Walter Thompson, a driver of the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, saw action in World War Two as part of the African Desert Campaign. After the surrender of his battalion at Tobruk, he was taken as a Prisoner of War and transferred to a prison camp at Fara-in-Sabina. He later escaped imprisonment by slipping away into the Italian countryside as he was being marched to a railway station for transfer to a German PoW camp. After his escape, Walter met up with another 4 PoWs, including a British Officer of the Indian Army. The four later made a home for themselves in a cave and were aided by local Italians who provided them with food and supplies. During his time on the run, Walter had a number of close encounters with German troops and even had to share a meal with two German soldiers after they unexpectedly turned up at a local farmhouse.
When the action from the front line drew closer to their temporary residence, Walter and his companions decided to move south in an attempt to get through the lines. After navigating their way through a minefield, they were picked up by American troops and were later returned home to England. At home, Walter was transferred to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and began his training in London. He later met his future wife when returning to the city from visiting family in Newcastle. Towards the end of the war, Walter received new orders to report for overseas duty in Japan, but this order was cancelled after his parents rightly wrote to his M.P.
Walter’s account of his wartime experiences follows a non-linear narrative and is moved along in places through the use of key words and standout experiences such as encounters with mines and tough conditions.
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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Recollections of a “Desert Rat”
Being the unique World War 2 experiences of Walter Thompson, a Queens Own Cameron Highlander
[Black and white portrait photograph of Walter Thompson in Queens Own Cameron Highlander uniform][Photograph caption] Walter Thompson at the start of the conflict. Aged 21.
[handwritten text] Résumé on reverse of Page 1
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[Picture of a ‘Mentioned in Despatches’ certificate issued to Private W Thompson]
By the King’s Order the name of Private W. Thompson, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, was published in the London Gazette on 14 September, 1944, as mentioned in a Despatch for distinguished service. I am charged to record His Majesty’s high appreciation.
P. J. Grigg
Secretary of State for War
[Explanation: A solider mentioned in despatches (MID) is one whose name appears in an official report written by a superior officer for acts of gallantry or meritorious action in the face of the enemy. This report is sent to the high command and, in the British forces, the despatch is published in the London Gazette]
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Recalling events from memory of over fifty years ago can be a chronological minefield so as one word sparks off a chain of thought, let’s start with minefields!
September 1941. My battalion, the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders of the 4th Indian Division, were occupying a flat area of scrubland fronted by a minefield. Indian regiments were on either flank, the Rajputana Rifles on the right and the Mahratta Light Infantry on our left.
The enemy had the advantage as they were perched on top at the escarpment, home of the notorious Halfaya pass, a road that wound up the face of the escarpment. Although the pass was probably impregnable one of our battle patrols managed to penetrate the enemy wire and minefield under cover of darkness. Unfortunately, one man was killed and others wounded when a booby trap wire was fouled. Another driver and I had driven the patrol as close to the enemy as was deemed practical and waited for their return. Some of the patrol made their way back to our defences on foot, while others returned to the trucks. The other driver suggested that I should be the lead vehicle as he had difficulty with his vision. I led the way through the swirling mist, hoping I would come across the track leading into our check point without coming to grief on our own minefield. My sense of direction was correct and I reached the track. The senior driver immediately accelerated so that he led the way into the check point. Danger over! An irate voice asked why I hadn’t brought back the dead soldiers sub-machine gun!
At dawn, I had to drive a corporal across the area separating us from the enemy to test a theory that they would not be able to see us approach their wire as they would be blinded by the morning sun. As the escarpment began to tower oppressively above us, we expected that machine guns would chatter and grenades would be thrown down onto our heads. However, our fears were unfounded, and the theory was apparently correct. I gave a sigh of relief as my companion instructed me to turn round and head for home into the blinding sunrise.
The engine of my truck had began to make an unfamiliar noise and the mechanics decided it was a piston fault, ‘a small end’, and called over the M.T. Sergeant. He gave his verdict. ‘We can’t get spares, we can get a new truck, so when you are next out on patrol run it into a minefield!’ He stalked away after. It was a grim joke, but perhaps a premonition of events to come.
The rest of the day was spent chauffeuring the Intelligence Officer on his duties. We finished up in the evening at a hole in the sand grandly known as the Officers Mess. Their cook took pity on me and handed out his specialty ‘jam and bread’, dipped in batter and deep fried – a treat indeed! I spent the night cat napping, listening to the voices inside the shelter and the occasional chorus of singing.
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[A short summary of ‘Recollections of a “Desert Rat” by Walter Thompson]
This well written and at times most amusing manuscript has, unfortunately, got its various sections mixed and out of order.
Especially good is Walter’s account as a driver in the Desert. He recalls one incident out on patrol where he was hesitant when moving forward, thinking there was danger ahead. The off car beside him told him to drive on, but when he did so, the car was immediately hit by a mine and he was then blamed for going off course. Captured in Tobruk and then – it would seem – taken to the Prison Camp at Fara-in-Sabina, he gives an excellent account of the precarious life in the area, living with Italians and then in caves. Literally encountering Germans – but dressed as in civies [civilian clothing] and pretending to be Italian. He recounts how at one stage they steal sheep which the Germans had stolen (see Eric Bull?) and hide in caves. He and another join up with another POW, Paul, who turns out to be a British Officer but insists on equal treatment. When they get through the lines, Paul is promoted to Major, but he ensures that his companions ‘on the run’ get proper treatment and not, as it seemed at one stage, sent up the line, but sent home to England instead. He gets training in engineering in London – when doodle bugs were about – and moves to York, later finding a girlfriend in Newcastle before being called back to London to go overseas. Just before boarding, an officer comes from London and Walter is sent back to York (his parents had rightly written to their MP about a former POW being sent abroad again). His parents actually received a photograph of Walter with his address written on the back, sent by two soldiers serving in Italy, and offering their sympathy – presuming he had been killed there. The photo had been given to them by an Italian who had helped Walter.
The section dealing with being ‘on the run’ not far from Rome is particularly good and sections of it seem familiar to Eric Bull and Brent Mill’s ‘Gap in the Wire’. Walter had escaped by dodging off the column when being marched by Germans to the railway station to be taken to Germany. He meet Russian deserters (see also Eric Bull) from those rounded up and press ganged by Germans. They are given a German (Austrian) deserter to look after and they take him through the lines with them. At one stage, two of them have to dine with two Germans in the house of Italians. A priest also cycles into Rome for them and comes back with money – obviously in touch with the Rome network.
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There were sounds of movement and I gave up swatting mosquitoes. It was almost dawn and I began to think about breakfast. A mug of cocoa was proffered and gladly accepted. Then came the bad news; the officers wanted to drive out to the enemy wire to test the sun-rise theory themselves. Out through the check point and slowly so as not raise a cloud of dust and avoid the possibility of the truck wheels digging into the sand. I simply followed my tracks of the previous morning. We reached the escarpment and began to approach the minefield wire, the sun shining brilliant behind us. Perhaps the M.T. sergeant’s comment had alerted me, but I noticed exposed stones in the sand and warning signals flashed in my mind. I stopped! The I.O. was standing behind me and his voice hissed. ‘Why have you stopped?’ As my training sergeant told me, ‘You are not paid to think. You are here to do as you’re told!’ and I thought ‘Shit! I’m in trouble for thinking again.’ ‘The stones have been disturbed. I thought there might be mines,’ I said. His voice was sarcastic, ‘The mines are on the other side of the wire, DRIVE ON!’ He had to shout so that the message penetrated my thick skull apparently. I engaged gear, slowly let out the clutch, so as to avoid the rear wheels digging into the sand and inched forward. THE TRUCK EXPLODED!
Newspapers would carry a spate of famous last words, ‘Nonsense driver was nowhere near a minefield!’ We are nowhere near the edge of the precipice! Rommel is not within a hundred miles of us! A feast for the cartoonist and, of course, a source of considerable amusement to drivers.
A voice penetrated my sub-conscious, ‘Where’s the driver?’ I was still in the driving seat, holding onto the steering wheel and enveloped in a thick pall of smoke. My voice seemed to be tinny as I shouted. ‘Here’s a question – can you move?’ Leaving go of the wheel I replied, ‘I think so!’ The voice seemed to come from a great distance. ‘Better climb out the back, there might be more mines at the side.’ My passengers were lying about in the sand, but luckily one of the officers was the Medical Officer and was able to administer some relief. There was also the problem that we were in enemy territory.
Relief was at hand, A Mahratta patrol had heard the explosion and drove in to investigate. Quickly they loaded our officers aboard and the Mahratta Captain instructed me to drive, ‘Or you will never drive again.’ There had to be several stops so that the wounded could be comforted before we reached our check point. Everyone off loaded then we discovered that the telephone line to our H.Q. was out of action!
The M.O. [Medical Officer] shouted for me to take the Mahratta patrol truck and drive to H.Q, and bring the ambulance in a hurry. I put my foot down, ignoring the probability of broken springs and roared into H.Q. pulling up beside the C.O. [Commanding Officer] and my M.T. sergeant who were conversing beside a tent. ‘Where did you get that truck?’ the Sergeant asked. It carried the Mahratta insignia. ‘Mine was blown up by a mine; I have to get an ambulance for the wounded!’ I replied. Turning to the C.O. he said, ‘He thinks he’s a comedian!’ – obviously referring to his comments of yesterday.
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I hadn’t time to discuss the incident further. In all probability, they didn’t even know that I had been out to the enemy wire, so I used my initiative and drove over to the ambulance and requested the crew to follow me. They had watched me stop next to the C.O. and assumed he had instructed me and followed me out of the compound, leaving my superiors looking on in amazement. Although no one had been killed, some of the wounds were serious. Eventually, I was sent for to be examined by the medics, who picked out bits of shrapnel and gave me some pills, expressing astonishment that the officer sitting next to me had so many wounds yet I had none, though my clothes were in shreds. I went over to where my truck had stood and sat on a box. Whatever was in the pills combined with the after effects of shock had put me to sleep, for when I came to, I was still sitting on the box and it was dusk. Somewhere I had lost a day and worse still, I’d missed my meals!
An officer commented, ‘I suppose you saw the mine and swerved so you hit it with the passenger wheel!’ The M. T. sergeant was livid and shouted in response, ‘No he didn’t and even if he had who could have blamed him, Sir!’ There was a court of enquiry and I had to give evidence. Then the matter was closed; I did get a new truck, decidedly better than the Ford and I drove it faultlessly for thousands of miles and it never dug into the sand once. Later, I was approached by an officer dressed in a kilt (kilts were not worn in battle) who asked me what it felt like to be blown up! Someone said he was a film star getting experience for his next movie. I wouldn’t help his career much as all I could remember was a loud bang and a cloud of smoke!
I thought I had finished with sun-rise experiments, but not so. A South African Recovery truck arrived with an African driver and a white sergeant. ‘Just go out with them, show them where the truck is and leave the rest to them,’ I was told. So just before dawn, we set off. No doubt soldiers would be already installed in a forward area to give covering fire if required. Eventually we reached the wreck. I was viewed at a respectful distance by the South African, who asked if there was a possibility of it being booby trapped. It could have been, I wouldn’t know. They then brought out a very long chain which they attached to a winch. ‘Right, we better get on with it. It is your responsibility to attach the chain to your truck.’ I wound part of the chain around my waist and began to crawl to the truck. I looked back, my companions were going backwards as fast as they could go! I fastened the chain onto the back axle of the wreck and then clambered into it over the back. No wonder my clothes had been shredded, shrapnel had skimmed over my chest and buried itself in the driver’s door and others had gone under my arm and burned holes in my back rest. A close shave! The truck hadn’t been booby trapped, nor did we explode any more mines.
The next brush with a mine field would occur in June 1942 at Tobruk. The battalion was astride the El Adem road. The defences were in good condition but silted up with sand. I had my own personal dug out near H.Q. The main enemy attack came on the 21st. Stuka Dive Bombers [Junkers Ju 87, also known as Stuka from Sturzkampfflugzeug, German dive bomber and ground-attack aircraft] came screaming down, High Explosive Artillery fire and smoke shells, and soon the area was littered with burning vehicles and dumps. I spent my time firing at the Stukas. The ground was trembling and I detected a movement near me. It was a spider as big as my hand. I cut in two with my bayonet. Just then a soldier tumbled in beside me; he’d been separated from his section during the bombing and I showed him the remains of my spider. As I did so, a small snake slithered across the floor, petrified by the bombing. ‘It’s an Asp!’ he shouted. I repeated his words, ‘An Asp?’ He was obviously worried. ‘They’re deadly poison! One bite and you’re dead!’
[Explanation]: ‘Asp’, refers to several venomous snake species found in the Nile region]
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As darkness approached, the noise of battle decreased, though tracers and flares were in evidence. My comrade and I were unhappy about our snake and spider companions and decided we would spend the hours of darkness out in the open. Obviously bombs, bullets and Germans presented less of a hazard than that of the prospects of snakebite!
A voice informed us that the M.T. sergeant was coming over to us and he appeared out of the gloom. ‘You have to destroy your truck and come into A company,’ I joked. ‘What go into the front line?’ he chuckled. ‘You are in the fucking front line, the Germans have surrounded us; they’re in the cook house!’ It was about 150 yards away. A British anti tank truck had driven up to the cookhouse dug out, but there were Germans using it!
I set fire to my truck and buried kit in the sand to be recovered later. Then we crawled across to A company. Soldiers not on duty were in underground shelters, safer than I had been in my dugout! Food, water and companionship; what more could anyone want! The Camerons had disposed of seven enemy tanks, one M.E. 109 [Messerschmitt Bf 109, German fighter aircraft] and had taken numerous prisoners.
We sat on benches in line along the wall of the shelter, waiting to take our turn up above. A voice shouted, ‘I want six volunteers to go across the minefield and destroy some abandoned trucks.’ There was silence. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘I’ll pick my own volunteers.’ He proceeded to lift each bent head in turn, lighting up faces with his torch. ‘Thompson up top, you’ve just volunteered!’
Up top, I listened to the instructions given to me. ‘Cross the minefield?’ I queried. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘Just follow in my footsteps.’ I bit my tongue, I knew if he stood on a mine, we would be just as dead, but refrained from commenting. I did not know at the time that the minefields had been stripped of live mines or contained obsolete Egyptian mines that were unlikely to explode. One of the trucks contained dead soldiers and we quickly made the engines unusable by filling them with sand and destroying electrical wiring. The enemy didn’t approach us. Quietly, we approached our own lines and I was shocked to see the glow of cigarettes; I thought of my father’s warning about lighting cigarettes, an invitation to die!
We were surrounded, there was a story that the Pipe Major had began to play his pipes and unknown to them the Germans had infiltrated the anti-tank ditch, and when they heard the pipes begin to play they fled! There was a rumour that the BBC had announced Tobruk had fallen. A German Officer and two South Africans came into the battalion to confirm that the South African General had ordered capitulation.
The next morning, the proud Camerons marched into Tobruk as though on parade, with the C.O. and the pipers playing at the head of it.
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It was in Italy in 1844 when another minefield became a focal point. We were north of Mount Cassino (the reformed battalion of the 2nd Camerons were in action again in the Monastery Hill Battle). Months later, after I had returned back to the U.K., my Mother received a letter from soldiers who had recovered my photograph from a young Italian man, they assumed that I had been killed whilst in action at Cassino and the Italian had taken it from my body. A communication problem, the young Italian man had been an essential part of our successful stay behind the enemy lines.
