Sollar’s tale is one of a soldier repatriated back to the UK by the Germans. He was captured in 1942 near the “Battle of El-Alamein” in North Africa. He was held in various camps in Italy but was hospitalised in Teramo. He escaped but had to surrender to the Germans. They sent him to a German military hospital (Stalag I-VA), where he was diagnosed with non-pulmonary tuberculosis, which was affecting his lower spine. The Germans repatriated him, via Sweden, back to the UK at the end of August 1944.
Sollar’s archive file in the Monte San Martino Trust archives contains newspaper articles covering the repatriation. They cannot be included in the on-line file for copyright reasons but they are available for study by applying to the Monte San Martino Trust.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
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[Handwritten text] SOLLARS JACK
Sent in by Teresa Cullis shortly after JACK SOLLARS died in 2004
A Liskeard journalist. In New Division 44th. Brought out for advance from Alamein and flung in to the line by Montgomery ‘before their knees were Brown’ and were not very successful. Disbanded later.)
JS captured and via usual bad Camps in N.Africa to Italy and in Hospital at Teramo at Ital. Armistice. Ten days after Armistice an Italian Serg.Major and interpreter arranged for a dozen of POW’s to be taken up in region of Gran Sasso by truck to join partisans. When a tyre bursts they are rescued by a huge army truck, loaded with arms and food for the partisans rescues them and they climb up to Monte Cepe where there is a motley camp of Yuogslavs and young Italians. The Yugoslavs brought a minimum of order to the camp. JS works in cookhouse. A German spotter plane is seen. Some RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps] wearing civilian clothes went off on a raid. After lunch the next day trucks are heard JS with an Indian soldier both armed with Italian rifles. Three German trucks, come to collect the POW’s, panicked and crashed over the hillside. An RAF [Royal Air Force] POW found tinned food in the wreckage. JS sets off with other POW’s to distance himself from the area but cannot keep up because of illness and some of them sleep in the open. Again unable to keep going Sollars gives himself up in a hamlet – FIOLI. Immediately taken in by old couple. Sees sheep and goats being taken away from a family who had helped POW’s. He moves on and shares a shepherds hut and then in a stone hut but wakes to find himself snowed in. Unable to move far and endangering those who helped him JS gives himself up to the Germans 19th January 1944. His captors wine and dine him. In Teramo and then L’Aquila, where he and others are shown off to Japanese diplomats. Finally diagnosed as having TB in fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae. Via several Italian city hospitals JS is moved up to Germany and then inspected by Swiss Army doctors is passed for repatriation. On what seemed a luxurious train he and other similar patients could see the tremendous damage to Berlin and, in the middle of a forest, well camouflaged factory but flattened by bombing. Loaded on a boat and soon out to sea Swedish attendants take over and they are given a huge welcome in Sweden when landed from the hospital ship Arundel Castel and then, as reported in the Times and other papers on 16th September 1944 at Liverpool. Moved to Cheltenham General Hospital he underwent a large spine-graft operation and a year or two later was back at work until retirement in 1976.
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WANDERINGS IN WAR-TIME EUROPE 1943-44
STROUD MAN’S STORY OF CALAMITY WHICH ENDED HAPPILY
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My name is Jack Sollars and I live at Uplands, Stroud. I am a native of Gloucestershire.
During World War II I served, first with the 11th Battalion Devonshire Regiment and then, in the spring of 1942, was transferred to the 1/5th Queen’s Royal Regiment occupying quarters near Caterham, Surrey. We were one of the units making up a new division, the 44th, to join the Eighth Army in North Africa.
In the autumn of 1942, not far from the scene of the Battle of El Alamein, I was captured in a relatively small action. Eventually we were moved back in stages to Tripoli, many hundreds of miles westwards along the coast of North Africa, then shipped over to Sicily. We landed at Palermo and crossed the Straits of Messina by train ferry.
After many changes and a good deal of uncomfortable rail travel, I found myself in Concentration Camp 77. This was situated to the east of the Apennine Mountains which run along the length of the “Leg of Italy”. We were out in the country but not far from the provincial capital of Teramo and the Adriatic Sea.
It soon became apparent that I was far from well. Particularly did I have trouble with weakness in the lower limbs although I suffered little pain. Walking was not easy and I spent a good deal of time in the camp infirmary.
Then it was decided that I needed hospital treatment and I was taken, under escort, to a fine modern hospital in Teramo. There I found a great variety of Allied prisoners suffering from wounds or illness of various kinds.
I was not told what was wrong with my legs. Indeed, not until I was taken to a German military hospital some months later was it found that I had non-pulmonary tuberculosis which was affecting the lower spine – hence the leg weakness and difficulty in walking.
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Things became very tense after the collapse of Mussolini’s Fascist Government towards the end of July 1943. Mussolini was deposed and imprisoned in the mountains near Teramo (later to be released in a daring raid by German paratroopers) and, for a while, the Italian people imagined that Fascism and its links with Hitler were ended, especially as the Allied invasion of the mainland was now well under way. Sadly, hopes were soon dashed with the arrival of strong German reinforcements and it was not until two years later that the Axis powers were finally forced to surrender in Northern Italy. Nevertheless, the Allied lines continued to move forward slowly, bringing hopes of liberation and the end of the war with them.
