The account follows Les Hutty, William Harold Langabeer and two others. It follows their initial capture, escape from prison, the people they met who helped them during their time ‘on the run’, their re-capture and subsequent freedom. Their freedom was expedited in 1945 by armed partisans and they were later met by American tanks in Alessandria. The majority of the account is told by Les Hutty but the story also accounts for William Harold Langabeer’s experiences.
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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Some Experiences of Les Hutty during The Second World War.
An Account of a Prisoner of War. 1942-1945.
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This is the true story and account of Mr. Les Hutty who, together with my uncle, Mr. William Harold Langabeer and two others who were taken prisoner during WWII [World War II] and tells of their capture, escape from prison, the people they met who helped them during their time ‘on the run’, their recapture and subsequent freedom.
Although these words are Mr. Les Hutty’s it is also the account of my uncle and the others as during this time they all stayed and travelled together as a team and only separated for short periods of time in order to keep each other as safe as they possibly could.
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In his broadcast to the Nation at Christmas 1939, the late King
George VI referred to the following quotations:-
“I said to the man who stood at the gateway of the year ‘Give me a lamp that I might tread safely into the hand of God, it will be better than a lamp and safer than a known way’”.
I followed the advice given and can say that without doubt that the Lord carried me safely through these experiences and continues to do so. On the 26th May 1942 I was a soldier serving with the First Royal Hampshire Artillery in the Libyan desert South of Tobruk, when I, alongside many others was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans. We were taken by truck a distance of about 1,000 miles westward, towards Tripoli where we put into an old Italian barracks called Taruna. This place was verminous and we all became infected with body lice. After we had been here for three days we were taken to the docks and onto a ship which was waiting to transport us to Italy. Prior to boarding the ship we were given our rations for the journey which consisted of two small tins of Bully Beef and three small loaves of bread, although water was given daily. The journey took six days and in this time no further rations were issued.
On board ship we were kept in the cargo holds where we had to sleep on the bare iron deck, we slept ‘head to tail’ and alongside each other like sardines in a tin. In each corner of the hold were large buckets which served as our only toilet facility. During the daytime a certain amount of fresh air entered the hold but at night the hatch was closed and secured by tarpaulin sheets. There was no artificial lighting available and those that needed to use the buckets at night very rarely found their way to them and certainly not back again.
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Many of the prisoners were already suffering from dysentery so you can quite imagine the terrible stench down in the hold. Despite these conditions there was always some bright sparks who would enliven the situation by singing and reciting, not much would pass the censor.
On the sixth day we eventually arrived in the Italian port of Naples all very hungry and weak and were then all marched to a railway siding where we boarded a train which transported us to a Prisoner of War transit camp at Capua, this was a fairly large camp which consisted of tented accommodation, about ten to a tent sleeping on mattresses. On our arrival here we were given a hot meal, a pint of minestrone stew, which contained potato and a little meat. During our stay here we were fed this twice daily plus 200 grams of black bread, first thing in the mornings we were also given about a pint of what was supposed to be coffee, this was our full rations for the day. Most of our time was spent trying to get rid of the body lice of which we were all infested with. Eventually all of us were disinfected and felt much better for it. Whilst I was in this camp I began to suffer from an ear infection, which got worse and as a result was moved from the camp and sent to the Italian Military hospital at Caserta where I remained for about a month receiving the necessary treatment. The hospital ward I was in contained Prisoners of War who were suffering mainly from either dysentery or Malaria, I was able to assist them somewhat whilst I was there as they were suffering much more than I was.
On being discharged from the hospital I was sent, together with other prisoners, to another prison camp at Benevento. This camp was very much like the one at Capua, our minds were constantly full of thoughts of food we were told that we would be receiving Red
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Cross Parcels but I don’t think we ever did at either the first or second camp.
