Peter Stern was captured in North Africa and then sent to the Camp at Chieti. He escaped by hiding in a tunnel while the camp was evacuated by Germans to Sulmona. He walked south towards Allied lines and were helped by many Italians.
Stern was fortunate to meet some of ‘A’ Force, who had been sent in to help the escaped POWs. They successfully acquires a boat, which took them round the front line. Back in Allied territory at Termoli Stern was walking to get equipment when he met his brother in the street, who had heard nothing of him for months.
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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‘POW IN ITALY, 1943’ by Peter Stern of the Royal Engineers.
This very disorganised account of the Camp at Chieti does give a good impression of the chaos in the Camp at the Armistice in Italy when C.O. of the Camp followed to the letter Whitehall’s stupid order ‘to stay put’. Most of the officers were taken to Sulmona and then to Germany. Stern however was one of the handful of POW’s who could hide in one of the tunnels that the POW’s had dug until the Germans had gone and then set off walking south as did thousands of others from other camps. Stern’s wanderings are a little difficult to follow but in the end he is fortunate to meet some ‘A’ Force sent in to help the POW’s and then to get a boat which successfully took them round the coast and front line. At Termoli walking the next day to get re-equipped he meets in the street his brother whom he knew was somewhere in the Mediterranean but whom had heard nothing of him for months.
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POW IN ITALY, 1943
Part of a Diary
by Peter Stern, Royal Engineers, British Army
[Drawing with caption] Chieti from the Camp
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[Drawing with caption] Bird’s-eye view of P.G. 21
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On the evening of Wednesday 8 September 1943 we heard on the camp wireless from Rome that Marshall Badoglio had asked for an armistice, which that morning had been accepted by General Eisenhower and the terms settled. The news spread like lightning and we were quite uproarious, which as things turned out was somewhat premature. The next morning the S B 0 (Senior British Officer) spoke to us on the wireless and after reading out the proclamation by Badoglio to the Italian people said that the camp routine would continue as usual. Roll calls would be discontinued and the patrolling carabinieri in the camp would be withdrawn. The sentries would remain on the walls. The Commandant, he said, was on our side and would do all that he could to keep us out of the hands of the Germans. Our orders were to stay put and we were to “keep cool, calm and collected”. During the ensuing week or two he spoke on one or two other occasions in the same strain. Outwardly things remained much the same, although during the course of the next week the majority of the Italian garrison deserted during the nights and at the end of the week most of the sentry boxes were not manned. Inside the camp there was a certain amount of unrest, and there were a few attempts at escaping over the wall, some of which were successful. But even when the garrison was reduced to 25 Italian officers and 25 ORs [other ranks], mostly carabinieri, we were still told to stay put. On one or two occasions we were visited by German officers from Pescara and the arrival of the Germans appeared imminent. This produced a great deal of windiness in the camp, more especially in the Americans’ bungalow, where they were prepared to leap over the wall at a moment’s notice to a man. Everywhere people were packing up their kit and pulling the beds to bits to make ladders.
Red Cross parcels flowed more freely, food came in well and we fed in good style. On the day after the armistice we celebrated with a very fine dinner. Those who wished could now sleep outside, which was a great relief while we had our own patrols laid on inside the camp to keep us in.
On 8 September we stopped working and waited two or three days to see how things developed. By then we had gone about 6ft beyond the third chamber and were 40ft away from the wall. When it was apparent that we should not be liberated immediately, work was resumed by those fourteen who had been chosen (in order of priority) to use it, if it were to be used as a hide for a day or two. They started digging vertically upwards from the face, reaching the surface after 8ft. One night when there were no sentries a party went over the wall and fitted a concealed exit of the same pattern as the entrance. The exit came out in a patch of cultivated land on which nothing was growing at the time. The explanation to the Commandant was that the party were investigating the wire outside the wall in case of the need for a quick getaway over the wall. A similar thing was done on two of the other tunnels. One afternoon the S B 0 called a meeting of all escape-tunnel personnel, as a result of considerable unrest at the order not to use the tunnels. There were about 200 of us there. He told us that the only occasion for using the tunnels would be if the Germans arrived to move us to Germany, and until he gave the order no one would escape. If the Germans came to maintain order in the camp until our own troops arrived we were still to stay put. When they did come in the end, and moved everyone to Sulmona he still believed that we prisoners would not go to Germany and when we did escape – 43 of us in 4 tunnels — it was against his orders. During this time the tunnel was worked with the entrance open, and the spoil, instead of being sent up the drains, was brought out and dumped above ground. When the exit was completed, all of the workers were called in again and we set about enlarging the first chamber and deepening the first gallery.
There now follows a copy of my diary day by day from 17 September when I started a new notebook until the date of writing this.
TERMOLI, PHS [Peter Stern]
30 Oct 43
SEPTEMBER 1943 – continued
Friday 17 Sept
A calm and uneventful day. Spent some time making a copy of a plan of the camp which Tim made. Am also amusing myself constructing a bird’s eye view of the camp for Bertie Dacker. I intend to do one for myself next. While I was on watching duty for the tunnel (which is still being worked open) I
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made a pencil sketch of the north east corner of the camp. Last night in spite of the SBO’s orders three officers (two American and one British) made off. Of the three OR’s to make off on 15 September two have been brought back. At 2.00 pm there was a heavy raid by about 43 of our planes on PESCARA. Not such an uneventful day as I thought at first! One of the many wonders of prison-camp engineering has been the construction of a wireless set, which has now been achieved with the aid of components from the cinema amplifier. Weeks ago the work was started. Condensers were made and coils and transformers wound. The two great snags were no valves and no rectifier. A few days ago the cinema amplifier was recovered from the Ites (Italians) and feverish work began on a workable set. Captain Croce, the official Italian GHQ interpreter resident in the camp, the bane of our existence for so many months with his passive obstructionism is now sailing on a very different tack. A certain part was urgently required for the set. The SBO told him what was required. He promptly went off and returned with it in half an hour. On the evening of of Wednesday 15 September a week after the Armistice, faint signals were received. The electricians worked away into the night and at 1.30 am yesterday the first news was picked up. Since then there has been a practically constant wireless watch and we have been getting news in English, French, Italian and German. So we are now well in the picture. Our own troops seem to be making good progress especially in the east. There appears to have been a landing at Naples which was a failure, and a successful bridgehead south at Salerno. In this area fighting has been very fierce.
