Two accounts of South African servicemen, Ben Ellis and Geoff (Chick) Sole, who escaped after the Armistice and reached Allied lines near the Sangro river on 11 November.
The accounts of their journey (with Jack Smith, also from South Africa) from a work camp, Camp 120 at Saonara, is notable for the enormous number of Italians who helped them despite their own poverty, the nail-biting tension as they got closer to the lines and the fact that the same story is told from two different individual perspectives.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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ESCAPE TO FREEDOM: ITALY 1943
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[Postcard from Benghazi, N. Africa, July 1942, written to Mr and Mrs HC Sole]
[Postcard text] My dear Mom & Dad, I am alright. I am a prisoner of the Italians and I am being treated well. Shortly I shall be transferred to a prisoner’s camp and I will let you know my new address. Only then will I be able to receive letters from you and to reply.
With love Geoff
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[Map of escape route from south of Padova (left camp 10th September 1943) south; Reached Allies 11th November 1943]
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EXTRACTS FROM THE DIARY OF BEN ELLIS
EXTRACTS FROM THE DIARY OF BEN ELLIS, JOHANNESBURG WHO, TOGETHER WITH JACK SMITH, PORT ELIZABETH, AND CHICK SOLE, GRAHAMSTOWN, ESCAPED FROM A POW CAMP IN NORTHERN ITALY, 8TH SEPTEMBER, 1943, AND SUCCEEDED IN REACHING ALLIED LINES, 11TH NOVEMBER, 1943
GEOFF’S ACCOUNT OF ESCAPE FROM CAMP 120, ITALY.
(As written to Don [Sole, brother of Geoff], February-March 1944)
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[Photograph of man on motorbike (?Geoff Sole) with caption] Western Desert 1942
ESCAPE TO FREEDOM: ITALY 1943.
EXTRACTS FROM THE DIARY OF BEN ELLIS, JOHANNESBURG, WHO TOGETHER WITH JACK SMITH, PORT ELIZABETH, AND CHICK [GEOFF] SOLE, GRAHAMSTOWN, ESCAPED FROM A POW CAMP IN NORTHERN ITALY, 8TH SEPTEMBER 1943 AND SUCCEEDED IN REACHING ALLIED LINES 11TH NOVEMBER, 1943. ALSO GEOFF’S (CHICK)’S ACCOUNT OF ESCAPE FROM CAMP 120 ITALY.
[Photograph of 4 servicemen: with caption] Jimmy, Sonny, Chick, Jack
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On June 20th, 1942, the garrison of Tobruk, isolated from the rest of the gallant Eighth Army, surrendered to the Axis Forces. South Africa lost 10,000 fighting men, many of whom were taken prisoner and sent over to Italy.
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[Photograph (of Geoff Sole?) with caption]: Laterina Camp 80
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[Photograph with caption]: Camp orchestra
[Photograph of several servicemen with caption]: Saonara camp 120
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At 7.30 am on the 20th February, 1943, we bid farewell to Laterina, that hell hole of misery, bitterness, hunger and wretched conditions for our new quarters – a working camp in North Italy. Our party consisted of 120 South Africans, thin, under-nourished, and many like myself covered in boils and ‘desert’ sores, but in high spirits at the prospect of getting away from this pest hole, where over 3,000 men were penned into an area 250 yards by 175 yards. I never thought I would survive the four mile trek to the station as the exertion burst the boils on my leg and I was in agony: however after what seemed like an interminable period, the luxury of a third class compartment awaited me. I say luxury as we had expected the usual cattle truck. On the way most of the men showed their elation by ‘bashing’ their parcels which had been issued to us on leaving the camp to tide us over until our next issue. To ‘bash’ a parcel is no small feat as it involves eating the whole of a 7 and a half pound Red Cross parcel at one sitting. Meanwhile Bob and I spent much time joking about the luxuries we expected to find in our new camp, such as bungalows, electric light, sheets etc.
Late the same afternoon we arrived at our destination – a little village called Saonara, situated about four miles south of Padua, which is itself 25 miles due west of Venice. No marching this end as trucks awaited us at Padua to transport us to Saonara, and sure enough when we arrived we found our quarters were in a large brick barn with electric light and sheets on our bunks. I don’t think the boys could believe their eyes at first, but it was not long before we were congratulating ourselves on our good fortune. We had no sooner settled down when we were called to stodge, which consisted of a huge basin of macaroni soup, three times the size of the Laterina ration, two loaves of bread and a piece of cheese. It certainly looked as if we had landed right in clover.
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The estate we were to work on was owned by the Fratelli Sgaravatti who were the biggest nursery owners in Italy. On our arrival we were met by Luigi Sgaravatti or “Blinky” to us on account of his habit of rapidly blinking his eyes. He, it appears, was in charge of the labour side of the organisation, and thus we were to see a lot more of him than the others. Under him were about half a dozen foremen who remained with the different gangs and supervised the work. These people started off by trying to drive us to do the work, but as that did not answer, they next tried bullying us, but as that but the boys soon revolted and refused to work. Next we were offered bribes of extra food and finally old “Blinky” took the beseeching us. I think when we eventually made our get away, the old boy was only too pleased to see the last of us as we must have been a liability, what with the sabotage and the small amount of work we did. Meanwhile the boys were getting extremely fit with all the outdoor work and extra food, and when the summer came, we worked in only our shorts and boots, so we all looked very brown and healthy.
We had various sources for getting the news, the best of which was the doctor. He was a civilian doctor who visited us every day. Short, dark and dapper, he was our friend and always supported us against Blinky. He had two fine small sons who were thoroughly spoiled by the boys whenever they accompanied him on his visits. I shall never forget the expression on their faces when they received their first gift of chocolate – incredulous hardly expresses it. After that I expect the doctor had quite a job to keep them away. In passing I might mention that the sick returns were never less than 25% of our strength and when the work was heavy as much as 50%. The Iti could never understand the soldier’s finesse at swinging the lead. I don’t think they ever saw through it even towards the end when the work was very slack and the sick returns dropped considerably. The doctor took a fancy to a couple of the lads and always gave them the BBC news. Somehow the
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military authorities learnt that the doctor was giving us the news so it was ordered that the sergeant or corporal should accompany him on his rounds. However we generally managed to draw them away on some pretext or other while someone quickly “tapped” the doc.
Another good source of news was Toni, one of our foremen. He was a funny little chap with a terrible squint but was very friendly and sympathetic to Alby and me. If he caught us resting under the trees as he was always doing, he would just smile and plead with us to get back on the job. Our method of approach re news was always the same. We would ask innumerable questions about Italy and stress how beautiful it was. Italians love their country and think it is God’s own, and one is a friend if one tells them how beautiful it is – Bella Italia. Once we had old Toni worked up and his sympathies aroused, we would ask him where the British were. His eyes would go more squinty as he looked round to see if any of the guards were watching, and then whisper whatever news he had. Quite often we were able to get the newspaper off him, and on arrival in camp would all collect round the camp linguist and get the Italian version, to which we added a few score miles advance. Toni was a good scout and the most placid Italian I ever met. They are a most excitable race and fly into tantrums at the slightest provocation. One of our foremen, Vittorio, would throw his hat down and jump on it, screaming at us if we disobeyed his instructions, whereas Toni would most patiently show us how it should be done while we sat back and watched him do most of the job for us. The only time he got worried would be when Blinky came around on his inspection and then we would make a pretence of working so as not to let Toni down. I think Toni used to smell Blinky, as he always gave us the tip a few minutes before the boss came jogging along in his buggy. Needless to say Blinky thought Toni the best foreman as he always
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found us working with him.
Came the great day. During supper soccer match we noticed much excitement among the guards. After the match, sent inside while sergeant spoke to the committee – wild speculations as we knew Italy had been invaded. Boy, our corporal, got us together, told to behave like gentlemen – been told by sergeant who had heard it over the radio – ARMISTICE. We were warned many dark days ahead. Excitement intense – much shaking of hands. All this unofficial as the sergeant had not received any order so could give us no more news. Boys started singing and dancing in yard, guards fraternised with us minus their rifles. Nearby civilians came to fence to shake hands. Had tot of real cognac from one civvy. Singing continued in the mess. Guards came in and jumped on tables with shirts stuffed full with grapes stolen from old Sgaravatti’s vineyards. One of the guards who was a singer gave us some Italian opera. Guards more excited than we were. Talked until 3 am. Kept asking “Is it true – Are we really free?” Jack asked me to pinch him to make sure he wasn’t dreaming – from the yell he let out he was very much awake. Went to bed but could not sleep as the worry as to what Jerry was doing kept me awake. Couldn’t help thinking we would never be released as we were too far north above the River Po, which we had been told was being fortified by Jerry. Wished I could have been at home to see the joy and excitement. Thought lots of you.
Day of expectation and speculation. No news of terms of Armistice or what was to happen to POWs. All kids who came to the camp went away with more food than they could carry. In the afternoon most of the lads went into Saonara village – people very friendly and hospitable. Gallons of wine flowed. I did not go far as I had a nasty feeling we would have to leave in a hurry. Boy had a long talk with the sergeant who assured
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him he would never allow the Germans to take us over. First class man this sergeant – one of us in his principles and ideals. Had our interest at heart, ignored a lot of red tape from GHQ such as piercing all tins in Red Cross parcels. Strict but scrupulously fair. Thanks to him we always had a football and he even achieved the impossible and raised a rugby ball for us. On one occasion defied orders and allowed us to play on a meadow in the grounds of a local countess who had very kindly made the offer.
