Captain Richard Low was captured in North Africa and held at Chieti camp in Italy at armistice when the camp was taken over by the Germans. Whilst being moved to Germany he escaped by jumping out of a moving train in Italy and spent several months travelling south towards allied lines where he was recaptured by a German patrol less than a mile from freedom. After recapture he was sent to Oflag VII B in Germany, escaping again, he spent the rest of the war as an interpreter and liaison office between the American forces and the Free French forces.
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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ESCAPE INTO ITALY. RICHARD C. E. LOW Cpt RHA
Captured in desert and in CHIETI Camp at Armistice. First of three pairs who jump from train taking them north. Near Tagliacosta at Capistrello.
One badly sprained ankle and is taken in by a nearby Monastery but others have to move on to village of Verreechie and meet two American G.I.s who had jumped after them from same truck. They meet Count Luchino Visconti (later famous as a film producer) and family and entourage in a house comparatively luxurious but with latrines out of doors – too far for convenience and too close for hygiene.
They have to move out of village but Peter Foulsham, left in the Monastery, with badly sprained ankle, is brought to then on the back of a donkey. For many weeks they live and move around in the area – sometimes the farmer is indignant at their occupancy of a barn until finding who they are and then helped and fed. A Doctor in village entertains them grandly on Christmas day but neighbours come telling them not to make so much noise as he has got Germans celebrating next door. At midnight on 31st December the ‘whole front line (5 miles away) is lit up by shells.
The Germans start ‘rastrellamenti’ to round up POW’s. They take an Italian guide with them who they brief the night before the area they are going to and he warns the POW’ to keep clear.
Low is rounded up with a lot of young Italians – to mend a bridge. Having worked all day they all get paid! A priest gets their names announced on the Vatican radio as being ‘alive and well’. The first Low’s family hear of him for months.
Early in Feb ’44 decide at last to try and cross the lines. The six split into pairs as they look down into the valley of Isernia and set off. They watch for every movement. But it is their movement that is seen by a German patrol that was resting!
Early in 1945 the author after 4 hours of uneventful 40 hours of ‘marching’ hit an Infantry division of the American army in Germany and then saw the total disintegration of the German Army whilst acting as an interpreter for the Americans
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ESCAPE INTO ITALY
By Richard Cecil Edmondston Low
Captain, 11th Regt RHA
It was my lot that I should spend the first half of the 2nd world war as an active and much travelled field artillery officer attached to the 10th Indian Division, that I should survive a number of battles and skirmishes, and should come out of it with a whole skin.
It was also my lot that I should spend the second half as a prisoner of war. This was an unpleasant period, spent partly in Italy and partly in Germany. In war situations change quickly and often, and changing fortune brings with it opportunity, even to prisoners of war. Fortune mostly frowns but sometimes smiles. So it happened that my proximity to various events resulted in my being captured by the Germans on three separate occasions, and escaping from them the same number of times. The first two escapes led to recapture, the third, not long before the end of the war, was successful. Third time lucky!
It is the second escape which is worth considering as an Episode in War. In the company of some 1,600 British and Commonwealth officers, I had spent 11 months incarcerated in the Italian POW camp near Chieti on the Adriatic Coast, roughly parallel with Rome. As POW camps went, and especially after British or Canadian Red Cross food parcels started arriving regularly, it was not a bad camp, but naturally the dominating thought of every man all day and every day was “when will this end?”
During these 11 months, no less than eleven tunnels were started, some to be discovered almost at once, others at various stages of progress. Only one ever debouched on the right side of the wall. As in all other camps, every kind of escape plan was considered – some of them pretty crazy. Very few men succeeded in getting out of the camp and only two got out of Italy. In September 1943 the Italians had had enough of the War. Although rumours had been circulating freely for some weeks most of us were skeptical of anything so splendid as an Italian defection from Hitler’s war and many warned against indulgence in “wishful thinking.” At about 9 o’clock one evening, the news suddenly descended upon us as a stark fact: Mussolini the Dictator was a fugitive, a new Italian Government had taken over and asked for an immediate Armistice, which had been accepted by the Allies. The news flashed round the camp in a matter of seconds and such a bedlam of rejoicing followed as would have been more appropriate for the final victory on “VE” Day. No doubt it was some form of mass nervous reaction. Be that as it may, our rejoicing soon gave place to black despondency. As a result of several unpleasant incidents between ourselves and some of the Italian guards, those who had been too free with rifle butts and bayonets decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and promptly disappeared… For a short time the walls were unguarded.
At that time the British 8th Army and the American 5th had occupied the whole of the
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Southern “boot” of Italy and were moving northwards fast. They were, however, still some 200 miles away so, incredible to relate, we received from the Senior British Officer the amazing order to stay put inside the camp and await “official liberation” by the Allied armies. In the event the 8th Army arrived in Chieti some ten months later).
A few, wise guys ignored the order and sensibly followed the Italians out by climbing over the wall during the night (the main gates being still locked) and quickly fading away into the surrounding countryside. Heaven only knows how it was that only a score or so took French leave while the going was good. Perhaps we did not like disobeying a direct order; perhaps we gave too much credence to the rumour that the German Army was “pouring northwards out of Italy.” In my own case and that of three boon companions, we had decided on a midnight flit for the second night; as we scrubbed around for a small supply of food to take with us, we postponed it to the third night. The delay was fatal for that particular plan.
As dawn came over the camp I was awakened by a sort of subdued shout of dismay and saw one, Calverly, looking out of the window. I said “What’s up, Cal?’ He turned round, I saw a face as white as a sheet. He said, “My God, come and look at this.” In the split second it took me to join him I think I guessed what 1 would see, since he was looking in the direction of the sentry boxes perched on the 20ft. wall … the Italian sentries were back. But it was worse than that: on the small platform in front of every sentry box were two tough, steel-helmeted German paratroopers, each with a particularly lethal-looking Tommy gun. They stood there silent, grim and grey.
We had become used to the sleepy, rather slovenly, little Italians with their soft forage caps and long, old- fashioned rifles. These jokers were a very different kettle of fish.
At this point the entire camp (less, of course, those who had wisely departed) proceeded to indulge in an orgy of recrimination and vituperation; the air was thick with words invariably absent from the dictionary. If the ears of the SBO and his immediate entourage did not burn red hot, then there is no truth in the old wives’ tale.
We soon realised that cursing the senior authorities and our own stupid selves no less, changed nothing of the fact that we had missed a golden opportunity of escape during the short period that we were unguarded; escape by merely walking out.
In retrospect it is difficult to understand why we all so meekly accepted the absurd order to “stay put,” when so many had spent months of ingenuity and incredible toil digging tunnels and undertaking many other schemes for escape. Perhaps after months of being
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prisoners we had lost the soldier’s sense of the occasional vital importance of hours minutes and seconds. For many months time had stood still: tomorrow and next week was all the same. At least one other factor had a positive effect on our strange lethargy: the fact that we gave credence to an entirely false rumour, emanating, from the now “friendly” Italians who assured us that all main roads were crammed with German vehicles going northwards, indicating that the Germans were evacuating at least the “boot” if not the whole of Italy. There is no doubt that the Italians really believed this and were hoodwinked by their own wishful thinking. It seems that none of them noticed that an equal amount of war materiel was moving south!
Two more years of fierce and incessant struggle were still to come before fighting stopped on Italian soil.
A few days after the German paratroop company had taken over our camp, we learnt that we were about to be entrained for a direct journey into Germany. We also discovered that the mode of travel would be by covered cattle truck, 28 to 30 men being locked up in each and the whole train bristling with guards. It was made clear that it was unlikely that we should be let out at any stage before reaching our destination. Two days POW rations would be issued. In the centre of each truck a large cylindrical container would represent the “sanitary” arrangements. Having learnt and digested all this, we were a depressed lot.
At this time, however, I and a few close friends had no time to be dismal; we were too busy discussing the possibilities of what appeared to be a promising escape plan. It is obviously difficult for prisoners of war to acquire even small tools useful for escape purposes: if by a very lucky chance such a tool is obtained, it is almost as difficult to keep it, as prisoners and their quarters are frequently and thoroughly searched. By great good fortune a member of our own little escape syndicate had managed to get hold of a pick- head, which we decided was sharp enough, heavy enough and solid enough to make a hole in the side of a wooden cattle truck, large enough to allow a man to pass through. The problem was – how to succeed in smuggling the pick into our truck unobserved; we were bound to be searched thoroughly at least once before boarding the train. We therefore organised and practiced a little pantomime. We first selected two fair-haired young officers who had more than once been asked if they were twins – they were in fact unrelated, but nevertheless remarkably similar. In conjunction with a German-speaking officer and a senior Major with an authoritative presence we arranged that the “twins” should stick closely together for the final search before entraining. One of them, the second in the queue, would have the pick strapped behind his left leg and above the knee. The poor man did not find this very comfortable, but had to spend much time in our billets, walking around with the pick in position, so that (a) it didn’t show through his battledress trousers, (b) he did not walk with a suspicious limp and (c) that the vital object did not become detached owing to muscle movement in a possible quarter mile march to the railway station. It fell to me to write the script and produce a little scene, which we rehearsed over and over again. As the “twins” approached the search party they would be indulging in an acrimonious argument, carefully degenerating into a quarrel as the searching of the first “twin” was completed; as soon as this was done they would pretend to come to blows, grapple and fall to the ground in angry strife; within seconds
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the contestants would be forcibly separated by the German-speaking man and the authoritative Major, the former explaining and generally mollifying the Germans and the Major roundly ticking off the antagonists and showing clearly to the Germans that he was breaking it up and that he had the situation in hand. The boys on the ground only had about two seconds, but all they had to do was to change places by the simple process that the pick-twin, who had been hatless, should pick up and put on the officer’s hat which (it was essential) must fall off pickless-twin’s head when they fell. He was also to pick up the other’s distinctive yellow suitcase and pass through – leaving the pickless twin, now hatless and with a green kitbag, to be searched for a second time.
