Captain Pat Spooner escaped from PG 19 Bologna together with Captain Jimmie Fergusson. Making their way South by train and foot, they teamed up with partisans who wanted to cross the allied lines to gain equipment for sabotage efforts against the Axis forces. Capt Fergusson crossed the lines but was unable to persuade the Allies to provide equipment but was tasked with returning to enemy territory to facilitate the escape of two British Generals and an Air Vice Marshal. This they eventually managed after five dangerous and frustrating unsuccessful attempts.
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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NOTHING VENTURE, NOTHING WIN
by Pat Spooner
Nought venter nought have
Proverbs, John Heywood (1546)
Nothing venture, nothing win –
Blood is thick, but water’s thin –
In for a penny, in for a pound –
It’s Love that makes the world go round!
Iolanthe, W. S. Gilbert (1882)
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my dear friend, Jimmie
the late Lieutenant Colonel J. Y. Ferguson MBE MC
The Royal Scots
all those brave Italians, from all walks of life, especially the courageous contadini, who risked their lives to help us on our way to freedom.
“He goes seeking liberty, which is so dear,
as he knows who for it renounces life”.
Divine Comedy – Inferno
Dante Alighieri (1265 -1321)
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NOTHING VENTURE, NOTHING WIN
|No of words||No of pages|
|CH 1 “For you the war is over”||9,000||19|
|CH 2 Captive in Chieti|
|CH 3 Flight to Freedom||19,500||43|
|CH 4 Undercover in Burma||8,000||17|
|CH 5 Justice in Java||15,000||33|
|CH 6 Back to Burma||17,000||37|
|CH 7 Sunset in Southeast Asia||15,000||33|
|Western Desert (ch 1)||1|
|Italy (ch 3)||1|
|Burma (ch 4)||1|
|Southeast Asia (ch 5)||1|
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MAP OF ESCAPE AREA
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PART ONE: “For you the war is over!”
At the tender age of twenty one my war was brought to an abrupt, inglorious standstill. During the night of Wednesday, 17th June 1942, in the western deserts of North Africa, near Tobruk, I was rudely deprived of my liberty by crack German panzer troops.
The fact of being taken prisoner is so overwhelming a disaster that for days one fails to grasp its significance, let alone its reality. Losing one’s freedom is degrading, a devastating deprivation, akin, one imagines, to the loss of virginity through rape. Lurking in the subconscious of the combatant lies a tacit acceptance of the prospect of being killed or wounded on the field of battle. Yet the thought of being put “in the bag” scarcely enters one’s head, the possibility too remote even to contemplate.
I had survived ten months of uneventful active service with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Gurkha Rifles in Iraq. Much to my surprise, in April 1942 I was sent on the much-prized course at the Middle East Intelligence School, at Helwan, outside Cairo. I left Baghdad on 10th April in a rickety civilian motor coach, its springs much the worse for wear, which followed the rough, bumpy road that ran alongside the oil pipe line all the way to Syria. The 600-mile trek through the Syrian Desert took three long, wearisome days. We stopped at night to allow the driver to sleep, starting again at dawn as the sun’s first rays peeked over the far horizon, with frequent breaks in the heat of the day to give the steaming radiator a chance to simmer down.
On the third day we skirted the southern end of the Sea of Galilee. Descending slowly into the fertile valley of the Jordan we approached the land of milk and honey. Starved of greenery for so many months, it was heart-lifting suddenly to see green grass, orchards of fruit trees, sparkling streams, birds (other than vultures) and wild wayside flowers. One realised then how Moses must have felt as he led the Israelites out of their Egyptian bondage across the desert into the Promised Land.
The bus rattled through Nazareth, scattering groups of children in a cloud of dust, and reached Haifa in time for me to catch the night train to Ismailia, 300 miles south on the Suez Canal. Exhausted from the long, tiring journey, I quickly fell into a deep sleep. Suddenly I was awakened by a wondrous sound. For a moment I thought I had died – that this was a celestial choir greeting my arrival at the gates of Heaven. Then I realised we had stopped at a large station (Tel-Aviv, in fact) and the carriages in the train alongside ours were packed with Jewish schoolgirls singing softly in melodic harmony.
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At Ismailia I changed trains for the final run to Cairo. Waiting for the train to leave, I saw a young lady in uniform coming down the platform. Would she, I wondered, enter my compartment which, but for myself, was otherwise empty? Half of me hoped she would, and battled with the other half overcome with timidity and shyness born of many months bereft of female company. When, miraculously, she appeared at the door and asked if she could join me, I was tongue-tied and muttered something unintelligible. She was, she informed me, a sergeant with the South African gunners. She had served in a coastal defence unit near Cape Town, and was on her way to join another unit in Cairo. She was attractive (but then almost any Caucasian female would have seemed so to me at that point), cheerful and bright.
Over the next two hours I gradually thawed, losing my nervousness and delighting in the novelty of conversing with a member of the opposite sex. On arrival in Cairo I plucked up courage to invite her to dine with me, promising to call her when I knew where I was staying. She responded graciously and said she would look forward to hearing from me. Sadly, I lost her address, and never saw her again.
The course started on 20th April so I was able to take several days welcome leave sampling the fleshpots of Cairo. It was marvellous to be in a metropolitan city after so long in the arid deserts of Iraq. Rooms were scarce, but I was lucky to find one at the Grand Hotel (a gross misnomer) in the heart of Cairo. I found myself sharing with a young South African officer in the Corps of Engineers. He was friendly and easy-going, if rather shy, and a delightful companion. He had been on active service in Eritrea and Abyssinia, and was enjoying a week’s leave before rejoining his unit in the western desert. Modest and frugal in his ways, he even did his own laundry, washing his “smalls” in the basin and hanging them out of the window to dry. We spent a memorable evening together getting pleasantly plastered at a popular night club boasting the finest belly dancers in the Middle East.
The day after he left, someone came to the door asking for “Captain Jan Smuts”. Astonished, I enquired: “Any relation to the Field Marshal?” “Yes”, came the reply. “His eldest son”.
* * * * *
Helwan stands on the Nile, twenty miles south of Cairo, and from the Intelligence School the Pyramids were plainly visible. It was almost unbearably hot and humid, not at all conducive to the application of intelligent thought processes demanded of the students. The course, condensed from three months to three weeks to cater for the urgent needs of the military, was intensive, mentally exhausting and even physically demanding. The “cloak and dagger” aspect, however, appealed to the innately secretive side of my nature.
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From 7 am to late at night we were pushed to our limits. Harassed instructors crammed our heads with every conceivable facet of intelligence work: how to identify German and Italian military, naval and air force units; the coding and decoding of clandestine messages; enemy orders of battle; the collection, collation and dissemination of information about enemy dispositions; methods of interrogating captured enemy personnel, and much more besides.
During the last few days we were subjected to rigorous tests and frantic exercises to determine our suitability to become fully fledged intelligence officers. One over-zealous instructor, in an attempt to emulate battle conditions, suddenly flung wide the windows to expose the papers and maps neatly laid out on our desks to a near hurricane force gust of wind. This had the desired catastrophic effect, severely testing our ability to remain cool, calm and collected under adverse conditions, such as one might encounter in the heat of battle.
The course finished on 16th May and I was posted to my old brigade (the 20th Indian Infantry) as Brigade Intelligence Officer. Meanwhile (and unknown to me), my battalion, the 2nd 8th Gurkha Rifles, had been transferred from the 20th to the 21st Indian Infantry Brigade, both under the command of the 10th Indian Division, Iraq.
The staff captain I saw at the General Headquarters, Cairo, was strangely reticent as to the location of the Brigade to which I had been assigned. Not wishing to embarrass him, or to show off my newly acquired intelligence acuity, I refrained from mentioning that the previous day I had spotted a column of army transport, emblazoned with the 10th Indian Divisional signs, driving slap through the centre of Cairo in broad daylight. So much, I reflected morosely, for military security in a city widely known to be teeming with enemy agents and others vociferously longing for the German displacement of the British.
I was told to report back to GHQ in ten days’ time, when he hoped to have more precise information. “And in the meantime, old boy, how about going on another course?”
As an embryonic intelligence officer, keen to impress, I readily agreed. And so, the following day I found myself seated next to an attractive WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) officer, and peering myopically through a magnifying glass at enlarged aerial photographs. The object of the Course was to teach army and RAF officers how to interpret photographs of enemy positions taken from the air. Photos, shot in pairs at slightly different angles, when placed side by side and looked at with one eye through a magnifying glass mounted on metal legs, become miraculously stereoscopic, the combined images giving the impression of three-dimensional depth and solidity.
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A stack of 10″ x 8″ black-and-white prints landed on our desks first thing each morning. We were invited to record what we could detect, from the shape and pattern of shadows cast onto the ground, as being potential enemy gun emplacements, tanks, parked aircraft and so on, however ingeniously concealed by camouflage. To the initiated it was, we were assured, perfectly possible to assess the precise depth, to the nearest inch, of a slit trench photographed from 5,000 feet or more.
By the end of the first day I was cross-eyed and confused, my pile of photographs only marginally reduced. Vainly, I struggled to find anything remotely suspect, from time to time glancing furtively at the adjacent WAAF’s desk for helpful clues. She and her two fellow WAAFs, however, made short work of their respective piles and departed, looking faintly smug, well before the afternoon tea break. Discreet enquiries revealed that these paragons were there on a “refresher” course. They were, in fact, ace operators from the War Office in London, where their P.I.U. (Photo Interpretation Unit) had successfully identified such sophisticated and vital strategic targets as German submarine pens in Baltic ports.
* * * * *
Ten days and several hundreds of photographs later I reported back to GHQ, this time to be told to make my way to Alexandria, the main Egyptian port on the Mediterranean. There I would receive my marching orders for joining the Brigade to which I had been posted, and which, it now transpired, was firmly entrenched “somewhere in the Libyan desert”.
Early next morning, after a final night “on the town”, I took the train to Alexandria where I booked into the Cecil Hotel on the sea front. Entering the lobby brought back memories of my previous visit. In March 1940, I had been one of forty keen young ULIA (Unattached List of the Indian Army) officers, fresh from Sandhurst, who had stopped off in Alex en route to India. A dozen of us were to join Gurkha battalions; the others had been assigned to Indian cavalry and infantry units.
We had crossed the English Channel on a dark and stormy night, the sea so rough that I vowed never again to go by boat to France. Lying immobilized on a bunk, wishing for a speedy end to the nightmare, my prayers were answered by a loud bang and the sound of rushing waters. Convinced we had hit a mine I lurched to my feet only to discover that some idiot, stumbling down the stairwell, had dislodged a large fire extinguisher from its bracket on the wall. Foam gushed in every direction, creating instant panic, followed by hysterical laughter amongst the other occupants of the cabin. Somehow, my own sense of humour had deserted me.
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A train transported us through France to Marseilles where we embarked on a troopship crammed with troops destined for the Middle East and beyond. There was nothing for us to do except eat, drink, read, play card games and sleep. The food was excellent, drinks were cheap and all we lacked was female company. The sole members of the fair sex on board were the wife and two teenage daughters of General Wavell, G.O.C. Middle East, who were joining him in Cairo. None of our group, however, was bold or brash enough to court their company. A few high-spirited members found it amusing, after dinner, to seat themselves in the lounge within hearing distance of the Wavell ladies and tell risque stories. For a while, the unfortunate Lady Wavell, acutely embarrassed, would endure this childish behaviour, a pained expression on her patrician features, before bustling her blushing offspring away to the safety of their cabins.
* * * * *
Although we were part of a small convoy, escorted by a destroyer, there were no “alarums or excursions” during our passage through the Mediterranean. It was three months before the Italians entered the war, and the German navy and airforce were not yet active in that area. Indeed, I recall no blackout of the ship itself or at any of the ports where we stopped.
We stopped briefly in Malta and arrived a few days later at Alexandria, where we were given shore leave. Another ULIA officer and I made our way to the well-known Cecil Hotel for a drink before lunch. Standing self-consciously in the lobby, I saw General Wavell enter the hotel with his family in tow. His well-starched khaki bush-shirt, bedecked with rows of ribbons, the scarlet tabs on his lapels, the scarlet headband and the gold oakleaf embroidery around the peak of his cap, combined to make his appearance awesomely intimidating to a very junior subaltern.
To my consternation the General marched straight up to us, leaned ominously forward, and demanded to know who we were and where we were bound. For an awful moment I thought he was about to confront us with the insulting behaviour suffered by his wife and daughters on board ship. I stammered something about being on our way to India. Wavell smiled broadly, shook our hands warmly, wished us good luck and promptly whisked his family off to the dining room. My relief was such that I almost saluted the General bareheaded and capless – a heinous military crime.
I was often to recall this encounter during my army career. General Wavell was a brilliant and much loved commander who was held in the highest esteem, not least by Winston Churchill himself. Later, as Field Marshal the Earl Wavell, he became Commander-in-Chief, India. His anthology of poetry “Other Men’s Flowers,” comprising all the poems he could repeat from memory, was a constant companion and comfort during the latter stages of my army career.
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* * * * *
Considerable confusion reigned in the Western Desert during May and June 1942 when Rommel renewed his offensive, with Egypt as his goal. Once again, I experienced difficulty in determining the precise whereabouts of my elusive Brigade. A sympathetic staff officer at the headquarters in Alexandria suggested politely that I “proceed forthwith” (a popular phrase in army jargon) in the direction of Tobruk, and “there to ask again”.
I arranged to hitch a ride with an Indian captain, a Field Cashier, whose 15cwt truck was loaded with steel boxes, stuffed with cash with which to pay the troops in Tobruk. Moreover, he seemed better informed than the staff officer, confiding that my Brigade was very likely in the vicinity of Sidi Rezegh, not far south of Tobruk itself, and offered to deliver me there safely.
Next day, we set off early and followed the coast road, reaching Sidi Barrani, some two hundred miles away, in the late afternoon. We stayed overnight in a transit camp, the truck parked safely in front of the guard room. Next morning we drove for a further one hundred and fifty miles, still on the coast road, passing through the derelict towns of Sollum and Bardia, until we reached the road that ran due south to Sidi Rezegh. Here, we were confronted by a military policeman who told us that a tank battle was in progress several miles down the road near Sidi Rezegh. Under the circumstances, and having no desire to become prematurely embroiled in a battle, we headed at some speed for the dubious safety of Tobruk.
* * * * *
On 26 May, Rommel launched his major offensive aimed at destroying our armoured forces in the desert and capturing Tobruk. His initial efforts failed miserably, and he suffered severe losses in men and material.
During the first week of June he renewed his attacks on positions southwest of Tobruk, including those of the Free French Brigade ar Bir Hacheim, and succeeded in regaining the initiative. German 88’s, equally effective as ack-ack and anti-tank guns, wrought widespread havoc. By the end of the second week of June, our armour, outgunned and outmanoeuvred by the German Mark 3 and 4 tanks in the fierce battles for possession of the area known as the “Cauldron” (between El Adam and “Knightsbridge”), was forced to withdraw towards Tobruk.
The brigade I was to join was holding the Sidi Rezegh “box”, twenty five miles southeast of Tobruk. The two other brigades of the 10th Indian Division occupied similar “boxes” fifteen miles further west, at Belhamed and Gambut.
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There was a perceptible air of despondency in Tobruk. The general opinion was that the fortress could not endure another siege. For one thing there were food supplies for only ninety days. Secondly, as I quickly discovered, it was subjected daily to devastating air attacks. Taking advantage of their air superiority, hundreds of Stukas would descend on Tobruk in long, screaming dives, scattering their deadly bombs far and wide, inflicting severe damage on ordinance workshops, engineer parks, ammunition dumps, NAAFFI stores and other vital targets.
The garrison’s air defences were insufficient to prevent such determined attacks. Anti-aircraft guns put up intensive “box barrages”, every available machine gun was brought to bear on the diving planes, and rifles were fired from slit trenches, all to little effect.
Water was so scarce a desalination plant struggled to process sea water for drinking purposes: but it was scarcely drinkable. You filled a glass one-third with gin (if you were lucky), one-third with lime juice, topping it up with water, and you could still taste the chlorine.
* * * * *
At last, news came that the road to Sidi Rezegh was clear. The German attempt to capture the airfield had been beaten off; the Sidi Rezegh “Box”, one of several defensive positions running south from the coast, had been vacated by the 21st Indian Infantry Brigade (of which my battalion, the 2nd 8th Gurkha Rifles, was part) and was now occupied by the 20th, my old brigade from Iraq.
I reported for duty in a cramped underground bunker which served as the Brigade Headquarters. The Brigadier, eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep, welcomed me back and wished me well. The Brigade Major (his senior staff officer) briefly outlined the situation which he calmly, but not reassuringly described as “rather critical, if not exactly desperate”.
My first impression was of a dogged determination to hang on to the “Box” at all costs. The second, in contrast, was of a sense of vague confusion: noone seemed to have much idea of the enemy’s dispositions, nor what they were likely to do. “It’s what’s known, Pat, as the fog of war”, the BM explained grimly. This was caused, no doubt, by the fluidity of the battles that had raged in the area for several days, including the one that had precluded my earlier arrival.