The war had moved north of Cassino and we watched a tank battle in the valley below. We moved to the brow of the hill to get a better view! Shells began to explode around and behind us; friendly fire, as we found out later, kills just as quickly, so evacuation at high speed was called for. The tanks disengaged and we were visited by a representative of the local people, they wanted to use the cave to shelter the women and children from the expected battle of tomorrow. We agreed and appreciated that we could not share the cave with them in case the Germans came to investigate. That night we spent in the open, moving south the day following, and spending the next night in a bramble covered ditch. At first light we set off once more, expecting every bush or hedge to hide a German or Fascist soldier. During the night, there had been noises of transport moving, friend or foe, we had no idea. There were no sounds of activity from the opposing armies, perhaps a barrage of shells would commence at any minute. I noted footmarks on a dirt track, indicating a night patrol had been that way; there were no civilians or animals to be seen. We topped a slight rise and found we were facing a line of tanks, guns and infantry ready to fire. There were five of us, one German and four British, dressed in rag bag clothing. Were these German tanks or were they ours? Certainly, the soldier’s helmets were not British and we did not remember the tanks. If we were to run then we would be fired upon. If they were Germans, we would be prisoners or even executed as spies.
We decided that the only course of action was to go forward, the soldiers began shouting and waving their arms and rifles. We continued towards a break in a wall. A voice rose above the rest, ‘You’re in the middle of a fucking minefield!’ So what, at least he was speaking in English, and if we were in the middle then we might as well go forward rather than back. We continued walking to the gap in the wall and the Sergeant with the loud voice. They were Americans and the sergeant helped us through the gap, pronouncing his intention of killing the engineers who had laid the minefield as the mines hadn’t exploded. Actually approaching the minefield obliquely and heading towards the broken gap, we had found the safe track through the mines that the American patrols had used. Luck was with us or perhaps we had followed the track marks through the grass. Whatever, we were back on the right side of the front line!
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Freedom! The badge of the Army P.O.W. Escape Club shows a dove flying over barbed wire. I never thought of myself as a dove, perhaps a hare running scared, then later more hawkish as I grew more confident.
Our only source of information in the prison camp was snippets from guards or new intakes of prisoners. The usual rumours came in the form of Latrinograms [posted rumours, often written on toilet doors and other walls] which were often posted up on the camp notice board. Latrinograms were fairly reliable, but, of course, they were some months in advance of the actual event! So, when news came of the Italian capitulation, we were not surprised.
There was still the problem of the Germans and we soon realised that they would transfer all prisoners to Germany. We had to disperse as soon as possible to wait the arrival of our own forces. Food that was in the stores was shared out. There was a grey pullover and trousers with my name on them complete with red circles back and front (to help the marksman shoot you if you attempted to escape) I had discovered a talent as a tin smith, converting empty tins into suitcases for our journey home! They were far too heavy and they had to be discarded. Leaving the prison camp by the front gate was out of the question, so a hole had to be cut in the barbed wire at the rear of the compound. Free at last, except that the Germans decided not to cooperate and, with the aid of Italian Fascist troops, they were able to prevent the allies from advancing.
A South African RSM and an Italian officer led the escapees onto a stretch of moorland, to await transport to take us home. We were supposed to keep under cover, but I noticed several plumes of smoke arising, a sure give away if the Germans came to look for us. However, there was almost a spirit of being on holiday away from the confines of the camp and to walk about in the sunshine.
My pal, Bill, decided to go off with some others to visit a local mill in the hope of begging flour. We were assured that the civilian population was on our side, so when one approached me smiling, I wasn’t alarmed. Not until he pulled out a pistol and informed me that he was a German Officer and I was his prisoner. His English was perfect and apparently had been educated at Oxford. He assured me that conditions in the German P.O.W. camps were far superior to the Italian version. ‘You will be on holiday until the end of the war.’ He expressed his admiration of the British soldier, far superior to his own troops. Then his training in propaganda came to the fore, ‘If the British Army had German Officers instead of the Fox hunting upper class, the British Army would be unbeatable!’
There were several shots fired at soldiers not obeying commands and then we were led into a makeshift prison, a village street sealed off at both ends. We were to wait there until it was time to march to the station for our train journey to Germany and our very own Stalag! [German term for Prisoner of War camps] Doors in the street would open slightly as the residents passed out food and wine. I searched amongst the prisoners for my friend Bill. The German Officer said he’d been recaptured and would be on the train, I was concerned as I had his gear.
It was time to go to the railway station and we began our march down the hill. It was late in the day, and as we ambled down the incline, a P.O .W. disappeared over a hedge and into the undergrowth. Five of us agreed to escape as well. We seemed to pass opportunity after opportunity.
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I was becoming impatient. We were drawing closer to the station, sounds of the engine were clear and smoke was visible. The problem was in deciding the correct instant to go. I volunteered to lead, the others agreed. There was a bend in the road, a guard had dropped back to chat to another, and a gap in the hedge came into view. I gave the nod. ‘We’re off!’
I disappeared into the pathway; there was no outcry or the sound of a bullet whistling past me. I was free! Elation was quickly followed by apprehension. The path was closed off by a padlocked door, a quick survey and I found there was no way through or over the hedge. I was trapped! Not only trapped, but alone. My comrades had stayed with the prisoners. If they had known what lay ahead of them, they wouldn’t have hesitated that split second. They would be herded into cattle trucks by blows from rifle butts and locked in. Some P.O.W.s would be killed or wounded on the journey as trains were attacked by Allied Air forces. Several months later I received a letter from one of my friends complaining bitterly about the conditions they had to endure in the Stalag. I regret including a knife twist in my reply, ‘You should have come with me when you had the chance!’ Bill was also bitter about me escaping and taking his gear with me. He had been picked up the next day and his journey was made more unpleasant as he had no warm clothing.
Dusk was falling quickly and to my horror I discovered the column of prisoners had stopped, probably to reform and be counted before entering the final phase into the railway station. I thought about simply rejoining them. A guard appeared, silhouetted against the sky. He un-slung his rifle and my imagination went into overdrive; I could feel the bullets hitting my chest. He leant his rifle against the hedge. I thought he was watching me, my heavy breathing and heart beat had to be heard. He fumbled with his clothes. He was urinating! I hadn’t been seen! He picked up his rifle and was gone. There were shouts from the road and riotous laughter and comments from the prisoners, the unaccustomed wine and extra food had created almost a holiday atmosphere. The sound faded away and the noise of the railway engine became louder.
It was dark now, but where to next? My escape was opportunistic. I had no plans at all. I walked back up the road to a gateway and walked down the hill to the bottom of the valley. This was almost my undoing for I almost walked into a company of soldiers and vehicles. I did an about turn and went back up the hill and across the village road. Perhaps my sense of direction, which had stood me in good stead in the desert, would return. I hoped my guardian angel would be at hand. I followed a cart track for a while until my nose told me I was going off course. The track had been cut into the side of a hill and it didn’t seem too precipitous down to the valley bottom, it was dark and a mist was forming. I found a quick way down. I lost my footing and tumbled down, finally dropping into a thicket of brambles which, of course, broke my fall – but it was exceedingly difficult and painful to get out of!
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The field on the valley floor had been ploughed and the moon showing over the horizon. The events of the day had been traumatic and I was rapidly becoming exhausted. Being a prisoner for months not only meant a severe weight loss, but also a loss of physical fitness. I was shattered and for the first time in many months I was not only alone in a strange land, but I was in need of water. Somehow I struggled across the field and began to climb the hill. Hampered by a severe pain in my leg and neck, my last reserves of energy disappeared and I collapsed onto my knees. I needed help and there was one last resort –I asked God to help me!
My knees were hurting and I found I was kneeling on a walking stick! With the help of the stick I managed to rise and I was quite astonished to hit my head on an apple! An apple that had a magical effect on me; my thirst disappeared and my energy returned. I continued to the brow of the hill and decided to rest beside a wall for an hour. I dozed off. I was then awakened by a hot breath on my face! Horror! Inches from me was a disembodied head, white and hairy in the moonlight and topped by a huge pair of horns! I ran! Shit. I realised it was not a nightmare, only a curious bullock on the other side of the wall.
I continued running down the hill side, then I heard someone also running through the undergrowth and I knew our paths were going to cross. I grasped my walking stick ready to deal a sharp blow and asked, ‘Who’s there?’ An English voice replied, ‘It’s me!’ It turned out to be an experienced escaper. He had already tried to cross the Swiss Border but had failed, and he was now making his way south in an attempt to cross to the Allies front line A Godsend to me at that point in time.
We travelled together until we came across a water trough, where we replenished our water supply and washed ourselves. I had leant my newly acquired walking stick against the trough and it just disappeared! The pain in my leg had long gone so I didn’t need the stick, though it was a mystery that was never explained. Many years later I would visit North Tees Casualty department to have a wound attended to after a fall. The leg was X rayed. ‘When did you last break your leg?’ the nurse asked. ‘I haven’t had a broken leg,’ I replied. The nurse looked puzzled as though she didn’t believe me. ‘A break shows quite clearly,’ she said. Then, perhaps to humour a patient, ‘Well, perhaps there is a crack in the plate!’ I thought, maybe, but there was one occasion when I asked the Almighty to help and, just maybe, He helped me more than I realised at the time!
The next day we hid in a thicket, or rather I did, for my new friend decided to look for food. He returned later with a very old man who kept rubbing his stomach and saying ‘Hongiarz’. Later, he brought bread and olive oil and began to recall words of English, for in his youth he had been a waiter in New York. He also suggested that he knew of two more Inglese hiding in a pig sty and volunteered to lead us to them. I knew my friend wanted to be off on his own, for I would only be a hindrance until I recovered my fitness. The pig sty was empty. The two occupiers were not taking any chances. They appeared after they had satisfied themselves that we were genuine British Soldiers and agreed to accept me into their ‘home’. My temporary companion shook my hand and set off on his journey. The pig sty was clean and filled with fresh straw, and had the advantage of a friendly family who supplied food on occasion which we supplemented with blackberries, nuts and figs. We were not going to starve.
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The Germans and the fascists had completed their sweep of their area, removing Italian men to work in Germany and escaped British troops for transfer to Stalag Camps. Reward notices had been posted, offering payment for information leading to the capture of P.O.W.’s and issuing warnings of severe penalties for anyone harbouring or feeding us. Not that it seemed to deter the local population, as they were decidedly anti-German. Two Italian Divisions were fighting alongside the Cameron Highlanders near Orsogna on the Adriatic coast.
One lady invited us into her home in the village for a meal, which we gladly accepted. Then, when the meal was over, she was very concerned about us being in danger going back to our piggy accommodation, and suggested we sleep in her barn, which fronted onto the village street. We slept well and were awoken by the sounds of activity on the street. The door was padlocked so well that we could not make a hurried exit. There were uniformed soldiers visible through the gap between the doors. It was dusk before our hostess unlocked the doors, apologising profusely. She had forgotten about us, until it was too dangerous to take a chance. Harry spoke fluent French so he was able to impart the conversation as it went along. She brought a bag of food and insisted upon leading us out of the village!
A local squire offered the use of unoccupied house near the village and several of the remaining P.O.W.s collected there, still awaiting the arrival of Allied troops. We were allowed to dig up potatoes that had been planted to feed pigs so that helped, though chips had to remain a distant dream.
One evening a villager arrived and invited the three of us for a meal. He escorted us through the village in cloak and dagger style and kept waving his hand and whispering, ‘Piano, piano!’ ‘I can’t hear any piano,’ Pop muttered in a disgruntled voice. Harry elucidated, ‘He means slowly, No. 1 Piggy!’ Eventually, we arrived at his home and a smiling wife bid us welcome. I indicated that we should sit at the table. She then emptied a cauldron of food onto the table and smoothed it out into a pancake that covered the entire table top. She added a sauce of herbs and tomatoes and small pieces of meat, her husband gave us forks and indicated we should eat. We watched him and soon realised that those who ate the fastest got to most and we quickly became adept at cutting the pudding into slices and wolfing it down. Eventually, full of food and wine, we bade them goodnight and made our way out of the village, fighting down any impulse we had to sing! We stumbled down the path to our new abode, full of food and goodwill. ‘That was marvellous, the best meal I’ve ever had, those bits of meat, they were delicious, what were they?’ Harry commented. Pop and I chorused truthfully, ‘They were snails!’ ‘Oh. No!’ Harry commented and, to our amazement, immediately vomited up his dinner. We had over-eaten, but there was no way we were going to dispose of our meal, so Pop and I kept our food down!
Food is, of course, the main concern of P.O.W.s and it is the main topic of conversation; meals past, present and in the future. In the desert cage in Libya we were issued a small tin of Italian meat and a large biscuit. We had little water, so the only way to consume the biscuit was to pound it between two stones. The Gurkha prisoners had a problem with the meat, until a wise officer persuaded them that their religion forbade them eating it on their own continent. Problem solved.
The prison ship came next, with prisoners incarcerated in the hold that were so closely packed that it was impossible to sit down. The distribution of food had to be achieved by passing it overhead. This was our only option to pass along food after the hold was battened down and we were left in complete darkness. Not that hunger was a main factor here, for there was the fear of being torpedoed by our own submarines. There would be little to no chance of survival if that happened.
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One other invitation to a village home gave our host and family considerable amusement. The meal was spaghetti, which we were not familiar with at all. There was a board in the centre of the table, the great pot of spaghetti was tipped on this and covered with sauce. We were unable to master the technique of twisting the fork and we certainly finished with red faces, in more ways than one!
Prison camp food was barely sufficient to keep us alive and was the cause of most tension between prisoners. An issue of one bread bun per day caused a few tantrums. Although they were probably the same weight, they varied in size, so there were always calls of favouritism. This was solved by the issuing sergeant kneeling down with the sack of buns in front of him and passing the buns over his shoulder to the next in the queue. There was a cup of ‘coffee’ each morning. It was apparently made from roasted wheat and tasted foul. Some men resorted to scooping out the grains from the cauldron and eating the grounds. One tall lad from the Scottish Islands decided he’d found the solution to his personal hunger. His attentive audience could barely contain their amusement when he said he’d written to his Mother to send him a two hundred weight sack of oatmeal! One wit said, ‘If she can get it in the post box, you’ve got it!’ Then another chimed in, ‘That’s not a problem, she can shovel it though the letter box!’ This went over the Highlander’s head as he was already lying back on his bunk savouring countless steaming bowls of porridge.
There was an occasional issue of an ounce of cheese and a similar amount of meat. The evening meal consisted of a bowl of vegetable soup. This also caused trouble as some ladles could come up full of vegetables and others almost clear, so the rule was, ‘You get whatever is in the ladle.’ The queue was generally silent as each ladleful was viewed. Once, when it was my turn, I said, ‘Oh! I just wish my ladle came up with a hunk of meat on it,’ and as the ladle came up it did so with a meaty bone perched precariously on top. The tension was unbearable as the ladle was tipped towards my trembling dixie [Dixie, portable eating bowl; a mess tin]. Then came relief, and I was off before the cook could change his mind, knowing that hundreds of hungry eyes would be following me.
Then there was great excitement. Red Cross parcels had arrived at the local station. It was Christmas and Birthdays rolled into one. There was one parcel between two, with extra food inside. The prisoners, for the first time in months, showed a remarkable change, which was recognisable in the hub of voices; they were not only cheerful, but the subject was not food, food and more food. Gone were the Roast Beef and Yorkshire puddings, Stottie Cake and Jam Roly-poly! Instead it was the opposite sex. Subject Normal!
There were a couple of soldiers opposite Bill and I who complained that the tea was missing from their parcel and, after some discussion, an extra packet was provided for them. It was soon discovered that tea had bartering possibilities, so how could we drink our tea and exchange it for bread? The answer was simple – we drank the tea, dried the tea leaves, re-packaged them, and then exchanged the packet for bread from one of the guards. The ‘tea’ was then sold on the Rome Black Market!
Our Welsh friends were unlucky with their next Red Cross parcel. On this occasion, a tin of butter was missing and, again, a replacement was supplied. A soldier took it upon himself to watch the Welsh lads closely and when he discovered that they had two tins of butter, he accused them of cheating and a bare knuckle contest ensued, providing entertainment for all. There were no more shortages reported in Red Cross parcels after that!
