great moment had come. I don’t know how many times I had been up and down that shaft, but this was to be the last time. We had agreed to leave a gap of three minutes, I think it was, between each person going down the tunnel. We hoped that this would ensure that if something went wrong at the exit and the guards opened fire only one person would be in real danger of being killed. My turn came at number six, and I didn’t have much difficulty in getting out of the exit with my haversack. It is virtually impossible to describe my emotions as I got out into a lovely still night outside the barbed wire which had surrounded me for the previous eighteen months. Naturally fear was amongst them because, as I mentioned earlier, we were much nearer the perimeter wire and the machine gun and searchlight tower than we had originally intended.
Anyhow I crawled carefully away from the mouth of the tunnel and then waited to be joined by Peter and then Roy. We then crawled along in single file until we reached a pathway about halfway down the farmed area below the camp. Here there was a wire fence with vines on it, and there were also some bushes and other cover. So once through this fence we were fairly well out of sight of the guards and were able to stand up and, in a bent over position, could hurry to the bottom of the farmed area which was all inside a great high wall which we had to get over. Every now and again a searchlight would sweep over the
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whole area, but all we had to do was duck down when we saw it coming our way.
In fact we got over the wall very easily as we had agreed that we would all go to the bottom left hand corner of the wall where the first pair out had taken a rope ladder. This was not needed as by luck it turned out that this corner had been used as a dump for all the rubbish from the farm, and the pile rose up to within a few feet of the top of the wall. There was, however, quite a big drop onto the road outside the wall which we all managed without trouble. We three then set off as fast as we could walk in a great left hand sweep through the fields to the south and east of the village of Padula which was perched on the foothills above the camp. Then it became a climb up into the mountains to the north east.
By about 2am we had reached the top of the ridge and could look straight down onto the camp away below us, and suddenly all the lights started to go on. The alarm bell started to ring out and motor cycles started dashing about. We learnt later that by bad luck the Security Officer doing the rounds that night was our old enemy Capitano Benecasa, and he was much more thorough than the others. Somewhere on his patrol he had been suspicious of a head of hair sticking out from under the blanket which he threw back to discover a body made of someone’s overcoat, and a vino flask with tow stuck on it for a head! So we knew that we had been rumbled, and we decided there and then not only to push on north eastwards as fast as we could go, but also that we would not use any roads, as the Italians were bound to set up road blocks. In fact I believe that within a couple of days they had a full division out looking for the thirteen of us.
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The next nine or ten nights were really hard and rather boring slogging through all the hours of darkness, and then trying to sleep, mostly on rather hot September days on very hard ground, at some fairly high spot to which we had climbed as it began to get light. We would take the lead in turns, and stop and rest for ten minutes after two hours of walking. I remember we got so tired at times that it was very difficult to keep awake during our ten minute rest periods. Some nights, particularly in the earlier and higher part of our journey we had a real struggle walking through thick untracked undergrowth when not very many miles would be achieved, and then sometimes a useful path made by goats, sheep or locals would appear and take us across a fertile valley or two and a good mileage would be achieved. Small towns and villages had to be circumvented fairly widely if possible because, believe me, barking dogs are not good news. You always feel as if they must persuade their owner to come out and have a look for the object they are barking at. In order to make as little noise as possible we in fact resorted to wearing gym shoes all the time, rather than our walking shoes; they also gave one a good grip on the steep mountain sides. We did not have a food problem because as we crossed the fertile valleys we found masses of young sweetcorn, grapes of various types, figs and sometimes other fruits like pears or apples. We ate very little of the cakes which we had made in the camp, which gave us confidence that we would not lack food when and if we embarked on the Adriatic crossing.
As far as navigation was concerned Roy and I told Peter that with the help of the compass which we had we would get him across the land, but once we got to sea it was up to him! We couldn’t have been more wrong because of course we couldn’t
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possibly walk straight over the mountains. It inevitably became a terrible zigzag journey around precipices and other impassable areas, but Peter with his excellent Dartmouth training knew how to navigate by the stars which was a most practical solution to our problem, and being September we had wonderful clear starlit nights most of the time. We started off in an almost due north direction and then turned gradually north east going around the north side of Potenza, and then around the north side of Palazzo and Spinazzola. Thereafter we walked through fairly open plain-like slopes down to the sea at Bisceglie. We must have covered about thirty miles in a night and a half to reach the beach about twenty miles north of Bari, most of it being through huge vineyards and olive groves.
We had four incidents during our journey which seem to me worth telling. Our greatest problem had been finding fresh water to drink high up in the mountains after a dry hot summer. Roy certainly suffered from this more than Peter and I. When we got near to Spinazzola Roy was taken ill, and Peter and I had to help him in the struggle up to an inaccessible spot to lie up for the day. He obviously had a fever, and felt that he would probably be unable to go on that evening when it got dark. He said that Peter and I were to go on and that he would hold out as long as he could before coming down and giving himself up. Fortunately he felt much better by the evening, so he came on with us and he gradually recovered completely.
We only met three people during our journey. The first meeting was in the late afternoon of our second day out when a shepherd boy with a herd of goats ran upon us by accident. We three spoke fairly fluent if bad Italian by then, and we asked him if he could get us some drinking water. He led us to an
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isolated farm, but when we got near to it we decided we were being rather unwise, and we simply pushed off rapidly on our way. There was little the boy could do about it.
The second encounter was really very funny. In the autumn in Italy after a hot day there are fairly frequent convection storms often around tea time. One afternoon after we’d been out for about a week and were still fairly high up we found ourselves in the middle of a terrific thunder storm with tremendous lightening all around and torrential rain. After a quick council of war we decided we must try to keep our clothes dry ready for the nights walk ahead of us. So we stripped off completely, put our clothes in our haversacks, and pushed them under a small and bushy rock overhang. It had naturally become suddenly quite cold, so we were running around in little circles, and jumping up and down to keep warm, when suddenly out of the trees surrounding us an old charcoal burner arrived on a mule! I need hardly tell you that he was somewhat surprised and fairly whipped his mule round and dashed back into the trees. Unfortunately we shall never find out what he told his friends in the village away below us, and I don’t suppose they believed him anyhow. Possibly he thought he’d run across Bacchus and a few of his friends.