My immediate task was to endeavour to determine the composition and whereabouts of any German forces lurking in our vicinity. Trying hard not to duck every time a shell burst nearby, I busied myself studying signals and situation reports, quizzing staff officers and anyone coming within earshot, making contact by radio and field telephone with divisional and battalion
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intelligence officers, and marking up my meagre findings in coloured crayons on the perspex-covered brigade situation map.
One of our reconnaissance patrols identified a concentration of German tanks on an escarpment a mile or so southwest of our “Box”. Immediately, I called up the RAF base at El Adem, a few miles to our rear, giving them the map reference of the reported tank assembly. Within minutes, I had the vicarious thrill of hearing a squadron of our fighter-bombers thunder overhead, and moments later, the distant crump of bombs exploding, hopefully on target. This afforded a strange, satisfying sense of power which, sadly, was to prove ephemeral.
Following recently-learned textbook procedures, I interrogated a German soldier, caught the night before on patrol near our wire perimeter fence. The youth, however, was singularly unforthcoming. Apart from giving the minimum statutory information -name, rank and number – no amount of persuasion, subtle or otherwise, would extract anything that might help to identify German units or their intentions. On the contrary he was cockily that his spell in captivity would be short-lived. I was left with the uneasy suspicion that he knew something I didn’t.
Within a week of my arrival our Brigade was suddenly, and without warning, ordered to withdraw, under cover of darkness, to the coast road. (One’s own side carries out a “tactical withdrawal”, by the way: only the enemy “retreats”). There, the 30cwt trucks, already on their way from a rear staging area, would turn about, pick up the three battalions of infantry, plus “odds and sods”, and transport them back towards Mersa Matruh, where the Brigade was to reform.
Together with another staff officer I rode in a station wagon driven by a swarthy Sikh soldier. Bumping along the rough track that led northwards through the barbed-wire perimeter defences, we came across an ambulance that, moments before, had strayed off the track and detonated a mine, blowing the front end into a tangled wreck. Fortunately, the driver and wounded occupants had escaped injury and were safely transferred to another vehicle.
An hour or so later, we reached the coast road and turned sharp right towards the Egyptian frontier. After a few miles, I spotted our Brigadier on the roadside, bending over an abandoned 15 cwt lorry, calmly extracting the battery. “Can’t afford to let this fall into Jerry’s hands”, he declared righteously. He must have spent twenty vital minutes performing this inane salvage operation. Then, ordering us to give him a five-minute head start, he drove off into the dusty darkness.
We had covered a short distance when, perched precariously on the roof of the station wagon and peering ahead in the pitch dark, I saw what I took to be empty oil drums on either side of the road. Suddenly these objects leapt to life as a dozen German soldiers
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surrounded the car, brandishing sub-machine guns, and shouting “Raus! Raus!” (“Get out! Get out!”). These troops, it later transpired, were the advance guard of a Panzer Brigade assigned to sweep round from the south in a broad arc and cut off 10th Indian Division’s line of withdrawal. In fact, they must have reached the road just seconds before, as I later learned that the Brigadier had got through safely. Had he not been so hell-bent on the salvation of one miserable car battery, we would have escaped the ambush and been spared the miseries of many months’ captivity. Such, as they say, are the fortunes of war.
Guarded by a youthful, blond-haired stormtrooper, we were forced to squat on the sand, in the bitterly cold night air, while the German infantry prepared to ambush the rest of our Brigade. Impotently, we watched the quiet, ruthless efficiency with which they set the trap. Soon, the faint squeals of tank and carrier tracks and the drone of engines were heard as the motorised column, with dog-tired men asleep in the backs of the lorries, came rumbling slowly towards us.
Next, we heard the whispered “stand by” orders to the German gunners, followed a moment later by the barked “Feuer!”, whereupon all hell broke loose. Star shells illuminated the exposed column; and withering streams of tracer bullets and mortar shells rained on the hapless troops as they leapt, stunned and bleary-eyed, from their lorries and ran for cover to escape the cold-blooded slaughter.
Somehow, a group of gallant Gurkhas succeeded in mounting a brief but abortive counter-attack. Their rifle and machine-gun fire forced us to flatten ourselves in the sand, while our boyish guard, with commendable courage, remained upright, unflinching. The thought of being on the receiving end of slashing kukris did little to improve my morale, already at its lowest ebb.
* * * * *
When dawn broke, the scene was one of utter devastation. As far as the eye could see the desert was littered with burning lorries, dead and wounded everywhere. German stretcher parties attended the scattered casualties: pathetic groups of British Gurkha and Indian prisoners were slowly herded into an ever expanding laager beside the road.
Later that day, we saw a column of German transport rapidly approaching us from the east. It was customary for both sides in this fluid desert, so-called “gentlemen’s” warfare to abandon prisoners whenever circumstances demanded a withdrawal. However, our hopes were soon dashed by the appearance, in an open staff car, of the legendary Rommel himself. To our astonishment, the Fieldmarshal (as he had just been appointed by Hitler) personally disentangled a traffic jam right in front of us, his barked orders accompanied by much springing to attention and sharp saluting. The German officer in charge of us said, with
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undisguised relish, that Rommel was returning personally to direct the capture of Tobruk before launching his assault on Egypt.
In this theatre of war, if not in others, German troops, on Rommel’s explicit orders, and also perhaps from a sense of mutual respect, were punctilious in their treatment of Allied prisoners. “For you the war is over” declared the interrogating officer, with a hint of envy. PoW were not, however, the responsibility of front line troops, and the next day we were handed over to the Italians, whom the Germans openly despised as “the jackals of Rommel’s desert army – useless, scented, degenerate creatures, utterly unwarlike”. Conversely, and with equal fervour, the Italians loathed and feared the Germans.
An officious capitano of the Ariete Division (strictly backroom boys) took charge of our small, disconsolate band of British officers. A Gilbert and Sullivan character, he was resplendent in waisted uniform, polished riding boots and sun helmet adorned with crimson plumes. He reeked, moreover, of cheap scent and brilliantine. After endless delays, this preening pretty boy and his minions herded us onto large, open Lancia diesel trucks into which we were crammed like cattle, and forced to stand, without food or water, in the fierce midday sun.
The long line of transport waited at the road-side for the order to move off. After two hours, driven desperate with thirst, I risked life and limb by jumping over the tailgate and crawling beneath the truck behind. Feverishly, I opened the radiator drain tap and swallowed the filthy fluid – warm, brackish, oily – as it dripped slowly into my gaping mouth. Hearing the barked orders for the convoy to move off, I clambered back on board, mercifully unscathed but my thirst unquenched.
Skirting Tobruk, we passed German 88’s lined up in a wide arc, almost wheel-to-wheel, pouring an almost continuous barrage of murderous fire into the hapless beleaguered garrison. It was a dispiriting sight.
Two days later, after a harrowing journey of some three hundred miles along the Cyrenaica coast, and twice machine-gunned by the RAF, we reached the port of Benghazi. En route, we stopped overnight in a filthy, fly-infested prison at Derna, sleeping on rush mats on the concrete floor. After a gap of fifty-three years memory plays strange tricks. But never shall I forget that particular night. With the bright moonlight streaming through the barred cell windows, a dozen officers from the South Wales Borderers sang in soft, sweet harmony the haunting melodies of traditional Welsh songs. I can still hear, too, their poignant renderings of “Abide with me” and “Land of our Fathers”.
Once a day we were fed Italian hard rations, consisting usually of a four-inch square, yellowish dog biscuit, a half-pound tin of carne bollito (probably horse meat), and small lumps of stale
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bread. Very soon most of us developed “gippy-tummy”, a moderate form of dysentery which saps one’s strength and lowers one’s resistance to more virulent infections. Survival is the chief preoccupation: any thoughts of escape diminish rapidly as the body weakens and the spirit succumbs to a sense of resignation and dire despondency.
* * * * *
Our brief sojourn in Benghazi, where we were incarcerated in a disused warehouse, was punctuated by RAF bombing raids on a nearby airfield. These attacks, heart-warming though they were, nevertheless caused us no small unease, the bombs too often falling perilously close to our makeshift camp, the RAF pilots blissfully unaware of our existence. But our discomfort was as nothing compared to the fearful alarm and confusion created amongst our Italian guards, who disappeared like rabbits into their warren, to reappear only when the aircraft had long gone.
From there we were flown in an ancient Savoia transport plane to Lecce, on the heel of Italy, and then taken to a deserted tobacco factory, commandeered by the Red Cross as a temporary transit camp for officer prisoners. A few days later we were moved by train to a much larger transit camp on the outskirts of the port of Bari, on the Adriatic coast.
At Bari we joined several hundred officer PoW, all recently captured in the Western Desert. Many had been caught in Tobruk, and from them we learned the dismal story of its capitulation on 20th June . The garrison had consisted of the 2nd South African Division plus a Guards Brigade and the 11th Brigade of the 4th Indian Division (comprising the 2nd 7th Gurkha Rifles, the 5th Mahrattas and the Cameron Highlanders), a total of 33,000 men, one-third of whom were non-combatants, such as service corps personnel.
The German offensive started on the 13 June. The 15th and 21st Panzer Division and the 90th Light Infantry Division attacked the Gazala line with ferocity, and the Luftwaffe intensified their raids, bombing ammunition and storage dumps by night, a departure from their former daylight raids.
Official records relate that Churchill, concerned about the grave situation in North Africa, ordered General Auchinlech, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, to leave Cairo and take over personal command of the desert battle from General Ritchie But by then it was too late.
On 14th June, Churchill telegraphed the Auk (as he was known): “Presume there is no question …. of giving up Tobruk. As long as Tobruk is held no serious enemy advance into Egypt is possible……” Next day, the Auk replied: “… I have no intention whatever of giving up Tobruk…”. He went on to assure Churchill that General Ritchie considered the Tobruk garrison
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adequate to hold it “even if it should become temporarily isolated by the enemy”.
On the night of 16/17 June (the night I was captured) the coast road was cut, leaving Tobruk once again in a stage of siege. Rommel was hot in pursuit of our forces, retreating in some disarray towards El Alamein, 700 miles to the east.
Even though the fortress was surrounded by a 36-mile perimeter of mine fields, anti-tank ditches and barbed wire, its defences had been badly neglected over the past six months and were in very poor shape.
The commander of the garrison was General Klopper, an Africaner and a controversial character. Later on, discussing the fall of Tobruk with non-Africaners in our camp, the whole conduct of the defence of Tobruk was questioned. What caused, for example, the failure of Klopper’s counter-attack? Moreover, when Klopper surrendered, why was no “sauve qui peut” order given? Tacit suspicions of treachery were rife, extending even to accusations of fifth column activity amongst the Boer element. Certainly a good deal of tension existed between the British and the South Africans in the PoW camp. The Springboks, for their part, vehemently resented any odious comparisons with the Australians who, in 1941, had held out for eight months and never surrendered Tobruk.
After the war, General Klopper faced a Court of Enquiry and was duly exonerated of any blame. There were, indeed, extenuating circumstances, quite apart from his heritage of the seriously decayed defences. At that time of the year the hours of darkness, when troops can be moved and defences improved, are short. There had been a breakdown in communications with General Ritchie’s HQ. There was a limited area of movement within the perimeter, coupled with a serious shortage of transport. But above all, there were almost continuous and devastating air attacks during daylight hours.
* * * * *
Not surprisingly, morale in the Bari camp was poor. The prospect of languishing behind barbed wire for the rest of the war was not one to relish. By the time we arrived, reaction had set in and an air of gloom permeated the camp. Tempers became frayed and discipline suffered. Contrary to King’s Regulations, some of the more unruly inmates had grown beards, until ordered by the Senior British officer to remove them forthwith. Some semblance of order, even under these strained circumstances, has to be maintained.
Led to believe that our stay in Bari would be short – no more than a few days – we remained there, in squalid surroundings, for
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two depressing months. In these sordid surroundings we settled down as best we could to a dreary routine of roll-calls and restless nights on hard wooden bunks in crowded huts. We queued for sparse rations, armed with a kidney-shaped Italian dixie into which was doled out, from a huge metal tureen, a concoction of watery soup with a faint tinge of onion, to which, almost as an afterthought, a few grains of rice had been added. A lump of bread, half the size of a tennis ball, completed our meagre daily diet.
Soon after we arrived, there was an incident calculated to depress our morale even further. Four officers had escaped but were recaptured and brought back to the camp. They were ordered to demonstrate how and where they had escaped. While doing so, crawling through the barbed wire surrounding the camp, they were shot in cold blood “in the act of escaping”. On another occasion, a young officer, stricken with dysentery, wandered out in the night to the latrines. Challenged by the sentry, he called out several times “Latrina!”, only to be brutally shot through the stomach.
From this wretched place we were moved by train up the Adriatic coast to the port of Pescara, thence inland some ten miles to Chieti, a small town perched on a hill. Alighting at the station – Chieti Scala – at the foot of the hill, and carrying our blankets and meagre possessions, we were marched the few hundred yards to PG 21, our “home” for many months to come.
* * * * *
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PART TWO: Captive in Chieti
P.G. 21 was a new camp, the largest of its kind in Italy. Later, it contained 1,200 officers, mostly British, but also many South Africans captured in Tobruk, as well as a number of Canadians, Australians and Americans. It lay in a wide coastal valley, to the west of which were the Abruzzi mountains, dominated by the spectacular snow-capped Gran Sasso (8,800 ft). High on the hillside behind the camp, the town was reached by a funicular railway from which the locals would often wave to us. Rumour had it that the previous occupants, an Italian cavalry regiment, had been drafted to the dreaded Russian front where they were duly decimated, thus releasing their barracks for more mundane purposes.
Surrounding the camp was a 15-foot wall, guarded by sentries armed with machine-guns, and searchlights on platforms at each of the four corners and half-way along each side. Escape was further discouraged by rolls of barbed wire at the foot of the wall, both inside and outside, and by a single strand of trip-wire beyond which one ventured at the risk of being shot.
Here, to my surprise and delight, I found two fellow-officers from the 2nd 8th Gurkha Rifles, Major Rick Wall and Captain Eddie Edwards. They had both been with my battalion throughout the Iraq campaign, and were captured in June in the fighting around Mersa Matruh. Sadly, we were billeted in separate huts so I did not see them as much as I would have wished. There were several officers, too, from the 2nd 7th Gurkha Rifles, who had been part of the ill-fated Tobruk garrison.
As usual, the living quarters were cramped. Each single-storey building housed some 120 officers in rooms jam-packed with double-tier bunks. The bottom of the bunk consisted of movable slats placed crossways, those surplus to requirements becoming useful sources of fuel. Each block boasted a communal ablutions, with washbasins and showers, and w.c.’s graced with mahogany swing doors. Unfortunately, these masterpieces of Italian plumbing rarely saw the luxury of water! This scarce commodity was procured from a well, sited between each block. Into this we lowered an empty can on a string and then shuffled off to wash our bodies or our eating utensils, or to flush the toilets.
Except for an Italian army dixie, no eating or cooking utensils were ever issued. We had to use our ingenuity to make cups out of cans, plates and rudimentary stoves from biscuit tins, and knives and forks from whatever came to hand.
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The Italians, as captors, were neither cruel nor kind. Any maltreatment was mainly due to sheer neglect, inefficiency and almost total disinterest in our well-being. Unlike the Germans, the Italians supplied no clothing. Most of us possessed only the thin desert uniforms in which we were captured – cotton shirts and stockings, “bush” shorts or trousers, suede desert boots (popularly known as “brothel creepers”). Within weeks these summer uniforms became tattered and threadbare, and when winter came we resorted to cutting a hole in one or both of the two scratchy army blankets issued to us, wearing them like prairie Indians. It was to be many months before we received clothing parcels from Home.
For the first six months, before the spasmodic issue of Red Cross parcels, thoughts of food preoccupied our minds. The daily ration varied little, except that, in the summer, there was fruit to supplement our diet. Monotonously, the “Eyeties” dished out bitter ersatz coffee and 200 grammes of bread for breakfast; and, for supper, a third of a dixie of thin, soupy stew, to which was added a modicum of rice, macaroni or beans. Hunger rapidly moderates squeamishness. Weevils in the soup, for example, became nutritious and edible for their protein content.
In the early days, lack of food made climbing up onto a top bunk a major operation. Many prisoners lay listlessly on their palliasses fantasising about past or future gastronomic delights.
Red Cross parcels were a sensitive subject. We were entitled, in theory, to one each per month. In practise, we were lucky to share an occasional parcel between four. Only once (at Christmas) do I recall enjoying a whole parcel to myself. Many were mysteriously “lost” en route to the camp, or pilfered by the guards who prized in particular the chocolate, condensed milk and butter, as well as other unobtainable luxuries. Canadian parcels were the best, containing such delicacies as powdered eggs, porridge oats, biscuits and dried fruit.
Later on, the Italians allowed us to open a canteen where we could buy boiled sweets, biscuits, jam, onions, fish paste, fig bars, Italian cigarettes and tobacco, and essential toiletries, such as soap and toothpaste. We paid for these in paper currency called “buone”, issued on the basis of rank – Second Lieutenant, 750 lire per month; Lieutenant, 950 lire; Captain, 1,100 lire (at 72 lire to the pound).