On the day scheduled for departure our party arrived and presented itself before the searching party: two searchers and two sentries. We had a long wait as we took our position at the end of a queue of at least 100. We had barely arrived, when from nearby we heard two or three bursts of Tommy-gun fire and several rifle shots – two of our chaps had attempted a dash for freedom: extremely foolhardy under the circumstances. One was killed and a few minutes later a very dead looking man was carried past us on a stretcher. The other was found hiding in a railway carriage and was severely beaten about the head with rifle butts; he too was dragged past.
In view of what was to be enacted within the next half-hour, our nerves at this point were in pretty bad shape. I looked at our little troop of actors just ahead of me and I say I mentally raised my hat to them: they all looked perfectly cool and calm. Later, they admitted that it was about the worst hour they had ever lived through and that their hearts had been going it like sledgehammers.
To those of us that were involved, there were a great many more than sixty minutes in that hour: optimism ebbed as those minutes dragged on. We thought: “We are bound to have forgotten something.” “Something unforeseen will crop up.” “Surely the Germans will not be fooled”… Then, as a paradox, it seemed quite suddenly that twin No. 1 was being searched and at the same time talking angrily to No. 2. Just right I thought: not too much, not too little. The German searcher seemed interested and faintly amused; he indicated that he had finished and shouted “NEXT.” I noticed that the yellow suitcase had been examined and passed and was just in the right position for picking up – the boys were still arguing – and I heard the Major say “DOWN” (they were a bit late for this): then “Cut it out you two…” and so on: as they hit the ground, the hat flew off and rolled several yards behind the searcher and sentry.
As planned, the fight was broken up almost as soon as it started. The Major continued bawling them out: the twins looked splendidly sheepish and contrite; the Germans on the spot were clearly amused. The substitution was made without a hitch. Twin No. 2 picked up the yellow suitcase and pointed to the hat with a gesture which indicated that he
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requested permission to pick it up (it was always highly inadvisable to go behind a German sentry if he didn’t know what your intentions were).
The German saw the hat and very kindly picked it up and handed it over. The man with the pick moved towards the cattle-trucks. The trick was done, but I then had a bad moment when I saw that the truck he entered appeared to be full – would I be ordered aboard the next truck?
All was well, however, and the last of our party came in behind me before the doors were closed and padlocked.
As soon as the train got in motion we started work in relays. Someone had had the cunning idea to make our hole four feet above one of the buffers, this having the advantage of supplying an exterior platform on which we could stand poised for a jump clear of the train and from which we could get some idea as to whether we were likely to jump and roll down a grassy bank or dash ourselves into a brick wall!
By 02.00 hrs we had a comfortably large hole ready for use and at the disposal, not only of ourselves, but of the whole truckload of 30. We made but one stipulation – our syndicate would go out first. There was no moon that night; this minimised the risk of being seen by the guards in the rear, but made jumping considerably more hazardous.
The maximum speed of the train was probably about 35 mph and it was generally agreed that, since it slowed down fairly frequently to perhaps as little as 10 mph, no one was expected to jump at the higher speeds. We still had about three hours of darkness in which to evacuate thirty bods, but we could of course go only one at a time, and there was much anxious prompting from inside to the man on the buffer whenever speed seemed to be slackening.
I overheard a voice in the dark saying, “From in here the train sounds as if it’s going pretty slowly”; prompt rejoinder from the man outside – “Well, from here it sounds as though it’s going b…. fast!”
Some men decided to escape and to carry on on their own, judging that this would give them the best chance of remaining undetected and of moving at maximum speed Southwards towards our advancing armies. Most of us arranged to go off in pairs: a few in threes, this being considered the absolute maximum. Whilst awaiting my turn T arranged to team up with two other artillery officers, both long-established friends, Peter Foulsham and John Lepine, with whom I had served before the War in the Honourable Artillery Company of London. We hastily got together an “Escape Haversack” taking with us all that was likely to be useful: knife, crude maps, basic toilet materials, a rather primitive first-aid kit, a small Italian dictionary, a spare pair of shoes and every pair of socks and every scrap of food we possessed.
It was arranged that Peter should go first, myself second and John third. As there were likely to be some hundreds of yards’ interval between us, this would place me in the
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middle and it was arranged that at intervals of minute or so I would put into practice a trick I had learned as a Boy Scout – I would hoot like an owl! All jolly good cloak-and-dagger stuff.
When my turn came I passed through the hole without difficulty. The next minute was spent poised somewhat precariously on a jerking and slewing buffer. It was too dark to see anything but the train was not only going fairly slowly, but actually slowing down. After a while a slight tug suggested that it was about to pick up speed and I leaped into the void.
I hit the ground with a hard bump, which seemed to shake every bone in my body; I rolled down a grass bank and finished up in some bushes well stocked with small thorns. I was fairly winded but soon got up to move my arms and legs and thus ascertain that I was completely unhurt. Peter, who had run alongside the track after a perfect landing, joined me almost at once. One owl hoot brought John alongside very soon after. All three of us quite undamaged.
Silently, we watched the red light of the train recede, recede, recede… disappear.
We could see a little better now, broad Italian countryside, as wide as the world, beautiful and serene and totally devoid of barbed wire fences, high walls and enemy soldiers. We had been hemmed in by all these, day and night, for a long time. Now we were FREE, It was a tremendous moment.
For the moment we were free, but we had no idea what lay before us in the immediate and more distant future. In the event we were to walk some hundreds of miles, discover the beauty of Italy and the hospitality of many Italian peasants. We were to be “beggars, vagabonds and fugitives” behind the German front line for seven months.
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The train seemed to be moving away from us incredibly slowly, almost as if reluctant to leave us behind. We were aware of the possibility that one or more of the German guards might see that every two or three hundred yards a man was jumping out. Our eyes were rivetted to the train, half expecting it to stop suddenly, and searchlights to go on and shouting and shooting Germans to come running back down the line. In view of this possibility it would have been sensible to dash off without a second’s delay, but there was something of hypnosis in waiting for the red rear light to recede and disappear, and for the sound of trucks on rails to dwindle to zero.
Someone said “We’ve made it, by God!” Still we did not move – and no further word was spoken. It comes to most men to experience moments, which are remembered till the end of life, This was such a moment, and spontaneously the three of us were fully conscious of the significance of the situation on this memorable night. A sensation of excitement and joy swept over us in waves, the more enhanced in that during the preceding days and hours we had been far too busy in anxious preparations to give more than a cursory thought to successful escape and our probable actions thereafter.
After we had savoured those first few delightful minutes we started becoming practical again. We peered all around us in the darkness, listening for any sounds, which might bode us no good. It was unlikely that any Italians would be abroad so early in the morning, but most Italian farms have dogs. Also we did not want to get mixed up with others who had Jumped the train as a party of three was certainly the limit in respect of safety, swiftness of movement and, as we found out later, cadging food from Italians who often had little enough for themselves.
Not a sound was heard. We saw that we were close to a small town, name unknown of course, since we hadn’t the faintest idea where we were. Later we found out that it was Tagliacozzo.
We saw that all around us was very open country – much too open for our immediate and instinctive urge to find cover and remain as much out of sight as possible.
Some miles to the South West we could see a wide wood rising to the top of a long ridge of low hills; this was the obvious place to make for and we set off in great strides leaving the town behind us.
The night was cloudy and it was still very dark. We therefore Judged that we could reach the woods before first daylight. We were wrong. It was distinctly light when we finally plunged into the shelter of the trees, but we had seen no one.
We walked a little way into the wood and decided to stop and have our first Council of War.
By the simple fact of being the senior officer and several years older than Peter and John, and also having had some positive role in the preparations which made the escape possible, the leadership of our small party fell to me from the start without even
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discussion. This suited me very well as I had some definite ideas as to what our general line of action should be. I put it on record that Peter and John were ideal companions; whether we discussed an action or whether I said: “we shall do this” – not once was there any argument.
In view of our immediate situation there was nothing very warlike about our council of war. We were now fugitives in a hostile country; at the same time we hadn’t the faintest idea where we were. We had food for perhaps three days on half rations, most of which was chocolate and biscuits, We were dressed in distinctive battle-dress, with a large red patch sewn on one trouser leg and in the middle of the back; mark of a POW in Italy. We were unarmed and penniless. Our own army was at least 300 miles to the South and in between was a very big and tough German army. As for the Italian population, we could expect either downright hostility, even though they were out of the war, or at best sour neutrality.