Towards Christmas 1942 we were moved by railway cattle trucks to a permanent camp at Chiavare which is situated near to Genoa. Conditions here were much better it was a large camp of about 2,000 prisoners, mostly British and South Africans. The accommodation was in Nissan huts, about 60 to each hut under the charge of a British N.C.O. [Non-commissioned Officer]. We slept in double bunk beds which were a great improvement compared to the other camps; whilst here we did in fact receive Red Cross parcels, which were usually shared, one parcel between five men, these parcels were a lifesaver because the Italian rations remained much the same as before. The parcels contained foods such as biscuits, butter, cheese, dried milt, tea, coffee or cocoa, meat, fish, tinned paste, Oxo or Bovril and many other things. The parcel weighed about ten pounds and when conditions were ‘normal’ we received these parcels weekly but still shared one between five men. The parcel also contained fifty cigarettes which to some of the lads were more important than the food, consequently, following the issue of parcels, the business of sharing them out equally was done, sharing out was easy but cutting up the food equally was difficult because each participant imagined that he was getting less than he should have, this was resolved by ‘cutting the cards’, ‘Ace high’ taking the first choice and so-on until all was divvied out.
One section of the camp was known as ‘the market’ where various items of food and cigarettes were exchanged, as I myself did not smoke, I usually managed to acquire extra food by giving up my cigarettes. All empty tins were saved and from these tins, the very practical types in camp made what became known as ‘brewing-up machines’, they were knocked together to form a space in which an
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Italian Mess tin could be placed above a small fire box, in which all manner of fuel would be placed and below the fire box would be an empty enclosed space which would be filled by air by the opening of a fan, operated by a handle to give a constant draught below the fire box, a Mess tin with about two pints of water within would be boiling in less than three minutes, the snag was however, that fuel was not easy to find but we managed to and got by, it was a comical sight to see these brewing machines in use, as many as thirty or so at a time, the wooden struts on our bunks were diminishing in number all the time as we were using them for fuel.
There were a large number of educational classes taking place all the time within the camp which were always fairly well attended, there was also an orchestra and a concert party, the orchestral instruments in fact being sent from England. I watched a performance of Bernard Shaw’s ‘Arms and the man’ performed by the concert party and also a performance of the ‘Mikado’, it was first class stuff and a credit to those inmates who produced and performed it, I believe that the music for the ‘Mikado’ was written down from memory by one of the inmates in the camp.
[During the time we were here as Chiavare we were issued with battle dress, jacket and trousers, underwear and toilet requisites, which, were badly needed.
Eventually, in June 1943, I, along with about 100 others, were sent to a small working camp near to the town of Pavia, about 50 miles away, where we were accommodated in a small wire enclosed area under the charge of Italian guards sleeping in double bunks near to where we were to be put to work. Our bread ration was doubled to 400 grams per day and the minestrone stews were still served twice a day but were much improved in the quality and quantity, plus Red Cross parcels.
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Our first job was on a farm generally assisting where needed collecting fruit and tomatoes and digging ditches. The temperature was already in the 70 and 80 degrees and we were usually stripped to the waist. The time passed much quicker and we always managed to bring extra food back into the camp with us.
After about a month at Pavia we were moved again to another camp at a small town called Monte Chiaro Denice where we worked in a brickworks, this was not so good, we could now no longer bring back extra food to the camp, consequently, moral slumped due to the numerous breakdowns of the machinery, usually as a result of sabotage by the other prisoners.
On 11th September 1943 we were told by the Italian guards, who incidentally were reasonably friendly, that an armistice had been signed between the Allied Forces, who were now on the point of invading Italy from Sicily, and the Italians who were loyal to the King, thus, the Italian Nation became split because the Fascist Forces led by Mussolini were to continue to fight alongside the Germans against the Allies. The Forces of Marshall Badoglio were instructed to cease fighting. It appeared that the loyalty of the Sentry’s in charge of our camp were loyal only to the King and Marshall Badoglio. As a result of the situation that developed and the uncertainty of the guards, we decided upon escaping from the camp and make our own way in groups of four to the surrounding hills, this we did, without any interference from the guards, I believe that they did exactly the same.
We left the camp carrying with us all our belongings and two blankets each, I left with three others who were, Bill Langabeer, Eddie Pell and Robert Frizzell. We made for the hills about three miles distant from the camp and hid away in the bushes. Eventually we were approached by an elderly Italian gentleman who could not
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speak one word of English but as a result of communicating by sign language we went with him to his nearby house where his wife was. They made us a nice meal of ‘Yes-Minestra’ and bread and cheese, this was followed by numerous glasses each of the local wine. In return we gave the lady of the house a bottle of coffee from our parcels, they were delighted as they could not obtain any coffee because it had to be imported from abroad so was unobtainable.
