After the Italians surrendered to the Allies, Keith Sharp and his father (along with other POWs at Camp 75) were put on trucks and then trains bound for Germany. Keith and his father managed to escape from the train and, with the aid of the brave Italians they met along the way, were able to make the treacherous, dangerous crossing of the Alps to freedom in Switzerland.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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CAMP 75 BOLOGNA 8th September 1943
The eighth of September started as an ordinary day in the life of the 3000 odd POW’s in the above camp, we all knew that the news was good with alleged rumours of Allied landings all over the Italian coastline, but little did we realise that what we had so long awaited was about to eventuate – the Italians were about to sign the Armistice with the Allies shortly – we believed we would be able to return to our own countries.
Throughout the day we continued with our usual routine which had become dreadfully monotonous with months of weary repetition, when suddenly as we were finishing off the day’s work one of our number rushed in with the news – “Italy has capitulated”. Imagine the faces of those present? It couldn’t be true – just another buzz – which were plentiful. But we soon had the news verified. In no time we were discussing home and began packing our meagre belongings. In co-operation with the Italian camp commander, our officers took over our camp, but the Italians maintained guard. No one was allowed to leave camp and the Italian commander assured us that we would be protected until we were taken over by our troops. We had our doubts about this arrangement for we knew of the presence of German troops in the district and couldn’t see them retiring from Italy and leaving us behind, especially as 45% of the camp consisted of officers. Emergency arrangements were therefore made and all the wire at the rear of the camp was cut and a signal agreed upon for a mass escape if it became necessary. Dad and I didn’t feel real happy about the set-up and tried to get away but were ordered by the C.O. (British) to remain in camp. The Italians again assured us that there were no Germans in the area and promised to protect us fully if any did show up. We all turned in fully clothed and with a small pack of emergency rations near us and attempted to get some sleep. At about 5 in the morning the alarm sounded and we were told that the Germans had taken over the main gate; this started a general stampede for the rear of the camp and the cut wire. Here we were met with a burst of machine gun fire and a few grenades and although a few of us got out, most of us were herded back into the barbed wire enclosure. Only one chap was killed in the panic which was rather amazing.
We were packed in the barbed wire enclosure pretty tightly and surrounded by machine gun detachments of a pretty trigger-happy bunch of Jerries. I personally felt that we were in for a mass murder and from the remarks of the others they were of the same opinion; however nothing happened of that nature and after the Germans had sorted out the wounded and found a few chaps that had hidden in drains and in the ceilings etc. we were returned to our huts and told to behave ourselves.
Unfortunately for the Italians that had promised to “protect” us they also became POW’s. We still had control of a Red Cross store and it had a good supply of food in it, so we carried on more or less normally under the new management.
On the morning of the 11th we received orders to prepare to move and rumour had it that we were going to the Kiwi camp at Modena, about 20 miles away; we were told that the Jerries were going to make a line at Bologna and that we were just being moved back a little (actually it was over a year later before the Allies arrived at Bologna). My Father and I intended to stick together as far as possible with the idea of getting away at the first possibility, and with this object in view I obtained the Brigadier’s permission to go as an officer. We split up all the Red Cross stores and destroyed all surplus food and clothing.
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Various officers and men hid in ceilings and drains and all types of impossible places, but knowing the German versatility with grenades when looking for strays we decided against this – actually we found out later that very few got away in this manner. We left for Bologna in motor trucks and were packed in like sardines and as we had a canvas cover over us to keep us out of view, things were very oppressive and one chap passed out in our truck. When we arrived at Modena we went immediately to the railway station and our worst fears were realised – we were off to Germany. After being herded into cattle trucks by a trigger-happy bunch of young Nazi’s, we had a guard put over us and remained in the siding for the night. There were about 30 to a cattle truck and only some of us could lie down to sleep and as everybody was fed up and miserable about the morrow, it was a most uncomfortable night and little rest was had. The train had about 950 officers and 250 O’R’s, and after every third cattle truck there was a flat platform manned with machine guns; on top of this there was one or two soldiers to each truck in a box affair at the end.