Anglo-American armies were at that moment busily invading their country from the heel and toe of the ‘boot’ upwards, and shelling and bombing any city that was deemed to contain German soldiers or war material. We did not suppose that the ‘Ities’ could do otherwise than pretty well hate our guts.
Our goal was to cross the front line. We realised that this would not be possible if we did not succeed in finding, perhaps in some remote village, friendly Italians, able and willing to give us food, or other assistance of which we might stand in need. It was decided it would be best to try and make contact with old women or village priests, avoiding as much as possible any hale and hearty-looking men.
Whilst these points were being considered we had become aware for some little time that we all had a raging thirst; this was not surprising. I had discovered on other occasions that sustained excitement, in terms of danger, real or imagined, is very conducive to thirst, all the more in that few remember to drink their fill, or drink at all, when the opportunity might exist during a tense period preceding the moment of action.
Having thus appreciated the situation, we decided that our prospects were distinctly gloomy; our thirst contributed to a strong feeling of general pessimism and at that moment it started to rain – fairly heavily and very steadily. So, as there did not seem to be very much else we could do, we just stood there and got wet.
Our morale had sagged to its lowest ebb, when suddenly something happened which promptly made us forget our forebodings for the future; an exceedingly big and tough-looking Italian was looking at us through the trees, shouting to us in Italian, and coming towards us and in no way intimidated by the fact that there were three of us and that we were a long way from sending over any friendly looks. We noticed that he was carrying a heavy solid-looking stick. Peter raised a thin smile by saying: “This one looks hale and hearty enough; shall we tell him we’re not At Home?” But we soon noticed that neither his expression nor the tone of his voice were in any way hostile, he looked faintly amused and very curious. My own curiosity was by this time also aroused and I walked towards
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him with an airy “Buon giorno”. My knowledge of Italian was little, but it was by no means non-existent. Already fluent in French I had attended Italian classes in the POW camp, where I had started by blowing gently on some few remaining embers left over from Daddy Warner’s ‘Fabulae faciles’. With some Latin and plenty of French I had made good progress, or so I thought until I found myself having to converse with a fast-talking Italian peasant. However, with repetition and lavish gesticulation, we managed very well. It turned out that he was a farmer and owned the land we had been crossing. Being a farmer he rose early and at first light he had seen us from a bedroom in his farmhouse: “Who are these men walking across my fields so early in the morning? So I looked through my field glasses and see that you are English or American. “In most parts of rural England your true countryman is often somewhat obtuse and dull-witted; not so his Italian counterpart; with few exceptions we found them intelligent, observant and very quick on the uptake. This one announced that his name was Enrico.
As there did not seem to be any earthly reason why we should not tell him about ourselves (with his own eyes he had seen what we were), I told him briefly of our night’s work and that our goal was to rejoin the British army – “l’armata Inglese”. We did not spend very long conversing on this spot as we were all getting wetter and wetter.
Within minutes we had known that Enrico was a friend. Soon after we found that he was a man of pretty quick action. He had soon taken us to a stream where we all drank a prodigious amount of water; then beckoned that we should follow, leading us deep into the wood until we came to a clearing at the edge of which he had a small chalet-type hut which he used for the storage of hay. Opening the door, he waved us to enter and followed us in. He told us to get dry and keep dry and said that he would come back later in the day and bring us food. He told us that if the rain stopped not to wander about outside, which in the circumstances we would not have dreamt of doing, so close to our point of departure. We were only too glad of the opportunity to lay doggo. He also impressed upon us that in the very unlikely event of our being discovered by a German search-party or patrol, not to breathe a word about, having met him. This was an equally superfluous entreaty, but as we subsequently discovered, it set the pattern for the many similar contacts which we were to make in the course of our southward journey.
Enrico departed, we removed our wet battle-dress and made ourselves comfortable in the soft dry hay. We talked and had something to eat. Then, the immediate excitement over, the desire and the need to sleep crept upon us, and little wonder (we had had no sleep the night before and only a few hours the night before that). So we slept like the dead for nine hours and awoke at dusk to see the red, smiling face of Enrico in the doorway, It was still raining. He came in wearing a shining wet oilskin; he put down a load and whipped off the cover to reveal an enormous basket filled with an impressive variety of food, some bottles of water and a bottle of wine – enough for at least two days on full rations. Morale was more than restored from that low ebb of the early morning in that rain-sodden wood. We were back on the crest of the wave.
It rained all that night and all the next day. We were soon restless to be off, realising however that it would be entirely stupid to start off merely to be soaked to the skin within
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the hour. We decided that we would leave at nightfall on the first day that the rain stopped. Enrico came again at dusk on the second day, bringing more food and a map. He approved of our plan and said that he would come to see us off. On the third day the rain stopped at last. Quite soon the sky was completely clear and luckily for us remained cloudless for several weeks to follow. We parted from Enrico taking pains to thank him as handsomely as we knew how for all he had done.
So we set off towards the South in a spirit of adventure which was enhanced as a result of our enforced inactivity in the first three days of freedom.
Our direction was towards Capistrello. We walked all night, avoiding farms, villages and roads, keeping to the narrowest paths or cutting across country by no path at all. The sky was a semisphere of stars and gave adequate light in open country. Towards the end of the night we were going across some rough ground and I could hear stumbling behind me as we negotiated some ditches and hedges. I said “For Heaven’s sake, look where you are going; if you can’t see, advance dead carefully – if one of us twists an ankle we’ve had it!” We proceeded for another five minutes when there was a sudden yelp of pain and I saw that Peter was down. We soon discovered the trouble; he had well and truly sprained his ankle and no half-measures about it. The light of a new day was increasing when we saw that the ankle was very swollen. Obviously he was out of action for days. There was a barn some hundreds of yards away. It was a somewhat solitary building and the nearest one to us, so it was quite obvious that this was the place to make for. We strapped up Peter’s ankle as best we could. John and I got on either side of him and with our four legs and his one, got him into the barn. It was quite a large building, a quarter full of hay and housing two small tractors and other agricultural implements. We put Peter on the hay and started wondering what the hell we were going to do next. It was soon broad daylight and many Italians could be seen working on the land, The area was alarmingly populated and there were farms all around. Squinting through various chinks in the walls we eventually took great interest in a large partly concealed building on top of a hill; the more we looked at it the more it looked like a convent or monastery. This might be the answer. If we could get Peter up there, it was clearly the best bet. We decided to wait nightfall before setting out.
In the late afternoon a young Italian labourer suddenly came to the barn. When he saw us from the doorway he stopped dead in his tracks and looked scared. We explained who we were and asked him not to tell anyone that we were in the barn; we assured him that at nightfall we would be off. He said: “I have seen nothing, I know nothing”. He still looked scared, grabbed a sack and started to go. I did just manage to get confirmation out of him that the building on the hill was, in fact, a monastery. He then disappeared with astonishing speed. Had we been able, we would have disappeared ourselves almost as promptly and we wondered whether this rather shifty-looking character would send a posse of fascists or carabinieri to pick us up; but as there was nothing we could do about it we did not worry – nor was there need since nobody came. At long last darkness came and with it absolute silence except for the occasional faint bark of a dog, farms away.
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We repeated our five-footed performance and covered the distance to the monastery much more quickly and comfortably than we had expected. It was probably between nine and ten p.m. when we got there; faint lights were still burning at some of the windows.
Even in the dark the huge building gave the impression that it had stood there for many hundreds of years, Peter lay on the grass and rested his leg, John stayed with him and I went up to the massive main doors. These appeared to be as old as the building itself: the weathered wood was studded with great iron studs and transversed with wrought-iron; they looked as though they might be as thick as a man’s arm, and distinctly forbidding. After a moment’s hesitation I grabbed the bell-rope and pulled lustily. I heard a bell ringing faintly and waited for a long two minutes; there was then a scuffle, then a chain and at least three heavy bolts clanged and rattled, a massive key turned through two complete circles and the door opened. A young monk looked at me serenely: I told him who we were, that one of us was injured and that we were in dire need of Christian help. He said that he would fetch the ‘Principale’. He then carefully shut the door in my face and I heard at least one bolt being shot home. After a few minutes the door opened again and 1 found myself face to face with a tall, severe-looking, white-haired monk who could be no other than the ‘Principale’ or Father Superior. I repeated that we were escaped prisoners of war, hungry, homeless, one of us badly injured -I did my best to make it all sound as sad as hell. The old man was no ditherer, he beckoned us in before I had barely finished my little piece and with a sharp gesture said: “Shut the door”; the young monk got busy with his bolts and chain again. We enjoyed this act because we had a pleasant feeling that such a door would be capable of keeping out the whole German army!
In the great vaulted entrance hall all the other monks, some forty of them, were tentatively shuffling towards us, smiling, and listening for all their ears were worth, they had learned that species of humans we were and our somewhat dramatic entrance into their well-ordered, reclusive and largely uneventful lives had made them quite agog with excitement.
