After missing the first call-up by just one day, Eric Knibb joined the army in December 1939. His account provides an honest reflection of his experiences, including the dismay he felt in the build-up to the outbreak of war, as well as his time spent as a driver/mechanic and as a prisoner of war. Initially posted to France, Knibb returned home in 1940 having seen little front-line action. In 1941 he was sent to Egypt on long sea voyage via Durban, eventually arriving in the desert.
It was here that he was taken prisoner by a German panzer division and transported to an Italian POW camp where he remained for approximately 2 years. Following the Italian armistice, he managed to escape with a group of others, but eventually left them to travel alone. Relying on the help of rural Italian hill farmers, and crossing a minefield with just the guidance of a cow, Knibb managed to cross the British line in December 1943.
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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ERIC KNIBB born 1918. View of politicians. Driver/Mechanic went to France in April as retreat began. On foot many feet gave out. French jeering at them. Cattle trucks to Cherbourg and then to Southampton. ‘Hitler’s dream became the worlds’ worst nightmare.’ 1941 on ‘Andes’ to Durban, Tewfik, Cairo. Near Mersa Matruh first night in desert almost drowned in rain when in vehicle. Captured Dec ‘41. Hellish transport in bowel of ship. In SERVIGLIANO at Armistice and gets away quickly with six others. First Italians friendly and family grandfather speaks ‘Am American. Two of them, Scots, decide to go north to Switzerland.
Eric K. finally goes it alone. On the ‘great hurdle’ (ROME road and rail with Pescara river) finds family but later loses his new socks and BOOT in crossing a river. Goes to a hut – of Germans and runs and runs.
A woman takes him back to husband and house at Isernia. Hides in cave during day. An Italian tells him to walk more slowly with shorter steps if he want to seem Italian and shows him where Germans are. Hears ‘morse code and seen by Germans Suddenly challenged but disappears in time. Two Germans cross in front of him finds a dead cow and thinks he is in a mine field so drives a live cow in front of him and finds deserted ho house, which after getting through is told was booby trapped.
44 pages giving a very honest view of experiences.
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[Map – no caption: colour map of Italy from Rome to Naples]
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MY SECOND WORLD WAR
Page 7 (in retrospect)
What did you do in the war Granpop?
I think that on looking back I think that my answer should be- Very little that really helped to win the war. I didn’t shoot any Germans, although I was shot at on several occasions: fortunately they missed.
Anticipating that war could be imminent the government of the day in the spring of 1939 decided to call-up all eligible men who would be 20 years of age on or before June 1st 1939. My 21st birthday fell on June 2nd, so I missed the first call up by one day! It didn’t seem to frighten Hitler one little bit that the cream of England’s manhood could soon be ranged against him, – after they had finished their training, of course, and he carried on with his relentless war against the weaker nations of Eastern Europe. Eventually of course our politicians began to see that unless they did something about it and that right soon, Mr Hitler would soon be wading ashore at Dover and that if such an event occurred they stood in grave danger of losing their jobs. Hitler kept his cool though and carried on invading. So our lot decided to order another dozen or so Hurricane fighter planes and build a couple of battle ships to replace those lost at the battle of Trafalgar and sat back to await events. Hitler just put one or two fingers up according to the fashion of the time and carried on with his Blitzkrieg against anyone who got in his way.
Now, our pacifists were getting rather concerned. So they decided to do a bit of negotiating; in the friendliest possible way of course, and our top man went over there to have a quiet word with this man Hitler to remind him that we had a friendly agreement with the Poles; an anti-invasion agreement in fact. We hoped that he realised that we would be forced to go to Poland’s assistance if he, or indeed anyone else, declared war on them. (Hitler never declared war on Poland, His “Blitzkrieg.” Army just went in, flattening their gallant army as they went.)
War! What, us make war with Britain? No! No! No! Not A chance. We have no warlike designs on Britain. Don’t worry Old Chap; as soon as we have finished with these awkward Czechoslovaks who don’t want to be absorbed into our progressive country and be ruled by me, I am going to pack it in. No more war, we’ve finished with war. We are definitely not going to invade England – No chance! Poland? Oh don’t worry about them, we are not going to invade Poland. I have it on good authority that they want to come in with us. It’s only their more awkward politicians who are holding up a sensible agreement. The Polish people are definitely on our side.
So, flushed with success our man came back and declared that he had been able to arrange an Historic pact with Hitler that would ensure:-
Peace in our time!
Naturally there was great rejoicing, so much so that some of our more extreme Pacifists who had been rather subdued of late called for us to resume the dis-armament programme “Let us set an example to the world” they said. “Let’s turn our guns and warships into ploughs and sickles and tools for our gardens and things like that:-
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Guns, Rifles, Tanks, Warships; flog ’em; we won’t want those nasty dangerous weapons any more .”
Like most of those of my age, we could do little else but listen and hope that our leaders had got it right. But we also realised that if they were not right that it would be us who would be in the thick of it. It would be our generation who would have to repel the invaders if and when they came!
It’s history now. A history of stupidity! If only we could have banged their heads together; the politicians of all parties who wore those rose tinted spectacles. But who would take any notice of us? Those of us who were reading the news tentatively, hoping that our more sensible leaders had got it right, or could save the situation from getting worse, were barely old enough to vote! We were being led by the nose into the worst mess that any generation could be subjected to for the second time in twenty years. It’s not surprising that we developed a strong aversion to politicians and military leaders of any hue or party. Those of us who survived became paid up member- critics of leaders of any denomination of military, politic or religious organisation and naturally of course we probably passed our cynicism on to our children – rightly or wrongly. Has the process of evolution done its inevitable work and produced some of our current generation of less social, law abiding citizens?
September 3rd 1939.
War!!! Inevitably! I think that I have explained somewhere previously that I had left the nest and was living and working in West Norwood, South East London which is where my wife Dorothy and I met when Dorothy was fifteen and I was seventeen.
The war clouds had been gathering momentum for weeks (years really) and Neville Chamberlain was to speak to the Nation on the wireless on Sunday morning. Sept. 3rd at 11am. The Press were having a fine old time as usual, exploiting the situation to the utmost. Scare-mongering and frightening us into believing that the inevitable result of Chamberlain’s expected declaration of war on Germany would result in instant mass bombing of our principal cities. Our parents still had vivid memories of the last “Great war” which had lasted four years- a mere twenty years ago and were only just beginning to enjoy the promised peace.
On that Sunday morning Dorothy’s Dad wisely decided that the safest place for his family would be as far away from London as possible, so instead of waiting for trouble he loaded his family into his motorcycle and sidecar and drove off to a well loved beauty spot out in the country for the day. Wise man! Which explained of course why there was no reply when I called soon after the announcement to discuss the situation with Dorothy and her family.
Chamberlain made his expected announcement at eleven o’clock! And we were at war with Germany again for the second time in my life-time. Admittedly I didn’t know much about the previous time as I was born only five months before it ended but I Was There!
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The first call-up were soon used up. If they were posted to the Artillery they had spent the summer either on Salisbury Plain or in the West Country learning how to fire a 1917 rifle, and/or a gun mounted on wooden cartwheels.
Those men had hardly changed their civvies clothes for their swearing outfits before they were emptied across the channel to be called The British Expeditionary Force.
I missed that lot because by the time the Army got round to discovering that they had missed me out the first time round, it was nearly Christmas and I was called up to report to Shoeburyness Royal Artillery Barracks on December 15th 1939.
After a few weeks intensive square bashing and guard duties I was soon recruited and trained as a driver/Mechanic of heavy lorries and gun towers. I was in my element. But it was towards the end of April before a batch of us Driver/Mechs. [Mechanics] were given seven days leave before being sent over to France. We were told before we left that we would be joining a unit and at least do something useful. In fact we were sent to a reserve pool and lounged away the next few weeks in a transit camp. On several occasions we were called out to make up a work party to dig a trench at the side of a busy railway line, and were told that it was for a water supply pipe. It was rumoured that in fact it was to be used to house explosives to blow the line-up when necessary. We hoped that we wouldn’t be in the train that was blown up.
We had been in the transit camp for something like three weeks when we were woken up soon after settling ourselves down in our tents and told to get up, take only our standard battle gear as necessary and move out. All the transport had already left and so we were ordered to march, carrying all our kit of course, into the unknown.
Rumours were rife: we were going up the line, Jerry had broken through; a heavy air raid was expected! Even one that would have us believe that an unexpected peace deal had been signed. Where some of these stories originated heaven only knows. But of course we kept on marching. On and on we went, no one knew where we were going, we were just following our officers who didn’t seem to know very much either. All that night we marched: well of course it wasn’t a march, it soon turned into a shamble. We stopped for a break every hour or so, I really can’t remember exactly how often, only that I was very tired and foot sore. As dawn broke, which of course was very early in the morning, being the month of May, word came back that a field kitchen had been set up just a mile ahead where we would be able to have a rest and some breakfast. Well, that was one of the longest miles ever; a true army mile.
The locals were beginning to surface by then of course, many standing by their gates and making rude signs and noises. We soon realised, judging by their gestures that we were going the opposite way to what they expected and that the loud noises behind us was not thunder but the more frightening sound of big guns and bombs, and not all that far away either. The Frenchies were not happy, their gestures were being replaced by jeering and soon we were vying for space on the road. We were marching in staggered single file thirty men in a column alternately on each side of the road, so our column must have stretched for some considerable distance. Mixed in with us were French locals hand-carts, men, women, children, domestic and farm animals all mixed in and vying for space.
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All loaded with their belongings on their back or piled up on their bikes, wheelbarrows, trying to put as much distance between them and the invaders as possible. And there was us with packs on our backs and our rifles slung on our shoulders, all going away from the action instead of the other way round. Eventually we were herded into a wood where a field kitchen had been set up (the last I ever saw in France) and we were able to ease the packs off our backs, rest our feet and, after endless queuing, tuck into mugs of tea, bully beef and biscuits.
All hell had broken out behind us – obviously Hitler had let his mob loose on Northern France. The Hell could only have been between two and three miles behind us because we saw a lot of Jerry planes disgorging paratroops from a relatively low height. It was only a very short time previously that we had been where those men were being dropped.
The next days were confusing to say the least. I don’t exactly remember how many. We spent all that day literally making as much distance between us and the German army as our feet would allow. The footsore problem was chronic. Some men just fell out by the side of the road, their feet in such a mess that blood was oozing out of their boots.
In most of these cases the victims were bandy- chaired by the tougher ones taking it in turn to carry them to the next rest break. An officer was called, details taken and a promise given that they would be picked up by a RAMC unit which was supposed to be travelling behind. Always supposing that they have room the officer usually cautioned, laced with a veiled threat of being put on a charge of desertion if the man did not report to him at sundown with a sicknote. I saw this happen several times that day.
At this time I felt absolutely helpless, useless and embarrassed. Unfortunately it would not be the last time in my six and a half years army experience. Most of us felt the same way about the situation that we were in through no fault of our own. We were all raw rookies, fresh from training units, far removed from the job and equipment we had been trained to use. And of course mostly unknown to each other; being reserves for various units already situated somewhere “up the line”.
We were supposed to have joined up to fight Hitler. Obviously we could not do it on our own, which was why we were in the Army. But it seemed to us that as soon as the Germans showed their face we were led skulking away from the action. Let’s not pretend that we were all so keen to go into action with the strong likely -hood of becoming an early casualty that we would have gaily swapped places with those in the thick of the fighting. But the French locals all around us laughing and jeering and taking the Mickey were not labelling us heroes of the day either. Frankly it was frightening and extremely embarrassing.
More frightening than being in the middle of what was going on behind us? I doubt it. But what were we to make of it all? Of course there was no answer, we just had to get on with it and make the best of what we were powerless to alter.
And so it went on for several days until we arrived at a railway yard and were directed into railway trucks for 40 Men or 10 horses. Now where were we going? Perhaps it would have been better if we had known where we were going or what we were to do, but we were told nothing at all. We spent the next few days travelling around France in railway trucks and eventually arrived at Cherbourg on June 1st.
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It was with considerable relief when we boarded a well overloaded regular cross- channel Ferry which we learned afterwards was the last to get away.
There were literally thousands of troops on that ferry. We travelled to Southampton and arrived in the middle of the night on my birthday -June 2nd to a welcome for heroes. We knew nothing about the Dunkirk rescue but of course, as soon as we heard about what had been going on we felt right Charleys, we had missed all that lot, but were being hailed as if we had been in the thick of it.
What a year! What a waste! Exactly a year ago I had missed the first call- up by one day and because of that I had missed the worst carnage that any Army could possibly have experienced and had not fired a shot in anger or defence. Along with thousands of others had travelled hundreds of miles for nothing. A rather humbling thought. But what a waste!