All this had a direct bearing on what happened to me and the other patients in the Teramo hospital. So remarkable were subsequent developments that I attempted to put them in note form as soon as I returned to England in the autumn of 1944. These notes are now the basis for my booklet.
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[Subtitle] I : WE SET OUT
It was not until September 22nd that I, in company with a number of other English POW patients left the hospital. We decided to do so because of the imminent arrival of German forces, the shortage of food and the promise of assistance from the Italians.
So my story begins late at night on September 22nd 1943. It was very dark and those of us who were fit enough to make the attempt, lined up in the ground-floor hall of the hospital. The Italian Sergeant-Major interpreter (an excellent man who showed no fear of the coming Germans), had arranged that we should be taken by truck to a guerrilla camp high in the hills which surround Teramo. These hills are in fact the highest part of the Apennine chain and are known as the “Gran Sasso d’Italia”. At this camp, we were assured, we should be safe from the Germans, and have good food and shelter until such time as the Allied forces pushed north – which they were expected to do in a matter of a week or so!
The Sergeant-Major mentioned issued each one of us with an Italian rifle and a bandolier containing a hundred rounds of ammunition. We were all well clothed in English uniform and had supplies of Red Cross foodstuffs.
So as not to rouse too much attention we left the hospital late at night and in small parties. Before doing so the Sisters of Mercy, who had not deserted their post, bade us “goodbye” and the Mother Superior shook hands with each one. Many of the Sisters were weeping as we went.
Outside the hospital we were hurried down the pitch-dark streets to a spot where there was a small truck waiting. About a dozen of us clambered on to be packed in like sardines. Two Italians were in the cab and we set out.
As we passed quickly through the streets which finally linked up with the mountain road, it was obvious that the route was being watched. Occasionally a light would flash from an upper window or a sharp whistle would be heard. Our truck started to climb and soon found it hard going with its heavy load.
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Finally, after a series of short runs punctuated with sudden stops, a tyre collapsed completely and it looked as though we were really and truly stranded. After waiting a while by the side of the road, a very forlorn little band, we hailed a heavy truck which was obviously making in the same direction as ourselves. It proved to be one of those huge lorries the Italian Army used in North Africa and the driver was an Italian officer. It was already fully loaded with a miscellaneous cargo of bags of rice and macaroni, light machine guns, ammunition and boxes of “Red Devil” hand grenades. I know this last named article was in the lorry because I found I was sitting on a box of them myself.
So we continued our journey to the camp in the hills. On and on we went, higher and higher the road climbed. At first we passed through many villages, often to be hailed by other fugitives – our driver ignored them and the country grew more open and wild.
It seemed as if we had embarked on a very long journey, and we tried to judge our direction by the stars. Always it seemed to be westwards but the actual distance covered was not great. The circuitous nature of the road due to the mountainous terrain, was responsible for the length of time in travelling.
Then our second bout of trouble began. The petrol gave out. We had to wait by the roadside with not a house in sight until help arrived in the shape of a passing vehicle. And such a vehicle did not materialise quickly. Fortunately it was not cold and the air was still except for a slight breeze. The only noise, apart from our own conversation, was the unbroken shrilling of crickets or cicadas. Then the moon rose and gave a little light to the scene. No other vehicle seemed in sight and most of us tried to get a little sleep by the roadside. A strange contrast to the spring beds and white sheets of the hospital!
Help did come eventually. A truck returning from the camp to Teramo was able to arrange to let us have a little gasoline and on we went. Behind us came a truck with very faulty lights. Its wiring was “shorting” somewhere and as the headlights flickered so the horn would sound, its screech echoing across the lonely hillsides. Our driver and the driver of the truck with the faulty electrics, seemed to think the moonlight an excuse for a big increase in speed. So we roared through the night around a series of hairpin bends taken in true Italian fashion, with complete indifference to the possible consequences.
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Our journey ended quite suddenly and safely and I was not the only one who felt relieved. The road seemed to end abruptly at a high wire fence with tall metal gates. Inside was a fairly large building, a mountain chalet in appearance, where we were greeted by a wild looking individual wearing an Alpine hat and some desperado moustaches. He showed us into some rooms already crowded with sleeping men and we each did as best we could to find sufficient space to lie down. Then we tried to sleep until dawn.
[Subtitle] II : GUERRILLA CAMP
It was not easy to write coherently of events at the guerrilla camp. There was nothing coherent about them and the camp ceased to exist two days after our arrival.
Monte Cepe is, I believe, the name of the site occupied by the chalet. The building is beautifully situated on the skirts of thick beech-woods and an inscription on a stone over the main doorway indicates a height above sea level of approximately 5,000 feet. Up to the chalet gates the road has a good surface but beyond it quickly deteriorates into a mountain track. Evidently the “strada”, as the Italians call it, was brought up to a motoring surface to encourage tourist traffic. The existence of a Fascist monument a short way off would seem to indicate that it was a scheme inaugurated by that regime.