When personal (ie non-Red Cross) food, clothing, tobacco parcels began to arrive, morale (of the recipients, at least) soared. The names of the lucky ones were posted on the notice-board daily. Bartering became rife. Everything had a market value, which fluctuated according to supply and demand.
It was sad to see the heavy smokers prowling the campus, head down, searching the ground for discarded stub ends. They would go to excessive lengths, even swap their precious food rations,
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to satisfy their craving for nicotine. Some even smoked dried-out used tea-leaves, but were forbidden to do so inside their hut, the smell being so thoroughly obnoxious.
* * * * *
Apart from physical discomforts there was the mental problem of coping with the excruciating boredom. For months we had no books, other than the few cherished dog-eared copies, circulated within each block, and possessively guarded by their owners.
Gradually, various activities were organised which did much to alleviate the soul-destroying monotony. There were courses on such subjects as engineering, science, philosophy, literature, languages, art and even military studies. Societies proliferated, catering to special interests such as sketching, angling, motoring and poetry. Yet after a while attendance gradually dwindled: the debilitating diet made concentration difficult and weakened the will to learn, however absorbing the subject.
News of the outside world, vital for morale, was provided by the Camp newspaper with a weekly analysis of the progress of the war. Information was culled from Italian newspapers, newly arrived PoW, bribed guards, and from the BBC, on an ingeniously hidden secret radio.
Thanks to their innate love of music, the Italians encouraged music-making in many of its forms. Instruments were supplied through the Red Cross or loaned by the Italians. Our maestro, Tony Baines, created a superb symphony orchestra, and their concerts were amongst the camp’s most popular events. He wrote and conducted his first symphony in Chieti. There was music to satisfy all tastes, from string quartets to the Big Band led by jazz trumpeter, Tommy Sampson, whose brilliant rendering of “In the mood” still rings in my ears.
Plays produced in the camp theatre were professional, with consistently high standards of performance. Often on Saturday night there was a slickly-produced variety show. One came to accept, without demur, young men made up as gorgeous girls playing passionate love scenes, evoking never a titter from the audience. A particularly handsome blond South African youth became notorious for his credible and utterly convincing portrayal of slinky, sexy females.
On one notable occasion the theatre was ingeniously converted into a glamorous Night Club. Volunteers were invited to appear as dancing partners. A dozen from our block transformed themselves into ravishing maidens, heavily made up and dressed to kill. The effect was startling; so much so that several of us spread the rumour that the Commandante had finally relented and allowed a bevy of local lasses into the camp for the evening. Not surprisingly, tickets rapidly sold out, and when the doors
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opened there was a stampede of spruced-up officers falling over each other for the favours of a “comely wench”. A special brew of camp vino helped to make the evening go with a swing. It was indeed a riotous occasion. And even when our cruel deception was uncovered, there were no hard feelings. A good time, as they say, was had by all.
* * * * *
In summer, life was easier. We could lie in the sun, chatting, dozing or reading, In the cool of the late afternoon, as the burning sun sank slowly over the Abruzzi, there were games to watch – football, baseball (introduced by the American contingent), basketball, or even cricket, played by those with the energy to do so on the open space in the centre of the camp. In the evening, there was a daily issue of rough, vinegary vino which, if consumed too liberally, offered temporary oblivion but invariably produced an horrendous hang-over.
At morning and evening roll-calls we would parade in front of our building to be counted by an Italian officer. Those too sick or weak to stand were counted on their bunks, and those in the camp hospital were checked separately. Interminable delays were caused by any discrepancy, so the Senior British Officer sensibly insisted on our tacit cooperation. Spot roll calls and building searches were frequent.
A squad of Carabinieri (military police), known as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, armed with hammers and chisels, would appear without warning and solemnly troop in single file into each block in turn. Sometimes their progress through the camp was accompanied by a whistled or hummed chant of “dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum, dum-de-diddle-de-dumdedum … “. Systematically, they tapped the floors, examined the tiles in the washrooms with scrupulous care, peered down the toilet bowls, their every fibre finely tuned to the uncovering of tunnels. They were a source of constant merriment to the PoW, and the cause of no little anxiety to any engaged in seriously nefarious activities.
* * * * *
There was, of course, the inevitable Escape Committee. Their tasks were to monitor and coordinate escape plans, to weed out the more bizarre conceptions, to recommend those that had some hope of success to the Senior British Officer for his final approval, and to provide the lucky ones with whatever material help they could offer.
As an Intelligence Officer with a particular interest in maps, I was put in charge of their reproduction, using the silk versions, smuggled into the camp by RAF officers, as “masters”. Drawn with meticulous care on handkerchiefs, these were hidden all over the
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camp in hollowed-out bedposts, Red Cross tins ingeniously fitted with false bottoms, spines of books etc.
One day, to check progress, I gathered all the maps together and was inspecting them when the bell rang for a surprise roll-call. Concealing them in a Red Cross box covered with a blanket, I jumped out of the window into the courtyard, as did others from my hut. Something must have aroused the suspicion of the sentry on the wall, because the next thing I knew a guard appeared from nowhere, calmly picked up the box and marched off triumphantly towards the administration building, leaving me stunned and mortified. Undoubtedly, it was one of the worst moments of my captivity.
Tunnels abounded. Started and discovered with monotonous regularity, at one time there were at least five on the go. Once, while Italian “ferrets” busily filled in a detected tunnel, several picks and shovels carelessly left unattended were quietly expropriated for future excavations.
On another occasion, a hammer, borrowed from the Italians, somehow managed to “fall down one of the wells”. Convinced that it had been hidden, the Commandante called in the Chieti Fire Brigade to pump the well dry. While they were thus engaged, several of us sat at intervals along the hose which we proceeded to slice with our home-made knives! Not content with these acts of blatant sabotage, we then turned our attention to the fire-engine’s tyres which we succeeded in puncturing, much to the frustrated fury of the official in charge. Sadly, these childish pranks backfired. In retribution, the entire camp’s pay was summarily docked for a month.
Then there was the incident of “The General Salute”. At a morning roll-call the Commandante announced that we must learn the bugle call for the Italian General Salute, to prepare us for the day when an Italian general honoured the camp with a visit. Thereupon, a diminutive bugler mounted the platform and sounded the call. To the Commandante’s obvious delight and surprise (if not amazement), the entire parade dutifully stood smartly to attention, and then stood at ease when a single note was blown.
Intoxicated with his new-found power, Il Colonnello repeated the performance several times. At last the absurdity of the situation overcame military discipline: our collective patience, by then, was exhausted. In mutinous silence the entire camp, taking their cue from the Senior British officer, promptly sat on the ground. The Commandante fretted and fumed; the Italian Adjutant, a bearded Mephistophelian character, who sported a monocle, looked suitably aghast; and the guards, in a feeble attempt to appear menacing, proceeded to unsling their rifles. Reinforcements were hurriedly summoned from the local barracks. As they attempted to force their way through our serried ranks, one of them was “accidentally” tripped up and, in the ensuing melee, temporarily relieved of his rifle.
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Beside himself with impotent rage, the Commandante stamped his jack-booted feet and yelled imprecations, all to no avail. This farce continued well into the afternoon, until, at last, a compromise was reached. The Senior British Officer would call us all to attention simultaneously with the sound of the bugle – likewise for the “stand at ease”. Thus was honour satisfied.
* * * * *
Amongst many interesting personalities incarcerated at P.G. 21 were “Pip” Gardner, London’s first V.C. of the war; Freddie Brown, the England Test captain and manager; Bill Bowes, the Yorkshire and England fast bowler; and Tony Roncoroni, the much-capped English Rugby international. John Dugdale, the London theatre critic, wrote and reviewed plays. Eric Newby, the well-known travel writer, author of “Love and War in the Appenines” and many fascinating travel sagas, was a valued camp colleague. He had been captured in a Commando raid on the Sicilian coast and shared my burning desire for freedom.
We followed, with growing excitement, the seemingly sluggish progress of the Allied forces. Over our illicit radio came news of First Army’s landing in North Africa, the surrender of Tunisia and the capture of Sicily. The Italians, fearful that the Allies would invade their country half-way or further still up the peninsular, ordered the gradual evacuation of PoW camps in our area to others further north. In early August I was amongst 200 or so packed off to PG 19, a new camp on the outskirts of Bologna.
Rumours, rife at all times, grew daily that an Armistice was imminent. On 26th July 1943, at the King of Italy’s invitation, Marshal Badoglio replaced Mussolini as head of the Italian government. Although the landing of the Allies on the mainland was hundreds of miles to the south, it seemed entirely possible that the Italian guards might desert, leaving the way clear for a mass walk-out.
* * * * *
Six weeks later, on 7th September, came Badoglio’s dramatic announcement, blazoned across the front page of the “Corriere della Sera”. Headed in four-inch black lettering “ARMISTIZIO”, it read: “I, as head of the Government, recognising the impossibility of continuing the war against the vast preponderance of enemy forces, have asked the Allied Governments for an Armistice”. The satisfaction of reading of our enemy’s unconditional surrender in one of their own newspapers, was a heart-warming experience. But no one had any illusions that the Germans would sit back and watch thousands of Allied PoW calmly walk free.
All that day we prepared, with mounting excitement, for a mass exodus. In the afternoon, to calm our strained nerves, Tony
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Baines conducted a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Fifth in the canteen. The cooks somehow managed to dish out double rations to fortify us for the demands anticipated on our physical resources.
That night we lay on our bunks fully clothed, armed with a supply of hard rations and ready for a prearranged signal. This came in the early hours of the morning. Sure enough, the guards had vanished. the gates were wide open; our hour of deliverance had come. I made swiftly for the door in the wall behind the cook-house. No sooner had I gone outside a few yards when there was a frantic cry of “Look out! Germans!”. We had been betrayed. Armed with sub-machine guns. German paratroopers had surrounded the camp and were herding the PoW back inside. I crawled under the nearest thick bush. praying that somehow I would escape notice in the darkness. Unhappily, dawn broke and I was spotted.
We were marshalled into groups on the parade ground. surrounded by rolls of barbed wire and machine guns mounted on tripods, and kept there, without food or water, for the rest of that day and overnight. It was clear the Germans meant business. One officer had been killed and several others wounded, attempting to escape. On the other hand, it quickly became evident that that these were front-line troops unaccustomed to handling POW and, therefore, not up to our wily ways.
Next morning we were allowed to return to our huts, but warned that we were to be transferred to Germany within the next couple of days. I had already reconnoitred the camp for likely hiding-places and settled on the loft of my hut. I found that a handful of other officers had the same idea. So, together, we prepared our refuge, laying in stores of food and water in the small space between the rafters and the ceiling of the hut. The washroom trapdoor, which provided access to the loft, was cunningly fixed so that it could be secured from above, after the last person had been heaved through the opening by an accomplice below.
* * * * *
On learning that the move was imminent. we clambered up into our hideaway. It was pitch dark in the loft and great care had to be taken not to put one’s foot between the joists onto the flimsy ceiling. The pitch of the roof being low. there was room neither to stand nor to sit upright; all movements had to be slow and deliberate, and we conversed in monosyllabic whispers.
Early next day, 10th September. we heard the sound of transport rumbling into the central courtyard. For several hours we overheard our colleagues below us packing up such belongings as they could carry and moving out of the building. Eventually there was silence.
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Thinking the coast was clear, we were about to prepare for our candle-lit evening meal when there were muffled voices and sounds of activity beneath us. Just in time, we realised that those Germans left behind were going through the abandoned belongings. Next came the sound of a record being played on a gramophone, followed shortly by raucous laughter. Then, later, the sound of heavy boots tramping through the building gradually becoming fainter – until, once more, there was silence.
We were all set to resume our cold collation when someone sneezed – right below us (someone engrossed, perhaps, in an English book, or magazine, left on one of the bunks ?). Again we waited for what seemed an age, scarcely daring to breathe, until the sound of receding footsteps told us that the last Teutonic scavenger had left the building.
For two days and nights we stayed in our cramped quarters, afraid to move. On the second night, a volunteer bravely went down to recce the situation. He reported that the lights had been switched off on the walls, the sentry boxes were empty, and that the only sign of life came from the guard room near the main gates, at the far end of the camp.
We drew lots to decide the order of departure from our hiding-place. I was paired with Captain Jimmie Ferguson, Royal Signals. When our turn came, Jimmie and I lowered ourselves to the washroom floor, climbed out of the window, and crept stealthily over to the wall. I gave Jimmie a leg-up onto the wall and he, in turn, pulled me up beside him. Together, we scrambled through the barbed wire and dropped gently down to the ground, 15 feet below.
Swiftly and silently, we made our way to the shelter of a nearby olive grove. It was 3 am on the 11th September. Jimmie and I had never met before, so we had no pre-arranged escape plan. Like other escaped PoW, we thought it would be only a matter of weeks, perhaps days, before our troops arrived. It was simply a question of lying low, up in the hills, and waiting patiently…..
How wrong we were! Little did we realize it would be three frustrating and hazardous months before we reached the Allied lines – and final freedom.
Parts 1 & 2 – approx. 9,000 words
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PART THREE: Flight to Freedom
Scrambling headlong through the trees and undergrowth we came to a stream, and followed it until we reached a bridge across a main road. There we decided to risk walking on the road itself, expecting little (if any) traffic at such an early hour. Our first concern was to cover as much ground as possible before dawn.
Suddenly Jimmie froze. Pointing across the fields to our right, he whispered: “See those lights? They’re the floodlights on our camp walls, for God’s sake!”. He was right: somehow we had come full circle and were heading straight back towards our prison camp, now only a few hundred yards away!
Then we saw, looming out of the pre-dawn mist, a squad of German soldiers coming briskly along the road towards us. Attempting to emulate a farm lad, I spat coarsely as they approached. Too late, I realised the idiocy of such reckless provocation. Happily, the Germans ignored what might have been construed as an act of impertinence by an insolent Italian peasant, and marched straight past us.
Dawn was imminent. Now we needed urgently to find somewhere to hide. Turning sharp left, down a rough track, we hurriedly crossed open fields that led to a thick copse. Here we remained hidden in dense undergrowth, for the rest of the day, utterly exhausted and emotionally drained by the dramatic events of the past few days. We slept fitfully and ate some of our “escape” rations.
Waiting for darkness to fall, we discussed our situation and considered the alternatives. We could either make for the Swiss border, some 150 miles to the north, or go southeast to the coast and beg, borrow or steal a boat in which to cross the Adriatic to Yugoslavia. On the other hand, we could head due south in the hope of crossing the front lines, then some 400 miles away. I favoured the latter course, since this gave us an important further option: should penetration of the lines prove difficult or impossible, we could lie low, up in the hills, and wait patiently for the Allied forces to arrive. Jimmie had reached more or less the same conclusions. Our immediate objective, therefore, was to find the nearest wayside station and board a southbound train. The idea was to make our way as far south and as fast as possible, taking advantage of the turmoil created by the recent Italian capitulation.
That evening, uncertain of the reception we could expect, we cautiously approached an isolated farmhouse. Declining the offer of shelter for the night (preferring to press on under
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cover of darkness) we thankfully accepted a meal of pasta and bitter ersatz coffee. The farmer told us where, a few miles away, we could board a train without attracting attention. To our surprise and delight he unearthed some old civilian clothes which we exchanged for our inadequately disguised battle-dress jackets and tunics.
As darkness fell we set off again, this time avoiding the main road and, following the farmer’s directions, skirted the nearby hamlet of Idice. After a mile, we encountered the railway line and followed this until we reached the wayside station of Mirandola, still much too close to Bologna for comfort.
Our luck was in. Soon after daybreak a southbound train stopped to pick up a handful of locals. We clambered aboard. Too late, we found it crammed with German troops. They took no notice of us, however, as we pushed our way down the narrow corridor. Squeezing ourselves into a compartment occupied by German soldiers and Italian labourers, we flopped into the only two empty seats and pretended to doze off. Hardly daring to breathe, we prayed that no one, specially the Italians, would speak to us. The Italian I had learned in camp might well deceive a German, but certainly not the Italians.
The train chugged slowly south, stopping at every station, taking its time and adhering to no apparent timetable. At noon it reached Rimini on the Adriatic coast, some hundred miles from Bologna. As we had hoped, it then continued south, hugging the coast, and still stopping at each station. This gave us frequent opportunities to leave the train whenever the need arose. We dared not risk getting too close to the front lines where civilians would be conspicuous and likely to attract unwelcome attention. Our plan was to leave the train somewhere near the Adriatic port of Pesaro and head up into the mountains. There we would lie up until the Allied forces reached us.
In the late afternoon, I gave Jimmie the prearranged signal (clenching the right fist) that we should leave the train at the next station, at the same time raising my eyebrows questioningly. Jimmie signified agreement by repeating the gesture. As the train slowed we got to our feet and made our way into the corridor. The train drew into the wayside station of Gradara. Jimmie swung open the door and leapt onto the platform, closely followed by me. To our relief, we found the platform deserted: no sign of a ticket collector. We strolled casually out into the main street beside the station.
Feeling vulnerable and conspicuous, we hurried away from the village, heading for the hills and the mountains, beyond which the sun was fast sinking. It was early autumn and the nights were becoming cooler. Both of us wore old army raincoats which helped to keep out the chill. Mine, swapped in the camp for cigarettes, had pockets sewn into the inside, large enough to take flat tins of emergency rations. These contained solid slabs
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made up of precious chocolate melted down and mixed with condensed milk and egg powder, all saved, with considerable will power, from our rarely issued Red Cross parcels.
