Fred was captured with Vincent Burgess and interred in PG73 Carpi (Modena). Many attempts were made to escape from the camp but the Germans were able to prevent them. Their chance to escape came whilst being transported by train to Germany when they escaped through a ventilation shaft. They headed over the Stelvio Pass where a guide took them into Switzerland.
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 Via Switzerland.
(Fred Milner and Vincent Burgess. In’Pow-Wow Journal of New Zealand Ex.POW Association Volume 9, Number 9 September 1983. Sent by V.C.Trust [Victoria Cross Trust] supporter).
Captured at Tobruk June 1942 both in PG73 CARPI (Modena) Both escaped separately from a train near the Brenner Pass and then met up with another. Camp was told to stay by Italians and next day a German Unit took over. Some tried to escape and got shot. 6,000 in Camp. On train which stopped for the night in marshalling yard at Trentino and was bombed. Milner got out through ventilator as the train went through Brenner next day. Burgess found the back panel of the truck damaged and got out. Three of them met up later and, when discovered in a barn by a girl, were taken into the house where the father fits them up with clothes. One man dropped out in the Alpine foothills. Burgess and Milner continued over a range North of Stelvio Pass and arrived at a clearing about 9,000 feet up. Wet and exhausted, [they] were fortunate to encounter two milkmaid daughters of a farmer who still had his cattle so high up. They took them into a hut, gave them hot food, and embarrassingly, made them undress into dry clothes. After 3 days recuperation Rosina, at 20 the eldest, offered to lead them to a smuggler over a 12,000 [feet] range carrying the pack of one of them when exhausted and leading them past snow covered crevasses. Burgess’s Rolex Watch paid the guide into Switzerland. Milner repatriated in late 1944 when the Allies reached Swiss borders. Stayed in the English rehabilitation camp on the staff to receive POWs from Japan. “They were in a terrible state – including my own cousin who was practically a vegetable for six months, never saying a word to anyone. I saw some of the most terrible cases.” Milner 37 years later tracked down the family and was welcomed by Rosina, her husband and daughter and the other ‘milkmaid’.
Burgess said 6,000 POWs in Switzerland.
Document sent by Burgess 1997. Milner had died.
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[handwritten note – From POW WOW Vol 9 No 9 Sept 1983]
MY ESCAPE FROM HELL
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Starvation, physical and mental exhaustion and fear are part of a POW’s life. Writer Huw Morgan talked to a former POW to find out what it was like.
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“Thank God!” was Fred Milner’s initial response when he was captured by Germany’s Afrika Korps in the sands of the Libyan desert at Tobruk, June 21, 1942.
Fred, 23, was one of the many disgruntled victims of the Depression who had joined the regular army even before the war began, simply because there were no civilian jobs available.
The Signals Corps corporal had been in North Africa since April 1939 with the famed Desert Rats and had had a bellyful of fighting, particularly [as], as he put it, “all I had to fight back with was a morse key”.
“My particular misfortune was being part of Signals, because that meant being attached to different units which got relieved from battle areas – but I was always promptly reassigned to units in action.”
The Desert Rats had had a tough time of it. Lack of air superiority allowed the Germans’ Stukas to dive-bomb them virtually at will; they also lacked reinforcements and faced superior enemy tanks and artillery, Mr Milner, who now lives in Ancaster, said
“Add to that a monotonous daily diet of bully beef and biscuits, meagre water supplies and fatigue, and you can imagine that we were hardly in the pink of physical condition when we were captured”.
Fred and his fellow captives were first marshalled at a German-held airfield which was almost immediately bombed by allied aircraft. They were then force-marched to the outskirts of Tobruk in 43-degree temperatures (110F) for 33 kilometres (20 miles).
“When we got off the sands and on to a highway, a Highland regiment piper struck up a tune and boosted our flagging spirits; we got into step and marched properly” Fred said.
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[sub title] Rommel
“Just then, who should drive past us, going in the opposite direction, but General Rommel. He stood up in his staff car and saluted us.
We had great respect for the Afrika Korps — as they had for us. Each side, in retreats, always made sure to leave water for the other’s wounded.”
At Tobruk, the prisoners were handed over to the Italian army, and spent the next two months in overcrowded, insect-infested North African prison compounds. The temperature was fierce, and dysentery was rampant. They were then packed into two troopships to run the gauntlet of allied submarines across the Mediterranean to Tarranto, in Italy.
“From there, we were shipped to Brindisi in cattle-cars, marched through its streets like the captives of ancient Rome, and spat upon by its citizens. They had, no doubt, been led by propaganda to believe we were prisoners of the glorious Fascist state rather than captives of the Germans,” Fred said.