We pulled out of Modena at about twelve the next day and headed North. Our truck had a few generations of cattle manure coating the floor and on lifting this we discovered that the wooden planks were fairly rotten in a couple of places. Somebody produced a short iron bar from somewhere and a party went to work to raise a plank or two. The train stopped frequently and often the Germans had a look in and so we had to be wary. The Italians proved very friendly at a couple of these stops; men managed to get out. A couple of instances stand out. At one place a guard walked past an open door whilst we were being allowed to have some fresh air; he had a red flag in his hand, common to all railway guards. One of our fellows just grabbed the flag and walked down the line out of sight. The other chap saw some Italians unloading some cases of apples from a goods train pulled up next to us at one of the stops we had; he just joined the party and unloaded apples instead of going to Germany. We met both these chaps later in Switzerland.
It took until dark to prize the plank out of our truck and we then had an aperture large enough for one to get through. An officer crawled through under the truck and undid the sliding doors. Unfortunately the train then stopped and the Germans had an inspection but didn’t look inside our truck, although they made the remark “the fools inside don’t realise the door is unlocked”. They locked it again on us, we proceeded, and the door opener had to do his job again. With the door open and no interruption from our confident guards, we drew lots to jump. Dad and I were ninth on the list. There was quite a bit of discord between those willing to get away and those not. Eventually while proceeding slowly up a hill, Dad and I jumped after dropping a pack of food. This was about four o’clock in the morning and we were in the vicinity of La Viss, just outside of Trento. This proved to be a lucky area for us as the Germans had shot up the Trento Division and quite a lot of civilians in the area and the Italians were definitely pro-Allied at least temporarily.
We met up with Lt. Hubble and Lt. Douty and one O’R’and we decided to head for the mountains which we could see not far off. However after crossing a few fields we came across a river where Hubble and Douty left us and headed for a bridge whilst first light was coming. Dad and I decided to hide in a corn field and so get the lie of the land.
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Later in the morning we noticed three men and a boy creeping along the river bank and were surprised to see that two of them were British officers and had also escaped from the train. The other two(?) were Italians and proved very valuable, especially the boy who risked his life to assist us. The Italian that Dad had learnt in the camp was very handy as he was the only one that could speak to the Italians and from them we learned that the area was swarming with Germans especially the river area, and the bridge was well-guarded; lucky for us that we hadn’t attempted to cross it. Owing to the risk of discovery we decided to hide until dusk when the Italians promised to come back and help us -with or without Germans we didn’t know. The two British officers wouldn’t wait and left us to cross the river and a little later we presumed that they were seen and probably caught for there was quite a disturbance about half a mile from where we were hiding.
The two Italians returned at dusk and told us the Germans had just visited their farm house after food supplies. However they had salvaged enough to be able to bring us some which we quickly devoured; they also brought with them a pair of boots, for we had to destroy a pair of ours to get some money we had hidden between the soles. The lad then escorted us over the bridge and through the village. I wasn’t too happy about this for both Dad and I were in battle dress and we walked right past a body of Germans outside their billets – one chap was busy cleaning his tommy gun – I had an itchy feeling in the back until we rounded the next corner. All went well until we arrived at a steep pass which went straight up the mountain. Here the lad left us and told us to go ahead and he would meet us at the top in the morning with food and probably clothes and instructions on where to go and whom to contact. He was able to travel on the mountain railway which was heavily guarded.
