Frank Osborne of the 72nd Field Regiment had been captured with most of his Brigade in May 1942 after an intense battle with in a German occupied zone. Frank provides incredible details about his time as a POW, telling of each camp he had been taken to (PG21, PG85, and PG 65), the types of people he had encountered and the overall experience of long term imprisonment during the War. Escape was one of the shorter elements to his POW experience.
Having drawn a high card amongst a group of fellow POWs to become a member of an escape party, he journeyed to reach the frontlines of battle. There, rescue was sudden and nervous, as they were met with ‘Hände Hoch’ but the uniforms of the Indian soldiers were British. The text includes notes from a diary received during a visit from members of a Papal Delegation, which he used to make note of more memories and experiences during his time as a POW and the events that led up to his nervy escape.
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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Frank Osborne 72nd Field Regiment with the 150 Brig of 50th Division.
Captured with almost all of his Brigade May 1942 as Rommel smashed it from both sides to begin his advance to Alamein. Map of Battle area. (150 FA was in German occupied zone.)
With a refreshing literary slight of touch Frank describes the effect and tribulations of becoming a POW. Fortunately without too long a gap transported in the hold of a ship to Taranto. Never previously suffering from claustrophobia the hold of the ship and the danger it implied nearly made him vomit. Taken to Tutturano Campo 85 where fortunately Red Cross parcels had even reached into the heel of Italy. Then to Gravina (85) where up to five were dying each day until the arrival of two RANC [Royal Army Medical Corps] doctors for 4000 POWs. Transferred to Chieti in a party to work for the officer in the Camp (PG 21) with Gran Sasso in this instance it was noted in many camps for its occupants and their eccentric ties and escapes. Two Italian ones are noted by Frank. The notice to keep POWs away from the wire ‘Passage and Demurrage NOT Allowed’ and for the notorious interpreter mentioned by all those who encountered him Captain Croce – a nauseating specimen’ whose main opponent, according to Frank was Major Lett who for his sins was often in the ‘cooler’. The Italian Commandant, flamboyantly attired, expected great respect which he did not always get – especially on his bicycle. The account highlights as do most Red Cross parcels, occasional shows, books read and sporting events especially as there were well known cricketers in the Camp and also good, American baseballers.
At Armistice told to remain ‘cool, calm and collected’ – which they soon were by the Germans and then taken by lorry to Sulmona (losing some on the way see Simpson) Frank finds others wanting a fourth to escape. When evacuation – for Germany – begins they are, like many others, in the roof of their hut. After 7 days when a storm muffles the sound, the break through the ceiling and drop down after a week in such cramped quarters his legs do not at first support him. They see an area where the searchlights do not fully penetrate – for the Germans are still there. They decide to make for it at 20 minute intervals – Frank the last in an agony of suspense. Quickly they climb the Monte Morrone and in the morning look down on the Camp. Shown the direction vaguely by shepherds of a pass to the south they each go in search to report back. Frank finds it but never again his fellow escapers. After a few days alone shepherds – trying to keep their flocks away from the grabbing German troops – guides him to a dozen POWs who are “sitting it out until the Allies arrive”.
Three of the more venturesome decide to go with Frank in search of the front line and, like so many others come to Pennapiedimonte helped, fed and hidden by the contadini on the way. They are guided at night by The Plough. On October 20th they reach the Sangro – fortunately just before it was in full flow and manage to wade across. Now very much in the front line they are still helped and hidden, sometimes by the poorest families. They are fortunate to have taken a little longer than some and see the Germans withdrawing – in small groups through the woods as they make their way in the opposite direction. Suddenly they are challenged by what sounds like ‘Hände Hoch’ but fortunately the uniforms of the Indian soldiers are British. They had stumbled through a minefield.
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LAST DAYS IN LIBYA
On the last days of May 1942 Western Desert shadows were just beginning to creep across the sky when I became a prisoner. I had often read, with fascination, of such happenings in previous wars, but the thought of actual and personal experience had never, even in battle, captivated me. Hitherto the Irish Sweep had passed me by and penny pool dividends were an intangible tease. The chivalry of the broken lance was scarcely to be impressed upon the awful armour of the “Panzer Truppen”. Thus reckoned and thus I waited.
Our “box” formation, famous and familiar pattern of the desert war, had been crushed and battered for several days. In the terminology of desert warfare, the term “Box” referred to a large area capable of holding a complete brigade, boxed in on all sides by minefields, with two or three recognised exits. In this particular instance, the British infantry defensive “box” was held by 150 Brigade, blocking Rommel’s prospective route through the minefields. (see diagram)
Now the lid was completely off. Loaded rifles and stone breastworks (you could not always dig down for safety) hastily thrown up during the night, charred pieces and burnt out hulls, were the sole impedimenta of the Afrika Korps. With me, behind our puny pile of stones were three other gunners. The most important item of our equipment was a wireless set, wrenched for safety from its usual place in the gun position officer’s truck. We glowed with pride in the knowledge that it was last to “go off the air” within my Regiment, the 72nd Field Regiment R. A [Royal Artillery] a territorial force from Northumberland.
A handset telephone buzzed occasionally to give the terse report that
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[Diagram of map showing the ‘The Libyan Front’ during ‘Late May/Early June 1942’]
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gunner so and so or Sergeant X had “had his” or to make a frantic appeal for stretcher bearers. Between the 25 pounder gun crews and ourselves in the command Post (misnomer now if ever there was) a sordid commentary was maintained. As the end drew near there was silence. In turn we ventured our necks around the cover of rocks and sand and estimated the distance in yards to the oncoming Panzers. Finally the signaller broke the suspense with a few swift, shattering and fiendish blows with his boot against the mocking meters of his WT 22 instrument panel. At least he knew some delight in the settling gloom. Then began an ungoverned orgy of drinking as much as we could of the reserve rations of water, mixed with a tinful of evaporated milk. Issue cigarettes, State Express, in rough cardboard packets of red and green were pooled, and the air was soon thick with the smoke of pressing philosophies. Dusk fell rapidly and our thoughts were of escape. The fate of two scrambling figures, clearly outlined on top of a nearby mound, deterred us. The fleeting opportunity was lost. Moments later an armoured car came roaring up and loosed a fusillade of bullets overhead. Infantry spotted our crouching bodies and prodded us forth with bayonets. Thenceforth till hours later, confusion shattered all memory. I remember only the fact that I was denied the privilege of retaining my blanket, groundsheet and water bottle the latter, a most stunning loss, but was allowed to keep my Rotary watch (later to be gleefully removed by a “Wop” sergeant. [Wireless Operator]).
We were marched, for what seemed an astonishingly short period of time, to the German lines, searched but not reviled, and herded eventually into trucks which took us quickly into the enemy lines of trucks and tanks, part of the 21st Panzer Division. Fatigue now overpowered most,
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but I was kept awake by the strange whirring noises of the sentry’s dynamo torches. We spent the next few hours huddled together on the sands for warmth, too mesmerised by events to heed the chill of the dawn. Two days and two nights dragged by. Jerry was extremely active. Tanks clattered by in endless processions for refuelling. From their turrets, commanders rarely bothered to turn their heads in our direction. We were never long in one spot, thanks to the accuracy of our gunners. Our plight was scarcely less than that of our captors. Rations were low and so was morale, for an iron ring lay round them. An interchange of prisoners was a stirring contemplation, but when hope seemed brightest, a convoy was formed and we were the bait. We ran the gauntlet of our own guns successfully though some of our comrades perished in the trap. Professionally I admired the work of the German anti-tank crews who went calmly and repeatedly into action. Armoured cars bearing men speaking the English tongue, wearing identical clothes and sharing a common hatred of the foe came tantalisingly and terrorisingly near. Heartbroken, we were dumped at last on dirty coastal sands at Tmimi where the Italians greeted us. This was the first time I had come face to face with the “Eyeties”. In previous skirmishes the “macaroni men” as we dubbed them, were as rare in appearance as bullybeefless meals. We had already learnt from the exploits of Wavell’s men and the feats of the Greeks to despise the Italians. Even the Germans were profuse in apology at having to hand us over. Comparison between our Axis captors appeared ludicrous. Almost without exception the latter were finely built and clean limbed, shaven and kempt. They wore their trousers very short and favoured a light type of jackboot. Perhaps the Afrika Korps were a special flower of the hothouse.
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My own captors were Austrian and displayed none of the publicised may be anything brutalities of the popular Nazi. The average B.O.R. [British Other Rank] but tall, but the Eyetie of the South (later I was to meet the Alpini) is grotesquely and at the same time comically, dwarflike. Even their rifles, bigger airguns than which I used to shoot crows, tripped them up as they scampered excitedly to and fro. Apart from their scented and tailor dummy officers, made martial mostly by a every miniature brown pistol holster the size of a compass case, Giuseppe had a greasy black stubble. Boots were of compressed cardboard, trousers of shoddy blue/green material that bagged, and tunics ill fitting and irritating to the eye, were topped with a misshapen capital outrage. Such outwardly were the would-be imperialists for “mare nostrum”. If their organising abilities, entertainment extraordinary which we were shortly and sorrowfully to endure, were a gauge for the inward eye, then it were best to be beautifully blind. Our physical condition was now dangerously low. During the last three or four days the Germans had mercifully spared a few drops of water for the lucky man who scrounged a cigarette tin or other watertight receptacle. None us had eaten. Those, and there were hundreds, too weak to crawl even, lay panting in trucks until succour was brought them. I attempted a drop of four feet to the ground. The impact left me numbed for many minutes. Meantime came a huge and noisy diesel engined carrier whose cylindrical tanks bore hundreds of gallons of liquid more precious than diamonds. As a student of economics I had written often on the “Paradox of Values”. Neither Adam Smith nor any of his disciples will ever be able to make that principle more lucid. A disgusting and never to be forgotten spectacle then followed.