For the next two or three weeks we slept rough in the woods, farms and stables and welcomed and fed by the local people who were always very friendly towards us.
At about this time the Germans and Fascists issued an order warning the civilian population not to harbour or feed or in any way assist escaped Prisoners of War or deserters on penalty of death, or at the very least, punishment of having their houses burnt down and themselves being sent to Germany as slave labour. We were advised at this time that it would be wise to change out of our battle dress uniform into civilian clothing as otherwise we would more than likely be recaptured, on this we all agreed, changed and hid our uniforms in an isolated building on the hillside. We were given old working clothes by the local people and thus blended in with the locals and local scene, after a while I began to resemble ‘Worzel Gummidge’. We continued to be fed by various families but slept rough wherever we were able and kept away from the houses.
On 18th October 1943 I was hiding near some vineyard when suddenly German and Fascist troops appeared in the area and began a systematic search of the area, they passed very close to where we were but we remained undetected. At the end of their search later that night, they returned to their barracks in Aque, we discovered the following day that as a result of their search, the Germans had recaptured a total of thirty five of the original number of fifty
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prisoners that escaped and had also discovered our uniforms that we had hidden, now we were stuck with civilian clothes, fortunately, I still carried sufficient identification on me to prove who I was.
The local people became very much afraid, especially as the War in Italy did not seem very likely to end for some time to come. The result of this was that we four who had been together till now, decided to split up into two’s, Eddie and Bill were given food and worked on farms near to Ponti, Robert Frizzell and I moved further up the hillside towards another small village called Casteletto Del Erro where we began working for the Barisone family.
The countryside here, to an extent, resembled the Derbyshire and West Yorkshire countryside, all the houses were old stone built cottages about 300 years old, most of the land was steep and the roads narrow and badly broken up. The main source of income to the farmers were from their crops of wheat, maize, hay and their vineyards, I don’t think much had changed here for hundreds of years, it was like going back in time.
Both I and Robert were taken up to the Barisone family and introduced to them by their eighteen year old son Adriano and we commenced work. There was no running water except that which ran down the hillside so all the water had to be drawn from the well outside the house for the household and the animals, paraffin lamps were the order of the day for lighting, electricity not yet having arrived. The animals at the Baritone’s consisted of two oxen, one milking cow, two pigs, twelve sheep, six goats and numerous poultry, there were also several rabbits kept in cages and their dog which was chained up all the time. There were no tractors or mechanical aids in the working of the farm, the oxen drew the plough and also drew the four-wheeled flat bottom farm cart to transport all their produce and themselves up and down the very rough narrow badly broken
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twisting steep roads which were about one in six gradient. The mountain range in which Casteletto formed part at the Baritone’s was called the Apennines, the region we were is called Piemonte and up to the reunification of Italy in 1861 was governed by the French, thus, the local dialect, which I had to somehow learn, was called ‘Piemontese’ which had a good deal of the French language within it, most of the people around us spoke this dialect.
Going back to the Baritones’, the family comprised of Marcello and Maria, both in their fifties, they had a son who was missing in action in Russia, a son who was prisoner in Germany, then there was Adriano and him being eighteen years of age was awaiting his call-up papers but soon after our arrival Adriano left in order to avoid the Army. Florintina, seventeen, who mainly helped around the house and with the animals and also helped prepare the food and then came fifteen year old Aldo who was constantly by my side whilst I was working and kept a watch out for any strangers. Finally there was eight year old Guido and the youngest, Anna aged six, both the youngest children went to the village school in Castelletto, they were warned constantly by their parents never to speak to strangers and of the presence of myself and Robert in the house, even the children were involved in the War. In the household there was also an elderly lady called Madelena who was about seventy five years old and she served, darned, spun wool and made the butter amongst other things, she was a widow and the family Barisone had bought her land and allowed her to live out the rest of her life with them. There was also a man in his sixties at the farm, Genaro, who was employed by the Baritones’ as a casual labourer, he was there for the whole period that I was there and I believe, for several years thereafter. I normally worked alongside Aldo, his father and Genaro, Robert, after a time, left the baritones’ to work for a nearby elderly couple, Giovanni Panaro and his wife.