In the evening accompanied Boy, Alby and the sergeant to nearby house to listen in to BBC news but no luck – could glean no news or instructions for POWs. Went to bed dead beat and keyed up with excitement.
What a day! The commencement of our flight. We are fugitives from now on. Boy, our corporal, asked us not to leave the camp, as should news come through that we had to move, it would be impossible to warn everyone if the boys were out. I don’t think they need have worried as the bungalow was dead owing to the number of thick heads. About midday the sergeant came in with a large map and showed us the main German dispositions and informed us that Jerry had no intention of getting out of Italy as everyone hoped. Ten minutes later the game was on and we were on the run. News came through that Jerry had taken over Padua and was making for our camp. Wild scramble – much valuable stuff left. Intention for all of us to get away from camp and congregate about two miles away. Guards panicked and directed the lads in all directions. Met up with Chick in the fields, collected ten others and while debating which way to go, Jack joined us. Decided to make for Venice. Set off across fields – fortunately I had a compass. Italians very excited and jittery and told us many conflicting stories. Mistaken for Germans. Told Jerry only six miles away. Got nasty scare as we felt the whole German army was hunting us. The kids nearly drove us crazy as they would attach themselves to us and we could not shake them off. We looked like a travelling
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[Photograph with text]: Maria Pia Ivanchich
[Photograph with text]: Venice 1977
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circus come to town. A young Iti soldier offered to guide us for which we were very thankful. Extremely hot and fast walk of fifteen miles, through a couple of villages where people poured out to stare at us as we were in battle dress. Arrived at Alova in the Venetian Estuary. Befriended by two Ities who had boats and said they would row us to Venice as they understood our Navy was there. Felt much safer in the boat. On the way down the canal accosted by man on bank who told us of an American woman living on an island nearby. Decided to go there and get the latest grif. Lo and behold two lovely things in slacks greeted us – grand to speak to someone in our own language. Could give us no news but advised us to stay until the landlord arrived in the morning and he could give us some advice. Took us upstairs and gave us some Vermouth. Hunting lodge surrounded by water – could only be reached by boat so we felt quite safe. Started making ourselves at home when more of the boys arrived having been directed by the same people as directed us. Position became impossible as sixty to eighty men congregated there. However night set in and most of the boys decided to be off in the morning – some back to Saonara and the rest to the mainland. No food in the lodge but fortunately most of the lads had brought food from their parcels so we were able to prepare something for supper which the girls shared with us. Maria was Italian, blond and very slight with a Russian surname “lvanchich”. Emily was born in California. Her father Italian, mother American. Came to Italy with her people – refused to turn Fascist – was interned for a year – had very rough time but as game as anything. Slept in a boat in the boathouse – very comfy. Discuss plans with Jack and Chick. I’m all for heading South but we decide to stay here for a few days to see how the land lies.
More of the boys arrive – food position bad – too many to feed from the little we brought with us. Make plans
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and decide that after we have seen landlord will borrow civvies, bikes and collect some more parcels from camp. Landlord arrives – is very jittery. Jew, anti Fascist and afraid Jerries will be after him. Very rich playboy – has numerous lodges and palace in Venice. Travelled South Africa. Very keen motor racer – had met Seagrave. Not very helpful though he offered to get us transported to Chioggia, a nearby port, but boatmen afraid and refused. A lot of the lads leave, some for Venice, some for Saonara. Hear now that Jerry has taken over the area and is moving into Venice and Chioggia, patrolling all main roads in armoured cars and shooting up all resistance. Sent one of the lads who has civvies to collect some parcels from the storeroom. Bombing and machine gunning over Venice – large ship set on fire. Later learned that it was one of Italy’s largest which was caught by the Jerries as it was trying to get away. Set on fire by the Italians. Lay very low and quiet as planes were flying over us and Landlord very jittery. Would rush out with glasses every time he heard a plane even if it were miles away. He entertained us in the evenings – a scream, but dead scared of Germans and kept asking “When are the Americans coming?” One of the lads assured him it would only be a week so he was christened “Piccolo Settimana” (little week). Late that night Prinsloo arrived back with five parcels, said only 100 parcels left out of 300, so it looks as though the civilians in Saonara did some good looting. Had good night but most anxious to get cracking as everybody much too excitable and scared around here. Starting to make me jittery.
Planes over again – Chiaggia bombed. Families evacuating and coming into this area. All very afraid and will not remain calm. More groups of lads on their bicycles (Jerry well in command of this area) most of them making for Saonara where families are housing them and giving them clothes. Chick and I get some civvies and borrow bikes and make for camp for food. Remarkable how easily the Ities recognise us even though we try to behave as much like them as possible even imitating the
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way they ride – heels on pedals and feet splayed out. However arrived but found camp ransacked and everything taken. Some people must have had a good haul as the boys left a lot of clothing behind. Got a sackful of spuds and bread and a few items from parcels. On the way home came an awful cropper. My coat which I had taken off and placed over the handlebars caught in the spokes and I went clean over the top. What a battle to get back – head wind and a very clumsy sack interfering with the balance.
According to reports over the wireless we are to lie low and we will soon be released. Most awkward position as the landlord and American girls are both known by the Fascists, who they are afraid will report them to the Germans. No definite news. How I wish I could listen in to the BBC. (Aldo been out shooting – small bag. Had a swim in our birthday suits).
Crowd here diminished to thirteen. More may go but Jack, Chick and I are hanging on for a while. Arrangements made to have parcels transported here have fallen through as Ities are scared. Report that a Jerry armoured car came into Saonara and asked for prisoners, so they know we are on the loose. Mussolini has escaped from prison – fear of Fascist uprising in northern Italy. Aldo scared out of his wits. He fears Fascists as much as Germans. Many German planes about. Motor boat escaping from Chioggia with load of prisoners machine gunned and sunk. Jerries seen on roads nearby. Some of our lads may have been on boat. Spent afternoon with two Iti fishermen trying to net fish. No luck. On the way back Emily accompanied us in the boat. Sang together. Wonderful full moon. In the evening sat outside with Aldo and the girls and joked. How we welcomed the dark – another day passed and felt quite safe. Had duck a la Italian for dinner. News that Greece and Yugoslavia are in state of revolt. No definite news but British do not seem to be moving as fast as we had hoped. No news whatsoever with regard to POWs.
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Very worrying day. All hunting rifles ordered to be handed in. Aldo goes off to nearby town to hand his in. Reported to Commandant that he was looking after some POWs and wanted instructions. Thanked for doing so and we are told to lie low, but fear Fascist uprising and these Ities turning and reporting us. Aldo recommends we move to another empty house of his on the mainland near Alova, lie very low and not show ourselves as everybody in the district knows we are in his island home. Germans taken over all banks and are in Venice. We had hopes of seeing Venice before making off but no hopes now. Alpine troops have blown up the Brenner Pass and bridges so Jerry is forced to stay in Italy. I am very keen to get South -this hanging around and indecision is telling on me. Would far rather be doing something to regain my freedom. Seem to spend the whole day discussing plans and debating the news. (Given some duck by Aldo. When plucked the flesh was quite green – so decomposed. Even our hungry stomachs couldn’t stand that so we burnt them).
Feeling strain of dodging Jerry. Chick and Luigi, an ex Carabinieri who has befriended us, go off to a nearby village to arrange about civvies and listen to the news. We lay low with shutters closed to make the place look deserted. Fighting at Salerno – Naples in our hands. Germans fighting hard and have no intention of getting out. Chick learned that some of the Carabinieri were under German command but fortunately were wearing white armbands to distinguish them. More difficult hourly. Everybody advises us to lie low and not to attempt crossing the Po which they say will be very difficult and dangerous. Later in the afternoon Chick and I went off to village to collect civvies. I got a real workman’s outfit – brown trousers patched all over. Two of the lads go off to collect some parcels for the thirteen of us. Food very low. Come back with good haul. Aldo very worried about us staying in area – afraid of raid by
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Fascists so feel we will be off very soon. Boys debating about dispersing, finding a friendly family and working for them. Emily gone to Venice – expect some news tomorrow.
Very quiet day – lay low. Les and Ken came to see us. Had found a good family and were working – seemed quite happy and felt safer than when here. Emily back from Venice – came to see us. Jerries there in small numbers, removing all valuables and generally making their presence felt but being completely ignored by Ities. Only a handful have the place fully under control. Some of the boys went back to island home with Emily, spent a pleasant evening and had a good meal. Entertained by Aldo with accounts of his travels. I went to sleep hoping to dream of home.