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Several members of the British Forces wandering about the countryside in battle dress was asking for trouble, and the father of a local family (who had been our main supplier of food), came to warn us that Fascists and Germans were raiding the area the next morning. He said that if we wanted to stay free, it was essential that we leave. He arranged for us to meet him at midnight at a small chapel perched on top of a hill, where locals would walk barefoot when having to do penance. He warned that the Germans were collecting all men of military age to work in labour camps in Germany. We were in a high state of tension when we arrived at the chapel, the wind was howling, clouds were racing across the sky, and the moon was shining fitfully when it had the chance. We were glad to find shelter inside. It was pitch black and chilly. We thought we heard something breathing. It was quite eerie and then we heard the sound of footsteps. We shouted, but there was no response, just louder breathing. We quickly moved back outside into the gale! Our patron was late. When he arrived, he handed over food and money and, noticing that we were shivering, asked why we hadn’t waited inside. He then struck a match, chuckling with laughter, as our ghostly companion was revealed as a fellow escaper – a donkey that had also found shelter!
Our host again advised us that we would be in extreme danger if we remained in the area and suggested we should be clear of the district by early dawn. We thanked him again for his hospitality and said our goodbyes. Returning to our abode, we once more warned the rest of the inmates of the probability of recapture. We decided that the three of us would go off on our own rather than staying with a group, and would set off in a Southerly direction at first light. We kept to a footpath at first, expecting every bush or hut to hide our enemy waiting to pounce. Dogs barked, protecting their property, but also announcing our presence to all and sundry. We were glad when we were clear of the cultivated area and out in the foothills.
Occasionally on our way, we came across shepherds engaged in the task of milking their flock of sheep and making cheese. We were always welcomed and given bowls of warm soft cheese and, sometimes, a hunk of bread. Our trek came to an abrupt halt when we found ourselves confronted by a fast flowing river. We were debating about what direction to take to find a place to cross to the other bank, when we were spotted by a man on horseback. There was no point in running as he was upon us in seconds. He reined in his horse and asked in English, ‘British Soldiers?’ We confirmed our origins. He pointed to a clump of bushes and suggested that we remain hidden until nightfall, when he would return and take us to his farmhouse. When darkness fell, we began to wonder if he had forgotten his promise, when he finally arrived on foot and led us to his farm. We were led into an out building and food and wine were brought in a basket. There was even an electric fire which was switched on and blankets were also provided.
As soon as we had eaten, he discussed the problem of crossing the river. We could cross by a bridge downstream, but, it was heavily guarded by Fascist troops. However he seemed to be amused and explained why. The guard was changed at six o’clock with much ceremony, stamping of feet and shouting. Then he laughed out loud, ‘Then they all go into the guardhouse for coffee and leave the bridge unguarded whilst they have their break!’
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Next morning our benefactor led the way to the bridge. The weather was in our favour, dull and misty. We took cover near to our objective whilst the farmer watched the pantomime on the other side of the river. The new guard was marching up, going through the military procedure for the changing of the guard. We were refreshed by a good night’s rest and good, perhaps a little anxious at the prospect of crossing a bridge in full view of the guardhouse, though the farmer’s confidence helped enormously. He was enjoying the cloak and dagger business of out-witting the enemy and helping the Allies at the same time. At last, it was time to go and he shook hands, wishing us well. Slowly, we crept over the bridge, expecting to be challenged at any second. Then, breathing heavily, we were into the bushes on the opposite river bank. A farewell wave to the figure disappearing into the mist and, once more, we were enjoying our escape to freedom.
Several uneventful miles brought us to a small hamlet and upon a group of women gossiping at a farm gate. They knew instantly that we were Inglesy [English] and welcomed us with smiles. Our smattering of Italian and Harry’s French meant we could converse easily. They knew we had to keep out of sight and one of the ladies suggested a cave that would be suitable. A young woman, whose fiancé was a P.O.W. in America, volunteered to guide us to the location. The lady who suggested the cave, indicated that we should come over to her cottage next morning to collect food and pointed out her door.
The cave was ideal, hidden by bushes and sloping gently into the hillside, which meant that any rain water was disposed of in the depths. There were also several alcoves where stone had been quarried. We had passed some old bales of hay and we began to haul these to the cave so that one of the alcoves could be walled off. One bale formed a door into our bedroom and we were reasonably secure when it was finished. A break in the rock face allowed some light and, with the dry straw on the floor, it was home!
Next morning, Pop and I ventured over to the cottage, taking care not to be too obvious. The lady was waiting at her door and beckoned us inside to a back room where we sat down at a table. There was a delicious aroma and we had visions of eating bacon and eggs. Suddenly, there was a frantic cry of ‘Tedesco! Tedesco! Germans! Germans!’ and a very frightened woman came into the room as there was a loud knock on the door. We didn’t need any encouragement; we were out of the back window in a flash! I swear that Pop managed to jump out of the window from a sitting position! A quick glance around the corner of the cottage revealed no uniform in sight and we distanced ourselves as quickly as possible from danger, returning to our cave with dreams of breakfast gone, but not forgotten!
That evening the girl who was to be our contact for some months turned up with a can of hot food, explaining that the Germans had not been looking for us, but for farm workers to be conscripted for work in Germany. They hadn’t found anyone! She left after a few minutes and we began to eat the food; pasta and vegetables, a thick broth. Then, we pulled out a small animal, or so we thought. ‘Mice!’ Harry exclaimed. Snails we could accept, but mice? No! So, out the meal went. Later, we discovered that the ‘mice’ were small birds.
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We established ourselves in the area, finding escape routes in case of emergency; there were storm tunnels connecting valleys and, although these were pitch dark, we explored them. One stream ran underground for a couple of hundred yards and this tunnel had an air vent in amongst a clump of trees. We found a side of large cable drum, which we manoeuvred into the tunnel and managed to wedge it under the air vent to provide a platform to hide on above water level. We needed a ladder down through the air vent to the platform. A tree was the answer, and with a lot of effort, we managed to cut it down and inset it in the vent to the platform. Whilst we were performing this task, we were inspected closely by a German spotter plane, and we lay under the shelter of a tree while the plane inspected the area closely. Although we kept alert over the next few days, no ground troops appeared, so perhaps the plane was inspecting the terrain, rather than looking for escaped prisoners.
It was at this time we decided to promote ourselves to officers to impress our Italian friends. We took brass buttons off an overcoat and, hey presto, we were Lieutenants! Harry, being an army medic, decided to become a doctor as he wore Gold rimmed glasses, and his prestige was immediately enhanced! We made friends with a farming family some two miles to the west of our cave. There was a castle nearby, which was occupied by Germans to the south. We heard that two P.O. W.’s were hiding in a safe house in a vineyard. To the north, there was a manor house that was frequently visited by German officers for meals.
Allied Air Force activity was increasing during the night and flares were being dropped during the day. There was the occasional, exhilarating sight of one of our planes on the tail of a German. One chase skimmed the ground past our cave and resulted in the German being shot down, crashing into a nearby stream. We naturally went to investigate, and perhaps pick up a souvenir, when we were disturbed by the local count galloping furiously on horseback, warning us that the German half tracks were on their way to investigate the crash and rescue the pilot. He was dead and we made ourselves scarce.
An Italian civilian came to our cave, and speaking excellent English, explained that he was sheltering an escapee Indian Army soldier who was lonely, but was probably in danger as there were enemy troops near. Would we take him into our care? Yes, of course we would, though how we would be company for an Indian soldier remained to be seen. Although I had been in the 4th Indian Division, my knowledge of Indian soldiers was minimal, other than that they were excellent fighting men. In due course, a tall man in civilian clothes was brought to the cave. We were relieved to find he was Scottish and had been working on a Tea Plantation in India when war was declared, leading him to join the Indian Army.
James [James is referred to as Paul in the summary of this document and is later referred to as John in an extract on digital page 43] was very reserved, but gradually became accepted as a member of the team. I discovered more about his identity when we sat together at our daily task of ridding ourselves with fleas. I first came across fleas in great numbers when we came across an abandoned Italian fortification in the desert. The place was alive with the insects and we quickly gave up any idea of searching for souvenir! James wore Army clothes under his civilian outfit and, as he proceeded to divest his shirt of fleas, I noticed three pips on his shoulder tabs. ‘You didn’t say you were a Captain!’ I accused. He shrugged his shoulders, ‘I decided to accept the status quo. My rank doesn’t apply in this situation.’ ‘We are not officers, we are all self promoted!’ I explained, and he smiled in response. ‘I’ll stay with you provided we are all equal until we reach our own lines!’ He was to be an asset for us as he spoke Italian fluently and naturally assumed command by virtue of being our spokesman.
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The daughters of the farmer next to the castle occupied by the Germans were employed at the castle. Although the farmer kept away from the cave, occasionally a picnic would be arranged in a secluded hollow and all of their family would attend, even bringing a record player. It appeared that some of the food provided for the picnic had been smuggled out of the German Officers kitchen. We found the food more appetising at the news!
As James already had civilian clothes, it was thought that we should also be less conspicuous out of uniform. James warned that should we be re-captured we stood the risk of being executed as spies. Trousers were my problem, a pair couldn’t be found, so Vanda, our female accomplice, decided that she would dye them black. They were returned, black and nicely pressed. The problem was that the die turned my legs black as well! As we hadn’t any soap, I was various shades grey black for some time. The local count heard about the problem and provided a pair of his son’s riding breeches for me. Our Italian friends pretended to be very impressed and saluted the Padrone! A local man was supposed to be making soap by boiling down a dead dog and adding other ingredients. Eventually, some tablets of soap were presented to us; they were rough, smelt foul, but they worked. It was soap suds all round in the near-bye stream.
We watched our planes shooting up road transport and this provided us with extra food as horses had been some of the casualties – we did not refuse the gift of meat from the carcasses.
We were invited to the ‘safe house ‘ where two other British soldiers were in hiding. It was a regular meeting place and we would meet pro allied Italian Officers in civilian clothes. Discussions regarding the sabotaging of the Germans would be a main topic of conversation. Our two soldiers were proud of their accommodation. They bedded downstairs amongst the great vats of wine and boasted how they could lie in bed and siphon off wine to their hearts content!
The evening turned into a fiesta, with our host displaying the results of his culinary skills. The wine flowed freely and we became thoroughly inebriated. Pop and Harry stayed overnight, whilst James wanted to return ‘ home’ to the cave, which we achieved after falling over a few times!
I was ‘out for the count’ on one occasion at the beginning of my training. The company was stationed in part of a distillery, next to the barracks and a guard had to be mounted each night. In the early hours, a man was challenged and he turned out to be a distillery foreman. He most cordially invited all of the guard to partake of mugs of a clear liquid, which he explained was the initial stage of the production of whiskey. The night was cold and the alcohol was most welcome. We didn’t realise the liquid was lethal, and in a short space of time, the guard and its commander were fast asleep. Luckily, the Officer of the Guard failed to turn up to ‘turn out the guard’. No one came into the guardroom the next morning and it was the noise of soldiers returning from exercise that eventually alerted us. No one had noticed that the guard hadn’t ‘stood down’ at day break. Silence was the agreed solution, though we did wonder if the foreman had an ulterior motive in making sure there were no prying eyes about!
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The owner of the vineyard was finding his ‘visitors’ quite a burden and suggested that the Vatican might help. He collected our names and numbers and cycled into Rome. After several hours of interrogation he was eventually seen by a priest engaged in helping the Allies. He eventually came back with cash, books and toilet articles that were a great help to us. Our families eventually received letters from the War Office indicating that it was possible that their sons were in the Rome area and indicating that they should stop asking questions in case they placed our safety in jeopardy.
Sabotage! I either volunteered or was pushed into examining a culvert under the road next to the German occupied castle. I didn’t think much of the idea as the road carried little military traffic and I thought it would create more problems for the locals than for the enemy. However, Giovani, ‘the son’, and I made our way to the culvert. For last few hundred yards, we simply walked in water, until we reached the road and agreed there would be no problems in blowing it up. Other culverts were to be examined, but, as explosives never arrived from the Partisans, we didn’t blow ourselves or the culverts up! Making our way back, Giovani had the idea of stealing one of the German owned sheep, which was easier said than done as the sheep didn’t want to be caught! Eventually, a rugby tackle brought one down and we forcefully hauled it over the fence. We kept looking back at the castle, expecting shots to be fired at us. A few yards along a path and the sheep stopped. Giovani pointed to the sheep’s rear end – it was giving birth! After a while, the lamb was born and the membrane cleared. Giovani knew more about farming than I did, for I began to wonder how we would get the sheep back. He simply picked up the lamb and the sheep trotted behind. Back at the vineyard, we had to make sure we were not seen from the house. Then we gave an astonished shout, ‘A sheep with a lamb has accidentally wandered into the compound!’
Harold was more adventurous than we were, walking into the local villages and making friends. His boldness was to be his down fall. A family invited him into their home and made him welcome and wouldn’t hear of him leaving, until Fascist troops turned up and arrested him. The reward money was of course an incentive. At the cave, we became concerned about his non-return. Our fears were confirmed when a messenger arrived to impart the news of Harry’s arrest. The fear was that the Germans might torture him into telling them the whereabouts of the cave. It was dusk and figures were seen in the distance, coming in our direction. Run? We almost did! The figures proved to be farm hands rounding up horses that had broken loose!
We opted for the ‘safe’ house and a hut in the vineyard. Our host had already heard of Harry’s capture and had decided the cave was unsafe. He arrived there to find it abandoned (we had pulled down the hay wall) and he was convinced that we had also been taken into custody. He returned to the vineyard quite despondent. He was overjoyed to find us already in the outhouse, his wife and two daughters setting up us in the hut.
A single Russian soldier appeared in the area and, although friendly, he informed us that he was the ‘Protector’ of the area’s allotments. As he was carrying a sub-machine gun, we didn’t argue. He was probably a candidate for the Mafia! He said he’d escaped from the Germans, but our Italian Officer acquaintances were sceptical, they suspected that he was a deserter from a Russian brigade that was fighting for the German army on the west coast.
Later, a group of Russian soldiers and an Officer appeared in the area. They were heavily armed and had a truck, and were supposed to have escaped from the Germans, driving from Yugoslavia without being intercepted. We were asked to join them and .James had the task of discussing the possibility with them. We formed the conclusion that they were only
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making their way through the Allied lines. Their escape story and how they obtained their truck, fuel, arms and ammunition didn’t ring true, and it seemed they were more probably deserters from the same Russian brigade as the lone Russian soldier. We decided not to join the Russians in their escapades.
Food was still paramount. The sheep and lamb, busy eating grass in the vineyard provided tantalising visions of lamb chops. So when there was a proposal to raid a German owned farm and steal sheep it was readily accepted. Of course, our host and James had not to be consulted as they would not agree to thieving, even if it was from the Germans! We still hadn’t any weapons, which would be required if there was an armed guard at the farm. Eventually, I was given a pistol. My job was to intimidate the farmhand and dispose of the guard. James and our host had decided to travel to a mill to see if they could buy flour and this presented the opportune time.
We even found extra help as two South African soldiers arrived and volunteered to help us. We were to pretend we were Germans; the Dutch South Africans were to speak African. Eventually, we arrived at the farmhouse. I burst open the door and threatened the occupants with my pistol. The South Africans seemed to be struck dumb and I shouted some Gobbly-de-gook, relieved to find there was no guard. The farmhands were helpful once they had got over the initial shock and rounded up some sheep for us, disappearing back into the farmhouse when I waved them away. The Partisans, who had been on the perimeter, then came in to help. Our knowledge of being a shepherd was minimal and we ended up carrying the sheep over our shoulders. Partisans and sheep disappearing into the night until we arrived back at the vineyard with five sheep we locked into a shed. Next morning, Giovani was livid. We had been robbed! Two sheep had been stolen during the night. As the two South African soldiers had disappeared also, it was easy to name the culprits. It was amusing to note how many crofts were drying out sheep skins in the sunlight. Mutton would be on quite a few menus!