More waste was to follow of course- years of it! The best years of my life was wasted because of the dream of a power-mad jumped-up Big Head. — Adolph Hitler. Not the first in history of course, but one of the most devastatingly wicked and ruthless that the world had seen to date. He was directly responsible for the death, mutilation, misery and disruption of the lives of uncountable millions of men women and children throughout the world. He had a dream! His dream became the world’s worst ever nightmare. What a waste!!!
After landing at Southampton we were whisked off to the Wye valley in chartered trains and billeted in private homes for a couple of weeks. Some at Hereford, others, like me, at Ross-on-Wye. Of course we were made very welcome indeed, treated like heroes, and fed like kings; they got army rations for us and of course we did very well out of it. We were taken down to the pub in the evenings and treated to all we could drink, and generally had a fine time.
Next stop Watford, a transit camp for unattached spare bods like me while they sorted out what to do with us. We were confined to camp except subject to strictly local six hour passes. Just in case we tried to desert of course.
Dorothy and I soon sorted each other out and managed to meet up somewhere locally. Dad scrounged some petrol and brought Mum and Sister Edna up to see me and gave me a ten bob note for myself. Perhaps he thought that if he made it too much that I would spend it on riotous living like women and drink.
Dorothy and I found a local wood or copse for a bit of innocent snogging. I must emphasise the innocent bit but it was really because we were both dead- scared of the consequences of going too far; neither of us being sufficiently versed in contraceptive measures to be able to chance it. Dorothy did suffer some nasty bumps however, but only because those woods were alive with mosquitoes and she got badly bitten.
The next stop was Lowestoft where I was posted to a North Country Field Artillery unit as a driver/mechanic. I had spent a week’s holiday at Pakefield Holiday camp, which is just outside Lowestoft with my sister Edna only a year before. The camp had been taken over by the army and was now part of the unit that I was with. What a lot had happened in that year! And now a full circle!
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We were situated in an old sand quarry and supposed to be guarding Lowestoft in case of invasion. Our guns were French 75s on wooden wheels.
It is a good job that Hitler refrained from implementing his invasion plans!
We stayed at and around the Lowestoft area for several weeks and then moved down to Whitney, Oxon for re- equipping and training and then on to Rye in Sussex to guard the coast, although we now had some 25lb er to take with us.
It was while we were stationed at Whitney that Dorothy’s Dad brought Dorothy down from their home in London on his motor bike and sidecar to visit me. No leave pass available at the time.
Dad gave us freedom to roam about for an hour or so on our own and during that time we decided to ask Dad if he would agree to us becoming engaged. Not that it meant a great deal at that time as our futures were uncertain in the extreme. I was 23 and Dorothy was in her 20th year, so it was nothing out of the ordinary that we felt that we should rationalise our relationship as far as circumstances would allow at that time. Dorothy’s Dad had been in the Flying Core during his army service and had himself become engaged to Dorothy’s mum during his service, so on moral grounds could hardly refuse. In ordinary circumstances we would no doubt be thinking seriously about getting married, or preparing for it anyway.
Rye is a lovely little town and we enjoyed the hospitality of the local population as far as their ration allowances would stretch.
I was beginning to feel more secure and settled than for some time, but it was not to last because in May of that year (1941) I was given seven days embarkation leave and told to report at the end of my leave to a transit camp at Derby.
Where to Now?
Not a clue! Plenty of rumours of course, but as per usual the Army kept quiet.
Had quite an interesting voyage on the Andes; an almost new ship that had never seen service apart from serving as a troopship. Had been built for the South American run. Comfort on board was not a high priority, especially at night when we had to scramble into hammocks jammed tight together slung from the bulkheads.
We crept stealthy out of Liverpool at night and out into the Atlantic, our hearts in our mouths hoping fervently that we would avoid becoming a “U.” boat disaster statistic.
We soon reached warm sunny climes and of course spent most of our time on deck either getting sunburnt, or playing Housey-Housey, now known as Bingo of course, while listening to a very limited selection of modern hit tones played on the ships radio loud speaker system. Mostly played were “The Sailor with the Navy Blue Eyes.” or “Yes My Darling Daughter.” .No matter where you went on the ship, above or below deck, it
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was impossible to escape from being mugged by one or the other of those two records.
We called at Freetown and then went on to end the first part of the voyage at Durban without seeing a periscope, although naturally a sharp unofficial watch was kept and there were lots of false “sightings ”
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Army days abroad. Next stop Egypt
The sea voyage via Durban and up the east coast of Africa to Egypt was boring and uneventful.
We had sailed on the “Andes.” A brand new ship on only it’s second trip, we were given to understand, from Liverpool to Durban without major incident. We played Housey-Housey (known as Bingo today) for most of the way. Also there was a choice of two records which from memory seemed to be played alternately all day long. They were “The Sailor with the navy blue eyes.” and “Yes my Darling Daughter.”
We were all looking forward to shore leave at Durban to relieve the monotony. The local population of Durban took very good care of us. Many of us were taken into the locals homes, including myself and had a right royal time. The various stories recounting the wonderful hospitality received by some of the men lasted well into the second half of the voyage up the East coast of Africa. We eventually landed at Port Tewfick [Tewfik] (next door to Port Said). We had changed ship at Durban, although I can not remember the second ship’s name. I do remember the prickly heat that we suffered as we went through the Red Sea. It seemed to be somewhat selective. Some suffered more than others. I suffered even though I managed to find a small degree of relief on the open deck along with lots of other sufferers.
Several hours after docking in Egypt we arrived via a rattling good train at a transit camp on the outskirts of Cairo where, along with most of the new draft went down with Sand-fly fever almost immediately. Most of us spent a couple of weeks recovering at Helleopoliss [Heliopolis] hospital on the outskirts of Cairo. Some of us who recovered more quickly than others managed to scrounge a few days sick leave in Cairo and saw the Pyramids while others found the flesh spots in Cairo more attractive. Most of us feasted in the Egyptian cafes on egg and chips. Three pullets eggs had to make up for a single egg in size to those at home and the chips were sweet potatoes. I only tried egg and chips once. That was more than enough for me.
All good times have to end and it was not long before I was posted to my new unit “Up the Bluey.” As the Old Soldiers referred to the Desert.
The extremely bumpy road journey in the back of an army 3 Tonner seemed to last for ever. But eventually we arrived at a place picturesquely called Bug-Bug [Buqbuq], not far from Mersa Matruh as we were informed by the knowledgeable old soldiers.
We all know that the desert is a desert because of the lack of rain: it’s common knowledge. In some places it only rains once in several years we were told at school. In some places Never!
Dare I ask why “once in several years occurred on my first night in the Desert?
Of course it rained, but not just one year’s rain, but several years rainfall all at once! All in one night!
Why we were not all drowned in our makeshift beds was a miracle. I had made my bed in a gun tower, across the front seat and could have drowned there except that the noise of the rain woke me up. The vehicle, like all the others had been carefully
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hidden in a dug-out and camouflaged to protect it from the view of enemy aircraft. In the morning I found that most of my bed was floating inside the vehicle.
Wherever anyone slept that night, if they slept at all, above or below ground level, they got wet. If below ground level they had to get out quickly or they would have drowned. I have never seen rain like it before or since. All the dug-outs were filled in a few minutes and low parts of the area quickly became ponds or lakes. In the morning we found that most of the vehicles were waterlogged with electric systems and or fuel systems completely contaminated with water.
So ended my first night in the desert!
I had been posted to the unit as a driver mechanic, who of course usually works under the supervision of a vehicle artificer. (the army’s name for a motor engineer or mechanic).
The Battery Sgt. [Sergeant] Major sought me out, expecting, or perhaps I should I say hoping, that I would be the answer to the battery’s request for a vehicle mechanic. He must have been a bit disappointed to find that he had only got a lowly driver/mech [mechanic] without even a single stripe. Stripes, Crowns or Pips always seemed to have greater value than experience or seniority in the army. The greater number of any, the greater the authority.
The Sgt. [Sergeant] Major probably thought that in the absence of an experienced vehicle mechanic that I would do in an emergency. I might have been too if the Army had thought to give whoever they had sent, ie Me, in this case, the authority of at least one stripe. (My previous acting L [Lance] Bombardier appointment having lapsed when I was posted from my previous regiment). I might have been able to help, or at least limit some of the unnecessary damage being done in a vain attempt to start some of the vehicles if I had had even a tiny bit of authority.
As it was, I was completely unknown to any of the drivers and had no authority, no tools and as a mere driver mechanic no hope of being issued with any either.
A couple of vehicles had escaped being drowned and were being used in a vain brutal attempt to start some of the other vehicles by towing them. No attempt having being made to drain off water from sump or petrol tank beforehand. Consequently, most of the regiments essential transport was ruined. Necessary repairs would take weeks.
Hello Desert! British army style organization is here! No change from normal.
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Army Days. In the depths
Army days! In The Depths! December 15th 41 to Early January 42!
A long, long way down —-. The very Pits! Sixty years on, and I can still feel the utter despair:- the utter hopelessness of our position, there were a lot of men in the hold of that Italian ship on the journey to Italy from North Africa at Christmas- 1941. Must have been a thousand, possibly more. -A lot-! All in the hold of a rusty, stinking, otherwise empty freighter. Only enough room to sit down on rough wooden boards in the bottom of the hold.
A common well known classic phrase kept going through my mind. “See Naples and die”.
We were very conscious of the fact that our submarines were known to be very active in that part of the Mediterranean. Every now and then the engines would stop and one of the Guards would shout down from the hatch “Silencio.” And the single electric lamp hanging down on its wire from the hatch above would go out.
While the ship was not being driven by its engines it would wallow from side to side or front to rear or any which way the waves took it. The time that elapsed before the engines started again would vary but it was usually at least an hour. The longer the period the more worrying it was, the imagination working overtime, and depression getting deeper as time wore on. You can bet that we kept quiet; except for some barely suppressed sobs from varying distances around.
The stench! No toilet facilities of any kind, no room to lay down.
Men being sick from seasickness and from naked fear all around!
The only light – a low watt electric bulb hanging down from the single hatch-way above. A house-hold extension ladder stretched up to the open hatch connecting us in the hold with an Eyetie Guard with a rifle slung over his shoulder above.
Dark outside, and wet! Would we make it? Who could say? Even so, there were a few conspirators huddled together who were debating various ways to rush the guard and take over the ship! There’s always one -or two!
And there always seems to be the enterprising explorer who finds the hidden cache of something; to help, or make matters worse! In this case one of the blokes found the ships stores and distributed soft cheeses wines and all sorts of Italian food around to anyone who could manage to eat it. Some were so hungry that they tucked into it. But mostly it was sicked straight up!
Would our Navy, coming across an unescorted lone cargo vessel at night in the the Med. [Mediterranean] investigate before sinking it? Or would they try a little target practice first?
Like from a British submarine Commander, on his loud hailer. “Ahoy there? Excuse me! Who are you? What is your name and nationality? Have you any British Nationals on board?
We were having a very Quiet Christmas! No Christmas carols. No Santa Claus. The longest Christmas night that I have ever experienced. What a lovely Christmas!
Morale was low. We had been subjected to all kinds of indignities since the fiasco of the battle when we had lost many mates and most of our officers less than two weeks ago. We were dirty and lousy, weak and hungry, although the thought of eating
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anything at the moment was out of the question for most of us. We had only our desert day-time clothes to wear. We were lousy and dirty. We had travelled since very early the previous morning, walking for hours from the army camp up in the mountains down to the rail head to be transported to the ship and Italy. The weather was cold and we were tired to the point of exhaustion even before boarding this hell-hole ship. Ordinarily of course we would have slept, but sleep for most of us was out of the question.
I kept going over in my mind the events that had occurred to place us in this situation.
It was a German Panzer Division that “Had appeared from nowhere” that had knocked us out. I can still hear the sound of those tanks as they came in slowly towards where our guns were ranged. The deep throaty rumble of their engines as they advanced a few feet, the squeal of their tracks. Screech—-squeal—- screech —-. Stop.—- Then —Rat-a tat- tat- Rat-a- tat- tat followed by- Bang! as they fired their “88.” at our guns, their unprotected target . At first several of us M/t [Mechanical Transport] wallers ie. drivers Etc., took refuge behind one of the vehicles where for the time being we were out of sight. Some of the drivers had been detailed to take replacement ammo to the guns, But it was not long before their trucks were set alight were set on fire, and as most had ammo on board it was not a safe place to be. I really don’t remember how many tanks there were, at least eight, could have been more, but we were a sitting target without the slightest hope of escape. The battle lasted for about three hours -to the last Gun– and the last Gunner!
“We” were part of a regiment of medium Artillery accompanied by a Company of Infantry, the Buffs, who seemed to be equipped with only with 303 rifles, which are not of much use against armoured tanks. I have no idea of the role of the “Buffs” during the ensuing battle although it seemed that their protection against “88” s were 505’s anti/tank rifles.