Well we are on our way at last and I feel much happier doing something – at least I feel I am making an effort to get free instead of just waiting hoping for something to happen. Nerve racking and demoralising hanging about hiding. Promising morning until Jack went into village to get drinking water. On return he met Aldo and brought back disturbing news that Jerries had issued orders that all prisoners were to report to authorities. This news, although upsetting decided Chick and Jack it was impossible to stay here any longer. Decided to go and test the families round about with regard to living with them and working. If unsuccessful then to make for the Po. Emily and Maria arrived. Cooked us a grand farewell dish and Aldo gave us 100 lira to see us on our way. Very sorry to say goodbye as they had been so good to us. Wonder how Cecil Turner is getting on as his plan was to find a nice bush and go to sleep under it until our boys arrived. No families keen. Arrived at one home making wine so invited us to have some. Had one glass and then saw how they were making it. Grapes thrown into a trough and the men were stamping on them. Not matured and very sour. Husks hard but people very friendly and young men bragging how they had
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downed tools and run when Jerry came on the scene. All very happy to be home and determined not to do a thing to assist the Germans. Informed of a large landowner living nearby who might help us – very good to us but afraid to have us living with him. Slept in loft and had bread and meat for supper. (Ernie met a young Iti pilot who had escaped from Naples, who told us it was impossible to cross the Po as Jerry has control points all along it. Again advised to stay in this area). Slept on dried out lucerne – very prickly but soft and warm.
In morning made some tea and just hung around very undecided. Carpo arrived about one – very jittery – said he had been reported to Germans. On our bicycles – prospect of staying in area looked gloomy so made up our minds to get south of Po and make for our advancing troops. First obstacle main road on bank of canal. Found boat about a mile down. Jerry patrolling road – kept under cover until we were at a point opposite boat, then made for canal. Stopped at house nearby, offered wine and read the newspaper. Old man of seventy took us along concealed path and then made lie low while he arranged for the boat to take us across. Gave us the tip when the road was clear and we were over without incident. Walked until evening when we found a cluster of houses – people very friendly – gave us some dinner. After dinner Jack did some conjuring tricks, which had the Ities guessing and thrilled the kids. Everybody happy and carefree. Old man well educated. Went upstairs to room where after a long wait we heard the BBC news. Felt much better after hearing reliable news – our boys advancing on all fronts. The old lady made us bed in living room, straw with palliasses on top and plenty of blankets. Very comfortable. I think we were all feeling happier as we had definitely decided to make a bid for freedom.
Left early – saw Puccini. Spent very tiring day slogging over fields, jumping sluits, wading where necessary, slipping
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over main roads patrolled by Jerry. Crossing canals and enquiring everywhere about Jerry. Bodies and brains tired. Met two chaps hiding in mealies near Bob’s camp – got some news of Bob etc. from the foreman. Moved on to friendly farmhouse where we had some of our food and got hot water for tea. Tea! Wonderful tea! On again towards Adige River. Slept in cowshed of farmer who had employed some POWs. Near large canal which we must cross early next morning.
Canal safely crossed. Mist lying right on the ground. More fields and long jumps. Met four Tommies hiding in mealie field who say Adige and Po impossible to cross on account of Jerry patrols. Jack gave them his greatcoat. Civilians very kind, beg us to stay but we push on. Adige River gave us a few nasty moments as we had to cross by main road and railway bridge and pass through a village. Saw a Carabinieri whom we thought was a German and wanted to run. Jerry had been in village previous day looting food. Once across, much relieved. Found lovely house in among sand dunes about eight kilos from Adriatic Sea. Had good rest, shave, tea and eats. Sorted out kit and gave our friends all excess – travelling light. Money given to us. Advised to cross Po near mouth. Pushed on near coast – gale got up – storm brewing – took shelter when it broke. Country very flat here and farms very much bigger, look more prosperous. Were punted across Lavanti River in terrific gale. Told we were quite safe here as no Germans had been seen in this area. Part of the Po delta. Two rivers now crossed. Feeling very tired so decided to look for lodgings early. Found loft. Washed socks. Had supper with family – very reserved. Bed early – should cross Po tomorrow.
Iti coffee (roasted oats) and rusks for brekker and on our bicycles towards Po. Canals and rivers made a lot of extra worry and walking as they meant finding bridges where we expected
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[Photograph with text]: Lauradonna
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to see Jerries. Conflicting rumours as to whereabouts of Germans. Rested in wood surrounded by canal. Farms look very prosperous in this area. Eventually neared the Po and found large house – wanted hot water for a cup of tea. Invited in by two very pleasant girls – house beautifully furnished – radiogram. Sat back in easy chairs and listened to news. Made tea, gave us fruit and ransacked house for smokes for us. Began to get suspicious when girls started talking about Germans and how much they admired them. Noticed house was full of German books. Made polite departure and on our way as quickly as possible. Germans advised probably of our visit. The girls had told us to make for Maistra but we found out Jerries were there. Found four Iti soldiers in rowing boat making for home and they rowed us across. Very anxious time as Germans occupied a sugar mill on opposite bank and were patrolling river bank. Very wide river – got across in the dark. Soldiers gave us a very good map. Walked for a short distance away from river, found house and were taken for Germans. Family very nervous. Found it hard to convince them we were POWs. Listened to BBC. Heard “I’m in the mood for love” – felt very much better after that short contact. Learned there were many spies in this area. Slept in loft and requested by owner not to show ourselves.
Wakened very early by nervous old man, given coffee and took rusks and cheese to eat on our way. Rowed across the last tributary of the Po – so relieved getting across safely, decided to spend most of the day resting. Found a wood, had our food and tried hard to sleep. Towards the end of the afternoon moved on to look for sleeping quarters. Country green and homes widely spaced. Taken in one home by an old lady but it seemed to cause a row with the boss so off we went again. As it got dark we met a pleasant Iti who took us to a nearby house where we were given cheese, bread and plenty of straw in the cow shed. Family informed the Germans have offered £20 for every prisoner
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handed over. Also threatened to destroy the homes of those harbouring POWs. We must be extra careful.
Slept well – given breakfast. Country in this area known as “valle” – very flat and low with much bush and swamp. Appeared to be a natural reserve. Arrived at warden’s house – people very scared. Given fish meal. Saw soldiers’ homecoming – very touching and made us feel very homesick. Given a boat to cross canal as bridge would take us to a village where Germans were. Right on Adriatic coast found friendly family. Had bathe in sea and shaved. Given dinner and as we were about to leave two civilians arrived. An Iti who had worked in Germany for two years and a Czech deserter from Salerno. Told us Jerry finished down south. Forcing Polish prisoners to fight – starving in Germany.
Set off for Porto Garibaldi where we were told we might find a fishing boat to take us down the coast. German planes flew low over us – took shelter, then walked along the edge of the beach – mosquitoes by the million. Found friendly home and took shelter in the cow shed from the mosquitoes but the cows made such a noise couldn’t sleep so moved into loft.
Left 9.30 am for Port Garibaldi being strongly warned against spies (two of our boys handed over last night). Cautiously approached canal on which the port stands and hid in vineyard debating how we should cross. Padrone found us and seemed very friendly so we told him our plight. He told us to sit tight and not show ourselves and he would arrange to get us over after dark. No hope of getting a fishing boat as Jerries won’t allow boats to stay out longer than a day. Crossing very exciting and well organised. Port Captain and his son rowed us across after we had been handed from one Iti to another with
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secret signals. Taken to Port Captain’s home, given wine and then handed on to another friendly family. Their son was a POW in South Africa. Twenty to thirty people came to view us and chatted – much wine imbibed. Sister of POW very motherly and made up bed on floor of kitchen for us. Met Iti medical captain who advised us to make for the mountains. Alarm set for 4.45 am. Promised lift in cart tomorrow.
Scarlet Pimpernel and his cart. High sided cart, straw lined. Told not to show ourselves. Given ride of about ten kilos. Walked several miles and accidentally bumped into police barracks. Nodded good morning to guards and walked on quite naturally. Later on told by people that five of our lads had been caught by these police. Slept for a few hours in some pine trees nearby. Blister on my heel giving me some trouble. Headed on for Porto Corsino – met five British lads who were retracing their steps as they had heard it was impossible to cross the system of canals at P. Corsino. We carried on and were taken in by a very poor family and given a grand hot meal – real meat. Remarkable hospitality. Arrangements were made to row us across after dark. Rain started but we carried on – water very phosphorescent – silver tipped oars and silver fish jumping. Guides stayed with us and although lost at one time eventually got us to the house to which they were guiding us. People very good – made large fire to dry our clothes and gave us hot milk and blankets. Slept with the cows, pigs and chickens. What a conglomeration of weird noises! Off early tomorrow as Germans go right past the house. Told we could stay if still raining. Left my greatcoat with them.
No rain so awakened early – punted across canal and put on road. Had to keep on road because of canals – expecting Jerry any moment. Making for mountains which could be seen in distance. By-passed Rimini. Rested in a wood for a few hours.
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Beginning to feel the effects of our twenty to thirty miles a day. Crossed three rivers very close to main road which has to be crossed. Rivers a bit ticklish until advised by a friendly carabinieri to cross by the rail bridges which at that point are 100 yards from the road. Crept up to the road under cover. Could see German transport – dashed across when a gap occurred. Did about twenty miles today. Spent the night with most inhospitable people who are Fascists we are sure but couldn’t worry – too weary. Slept in outside shack. Very cold until I I found a large sail and used that as a covering. Chick has a feeling three weeks will see us free!