The men’s first Italian POW camp was a tent encampment at Altamura. They were exhausted, undernourished and suffering from desert sores, lice and beri-beri. “The dysentery had abated
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somewhat – possibly because what doesn’t enter at one end can’t possibly come out at the other,” Fred said.
“Our plight grew worse as our meagre daily rations — 200 grams (6 ounces) of bread and one pint (0.5 litre) of watered macaroni we called ‘skilly’ — took a toll on our health and morale.”
“The Italians themselves were starving, so any food parcels destined for us, even if they escaped allied bombing, were pilfered.”
Seeking desperately to augment and vary their diet, the men would gather wild thyme which grew about the camp and mix it with water and the soft bread hollowed out of their dally loaves.
“When replaced in the outer crust and roasted, it weighed heavy on the stomach and fulfilled a need. My stomach has never been the same since,” Fred said.
[sub title] Red Cross
After some weeks, the camp was condemned following a visit by the International Red Cross: the prisoners were again loaded onto cattle cars and taken to prison camp PG73, between Modena and Florence. Though in tents at first, they were housed in two hut compounds by Christmas — the first permanent accommodation for
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Fred and other Desert Rats since 1939.
The arrival of food parcels via the Red Cross also brightened that Christmas — one parcel for every two men; but for the remainder of their stay in PG73, each parcel had to be shared by six men. There was little improvement to their daily food rations.
“At best, the skilly was a little thicker, but never at any time contained even one potato. It was our food parcels — though irregular in supply and divided into miniscule amounts — that saved us from complete starvation.” Fred said.
They remained at that camp until Italy’s capitulation in September 1943. There had been no escape attempts, the prisoners being confident they would soon be liberated by the allies. They had heard of Rommel’s defeat at El Alamein in November 1942, and of allied landings in Sicily in July 1943.
When news of the capitulation came one evening, the Italian camp commandant talked the prisoners into staying put. If they left the camp, he said, they might be shot by scattered remnants of Fascist units, and why take that risk when an allied landing in Northern Italy was imminent.
At dawn next day, a German Panzer regiment surrounded the camp and disarmed the Italian guards.
[Sub title] Cursing
“We were ‘in the bag’ again, cursing
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ourselves for listening to that commandant.” Fred said.
The prospect of transportation to German camps did not sit well with the prisoners, and escape attempts began in earnest. Over the next few weeks, tunnels were built, only to be discovered and demolished. Three men got out among the camp’s garbage — one was returned, put on display for hours between the two barbed wire fences surrounding the camp, then put in solitary confinement.
Fred was among a party of six who made an attempt on the fence one night — having spent the day demolishing its light bulbs by tossing pebbles at them while the watch-tower guards were diverted by sham fights among the prisoners.
Two of the men got through, but a searchlight and a hail of machine-gun fire forced Fred and the rest to beat a hasty retreat and shelve all escape plans.
On the march to the railroad station two days later, a small group of prisoners made a break for freedom through a nearby vineyard. The majority were recaptured or cut down easily by the German guards, firing at leisure, Mr Milner said.
Fred found himself once again on a cattle train. Two crates of loaves and carrots were tossed aboard, the doors were slammed shut, and the prisoners were on their way to an unknown German destination.
Halted for the night in the Trentino marshalling yard, the train survived what Mr Milner described as a devastating allied air raid. By its light, he detected the screws holding a ventilator in place at floor level; using a spoon and a small army jack-knife, he and a fellow prisoner named Joe, managed to unfasten the ventilator cover.
With the train on its way again, headed for the Brenner Pass and the Alps, Fred wiggled through the ventilator, gained a precarious foothold on the buffers, jumped, and landed, wrenching his shoulder.
“The cars loomed above me, rattling past, guards and all, as I lay at the foot of the embankment,” Mr Milner said.
“Fifty yards along the track, the concrete buttress and wall of a bridge began. I shuddered for Joe, then for myself, as I realized what could have happened had I delayed my jump a
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I waited for what seemed to be a lifetime for Joe, but he didn’t show up. I searched briefly, and then, finding a vineyard, ran amuck, pressing the grapes greedily into my mouth, their juices making rivulets down my chin. God, how my heart sang! I was free.”
But he was still on the wrong side of the Alps to be out of danger — he had jumped train just south of Mezzolombardo.
For three weeks Fred was on the loose, living off the land and sleeping in barns, pressing ever north westward and heading for Switzerland, avoiding main routes lest he run into Fascists or Germans.
At one stage of his travels he met and teamed up with two other allied escapees. One night, while sleeping in a barn, they were discovered by a 16 year old girl who led them into the house to meet her parents. The father gave them civilian clothes — Fred drawing a tweed jacket whose label proclaimed it made in Manchester.
“He wanted me to take the matching pants too, but I declined — they were a pair of plus-fours — I would have stuck out like a sore thumb as a Britisher.”