Aim for their visors! If you get a direct hit they won’t be able to see you!
We were surrounded on three sides without the protection of Tanks or Armour of any description. Just 12 25 Pounder Field Guns which were not designed to be used against heavily armoured German Tiger Tanks. We didn’t even have any Armour- Piercing anti-tank shells. It was sheer Bloody Murder.
I think that all our Gunners were killed. Our lorries were set on fire early on in the battle. The tanks were ranged nearly all round our guns The ground was too hard to dig into for slit trenches for protection. Even to attempt to stand up evoked a fusillade of bullets. At the start the German tanks were only visible to us by their gun turrets. The rest of the tank was out of sight down a slope (escarpment) which surrounded the site in the shape of a horse shoe. So they could let fly at us at will. We were caught completely exposed in the middle of a plateau. There was no shelter or shield of any description. The edge of the escarpment was about 5-700 yards. from the centre where our guns were ranged.
We had been wandering about the desert for two or three weeks and the rumour was that we were to make our way to relieve Tobruk which had been under siege for several months. There were no fixed battle lines, just English and Commonwealth Battalions (Reported to be New Zealanders) roaming around and having a go at the
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enemy whenever an opportunity occurred.
We toured from here to there and from there to here: seemingly at random during the day and leagued up at night when we all got into a circle as the American Settlers used to do in the films when “Wagons Roll” was the call to start the day.
They needed to protect themselves from the Indians, I think that we needed protection from our Superior staff officers.
The Jerries used to send out patrol parties and of course we did as well. There was great excitement when one of the other side got caught.
When at last the last of our guns was silenced, an uneasy quiet descended, there was nothing to say and I suppose we were too shocked to be able to react.
And then the Germans began coming on to the site in their various vehicles to mop up, making no effort to hide their jubilation as they rounded up the survivors of which I think that there were about three hundred altogether, including the Buffs.
There was no opportunity to attend to our comrades- wounded or dead. I went over to what was left of the guns to see if there was anything that I could do to help any of those men who were lying around in all sorts of grotesque positions.
The gunners all appeared to be dead as far as I could see. I was frightened and dejected but hoped that perhaps there might be life among at least one of them. I went from one to the other, I was completely on my own. I thought that one man showed some sign of life and I got down to see if he was capable of being revived and then hopefully waved to some German soldiers who were coming on to the site in trucks.
I was hoping that perhaps they were medics but one of them just moved the mans body with his foot and proclaimed “Mort,” and went on to say “For you the war is over.” and guided me into his truck.
Now what? The Germans were obviously jubilant, talking excitingly among themselves. They had to winkle out some of the men away from their hiding places, not that there had been many hiding places available.
There was no hope of escape for the majority of the men who had escaped injury or death. There were no vehicles left that were not burning or were already burnt out and there was nowhere to go except desert and nobody had any water. It could be that some had found a gap somewhere and had found a vehicle that was capable of being driven and beat a hasty retreat towards the end of the fighting but most of the men were trapped by circumstances beyond their control.
There was nothing that they could have done if they had stayed, assuming that some had found means to get away.
A lot of men had been killed, most had been actual gunners of course who had not had the slightest chance of surviving.
Imagine a horseshoe shaped plateau a little less than a mile in diameter. We had come in across the open back part of the shoe in the morning and settled down roughly in the middle. There had obviously been a pocket of German guns who must have been out of sight to our left rear as we came in to the plateau who were the first to attack in the morning. There was a period of exchange of gunfire. It was from there that fire was being directed at the vehicle lines where I was working on a disabled quad earlier in the morning.
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I think that the time was about five o’clock. PM When we left the battle scene.
We marched all that night with German guards all round us constantly urging us to hurry on. We were completely humiliated and demoralised; no kit, food or water, just the clothes we were wearing. The weather in the desert had been quite hot during the day even though it was December; and during the fighting there was no thought of getting out wearing warmer clothes ready for the evening cold. Most peoples kit was burnt in the Quads or Trucks during the afternoon.
Some of the men tried to slide out of the column as we passed clumps of bushes, but were soon rounded up and threatened with being shot. There wasn’t much point in trying to escape in any case as no-one had water left to drink and there was no hope of finding any. Very few had water bottles as they didn’t have the opportunity to collect any kit. I was fortunate as I had managed to hang on to my water bottle although it was empty before we left the battle area. We learned very soon after our arrival in the desert that to be in the desert without water was certain death from de-hydration in a few hours without the slightest doubt. I still react as if I was back there if I see a tap dripping.
It seemed as if we would never get to wherever we were going. Of course we didn’t know our destination. Eventually we arrived at the outskirts of an airfield and were told that lorries would be waiting to take us to a camp where we would be given food.
When we eventually arrived at the site a water carrier was brought up and we had the opportunity for a drink; the first for many of us for many hours but there was no food.
At the start of the battle, before it was realised what we were up against, I was repairing the engine of one of the Morris Quads, (gun towers) which had a broken valve spring which was a common fault with the side valve engines of these vehicles. There was very little that could be done “in the field.” except to release the tappet so that the valve was neutralised. The engine then fired on three cylinders. This was a really difficult knuckle grazing operation with only the primitive tools that I had available, and when being shelled from behind as well, was really hairy. Shrapnel was skimming along the ground and several times I had to jump out of the way to avoid being hit.
When eventually I had finished and got the engine running again -very rough of course; I had to go round to the other side of the Quad to find the driver and the rest of the crew who were sheltering up against the rear wheel.
“There you are Don, I said, Take it away.”
“You take it mate.” Don said “I ain’t *******taking it.”
I had not realised that this little bit of drama was being watched by our Captain who was just a few feet away from where he could see everything that had been going on.
Capt. called to me to drive the Quad away from the line of German fire!
Of course I had to do that. Not without a silent protest however as it was not my vehicle and also because I had been working on it directly in the line of fire for at least half an hour and thought that I had done my duty by getting the wretched engine going.
Anyway I drove it quite a distance away and out of the line of fire as was
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possible in the circumstances. All my effort was wasted however as the Jerries soon got their sights on it and set it on fire.
At the time the fire was coming from the left rear of where our vehicles were parked and was gunfire. Later on it came from in front giving us the impression that we were completely surrounded and of course was from German “88 s.” or Tiger tanks.
It should be noted that as far as any information about our position or what was likely to happen was concerned we were clue-less. No one told us anything!
I have often wondered whether there had been a way out to our rear and whether if we had known we could have made a run for it. I mean a controlled withdrawal of course.
Much later, when we were in the prison camp; word came through that a Quad driver in our Battery had been awarded a military medal for climbing on to his Quad and pulling the camouflage netting off his vehicle when it had been set alight by gunfire.
I was not a Quad driver but a driver/mechanic and did not have a vehicle of my own. I usually drove any vehicle that was short of a driver or with a junior N.C.O in whatever vehicle had spare space.
That medal winning driver was exposed to danger for, at most five minutes, whereas I had laboured for at least half an hour under intense gunfire while I successfully repaired the Quad that I was working on, even though it went up in smoke soon afterwards.
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Middle Days. The last at the POW camp
While searching for something else Dorothy came across her reply to the first letter I was able to write after I got through to our lines from the prison camp. All the other letters that I had written while I was a P.O.W she had of course saved but were lost in the fire at New Park Ave. in 1957. I had written as soon as I reached civilization in the form of the special repatriation camp which had been had been set up at Bari to receive us escapees, several thousand were anticipated, but, up to then, ten weeks after the Eyeties had given in and left us to our own devices, only a few had trickled through. It appeared that Jerry had anticipated that the Eyeti guards would scarper when the Italian armistice was signed and took over most of the P.O.W. camps during the night or very soon after. Hitler certainly didn’t want 5-60,000 revengeful British ex POWs released to bolster the second front that was gathering strength in England at that time; although we knew nothing about those plans then.
Imagine: yesterday the nightmare had ended! you were free! Well, almost! Home for Christmas?
Today? A Mummy and Daddy of all hangovers from last nights binge and booze-up party on Vino liberated from the camp stores. Must be having a nightmare?
Thick heads had been woken by the deadly sound of the rat-a -tat- tat of German machine guns as they took over camp 59 at Servigliano in the middle of the night that our little party of seven had just escaped from. For those who had not got away the previous evening, unlike the little party of seven that I was with: and had taken advantage of the absence of the Eyetye guards, the party was over! “Germany calling”-‘Germany calling’ ‘for you the war is over – once again!
What a miserable journey that must have been to another prison camp somewhere in Germany. Another Pitsea man, Fred Sharp, had been one of them. We met up after it was all over and from what he told me it had obviously been several weeks of misery. We had stumbled across each other in the camp, no connection of army unit or regiment. Just two men who happened to live in the tiny Essex village of Pitsea! Fred was a few years older than me and worked for Kings the local butcher. I remember him driving the butchers horse drawn delivery cart: perched up high on the purpose made cart: his horse high – trotting through the local lanes or where we called over the fields, he cut quite a figure in those days and I envied him his job. But of course that was several years ago, now- was in a POW camp in Italy. I thought when I first saw him: ‘I know that bloke’! Although not as himself, but as his Father. Such difference in appearance caused more by the trauma of war experience than by age. I remember asking him how his son was getting on and when he replied that so far as he knew he was O.K. but was longing to see him for the first time I realized that I had barely escaped a mighty big Faux- Pas. I breathed a sigh of relief when he failed to ask how I knew that he had a son, or even that he was married. — Pass!
In the camp I was a tin basher, one of those who must have driven the rest of them crazy by the noise of making all sorts of things out of the food tins that were in the Red Cross food parcels.
One of my efforts was a trinket box, or it could have been a Cigar box if one stretched
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ones imagination just a little and had nothing else to keep your cigars in . Fanciful imagination can be very useful sometimes, like romantic memories and dreams, but sometimes frustrating too. We had plenty of time for indulgences like flights of fancy but one came down to earth far too soon.
If you look carefully at the inside of a food tin you will see that the tin is covered with a brass coloured lacquer that varies in shade according to the make of container and quite enough to be distinctive. I used to make the boxes by joining strips of different shades of tin together in an effective pattern.
The tools we had to use were primitive in the extreme; just basic Stone Age! eg. various stones picked up because of their shape or size could be used as a hammer, or an anvil perhaps? I remember that the worn heel cap from an army boot made a useful tin cutter. Fred paid me the ultimate compliment of asking me to make one of my boxes for him to take home with him when the time came. Imagine my delight when Fred came to visit us at our home with his wife and son after the war and we had settled down, when he brought the box with him to show Dorothy an example of the things we did in the camp to keep ourselves busy. He had carried that box all the way from Italy, through the hell of the journey to the new location in Germany and back home to Pitsea.
One of the seven that formed our original escape party was a young Battery Sgt. [Sergeant] Major who we knew as Jackie, another was Henry, I seem remember that he was either a bombardier or a corporal. Then there were a couple of Scotsmen, named Jocks of course who stayed with us for a few days and then decided that they would try to get home via Switzerland. Two others wanted to stay on a farm because they thought they were on to a good thing with a couple of the Farmers daughters.
We had been very short of up to-date news in the camp and, although what had happened came as a complete surprise, we had previously discussed the possibility amongst ourselves of something like it happening. We had decided that we would take the opportunity of getting outside the camp as soon as possible if the chance occurred.
Now was the hour! It was happening! Now!
Jackie was a very forward clear thinking man who never threw his weight about but was a natural leader and we all got on very well together. I was quite happy to let Jackie lead. Although I eventually broke away from the little party of three there was no animosity.
The general idea was to make our way south until eventually we met up with our forces. Jackie thought that we would be able to hide-up or even mix in with the locals and then Hey Presto! One morning we would find ourselves on the right side again????????!
I went along with the idea for several weeks but progress was too slow for me, and was getting hazardous too. The Germans were hot on our heels. We kept to the high ground well away from towns and centres of population. We found that the farmers were quite prepared to help us as much as possible, but they were hearing horror stories of German atrocities from their neighbours all around and were getting frightened. Not without cause either, as one afternoon we saw to our horror: At least eight or nine farms in the valley below had been set on fire by the Germans, no more than a mile from where we had been hiding out for the past few days.
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By this time there were just three of us who had stayed together, Jackie and Henry wanted to keep to their plan but I was becoming doubtful if the plan was going to work, and we were possibly putting our farmer friends into danger as well, which wasn’t fair in my opinion. We were sheltering when necessary in a sort of shallow cave higher up the mountain rather than at the farm where we had been for the last few days. During the day we wandered off and went down to the farm at night for food. Sometimes we slept in a sort of outhouse on a straw bed, but if it was rumoured that the Tadeski (Germans) were in the area we went back up to our cave for the night.