Had a scare this morning. Walking gaily along farm road when two carabinieri passed us on bicycles. However we did not arouse their suspicions. Probably thought we were Ities on the move as Germans had ordered them to hand themselves over by last night. Another main road to cross – Bologna Rimini – many Germans in both places. Got across just in time as some German transport went by. Trekked on over fields. Met an Iti officer in one house who told us we would be quite safe in the mountains. Started looking for a place to sleep. Found one quite friendly but when they knew we were English got panicky. They gave us some lovely peaches and we were off again. Passed through a village but somehow we couldn’t worry. Nearly walked into a barber’s shop for a shave. Started to rain so found a house -people very poor but kind. Very hungry so enjoyed meagre meal -green leaves like spinach and flat bread. Decided to make for St. Marino republic tomorrow – can see it on a mountain top. Thought a lot of Mom today – her birthday!
Still raining so we stayed in our stable – given hot milk and flat bread. Off on our first day of climbing. Weather was overcast but nevertheless we sweated some. Rain sent us into a very friendly home and there we chatted till it stopped. All
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along the road we are taken for Yugoslavs. Our last climb was a hell of a mountain and mud and the slippery surface helped to make it more arduous. The Stud and Pontiac were well in the lead with the Standard a good 100 yards behind. A couple of Ities ahead of us even had enough breath to sing all the way up. People not so hospitable – had bit of a job finding somewhere to sleep. St. Marino about three miles from here, but we hear Jerry has moved in – a pity as we hoped they would have some food and tobacco for us.
A bad day – three scares. After hiking over mountain and up a river bed we had to walk a few hundred yards up main road. We were about half way when I noticed an autowagon with four Jerries. Fortunately there was a side track nearby so we branched down it. Poor old Jack got such a scare he threw his pack down as he felt it would make him look suspicious. I don’t know how we restrained ourselves from running but just carried on quite normally with our hearts in our mouths. When out of danger Jack went back and recovered his kit and we sat down and rolled a cigarette apiece to calm our nerves. We had hardly gone another mile when we bumped into more police guarding a tunnel. An old man told us they were hostile so we darted back among the trees skirting the road, and had to climb a terrific mountain in order to bypass them. Rested on top and had a cup of chai. On our way again – walking gaily along road when a girl ran up to us and warned us Jerry had just passed on his way to St. Marino. When we were passing a small cluster of houses, an electric motor gave us a scare as we thought it was another car. Poor old Standard was left a long way behind hiding at the back of a house. Over more mad mountains, sweaty und hungry. Rain stopped us so we stayed in a stable on the mountain top. Had hot soupy meal. We were certainly ready for bed when we had finished. Jack lent me his sandals today to try and relieve my blister which has developed into a nasty sore.
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Set off with a good meal of bread and cheese. Had been on our way a few hours when I noticed my compass was missing. Must have been pinched by the kids at the place where we slept. Good day as regards food. Lunch: Bread, grapes and walnuts. This mountain climbing certainly makes a man hungry. And what mountains! Up and down all the time. Found harbour in a house on the top of a very high mountain. Prepared supper especially for us – pasta ciuta with plenty of tomato puree. A large dish which the three of us could not finish and the old boy kept telling us he could finish it himself. It is the amount of wine one is expected to drink which gets us. This house is overlooking Mercatele. Had good sleep – dead tired these days.
Very generous with food. Breakfast (pepper fried in olive oil and remains of pasta ciuta). These days it is just mountain after mountain – very lovely – well wooded and dotted with picturesque homes – plenty of streams. Very tiring – some-times climbing on all fours and sliding down the other side. Ploughed fields and mud make the going harder. Had to dodge a couple of carabinieri today. Approaching house when woman leaned out of upstairs window and warned us that carabinieri were inside. Moved on to another house where woman wanted to make us some soup but we were afraid to stay in this area on account of carabinieri. Spotted them coming towards this house so rushed down mountain side into the bush and hid for half an hour. Guided along safe route by young choirboy who told us that Carabinieri were going round trying to round up all Iti soldiers for Jerry. On our way again but heavy rain chased us into house. The stream at the bottom of the hill which we had to cross came down in spate and was about fifty feet wide. We were given food and put in front of fire to dry our clothes. Invited to stay on as river was still in flood. The dog here took a fancy to me – needless to say I got tired first. Slept in kitchen on straw.
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Slept in this morning. Late breakfast and on our way at 10.30. Just crossed the valley when we met a young couple who invited us in for a drink. Ended in having lunch and staying three and a half hours. Any excuse these days for a rest. Not too keen on the mountains. Did some mad climbing. Met five Yugoslavs who were very pleased to meet English. Called us Comrades. They had been in concentration camps for two and a half years. Landed up in home way at the top of a mountain – not so friendly. Half an hour in front of the fire – no bed but slept in shed.
Hiked well today. Started off but found country very broken so decided to use the road which ran around the side of the mountains. Only one car drove us off in a hurry right into some brambles. Jack got some lovely thorns into himself. Next had to cross a railway line, a river and main road. Went under the line via culvert. Over the bridge and across the road. Country very open so we were not too happy but negotiated obstacles safely. Up the next mountain at a good pace in order to get under cover. First house we tried did not want to know our troubles and passed us on to the next. Good jovial family -would not believe we were English – had to prove our identity by the markings on our clothing. Had good meal and later on friends gathered round and Jack entertained them with a few tricks. They told us many Yugoslavs had passed here. Slept in the food stalls of the stable.
Told not to leave early and we would be given lunch if we cared to wait. Bread, cheese and grapes for brekker. Chick and I sent our boots to a nearby cobbler for repairs – would not hear of payment. Nice hot soup for lunch and on our way after a fond farewell. We are taking it very easy these days – the mountains have taken a lot out of us and Chick is not feeling so
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well. Stopped for night with young couple. Wife in bed – had sprained her ankle badly on her way to church. Young man fixed us up with bread and cheese – then to bed in stable.
Chick feeling rotten this morning. Set out slowly on our way to Pergola. The sun is very hot and the mountain sides particularly steep – just slid down most of them. Managed to get some soup at lunch time and had rest. While resting a young South African, minus boots, arrived with three Itis. They are taking him to their home further on and will hide him. (Met this lad in the Union later so he got through all right). Crossed main road and rivers near Pergola and asked for accommodation on hill overlooking village. Chick not at all well. Gave him coffee and somewhere to lie down. Jack and I had a wash. These people very much better off than the usual run of peasants. For the first time had supper in separate dining room. In peasant homes the living room and kitchen are combined and they cook over large open hearths in huge copper pots. After supper we were given coffee and had chat. Told our troops are near Pescara – I just hope they are right as that means we haven’t much further to go. A young student officer here – gave us small map and advised us to remain in mountains.
Had good breakfast – coffee, bread and for the first time jam. Chick very seedy – pushed on slowly. Passed an old man working in his fields who spoke a little American. When we told him we were making for Bari he replied, “Golly! you sure got some walk”. Later we met another who gave us some polenta in a large bowl with meat and tomato gravy – very tasty. Rested a while. Pushed on to a likely house for the night. Chick done in so went to bed immediately in the usual stable. Very large family but extremely kind. Had usual soup supper. Jack did a few tricks, then down on to the straw.
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[Photograph: The Domenica Family]
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Chick laid up – malaria symptoms so we remained in stable all day. Chick definitely needs a rest and some attention so I tackled the old boy with regard to our staying here a few days. Very kind and assured us it would be all right. Possessor of a great walrus moustache and pair of always twinkling eyes. Friend visited family and told us Pescara was in our hands – pray he is right. Have not listened to a wireless for days – no idea how advance is going or how long before we will be free. All very nerve racking and tiring. Had Polenta for lunch served in most peculiar way. Polenta is very thick mealie meal porridge, and these people served it by rolling it out on a large board to a thickness of about 3/4″, spread a gravy over it and everyone sat round and used forks to take scallops out of it. All working into the centre. The old boy was most apologetic about the dish but it was most enjoyable. In the evening a friend of the family who could speak very little English came to see us. Brought his very pretty daughter, very like an English girl, with him. Sat with Chick in stable and chatted, telling them all about wonderful South Africa. Old boy going into village Chervia tomorrow to try and get some quinine and fags. We are right out of smokes and I personally am finding this as hard as anything.
These days are filled with hanging about waiting for Chick to recover. I am most impatient to be on our way but realise Chick must get well. Still raining off and on. Chick appears to be all right in the mornings but gets worse in the afternoons. Old man back with two quinine tablets and about five cigarettes. This is all he could raise in the village. A neighbouring old lady brought us some food which we gave to the family to alleviate the strain on the larder that we must be causing. Trying to get some news – everyone in this area assures us we have Pescara. One of the sons gave Jack and me a
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much needed haircut. The three of us spent much time speculating on how we were going to meet our boys. T’will be a wonderful day but little did we realise we still had another month of hard slogging ahead of us.