The third meeting took place when we were on the later part of our journey. It was my turn to lead and we were crossing a valley on a path through a huge vineyard. There was quite often a hut in the vineyard areas where in normal times a man would be employed to keep guard over the grapes, but being war time we had not to date found anyone in them. But suddenly an elderly man appeared with a big stick in his hand and asked what we were doing. We told him we were German
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merchant seamen whose ship had called at Pescara and we’d been given permission to take a few days leave to hike through the foothills and rejoin the ship at Bari. I don’t think for a moment that he believed us, but anyhow he said we’d better come down to the village with him. We agreed to do this, and followed him for a little distance until the path divided; he went left, and we called out ‘Buona sera’ and went right, and there was really nothing he could do about it.
On our thirteenth night out we reached the Adriatic coast at Bisceglie which is about twenty miles north of Bari, and decided to have a good look along the beach to the north of the harbour to see if there were any odd boats along the water’s edge. We went quite a long way, but there was nothing to be seen, so we decided to go back into the foothills again and lie up for the next day. This would give us a full night to get into the harbour, find the boat we wanted and still have time to get well away from the coast before daylight. So back we went, and a mile or two inland found one of the quite large beehive like constructions made of stone, which I believe they used for storing olives. It was in the middle of a huge olive grove and was empty and there was no sign of any human activity, so we settled down to try and get some sleep. During the day a few people did pass along a path not far from us, but no one fortunately came to our hideout.
So night came and we obviously couldn’t enter the harbour area until fairly late because it was just like any small fishing village in England with houses around the harbour and people were up and about. So we set forth and arrived at the harbour just before midnight I think. There were still a few people around, but they didn’t take much notice of us. We got down to
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the harbour and Peter had a good look at the various boats and selected the one which he thought would be most suitable. We then decided that we had better go round to the narrow exit between high stone walls to see that there wasn’t any barrier or sentry with a machine gun. As we went around the last corner we walked straight into a sentry who challenged us, and was immediately joined by two or three of his comrades. We turned around and walked away but they came running after us demanding that we halted, which we had to do or they would have opened fire.
We told them the same old cover story about being German merchant seamen, the point of this particular gambit being that the Italians were basically terrified of their German allies. They told us they thought that we were the remaining three Officers of the group which had escaped from Padula, and we roared with laughter. They then searched our haversacks and asked what our biscuit cakes were. Peter told them as quick as a knife that they were “Munichen Kuchen”! Anyhow they said that we couldn’t get to Bari that night as the last train had gone and we must go back to the Carabiniere Barracks with them. So we were marched off and put into a room with several beds. As you may imagine we were by then unshaven for two weeks, not very well washed, and dead tired. We fell fast asleep and at about 4 am we were woken up and found ourselves facing a German interpreter; our German wasn’t that good, and the game was up!
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Chapter Nine: From Padula to the Third Reich
We were taken from Biscegli to Bari by train. I think all my long journeys as a P.O.W. in Italy were in third class railway carriages which had their seats made of wooden slats; in Germany we were always moved in cattle trucks. We obviously felt very tired, and were somewhat downcast to having been piped at the post.
There was a sort of transit camp at Bari which handled very large numbers of P.O.W.s after such incidents as the fall of Tobruk, and we were put into a cell which was separate from the main camp. The Italians who had recaptured us were relatively kind, because they were awarded a worthwhile prize in Lira, and given some extra leave. But the guards at Bari were not nice; they tended to mock us, and would laugh and tell us to wait when we wanted to go to the lavatory. Fortunately we were only there for two or three days before being moved off again by train around the coast through Taranto and back to Padula to be put once again into a cell outside the main camp area.
We were there for about ten days when we were instructed to go individually into the main camp with an Italian guard a yard or so behind us, to collect our belongings as we were being sent to the punishment fortress at Gavi. We were not to talk to anyone in the camp, but could just collect our kit and then go back to our cell. Naturally a number of our old mates in the camp took the opportunity to have some fun shouting out condolences and
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rudities such as ‘Look out Alan you are being followed’.
We were taken from Padula by train on the long journey up the whole west coast of Italy through Rome and on up to Gavi which was about half way between Genoa and Alessandria. The journey took a couple of days and we had a Carabiniere guard with a couple of them in the carriage all the time. It was difficult to sleep as there wasn’t room to lie down, and one’s head then lolls about. However, we had by this time developed two techniques for dealing with this problem. One was to put ones haversack on your lap, cross your arms on top of it, and then rest your head on your arms. The other was to use a woollen scarf which by then most of us had received in parcels from home; tie both ends to the luggage rack above you, and stick your chin into the loop which this made, and hope you didn’t hang yourself if the train stopped suddenly! What I remember very clearly was that the Carabiniere Sergeant who was in charge was a decent middle aged man who obviously felt rather sorry for us three ‘boys’, and when we got to Rome he bought and presented us with a nice chunk of cheese which was much appreciated.
We arrived at the most forbidding gates of the fortress at Gavi. What a contrast to the monastery at Padula, although I believe both were built at about the same time. I think it had housed French Officer P.O.W.s before us. It was built with great stone walls many feet thick against the side of a rock hillock that rose up from the surrounding countryside. There was an upper compound where we had our cells where we lived, and a lower one which contained our mess and cookhouse, some administration rooms, and a small courtyard just big enough for a somewhat limited volleyball pitch. Between the two there
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was a steep pathway which climbed up in a sort of semicircle. The construction of the upper compound was a corridor which ran along the face of the rock, and from which our cells stuck out from the rock face and had concave ceilings. There were eight beds in each cell and we had a small chest of drawers for our kit. At the outer end there was a ‘stufa’ for which we had a small wood ration, and two little windows through the outer wall which was several feet thick, so not much daylight came in.