Up to now we had all got on very well together, and even now on looking back, I don’t think that we fell out. There were no harsh words, we were all free to do what we felt right and no one was imposing their will on the others.
We had shared lots of good times together, like when we had been travelling for several hours on the first night trying to get as much distance as possible between us and the camp we had just left. It must have been midnight when we heard the rattle of machine guns in the far distance from the area that we had just left. We all knew what that meant and although we felt sorry for the mates left behind we congratulated ourselves on the fact that we could have still been in the camp and probably looking the wrong way down a German rifle or a machine gun if we had stayed behind for the party on Eytie Vino raided from the camp stores that those left behind had enjoyed.
We had been walking along a narrow dusty country road which had been uphill all the way and felt very vulnerable to any German vehicle that might possibly come looking for escapees from the camp. It was a nice warm moonlit night so we decided to leave the road and bed-down in a clump of vegetation just off the road. We had a little bit of food each, but of course didn’t know how long it would have to last. We thought we had done quite well to have got as far as we had, considering that we had all been prisoners for nearly two years and had not exactly been living on the fat of the land. Most men tried to keep fit by walking round and round the exercise field for as long as was possible in the circumstances. But with so little food inside us for such a long time we were very tired and beginning to be footsore as well. I remember that my weight had dropped down to eight stone six. (Weighed on a machine brought in by a Red Cross inspection team on the only visit that I remember.
When we awoke in the morning we looked around us and were amazed at the distance that we must have travelled. When we were in the camp we used to gaze longingly at the mountains in the far distance and dreamed of getting the other side of the wire of and making for those distant hills. They were so much closer now it seemed unbelievable that we had made so much distance the previous night.
The plan was to get up into the hills as soon as possible, away from the faster roads. We reckoned that we could stick to the hills all the way down Italy and only surface when we were close enough to make our final plans to re-join our forces.
On that first morning when we awoke we were. cold, hungry and thirsty. The only habitation in sight was a farm-house which seemed to be tucked in the folds of some hills about half a mile away.
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A couple of the party had wandered off exploring, and soon came back with the good news that they had found that we were on the edge of an extensive vineyard of sweet ripe grapes. “Bloody good they are too they reported!”
So we had found our breakfast! Food and drink all together. Those grapes were really luscious. Never had I ever experienced anything so tasty in all my life!
The vines seemed to be almost self supporting with the grapes hanging down at just about head/mouth height. All we had to do was to choose a suitable bunch or cluster, pull it towards us and gorge. Beautiful!
Later on we found ripe figs growing alongside of the track just asking to be picked and eaten.
After our unusual breakfast we held a conference to decide a plan of action. We decided to keep to hedges away from any road. We were concerned that otherwise a searching vehicle could take us by surprise. We should keep well away from people and habitation at least until we found out whether the locals were friendly towards us or not. So we carried on making our way towards the hills. We also tried to avoid walking together in groups as much as possible. Later on we were told that we could be seen from miles away and were recognized simply by our walking stance which was noticeably different from the locals.
We soon found that the farming community were friendly towards us and hated the Germans. Most were prepared to help as far as they could, although it was not long before stories of German atrocities began to trickle through. Which made some families extremely cautious and afraid even though they continued to help us: not that we could blame them at all.
Many Italian families had lost their young men who had been drafted to German units fighting in Russia. We learned about what had been going on when we sat around as part of the family circle in the evening. We had lots of very interesting conversations in our halting Italian during those evening get togethers. Often they would bring in as a guest a grandfather who had spent some time in America and fancied himself as interpreter. Mostly his vocabulary extended not much further than a series of exclamations of “Tadeski! Bastard Bloody Son of a Bitch.” In the opinion of the Italians Hitler was fighting the Russian campaign to the very last Italian.
The farmers had a most effective bush telegraph system of shouts and whistles and were able to warn us when the Tadeski were in the area and places to avoid on our route. Jackie was very good at finding safe places for us to stay overnight. He used to get into relatively easy conversation with a group who were working at hoeing in a field in the late afternoon, asking them if there was a bam or some kind of shelter where we could stay and offered to help with the hoeing in return. Once they were satisfied that we were not the dreaded Tadeski we usually got some help and some delicious thick cut maize flour bread spread with tomato puree and grated strong cheese for supper.
It was not long before the two Scotsmen who started out with us decided to turn round and head north in an attempt to break through into Switzerland. They thought it would be safer. None of the others tried to stop them as most realized that the group was too big for comfort and was beginning to be an embarrassment. Then we were Five!
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I don’t remember when the other two left but it was not long afterwards.
Now we were Three! Much more manageable, although the constant fear of being hunted and caught again by the Germans was beginning to get to me. The further South we got the more we heard about Germans being in the area.
One of the stories that we heard was that of a supposed British? Officer? who collected nearly a hundred of our fellow escapees together and led them into the arms of waiting Germans.
Imagine what that story did for our peace of mind!
We were told that there was a price of 500 Lire on each of our heads, which to the locals was quite a lot of money. We had been with the same family for about a week and I thought that it was about time that we moved on. I was apprehensive about going off on my own but I could see no other option. The other two wanted to stay there together so either I stayed with them or I set out on my own.
We were told that there was a price of 500 Lire on each of our heads, which to the locals was quite a lot of money. We had been with the same family for about a week and I thought that it was about time that we moved on. I was apprehensive about going off on my own but I could see no other option. The other two wanted to stay there together so either I stayed with them or I set out on my own.
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Eric’s Trek Chapter 1
Now I am on my own. Having burnt my boats behind me I certainly cannot go back. I began to wonder whether perhaps I had been too rash by leaving the others. We had been together for about six weeks and had got on well together. I hadn’t really got any plan different to the one that we had been following, but I had to admit that as usual I had been getting impatient. Not only that, but I was concerned about our current rather hazardous situation. It seemed to me that the Tadeski was on our track, judging by the heart-breaking farm burning episodes that we had all witnessed yesterday. Jackie was a very good leader who thought about the best plan of action and put it to us to make sure that we understood and agreed, but he was inclined to tunnel vision. He had thought out a good plan and could not see a good enough reason for altering it. If I wanted to branch out on my own then I was free to do so; it was my choice: but now I was missing the companionship and planning discussions that had been common between Jackie and Henry and myself.
It was still early in the morning and as far as I could make out I was roughly in the middle of the country and fairly high up in the mountain range. I thought that I was roughly level with Rome and would have to negotiate a route to cross whatever roads and railway links with the east of the country that I could find without arousing the suspicion of any Germans that I might come across. I hadn’t the luxury of a map or compass so it was simply a question of following my nose and the sun. I had decided that travel during the day would be OK while up in the heights of the mountains but that I would probably have to start travelling at night if and when I had to come lower down.
When with the others we hadn’t done a night time session since the first two nights and I was apprehensive about trying to do it on my own. I decided that I would start off by practising in the evening. I thought that I would find a suitable place to have a nap in the afternoon, survey the route that I thought I needed to follow from above in daylight, then wait for the moon to rise and see how far I could get in moonlight. The first time I tried I got into a right muddle, mainly because the moon rose in the wrong place according to my reckoning. Of course I soon realised that night-time travel without a compass was too difficult without a good understanding of the stars as well as the light of the moon. I regretted that I had never studied navigation. So I soon decided to give up that idea. I did learn enough from that exercise to help during the last few days before I actually got through to our lines as I discovered to my advantage later on.
So far I had found enough grapes to satisfy my hunger and thirst, had slept in a copse for one night, well, half way through the night because it proved blooming cold early in the morning. I had found a rough shelter/shed last night. This was to be my third night on my own and I was a becoming just a little uneasy. I had not seen a suitable possible resting place for some time and also I was very hungry. The altitude was too high for the grapes that had kept me going for a couple of days. I found that I was quite close to a fairly busy road which I had decided that I ought to cross after dark, but what should I do then, was there a safe place to make for? I had seen nothing so far today.
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Not for the first time I experienced a feeling of not being on my own. I was beginning to be aware of someone who was inside my head but in a sense separate from me and was urging me on in a re-assuring way. At times “we” were conversing with each other aloud. Now I stood stock still and listened: no sound! But the re-assurance was there and strangely positive.
“Go on:- you’re doing all right, you will be alright, just carry on as you are.” I was telling myself out loud.
It was then that I got the biggest fright that I had had so far. I had been gradually climbing all day and was approaching what appeared to be the highest point of the track I was following as far as I could see, with a right-hand bend in the track, when suddenly what appeared to be a Jerry soldier came into view and was coming straight for me. He was mounted on a donkey, wearing a typical German soldier’s black leather baseball type cap, similar to that which many of our youngsters wear these days, but upright sides rather than close fitting as is today’s fashion. A leather jacket and what could have been a rifle was slung across his back. It turned out to be a fodder cutting knife or slasher. He pulled up in front of me baring my way, but instead of asking who I was and where I was going as I fully expected, He said “Bon Journo.” Followed by a few words of Italian. then twisting in his saddle pointed down and behind him, saying “Tadeski! Tadeski! Son of a Bitch.” They really hated the Germans, most of the youngsters as much as the older ones and usually used the derogatory term Tadeski followed by the American slang “Son of a bitch.” whenever they spoke to us. This young man had either escaped the German round-up of men for enlistment: there were very few young men of military age about, or of course he could be a German sympathiser!
We had been told about bounty hunters looking to earn a quick “buck.” by handing us ex P.o.W.s over to the Germans. I felt like a drowning man who is reported to see his past life flashing before him. “Three days on your own and you are in trouble already. Eric big head I thought.”
Obviously there was no chance of remaining incognito. I looked quickly about, prepared to run and hide somewhere – anywhere. But there was no immediate cover. The young Italian quickly tried to put me at my ease by saying. “Buono Buono.” And lots of calming down hand gestures. He must have sensed my fright, or noticed my grey face!
It soon became apparent that he was trying to tell me that there were Tadeski not very far away behind him and down the other side of the mountain. I was dressed very simply with an Italian soldier’s overcoat slung over my shoulder as lots of Italian men did, but if he had been able to pick me out as a British ex P.o.w in an instant, as a German patrol would also be able to, I was not going to last long if I did bump into one.
We carried on a mostly sign language conversation for a few minutes while I tried to collect my thoughts together. I felt as if I was between a rock and a hard place!
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I made some exploratory signs and gestures trying to assess whether he was genuine or not. He seemed genuine enough, but it was difficult to tell without being able to speak the language. He told me about his grandfather who had been to America and could speak English and would take me to him.
The time was late afternoon and I had been thinking of how I could safely hide myself away for the night, and get something to eat as well. So I made signs indicating that I was hungry and tired and was looking for a safe place to stay.
He soon cottoned on and made signs for me to follow him. As he indicated that where he wanted to go was back the way that I had come, which I had already traversed without seeing anything out of the ordinary, I decided to go with him for a little way at any rate. We only went about a quarter of a mile back and then branched off on to a side track. Going on a few yards he pointed out a shelter perched on the side of the mountain commanding a view for miles around and was out of sight from the track that I had been following. He indicated that I should stay there until dark.
“Later I come to take you to my home.” He seemed to understand my fears and was prepared to help. So, “bonnet over the windmill.” as the girl said. I did what I felt was reasonably safe and went with him.
When we arrived at the shelter I realised that I could see in all directions for a considerable distance.
Not very far away was a clump of rocks where I could observe all around including the shelter and would see any approaching Germans long before they could reach my hideout.
All sorts of thoughts were going through my mind. Could I trust my new found friend Tony? We had exchanged names before he left to do whatever he had come up here to do. The Italians found my name difficult to pronounce so had usually called me Enrico. It seemed ages before I heard the sounds of someone approaching in the distance but not enough to be more than one person I considered. I had heard him coming some time before he reached my temporary shelter, and had moved away to the shelter of the near-by clump of rocks just in case of an unpleasant surprise. In fact I needn’t have worried because he was on his own. It was quite dark now, and very quiet. It was probably just as well that he was unaware of the turmoil that I had been going through for the past several hours or he might have thought that I was ungrateful to him. Tony made signs for me to follow him and we went back on to the track where we had met in the afternoon. No Donkey this time; and no lights of course.
It was not far to his house, we had to cross the road that I had been a little concerned about but there was no traffic at all. Soon some buildings loomed out of the darkness. Tony motioned for me to stay still for a moment while he gave a piercing whistle and we waited until an answering signal came back “Bueno,” he said and we went on to a partly opened welcoming door. No bright lights inside, electricity had not reached the heights of deeply rural Italian Hill farms at that time. As is usual all the family was assembled inside and they welcomed me in. I must have breathed a great big sigh of relief. Later it transpired that two of their sons were to all intents lost in Russia in the German army. They had not been heard of for more than a year! It was no wonder that Mussolini had been practically forced to call for an armistice when he did.