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Whilst working at the Baritones’ constant watch had to be kept out for any strangers who appeared on the scene, when this happened, in the daytime, I would make my way to the hideout with Aldo in close attendance, one small hideout was a field drain, the pipe being about two feet in diameter, I could manage this in those days, I could crawl into it for about three yards and await Aldo’s call for the all clear. Another hideout was in one of the stone walls between the fields in which there was a cavity about four feet square, after I had got into it, the opening would be closed off with stones by Aldo, this occurred quite often. On other occasions I would have to leave my normal sleeping place, which was on top of the barn, and sleep in the stone building in a valley about ten minutes’ walk from the house, there were several bales of straw in this building and with my two blankets I used to make myself comfortable, the next morning I would go back to the house for something to eat and then start work. It was a bit nerve racking sleeping in this place which, the Italians called a ‘Castote’, I used to have to walk down to it in the semi-darkness and chance that there were no other visitors lodging there already, such as rats.
After a while, the Baritones’ arranged a hideout for me in the barn which resulted in me being almost completely surrounded by hay and straw with about two feet of air space above me, there were also many times when other Prisoners of War who were still on the run, came to the baritones’ for a meal and said that they had to leave their particular farms because of the nearness of the Germans and Fascists. This alarmed the Baritones’ who then told me that I would have to find ‘pastures anew’ for a while but to return when it was safe to do so, we were told always to keep away from the roads as much as we could keeping to the fields and woods and to approach the various stone cottages we passed and to do so by night for shelter. This we always did, we seemed to become professional
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wanderers but our perceptions were almost always good and the people were always pleased to see us and were always hoping for a swift end to the War. Our visits to each house was brief not wanting to endanger the occupants and their families any more than absolutely necessary, at night we usually slept above the barn or in the stables and on occasions slept out in the open air or in isolated Casotes, but always carried our blankets.
When visiting one particular place, the local priest called and spoke with us and before leaving took our names and home addresses and told us that he would try and get word back to our relatives that we were alive and well and on the run in Italy, in fact, my wife Min did receive a telegram from the Vatican Radio informing her of just this.
On another occasion I had to leave the Baritones’ and went away with three other lads, two were ex-Prisoners of War from the brickworks, one from Devon and a man called Albert Wood from Manchester, the other was an Irish man that had been taken prisoner at Anzio in Southern Italy and had escaped from the train later transporting him with others to Germany. We travelled together for about ten days. The Irish and the Devon lads said that they intended to rob a bank and one of them produced a revolver, at this Albert Wood and I disagreed with them and as they persisted in their intention, we split up and went our separate ways. Albert and I moved quickly away from the area knowing that it would very soon become unsafe for us to stay any longer and food and shelter would not be forthcoming, eventually we went into a cottage for a meal and whilst in there another young man entered the room and introduced himself as also an escaped prisoner, an Army Officer, he was eventually able to satisfy us of this, his true identity and we likewise. He proposed to us that he wanted to travel on foot to the coast near Genoa where he had a contact who he hoped would be
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able to aid us to escape by boat back to our own lines, Albert said that he was not interested in the proposal and left on his own the next day. I went with this Officer, I can’t recall his name. We travelled over the hills and mountain tracks until reaching a certain point near a village on the coast, on arrival, this Officer went down the hillside into the village on his own and after a while returned to me and said that he had been unsuccessful and that we would have to return to the place which, was about twenty five miles away. It soon drew in dark and we eventually stopped at a house where we asked for and kindly received shelter for the night, we actually slept inside the house on a mattress on the bedroom floor in the same room as the couple who lived there, quite an experience. We left at first light thanking our hosts for their hospitality and returned back to the Officers place, on arrival there, we were greeted with the news that the previous day the Fascists had been searching the area for escaped English Prisoners of War, it seemed that there was no doubt that the Irish and Devon lads had indeed carried out their intention to rob a bank, which, apart from being illegal and criminal, was a very foolish and unnecessary act to carry out as the local population were mostly friendly towards us and were most willing and prepared to help us at almost any cost to themselves. The outcome of hearing this news, I decided to leave early the following morning leaving the Officer where he was and make my own way back to the Baritones’, about twenty miles.
