Perry, Sam


These excerpts from a book on his life as a biochemist include an account of Sam Perry’s capture in Libya and subsequent life as a POW in Italy and then Germany before being liberated by the Americans. He made several unsuccessful attempts to escape. Another excerpt describes revisiting Mantua 62 years later to the spot where he was recaptured.

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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[handwritten notes at head of page : PERRY, SAM. S.V.Perry File Perry]


Through Jim Bourn many memories of the Prison Camp in the old Convento south of Naples are being revived and support for the Trust gained.
The Convento was first used, as was the camp at Servigliano, for German prisoners in the First World War, but now has been returned to its former glory and is used as Convention Centre and tourist attraction.
Though only escaping twice in Italy another of its former inhabitants Professor Sam Perry has given the Trust financial support and brief accounts of his ‘exits’. He was one of some 50 who escaped out of the back of the Camp at Bologna as the Germans came in the front gates. Soon rounded up and put on a train he wangled his way off the train sixty miles away at Mantua around which he wandered freely before trying to cross a bridge and being apprehended by the same Germans who recognised him for they too had been moved up from Bologna. Later Perry made an escape from a train in Germany and the charge sheet, of which he has sent a copy for the Trust archives, show he was charged with ‘cutting a hole in a railway wagon’.

[handwritten note at foot of the page]: BOLOGNA

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[This page has not been transcribed as it contains technical details of biochemistry]

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[The text of Perry’s escape resumes]


By S.V Perry

[Heading] The Italian connection

My first sight of Italy, in February 1942, was not under very auspicious circumstances. After a night battened down in the hold of an Italian cargo boat, I and my fellow prisoners were allowed on deck briefly, to get some air before docking at Naples. In the dull grey of the early morning, Capri and Ischia looked rather foreboding. Despite the fact that I spent the next 18 months confined to POW compounds in various regions, it was apparent that Italy was a beautiful country and I resolved to revisit it when life in Europe returned to normality. It was not until some 12 years after the war, that I renewed my association with the country, when Andrea Corsi, then working at the University of Padua, joined me in Cambridge. Since that time, I have maintained contacts with Corsi, the muscle scientists in Padua, particularly Alfredo Margreth and Massimo Aloisi, and Tony Raggi from Pisa, who spent some time with the muscle group in Birmingham. Visits have included lecture tours and assistance in organising meetings on various aspects of muscle research. I remember with particular pleasure, meetings in the late summer, held in the Tyrol at Bressione, at the summer campus of the University of Padua. I revisited Mantua several times and retraced my wartime meanderings through the town. Little did I imagine during my first involuntary visit, that long after the war I would become a member of the Accademia Virgiliana, based in the city and named after its famous citizen of long ago. I was greatly honoured and felt

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much pleasure and personal satisfaction when in 1990, I was elected Foreign Member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the national academy.

My last, and I hope not final, visit was to the European Muscle Congress in Florence, in September 1995. After the meeting, I joined up with two old army friends, Jim Bourn and George White, for a sentimental journey. We had last been together in Italy just before we escaped, at the time of the Armistice in 1943. Two of us had escaped from the train taking us to Germany whilst it stopped in Mantua but were both recaptured. We retraced together the routes we took through the town 52 years ago. Remarkably, these were easily recognisable for little had changed apart from the bridge where I had been recaptured (Fig. 5). It was a particularly emotive experience when we visited the house high

[Photograph and caption]
Fig. 5. Standing in September 1995, by the bridge over the Largo Superiore, Mantua, where I was recaptured by a German guard 52 years earlier. In 1943, there was an ancient bridge which was later destroyed by Allied bombing and subsequently rebuilt after the war.

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up in the mountains, south of Rimini, and met the surviving daughters of the family which had befriended Jim, the only one of our group who had managed to avoid recapture by the Germans. At great personal risk to him and his family, their father, a minor landowner, had hidden Jim in his house until his farm was overrun by the advancing American forces, some 14 months later. We were interested, and I may say pleased, to find that the old Carthusian monastery, near Salerno, in which we had languished for many months from 1942 to 1943, had been splendidly restored from its semi derelict state. It is now a national monument and museum for the display of ecclesiastical art treasures from various parts of Italy. Usage which was much more to our liking than that of which we had had personal experience.

[Heading] Committees and miscellaneous responsibilities

[this paragraph on original page 453 reverts to Perry’s post war career as a bio chemist and has not been transcribed.]