Sat 18 Sept.
A German officer visited the camp this morning, to see if we were well. He asked the commandant if he required sentries and the answer was ‘no’. We had the third of the promenade concerts this evening – a very excellent performance.
Monday 20 Sept.
A visit by 2 German officers this morning, and this afternoon a German Storch Recce plane came and looked at the camp, both events were inconsequential. Worked at tunnel today for a couple of hours, enlarging the first gallery. The war in Italy seems to be somewhat at a standstill now. According to the BBC the Germans are in flight, but still we do not seem to capture any more towns.
Tues 21 Sept.
When I got up this morning I found Germans manning some sentry boxes on the wall. Apparently they arrived at about 10 pm last night – 50 of them, with two officers. Today they have been manning three of the boxes, two at a time, while carabiniero have been manning the 4th, leaving one empty. They are heavily armed with automatic weapons and don’t invite attempts at escaping. The Italian commandant is still in command, and the Germans’ duties apparently are simply to keep us in. We had a parade this afternoon, at which our own bungalow commanders counted us, while a German checked one bungalow. For the last two or three nights I have been enjoying the luxury of sleeping outside on the pavement. We are still allowed to do this. If the Germans do intend to take us, the next few weeks should prove interesting.
Thurs 23 Sept.
At about 6.00 am this morning we were woken up with the news that the whole of section 5 and half of section 4 were being moved by the Germans. They left us by transport at about 8.30 am. Soon after breakfast I learnt that I had been included in the 14 to use the tunnel because 4 had dropped out. A second party left about 1.30 pm. Bill Gordon had a meeting of the tunnel party at 4 pm. By this time, due to others crying off the party had been reduced to 11. By this time also we had had our kit put in the hole. He told us that we were probably going down tonight, should stay until morning, when if there were still people left in the camp, we should be let out for a breather, to be put down again tomorrow. This was based on the arrangements for a third party leaving at 6 pm and a fourth at 11 pm. Neither of these have come off, and the next lot is expected to go early tomorrow early. So we are now going down at 10 am tomorrow, to be let up at about 8 pm before the final party leave. If information shows that there are no Germans about when the last lot goes, we shall move out tomorrow night.
Today has been a great day of packing and preparation. All of this room except 3 of us, involved in 3 separate tunnels, left at 1.30. This bungalow and all the others are a mass of rubbish – the p.o.w. accumulations of more than a year. Tonight I am sleeping in the courtyard of C block to be nearer at hand. I have had more food than I know what to do with. In addition to my escape rations I had accumulated a lot of extra food in case the supply here failed. Today the meals have been enormous and on top of that we have all been given a whole Canadian parcel. I’m afraid I shall have to leave most of it behind.
Sun 26 Sept.
Free at last, though there is no knowing when this delicious freedom will come to an end. At 4.30 am on Friday the camp was woken up and told that the next lot were to be sent away at 7 am. We 11 for the tunnel stood by to go down at 5, but did not go till 6.30. At 8.30 one officer had stayed
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behind, with a team of OR’s let us out, when we had a good meal and hung about until 12, when the final party were shortly due to leave the camp, and so we went underground again. We occupied the first and second chambers and the gallery between the two, and we all stayed there until 8 pm on Saturday, 4 of us staying on a further 4 hrs until midnight. During those 36 hours I ate one l/2 day American field ration and about 6 oz of raisins. The rest of Friday and the whole of the night were very quiet. At about 7.30 am yesterday Mackenzie, our Red Cross officer, called down to us through the gutter drain over the 1st chamber. He had been sent back to collect food. He told us that except for the 4 Germans with him, there were now no Germans in the camp. He spoke to us twice more during the morning, before he left. He told us that everyone had been moved to SULMONA, and warned us to keep clear of the carabinieri, who would hand us over to the Germans if they found us. So we planned to move out of the tunnel at 11 pm. At 7 after 30 hours below ground we found that the exit had been discovered and was being filled in! That was a blow! Conditions were getting rather unpleasant, and so 7 of the party decided to break the surface at the entrance end and take a chance at 8 pm. This they did, while Bill Gordon, “Badgie” Lyte, Bob Evans and I stayed on below. The others sealed the lid properly when they left us and brought us the interesting information that the camp was quite empty, that Gordon Brown’s tunnel over the way had suffered the same fate as ours, and that his lot and our 7 were making their way out of the camp by means of a ladder against the wall by the water-tower. We stayed on until midnight, and then came out, sealing the lid behind us, and setting out over the wall by the ladder, to our first RV on the other side of the Pescara River, opposite to the point where we used to bathe. Bill and Badgie set off first, and Bill, in crossing the river fell into a hole and lost some of his kit getting a good wetting. Bob and I followed and got ourselves and our kit very wet in the crossing, because the water was flowing very fast (I was swept off my feet once) and waist deep. We arrived on this bank at 3 am wet and cold, to sleep until daylight, in intermittent rain. At dawn we moved a few yards to a better hiding place where we have spent the day drying out. At 11 am I went off to recce the first mile or two for tonight’s march and encountered nothing noteworthy. It is very delightful to be lying here in the bushes out in the open, away from the crowd of the camp and the darkness of the tunnel. Am just about to take 2 or 3 hrs sleep before the next move.
Mon 27 Sept.