The long dry summer was drawing to its close. All around the sun-baked hillsides waited for the rain which was soon to come. We, that is to say the patients from the military hospital at Teramo, plus a few Royal Army Medical Corps orderlies, found a strange sight awaiting us when we took stock of our surroundings the morning after our arrival. The chalet was filled with materials of various kinds, mostly dried food in the form of rice, macaroni and biscuits. In a garage adjoining the front door were piles of all kinds of military equipment and, to the rear, a heap of rifles and bandoliers close to the large boxes of ammunition.
At first there did not seem to be many men about but it was not long before parties began to arrive from the surrounding hillsides.
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The majority were Italians in uniform and most were very young. Also there was a small group of Yugoslavs and a sprinkling of Americans and English who had escaped from POW camps. These last increased considerably by the following day but many men stayed only to get a little food, possibly some equipment in the form of a shirt, hat or haversack, then continued their way south. No compulsion was placed on them to stop.
The Italians were a motley crew. Many of them were mere boys seeking excitement while many others came solely to get new clothes, some food and then return to their homes. With the cost of a pair of boots at over 1,000 lire and new clothes almost impossible to obtain, it was worth becoming a “guerrilla” for a day or two. Alpine hats with their feather plumes were common and succeeded in creating a kind of comic-opera atmosphere. At times things looked remarkably like a scene from the “Bohemian Girl”.
There was a middle-aged Italian colonel who appeared to be in charge of the camp, several younger Italian officers and two or three Yugoslav lieutenants. The Yugoslavs appeared to have the best idea of what was required but it was soon obvious to me that insufficient control was being exercised by those in charge. It needed a Gideon or a Col. Lawrence with sufficient courage to sort out the wheat from the chaff and set about organising a real centre of resistance to the Germans.
We were told to camp out in the woods below the house and were provided with ground sheets and blankets for the purpose. A Yugoslav lieutenant who spoke English took us in charge as he was obviously of the opinion that the English and Americans were more suitable recruits than the Italians. During the day trucks loaded with all kinds of gear were arriving from Teramo and other nearby towns. It was evident that military stores were being raided and all movable stuff taken away. It is impossible to describe the kit dumped in and around the house but there was enough to fit out several hundred men. One thing I must mention was the 3.7 Hungarian mountain gun complete with ammunition. An attempt was made to organise a crew from among some Royal Artillery men who were with us.
Nothing was known as to the whereabouts of the nearest German forces although it was realised that they were somewhere in the area. During the first morning an Italian officer made a list of our names and capabilities and kit was issued to those who felt they needed it. Personally
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I confined my wants to a leather rifle sling, a new type of bandolier, haversack, two shirts and an Italian “housewife” containing scissors, pins, needles, cotton and buttons. I did not bother about a hat although most of my colleagues were greatly enamoured of the Alpine hats or officers’ caps which were available. One group of Englishmen from my old camp arrayed themselves entirely in officers’ uniform. In my view it was wiser to stick to khaki.
Most of the ex-hospital patients were in no fit condition to indulge in active guerrilla warfare and consequently were not allotted any specific tasks. Others volunteered for all sorts of duties, some of the RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps] men dressing themselves in Italian uniform and carrying arms, going off with parties whose object it was to raid the area and carry off stores which might prove of value to the Germans. There was also a little party which, with the aid of an Italian Army radio set, was trying to get into communication with the Allied forces. Whether they succeeded I do not know. I, with two other Englishmen, was sent to assist in the cookhouse.
Some attempts were made at organisation. I saw an Italian non-commissioned officer instructing, a group of boys in the handling of a rifle, and some of our fellows went away up the hillside for a little firing practice.
On the second morning our Yugoslav lieutenant came and asked for volunteers for raids on the Rome-Aquila road, the only major link over the mountains. Some men were willing but most had no liking for more trouble once they had escaped from the prison camps.
My cook-house duties were not very arduous and I soon made friends with the Italians whose names were Goffredo, Mario and Francisco. Mario was wearing a Soviet “Hammer and Sickle” badge in his hat while Francisco, an old man and last war soldier, obliged us by singing “Tipperary” and “The Internationale”. These men knew their jobs and although the food was cooked over open fires, good meals were served.
During the first day a German spotter plane was seen overhead, a foretaste of things to come.
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I took care to see that my rifle was in good order, cleaning and oiling it.
[Subtitle] III : THE GERMANS ARRIVE
On the morning of the second day some of our men went away by truck for a raid on stores in a nearby town. They were RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps] personnel and wearing civilian clothes. I never saw them again.
The midday meal had been served and we were all relaxing a little when an alarm bell in the chalet began to ring. It was the first time I was aware of such a bell but it was obvious that something serious was afoot. Everybody dived for cover. I went to a spot a few yards from the cook-house to collect my rifle and ammunition only to find that it had been taken and replaced by a rifle which had never been cleaned, and, as I soon found out, with an unworkable bolt.
The alarm bell continued to ring and it was amazing how everybody was disappearing. My object was to get back to the tent where my kit was and this I set about doing. No arrangement having been made for any defensive positions, I did what I considered was the wisest thing and that was to conceal myself in the woods. Before I had gone far I found I was being followed by an Indian named Ragavan, the only one of about thirty who had come with us from the hospital. My rifle was useless, I threw it away.