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I was made quite a fuss of, particularly by the old folks. There were four generations there, all waiting for Tony and me to appear. The two Great-Grandparents, their daughter and Tony’s parents and his baby whose mother was nursing in the far comer of the room.
At last I felt able to relax. But first I found that I had to take a bit of grilling from Great grand-dad who was one of those who had been to America for a while and spoke a little American/English -“as she is spoke.”! He was the spokesman and questioner and commanded the respect of his family as an elder.
The ladies as usual were a little concerned because of what they called my blond hair and light complexion-the colour that they associated with the hated Tadeski. Fortunately I carried a photo of myself in uniform and one of Dorothy as well. That seemed to satisfy their fears along with my answers to Grand-dad’s queries.
Having settled my identity to everybody’s satisfaction; Grandma asked if I was hungry, and when did I eat last. When they heard that I had not eaten properly for three days and nights they were quite concerned. I began to realise that I had struck oil here. I had obviously got my feet well and truly under the table. I remember that someone once said that if I ever fell out of an aeroplane that I would fall on a haystack!
The old lady apologised for not being able to produce a hot meal. I understood perfectly because I knew that they would have no heating apart from the fireplace where they burnt mainly corn husks at this time of year. A big cast iron cooking pot hung in the fireplace most of the time. The bread was baked outside in one of those beehive shaped kilns often seen in old farm pictures. It was too late in the evening to start the fire again, even if they had the fuel to spare. I was quite happy to settle for a slice of Maize flour bread with oil and tomato puree spread over, and grated cheese over that. That would be washed down with a beaker of full bodied local red wine. Grand-dad apologised for not being able to offer me a bed indoors, but I would be welcome to bed down in the lean-to at the back of the house for the night and sleep on a bed of straw. He also intimated that it would be safer for us all if the Tadeski came looking for ex Pow’s. They had all heard of course about the orgy of destruction that we had witnessed about a week ago, and they had to be careful for their own safety and peace of mind.
It’s a confidence destroying feeling to have a price on ones head! It is also guaranteed to spoil decent relationships.
[Chapter 2 is missing from the original]
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Eric’s Trek Chapter 3
As usual I woke early but not to a beautiful dawn chorus of happy carefree birds as one would out in the country at home, but remembering that this is Italy where birds are not valued as beautiful songsters as they are at home, but more as tasty delicacies for the meal table. Really small birds are trapped in their hundreds in nets laid out in strategic places by bird catchers who earn a precarious living at certain times of the year selling them eventually to grace an exotic foods counter in a five star tourist hotel.
The first sounds that came to me were the munching of the donkey who seemed to be munching his way towards the foundations of my bed. The rattle of door bolt fastenings being drawn soon followed as Grand-dad made his way down the garden to somewhere in the distance to perform the first rites of the demands of nature, to be followed in due course by the other members of the family.
When the gang were all together at the very beginning of our journey the first place of refuge where we stayed for a few days, was a small community which included a French Widow. The Italians had a bit of a teasing at her expense because she had an earth closet loo at the bottom of her garden. She was the only one who had her own chalet/bungalow to herself and was said to be very posh. Mostly a complete family occupied a communal cluster of dwellings which were all joined together. It appeared that there were several branches of the family all living together and were almost self supporting. They grew grapes and maize corn, had a few sheep, (Peggery) made their own bread, kept a pig for meat, ham and bacon. It was intimated to us that they were quite well off because they also had an Ox to do the ploughing. The various mums took it in turns to bake the bread daily. Except Sunday of course. That bread was really delicious and formed our staple diet for most of the time that we were up in the hills and relying on the farmers generosity for our keep.
I must tell you about our first Sunday lunch since we resigned our P.O.W. status and became Ex. P.O.W s with a price on our heads. You can bet that there was some ribald leg pulling indulged in over that situation. There was wide variations in values bantered about including what some thought that their wives might bid if an auction was to be organised.
Any way about Sunday lunch: from first thing in the morning our hostess began enthusing about the special treat that was to come: when the family got back from church of course, we were going to have Polenta. We were offered nothing to eat at all before they all, except the senior men disappeared off to Church dressed in their Sunday best including shoes. It was the first time that we had seen anyone wearing shoes. The girls were always active, even when standing still they twirled their wool spinning bobbins from what appeared to be small tufts of wool which they always carried, with a reserve supply in their smock pockets. Later on I was given a pair of socks knitted from home spun wool by a lady who was very poor indeed. I really treasured those socks, money could not have bought them as far as I was concerned. Unfortunately I lost them only a few days after I was given them through being very careless and stupid. More details about that later!
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Now about Polenta: on that Sunday the weather was really beautiful. The sun was shining, there was just the slightest breeze, nothing to worry us, no barbed wire to tease our longing for escape as in the camp that we had left only a few days ago. But we were blooming hungry! Polenta! We are going to have Polenta. What is Polenta we asked?
“Polenta is Buono! Bella– Bentissimo!”
It took no imagination to understand that Polenta was the absolute last word in culinary delight, and we were going to have it for? Too late for lunch,? Getting on for tea time? Dinner perhaps? I can feel the agony of anticipating that meal even now.
Wonderful smells were coming from the great big iron pot that was suspended over the smouldering fire of corn husks on the hearth at the far end of the central room in the assembly of buildings which we would call the kitchen. There were seven of us and about eight or nine of them, and Mum was obviously thoroughly enjoying herself with her extended family and being the centre of attention. It must have been quite late in the afternoon when mum signalled to one of the men to lay the table.
One of the men produced three scrubbed wooden boards and laid them end to end on the long table which extended to about at least two thirds of the length of the kitchen. Then one of them produced a handful of forks and laid one for each place at the table. Chairs were brought up and we were bade to sit at the table. No pecking order, sit where you like. Mum then took hold of that great big pot, which must have weighed, I was going to say a ton, but it was obviously very heavy indeed and mum was not a very big woman. Then with a whoosh she emptied the contents over and along the boards to a depth of about half an inch, and possibly a foot wide in a very practised dramatic manoeuvre. She scraped the residue from the pot over the rest and slung the pot into the corner. Then she spread a pre-cooked tomato sauce over the lot. The family was obviously champing at the bit and she warned them to hold back to allow her to sprinkle grated cheese over the spread. Then at a silent signal every one dug in. With their forks they drew semi circles in the spread and popped it in their mouth. Of course they had a considerable start over us. It was a race to the middle, and when the middle was reached the Polenta was all gone. Here it is! there it was – Oh! In two or three minutes flat!
I still have not explained what was the make-up of Polenta. Well, It appeared to be coarse ground maize boiled in a stock of some kind with herbs and flavourings to a constancy of thick porridge. It was then covered with tomato and cheese as already explained. Why it took so long to prepare I really don’t know. It was undoubtedly the favourite dish of that family anyway.
The road that had been bugging my thoughts for some time and that had been crossed last evening as we approached my present refuge was apparently only a short distance away and was part of a secondary route across the mountains between Rome and Pescara on the East coast. German soldiers looking for local foods to enhance their official supplies used the road to scout for farms such as the one where I was at the
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moment to purchase anything available. In this case it was bread and the currency mostly was any item that was in short supply and requested by the farmer at the time of the last purchase. German money was of no use to these people at all, and Italian Lire was not much better. The value of both currencies was going down the pan at the time and it was generally understood that very little could be bought for cash.
Naturally I needed to keep out of sight. However, I was invited to stay and was welcomed to stay there for a while for a rest and to sort out a route for my next hop towards my goal of reaching the British lines. I always found that the grand-dads who had been in America for a little while were a mine of information. When with the gang we had found this to be very useful and always asked if there were any in the area. Usually there was one not very far away.
This family were mostly hill sheep farmers and were able to trade their sheep with both their locals and the Germans for supplies of whatever they wanted. The women were naturally apprehensive about the advance of our troops and tried to find out from me which way I thought they would come. Naturally I was clueless but tried to reassure them as much as I could by telling them that soldiers would not advance over the hills if they could avoid it. I explained that they would keep to the lower routes as much as possible for their own benefit.
I was rather fascinated by their conviction that our army would be coming. Not if but when! It helped my position immensely.
I stayed there for about three days but got restive again and was anxious to get going. I learned a lot from my stay and was able to get a good idea of what to make for. I dare not write anything down just in case I fell into German hands. So that although the events of those ten weeks have come back to me with surprising clarity. I do find it difficult to recall the names of some people and places, even though I have tried to trace the route on maps of Italy now readily available. However, there is no doubt in my mind of the name and location of the next landmark. How I survived this next stage I shall never know, but certain events are indelibly imprinted on my mind for life.
I learned that the town of Isernia was the next objective to reach and avoid. It sounds crazy I know, but it was like when there were just the three of us and the highest mountain in Italy – the Gran Sasso was in our way and had to be crossed or avoided.
Isernia was in direct line and there was no way of avoiding it completely. We succeeded in getting over Gran Sasso without incident and now it seemed that once I had passed Isernia that the way would be wide open for the final push to where our troops were engaged with the Germans. I had been told that when in the vicinity of Isernia that it was sometimes possible to hear the sound of guns in the distance.
As already explained I was quite high up and Isernia was right down on the edge of the mountain range at not much above sea level. A fast flowing river, a main road and a railway I had been warned passed through the town which sat at the end of a pass and were all grouped together as they left the pass and various valleys in which they travelled most of the way from Rome in the west and to various coast towns across country to the east.
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Having left my last refuge early in the morning with a good sized chunk of maize flour bread in my pocket and been told that grapes were freely available when I got lower down and was approaching Isernia, I set off across the mountain in good spirits and with a fairly clear idea of a plan of action. I had also been told of a possible safe house on the outer edge of the town where I would possibly be able to rest up for the night. But be careful I was advised, because the town is full of German soldiers.
The further I descended the warmer it felt, and as promised there were lots of grape vines, although the grapes were not as prolific as we had enjoyed on those first days of freedom and the grapes were not so luscious as before. They had to be carefully picked over if one was to avoid those that were going bad. Of course the months were rolling on and it was well into November by the time I was making that trek.
I must have been travelling for about three hours, descending all the time when the eastern edge of the town came into view, still a long way down but laid out as I had been led to expect. I had not realised that there would be no cover to speak of. No trees or bushes even. And without doubt the three principal hazards which had to be crossed were all grouped together within a distance of about half a mile, with the river in the foreground. I sat down on a suitable boulder and tried to map out a route. German army vehicles were passing to and fro along the road as was to be expected. But they were about a mile away. The prospect of what I had to deal with to be able to continue on my way was daunting to say the least. The river was the first hazard and looked a bit of a problem and when I got closer I could see that it was going to be quite difficult to cross. There was no sign of an easy crossing point and the flow of water over the rocks and boulders looked really viscous and the roar of the water as it coursed over and around the rocks could be heard from some distance away. The width looked to be no great problem but as I got closer I realised that I was going to have to do some mighty hefty long jumps if I was going to avoid a ducking. As it turned out I would been better off if I had planned to wade between the rocks rather than try to jump from one to the other as it seemed that I would have to do to get across.
I was still wearing my original army issue boots even though they were wearing a bit thin, but I was also wearing my treasured socks knitted from genuine home spun wool. These were knitted by a grandma who seemed to have taken a special interest in me specially for me and I was very proud of them.
So, in time honoured fashion I removed boots and socks, tied the laces together and stuffed the socks inside the boots and slung them round my neck as I had done many times before since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Then very carefully I sorted out what I thought would be the best place to try to cross. The only people who could see me I thought were the Germans in the vehicles going to and fro along the main road who seemed not to be taking any interest in my antics in the slightest. As far as they were concerned I was just another Eyetie on a fishing expedition. Having found what seemed to be a convenient place where two jumps would be better than one I launched myself off the boulder that I was standing on to another one in the middle of the river which was close to half way across. Whoops! I landed on the boulder alright but as I
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So gingerly I set out, feeling a bit light-headed and empty bellied too. It was getting really dark now, but I could see as far as I needed to at the moment. I could hear the river in the distance and provided I kept to the path I felt that I could manage well enough.
My memory of the next couple of hours is a bit sketchy, some of the details will not come to mind; but yes, I crossed the river of course and the road and the railway without incident. I could even remember the position of the shed that I had seen from the other side of the seemingly hazardous objectives that had to be crossed, but I do not remember the actual detail of the crossing. But I had actually crossed them and here I was, making my way to the hoped for refuge for the night. I remember thinking that I might even find some food in there. Here you are Eric: not so bad after all was it?
Right; now for the next stage. I was beginning to feel quite jaunty, possibly a bit cocky too. The events surrounding losing my boots were in the past!
It wasn’t to last!
Like when I had lost my boots and hand knitted home spun wool socks, pride was about to take a massive fall.