James and our host had only been able to obtain a small amount of flour, so that there were no accusations that I was aware of about sheep rustling. Giovani and I had the job of killing, gutting and skinning a sheep. The others collected in dry wood to fill an outdoor oven while our host prepared the carcass with herbs and oil. For hours the cooking smells tempted us, and then, eventually, the oven was opened. The roast was placed on a board and carried into the house. There were no knives, you simply tore at the flesh with your fingers and washed the meat down with wine – a meal we would remember for the rest of our lives. We sang soldier’s songs and finished up toasting our host with ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’ and ‘so say all of us!’
Some of the Partisans were amused at their success in diverting enemy traffic on the main road, they had stolen diversion signs, closed the road for about a half mile, diverting the military might of the German army around a cart track. The diversion was still in existence days afterwards! Of course, we were being subjected to witticisms and pantomime about the ferocious Inglese overcoming the Italian pecorone and actually eating their prisoners.
We noticed that our host, when roasting a joint or meat, would pour the fat onto the fire, and then add olive oil. A waste we thought, save us the fat which we would spread on our bread. He was horrified declaring that animal fat was bad for humans in the long term. It took our medical people a long time to discover he was right!
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Discussions about sabotage were always at the forefront of any conversations, but weapons or explosives still hadn’t been forthcoming, so our sole pistol was not enough to encourage direct action. Telephone communications seemed to be generally acceptable as an objective we could attack. Who would climb the telegraph poles to cut the wires? There wasn’t a volunteer. Saw down the telegraph poles and then cut the wires? Brilliant! Tools were gathered in, saws, hacksaws, axes, wire cutters, even a sledge hammer. There was a place where the telephone cables crisscrossed. Four poles with a platform and a hut on top was placed on top of the agenda. Our host knew of an underground cable supposedly originating in London and terminating in Cape Town and in a ravine it was visible, except that it was encased in concrete. Fortified by wine, we set off to cut down the telegraph poles. The first poles leading from the centre four were difficult, until at last, one toppled over. The rest were easy, the weight of the first helping pull down the next. Soon, poles were dropping in all directions and wires cut. We beamed with satisfaction. The underground cable proved tough, it was difficult to swing a sledge hammer at the concrete casing and the noise we created would be heard miles away, so that we expected an investigation by Fascists or Germans. Eventually, the concrete began to crack and a section of cable was exposed. Hack saws were produced and the cable sawed through. Exhausted, but satisfied, us saboteurs melted away into the darkness.
There were rumours that the Allies had landed at Anzio, perhaps our efforts had persuaded the enemy that the invaders had penetrated deeper inland than they actually did. Certainly, our Italian informers thought the Allies could have taken Rome within days as the German opposition was very light.
We heard that Partisans had killed six German soldiers foraging in the district.
A female was reported visiting houses in the area, supposedly looking for families willing to billet German soldiers in their homes. There were no volunteers as the general opinion was that the visitor was a spy. Certainly, we could expect some response from the Germans for our wire cutting and the death of their soldiers. We decided to keep under cover, playing bridge to while away the time. The allied Air Force providing interludes as fighters chased each other above us.
A spate of reward notices appeared in the villages offering rewards for information leading to the arrest of British Soldiers and Partisans.
James, Pop and I were fast asleep in our hut amongst the vines when Tim crawled in to alert us. Germans were at the house! He’d felt sickly and had left his bed to walk amongst the trees to clear his head. On his return, he found the house surrounded by Germans, the family and his pal standing outside.
Silently, we cleared the hut of our gear and then made our way down the slope, towards a path near the stream. At one section, James warned that the slope was wet and slippery immediately ahead and he would lead. He immediately lost his balance and tumbled into bamboo undergrowth. Being in a state of high tension, we laughed out loud at his downfall. A trigger happy German fired his sub-machine gun in the direction of the sound, we then charged through the bamboos like a herd of elephants in a panic, still laughing!
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Caution soon replaced temporary insanity – at least we had escaped being recaptured once more. Further down the valley we knew of a cave, an ugly grimace near the top of a cliff, covered from above by an overhang and at the front by an overgrowth. It was inhospitable, being some ten yards wide and four foot high, the walls dripping with water and the floor being covered with loose rubble, which would cascade down into the depths at any careless movement. Daylight wasn’t far away and we made it to the cave without being discovered. We decided to stay there all day and make our way to our original cave the next night.
The German response to the deaths of their soldiers was to send an armoured vehicle and pump shells into whatever cottage they came across.
It was exceedingly uncomfortable in our hiding place. Pop was becoming claustrophobic and James agreed for him to go out to the front of the cave. After a while, James became concerned at the length of time that Pop had stayed outside for and he indicated for me to bring him back. Carefully, I crept to the entrance where I found Pop. I went to tug at his trousers as he was gazing wistfully across the valley. It was then that I looked at his face and, to my dismay, found myself looking at the great coat and machine gun of a German soldier standing directly above Pop’s head! As Pop looked down at me, I pointed above him at the danger. Our movements were akin to those of a chameleon as we moved back into the sanctuary of the cave.
As soon as darkness enveloped the valley, a mist appeared and we decided to make a move. We were just beginning to become complacent and were walking along a cart track when we came across a platoon of soldiers! We were victims of our own carelessness. James and Tim, to the rear of us, managed to fade discreetly into the mist. The two of us were dead! I managed to croak a greeting of ‘Bona Sera’ and stood by the side of the track. There was a chorus of greetings from the Germans as they good humouredly tried out their Italian and then they were gone. They were not interested in us. Just as we would have been if we were in their place, they were more concerned with getting back to barracks!
Home to our cave with some signs of relief on our faces as we settled in and then the next day we began to resume our old contacts. James was on edge and wanted to try and get through Allied lines at Anzio. We heard that the Germans were moving in heavy concentrations of troops and heavy weapons. I persuaded James that we should wait, in the expectation that the Germans would eventually leap frog over us and we would then have the simple task of crossing our own front line.
I was beginning to suffer from gastritis and our friends generously provided milk and eggs. We noticed small dams appearing in the streams which would later fill with dead fish. These were collected by strangers to the area. When we found out that a toxic substance was being put in the water, James was very annoyed as it meant that all life in the stream had been killed off by their action. Nets were appearing, to trap small birds, for sale in Rome. We kept out of sight when these people were around, in case they should ‘sell’ us as well!
Tim and Pop were both morose, having lost their best friends. Pop had taken to wandering off on his own and Tim was becoming bad tempered when playing cards to while away our time, so we had to cease card playing altogether.
News arrived above the fate of the family of the safe house. Tim’s pal insisted that he had only arrived at the house that night, so that the family were only sentenced to a short spell in prison. The father received a longer sentence. It could have been worse!
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Vanda’s father invited us to his home for an evening meal as, apparently, he had forgiven us for our foray into the disruption of communications. Not only had we cut off his phone, but he had been extensively questioned by the Gestapo, which hadn’t endeared us to him at all! The four of us spruced ourselves up and headed in the direction of his house as soon as it was dark. My intuition began to give off warning signals and I quickly alerted the others that something was wrong. Then a figure stepped out of a hedge, it was Vanda. The Germans had occupied their house and were using it as a telephone exchange!
Vanda was quite composed; she and her parents had devised a plan to help us survive. We were to be Pecorato’s (shepherds) and each day she would cook a meal and put it in a hole in a wall for us to collect – a very brave young lady.
Somehow, the local population had arrived at the conclusion that we were not escaped P.O.W.s at all, but were S.A.S. We not only had a radio transmitter, but a squad of commandos in the depths of the cave. Information about German activity began to filter through to us. Fame at last! We began to humour ourselves by parading our imaginary Commandoes and despatching them on missions based on information received! The joke, however, was on us, for smoke and explosions would occur from the Commandoes target. So, the myth that we were special agents was perpetuated! Of course, the Allies had their own agents and aerial photographs to help them attack these targets.
One again, we received a visit from a Partisan leader requesting our help in an uprising planned in Rome. He promised weapons, but there was no further contact with him.
Our farmer friends near the German occupied castle, knowing I hadn’t been well, invited us over for a midday meal at the farmhouse. I had a sense of impending disaster once more. James and Tim decided against going, but Pop was all for taking advantage of the invitation. Against my better judgement, I went along. My forebodings were present all the time as we walked towards the farm. We were almost at the main road on a dirt track when my heart sank to my boots. A German staff car, full of officers turned into the track and headed slowly towards us. I grasped Pop’s coat as I felt he was about to run, and we kept on walking as the car approached and then moved slowly past us. We both sighed with relief and then despair – the car had turned around and was heading back towards us once more. Our disguise had been penetrated! The car came up to us and then past and out onto the road. Once more the danger had come close and passed us by. Of course, we looked like rag bags of humanity, which could be of no interest to Nazi officers.
We crossed the tarmac road and entered the farm yard. We were expected, but they were disappointed that there were only two of us. The kitchen was up a stone staircase at the side of the building, above the milking shed. Our spirits had cheered up, at least we were there. We were sat down at a table that was especially set out as if we were honoured guests, a treat indeed. We were given brandy (we needed that) and then glasses of Spumante. Our host was explaining that we should eat all of the bird, and not just the meat, when there was a commotion. He opened every window and looked out; we later realised that he’d been thinking we could escape through the window before realising the drop would injure us. The reason for his panic was entering the kitchen. Two Germans!
[digital page 23]
The Germans had demanded to be fed, so they were sat down opposite us. Our host shrugged his shoulders, indicating that he had no other option and began serving the Germans. We were now on the verge of pantomime with enemies on either side of a table, attempting to converse in pigeon Italian. Pop gave me a dig. My khaki shirt sleeves were showing below the cuffs of my jacket! I somehow managed to get them out of view. Pop, relieved and sweating, pulled out a large khaki handkerchief to wipe his brow. Heart stopping moments! Of course, we needn’t have worried, the Germans were only interested in food, not Englishmen in disguise, and, after all, we were affiliated shepherds! That was our last visit to an Italian home. It was too dangerous for all of us.
[End of paragraph underlined by hand]
When we recounted or experiences to James and Tim they wore their ‘I told you so’ expressions, though they were interested in the opulent table setting.
[handwritten text] Out to Africa
[Keeping with the non-linear narrative of the text, as well as the use of key words to progress through his wartime experiences, the following passages move away from being on the run in Italy and back to Walter’s time travelling to Africa]
The first display of opulence was on the troop ship four days out of Liverpool. I had a bed in a locked doorway on the promenade deck. The deck was covered in to prevent any lights being visible to any U boats and the stormy weather. One night, the curtains were open and magnificent dining room was on display – white tablecloths, gleaming silver, cut glass, and officers in dress uniform. I felt like an urchin looking at Christmas goodies through a shop window! The curtains were closed.
Our journey to Egypt took the ship well out into the Atlantic and then back to Africa following the coast line to Cape Town. On shore, we were granted some leave and two of us were picked up by a gentleman and taken by train back to his home which overlooked the bay and overshadowed Table mountain. His wife had already prepared a meal. After a sherry, we were shown into the dining room. It was every bit as impressive as the officer’s dining room aboard ship. Our host realised we were out of our depth and whispered for us to follow his example when using the cutlery. The meal was excellent and our hosts were very kind.
The following day, we were adopted by a couple for the rest of our shore leave in Cape Town and given a grand tour of the area by them. There would be occasional parcels of sugared fruits that would arrive for me during my part in the desert war and throughout the war years as this couple kept in touch with my parents.
The troop ship continued on its journey around Africa, northwards towards Egypt. Only once more were the curtains to the dining room left open. I wondered if the occupants knew that there were aliens outside looking in and observing the rituals, then I thought that perhaps we were the norm outside, and they were the aliens inside! After all, there were more of us!
The sea voyage lasted six weeks before we docked at Port Said in Egypt and had our first glimpse of the Arab world, which was an entirely different culture to ours; sand, women in black, men in white, mosquitoes, scorpions, sweat, dysentery, and desert sores. Perhaps, the desert is the best place on earth where nations can do battle with each other without destroying civilian lives, homes and cities.
[digital page 24]
Long journeys were normal in the Desert War. Armies were either advancing or retreating. On one occasion, the retreat took five days and nights, with the battalion fighting a rear guard action in daylight to delay the enemy advance and inflict as many casualties as possible. Fighting by day and retreating under cover of darkness meant little to no sleep for anyone. I was driving ‘A’ company commander, leading the troop carriers in a convoy. It was not only dark, but there was also a permanent cloud of sand thrown up by the transport ahead. On night four, I fell asleep at the wheel and still continued driving, veering away from the tail of the convoy to the right. I woke up to find the convoy had disappeared. My companions were fast asleep and didn’t notice. A glance behind me and I saw that the troop lorries were following me! Luckily, brake lights flashed ahead as the convoy slowed up at the escarpment. Speeding up gently, I moved back on course. I was able to see the rear of the convoy dutifully following the ‘sleep’ amendment I had made!
One other particularly long trip occurred when the brigade was withdrawn from near Benghazi for re-training and leave in the Canal Zone. My pickup truck was handed over to an Indian Regiment and the M.T. Officer found a battered old truck, which he decided to take back to the Suez area. The engine had a piston problem and was making a loud noise, the front stub axle was bent, which made steering difficult, and, as there was oil in the brake drums, stopping was hazardous. With the tremendous heat from the sun, it wasn’t going to be a pleasant drive. Driving in the convoy was a problem when the engine seized, for half the transport when on, whilst those behind had to stop.
Our M.T. officer decided that we should be towed for the rest of the journey. The first problem occurred when my towing truck over took a slow moving wagon, forgetting he had me on town and forcing the other vehicle off the road. This resulted in a lot of threats being shouted and shaking of fists! Braking became more of a problem and I resorted to pulling off the road into the sand to stop. This worked quite well for many miles until the road passed over a bridge and the convoy stopped just as were crossing. My truck drifted into the back of the towing truck, much to the amusement of the troops aboard. The only damage was to the radiator – it had no support and was tied in place with rope.
Unfortunately, before we rectify the situation, our M.T. officer drove up and almost had a fit, he was so furious at my incompetence, and accused me of being asleep at the wheel. I endeavoured to explain the circumstances, but he wasn’t prepared to listen. I was placed under close arrest, pending a Court Martial. Apparently, he couldn’t enforce the arrest procedure as he would then have to abandon the truck. So, it was on past the Pyramids and then through the main streets of Cairo, until, thankfully, we arrived at our destination and my lorry was taken over by a recovery truck.
My trial was convened and I was asked to give evidence. I repeated my version of events. I was asked if anyone would confirm I hadn’t fallen asleep. ‘Yes,’ I told them, ‘The soldiers in the back of my truck.’ Even if I had fallen asleep, they would have backed my story! Our M.T. sergeant confirmed that the brakes on the truck were virtually non-existent. The Senior Motor Engineer from base workshop then gave an estimate of damage at ten shillings and stated that the truck had been unfit to be on the road, and that it was a miracle it had survived the journey! The M.T. officer was almost incoherent when asked to explain his reason for towing the truck. There were a few moments of conversation amongst the members on the bench. The decision was then announced – Not Guilty!
[digital page 25]
[Narrative returns to Walter’s experiences in Italy]
Our Italian cave was often illuminated during the night as Allied Air Forces increased their activity. Though, why our particular area should be considered important was hard to appreciate, as there was little sign of military hardware in the vicinity. Of course, with the stalemate at Cassino and Anzio, increased German activity was expected and we kept a watchful eye on any incidents.
Perhaps Tim and I were careless on way back from collecting our food container from ‘the hole in the wall’, for we met a German soldier face to face. He was asking for food and we directed him to a hamlet in the opposite direction to our cave. Once rid of his presence, we made a circuitous route back to base. We spotted him on several occasions afterwards and kept on Red Alert.