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[Note: the original page numbers are not sequential with the previous pages. Pages from earlier in the book, which now detail Perry’s time in War time Italy are presented at this point]

[Previous page missing]

the invasion of Britain was beginning to look to be a very serious possibility, we decided with a few student friends who were also waiting for call-up, to contribute directly to the war effort by assisting the farmers. For the next few weeks we worked as farm labourers at the village of Blockley, in the Cotswolds. Most of our time was spent removing, by hand, wild mustard that was threatening to smother a large field of kale. When we started, the whole field was one great expanse of yellow and each weekend we would walk across the valley and look back to see how far the yellow line had receded. One by one notifications to join units arrived and by August we were all in the forces.

[Heading] War service

August to November was spent training as a field gunner at an isolated camp on the moors near Harrogate, in Yorkshire. After further training in field and anti-tank gunnery at the School of Artillery on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, I was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant, early in the summer of 1941. At that time, newly commissioned officers were given the option of choosing the war theatre to which they wished to be posted. I opted for the Middle East, unaware then that this was to be the last time during service in the forces when I was ever given any choice. As a young man seeking a little adventure, this seemed an interesting part of the world and if you had to fight a war, the desert was a sensible place to do so. It turned out to be a momentous decision and one which meant that I was in due course able to return to biochemistry.

Early one morning in July 1941, at Liverpool, I boarded the Empress of Australia, an ancient passenger vessel confiscated from the Germans after World War I, as part of the reparations and now employed as a troopship. After the first day at sea, the convoy finally assembled in the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. It was an impressive sight consisting of four large passenger liners containing troops, some twenty to twenty five cargo ships loaded with supplies and vehicles, many of which could be seen lashed to the decks. At this time, Britain was alone in the war and losing hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping per month in the North Atlantic with the German submarine campaign at its height. Twice a day we assembled on deck for lifeboat drill wearing our old-fashioned kapok lifejackets which we were told to keep close by at all times. I must confess that on these occasions I often thought of the chaos that would ensue if a torpedo was to hit our crowded troopship. It was comforting to see that we had a very strong naval escort. A screen of destroyers and cruisers surrounded the convoy with the accompanying battleship, the Repulse, ploughing through the seas at the centre. From this display, and the fact that an aircraft carrier remained with us until we reached the South Atlantic, it was apparent that the convoy was an important one. We subsequently learnt, when we had been at sea for a short time, that it contained the elements of an armoured division and reinforcements for a major offensive to be launched in Libya later in the year. After about 6 weeks, much of which was spent zig-zagging across the Atlantic to avoid the enemy submarines and was broken by stops at Freetown and Durban, we landed at Port Tewfig, Egypt.

After a brief period of training in desert navigation and warfare, I was sent forward as an officer replacement when the November offensive to relieve Tobruk started. I contracted severe dysentery and was sent back to hospital in Cairo. On recovery, I was sent forward once again to the battle areas which had moved a good deal further west. Tobruk had been relieved and Rommel had retreated to behind the salt marshes at El Agheila. By the time I reached my unit, an artillery regiment armed with 25 pounder guns, Rommel had counter-attacked earlier than expected, catching our forces off balance. My regiment was part of a small column

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acting as a rearguard covering the retreat along the coast road from Benghazi towards Derna. After several days in contact with the German forces, we were finally overrun on 2 February 1942, in the open desert south west of Derna. We were pinned down by intense machine gun, mortar and artillery fire and were unable to withdraw. I was captured trying to do what I could for one of the gunners with a shrapnel wound in his chest. At the time, I was unarmed for my revolver had been stolen from me some weeks before in Cairo. In retrospect, this was perhaps fortunate for if I had had a weapon I would have most probably used it. In that case these recollections would not have been written. A revolver is not a very effective weapon to take on heavily armed German infantry advancing in the open desert and I would have soon been silenced.

[Heading] Captivity

Two days after capture, my German captors handed me over to the Italians and I was transported in stages to a large prisoner of war (POW) camp at Tarhuna some 60 km SW of Tripoli. Subsequently, I was taken to Tripoli and loaded into the hold of an Italian cargo boat, one of three transporting Allied prisoners. On 23 March, the small convoy escorted by four destroyers of the Italian navy left for Italy. Our apprehensions about this dangerous trip across the Mediterranean were confirmed for we were shadowed by British submarines and the convoy split up. One of the cargo boats containing prisoners, including men from my battery, was torpedoed but fortunately that in which I was travelling reached Naples 3 days later with two of the four destroyers of our original escort.