I had thought that there was a possibility that I might find that the shed was occupied by Italians or even fugitive escapees like myself. As I approached I could hear talking from inside, so I opened the door gingerly just a fraction, just enough to peer inside. What I saw I had not expected to see at all: I should have expected it but the idea had not entered my head. The place was full of Germans, all eyes looking to see who was at the door.
I turned tail, slamming the door behind me and ran like hell along a path which I had seen from my vantage point, but led to I knew not where.
All hell broke loose behind me; shouts of Alto; and Stop! So they had guessed that I could be a British escapee. One way of catching us out was to say a few English words. And then one of them fired a revolver. Three or four shots: missed of course. Just added an extra bit of speed to my fleeting bare feet. Never before or since have I run so fast. I was well out of range of the revolver of course and I ran until I couldn’t run any more. Fortunately no-one seemed to try to pursue.
Now of course I was completely lost. Clouds had thickened and were obscuring the moon and I had not the faintest idea where I was or where was North, South, East or West. I was well out of range of any area that I had been able to see from my view-point earlier in the day. My feet were feeling really sore too. I decided to keep to the right which seemed to be most likely to lead me towards the town rather than in the wilderness of completely unknown territory. Of course I forgot all about any Curfew that might be in place, it didn’t come into my reckoning at all. After a while I found myself alongside the river which was on my right. But here it was not a raging torrent but more of a slowly moving stream. I reckoned that as I had not crossed the river again since this evening that I must be to the southwest of the town and that I could safely take any opportunity to bear left that I came across. Up till now I had not seen another soul: I had no idea of the time, only that it must be quite late.
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Then I sensed the presence of another body ahead: friend or foe? Keep still and quiet, don’t breathe. Isn’t amazing that at a time like this that one has an irresistible urge to cough or sneeze. Wouldn’t be a German soldier or sentry would it? If it was he would have called my bluff. It could be an Italian who was out late! Must be. Take a step closer. No movement. Another step then another.
It’s someone dressed all in black. Closer: it’s a woman “Bon a sera I mutter.”. “Bon a sera.” she whispered in reply, followed by a few whispered words which I could not be expected to understand, but of course she was not to know that. She turned round and motioned me to follow, putting her finger to her mouth to indicate silence. Nothing gained nothing lost here I thought. You lead I’ll follow! I would have followed anyone except an obvious German if I had thought that there was a possibility of food at the end of it. I followed at a respectable distance behind and she led me to her home, ushered me inside, again urging quietness. There seemed to be no one else at home “Una-momento.” She said and went out of the room, coming back with a man whom I soon discovered to be her husband. I gathered that her husband was a bit upset because his wife had brought me home. She was not able to explain to him who I was: she didn’t know of course and not being in control of enough Italian language I could not help very much. Things were a bit difficult for a while but settled down after the use of a lot of sign language and I had managed to explain to them how I came to lose my boots. My raw and bloody feet were fair evidence that mine was not a fairy tale. Fortunately I still had my army passbook with me and was eventually able to convince them that I was genuine and was to all intents lost. My fair hair and blue eyes had been working against me. Most of the Italians that I met were extremely suspicious, thinking that I could be a German spy. It appeared that the lady was in some kind of scheme to trick money out of unwary Germans; ably assisted by her husband.
They were very poor indeed: no money and no food in the house at all. It soon became obvious that I was an embarrassment to them and of course I felt very embarrassed about that. I don’t know how they did it but they managed to find some bread and olive oil in the morning so that we could all have something to eat and some hot ersatz coffee. I had slept on the floor with a floor rug over and under me to keep me warm. I certainly needed no rocking. Somehow they managed to find me a pair of shoes during the morning. The house was part of a complex of course and it backed on to a steep hill, part of the mountain. They said that there was a cave not very far up the mountain and that I could stay there during the day and come down at night to sleep and eat. I had explained to them the outline of the plan of campaign. To hide up when our army reached the town and pop out as soon as the fighting was over. I had personally given up that part of the plan long ago, but it sounded logical at the time, especially as the Italians generally had not the slightest doubt but that our army would pursue the Germans out of Italy eventually. It was just a matter of time as far as they were concerned.
I did not feel very safe at all, rather that I had stumbled into a cloak and dagger situation. I did not like being in the Town at all: any Town, but I could not see how I was going to get out of it.
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The situation in the evening was I felt, getting very tense, and I was getting bored stiff up in the cave all day with nothing to do. The hours simply dragged by, and I was always extremely hungry.
My friends were having difficulty in finding enough food for themselves and I was making things a lot worse. So after three or four days I said that I felt that I wanted to move on to continue my journey. Apparently they had been discussing the situation between them. They said that they had a friend who had a map and if I agreed he would come round as soon as it was safe to do so and we would have a discussion to decide which was the best route and time to set out.
When the friend arrived we went over the map together and discussed the best route to follow.
It transpired that I had landed up quite close to the edge of the town and only a few minutes walk to a track at the base of a mountain and open country-side free of German troops. The area used to be occupied mainly by sheep, but not now because the Germans had stolen them all.
“If you leave early in the morning dressed just as you are you should not raise suspicion provided you remember to take shorter steps and walk a bit more slowly than you usually do: from a distance the Germans will take you for an Italian farm worker.”
“Keep close to the base of the mountains until you come to where a double pipe-line comes down the side of a big mountain.” I was told. “The Germans are somewhere up there, and the British are over the other side. As you get closer you will hear the guns at night.”
This was exciting news; and for the first time my objective seemed within striking distance, and soon to be within hearing distance indeed.
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Eric’s Trek Chapter 4
I had been discussing my plans and progress out loud for some considerable time, talking to myself ever since I left the others. It was as though I was two separate people; the basic thinking bit and the physical Me. For part of the time I was One and sometimes the Other. One urged the Other on, or advised caution according to circumstances. Sometimes I lectured myself, really giving myself a right good telling off, like a parent with a reluctant child even calling myself a lazy So & So.
I had a couple of bun size loaves of bread in my pocket and a bottle of water: very solid their loaves of maize flour bread were, usually helped down with an olive oil dip and/or a spread of tomato puree. I had neither, but I was feeling happy and contented because I was on the move again. Isernia was behind me and it seemed that my goal would shortly be within my sights. I had enough food to keep me going for the rest of the day, water as well. Because of past experience I felt that I was sure to come across a friendly farm, or habitation of some kind where I would be able to scrounge something to keep me going for a while. So what else did I need! Little did I know that the next water was to come very slowly from snow crushed in my frozen fingers to produce water, drip by agonising drip. And not a dwelling of any description did I see anywhere at all in a whole day’s journey. I felt as if I could be the last person left alive on the planet. Not a soul, not a bird or an animal in sight. No one but me!
I would hear the sound of guns at night I had been told. That’s where I was making for with gay abandon as if it were Shangri-La instead of an area of war-torn Italian countryside. What a crazy world I was living in at the moment. Sometimes I wondered if I would wake up and find that I had been living a dream, or it could have been a nightmare at times. I must have been dreaming because I was looking forward to hearing the sound of guns firing from a long way off and I was making my way to it.
I had set off from my temporary residence in Isernia C/o [care of] “The Lady in black” and her understanding husband early in the morning just as the sun began to rise. My shadow was long in front of me with the sun on my left behind me. My new shoes kindly supplied by my benefactors at Isernia fitted my feet very well and I was striding out to freedom and Dorothy. The idea that perhaps I would not make it never entered in to my calculations.
This was the first time that I had dared to believe that the end of this marathon trek was within reach and could, would, hopefully, end with the eventual, essential meeting with my beautiful and as yet unrequited lover.
I never doubted that Dorothy would be waiting for me when eventually we would meet again. After almost three long years of frustration, heartache, and danger beyond our wildest dreams or our wildest nightmares; Dorothy would be there expectant, waiting for me: naturally, of course!
At times I would wonder how the time spent in the prison camp compared with a prison sentence for anti-social behaviour. I had done nothing wrong but was serving an interminable, frustrating time away from home and loved ones for no reason or fault of my own. As soldiers we had no idea how long our incarceration would last, whereas a criminal would know at the outset how long he would have to serve and could mark the days off on a calendar to help the time to pass.
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Do people who contend that the sentence for a particular offence or offender is not long enough realise that to be incarcerated and away from their family for any length of time is much worse than it appears to be on the surface?
My wartime experience encourages me to believe that a prison sentence can have a devastating effect far greater than is reasonable or that the offence deserves. I believe that punishment sentences should be measured in weeks rather than months and that a sentence of periods of years should only be awarded when there is a real chance that an offender is likely to re-offend. That person should then be regarded and treated as a mental health patient rather than as a criminal.
There had been some heart-breaking scenes in the camp when an overdue longed for letter had turned out to be the last word that a man wanted to hear. His wife, sweetheart or lover had written to say that she was sorry, but she had met someone else and hoped that he would understand. There was no way that a man could understand such a situation. The thought of life without his girl, probably the joy of his life; with whom in ordinary circumstances he would hope to spend the rest of his life, was probably all that had been holding him together.
Hitler! may he rot in hell.
Of course Hitler was mad. But he was not so mad that he didn’t know what he was doing. That is why I cannot forgive him. His dream got out of hand. But he knew what he was doing; his dream was causing misery and distress to millions of innocent people. To my mind that was unforgivable.
I had lots of time to dream on those long treks. Time to think about my hopes for my life ahead, my life with Dorothy at my side. That was my dream. And it could be coming within reach with each stride that I took along that mountain track.
But now I had to face reality and get on with the job in hand because of course it could be dangerous to let my thoughts wander like that, something was bound to go wrong. But for the moment I was on the right path. A very lonely path maybe, with no clear idea of what might be round the next bend in the track. But I was getting used to sudden changes of fortune. My confidence, so sorely tested during the last few days as I had somehow negotiated the various hazards associated with Isernia was returning and I felt that I was ready to cope with whatever was round the corner.
Gran Sasso, the highest mountain in Italy, and Isernia, the town that had proved to be such a hazard to my progress, plus two thirds of the journey from the prison camp to where I expected our lines to be, were behind me. Dorothy; keep your fingers crossed for me love, I am on my way! Subliminal Communication? What else? There were no mobiles in those days!
There were long periods of time when there was no news or communication of any kind either way; but Dorothy knew? That I was safe? And that I would be returning to her eventually. In those last months that I was on my way back to her there could have been no information of my where-a-bouts. From September 1943 until I arrived home on January 1st 1944 I was officially “missing” again, as I had been for about seven months in 1941/1942. Until a friend of my mother heard my name mentioned on Vatican Radio as being safe in an Italian prisoner of war camp.
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Vatican Radio regularly read out the names of POWs that were being held in Italy when they were given them by the Italian War machine. This was usually long before our war office found out and advised the next of kin officially. Fortunately the weather was holding up very well even though it was the tail end of November. At home it could be expected to be cold and wet; foggy in the mornings even. But here I was travelling in just the barest clothes possible and was not feeling unduly cold. Shirt and trousers and an Italian army overcoat that I had scrounged from the prison camp stores. The trousers had been sent via the saving grace of the Red Cross POW organisation to the camp to replace the shorts that I had been wearing when captured. No underclothes, they had fallen to pieces long ago. Oh yes! And I also carried an army blanket scrounged from the prison camp stores that we raided before we left the camp over my shoulder and which had proved of great value on many a lonely, chilly, uncomfortable night.
If the Italian army greatcoat had been of British Army quality it would have been too much to carry as well as the blanket, but it was only a very light-weight affair offering the barest protection against the elements. It wasn’t even seamed at the bottom, which was extensively frayed, giving the wearer an unkempt scruffy appearance, fortunately, I believe, for it was not in my interests to look smart and well kept.
Again my memory will not connect up properly, I believe that there are some gaps, but my next memory is of the sight of those large pipes ascending from somewhere in the distance at the base of a mountain and disappearing out of sight in mist at the top as had been explained to me by the man with the map back in Isernia.
To get the picture of the current terrain correctly in my head I will have to go back there, or obtain a large scale ordnance survey map. Which would make sense I suppose. Perhaps I will do so in time in the interests of accuracy. But it is more important to me to work from my memory of what comes to mind rather than try to record the probability of what most likely happened. I know that days, even weeks, have slipped by without notice, but I would rather they did than fill in with conjecture.
Now I was faced with a long climb – up into the mist – even snow had been suggested by my informant.
I found it rather unsettling that there was no evidence of life, no cultivation or noise of birds or animals either – nothing. That was a situation that was due to change abruptly very shortly.
I was well up on the lower slopes of this mountain keeping the pipeline in sight to my left when I spied another figure over on my right who was going in the same direction. I now saw what the Italians meant when they said that we escapees could be recognised as such from afar off. There was no doubt in my mind that the figure was one of us, as of course it turned out to be. He was an Army Lieutenant who had the same idea as myself. I don’t think that he was overjoyed at my presence when we eventually met, but there was not a lot that he could do about it. Like me he had been thinking that it would be better to travel alone. However, I believe we were both glad of each others company and as dusk was approaching there was little chance of us being seen. He had seen me as I had seen him and had no doubt re my origin from the manner of my walking gait.