A German truck appeared on the track near our cave, stopping almost directly opposite, and soldiers were disgorged. We were about to disappear into one of our bolt holes, when we noted that they were changing a wheel. Panic over!
One evening, several figures were seen spreading out over the fields, and they appeared to be combing the area and heading in our direction. Again, a moment of ‘shall we run or wait and see’ before we decided to wait and the figures disappeared from view.
[End of paragraph underlined by hand]
[Handwritten text] Back to Egypt
[Narrative returns to events in Egypt]
I had only one puncture in the desert, not counting the spare wheel being dismembered by shrapnel in a Stuka dive bomb attack. The battalion was engaged in one of those tactical withdrawals. We were down to the last company, then the last platoon, and then there was only my pick up left for the Germans to fire at. ‘Let’s go,’ the company commander said, just before a rear tyre blew! He jumped out. ‘Catch up when you’ve fixed it,’ he told me as he managed to climb aboard the last personnel carrier. Formula One back up teams can change tyres in seconds. They could have learnt a lot from us, the time we took should have been in the Guinness Book of Records! [Guinness Book of Records, a reference book published annually, listing world records both of human achievements and the extremes of the natural world] Our Captain could hardly have settled in the truck cab before we drove past him with a smile and a nonchalant wave!
[End of paragraph underlined by hand]
[Narrative returns to events in Italy]
Back at the cave, one of the daughters from the farm near the castle turned up with some food and a request. They had a German deserter at the farm. This explained the stray soldier in the area. He wanted to surrender to the British and, as it was too dangerous for everyone if he stayed at the farm, would we take his surrender? As an incentive she added, ‘We will provide more food.’ A most peculiar situation; escaped prisoners of war accepting responsibility for a German deserter! After a long discussion, we agreed and James went over to our picnic valley, where he was hiding, to bring him back to the cave. Our German informed us that he was not a Nazi, but an Austrian, and Austrian’s hadn’t wanted to fight the Allies at all. He proved to be quite friendly and, as he had perhaps more to lose if he was recaptured, we allowed him to take his turn as a look-out! The Austrian was an accomplished whistler, so at least he provided some entertainment!
His stories of the navy’s shelling of the German lines at Anzio explained the distant rumbles of explosions. There were fainter sounds of battle and bombing from Cassino. Now, either artillery fire or bombing was visible on the lower slopes of a range of hills on the horizon. We suspected that the front line was drawing closer and we re-examined places of shelter in case we found ourselves in the middle of a battlefield.
[digital page 26]
[Handwritten text] Desert
[Narrative moves back to Walter’s experiences during the Desert War]
Another front line, light years away from our cave, and in the desert, our battalion was attacking the enemy some thirty five miles south of Tobruk. I was driving ‘A’ Company Commander and were shepherding troop transporters through the barrage of bursting shells and mortar fire. The order was given for the troops to disembark and the lorries withdrawn as the captain began to marshal the company in attacking order. He ordered me to stay put and I found a shallow shell hole to take cover from the stray bullets flying overhead and watched our tanks advance. Although we took some 250 prisoners, the advance bogged down on open ground some 400 yards from the enemy. At nightfall, there were German flares and tracers lighting up the sky around us. Panzers were counter attacking, one column passed within 600 yards of us. A corporal dived into my shelter with a letter from home (the mail must get through) and then he said he had to do a stock check on my truck! Red tape may have its place, but checking to see if I had a full complement of tools in the middle of a battle isn’t the place. Still, it wasn’t the place for my birthday party either, though there was a firework display of sorts. A celebration was forthcoming too, an officer had been despatched to the rear with a shoulder wound and his holdall had been searched – corned beef, pickles, peaches and beer. Happy Birthday, Walter!
[End of paragraph underlined by hand]
[Narrative returns to Italy]
The sounds of another battle was drawing close, only this time we were behind the German lines and, perhaps, we would be on the receiving end of the Allied fire power. Again, we discussed our options; the favourite was the storm drain between two valleys. Our Farmer friend squashed that idea. He was filling the tunnel with sheep, although we were welcome to join them. We didn’t relish the prospect of being flattened by frightened sheep, so we declined. There was the cave with rubble floor, but it might collapse with the vibration of shells landing close by. There was a hut, in the middle of a wood, but that could turn into an inferno or even a haven for German Panzers.
A representative for our local people had the same problem of where to shelter during the any upcoming battle. They wished to shelter the woman and children in the cave and, of course, we had to leave for it would be easy to predict the reaction of the Germans if they arrived and found British soldiers and a deserter amongst the families.
The next day, there was a tank battle below us in the valley and, although we were unable to discover the identity of it as they milling about and firing at each other, we were quite excited and decided to go up to the top of the hill above the cave to watch the battle more easily. Not for long though, as shells began to explode around and behind us. Our force experience should have taught us not to stand on the sky line and make a prime target for artillery observers.
It was time for us to say goodbye to our cave. We split up and slept in the open until dawn, when we decided to make our way in direction of the range of hills where we had first seen muzzle flashes of artillery. We took great care not to be observed, expecting every bush to hide a German soldier. As darkness descended, we found a dry ditch with a canopy of brambles and made ourselves comfortable until dawn. We could hear the sounds of military movements, tank tracks and engines, but had no idea what they entailed. There were no sounds of bombing, shells, or machine gun fire.
It was dawn and it was deathly quiet, not even an aircraft could be heard. Perhaps, it was the lull before the storm. Then we reached a line of tanks and we moved slowly towards them, knowing that snipers would already have us in their sights, waiting for a wrong move. Luck lead us on an angled path through the minefield amid the welcome sounds of American versions of our four letter words and we were on the right side of the front line!
[digital page 27]
The Americans accepted us at face value and made us welcome, providing us with food and coffee. My four year old tin mug, having travelled from Inverness to Cape Town, then through the early Desert War, and then to Italy, couldn’t stand the shock of being filled to the brim with hot coffee and the handle fell off! They asked how long we had been prisoners of war and behind the lines, remarking that they hadn’t even been in the army that long, seemingly unaware that Britain had been in the war before them. Another suggested we would be in line for medals and were amazed when we disillusioned him. A comment came, ‘We get a medal for hitting a practice target!’ Laughter followed as another chimed in, ‘and for farting twice!’
An officer appeared to ask questions about what enemy concentrations we had seen and appeared relieved when we said none. The Germans had pulled back North to another defensive line.
A jeep arrived to take us back down the line. A kindly American shook our hands and warned us that we had met the real Americans and the bastards at the rear would give us the wrong impression. Then the tank crews waved us away!
We arrived at the Brigade Headquarters and were given a tent to stay in. Our Austrian companion was taken away for questioning, but as he wasn’t considered to have any political leanings, he was whisked away to a prison camp despite his objections that he had surrendered to us and wanted to go to England.
James, now resuming his officer mantle, and came into the tent with an aerial photograph of our cave. The Americans had assumed that it was a German Bunker. We thought we were well hidden, but, every footpath showed up distinctly. They apologised for not being able to give us money or clothing as there was no procedure for such an event. A private American soldier heard of our plight and bought soap, razors, toothbrushes etc. for us out of his own pocket. The best thing he bought was a container of D.D.T. [Pesticide, commonly used by the military in WWII to control malaria, typhus, body lice and bubonic plague] which killed all insects if we sprinkled it around the walls of the tent. Killing the insects around us would be even better so we dusted our clothing, leaving our population dead.
Food was to be served and we joined a queue of soldiers waiting to be dished out by a line of white clad cooks. Plates, knives, forks and spoons were given out and then the food – meat and vegetables and sugar jam all heaped on one plate. The British Army Catering was mean by comparison!
It was time for another Jeep ride, this time we were in the hands of the Military Police. Our identification was suspect and there had been problems of Germans infiltrating Allied lines and committing acts of sabotage. Fifth Columnists were a very serious threat on both sides of the line, so we were back in prison once more! However, this was prison with a difference, one we knew we would get out of once our identity could be established. It was definitely prison with a difference as there was as much food as we could eat!
The road outside was jammed with army traffic heading for the front soldiers in single file on either side of the road and military hardware moving more quickly up the centre. Suddenly, there was as mighty shout from James; he’d spotted a pal of his riding in a jeep leading a column of artillery. His friend swerved into the courtyard and quickly satisfied the Military Police of his identity. His pals unit had been equipped with American guns, but could only get the ammunition for them if they were attached to the American Army. We were free once more!
[digital page 28]
There was another jeep ride to a transit camp where we were deloused and issued with new clothing, leaving us back in military uniform. A doctor examined us for any outward signs of disease. There were now just the three of us as James had departed. Other escapee P.O.W.s were also at the medical. I caught a glimpse of the two South Africans who had also made it through the lines. They kept away from us though, probably because they were feeling guilty about stealing two of our stolen sheep!
The three of us were interrogated by various ‘intelligence’ personnel. One informed me that it wouldn’t take long before they would return me to my battalion, who were in action on the Italian front. That information depressed me as I’d anticipated being sent home. I explained that the Camerons had all been captured at Tobruk. He assured me that the battalion had now been reformed and he knew I’d be pleased to join them once again. Intelligence people were not my favourite! I pursued the matter further and informed him that, as far as I knew, former P.O.W.s were forbidden under the Geneva Conventions to fight in the same war zone. He said he would check. We were then interviewed by a senior officer and questioned about the prison ship voyage (I produced a sketch of the prisoners in the hold). He decided it was important and asked if he could take it – it probably found its way into his own war memoirs! He asked for details of one P.O.W. that had been accused of collaborating with the Italians and passing on information about escape attempts.
Then it was back to our tent in the transit camp. The conditions for food had to be seen to be believed. The organisation was worse than in the prison cage, with soldiers queuing for hours to get a meal thrown into their dixie cans. A large crowd of soldiers had gathered in one section of the camp and we went over to investigate. The focal point of interest was two A.T.S. [Auxiliary Territorial Service] girls, the first we had seen. Women in uniform, times had changed.
James turned up at our tent, resplendent in his new uniform; he had been promoted to Major. He was now entitled to be called Sir and was no longer James! He was horrified when he saw the long column of men waiting their turn for food and exclaimed to his companion that ‘It just wasn’t good enough.’ I mentioned that I was to be returned back up to the front to my battalion and he shook his head, ‘I don’t think so. As far as I know, you’re all going back to England!’
Having an Officer friend proved an advantage, another Jeep arrived and we were off once more .This time we were in luck. A holiday camp! Tents with real beds and sheets, mosquito nets and a complement of fireflies to light up the dark! The arrangements for food were a dream; tables, chairs, table cloths and, best of all, a waitress! There were free trips to various places of interest and we went to the Naples Opera House. There was a private beach for us to use. The air was foul because of the volcanic activity and we didn’t risk going to Vesuvius. One soldier kept complaining about the sulphur smell. He moaned, ‘See Naples and Die! It should be Smell Naples and Die!’
James arrived with some devastating news, he had arranged for food to be sent to the families that had helped us in our escape. The family at the Vineyard ‘safe house’ had been in the sector taken by advancing the French Moroccan troops, who had gang raped their two daughters. Some reward for helping the Allies!
[digital page 29]
In Naples, we had to depend on freebies as we still hadn’t any money to spend. Most things for servicemen were free, such as the cinema. We watched a war propaganda film and there was a hush in the audience of soldiers as the Commandoes landed on the French coast. Then, as one Commando shot a German guard with a bow and arrow, there were gales of derisive laughter.
One of the pleasures of being back amongst our own people was that we were clean and free from insects. An often expressed dream of P.O.W.s was to wallow in a real bath and sit on a flush toilet. At one defensive situation in the desert we had the modern organic toilet – a box on a slit trench, shielded by sacking. It never needed to be changed – a colony of dung beetles was all the hygiene requirements!
[Handwritten text] Desert
The Benghazi cage had the largest latrine ever. It was reputed to seat two hundred, with two rows back to back. It was surrounded by milling soldiers in great need as many were suffering from dysentery. It was rather like musical chairs from hell, as there were billions of flies trying to enter every human orifice, so there was a constant flurry of hand waving to deter the insects. The flies also fed on the many open wounds of ‘desert sores’. In this case, they were tolerated as it was the opinion that the flies kept the wounds clean by taking out the infection.
[Handwritten text] P.O.W. Ship
The prison ship to transport us to Italy was another hell hole. We were battened down in a hold, without latrine facilities. When the ship reached the safety of the open sea, severe cases of dysentery were allowed to climb the ladders to the deck to be washed down with hoses. Eventually soldiers were allowed up the ladder. The latrine facility consisted of a long gutter made of planks, with a water hose at one end. The end of the gutter protruded over the side of the ship. One of the Camerons had a brilliant idea; he managed to get to the end of the gutter near the hose and lit a wad of paper which floated down the chute, the singeing of bare bottoms and cries of pain at last produced the only laughter of the voyage from those watching the antics caused by the passing flame. If they had found the comic who performed the dastardly deed, he would have had to swim to Italy!
In our first prison camp in Italy, latrines were large holes in the ground, covered by a lattice work of planks. When one hole was ‘filled’, another was dug. Unsuspecting prisoners wandering around in the dark would occasionally suffer a humiliating drop into a full, but not yet filled in with earth, pit! On one occasion, such a pit was used to throw in one of our own soldiers who was accused of selling escape secrets t o the Italians for an extra ration of bread.
Months later, a new prison camp was built next to the old one, complete with Italian style toilet blocks and showers. The latter depended on whether water was available. In the period behind the enemy lines, it was a similar routine as in the desert, where you wandered off with a spade; a do it yourself arrangement. On one occasion, in a wood, I was confronted by a large snake. It was as surprised as I was. Thankfully, it turned around after weighing up the scene. The wood was out of bounds for me after that!
At the ‘holiday’ camp we were given airmail letters so we could inform our parents that we were alive and well. The Vatican had already passed on information that we were in area of Rome and were not in German hands, but that was the only knowledge they had of us for approximately twelve months.
[digital page 30]
News came that we were to be returned to the U.K. and this was tempered by the fear of being torpedoed. We had heard unconfirmed reports that one of the prison ships, similar to the one we travelled in, had been torpedoed by one of our own submarines, and that there were very few survivors. Another report intimated that American planes had bombed and strafed one of the trains taking Allied prisoners to Germany at the time of our escape from captivity. Our departure from Naples would be different to arrival as prisoners at Bari. The population turned out to revile us, shouting insults, spitting, throwing stones, even emptying urine utensils from upstairs windows. Times had changed and we had a lot to thank the Italians for in helping us on our journey home.
Home! Would it be the long journey back around the Cape? No, the Med was considered safe and it would be the direct route by sea. Home had meant different places over the past four years. Your parent’s house, a bunk in a barracks, or a straw mattress in a ball room, a tent, a hammock aboard ship, a hole in the sand, the back of a truck, a prison cage, a prison ship, a cattle truck, a bunk in a prisoner of war camp, a pig sty, an empty house, a cave, a hut, and an American run prison cell. Quite an assortment of homes, so it was home meaning the U.K; a real house for a spell of leave, and then, presumably, back the Cameron barracks in Inverness.
My first journey to Inverness to join the Camerons was from Newcastle Central. A train full of young men going off to war. Everyone wish us well and assured us that the war would be over by Christmas. They didn’t say which Christmas. With tales of the 1914-18 war firmly fixed in my head, I had no illusions of what lay ahead for those mostly exuberant young men on the train heading north. At various points in the journey, men where disgorged to disperse to their various regiments. Scotland here we come!
[Handwritten text] On joining up
At Inverness, we were met by a sergeant, marshalled us into a semblance of order. He must have been as apprehensive as we were. The prospect of having to turn this bunch of suitcase carrying civilians, complete with cardboard boxes containing gas masks; a miserable task [handwritten text] to turn us into soldiers!