Most of the time in Italy was spent at Padula, a small village in the mountains about 60 miles SE of Salerno. Here POWs were housed in an old Carthusian monastery, La Certosa di San Lorenzo, surrounded by a barbed wire fence. My constant concern as POW, both in Italy and later in Germany, was to get enough to eat. According to the Geneva Convention governing prisoners of war that was observed by combatants in the west European theatre, officer prisoners, unlike other ranks, were not allowed to work. This meant that our rations were those of the non-working civilian, a very rare species in Europe during the war years. I calculated these rations provided 1000-1100 calories per day. On such an intake I steadily lost weight and if I had had to depend solely on it for the whole three and one quarter years I spent as a prisoner, I very much doubt whether I would have survived. Fortunately, we were able to supplement these basic rations by sporadic supplies of food parcels sent from Britain and Canada and other Dominions, to Switzerland, via neutral countries and distributed by the Red Cross.

After the Allies invaded Sicily, we were moved north to a camp outside Bologna. Whilst here, the Italian armistice was announced on the evening of 8 September 1943, and we were all ready to break out and disappear into the countryside. Despite our strong protestations, the Italian camp commandant ignored the conditions of the armistice and refused to remove his guards from the camp perimeter. In the middle of the night, a few hours after the armistice announcement, a German infantry unit burst in, took over the camp and replaced the Italian guards. In the first few minutes of confusion, I and about 50 others managed to break out through a gate at the back of the camp. It was clear that the German takeover had been carefully planned in advance with the whole camp complex carefully surrounded to prevent any escape for most of us were recaptured. I was caught trying to get through the German cordon by crawling through a maize field about 400 m south of the camp. A few days later we were loaded on to cattle trucks at Modena station, bound for Germany via the Brenner Pass.

The thought of spending the rest of the war in a POW camp in Germany filled me with despair and I resolved to

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get off the train if I possibly could before we reached the Brenner. Whilst our train was stationary in a siding close to Mantua station, I managed to get out of the bolted truck by pleading with the German soldier on guard that I needed to obey a very urgent call of nature. In the crowded cattle trucks there were no toilet facilities of any kind. When his attention was momentarily distracted, I quickly sneaked away and hid in an empty passenger train until it was dark and safer to move around. During the evening, I spent some hours attempting to find my bearings in Mantua, a city with which I was totally unfamiliar. The streets were strangely deserted for, as I realized later, the Germans had imposed a curfew. After some time wandering around the streets, I came upon an Italian who was making his way to his father’s farm, north of Mantua. I joined him for I intended to travel in that direction to make my way to neutral Switzerland. This was not to be for I was recaptured by the German guard on a bridge I was attempting to cross, on the road out of the city. He allowed my companion across for he had a pass, but recognized me as the Englander his section had guarded when I was recaptured 5 days earlier, outside the camp near Bologna. By some amazing coincidence, after loading us on a train at Modena, his unit had moved 60 miles NW to Mantua to protect the lines of communication to the Brenner and he was now on guard on this particular bridge. I was quite taken aback by this turn of events and felt that fate was not on my side, but the Germans treated me very well. I was escorted to a villa in Mantua which the German unit had commandeered as their headquarters. There I was taken to [a] room where about eight German officers were sitting round a table drinking wine. Among them was the lieutenant who, after my recapture at Bologna, had driven me back to the POW compound a few days previously. He inquired how I had managed to escape again and introduced me to the other officers. I was given a seat at the table and offered wine which I gladly accepted. We discussed the war and later I was locked in the bathroom for the night. The following day, I was returned to Mantua station and, with three other recaptured British officers, sent to Germany locked in a cattle truck once again.

The prisoners rushed out of Italy after the armistice put a strain on POW accommodation in Germany. I was held in camps at Moosberg near Munich, Fort Bismark near Strasbourg, and Weinsberg near Kahlsruhe, before reaching a more permanent camp at Mahrish Trübau in the Sudeten Gau, Silesia. In May 1944, as the Russians advanced in the east, we were moved further west to Brunswick. During the journey to Brunswick, a hole was cut in the end wall of the cattle truck and with a friend I jumped off the train as it was moving through Bohemia. Once again the exhilaration of freedom was short-lived for we became separated and I was picked up by a German patrol in a region where we did not expect to find one. My companion was also recaptured soon afterwards and landed up in the Gestapo jail in Prague. As I learnt after the war, this was a very dangerous time to escape in this part of Czechoslovakia. A few weeks earlier, there had been a massive escape via a tunnel from a nearby Royal Air Force officers’ POW camp in Sagan, Silesia. Hitler was so incensed by this that he gave instructions that all escapees from this camp should be rounded up and shot. Of the 76 who escaped, 50 were shot. Fortunately I did not get caught up in this exercise.