One of our great problems, and also lets face it one of our amusements, was the huge rats which used to come into our cells from the passage in the night. Obviously we had bits of our rations, and Red Cross parcels when they arrived, and this attracted them. It was a bit ‘spooky’ when one of them ran over your feet in the middle of the night, but we had a wonderful system for trapping them. We took a small Red Cross cardboard box, put a nice little piece of cheese or food under it and held up one end with a little wooden stick to which was tied a length of string. The other end of the string was held by one of us in bed. When the rat got under the box to eat the tasty morsel the string holder pulled the stick away and the rat was caught in the Red Cross box. The box was then carefully lifted and the rat was hit with another piece of heavy wood! Sometimes it escaped and then all hell broke loose!
The camp could only take about one hundred people and was gradually being filled by the ‘naughty boys’ who had caused trouble either by escaping or by being troublesome in other ways. I suppose our most prestigious colleague was David Sterling who had commanded the Long Range Desert Group. He didn’t know the meaning of fear, had performed incredible feats behind the enemy lines in North Africa, and had an
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extraordinary ‘charisma’ which could persuade his fellow men to do almost anything no matter how daft or dangerous it might seem.
The Italian guards had their main living quarters on two ledges just outside the main walls and just below our bottom compound. Shortly after we arrived at the camp a new regiment of Italians arrived to take over the guard duties, and through the windows in our mess we could hear them being addressed whilst on parade by their Commanding Officer who put the fear of God into them by telling them that we were ‘I piu pericolosi prigionieri que chi sono’ – the most dangerous prisoners that there are!
One or two attempts to escape were made without success. The C.O. [Commanding Officer] who was a New Zealand Brigadier, and a dentist in civil life I think, got onto the roof of the upper compound in an attempt to get over the rock face at the back of the camp, but was caught in the searchlights up there. Luckily he didn’t get shot. The other main effort which I remember was made by David Sterling and two friends, one of whom was a South African mining engineer. They somehow got into the area of the camp reservoir which was under the lower compound and surrounded by the great thick foundations of the castle. They tunnelled into the outer wall, and apparently when they came upon a boulder that way too big to shift they lit a fire around it, and when it was really hot poured water on it from the reservoir and cracked it. Anyhow they completed their tunnel, and got out onto the roof of one of the Italian guards’ huts. They were spotted almost immediately and were recaptured.
On arrival Roy, Peter and I were put into the naughty boys’ cell
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for a month, and were each sent for on several occasions for questioning. The Italians could not believe that we had managed to survive for two weeks, whilst crossing the Apennines on our feet from west to east, without outside help. We were then moved into the main camp, and shortly after that Peter was sent for again, and disappeared for about an hour. When he came back he was beaming all over his face because, far from being questioned again, he had just had a meeting with his Rumanian Grandmother. She was accompanying her husband, a Rumanian nobleman, to some Axis meeting in Rome, and having learned of Peter’s whereabouts had got permission to visit him.
One other extraordinary family meeting took place at Gavi. There was an Officer called Aubrey Whitby, whose father had worked for a subsidiary of Vickers called Whitehead Torpedoes in Genoa. Whilst there he met and married an Italian girl and they had two sons. For reasons connected with his father’s work schedule Aubrey was educated in England and his brother in Italy. Aubrey was commissioned into the Royal Artillery and his brother became an Officer in the Italian Navy. One day Aubrey was sent for to find that his brother had come to visit him!
Aubrey spoke perfect Italian, and was in Gavi because of a rather amusing attempt that he made to escape from another camp in Northern Italy. The people who made the costumes for camp theatre made him a wonderful replica of the uniform of an Italian Medical Officer. They also made an Italian soldier’s uniform for another Officer who was to be his assistant, and carry his bag. They marched up to the main gate, and when the guard hesitated in opening it because he did not recognise the
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Doctor as the usual one, Aubrey tore him off a strip saying that he was the new Doctor and the guard should know about him. The friend carrying the bag spoke no Italian so he kept his mouth shut. The gate was opened and they walked out. Unfortunately the guard remained suspicious and reported the incident at once, and a chase was on. I understand the two of them were crossing a big field near the camp, when they realised from the activity near the gate, that they had been rumbled so they lay down flat in a dip in the middle of the field hoping they would not be found before darkness gave them a chance to get away. But they were found and hence Aubrey’s presence in Gavi.
One other interesting incident I recall which concerned our English doctor at Gavi who was Dr Steptoe, and who became famous after the War for his work on test-tube babies. He was a naval Officer, and one day he was sent for to be told that he was being repatriated. What had happened was that when Italy entered the war one of her cruisers had been caught and captured in Middle Eastern waters and its crew were interned. After lengthy negotiations it was agreed that there should be a repatriation of the Italian Officers on a like for like basis with English Naval Officer P.O.W.s in Italy. There was an Italian Doctor on the cruiser, and as Doctor Steptoe was the only British Naval Doctor P.O.W. at the time he sent home. Some people are born lucky!
I did have one rather unnerving task one day whilst at Gavi. I have mentioned earlier that I had learnt to speak fairly fluent if bad Italian, and used to try and improve it by talking with the Carabiniere patrol in the camp from time to time. One day the Escape Committee told me that there was to be an escape
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attempt at a certain time, and would I make a point of getting into conversation with the patrol and do everything I could to keep them talking if possible in the passage outside our rooms in the upper compound. I managed to do this for about forty five minutes I think, but it was quite a strain as each time they started to go on a walk around the camp I had to drum up a new topic of conversation to stop them. Unfortunately the escape attempt got nowhere, so we were all wasting our time, but at least no one got shot!