Still hanging around. Sun came out but very heavy rain later ln the day. Sorry for our troops trying to advance in this weather and country – no substantial news. Chick still has the fever but is being nursed by one of the daughters whom we have nicknamed “Nursie”. She keeps popping in all day and asking Chick “Avere febbre”? Have you the fever? Afra, the English looking girl visited us. Sit around fire every evening. These people insatiable regarding information of South Africa.
Chick seems to be getting better – no fever. Still raining heavily. No fewer than eight girls sat around Chick this afternoon and chatted and joked. We were brought some walnuts by a friend of the family. All the neighbours seem to be contributing to our upkeep. I am reading your letter. I have them all with me – to try and keep my mind off our troubles. They read quite like a novel. Most impatient to be on my way. These people don’t seem to be very interested in the news. One of the sons informs us we have withdrawn slightly on the coast.
Day is overcast. Friends visit us again. Sat outside for a while and picked walnuts. Doing a lot of dreaming and speculating as to what is in store for us. Chick got up for a while today – it won’t be long before we are on our way again.
Chick very much better – hope to be on our way tomorrow. Sit out in the sun. I think we are all anxious to get going. Heard our troops are eighty odd miles from Rome, between Termolis and Pescara. This sounds more like the position, we hope it isn’t as it means we still have a long way to go.
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Up early – family wanted us to stay – all in tears. Got a surprise when the old boy kissed me on both cheeks. Chick and Jack made a round kissing the daughters. As we were leaving four Tommies turned up but could give us no news so we were soon on our way. Given a good dinner by shooting party – roast pigeon and pasta ciuta. Quite funny the way they kept rushing to their boxes whenever the decoy pigeons came over. Given some cigs. On to the main road from Ancona to Rome. Warned to be careful as Jerry used it a lot. Got across safely with our hearts beating double time. I wish you could see us crossing these obstacles. We keep under cover until we are as close to the road as possible – look to see if anything is coming and then scuttle across. This one gave us a bit of trouble as the road ran alongside the river and we couldn’t find the bridge which was just a couple of logs thrown across. However, we kept under the lea of the bank and found it about l00 yards lower down. A grand target for our bombers here as the road goes through a narrow defile which could be easily closed with a well-placed bomb. On for a bit until we found a home for the night. Jack is hobbling – he seems to have strained the tendons of his legs with all this climbing.
Today we heard parachutists had been landed in this area but think it is just another Iti’s tale. Can’t see the object of their being landed here. Did very good hiking today for mountains – about twenty kilos. No obstacles. Found stable and house for food but people lived in such poverty, we felt we were thieves to accept their hospitality.
Coffee and dry bread and off. Crossed another main road, river and line and had some terrific mountains to climb. More like giant erosions – little vegetation – shale surface. This I think has been our most strenuous day. Found a large
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family – eight daughters – had good meal but too tired to entertain. It seems as though there might be something in the parachute story as these people confirm it.
Had good breakfast of weed (spinach) and potato. Yet another main road crossed and some stiff climbing. Rain delays us in sight of Sarnano. Met Iti who spoke Yank who directed us past Sarnarno over the hills and who thought I was an American Indian. Had some trouble finding a house. Eventually found one after dark at the top of a mountain. Two Iti officers and a Yugoslav here. One of them could speak English. Had a good supper same as brekker and a comfortable loft for a bed. We are about eighty miles from Pescara but no news of our boys being near there.
The Iti officer who could speak English took us to a small village where we were just in time to catch the parachutists. There were seven of them. Most encouraging to see these lads wandering around as they pleased behind Jerry’s lines. It worried us a bit also as we thought Jerry would send troops into the mountains to round them up. They told us the scheme was over and they were in the same predicament as we were – making for their own lines. They took our names, gave us a small escape compact and told us to make for the coast if we heard that Pescara had fallen. Could give us no news but warned us that Jerry knew we were making South and to be careful. We left these boys well behind as they were travelling very leisurely. Now we start making direct for Pescara. Mountains well wooded here. Large afforestation schemes. Have to stick to recognised paths. Numerous small villages. Peasants live in villages and go out to their fields which are perched on the mountain sides, each day. Tonight we found shelter in a stable in one of these villages.
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Bread for brekker and on our way. The mountains appear to be getting worse instead of better. Had a wash and shave in a mountain stream – water ice cold but we warmed un in the sun. The mountains are so steep we are using goat tracks to negotiate some of them. Our last scramble today was almost sheer. We started coming down using our hands when he found a spot where even the goat tracks ended. Luckily for us an Iti down at the bottom saw our predicament and shouted instructions how to make it. When we reached him we found some Tommies with him. These lads were staying in the area and working for their benefactors -making charcoal of all things. They took us to their village and fixed us up for the night. All advised us to stay and work as it was impossible to get through, but we were determined to make a bid for it seeing we had come so far. What poverty-stricken places these villages are – it would be difficult for you to realise how poor they all are. The houses are perched on the side of a mountain and just have narrow alleys between them. Humans, cattle, goats and pigs all huddled together in about twenty houses. No sanitary arrangements, no drains – everything s just thrown into the alleys. All water is drawn from a central trough in large earthenware jars. All the houses must be centuries old and in a dreadful state of delapidation. How people can exist in such squalor and degradation passes all comprehension. The fields are so small all they can do is supply the immediate needs of the families. They certainly could not bring in any profits.
Had breakfast with the family that the Tommy was staying with. I think we had decided him to make a go for it instead of just hanging around. Over some brutes of mountains. Had lunch with Iti met along the way. Slept in his loft during the afternoon. Supped with him – Jack did his tricks. Old boy verv proud of having shot up some Germans. He seems to
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have been a forest ranger – blocked one of the roads and shot up the Jerries when they got out of their truck to remove it. Have river and main through road at the bottom of a very narrow valley to cross tomorrow. Not looking forward to it as Jerry uses it a lot on the way to Rome.
We were on our way at 4.30 am this morning and crossed our obstacles in the moonlight. Had a mad climb to get out of the other side of the valley. Breakfasted at the top in a chestnut grove. What lovely trees the chestnuts are! The fruit was ripe and the chestnuts were popping out of their coverings and crashing through the foliage and thudding on the ground. Came to a mountain where the Ities had put up a spot of organised rebellion – some guns smashed, trucks and houses burned and hundreds of cartridges laying about. Nearby was a large statue to Mussolini which had been defaced. We were warned of Jerries in the mountains who were visiting the villages and shooting up the people. Chick seems to be getting a recurrence of the fever. Stopped at village where everyone was as jittery as could be because Jerry had visited them the previous afternoon and according to them shot three Yugoslavs who were hiding there. They didn’t want to know our troubles. We even tried the local church without luck. Chick in no fit state of health to move on so we sat around. Eventually an old lady took pity on us and locked us in a little shed used for storing fodder. Good enough for us – had dry bread for supper.
Off early and once in the forest, sorted all our kit. Decide only to carry shaving tackle from now on. Gave superfluous kit away. Jack gave away 200 liras by mistake – not much loss though as people would not accept anything for assistance given and we could not purchase anything. Met an Iti Yank but he could give us no news. We are desperately in need of news as we are anxious to know how much further we have to go. Chick has
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the fever again – all right in the morning but has to lie up in the afternoon. Found a shack on the mountain side about 2.0 pm only to find it was occupied by an Imperial lad who was laid up with a bad back. He had escaped from hospital where he was having treatment and was now stranded as he could hardly move. Very cheerful and enjoyed our company. Appeared to be all right as an Iti family was looking after him. From here we look across on to the Gran Sasso di Italia – Italy’s highest mountain and our next obstacle. It is a grand sight, snow-capped, well wooded and very picturesque villages nestling on its sides. Main road to Rome between us and it. Must be off early tomorrow and do as much as possible while Chick is feeling fit. Heard a lot of AA fire from Rome way.
Left very early in moonlight, crossed river and main road. Broken down truck gave us a scare as we bumped into it but fortunately no Jerries with it. Did some terrific climbing as we were advised to make between two villages which were occupied by Germans. Calculated we climbed up and down 6,000 feet and hardly covered two miles. We were about to go over the ridge of the Gran Sasso when an Iti advised us it was hopeless – better to go round the side. About midday Chick caved in so we made for a nearby village and tried for a stable. Same old job – everybody scared stiff – too many Jerries in this area. Given a good meal while sitting in the alley. Eventually a young woman came up and as soon as she heard our story took us to her home and put us in the stable. Thank goodness for the Iti women. They were always willing to take a chance and showed a lot more courage than the men. Chick had a good rest – given hot soup in the evening. Must be off early in the morning. After dark the people got braver and many came to visit us and brought food.
Off before dawn and got round the side of Gran Sasso. The old fever started again about noon. Feel very sorry for Chick –
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puffing and blowing but keeping going for our sakes. Eventually found a vacant workman’s shack so made ourselves comfortable. Scoured the mountain sides for dry wood to build fire to heat some water for Chick. When preparing our beds in the lucerne came across some apples ripening. Got stuck in. This hold up is very unfortunate but we can’t help feeling it is all for the best. Our faith is in Dame Fortune.