The trio moved on, but one man dropped out in the Alpine foothills. Fred and his remaining companion, Vince Burgess, a Royal Artillery sergeant, forged on over a mountain range north of Stelvio Pass.
Ahead of them lay yet another Alpine range. Arriving at a clearing near the 9,000-foot mark, exhausted and soaking wet, they came upon two milkmaids.
“The Alpine farmers send their cattle up the mountainsides for pasture in summer, and they have little huts up there where they live while tending them,” Mr Milner explained.
The girls, Rosina, 20, and her sister Ada, 19, took the weary men into the hut, gave them bowls of hot minestra (milk and macaroni), and made them strip and dry their clothes before the fire.
“I was single then, and I’ll never forget how embarrassed I was; but Vince, who was married, took it all in [his] stride,” Mr Milner said.
The men rested there for three days after which Rosina volunteered to guide them over the remainder of that range to the hut of a professional guide who would take them over the
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third 12,000 feet range that bordered Switzerland. “She escorted us doggedly and carefully past snow-covered crevasses; and when Vince flagged suffering from mountain sickness insisted on carrying his pack even though I said I could manage the extra load. But she knew we were both still feeling the effects of our prison deprivation.” Mr Milner said.
Vince’s Rolex watch was the price finally agreed upon by the guide – probably a smuggler — for the men’s safe conduct over the final range to within sight of the border, a barbed wire fence in the valley below.
Fred was interned in the village of Santa Maria until the advancing allies reached the Swiss border in late 1944, then repatriated. In an English rehabilitation-hospital camp, his physical and psychological conditions were checked.
“I stayed there, on staff, and had the unenviable experience of supervising the physical tests for returned prisoners of the Japanese. They were in a terrible state – including my own cousin who was practically a vegetable for six months, never saying a word to anyone – I saw some of the most terrible cases I ever want to see again in my life…”
At this point in his narrative, Mr Milner choked up totally, with tears streaming down his face.
For many years after the war, Fred Milner nourished the idea of meeting once again and properly thanking the courageous Italian girl who had helped him gain freedom.
Now married, settled in Canada, and retired from his teaching job at Hamilton Teachers College which he helped close in 1979, he felt guilty about never having done so.
Cleaning out some papers one day three years ago. he came across two letters from Rosina, written in Italian and dated 1945 and 1946. He remembered once obtaining from a Canadian-Italian barber a rough translation — the gist of which was a reminder that he had promised Rosina he would return to Italy after the war.
Encouraged by his wife, Judy, he planned to locate her and include a meeting with her on the last leg of a European rail trip to visit friends in England, Denmark and Switzerland.
“When I asked for the whereabouts of Rosina Caserotti, one-time resident
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of Cogolo, the Italian consular official Hamilton sounded as though a request to reunite people after a 37 year separation was an everyday occurrence,” Mr Milner said.
Within an hour he had the names of four Cogolo residents named Caserotti, all male; and the services of an interpreter for correspondence.
No reply had been received from Cogolo by the time for Mr Milner’s embarkation on his already-booked trip. In Denmark 10 days later, his wife telephoned from Canada to say she had received a letter (in Italian), saying Rosina now lived in Brescia, near Milan.
In Switzerland, the friend, who spoke a little Italian, volunteered to communicate with Rosina by telephone if Mr Milner could track her number down.
“A man’s voice answered to the number I eventually dialled — and I handed the phone to my friend,” he said.
Mr. Milner had the right number and the correct address. He was to hire a cab and go there from the Brescia railway station.
On the train, he pondered the situation. How would he recognize Rosina? How would she know him? Did the male voice belong to her husband? Italian husbands had a reputation for jealousy — would this one be philosophical about the reunion?
When he stepped out of the cab he was met by three women Rosina, her daughter Dominique, and Ada, all smiling ear to ear. There was an emotional reunion, hugs and kisses, and a wonderful welcome from Rosina’s husband, Alfonso Nota, concierge of a large apartment building.
Aided by an English-speaking apartment tenant, Mr Milner brought the women up to date on his adventures. In turn, they told him the village had been surrounded by the Germans the day after his war-time departure, and all its inhabitants questioned.
“I shuddered, for I remembered vividly what they did in those days to the occupants of houses who harboured escaped prisoners. Only those involved in that grim game of hide-and-seek can realize how brave Rosina and Ada had been,” he said.
Rosina proudly produced a certificate signed by Field Marshall Alexander presented to her father, Christofer Cascrotti, for helping members of the allied forces escape
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capture or recapture.
Mr. Milner spent five days sightseeing in and about Brescia. For the return trip Rosino accompanied him to the railway station.
“Her last word to me before we kissed and said goodbye was a question,” Mr. Milner said.
“‘Continte?’ she asked. ‘Si, si, Rosina’ I replied. Yes. after 37 years, I am indeed content.