I spotted an acquaintance of mine in the crowd of rookies, he’d been my ‘bully’ at school, and he was the last person I wanted to go to war with! He saw me at the same time, smiled and waved. Relief, he was selected for another platoon and barrack hut. It was some weeks into our training when he made a bee line for me. ‘I’m not staying with this lot,’ He whispered, ‘You stand an even chance of being killed. I’ve volunteered for the Catering Corps!’ I wished him well and we never met again. There was only one other bully I met in the Army. He joined our overseas contingent at Liverpool docks, wearing the medal ribbons of the previous war. A hardman from the Glasgow Gorbals, he soon had everyone petrified of him. He had the stature to back up his threats and he took an instant dislike to me, the little Englishman who had no right to be in the Camerons. I was sitting on the deck when he came towards me and told me I was sitting in his place. I recalled advice from my father about how to deal with a bully, so I said, ‘Soon, we will be going into action, just remember that we are all the same size behind a rifle, just don’t get in front of me!’ There as flash in his eyes, a muttered threat about dropping me over the side of the ship, and then he turned on his heel and left. Later, a sergeant came up to me and said, ‘You’ve been accused of threatening to murder!’ Whatever happened next is unclear, but the hardman was said to have the rest of the voyage in the cells and did not join his contingent again.
[digital page 31]
[Handwritten text] On joining up in Inverness
Gradually, we began to look like soldiers, keeping up step and singing rude army songs on the march. We leant how to fold our blankets, polish our boots and clean rifles. There were cultural shocks to the system; a door bursting open a six in the morning and a piper playing the pipes at full blast, enough to frighten the Germans, besides making us jump out of the blankets! Then we became proud of being novice Highlanders and followed the pipes.
A young officer seemed to disapprove of me. I hadn’t the upper body strength of most of the other young men. After a day’s field training, it was case of collapsing on your bed. On one occasion, the sergeant asked if I would help him out, one of the men due for guard parade had been taken ill, would I take his place? I explained I wasn’t prepared for a ceremonial inspection, in fact I was scruffy. ’Not to worry, I’ll explain to the Officer of the Guard.’ It was the young officer and he seemed about to blow up when he came to me, despite the sergeant speaking to him. My muddy boots was the final straw and he shouted, ‘Put that man on a charge!’ No charge was brought however.
There was a twenty odd mile route march for the company and up the hills peering down at Loch Ness. I surprised myself, being the only man in the company able to walk down town that night.
Another occasion that made me a little more confident was the day when there was to be a cross country run to test the fitness of the recruits. There were probably a thousand men in the line up. I was knocked over and almost trampled on in the initial rush and then slowly I began to pass dozens of gasping soldiers and, in the final run in, catching up with the leaders, knowing I could have gone further.
I had spent some time on the 2.2 indoor rifle range before we were allowed to fire live ammunition. My only worry during this was that the firing party officer was the ‘Put that man on a charge!’ man. I took my time and four bulls had been signalled. I was lining up my last shot, when a voice hissed in my ear, ‘Well, at least you can shoot!’ I missed the target as a result!
There were many good comrades amongst the recruits. There were schoolboy antics, of course – sowing socks together, exchanging boots for another soldier’s ones, bed ends unbolted for late comers back to the barracks, the inevitable crash producing howls of laughter from the supposedly asleep inmates.
A good pal was Shippy, who wore his kilt with true abandon – he’d sown trouser buttons on it and added braces!
With basic training over, we were transferred to the Bran Carrier platoon. Except for one young man, we had all been civilian drivers. Driving a tracked vehicle was not an easy task for us and it was almost impossible for him. We spent of the driving time around Loch Ness and driving back through Inverness. Our learner was at the controls when he has to make a right turn in the town centre. Unfortunately, he locked the right track and kept on accelerating, so the carrier was spinning around with a great deal of noise, which gathered a crowd of amazed onlookers. Naturally, the rest of the Carrier crew were helpless with laughter! I had thought that being a Bren Carrier driver was an advantage as its casing offered protection. An old hand, who’d seen action at Dunkirk, soon disillusioned me. He pointed out that the Germans had bullets that went straight through the sides, and when the carrier was on a slope, the crew were exposed to enemy fire!
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When we first arrived in Egypt to play our part in the Desert War, we were informed that almost twenty five percent of the battalion had either been killed or wounded in the Eritrean campaign [East African Campaign, June 1940 – November 1943, Allied strategic victory which eventually saw the defeat of Italian Forces in East Africa], a gloomy start for the newcomers. We were given a period of physical training so that we would be acclimatised. Our Bren carrier training had been minimal due to the lack of carriers to train on, so whilst we could drive one, we hadn’t received any field training as such. I was allocated to an officer residing at the famous Shepherds Hotel in Cairo. We got on quite well and he asked if I would like to be his driver on his mission to recruit black battalions on the continent. It seemed an excellent opportunity and I agreed. His request for my services was turned down. Line soldiers were in short supply was the reason given, he would have to make do with a downgraded driver.
It was a long train journey to Sidi Barrani, only notable for the number of Arabs either clinging to the sides of the train or riding on top at each train stop. They would attempt to sell their wares to us – boiled egg and biscuit, or a slice of melon. As the train neared the war zone, the extra passengers disappeared.
We arrived at dusk to the accompaniment of an air-raid. Two hundred bewildered newcomers took shelter alongside the railway embankment to wait the arrival of trucks to take us onward to join the battalion. We were thankfully unaware that within days some of us would be killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
At dawn, we arrived at our destination and were segregated into sections according to our qualifications. Then we were closely inspected by the O.C. of the company. Shippy and I didn’t measure up to the specifications required and were discarded. We were not pleased, for we were better than some of the others at handling a Bren Carrier. Shippy was allocated to the Quarter Master, whilst I was destined for the Intelligence Officer. We didn’t realise it at the time, but the two of us were in luck. Ship was a good pal throughout the desert campaign. Whenever we were near to each other in the transport lines, he would come over to my pick up and haul a very reluctant me out of bed whenever an enemy plane came over during the night strafing the vehicles!
The battalion was in action almost immediately, without being given time to assimilate the newcomers into the fighting units. The new contingent suffered intensely in the blazing sun. The battalion advanced over open ground in the wake of the tanks, but all the tanks except one were knocked out. There was a brief enemy counter attack before the battalion advanced through a hail of enemy fire. A tank was sent to the rear to bring up water and it arrived back only minutes before we attacked once more. A Bren Carrier also delivered water. Then there was news that the thirty five enemy tanks had broken through and again the battalion was subjected to a hail of fire.
I had been sent back some twenty miles to collect more water. The road was clear ahead of me, with all the traffic heading to the front; long lines of trucks, guns and tanks, and shouts of ‘Turn around, you’re going the wrong way!’ didn’t deter me. Officers were depending upon my return. H.Q. was still operational when I returned and I was immediately told off for having my battledress unbuttoned! Then we joined the evacuation. The battle for Halfaya Pass had been lost!
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For the next four months, the 8th Army were preparing defences as well as planning their next offensive. In September, the Camerons moved into a forward situation, concentrating on aggressive patrols. In December, we had to move forty seven miles away to attack the enemy. We arrived on schedule and could even see the enemy moving about. I asked my Officer why we could not attack under cover of darkness instead of waiting until daylight. The answer was that we had to maintain radio silence, in case the enemy discover our intention of attacking, and we had to stick to the pre arranged time to commence hostilities. Since the noise of tanks moving about was almost ear splitting, the enemy would have to be blind and deaf not to know we were there!
At dawn, our artillery opened fire and we moved forward, shells and mortar fire exploding amongst troop carriers until it was time to move forward on foot across open ground in brilliant sunshine. The enemy were encased in deep slit trenches, dug in the form of swastikas, giving protection and security to the inmates except for a direct hit. Our troops were advancing over flat ground, suffering heavy casualties in the process.
In the afternoon, the battalion attacked again, but could only get within four hundred yards of the enemy front line. It was decided that we should withdraw as Panzers [Panzer IV, German medium battle tank] were seen approaching and dropped a few shells close enough for us to depart in a hurry. Sixteen officers had been killed or wounded. Thirty Six other ranks had been killed and many others wounded.
Although we had failed in our objective, we had captured some three hundred prisoners and fifty lorries.
Two days later, we were subjected to a Stuka Jive bomber attack. The planes were like an angry swarm of wasps; dropping bombs and firing their machine guns, quite spectacular! We were in an area of soft sand so, unless there was a direct hit, the effect of the bombs was negligible.
The enemy began to withdraw. The Tobruk garrison had broken out of its ring of defences and, because of the casual ties the battalion had suffered, we were left on the outskirts of the garrison to spend Christmas and New Year. Unfortunately, as we were not considered part of the garrison we were not allowed to draw supplies from their stores. A miserable time for the men of the 2nd Camerons.
January 1942 saw us on the move to Benghazi. Forces in Cyrenica were depleted as troops were transferred to counter the advent of Japan into the war. The battalion was now up to strength. We of the ‘brown knees’ could now jeer the newcomers with ‘Get your knees brown’ and tell lies about towns in the desert, that were actually heaps of rubble, being thriving centres of activity, ‘Girls, girls, and more girls, just waiting for you!’ The piles of rubble must have been a disappointment!
We were in a dry wadi [valley] and holes were dug into the slopes to provide shelter. One new officer refused all help in constructing his dugout and made a fine job of it, even making alcoves for his family photos. He chose the river bed for his dwelling. We always kept out of low lying areas, because in the soft sand, the trucks would become embedded at the slightest change in acceleration. It was not unknown to bed down for the night and find yourself in the middle of a lake in the morning. It was inevitable that there would be a rainstorm and the water gushed down the wadi during the night. Our new officer was nearly drowned in his bed.
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Water was an essential as petrol and I had acquired two jerry cans. They were far superior to anything we had for carrying extra supplies of both commodities. On one occasion, I noticed birds flying around a hole in a rock formation just outside our front line defences. I was told it was a well, probably constructed during the Roman Occupation or even before. I had to see for myself. The construction was square and built with chiselled stone and roofed over with great slabs of stone. Inside it was cool and full of clear water; the walls lined with moss, birds flitted in and out, ignoring me. The instruction was that the water was not to be drunk. No one said it couldn’t be used for washing so I filled my spare containers. My O.C. didn’t query where his extra washing water had appeared from!
My battle dress trousers had become grubby and I decided to clean them. First, I removed the oil stains with petrol and then made a fire. A petrol can, half full with sand and soaked in petrol, provided heating and cooking facilities in the desert. I was able to wash my stained trousers by placing another can on top filled with water. As I was doing this, a soldier came up to watch, his battledress was in a worse state than mine! He watched the fumes from my petrol soaked trousers beginning to flame above the water in the container before asking a daft question, ‘Are you cleaning your battle dress by putting them in petrol?’ I nodded. ‘Yeah I always boil petrol on a fire!’ The next thing I heard, he’d put his trousers in a half can of petrol and put it on a fire! Everybody but him thought it amusing. He promised to pulverise me. He was a boxing champ, so he was quite able too, but thankfully the opportunity never came his way to extract revenge!
At the end of the month, we began to move to Benghazi. However, when we reached Tecnis, the final move to Benghazi was cancelled and we had to return to Harana. The enemy were attacking once more! Defences were strengthened and mines were laid down. I was with a forward platoon, covering the road from a rocky outcrop when the battalion was strafed by an ME109 [Messerschmitt BF 109, German fighter aircraft]. Although I couldn’t see the plane as it skimming the ground, the sound of the engine and machine guns became louder. Then there was a blast of engine power as it came into view as it began to climb over the hill. There came a moment when time seemed to stand still, the pilot was a perfect target and I fired. I couldn’t miss, but the plane flew off!
After an engineer’s truck came through our lines, the enemy appeared. They were engaged immediately as they came into view. One of best company commanders was killed. After a short engagement the enemy withdrew – we had delayed the advance. Bridges were blown, the road mined and we retreated to another defence line. This time into a valley covered in foliage. Our officer was a true gentleman, he asked an Italian farmer for permission to take our transport through his gate!
The enemy attacked once more and the battalion inflicted severe casualties on them. We came under fire once more as the battalion retreated a further forty miles back. We were fighting by day and retreating under cover of darkness. Sleep was a luxury we couldn’t afford!
[digital page 35]
The battalion had to cross some very rough terrain in their final effort to reach the Gazala line. It took six hours to cover ten miles. The going was so rough the enemy tanks gave up! The continuous fighting had cost the battalion some fifty men. Battle patrols were commenced as soon as we were settled into the fortifications of the Gazala front. The enemy withdrew as soon as they were confronted by aggressive action.
For a short period we took over protection duties at the Gambut airfield. Then we had to go back to the Canal Zone for retraining and re-equipping. There were rumours that better tanks and anti tank guns of equal calibre of those used by the Germans were coming. Our tanks were faster than theirs, but they out gunned ours.
Our training was supposed to last three months, and included the loading of trucks and Bren Carriers onto ships, presumably in preparation for an invasion by sea. Field training continued. Parade ground skills are enjoyed by trained soldiers, but performing them on a parade ground of sand was not appreciated, so much so that it led to bad tempers all-round. Marching in the heat of the day was akin to madness as our Indian comrades did theirs in the early morning or late evening.
Tent inspection was most peculiar. Sand in and around each tent had to be levelled and the sand lined with brush marks. It was in the same category as white washing coal before barrack inspection back in the U.K.
If the intention was soldiers being incredibly fed up with the bull and red tape then they succeeded. There were miserable cries of ‘I’m sick of this, we would be better off in the front line!’ One soldier, in a demented state, ran into the canteen with his rifle threatening to shoot everyone. Trained solders are able to react quickly to emergencies. The canteen emptied in seconds through every window!
Weeks later and back in the forward zone, a sand storm was at its height. It was difficult to see, or even breathe, when we were called out of our shelters. Someone had decided that soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to simply do nothing because of a sandstorm. The area had to be tidied up of war debris and scrap metal put into heaps. As the metal collected just disappeared under the drifting sand, with the very real possibility of disturbing unseen unexploded shells or mines, the exercise had to rank high in the realms of stupidity.
The battalion was given leave in Cairo and kilts were drawn and issued from the stores. Our turn came to enjoy the sights and sounds of Cairo. Bill and I had been to the Zoo were offered a quick way back into town by a boatman willing to row us across the Nile. Half way across, a large motor launch drew alongside and shouted an invitation to join them aboard for a Nile cruise! We couldn’t refuse, so we climbed up a rope ladder to the deck from our rowing boat. The boatman shouted about his unpaid fare and a white suited gentleman threw him some money. We were treated like V.I.P.s, food and gin and tonic, and a running commentary on the wonders of the Nile, ‘This is where Moses was found in the bull rushes!’ All too soon we had to disembark and make our way into the town.
Having consumed our steak and chips with a quantity of beer, we boarded a horse drawn carriage. As the driver pulled away from the kerb he knocked over a donkey with cans of milk on its back. There was an immediate confrontation, shouting Arabs milling about. Bill and I decided to walk, only to be surrounded by a crowd of angry Arabs. We had no idea what they wanted until an Egyptian youth rescued us and advised that they wanted the fare. I explained that we actually hadn’t moved. He advised us to pay or be knifed! We paid and the crowd went back to the milk and the donkey!
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Of course, Bill and I had to visit the street of ill repute. We were entreated by Arab boys to go with them, ‘My sister, white virgin!’ Then there were houses containing numerous females and everyone a virgin. Bill and I had been too impressed by the lectures about the dangers of indulging in sex, so we were too scared of the consequences to indulge, resisting the temptations offered. Being naive, we both had the same thoughts, ‘At least the girls back home are not like this!’ Later in the war, as we went to London and Piccadilly, that illusion would be dispelled.