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Multitudes of thirst frenzied beings clawed and bit, kicked and snatched for a vantage point. Friends became mortal foes and croaked vile deprecation on their neighbours. The vehicle possessed numerous drain cocks – they were the peak points of panic. The circular caps atop the tanker were also besieged. Steel helmets were shorn of their rubber padding and used as drinking bowls. Lying in wait underneath the chassis, with cool cunning, were the helpless unfortunates who trapped the inevitable spillings of the human maelstrom above. Gloating on the outskirts, with shining and clicking cameras, were our Axis tormentors. Propagandists had a field day, though such revelations would be unhesitatingly discredited today.
Our disreputable bondage here ended when a fleet of diesel trucks came to take us to Derna. I was glad, even though we stood cramped painfully the whole journey. We reached our destination at night. It proved to be nothing more than a series of barbed-wire compounds, already partially occupied, with a handful of tents. The camp was now lamentably overcrowded. There were no sanitary shelters. Dysentery had already numbered its victims in hundreds and the atmosphere proclaimed the fact. A large cement trough served as a drinking cistern. I had by this time acquired a Chianti flask, whose delicate form I draped with a stocking and some string, and whose neck I faithfully tied to my wrist. Others flourished with the genuine container, often an Axis model deluxe. Two hard biscuits and a small tin of indefinable meat were issued to every two persons. I spent the night with my boots as pillow and shared my overcoat with a friend. Early next morning our transport was standing by, and so eager was the rush to get away from our foul prison, that I found myself separated from the other members
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of my troop, and set out on the long road to Benghazi with the strange and unfamiliar faces of a company of Engineers. They proved to contain a lot of my kinsmen from Cornwall. Today I remember only a few names (Corporal “Bert” Renowden and Monty Trenerry most prominent). We pooled our resources, stuck together for a long time, and defeated many a dark hour in reminiscence.
The journey through Musso’s Empire afforded some of the most enchanting scenery I have ever seen, and some of the most punk-worthy. Whatever drawbacks the Italians suffer from as militarists, their feats of engineering among the mountain passes of North Africa speak for themselves. Our faith in nature’s favourite colour was re-born; but the vast plains were sparsely peopled, and the settlers house of ersatz materials seemed held together more by the extravagant exhortations of the Duce’s slogan “Credire, Obedire, Combattere” (believe, obey and fight) boldly printed on every wall, than the inglorious invitations of the surrounding acres. It is curious to understand why some of the world’s potentially most fertile regions were left in such arid neglect.
Night fell ere we reached Benghazi. The camp was a grand scale replica of the horror of Derna. In the gloom we stumbled over rough stones and prostrate bodies, and slept among the palm groves where we fell. Morning revealed an awful chaos. In the absence of tents, hundreds of tired and sick men sprawled wherever a heap of rocks or the friendly palms gave cover from the burning sun. There was a constant pilgrimage of water fetchers, and when the tanks were empty there were stampedes and brawls and quarrelsome queues. In this living hell disease and famine took a heavy toll. I made my first acquaintance with the Italian
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loaf, no bigger than a penny bun, but infinitely more sustaining. Together with a morsel of cheese, a morning brew of black coffee and a ladleful of macaroni at night, it was just enough to maintain a feeble spark of life. Some were given the opportunity of filling in small blue cards, supplied by the Vatican, for the means of informing their relatives at home of their new status. It was only in the later stages of the war that the British Red Cross Society made merciful contact with the Italian authorities. (I had already availed myself of the Nazi propaganda machine at Tmimi by giving my number, name and rank for inclusion in a POW broadcast roll. Within a week it transpired that a vicar who lived at home in a neighbouring parish listened to Lord Haw Haw or one of his satellites and recognised that a L/Bdr [Lance-Bombardier] Hoffbourne might possibly be me and graciously telephoned my mother. The official War Office intimation came weeks later.)
The days dragged dreadfully at Benghazi. One incident especially stands out. We awoke one morning to find an imposing battery of Breda machine guns mounted frequently along the surrounding walls. An interpreter then announced that we were all to be starved as a reprisal for an allegedly similar treatment of their own men. I could never discover the motive behind this gigantic piece of bluff, but the bark of the wolf of Rome was ever worse than his bite, and the whole proceedings came to an abrupt and ludicrous end with the arrival of a Papal delegation and double rations for the evening meal.
The day I was waiting for arrived at last, and we got ready for the journey to the docks. Geography books had always created for me an Italy perpetually bathed in the sun, teeming with soft fruits, and blessed with the bluest of blue skies.
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I make no disguise now of the fact that I was far from sharing the aspirations of those who went into hiding with the forlorn hope of rescue by a phantom long range desert group. I was sick of fighting, and I was much more sick of the desert.
The docks were revealed to us as the bomb plastered, shrapnel scarred vestiges of a harbour that tourists once found beautiful. Gaunt masts and broken hulks, gratifying testimony to the striking power of our air forces were scattered on all sides. Air transport alone in the harbour was capable of service.
With much clamour and fuss we were taken on board; we numbered approx 800 and were divided among four holds. I found myself aft. I was never in my life a claustrophobic and have survived many a mass upheaval at football games, but I was in acute danger of losing all reason as I clambered down a ladder into a steamy, sickly maze of swaying forms and panic stricken faces. As the hatches were battened down I almost vomited. Thought uppermost in every mind was the terror of a torpedo. Within yards of the ladder’s foot, every square inch of space was crammed to capacity, but the Eyeties put us all on the same footing moments later by raising the ladder tantalisingly out of reach. In the furthest corners I found ample room to lie full length, and here, I resigned myself utterly to the whims of fate. Next morning during a brief respite on deck, I discovered we were alone in convoy, which comprised a half dozen sleek destroyers. The vessel, comparatively modern, maintained a constant zig-zag and kept up a high speed throughout the journey, and by the Grace of God we escaped both air and underwater attacks. Seventy Two hours after leaving Benghazi we made port.
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IN THE LAND OF THE FASCES
It was early morning. The sea was calm and the sky was blue. Gleaming white seaplanes made a criss-cross pattern overhead as they escorted us in. But these enchanting harbingers proved false portents for the times ahead. The magic word of Taranto was now on everybody’s lips. Seen from the sea it defied description. As we entered the outer booms, the pride of the Italian fleet rode defiantly at anchor. To many of the mooring chains green barnacles were clinging, and seemed to mock the spotless planks and shining armour of the fortresses they held in bondage. We berthed alongside a training ship. Gold braided uniforms glittered and bugles blared forth to signify our presence to the crowd thronged shore. We gaped as much as the Eyeties, for the sight of a female form and a gay coloured frock was a rare one. From the ship we were marched through mobs (at close quarters their attire permitted no better word) who stood benumbed or jeered hysterically, up a steep slope to an erstwhile naval barracks. Though the desert sand was still in our hair, our thin tunics besmirched and torn, our features bearded and black, yet there was pride in our bearing and rhythm in our step as we marched boldly along. Our reception at the barracks had a surprising but welcome semblance of order. A row of barbers stood in line behind their chairs into which we were ushered without further ceremony. The clippers spared none. The convict body next stepped into a cubicle, shed its clothes, received a latherless soap, a handkerchief-cum-towel, and tendered itself wholeheartedly to a warm shower. We anticipated a meal then, but you can never be sure with
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the Eyeties. Instead we were ferried to a railway siding, herded into cattle trucks, loaded with biscuits and small cans of “meat” and left to draw our own conclusions. I pondered over the fact that at least I was still alive and now in a land, as yet, unravaged by war. Still musing thus hours later, for it was forbiddingly cold, the train jarred to a stop, and I peered through bars into an eerie gloom. As the dawn broke we were shepherded on to a small platform. A solitary building, signal box, stationmaster’s house, possibly both, was the sole blot on a flat stretch of country that straggled with vines and small bushes. A dusty track was also revealed along which we tramped and sang, God knows why, for several miles. Our destination turned out to be a transit camp used for purposes of quarantine. We knew it as Tutturano. It was of recent growth for the nine or ten wooden sheds were almost clean and as yet unoccupied. An open space in front was strewn with small tents and bales of straw, and to our chagrin they were to be our home for the next two weeks. We suffered terribly from fleas and there was an alarming infestation from lice. The food was much the same as we got from Benghazi, though now there was even less. A few stone buildings with crude troughs and taps that were locked for the majority of the day, ministered to our sanitary requirements. One in twenty had contrived to keep a razor and during the following month every single blade proved its steel. We appointed our own cooks and departmental chiefs but these mob elected representatives changed almost daily. Jealousy and intrigue were rife and there was a Danton or Robespierre in every hut.
Then one day came a rumour that blasted the very foundations of our existence. A consignment of Red Cross parcels was on its way.
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Their sudden arrival at the camp caused such upheaval that an outside reinforcement of marines was needed to cope with it. My first glimpse of the contents of one of these, ranks easily among the biggest thrills of my life. Food and food alone was our God, and henceforth these beneficent bounties were worshipped with an awful reverence, and woe betide the man who tried to shilly-shally. The Commandant ordered one parcel per 20 men per night. This arrangement caused many heartburnings. How to fragment an Oxo cube or soap tablet, a tin of jam or a beef hot-pot. The ubiquitous pack of cards often solved such posers, and there were others more wily, who claimed the simple victim. Most of us formed small syndicates and pooled our resources, and how we consumed and when and where was the determinate of the majority vote, but among potted meats as well as top hats, the cause of true democracy was seldom smooth.
Lettercards of ten ruled lines now became a weekly issue. Almost every one wrote the same pleas for food, cigarettes and a razor. The Italians then began to distribute a motley assortment of foul tasting cigarettes in coarse paper packets, together with a few twig encrusted cheroots. We soon got to grading the various brands, and the Italians made it easier by giving each packet a different price and colour. There were at the bottom of the scale “Indigene” and “Popolare”. Midway were my personal favourites, the blue packets of “Nationale”, and if you were lucky you might aspire to “Tre Stella” which lay in my opinion beneath the standard of the wartime Woodbine. Even so, among the tobacco fiends cigarettes became an invaluable medium of exchange.