Il Principale gave further sharp orders, which we clearly understood were on the subject of food. Six monks dashed off and not long after we were ushered into the refectory. We were amazed; on a massive and truly refectory table was a superb variety of delicious foods, which without exaggeration would have sufficed a dozen men. In the centre was a large jug full to the brim with wine.
The Principale and Brothers had had their evening meal and did not join us, but they were all eager to talk and listen, whilst pressing us to eat our fill and more. One of the monks was a Frenchman and this removed any restrictions on conversation which continued far into the night (or at least far into the night by monastery standards). We had soon discovered that the Principale was not in the least a severe man, as he had at first appeared, nor did we get the impression that the inmates of this monastery belonged to one of the stricter orders, but rather the reverse.
In spite of the food and the animated conversation, I and my two companions were fully aware and appreciative of our surroundings; such of the building and cloisters as we had seen were architecturally superb, so was the vaulted refectory, and everything in it was in
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keeping – the long refectory table, the gothic type chairs, the large home-made jug which carried the wine, and of course, the, monks themselves in their traditional garb; the whole made a fantastic picture. None of us had ever been in a monastery before, least of all an Italian one. However, we did not feel so much that we were strangers in a strange house in a strange country, but rather that we had been miraculously retrojected straight into the middle ages. If a medieval soldier had staggered in with an arrow sticking out of his chest, we would scarcely have raised an eyebrow.
Eventually the monks departed, either to their cells or to other duties, leaving us with the Principale and a senior monk who appeared to be some sort of adjutant; and the French monk.
It was explained to us that they were not allowed to put people up for any length of time, or even overnight, otherwise every monastery in the country would be permanently saddled with tramps, down and outs and rascals fleeing from justice. There was also an agreement between the Church and the German military authorities that the latter would not search or molest monasteries (or Convents) providing that the Church undertook not to give refuge to deserters, political enemies, escaped POW and suchlike. There was a loophole for Peter, however, as the overall regulations permitted the succour of the injured and the sick “until such time as they could be sent to hospital”. So it was arranged that they would look after Peter until he could walk and rejoin us. In the meantime John and I were to depart in the night and make our way to a village high in the Abruzzi mountains, It was about eight miles away, we were told that the name of the village was Verecchi and we were carefully briefed as to the best way of getting there without using roads. We were given the name of a ‘contact’ so that we could keep in touch with the monastery and therefore with Peter.
Before dawn John and I were let out through a tiny door in a remote wing at the rear of the building, two monks crept out to see if the coast was clear, then they crept back again with much whispering and hushing. One of them carried a lanthorn, a type which Sherlock Holmes would have classed as antique. It gave little light and the smell of burning oil impinged on the senses more aggressively than the yellow flickering lumens. It might have revealed a white goat at ranges up to three yards. On the other hand, it might have revealed our presence to a watcher some hundreds of yards away… We could have done without it.
Now it is a fact that at that time the whole of Italy was under Martial Law, and this was sustained by the best part of a million German soldiers, all politically alert and very much on a full war footing. This was backed up by a fascist regime in Rome bolstered and tottering but still in power. It is very probable, however, that when we left the monastery there was not a German for 20 miles. But here again we were beginning to see the pattern of things, in our relations with Italians. We found few who did not relish a plot, conspiracy or stratagem; in short, anything in the “Cloak-and-dagger” line. Even our two monks were not above playing up to the occasion. It is unlikely they expected to find an enemy lurking in the bushes, any more than we did.
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It is probably true to say the meal we had just had at the monastery was the most substantial and the mostly tasty, in fact quite the very best that any of us had enjoyed since short leave in Cairo, some 14 months earlier.
It was therefore not surprising that John and I set off in high fettle and excellent spirit on the second of many subsequent journeys into the night. In the starlight, we had no difficulty in wending our way up the mountain. The air was cool and delicious as we covered the ground in great strides, steadily but without rush. The only sound was the faint clicking of stone as some got hustled under our feet… the occasional gurgle of a small mountain stream. We climbed for four or five hours with hardly a pause.
At first light we saw the very small village of Verecchi some 200 ft. above us, seemingly perched on an average mountain slope of 45 degrees. It was quite light when we found ourselves walking on the cobblestones of the main street (indeed the only street). Country folk rise early, and even at that hour there were a few people about, presently we found ourselves practically face to face with a man of about thirty who was walking towards us, I stopped and gravely said “Buon giorno”, he stopped and returned the compliment. He looked at us curiously, still in battle-dress, clearly expecting us to account for ourselves. At this moment my mind became a complete blank, I said er… er… and then we just looked at each other. He waited, not choosing to help me out with an opening gambit. After a frantic effort I came out with the first thing that entered my head and said: “Is there a good hotel in this village?” As it was obvious that in this tiny remote village there never had been or ever would be anything approaching a hotel, my absurd question threw John into a fit of merriment which kept him going for several minutes.
After sorting out a variety of more or less unintelligible sentences for a while, we finally understood from our friend that there were two American soldiers in the village, apparently also escaped prisoners. He said he would take us to their hide-out and proceeded to lead the way.
It was a practice of all belligerent nations to segregate POW into nationalities. It so happened however that for some reason unknown, the Italians had put a score or so of Americans in our camp at Chieti. Two of them, Bob Schisler and George Maibach, were in our “hut” and we got to know them very well; at that time they were the only American soldiers that we knew personally.
When our Italian friend had guided us to an absolute ruin of a house at the back of Verecchi, he knocked vigorously on a door which was hanging on one hinge, very nearly accounting for this last precarious anchorage; without further ceremony we all trooped into a small room, and guess who… Yes, you’ve got it: Bob Schisler and George Maibach. It was a merry meeting. After a few minutes our Italian left us with much grinning and hand-shaking, leaving the four of us to settle down to a good natter. We discovered that Bob and George had jumped from the same truck; in the overcrowded darkness we had been unaware of their presence. The Americans told us that they were in contact with a party of Italians who were living in a house lower down in the village. They were anti-
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Fascists who had run foul of the Italian and German police in Rome and they were themselves aiming to cross the front lines into allied occupied territory. I realised that this was a most interesting piece of information and fraught with advantageous possibilities Bob and George spoke very highly of their leader, a Count Somebody-or-other who was “a Great Guy” and much else besides, He was due to come up and visit them that evening.
Around midday another character came on the scene. This was Anna, a peasant woman of the village who had brought the Americans in when they arrived and shown them to the deserted house. She was a kindly soul, bringing bread, cheese and fruit.
After our meal we decided to take stock of what our worldly possessions amounted to. The result threw an interesting slant on the psychological difference between the British and American soldier. On our side we produced our crude map, cheap compass, two jack-knives, a water-bottle, modest first- aid kit, some “hard rations” and a few other comparatively useless “Boy Scout” objects. Our American friends were much more powerfully equipped; they had some hundreds of ‘Camels’ and about 300 dollars in good U.S. currency. It did not take long to find out that dollars were at least as acceptable to Italians as their own lire, often more so. They also had two decks of cards; a godsend with which we wiled many hours away.
If any moral comes out of this story it was shown in the fact that the British soldier usually fared better in the deserts of North Africa and the jungles of Burma, where a water bottle or a compass might save life. The Americans fared better in Italy, France, Belgium and Holland where there were always people about, ready to exert themselves for dollar bills, or equally for cigarettes.
Having decided to form an Anglo-American team (before we knew of their wealth, I’m glad to say), Bob and George proved no exception to the American reputation for openhanded generosity; nothing we could do could sidetrack their determination to put their money and cigarettes into the common pool.
Fugitives and foxes instinctively move at night, occasionally at dawn or dusk. Light was fading when a tall pleasant-looking man came into our midst. I did not know that I was about to establish a firm friendship which continues to this day.
Count ‘Somebody-or-other’ turned out to be no other than the Count Luchino Visconti. The Visconti family are almost as well known in Italian history and in political affairs as Churchills and Cecils in this country. The heads of this family are the Dukes of Milan.
Count Luchino, a younger brother of the present Duke, is today probably the world’s best known operatic and film impresario. At the time of our meeting, however, he was no more than a fellow fugitive, although a little later we discovered that he was quite well known in Italy as a film director.
Luchino’s English was little better than my Italian, it was therefore fortunate that we were
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both completely at home with French. Before long we were discussing the idea of a three-nation effort and best methods of arranging our movements. Eventually Luchino said that we must all go down to the house he had rented and meet the other Italians. He left us, to prepare for our visit, suggesting that we should come down an hour later.
It is unlikely any of us have forgotten that first meeting with our new friends. Bob and George, John and I duly arrived at what seemed to be the best house in the village. Luchino, in the style of the perfect host, carefully introduced us to a number of well- mannered and surprisingly friendly looking young people. Firstly there was Uberta, Luchino’s very beautiful sister, then Renzo, her film-actor husband; too good looking to be anything else. Mario, an officer of the Italian Army “with a price on his head”; we never quite got to the bottom of him, a quiet rather moody man, though friendly enough. Finally came Basilio, a jovial fellow with a splendid sense of humour, he could be described as a fairly harmless communist, although he had been an Editor of I’Unita (equivalent of the Daily Worker) – this one had the distinction of being badly wanted by the Gestapo. I was surprised that he should be persona grata in such company. All I got out of Luchino, sometime later, was: “Oh, no one takes Basilio seriously”. It did not take long to find out that Basilio’s communism went little further than theoretical Utopianism and we soon fell in line with this attitude.