Training only half completed, we were urgently transferred back to the forward zone. I became ill with dysentery and was moved to Tobruk Hospital. The nights there were interludes of enemy bombing the dock area and the sky lit by flares, search lights and anti-aircraft shells exploding. A male nurse consoled us by explaining that the Germans would not bomb the hospital. I was sceptical as I knew the Germans shot up ambulances carrying wounded.
Then it was back to the battalion. Someone had stripped my pick up of my jerry cans and stretcher etc. Meantime, in my absence, my O.C. had been out with a patrol column and had been captured by the Germans, who had instructed him to take his column to the rear. However, he managed to lead the column back to the safety of our own lines.
Transport always had to be kept apart from the troops as they were targets for the air-gunners. Normally, I slept in the back of the truck on my stretcher, but as it had been appropriated by someone else, I resorted to using a small tent next to the truck. I had a small paraffin light for reading and my rifle was always loaded and ready for me to press the trigger. A noise alerted me and I laid the rifle across my lap and released the safety catch. A head appeared. Amongst all the men I met in the forces there was only two that I found to be obnoxious, and he was one of them. He appeared to be drunk. ‘I just came to say hello,’ he said. He was about to squirm his way into the tent, when he spotted the rifle pointing at his chest and grimaced. ‘Has it got one up the spout?’ ‘It always has!’ I replied. He seemed to sober up at this. ‘Is the safety catch off?’ he asked. With my finger on the trigger, I assured him that it was. Whatever his intentions had been I didn’t intend to find out. ‘Yes, it’s a fine rifle, but the trigger is a bit hairy, the slightest pressure and it fires,’ I said as I waved the muzzle at his chest. There was a pause. ‘Ah well, I just wanted to say goodnight!’ he said, and then he was gone!
Then we were ordered to take part in the defence of Tobruk as the enemy were advancing, and were very strong! Tobruk! Well, we had no worries, it was invincible. We went out battle patrols to harass the enemy and we had our old friends the Ghurkhas and the Mahrattas on either side of us. A South African General was appointed as Fortress Commander. There was a comment about the German Panzers as our anti tank shells would just bounce off the new tanks. We were told, ‘Just let them go over you, the South African big guns will destroy them.’
The battle commenced on May 27th!
On the 19th June, the direct attack on Tobruk began with a Stuka dive bombers and artillery fire, followed by specialist German troops trained in attacking desert fortifications. These were accompanied b Mark IV tanks. Our artillery was destroyed as the German attack broke through the Mahrattas who fought to the last bullet. The German task had been made considerably easier because our minefields were only effective where mines had been laid by us recently. The previous mines were either obsolete Egyptian mines, or had been removed to the Gazala line.
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The barrage began to centre on the Camerons H.Q. and the Ghurkhas. The brigade was cut off from the rest of the garrison and the Garrison Commander found his forces were running short of ammunition. There was no air support and the enemy had 150 tanks. He decided to capitulate to save life.
Our C.O. heard the new on the 21st June. There was a rumour that it had been broadcast by the B.B.C. The battalion carried on fighting. That evening, a German Officer approached, accompanied by two South Africans, which led to rumours that the South Africans had actively cooperated with the Germans. The ultimatum was that if we carried on resisting they would attack at dawn with their heavy tanks and we would be annihilated. We were given until then to destroy our equipment and be able to leave the area unchallenged.
An N.C.O. approached me and asked if I would drive a get-away-truck. I agreed and awaited further instructions. I thought it was a pity we had destroyed our own transport, especially mine, as I had enough supplies of petrol and water to take us a long way. Later, this escape to Alamien was cancelled, although others did attempt the long journey, and had some remarkable stories to tell as a result. Others ended up dying en route or were apprehended by the Germans.
Next morning, the battalion paraded on the road and marched proudly behind the Pipers and the Commanding Officer to Tobruk. A German soldier attempted to tear a wrist watch from a Cameron soldier and a German Officer immediately prevented the theft by slapping the offender across the face. Despite encountering heavy German traffic on the road, we maintained our discipline, forcing the enemy to take avoiding action. We reached the cage. The sound of the pipes caused some prisoners to think they were being rescued – the stuff films are made of. It was not to be, Officers, including the enemy, took the salute as we marched into the compound and tears could be seen on both Grey and Khaki clad Officers. Ceremony over, we dispersed. There was supposed to be an agreement that the regiment would be kept together and transferred to Germany. However, if it was so, that was cancelled, and rhe Camerons ended up being split up amongst the other prison inmates.
For some reason I began to think of another incident months before. I was advancing through several blazing enemy tanks, smoke drifting and explosions in the sand around us. Suddenly, there was an explosion at my feet and I ended up falling forward, face down in the sand. I was dead. Later, I apologised for falling over to the film crew who were taking live action shots. He assured me that it was O.K. and that the incident made the film authentic. I had been killed in action. There was no enemy within a hundred miles, we had lit fires in the abandoned tanks, and N.C.O.s had thrown plastic grenades of Italian origin that made a lot of noise and smoke, but these were harmless. I suppose it kept the people back home happy that they were seeing the real thing! Perhaps, I was hoping that the Tobruk nightmare was a dream and not a nightmare that would last years!
[Narrative returns to early events in Italy when Walter first became a POW]
We had arrived at a P.O.W. camp in Italy. We had been dispossessed of all our clothes and personal possessions and shown into a long tent. We showered and then met the stylist barber who had obviously tended lawns in his peace time activities. He sheared off all our hair! Out into the open, we recovered most of our gear. Anything that was considered dangerous was withheld. The officers were in a compound next door. There was a shout, ‘Thompson! The C.O. wants you!’ Fame at last. All he wanted was the blue hackle off my Balmoral. As long as he didn’t want my hat; it kept the sun off my head, mosquitoes off my face at night and it was the perfect cover to keep the flies off my meals!
[digital page 38]
[Handwritten text] Back to returning home
[Narrative switches back to the end of Walter’s time in Italy and his journey home to England, picking up from events last discussed on digital page 30]
At long last, we were able to board ship in Naples harbour, the ship was crammed with Italian soldiers who had volunteered to work in Britain. The journey home was uneventful and not unlike the journey out from Liverpool. We were still crowded, either sleeping on deck or, if anyone could muster the technique, a hammock, if one was available.
Then the Forth of Clyde loomed out of the mist, we were home, back in Scotland. The escapee prisoners were a mixed bag, none having been kitted out correctly. We were marched up hill from the docks and into barrack rooms. Mattresses had been laid out on the floor for us. James – ‘Sir’ – came to see If we were O.K. and informed us that we were to have a meal in a hall with a High Ranking Officer addressing the escapees. At the appointed time, we were gathered together by a sergeant and told we did not need our issue dixies etc. We then ambled up to the hall.
To our astonishment it was tables, chairs, white tablecloths and beer for all. We enjoyed the meal and the H.R.O gave a speech, congratulating us on our escapes, and telling us how proud he was to be able to speak to us, wishing us well in the future. This was followed by an Ensa variety show, a first for us in the free use of vulgar songs and expressions. We were delighted for breakfast, but our delusions were shattered as our comrades came running back for their mugs and dixies. The tables and chairs and waitresses had all gone. It was back to normal Army food!
Next day, there was the immediate future to organise. Telegrams were sent home, six weeks leave was granted, double rations were given (4oz of butter instead of 2 oz), and money was issued and signed for. We told those at home not to wait up for us as, due to the train times, it may be in the early hours that we arrived home!
More confusion later on as we were not going South on the scheduled train from Glasgow. The powers that be had decided we merited a special carriage and engine to ourselves. ‘Sir’ James continued to look after the three of us, right up until the last moment that we all said our goodbyes! We would never meet again! A letter here and there and then we were all lost in our own particular war!
The carriage was a cocoon, separated from the world outside by the blacked out windows. There was some forced humour from the occupants, but everyone relapsed into their own particular hells. I recalled my first return to Newcastle at the beginning of the war, it was embarkation leave. At that time, soldiers had to carry their rifle and ammunition with them. This was so we would be able to join the ensuring battle in the case that the German invasion of our shores commenced. Newcastle Central was a dismal place, with minimum lights and a cold wind sweeping the platforms. Outside, it wasn’t any better, with the blackout strictly imposed. I enquired about a train home. The last one had left. So, I went to the bus station; it was the same story, the last bus had gone. It was a six mile walk home, with all my kit to carry. Then there was a ray of hope – people were waiting at a bus stop and a bus was visible in the distance. I joined the queue. The bus wasn’t going the full distance, but it would help, so I climbed aboard. The conductress yelled at me, ‘You’re not allowed on this bus, it’s for workers only!’ Apparently, a soldier on embarkation leave wasn’t classed as a worker. Some welcome home to Newcastle! Workers only, indeed!
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Belching fire and smoke as the engine drew into Newcastle station – ‘We’re here!’ Hurried goodbyes to comrades going South and the contingent of ‘Geordie’ escapers were disgorged onto the platform. Passes were shown to a ticket inspector and then we were confronted by a crowd of shouting and screaming relatives as they recognised their long lost off-spring. There was a band playing, a civilian with a gold chain around his neck; speaking, but unheard above the commotion. It appeared we wouldn’t have to walk home as cars were being provided. My Father and elder brother were at the station, but were enquiring about the expected arrival of the scheduled train from Glasgow. They heard the noise, but assumed someone important had arrived and was being welcomed!
Four of us living in an easterly direction were allocated to one car. In the blackness of the night, the first one was delivered to his doorstep. There were several people waiting outside cheering. We were perturbed. The last thing we wanted was to be made a fuss of. The next man had a quieter welcome, a few figures appearing out of the shadows. A sigh of relief. ‘That’s better!’ My turn next.
Slowly, we went up the hill and then into the estate, following the curve of the road. There were no lights other than the cars subdued headlights. Then an expletive, the road ahead was blocked by crowds of people who began to shout and cheer as they surrounded the car. Managing to open the car door, the driver gave me my kitbag and, laughing, wished me luck. I needed it. I was being accosted by several strange females who were kissing me. Feeling strange that no one from my family should be there (they assumed my father and brother were with me) I made my way to our front door to be greeted by the female members of the family. They were all dressed in their best for this tremendous family occasion. I was overwhelmed. Altogether, I found it more stressful than facing the enemy! Next day, I found the street had been decorated with streamers and a collection had been organised for me. Newspaper reporters had arrived and made notes and, in general, got the story of my escape quite incorrect.
Being at home didn’t relax me at all. I was very uptight and found it difficult to stay still. A ‘date’ was arranged for me, which I went along with reluctantly. On the second ‘date’, she sent a telegram to say she couldn’t make it, but could the following day. End of female interlude. Of course, there was the girlfriend at Inverness, but her letters had been very sparse when I was a P.O.W. Apparently, she had explained to my parents that she wrote regularly to me, but her letters never arrived, and I assumed that it was a case of ‘Dear John!’ [‘Dear John’, a letter received by a man from his wife or romantic partner to inform him that their relationship is over. The phrase is commonly believed to have been coined by the Americans during WWII] Although, this was not as dramatic as another P.O.W. in our barracks, who was delighted to receive a letter from his wife telling him that he had become a father. His friend commented that he’d been overseas for two years, but that wasn’t going to dent the new father’s enthusiasm. ‘She says!’ he said, waving his letter in agitation. ‘The doctor’s confirmed that it was a delayed pregnancy!’ In the background, a dry voice muttered softly in response, ‘At least it’s not another virgin birth!’
Six weeks passed and I received my recall documentation. This was not to Inverness, as I expected, but to Edinburgh. My meeting with my girlfriend would have to wait. Edinburgh proved to be a vacuum, some interviews and tests, can you wire this electric plug correctly etc. It was mind bending stuff. Luckily, an escapee Cameron was also there, and having a friend with similar experiences was a help. A girl partner at a dance allowed me to take her home, but was fearful of her father. A kiss at the door was permitted, but I was told to be quiet or else he would come thundering down the stairs. The second kiss was more interesting; when the front door burst open and we fell into the hallway, I didn’t wait for the arrival of the irate parent with his shot gun!
[digital page 40]
A weekend of leave and then movement orders once more. Not to the Camerons, but to Leeds. Thankfully, Jock had the same movement order. We found Leeds to be less dire than Edinburgh, and there were certainly more girls about. The pubs were different too, with most having live music. Quite often, beer would be sent over for us. Perhaps, the African Star Medal Ribbon [British military Campaign medal, awarded to all ranks who served in an operational area of North Africa between 10 June 1940 and 12 May 1943] and a sun tan helped to foster the returning hero façade! An A.T.S. [Auxiliary Territorial Service] girl, with blue eyes and blonde hair, and a dream figure, began to be friendly. Later, I would go back to Leeds to meet her on weekend leave to find she herself was AWOL [Absent without leave]. Her friend explained that she was not dependable and that I should take her advice in forgetting her. I did. Movement orders were published once more. This time, Jock was going back to Inverness and I was off to London to join the R.E.M.E. [Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers]. Jock protested as he wanted to go with me. The answer was a firm no! Presumably, he hadn’t wired his electric plug correctly!
So, it was a crash course at a technical college. The headmaster seemed to give me preferential treatment and I was chosen to be ‘Head Boy’. There were various billets, normally private house for those who had volunteered to have soldiers as lodgers. I found the doodle-bugs [V-1 Flying Bomb, an early cruise missile. Commonly referred to by the Allies as a doodle-bug] rather traumatic when the engine stopped and you had to wait for the buzz bomb to explode. At least with the Stuka bombs you could fire back! The V-2’s were in a different class – they couldn’t be seen or heard, they just exploded! The Londoners seemed to be indifferent to this after being exposed for so long to enemy action. Explosions nearby were met casually. ‘It’s landed on Woolworths in the High Street. There is nothing you can do, just get on with your work.’
Courses were crammed in – Fords of Dagenham, the Morris works, London Transport (I was instructed to test drive a double decker bus, and after less than half a mile, I was told I had passed). Soon, we were stripping down army vehicles, even reaching the civilian targets for changing an engine. Qualified for D.M. the Class 111 V.M. followed by the Class 11 qualification.
At the Morris works, the foreman was quite a character. He had an obsession about sweets. He was convinced that we had access to as much chocolate and sweets as we could carry. We did oblige (it paid to keep in with the foreman!). On one occasion, the Naafi [Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes, British government run recreational establishments for British Armed Forces] canteen had obtained an issue of the first available spearmint laxatives. Our foreman spotted one of the trainees with some and, of course, made a nuisance of himself until the soldier parted with the laxatives in despair. ‘These are not chewing gum, they’re laxatives!’ the Foreman was told, but he didn’t believe a word and proceeded to consume the lot! The repair workshop was set out in long lines and word soon spread around. All the employees were waiting for the inevitable. To give him his due, he controlled himself admirably until, with a grimace on his face, he set off at a run down the aisles, accompanied by thunderous cheers from the mechanics! The story went that he reached toilet block and found every door closed, resulting in him kicking one open and dragging the ‘smoker’ off the seat so that he could sit down. He never asked for sweets again and no one dared offer him chewing gum!
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London, the smoke, and sometimes the fog, was so thick that traffic stopped. You had to find your way ‘home’ by fumbling along walls and wandering blindly over intersections, apologising to other lost souls that you encountered. London was the home of numerous service men’s clubs and was where top entertainers gave free shows. This was London of the uniforms, where civilians were in the minority. There were uniforms of many nations, the only unrepresented nation perhaps being the Nazis! There were many girls on offer too, not regimented and controlled as in Cairo, but lining the streets, available to men with money to spare. My comrade and I were walking along Piccadilly when we were joined by a very pretty girl. My friend remarked, ‘It must be our birthday!’ The girl smiled brightly in response and said, ‘The three of us are going to have a wonderful night!’ Then she noticed our uniforms and quickly released our arms. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘I thought you were Canadians. I know you can’t afford me, Sorry!’ Smiling sweetly, she departed to look for better heeled Americans. Our ‘home’ at that time was a hotel, recently occupied by Americans. It was central, bare of furniture, but clean. Our room overlooked the roof of the entrance hall and it was carpeted, inches deep, in condoms. The war ended and we were lucky to join in the celebrations in Trafalgar Square and at the Palace.