Towards the end of our stay in the camp a crude canteen service was begun; the chief demands were for bakelite razors and small pears
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which accounted in no time for our pay at the rate of 1 lira per day. Here too for those who knew Italian was sold the “Lavore Fascista” and “Il Popolo di Roma”. It was in the headlines of the latter some Goebbellian audacity that we learnt of the fall of Tobruk with thirty thousand prisoners. The news was unbelievable and discredited for weeks, until we listened with dismay to first-hand reports. At this time the “Wop” was never more swaggering and sure, and a campaign of tyranny and terror soon developed. The entire camp was made to parade twice daily for hours at a time under the burning sun. No taken of those who fell fainting and sick and the dysentery notice was stricken were mere objects of the captor’s mirth. Recalcitrants were lashed to trees in the middle of the square and suffered a terrible exposure; Rations deteriorated so much that a demented few climbed trees at night and knocked sleeping birds from the branches. And yet there were bright moments, for spelling bees, and quizzes, brains trusts, and small sketches were organised with a surprising degree of inter-hut rivalry. I shall always remember the spellbound audience when C.Q.M.S. [Company Quartermaster Sergeant] Summers related how he escaped from a prison camp in Germany during the LAST war! Then there was the amazing “outing” to Brindisi for a luxurious shower bath in the naval barracks. At length, after we had been at Tutturano for over a month, we walked one morning to the same little siding, and entrained for what was rumoured to be the most terrible camp in the peninsula. The journey was remarkable only in my personal consumption of some seventy small pears, for which I pawned a fountain pen. Amazingly, I suffered no ill effects.
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THE GRAVEYARD OF GRAVINA
The night, early in July, when we filed for the first time through the ragged wire barriers of Gravina was one of the blackest in memory. A few sickly lights burned over the open doorways of the bleak stone buildings we now saw; most of the camp lay asleep and an eerie stillness seemed to chill the blood and mock us harshly as we lingered for the next move. Left without preamble to find my own billet I entered the first building I came to, spread a blanket on the cold cement floor and somehow fell asleep.
Daylight quickly revealed the grim gaunt skeleton of our new prison. Lofty walls of rough stone included a small aperture as a window. The majority of the floor space, covered with cheap cement, crumbled easily underfoot, and gave rise to clouds of fine white dust. The entire building was made up of a number of bays on different levels after the manner of a shallow Italian terrace. Standing at either end, one could look the entire length of the bungalow through the narrow passages which gave from bay to bay. There were roughly twenty two tiered beds in each. The latter were shakily contrived from four rough wooden poles in which small pegs supported bed boards of narrow planks. Each man had a straw filled palliasse, from the unsewn edge of which there was a daily drip of irritating straw wisps upon the less fortunate occupant of the lower berth. In the course of time the walls were covered with every conceivable ingenuity of mural art.
The empty food cartons, parcel tins and wrappings gave ample scope to the would-be artisan and wall brackets, calendars, family albums and even crude pendulum clocks testified to individual enterprise. Heath Robinson could scarcely have improved upon some of the latter contraptions.
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Huge cog wheels patiently cut from the circular tops of powdered milk tins meshed with the puny pinions of a margarine tin, whilst an undue nicety of weights and balance came from battered water bottles in which the level of water was often the triumph of days of tedious experiment. During the day, admiring queues filed by and showered their rude appreciation, but at night the erratic pinkings of the time machine drew forth coarse comment from the slumbering neighbourhood and more than once the galling gadget ended its clattering cacophony on the distant floor.
Each bay had its commander, normally a Sergeant, who drew up rosters for the menial tasks of sweeping the floor, drawing rations, and chopping wood. Early in the morning the Italians held a roll-call parade for which the sentries were often compelled to prod the bleary eyed with their bayonets. A huge cylindrical pot of black coffee, unsweetened, was brought from the cookhouse by the duty men, and according to the morning temperature and the nature of one’s interrupted dreams, a scrambling mob of varying size descended upon it with their self-fashioned drinking mugs. The latter were converted jam tins and butter tins, with wooden handles secured by wire, or generous loops and hoops beaten from the long narrow containers of Marmite cubes. Each had his own dietary programme, though strictly limited by the daily issue of a single small loaf, and the weekly issue of a parcel per man, subject to the providence of the Red Cross and the eccentricities of the local transport system. Thus a few chose to munch a biscuit or slice of bread with their morning coffee, and the wholly breakfast minded made so bold as to grill a rasher of bacon or a whole meat roll. Mid-morning, along with the blanket loads
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of bread, came a hunk of cheese, a tin of olive oil, and crystals of rock salt, which items were immediately and equally distributed. This was the time favoured by the majority for the big meal of the day. Parcels were dragged from shelves and the syndicate held a hurried conference over the menu. The lone wolves were free from the resultant wranglings, but were hard put to eke out their treasures for the allotted seven days. Owing to the indivisibility and perishable nature of much of the tinned foods, the practical advantages of the pool or the trust were apparent to all but the egocentric few. Crude frying pans fashioned from sausage tins now made their appearance, and knives and barbarous prongs also flourished – but the cynosure of all eyes was the miniature range/cum stove, which was to pander to the palate, silence the rumbling bowels and appease the frenzied images of the audacious chef. An efficient cooker was often a measure of one’s capital wealth. Smooth beaten tin-plate, precision twisted wire strands, and cunningly contrived ventilator shafts were manufactured from an inexhaustible source of empty tins and raw material. It was not given to everybody to become an efficient tinsmith, and in my own case the hiring of the essential labour factor proved a drain on my tobacco consumption for weeks. The entire compound was available as a cooking site, but even here, there were corners and niches and mounds in which flame crackled into life with mysterious alacrity, while a few yards off, billows of smoke denoted the unrewarded enterprise of adventurers on less favourable sites. Thus arose another source of profiteering from site rents. Cigarettes were the normal extortion. Further, the problem of fuel was here as pressing a worry to the individual as to an impoverished nation at war.
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The scarce supplies of wood which the Eyeties granted us were raided again and again in the cookhouse by the murderous gangs of cutthroats, whose knives carved long strips from the hulking logs. Palliases too suffered swift bodily changes. It was dangerous to leave one’s bed unguarded, but the axe-swinging demon of the woodchopper’s ball smote the culminating blow at the Commandant’s favourite sentry box. This enraged the little men to such an extent that they invaded the compounds and smashed every kitchenette they found.
The usage of crude olive oil (a thick rich brown liquid) in the frying pan was hitherto unknown to us and the idea at first was rather revolting. The initial test was a huge success and thereafter the liquid was indispensable to every dish. The smell of onions and tomatoes thus fried, with generous helpings of grated cheese, eaten with crisp wafers of bread, taunts me always in my hungry moments.
As long as there was a plentiful supply of Red Cross parcels in the camp store, life was quite tolerable, morale kept high, and the days passed quickly by. But there were often agonising gaps in delivery, and during these intervals tempers were foul, faces were grim, and there were far reaching repercussions both mentally and physically.
It was not a healthy camp by any means. The site lay on the exposed slopes of an undulating waste and during the July and August months was insufferably hot throughout the day and formidably cold at night. Sanitation was poor to say the least. The latrines were of the hole in-the-ground variety and were never adequately flushed. Flies were an abomination, and not a man escaped the unwelcome attention of fleas and lice. The very soil was infested and harboured innumerable small insects.
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Washing and drinking water was rationed on a meagre scale and there were no bathing facilities. It was not surprising therefore that these accumulated aggravations caused in turn epidemics of dysentery, diphtheria and typhus. Sunstroke also ravaged the heedless and unwary. During the worst periods the death rate rose to as much as five per day, and the silent nightly gathering of morbid crowds, to see plain box coffins borne away from the hospital was a routine and depressing occurrence. With the arrival of two English doctors came an all round improvement. Later, adequate stocks of first aid bandages and medicines in big tea boxes of three ply, gave immeasurable relief. Even so, the sick bay was lamentably small and perpetually over-crowded. It took a long time to live down the memories of the “graveyard”.
The 4,000 members of P.G. 65 (Campo Prigionieri Di Guerra Numero Settantacinque) the official denomination of our camp, included Diggers, South Africans, Cypriots, Armenians, Bulgars and Jews of almost every extraction. Each sect had its own characteristics and modes of conduct. The Kiwis were few in number and included many veterans from Crete. They were a great hearted band, always joking and extremely entertaining. The South Africans were the survivors of Tobruk. For long they were treated with an unwarranted suspicion. From their arrival a huge P.T. class was started, and many a head wagged in irony over the incredible antics and zeal of the Springboks in their determination to escape the listless apathies of the majority of the camp. Tins of coffee found a ready and profitable market among the “Harriers” as some unjustly dubbed them, and the individual Britisher who numbered this article among his parcel contents was fortunate indeed. The men from the Cape Provinces were responsible for starting “Bridge” schools in a big way,
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and in many a bay, the afternoon stillness that attended a card session was of awe-inspiring intensity. The game we played was Contract Bridge favouring the pre-war Culbertson system. There were bridge “Ladders”, position on which reflected the good fortune and playing abilities of a particular pair of players.
Our Balkan representatives were a nondescript crew who lived up to international fame by their incessant babble and squabble. Most renowned of all were the Cypriots or the b—– Cyps as we called them. They were great linguists and from the first curried favour with the Eyeties. Graft and greed dominated them. From the outside, and through the wires a daily intercourse and flow of bribes of every kind was maintained. A Cypriot was never hungry and could always produce a hoard of bread loaves from among his possessions. They never seemed to touch their Red Cross parcels but were content instead to sit cross-legged on their beds, unopened tins before them, while files of starving prisoners passed up and down bargaining with cigarettes, trinkets, souvenirs, clothing and anything of value to ease the pangs of hunger. It made one boil to reflect that the folks back home were contributing their pennies and shillings to support this awful abuse. Driven to extremes, plundering bands often raided the Cyp bungalow. Knives would flash, beds be wrecked and the resultant pandemonium call forth the guards with bayonets and loaded rifles. Sometimes the whole camp suffered punishment through the curtailing of such privileges as fuel and canteen stores.