We proceeded up the rugged path in the dark and in the valley of the Brenner Pass below we could see the lights of the German convoys streaming South. We kept going ahead slowly and feeling our way as best we could when suddenly behind us we heard somebody hurrying up the path. We had been told that this path was never used and so we immediately thought the worst but were very surprised when a chap in battle dress appeared out of the gloom – British soldiers on the loose seemed to be getting a common occurrence. This fellow was very run down and appeared very shaken and slightly hysterical. He said we were going in the wrong direction, which we also had a similar feeling about, and that we should go down to the bottom and start up again. However we were too far up and too tired and decided to keep on going up. The fellow cleared out and left us soon after and we didn’t see him again. Here a remarkable thing happened when you consider the circumstances for as we wended our way up; we heard the bushes rustle just in front of us; we stopped and listened and the murmuring of voices we could hear sounded very English, so we called and got a very Australian reply for the rustle in the bushes proved to be Bob Dorman, Lt. McDonald and a Canadian pilot who had been in the next truck to us and had escaped 20 miles further down the line. They listened to our story about the Italian kid who was helping Dad and I; as they had no fixed plan they decided to join us. We decided that Dad and I would go ahead and make the contact, and Mac and Bob would join us later, so Dad and I went on and left the others.
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We were now very high up in the mountains and it was getting freezing cold and we could hardly keep going from lack of sleep. We lay down beneath the bushes and tried to rest but it had started to drizzle and if we stopped we started to get cramp and what with the cold, the cramps, the nervous excitement and hunger, we had just about had it.
At first light we picked out a landmark that the Italian lad had mentioned and right on time he contacted us and gave us directions and instructions of possible contacts. I managed to get hold of an old Italian suit and so discard the battle dress; however I must have been quite a sight for the trousers would only reach half way down my shins. We said goodbye to the boy and the five of us headed for Andola. We decided to string out so that if we ran into trouble the others would be able to get away. After about an hour we tried to have a sleep in the morning sun but we just couldn’t settle down and rest, so we pushed on to Andola. Dad and I arrived at this village and met some very decent people who fed us all and gave us further directions and contacts. They also wanted us to stay and join the Resistance but it didn’t appeal to us at that stage. The people at Andola told us to follow the mountain tracks that were marked in red paint (the rocks lining the paths had a splash of red paint on them every few hundred yards and were used by alpinists and were paths that would lead to a definite destination and not just wild tracks). We were told that there was an alpine hut up in the Alps at Malga Spora where we could get food and water and rest. It was fairly late when we started up the mountain and the path proved very narrow and treacherous. At about 11.30 we had to stop as we were absolutely exhausted and could not carry on. We arranged to sleep in shifts and a fire was lit so that we could keep warm and we had no cover except the things we wore which were somewhat the worse for wear. After a short sleep we made an early move at first light next morning (15th September) and after about an hour arrived at a deserted hut; about 3/4 mile further on we came upon Malga Spora which much to our disgust was also deserted so we missed out on the food and water just when it would have done us the most good. We pushed on after a short spell and found a mountain stream a little further on (we carried water all through the trip, but never completely ran out of it owing to the abundance of mountain streams but we found if we drank too much it made you sick in the stomach and giddy). The trail ahead proved very difficult and slippery and was also very narrow with a sheer drop on one side; it continued like this for about an hour and a half until we crossed the summit. There we had another setback for in front of us was a series of even higher peaks that had to be crossed. We pushed slowly ahead right on the top of the world (10,000 feet according to map) and the going was pretty rough; we had a short rest but had to push on as everybody was falling asleep in the light air. At about two in the afternoon we began to descend; we came to a burnt out barracks and also three separate tracks without a sign of our now famous “red paint sign”. After some argument we decided to keep straight ahead but we were getting worried as it was getting late and none of us were in any condition to spend another night in the Alps. At about five in the afternoon the path improved and descended much steeper and shortly we saw a house in the distance which we headed for. Dad and I went ahead to contact whoever might be there and as we rounded a turn in the track we came upon a small settlement – the Reffuge Tuckett – an abandoned alpine lodge – we also came face to face with a glacier which was the first I have ever seen. We waited for the others to catch up with us as according to the prior Italian instructions we must be on the wrong track; however we decided to go straight on down; just then we were hailed by three people further up the mountain and we got a bit of a start as we didn’t expect anybody to appear from the rear, but we received more than a start when the three turned out to be