Ragavan and myself found a place where we could view the road which was the only possible means of approach for wheeled traffic. Unfortunately, it was not possible to observe all the bends so, from first to last, I never actually saw the German trucks nor any Germans. Soon the hills were echoing with bursts of machine gun fire and also some rifle fire. This went on to a greater or lesser degree for about an hour. The mountain gun was wheeled into position and I saw several shells burst on or near the road about a mile away. Evidently the idea was to try and block the road but this did not succeed.
When it appeared obvious that for a while there was not likely to be any more fighting, I returned to the camp which was only a few hundred yards away. Here I found most of my comrades packing up and getting ready to move. They were convinced that the Germans would come back.
I learned that a convoy of light lorries were coming up the road with an escort of closed cars and motor cycles. A group of Italians had opened fire
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with a light machine gun at rather long range and the Germans seemed to have been taken completely by surprise. They panicked and three trucks rolled down the hillside in attempting to turn in a confined space. Two of the closed cars were stopped – one with a burst of fire through the windscreen – and a German major had been captured by the Yugoslavs. The remainder of the convoy got away. One Italian was killed and another badly wounded. As far-as I could gather the Germans were aware of the camp in the hills but were not expecting serious opposition. Their object was to collect the escaped prisoners – hence the number of trucks.
I did not-like the idea of leaving without further thought and returned to the cook-house. There I found Goffreddo who had been down and searched some of the German bodies in the valley. He presented me with a Waldorf-Astoria cigarette and a tin of ham taken from a German haversack. Soon after an Englishman I knew (an RAF [Royal Air Force] sergeant from Camp 70) came up and showed me a tin of Red Cross cocoa and a tin of cheese he had taken from a German.
It was apparent that the majority were leaving the camp while the going was good. I helped Francisco make a fire and cook a meal for the officers, their wives and children who were in the chalet, and also had a good meal myself. Later I was informed that it had been decided it was wisest to break the camp up because the Germans were certain to return in force in the least possible time. The Yugoslavs had formed a party and were making for the higher hills. Some English and Americans were going with them and I also decided to leave. With me were several other men from the hospital and my immediate comrades were a Scotch Tank Corps sergeant and Geoff. Tindall, a sergeant from the RA. [Royal Artillery] The last named was still suffering from the effects of pleurisy. We took what kit we thought we could reasonably carry and set out just as it was growing dark. The sky had clouded, a strong wind was blowing and rain appeared imminent.
[Subtitle] IV : A WILD NIGHT
It did not take me long to realise that this journey by night was not going to be easy. To begin with I was far from fit and my general condition low after a year as a POW. As already mentioned, I was unaware of the spinal trouble until several months later.
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Kit I had decided to carry must have been equal in weight to ordinary Army equipment and that is quite sufficient for a man in good health. I was well laden and soon found the weight overwhelming.
By this time the sky was obscured with heavy clouds and it was almost impossible to see the track. We were climbing but I and my two companions found the pace set by the Yugoslavs and the more fit men of the party too quick. It was not long before we were in the rear. The track grew rougher and several times I stumbled and fell. My one aim was to keep going and I was quickly finding it impossible.
Finally the three of us decided to find a suitable spot and rest until daylight. We laid our groundsheet’s on a grassy patch, covered ourselves with greatcoats, made a pillow of our packs and tried to sleep. It was not a restful interlude, however, because the night was made uneasy by the continual movement around us. Hundreds of Italians appeared to be taking to the hills and there were women with some of the parties. Still, we did sleep a little but towards morning the wind grew rough and finally it began to rain lightly and then very heavily. There was nothing to do but cower under the groundsheet’s and wait for daybreak. Geoff. Tindall was much worse than myself because he had pain in the chest. He complained very little.
It grew light and the rain eased off. I got up and looked round. The track ran steeply upwards through the beech-woods and on all sides was discarded clothing, equipment and even tins of food. Nobody was to be seen and soon the rain was lashing down again while the wind roared with gale fury. My feelings were mixed.
It was the first time I had been out in the world with no sort of shelter and no immediate likelihood of getting any. My two companions seemed in no hurry to get going but we were suddenly disturbed by a small party of Englishmen, who, with an English-speaking Italian, had been trying to mine the road. They were hurrying and were very surprised to find us. “Get going – there is a German patrol coming up”, the Italian said, adding, rather dramatically: “We are going to the Gran Sasso d’Italia “. On they went and were soon out of sight. Shortly after we followed.
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The going was very bad. Heavy rain made the clayey soil very greasy and every step was difficult. Loaded down with kit we made slow progress in the rain. Our Italian groundsheet’s kept the upper parts of our bodies dry but our feet were soon soaking. After struggling on for a while we decided to rest, eat a little food and hope for a break in the clouds.
Our hopes of better weather were soon realised, however. There was a break in the clouds, the rain stopped, the sun shone and we set out once more. As we moved slowly forward the wind, in roaring gusts, seemed to make fun of our efforts. It was my first experience of what wind can be like in mountainous country. Later I was to learn much more about it.
Our object was to try and catch up with the party with which we had started the journey the night before. Tracks were apparent on the ground but they were not distinct and we could not be sure which way to go. The noise of machine-gun fire to our rear finally prompted us to make for the highest ground possible. Further firing indicated that German patrols were searching the woods near the chalet and the greater the distance between us and them the better.