Yesterday evening we had a meal of chocolate and raisins, and as soon as it was dark, set off on a bearing of 278 deg. We set out at a good pace (almost too good a pace for me!) and soon left the river valley, getting into fairly hilly country. We started at 8 pm. At 10.30 we struck a road and enquired of a farm our whereabouts. We were not far from CEPPAGATTI, which we reached after a mile or so along the road westwards. Continued along the road westwards till midnight, when we stopped for a rest. At 2 am we continued until we were about halfway to CATIGNANO when we slept again. At 5 am left the road northwards. Ran into a labourer and went to his farm. They were all very scared, gave us bread, a bottle of water, and two sacks, and told us to go into the hills. We gave them a packet of cigarettes. Then dropped down into a valley, crossed a stream and climbed on to a hill 2 or 3 hundred feet up the other side. On top we found a farm where the inmates have been very helpful, giving us breakfast of fried eggs and bread, and water, and we have returned with soap and cigarettes. We were unlucky to find there a travelling salesman who looked a most unreliable specimen and who left soon after we arrived. The rest seemed quite honest and not likely to split. We are spending the day in a dense bamboo clump in a nook just below the farm. After several hours glorious sleep Bill and I went up to the farm again and had a good wash at their well and made arrangements for tonight. At dark we are all going up there for another meal and then to spend the night in a cylindrical grain store. We came back to Bob with a basket full of figs and grapes and have just made a good meal. I have been rather doubtful about wandering about in broad daylight, but Bill thinks it is all right. I also disagree with his policy of not disclosing the fact that we are ex-prisoners and spinning fancy yarns instead. It is too obvious where we have come from. I am feeling a bit stiff and sore but otherwise fit. My haversack is too heavy and nearly cut my arms off last night whilst at the same time I could only take a deep breath by lifting it off my shoulders. However I shall get stronger and it lighter as time goes on. All together last night we walked about 12-15 miles.
Tues 28 Sept.
At dusk yesterday evening we came up to the farm and after a good meal of fried bread and corn on the cob went to bed in the silos. Woke up this morning to find the country rather wet. Intended to return to our hiding place, but the farmer suggested going down into a little valley on the opposite (North) side, which we did. Unfortunately it came on to rain and we were rather miserable. We constructed a bamboo shelter and soon after one of the farmer’s sons came down to invite us back to the farm. The other 3 went into the silos, while I went to the next-door farm to watch out for Germans in an easterly direction. Spent quite an amusing morning there practising the language. Everything was exceedingly quiet and returned at what I had thought was 6.30 which due to a misinterpretation was actually 12.30 It is strange
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how unconscious I was of the time. It has been raining on and off during the whole day and I doubt we will move again tonight. This afternoon a couple of lads turned up from a nearby farm who had been in the army at Rome. The Germans captured them and took them north. At Bologna, with 200 others, they jumped the train and came home. One of them has agreed to guide us for the next stage and will take us to a Village called VESTIA where there are friends of his family. At 4 pm these good people gave us a delicious dish of macaroni, spice and oil, with new bread baked today. This with a liberal supply of figs, grapes and apples, is feeding us magnificently. This is all a most interesting experience and I am enjoying it immensely. This is quite a small farm, but the man (DIODATO ELIO) has 10 children and plenty to feed them all with. They are fine-looking children and the wife is a good sound woman. There a great shortage of cloth, boots and everything which does not come off the land locally. Mussolini and the Fascists, and the Germans are universally hated among these people.
Wed 29 Sept.
Yesterday evening our farmer had three visitors from neighbouring Farms. One fellow was a real old character, and amused us very much. He had seen quite a bit of the world, was a prisoner in Hungary & Germany in the last war, and has great ideas about war, politics, etc- most disparaging about Mussolini and the equipment and fighting spirit of the Italian Army. He said that in 1912 he helped to get Tripoli for Italy and now Mussolini and his own sons have lost it all. He was a great wit and had a fine sense of humour. Furthermore he told us a lot about the villages in the neighbourhood, drew a map on the table with a burnt stick and advised us where to go. Last night the rain was torrential, so we have not moved from here. The weather looked much better at dawn this morning and now at 10.45 am the sun is out and the country is drying up. We are spending the morning in the silos because the farmer is expecting a corn buyer shortly.
Thurs 30 Sept.
12 noon. Yesterday evening was fine and clear, so we decided to move then. In the course of the evening a couple of girls from the next-door farm turned up, presumably to see us. Unfortunately we dropped rather a brick by replying to their question whether English girls were prettier than they, in the affirmative and soon they disappeared. It was a pity because they were pretty. After a delicious meal of fried bread and potatoes and fruit, we left at about 8.30. Our guide arranged for two days ago, did not prove much of a success. He began by taking us off our course to his house, in the hopes of waylaying us there until daylight. Unfortunately that failed, so his father had to come along with us to protect the boy with a pitchfork. After about an hour or so both of them had become very doubtful as to their bearings. In spite of our express orders to speak to no-one they went to one cottage with enquiries and spoke to passers-by. Eventually, however, we did reach Vestia.
Sat 2 Oct.
Having reached Vestia we turned up into the mountains and after a mile or two, stopped at a hayrick to sleep. We were very cold by 5 am and glad to move on. At dawn we reached a village called VILLA CELIERA our destination. We were rather disappointed to find the motor road led right up to it. However we made a few contacts and were taken up the mountains along a mule track about 1/2 a mile further up, where we have been staying since, feeding at the farm and sleeping in the school-room nearby. The Diodato family were pretty close to nature. These people are even closer, and with less dignity, but very kind and have plenty to feed us with. They gave us a good breakfast when we arrived, and then we turned in to sleep. In the afternoon we climbed to the top of the mountain east of us and had a marvellous view. We could see the sea about 20 miles away, numerous towns and villages, CHIETI and even the camp itself, 15 miles away. In the evening we went to a nearby farm to see 4 British ORs who had just arrived from MACERATA. Yesterday, Friday, was spent mostly in seeing small parties of British ORs, helping them with sketch maps and giving them advice. We must have met 15 or 20 in all. We have also met and spoken to various Italian refugees including a few students who are escaping being conscripted by the Germans for labour and who are proving quite useful with information and news from the village below. This morning Bill has gone off with one of them who speaks French to find accommodation for us over the other side of the valley, where there are better lines of retreat should the Germans come up this way. The Germans seem to be pretty ruthless in their ravages. They go to a town or village, capture all the boys and young men they can for work, and take all the food they can find. It is very unlikely that they would go out of their way to capture prisoners who were at large, but if they did find us of course they would take us.