At Gavi, as at all camps where I was held in Italy we had organised walks on parole at regular intervals and with a limited number of walkers. As the fortunes of war started to turn very much in our favour it was noticeable how the local population, who used to ‘goop’ at us, started to become much more friendly. Our main problem as P.O.W.s in Italy was to find out what was really going on in the outside world; so far as I know there was not any Officers P.O.W. camp in Italy that succeeded in getting a wireless set. The problem was the valve; our technicians could make all the other parts from tin, silver paper, and so on from our Red Cross parcels, but we could not get the valves. In Germany where there were almost more foreigners than Germans you could get things like wireless valves, when some foreigner was sent into the camp to repair something that had broken down, or even from a guard who was a Pole or a Czech or some other nationality who had been forced into the German army by threats to his family, or even by blackmailing an elderly German who had accepted a packet of cigarettes in exchange for some food. But in Italy there was not a foreign population.
Anyhow in the middle of September 1943, after I’d been in Gavi
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for almost exactly a year, we woke up to find German machine gun posts in the slopes all around our camp, and we learnt that the Italians had collapsed and an armistice was being sought. What should we do? The Italian guards came down from their posts, and the Germans took over. David Sterling said that he had been making the plans for helping all P.O.W. camps in this sort of situation before he was captured, and that we should not try to take over the camp, as someone would surely have continued with developing these plans. However, clearly this had not happened, and in my opinion it was one of the worst tactical mistakes that General Montgomery made. A soldier who has been in action and finished up in a P.O.W. camp is in most cases worth six times a raw recruit and there were by then many thousands of experienced Officer and other rank P.O.W.s in camps in Italy who received no help or guidance of any sort at this vital time.
The next morning we were ordered by the Germans to collect what we could carry of our belongings and were marched down to the station for transfer to Germany. A few people tried to hide in the fortress, but the Germans started throwing hand grenades into any likely hideout, and they soon winkled everyone out. We were then herded into cattle trucks in such numbers that there really was not room for us all to lie on the floor at the same time. So we started on a three day nightmare journey across Northern Italy to Udine near the Dolomites, and then on up to a transit camp at Villach which is near Klagenfurt in Southern Austria.
Someone in our truck produced a strong sharp knife which a group of us used in turn to cut a block out of the wooden wall of the truck just near to the big wooden latch which closed the
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door on the outside. The hole was just large enough to get your hand through and we managed to slide the latch along and open the door. We then drew lots for the order in which we should jump for it whenever the train was slowing down or starting up. It was a hazardous operation as there were guards with automatic rifles riding on little platforms on the end of a number of trucks. They would jump off and surround the train each time it stopped for any length of time. Cutting the hole was quite a lengthy process so we were well on our way before anyone could jump, I seem to remember I had drawn number eight, and we had got six people out without any shots being fired when disaster struck. When we closed the door we put the block of wood back in the hole and placed a suitcase against it to keep it there, but unfortunately somehow the block had fallen out. Anyhow the next time we stopped and the Germans dismounted and surrounded the train one of them spotted the hole, put his automatic through it, and fired a burst all around the truck. We were nearly all lying down at the time and by great good fortune no one was wounded. The Germans then put barbed wire all around the truck and that was the end of our little escape efforts. The next night was spent in the vast marshalling yard in Udine and we found ourselves in the middle of a pitch battle between the Germans and the Partisans who had come down from the Dolomites. It was very noisy but fortunately our train wasn’t hit. Then it was on to the camp at Villach for a few days but I remember very little of it.
For me there was one very sad incident on this whole journey. In the turmoil of getting into the trucks at Gavi my friend Peter Bateman had fetched up in a different one, and whilst tying to get away during the journey he had been shot dead.
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One thing I do remember about Villach is the extraordinary story of a New Zealand friend of mine called Colin Armstrong. Somehow he and another New Zealander got out of the camp and decided to head back into Italy in the hope of eventually joining up with our troops coming up from the south. They ran into a German sentry and decided to knock him out. Subsequently and fairly nearby they were recaptured and were then of course in serious trouble; they were likely to be court martialled and possibly shot. They were for some reason sent to a Polish prison camp and the Commandant realising their dilemma offered to try to get them away. Unfortunately I don’t know the details of what actually happened, but I do know that the Poles got them onto a ship in Danzig, and within ten days they were in Stockholm. Shortly afterwards they reached London and Colin contacted my Mother and told her I was still alive and where he had last seen me. Directly after the War he sent me a picture postcard of Gavi obtained when he was on his way back to New Zealand, and I still have it. He was a lawyer by profession, and he became Mayor of Wellington some years after the war.
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[Black & white photograph of Gavi Fortress]
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Chapter Ten: From Austria to Czechoslovakia
We were only at Villach for a few days before once again being ‘cattle trucked’ to another camp. Exactly what happened I have never found out, but two or three truck loads of us somehow got detached and found ourselves in a compound of a so called Russian P.O.W. hospital camp named Muhlberg. This was in the huge, flat and featureless area south west of Leipzig.
It was an enormous camp with row upon row of typical long Nissen Hut type buildings. Most of it was occupied by Russian soldiers living in the most appalling conditions. There were also several small compounds attached to the main camp. One contained a number of R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] N.C.O.s [Non-Commissioned Officer] who had been shot down over Germany, and another a group of Dutch N.C.O.s [Non-Commissioned Officer] who had been called up by the Germans, and duly reported thinking they were going to be asked to perform various types of non-fighting duties, but were in fact then put into the prison camp. Clearly the Germans were afraid that they might join the various partisan groups which were by then beginning to become quite effective. The Dutch told us that the Russians were starving, and many had dug holes beneath their huts in which they tried to keep warm in the desperately cold winters, and when one of them died they kept his body as long as they could so that they could continue to draw his meagre rations!