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My new companion was not very talkative but I gathered that we were getting quite close to our objective. “Just over the hill.” He explained! At least I was able to keep up with him as we climbed ever upwards. “There’s a valley down the other side of these hills with a river running through.” He filled in his explanation later in between short breaths “Our people are just the other side of the valley.” Breathing was becoming more and more laborious the higher we climbed.
He made it sound just like a Sunday afternoon stroll. “We will have to do the last bit after dark of course.” It was beginning to get dark already but we were delaying the inevitable darkness by a few minutes as we climbed higher and higher.
“These Hills”- turned out to be the Monti Del Matese range where the max height was over 6000 M and were normally covered in snow from December to April.” As we were soon to find out.
I have since discovered that these mountains are listed in one of the current road maps of Italy as being impassable because of snow between December and April. I had been warned by the man with the map and I was certainly noticing the lack of adequate warm clothing as it got colder the higher we climbed. I was very thankful that I had kept reasonably fit when in the camp by walking round and round the exercise patch which doubled as a football pitch now and then. Sometimes when those who were keen enough and could summon the energy formed a team for a game. We played the Eyeties at football some times. Our M.O. [Medical Officer] insisted on a shortened timed game because of the very restricted amount of food that we received as rations.
I had been walking since early morning almost without stopping, and so had my companion he told me. But we were both beginning to feel the strain and needed a rest. What price a cup of tea?
“My kingdom, My kingdom for a horse.” A king is reported to have cried when in a tight corner. I would have given a lot for a cup of something hot like a good cup of Mum’s tea at that time. However, we both had water and a very limited amount of food so we sat down on a patch of shale for a while and had supper? Mine was half of one of the maize flour bread rolls that had been given to me as I left my refuge in Isernia. After regaining our energy we set off again ever upwards. It was not long before we came to the edge of the snow belt. It had obviously rained since the last snow fell and then froze because the snow carpet had a hard crusty top and was soft underneath. My shoes soon proved to have been soled with cardboard that was made to look like leather because after only a short time, trudging through the snow caused the soles to come away from the uppers.
Although by now the light had almost faded away the snow reflected a limited amount of light from the stars and it was not as though we were in complete darkness.
My luck with boots and shoes had run out again What to do now? Of course shoes and socks were both soaking wet and my feet were cold, so; make the best of it Eric I said to myself. Remove shoes and socks, replace shoe and pull sock back over the outside of the shoe. Simple – uncomfortable – but it worked for the rest of the trek.
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For how long we ploughed through the snow I can’t remember, but we must have drifted off to the right and away from the highest part of the mountain. We found ourselves on the edge of a wooded area and having found a path we entered the woods and out of the worst of the snow.
Suddenly, a further prediction of my Isernian map friend came true when the peaceful silence was broken with an almighty crash. What sounded like a field gun was discharged from somewhere not far away to our left.
“You may hear the sound of gunfire at night as you get nearer.” He had said. How right he was. I hadn’t expected the first round to be fired to be so close as to be almost too close for comfort though.
We were so close that we could hear the sound of the breach of the guns being operated as several more rounds were fired. I didn’t need my companion’s warning when he put his fore-finger across his mouth to indicate to me to keep quiet as we crept away from that area as quickly as possible.
We didn’t even consider that the gunfire could be friendly in the sense that they were British guns. We were now right in the middle of the enemy lines. We had found the right spot, or had we? Had we over-done it I thought, as quite soon shells from the other side began landing some distance away and to the front (roughly south) of where we were heading. I kept quiet: I was quite happy to let my officer companion lead the way as we communicated by hand signals. We walked over some signal lines running from left to right. We knew to where they were leading, but not to where they had come from. We were going in the rough direction of where our shells were landing: the area most likely to have the least German troops to interrupt progress to our goal.
We took the opportunity of a right hand turn in the path and then found ourselves out in the open again below the snowline. Soon we were walking over a shoulder where the ground sloped away to the right and down towards the area of where our shells were landing. We came across a path which seemed to be leading in the right direction, away from the immediate danger area. The ground sloped sharply away to our right from the edge of the path and the sound of a fast running stream or river down below could clearly be heard.
Suddenly! -A sentry called “Alto!” quickly followed by a rifle shot roughly in our direction. Bang!
Neither of us waited to be shot at again, and we both scampered off the path and down the slope to our right. “Every man for himself.” Was the order of the day!
I stopped after only a few yards and hid behind a boulder, while my officer friend carried on down, dislodging stones and rocks as he went as could clearly be heard and making enough noise for both of us. Several more soldiers came on the scene and fired off down the slope. If they had gone just a few yards further down the slope they may have come across my hiding place, but none did. They took the sounds coming from below to be the far end of the chase which was soon well beyond their reach. Fortunately it was very dark at the time.
I stayed where I was for quite some time and then decided to back-track away from where I had been hiding. I moved very slowly being careful not to dislodge any stones that would roll away down the slope and give my presence away.
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After a while I regained the path and made my way back for several hundred yards, eventually finding a shallow valley that I thought would offer some protection from discovery for the time being. I remember thinking that I would wait for daylight and perhaps then I might be able to find a more secure hiding place as proved to be the case. The little valley proved to have been used as a refuge before and I even found a cave just large enough to enable me to crawl into, which I did and after pulling my blanket over me I soon fell asleep.
The sun was well up when I awoke, feeling very cold. But there was no smell of breakfast bacon!
I decided to stay where I was for the time being in case of a possible search by Germans and decided to eat the other half of my supper/breakfast roll. The cave was not high enough for me to sit up in but had obviously been used before as there were signs of human habitation including a demi-john glass jar of clear liquid. Water? I thought! Wine perhaps?
I lifted the jar to my lips for a careful taster! Acid!! I spat it out thinking that it could be a booby trap for unsuspecting Germans thoughtfully prepared with malice by the locals. The locals had good reason to hate the Germans.
It tasted horrible. I was a little bit scared now thinking that I could have poisoned myself. But I survived: not suffering any ill effects.
I still had a little water left in my bottle, so, thinking that I could easily find the snow again and replenish it, I first of all rinsed out my mouth with some of the water and then drank the rest. I eventually found a stream and re-filled my water bottle. I must have been still suffering from the Desert fear of being without water. I still cannot see a tap dripping without having to tighten it to stop the drip.
I was aware that I was in a very precarious position, realising that I could bump into the enemy without notice at any time. However, I tried to remember my “how to keep out of sight.” Army drill and was very careful to keep my head down as I roamed around reconnoitring and spying out the land, planning my route for after dark that night. I found that I was near the top of a group of three spurs which reached down to a river running through a valley which must have been at least a mile away.
Looking down towards the valley the left spur was densely wooded, the middle one was bare loose shale with no cover except for an occasional boulder, while the one on the right was grass covered and sloped away out of sight to the right. Could be down to what sounded like the noise of a fast running stream, or probably a small village judging by the fact that what appeared as if it could be an area of allotments could be seen between the bottom of the mountain; beyond the road and bridge and towards the river. I could see parts of the river which was split into a delta running through the lowest part of a valley. What looked as if it could be a railway line ran across a bridge over a road at the foot of the middle spur. The left; wooded spur seemed to be converging with the centre shale covered part and the right grass covered area. All this terrain could be seen from my vantage point in daylight. Including what looked to be the allotment area situated between the bridge and road and the river.
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I tried to commit it all to my memory as one would a photograph.
It would have to be traversed after dark that night if my plan to break through was going to work. I fully expected that most likely it would be the target of our gunners as it probably was last night although I had heard but not seen it. There was no sign of my Officer companion and I wondered if he had managed to get through to our lines.
My plans nearly came unstuck when I ventured too far away from my vantage point, with the object of trying to widen the view from a different angle.
The narrow track that I was walking on at the time appeared to traverse across the middle shale-covered spur, going out of sight into the crease between the shale and the wooded area. I thought that I would have a look from that area. I was half way across the spur when I heard a buzzing sound which I at first took to be a Bee or a Fly, I even tried to swat it with my hand. I then realised that the noise was coming not from any kind of insect but from a point at the highest part of the wooded spur high in front of me but which was bare of vegetation and most certainly being used as an observation post.
The buzzing sound I quickly recognised as from a Morse code key. There was no cover near where I was so I just carried on. Pretending that I had not noticed I had just managed to reach the woods and hide as best I could when two German soldiers came along the path which led back to unknown territory, obviously looking for me. I was able to hide myself behind a large tree while the two looked around but fortunately didn’t see me and eventually they went back down the path back the way they had come.
It then took me a long time to get back to my original vantage point because I obviously had to avoid the open path across the shale spur. I needed to create a route for myself via the woods. But without knowing how far away any German troops who were occupying the area were likely to be, I could easily walk straight into German arms. Last night when with my officer companion we both heard the sound of guns being operated, and I had recently seen two German soldiers who fortunately did not see me, but I was very lucky not to be seen. I also knew that an observation post was situated from where the path across the shale spur could be observed.
I went into the wooded area for about three trees depth and carefully moving from tree to tree, pausing behind each one before moving to the next, back tracking in the direction I had come earlier and kept my eyes and ears very alert for any signs of enemy occupation.
Eventually I found my overnight resting place without further incident and decided to rest there until dark. I had had enough excitement for one day and thought it best not to push my luck any further. I had seen enough for me to believe that I could manage the last lap of what I had set out to do during the course of the night to come and was determined to get on with it as soon as possible. I had also seen in the far distance-left the tantalising sight of a column of our troops wearing their tin hats filing down what was obviously a road on the far side of the river and bordered on my side by a dry-stone wall. Un-mistakable British tin bowlers bobbing along just above the level of the wall.
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That was where I had to be tomorrow morning. But at the present time I was bang slap in the middle of enemy territory.
Completely on my own? Or was I? Was it pure chance that I had so far got away with so many of the most hazardous incidents or was there a superior force that was guiding and protecting me? Whatever force was in command I knew that I ought not to take unwarranted risks and was determined not to do that if it could possibly be avoided.
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Eric’s trek Chapter 5 “I’ve done it!”
I now had a plan and a route firmly fixed in my mind and felt able to take whatever chances necessary on whatever lay in wait for me. As far as I could see, if I kept to the middle of the shale covered spur I would be unlikely to encounter the enemy until the bridge. The view of whatever was beyond the bridge and supposed road was restricted as if looking into a funnel from the open end and being unable to see beyond the beginning of the spout. There had been no sign of activity at the foot of the mountain and between the bridge and the river. This was roughly where I expected to meet with shell fire from our own gunners and it was doubtful if the enemy would be very much in evidence at this point. It would also appear that if I was able to reach the far side of the bridge without incident, that with luck I would have a clear run until the river. The river was not expected to be very deep because of the fact that it was split into several channels and ought not to offer a great deal of resistance if the right place to wade across was found without too much difficulty.
Shortly I would almost fall over a real surprise at the bottom of the mountain and meet up with a most unexpected but welcome aid to help me on my way.
Extreme care would still have to be taken, because when walking across the shale the slightest scuff of the feet sent loose shale rattling away down the slope. I thought that at night it would sound like a suspicious noise needing to be investigated. Although unable to see the enemy from my earlier vantage point when I had to assume that they were not far away, now they would be anticipating any possible action from our forces from the front rather than from behind.
The wooded spur on the left of the intended route would probably be the hiding place for the enemy but there had been very little sign of them in daylight. However, it soon became evident that there were indeed quite a lot of the enemy forces occupying the woods that night, judging by the starlight display as they lit their cigarettes, giving away their position and of course their probable numerical strength.
There were unlikely to be enemy troops on the face of the spur covered with loose shale. It was too noisy, as well as being pointless. Neither would enemy forces want to be too close to the area which would probably be under fire tonight as it was last night.
Only two Germans had been seen to date and there was very little evidence of any others, except for hearing the gunners who were operating from somewhere behind the screen of a bank of trees on the snow-line, – first heard last night when I was with the Army officer, and those operating the observation post who had nearly caught me out earlier this morning.
The trees terminated just behind my viewpoint as I looked over to where I believed our forces to be situated.
A stout stave or walking stick is essential when hill or mountain walking. All our party cut staves for their own use very early on in our journey through the mountains. The best length was about shoulder height and strong enough not to bend very much if weight was placed on it.
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I had been thinking quite a lot about the avoidance of making a noise by unavoidably disturbing the loose shale which covered practicably the whole area of the middle spur. There was no moon and I reckoned that I could not be seen from the tree-lined spur in the darkness prevailing. I thought that in spite of the silent darkness the enemy could possibly be alerted by the noise of shale slithering down the slope of the mountain unless I took reasonable precautions to avoid it happening. So, before setting out I experimented with the walking stave by placing the stick firmly on the ground on my left, then leaning on it walked carefully round it, being careful not to disturb the loose shale. Then standing still I lifted the stick and turning towards the direction I needed to go repeated the operation again and again, slowly at first, but soon picking up speed until I found that I was making quite good progress and very little noise.