But the journey upwards was not easy. Frequently we had to stop and rest and all three of us discarded our rifles and bandoliers.
At first the woods obscured our view but later we reached a spot where we caught a glimpse of the country round us. To the south, as far as we could see, were steep hills and deep valleys, in fact the backbone of Italy. To our right, at a distance of ten to fifteen miles were the three highest peaks of the “Gran Sasso”. Their crests were shrouded in swiftly moving storm clouds and their general aspect forbidding. Nevertheless, it was a magnificent scene on a grand scale. To me it was country of an entirely new type.
It appeared that the track finally emerged on a grassy plateau sloping sharply away to the south. On this slope was a thick wood and, far below, a tiny village.
We had almost reached the top of the rise when we encountered a patrol of Yugoslavs. They were in the charge of an officer and were making their way back to the chalet where they hoped to get food.
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They told us that their companions and some English were camping on the edge of the plateau and we warned them of the firing we had heard earlier on. Within a few minutes we had found the little encampment and there discovered some of our companions of the previous night and a few men from the hospital, including an RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps] Sergeant and a couple of orderlies. They had erected rough shelters with their groundsheet’s and we decided to do the same close by. A Yugoslav Major was in charge and the plan was to make for the western shoulder of the “Gran Sasso”, come down near Aquila and so southwards towards the Allied Army front. Before starting we were to rest for a day.
We were short of water. Few men had bottles and those who had possessed little water. So it was decided to send out a small party to find a spring. They had not gone long when a Yugoslav, who had been one of the patrol we met earlier, returned in haste to say they had been caught by the Germans and that he was the only one to escape. Consequently it was decided to break camp and get moving as quickly as possible. Geoff. Tindall had gone with the water party and with him was a Greek from the hospital. I did not like going without them but no-one else would stop and, finally, I decided I must go too. It was obvious the Germans were quite close to our heels. So I got my kit and set out but I still feel I should not have deserted Tindall.
Some months later I heard of a man answering his description so it is possible he did not fall into the hands of the Germans at that time.
As I was leaving the camp site I saw an Italian water bottle lying empty alongside a ‘Breda’ gun and a pile of ammunition. I picked the bottle up and slung it over my shoulder. Subsequently it served me very well and eventually I brought it back to England.
Over the side of the windswept hill we went. At any time a German patrol might have come out of the woods and opened fire on us. It was useless for me to try and keep going at the pace being set by the others, especially the Yugoslavs, and so I decided the alternative suggested by Army training was best – I took cover. The woods on the slopes facing south were close at hand and into them I went. It was my intention to work my way to the village below but it was not safe to move far until it grew dusk. So I found what I considered was a safe place of concealment and waited.
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[Subtitle] V : I FIND SHELTER
My afternoon in the shelter of the woods was more or less uneventful. I took good care to remain out of sight but on occasion I cast my eye round the surrounding countryside. What I saw of human movement was little. On the hill above was a shepherd and his flock. Once I noticed he was talking to two men. They appeared to be in dark green uniforms so they were probably Germans. Several times during the remainder of the day I heard stray shots but nothing to indicate any serious fighting.
Finding what I thought was a particularly secluded spot I made a meal, opening the tin of German ham I had been given, eating it with bread and Italian biscuits. For drink I had nothing. Down below, near the village, a stream was flashing in the sun and I determined to reach it as soon as dusk fell.
The journey from the wood, through the little patches of cultivated ground with which the slopes were covered, to the stream and thence on to the village, was not easy. Always I moved with a sense of apprehension, watching for movement at every step. A little group of figures some distance off caught my eye but either I did not interest them or they did not see me. My worst trouble was my back and the general sense of weakness. I felt that only by exercising great care would I make progress and this lengthened the time taken to reach the foot of the slope.
Having been born and brought up on the slopes of the Cotswold’s I am not unaccustomed to hills, but these were on an altogether larger scale, a fact which was to become increasingly apparent in the next few days. Whether I was seen I do not know but Italian peasants are keen-eyed and do not miss much. By the time I had reached the stream it was growing dark. The water was welcome but I was not suffering the extremes of thirst such as experienced in Libya. Having filled my bottle I went down the track towards the village in the hope of finding shelter for the night. My knowledge of Italian consisted of about a dozen words and as it was my first experience of asking for food and shelter with no means of payment, I was apprehensive. Reaching a point where several tracks appeared to converge on the stream, I heard the sound of voices and then the report of two rifles. The firing was something of a shock but I discovered that two villagers coming
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out of the woods had guns and had, apparently, fired them for the fun of it.
A little herd of goats was being driven towards me and with it were two men and several women. I shouted to draw their attention explaining I was an English soldier and that I was sick: (“Inglese soldat; malat” was about all I could manage but it worked).
