P.S.Thursfield was sent to India as an artillery officer and then transferred to Western Desert and captured near Tobruk. He was flown from Benghazi to Capua Campo 66 and then Campo 17 at Rezzonella, and then on to Fontanellato. He escaped with Andrew Jamieson and they walked down Appenines to north of L’Quila. He was recaptured whilst passing through the German lines and then sent to Oflag 9AZ Rotenberg. At the end of the war he was marched into Herz Mountains where the German guards abandoned them.
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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‘The Wasted, Years’ 1939-46
P.S. Thursfield. Cambridge undergraduate who volunteered at the declaration of war and was sent to India in the R.A. Then to Western Desert and captured near Knighstbridge. Strafed by S.A. Air Force. Flown from Benghazi to Capua Campo b6 and then 1i at Rezzonella then Fontanellato. Escapes with Andrew Jamieson and walk down to north of L’Quila. Later meet David Buchanan and David Moyle and 4 lived in shepherd huts in the mountains going down to a village for supplies. The 2 Davids go off and get through lines. Jamieson and Thursfield set off to find guides near Sulmona. Take off with large number but Germans capture them. In Oflag 9AZ Rotenberg and then at end marched into Herz Mountains. Flown back to Upper Heyford. Account written up many years after the war.
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THE WASTED YEARS 1939-46
Wartime Activities of PS Thursfield
Born 31st August 1919
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When I returned to the UK in June 1945 after an absence of over five years my Godfather, Uncle Horace, suggested that I ought to write about my experiences. I, however, did nothing about it until fairly recently when my family put pressure on me to put something on paper so that my successors knew a little about my wartime activities – such as they were.
When I look back there are many aspects of my Father’s and Grandfather’s lives about which I know nothing. So this is an attempt to fill in five years of my life. This will not be a novel but solely a recording of certain events that took place during those years.
At the outbreak of war in September 1939 I had completed my first year as an undergraduate at University College, Oxford. I read law and had passed my first public examination. During term when I was not working I played a lot of sport. At rugby I represented the O.U. Greyhounds and at hockey the O.U. Occasionals. I suppose the highlight in that first year was being in the University College Rugby XV which won the ‘Cuppers’. I played right wing three quarters.
In that September I, like many other undergraduates, had to decide whether to return to the university and await call up or to volunteer for service in the armed forces. I decided to volunteer and when I went before a selection board I said that I wished to follow my Father into the Royal Navy. I was told that the RN was not recruiting so I expressed a wish to go into the Royal Artillery.
In October I was sent to an Officers Cadet Training Unit in Catterick, North Yorkshire and found that many of the officer recruits were people I had known at the University. Apart from gunnery, lectures, gun drill, map reading, we did a fair amount of ‘square bashing’. Off duty I suppose our favourite haunt was the pub in Richmond. At weekends I played rugby. We had a fairly strong team which included at least one international. Apart from the odd regimental game in Iraq, these were the last games of rugby I was to play. It was while at Catterick that I received a letter from the President of the Oxfordshire Rugby Football club, Colonel Tandy, informing me that I had been awarded my county cap.
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Towards the end of the course we were asked to say whether we wished to be posted to Europe, Africa or India. I nominated Africa but, true to custom, I was destined for India.
In February 1940 I got my embarkation orders and proceeded to Woolwich Arsenal. From there our draft went by train across France to Marseilles where we embarked on the troopship ‘Lancashire’. This was the last voyage of this ship through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal because shortly after Italy entered the war on Germany’s side. At Port Said we had the usual offers of ‘nice girls’ and ‘filthy pictures’ etc. From Port Said we sailed to Aden where I attended my first open air cinema. From Aden we went to Port Sudan and thence to Bombay. It was whilst on this voyage that I met for the first time, David Buchanan, whom I was to meet on many occasions in later years and who was to become Nigel’s godfather. In Bombay I recall staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel before setting out by train to Peshawar on the North West Frontier where I was to join the 24 Mountain Regiment R.A. This Regiment had British and some Indian officers with Sikh and Punjabi gunners. The objective of the Regiment was to be able to operate in mountainous country, so the guns were capable of being dismantled and carried in various sections together with their ammunition on mules – the gunners marching beside the mules and the officers either on foot or horseback. Although I had ridden before the war, my standard was clearly not high enough, so I had to go to school where a great part of my training entailed riding bare back and in shorts. Until the hairs of my legs had been rubbed off it was a very uncomfortable experience. I was initially based in Peshawar with the Punjabi battery.