Among such varied nationalities there was a great store of talent. Concerts and shows were held every week on a crudely contrived stage. The wealthier bought instruments at extortionate prices from the Eyeties
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and a really good jazz band was formed. News bulletins were voiced before eager audiences. The sources were flyers and air crews recently shot down. In this manner we kept abreast of war developments, the situations on the home front, the latest song hits and incidents in the sporting world -the only depression that I as a Cornishman ever suffered resulted from the news that Len Harvey had succumbed at last to an unknown challenger from the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] (Freddie Mills). Another belated innovation was the open air school, where lectures were given by ex-schoolmasters, bankers, business men and languages taught ranging from German, Spanish and Italian to Afrikaans, Hebrew and Greek. Under the stimulus of a B. A. (English) tutor I read the complete works of William Wordsworth. Books were extremely scarce and the waiting list for a single copy often ran into hundreds.
There was no forced labour, though volunteers came forth in plenty to help the building programme of the camp. In so doing they were entitled to extra pay, an additional loaf, and an extra ladle of rice with the evening meal. As the conditions of labour were so exacting under a torrid sun, the meagre surplus of rations thus earned was soon dissipated. Many of the toilers fell ill with sun stroke. Less exacting was the job of trimming the Commandant’s garden, for which task huge crowds waited eagerly at the compound gates every morning.
Occasionally a supply of fruit and tomatoes was available in the small canteen, and the resultant hours of queueing and the highly organised system of deputies and reliefs, would have done justice to the most fervent of Wembley fans.
The camp was overlarge and expanding too rapidly for any noticeable improvement in our living conditions. The aim of everybody was to be
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transferred to the numerous smaller camps higher up in the peninsula. Thus when one day the demand came for some 200 British Other Ranks to perform various jobs at an Officer’s camp, excitement was terrific. It was decided that each bay should have a quota and in the following draw came what I shall always consider the greatest single piece of good fortune that befell me as a POW. Near the end of August a jubilant crowd said goodbye forever to Gravina.
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Campo prigioniera di Guerra Numero Ventuno at Chieti was destined to be my home for the next twelve months. Almost on a latitude parallel with Rome, we were now halfway up the Italian peninsula and the Adriatic port of Pescara was only ten miles away. Built as a Concentration Camp for anti-Fascists, it looked less forbidding but more secure that the previous prisons. A perimeter wall of some 15 feet gave it a cabined appearance. Sentry boxes were sprinkled along its top at 100 yard intervals, and among the trip wires at its foot stood neat signboards with the counsel “PASSAGE AND DEMURRAGE NO ALLOWED”. Sentries had orders to shoot at anyone approaching the wall through the wire. Prisoners were housed in four U shaped stone barracks, and a further two were the quarters of the Carabinieri, their officers, and store buildings. The U was laterally divided into six compartments each holding forty prisoners. As at Gravina there were no doors and no glass. The base of the U contained smaller rooms for senior officers. N.C.O’s [Non-commissioned Officer] in the British Other Ranks’ bungalow, and the washing places formed the other extremity. A central tarmac road led from the camp entrance to the main cookhouse. This was the famous Chieti promenade, terminated abruptly by a white line, to cross which was “NO ALLOWED”. When I came in September 1942 the ground between the bungalows sported tufts of wiry grass and lines of shrubs, but the constant tramping of 1200 pairs of feet soon altered the scene.
Given regular supplies of running water our new habitat would have been first rate, but the chromium taps promised better than they gave, and the lavatories, still the hole in the floor variety, and the tiled floors relied for their cleanliness upon small tubs of water.
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The British Other Ranks were enraptured with the place and went about their duties as batmen, gardeners, boot repairers, cooks and waiters, with relish. They formed a company of six platoons, which had its officers, staff and parades in the familiar military pattern. Farcical as it seems, I was once hauled up on the mat before my Company Commander for laughing at the antics of an Eyetie whilst on parade. I got a reprimand.
I started my new life as a waiter and though at first my conscience pricked at the subservience, it turned out to be very profitable as an occupation. The question of food was always uppermost, and I enjoyed the greater variety of diet, for which officers gave the majority of their pay. There was always a helping for the kitchen staff, whether got by luck or cunning was immaterial. As soon as a course was served it was a case of everyman for himself in the kitchen, rummaging among baskets of grapes, trays of figs and peaches, crates of tomatoes, watermelons, peas and the normal quota of half a dozen or so bowls of thick macaroni soup with grated cheese. We worked hard for our privileges for there were sometimes double sittings for each meal. At the close of the day little groups of silent figures trooped back to their quarters, with sticky patches on their shirt fronts, bulging trouser pockets, and suspicious looking bundles in dirty coloured cloths and serviettes. It was a great life.
As the year drew to a close we shivered in our tattered remnants of the battlefield. The Italians made little shift to clothe us, though we received a blue and white marine shirt and a coarse green sweater, after prolonged agitation. Discrimination between ranks was impossible at all times, for all were in the same predicament. The enterprising
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few produced trousers self tailored from blankets, and many a Joseph sported his coat of coloured patches. The first next of kin clothes parcels started to come in December and January 1943, followed by cigarette parcels.
In the entrance bay of every Other Rank’s bungalow, the prisoners had attached to the walls, two large Notice Boards. One was headed in large block capitals – “I HAVE”, the other “I WANT”. Underneath these captions were written the items which individuals possessed or desired together with the appropriate bay number to locate the “Advertiser”. Cigarettes were the medium of exchange. Thus a typical entry on the boards might be: I have 20 Wills Three Castles – I want 2 tins of Ambrosia Creamed Rice. The items available included tins of Marmite, Diced Carrots, Meat and Vegetables, Cheese, Bacon, Coffee, Tea, Egg Flakes and slabs of Chocolate and Sugar culled from Red Cross parcels from the U.K., S. Africa., U.S.A., Australia and New Zealand.
The British Other Ranks were members of the camp library sponsored by the Officers. The Italians were profuse with catalogues, but in this as in all things they lived up to their motto “Semper Domani” meaning always tomorrow. “Chieti University” came into being and was open to all who cared to attend. There was an abundance of first class lecturers, experts in their particular branch, who drew large audiences regularly. Economics was my own special interest since I had gained a Second Class Honours Degree of London University in June 1940. I was keenly interested too in learning the Italian language, and with text books in plenty and a guard to converse with at every corner, I soon made progress. It stood me in good stead during my furtive meanderings in the months to come.
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We made best use of the limited space available for exercise. Basketball games were a daily item, and with the increasing influx of American soldiers and airmen, the entire camp succumbed to an infection of softball, which is a modified form of baseball. Several leagues were formed and we followed the Yanks in the serious minded manner in which they played their game of games. The fact that the camp boasted several celebrated sporting personalities, including test cricketers Bill Bowes and Freddie Brown, also boosted the athletic pursuits of the young and able bodied. The latter sportsmen were the idols of every games minded B.O.R. and their hero worship was most generously reciprocated in odd moments when the famous pair held vast audiences spellbound with their reminiscences. We got a glimpse of these cricketing giants in action in a few improvised games upon the central strip of tarmac. It made a very fast and exceedingly dangerous wicket but there were no ashes at stake and bodyline theory was never in question. In return for their patient coaching at soft-ball, an attempt was made in vain to infuse the cricketing spirit into the devil-may-care Yanks, but they found their own game much faster and undoubtedly more exciting. I played softball for the British Other Ranks in a league sporting teams like the Lillywhites, All Americans and the Rascals (The Royal Army Service Corps team, captained by F. R. Brown).
I can remember the eagerness of the spectators, rushing through their evening meal, scurrying from their bungalows with stools and cushions, to secure vantage points for watching the duel between their particular favourites and the B.O.Rs. [British Other Ranks]
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One of the outstanding games took place on Wednesday July 7th 1943 when, despite a personal tally of six catches, the B. O. R’s. (captained I think by Harold Beaumont) a Yorkshire batsman, lost to the North Americans 9-6.
The Italians left us fairly well alone, but were insistent upon frequent roll calls and inspections, and were particularly irritating in the way they supervised the handing out of parcels. Food tins had to be punctured before they were taken away, and cigarettes were scattered pell mell from tins and packets into a blanket. Ever suspicious, they hoped one day to find compasses, maps, messages and even weapons. In the course of time an Escape Club was formed, and numerous tunnels were projected all over the camp. The wells were a favourite spot. On one unforgettable occasion, the Eyeties smelled a rat, called in the local Fire Brigade and pumped a well dry in the hope of unearthing something big. They lost sadly through their endeavours, for an impertinent individual slashed the tyres of the offending chariot and another made off with a valuable kit of tools. Once, the entire camp was confined to rooms and starved for a day so that some penitent renegade might return the missing tools. Among our captors there were a few outstanding personalities. Capt. Croce was one. He was indeed a nauseating specimen. Every liberty he took was masked as “An order from Rome”. Tall and effeminate, he was imposing in the greasy, ingratiating ways of the latin. A little black beard with pomade, a monocle and an impudent jaunt of his cap, earned him the title of The Count. He figured prominently in the several bouts with the camp’s No. 1 danger man, Major Lett.
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Major Gordon Lett was the principal morale booster of the camp. He was something of a mystery figure to the other ranks and to most of the officers as well. Rumour had it that he was an important official in the Foreign Office branch of the Civil Service who was stationed in northern Italy pre-war. Some thought he had a secret radio contact with the British Consulate.
I was one of a small team of volunteers who took meals from the officers’ cookhouse through the main gate and into the Italian compound, where Major Lett was confined in his punishment cell. Messages, concealed in various ways in the tray of soup, macaroni, cheese and fruit were delivered by myself accompanied all the while by an Italian sentry. No talking was allowed. Whilst Major Lett was eating, I went through the motions of sweeping out his cell with a witches broom. Invariably Major Lett found a good moment to squeeze a microscopic note of folded paper into my hand as I thrust to and fro with my broom, close to his person. In this way we smuggled out exciting bits of news and information which was passed in turn to a senior officer designated by Major Lett, and then relayed to the prisoners in the main camp, raising the spirits of all. I had a few anxious moments and more than once thought I had been caught in the act!
The following letter was smuggled out by me in the usual manner:
Many thanks to you and Ryle for all you have done. We are most grateful to you both, as some of the notes were very important you may see some of the results soon; I hope one will be the acute discomfort, if not the departure, of our friend Mr. Croce.