I awoke early the following morning having slept in a stable, it was raining very heavily and was very misty, visibility was down to only about 100 yards, I got a general feeling and idea of the direction I had to take and after having some food, set off on my return journey back to the Baritones’, I was travelling almost blind in the mist and my clothing was very soon saturated, I kept off the roads as much as I could. I came to a heavily wooded area on a hillside which led
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down to a fast flowing river which was about twenty yards across, I followed this river until I came to some stepping stones, they were very greasy and of course, the inevitable happened, I fell in. It was about four feet deep and the water was moving fast, I reached the other side safely but, if possible, wetter than I was before. I kept going, the rain stopped and the sun began to shine, I then saw a farmhouse, went in and asked for food, I was welcomed and invited in and given bacon, bread and wine, this was the first time in a couple of years that I had tasted bacon. I was allowed to dry my clothes and by this time the visibility outside was good and I could now see where I had to go, I could see the tower of Ponsone in the distance at the top of the hill and eventually reached Ponsone but had to walk a little distance along the main road. An Italian Policeman, a Caribineire, passed me on a bicycle but other than just looking at me, did not, fortunately, stop to question me. I immediately left the road onto the fields leading down in the distance to a small village called Cartocio where there was a bridge crossing the river Erro, as I got closer to the bridge I broke into a cold sweat, there was an armed German sentry on the bridge, I hesitated for a while and also offered up a prayer for help, I continued walking and crossed the bridge passing close to the sentry, I think I said ‘Boun Giorno’ to him, he ignored me and allowed me to continue on my way, my prayer had been answered. I eventually arrived back at the Baritones’ in the early evening, they were most pleased to see me and I was once again accepted back into their fold!
I could tell you more about life on the Baritones’ farm, such as the harvesting of the crops and the gathering of the grapes, peaches and chestnuts but events were in the main normal as was the living, but I must say that the Italian people in those days were a very happy-go-lucky people and would sing as they worked, despite the situation they were in.
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On 3rd January 1945 I had been to work with Robert at the Panaro’s where he was working, mostly for the change but also to help him as he worked alone. We slept in the stable there for the night, on waking the following morning we saw that there had been a heavy fall of snow, three feet or more deep, all around, we dug a path from the stable to the house and went in for our breakfast, meanwhile, Mrs. Panaro, Madelene, went to the stable to milk the goats, on her return to the house she became very excited and came running in saying ‘Fascisti-Fascisti Sono Qui’, the Fascists are here! Apparently they had arrived on skis from the village about half a mile above, Castelletto, for a moment we were stunned, then I said that all we could do would be to go into the bedroom and squeeze ourselves under the bed, this we did, it would be no use going outside and running, we would have not stood a chance in the deep snow and would have left a track. I heard the Fascist soldier come to the door of the house and tell Mr. Panaro that he had reason to believe that English Prisoners of War had been given shelter in the area and asked if he had any information to give, Mr. Panaro strongly denied any knowledge of any Prisoners of War being there, the soldier and his companions then left the house, which was called ‘Variada’ and they proceeded to the other houses in the vicinity, these they actually searched. I believe that the baritones’ house was thoroughly searched but nothing incriminating was found there. I always carried all my belongings with me in my pockets. When the soldiers had left our vicinity we were told by the Panaro’s so we left the house and concealed ourselves in a cellar of the house, which was on the ground level. By now the snow had been so disturbed by the movement of the soldiers that it was difficult to pick out who had been where. We scattered a couple of bales of straw and brushwood around the cellar and covered ourselves with it and there we waited. After about an hour the soldiers returned and searched the house
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together with the cellar where we were hiding but fortunately we remained undiscovered, later, they left. We remained in the cellar for several hours and just before dark we spoken to by Mr. and Mrs. Panaro, they were obviously as relieved as we were and both had tears in their eyes, they brought us two loaves of bread, two round cheeses and a bottle of wine for which we thanked them, we said that we would now leave the area, which we did. That particular occasion will always remain with me.