* * * * *
For the next five days we plodded due south, further and further up into the hills, sleeping rough in the open or in cow barns, devouring succulent grapes fresh from the vine, fresh eggs taken from chicken coops and hunks of doughy, home-made bread offered by kindly farmers. “Molto grazie per la vostra ospitalita” I would say haltingly but with genuine feeling, as we took our leave.
On the 16th September (the day before my 23rd birthday), I wrote a letter to my mother “from somewhere in Italy” and left it with a farmer who had fed and sheltered us to pass on to our troops, “in case we should get recaptured”. In fact, it was to be eighteen months before the Allies reached the Pesaro area, so I preceded the letter’s arrival in England by more than a year. In it I said: “We had our first sleep for four days last night, so are feeling much fitter now. All the houses we have visited have received us with open arms and given us all the assistance within their power – they really have been wonderful. I just can’t describe what it feels like to be free (even if it is only temporary). We have already come over 150 miles, and have about another 200 to go ….” I gave Jimmie’s mother’s address in Fife, Scotland, asking my mother to contact her as soon as possible; and ended ” …. be seeing you soon (I hope)”.
The nights by now. at the higher altitude, were distinctly chilly; fine for walking but not for sleeping rough outside, exposed to the biting wind and occasional rain storms that swept up the valleys. Foot-slogging in the dark was becoming increasingly perilous as the hills became steeper and more dangerously precipitous, and the roads more scarce.
One evening, in the pouring rain. we approached a sturdy young lad tending a flock of sheep on a rock-strewn plateau and asked for shelter for the night. He led us to his farm where we were welcomed warmly, served hot soup and invited to dry ourselves by the kitchen hearth. The boy’s father, apologising for not being able to accommodate us, then brought us to the house of the local priest who greeted us cordially and offered us a bed for the night, which we gratefully accepted. During supper, our host, a sly-faced gentleman with a robust, well-fed physique, suddenly begged to be excused and left the room. We heard the front door close and his footsteps clattering on the cobbled street outside. He sounded in a hurry – too much of a hurry for our liking. Jimmie and I looked at each other, instinctively guessing the sinister purpose of our host’s hasty departure. By now, we could almost read each other’s thoughts: words were superfluous.
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Leaving hurriedly by the back door which opened onto a small enclosed yard, we clambered over a stone wall and dashed into the open fields beyond. Shouts came from the front of the house and then the sound of running feet. Shots rang out, fired wildly in our direction, accompanied by yells of “Alto!” (“Stop!”) which we ignored, stumbling on in the darkness until we were well beyond reach. We found shelter that night in a derelict barn where we reflected on our narrow escape, the first of many. It was, too, a lesson well learned – henceforth to be more cautious in accepting hospitality, even from a Catholic cleric!
My gym shoes, received from home a few days before our escape, were by now wearing thin. I had chosen them only to facilitate climbing over the camp walls, oblivious to the obvious defects of such flimsy footwear for cross-country trekking. After only a week the soles began to disintegrate, leaving me within days to walk barefooted and bleeding on stony paths and rough, rocky ground, much to Jimmie’s consternation and concern. Clearly, I could not continue in this way for much longer. Somehow, somewhere, I had to find shoes.
Fortuitously, we heard that some English people were being hidden up in the mountains, at a monastery called Fonte Avellana, and decided to investigate. At least we could rest and recuperate for a day or two, giving us a chance to find our bearings and decide what to do.
The next ten miles were tough going. We followed a steep, winding road up a long, narrow valley. In the distance was a snow-capped peak which we identified as Mount Catria (5,200 ft), in the lee of which lay our immediate goal. Rounding a corner, there before us, at the road’s end, stood the monastery, its tiled roofs and white walls gleaming in the autumn sunset. Cautiously, we approached a modest dwelling that stood near the entrance to the monastery, and Jimmie knocked on the door. “Siamo inglesi … ” I began, as the door slowly opened. “Well, hi there! Come on in!” exclaimed a female voice with a broad American accent, almost as if she were expecting us. Overcome with relief, we stumbled, slightly dazed, into the dimly-lit parlour and found ourselves amongst an astonishing group of people, a small band of refugees from an internment camp near Ancona, on the nearby Adriatic coast.
Cold, wet and famished as we so obviously were, the farmer and his wife immediately sat us down by a roaring log fire. Steaming bowls of soup and pasta were brought, which we devoured ravenously. The wife then placed on the stone floor a tub of hot water in which to bathe my bleeding feet. Next, she produced, miraculously, a pair of brown shoes which, with the help of thick rough socks, fitted me remarkably well, thus solving my most pressing problem.
As we were to discover over the next few weeks, these impoverished peasant farmers, who had suffered so much privation
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during the war years, not only provided us (total strangers and erstwhile enemies) with food and shelter, but insisted on opening a bottle of their precious home-made wine to celebrate our safe arrival.
The lady who had greeted us at the door introduced us to her husband, a portly, middle-aged American named Fred Foster, and to the others – an attractive Anglo-Indian girl, who had been a minor film star in Cine Citta, Rome’s Hollywood; Derek Oldham, a well-known English baritone; and a Canadian lady and her 8-year-old daughter. Understandably, they were in an acute state of jitters. Somehow, Mr Foster had managed to acquire a sizeable sum of Italian money, in hard cash. With this he had bribed a local merchant to provide a van in which he had himself driven his party of fugitives to the monastery. Now he was busy trying to organize their repatriation through “a high-level contact in Rome”.
After supper, Jimmie and I were taken into the monastery to meet Padre Lorenzo and Padre Leone, both of whom spoke fluent English. They greeted us warmly and showed us (apologising profusely as they did so) to the bare cell where we were to sleep on straw mattresses on the stone floor. The monastery, built in the 6th century, was occupied by Brothers of the strict Benedictine Order whose way of life differed little from that of its original occupants. They suffered the same austerity – bare cells, a basic diet of bread and water, no creature comforts whatsoever – and spent the same long hours in prayers and meditation. Dante, the great thirteenth century poet and philosopher, had taken refuge there. The cell he had occupied, and where he had written his masterpiece, Divine Comedy, was preserved as a place of historic interest.
Surrounded by a low brick wall, an inner courtyard contained an orchard of lime and cherry trees. Beyond were clusters of yews and of hazel bushes (which gave their name to the monastery), and a well-cultivated fruit and vegetable garden, the produce of which supplemented the monks’ modest diet.
Hiding in the monastery, too, were several Italian officers. Like many others, they had deserted in the days following the Armistice and taken refuge in the mountains to avoid being deported to a labour camp in Germany, or even worse still, to the Russian front. None of them was ever aware of our presence, not even the one in the cell next to ours.
Early on the third day, we were roused by a monk who rushed into our cell to warn us of the imminent arrival of a German patrol. Breathlessly, he exclaimed that a lorry and two motorcycles, spotted in the distance winding their way up the valley road, would soon reach the main gate. We dressed hastily while the monk produced a length of rope which he proceeded to dangle out of the cell window. We shinned twenty feet down the rope to the inner courtyard below, and dashed out of the monastery by the
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rear gate which led to the safety of the wooded hill behind. There we stayed hidden all day, working our way slowly round, through the woods, to a vantage point on the hillside from where we could observe the buildings clustered below us.
As darkness fell we observed a German guard standing silhouetted against the open door of the farmhouse, his fixed bayonet reflecting the light from the front parlour. An hour or so later. the guard turned, slammed the door shut and disappeared from view. We heard the sounds of a car engine and motorcycles starting up and moving away down the valley. After a while Jimmie crept gingerly down to recce the situation. I could see the light stream out from the farmhouse as he cautiously opened the door. Then be turned and signalled the all-clear and I hurriedly joined him.
The scene in the parlour was a piteous sight. The women and young girl were in a state of near hysteria, weeping copiously, the men standing to one side, grim faced, all of them speechless with shock. Mrs Foster, the first to regain her composure, described the day’s traumatic events. The German officer had questioned them closely, demanding to know where they had come from, how long they had been there, where were the British officers whom they had been “reliably informed” were being hidden in the monastery, and so on. Issuing dire threats to the farmer and his wife if they were caught hiding “die Englander”, they left, taking the unfortunate Mr Foster with them “for further questioning”. His distraught wife, in no way comforted by the officer’s curt assurance that her husband would be returned safely within a day or so, nevertheless put on a remarkably brave face. We never learned of Mr Foster’s fate.
Later, Padre Leone told us that the Germans had scoured the monastery thoroughly, searching, they had said, for the British officers. Courageously, the two Brothers and their fellow monks had stoutly denied all knowledge of their existence. Nor were they questioned about the Italian officers, all of whom had evaded the German search party. And so the Germans had left empty-handed (apart from the hapless Foster), if unconvinced.
* * * * *
Early next morning, we told Padre Leone that we had decided to leave at once: our presence was surely jeopardising the lives and safety of the monks as well as the Marini family, who had already put themselves at considerable risk by harbouring the civilian refugees. The Padre, however, urged us to wait another day. He explained that he was expecting two important visitors the following morning, and he was very anxious for us to meet them.
Sure enough, next day, while Jimmie and I were strolling through the monastery gardens, quietly contemplating our future, one of the monks came to take us to Padre Lorenzo. With him were two men to whom we were introduced. One was an Italian Jew called
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Rogero Cagnazzo. The other was an unnamed Frenchman who, it transpired, had come from occupied France, where he was a leader of the Maquis (the French Resistance organisation), to advise on ways and means of establishing a guerrilla group in the nearby mountains. Cagnazzo, leader of the local partisan group, had learned of our presence in the area and wanted to discuss with us the possibility of obtaining help from Allied forces in the south.
He told us that since the Armistice huge numbers of soldiers had deserted the Italian Army, many still armed, and were either making their way home or roaming the countryside at will. A few escaped PoWs were also on the loose, as were thousands of male civilians who had left the cities and towns of northern and central Italy, taking refuge in the country to avoid deportation to Germany. Many of these fugitives, he said, were known to be camping out in the nearby woods and foothills of the Appenines. Now was the time, he felt, to organise the Italian deserters into guerrilla bands which, if properly armed and trained, could effectively harass the Germans in the surrounding region. There would be no problem, he thought, in rallying support from the local farmers and “contadini”, most of whom were known to be sympathetic to their cause.
On the political front, the Germans had restored Mussolini as the head of a new radical Fascist regime, based in northern Italy, known as the Republic of Salo, the King having escaped to southern Italy. Cagnazzo explained that the fluid situation caused by the internal upheaval had created an ideal opportunity for anti-Fascist elements, some of whose leaders had money, organisational ability and fighting experience. The Communist Party, until then relatively small and ineffective, was growing rapidly and had formed so-called “Garibaldi Brigades”, seizing the chance to foment revolution, particularly in industrial cities like Milan and Turin where they encouraged strikes. Aware of the Allies’ efforts to crush the Communist partisans in Greece, they realised that little or no support would be forthcoming from that quarter. At the same time, as a result of the sudden collapse of order, there were spontaneous uprisings against the hated Fascist authorities and the German occupation.
There was little doubt, from what the French resistance leader told us, that partisans, properly organised, could pose a considerable threat to the Germans and contribute much to the Allied cause. They would help to tie down German forces (there were no less than 26 divisions in Italy), deprive the Germans of manpower, disrupt their war production and harass their troop movements.
Cagnazzo and his French colleague outlined their plans to organize guerrilla operations in the Appenines based on Fossombrone, ten miles north of the Monastery. They would mount surprise attacks on military convoys, sabotage ammunition
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dumps, blow up bridges and seize weapons and equipment. That they were in deadly earnest there was little doubt. Their ability to carry out such bloodthirsty operations seemed to us, however, more debatable. It was obvious that, in their present state – poorly prepared and ill-equipped – they would be no match for the Germans or even the Italian militia.
Nevertheless, the partisans, particularly in central Italy, became a thorough scourge to the German High Command over the ensuing months. So much so, in fact, that the Germans were forced to deploy large numbers of troops to counter their activities. In retaliation, the Germans often took extreme measures, even going so far as to burn down villages and shoot the inhabitants. We learned much later that, from the autumn of 1943 to the end of the German occupation, some 40,000 partisans and more than 10,000 civilians were killed in central and northern Italy.
Aged about thirty five, Cagnazzo was small of stature and slimly built. By profession he was a civil engineer – a very successful one, we were told, With his dark hair and intelligent eyes he was distinctively Jewish in appearance, a dangerous feature at a time when vicious anti-Semitism amongst Italian Fascists was rife. He possessed many of the Jews’ finer traits – he was sensitive, resourceful, imaginative and very determined. He was also exceptionally brave and seemed to revel in adventure. In many ways (apart from his Jewishness) he made a model secret agent.
Before the war there were only some 45,000 native-born Italian Jews, plus another 10,000 or so born abroad, mostly refugees from the Nazis. There had been an attempt, in 1939, to deport foreign Jews; and the Government had gone so far as to forbid Italian Jews to marry Aryans, to hold public office or to run businesses of one hundred or more employees.
Since the war began, the Fascist anti-Jew movement had grown in strength. Jews were excluded from the army due to their supposed “lack of martial spirit”, and from the civil service. The Germans themselves stepped up their anti-semitic campaign on taking control of northern Italy at the time Jimmie and I were “on the run”. During the winter of 1943/44 more than 7,500 Jews were deported to German concentration camps. Most of them died in the gas chambers. It was all the more remarkable, therefore, that Cagnazzo undertook such huge and deliberate risks at that crucial time.
Cagnazzo astonished us still further by volunteering to accompany one of us to the Allied lines as an advocate for the guerrillas’ cause. He seemed singularly undeterred by the perils of such a mission. Moreover, he was confident that he would have little difficulty in laying on a boat for the journey south. First, however, he would arrange for Jimmie and me to be sheltered by a group of partisans in the Pesaro area. There we would await
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further word from him once he had made all the necessary arrangements.
* * * * *
And so, on the evening of the 27th September, Jimmie and I left the monastery in an elderly Fiat saloon car, driven by Cagnazzo with hair-raising speed down the winding, precipitous road to the coastal plain. Before setting off, he warned us that if he encountered a German or Italian checkpoint, he did not intend to stop. To do so would mean our instant return to a PoW camp (if we were lucky) and almost certainly a firing squad for him. With so much at stake he was prepared to crash through or round any barriers that blocked his way.
To our profound relief we reached our destination, a small farm in the village of Pozzo Alto, a few miles outside Pesaro, without incident and were warmly welcomed by the farmer, Signore Terenzi, and his wife. Like many others of their kind, they had bravely volunteered to help British prisoners on the run, knowing the awful retribution meted out by the Germans to those caught doing so. Leaflets, scattered far and wide, threatened to shoot anyone harbouring escaped prisoners. (NB I have such a leaflet) The Germans were indeed ruthless; we had heard of whole families being taken outside and shot.
The farmers who sheltered us were mostly peasants eking out a paltry living from small-holdings, mostly owned by the Church to whom they paid an annual tithe, leaving the barest minimum for them to live on. Since the war began, any sons in their teens or older had been called up for compulsory military or “industrial” service; many had been deported to German internment camps and used as cheap labour, never to be heard from again. Some ended their young lives on the Russian front. And so it was on their womenfolk that nearly all of the heavy manual labour devolved.
These courageous and devout people were simple country folk. They loathed the Fascist regime and scarcely concealed their deep hatred of the German occupiers. The latter, in turn, treated Italians generally with the utmost contempt. Time and again these splendid “contadini” risked their lives for Allied escapees, without a moment’s hesitation and with no thought of financial or any other gain.
Over the next two weeks, to minimize the chance of discovery, Jimmie and I were moved every two or three days from one “safe house” to another. We travelled either on foot or by bicycle, invariably accompanied by a young Italian guide, and making sure to arrive at our destination before the curfew started at 9.30 pm.
There being little else to do, Jimmie and I spent much of our time talking and exchanging views on many divers subjects – our school days, our likes and dislikes, food (a recurrent theme),
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women in general, girls in particular, army life, our wartime experiences, PoW camps, and, of course, our present dilemma. Seven years my senior, Jimmie was more worldly-wise, due perhaps to a less inhibited upbringing. Born and raised in Burntisland, Fife, on the banks of the Forth opposite Edinburgh, Jimmie had graduated from University, and spent several years before war broke out in the textile trade. I enjoyed listening to graphic accounts of his earlier years, travelling around Scotland, first as a trainee manager with an Edinburgh firm called Patrick Thompson, and later with Dickson & Benson of Middlesbrough, achieving the distinction of becoming the youngest buyer in the textile trade in Britain.
On the subject of the opposite sex – a popular topic – Jimmie was more experienced. I had no sisters and had spent my adolescence in isolation from female company of my own age. There was, however, no lack of interest on my part: I was nothing if not keen to learn. I had been smitten with the charms of a young lady in Shillong, Assam, an idyllic hill station where, early in 1940, I had joined the 8th Gurkha Rifles as a junior subaltern. Together we had enjoyed Sunday picnics at Cherrapunji, a local beauty spot twenty miles south of Shillong. Renowned for being the wettest place on earth, it offered a staggering view of the distant Syhlet plains, some 1,500 feet below, from the edge of a steep escarpment, itself the cause of the exceptionally heavy rainfall. I escorted her, too, to formal dances at the Shillong Officers’ Club, and occasionally to the races on Thursday afternoons. But the moment things began to get interesting I was posted to the Machine Gun Course at Saugor, several hundred miles away in central India.