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Remember me to the lads and Mr. Yates. As a parting message they might like to know that, now that we hold Tunis and Biserta, all medium bombers which we can send from there, can now travel as far as Genoa and back, on raids. They can also carry up to 3,000 lbs in weight, but not more, while doing it. So we can expect an air blitz any time now. Pantelleria will probably be evacuated by the Wops in a day or two and so the next move might be the invasion of Sicily, Sardinia or Italy south of Bari, when the moon is a bit later in setting.
Cheerio and best of luck to you all. If ever you should feel like dropping me a line, now or after we get out, the address is C/o LLOYDS BANK, 132 REGENT STREET, LONDON. I should like to hear how you get on, and we might get a chance of celebrating in beer, one day, who knows?
GORDON LETT, MAJOR.
P.G. 21, 14 May 1943
P.S. Best wishes too, to, Chesters, Williamson, and Spencer”.
In 1946, after some months of teaching in a Technical School I had thoughts of entering the Foreign Office branch of the Civil Service. Accordingly, I contacted Major Lett and received a letter written by him C/o British Consulate General, Genoa, Italy on the 1st March 1946. Regrettably no further contact has been maintained.
The first commandant was tolerant of everything save personal disparagement. His perambulations on a cycle with ribbons, breeches, shining black boots and spurs were often the subject of unrestrained mirth. Whenever he entered the camp a special bugle call was played, whereupon all and sundry came to attention. The rule was flagrantly flouted, and in the end he said he would demonstrate personally.
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A riot of applause greeted his performance. One individual who blew an offending raspberry was led away to the punishment cells. The members of his bungalow retaliated by leading a procession headed by swirling bagpipes up to the sacred white line and serenaded until a promise of release was secured.
Entertainments were slow to get under way, but at length developed to lavish extents. Acting talent abounded and a new play was produced weekly. On Saturday nights Tommy Samson, an alleged trumpeter of Ambrose and his band, supported an exhilarating “Band Waggon” for two houses. Contemporary sketches merged with Shaw, Shakespeare and Pantomime. Tango bands, accordion bands, promenade concerts, and jive sextets vied in friendly clamour for the popular favour.
Christmas lacked nothing of its normal glamour at Chieti in 1942, save in the absence of snow. I remember with wonder strutting back and forth upon the tarmac on Christmas Day in brilliant sunshine, a Red Cross parcel tucked under each arm. It was not a good thing to leave such treasures unattended on one’s bedhead. The distant peaks of the Gran Sasso D’Italia however had a glistening mantle of snow which kindled many yearnings among us. All the rooms were decorated. My own particular bay was adjudged the best by a committee of inspection. I have long forgotten the particular benefit we reaped. It was probably an extra issue of special Red Cross parcels with chocolate biscuits and plum puddings of special excellence. We feasted royally and the Officers gave us a Christmas dinner which defied the most voracious. The Eyeties too opened their hearts and were lavish with cheap sticky nougat and vino that tasted of vinegar.
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A news service – The Chieti Agency – was maintained in remarkable and mysterious fashion. Each bungalow had its entrance hall whose walls were littered with camp rumours, extracts from home letters, the art of the cartographer, and potent prognostications for the future. I paid regular visits to each of these news agencies in turn. It took several hours to digest the thousand and one items that appeared. Forthcoming attractions at the “New Theatre”, the latest results of big league ball games, personality pen sketches, bridge ladders, chess tournaments, educational charts and bargain marts drew their own little circles throughout the day. At night crowds gathered in the same precincts just before the lights were due to go out, to hear the German version of the Lili Marlene record, which the Italians obligingly played every night and broadcast through the camp speakers. I still know three verses by heart through persistent listening and on occasion may be persuaded to attempt a plaintive rendering as a “party piece”. In the evenings too Major Lett came to bolster the morale of the B.O.R’s with his pep talks, commentaries on the progress of the war, and heartening forecasts of happier times. He performed a similar service for the rest of the camp in the theatre on Sunday mornings before a densely packed gathering, until a few ill chosen remarks from a crassly cynical few caused him to let them mask themselves in the cloak of their own ignorance.
It would be a grave injustice to pass over the patient efforts of several B.O.R’s which culminated in a masterpiece of excavation. It proved later to be the only undiscovered egress, and provided a handful of men with a temporary refuge in a successful escape bid.
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The B.O.R’s had their own cookhouses. There were two, and in each was an oblong structure of cement containing three fireplaces and three receptacles for cooking pots. Underneath the fire grate of one of these it was decided to dig a tunnel. After several weeks of dangerous toil, broken only by the erratic visits of the Italians, contact was made with a large sewer pipe through which a man could crawl. The draining of the sewer was a hazardous enterprise. Gaseous explosions resulted when small lamps were taken below and the stalwart of all the tunnellers, a Northumbrian miner named Sgt. Andy Spowatt, with whom I later made my bid for freedom, sustained severe facial burns, whereupon his Company Commander was hard pressed for a feasible explanation of this queer injury. The sewer pipe led for some twenty or thirty yards through the camp and a small distance outside the wall it ended in a refuse dump of tins. This grewin time to such proportions that the clamour of an attempted exit ruled out the project of escape unless in dire emergency. It was about to be so used when news reached us of the Armistice, and acting upon the verbal orders of the Senior British Officer, all attempts at escape were forbidden under the threat of court martial. Time proved the tragic irony of his advice to remain cool, calm and collected, for we all were in due course by a German parachute battalion. The arrival of the feared “Tedesco” was heralded by the placing of ladders against the prison camp walls by the Italian soldiers, who lost no time in climbing away to freedom.
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EXTRACTS FROM A DIARY
One of the tokens of goodwill which the Italians gave us during the Christmas celebrations of 1942 was a small diary. It was presented by members of a Papal Delegation. The words quoted beneath each monthly calendar were taken from speeches made by His Holiness Pope Pius XII. Opposite this were pages of ruled lines for memoranda, and the entries I made at the time are reproduced here as a commentary.
The inner cover of the diary bore the following text:
“May the Lord grant his Christmas Peace to the prisoners of war of every nation, whom adversity has made doubly dear to us. The longer and more painful the separation from their country and their dear ones, the deeper be this peace within their hearts. At this Holy season of Christmas our prayers for them are still more fervent, and on them and on their families we call down God’s choicest blessings”.
Pius PP XII
Quotation. “With boundless and unshakeable confidence, we place in the tiny, omnipotent and merciful hands of the newborn Redeemer, our desires, our hopes, our prayers and in union with all those who recognise in Christ our Lord and Saviour, beg him to deliver we mankind from the deadly conflict into which the war as led it”
December 29th 1940.
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10th – First parcel of cigarettes (200 – 3 Castles) from Jack and Doris.
12th – Issue of Red Cross parcels.
13th – “Cairo Curtain” a Macfarlane production.
15th – More cigarettes. 200 Greys – 1 packet missing. Source unknown.
16th – Belated arrival of next of kin parcels from P.G. 65.
Books read: “No Walls of Jasper” by Joanna Canaan and “Orphan Island” by Rose Macaulay.
Shows: “Anything Goes”, a Macdonald production, and “Down to Earth” from Shaw’s “Geneva”.
Splendid weather throughout. Basketball activity.
“In human society all men are brothers – no one is a stranger to the other, the poor need the rich, the rich are debtors to the poor, the strong to the weak, the wise to the foolish, for all are made from the same dust and come from the hands of God, all are redeemed by the same Saviour, all are journeying towards the same home of their Heavenly Father, who has called them all to share in the same happiness”
April 20th 1941.
4th – My first next of kin parcel arrives. Date of despatch 1st October 1942. All intact.
24th – A year ago today we fought a bitter duel with 105mm guns at Ras Eleba.
Plays: “Ten Minute Alibi” and “The Merchant of Venice”.
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More parcels arrive from P.G. 65 after a shake up.
“We exhort you always to give the first place in your family circle to Christ our Saviour, King and Master of your home. He is the Light which illuminates it, the Flame which warms and cheers it, the Powerful Protector who will preserve its peace and happiness”
July 30th 1941.
April 1943 – The tobacco month!!
10th – More cigarettes arrive from home (Doris – September 22).
11th – Birthday celebrated with apple pie and creamed rice.
15th – Received a Regimental Gift Parcel (Cigs).
16th – A book parcel.
17th – More tobacco (½ lb).
19th – Another 200 cigarettes. Fortune’s booming.
20th – Ditto.
23rd – Get a second next of kin parcel – despatched January 7th
Memo – Friday April 16th – Interview Camp Sports Representative and arrange series of fixtures for basketball.
Friction between the “Casuals” and the “Corinthians”.
Lose 3-1 to “All India”
April 17th – Bay evacuated for whitewashing!
See “Androcles and the Lion”.
Leave the mess to become a gardening member of the famous Chieti Corporation (Cpl Joe Anchliffe, Essex Regiment i /c)
The entire camp is whitewashed! Beds stripped and washed.
Major Lett enters the punishment cells at the end of the month.
Short spell of “Febbria” and hospital.
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“Let us pray for a speedy and universal peace – not a peace which involves the oppression and disintegration of peoples, but a peace which, by guaranteeing the honour of all nations, may satisfy their vital needs and their lawful rights”
13th April 1941.
1st – Major Lett’s sentence begins.
15th – “Happy Hamstead Night” (Shows, stalls, fancy dress).
24th – Empire Day celebrations. Extra vino. Dad’s birthday.
31st – First anniversary of capture at Rotunda Ualeb.
Third week in May – debugging by gas – enforced evacuation to courtyards. Basketball and baseball games keep my physical batteries constantly low. Throughout May my job assumes interesting proportions from visits to the “clink” with “news” and back with hotter “dope”.
Grasping the lingo now.
Read A. L. Rowse’s “Cornish Childhood”.
Hear that Capt. W and Major C have been repatriated.
First cherries arrive! Plus Green Peas!
Bridge match v Officers.
North Africa is cleared at last after 35 months of ordeal!
“Heroism is not the work of a day, nor does it ripen in a morning. By slow degrees souls are moulded and mount higher until they are ready, when the occasion presents itself, to undertake noble deeds”
August 20th 1941.
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17th – Reach lesson 35 in Iti grammar.