In those days the Wine and Cheese Party had not been invented, but by dint of necessity a Cheese and Wine Party it was, and as such the first I ever attended. I am sure the refreshments provided would have done justice in any fashionable present-day flat in Chelsea, but in those days we were not difficult to please. Such were our good spirits and interest in each other and our more or less common situation as fugitives, that language difficulties seemed non-existent; on the whole English appeared to predominate, gracefully assisted by the Italian gesticulation The whole thing went like a house on fire.
As for John and I and the two Americans, we could scarcely remember when we had last met a woman socially, let alone a young and beautiful one; it was certainly long before that last meal in Cairo. More or less in turns, we were fairly dancing attendance on Uberta and vying with each other for her smiles, there were plenty to go round and Basilio told us later that she didn’t have to invoke her feminine instincts to cotton on to our painfully obvious admiration. In all respects, it was a splendid party and anyone looking in at random would have been surprised to know that most of us had been complete strangers to one another a few hours before. It was very late when we broke it up.
We spent what little was left of the night in the room where we had found Bob and George that morning. Our beds consisted of two sacks each, on the bare boards. Most of the roof was missing, but the weather was fine, this bothered nobody. The next day Anna invited the four of us into her house for an evening meal. Here the set-up need only be described once, as Anna’s house was typical of all the peasant dwellings we entered. Practically every village house and farmhouse consisted fundamentally of one very big room and a number of small bedrooms, the big room acted as kitchen, dining room, living room and very often as bathroom. Latrines were out of doors, too far to be convenient
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and too close to be hygienic. I don’t remember ever seeing water taps or plumbing, Water came from a private pump or well, or from the village pump. Fuel for cooking etc. was invariably locally collected firewood. The only service available in the larger villages was electricity, In small places like Verecchi, light was from paraffin lamps and candles.
Each kitchen had a fireplace which accounted for most of the area of one wall and would be about four feet deep. Meals for a whole family would be cooked in a vast cauldron hanging on a chain secured to a hinged beam, which allowed the pot to be swung outwards for purposes of ladling.
No Italian breakfast appeared to consist of more than a small cup of black coffee, if coffee was available. Lunch was also a vague sort of meal; little bread and cheese and some fruit. 4 o’clock tea was unheard of. But the evening meal – that was really something. Nearly always it was minestrone; the cauldron would be filled with a thick pottage, the ingredients were rice, macaroni, polenta, vegetables, eggs, tomatoes, meat, seasoning and herbs, sometimes milk and cream were added to the required amount of water, A final addition of salt was carefully gauged.
It took a long time to prepare and cook and the family would sit around gossiping and bickering with breath-taking rapidity whilst ‘mother’ or an ancient crone slowly stirred the concoction with a long wooden spoon. The smell was delicious and one would become progressively more ravenous as the minutes passed.
Many families gave the impression of being poor, but, there was always ample quantity of food at the evening meal, for all present to eat their fill, however numerous. Every house had a cellar, and every cellar was well stocked with barrels and bottles of home-made wine. This is not surprising, as lush grapes grow in Italy like weeds in an English garden. Every farmer has his vine and womenfolk work hard during the year in careful attendance to the family stocks.
Before, during and after the minestrone Vino passed restlessly from hand to hand, and we could find no fault whatever with this way of life!
An evening meal in the bosom of an Italian family was, however, not a very frequent treat, and only occurred at such times and such places where it was known that there were no Germans in the neighbourhood. Many Italians were shot out of hand for helping and sheltering people like ourselves. We met one old man of around 70 who was subsequently shot merely for being in possession of a British army greatcoat.
Nevertheless, Italians risked their lives in all parts of Italy, feeding and helping escaped prisoners, and other fugitives; the predominating factor which made them do this was mostly a downright Christian compassion for the individuals they met – hungry and harried.
We spent two nights in Verecchi. On the third day a German motor-cycle patrol came to the village and looked around. After a while they went away again having done nothing
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apart from getting the villagers over-excited and thoroughly indignant. A few able-bodied young men actually panicked and ran up the mountain to hide; it is likely that these were un-demobilised soldiers fearing arrest as deserters. We ourselves took care to be very effectively out of sight.
As a result of this incursion it was agreed that it would be better for all concerned if we lived outside the village. Anna’s two young sons took us to a small sheltered clearing on a little plateau in the woods, about 40 minutes climb. There we amused ourselves making a very creditable hut, big enough to sleep five men in comfort. We made it with branches, twigs, grass and moss, and when it was finished it looked very pretty and made one think of gnomes and fairies. All our friends came up to admire it.
We told them that we had laid dried grass thickly, like thatch, over the roof, and this would make the hut absolutely rainproof. This gross misrepresentation was sustained for a couple of weeks until the day it did rain. We were all inside, turning in for the night, when it came down suddenly and hard. For about five minutes nothing happened, and we were just about to start kidding ourselves all over again, when it started dripping in several places simultaneously. Soon it was coming in by the bucketful. I don’t remember ever spending a more uncomfortable night!
Shortly after, we acquired an old tarpaulin, with holes and tears in it, but it was a great improvement on the “thatch”.
We were frequently visited by Luchino and his entourage. They were, of course, fully aware that we were waiting for the recovery of Peter’s sprained ankle and his arrival from the monastery. Anna came up once or twice, her two sons almost daily, with supplies, messages, news about the Germans; they were 12 and 9 years old and thought the whole thing tremendous fun. Reasonably often, one of us would go down to the village at dusk, for a really good hot meal, returning around eleven p.m., often with supplies. The dollars diminished.
One day we got a message from the monastery saying Peter was coming to us. And the same day we got another message saying that Peter’s ankle was improving satisfactorily but that he could not yet possibly undertake a long journey up the mountain. We didn’t quite know what to make of this, but the answer arrived on the following morning. Peter suddenly burst into our clearing; he was sitting astride a very small mule, no bigger than a donkey. This diminutive brute was being led by a lad from the monastery, and egged on from behind by one of Anna’s boys. We laughed at this comical apparition and greeted Peter with a cheer which was not free of derisive undertones. Peter contrived to grin and look sheepish at the same time. But we made it clear that we were glad to have him back and coffee and cigarettes were produced to celebrate the occasion; no mean gesture, as these things were always in mighty short supply, or lacking altogether.
Peter listened with great interest to our report of developments. Here it should be said that about a week earlier, after serious discussion, we had decided to acquire and wear fairly well-fitting second-hand Italian peasant clothing, and to discard battle-dress.
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The advantage of this was obvious, and later we more than once came face to face with Germans, who took no notice of us. Naturally, we were aware that if we were caught, questioned and identified, we stood an unpleasantly good chance of being shot. It was a risk we decided to take. There was no question of throwing away the battledress however; this was carefully stowed in a sack, together with any provisions we might have, and each man carried his own wherever we went. We were always ready for a quick-change act; should the occasion demand it and the opportunity arise.
In small communities, news travels fast, and inevitably everyone in the village must have known about Peter and his mule. We were therefore not surprised to see Luchino, Mario and Basilio arriving for a cold picnic and bringing provisions and wine for a gay lunch. The party was now complete. It was decided that Peter would have to rest and exercise his ankle for about another two weeks; complete recovery was clearly essential for the arduous foot-slogging ahead.
There were a few scares when German motor-cycle patrols came to Verecchi and put the villagers into a tizz, but they never went much further than the wine shop, and having refreshed themselves, departed. At this time the German army in Italy had skilfully organised a formidable barrier of defensive positions right across the “boot”, the famous Monte Cassino fortifications being in the centre of the zone. The previously rapid advance of the British and American armies came, literally, to a grinding halt, there to remain for many months. This dashed one of the earlier plans which we had considered, namely: to sit tight and await the simultaneous withdrawal of the enemy and advance of our own armies. Not by a long way would we have it so easily!
Within the fortnight Peter was fit. By this time we had been living in the hut for over five weeks and we had become progressively more restless to be off. Besides, every soul in the village knew exactly who we were and where we were, and there was always the possibility that some pro-fascist or pro-German might betray us, or some scallywag thinking he might get a cash reward for information. For this reason we did, in fact, build a second hut some distance away, spending the last two weeks in a different location.
By the time we were ready to move we had collected a useful though not too heavy quantity of provisions, We each had our sack and were all reasonably well shod. This last became a constant problem as we chalked up the miles, score upon score.
Our movement plan was the essence of simplicity. Luchino had good maps and we would select a village to go to, anything from 20 to 30 miles away, and the more remote the better. We would establish a rendezvous for an hour well after dark, NOT at the village inn or at a main crossroad, but perhaps in the comer of a field where there was a small wood, on the outskirts of the village. Luchino would go first, with Mario and Basilio several hundreds of yards behind him. At least half an hour later, the rest of us set off in ones and twos. Bob and George usually bringing up the rear. Each individual or pair endeavoured to get to our destination by a different route. It was agreed that if anyone got into trouble, or re-captured, the remainder would press on regardless. We could not.