In those days, young subalterns were firmly discouraged from becoming entangled with the fair sex. It was the Colonel’s duty to protect them from such dangerous pursuits, and to keep their minds on strictly military matters. Any hint of physical intimacy and one was immediately sent on a course to some remote part of the country, as indeed I was (quite unjustly, as it happened). Nor could a young officer marry without the Colonel’s permission. Had he been brazen enough to do so, he would have run the risk of being posted out of the regiment to the Indian Pioneer Corps, or, even worse, banished to Movement Control.
Later, on active service with my battalion in Iraq, I had met an attractive young Anglo-Syrian girl who lived, under the ever-watchful eyes of her wealthy parents, at the Semiramis Hotel on the banks of the Tigris, in the heart of Baghdad. On the rare occasions when visits to the “big city” were permissible (as, for example, when I sat for an Arabic exam), we frolicked together at the Swimming Club, and danced, perspiring profusely, to an atrocious “Palm Court” trio in the hotel’s dingy dining room. Once, we even managed an unchaperoned picnic by moonlight on a small sandbank island in the middle of the murky river, catching and cooking fish on an open wood fire. Again, this
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pseudo-romantic, strictly platonic relationship was rudely interrupted by my unexpected, but not entirely unwelcome posting to the Intelligence Course in Cairo.
Jimmie and I debated, too, the respective merits and demerits of civilian versus service life. Like me, he had foreseen the advent of war, obtaining a peacetime commission in the Territorial Army. On the outbreak of war he was posted to the Royal Corps of Signals. Jimmie was scathing about the red tape, square bashing, “traditional” side of army life, and said he could not wait for the war to end to return to “civvy street”. In the event, it was ironical that, after the war, Jimmie stayed on and enjoyed an outstanding military career, whilst I resigned my commission, my Gurkha regiment having been “indianized” after the partition of India.
A man of keen intelligence and definite views, Jimmie was typical, in many ways, of “war-time” officers who, by this time, formed the majority of those serving their country in the armed forces. They had brought a breath of fresh air into a system still dominated by old-fashioned, stereotyped traditions. Impatient with dogma, and what seemed to them out-dated, petty rules and regulations, they were apt to be more pragmatic, logical and straightforward in their thinking than the average “regular”. Emergency commissioned officers (known as ECO’s) were signed up only “for the duration”, so had little to lose by expressing what the older and more staid professionals tended to regard as a “confoundedly bolshie attitude”.
I myself came from army stock. My grandfather and great grandfather, on my mother’s side, were both generals, and my father had been Chaplain General to the Forces in India, where I was born. My first six years were spent within sight of army barracks; and I had fond memories of church parades on the dusty parade grounds of British army containments.
Even so, I had never aspired to make the army my career. I disliked the Officers’ Training Corps at my public school so much that I joined the Corps band to avoid some of the dreary parades and infantry training (based on outmoded WWI tactics) that were otherwise compulsory. I had won a Lord Kitchener’s Memorial Scholarship, and in the summer of 1938, I was all set to go to the University of Heidelberg, to read languages and economics.
Then, in September, came what Churchill described as “the tragedy of Munich”, followed by the Nazi rape of Czechoslovakia. It seemed certain that Britain was heading for another war with Germany. I decided it would be prudent to join up well before the war started, and having ascertained that the scholarship was acceptable to the Royal Military College, I applied for a place. I wanted to join the Indian Army, preferably the Gurkhas, so was fortunate not only in gaining entry to Sandhurst but also to be awarded a King’s India Cadetship. This meant that I was
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guaranteed a commission in an Indian Regiment, regardless of how badly (short of failure) I did in the final exams.
As a graduate of Sandhurst I felt obliged to defend the army against Jimmie’s well-meant criticisms. Yet I was secretly unconvinced that military life and my recently acquired taste for independence were compatible. As a Liaison Officer with the headquarters of the 20th Indian Infantry Brigade in Iraq, where my battalion, the 2nd 8th Gurkha Rifles, had been sent in 1940 to help quell Rashid Ali’s Nazi-inspired rebellion, I had tasted and enjoyed the benefits of a “roving commission”. After the Iraqis had been soundly defeated, we became bogged down for months on end in a static situation, digging endless defensive positions against possible German invasion from the north, through Turkey. Occasional sorties into Syria and Persia, and a spell under canvas in Mosul, northern Iraq (in bitterly Arctic conditions) to some extent alleviated the depressing boredom.
But the freedom of careering about the desert, first as a Liaison Officer, and later as the Brigade Chemical Warfare Officer (for which I had not the remotest qualifications!) was much more to my liking. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that I jumped at the chance to attend the Intelligence School in Cairo. My sole regret was leaving the Gurkhas of whom I had become inordinately fond, as are most British officers who ever have the privilege to serve with them.
To our astonishment, Jimmie and I found that we had served in Quetta, India at the same time, had both been in the Indian Infantry Brigade sent to Iraq in April 1941, had moved to the Western Desert and been captured within a couple of weeks of each other, and had even been in the same POW camps in Italy, before landing up together in PG 19, Bologna. And yet, after nearly two years’ service in the same places, we met for the very first time in the loft of our hut at the Bologna camp, where we had each of us chosen to hide before making our escape!
It was fortunate that Jimmie and I got on so well together. Our characters and personalities were markedly different, yet we respected and trusted each other. He was more outgoing and extroverted. I was inclined to be rather reserved, more of a good listener. Living cheek by jowl with someone you don’t know, under exceptionally trying conditions, one’s nerves often stretched to breaking point, was in itself a severe test. I tended to defer to Jimmie as my senior in age, though not in rank. But he always listened patiently and politely, and invariably asked my opinion on what action we should take. We never blamed each other if anything went wrong. And, most importantly, we shared a sense of humour, which stood us in good stead whenever things looked bleak. Above all, we were both aware that our best hope of reaching the Allied lines safely lay in our ability to work together amicably as a team.
* * * * *
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During this interim period, while waiting to hear from Cagnazzo, we came to appreciate the sterling qualities of our splendid “host” families, above all their astonishing hospitality. They went out of their way to make life bearable for us. What meagre food they had they ungrudgingly shared with us, even if it meant depriving themselves. Most farms owned a few modest grape vines from which they made wine for their own use . The best vintages they kept for special occasions, such as when we arrived on their doorstep. They were well aware of the dreadful risks they took in harbouring escaped POWs; the danger of our being discovered, and of their betrayal, was omnipresent. Outwardly, however, they never appeared to be fearful or apprehensive. On the contrary they were consistently cheerful and unconcerned about their own safety, a trait which Jimmie and I found quite remarkable.
One morning we were sitting in the parlour while the farmer’s wife was busy preparing the midday meal. There came a knock on the front door. There was no time for us to hide, no alternative but to stay put. It had been agreed that should someone arrive unexpectedly, we would be passed off as Yugoslav immigrant workers who spoke no Italian. The visitor was the wife of a neighbouring farmer, a dumpy lady with sharp eyes and a ruddy complexion. For a moment she looked quizzically at us, then turned to our “hostess” and the two of them gabbled away in the local patois, of which neither Jimmie nor I understood a word. (It was surprising how even the poorest uneducated “contadini” could speak good, standard Italian as well as their own regional dialect, almost as if they were bilingual). Meanwhile, Jimmie and I exchanged a few mock-Yugoslav words, before lurching to our feet and disappearing upstairs.
Sometimes local German units would despatch small foraging parties into the countryside, to collect eggs, chickens, vegetables, fruit or anything else they fancied. Fortunately for us, one such party was sighted by the farmer’s two young children who were playing outside the farm in which we were hidden. They rushed in to warn their mother, who hurriedly ushered us out of the back door, telling us to hide on top of a haystack behind the cow shed until she gave us the all-clear.
There were, of course, no spare beds in these modest farm dwellings. Invariably we slept on straw in a barn, usually with the cows, but on one memorable occasion with a family of pungent, snorting pigs. By now we were accustomed to such primitive arrangements. The nocturnal rustling of rats in the straw, however, did take more getting used to. Once I woke to find a particularly voracious specimen gnawing at my fly buttons. Rarely now do I hear farmyard sounds without recalling the rustic hospitality we experienced in the autumn of 1943, in the depths of the Italian countryside.
Late one evening Jimmie and I were making our way through the back streets of Pesaro, for once unaccompanied, en route to our next sanctuary, the Convent of San Giovanni. Approaching the
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heavy wooden front door set into the high wall surrounding the convent, we noticed, some three hundred yards away down the narrow street, a small group of German soldiers lurching drunkenly towards us. Vigorously, I pulled the iron ring by the side of the door and heard a bell clang somewhere inside the convent. We waited apprehensively, hearts pounding, but there was no response. Again we tried -and again, to no avail. We faced two simple alternatives: stay put and hope for the best, or walk smartly away in the opposite direction: to run could well court disaster. By now the Germans were less than a hundred yards away. I was sure they would accost if not assault us; we were easy prey for a gang of inebriated Krauts on the loose in the dimly-lit side streets. “Let’s go!” Jimmie whispered. As we turned to move away, the door swung open and we were swept inside. Moments later the Germans staggered past, shouting raucously.
Several days later, we were moved to the house of Signore Canastrari, a mile away in Borgo Santa Maria on the main road to Urbino, and thence to the Del Piccolos’ farm. We had been there for three days when Cagnazzo arrived to take Jimmie (who had “won the toss” – a dubious victory – as to which of us would accompany Cagnazzo on his trip south) to the home of Signora Elisa Cognetti-Fratini at No 2 Viale della Republica, situated in an affluent section of Pesaro, where they spent the night. A charming, cultured lady in her mid-forties, Elisa was a Professor of English at the local Commercial College. Living with her were Maria, her sister, and Luisa, her faithful retainer.
The following evening (the 6th of October), a taxi arrived to take Jimmie and Cagnazzo to Cattolica, a fishing village ten miles up the coast. There they boarded a motor fishing boat, hired by Signore Ezio Galluzzi, a friend of Cagnazzo’s, and skippered by a gallant local fisherman called Signore Guerino.
All fishing was subject to rigorous control by the Germans and the Fascist police who guarded the ports all along the coast. Boats had to be registered; they had to return to port before nightfall; they were liable to be searched before departure and on their return, and so on. Often aircraft would be sent to search for overdue fishing vessels; and if found at sea they could be machine gunned without warning. Both the owner and skipper were, therefore, taking an immense calculated risk. Discovery would have meant a heavy fine (at the very least), imprisonment or worse.
Leaving at dawn, they passed, unheeded, the German control post at the harbour entrance and sailed out into the Adriatic. Early next morning they safely reached the port of Termoli, two hundred miles to the south and a few miles below the Allied lines.
* * * * *
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Meanwhile, I was moved yet again, this time to the farm of Signore Berzigotti at Chiusa di Ginestrelo, five miles south of Santa Maria. One day a local barber came to cut my hair. He was told that I was Berzigotti’s brother who had just arrived from France where he had lived all his life, and for this reason could not speak Italian. The barber, a friendly soul, swallowed this implausible deceit and proceeded to do things to my hair it had never before experienced.
I shared a large, lumpy bed with the eldest son, Enzio, a gormless, unwashed youth whose sonorous snores seriously disturbed my efforts to sleep. The bedroom overlooked the main road, and on Sundays I enjoyed watching the local farmers and their families, dressed up in their best clothes, passing by on their way to church, a colourful and heartwarming sight.
Cooped up in a small farmhouse with little to occupy the mind, my humdrum existence was all-too rarely enlightened by a young lady called Nazarena Guidi, the daughter of a close friend of Cagnazzo’s. This attractive and vivacious girl, who lived with her family in what sounded like a grand villa in Pesaro, rode out to the farm on an expensive-looking bicycle. She brought me food, cigarettes, fruit, even money, which she carried in a saddlebag. Born in France of a French mother and Italian father, Nazarena spoke in fluent, rapid French which I could mostly understand if not respond to with equal fluency.
On one occasion she came with information about German fortifications being built in the Pesaro area. She told me the Germans were rounding up Italian youths to use as forced labour. All this, and other military intelligence, was gleaned either from her own observation or, more remarkably, through the indiscretion of German officers billeted in her father’s villa. On another visit she proudly produced an automatic pistol which I politely, but firmly, declined for reasons less obvious to her than to me.
Always smartly dressed, with her hair immaculate, Nazarena exuded bonhomie and high spirits. Well educated and intelligent, she was romantically inclined and a trifle quixotic; thus her eagerness, I surmised, to indulge in a conspiratorial venture by tending to the material needs of an escaped British officer. I looked forward eagerly to her visits which brought welcome interludes of friendly companionship to alleviate an otherwise monotonous existence.
I was, however, worried that Nazarena’s exuberant rashness might attract unwanted attention, thus inviting trouble. Also, I felt that too many people knew of my existence, that sooner or later I would be betrayed. Nevertheless, I was totally in the hands of the local partisan group, so there was little I could do about this. One day, as if to reinforce my anxiety, Signore Berzigotti’s padrone (the owner of his farm) told him he had heard that there were some escaped British prisoners in the
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neighbourhood. He cautioned my host to keep a sharp look out, and to let him know if he heard anything so that he (the farmer) might claim the reward of 25,000 lire (in gold) offered by the Germans and Italian Fascists for information leading to the capture of an escaped British POW. Berzigotti readily agreed to do so, whilst having not the slightest intention of denouncing me, however tempting the bribe.
An intrepid youth, called Anacleto, assigned as my official guide to escort me from one hide-out to another, arrived one evening on his bicycle. With me perched precariously on the cross bar, we rode to the house of a priest three kilometres away to listen to the BBC news, a pastime forbidden by the authorities and severely punished if anyone were caught in the act. It was exhilarating to hear once again the voice of a BBC newsreader and to have reliable news of the progress of the Italian campaign.
Time weighed heavily and the days dragged by. I was not allowed outside during daylight hours. Only after dark could I venture out to stroll in the fields, being careful not to stray too far for fear of getting lost, or of meeting people from the village who were unaware of my existence. For more strenuous exercise I would sometimes chase the twins, Armando and Vittorio, round the haystacks and amongst the shoulder-high maize crop.
Apart from Nazarena’s infrequent visits, there was little to relieve the sense of boredom and frustration, with no books and only an occasional newspaper to read; nothing to stimulate my rapidly degenerating mind. I did, however, use the time to brush up my Italian. And this I would do for hours on end, seated on my bed poring over school books lent me by the Berzigotti’s delightful nine-year-old daughter, Guiseppa. These, I found, were filled with much heroic Fascist propaganda intended to instil into the minds of Italian children the might and glory of the erstwhile Italian Empire. But they served my purpose ideally, being well illustrated and written in the simplest and most understandable style.
Two weeks into October and still no news from Jimmie. I was becoming restless and irritable, wondering what to do and how long to wait before making a move myself. This prolonged idleness, being cooped up day after day in a confined space, unable to venture outside except after dark, was deeply demoralising. Moreover, it became clear from the BBC broadcasts and from the Italian papers, that the Allied advance up the peninsular continued to be painfully slow.
Although Naples and Foggia had been taken in early October, progress north had become bogged down by the deteriorating weather, the tricky terrain, and by the Germans’ tenacious defensive fighting. Unknown to us, ahead of the Allied forces lay Cassino and the well prepared Gustav line. Cassino did not fall until May 1944. Assuming that something had gone seriously amiss and that Jimmie never turned up, there was no future in
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sitting tight and waiting for our troops to arrive. Soon, therefore, I would have to decide whether to stay put, and if so, for how long; or whether, with the help of my Italian friends, I should organise my escape, either by infiltrating through the front lines (the more dangerous option), or by sea.
* * * * *
Early on the morning of 17th October, I was trying out my Italian on Signora Berzigotti, in her stone-flagged kitchen, when the door burst open – and there stood Jimmie, a broad smile on his face.
“I’ve come to take you home” he announced, slumping exhausted into a chair by the stove. “I’m utterly bushed” he added. “We landed late last night at Gabicce, the other side of Pesaro, and Cagnazzo sent me straight here in a friend’s car. It’s been one hell of a trip!”. Jimmie reached into a large pack dumped on the floor and produced a tin of fifty Players cigarettes, followed by a bottle of Johnny Walker whisky. “I hope these were worth waiting for”. He grinned. It was wonderful to see him again, and I was impatient to hear what had happened to him and Cagnazzo.
Over a large plate of steaming spaghetti Jimmie proceeded to recount his adventures since leaving me eleven days ago.
After an uneventful journey, the fishing boat had arrived safely near the port of Termoli. He and Cagnazzo went ashore and were promptly arrested by two RAF policemen from the nearby airfield, Jimmie as a suspected German spy. Protesting vehemently, they were marched to the Military Police headquarters where Jimmie was separated from Cagnazzo and locked up in a small ration storeroom. From there he was taken under armed escort to Divisional HQ in Bari where he was interrogated at length. (It must be said, in parenthesis, that at that time Jimmie did have a certain lean, Teutonic look about him; a strong jaw line, sallow complexion and close cropped hair. Added to this his scruffy civilian outfit would have aroused further suspicion). Loudly protesting his innocence and demanding to see the nearest General, Jimmie was led outside to be marched a short distance to the local military detention centre.