A weekend leave and I met a girl who was staying at my brothers for the weekend. Later, when the bus arrived to take me back to Newcastle to catch my train back to London, I saw a girl with a vacant seat next to her. With an eye for a pretty face, I sat next to her. I asked if she would meet me on my next leave. She shook her head. Soldiers were apparently not on her list of suitable companions! I accompanied her to her train, still trying to persuade her, when at last she agreed. A fateful decision for she became my wife!
Perhaps my friendship with the Head of the Technical College helped, for I was posted to York and Newcastle to finalise my training and obtain my Class One certificate. At York, I was asked if I would stay. If I agreed, I would be given an immediate promotion. However, I decided that obtaining my final was more important, and there was also the magnetic lure of a young lady; she won!
My Mother received a later from two soldiers serving in Italy. The letter contained a photograph of me, with my home address on the back. I had given it to Giovani so that we could keep in touch. It transpired that he had shown it to the soldiers and they incorrectly assumed that I had been killed in action, and that he had taken the photo from my body! I had to reply explaining that Giovani had been a good comrade who had assisted us in escaping the Nazis, as well as being involved in sabotage with us. A problem of communication. I only hoped that the two soldiers hadn’t used force to obtain the photo.
I passed my Heavy Goods Test, driving a Mobile Crane around Gateshead. A mobile generator abandoned in a field had to be recovered, stripped down and finally made to work. I was then given the task of Works Progress Officer, presumably as part of the course. The future beyond the army began to come into focus – plastics. A course at King College and I was accepted as a student. At least there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Someone, somewhere, though he’s looking to comfortable up at Newcastle, let’s have him back to R.E.M.E. depot. So, South it was once more. It was embarkation leave and off to the Far East. Japan here we come!
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An overseas posting, meant our marriage plans had to be postponed until I returned home. My parents were incensed about my being sent back over seas and, without my knowledge, contacted our Member of Parliament. Our MP had already been involved with the War Office to establish that I had been with the Partisans in the Rome area.
At the depot, I was once again being used to march men about. Presumably, the Africa Star and the Mentioned in Despatches ‘Oak-leaf’ made me senior. Eventually, we were paraded on the dockside ready to board ship early dawn. Most of the contingent had not been abroad before and I spent some time warning them to keep alert all the time they would spend in a foreign land. ‘Keep your eyes open, or your dead!’ I warned.
Then, I heard my name being shouted. ‘Thompson! Craftsman Thompson, 5750! Thompson!’ The instruction was to report to the guard room. An officer was from London to see me. There had been several interviews with officers from London with soldiers who had been involved with sabotage in Italy, so I assumed that would be the content of the interview. What a time to pick, with the troops already going aboard ship.
The Officer was quite pleasant. He was wearing the same medal ribbon that I had. He appeared to have my documents to hand. He asked about my health and wondered if the lack of hygiene in the Far East would be detrimental. I smiled, ‘It can’t be any worse than the desert or the P.O.W. camp!’ He explained that the R.E.M.E. was very short of experienced soldiers and they needed people of my experience to help the others. I agreed with him, most of them would need mothering for the first few months, at least until they could ‘get their knees brown!’ He was amused at the reference to the desert army. ‘Do you want to go to the Far East?’ He asked. ‘I shall do whatever I have to do!’ He pondered for awhile. ‘I think I’ll downgrade you. How would you like to be stationed in Newcastle and be absolved from all guard duties and parades?’ As an afterthought, he added, ‘And you can have every weekend off!’ I queried, ‘But, what about the overseas posting?’ He smiled. ‘I have cancelled it!’ Newcastle and a Dream in a Dress, here I come!
Not quite though. The Army doesn’t work like that. It was Otley in Yorkshire first, where I had to ask the Commanding Officer for permission to marry. Granted! The other problem was that I had to obtain a dress uniform as well as food for the occasion. Pleas for help only provoked a shake of the head. ‘We can’t help,’ I was told, ‘On the other hand, if you were to come into the kitchen at exactly 20.00 hours and you were to find items on the table, we would not expect to find them there after 20.00 hours.’ There was no one in the kitchen to see me collect tins of food for the wedding. The same procedure applied at each mess kitchen!
Marriage and back to my job of Works Progress Officer. I could not rejoin the plastics course, unfortunately. Then, there was an announcement that the unions would not allow army dilutees into the business of mechanics as they hadn’t served their apprenticeship. I never did sit my final exam, for the war ended and it was back to York to hand in my army it and resume my life as a civilian! That is another story!
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[Handwritten text] The ‘Safe House’, Thompson.
The ‘owner’ of the vineyard lived in Zagarolo and was imprisoned for aiding British P.O.W.’s.
An excerpt from Walter Thompson, good story
[In the following extract, James, the Senior British officer who Thompson meets up with, is referred to as John for reasons unknown]
[Typed text] Dinner with the Enemy
The scene was Italy during World War Two. The Allies were held up at Anzio and Cassino. In a cave, above twenty miles from [handwritten text] South of Fara Sabina, were four British escaped prisoners of war. A series of coincides had brought them together from ‘safe’ houses, pig styes, huts and ditches. The cave became ‘home’
Food was an ever present problem, so when a friendly farmer invited the four of us to a Fiesta at his farmhouse, we accepted with glee. However, John and Terry had doubts, as a castle near to the farm was occupied by German officers. They decided not to go.
Pip and I set off at the appointed time, dressed in all our civilian clothes that had been provided by the local people. My army trousers had been dyed black, and looked very smart. Unfortunately, the trousers had also dyed my legs black and, as we had no soap, they had to stay that colour. The main road came into view and we began to feel elated. That was when we saw a large open topped staff car, full of German officers, turn off the road and onto the cart track. We suppressed the desire to run and kept our eyes downcast as the car drove past us. Our hearts started beating again. Then, a few minutes later, the sound of the car engine became louder; the officers were coming back! Our disguise had been penetrated! Again, we managed to stop our legs from running off on their own accord as the car, ever so slowly, drove past us again. When we reached the tarmac road, we were pleased that it was free of traffic and we hurriedly crossed to the other side before making our way to the farmhouse.
Our host was waiting for us and showed us to their living quarters. Access was by an outside staircase as the living quarters were on top of a huge barn. His family were delighted to see us and made us very welcome, giving us glasses of sparkling wine. The table was already set with sparkling china and silver ware, and we sat down somewhat embarrassed by the conversation, most of which we didn’t comprehend. We both wished that John had been with us as he spoke fluent Italian. The first course arrived, served by the farmer, and it was obviously a special treat. It was song birds! The farmer was amused at our hesitation and explained how we should eat them. Suddenly, there was a noise of motor bike engines and he rushed out onto the balcony. We heard the words ‘Tedesco, Germans!’ The family quietly left the room. We stood up as the farmer came back into the room, opening windows and looking out, deciding that there was no escape for us. He then gestured for us to sit down and eat. Two German despatch riders were ushered into the room and were sat down opposite us.
Their knowledge of Italian was roughly the same as ours so their attempts to converse were poor, which was just as well. Our farmer brought in the main course of vegetables and pasta envelopes containing mince and tomato. We had great difficulty in eating, whereas the Germans were shovelling the food down their throats. Pip gave me a nudge and looked at my hands. My army shirt cuffs were showing under the sleeves of my jacket! I hastily manoeuvred my arms so that the shirt cuffs disappeared from view. Relieved, Pip drew a large Khaki handkerchief from his pocket and began to wipe the perspiration from his brow.
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An incident that would be a source of laughter on many occasions over the next few weeks. The two Germans stood up and began to fill their pockets with fruit and nuts from a bowl on the table, before saying thank you and goodbye in Italian. They left and the noise of the motorbike engines departing was sweet music. The fiesta was a disaster and the farmer made up a basket of food for us to take back to our cave. Our story of our eventful meal was met by a shrug of the shoulders and “We told you not to go!”
Our farmer called to see us again at the cave and invited all of us to a picnic in a very secluded valley the following Sunday. We agreed, and this time we all went to the outdoor fiesta. When we arrived, the food was already spread out on tablecloths. They had even brought a record player! Wine, food, music and pretty girls, what more could we want. There was the forbidding figure of the Matriarch, dressed in black and sitting on a chair. The girls were allowed to flirt, but, any response from us was met by a chilling look from the Lady in Black! Filled with good food and wine, we were careless on the way back to our cave and came face to face with a German soldier. He asked us for food and we gave him some of ours and left him to make a tortuous way back to our hiding place.
Next day, our farmer turned up once more. It transpired that our German was a deserter from the battle at Anzio and wanted to surrender to the British. Would we accept responsibility for him? A promise of extra food swayed the balance and we had a German soldier for company, so we were still eating with the enemy! Several weeks later, after a tank battle in the valley below and a few shells exploding around us, there was silence. There were no sounds of battle, or even animals. We decided to walk south. We spent one night in a ditch and the next day we were confronted by a line of nose down tanks and infantry with guns trained on us. A stentorian voice bellowed at us, his arms waving, ‘You’re in the middle of a fucking minefield!’ They were Americans, who welcomed us and appropriated our protesting German who wanted to come to England. We were sent south to Naples and then home.
[Photograph of Walter Thompson in Cameron Highlander Army uniform]
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29 – As a P.O.W. arrived at Bari
30 – Out to Egypt and outside Bassoni?, then up to Tobruk end of 41. Fighting retreat then to base –‘base nonsense’ ‘delights’ of base
36 – Surrender of Tobruk
37 – Return Home
39 – To R.E.M.E. in London 42’
40 – W.T.’s mother receives a letter home from two soldiers serving in Italy with a photo of W.T. and his address on the back, given to them by an Italian. They assumed he had been killed. Goes on with technical training at York and later he meets a girl in Newcastle. Then posted to London to go overseas [Japan]. Ready aboard ship when officer comes down from London (his parents had contacted his local M.P.)
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1 Dalla guerra in Africa all’armistizio italiano
1.1 La guerra in Africa
The day for me, began just after light on 6 June 1942 near Gazala, in the Western desert. […] Early that morning we engaged a column of German tanks, at first with some success, but now […] was over, and we sat around awaiting the inevitable. […] Then […] the harsh cry of ‘Raus’, a German armoured car skidded to a halt near our trench. Standing in the car, pistol in hand, we saw a typical Africa Corps officer. My life as a prisoner of war had begun. (Belwitt, B., A year Behind German Allies, dattiloscritto inedito, London, Monte San Martino Trust, 1997, p.1) Con queste parole comincia il racconto inedito del soldato Bill Blewitt, uno delle migliaia di soldati alleati che furono catturati nelle battaglie della Guerra in Nord Africa della seconda guerra mondiale. Nel suo memoriale, uno dei piu precisi ed accurati tra I tanti scritti da ex prigionieri di guerra, Blewitt descrive la sua vita di prigionieronei campi di intemamento in Africa, poi in Italia ed, infine, le sue avventure dopol’armistizio e l’esperienza dell ‘incredibile aiuto dato a lui e agli altri ex prigionieridi guerra (PG) alleati dalla popolazione italiana.
La maggioranza dei prigionieri di guerra intemati in Italia fu catturata nelle grandi battaglie nel deserto africano trail 1941 e il 1942 dagli Africa Korps delgenerale Rommel, ma consegnati agli italiani poiche, in Africa, i tedeschi eranosubordinati al maresciallo Bastico, il comandante in capo italiano, e all’altocomando di Roma. Le battaglie tra le forze dell’ as se italo-tedesche e l’ottava armata britannica furono caratterizzate da continui capovolgimenti di fronte ed il risultato un groviglio di catture, fughe, nuovi imprigionamenti e liberazioni. I feriti dei due schieramenti, ricoverati negli ospedali da campo durante queste battaglie, seguivano passivamente la sorte degli avvenimenti e al personale medico dei due paesi belligeranti, considerato personale protetto e neutrale, capita spesso di curarei feriti di schieramento opposto, o altresi di lavorare fianco a fianco con i colleghi nemici come testimonia il signor Keith Killby, il fondatore del Monte San Martino Trust e adesso segretario onorario: being in the operating tent three of us stayed there, and were inspected by a German officer […] The next day, the Field Ambulance received a variety of visitors -South African, British and German, including more wounded […] All day our medical team of officers and men worked with two German officer medics at three trestles in the operating tent. Nell’avanzata di Rommel verso l’Egitto, gli alleati subirono varie sconfitte tra le quali si puo accennare alla battaglia del 28 novembre 1941, quando il quartiere
1. Blewitt, B, A Year Behind German Allies, dattiloscritto inedito, London, Monte San Martino Trust, 1991, p.1
2. Killby, J.K., ‘A Storch landed… Rommel walked past’ Journal of the Eighth Army Veterans Association, vol. no. 12, December, 1996, p.2
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September 1941 – Near Halfayas Pass, Egypt.
Driver. Told by officer when stopped to drive on as no mines. Truck blown up – driven back to HQ by ambulance. Officer – where’s wounded and refuses W.T.
June 42 – At the El Adem Road, with large spider and asp in dugout. Slept in open. Captured in Tobruk. Gets through minefield North of Cassino with three other POWs and a German.
Escaped from Italy POW camp when being moved by Germans to railway station. [One sentence illegible]
Meets another POW coming down from Switzerland attempt, then found by Italian and both fed.
Lives in cave with others as officers and an ‘Indian’ is asked to be taken in by them. Turned out to be a British officer who says ‘no ranks’ behind the lines. He turns out to be fluent in Italian.
Obviously hidden near Rome as the owner of a vineyard calls into Rome and is interviewed by a priest. Comes back with money, books and toilet articles.
On one expedition, they capture a sheep which give birth on the way back to the cave.
One [Prisoner of War] goes into a village for a good meal and is captured.
An armed Russian appears followed by a truck load of Russians.
18 – Twice encounters Germans
22 – Agreed to look after German deserter – Austrian
23 – Battle gets near and locals [one word illegible] hide from [one word illegible] cave. Goes towards battle, sleeps in open, then in the morning, with American miners.
24 – James – now returned to his officer rank got [two word illegible] of cave. Well fed by Yanks. Then Walter almost attached to British Army but James intervenes.
In Naples –
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1.4 Arrival in Italy
Once in Italy, POWs were taken to transit camps for [strike through text] bureaucratic (enrolment) and [strike through text] sanitary controls [strike through text] (disinfestations), later transferred to permanent camps. There were some specific transit camps [strike through text] for soldiers captured during war operations, for instance there was Poggio Mirteo’s camp (28km north of Rome, only for R.A.F. pilots), but almost all POWs ended [handwritten text] in Campo Prigionieri di Guerra (PG) number 66, nearby Capua; Tuturano’s CPG 85, south of Brindisi; or Bari’s camp, PG 75, where POWs were put in quarantine. In every camp, the Italian commanding officer appointed a SBO [strike through text] or NCBO who acted as a mediator between the Italian commandant and POWs, and was responsible to maintain discipline and organise POWs life in the camp.
Permanent camps were distributed all over Italy and in 1942, [handwritten text’ after the fall of Tobruk, they increased considerably as there was a big and unexpected POWs’ influx; therefore, besides all the camps built especially for POWs, a variety of buildings and other constructions were used such as farms, hotels, big country houses, castles and [handwritten text] former monasteries.
A list drawn up by the War Office in August 1943 reported there were 50 prison camps, four working camps and 18 hospitals, but actually there were many more. Roger Absalom, the historian, who more than other, has investigated on POWs in Italy, asserts there were approximately 72 camps, between principal and working ones, and 12 hospitals, but he also states that is impossible to establish the exact number, as since 1942, owing to the compulsory work for privates, many new working camps