There was in fact a Russian P.O.W.s hospital a short distance away, and by luck we had a South African Medical Officer in our little group. The German Commandant was quite a decent
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fellow and was well aware that as Officers we should not be in his camp. He also told our Senior Officer that with Italy now out of the war, and the Russians getting onto the offensive he didn’t see how Germany could win. We got him to improve the conditions of the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] people there, and he also allowed our Medical Officer to visit the hospital. The report of the record book of those who had died there was simply dreadful; thousands had died, many of them being victims of Typhus, Tuberculosis and so on.
On our arrival at the camp we had been made to strip naked, and our clothes were put through some heating process. I remember leaving a plastic comb in my shirt pocket, and it came back about half its normal size and hard and brittle. They wanted to shave our heads, but we resisted this and won. But we were inoculated against many diseases such as Typhus, Typhoid and so on by a team of Polish doctors. This had quite a funny outcome, because they were instructed not to inject our right arms in case we had to carry our belongings, so having jabbed our left arms they then put the needle into our left breast! This inevitably caused some swelling and there was a good deal of ribald laughter about our ‘Boobs’!
Of course the chaos of the Italian collapse meant that everything like mail from home, and Red Cross parcels went by the board, and it was some weeks before a trickle of letters started to arrive. I was given the job of collecting any interesting snippets of news that they might contain, and then read them out in the mess at evening meal time. At the time of the Italian Armistice several of the large Officer P.O.W. camps in Italy had simply opened the gates and allowed the inmates to go free, and the letters arriving at our camp started to contain
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the names of some of those who had successfully reached the Allied lines. One of these told us that General Klopper, the South African who had surrendered Tobruk to the Germans, had got back to our lines, and had successfully got forty troops back with him. I read this out with much glee, whereupon an Officer in the R.H.A. [Royal Horse Artillery] who had been taken at Tobruk shouted out ‘send him back for the other forty thousand’! This was bad enough, but it became really embarrassing when it was pointed out to me that Klopper’s younger brother was sitting about five places to my left!!
The other thing of note which occurred at Muhlberg was the arrival of thousands of demoralised Italian troops which the Germans brought up from Yugoslavia. They were marched in huge columns into a compound near ours, and as they entered they had to discard everything they were carrying. So an enormous mountain of mess tins, radios, loot and so on was built up. They were then lined up and given an impassioned address by some German or Fascist Officer, and finally asked if they would join the valiant Germans and fight on. A very very few did so, and one day one of them obviously shouted a rude reply and he was immediately shot; I don’t know whether he died. Anyhow the time had now arrived for more cattle trucks, and we were on our way to a proper Officers’ P.O.W. camp at Marisch Trubau in Sudetenland (the northern strip of Czechoslovakia).
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Chapter Eleven: Czechoslovakia’s Sandhurst
The camp at Marisch Trubau had originally been the ‘Sandhurst’ of Czechoslovakia. At some stage it was turned into a P.O.W. camp for French Officers who I believe were removed after the Italian surrender to make room for us. We were several hundred strong, and about half lived in the main building and the rest of us in quite well constructed little ‘cottages’ dotted about over quite a large area. There was also a large mess building and cookhouse, and a small playing field.
Life was fairly boring there through the first few winter months. One’s main problems in winter time in a P.O.W. camp were rather naturally hunger and warmth, and this camp proved no exception on either of these counts. However in the early spring some excitement was caused when the Germans suddenly announced that besides the normal morning and evening roll calls, they would institute a new regime whereby they would start snap roll calls at any time of their choosing by simply blowing the usual roll call bugle. We said we would ignore it, and all hell broke loose. The bugle was blown and nobody took any notice. They sent in the spare guard with rifles cocked and bayonets fixed. They chased us out of our cottage front doors and we ran around and went back indoors through the back door, and so the chase went on for some hours with tempers getting very frayed on both sides. Eventually they got all of us rounded up in two groups, one being in the main building, and the other in a large Nissen type of hut which was empty, but was called the gymnasium. I was one of those in the
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latter building which was completely surrounded by German soldiers just a few yards apart, and with rifles very much at the ready.
After a little while the Commandant roared into our hut accompanied by several of his Officers, apoplectic with rage and waving a loaded revolver at all and sundry. He mounted a ‘soap box’ and started haranguing us. The more he shouted, the louder we clapped and cheered. I remember so well a German soldier who was an interpreter, and who happened to be standing near me who turned to some of us and said ‘The Commandant doesn’t understand that when the English make a noise it is alright, but when they are silent then look out’. Anyhow by then the Commandant was shouting that if anyone moved out of the building he would be shot. Whereupon David Sterling walked to the nearest window, threw it open, climbed out and walked straight through the ring of German soldiers, and back to his room in one of the ‘cottages’. The wretched German troops were simply paralysed; it was an extraordinary and very nerve tingling occasion which fortunately did not end in anyone getting hurt, and the Germans never called a snap roll call again.
The other event of interest with which I was slightly involved also concerned David Sterling. He and some of his Scottish friends persuaded the German authorities that they should be allowed to build a stage on which they could practice their Highland dancing. To do this they were given the big ply wooden packing cases in which the consignments of Red Cross parcels were transported. They explained that if they were left intact and screwed together they would make a most suitable springy stage. So they joined several lines of these together.
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which could easily be stacked at the side of our large mess room one on top of the other, and which could be quickly assembled one beside the other to make a nice square stage.
What they did not explain to the Germans was that the windows on one side of the mess were close to the perimeter wire, and that two rows of these boxes could be rapidly pushed out of a window and would extend just over the top of the wire! The plan was that at an appointed time David and several of his S.A.S [Special Air Service] Officers who were in the camp would run up the ‘ramp’, jump down outside the wire, then rush to the left and right to take over the machine gun towers on that side of the camp. About another sixty or so, of whom at David’s invitation I was one, were to follow immediately behind them and push off into the mountainous area to the south east of the camp. The idea was not to try to get home, but to join and assist the Czech partisans!