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Lt. Sandy Mair, Lt. Bob Jones and Lt. Eggleston – 3 Australian officers we had last seen on the train. They had been put on our trail by the Italian that had helped us the day before. We all went down the mountain with Dad and myself in the lead. Just on dusk we arrived at a house on the mountainside and found a woman who was alone. She received a bad fright at the sight of the two of us but we explained that we were British POW’s and asked her for assistance. She asked us to wait until her husband returned and she was sure he would help us. We called the others down and when the husband arrived he offered us accommodation but no food as the Germans had commandeered the lot (These people were in a very bad way for food, it was just the start of winter and it is customary to have the store room full at this time of the year, to carry them over the winter months; they had two children to feed and expressed the hope that the Allies would arrive quickly). The Italians had some oiled potatoes to eat for supper and we had some biscuits we carried. The husband and wife were drinking hot water as that was all they had but we managed to rake together enough tea leaves to provide everybody a cup of tea, the first the Italian couple had had for years. After the meal the husband went out to see if he could arrange for a guide to help us on our way in the morning. There are always mountain guides available in these areas to cater for the alpine climbers who climb these crags for a hobby (in peacetime). No guides were free to help us however as the Germans had thought of the aid they could give, and they had been visited by the Germans and warned off. We discovered from our host and a map he gave us that we had taken the wrong path earlier and we should have come down in the valley preceding the one we were now in. We also learned however that that valley was heavily covered by Germans and Fascists, so our mistake was lucky.
16th September. Our host guided us down on our way early in the morning and left us at the foot of the range and told us the direction to take. We had to beg for food at two or three places and run the risk of being recaptured. One of these people was an ex-American immigrant who gave us an excellent lunch and told us we were to contact another ex-Yank. We lost Sandy Mair, Bob Jones, and Lt. Eggleston during the afternoon but kept on going. At dusk we arrived at the other Iti-Yank who proved to be quite a character. He claimed to be an ex-bootlegger and looked the part. He fed us and gave us a bed each and wanted us to stay with him in the mountains until the war was ended. This we declined however.
17th September. A guide got us out of bed at 3 in the morning and we proceeded up the valley arriving at the foot of another mountain at about 6.30 when the guide left us. Here we ran into some locals who on seeing us burst into tears for no apparent reason; they then dug up some potatoes from a field and gave them to us. Sandy Mair, Jones and Eggleston also caught up with us again after being guided by those we had passed. We proceeded in our usual manner except Dad and I brought up in the rear as Dad wasn’t feeling the best. This next part of the trip proved to be the worst of the journey; it was terribly steep and dangerous and we proceeded at a few yards at a time. At this rate we arrived at Madrona (a peak), at about noon thinking the worst was over. After a cup of tea which an old woman gave us – she was employed carrying barbed wire on her back down the mountainside in 100 lb packs, a load that we couldn’t even lift – we kept on going with the conditions becoming even worse. We had great difficulty in breathing and suffered from mountain sickness and were generally pretty done in. Dad and I were the last to reach the top and found ourselves in the middle of a glacier; this was a bit of a shock as we didn’t know which way to turn but luck was still with us and we saw in the distance a man who appeared to be digging in the middle of this
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glacier. Lt. Eggleston also had had previous experience with glaciers pre-war. We made our wav slowly towards this character on the glacier and this ice was very slippery and treacherous and we skidded and slid all over the place. When we arrived at the spot the man was working on, we found that he was digging up old shell cases from World War I and taking the driving band off them for salvage for the war effort, but not for the Allies – we were on an old Austrian-Italian battlefield. The Italian agreed to help us over the glacier and we went ahead in some places on hands and knees. The next turn for we had no means of rescueing seemed to take ages as we skirted a few crevices and one slip really meant death for we had no means of rescue; one or two had close shaves, but luckily we all made it. I said every prayer I knew in that crossing about fifty times over. It was all downhill now and still very dangerous although we were again on solid earth for the track was steep and narrow and we were all very tired. However providence was with us again for we met another Italian who took us down and directed us to a house for the night. There were German patrols about and we had to go warily. A lad took us to a shed where we slept in the hay.