19th – Chieti Sports Meeting. First cinema show outdoors – screen of sheets. “Top of the Town”, “Infernal Del Jazz” starring Doris Nolan, Ella Logan, Hugh Herbert, Mischa Auer.
25th – Another film “Bombay Express”.
26th – World Fair.
Pantelleria and Lampedusa ours first fortnight June
Read Professor Sardo’s “Sketches of English Literature”, Thomas Hardy – “The Return of the Native”, Thomas Hardy – “The Woodlanders”, Goldsmith’s – “The Vicar of Wakefield”, Sterne’s – “Sentimental Journey”, Hawthorne’s – “Blithedale Romance”, and Meredith’s – “Harry Richmond”.
Major Lett comes out of cells.
Accordion Band steals Sampson’s thunder.
F.R. Brown’s RASCALS beat us at baseball. (B.O.R’s lose first game in 5).
Enjoy “Savillcade” and Canadian and New Zealand Red cross parcels.
Gardeners have uncongenial job of sickling but Eyeties open to bribes with their own cigarettes. Boom in pipe smoking as issue of cigarettes falls off.
M.O. uses acetic acid undiluted to reduce a poisoned swelling!!
Hell of a scar left.
Four letters in a week from home.
Passionfruit plentiful. Occasional issue dried figs.
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“God will never permit trials of whatever kind they may be, to exceed the strength which He will give you to meet them, by His timely grace and paternal liberality, a grace so generous and all-embracing in its beneficent effects that it will enable you to find in fidelity to your most difficult duties, one of the sweetest and deepest joys of your life”
August 13th 1941.
1st – Film Show – “The Misadventures of Mr. X”.
2nd – Parcel from U.K. with photographs. Major Swettenham joins Major Letts in clink.
3rd – Grand Cricket Match.
The matches took place on the central tarmac road which led from the entrance to the camp to the cookhouse at the other end. The matches took place after the evening meal and attracted a vast throng of spectators with their chairs and cushions. I played for the B.O.R.s against a team of officers which included such famous names as Bill Bowes (Yorkshire and England), F.R. Brown (Surrey and England). Harold Beaumont a Yorkshire Colt strengthened our own ranks. Harold was a great personality also in the softball games popularised by the Canadian and American flyers who came to the camp later on. After my escape in 1942 I received a card from Harold written on May 21st 1944 and sent from M. – Stammlager X1B, congratulating me on my escape from Italy. Another card dated July 16th 1944 came from Ken Ryle in the same camp, in response to a letter from me of April 21st, the first letter he had received for three months from “the old country”.
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He wrote as follows: “Things here are not at all bad, parcels are regular, but N.O. K etc., from home have stopped altogether. Our news consists of mostly rumours, Major L would have a good time picking them to pieces. I am now in charge of a squad of workers, so I don’t use the shovel now. Dave (Patterson) is i/c canteen. See you soon. Your old pal, Ken”.
4th – “The Double Life of Helen Gull” a German film
6th – Cigarette parcels arrive 300 Rothmans (in the POW camps cigarettes were the most coveted currency of all).
7th Had my first bathe in river outside the camp and had a glorious personal performance for the softball team.
My reading in the month of July included Scott, Stevenson, Kingsley and Balzac.
“You must be ready every day to forgive the offences committed against you, in family or social life: just as, every day, on your knees, before the Crucifix you repeat: Our Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”
July 10th 1940.
In August we learned of the fall of Messina and Kharkov.
September 9th 1943 the Italians asked for an Armistice and this was granted. Events moved swiftly. On the 24th the Germans put us on trucks en-route for P.G. 78 at Sulmona.
On October 1st 1943 I started the chain of events which led to my eventual escape from P.G. 78.
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“From Italy to Italy” Date unknown.
This terse uncommunicative phrase appears on my record of service sheet attached to A.B. 64 the little book of such vast and often inordinate importance to the serving soldier. Officers in charge of records make more of some dates than others, but to me at any rate, the hitherto unrecorded chapter of my adventures during the war as an escaping prisoner stands supreme.
There was much jubilation at Campo Prigionieri di Guerra Numero Ventuno, simply P. G. 21 when on September 9th 1943 the Italians asked for and were granted a separate armistice. Chieti, which is halfway up the Italian peninsula on the Adriatic side and quite near to Pescara on the coast, did not seem at all a bad place (despite the fact that months of philosophies from the wrong side of the barbed wire had outlined its repulsiveness). On the following evening the British Other Ranks (this was really an Officers’ camp) had a liberation dinner and were entertained jazzily by the “Hot Club de Chieti”. The Senior British Officer however announced by loudspeaker to the camp to remain “cool, calm and collected”. The collection came in the unwelcome form of Nazi paratroopers who overnight replaced silently and with grim efficiency the shabby little Eyetie guards. It seemed incredible -and at the same time ludicrous – as I watched the chicken hearted Eyeties in their baggy little trousers shinning up ladders hastily flung against the walls of the camp perimeter. Rifles were flung aside for suitcases in the panic stricken dash to escape the Nazis. Apart from a few faithfuls and a handful of officers, the migration was achieved completely in a matter of minutes.
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I got to know our new captors well during the next fortnight. As a volunteer I went daily with ten others to look after the camp mules, lynch pins of the Italian transport system, thanks to the efficient bombings of the R.A.F.,. My companions did at least claim to be farmers or certain rural acquaintance, but I was utterly ignorant of the job for which I had so rashly volunteered. The mules had to be watered very early in the morning. This meant as far as I was concerned getting sandwiched daily between two flighty beasts at a narrow cement drinking trough. The drinking act usually lasted about ten minutes during which I writhed physically to escape suffocation, and mentally to devise an escape hatch. Occasionally I cleaned out the stables and counted myself lucky. The titbit of life as a muleteer lay in the trips with the refuse carts into the nearby lanes. Despite an accompanying guard there was always the chance of conversation with the peasants, mostly women, and gifts of figs and peaches in return for cigarettes. I was also able to shin up fig trees and pick fresh yellow figs which I stuffed inside by shirt to take back to camp. It was after one excursion that I learned one of the facts of life about mules. Returning lightheartedly into camp I jumped upon the cart and gathered the reins like a Roman Charioteer. Away went the mule, cart, myself, the two main gate posts and my voluntary commission as muleteer.
On September 24th 1943 the camp was moved in lorries to Sulmona, P.G. 78 further south to await the inevitable transportation to Germany. The day was chiefly remembered by me on account of the worse headache I have ever had, and a feverish cold. Sulmona looked forbidding. The camp was sighted among the foothills of the Apennines which towered for some 10,000 feet above.
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Lorries crammed with the former inmates swirled by in huge dust clouds en-route for the railway, the Bremmer Pass and the German Reich. A handful remained to greet us gloomily as we paraded on a football pitch which I later learned had been fashioned by the British prisoners. The living standards on my new home fell far short of the semi-luxury conditions of P.G. 21. The huts were rougher and smaller and there were some 200 of them crowded into three or four compounds. Rations were meagre and food parcel s missing. The scenery was new however and I spent many hours touring the perimeter, noting the sentry boxes, the searchlights, the Spandaus, the triple-apron barbed wire fence, and in particular a spot which seemed to have been recently strengthened. Rumour had it that a large party of American officers had rushed the wire and had been slaughtered on the spot by the machine guns, and imagination persisted in painting red splotches on the ground alongside.
After a week some order began to creep into the camp organisation and once again I settled down to the POWs time killing routine of books, cards and letters. It was after a game of bridge in a neighbouring hut that life suddenly quickened its tempo for me. Dark had fallen and the searchlights swept searchingly around the perimeter wires as I wandered peacefully back to my billet. Inside near the door and around the two tiered bunk in the corner was a small group, hunched together and conversing in undertones. I made my way noiselessly among them. A pack of cards lay on the bottom bunk and beside them a central figure who swept the gathering inquisitively with purposeful eyes. An escape band was being formed. Captain McLucas, Lt. O’Brien and Corporal Jeremy had joined forces and were now seeking a fourth partner, someone physically able to withstand a journey among the hills,
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someone who had acquired the necessary aids to sustenance, [‘survival’ overwritten] survival, chocolate, Horlicks tablets and the like, and above all someone eager to have go. There was no lack of volunteers, hence the pack of cards. I pressed my claim after a momentary hesitation and with my heart beating loudly prepared to take my turn in the cut. Aces were agreed as low. Twelve persons cut the pack in turn and kept their cards face down before them. Last to cut I turned over the card in my hand and looked fearfully upon the King of Diamonds. Outwardly calm yet inwardly in extreme panic I made haste next day to get rid of all my surplus clothing and bulky foods, destroyed most of my sentimental trinkets, and gathered together foodstuffs to cram in my small pack. On October 1st I went into hiding at night with my three companions. A rope ladder was prepared and slung over the roof of our hut which luckily lay in the shadow of a wall partitioning our compound from one used as a sick bay by the Jerries. Up it clambered a well wishing sergeant who deftly removed sufficient tiles to allow a man’s body to pass through and after the four of us had safely got through the hole, just as deftly replaced the tiles and destroyed the ladder. (Whilst a diversion was laid on nearby.)
It was pitch black among the rafters and we lit improvised candles of tape and olive oil. There was little space to move in, and the floor was alarmingly thin to judge by the voices of our friends below. I was just wide enough stretched a blanket along the wooden beam which to lie down upon. To turn over was impossible without the risk of crashing through plaster on to the cement floor of the hut. Messages were whispered and in such a state of excitement were we that daylight filtered through cracks in the eaves without anyone settling down to sleep.
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The next day passed without event. We learned however that on the morrow the entire camp was to be evacuated. Last minute escape groups formed and several hideouts were discovered by the Jerries to our near disaster. Roll calls called forth search parties and tile lifting operations began. This was the worst of all my experiences -to be in darkness and utter quiet and to hear the crash of tiles flung to earth grow louder as the searchers came closer. I had visions of sudden gaps appearing overhead, of leering Nazi faces and cold steel striking swiftly downwards. Explosions sounded from time to time and I wondered if ours was the next hut for demolition. Unaccountably the tile rippers stopped their labours on a neighbouring hut and I breathed again. Suddenly however a voice beneath said in English “If there is anyone in hiding come down. The whole camp will be destroyed”. Apparently the destruction of 200 huts did not seem worthwhile to the Jerries. We called this gigantic piece of bluff and won, although a couple of distant explosions did not put us in good heart. I have often wondered whether the voice was that of a British prisoner who had been detected hiding in a similar place.