It was a pretty hair brained scheme, and one which I suspect would have resulted in a number of casualties, but we were saved by the gong. The Czech partisans were indeed getting ever closer to our camp, and a few days before we were due to go ‘over the top’ we were ordered to pack up what we could carry as we were being moved again. We were marched in groups down to the cattle trucks, and before climbing in the guards took away our boots and braces and put handcuffs on us. On this occasion the trucks were divided in half by a thick wire screen; a group of us were on one side, and several German guards on the other side. In fact the handcuffs were rather crudely made, and we soon had them off and the guards in my carriage didn’t seem very concerned about this. It turned out that we were on our way through Prague and on across
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Germany to Brunswick which is about twenty miles almost due east of Hanover.
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[Black & white photograph of Brunswick P.O.W camp ca. 1943]
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Chapter Twelve: Brunswick
The journey to Brunswick was similar to most of the others in terms of extreme discomfort and boredom. I don’t remember a great deal about it except that, when we stopped for a while in Prague station, being fairly tall I was just able to look out of the little barred windows high on the side of the cattle truck, and to see some Czech citizens who dared to wave to us.
The camp was in the fairly modern and strongly built Luftwaffe barracks of the aerodrome on the north eastern outskirts of Brunswick. It was by then too near Allied bomber stations for them to keep aeroplanes there, and it was only used for refuelling purposes. So from time to time we would see planes coming down on the runway and after a short while they would take off again. On one such occasion I was staggered to see a little clutch of three or four twin engined planes flying at an incredible speed with no apparent means of propulsion as their propellers were missing! They were of course the first jet propelled planes I had ever seen; I think the Germans were slightly ahead of us getting them into active service.
The buildings in our new home were typical barracks. They had a concrete basement which was about half above ground, then the ground floor, which was up two or three steps, and on which we lived, and above that a substantial empty attic which presumably the Germans had used for storing equipment. I can’t remember how many buildings there were, but there were ultimately well over a thousand prisoners housed there. There
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were quite large areas of open ground between and around the buildings where one could walk for exercise purposes. Within the buildings we lived in crowded rooms containing five double bunks. I slept on a top bunk with Gerald Williams beneath me, and Roy Howard and Malise Cruickshank shared one of the others. Coloured Officers from the Indian Army had their own building. There were also quite reasonable washing and ‘loo’ facilities, though never any hot water!
Fairly soon after our arrival three Officers escaped somehow, and a few days later they were returned to the camp as ashes in little wooden boxes. We were told they had been shot because they had been caught in a ‘prohibited area ’! I think this was at about the same time as the famous escape from the Air Force Officers’ camp when so many of them were also killed. Clearly the time for thinking much about escaping had passed.
More P.O.W.s kept arriving either from the old Italian camps or the new Italian front or from the Western front. Then one day to my great surprise and enormous delight in walked Noel Wilkinson who had exercised quite an influence on my early life at the Dragon School, and was to have an enormous influence on it after the war. He was a man I greatly admired, and we were to have many a walk and talk together in the camp over the next year.
There were a number of ‘occurrences’ whilst we were at Brunswick, and as I cannot remember their chronological order I will just give a short resume of those which I feel might be interesting or amazing. It was during the time of our transfer from Italy to Germany that George Miller escaped somewhere in Germany; I don’t know how, as I was not with him at the
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time. He had been the Daily Express correspondent in Paris before the war and therefore spoke French fluently. Germany, unlike Italy was absolutely crammed with foreign workers, and each nationality had their own camps where they lived, but they were not heavily guarded. George naturally got in touch with the French who put him up in one of their camps while arranging to get him into France on a train. They got him to Paris where he had good friends, and he was finally smuggled through Spain to Gibraltar and home. He was subsequently dropped in France to help the ‘Maquis’, and after the war wrote three fascinating books about his experiences. His first book entitled ‘Horned Pigeon’ was mainly about Padula and there are a few pages in it about our escape from that camp in September 1942, and you will find the names of Roy Howard, Peter Bateman and myself in it. He also wrote a very exciting book called ‘Maquis’ in which he describes the incredible experiences he had with the French underground movement. Finally he wrote ‘My Past is an Evil River’ which was a sort of biography.
At about the same time Richard Carr, who was a good friend of mine, and who had escaped with us through our Padula tunnel, also managed to get away. Once again I was not with him at the time, but anyhow he got to Munich. Unfortunately he was recaptured and joined us at Marisch Trubau where he told us a very amusing tale of a ride he had on a train in Munich. The tram stopped rather abruptly and Richard, who was a very big man, lost his balance and stepped back heavily onto the foot of an S.S [Schutzstaffel] Officer who was sitting on the seat beside him. So he turned around, removed the old cap he was wearing, and completely forgetting himself said ‘So sorry’ in a loud voice! There were so many different foreign workers in Munich that no
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one took the slightest notice.
One day an R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] pilot, who had been shot down was brought into our camp. Times were pretty chaotic for the Germans and they put him into the nearest camp even though he wasn’t in the Army. He had not even been searched, and he had a copy of the previous day’s Times newspaper in his flying clothes pocket! You can imagine how this was passed with great secrecy from room to room. I hadn’t seen an English newspaper for nearly four years. Whilst on the subject of news I should mention that we had an excellent wireless hidden in the camp at Brunswick which had been constructed from all sorts of bits and pieces by our experts. As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, about the only thing they couldn’t make were the valves, and these were obtained either thanks to a foreign worker or by blackmailing a German guard who had been stupid enough to do some black market deal with one of the P.O.W.s.
Early on at Brunswick I was asked by the Senior British Officer to be one of a small panel who would interview all new prisoners coming into the camp to make certain the Germans didn’t plant a stooge amongst us. It was usually fairly easy, as there was often someone in the camp already who lived near them, or was at school or university with them, or in their regiment and so on. However during General Rommel’s final push in the Ardennes in 1944 a number of Americans were captured. Some arrived in our camp and I vividly remember one amusing interview with an American Colonel. He said that his Battalion had been completely cut off in the corner of a large wood, and as the shelling and machine gunning got worse and worse he ‘decided that we’d reached quitting point, so we
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quit’. Very descriptive.