He and his escort had gone a short distance when a distinctly Scottish voice called out: “Good God! What the hell’s going on, Jimmie?” It was an old golfing chum of Jimmie’s, Hamish Sandilands, from Kirkcaldy, Fife, who was understandably astonished to see Jimmie being escorted by an armed military policeman through the streets of Bari. “For Christ’s sake, Hamish, tell this bugger who I am!” Jimmie yelled. “They think I’m a bloody German spy!”. Shocked and incredulous, Hamish accompanied Jimmie and his by now confused escort to the military police headquarters. There he was quickly able to establish Jimmie’s real identity and arrange for his immediate release.
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Together Jimmie and his saviour, a staff major at GHQ, Bari, repaired to the officers’ mess for a couple of stiff whiskies, which Hamish ordered while Jimmie disappeared for a quick wash and brush up. Thus fortified and refreshed, Jimmie was taken to meet a staff captain from “A” Force, the branch of MI9 responsible for questioning and debriefing escaped British POWs.
Jimmie outlined, briefly, the purpose of his clandestine journey south. A band of Italian partisans, he said, based in the Appenines to the west of Pesaro, was willing and eager to undertake sabotage operations against German military installations and transport in the area. His mission was, first, to arrange for supplies of Allied arms, ammunition, and other essential equipment to be parachuted to the partisans at regular intervals; secondly, to identify and pinpoint suitable dropping zones; thirdly, to establish radio communication between the partisans and our forces (bearing in mind that he, Jimmie, was an experienced officer in the Royal Corps of Signals); and lastly, to liaise closely with neighbouring guerrilla bands to ensure that all clandestine activities in the region were properly coordinated. He and the colleague he had left behind, Captain Pat Spooner, would train and lead them, and act as the liaison link with the Allied forces and with any agents operating in the area.
The captain listened patiently until Jimmie had finished. Pausing to offer Jimmie a cigarette, and to light one himself, he rose from his chair and turned to face Jimmie. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, old man, but I’m afraid it’s just not on” he said. “As an escaped POW you must, of course, be repatriated at the first opportunity. We already have a number of others here, like you, waiting to be sent home by boat. There’s absolutely no question of your going back into enemy occupied territory. Contrary to regulations, old boy, and quite unheard of!”.
But Jimmie, stubborn by nature, was not to be so easily deterred. He insisted, once again, on seeing a more senior officer, preferably of General rank. Clearly taken aback, but swayed by Jimmie’s forceful determination, the staff captain agreed, albeit reluctantly, to refer him to higher authority. That afternoon he was taken before the Colonel commanding the Divisional counter intelligence unit to whom he outlined his plans even more vigorously than before. In reply, the Colonel said he had every sympathy with Jimmie’s “commendable proposals”. However, he was equally adamant that they were incompatible with the Allies’ strategic plans. Notwithstanding this further setback, Jimmie remained fiercely determined to return, come what may, to Pesaro. “Sir with respect, I gave my colleague, Pat, my word that I would be back, and no way will I let him or our Italian colleagues down”.
Telling Jimmie to wait, the colonel left the room abruptly and disappeared down the corridor. Half an hour later he returned.
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“I’ve had a word with the BGS (Brigadier General Staff)”, he said. “You’ll be glad to hear he’s agreed to make an exception in your case and allow you to go back behind the lines with your Italian friend. However”, he added, “there is one very important condition. We need you to contact two of our Generals and an Air Vice-Marshal who have escaped from a senior officers’ camp near Florence and bring them back here. You will be in charge of the operation. And my organisation will, of course, give you every possible help. It’s a matter of the utmost importance that we get these VIP’s back here safely and as quickly as possible.” He paused, looking intently at Jimmie. “The choice is yours.”
Jimmie hesitated, knowing full well how bitterly disappointed Canazzo and his partisan friends would be to learn that their requests had been rejected outright. However, he also recognized that it was beyond even his persuasive powers to reverse what was so obviously a high level decision.
“I accept the conditions, Sir.” Jimmie said, after a momentary pause, adding “May I ask, who are these senior officers?”. He was taken aback when the Colonel revealed their identities, namely, General Neame VC, General O’Connor, and Air Vice-Marshal Boyd, and went on to describe their recent histories.
Lieutenant General Sir Philip Neame VC and Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor had been captured together in the spring of 1941 near Derna in the Western Desert. General O’Connor had led the Western Desert Force in the victorious battles of 1940-41 in which it had utterly destroyed the Italian 10th Army, many times its size. Field Marshal Wavell, Commander-in-Chief in Egypt, considered him to be a brilliant commander and had recalled him from Cairo to take over from Neame as G.O.C. of the Desert army which was then in sad disarray. He arrived in the middle of a battle which was going badly. Wavell counted on O’Connor to salvage the situation and to win back the confidence of senior commanders, whose morale was at a low ebb.
On April 6th 1941 Neame and O’Connor were in a staff car, making their way across the desert. They were in a small column with other senior officers from Corps Headquarters. In the darkness they ran into another column of lorries and cars which turned out to be part of the 3rd German Reconnaissance Battalion, and the whole party was taken prisoner.
Air Vice-Marshal Owen T. Boyd had been captured in 1940 when his plane was forced to land in Sicily while he was on his way to Cairo to become Deputy Air Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. He had held many senior air appointments, including Air Officer Commanding Balloon Command in England, responsible for the balloon barrage which proved so effective in preventing low level attacks by German bombers.
* * * * *
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Over the next twenty-four hours Jimmie was thoroughly briefed on his dramatic mission. A plan was evolved for the Royal Navy to pick our party up in a submarine off the coast, near Pesaro, at 10 p.m. on November 3rd. Should this fail for any reason, back-up plans were scheduled, with alternative dates, times and rendezvous. Jimmie was required to memorise the code names of other agents in the region, and told how to contact them in an emergency. He was fully briefed, too, on German counter-intelligence activities.
Jimmie was fitted out with authentic Italian civilian clothes; and he and Cagnazzo (both now enrolled as official “A” Force agents) were issued with Italian lire, identity papers, escape packs (containing medical aids, pep pills, etc), and a small supply of emergency rations and cigarettes.
They left Termoli early on the morning of the 17th October in the same motorised fishing boat which had brought them there. The following night they made landfall, without incident, at Gabicce, a small fishing village near Cattolica. Thanks to the cooperation of his uncle, the harbour-master, their intrepid skipper, Guerino, had explained away (we never discovered how) the sudden arrival of his boat at Gabicce. Even more importantly, he had somehow managed to cover up its ten day absence from nearby Cattolica without arousing any official suspicions.
Cagnazzo set off immediately to make contact with the generals who had made their way, first by train from Florence to Arezzo, and then by coach to a Dominican monastery in the Appenines.
For several days the generals and the AVM had been moved around the mountains, in appalling weather, to avoid recapture by the Germans and Italian Fascists who, by now, had learned of their presence in the area. On October 31st, whilst billeted in the village of Straubatenza, they received word from the Prior General at Eremo Monastery that a British agent had been sent to rescue them. After a sleepless night in a cattle barn, they set off before dawn with their guide, Signore Maurizzio. It took them seven hours’ hard marching on rough tracks, covering twenty miles across the mountains, to reach their destination, the monastery of Verna. Soon after their arrival, Cagnazzo turned up with three bicycles in the back of his car.
That same afternoon, although dog-tired, they cycled thirty-five miles, following Cagnazzo’s car and passing groups of German engineers preparing bridges for demolition. Next day (November 2nd), they started at dawn and cycled another forty-eight miles, this time with a new guide, called Canestrade, who preceded them on his bicycle. They arrived, utterly exhausted, at a farm owned by a Signore Ruggeri near the village of Pozzo Basso, a few miles outside Pesaro. It was here, shortly afterwards, that Cagnazzo brought Jimmie and me to meet them.
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Despite being worn out and dishevelled after their long and arduous journey, the three senior officers were in buoyant spirits. They were, of course, impatient to learn from Jimmie the plans “A” Force had made for their rescue by submarine the following night. Jimmie took charge firmly and efficiently, undaunted by the weight of responsibility resting on his young shoulders, and undeterred by the prospect of giving orders to two distinguished generals and an Air Vice-Marshal. They listened politely as Jimmie outlined the arrangements for the following evening and explained the back-up plans if things went wrong. He answered their questions without hesitation and they seemed satisfied.
Neame and O’Connor, in their mid-fifties, were not dissimilar in appearance: both were rather small in stature, lean and wiry, with bristly moustaches and greying hair. From the start, Neame seemed more sensitive than the others that Jimmie was in sole charge of the operation. To some extent, I suppose, this was understandable, given Neame’s eminent career, highlighted by the award of the Victoria Cross, won for conspicuous bravery in France early in the first World War as a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. In 1916 he won a D.S.O. and during WW1 was mentioned in despatches five times.
O’Connor was dapper, with a soft Scottish brogue and a warm, friendly smile. He, too, had distinguished himself in acts of gallantry in WW1, having won the D.S.O. and bar, the Military Cross, and been mentioned in despatches no less than nine times. But I was struck at once by his modest and self-effacing bearing, He was far less likely, I suspected, to throw his weight around.
Boyd was of medium height, slim, broad-chested and powerfully built, like a rugby wing three-quarter. The same age as O’Connor (54), he had graduated from Sandhurst and been commissioned into the Indian Army in 1909, transferring to the Royal Air Force in 1916. In WW1 he won both the MC and the AFC, and was awarded the OBE in 1919. He was a quiet-spoken, gentle man who accepted without demur the fact that they were entirely in Jimmie’s hands, and showed no sign of resentment.
We learned later that during their time “in the bag”, first in a camp near Sulmona and later in Vincigliate Castle, near Florence, two of them (O’Connor and Boyd) had made attempts to escape. O’Connor very nearly succeeded in July 1942 by scaling the walls of the castle, only to be spotted halfway down the rope by one of the sentries. Again, in March 1943, he and Boyd, together with four other senior officers (including the legendary General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, who bad lost an arm and an eye in the first World War, and won a VC) had escaped through a tunnel which had taken six months to dig. The Air Vice-Marshal was apprehended on the Swiss border at Como, and O’Connor, after seven days’ cross-country walking, was picked up by a carabinieri patrol on the Bologna plain, 150 miles from the camp.
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By all accounts, the generals and the AVM were a tough trio, game for almost anything. After more than two frustrating years in captivity they were more than ever fiercely determined to gain their freedom.
It was, therefore, a delicate task confronting Jimmie: to assert his authority on three such gallant and distinguished gentlemen, preferably without intimidating them. Another factor to be coped with in the coming weeks was a tendency on the part of the leaders of the Italian underground to defer to Neame, as the most senior of the three “brass hats”, rather than to Jimmie. But Jimmie managed admirably. He never appeared overawed. And throughout our ensuing adventures he maintained a fine balance of respect, firmness and dogged determination.
One slight problem, for us, was that the generals and the AVM were fairly fluent in Italian. They had spent much longer than us as PoWs and had devoted much of their incarceration learning the language. It was natural, therefore, that the Italians we came into contact with tended to communicate more freely with them than with us.
Early that first afternoon, Jimmie and Cagnazzo returned to Gabicce, where they hoped to borrow (or steal) a rowing boat to take us all out to sea to await the submarine.
Meanwhile, O’Connor, Neame, Boyd and I, led by our trusted guide, cycled into Cattolica and went straight to the house of a Major Gusto Tilloy, a former General Staff officer of the Italian Army, who was also a well-known military historian.
Well aware of the death penalty for harbouring British prisoners, nevertheless, like many other brave Italians we encountered (from all walks of life), the Tilloys were prepared to risk their lives to do so. They had three young children who were kept up at the top of the house in case they should say something that would betray our presence, whilst we stayed downstairs and spoke only in whispers.
* * * * *
At 8 o’clock the following evening, November 3rd, the generals, the AVM, our guide and I set off briskly on foot towards the sea. There was no moon and it was pitch dark. This made it difficult to find Jimmie and Cagnazzo who were waiting for us on the beach in the shelter of a pier. Quickly we boarded the rowing boat Cagnazzo had procured and rowed out several hundred yards beyond the pier. There we waited, and waited, tossed by the waves and drenched by the stinging, salty spray, while Jimmie signalled periodically with his flashlight, carefully masked so that its beam could be seen only from the seaward side. There was no answering flash from the submarine.
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At midnight, two hours after the appointed pickup time, Jimmie decided to abandon the attempt. A blustery offshore wind had developed, and this, with the strong current, made rowing back to the shore very hard work. As a result, we landed some distance from where the rowing boat had been appropriated. What would happen, I wondered, when the owner discovered, a few hours later, that his precious boat was missing? At the very least he would report his loss to the police who would promptly investigate the boat’s disappearance. This could seriously interfere with our plans for the following night, when a second attempt was to be made by the submarine to pick us up from precisely the same spot. But this was a risk we had to take. There was no alternative, no way at that late stage, in the absence of a direct radio link with ”A” Force, of warning the Royal Navy to keep clear of the area.
To Tilloy’s obvious discomfiture, the bedraggled party returned to his house. And there we stayed for what little was left of the night, and throughout the next day. So ended the first of numerous abortive attempts to escape by sea.
After dark that evening we again gathered up our meagre belongings and trooped down to the beach. This time Jimmie decided to wait on the beach beside another rowing boat which Cagnazzo had that afternoon arranged to borrow. Huddled together for warmth, we sat in the bitterly cold, drizzling rain until the appointed hour when Jimmie started flashing the agreed signals on his torch, the beam of narrow light piercing the darkness out to sea.
In the early hours of the morning we heard the throb of an engine out at sea. Convinced it was the submarine, Neame was upset to be contradicted by Jimmie who recognized the distinctive sound of an Italian patrol boat’s engines. To make absolutely sure, he and Cagnazzo, at considerable risk to themselves, walked to the end of the pier and once again flashed the prearranged signals out to sea. As before, they went unanswered. Dejected and drenched through, we made our way back once more to the Tilloys’ house, where the welcome we received was bleaker even than our shattered morale.
Some months later, O’Connor learned that on both occasions our submarine had been diverted, at the last moment, to “another important mission elsewhere” – scarcely a satisfactory or indeed a flattering explanation ……
Gusto Tilloy warned us that the Germans were setting up a new headquarters in Cattolica, and that there had been increased patrol activities along the nearby coast. It was clearly far too dangerous, therefore, for us to remain in Cattolica any longer. And in any case, it was all too plain that we had outstayed our welcome at the Tilloys’ residence.
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Luckily for us, a Signore Spada turned up unexpectedly at the Tilloys’ and, through him, we were able to make fresh plans for our escape. Spada was a fanatical anti-Fascist political leader who, from humble beginnings, had done well in the textile trade before going into politics. He was a leading member in this province of the U.L.I . (Unione Laborista Italiana), an organisation that had given considerable help to British and other escaped POWs in the way of clothes, food and money, all of which were unobtainable by normal means.
With the generals’ agreement, we decided to split up into two parties for the time being. The situation looked bleak and the risks of recapture were growing daily, all the more so if we stayed together in one group. Spada solved the problem by arranging for the generals and the AVM to be housed, as Swiss refugees, in a chapel on the estate of one Count Spina, while Jimmie and I were taken back to our old friends, the Terenzis, in Pozzo Alto.
For the next ten days the senior officers fared badly. The chapel was like a mausoleum, freezing cold and draughty. They had to sleep on the wooden pews, and indifferent if not unpalatable food was brought to them from a local cafe. After several days it was plain that they had to move. Rumour and gossip were rife in the village, and the generals became increasingly concerned about Spina’s motives, even suspecting him of playing a double game with the local Fascists.
At daybreak on November 16th, Spada arrived at Count Spina’s chapel with four bicycles in the back of a small lorry. With Spada in the lead, the generals and Boyd set off along the main coastal road. After thirty-five miles they stopped for a meal in a restaurant, then continued cycling until they reached Cesena where an artist friend of Spada’s, called Magnani, put them up for the night. Next day they cycled for over three hours to Forli, Benito Mussolini’s home town. After two nights spent in two separate houses they were moved into a villa in the suburbs, owned by a Signore Spazzoli, where they spent the next seven days in reasonable comfort. Spada told them that the Germans had closed and occupied the port of Cattolica, so all hope of getting away from there, at least for the time being, was completely dashed.
Meanwhile, a certain Signore Bruno Vailati had courageously taken a hand-written note from Neame, addressed personally to Generals Alexander and Montgomery, through the German front lines. He had successfully delivered the note to the Allied HQ in Bari and returned safely with further plans for the generals’ escape.
* * * * *
Jimmie and I met Bruno Vailati on November 22nd, when he came to see us in Pesaro to discuss the new plans and offer his help. Our immediate concern was to rejoin the generals and the AVM in
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Cervia, forty-five miles up the Adriatic coast road, where a further attempt was to be made by “A” Force to rescue us by submarine. We decided to make the journey on bicycles, as this seemed to be the safest mode of travel. The majority of Italians moved around in this way so it attracted the least attention. Our cycling excursions were normally restricted to daylight hours as the curfew was strictly enforced.