In due course it was the battery’s turn together with some infantry regiments to relieve part of the garrison at Landi Kotal which is at the top of the Khyber Pass. The Pass went through mountainous country. Landi Kotal which overlooked the plains of Afganistan was a day’s march from the entrance to The Pass and as it was in tribal territory precautions had to be taken to ensure that the column was not ambushed by the Pathans who did not recognise either the British or Indian governments. These precautions consisted of gunnery observation posts being set up so that gunfire could, if necessary, be brought to bear on any threatening Pathans. The observation posts were protected by infantry. A leap frogging manoeuvre was carried out all the way to Landi Kotal.
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While I was part of the garrison the Frontier was quiet but we were not allowed to go outside the perimeter unless accompanied.
After we had done our spell of duty, we returned to Peshawar taking the same precautions as on the way up. My battery also spent a tour of duty in Nowshera which was two days march from Peshawar.
Life with the 24th Mountain Regiment was pretty leisurely. We were encouraged to hunt and play polo as a means of improving our riding. In off duty hours we played a great deal of inter section/ inter battery hockey.
While with the 24th several of us clubbed together and bought an old car. We had a lot of fun with it and used it to go on holiday to Gulmarg in Kashmir. In 1940 there was no road to Nedous Hotel. You had to leave your car at the bottom of the hill and proceed by mule or on horseback. Your luggage was carried in the same way. From Gulmarg we went to Srinagar for a weekend on a house boat.
In early 1941 my battery commander and I were posted to Deolali to form a Madras field regiment. I was not there very long before I was posted to Basra (Iraq) in the Persian Gulf from where I joined 157 Field Regiment which at the time was camped at Lake Habbaniyah about an hour’s drive from Baghdad. Before the outbreak of war, the Lake was used as a staging post for the flying boat service from the UK to the Far East and Australia. There was an R.A.F. station by the Lake and we were invited to use the Officers’ Mess and their games facilities. It was when camped at the Lakeside that I experienced my first sand storm – not very pleasant.
In the late summer of 1941 we formed part of Paiforce which invaded Persia. We entered Persia via the Pytak Pass which was due east of Baghdad and which could have proved to be a very formidable obstacle if the Persians had had the will to fight. The objects of the invasion were twofold. First, to provide a means of getting war supplies from the Persian Gulf to Russia and second, to prevent the Germans getting the Persian oilfields should they overrun Russia. After this incident was over we returned to Lake Habbaniyah where we spent the
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winter of 1941. It was during this winter that I became aware of how cold it could get in the desert.
In May 1942 the Regiment was ordered to North Africa but before setting out I was one of a number of officers who went to Mosul in North Iraq to have some observation practice. After this we set out for North Africa. The only way to proceed was across the desert by means of compass and the stars. There was no tarmac road as there is today. One of our stops was near Haifa in Palestine. It was quite an eye opener to see the farmers working in the fields at night using artificial light. After a day or two’s rest, we went into Egypt, passed through Cairo at night and camped at Mena House which is near the Spinx and the pyramids. In those days there was open country between Cairo and Mena House. No longer is that the case. We were now part of an Indian division and were ordered into the Western Desert to form part of the defensive system known as Knightsbridge. This system was west of Tobruk and was a series of self-contained boxes. I was at the time, survey officer for the Regiment. As such my unit was kept in reserve as the Regiment was acting in an anti-tank role. Unfortunately, instead of advancing and striking the Germans the roles were reversed as the Germans got in the first blow. The result was that they surrounded and picked off each box in turn. We were given orders to withdraw, but did not get very far because our truck stopped suddenly. We had either hit a mine or the engine had been hit by an anti-tank shell. Eventually, after the firing had died down we were rounded up by the Germans who handed us over to the Italians. It was while we were being marched to the lorries to take us to Benghazi that we were staffed by the South African Air force. From Benghazi we were flown to Naples and then taken to Campo 66 – a transit camp at Capua, north of Naples. It was a depressing place – very uncomfortable with bedbugs everywhere. The food was poor but fortunately it was supplemented by Red Cross parcels. It was made the more depressing because we did not know how long we would be deprived of our freedom. There seemed to be no end in sight – the Germans were nearly in Cairo, France had capitulated, the Germans were advancing in Russia, Japan which had joined the Axis had taken Malaya and Singapore and were advancing in Burma.