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It is a grand bit of country up here and I am thoroughly enjoying it. The view, even from the window of this school-room, is magnificent, and the air is grand. Being more or less in the middle of a farm-yard the flies are worse than ever, but it’s worth a lot to be out of the hands of the Germans. I’m afraid all those of P.G.21 who did not escape will find themselves prisoners in Germany before very long.
Sun 3 Oct.
It was raining hard yesterday evening so we could not move. Rained all night and early this morning, but later it cleared and we came over to this our new abode, about a mile away from the previous place, on the west side of the valley. It is a little cottage, (2 rooms and a stable) which was a school and therefore is empty – all local education apparently having ceased when the government changed. We brought our kit and some bedding over from the other place with a mule, and have arranged for straw from a neighbouring cottage. We have already visited one or two of the farms nearby & have firewood and some vessels. Our own planes have been bombing localities in this region. We heard bombs this morning & heard later that it was Chieti. Met a British sergeant today who had come from CASTEL DEL MONTE, west of us on the other side of the mountain. There were 25 British lodged in the village and 150 Germans arrived in 9 trucks to search the place. The Italian men were scared stiff and did nothing, but the women showed our chaps the back ways out of their houses and hid their kit. The Germans arrived at 8 am and did not leave till 6 pm, searching the village and surrounding countryside. They confiscated any arms they found and caught only one of our chaps. It was believed they thought the escaped prisoners had arms. We are as safe as houses here. We have friends in the cottages all round us, and right down into Celiera, who will warn us if the Jerries (Germans) come, if they do nothing else. At a moment’s notice we can get into the mountain.
Mon 4 Oct.
Yesterday evening we got a good meal of baked potatoes and fried eggs at a nearby cottage – very poor but extremely jolly and a fine family with a couple of very pretty daughters. We slept well in our school and had breakfast with a family who live near our original school, i.e. about a mile away from here. This morning Bill has managed to get a pair of boots – they are at the moment being repaired. When we returned, Badgie and Bob went up into the mountain to recce suitable hiding places, and I took some washing to a nearby farm, and also some aquaflavein for a baby which has a lot of sores on its face. I made them warm up some water poured a little of the solution in, and watched them apply it – creating quite an impression! Then Bill and I visited our hosts of last night, and now I am alone. Bill having gone into the mountain also on recce, I found a scrap of drawing paper in the school and tried some sketching, though not too much effect. There is a magnificent view of the whole country eastwards from here. One can see Chieti AND P G 21.
Wed 6 Oct.
8 am approx – quite a lot has happened in the last 4 hours. On Monday afternoon while the other 3 were up the mountain, a messenger came up with a mysterious written message. It was intended for Bill starting with “Major” and signed “American Lieutenant”. It stated that a group of Americans had been dropped by parachute to facilitate escaped prisoners in the hills re-joining our own troops, and asked us to join him at 9 pm that evening. It all sounded rather suspicious and when Bill arrived he sent a message back saying that we were going to make our own way back. However late that evening one of the American’s men came up to see us and everything seemed pretty genuine, so Bill set off with him to see his officer, who was several miles away down in the country. He returned at about 5 am somewhat displeased at finding the American drunk and all his ideas pretty hopeless. However, he put several prisoners passing through this valley on the right track (about 40 in all in 24 hours) and arranged for the Americans all to come up to our place after dark last night (Tuesday) to organise an efficient combing system in this area. Yesterday was all quiet. We breakfasted near the original school and had the afternoon meal at Christmas’ (Natale, our original hosts). In the interval I went up the mountain and had a grand time. Got up to about 3,500 ft – grand country and a wonderful mountainous view over the ridge to the west. When I got down again there was a slight scare of Germans in the locality, so we had a rehearsal of packing up, destroying all evidence in the school, and hiding our bulky kit in a hay stack so that we could beat it into the mountains In the evening we prepared for the Americans and Bob, Badgie and I went over to our neighbours “Bluebeard” for the night. At 4.30 am this morning we were woken by another German scare and went back to the school. At the same time the Americans turned up. We left them with Bill and returned to Bluebeard’s. The Americans have all departed to “mop up the rumours”. As a result of all this activity we have achieved a lot of publicity and “il Maggiore” is a well-known figure throughout the countryside, which is very dangerous for us and all escapees lodged in the neighbourhood. So we see fit to depart for a few days to allow the publicity to die down. The Americans want to fight the Germans if they come this way, which is the worst possible thing that could be done, both for them and for us. We are waiting at the moment while Bill is getting some sleep.
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Thurs 7 Oct.
Yesterday we learnt that the Americans were staying in the locality of Celiera and so decided to move. After a final meal with Christmas we set off into the mountains. It was glorious walking over grassy slopes and then, a bit further up into deep beech woods. After 2 hours we came down into a valley a mile or two above CARPINETO. We are staying at a prosperous farm, more prosperous than most but unsatisfactory in that there is no easy get-away. I went off this morning to find a better situation. Visited 8 or 9 houses, found most of them full of escapees or unwilling to take us, got drenched to the skin in the rain, and found accommodation for only two of us. So this evening Bob and I are going to the house I found, while Bill and Badgie are staying here.