Not a very pleasant night – cold on this wretched mountain. Chick very poorly so decided to spend day in shack. Boss came along and showed us to a little farm nearby where he said Chick would get better attention. Given a mealie shack to sleep in – Chick went straight to bed. Given some hot soup and we were given mushrooms. Yes real ones, and bread. Much fire and noise coming from Pescara way. Day dragging terribly – we are all most anxious to keep going but realise advisable to wait till Chick is better. The owner of this farm speaks English. Worked in Abyssinia and was repatriated on Julio Caicario. Told us he heard there was an English Colonel further on who was directing POWs. Given good meal in evening.
Chick is feeling very much better but weak so we are going to stay here all day. Cleaned up and washed socks. Heard a lot of bombing. Did a spot of work drying mealies . No tobacco so smoked dry leaves. Will be glad when tomorrow comes and we can be on our way. Want to see the end of the Gran Sasso.
Left latish and decided to keep on mountain as Jerry is occupying villages down in the valley. Should see the end of this jolly old “monte” today. Warned of Jerries in civvies in mountains. Expect to see more of them as we are nearing our lines. Arrived at one home – people too scared to even speak to us. Had a little food. Four Jerries apparently seen in neighbourhood.
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Enquired as to their dress etc. and formed opinion they must be some of our parachutists. We were given room to sleep in – good fire, but kept awake by the family working in room stripping mealie cobs.
Struck very heavy mists today and met the mystery men who were our paratroops. Very browned off – had been dropped in wrong area, could not find any POWs so making south. Had even got tired of carrying their weapons so stripped them and packed them away in their packs – utter contempt for Jerry. Did some good hiking and came to a valley where hundreds of POWs were hiding. All tell us the Pescara river and road impossible to cross – road well-guarded and river very full. Called halt for the night – very poor family. Old man gave up his bed for us. Had dinner with five Imperials. Very cheerful and seemed contented to hang about in this area.
I am determined to make the Pescara and look and see. Too often have we been advised impossible to proceed further only to find not as bad as painted. Started to rain. Tried to see a large map which we were told was in the local schoolroom – somebody had taken it away. Made our way up large valley which had literally been taken over by POWs and Yugoslavs. Ities evacuated. All told us we were fools to go on but could not find one of them who had seen for himself – all hearsay. Rain drove us into a lonely shack at the head of valley occupied by POWs. Other who had been out foraging came in later with some stolen fowls. Had good meal and were told that something was going to happen on 2nd November. Sat around fire and yarned in the evening. Interesting stories told by commando and airmen. Told officers were in next village.
Made for this village to find officers and get grif. Found house where officer had stayed but he is away so hung around. While here a friend of Jack’s and Chick’s turned up. Rain drove us
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inside. By noon there were eleven of us in the room. Yanks amused us with stories of Bazooka gun. Officer walked in and electrified us with the news that he had just come from British lines and was arranging scheme to evacuate POWs. Gave us five cigs. Told to come back for definite times tomorrow. Slept in shack with Dave and Yank Jean from Kansas City. All very excited about tomorrow and beginning to entertain ideas about our freedom and home. Looking into Maiella Mountain. Ities say it will snow tonight.
Sure enough the mountain covered with snow this morning. Just about to have brekker when warned that some Jerries had come into the village so did a mad dive back into the mountain. All clear a little later so made for officer’s house. Told a party was to set off immediately for the coast – had to draw lots – I was lucky but Jack and Chick both missed – were to follow up later. Hated leaving them but expected to meet them at coast. Very excited and really expected to be a free man in a day or two. Commandos on the job. Started off at 2.0 pm. Bumped into tank on way but hid while it passed. After dark walked along the main road. Very nerve racking as we had to keep dashing off when traffic passed – numerous occasions landed up in bramble bushes. Walked until midnight – knocked up family – bought food and slept in stable. Had to wade one full river in the dark.
Picked up scout (Iti) and directed to rendezvous. Farm house occupied by French commandos – protected us. Old lady gave me a pair of trousers when she saw the state of mine. Lost my boots last night – they decided finally to give up the ghost so I am barefoot. Had some good meals – commandos buying up all stocks and food they can lay hands on. Slept on nearby farm -sea too rough for boat to come in.
Rejoined today by Chick and Jack who had made good time
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in getting down. The ship might come in tonight so we are to go down to the beach. Hanging around all day – entertained by Yanks. Spirits very high at prospect of getting our freedom soon. Guided and protected by Commandos. Beware of Jerry patrols on beach. Arrive safely and sit quiet in large empty house waiting. No ship so back we go at about 2.0 am.
Hung around again today. Slept, making up for what we lost last night. Down to beach again tonight. Same performance only about 11 pm. machine guns opened fire and quite a battle going on our beach. Very worrying but we sat tight. Later told to go back – we could see something burning at sea. Told our ship had come in but run into Jerries and had been set on fire. All feeling very dejected and disappointed.
Officer escaped from boat and joined us. Told us scheme was a failure and we must all get going and try to make it for ourselves. What a let-down and how disappointed we were. We hung around and a couple of the boys went into a nearby fishing village and tried to get a sailing boat. No luck so we are on our way again tomorrow. Afraid of Jerry raiding this area in the near future. Ities in these parts very jittery now.
Spent the day hanging around still trying to get a boat. Hid in reeds most of day because of scare of Jerry. Episode with calves during the night.
Said cheerio to others who are still trying to raise a boat. We are going to try and make the Pescara. Raised a pair of shoes from an Iti and off we go. Very unhappy band of warriors but we are determined to do it. Poor old Chick has the shivers again. Stopped at Professor’s house but would not put us up – too scared. Gave Chick some tea and a pair of shoes and presented us with some cigs. Told us our troops were about 45
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miles from Pescara. Moved on towards Chieti and the Pescara River. Jerry blowing up Pescara town. Found friendly home for the night.
The going is a lot easier down near the coast – foothills. Saw many Jerries on the roads. Nearly walked into a large A/A post but Iti warned us in time. Chick is not at all good so we looked for a place early in the afternoon. Found a good family and they told us of a little footbridge across the river. We are quite close so will cross early tomorrow.
Crossed tributary Chepagati and found bridge. Got across all right but had some trouble crossing road and railway. Saw many Jerries, sometimes dodging them among the trees but on one occasion we just had to keep on walking as it would have looked too obvious if we had ducked. Raised no suspicions so we got away with it. Found a very nice family for brekker – well to do lady evacuated from Pescara gave us milk, toast and marmalade. Jerry post close by. Jerry using all roads hereabouts. Saw some dive bombing and strafing. Crossed another main road just in front of some ambulances. Not seen. Stayed with Iti Yank – very nervous – told us impossible to go further as many Jerries over the hills, but we must give it a try.
Did quite well today. Only bumped Jerry once when we nearly walked into a party digging a gun pit. Thank goodness Iti warned us when we were about 50 yards from them. Skirted their position and pushed on. Came across some Imperials hiding in a bush. Spent the day in bush and go to dwelling at night when all is quiet. They also say impossible to get through but no one has tried. Find an open hut. What a hell of a night!Wind and cold as charity. Could not sleep – very bad for Chick – will have to lie up tomorrow and let him have a rest. Nobody seems to know where the front line is but it must be quite close -we have seen fighters.
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Moved on early – passed Lanciano and saw how Jerry was blowing up railways every 25 yards. Tank moved along road just after we had crossed it. Found a very nice family early in the morning. Chick given hot milk and a place to sleep. Iti officer here very good to us. Advises me to swap my bunny jacket for a jacket. Luckily I do because tomorrow is the day. He tells us he thinks the front line is on the Sangro about ten miles from here. Given some good meals and a comfortable place to sleep.
Off early and make for Sangro. Shown the best route -make good time. I don’t remember much about the day as we seemed to spend our time in dodging Jerry. He is occupying all the houses in this area so we reached the stage where we just had to keep on walking as we bumped him which ever way we went. Whistled to us once but we ignored him. Arrived at one house and saw Ities there so went up to ask where front line was. Greeted by wailing and moaning woman. She had been ordered out of her home and thought we could help her. Just got away in time as Jerry came along. Hid in reeds about a mile from Sangro River and waited until dusk when we decided we would try and cross. At sundown started off for river. Met some Ities who told us Jerry was stopping everybody. Directed us to home occupied by Ities working for Jerry digging defences. Given something to eat and a place to sleep. Warned of minefield between us and river. Told front line was another ten to twenty miles further on.
On our way about 2 am. Climbed barbed wire fence, crossed minefield in small gulley expecting a mine to blow us up every minute. Made river – bumped into a couple of German patrol tents – crept past. Waded river – nearly to top of our legs. Kept going in dark, skirting all houses. Heard a couple of heavies go over – knew line must be pretty close. Just as it was getting light saw Iti come out of house. Crept up to ask
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him dispositions of Jerry. Jack asked him. Sensed something unusual was happening as Iti was waving his arms about and smiling. Jack came back with astounding news that British were only about half a mile away on top of rise. We almost ran the rest of the way. First house no English but Iti so pleased – called us in and gave us wine. Showed us house where we would find British. On our way came across sergeant cleaning Bren. Looked up and ignored us “Three more bl…… Ities”. Said “Good morning” and explained who we were. Very pleased to see us. Took us inside to the boys where we were inundated with kindness. Rum, tea, brekker and as many cigs as we wanted. We were all so pleased at being free they couldn’t stop us talking. Gave them what information we could. Taken down the line to CO. Very pleased to see us. Gave us officer guide to main road. Thumbed lift further down the line. What a day! All I want to do now is wire you. You just have no idea how I feel. To think after all this time, I AM A FREE MAN AGAIN.