Preceded by our guide, Anacleto, we set off early one morning on our trek northwards along the coast. There was no way to avoid the main road without taking a circuitous route, which would have prevented us from reaching our destination before dark. En route we had to pass through the port of Rimini. Approaching the main bridge across the River Marecchia, in the town centre, we saw civilian cars ahead of us being stopped by a German military policeman waving a stick with a red disc on the end. Anacleto had already crossed the bridge safely. Jimmie motioned to me to dismount while we decided whether to go ahead and take the risk, or turn back and wait until the coast was clear. The problem was that, without the guide, we would be lost: neither of us knew the precise location of our rendezvous in Cervia. So there was nothing for it but to continue, one by one, towards the bridge. I was in the lead. If I was stopped Jimmie could turn back.
As I drew near, to my consternation the German started to raise his red disc. My heart raced faster. Then a car passed me, slowing down, and I realised with profound relief that it was not I who was being stopped. So I peddled on, looking firmly ahead, and reached the far end of the bridge. Jimmie soon joined me. Out of sight of the police guard, we put on a burst of speed to catch up Anacleto, knowing that he would be unaware of the reason for our delay. We found him a mile down the road, waiting anxiously, and delighted to know we were safe.
Later, Anacleto stopped at a wayside restaurant for much needed refreshment and rest. We were saddle-sore, stiff and limp with fatigue and hunger, our throats parched with thirst. We had cycled non-stop (apart from the incident at the bridge) for forty eight miles in just over six hours. The restaurant was packed with German soldiers, so Jimmie and I remained discreetly silent, leaving our guide to chatter away in Italian. We listened intently, understanding little.
That evening we met Bruno Vailati, the generals and the AVM, who had bicycled over from Forli, some twenty miles to the west, at the Osteria del Cacciatore (a former hunting lodge), a few miles north of Cervia. This was the rendezvous from which we were to launch our fourth attempt to escape.
As soon as it was dark we set off for the beach, although still exhausted from our bicycle rides. We walked in single file, with Bruno in the lead, over miles of marshland and flooded pathways. The going was terrible in the dark and it took us two
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and a half hours. We had to wade, sometimes up to our knees, through swamps and glutinous mud which all but sucked off our saturated shoes.
To make matters worse, the place chosen by “A” Force for our rendezvous with the submarine was, unknown to them, teeming with German military activity. We appeared to be walking slap through the middle of intensive German night manoeuvres! Flares streaked up into the moonless night sky, brilliantly illuminating the surrounding countryside. The squeal of tank tracks could be heard in the distance, mixed with the staccato crackle of small arms and machine gun fire. Nearing the shoreline, we saw helmeted German infantrymen sharply silhouetted on the distant dunes, preparing to fend off some mock invasion. Fluid coastal defence was vital to prevent what the German High Command no doubt assumed (wrongly, as it transpired) would be Allied landings sooner or later on either side of the upper Italian peninsular.
Bruno came to an abrupt halt, and turning to Jimmie, who was immediately behind him, expressed his apprehension about going any further. He was convinced we were in imminent danger of being discovered. The Germans were all around us, he argued, and it was only a matter of time before our ragged band ran into them. We had a hurried consultation with the generals, but they and the AVM were adamant about carrying on. We had come so far, Neame insisted, it would be senseless to abandon the attempt. So we struggled on, now less than a quarter of a mile from the beach.
Shortly after 10 pm, miraculously undetected, we finally reached our objective, a small wooden shack half-hidden amongst the sand-dunes close to the mouth of the River Savio, where two fishermen were waiting for us. Leaving the rest of us in the hut, which reeked of rotting fish and musty nets, Jimmie and Bruno helped the fishermen put to sea in a small rowing boat, wading through the pounding surf before themselves scrambling aboard. Some way from the beach they weighed anchor. And there the four of them waited in the freezing cold, while Jimmie intermittently flashed the prearranged signals seawards. Over and over again he repeated the signals. There was no sign or sound of the submarine in the inky blackness.
At 3 am they returned disconsolately to the beach and rejoined us in the dank and smelly shack. Silently, Vailati led the party back to the Osteria, reaching it at daybreak, each one of us cold, wet and dejected after yet another distressing setback.
* * * * *
Later that morning we were taken to an empty, unfurnished villa nearby. Bruno contacted a friend of his, Signore Sovera, who owned an hotel in Cervia. At that low point in our fortunes, Sovera proved himself a godsend. An assistant manager at
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Claridges in London before the war, he was a jovial, rotund little man with bright, sparkling eyes, who exuded an air of bustling efficiency. He was also a very brave man.
Anxious to improve our creature comforts, Sovera contrived to move us next day into a modern, well-furnished villa which stood amongst thick pine woods on the outskirts of Cervia. This luxurious residence, ironically, was the summer home of none other than General Graziani, the commander in the 1940/41 Desert campaign of the hapless Italian forces which had been soundly thrashed by Dick O’Connor’s brilliant strategy. Sovera was able to bribe the caretaker, whom he trusted to keep his mouth shut, and to take it in turns with his assistant, Spazzoli, to bring us hot food, prepared in the hotel kitchens, and masses of fresh fruit. He even provided whiskey and wine with our meals, and more important still, a radio on which we could listen to the BBC news.
Immediately opposite the Graziani villa lived an Englishwoman, Signora Tellesio, whose brother was an RAF fighter pilot. One evening she called on us and invited us to tea the following afternoon. Married to an Italian journalist, she was a charming lady who did everything she could to make us as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.
The next morning, however, we had a real scare. Jimmie was looking out of the sitting-room window when he spotted a squad of German soldiers riding slowly towards our villa on bicycles. The officer in charge stopped at our front gate and was about to open it when Signora Tellesio hurried across the road to intercept him. Soon after, the Germans left and she came to tell us that they were a billeting party. She had diverted them to another part of the neighbourhood where, she told the officer, the accommodation was far more suitable. She hustled us out of the back door with our bicycles, telling us to hide in the pine woods behind the villa, and to stay there until she gave us the all clear. It was dark before the Signora came to tell us it was safe to return to the villa.
We learned, much later, that soon after we left Cervia the Fascist police came to arrest Signore Tellesio and his wife. Neither was there, so they seized the baby and nurse as hostages. Signora Tellesio then gave herself up, whereupon she was thrown into a prison cell with fifteen male prisoners. She was continually interrogated about her husband’s whereabouts. But despite threats to shoot her, they failed to get the information they wanted. She was released after a month of very rough treatment. When the British Forces arrived, Signore Tellesio became a liaison officer between the Allied HQ and the civil authorities. After many months’ delay, his wife and baby were sent home to her mother in England, as her health had suffered badly from the brutal treatment she had received from the Italian police.
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* * * * *
Our next escape attempt came on the night of November 28th. This time “A” Force were to send a motor fishing boat to pick us up off the coast near Cervia. Yet again we made our way down to the shore, blessed for a change with favourable weather. Once more we spent the entire night on the beach, waiting and hoping. And once again we were to be bitterly disappointed …. not a glimmer of response to Jimmie’s signals. Later, in London, we were told that intensive British naval operations in the Adriatic, involving the bombardment of Ancona, ninety miles to the south, had caused the cancellation of the rendezvous.
In his diary for November 29th, Signore Sovera describes the critical situation.
“6 am. Once again the departure has not taken place. They are all wet, dirty and very dejected. I endeavour to cheer them up. As before, they are given food. We are back where we started!
In Cervia people are beginning to talk about my guests and we are not very happy about it. Bruno and Spazzoli leave to get instructions. We think they will be away about five or six days. I promise to come back at 12.30 pm with luncheon. At midday I am worried. I get the meal as quickly as I can and together with Mario, who helps me to carry the food, I reach the villa just in time to come face to face with a German sergeant and a billeting officer who, with skeleton keys, are trying to force open the gate.
I recoil. A moment’s delay and all would have been lost! I approach them and ask them what they want and they tell me they want to enter the villa to inspect it. I reply that my servant has the keys and that he will be returning at 4 pm. It seems they want somewhere with a garage. I then take them to the villa opposite where a friend of mine lives and show them the garage. My friend protests but I insist that they should be allowed to use his garage. He is annoyed with me. He doesn’t know what is going on nor does he understand why I should be doing such a thing. Then the Germans go away but say they want to see the villa at 4 pm.
In the end I take the food inside and decide to arrange for them (the generals’ party) to leave in the afternoon. To remain in the pinewoods would be dangerous. I decide to send them to some trustworthy peasants. At 2 pm we leave the villa to fetch them from the pinewoods and later in the afternoon they start off for the country.
30 Nov. I send them supplies. Am informed by Baselli that the place is not safe. A Fascist has been killed and they are searching everywhere. My friends change their hiding pace three times in three days. No news from Bruno ….
1st Dec. Baselli comes to tell me that they cannot stay there any longer as rumours (of their presence) are
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spreading ….. and still no news from Bruno…..
I decide to move them back to Cervia again. O’Connor and Neame are entrusted to Spazzoli’s care and Boyd comes with me. My hotel, meanwhile, is requisitioned and occupied by the Commander of the Piazza Pillugari – a real Prussian. He occupies Room No 27 and I put Boyd in No 28 which has its own bathroom. This room has a communicating door into my flat from which I take him his meals. Boyd is quite content. He had a wireless set and from his window he can see all the movements of the Germans without himself being seen. Every night, when my children are in bed, he comes into my flat. I give him some books to enable him to practice his Italian. Mrs Tellesio brings me some novels. I go and see the others who are living in a small villa in Cervia and they are very comfortable. They don’t want anything else. I send them tea and whiskey.
2nd Dec. I liaise between my friends. I visit them every evening. Have let Boyd have my pyjamas whilst his own are being washed and I have fixed him up with a stove. He is extremely courteous and it is a real pleasure to do something for him ….
Bruno arrives: leaves again in the afternoon. What a man he is! Have found a taxi and take them to Riccione the same evening. We bid each other farewell … it was all very moving. We hope to have good news of them soon”.
(Sovera ends his diary account by noting that “on the 20th January we hear – on the wireless – that they have arrived safely. We celebrate with champagne!”).
While the Air Vice-Marshal was enjoying Sovera’s generous hospitality, Neame and O’Connor had been moved back into Cervia where they were billeted, in reasonable comfort, with a hospital nurse called Ida. The two generals shared a large bed and Sovera brought them a box of food each day. Before they left, Ida asked them to inscribe their names under the bed as a memento of their stay.
It was clearly unwise and dangerous for us all to remain together in one place for longer than was absolutely necessary. Nor was it fair on our Italian helpers and agents, who were already taking enormous risks on our behalf. Splitting up the party, too, reduced the chances of us all being caught together. And so Jimmie and I, again guided by the indomitable Anacleto, bicycled the fifty miles back to our old familiar farmhouse in Pozzo Alto. There we were to stay while Cagnazzo made strenuous efforts to procure a fishing boat to take the party down to Termoli, as he had successfully done for the first trip.
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The skipper of the Cattolica boat, Guerino, had decided, wisely perhaps, not to tempt fate again so soon after the last voyage south. Considering the huge risks to himself and his family, he could scarcely be blamed for his reluctance. Indeed, it was astonishing to me that anyone would contemplate such a hazardous mission, however tempting the rewards.
* * * * *
By now things were becoming desperate. Official efforts to rescue us having failed dismally, we were now left very much to our own devices. Jimmie had made several abortive attempts to contact other “A” Force agents in the area. I found it incredible that not a single agent had been in touch with us since Jimmie’s return from Termoli. Surely, I thought, “A” Force would move heaven and earth to keep open whatever lines of communication were available, however slender, given the vital importance of getting the three senior officers back to safety.
I was puzzled, too, that Jimmie had not been issued with a two-way radio. For two simple reasons, he explained. First, they were in very short supply. And secondly, even the so-called “portable” units were bulky and heavy, too cumbersome to carry around and hard to conceal.
It was a question now of relying on our faithful Cagnazzo, or one of the other Italian “helpers”, to pull something dramatic out of the fire. Neame, in particular, was becoming fractious and frustrated; and O’Connor and Boyd also were understandably restless. On the other hand, we were aware of the danger of relying too heavily on our Italian friends, however loyal and trustworthy their motives might be. There were ominous signs, too, of a jealous rivalry between the partisan factions, each vying for the honour and glory of helping the British VIP’s to escape.
Cagnazzo, Spada and Sovera, we knew, had maintained close contact with resistance groups in the area: but the partisans’ help, incalculable though it was, had been confined to the provision of “safe houses”, guides and transport. Indeed, had it not been for them, undoubtedly we would have long since found ourselves behind bars in Germany – or suffered an even worse fate.
Under these circumstances, Jimmie and I thought it prudent to move the generals and the AVM down the coast to Riccione as soon as arrangements could be made. Two days later, they were driven there in the same taxi that had brought Cagnazzo from Pesaro. The driver, Signore Lisotti, was blissfully unaware of the identity of his passengers for the hundreds of miles he was engaged as their chauffeur. It was not until the very last journey that the secret was finally revealed. Perhaps this
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explains why he drove them so nonchalantly through four German checkpoints on the way to Riccione!
Lisotti took them straight to the house of Signore Pietro Arpesella, a wily young Italian, proud of his business acumen and financial manipulations in the real estate market. His shrewdness came to light over the loan of the 100,000 lire (about £800) which we needed to pay, in advance, to the fishing boat captain who was prepared to take us down to the Allied lines. No fool, Arpesella was willing to loan us the money on condition the IOU, signed by Neame, was repayable in pounds sterling, and that he received a letter of commendation from Neame. Not surprisingly, both conditions were agreed with alacrity.
The fact that Arpesella’s house was situated next door to the German headquarters appeared not to bother him at all. He even encouraged his British guests to venture out after dark to walk the streets which were crawling with German soldiers. The danger was not so much from the Germans, but from the chances of being stopped by an inquisitive Fascist or an alert Carabinieri patrol.
The next day, December 7th, Cagnazzo turned up at our farmhouse in Pozzo Alto with the grim news that the Germans had seized and impounded the fishing boat we were to use. Their suspicions had apparently been aroused; how, we never knew. Thwarted yet again, our spirits plummeted to an even lower ebb.
Cagnazzo then suggested sending the generals and the AVM to a place called Cingoli, some eighty miles further south, where a band of partisans under a General Ascoli claimed to be in radio contact with Allied headquarters in Bari. O’Connor and Neame both endorsed the idea on the grounds that to do anything faintly constructive was preferable to prolonged inertia.
On December 10th Lisotti drove the three men down to their new place of refuge near Cingoli without mishap. There they spent three uncomfortable days in primitive lodgings, sleeping above stables which stank abominably. They were all suffering from heavy colds and nasty coughs. Neame, we heard, was in a particularly bad way, showing signs of a fever and the possible onset of influenza. This presented a serious problem. Thanks to the ministrations of a local doctor, however, he recovered with commendable speed.
General Ascoli readily agreed to transmit a message from Neame to General Montgomery, asking him to send a naval craft to Porta Civita Nuova, south of Ancona, to rescue us. Being Jewish, General Ascoli had gone into hiding and was himself trying to get out of the country. While the generals were in Cingoli he was tragically killed. He was being chased by the Fascist militia when his bicycle skidded over the side of a steep bank and he suffered a fatal fracture to his skull.
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Yet again the generals were moved, this time to a small flat in Cingoli itself, rented by Cagnazzo. One night the police conducted a thorough search of the town. Whether they had got wind of the generals we never discovered. It was, in any event, time for them to move from an area which had become increasingly hazardous.
On December 16th the generals were driven back to Riccione, once more passing all the German check points without any problems. Neame was angry at being made to move yet again. He had wanted to wait in Cingoli for a reply from General Montgomery. In the event this never materialised. Jimmie and I strongly suspected that the much vaunted radio link was a myth dreamed up by the partisans to impress the generals.
Meanwhile, at Jimmie’s suggestion, Vailati contacted Ezio Galluzzi, the fishing boat owner who had arranged Jimmie’s and Cagnazzo’s trip south the previous month, and who had stoutly offered to repeat the process, using the largest boat in his fishing fleet. We trusted him implicitly. But Jimmie sensibly insisted on Galluzzi meeting the generals and Boyd first, to make sure that they, too, were happy with his credentials. After a brief meeting, Neame expressed their joint approval and confidence in him. This was just as well, for we were running out of time. Tempers were increasingly frayed. Moreover, the weather was becoming problematical for a voyage in a fishing boat down the Adriatic which, we were warned, could be dangerously tempestuous in winter.
* * * * *
Bruno Vailati arrived on December 13th with the welcome news that Galluzzi had agreed to take us south himself, sailing out of the port of Cattolica. He was influenced in his decision by two very strong motives: to prevent the “flagship” of his fishing fleet being seized by the Germans or damaged by Allied bombing of the port. Also, he asked to be allowed to take his wife, as he was unwilling, for obvious reasons, to leave her behind on her own. This presented no problem and was readily agreed.