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indeed, have done otherwise. At the beginning, these elaborate precautions were not necessary, but we knew that they would become so, and the sooner we started practising the better.
The scheme worked splendidly and we never missed an RV.
Our first lap was from Verecchi to a much larger village named Capistrello. On this occasion we travelled in daylight through a mountainous un-cultivated region. I travelled by myself, with John and Peter somewhere behind me, and Bob and George somewhere behind them. I arrived at the RV at about 9 p.m. and those behind me shortly after. At almost exactly 10 o’clock Basilio loomed out of the darkness; this was one of our lucky nights, no Germans were anywhere in the district and Luchino had arranged a meal for all of us in a nearby farmstead. The farmer was sure that we were absolutely safe and we did not doubt that this was so. Nevertheless, we set up our system of having at least one of us doing sentry duty at a position out of doors from which anyone approaching the farm could be seen.
Not long after, Mario, doing sentry duty under similar circumstances, probably saved us from all being caught together by giving a timely warning. That night we slept in a barn; this was luxury as mostly we had to sleep out of doors. It was now the month of November and cold at night.
For the next few weeks we wended our way Southward from village to village, on the whole in a leisurely manner, sometimes staying for several days in a good spot. Luchino would lead the way, recce for Germans and see what friendly contacts could be made. Often only one or two people in a village would know that there were British and Americans in the party to compromise the situation. Sometimes only the Italians would enter a village and we would find some sort of shelter outside it.
The journey so far had been a piece of cake, but we were now approaching the front line areas, probably more than 20 miles deep, if taking into consideration reserve regiments, anti-aircraft areas, tank recovery and workshop areas, guarded ammunition dumps and all the rest of the paraphernalia. There were also nasty Field Security Police, Gestapo and SS roaming about all over the place.
In early December we were poised to plunge into this lot.
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On the last day of November 1943 our party of eight was scattered in “billets” in the mountain village of Civitella Roveto. As an escape party we would have been dangerously numerous, but I will repeat that it was only on rare occasions, late at night, that we all foregathered in some remote spot. Once or twice we broke our own Golden Rule, as will be seen.
On December the 1st we set off at late dusk across hilly country footing the Abruzzi mountains, for Collelongo 18 miles away; this took us six hours which was good going. At dawn I met Luchino at an agreed RV and he told me the place was full of Germans and that he proposed to take himself with Mario and Basilio to Villevallelonga, eight miles to the South East, a small place high in the hills and supposed free of Germans; we made a new RV and parted. Some three hours later we emerged from a wood and saw the ‘village-of-the-long-valley’ some 50 feet below us and a few hundred yards away. It looked as beautiful and romantic as its name implies and is very likely the most beautiful village I have ever seen.
We had not thought of staying there for more than a few hours, but the village priest and a few others through Luchino’s contacting, were so hospitable, friendly and helpful that we stayed, scattered around, for over a week.
We eventually left with many smiles, handshakes and good wishes, and almost as much food as we could comfortably carry. Our next goal was the small town of Civito d’Antino and we all met about a mile short of the town at roughly 5 o’clock in the morning. Here we might have come unstuck; more or less altogether we crossed a main road, winding down with many bends from a col. As we were crossing, in open country, we heard several vehicles approaching at speed and ran flat-out and uphill to a clump of bushes which we would have wished fifty yards closer. We dived in, completely out of breath, and waited; to our dismay the six German army vehicles stopped fairly abruptly, right opposite our clump. We heard a number of angry German voices shouting around the place; not that that meant anything. When German soldiers give orders to one another, they always sound angry. We had more or less convinced ourselves that they had seen something of our movements and realised that if they chose to investigate our clump, the only nearby cover, we were caught, After a minute or two of nattering they got mounted and drove on by which time we had recovered just enough breath for a small sigh of relief.
That was the first and last time we ever moved as an eightsome. We smartly reverted to our parties of two.
After a long march early one morning, in the company of John Lepine and probably at about 4 a.m., a light rain started and it was cold, and we were also more than a little tired and sleepy; John and I decided to shelter and rest in a farm out-building which seemed deserted and had the top half of a stable-door open. We looked in and saw that a paraffin lamp was burning on a low wick; its feeble light was enough, however, to reveal some twenty sleeping men, and walls festooned with rifles and German helmets, etc. We
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contemplated this interesting spectacle for about a tenth of a second before departing even more silently than we had approached.
After a while we went into a wood and found an overhanging rock which offered shelter from the rain, but no protection from an unpleasantly cold wind. This was one of the few occasions when we risked lighting a fire during daylight, in areas where the enemy were known to be; however, by carefully using only dry wood we had become pretty expert at smokeless fires, and also at finding dry wood in sheltered places after rain.
A few days before Christmas we arrived on the outskirts of a village called Settefrati. This village has the most important place in our story, as we were to live in various places on the outskirts of it for many weeks. It was also our last port of call before attempting the crossing into our own lines, then about 20 miles to the South. Having met Luchino at the usual pre-arranged spot, he told me he had a house in the village for himself, Mario and Basilio, which was safe enough for Italians, although by now we accepted that enemy troops must be supposed billeted in all towns and villages of the coast-to-coast belt that then constituted the front line areas.
Half a mile outside the village we found a small deserted one-room farm building which appeared to be occasionally used for storing fodder or sheltering sheep; at the time quite empty. Peter, John and I and the two Americans, Bob and George, moved in out of the rain.
Using everything that remained of our frugal possessions, we scraped up a frugal meal. We killed a few hours with conversation and cards; uncomfortable hours I remember, as we were cold and wet, and had decided that we must await darkness before building a small fire with dry sticks we had collected. It was hardly a success when we did have it; it gave little warmth and made much smoke, the “chimney” being no more than two tiles removed from the roof However, it made one hot brew for each of us, which at that particular moment we needed more than anything else. By this time it was night, and we appreciated, not for the first time, that there was a great difference between having one candle, and having no candle at all. The few ‘lumens’ at our disposal gave enough light to make some sort of bed – with a few wisps of straw and our coats arranged on the floor. This consisted of dry earth generously sprinkled with dehydrated sheep droppings. These were so old that we imagined they would be largely odourless; but it was found not to be the case when we had got our noses at a level some few inches from this particular commodity.
An hour later we were more than a little startled (out of some sort of sleep) by a heavy banging on the door. Considerably relieved when we heard that the voice outside was protesting in Italian, we opened up. Although no one could see anything on this moonless night, I was face to face with an angry farmer who was also the owner of the barn… Coming home late and passing nearby he had seen a number of growing bits from our fire shooting merrily upwards through the hole in the roof. He had assumed that some tramps had moved in for the night; he was right, he found five of us.
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He stormed in and stamped out what was left of the fire; while he was doing this I shut the door and lit the candle. From this point it took us ten minutes to stroke him down, explain who we were, and plead permission to stay for at least the rest of the night.
Within half an hour he was all smiles and promising to bring us food at daybreak, His name was Mario and he brought us food every day for the many days we stayed on his land, being, whilst so doing, perfectly well aware that he would be shot by the Germans if he was caught in the act. In Settefrati there were some dozens of Germans, fortunately only some sort of Pioneer Company, which as he would point out, were not the fiercest persons in anybody’s army.
Luchino kept in touch and we sheltered from a patch of cold wet weather for several days. This brought us to the 24th of December, by which time we had met Doctor Cardelli, the village Doctor and his two un-married sisters, who all lived in a large house where Luchino and Co, had found lodgings. In the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Dr. Cardelli came to see us and said that it had been decided to throw caution to the winds and have us all into the house for dinner on the evening of Christmas Day. In the village the Germans themselves were in jovial mood and spending most of their time making their own festive preparations. On the morning of the 25th a German soldier passed within feet of me, returning from nearby woods with a small Christmas tree which he had selected; we exchanged a very affable “Buon Natale”.
At 8 p.m. we trooped into the village, one at a time and each with a guide. We were warmly received by our host and hostess, and settled down to the most pleasant evening that any of us had had, or would have, in Italy. Fourteen people sat down to a meal which would have been voted excellent in normal times; if one reflected upon the desperately difficult conditions in that area at the time – it was quite remarkable.
At around midnight there was a furtive knock on the door. The door was opened and an anxious-looking individual slid into the room. After a few minutes of rapid speech he vanished from sight as quickly as he had appeared. There was obviously some drama in the offing and Dr. Cardelli, looking a little grave, came towards us to explain… our visitor was his next-door neighbour who had learnt of our party and asked if we were aware that on the previous day the German Sergeant Major and two of his aides had taken rooms in his house and were, in fact, at that very moment, only a few feet away. The Doctor, was, however, also informed that the three Germans had dined well and wined even better. Much the same applied in the Cardelli household, and after the first subdued moment, we soon saw the funny side of it. If the Germans had been able to see through the dividing wall they would have been astonished to observe a number of bibulous gentlemen making derisive digital gestures in their direction.
We had a merry evening and eventually returned to our barn in the manner of our coming.