Conversation was out of the question but they did not show any fear and made it clear I was to follow them. So we entered the village of Fioli and by this time it was quite dark. Through the roughest of rough streets we went until my guide, one of the men, halted and told me to wait in the doorway of a house. He himself went inside and returned a minute or two later, taking me across the road to the opposite house. We climbed some stone steps and emerged into a large but dimly-lit room. A wood fire was burning on the open hearth and the only illumination was from a tiny oil lamp suspended from the mantelpiece. Furnishings seemed of the simplest kind. An old man and woman with a younger middle-aged man were sitting by the fire. My guide explained who I was and what I wanted. Without hesitation the old folk made it clear that I was welcome to food and shelter. For the first time I was experiencing the wonderful hospitality shown by the Italian country folk to necessitous strangers and it was, in some respects, chastening.
From the moment I hid myself in the woods, onwards, I lost all trace of my hospital companions.
[Subtitle] VI – IT SHALL BE GIVEN UNTO YOU
My stay at Fioli lasted two nights and a day. The people in whose house I was took me completely on trust. I could not speak their language and I was a native of a country with whom they had been at war until a fortnight before; yet they never treated me with suspicion and, although my presence was obviously an embarrassment, they never pressed me to go and did everything within their power to make me comfortable.
A note of explanation is called for at this point: Following the collapse of the Mussolini government many Allied prisoners got away from the prison camps and set about trying to link up with the Allied forces to the south. To do this most headed for the mountains where they were less likely to be seen and where the local people were less scared of being
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punished for giving them assistance.
For a while I was with a group of our own men but, because of my health, could not join them in their efforts to get further south. Eventually they left me behind – at my own wish.
On return to England I was able to contact one of this party and he told me that, eventually, they did get through to our lines as they came forward, taking some of their Italian friends with them. Eventually they found an office of the Allied Military Government responsible for liberated territories, and were able to get some small recognition for their Italian companions.
I and those like me who escaped into the mountains behind the German lines, soon found how harsh was the punishment of anyone helping escaped prisoners. The head of the house would be imprisoned (and sometimes shot) and all stock impounded. I actually saw German soldiers drive away a small flock of sheep and goats taken from an Italian family as a punishment.
[Subtitle] VII : REMOTE VILLAGES
Fioli, like so many in that part of Italy, was a tiny village in a deep-sided valley. It’s only connection with the outside world was by narrow tracks quite incapable of taking wheeled vehicles and suitable only for foot passengers and pack animals.
Although sturdily constructed and roofed with large red tiles, the houses were very draughty and offered no form of modern convenience. Sanitary arrangements were very primitive -and often non-existent.
Family life centred round the large open fireplace in the living room. Most cooking was done in a large iron pot suspended from inside the chimney with an adjustable chain. Charcoal braziers were used for more specialised cooking.
Except for the bed there was little real comfort. I never saw an armchair and furniture would consist of a few ordinary chairs and a stool or two.
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Water was obtained from a nearby stream or well and carried and stored in large copper containers. These were often decorated with rough designs and appeared very old.
Sheep, goats and poultry, with possibly a pig or two, found accommodation on the ground floor. Above was the living room, usually reached by a flight of stone steps; above that the sleeping compartments reached by wooden loft ladders. Vacant space was taken up with the storage of grain, potatoes or Indian corn. Windows were very small and rarely opened.
At Fioli I shared my benefactor’s clean double bed and his old mother fed me well on the best the house afforded – spaghetti, meat, eggs and milk. I gave her the remains of a packet of Canadian Red Cross coffee I had in my possession from which she brewed some excellent drinks with the help of goats’ milk. I also tasted, for the first time, the strong green cheese made from ewes’ milk. It is “heady” but excellent as long as one ignores the occasional mite!
It soon became apparent that my friends could offer me shelter for only a short time.
So, for the next few weeks, I moved slowly southwards towards the battle line and over tremendous hills. My only food was what the kind-hearted Italians could spare and I sheltered wherever possible.
This time was not without incident. On one occasion I and other escaped men sheltered in a shallow cave near a dried-up stream. We left hurriedly when a slight earthquake occurred. Then a torrent of water rushed down suddenly from above. The rain had fallen much higher than we were.
[Subtitle] VIII : SHEPHERD’S HUT
For two nights I sheltered in a shepherd’s hut built of logs, covered with ‘turves’ and dug into the hillside. His huge shaggy dog shared what we had and we hunched round a roaring fire at night while the sheep grazed on the grassy slopes roundabout. Once someone with a rifle took a pot shot at us. The bullet whined just over our heads. We saw no one. Roughly cured sheepskins warmed us as we slept.
Once, in a village divided by a mountain torrent, there was great panic when a German patrol arrived. Everyone displayed something white from their windows (a sign of surrender, I suppose) and all were ordered to stay inside.
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A man who rushed out to his son tending sheep on a mountainside was fired at.
We prisoners (some seven or eight) managed to escape capture at this time although I lost contact with the others because of my weakness. Then an old lady came to my rescue. She beckoned me into her house and hid me in the attic until darkness when I had to leave.
During my wanderings I was attired in a British Army greatcoat (a precious possession it was to prove) and I had an old slouch hat. Thus attired, somewhat dirty and unshaven, I must have presented a scarecrow appearance. Two peasant women I encountered one day thought I was a bandit and began taking off their rings to bribe me to behave!
As the days grew shorter the weather grew colder. Eventually I found more permanent shelter in the form of a stone hut with a corrugated iron roof held in place with huge boulders – the tempestuous winds made this necessary.