Fri 8 Oct.
Returned to this home higher up the mountains with Bob yesterday evening. We are quite comfortable here. All the people in this locality seem to be more prosperous than those at Celiera – better clad, smarter houses and more property. This morning we had an excellent breakfast of fried pepperoni and cheese fried in egg. After breakfast Badgie arrived with 7 OR’s and Bob has taken them on to see the American at Celiera, while Badgie and I went around the other houses, found accommodation for him and Bill 400 yards away, & spoke to some Yugoslavs and a couple of South Africans.
Sat 9 Oct.
Bill & Badgie were installed in their new house last night. Woke up this morning feeling rather uncomfortable & so went to a stream to bathe. Made the somewhat distasteful discovery of a few lice and flees in my clothes. I changed completely when I got back and I am free of bugs now; I hope I shall find all the eggs before they hatch. Am very much wondering now whether to remain here with Bill or make my way south. If I stay here, it may be a month before our troops get here, whereas by going south I might meet them within a week. However also by going south, I should more easily run into the Germans.
Sun 10 Oct.
As it rained most of yesterday we did very little. Bob and I went over to see Bill & Badgie in the afternoon & had some food with them, then returned. This morning Bob & I went over to them again, and then up the mountain for a look & a walk. We then returned we all 4 went to the house of an English-speaking Ite (Italian) to get news, but got very little. Since then, have had a very quiet afternoon, sleeping for an hour or two. Not feeling too well at the moment. I expect it is the food, change of air, etc, taking effect.
Tues 12 Oct.
Quiet day yesterday. Bob laid up with a boil on his ankle. Went over to see Bill & Badgie in morning. Rained most of yesterday afternoon. This morning, after having spent 4 nights at this house, broached the subject of our going. The mother said stay on a day or two and then, after consultation with her husband, said stay 4 days, & suggested eating somewhere else & sleeping here which is quite a good idea. So we propose to stay on here a few more days, eating out whenever we get the chance. Went over to Bill & Badgie at their new house this morning, a filthy place but plenty of food. Here it is clean but food is scarce – cannot have it both ways! Still feeling a bit groggy – get weak and giddy after a bit of exercise.
Thurs 14 Oct.
Yesterday Badgie & I had quite an amusing time walking over to Celiera to see how the land lay there. It took about 2 hours each way. We looked up Bluebeard’s family & had great difficulty in getting away without eating. We found the school empty but the American officer & 4 of his men feeding at the farm below. Learnt that they were leaving in the evening to return again after a few days. We had a good welcome at Christmas’ and some eggs & apples, & then returned. Today has been pretty quiet again. Heard this morning of an English doctor in the vicinity, but as with most things one hears from the peasants, he turned out to be a Yugoslav doctor of law who had passed through here! So even if he were here now he would be no use to Bob, whose leg is still pretty bad. He has been laid up for several days now.
Fri 15 Oct.
Heard a wild rumour last night that some Germans were on the way here, and so prepared for a quick get-away early this morning. But it was quite unnecessary. Met 4 OR’s this morning who had been down close to the river Pescara in an attempt to rejoin our troops, but had been turned back by the peasants who told them it was too dangerous and directed them to some British parachutists who have recently landed. They consist of 2 French officers & 1 English & 20 men. They said it was unwise to cross the river & advised waiting up here, until our own troops arrive, and have set off towards the Gran Sasso. Went over and told Bill the news, and he has gone over to Celiera to try and contact them. Some time after he had left, Badgie and I were herded by the women of the house into an upper room because some suspicious visitors were coming. After their arrival we were brought down again, and met a local policeman, a fireman and a friend. We questioned them quite a lot and were satisfied that they were not spies. Italy apparently has now declared war on Germany, according to a declaration by Marshall Badoglio. He has also, on more than one occasion, asked the peasants to lodge and feed British prisoners and has told them that they will be repaid afterwards. Presumably as a result of one or other of these pieces
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of information, the tone of this household has changed from hospitality to gushing hospitality. Just now they cannot find enough to do for us. This evening I am going over to a house with a wireless to listen to the news.
Sat 16 Oct.
Came back at 10pm last night with quite good news. Seems to be heavy fighting along the Voltumo front, the river being crossed in several places, with penetrations up to 5 miles. The Germans are evacuating Campo-basso & the Vth & VIIIth Armies are converging on it. Strangely enough there was no word mentioned about the E Coast. Heavy daylight raids continued on Germany. Italy is definitely now at war with Germany, but it makes little difference here. Went over to Bill’s & Badgie’s this morning & found that Bill had not yet returned from Celiera.
Sun 17 Oct.
Went over yesterday evening & found Bill had returned & had some interesting information. He had met the parachutists at Celiera (mentioned on Fri) & found a French officer in charge of them. Their duty had been to collect prisoners at Francavilla & the navy were to come & take them off. They collected 300 prisoners and had them on the coast for 3 days, but no boats turned up, so they had to disperse them. Most of them went south. Among them were Sudbury, Buchanan, Crabtree, Jenkins, Brettel & Blair, from our camp. The parachutists themselves then came up into the hills to rest before returning to our own lines. They have one or two vacancies in their number, & so Bill suggested Badgie & I joining them, which suggestion we both find very pleasing. So tomorrow we are going to Celiera to join them. On about Wednesday they are going down to the coast to commandeer a small boat & get back. So who knows what the next week may bring. Today has been very quiet. We keep meeting more escapees, British, American & Yugoslav, and advise them to stay in this neighbourhood and not attempt to cross the river Pescara, which appears now to be impassable, too deep & swift, and Germans on the roads and bridges.