From Capua we were transferred in cattle trucks to Campo 17 at Rezzonella which was an old castle in the hills to the north of Piacenza. It had been a nunnery. Life was very similar. Roll call twice daily – food rather better, letters from home and the occasional walk, heavily
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guarded. One of the features of this camp and the next one – Fontanellato – was the number of courses that one could attend – there seemed to be experts on all subjects. I attended Italian and book keeping classes.
We had access to Italian papers but every item of war news had to be taken with a pinch of salt. However, by the time we got to Campo 49 at Fontanellato, it was apparent that the Axis was no longer having things all their own way.
Quite suddenly in early 1943 we were transferred to Campo 49. This was an ex-convent set in the middle of the village on the plain of Lombardy – the nearest town being Parma. One side of the building backed onto the road passing through the village, so we saw life in the outside world. The other side looked over a playing field to which we had access. The guards in their towers were inclined to be trigger happy – this was particularly so when towards the end of the war, they were taunted. I recall one occasion when their response was a shot into one of the rooms. Life in the camp was pretty routine – roll calls twice daily with the usual tricks of trying to mislead the inspecting officer, classes in any subject you chose, parcels and letters from home, Italian wine in fairly liberal quantities – we had to pay for this and bridge day and night. A certain sum out of our Army pay was credited to the camp bank and we could draw on this. I worked in the Bank during busy periods.
As time progressed the news that one could glean from the papers and the clandestine radio became more and more favourable to the Allies. To meet any eventuality we were formed into units – being a gunner I was in the same unit as Andrew Jamieson who had also been in 157 Field Regiment.
When the Italians signed the Armistice on 9th September 1943 Andrew and I left the camp together. We had been prisoners for over a year and had, therefore, to adjust quickly to the outside world. At the time the country was in turmoil – there were rumours of Allied landings at Naples, Spezia and Livorno and of the Germans coming to take charge of the camp – the Italian guards having disappeared on the signing of the Armistice. Added to the turmoil, we did not know what would be the reaction of the population if they were confronted by ex-prisoners of war.
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With all these imponderables we had to decide whether to aim for Switzerland which was approximately 100 miles away or go south in the hope and, indeed, the expectation of meeting the Allies who were advancing from Salerno.
Our knowledge of Italian was adequate to make ourselves understood and we were clothed as civilians, my parents having sent me some corduroy trousers via the Red Cross. I did not look like an Italian with my fair hair and skin and blue eyes. Andrew on the other hand looked much more the part with his dark hair. We did, of course, run the risk of being regarded as partisans if we were caught and the only things we had to help us out of trouble were our identity discs. It is difficult after all these years to remember what we brought out of the camp. Certainly not very much as we needed to be mobile.
As the Allies were at the time advancing up the east and west coasts of Italy, we decided to go south. The only map that we had was one which corresponds to a page torn out of a world atlas. We had no compass – only the sun to guide us.
We decided to avoid roads as these were used by the Germans and, also, to keep out of villages as these were likely to have police who were very Fascist and very supportive of the Germans in spite of the Armistice. By and large we found that the police were hated and distrusted as much as the Germans. We, therefore, agreed that in our walk south we would keep as much as possible and as high as possible to the mountains.
For the first few days, because of the flatness and lack of cover on the Plain of Lombardy we walked by night and hid up in the daytime. Fortunately, the foothills of the Apennines were silhouetted by the full moon and so we could see the rough direction in which we wanted to travel. Also, there was no need for us to approach any farms or houses as we had been able to bring some food out of the camp.