Inside the hut was straw enough to make a warm bed and occasionally I would go into the nearby village when I was treated with kindness. But everyone knew my troubles would increase once the snow came and, almost daily, I could see the white line coming ever lower on the peaks across the valley.
Then one morning I awoke to find my hut was full of snow blown through the cracks in the stone walls. Outside everything was obscured by a swirling blizzard and I knew my time had come …. I must find shelter in the village.
Eventually I reached there after a great struggle through the drifts and I was given food and shelter. Outside the snow shrouded everything for a time – it came to the top of the door in the house where I stayed. It froze hard each night and, once or twice, in the utter stillness, I heard wolves howling in the distance. News that they raided a sheepfold and killed several animals reached us later.
Sometimes, in the frosty silence, one could stand outside and sense a murmuring or shuddering effect in the atmosphere – it was the guns at the front far away to the south. At this the villagers grew very excited. They thought their time of liberation was drawing near.
Eventually a thaw came with it the opening of tracks. Villagers grew nervous because German patrols were reported nearby.
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I could not stay because of the danger in which I placed my friends.
I told them they must report me as being in the village. They were most reluctant to do this but, eventually, they agreed. There was no other way to escape dire punishment for harbouring escaped prisoners of war.
[Subtitle] IX : PRISONER AGAIN
The moment came (it was on January 19th 1944 – strange that I should remember the date) when two armed German soldiers came to the house looking for me. My hands went above my head. They came forward and searched me. Then their attitude changed and everyone relaxed.
From their very first contact the Germans treated me kindly. They could see I was very shaky and had difficulty in walking, especially in mountainous country.
They (a sergeant and a private who later linked up with a larger patrol in the valley 2,000 ft below) insisted that I have a glass of wine with them at the local wine shop and then that I should share a meal which had been prepared by the local Fascist party member in the village (he did not approve).
Later I shared a bed (a huge affair with brass rails) with the same two soldiers. They slept the sleep of the very tired while I, awake, and staring round the room illuminated by moonlight through the frost-encrusted window, noted their weapons and ammunition hanging from a hook on the wall.
The journey from this village to civilisation in the form of the road which runs over the backbone of Italy in those parts, was very difficult because of the rough terrain and very deep snow. My condition added to my personal problem but at one very bad, steep patch, the NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] in charge ordered his most hefty soldier to pick me up and carry me down. I was a lot lighter in those days!
We reached something equivalent to a police station on the main road and there the German soldiers – by this time around 20 in number – demanded a meal. There were objections from the Italians, food was short and so on. Nevertheless, great dishes of spaghetti, meat, etc., together with flasks of red wine did appear and the Germans insisted that “Tommy” (me) should share it and have as much as I liked. My capacity was limited – illness, months on a low diet and general debility, had considerably disturbed my digestion. However, they meant well.
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Then I was taken back – to Teramo – the town from which I had escaped about five months before.
I was the only prisoner with the German platoon housed in a bank manager’s residence in Teramo for about a week. Later other re-captured prisoners came and we were all put under guard in an attic.
Only one man could speak English when I first arrived and, eventually, he asked if I would like a book to read. Naturally I said I would and he produced a copy of John Buchan’s study of Augustus Caesar which I had read about two years before!
The Germans were very annoyed when one of our number, an officer in the South African Army (who was in civilian clothes), made a successful escape while we were cutting logs in the yard. Later two others in our group tried to get out by tying blankets together and lowering themselves three storeys down to the ground. The blanket tore across and one was thrown heavily to the ground and badly injured.
Following this the NCO [Non-Commissioned Officer] in charge rushed into our room brandishing an automatic pistol, but he did not fire. Instead, our rations were stopped for two days.
A soldier came in one day, walked to the window, looked down to the street below, then walked out, throwing two packets of cigarettes on our camp beds as he did so. “I am an Austrian” he said. A S. African with us had a good grasp of German.
Then we were sent off under guard to a camp at Aquila on the other side of the mountains where, very strangely, we were inspected by a group of Japanese diplomats (well equipped with cameras), who were told we were a particularly dangerous group recently rounded up in the mountains.
It was at Aquila where I was put into a field hospital and my trouble (T.B. in the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae) diagnosed.
Then, in stages, I was moved back to other hospitals, many of them in adapted buildings such as schools. In one of them I had a plaster made for my spine in a headmaster’s study.
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I was in Perugia for a few days, then in Monticateni, a spa near Florence, and, eventually, in some sort of collecting centre at Padua in Northern Italy, our last stop before being put on a train which took us through the Brenner Pass to Innsbruck and, eventually, to a place called Konigswartha, near Bautzen in East Germany. There was deep snow and hard frost all the way from Innsbruck to the end of our journey.
[Subtitle] X : STRANGE INTERLUDE
One day, during this time of travel, I was put on a train due to go to Germany some time before the actual departure from Padua. The train lay in a siding and I seemed to be the only prisoner in my section. All the other cases were severely wounded German soldiers (I noted that their bandages were of paper). Suddenly, there was a call for all the staff to leave and report for a conference.