It was slow but effective progress, finding that in that way I avoided moving the noisy shale about too much. Every now and again I rested by just sinking to the ground, thinking that any watcher would be confused by the lack of movement. I was not unduly concerned about time because I had considered that I had all night to do it in and I felt fresh and reasonably confident that the worst problems were behind me.
I was soon to be reminded that I was still in enemy territory and in a very hazardous situation when I heard footsteps approaching across the shale from the right. Two men in earnest conversation were climbing diagonally towards me across the spur from right to left. Judging from the direction of the sounds they were carelessly making, they were in line to cross a path which ran almost directly in front of me. Looking around for cover I was dismayed to realise that there was virtually no cover available at all. I dared not run for it or I would have given my presence away entirely. Through the gloom I could just see a narrow track which ran diagonally upwards and right to left just a few yards in front of my position. Obviously the unexpected intruders, who would almost certainly be enemy rather than friendly, would be following that path towards their eventual destination, probably to relieve the gunners situated higher up the mountain. Fortunately they had announced their route unintentionally by chatting together and kicking the shale about long before they were due to cross in front of me along the feint path, probably an animal track, etched out of the shale which covered most of this part of the mountainous spur.
As previously noted, there were small boulders and mounds of shale here and there so I just dropped down to the ground where I stood and made myself as small as possible, hoping that in the darkness I would look like a boulder. It was a ruse that worked because very shortly the two German officers strode past within about ten yards of my position, still chatting away, fortunately having taken my prone form, if they even saw it, as part of the landscape.
Phew! my Guardian Angel was still looking after me I thought. I stayed where I was for some time as I recovered from the shock of yet another very close shave.
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After resting for a while I carried on and was well down the steepest part of the mountain and approaching the area where I expected our gunners would be targeting when I recognised a muffled Bang from somewhere in the far distance ahead. Then, split seconds later the expected first shell of the evening screamed in and exploded several hundred yards ahead of my position. I decided to stay where I was for the time being, rather than become an unseen and unwitting target for gun practice for our gunners.
Let them have their fun by all means, but not at my expense I decided, thinking that I would continue the journey after they had let off a couple of dozen rounds.
The next round came a little too close for comfort, as odd bits of shrapnel and shale whizzed past quite close to my position, but I considered that I had survived closer calls in the past, and, after all, I had deliberately decided to make for this particular area as it would be the area most unlikely to be occupied by the enemy.
Strangely, I did not feel unduly concerned, thinking that they were not aiming for me. Surely I would be most unlucky to be knocked out by our own guns? “I know better today, but was trying to recall my feelings at that time.” There had been so many close calls, several times avoiding re-capture by a fluke that I realised that I could be in real danger of becoming too complacent against my better judgement. Soon there was a pause in the shell-fire, not a shell arrived for at least ten minutes and I thought it was time to move on.
The first positive goal of the night was not far ahead and I thought that I could just make out the outline of the bridge that I had seen from way up the mountain.
Then another shell landed closer than any others had done which caused me to cry out that it was a bit too close. Although obviously I was unaware of it I learned later that another pair of escapers were so close that they overheard my exclamation of “**** me that was close.”
This episode caused me to think more seriously of the possible hazards that I was facing. I wondered if our side would use star shells, in which case my lonely isolated position without cover so far in the all enveloping darkness would be blown wide apart.
It was very dark, so dark that I nearly fell over something that was sprawled across my path. I soon discovered that the object was a cow or a bullock, dead of course.
Now the thinking part of the duo between me and myself began to work at last.
I wondered if there were any more cows about; even live ones? How did this one die? Could it have been a mine or shrapnel from shell fire?
Mines;? – Yes; Mines-? I hadn’t given mines any real thought, but it suddenly occurred to me that mines could be a real danger to my progress. Why had I not seen any movement in this area from my vantage point during the day? Could it have been because the area was mined?
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Of course, my common sense told me, it would be mined by the enemy all the way up to the river. A road and a railway and a river all together would form a natural major target. Surely I would have seen some enemy movement from my vantage point higher up the mountain during the day even though it was quite a long distance away; if it had been free for the movement of transport.
What a rookie soldier I was not to have thought about the possibility of minefields before I found myself possibly right in the middle of one!
Then I heard a snuffling, a sort of breathing sound. An injured man? British? German? No! It was a cow, (or a bullock). (It was very dark.) but a live one this time and it moved towards me as if it recognised a human and was lost and was looking for and needed comfort from a human being. Poor cow I thought. It must be really confused.
Now Eric, for goodness sake pull yourself together man. Here you are in enemy territory, right in the middle of a target area for our gunners, and most likely on the edge of a minefield as well, and you are more worried about a lost cow’s confusion than your own.
Poor confused cow indeed! What about poor confused Me? A cow which could have been killed by one of our shells or by a mine dead at my feet, and now a live one snuffling around looking for comfort. I was still thinking and talking to myself aloud, still urging myself on and criticising myself as if I was two people. If the area was mined how was it that a live cow had survived?
Mines; safety; cows! My brain was beginning to work at last. Come on Eric, pull yourself together man. Poor cow indeed.
It could be a jolly good safety screen I thought.
Yes, of course! Where had it come from? Where was it going? By now I was very close to the bridge. The ground was clear of the shale and was grassy and soft and had flattened out. From my view point up above I had thought that the area beyond the bridge looked as if it could be allotments but I wouldn’t know for sure until the other side of the bridge was reached. As I moved gingerly forward the cow seemed as if it wanted to follow. “Now stop man.” “Stop and think.” “Don’t panic.” “Come on moo-cow, you get in front and I will follow behind.” “I don’t want anything nasty to happen to you-or me, but if there are any mines about I would rather that you got there first!!!” Rotten ***! I thought. But it seemed most likely that it could be her or me, and I was quite positive that Dorothy would rather have me in one piece. And if this providential cow could be persuaded to shield me from the devastating possibility of stepping on a live mine then good luck to us both.
I was quite right about the allotments as far as I could see in the dark. And amazingly the cow seemed to know where I wanted to go. She led me on a zig-zag course, sometimes left and sometimes right, of long and short stretches of paths and borders for what must have been a distance of at least a third of a mile until we reached
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the edge of the river. I felt quite emotional when I realised what the cow had done to help me as I looked back in the dim light of the stars along the route from the bridge to where I stood now. It really was quite unbelievable. I patted Moo affectionately and thanked her as if she had been a human being. Considering that I was virtually in the middle of a war zone the silence was eerie. The cow’s breathing and the river water rippling over stones were the loudest noises within earshot.
I rested awhile before starting to wade across the first of the relatively shallow streams which were no more than knee deep that stretched for some distance in front of me for three or four hundred yards.
Having reached the far side I sank down to the ground on my knees and put my hands together and reverently thanked God for my deliverance. I was through! I had done it! Thank you God!
Dorothy, I am on my way! I wanted to call out. “I have done it, I have done it.”
I restrained myself though, lets not spoil it now I cautioned myself, there could be a trigger happy Jerry not too far away.
I had no idea of the time, only that it must have been some time in the early hours of the morning. So what! What is time in such a situation?
Now! So what now? I had seen two farmhouses on this side of the river from my lookout high up on the other side. One was brilliantly illuminated, and several hundred yards away to the right. (Possibly for security reasons: but by which Army?)
I never did discover the answer to that.
The other house was half a mile or so further away to the left but without any lights at all. I went for the dark one. When I got there I found that the door was open, swinging on its hinges.
I called out “Any one at home?” No answer: I didn’t really expect an answer.
I felt my way inside and soon realised that there were lockers all round as is usual in this type of farm dwelling- house; so I just laid myself out on a locker to rest and soon went to sleep.
I awoke to a quiet lovely sunny early winter’s morning. Where was I? I really couldn’t remember for the moment. It was like waking up after a night of dreams.
Gradually it came to me. I was free! I had done it! Or had I? Had I been dreaming? The events of last night were a blur in my mind. Suppose I was still in enemy territory? Doubts and fears began to surface again. I remembered the two houses, one brilliantly illuminated, the other in total darkness. Then I remembered the cow, I wondered what had happened to my friendly cow. Of course there was no logical answer. I ventured to a window, nothing unusual to see. The door was still swinging lightly on its hinges. I dropped down on to all fours gingerly peeping out of the doorway, as if I was playing hide and seek. There was to all intents nothing unusual to see and nothing to hear either. Or was there the sound of a truck not too far away to my right?
A British truck?
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Venturing gingerly out of the door-way on all fours there was still no danger that I could see. Nothing to prevent my resuming the route that I had mapped out in my mind twenty four hours earlier from the top of the mountain which was now two or three miles away and back the way I had come. This was nothing like the no mans land that I had read about in books. And Yet? Here I am!
I remembered the exciting sight of British army tin hats bobbing along as our troops advanced along a road bordered by what looked like a dry stone wall that I had seen from high up on the other side. The other side! Yes, the other side! Again I felt a real thrill of accomplishment. I had done it! I really had got through to our side.
If I was through to where I thought I was I ought to be able to see that wall from where I was standing I thought as I sought to find my bearings. Yes. There it is, about half a mile away above the level of my position now. No Tin Bowlers! But I was below the level of the road now, whereas I had been very much above the level yesterday morning. The angle would not have allowed yesterdays exciting vision to be repeated from where I am now.
I made my way up in the direction of the wall: I had no other target to aim for at the moment. As I approached the area I could see a gap in the wall, and as I got closer I could see one of our soldiers, a corporal he turned out to be, standing along-side of a Pick-up truck, the same model as I had driven our Captain about in when I was in England three years previously.
The corporal took no notice of me as I approached. If I had expected him to greet me as a long lost soldier I was to be mistaken, as he obviously took me for an Italian. Until I spoke to him.
“How far is it back to HQ Corporal.”? I asked all polite-like. Christ! he blasphemed! I thought you was a b***** Eyetye. “I’m not surprised.” I said. I could hardly speak for excitement.
I felt strangely light headed; my head felt as if it could easily float away off my shoulders like a balloon.
“I’ve just got through.” I managed to blurt out. “I’ve been a P.O.W. for the last two years! How far is it back.”? “‘Ere jump in mate.” He turned the truck around and tore back up the road for a distance of just less than a mile to a village and the cookhouse/mess which was an open fronted ground floor of a house and fronted on to a narrow street. It was breakfast-time and troops filled the base of the house and spilled over onto the street.
The corporal called out who I was. Immediately I could have had fifty breakfasts because everyone to a man offered me their mess tins as they called out messages of sympathy and wonderment.
How long have you been walking? How far have you come? Where did you sleep last night? How did you get through the minefield?
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I was so elated and although I took someone’s mess tin I could not eat anything at all. I did manage some tea before an officer came on the scene and whisked me away for a spot of interrogation.
I had preserved my army pass-book which I produced, and he asked me some questions for security clearance. I obviously satisfied him because he said that he thought he ought to take me to see the Major.
After congratulating me and welcoming me back to the army the Major queried how I managed to get across the allotments area because it was well known that it was mined. Also the house where I had slept for the balance of the night was certainly booby trapped he said.
I told the Major about the cow, but it sounded such an unlikely story when told in the light of day. His only remark was “Remarkable.” He said it in such a way, that if I had been appearing before him on a charge it would have implied that it was a fair example of a tall story. He quickly realised his error and corrected himself and said “Remarkable. Truly Remarkable.” And obviously meant it.
I also told him about the noise of the Morse code key which I had taken for an insect. And then dodging behind a tree to hide from the two German soldiers who I thought had been sent to look for me. It really did sound like a very thin story on the morning after; I must admit. As the major said “Remarkable! truly remarkable!!!
I must admit that I began to feel not only light headed but swimmy too. Let’s face it I hadn’t had a meal since???
“Would you like some breakfast.”? asked the Major. “I’m just going to have some.” Major ordered for both of us from his orderly who had appeared from somewhere.
I was beginning to come back to reality. I realised that I was blooming hungry.
We enjoyed what I still remember as an intimate breakfast. Chatting about my experiences of the last ten weeks and what it was like in the camp.
My plate was piled high. A plate mind you! Enough to last a week, but of course I couldn’t eat half of it. I did enjoy the tea in a pint mug though! The orderly hovered around me and at a nod from Major I could have had a slice of moon if I could have eaten it. I shall never forget that breakfast, eaten on the corner of the majors desk. The first breakfast of freedom. Two years to the date. Captured in the desert December 15th 1941 to freedom on December 15th 1943. Could I get home for Xmas?