Shortly after we arrived in Brunswick poor Roy Howard who had suffered from boils, mostly in his armpits, for some time, developed a horrible ulcer on one of his hips about the size of a half crown piece, and he was put into the medical ward. At the same time I got a poisoned cut just below my right knee, and my whole leg started to blow up, and I was put into the ward with him. It was whilst we were both practically immobile there that the first of two pattern bombing raids by American Flying Fortresses took place. There was a substantial underground factory which repaired Messerschmidt engines, which was only a few hundred yards from our camp, and they were obviously trying to blow it up. They came over in large groups at about twenty thousand feet in broad daylight. It was a very noisy affair as a mixture of one thousand pound bombs, anti-personnel bombs, and incendiary bombs came down in a great cloud, and the German anti-aircraft guns were banging away at the same time. Roy and I jumped out of bed to try to lie on the floor, but the pain of putting my bad leg down was so great that I jumped back into bed and pulled the sheet over myself. Not a very good protection against bombs, but fortunately on that occasion the nearest bomb landed just a few yards outside the perimeter wire, and no one was hurt.
The second raid happened in early 1945 I think and twelve one thousand pound bombs landed inside the wire together with a mass of anti-personnel bombs and incendiaries. Most of us managed to get down into the semi-basement just in time, but several of our number were killed, and some were wounded. We managed to put out the fires from the incendiaries, but several of the German guards’ buildings were burnt down.
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Only one of our main buildings was damaged by one of the big bombs, but of course all our windows were blown out. As far as we were concerned the most serious thing that happened was that one of the large bombs completely fractured the main drainage pipe which was very deep down because the whole complex had been built to withstand attacks of this sort.
Obviously it was very important that we got the drainage system flowing again as soon as possible, not just because of the discomfort, but because of the obvious threat of infectious diseases to which we would have been easy victims in our rather starved state. The Germans therefore produced the forks, shovels and so on and we dug a huge wide trench where the bomb crater was. We had no earth moving machinery so we had to start way out to one side and dig a shelf two or three feet deep, then dig another shelf inside the original one throwing the earth up onto the first shelf and so on until we got down to the fractured pipe. We then opened up the fractured section and it ran like a little river. As far as I can remember the Germans then produced some boarding with which we could cover it up, and later got some new piping installed by foreign workers.
One of our serious problems by late 1944 was that Red Cross parcels ceased to arrive. The railways were being continually bombed and strafed by the Allies, and matters were made worse I believe by a dock strike in Sweden, through which large consignments of parcels were routed. One day much excitement was caused by the arrival of two large Red Cross lorries, until it was discovered that they contained ice skates and rolls of lavatory paper which had apparently been asked for some months earlier! Not very good for eating even when
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you are very hungry.
The main item of food which the Germans still seemed able to produce by that time was swedes. These were peeled and cooked in the cookhouse, and the peelings were then issued to the buildings and rooms in a strict rota. When your room’s turn came you fried them in your meagre fat ration, the fat being a sort of sickly white by-product of coal. This was a tasty luxury! However, the main problem is that swedes have the same sort of result on your personal water works as asparagus – the smell is awful. With our open main drain and a large number of people virtually living on swedes, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
One of the excitements of life at Brunswick was the visits to the aerodrome by our Mosquito planes in the middle of the night. A single plane would come in very low down to avoid radar detection. There would usually be quite a barrage of local anti-aircraft guns. The idea was to make the runway unusable I think, so when over the airfield they would drop a huge flare which lit up the whole area. They would then circle around and drop a large single bomb. One just prayed that they wouldn’t hit the camp, and happily never did.
One day we began to hear about the attempt on Hitler’s life. We couldn’t find out much from our guards who were too frightened to say much. We had a splendid hidden radio set from which we got the BBC news on a regular basis, but naturally they were not very accurately informed about this. However, it did our morale a lot of good, as clearly the end was coming within sight. No one could guess how events would develop, but I was one of the people who the Escape Committee
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asked to help in making maps of our local area and of North Germany in case we needed them. They managed to print quite large numbers of them using an old washing mangle which the Germans had produced to help us dry our washing. I still have a few copies of these maps.
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[Map of Brunswick and the surrounding area of North Germany around the prison camp]
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Chapter Thirteen: The Last Few Days
By now the Camp Commandant was quite clear in his own mind that the Germans were beaten, and he made an arrangement with our S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] (Colonel Brown) that he would be kept informed from our secret wireless, which was giving us the BBC news, of exactly what was happening and where the Allied advance had reached. It was also agreed that, if we would stay put and not break out, he and his troops would surrender without any resistance when the Americans and English arrived. We were lucky also because for some reason, which I do not know, we had a new interpreter who was an Official from the German Foreign Office who was also a realist and spoke fluent English. He and the Commandant between them were I suspect largely responsible for the fact that we were not, like so many other P.O.W.s, forced to march eastwards during that period. Many poor P.O.W.s who were half starved and in poor condition had a hard time on the roads, some of them even being strafed by our own planes which mistook them for German troops on the march. In fact we suddenly and totally unexpectedly received a delivery of Red Cross parcels, and hearing that there was a large contingent of British solider P.O.W.s on the march east in our area we got the Red Cross to take the whole lot down to them.
This was a time when rumours were rampant and nerves were taught. From time to time there were loud explosions not very far away; these turned out to be the German engineers blowing up the bridges on the autobahn which passed quite close to our
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camp. Then we began to hear the rumble of heavy artillery fire coming from the west in the Hanover district. A night or so later we were rather abruptly woken up when shells began falling in our area. Whilst most of us kept our heads down some of our Artillery Officers went up to the attics of our buildings to do their flash spotting act. It appeared that our guns were firing at the airfield just by us, where some German mobile guns were dashing about and firing back. Some of the shells landed very close to us, but luckily not one fell inside the wire.