Robert was only five feet tall and the snow was three feet six deep, we struggled together up the steep pathway on to the country road at the top of the hill and walked along the road for about a half mile towards the village of Monte Chiaro Alto but it became too much for us and it was snowing, we saw a stone hut in a field near the road and we slid down to it, we remained here for the night, both of us had our two blankets. So continued our trudge through the snow for the next month, sleeping where we could, usually in stone shelters in the fields, we continued to be fed by the locals but never outstayed our welcome. After a few days, we met up with Bill Langabeer and Eddie Pell who had escaped from the POW camp with us, they were fixed the same as we were, for some reason, I know not why, we decided to swap around, Bill travelling with me and Eddie travelling with Robert, several days later, both Eddie and Robert were recaptured by a Fascist patrol. Around 4th February 1945 Bill and I had just left a hut where we had slept the night and were making our way through the snow to our next call for food, the snow now had paths cut through it but was still deep, as we walked along one of the paths, we walked straight into a Fascist patrol. We had no chance whatever of escape. The patrol questioned us and we had to admit that we were POWs [Prisoners of War] that had escaped from the local POW camp, they took us to nearby houses to
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try and find out who had been feeding and housing us, everyone they questioned denied having ever given us any form of assistance, but of course, we knew quite a few of them that had, for which we were and always will be eternally grateful. We both were then taken down to the local Fascist lockup and detained. We were left there for two or three days in which time our true identities were checked against POW records and again we were interrogated separately by two men in plain clothes but we gave nothing away that mattered to anyone. After, we were taken to a low, single story building about ten miles away where we were to be for the next two weeks, it was a detention centre for partisans, deserters and the like, so they must have still had their doubts about us. There was a large notice above the entrance to this building which read ‘Horire Si Ma Tradre Mai’ which translates to ‘die yes, but be a traitor, never!’ The building was really a cell block with three or four cells and an adjoining office. On opening the cell door to put us inside, the first people we saw were Robert Frizzell and Eddie Pell, they looked worse than we did but all they wished to know was if we had any fags, we hadn’t.
Altogether in this cell there were about eleven people, the remainder being Italians. Dirty straw covered the floor and there was one table which was secured to the wall, there was barely sufficient room in which to sit down. Within a very short time we all began to scratch ourselves, we were, once again, infested with body lice. There were no toilet facilities at all, except for buckets in the corner. We were taken in groups across a nearby field twice a day and that comprised of our sanitary arrangement. We were fed minestrone stew twice a day and that was that. What an utterly miserable place it was, especially during the night, the small inspection opening in the cell door was firmly closed, you may imagine the smell.
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After two weeks here, we were moved to what I believe was a military detention centre where we met with two other escapees, we were now six in number and placed three to a cell, the surroundings were much cleaner, the floor was concrete, however, there was only one camp bed between us, we solved this by two sleeping in turn sleeping ‘sideways’ on the bed and the other two sleeping on the floor with four blankets. I believe this place was called Cairo Monte Notte, we remained here until the end of March when we were moved again, this time to a civilian prison at Aqui where we were placed in a large cell with plenty of blankets which, however, were verminous. Being now civilian prisoners, our rations were halved. Finally, we were moved again, to another civilian gaol [jail] at Alessandria, whilst there, there were numerous air warnings and we could hear the aircraft and the bombs dropping, we began to despair of ever getting out of here alive.
On 24th April 1945 we heard the sound of gunfire outside the prison and after a while the gunfire ceased, then, several heavily armed partisans broke into the prison and released us. We were taken to a nearby hotel where we were given a room, we had a bath and discarded all our old rags and were supplied with new clothing by the local tradespeople, we looked quite spick and span when the American tanks entered Alessandria on 20th April 1945. We reported to the English Liaison Officer attached to the Americans, he gave us money, which we really didn’t need, and told us to report to the New Zealand Regiment at Genoa on 6th May. Meanwhile, we were given purses by the partisans and made our way back by truck to Castelletto. We were treated like the return of the prodigal son on our arrival, they had never expected to see us ever again, we had a great time together and everyone was delighted, we were a little sorry to go when our time to leave came.
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Our arrival at the New Zealand depot in Genoa saw us issued again with Army uniforms and given our first English breakfast in several years. This was a lovely experience and the tea tasted great. Shortly after, we were taken by army truck by road to Naples and after a few more days there, we were, along with about 1,000 other soldiers, put on board a troop ship, en route for HOME!
[subtitle] My uncle, William Harold Langabeer.