Tue 19 Oct
Yesterday Badgie & I came over here to Celiera. My departure from the MOSCA family was a very depressing affair. Badgie came over after breakfast to say good-bye to Bob and I did not tell the household that I was going until he arrived. Whereupon the mother and daughter shed floods of tears, asking me to stay and saying how sorry they were that I was going. I gave them a tin of cocoa – more tears — and they gave me one of their cheeses – more tears still. Our hike over here took about 2 hours and was uneventful. We stopped at Bluebeard’s (where we are now staying) for a meal and then continued on to the original school above Christmas’, in quest of the parachutists. We found only one officer in and he uncommunicative, so we gave him our note of introduction from Bill and left, returning again this morning, when we met the French officer i/c [in charge]. He also was uncommunicative but quite pleased to see us, and told us to stay where we were and visit him each day. At about midday Bill turned up with a couple of ORs, with a strange tale. This morning he had met 3 other ORs at CARPINETO who had previously met the sergeant of the American parachutists. This sergeant had told them that 1000 cigarettes and some tinned mutton had been dropped by parachute, which had been taken by Bill and consumed entirely by him and his party, i.e. us 4. This of course is a complete fabrication. The supplies evidently were dropped and have been stolen, but if this story about Bill gets around it will spoil the good work he has been doing in giving advice to everyone, for it will destroy all faith in him as the competent organiser and leader that he is. So he came over this morning to have this out with the Americans. They denied all knowledge of it, so he is returning tomorrow with one of the ORs concerned to identify the sergeant. He had brought the other two ORs over as witnesses if necessary.
Thu 21 Oct.
Yesterday was not without excitement because the Germans visited Celiera. We first heard of it at about 8.30 am when Bluebeard came to us in a terrible state of excitement. I set off towards the British party near Christmas’ to get confirmation, but turned back before I got there on seeing a suspicious looking (character?) come up out of the village, and after having met numerous Ites (Italians) in various stages of fright coming up. When I returned to Bluebeard’s I found both his sons gone up into the mountains, and he and his wife quite frantic to get us away – not for our own sakes, but for his safety. So Badgie and I decided to move up the mountain. We found a spot a mile away and a good height up, from which we could see the village and most of the valley. The Germans, we learnt afterwards, started coming out of the village at 8 am and as they came up the parachutists near Christmas’ withdrew from the school into the mountains. The Germans went into the mountains a bit and then returned. We saw them all (about 46) return into the village. They left Celiera at noon. We came down at 3 pm and found Bluebeard still in a state. So had some grub and went down to the parachutists. On the way down, met an officer who had walked from camp 49 north of Bologna. About a month ago, when we were in the camp, the commandant had told us that at 49 there had been a break-out of about 200, the prisoners had been caught on leaving the
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camp, and those who were not shot on recapture, were taken back into the camp and shot before the rest as an example. This apparently was a complete fabrication. All 500 had got out without difficulty. There was a rumour that some 50 had been caught later. When we got to the school near Christmas’ all was normal again. While we were there a French Lt, returned from a patrol on the coast with good news of the chances of getting a boat. We stopped to eat with them and did very well on some pork and an egg and wine. We left Bluebeard’s again at 8 am – a spot of weeping on the part of the females – and joined the paras at the school. At about 9 am we all set off. We have been taking it very easily and are at the moment stopped at a farm 2-3 miles south of PENNE, where we have just had an excellent meal. We arrived at 12 and are moving on again at 5 pm. There are 11 of us, i.e. half the party, at this farm; the rest nearby. A further note on the Germans – apart from taking a meal in 2’s and 3’s in the houses in Celiera, they took nothing and appeared to be in quest of prisoners. They searched all the houses in the village and caught one of the Americans who apparently went up to the Germans and asked ‘Do you speak English’. The answer was ‘Yes come with me’! The Germans never looked in the school where the paras had a lot of kit.
Fri 22 Oct.
We left the farm near PENNE between 5.30 and 6 pm last night and walked towards the coast until midnight when we stopped at a farm near CITTA S.ANGELO. Slept in a barn and got very cold. Moved off again at 10 am this morning and walked about 5 miles to the farm where I am writing now. Have been here since midday, when we had some bread, meat and wine, after which I slept as soundly as I have never slept before. I must have been very tired and the wine just brought the tiredness on. Have had some coffee and am feeling much better. This evening one of the Italians accompanying us, Nick, went in quest of a boat owner and arrangements made for getting away tonight. We are having another meal and then moving off at dusk.
Sat 23 Oct.
Nick was to have returned at 6 pm. He actually turned up at 9, by which time we had had three rather anxious hours waiting in the dark outside the farm. He came with the news that the proposed boat was out at sea with its owner, but it would he returning in the morning. On the beach he met a German patrol who were examining the papers of all Italians, and having no papers himself, had to get away from them. They followed him and he had to go a long way out of his way to throw them off. Hence he was late. This morning after breakfast one of the crew of the boat turned up and said that the owner was quite agreeable to the use of the boat, and in reply to questions said that there was plenty of petrol and everything would be ready tonight. At that instant they were engaged in repairing some slight damage by a bomb which fell nearby. Since when we have had a peaceful day in a hollow just below the farm, and feeding at the farm like kings. For breakfast we had fried cheese and a fried egg and tea, for lunch fried steak and potatoes, bread, apples and tea, and tonight we are having roast chicken! These paratroops have plenty of money. It makes all the difference.
Sun 24 Oct.
Another two hours’ aggravating waiting last night. An Ite (Italian) was to have come to us at 5.30 pm to tell us whether or not the boat was ready. At 8 he turned up after having had to be fetched, saying that the boat was not yet ready. There were we waiting and waiting and the fishermen making no effort whatsoever to inform us as to what was happening. This morning Raimond Lee, the French officer i/c sent one of his men who was a mechanic down to the boat to repair it. He returned a few hours later the repair done, but then these Ites (Italians) discovered that oxygen cylinder was empty, the engine could not be started and oxygen unavailable. The rest of the day has been spent in trying to get other boats. One has been laid on for this evening taking 10. Two of our chaps, including the mechanic, have been sent down to make sure that things go as arranged, or if they don’t to come and tell us. Universal inefficiency and unreliability seem to be the most prevalent characteristics of the Italian race.