This conference went on for a long time and many of the patients began to need attention in the shape of bottles and pans. I heard desperate cries for the “Sani” (orderly) and eventually I crawled out of my own bunk and did what I could to help with bottles and pans.
Later the staff returned and we were all taken off the train. It was needed even more urgently to pick up wounded from the Anzio beach-head which had just opened.
Stalag IVA, where I finally arrived in Germany, was a POW hospital and, I believe, a former mental home. It was right out in the country and it became pleasant with the warmer weather. T.B. cases were placed outside a balcony to benefit from sun and fresh air. Food was the best we had had for a long time.
There were Russian prisoners in the place but they were in a special compound and very poorly treated.
We had books from the Red Cross at Geneva, some of them of excellent quality.
Practically all the Allied forces (with the exception of the Americans), were represented in IVA.
An international medical commission arrived around May or June and seemed to be composed of Swiss Army doctors whose uniform reminded me of French gendarmes or General de Gaulle.
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I was taken into them on a stretcher and they looked through my records and asked a number of questions. Later I learnt that I had been recommended for repatriation.
The great day came about the end of August 1944 when we were moved to another camp (run by French), and eventually (in the middle of a moonlight night), put on flat four-wheeled horse-drawn trucks and taken to a huge hospital train (adapted from International Wagon-Lits sleeping cars), pulled into a siding which seemed miles from anywhere.
On the train conditions were, to us, quite luxurious. We had German orderlies and the medical care was of the best.
On our way to the Baltic we saw a good deal of war damage (once, in a forest, we passed a highly camouflaged factory which had almost been flattened by our bombers). In Berlin the damage we saw was vast. Many streets, even with houses standing, seemed deserted. Gardens of better class houses were full of fruit trees from which unwanted apples and pears were hanging.
The Metro was still running, but, as we passed through one marshalling yard, we saw hundreds of smashed rail vehicles of one sort and another.
In one big station our train was put under an armed guard but we were able to see the crowds greeting other trains bringing wounded from the Russian front.
[Subtitle] XI : ACROSS THE BALTIC.
From Berlin we ran through fine open country with many trees and lakes until we reached Sassnitz, the train-ferry port for Sweden.
I saw the German guards giving up their arms before we set out and, after sailing three miles, Swedish attendants came and told us we were free. Shortly afterwards I was very sea-sick; my stomach could not cope with the erratic motions of the open stern of our train ferry through which, from my cot, I could see the turbulent water of the Baltic!
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At the train ferry port of Tralleborg we were given a remarkable welcome led off by two Salvation Army officers who greeted us in English. So enthusiastic was everyone that it was hard to accept that the Swedes were neutral. We were also kindly treated by people from the English (or rather Scotch) colony involved in the match and timber trade…they gave us huge boxes of matches to help with the equally huge boxes of Chesterfield cigarettes American visitors handed round.
The plan was to move us northwards to the port of Gothenburg where we were to be taken over by British representatives and placed on board the “Arundel Castle” (18,000 tons), one of three liners engaged, under Red Cross protection, to take us back to England.
It was night when our train finally drew out of Tralleborg. Everything was brilliantly lit (no black-out there), and people crowded on the platforms and in the windows of houses overlooking the station. Cheer after cheer went up as an electric locomotive drew us out of the station and a Swedish Army band played “God save the King” and “The Star Spangled Banner”.
As we went along and passed through stations railway officials could be seen standing at the salute.
At Gothenburg the Swedes took their farewells. I was in a coach visited by a baroness who was head of the Swedish Red Cross. She spoke to me and also an admiral of the Swedish navy representing the Crown Prince.
On the “Arundel Castle” things quickly reverted to a much more British and military state of affairs but not before those who, like myself, were in cot beds, had had a few kind words from Sir Victor Mallet, British Minister to Sweden.
We stayed a further night in port and were entertained by choirs singing from the dock side. Early next morning our ship began to move and although I was confined to bed I could see people thronging the buildings alongside. Great cheers went up and my last memory of Sweden is of a vast crowd singing “Roll out the barrel”.
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[Subtitle] XII : HOME AT LAST
We were lucky in the calm weather which favoured our voyage north, through the Faroe Islands and then down the west coast of Scotland to Birkenhead. There were cheers when we sighted a British naval squadron in the North Sea.
Our reception at Birkenhead was even more dramatic than the send-off at Gothenburg but my story is near its end.
I was taken to a hospital at Birkenhead, then, sometime later, moved by train to a military hospital at Swindon near Cheltenham. Eventually I became a patient at Standish House, Stonehouse, where I was kept quiet and well cared for until fit enough to undergo a massive spine-graft operation at Cheltenham General Hospital.
The surgery was a success and, a year or two later, I was able to pick up the threads of my civilian life and settle down to the less exciting task of earning my living.
All went well and I was able to carry on normally and in reasonably good health until retirement came in 1976.
And why did I leave this narrative lying unused for 40 years ? Well, many others experienced conditions similar to my own. Books were published and some became best-sellers. There seemed little purpose in adding my own story at that time.
Then, a short while ago, I found the old MSs and, naturally, it revived memories of those extraordinary days. Some might be interested to read my tale, I thought, and that is why this booklet has been compiled.
J.C.S December 1984