[Photograph: Chick Ben Jack] Cairo 1944
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GEOFF SOLE’S ACCOUNT OF ESCAPE FROM POW CAMP 120, ITALY.
(As written to Don, February – March, 1944)
My dear Don,
Well, here goes on what will most probably be the longest letter I have ever written.
To begin with, our camp of 120 strong was a big converted barn at the top end of the village of Saonara, which is five miles south of Padua. We got on very well with the civilians, and the Itie sergeant in charge was one of the best – strict with us and his men, but at the same time closing his eyes to a lot of red tape orders he was given from GHQ in Padua, e.g. piercing of all tins in the Red Cross parcels. He had our interests at heart and went out of his way to make us as happy and comfortable as possible. Through him we were never without a soccer ball, and after a long hunt he managed to buy a rugby ball and procure a meadow from the local countess. Best of all he wouldn’t stand any nonsense from our boss who had a big pull with the military authorities. He was a vast improvement on his predecessors who were always open to bribery etc. Apparently he was a wealthy educated fellow who refused to accept a commission – a very rare thing there, as in Italy, class distinction plays a big part.
After the invasion of Sicily, we were getting a lot of the news from the foremen, village doctor etc. who attended us. They realised that it was only a matter of time before Italy capitulated. Work slacked off a great deal and we did more or less as we pleased. Previously there were always threats of a ration cut or being sent back to a big camp again. It was while I was off work (I had conveniently pulled the soles off my boots and they were being repaired) that Jimmy was sent away. It was amazing the number of ailments there were in camp. One day over 50% were off sick. You can imagine the uproar. Tertius Smith who was with us was a past master at malingering. In fact I think all the working camps were more trouble to the
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Ities than they were worth. Besides getting very little work out of us, fellows were always attempting the impossible -making a break. One day eight got away from our camp – sawed through the bars of the kitchen windows – hacksaw blade supplied by an Itie who was sympathetic. However they were caught within 24 hours but there were 3,000 troops used in the search.
To continue – On 8th September the sergeant told our camp leader that there was something in the wind and at 8 pm came news of the armistice. You can imagine the uproar in camp and while they went off to get more details from the BBC we started celebrating. In no time the wine started coming in and everyone was dancing, singing and enjoying themselves. Of course the next day we were given a pep talk that we must remain calm, have patience and see what was going to be done with us. In the meantime the gates were thrown open and we had the run of the village. Everyone was of the opinion that Jerry would pull out immediately and the sergeant gave his word that he would not let us be taken again. On the Friday morning he brought in a large map of Italy and showed us the main dispositions of the German forces. Almost immediately after this, word came in that the Jerries had taken over Padua, so we all packed a few odds and ends and made off into the fields. It was the sergeant’s intention that we should lie low there for the time being. However that was not carried out, and as rumour had it that 40 of our boats had arrived at Venice, 13 of us set off in that direction. The whole time we were being pestered with innumerable questions, while the kids followed us as if we were a travelling circus. We were in our winter battle dress and many took us for Germans at first. While we were resting near the Venetian Estuary about six miles south of Venice, some Ities offered to look after us on this island home in the estuary. They told us there were no boats at Venice but we would be quite safe with them. However on the way out we met an American girl who had just arrived at another of these houses situated in the so called “valle” so we went there instead. Apparently this
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American girl had come with her parents to Italy before the war and could not get away. Her people were Italian but as she refused to turn Fascist she was sent to an internment camp where she had had a pretty rough time. This house she was at belonged to a wealthy Jewish boy friend – it being his hunting lodge during the duck shooting season. She was alone with a girl friend (both very attractive) but she was thrilled to see us and speak a bit of English again. We were made very welcome but before the day was out almost 80 from our camp had pitched up having been directed there by the different Ities. Fortunately we all had a few tins of Red Cross food with us. Of course it was impossible for all to stay on there, and the following day fellows went off in their different cliques – East, West, North and South, while some decided to go back to the village.
In the meantime we had swapped our uniforms for civvies and paid the camp several visits on borrowed bikes to collect a few parcels etc. The bungalow had been looted immediately after we left. We stayed a week with these two girls and enjoyed it very much. The owner arrived and was a real humorist. He was a millionaire playboy keen on speed boat racing, had travelled a lot and knew a few English people such as Seagrave and had also been to South Africa. I have an invitation to go to his palazzo in Venice after the war. By now he is probably interned.
Unfortunately Jerry didn’t mount his bicycle as we had expected and with fresh orders coming out re the penalties for helping POWs plus the reward of £20 for every one handed over. We decided it was about time we got moving as we didn’t want to get these people into trouble. We were still of the opinion that Jerry would be pushed out fairly quickly, but he would most probably make a line at the River Po, so our main object was to get on the other side. We had a few items from our parcels left, and each night we treated ourselves, as it doesn’t take long before one is tired of the fare offered by the Ities. Thanks to the experience gained at Tobruk, we carried plenty of tea
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and it lasted us about a month. Usually we had a brew at mid-day and then again when we stopped for the night. We started off carrying our valises, greatcoats and water bottles, but we parted with all these on the way, giving them to folks who helped us. We came through the lines with only our shaving kit plus a tin of biscuits and bacon which we had decided to keep in case of an emergency.
The Lombardy Plains are very thickly populated and we kept mainly to the fields and lanes. The Ities are an inquisitive race and every hundred yards we would be asked the same questions. “‘Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” and “Who are you?”. After a short while we just ignored them and made out we couldn’t understand. The numerous rivers and canals gave us a lot of trouble as it meant going out of our way to find a bridge or a boat. At a couple of places we had to hang around all day and wait until it was dark before the Ities risked taking us over. The Jerries were using the coastal road quite a lot, and often we had to keep low while a convoy passed, before we could attempt crossing a bridge or road. Being a fugitive is a terrible feeling and the whole time we felt the whole German Army was on the lookout for us.
I won’t go into details about all our stopping places. Some of the Italians were rather scared and would wake us up at about 4 am and tell us to be on our way, while others just couldn’t worry. We had heard that at Porto Garibaldi boats were taking people down to Southern Italy, but when we arrived there, the Fascists had already put a stop to it. We hit the River Po just where it divides into three, and on the north bank we had our first taste of comfort. The house was pretty big and prosperous looking (things we usually avoided) but as we were in a just couldn’t worry mood and it was close on lunch time, we decided to ask for some hot water for our tea. That was our usual method of approach with the hope that we would be asked to have something to eat. Later on we just used to ask straight out. To our surprise a cute little thing (I have a
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photo of her) came out, and when she found out who we were started speaking broken English. We were made welcome and spent a few hours relaxing in club easies and listening to the radiogram. She ransacked the house for smokes and eventually brought out about 150 German cigarettes which were very acceptable. The house was full of German books – she could speak it fluently and she seemed to be sympathetic towards them so we decided not to stick around too long as there were some Germans stationed a few miles away. Her welcome to us may have been prompted by her womanly sympathies to those in dire straits or just idle curiosity. However we heard the BBC news which at the time was not very encouraging, and so we decided the best was just to carry on and hope that the Germans would crack up.
From the Po we continued along the coast often walking on the beach, and it must have been here that I got the malaria germ as the countryside was just full of mosquitoes. Looking at the map you will notice the number of “Valles” in that area – Commachio etc. We had the coast more or less in sight until we reached Cesena and then on advice from the Ities, who reckoned it was far safer though slower going, we hit the mountains near the independent state of San Marino. We had hopes of buying smokes etc. there as we had been told it was strictly neutral. However we were doomed to disappointment and actually it was near there that we had our first real contact with Jerry. We had been following up a dry river bed and had just come out to a main road which we had to walk along for a few hundred yards before turning off again, when bang round the corner came a Volkswagen, with four Jerries in it. It stopped about ten yards ahead of us. Fortunately there was a small lane to the left so we quickly swung left as unconcernedly as possible. We thought it was all up, but apparently they had stopped as they weren’t too sure of the way and were too interested in looking around for a branch road which was further forward. It came as such a surprise
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that I’m sure they must have heard our knees knocking as we walked away. The first thing we did when a safe distance off was to sit down and have a smoke.
From there on the going was slower as the paths were stony plus rain, the fields were very soggy and Ben’s boots were giving him trouble. They had irritated his heel and made a very nasty blister, but Jack had with a bit of foresight brought along a pair of sandals and by the time they wore out a week later or so his foot had healed.
Near Pergola I had my first bout of fever and after a couple of days we decided to stop if possible. We had arrived at a farmhouse – I wasn’t too good so the family put some straw in a small place leading off the stable. In all we stayed with them a week and I shall never forget their kindness and how they went out of their way to care for me etc. They were the poorest of the poor with hearts of gold. When we left they all wept.
From there the going was even slower as I would be OK for a few days and then the fever would start again and would necessitate stopping round about lunch time. On the way we met quite a few of our boys quite content to stay where they were and wait for the Allies to reach them.