Wed 27 Oct.
My worries are over. Am now back in our own lines – arrived on Monday evening. At dusk on Sunday evening the ten of us, Raimond, Lee, Badge, myself, 6 ORs and an Ite (Italian) fisherman, went down towards the beach. We crossed the coast road and railway without incident and waited near the beach while Raimond and one or two went forward to the boat. He tried to get the owner or his son to go with us but they were not having it, but instead asked 50,000 lire for the boat. They had already agreed to come with us and sail the boat back so R told them that one of the officers staying behind would pay him, which is unlikely. When the boat was ready we crossed the beach and boarded. There was very little wind but we moved slowly away from the shore and then the fun began to get the motor going – it was an ancient Diesel engine which had to have the cylinder head heated by a blow lamp to a red heat first. The blow lamp started off with a colossal sheet of flame and frantic efforts to hide the light. We had to do the heating up with the hatch covers down and there was more excitement when the cover over the engine caught fire from
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the lamp. Eventually the required temperature was obtained and the engine started. It made a terrific row, sent showers of sparks vertically upwards through the exhaust pipe and moved us at about 2 mph, shaking the boat from stem to stern. It ran for an hour and then conked out. The lamp by this time had broken down and we could not repair it in the dark. So we made very slow progress by sail that night. I was on the tiller from midnight until 3 am. When I awoke at 6 very dirty with lying under the deck of our 24ft galleon, we were practically becalmed, but we were several miles off shore and past Pescara, which was something. Later in the day the breeze got up and in the afternoon we were sailing well. We could see the battle area as we passed – dust, smoke and gun flashes – and plenty of our own planes passed overhead. At about 3.30 pm we sighted TERMOLI but it was a good many miles away. That was our destination, so we headed straight for it. The fisherman had been sailing the boat all that day and did well. Darkness came at about 6 but we kept our direction well and by 9 pm we were quite near the coast but could see nothing. We eventually spotted a moored vessel and went towards it. We were hailed and found it to be a British LCI (Landing Craft Infantry). We dropped anchor nearby and they sent a rubber dinghy over and in two or three journeys took us over to their craft. They told us that we should certainly have been fired on if we had gone into the shore, and gave us tea and cigarettes – very welcome because we were all pretty cold and out of tobacco. Then they signalled ashore and actually took us on their craft to the jetty. Here we were taken to Raimond’s HQ where we spent the night. Gosh it was good to be back. Yesterday morning, Tuesday, after seeing Raimond’s colonel, it was decided that one or two were to go back to where we had come from to contact Bill Gordon and lay on a scheme for getting a lot more prisoners out the way we had come, i.e. by sea, and they asked us two if we were willing to go back. Badge got his answer in first and so they decided on him and the SAS sergeant who had come with us. I felt awful about this – about his going back and not me, and managed to persuade Raimond to take me as well, but the colonel would not allow it, so I have had to stay behind. They went off last night but getting no answer from their signals did not land, probably trying again tonight. Now I come to one of the most extraordinary coincidences in my life. After breakfast yesterday morning B and I set off down to the shore to see about getting the kit which we had left in the boat.
Who should I run into in a truck in the streets of this town but Mick (my brother)!! For all I knew he was somewhere between Cairo and Casablanca. He had just written home to say that he had given up hope of seeing me in this country. He had heard of our party coming in and that one of the party was a sapper OR, which was quite true. He had come down to see if he had any news of me. And then to run into each other like that! Even if I had come here while he was here, I might still easily have missed him. He has been very good to me and had me over to lunch yesterday. At that time I thought I was going with Badge so he fixed me up with all I wanted. When that scheme was definitely off I returned to stay with him for a day or two – so here we are! The day after tomorrow he is going to Bari, so I am going back with him. Have already written a couple of letters, read a lot of his, drunk beer with him last night, and had a bath this morning.
Thu 28 Oct.
Went to Corps at S SEVERO with Mick this morning and got a new b.d. (battledress) blouse, while he did some other business. This afternoon he drew some cash and advanced me £6. We also visited a mobile officers’ shop, wrote a few letters and have sent off a cable to Mother & Dad which should take a week.
Sat 30 Oct.
Still at Termoli. The trip to Bari has had to be postponed until tomorrow. On Thursday night there was a flap here because a German raid of some sort was expected, but nothing came off. It seems strange to me to be sitting here in a comfortable house when the fighting is only 10 miles away – so different from the desert. On Wednesday night the landing party went out again. This time the boats which took them from the LCI to the shore never returned. No shooting was heard, so they don’t think they were caught on landing, although the wind was high, and I am rather worried about Badge. On Thursday night there was the flap, last night the weather was too bad, tonight they are doing nothing, but tomorrow night Raimond is going back up the coast. Last night Mick and I had a social evening with the people who own the house in which his section is billeted. The man is a lawyer and he has a young wife, and her unmarried sister. They gave us wine, played the piano and sang, and shrieked with laughter at most of the ordinary remarks we made. Today I have spent most of the time copying this out, and going down to one or two shops on two occasions to interpret for an officer here.
Sun 31 Oct.