Six nights were spent in the loft, mostly in semi-darkness. Occasionally I played with luminous dominoes, but it was far too uncomfortable kneeling on wood planks to carry on for more than a few minutes. Another diversion consisted of rehearsing gas drill. Three Italian respirators were taken up into the loft and the drill in the event of tear gas bombs was for the fourth member of the party to improvise with a handkerchief for as long as possible, tap his neighbour on the shoulder and exchange the handkerchief for the respirator. Happily this often rehearsed drill was never tested.
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Life stories were swapped, jokes of all kinds relayed, but always uppermost in my mind were the odds against a successful exit. During the days of entombment two more incidents stand out. One concerned a pair of Italian boots which I had. They were new and squeaked horribly and I visualised the downfall of the party on account of them when the time came to make a break. Accordingly one night, instead of using the normal sanitary arrangement of tins filled with earth, I experimented by urinating on the inner soles of Italian issue boots. This crude remedy was 100% effective, but it was a long time before I confessed my deed to the others. The other affair was my cough. At night I suffered inexplicably from throat irritation, possibly due to the foulness of the atmosphere, and again the dreadful thought came that I could be personally responsible for the detection of our band. Lone sentries with dogs frequently snooped around the huts during the early mornings, partly to discourage petty looting by Italian civilians and also to surprise POWs yet unaccounted for. For two nights I endured extreme mental agony in my attempts to suffocate and suppress the telltale explosion for that is what it seemed in our confined space.
On October 7th, six nights after being sealed up in our voluntary tomb the Jerries were still occupying the camp. The hoped for relief from advancing Allies did not materialise. In fact it was not until December that British troops got as far. Although our supply of tinned food was still adequate for several days, water shortage drove us to action. The air was heavy and poisonous; we had to get out. Consequently about 6pm on the evening of the 7th, Corporal Jeremy with a cook’s kitchen knife began his cutting out operations. Two hours later a circular hole the
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circumference of a normal man’s girth was ready. Zero hour was 10pm. On the roof a heavy downpour beat steadily and drowned the noises of the night. Ignoring the dogs and the patrol the final cut was made and a crash like thunder sounded as the ring of plaster hit the cement floor some ten feet below. With bated breath I waited. No challenge, no movement, no sound other than the beating of my heart. The blanket strips we had knotted together were tied to a staunch timber and Capt. McLucas made his descent. A muffled thud was heard and then a period of grim silence. He had landed on a water tank, drank solidly on all fours and waited to accustom his eyes to the blackness before whispering the OK. I was last down in a dizzy slithering movement. My legs refused to grip the rope and for ten minutes I was quite unable to stand. We drained the water tank and crawled tentatively in all directions to exercise our cramped, cold limbs. Then with boots blanketed we lurched unsteadily forward like divers in the deep, at intervals, through the chaos of wooden beds and discarded clothing of our former home, across a narrow gravel stretch into what had been the “Arab” bungalow. This proved beyond our physical powers to negotiate. Tins, boxes, bed posts, palliases, filth and muck of every sort barred our way. Weary and slightly discouraged we focussed our attention on the ditch which lay beyond the gravel immediately in front of the wire. As we watched powerful arc lights swivelled upon it, lingered and swept away. Further on in the centre of the ditch, the lights seemed less revealing and we decided at once to make our gamble in that spot. Lots were drawn for the order of exit. My heart sank when I knew I was to be last. Capt. McLucas paved the way, his job the trickiest as he had to make a gap in the wire for the others following.
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Twenty minutes passed like twenty days; not a sound disturbed the evening quiet. It had stopped raining. In his sentry box at one corner of the wire fence the sentry stamped his feet against the chill. A stray dog came up, sniffed and retreated. Evidently we now smelled like the enemy. Mr. O’Brien went, then another wait of twenty minutes. Followed by the disappearance of Corporal Jeremy. The final interval of 20 minutes seemed interminable. My tortured mind endured every conceivable agony of suspense. I wondered whether the first spandau burst would get me and shuddered at the thought of a bayonet. Unable to wait longer I cut five minutes off my schedule, slithered and crawled forward, pack against head as bullet cover from the sentry and dropped exhausted into the ditch. There was the gap. How small it seemed. At first I could not squirm through. My overcoat caught and ripped with an alarming noise. It would have to stay. The rolled blanket was a curse. I dumped it. A foot tripped an unnoticed strand of wire, cans jangled. I waited for the impact of the first bullet. Nothing. I dared to lift my head and squeezed forward another yard. Guiltily I forgot my role of closing the gap to remove evidence. Overcoat and blanket were signposts I had placed forever behind me. Blood trickled down from a cut on my forehead. Sweat blinded my eyes. My heart felt it would burst under the tension. Then suddenly I was through. A shot rang out. Without turning I got up and rushed headlong into a small pit. Panting in great sobs I waited. Then out and forward. Careering madly around a huge boulder I came upon the others, exhausted, prone, looking up at the stars, unmindful of me or anything else, drunk with desperation and the miracle of sudden freedom.
[Text overwritten] We were free!
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ON THE RUN
October 8th. After the first mad scramble outside the wire we climbed the mountainside with intermittent halts and finally rested for “breakfast” (biscuits and pieces of chocolate and water from mountain springs) among the pine trees some 7,000 feet above sea level. The view of the camp below was excellent and there were no visible signs of activity; nothing to suggest that our breakout had been discovered. A few wraiths of faint blue smoke drifted upwards. There was no noise and we rested for some time to enjoy the tranquility and the beauty of the alpine scenery which lay all about us.
Our first objective was to find a way over the mountain ridge. Local shepherds told us of a pass but were too frightened to stay with us and take us over the top. We were unable to see the pass from our present hideout and decided to split into four separate individual units to explore and report back. I set off in a mood of high spirit and adventure and was determined to be the first to find the gap. The others were equally keen. Unfortunately a mountain mist came down suddenly without warning and life suddenly became gloomy, cold and depressing again. I pressed on in grim silence and almost without knowing stumbled upon the narrow defile which meandered crazily through boulders and stubbly growth and led steeply down to an unknown territory.
My next thought was to make my discovery known to the others. I raced back down the mountain tracks, certain that they were heading in the wrong direction. I waited at our rendezvous for nearly an hour. The mist was thick around me. Suddenly I began to panic and decided to go up again to find my companions.
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My earlier efforts had exhausted me however and I had to give up. I spent the night alone in a cave with a miserable fire of twigs. Most of the next morning I sat brooding at the cave entrance, wondering whether or not to be a lone wolf and go it alone, or to hang about in the hope of meeting other escapees whom I knew were somewhere in the hills. I befriended a shepherd who gave me a waterproof cape and a stout staff and told me of the difficulties at this time of the year in getting across the mountain ranges with the winter approaching.
In the afternoon we met again. He milked one of his goats and gave me a mug of fresh milk to drink, together with what looked like a piece of dirty soap, which he said was excellent goat’s cheese. It was very bitter but I pretended to enjoy the meal and gave him some chocolate in return. I spent another night alone.
Quite early the next morning my shepherd friend visited me again and in some excitement told me that a group of British POWs were hiding out in a small hut further down the mountain. The news heartened me and I set out to meet them. They were surprised to see me and were strangers. It seemed they had escaped a month before me and had decided to stay put hoping for an early liberation by the advancing Allied armies. I was able to advise them that the Allied advance had been held up and that there was little likelihood of rescue for some time. Most of the group, about a dozen, were some years older than myself and it was their age that probably made them indifferent to my suggestion of pushing on over the mountains. They were short of food and it was with some reluctance that they tolerated my presence for the next few days.
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Rather foolishly, in my opinion, they relied entirely on a daily supply of bread and potatoes from the village close to the camp which I had left. The villagers were a nosey and talkative group and I thought it must be only a question of time before news of the “Britishers” reached the Jerry camp. And so it turned out but by good fortune on the 14th, three of my former camp mates came upon the hut and after a brief conversation invited me to join forces with them. One was Sergeant Spowatt – a grand chap who had travelled all over Canada and was able to see like a cat in the dark; the other two were officers with whom I had a passing acquaintance.
I was able to show them the pass and from then on I was more than welcome. Andy (the Sergeant) was patrol leader at night and by virtue of my rough knowledge of Italian I was given the job of quizzing the locals whenever we bumped into them. Our plan of action was very simple. To avoid detection we walked only after dusk and used the Plough as our compass making due south as best we could. We walked until we were tired, then rested till we were cold and continued like this till dawn when we scouted around for a suitable hideout. Throughout the day we rested and prepared our meals of potatoes (dug from fields with our hands) tomatoes (raided from gardens) biscuits (tinned) bread (when we could beg, borrow or steal) and occasionally grapes (according to the district). As our food supplies dwindled I volunteered to go off on my own in the mornings to the nearest dwellings to bargain for food. I was able to offer soap (English) which lathered! (the Italians hadn’t seen such lather for years) chocolate (again a rare commodity) paper money (our combined savings were considerable) in return for cheese, macaroni, spaghetti and wine.
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Sometimes my excursions were very fruitful and I was entertained to a bowl of hot spaghetti into the bargain, but on one occasion I was chased out of a village by a scared old woman who ranted on about the Tedesci coming! On another occasion a young boy took a fancy to the leather belt I was wearing and offered me his own meagre specimen plus two outsize bottles of vino in return. I wasn’t keen on the exchange but fearful of the outcome if I didn’t humour him (a crowd of villagers had gathered to see me eat) I reluctantly made the swap. The belt I gave him had been made in the camp from discarded army boots and was one of my most prized souvenirs!