In the morning the ‘spotters’ reported that it was only one battery that had been shelling us, but they thought that the next night it was likely to be a whole regiment! The rumble of battle went on all day. We had had little sleep, and, with the warning of the probability of heavy shelling to come, I and most of the camp took their palliases down to the semi basement long before darkness fell, and went to sleep. When I woke it was still light so I assumed I’d only had a short nap. However I was soon informed that it was the next morning, and not a shot had been fired! There was an eerie silence and it became apparent that the German army had retreated eastwards.
I got up, dressed and returned my palliasse to my bunk Shortly afterwards I heard some cheering coming from the area of the main gate, so I ran out to see what was going on, and there through the small crowd I saw an American Corporal standing by his jeep; we had been liberated! It appeared that he was part of a forward reconnaissance group, and had been made aware of our camp by a French prisoner who was in one of the many working parties. Shortly afterwards an American artillery unit arrived and our guards, true to their agreement
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with us, surrendered their arms and were marched away as P.O.W’s. The Americans organised a load of K rations to be dumped in the camp, as we had very little food. They also mounted a few of their guns around the camp, as it was rumoured that there were still some S.S. [Schutzstaffel] armoured units in the area. The next morning they explained that they must push on as the front was moving east very fast. So fast was it moving that the second line of our troops was still about two hundred miles away, and there followed an extraordinary eleven days in which we were surrounded by what I can only describe as anarchy.
We were informed that aeroplanes would be coming in to land on the airstrip just outside the camp and they would fly us home. We were ordered to form into groups of forty, and when the planes arrived each group would be guided to an aeroplane. But time passed and the planes simply didn’t come; they were far too busy flying up supplies to the rapidly advancing army. So we took the arms left by our German guards and set up our own guards. Outside there was no controlling authority of any sort, and we were even approached by a group of local German women who asked if we would let them in to protect them from the rabble outside. I’m afraid we refused! There were of course very large numbers of French, Italian, Russian, Polish, Dutch etc, who had been forced workers. For obvious reasons there was no love lost between some of these groups, and quite a few of them had ‘obtained ’ both arms and alcohol. Fortunately none of them had any particular reason to dislike us, but one had to be careful when venturing outside the wire.
I went on two trips. The first was at the request of the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer]. A
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sort of 15 cwt [Hundredweight] truck had been obtained from the German quarters, and I was asked to join three or four other young Officers and drive into Brunswick to see if we could find any food. Brunswick had received several visits from our night bombers which had been carrying the new 8,000 lb. [Pound] bomb. The blast effect was terrific and even in our semi basements some way out of town ones clothing would flap from the blast when one of these exploded. So large areas of the city were flat, and when I say flat I mean it. We found a few crates of tinned Hungarian goose in one wrecked building which we took away. An odd civilian of unknown nationality also pointed us towards a doorway in another damaged building which lead to some stairs that went straight down to a wine cellar. Halfway down the stairs I remember vividly seeing the fully exposed side of a 2,000 lb. [Pound] bomb which had failed to explode! Anyhow we went on down and found that the floor of the cellar was some inches deep in wine; either the bombs or foreign workers had smashed nearly all the bottles. I seem to remember we took a very few back to the camp. The Hungarian goose was much too rich for our starved frames, and was I think handed over to the cookhouse to be diluted into our swede soup. I don’t know what happened to the few bottles of wine.
My other expedition after waiting several days was with Gerald Williams and Roy Howard. We went out into the farmland fairly near to the camp to see if we could get any eggs or chickens. We asked at one or two farms but were told that all their livestock and poultry had been looted by the foreign workers. We did, however, find a large field of asparagus, which in early May was beginning to show its paces, and we cut several nice bunches which we took back to our room. This would not be harmful to our shrunken interiors!
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On the eleventh afternoon after our liberation there was suddenly a great roaring noise above us, and without any warning a whole flock of Dakotas started landing. We all formed up rapidly into our pre-arranged groups of forty, and marched out when told to onto the airfield, where we were guided to one of the planes and climbed in. The planes had apparently been taking fuel up to our tanks and were on their way home empty, so we all just sat on the floor. Quite soon we were flying low over Arnhem and it was fascinating to see a large number of the gliders, which had been used in the famous airborne attack, still on the ground. It was fairly late in the afternoon before we took off, and because the planes had no night flying equipment we couldn’t get back to England in time, and had to come down and spend a night in a barracks in Brussels. The next morning we boarded our planes again and flew to an airfield somewhere near Oxford.
We were then shepherded into a large hanger, where we went through a process of identification, so that the authorities, the Red Cross and so on had a record of who we were. We were issued with a new battle dress, and some toiletry equipment such as a toothbrush and paste, soap and so on. If one lived reasonably near, I think the distance was about thirty miles, the W.V.S. [Women’s Voluntary Services] could drive us home. My parents lived in Farnham Royal near Slough, so I was driven home and my mother opened the front door. She did know that I had been liberated because by an extraordinary coincidence the Fox Newsreel in the cinema the previous week had shown Brunswick being liberated and I was right in the middle of the picture; I have to say I have no recollection of anyone taking pictures, but it must have been one of the war correspondents. Several friends had
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told my mother that they had seen me, and by another extraordinary coincidence the same film sequence appeared only a few years ago in the television series ‘Jewel in the Crown’. My mother’s face registered considerable surprise and it was a time for a few tears of joy!
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In the autumn of 1999 I received a telephone call from George Miller, by then aged 88 I think. He had received a telephone call from Anthony Bateman, the half-brother of my friend Peter Bateman, who had escaped from Padula with me, and had sadly been shot dead during our journey from Gavi to Germany at the time of the Italian Armistice in September 1943. George Miller referred Anthony Bateman to me, and it transpired that he wanted to learn something about Peter who he had never met. Anthony had been born in 1942, the year before Peter was killed, and happily I was able to tell him something of a very remarkable young man.