Left TERMOLI with Mick, his driver and a naval rating who wanted a lift at 8.30 this morning. Made quite a good journey and stopped at BARLETTA to do some shopping. Mick bought 48
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pairs of silk stockings for £21.12 and I bought a woman’s gold watch for £10, both of which purchases we were very pleased with. Then we came on to BARI where we are now staying, M and I at a hotel by arrangement with the Town Major, and the two ORs at a sort of transit camp. I went to the POW sub-commission and learnt that they required all my particulars and would then send me to a transit camp just outside the town. After we had had a meal, the ORs came round with a dreadful tale. While they had been taking the truck to their billet, after dropping us, all the stockings and M’s driver’s kit had been stolen, together with a parcel for M’s section sergeant who is sick in hospital. Poor old Mick is very upset about the stockings – £20 gone now, and tomorrow the rate of exchange is going down from L400 to L200 to the £. He bought the stockings at 9/- a pair; now they will cost 18/-. It is all very worrying and we have been trying to think of ways of getting cash because the money comes from his section fund.
Mon 1 Nov.
This hotel costs 1/6 a night and provides no food. We breakfasted at a nearby hotel and then I went round to the P.O.W. Sub-Commission again, where they took my particulars and identified me to enable me to draw some pay. The pay adviser there gave me a chit to take to the paymaster at the transit camp. After spending the morning shopping we went out to the transit camp to get some money. It was a peculiar sensation to find that the camp was the old Bari P.O.W. camp that I spent 8 weeks at nearly 18 months ago – strange irony of fate. Drew the money without difficulty – £14 16s 6d in all: £2 initial advance, £12 advance back-dated for month of October and 16/6 [ i.e 16 shillings and 6 old pence] in exchange for Ite (Italian) lire at the rate of L72 to £1 – and then came back into the town. At 4 pm went to the Garrison Theatre and saw a poor American film. Dined at a restaurant and then went to an Italian Theatre where we saw a poor French film followed by quite an amusing variety show. The information about the change of rate of exchange mentioned yesterday was false. All is the same.
Tue 2 Nov.
Mick left this morning to go back to his section. Then I reported to the Sub-Commission where I learnt that a truck would be going to the transit camp in two hours. Spent the interval trying to shop and bought one or two silk handkerchiefs. On arrival at the camp I met 10 or 12 other officers and learnt a most interesting sequel to the tale of our tunnel at Chieti, from two South African officers. They had been recaptured by the Germans, taken towards the front to a P.O.W. cage. When 24 had accumulated there, they were all taken back to Chieti, where they found Indians doing orderly duties. Amongst them was one of the watchers on our tunnel party and he, with 4 others, including these two South Africans went down the hole when the Germans called the rest of the camp out on parade to take them off, having previously and with some difficulty located the lid. They spent four days down there, during which time they discovered the exit blocked up, and were constantly informed by the Indians of the state of affairs above ground. When all the Britishers had gone only a small party of Germans were left to look after the Indians. The five in the tunnel then came out, and, with the help of the Indians, got away over the wall. I am very glad to know that the old hole was useful to some others; it was lucky Bob and I sealed up the lid properly when we left, though little did we know at the time how fortunate it was to be. After lunch I got some QM clothing and this evening a hot shower. So here I am back in p.g. 75!
Wed 3 Nov.
Was a naughty boy this afternoon and went out of the camp without a pass. Was punished with seven others by having bully for supper instead of stew and fruits. We saw a very good Deanna Durbin film “It started with Eve”. The sound-track was American with captions in Italian.
A full colonel visited the camp this morning and asked us how we were being treated. We told him that most of us had not yet been identified or paid, that there were no NAAFI facilities, that we had been given no officers kit and complained about having to get a pass out of the camp every time we wanted to go to Bari. They seem to be rather a poor lot running this camp and are too busy with the 3000 odd Balkan refugees to pay much attention to 350 British ex-p.o.w.
Fri 5 Nov.
10 am. Yesterday morning after breakfast we had to go and see the commandant of this camp, an aged colonel. He gave us a dressing down for complaining about our treatment here, for breaking camp without leave and told us that we were not to come here with the idea that we were conquering heroes, that we needed discipline. No-one before had complained of the treatment here; he had written testimonials
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thanking him for the comfort and consideration here – and so on. He felt obliged to make a written report of our misdemeanour and send it to the War Office. However in spite of all this nonsense, leave passes have been cancelled for us officers and we have been given a leave book to sign in. Omitted to mention on Tuesday that I met Jenkins here who was in the tunnel with us. He told me that Sudbury, Cameron and Brettal had already passed through here. So, out of the 11, 5 of us have been here. Bill and Bob are still north and Badge went up to contact them. That leaves only 3 to be accounted for. People are coming in here daily, though mostly ORs. 7 of the party here left at 1 pm yesterday. Heard last night that I was going today. Was paid this morning and am leaving with a party of ORs at 1 pm.
Sat 6 Nov.
11.30am Had an uneventful railway journey to TARANTO with 24 ORs yesterday, lasting about 4 1/2 hours. Was rather impressed by being met at the station by a lorry for the ORs and a car for myself. When I arrived at this distribution centre, met the seven who had left Bari a day before me, and a few other officers, 4 or 5 of whom were of p.g, 21 and had jumped the train when the Germans started removing them from Sulmona northwards. Got a little more kit this morning, and we are now awaiting news of the next stage in our journey. 7 pm. Spent the afternoon in Taranto. Bought a few pairs of stockings and went to the Officers’ Club.
Sun 7 Nov.
Efficiency to the last: this morning we were warned to pack up and were duly taken down to the docks in trucks. There we sat for an hour or two beside a very nice looking ship. Then we were told that it had been decided to use the ship for some other purpose so we had to walk back about 1/2 a mile, lugging our kit, and then were transported back to this camp! This afternoon went back into the town, and after wandering about a bit, went to the Officers’ Club for tea and some drinks. Here I was very lucky to meet Robson, the OME who was with our Fd Pk in the desert. He is now in REME and ME to the Royals. Figures to date show about 70 officers and 800 ORs passing through this camp. As all p.o.w come here, out of 100,000, less than 1000 have got through. Still there are probably a good 1000 or more still lying up in the hills.
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[Technical drawings of tunnels]
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[Drawings of Room 3, Section 1, and also of basic furniture]