A few days later it was New Year’s Eve and our Italian friends arranged a more modest affair for plus and minus one hour of midnight. As the village clocks struck 12, John
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Lepine said: “I’ll give you a toast…” At that moment all hell was let loose along the whole of the front line (four or five miles away). All the guns seemed to go off simultaneously;- heavy guns, medium guns, field guns, ack ack guns – all the guns – accompanied by machine-guns, rifles, searchlights, star shells and flares. This picnic went on for about one minute and then stopped as suddenly as it had begun. We now all knew how German front line troops acknowledged the first 60 seconds of a new year.
John continued: as I was saying before these rude fellows interrupted; I’ll give you a toast – Peace in 1944!”
No other toast was possible that night, and none was made.
Early in January many more Germans came into the village, some to stay for a week and some for a day, some just passing through with trucks, light armoured cars, guns and limbers.
The barn had become far too potentially ‘hot’ and we had moved house late in December into an uncomfortable sort of cave 20 minutes up the hillside.
It may be wondered why, at this stage, and in the weeks that followed, we did not make a night march to cross the line, since we knew that our own chaps were only a few miles away. There were several reasons, taken roughly in this order. 1. We arrived in Settefrati with virtually no leather on any of the soles of our boots or shoes. 2. It would have been foolhardy and almost certainly useless to try a crossing below the snowline of the Abruzzi Mountains, since we appreciated that the Cassino Line (subsequently famous in military history) consisted of very formidable German defensive positions. The Germans on the ground were as thick as flies. 3. We lived in constant hope that the British, Canadian and American Armies, ceaselessly shelling and bombing, would soon break through somewhere. 4. Finally, in all villages there was at least one Italian with a clandestine radio, listening to the daily allied news broadcasts in Italian; we were kept fully informed of the landings at Salerno and Anzio. Not that these were going very well, but there was always a chance of a breakthrough, or that the whole German Army would pull out and withdraw to the North. We were quite prepared to be patient.
I remember a certain afternoon when we were visited in our cave by Luchino, Mario and Basilio, also Mario the farmer. It was a sunny day in early January and our friends had come along with an exceptionally good collection of provisions. Every ten minutes a cork would be separated from its bottle and for an hour or so we had been chattering like a lot of monkeys, with never a break in the spate of words. Then, for absolutely no reason at all, everyone actually in speech came to the end of his sentence at the same instant; an Angel passed, and this Angel was a Good Angel, because in that instant I heard boots on stones and made the appropriate sound and motion for silence. Everyone froze and from the darkness of the cave we looked out through the opening, A few yards away a fully armed German patrol was approaching diagonally towards us along a faint and long disused footpath which passed within inches of the cave. It was quite a tense moment, in spite of the fact that our trained eyes recognised immediately that the men were in a
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relaxed state of mind, a few talking and joking amongst themselves; they were clearly not expecting to bump into anything unusual … but they might see us, especially myself and one other (I forget who) sitting close to the opening.
We scarcely breathed until we had heard the last faint clink of equipment!
The next day we heard that the Germans had come to the conclusion that there were numerous escaped prisoners in the area, and they were of course right; we had ourselves met a party of two and another of three and occasionally heard from our various Italian friends that “inglesi” or “americani” were in the next valley or the next village etc. The patrol we had seen at such unpleasantly close quarters the day before were indeed the first of a mopping-up operation organised from an H.Q. at Settefrati for our particular benefit.
Evasive action was clearly indicated, and this was made easy for us. The Germans had arranged to send out three patrols each day at dawn, and arranged for each to have a local Italian guide, to lead them around the mountains and across a few brisk mountain torrents. Each night the patrol leader and the Italian guide would be instructed, with true Teutonic efficiency and thoroughness as to the exact area to be scoured on the next day. One of these guides was Arturo, farmer Mario’s best friend — so Arturo told Mario and Mario told us – and each morning we set off before dawn and moved out to spend the day in an area as far as possible from the one that was being picked over. We might have done the other thing and buzzed off into the blue by walking 30 miles North in one go. This might well have been less safe than moving around in circles and making use of the local Intelligence. Besides, it must be remembered that only one of us had been lucky enough to acquire a good pair of boots. The rest of us were walking on strips of sacking strapped around leather uppers, which incidentally, was more comfortable for comparatively short distances than might be supposed, it’s surprising what one can make do with, when pushed.
All parties duly covered the entire area, and the precision with which the exercise was completed was a credit to the German Army.
By the time we had all got back to square one we had decided that the cave was far too close to Settefrati and one day I went off with a young shepherd to reconnoitre. The goal was a large natural cave to the South East which entailed some two hours’ climbing into the most rugged part of the Abruzzi, a place known as ‘La Rucca’. I had been told that when I got to my destination I would find two British Officers living with an Italian family in the said cave.
So, in a wonderfully remote forested place, 1,000 feet above Settefrati, I met Captain John Mayne of a parachute regiment and Captain John Linklater of the Intelligence Corps. They in turn introduced me to a very remarkable person; a true Matriarch by the name of Maria-Michele. I was also introduced to her rather ineffectual husband, Giuseppe, and to her teenage son and daughter. No further introductions were forthcoming, but the remaining livestock consisted of three tame goats whose
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impertinence clearly established them as members of the family. A number of chickens also seemed to have the run of the place, whilst one enormous pig was housed in the best example of a ‘poke’ as ever I saw.
The place itself was quite the most perfect natural cave that one could imagine. It was large and dry, the entrance was neither too big nor too small and it had a small opening at the top under which a fire could be built, the rocks being so arranged as to act as a natural flue.
In those days I was an expert in assessing cave habitability.
If one considers that I represented five mouths to feed, I got a remarkably friendly reception at La Rocca. However, in telling them that we intended to move into their area, I was careful to add that our friends at Settefrati had assured us of continuing supplies.
Maria-Michele told us that on the other side of the ridge there was another smaller cave; she took us there herself, 20 minutes of steep climbing up to the ridge and 15 down on the other side. As caves go, it was infinitely superior to the wretched place we had put up with for three weeks or more. Two days later we moved in and busied ourselves reducing the excessive size of the entrance with the largest rocks we could shift, weaving beds out of long, straight, flexible twigs taken from a very suitable kind of young sapling, organising a fireplace and contriving a crude but reasonably effective “chimney” to get rid of smoke. We had nothing else to do but make ourselves comfortable. This we managed to do to a quite remarkable degree; but there were reasons why this should be so. We had shelter from the wind, rain and snow, we had fire, we had enough food and occasionally wine and cigarettes, we had packs of cards. We had all been living in the open air for months; we were in thundering good health. Finally, of course, it is true to say that our earlier places of residence had been a damn sight worse.
The Second Cave was to be our home for many weeks and in our status of “Escaped POW” – the last.
During this time Luchino would come up about once a week, Basilio less often, Mario came up once to say good-bye and good luck, and went off under his own arrangements.
On one memorable day Luchino and Basilio arrived with a mule, handsomely loaded with a large sack of provisions on one side of its withers, and a small barrel of wine on the other.
When need arose we would take it in turns amongst ourselves, to go singly down to the outskirts of Settefrati to collect provisions. One day that it was my turn I got to the fringe of the village in the very early morning; I found no sack at the appointed spot. Puzzled, and wondering what had happened, I went slowly towards the village and got in amongst the first few houses. I then heard noise behind me and turned round; to my dismay I saw a large number of Germans bearing down on me, brandishing rifles and tommy-guns and making it abundantly clear that their interest was centred on me personally. My heart
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sank to about instep-level and got snarled up with the strips of sacking. I became painfully aware of my civilian clothing and by lack of identity card or “papers” of any kind. I got hustled down towards the main square with a number of young Italians who had also been rounded up. A round-up it certainly was, as I saw when we got to the square, About 50 young men were being coaxed unceremoniously into two trucks. Two rifle barrels pressed into my kidneys encouraged me to climb into the second, and without further ado, we drove off.
I then found myself squatting next to a young Italian whom I’d met before as one of farmer Mario’s cronies, a cheerful and friendly little chap. He seemed quite unconcerned about the existing situation and I asked him what the devil was supposed to be happening!
He said: “I think it will be all right for you – but do not speak at all and stay close with me; this is a working party, I think we go to repair a bridge on the main road which your RAF have bombed last night”. I was more than a little thankful to find out that he was perfectly right. We drove several miles down the hairpin bends to the valley and eventually arrived at a totally wrecked stone bridge which made the road impassable.
We were all made to work had from 9 till 12.30, then a whistle was blown and we were shepherded a hundred yards into a nearby wood. There, camouflaged from the air, was a German field kitchen, presided over by a very fat man with a forage cap perched precariously on the top of a huge head; he was a perfect specimen of the cartoonist’s idea of a German army cook. We were all given a large hunk of black bread well plastered with something in the nature of margarine, and two delicious sausages, I ate with gusto. By late afternoon the bridge was serviceable and we were taken back to Settefrati. By this time I had got the notion that I could get away with all this, but my apprehension returned when I saw that everyone was being lined up and shuffling towards a table around which German soldiers were sitting and standing. I could see no means of slipping away unobserved. After a short while I was able to see that the Germans were not asking the Italians to produce any papers; they were just giving them money and telling them to sign a book. When my turn came I took my money and put it in my pocket: ONE DAY’S PAY from the German Army, worked for and signed for.