Although the above are the words of Les Hutty, there are certain parts that my uncle accounted slightly differently and although never really spoke of his experience with the rest of the men, did from time to time when in much later years, when they reunited frequently in the summer when the other men, together with their wives, came
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down on holiday to visit when they would all sit and reminisce back to when they were on the run and add in a few of his own experiences. We his family always knew him as Harold but William being his first name, was always known to his Army comrades as Bill. Harold had previously joined the Regular Army prior to the outbreak of WWII serving in the Devon and Exeter Regiment and at the time of his capture was in the Tank Corps fighting in the Libyan Desert at Tobruk. His capture came about when his tank was disabled by enemy fire. The complement of men within the tank numbered five, the tank, on being struck, exploded and Harold was thrown out unconscious and clear by the blast, the other four men did not survive, he was sat beside the Commander of the tank who took the full blast of the explosion.
Whilst in the camp, with rations meagre and Red Cross parcels not being distributed, the men would save small scraps of food to entice the semi wild dogs and feral cats that roamed the area close to the wire and gain their trust enough to grab hold of them, this extra meat supplemented their rather poor rations.
His account of their initial escape differed slightly in that the reason they were able to just walk out of the camp was because their Italian guards, being loyal to the King and not the Fascists, fled the camp and headed for the hills themselves. Harold recounted that the guards knew that the Fascists were coming and feared them but had left the prisoners locked up in the camp huts. In the heat and with prisoners suffering from dysentery and malaria, the weakest were dying on a daily basis and with no guards to remove their bodies, in the heat they would swell, and the pressure burst open the hut door. Harold decided to go to the Commandant’s office to find out what
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was going on and on entering the office, found that the guards had killed him, tied him to his chair with his entrails with his hand placed on top of his head which was on top of his desk, yes, a very graphic description of what he found, but Harold was like that, he told it as it was.
Prior to befriending any of the local people, who themselves were afraid of reprisals from the Fascists and very cautious in giving assistance to POWs Harold and the other men travelled around by night and hid by day in the stone out-buildings in the area and would awake to find that food had been left for them by the farmers and their families. He told of the first few days they were on the run when food was difficult to find, that he observed whilst one day in one of the barns, a squirrel was making several trips coming into the barn and burying nuts in the floor, one evening the men had a feast of nuts.
Another account he gave was when they were travelling over the mountains that one of them fell ill and was too weak to walk, I think it was Eddie Frizzell, so Harold being Harold picked him up and carried him for several days on his back. On one of these days he had a feeling that they were being followed so he placed Eddie down in between some rocks and moved a short distance down the hill, hid himself and waited, sure enough, they were being followed by a single Fascist soldier. Harold jumped out on him, despatched him and threw him down the ravine.
The first that the family knew of Harold’s safety, apart from the telegram that Les’ wife received, was when the local vicar of the village where Harold lived, called upon his mother to inform her that he had received a message from a fellow vicar in Scotland that the troop ship carrying the men home from Italy had berthed in the Clyde and that Harold was amongst those troops on board the ship.
[digital page 22]
Most of the vicars and Clergymen throughout the Country at that time were radio armatures and possessed radio transmitting and receiving sets and this is how news and messages travelled around.
On his return to his family home, Harold had to return to normal life but found this difficult at first having for the previous several years been living off his wits, if he heard a sound that resembled gunfire or an explosion, even if he was in the middle of a meal, would get up, leave the house and disappear for hours at a time before returning.
Harold always carried a reminder of those days in that he had a dark bluish patch, like a large birthmark, just below the skin on the left side of his face from his cheek bone down his cheek, this mark to us was not noticed that much but was a result of the cordite from the exploding shell that destroyed his tank in the desert. Harold’s working life after the War was spent working for a civil engineering company. He never drove a car, he married but had no children. He passed away in the late 1980’s after a short illness in his mid 70s. Les Hutty also passed away soon after. Les after the War joined the Police and served until his retirement. I don’t know what happened to Eddie Pell or Robert Frizzell after. Sadly, they have all gone now, but never forgotten.
[digital pages 22-23 Explanation for the photograph on digital page 23] This picture was taken in Casttello Dell Erro in early May 1945 and shows the four men together with members of the Baritone family and other Italian friends.
[digital page 23]
[Photograph with caption] Second from the left, Robert Frizzell. Sixth (front), Eddie Pell. Seventh, Les Hutty. Far right, William (Bill) Langabeer.
Copyright. T. Langabeer. 2010.