There still remained the critical question of laying our hands on the money to pay Galluzzi. This now being a matter of top priority, Jimmie sent an urgent message to Arpesella. Two days later, to our immense relief, he obligingly turned up with the required 100,000 lire in cash. This was immediately handed over to Galluzzi on the understanding that, all being well and weather permitting, he would be ready to leave in the next day or so.
An urgent meeting was arranged with the generals and Boyd, at which both Cagnazzo and Vailate were present. It was essential to plan the embarkation in detail so that everything went smoothly for what was to be our eighth, and hopefully final escape attempt. None of us was under any delusion as to the
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risks and difficulties we faced. Timing, for instance, was a crucial factor; much depended on us all getting down to the boat speedily, unobtrusively and on a tightly controlled schedule.
It was already dark, on December 18th, when Vailati went off in Lisotti’s taxi to pick up Father Leone from the monastery in Pesaro, where Jimmie and I had spent several days in hiding. Father Leone had been heavily involved over many months in helping escaped British POWs and was now forced to flee from the Fascist regime. Vailati then went on to collect Jimmie and me from the Terenzi’s farm in Pozzo Alto. From there he drove by a circuitous route, carefully avoiding the main roads, to the outskirts of Cattolica. There we met our skipper, Galluzzi, who was to guide us on foot down to the port area. At 8.30 pm we crept silently and stealthily along the quayside for a hundred yards or so, until suddenly we found ourselves following Galluzzi up a short gangplank onto his fishing boat. Cagnazzo and his wife, together with Signora Galluzzi, had already been smuggled aboard; also a South African corporal, named Macmullen, who had had the good fortune to encounter Cagnazzo the previous day.
The unflappable Vailate then went off, again in Lisotti’s taxi, to fetch the generals and the AVM from Riccione. He found them waiting, nervously impatient and anxious. The agreed pick-up time was 6.30 pm. So for two hours they had become increasingly fearful that, yet again, things had gone wrong. Against Vailati’s advice, Neame insisted on taking with him a bulky suitcase containing his precious diaries and the draft of his book on the desert campaigns.
They left Riccione at about 9 pm, only half an hour before curfew. Just outside Cattolica they were halted at a German control post. Their papers were examined but miraculously passed muster and they were allowed to proceed. Half a mile from the port they met Skipper Galluzzi at the same place where Jimmie and I had stopped. An emotional scene followed as Lisotti, their stout-hearted driver, embraced the generals and Boyd and, somewhat to their embarrassment, kissed them each on the cheek. We heard later that he had been betrayed and arrested soon after our escape. He was tortured by the Gestapo but remained silent. Tragically, he died soon after the arrival of the Allied armies as a result of his brutal treatment.
With Galluzzi leading the way in the pitch dark, they moved slowly, in single file, down the canal path towards the little harbour, and along the narrow jetty to where the boat, rocking gently on the evening tide, lay moored. Scarcely daring to breathe, they crept on board and joined the rest of us below decks. The time was 10.25 pm.
All night we were battened down in the cramped bowels of the 16-metre vessel, huddled together in what Neame likened to the Black Hole of Calcutta. The hold was dark, damp, very hot and stuffy,
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and smelled strongly of fish. Conditions were scarcely conducive to sleep, desperately tired though we all were.
The night seemed interminable, each of us lost in his own thoughts – and fears. I doubt that I was the only one praying fervently (as even the bravest atheist is prone to do when faced with real danger). Nightmarish thoughts leap to mind at such times. Could the owner of the boat really be trusted? Here we were, sitting ducks, an enviable prize for the Germans. What was there to stop him taking the 100,000 lire from Arpesella and handing us over to the Germans for a further reward (except perhaps the knowledge that he would face the certain vengeance of our partisan friends)? Might not the German guards search the boat before allowing her to sail? And so we waited, and waited, increasingly apprehensive, tension mounting as the minutes ticked by, inexorably, through the night.
At 5.30 am, while it was still dark, we heard heavy footsteps on the gangway, of men coming aboard. Were they crew members? Were they German or Fascist harbour police? Had we been betrayed? Moments later we heard muffled voices – Italian voices – the skipper giving orders to his crew, followed soon after by the reassuring sounds of a boat getting under way: the diesel engine starting up and ticking over, the clanking of chains, the casting off of ropes, the gentle easing away from the quayside, and the movement of the boat as it chugged slowly towards the mouth of the harbour. By decree, all boats were compelled to stop at the German pierhead control to be given official clearance to leave port. On no account were fishing vessels permitted to leave harbour before dawn: and they had to return to the same harbour one hour before dark. Any infringement of this strict edict was severely punished.
Then came the moment of truth, and a collective holding of breath, as the boat slowed, engines in neutral, waiting to be checked out of the harbour mouth ….. The skipper yelled out a password: “Sessanta otto (68), Dux! (the name of the boat)” followed immediately by an unintelligible, guttural response from the German guard at his pierhead post …. A brief pause …. then, we heard the sound of the engines being revved up as the boat gathered speed and, unimpeded, made for the open sea. The noise of the engines, now at full power, became almost deafening. And suddenly we found ourselves rolling and pitching violently as the boat battled her way out into the wild waves of the Adriatic.
Dick O’Connor, eyes gleaming, shook hands all round, exclaiming: “We’ve done it! We’ve done it!” (somewhat prematurely, I felt, since we still faced a hazardous sea trip).
The skipper took no chances and insisted we remain below deck during daylight hours, no doubt a sensible precaution. Nevertheless, it was pure purgatory for his human cargo, cooped up in the confined quarters of a smelly, foetid hold. The weather was worsening and with one exception we were all horribly
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and continuously sick. Jimmie somehow survived the entire voyage without any apparent ill-effects. That evening he generously offered me some greasy fried fish which he himself was devouring with great relish. I declined, none too gracefully.
The stormy conditions and poor visibility, on the other hand, were in our favour, since we were less likely to be spotted from the shore or from an enemy aircraft or patrol boat. Towards nightfall the weather improved; the wind fell, the clouds cleared away, and soon the boat was bathed in bright moonlight. Now we were in danger of being spotted by an aircraft or patrol boat out searching for us, or even by a lurking submarine.
The seas became calmer, and to our immense relief, we were allowed up on deck. In the early hours the skipper altered course to the southeast. An hour before dawn we suddenly saw, westward towards the Bay of Pescara, signs of a fierce battle raging on the coastal plain: flashes of opposing artillery batteries, tracers streaming wildly in parabolic curves, occasional Very lights …. Urgently, Jimmie told the skipper to alter course again and head back out into the Adriatic. An hour later, by now well clear of the battle zone, the skipper edged slowly back towards the coast line. We now knew, for certain, that when we made landfall it would at least be on the Allied side of the lines.
As dawn broke we were greeted by the gloriously welcome sight of Allied aircraft flying low overhead. Our Odyssey was nearing its end. With mounting excitement we approached the coastline. Passing close by the Islands of Tremiti, we chugged slowly in towards a town with a sizeable harbour which Jimmie recognised as the port of Termoli, near where he and Cagnazzo had landed on their previous trip.
* * * * *
It was 11 am on 20th December, 1943. As the boat drew alongside an empty space on the harbour pier, two armed guards raced down the quayside and arrested us as we disembarked. O’Connor asked to see their commanding officer. When he arrived O’Connor was surprised and delighted to find that the man had been on his staff when he was a Brigade Major. The poor fellow was utterly astonished and immediately took us all to the officers’ mess where we were invited to wash and shave before being given a hearty English breakfast.
Jimmie immediately contacted the local Brigade Intelligence officer who, in turn, alerted the “A” Force commander. Both these gentlemen reached the mess with remarkable speed, prompted no doubt by the unheralded arrival of the generals and the AVM on their doorstep (and particularly in view of “A” Force’s signal failure to rescue them).
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Meanwhile, a message was sent to General Alexander at his headquarters in Bari. Back came an immediate reply congratulating the generals and the AVM on their safe return and inviting them to dine with him that evening.
With mixed feelings of jubilation, relief, and mental and physical exhaustion, we forgathered in the lounge of the hotel requisitioned by the local Allied command as their officers’ mess. We were joined by Cagnazzo and Vailati for a celebratory drink of Italian champagne. The mood was exuberant. The generals and Boyd were properly lavish in their praise for the bravery of our Italian colleagues on whose selfless help their successful escape had largely depended. Shaking each of them warmly by the hand, they vowed to return to Italy after the war to visit their homes and families, and to thank personally the other courageous people who had so readily risked their lives on their behalf.
Then, after thanking Jimmie and me equally profusely, O’Connor, Neame and Boyd were driven off to General Alexander’s headquarters in Bari where they received a hearty welcome. At dinner with General Alexander that evening, still dressed in their filthy, ragged Italian civilian clothes, they were joined by none other than the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Italy, General Eisenhower himself, who was paying Alexander an official visit. Next day they were given new uniforms, put on a plane and flown to Tunis where they were met by Air Chief Marshal Tedder.
At this time the Prime Minister was in Tunis, but confined to his bed convalescing from a bout of pneumonia. He had sent a message to say that he wished to see the generals and the AVM, and that they were invited to dine at the mess at Supreme Command HQ, which was where Churchill was staying. In his memoires, O’Connor recounts the historic meeting as follows:
“Directly after dinner, we were ushered into the Great Man’s bedroom by Lord Moran (Churchill’s personal physician). There he was, like an old Buddha, sitting up in bed. The first thing he said to me was: “Why did you allow yourself to be taken prisoner?” -and then, after a moment he said: “But you are forgiven”.
He then went on talking to us for nearly an hour and a half, hardly pausing to draw breath …. He really brought us completely up to date …. we sat there completely spellbound”.
On December 22nd they were flown to Algiers. Bad weather delayed their departure for England, so they stayed the night and dined with Harold Macmillan. Next day, they flew over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh in Morocco. There they changed planes for their final flight to Prestwick, arriving in Scotland, safe and sound, on Christmas morning.
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On the whole they had survived their ordeal remarkably well, considering they were well into middle age. At times, Neame had proved difficult to deal with, betraying an underlying resentment that he, a full blown Lieutenant General (and a VC) was not solely in command. On the other hand, O’Connor, who was of equal rank, and Boyd only slightly less senior, had given Jimmie and me their wholehearted and ungrudging support, and had been consistently friendly and gracious towards us.
(NB: Notes on what happened to Neame, O’Connor and Boyd appear as an Appendix on page ).
* * * * *
Jimmie and I, meanwhile, had been taken to a transit camp in Bari where we were issued with new battle-dress uniforms, boots and sundry other immediate necessities. To our dismay, this was the very same POW Camp where we had spent several months on our arrival in Italy: the same walled and barbed-wire enclosures, dreary huts, wash rooms, cook house and parade ground. Ironically, there was even a guard (albeit British) on the main gate, supposedly to keep out unwelcome intruders. And, unbelievably, we had to have a pass to leave the camp to go into the town! We met other escaped POWs awaiting repatriation who shared our resentment at finding themselves cooped up behind barbed wire so soon after their first taste of freedom.
However, we were in no mood to sit around waiting to be shipped home by sea. After all, the generals and the AVM, whom Jimmie had risked his life to help rescue, were already half-way to England. “Why”, Jimmie asked scathingly “should we have to kick our heels indefinitely in this God-forsaken dump?” A fiercely determined man, Jimmie was not easily deterred once he made up his mind, as he had so amply demonstrated over the previous weeks. Next day, Jimmie made his views known, in no uncertain terms, to the major in charge of the Transit Camp, having cannily first sent a message seeking the support of the “A” Force colonel. Thus it was that Jimmie and I found ourselves, on Christmas Eve, the sole passengers on a military plane winging its way to Algiers.
That night we celebrated in style, devouring long-forgotten delicacies, drinking ourselves into a state of semi-oblivion, and ending up in Algiers’ most convivial night club. Christmas Day was spent recovering from a serious hangover, sipping endless cups of black coffee interspersed with glasses of fiery French brandy.
Three days later, having sampled the delights of Algiers to the full, we became restless and anxious to complete the final stage of our homeward journey. Once again Jimmie prodded the authorities to good effect. We were told to report to the RAF base and await a flight to the UK. At dusk we boarded an RAF transport plane and, moments later, watched the glittering lights
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of the city falling away below us as we headed west into the night. We took turns to go up into the cockpit where the squadron leader pilot explained our route, which took us two hundred miles or so to the west of the Bay of Biscay before turning north, beyond the reach of German fighter patrols.
As dawn broke we could just make out, far below on the distant horizon, the faint outline of the English coast. It was indeed a memorable moment for us both. Soon afterwards we landed at the RAF base at Hendon, just outside London. It was December 29th. We had finally arrived home!
* * * * *
It is impossible to describe our feelings as the taxi cab took us through the suburbs of North London, past Golders Green, Hampstead and St Johns’ Wood, then along Park Road into Baker Street. We could see anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park as we drove down Park Lane; and barrage balloons shimmering in the leaden sky above. Nor could we fail to notice the bomb damage, the boarded up building sites, the sandbagged doorways, the scarcity of private cars, the long, patient queues at the bus stops. And yet, somehow, the people in the streets seemed unchanged, any war-weariness well concealed from casual observation.
The cab dropped us off at my Club, The Overseas League, in Park Place just off St James’s Street. There, luckily, we found rooms for the night, and immediately telephoned our families. Since that day, whenever I enter this Club, I am reminded of that historic call and my mother’s ecstatic reaction when she heard my voice. She had received a telegram on Christmas Eve which read: “Officially reported Captain A.P. Spooner arrived British lines in Italy. Letter follows shortly Secretary Military Department India Office.” So my call was not entirely unexpected.
Later in the morning, Jimmie telephoned a number we had been given at the War Office to report our arrival. The staff officer he spoke to instructed us to present ourselves at the Mayfair offices of MI9 at 3 pm on New Year’s Eve for a thorough debriefing. Jimmie, a Scot through and through, was not, however, about to celebrate Hogmanay anywhere other than with his family in Scotland. And the slightly bemused staff officer was so advised, politely but firmly. To his credit, he accepted Jimmie’s explanation with seasonal good humour, and agreed to postpone our visit to the War Office until early in the New Year.
After dinner, Jimmie and I wandered out of the Club’s solid Edwardian buildings into Park Street, and strolled up St James’s Street in the unfamiliar blackout. At the top we turned right into Piccadilly and joined the milling throng heading for Piccadilly Circus and beyond. Without knowing (or really caring) where we were bound, we found ourselves in Glasshouse
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Street, outside the Regent Palace Hotel. Entering the crowded lobby, we made our way to the bar, finding it packed with Allied officers, and servicemen and women, wearing uniforms of diverse nationalities – British, Free French, Polish, Dutch, American, Canadian, Belgian … and many others.
Suddenly, a bell clanged loudly and the air raid sirens sounded. Jimmie and I looked at each other nervously. But no one took the slightest notice. There was no mass exodus for the safety of an air raid shelter; not a single person left the bar. This, we realised, was war-time, blitz-hardened London, its residents, native or otherwise, blithely unconcerned that high explosives were about to rain down on the metropolis.
An hour or so later the all-clear went. We staggered out into the cold night air, the darkened streets, and groped our way uncertainly back to The Overseas League, with the clanging of bells and the wail of sirens from ambulances and fire engines ringing in our ears.
Dog tired, that night we slept soundly through yet another air raid, unaware of the blockbuster bomb that badly damaged an office building round the corner in Pall Mall – as we were told, in a calm, matter-of-fact manner by our waitress at breakfast next morning.
After a late and leisurely breakfast, Jimmie rang for a taxi to take him to Euston for his train to Edinburgh. It was difficult to realise, all of a sudden, that our journey had really ended, that our trials and tribulations were over. We were not to know that, within a few months, we would be together again, working as a team for “E” Group, the MI9 organisation in Southeast Asia corresponding to “A” Force in Italy, and engaged in clandestine activities behind the Japanese lines in the jungles of Burma.
* * * * *
When Jimmie left I had an hour or so to kill before catching a train to Stewkley in Bedfordshire, where my mother, bombed out of her Wimbledon home, was staying for the duration. I walked slowly down past St James’s Palace, along Marlborough Road, crossing the Mall into the peace and tranquillity of St James’s Park. I followed the path that leads to the ornamental lake and stood, as I had so often before, on the iron suspension bridge and watched the ducks and geese swimming round in circles below me, ever hopeful for a crumb. From here one could see, to the west, the Queen Victoria Memorial, and beyond, the august facade of Buckingham Palace, for more than a hundred years the Sovereign’s London home.
Turning about, looking eastward through the barren wintry trees, there in the distance were the familiar twin Towers of the Royal Palace of Westminster, the Victoria Tower of the House of Lords,
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and, further to the left, “Big Ben”, overlooking the House of Commons. How truly remarkable, I mused, that from this hub of the nation’s capital, the hum of traffic barely audible, almost no other signs of human habitation could be seen, even now in the depth of winter.
At that moment I vowed that, henceforth, whenever I returned from far off places, I would first make a pilgrimage to this very spot – it would become my very own, private Mecca.
As I stood there, absorbing the serene beauty of this magical scene, set in the heart of England’s teeming metropolis – a million miles from Campo PG 19, Bologna – I saw a flock of Canada geese wheel in a graceful curve over Duck Island and land in perfect formation at the end of the lake. Had they, too, I wondered, flown from afar – and found their “other Eden”?
(about 19,000 words)