According to the Geneva Convention, prisoners should not be punished for escaping, nevertheless I was charged with damaging the property of the Deutsches Reichbahn (Fig. 1). In due course I appeared before a military court in Hildesheim. My trial was conducted in an air-raid shelter during a heavy raid by the American airforce. As expected, I was found guilty and sentenced to one month’s solitary confinement. On return to Brunswick, we discovered that the city too had suffered a heavy raid and of more personal concern, the camp had been hit. Our camp was located close to an

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[Photograph of a document in German with caption]
Fig. 1. Copy of the form issued to me in 1944 by the German authorities indicating the offence for which, in due course, I was to be court-martialled.

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aircraft engine works on the perimeter of Brunswick airport, obviously to discourage the bombing of these sensitive targets. Nevertheless the engine factory was destroyed in the raid but about 200 bombs of assorted sizes landed in the compound. There were a number of casualties, dead and wounded, among the prisoners, but by some miracle, less than might have been expected. That day was the only occasion upon which I had been outside a POW camp, except during transportation between camps, during the whole of my stay in Germany.

My sentence was carried out in a military jail, in which I was carefully segregated from the other occupants, disaffected German soldiers. The only contact with them was when, under supervision of a guard, I was allowed a daily 30 min exercise period walking round a small courtyard. In the walls of the courtyard were cell windows, at each of which, was the face of the occupant. Despite the efforts of the guard to prevent any contact with the other prisoners, each time I passed a window a few words were exchanged. It was not the most satisfactory way to carry out a conversation but nevertheless, when the news reached the jail that the Ardennes offensive had started in the winter of 1944, the wave of despair amongst the occupants was all too obvious. For most of them, the only hope of release was an early end to the war. One of the most worrying features of this period was the constant air raids, during which I was left locked in my cell. I would lie under the bed and worry about what I should do if an incendiary bomb, which were widely scattered during the Allied raids, were to arrive in the cell. After this experience, I was quite pleased to be discharged into a normal POW compound when I had served my term. We were liberated at Brunswick on 12 April 1945, by the advancing Americans, and flown home to England a few days later.

Looking back, it is difficult to remember how one managed to endure the passage of time as a prisoner, 1165 days in my case. When books were available, one read a lot and during more settled periods many classes were organized. I gave courses in biochemistry and agricultural chemistry. As there were no suitable books, I asked in one of the infrequent postcards we were allowed to send home, if some biochemical literature could be sent to me in Padula. Channon arranged

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for me to be made a member of the Biochemical Society. As probably the only member of the society ever to be elected in a POW camp, journals were sent to me through the Red Cross. In fact, few arrived and if they did, they were in a very tattered state. I was, however, delighted to receive the Annual Review of Biochemistry for 1942, Volume 11.

Just prior to the arrival of this volume at Padula, there had been an escape and the Italians suspected that maps and money were being smuggled into the camp concealed in the hard backs of books. The books already in the camp were identified by an official stamp and it was decreed that all new books coming into the camp would have their hard backs removed. I learnt through British contacts who worked in the camp post room, that the annual review had arrived and was waiting to have its back removed. As it was the only book I possessed, I was very anxious that it should be preserved intact. I therefore arranged for it to be smuggled out of the post room and marked with the appropriate stamp, forged in the camp, so that it would pass future inspections. As time passed by, I became very attached to this volume. On the three occasions on which I escaped, it was left behind, usually in cattle trucks, but on recapture I managed subsequently to retrieve it. The most remarkable recovery was when I left it in the truck at Mantua station. Sometime later at a camp in Bavaria, I caught up with fellow prisoners who were in the truck from which I had escaped. They had held on to my few possessions, including Volume 11. The book remained in my possession for the rest of my travels (Fig. 2). I became so attached to it and its provenance that it was one of the few items that I took with me on repatriation to Britain after liberation. In some ways, it is a monument to my incompetence as an escapee. If I had escaped successfully, this volume would not have survived the war. It is now in the archives of the Biochemical Society.

[Map of Europe and caption]
Fig. 2 The wartime travel of Volume XI of the Annual Review of Biochemistry. ——, Under auspices of the International Red Cross; ____ , with Lieutenant Perry.

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