Sleeping in short spells in the open was cold and unsatisfying and it was with great joy that at a place called San Vetturino the villagers invited us to spend the night in one of their hay lofts. Women brought us a meal of hot potatoes and tomatoes, they didn’t stay and so we settled down to snore off this rather heavy mixture. Early the next morning we were rudely awakened by a young lad who told us that the Tedesci had just reached their village and begged us to move out quickly or his family could suffer if we were discovered. We needed no urging and dashed away up into the hills. A German spotter plane must have sighted our frenzied movements and within an incredibly short time a mortar team started to lob shells in our direction. Fortunately we were just out of range, but it was a close shave. We expected to be pursued by infantry and went flat out for the next hour or two.
On October 18th after my usual morning excursion had been well rewarded with bread we decided to leave the area that evening and reached Dacundra. From here we pushed on up to a deserted shepherd’s hut where we lit a fire.
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October 19th. It was very cold, but we felt better after a snack which ended abruptly when we gave chase to a lone sheep with visions of “shepherd’s pie”. Our luck was out and we continued walking until five in the morning. The going was downhill now and we came to Pennapiedimonte passing some Yugoslavs en-route. They told us that Jerry was billeted in the village and that it was madness to go through. However we tiptoed along the main street which was in utter darkness. Sounds of revelry came from behind the shuttered windows and we prayed that the festivities would not end before we had reached the outskirts of the village. There was a moment of panic when a motorcyclist tried to start up his engine. We dived left and right into the ditches beside the road. The engine failed to start and after a moment we darted from our muddy shelters and hot-footed it over hedges and fields.
October 20th. The next day started quietly enough. We were now making for Buonanotte and it almost proved to be our “Goodnight” for we almost walked into a German sentry smoking on a bridge. I was very tired at this time and suffering from indigestion and it did not help matters to learn of the capture of three American prisoners a few hours before we had reached Buonanotte. By now we were very near the river Sangro. We met some very friendly Eyeties, old men and women, who invited us to share their evening meal and brought mattresses for us to sleep on in their massive farmhouse kitchen.
[Text in margin] Young men conscripted for labout.
We enjoyed a breakfast of eggs and bread at 7.30am but in the middle of it the alarm was raised and we were led into the woods to hide. We did not return to the farm and decided to try and wade across the river. After several abortive attempts, and wet and cold to the marrow, we managed to wade to the far bank. A week later this river was a raging torrent and we would not have been so lucky.
[Text in margin] This was part of the Sangro.
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October 21. Reach Faro San Martino. Once again we were warmly received by the local farmers and given a most welcome meal of tomato and onion stew. It was quite dark with no moon or stars and it began to rain heavily. The next day was spent marching miserably through the woods in pouring rain. Whilst leaning for shelter against the trunks of the pine trees we saw planes zooming overhead and heard gunfire. This suggested that the battlefront, for which we had been searching, was not far away. We stumbled across Casetta for shelter. This was a little stone hut used for drying grapes. Vineyards stretched all round us. It was still raining by the evening, so we decided to stay put.
October 22. Reach Buonanotte.
October 25/26. Guilma. Early in the morning I set forth on my usual excursion to scrounge some bread. As a bonus I found a few tomatoes left on bushes in the fields. The going was very heavy and the rain was still falling. There were further bursts of gunfire not far away. It was now October 29th and once more I made my morning trip for bread to the farmhouse. I was invited with my friends to an evening meal and even asked to stay for two or three nights. It seemed that the locals were expecting the Allied troops to appear at any moment. For a change the rain stopped and for the next three days we spent the time very pleasantly with the old farmer and his wife who plied us with all kinds of rich foods (spaghetti, macaroni, cheeses and onions fried in olive oil). All this was washed down with glasses of vino. Little wonder that I was sick at night and I laid up in the casetta during the day still feeling sick and eating little. The following day was of similar pattern, but the gunfire was constantly getting nearer.
November 1. Journey to Guilma with Andy.
November 2. Sick at night.
November 3. Rest. Little to eat.
November 4. Ditto.
On the morning of November 5th Andy and I made a”recce” and were quite
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excited to see German troops filtering through the woods seemingly in retreat. A crucial decision was then made. Andy and I decided to go off on our own and break through the German lines. Our other two companions were unwell, but quite happy for us to try and cross “No man’s land”. It was agreed that two people stood a better chance than four of getting through.
November 6. Set off on recce [Reconnaissance] about 9:45am and reach 8th Indian Brigade about midnight through Palmoli and Tufillo.
About midnight, after crawling through vineyards and feeding upon the inviting grape clusters (the harvest was unpicked) we smelled tobacco smoke and heard the unmistakable clatter of rifle bolts. There was a shout which sounded like “Hande Hoch” (the German for hands up). We inched forward in dismay, but my spirits rose dramatically when I recognised the British Army overcoat and buttons which our two challengers were wearing. Our excitement was nearly our undoing, for had we dashed forward with open arms, we would most certainly have been shot. Although wearing British uniform, our captors looked distinctly foreign and were clearly suspicious at the sight of two bedraggled, unshaven, unkempt specimens, garbed in tattered civilian rags. After an uneasy few moments one of the sentries advanced to guard us with his Lee-Enfield 303 rifle, and the other disappeared into the darkness. Some minutes later, he returned with a person of higher rank, wearing three stripes on his arm. He was a Havildar (Sergeant) in the Indian Army who knew but a few words of English. We were taken to a small group of soldiers, commanded by an English Lieutenant. They were Engineers, part of an Indian Brigade who were the advance spearhead of a small force which had been given the task of removing fuses from mined bridges and of clearing a way through the clumps of mines scattered at random among the woods.
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It was now evident that by a colossal stroke of good fortune my companion, Andy Spowart, and I had stumbled unwittingly through a minefield in the last hour of our efforts to reach the Allied lines. Thus after thirty days of an unsolicited journey across the Apennines, I was free again. It had seemed ages since my capture in the desert on May 31st 1942 for it was now November 6th 1943.
Yet we were not entirely at liberty. To the Engineers our stories seemed good and had a ring of truth. But there still remained the proof of our identities which took an unbelievably long time to establish. For the next few days we were ferried by jeep from one unit to another. A regular feature was the prolonged interrogation by the Intelligence Officers of the respective units, made palatable perhaps by the generous handouts of tins of bully beef and evaporated milk. [Text overwritten] A TYPICAL JEEP DIET. (Food was still uppermost in our thoughts). From Termoli to Foggia to Bari there was quiz after quiz. We repeated our stories like parrots and finally our interrogation ceased. This was due I am sure in no small measure because I was able to give them some facts about my favourite soccer team – Bolton Wanderers. I was about to name their home ground, Burnden Park, their Cup winning exploits in 1923, 1926 and 1929, and their famous forward line in the late 30s of Taylor, George Eastham, Milsom, Raymond Westwood and Cook. This little bit of soccer mani must have done the trick.
We were kitted out on November 10th with battle dress and allowed to send our first communication to England. I worded a cryptic telegram to my mother “Owe my salvation to the King of Diamonds. Home for Christmas. Love Frank”.
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I was now under canvas in a camp at Bari. The weather was cold and I was suffering from dysentery which stayed with me on the journey by bus and train to Taranto. The next day I reported sick and was taken to hospital. Whilst there I learned from my companions that there were plans to ferry us across the mediterranean within the next 24 hours. I was horrified lest I were unable to make the trip and so I took “French leave” in the evening and managed to crawl aboard a flat bottomed troopship in the harbour. I spent a miserable night due to the constant rolling of the boat, but eventually it moved out in the early morning. We passed within sight of Sicily and Mount Etna and I reflected that my own eruptions were much more violent and frequent than those of the famous volcano. We at last reached the North African coast and docked in the afternoon of November 16th. The evening was celebrated with a cinema show. We were some sixty miles from Ferryville celebrated with a cinema show. (Tunisia). Our tented camp was quite comfortable and made more so by further issues of kit and cigarettes. On the 18th November we were assembled and marched (with difficulty on my part) to the station where we boarded trucks which made up a POW train manned by American troops. This station was at Bizerta and for the next four days there was an entertaining and haphazard journey via the Atlas mountains before we reached Algiers. The trucks were large waggons which had been used for moving cattle. There was a kind of barrack room stove in the middle of the waggon which we fed with various materials to keep us warm at night. Stops were frequent and unannounced and for various reasons which included bargaining with the Bedouins to whom we flogged surplus kit for francs for reasons of nature to have a brew-up and to fry corned beef in our petrol tin frying pans.
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We reached Algiers with very little clothing but pouchfuls of coins and notes. The situation was remedied when we were kitted out once again and transported to holiday chalets on the outskirts of the town to await a troopship. We spent a very happy three weeks bathing, savouring the local foods and nightclubs and indulging ourselves in wines and the luxury of miniature English newspapers.
Our holiday came to an end in the middle of December when we embarked on the “Scythia”, a troopship bound for England. Too soon all the old disciplines of war time and army life were heaped on us once more. My last recollection as we sailed away was an accordion player and his rendition of “The Bells are ringing for me and my Gal”.
On reaching Liverpool we disembarked after a ”brasshat” and brass band welcome and spent two days in a quarantine camp outside the city. Ii remember how bare the shops looked and how cold the huts were, despite the efforts of the local E.N.S.A. [Entertainments National Services Association] girls to raise the temperature.
On December 20th, after an advance of pay and a gift of double ration books for a six week repatriation leave, I found myself on a train to Cornwall. Later that day, I staggered up the winding village road, (the only one) of Foxhole with kit bags full of the usual embarrassing loads which soldiers in transit carry and startled the good folk staring at me from their windows. And so I pushed open the front door of a home which I had left in the Spring of 1941.
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[Document written by Frank sent from Camp 65 by the Secretariat of State To His Holiness]
JULY 13TH 1942
Sender FRANK REGINALD OSBORNE
Rank L/BOMBARDIER No. 931270
Camp No. P.G. 65 Military Post P.M. 3450
Addressee MRS S OSBORNE
Town ST AUSTELL
Message (25 words) ETERNALLY THINKING OF YOU ALL, GIVE ADDRESS TO RELATIVES AND SAY AM WELL. CONTACT RED CROSS AND DO ALL POSSIBLE. EAGERLY WAITING. CHIN UP – FRANK.