At one stage we were told that paratroops had been dropped. We couldn’t understand why they were in the mountains but after a few days we caught up with one batch of them. To our surprise they told us they had been dropped to help escapees, round them up and direct them to a certain point on the coast where they would be picked up by our boats. However the evacuation dates were already past. I believe it was only partially a success. They were now in the same boat as we, and were making their way back to the lines. They took our names etc., gave us a small button compass and then we parted company.
It is impossible to remember all the amusing incidents on the way and they never seem so funny in print, but we were
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always in the best of spirits except of course when I had fever and then I just couldn’t worry what happened. When we stopped anywhere for the night, after some soup and bread we would all sit around the fire and talk to the family. The propaganda we spread about South Africa was terrific. The peasant is very simple and can be classed with our native. Jack often kept them amused with some of his conjuring tricks. The time I think we enjoyed most of all was when we were shown to our sleeping quarters – always some hay put down in a corner of the stable which is part of the house. There we would lie, and amid the noises coming from the cattle would reminisce, laugh about incidents of the day and talk about the morrow, and a thing we never tired of talking about was when we eventually got through. We would be wakened in the early hours if the peasants were at all scared, and given a bite of something. Our diet, except for the soup or pasta ciuto, changed as we progressed. First it was bread and grapes – then bread and walnuts – bread and dried figs – bread and chestnuts and last but worst of all bread with olive oil poured over it! Gee! I always had to be very hungry to eat that, but it is wonderful how one can accustom oneself to anything.
Going past the Gran Sasso mountain meant the hardest walking of all and we worked it out that one morning we climbed and dropped 6,000 feet. In that area rumour had it that Jerry was out in civvies on the lookout for prisoners and Italian soldiers who had returned home, so we had to be doubly careful. We had it worked out to schedule when we would reach our boys, but that went awry after I went sick. We argued when about 150 miles off that we would walk 100 miles while they advanced 50. There is no need to say that we walked about 142 of the 150 miles.
When we were about 30 miles north of the Pescara River, we were making our way to a village when it started to rain, so we went over to a farmhouse. We found that it had been deserted by the peasants and about six prisoners had been living
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there for the past week. It rained cats and dogs and a little later a few more fellows pitched up plus a couple of acquired roosters, bread, tomatoes etc. We only had a little bread but we were made welcome by the Tommies. (When there is only a little of anything, English hospitality surpasses the so called South African hospitality.) A couple of them were SS troops and while we sat drying our clothes round the fire, they told us of various exploits before being captured. Two had taken part in the raid on Rommel’s headquarters. It was here that we heard that at the next village was an English officer who told the fellows they must stick around until 2nd November as something was on the go.
The following day we decided to find out for ourselves as there were several hundred prisoners and Yugoslavs in the area. We were directed to a farmhouse where a Canadian commando was supposed to be staying. About ten others were gathered there with us – one from our unit whom I had not seen since Tobruk. It came on to rain again so we went inside and sat round the fire. We hadn’t been there long when a fellow with a black beret and mac plus revolver came in. After he had ascertained we were all bona fide prisoners, he told us that he was in Termoli the evening before and then offered us an English fag. You can imagine how dumbstruck we were. He told us that a scheme was being worked out to evacuate about 500 of us, and he was returning to Termoli to arrange further. He said he would take seven with him, so out came the hat with the lucky numbers. Ben was fortunate, and you can imagine how envious we felt when they left for a point on the coast where he had a small boat. However the following day we met the Major who was trying to get together the fellows on our side. He told us small boats would be coming in with commandos to act as escort to the fellows, but there was no need for these to go back empty, so after giving us the position, five batches of us in groups of four set off. It was a 25-mile dash and my
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one boot gave up the ghost, but I managed to get a shoe. When we reached the farmhouse a mile or two from the coast, we found the others still there. Apparently some commandos had landed to do a job but the surf was rough, and all their dinghies were upset. They had lost everything so they had taken the available boat to return and re-equip.
On the appointed night about 30 of us filed down through a village to the coast. There were a few paratroops and commandos with us, and it was quite dramatic as they escorted us with their Tommy and Bren guns at the ready. We stopped at a deserted house on the beach front, while they split up to keep an eye open for Jerry patrols. We stayed there until 2 am but nothing happened. These commandos are wonderful fellows. There was someone knocking on the back door, so the chap who was staying with us just put down his rifle quietly and out came his commando knife and he was on his way – however it was one of his friends.
The following night we went down again and had hardly been there ten minutes when we heard a lot of machine gun fire. It was very unnerving. No more happened but on the way back we could see something burning at sea. The next day a naval officer pitched up. He had been wounded and told us that they were cruising around waiting for our signal, when they were spotted by a vlak boat. The first shot disabled the engine. He managed to swim to shore. Later on another naval officer and the captain in charge of operations pitched up. They told us we had now better split up and go our various ways. It was a bitter disappointment, as we had all pictured ourselves back in the lines without having to go through the front line, as there we didn’t know what to expect.
We hung around a few days trying to get a fishing boat – we were allowed to offer up to 40,000 lira, but no use. The Pescara River was said to be impassable and all bridges guarded. Ben’s boots had given in but by using Carnegie’s principles, he managed to get a pair of shoes. At the Pescara we were
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fortunate to strike a small footbridge and had no trouble. We were beginning to see a few of our planes – very encouraging but plus more Jerry troops. My boot and shoe gave in and we stopped at a rich professor’s house. I was having my third bout of fever. He was as nervous as a cat with twelve kittens. He refused to let us sleep the night but offered to give me money to go to hospital. However, after having had a bit of a rest plus some tea and cognac, I finally persuaded him to part with some shoes. They were about two sizes too big – I think he would have given anything to get rid of us.
When we were near Lanciano, we heard that the Sangro, ten miles away was the front line. It was raining but we carried on until two miles from the river where we hid for the afternoon. We had bumped into numerous Jerries and were not feeling too comfortable. About 7.0 we started off, but met some Ities who told us that the Sangro was Jerry’s second line and the fighting was still 20 miles further on, but showed us a house not occupied by Jerries where we could sleep. We decided to leave just before dawn, cross the river and then hide for the rest of the day. Fortunately it was moonlight when we left, about 3 am. It was just as well as the going was harder than we anticipated. About 1,000 yards from the river we came to a minefield about 30 yards wide. We looked at one another and decided we would just trust to luck, but what a sigh of relief we heaved when we crawled through the barbed wire on the other side. On the bank of the river we came unexpectedly upon a small outpost tent but once again luck was with us and they were all asleep. The river was not in flood and was in three streams about waist deep. On the other side was quite a two mile flat strip before the ground rose again, and it was while we were here that we could hear Jerry guns going off, the whistle and then the explosion which didn’t seem very far away, so we were still hopeful. When it was getting light we approached a house carefully to ask the Ities which houses the Jerries were
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occupying as we wanted to hide. Imagine our surprise and joy when he told us there were none in that vicinity and the English were on top of the hill. We went off at a mad dash and came across a platoon in a farmhouse just sitting down to breakfast. They were very pleased to see us and gave us tea and fags.
From there we went down the line to Battalion and then Brigade Headquarters, having a chat with the OCs. We were interrogated by the “I” Officer but couldn’t give him much information. Of course we were keen on moving back – having come so far we didn’t want to stop a stray shell, so two days later we were at Bari where we parted with our lousy civvies and got into uniform. The Yanks of course were flown off almost immediately (about 50 had collected there – we had to wait a week for a boat). We took eleven days to reach Alexandria. Had to do our own cooking and volunteers were called up to man the ack acks. We slept in the hold and were not particularly pleased with everything. At Bari we had been given pamphlets telling of the wonderful reception we would get on arrival in Egypt and even more so when we reached the Union. At Alexandria there were about 100 of us and the fellows were very disgruntled. They were only sending any off when there was a vacant seat in a plane. Naturally we all wanted to be home for Christmas. They then sent us to Suez. The boat they put us on was a small 1914 relic – we only slept there one night when it was condemned – too lousy and bug infested. We hung around the transit camp a week and after just about giving the O/C grey hairs, they packed us off to Cairo. We were then innoculated against yellow fever and had to wait fifteen days for it to take effect. Those fellows already injected were still only going off in dribs and drabs until Smuts arrived and some planes were set aside for POWs. We were given free board and lodging at Smuts House plus a bottle of beer per night. That was all the organised entertainment we had. However, I think all our squeals etc. had some effect, and
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fellows coming through after us would fare better. We were fortunate in meeting some nurses at the 5th General Hospital, but a good percentage of the fellows spent the time being tight.
After five weeks in Egypt we eventually left for the Union by air on 1st January, 1944. I enjoyed the trip down very much. My ears were OK after the first day. I am still looking for that great welcome we were to receive on reaching South Africa, but I suppose I can be thankful I am alive and well and back home again.
Well, Don, that’s that. As you can see there was nothing outstanding in our trip, though I can’t understand why it hasn’t been accomplished by many others. Dame Fortune smiled on us the whole way and when we were held up at any time we always felt it was for the best. There are numerous other bits and pieces that I can only recall if conversation happens to be directed that way.
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