18th September. At daybreak we skirted Ponte di Legno – an operational centre for German patrols- by making our way through thickly wooded and rough mountain country. We arrived at a first class road on the other side of the previous named town and owing to our condition and experiences of the previous day and general weariness we decided to travel by road for the first time since I escaped. We broke up into groups as was the custom and Dad and I dropped behind. The road became very steep and it started to rain. We met three English officers who had also been on our train on this road and began to marvel at the smallness of this world for this was the fourth time we had met escaped POW and the Italians had told us we were the only ones in the district. The others all went ahead and Dad and I reached the summit about six hours later. It was now pouring with rain and as there was absolutely no shelter here we continued on our way down the road. Later in the afternoon Dad and I came across a very respectable looking building named the “Bruno Mussolini Refuge for Alpinists” and as we now considered ourselves fair alpinists we decided to use it. After breaking in, it proved to be a very nice place, clubroom and kitchen downstairs -cupboards were bare- and bedrooms upstairs. My father had a rest while I kept a lookout for any unwelcome guests. We continued on our way much refreshed but still in the rain and arrived at St Caterina at dusk. We could tell by the scared appearance of the villagers that the others were close handy and a lad guided us to the Inn. The owner was an Alpini Major and was very frightened as he had just received a notice from the Germans telling him and Italians in general that amongst other things they would be shot for harbouring escaped POW’s. However after a meal and then we would have to go. After the meal however, we were finally allowed to sleep until 3 o’clock in the morning.
We continued on our way in the moonlight and headed towards Bormio which we had been told was a German H.Q as the town was on the main road between Geramo and the Brenner Pass, so we would have to get around it in the half light if possible and as this town was on the fork of two rivers we would have to be careful in choosing the track to enable to cross the river. My Father and I went off on our own as the group could not agree on the direction to travel. We passed the main road and railway line and then over the bridge towards the valley. We ran into a church congregation at this point as it was Sunday morning, so we took a side track into the hills and so continued on our way from a height but with the main road in view. At about 8 o’clock we saw the others below on the road and so we knew that all had
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passed Boramio safely. We continued on this track all the morning and as we knew we were approaching the frontier we looked around for a likely character to try and help us. We came across a chap who told us he would guide us to the Swiss border for Five Pound Egyptian which we gave him. He told us that his business was smuggling articles across the border and certainly looked a real cut-throat. He led us to within five miles of the frontier and then disappeared after giving us instructions in how to cross. At three in the afternoon we came in sight of a small brick building and saw flags flying from the top and as our guide had warned that there was a frontier post on the border, we decided to hide in the rocks until after dark. At about five o’clock we could hear movement in the rocks near us and so we decided to skirt the building and try and cross into Switzerland. We wended our way through various gullies when suddenly two soldiers jumped up in front of us and covered us with rifles. They were in greenish-grey uniforms and a scuttlebox type of steel helmet which we mistook in the dusk for German. They were Swiss however, and told us they had been watching us all afternoon. After producing our paybook and proving we were British soldiers they escorted us to their guard post and safety.
The distance we travelled was about 120 kilometres as the crow flies over the Dolomite mountains and it took us seven days. My Father and I crossed at Bernina Pass but the others of our party crossed further up the valley the following day. Lt. Hubble and Lt. Douty, the two officers we saw on our first day out of the train, finished on one of the glaciers so we have been told. We could never have made good our escape without the Italian people with whom we came into contact who did their best to help at every opportunity with guides etc and who fed us from their meagre supplies while they themselves went hungry with the certainty of death from the Germans if they were discovered aiding us.
Switzerland Sept 1943