I got back to La Rocca long after dark, a few inches of snow had fallen during the day and when I got to the cave and looked inside and saw the boys sitting round the fire, it really looked cosy and home-like. I was given a rousing welcome as they had had plenty of time to wonder whether I had run into serious trouble. I also noticed that their eyes registered the fact that I was not returning empty-handed.
During these weeks at La Rocca we were on the most cordial terms imaginable with the other cave; Maria-Michele and her family never failed to extend every kind of hospitality and good neighbourliness, often trying to feed us and give us things beyond their slender means.
We hardly had time to know John Linklater; he was tri-lingual in English, French and
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Italian and one day he calmly announced he was going to Rome and would try and find some friends he had there.
With no fuss whatever, John Mayne automatically became one of us.
Visits were swapped almost daily, but we restricted ourselves to one or, at most, two at a time. John Mayne continued to live in Maria-Michele’s cave.
Around that time we were visited by a Priest who took all our names and said he was returning to the Vatican City and would have the names broadcast for the Red Cross at Geneva as “alive and well”. I learnt years later that our parents, who had not had news of us for months, were advised of this short but sufficient message.
I remember many a placid evening sitting in the other cave talking in English and Italian, watching Maria-Michele stirring her cauldron, her great hook-nose silhouetted in profile to the fire light. She and her family had been driven out with the rest of the civilian population from a village wholly occupied by enemy front line troops.
In late January, snow lay permanently on the ground and in our unshod state movement was often difficult and always uncomfortable. The nearest drinking water was a stream, 20 minutes there and 20 minutes back. Peter Foulsham was the one who had acquired new boots, and the time came when he discovered that this could be a mixed blessing. We used to point out that the exercise was doing him a lot of good!
Early in February, I went over to the other cave for some or no particular reason and gave the usual identification call; the agreed answering call was not forthcoming and I assumed that I had not been heard, so I came out of the woods into the clearing, approached and tried again. The answering call was in the shape of a number of Germans dashing out of the cave and shouting at me to come forward; I turned and ran flat out for the shelter of the woods and with a few yards still to go, had a hail of rifle and Tommy-gun bullets whistling about my ears and whanging into the trees. Within seconds I was out of the line of fire, getting back to our own cave in record time; there I found John Mayne who had got out in time, warned by Giuseppe’s daughter. We promptly vacated the cave for the rest of the day, returning long after dark when all was quiet.
Our plans for action when the need arose had long been prepared and we decided to cross the lines. We knew it would be a half-moon which was the ideal state; not too much light but perhaps just enough to prevent twisted ankles or broken necks as we advanced through the mountainous country.
We were glad that the long and tedious waiting was over, glad that our hand had been forced and that some action was imminent. Suddenly we could hardly bear to wait till it was dark before pushing off. Morale was high and we were all joking and laughing like a lot of idiots. We refused to worry, as we had done previously, about either the inch or so of snow still left on the ground, or the inadequacy of our footwear.
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There was in any case something bigger to weigh on our minds, such as the business of crossing two front lines locked in combat; our own front being in some respects the more dangerous of the two, since we would be moving in the wrong direction.
We knew that troops were sparse in the higher parts of the mountains, but we would be forced down at least twice by the transversal valleys which were full of men.
In the early afternoon we were ready to move and we decided we would go to the extremity of the ridge where we could contemplate the first valley we would have to cross. We paused outside the cave for a brief moment, a few thoughtful seconds as we contemplated the familiar spot. Then I said: “Let’s go” and we set off calmly and with no backward look at the cave we somehow knew we would never see again.
We moved diagonally and gently upwards to the top of the ridge in a south-easterly direction, keeping to the trees in an area which was 80% forest.
An hour before dusk we had gone as far as was reasonable in daylight and looked down into the valley of Isernia. On our left and right, were the two great snow-covered mountains of Monte Meta and Monte Cavallo, below we saw an old, old village that looked as if it had come straight out of a Walt Disney fairy-tale, pepper-pot turrets and all. Our map told us that it was Picinisco. We sat down to contemplate a vast panoramic scene that swept through an arc of 300 degrees and saw nothing but beauty in every direction – quite incongruous with the job in hand and the human strife all around.
We spent a long time looking hard at the general route we would soon endeavour to follow in the protective darkness. We were doing in fact, what is officially known in military parlance as an “appreciation of the situation”. On the whole it did not look too good, and depending upon the meaning one cares to put on the word, we were not particularly appreciative.
We moved slowly down giving Picinisco a wide berth, and climbed onto a large boulder covered in moss, bushes and tiny fir trees; an ideal spot for a final look round before darkness, which was at about 5 p.m. Although it was pitch dark now, it was still a very long way from bedtime. There was nothing for it but to withdraw into a sort of spinney and wait until midnight; seven hours away.
Probably the coldest, the most dreary, uncomfortable and consequently long-drawn-out seven hours imaginable. We had more than enough food, but this was of little use as we had badly underestimated our water requirements and we were all parched with thirst in spite of the cold. Each man had started with a wine bottle full of water and we still all had about a cupful left, which we felt we must conserve. We had been unlucky in that we had not, passed a single stream on the way down from La Rocca.
The longest wait must come to an end and at midnight we prepared to move in pairs at 15 minute intervals. The order of our going was Peter Foulsham and myself, followed by Bob Schisler and George Maibach, followed by John Lepine and John Mayne. It was
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very firmly laid down that we were now splitting up for good, as far as the wrong side of the line was concerned; if we all met again it would be on the other side with all parties successful.
I don’t know about the others, but I remember that in that half mile or so from the starting point to the river, I could think of nothing outside the gallon of water that I would drink when I got there.
Having drunk our fill and replenished our bottles, Peter and I then started worrying about the problem of crossing the river. Mid winter is not the time to get soaked to the skin from the neck downwards, and then wander about the countryside for the rest of the night.
Testing gingerly we found a way across and got to the other side, dry from the knees up. This we could accept. Slowly we made our way over broken country. I cannot recall whether the sky was overcast or whether the moon had not risen yet; so far the night was as black as the ace of spades.
Progress seemed to be deadly slow and more than once we heard movement and German voices in the dark. The hours passed and we eventually floundered out of a wood to find a wan moon. Suddenly I heard a voice just a few feet ahead and we froze on the spot; my heart was noticeably thumping, my ears stretched to the limit. Not two yards away a loud whisper enquired in Bob Schisler’s unmistakable Ohio accent “Hey George, this way”….. George said “O.K.” and appeared vaguely in the faint light. I got to within a foot of them and revealed our presence; their hearts rotated briskly through two revolutions. I whispered a short and sharp reproval for the noise they had been making and at that moment, incredibly, the two Johns practically walked on top of us.
With scarcely a whisper we continued in the same system of separated pairs.
We went up and up through woods for an hour or so, and then across a wide clearing, creeping along more or less on all fours, stopping every few yards and listening… then a few more yards and more listening… then into the fringe of a wood, where I was glad to be because it was dark, and the clearing was too light; I had been able to see Peter clearly enough when I looked round. But it didn’t matter any more, because, with Peter two yards behind me, my stomach walked right into the barrel of a tommy-gun and a harsh German voice a few inches from my nose said: “Halt, hands up”. We had walked straight into the midst of a twenty man patrol and somehow we had again become bunched up in the dark; within a minute the other four had walked into the unintentional trap. Our misfortune was in the fact that the patrol had stopped for a sit-down and saw and heard us coming, straight towards them. Had they been walking on the hard footpath which ran along the edge of the wood and on the outside of it, it is certain that we would have seen and heard them first. The extent of our bad luck was rammed home when they told us, in a grumbling sort of way, that their ‘beat’ was a lateral two miles in length. The men formed part of an Austrian Alpine Company and seemed sympathetic of our misfortune; all six of us bumping straight into them like that. However, it was quite clear that they
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had no intention of letting us slip away; we all had a barrel at our backs, all the way back down to the valley, to be locked up under heavy guard in a stone house that served as Company Headquarters.
As the key turned in the lock the episode of Escape into Italy was ended.
It is not within the scope of this story to describe the unpleasant weeks that followed. We were always well treated during our short periods with front line troops, but were soon handed over to the tough Field Police (Veld Polizei), which was bad; from them to be grilled by the Gestapo, which was very much worse. Amongst other things we were lined up against a wall in the presence of a firing squad, three mornings running… These Gestapo boys had a great sense of humour. In due course we arrived in Germany to settle down, willy nilly, to eight months inside the barbed wire of Oflag VIIb.
Early in 1945 the Author had the opportunity of a third and successful attempt and after a completely uneventful 48 hours, comprising two night marches, ambled into the midst of an Infantry Regiment of the 3rd American Army. He stayed with them until a little after VE Day, unofficially attached as an Interpreter and Liaison Officer with the Free French Forces. From this ideal point of vantage, the Author had the satisfaction of seeing the total disintegration of the vast and terrible Armies that had been the prime cause of The Second World War.