As soon as we were away from the many farms on the lower slopes, we changed our routine and walked by day and hoped to find somewhere under cover to rest at night.
Little did we realise when we set out how difficult walking in the Apennines would be. Such is the topography of Italy that the Apennines form the backbone of the country with the valleys and ridges running down to the east and west coasts. As we were trying to keep as
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high as possible by using tracks and the cover of woods we were constantly walking up and down the ridges. Consequently, our progress as the crow flew was slow. We usually tried to do about eight hours walking a day and if we were lucky we might have covered as the crow flew 5-8 miles, probably walking in all about twice to three times this distance. Whenever we came to a road we tried to make sure that there was cover on both sides in order to reduce the risk of being seen.
At about 3-4pm we usually started looking for somewhere to spend the night – preferably an isolated farm or house. We found the peasants very friendly and willing to share their dinner with us. Invariably, we slept in a barn, haystack or cowshed, but as we were so tired, we really didn’t care where we slept. The food we were given varied from region to region. I think the most uninteresting was Polenta – a dish made from Indian corn. Because of the need to make progress and because we did not wish to be a burden on our hosts, we only stayed for one night. There was also a further reason – the Germans were offering financial reward for information leading to the capture of prisoners, so to avoid the possibility of our presence becoming general knowledge, we moved on. On quite a number of occasions we were told that the Germans had been in the valleys looking for prisoners and Italian deserters.
There was an occasion on our way south when for some reason we had strayed from our high route and found ourselves on the slopes above Florence. As luck would have it the house we approached was owned by some English people. Our luck really was in because we had an excellent meal and slept between sheets – a thing that would not be repeated for nearly two years.
By the first week in October we had been walking for approximately four weeks and had only covered something like 150 miles as the crow flew. To make matters worse, we were disheartened because the Allies were not, as we had hoped, advancing up either side of the Apennines and were south of Rome and the River Sangro where we feared they would stay until the spring. As we had at least another 200 miles to cover through this difficult terrain and as winter was fast approaching and snow would be falling at the height at which we were walking, we decided to press on as far south as we could and, hopefully, stay somewhere in the winter months from which in the spring we could make our effort to reach the Allies. So for another four weeks we continued our routine of keeping to the high ground, looking for
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somewhere in the late afternoon to sleep and feed and then press on the next day. All along our route we heard tales of Germans searching villages, sometimes with success.
In early November 1943 we reached a small village called Colli Princioni perched in the foothills of the Gran Sasso and about 12 miles north of L’Aquila. The Gran Sasso was where Mussolini was imprisoned following the Armistice in September. He was later rescued by German paratroopers. Although the countryside round Colli Princioni was grazing land with very few trees we thought that the village was remote enough in which to spend the winter. We had been walking for eight weeks having covered, because of the terrain, something in the region of 600 miles. We felt that we needed a rest. There were some farm buildings on the approach to the village which we thought would be ideal in case of an emergency. We were extremely fortunate in that Maria, the farmer’s wife agreed to take us in. I think she realised the danger to which she was exposing herself.
Basically, our idea was to stop in the area and wait for the Allies who were south of the River Sangro to start advancing. We did not relish the idea of trying to cross a static line.
About the middle of November we were surprisingly joined by David Buchanan and David Moyle. They had been walking independently of us and had heard that there were some British officers in the village. David Buchanan had been in the same camps at Capua, Rezzonella and Fontanellato but did not leave when Andrew and I walked out because he was in HQ Company which left the camp later. They decided to throw in their lot with us. To start with we all lived in the house but subsequently moved to the cowshed. It was while we were in the latter that we had our first scare. We had hurriedly to leave the village as the Germans were seen to be approaching. We took to the hills but were able to return fairly soon as it was only a search of the village. As a result of this we decided that it was too risky to remain in the village so having been given plenty of blankets by the villagers, we all went to live in the mountains either in a cave or a shepherd’s hut. These huts were high up in the mountains and were lived in by the shepherds during the summer months while their flocks were grazing. It was from the cave or hut no matter what the weather – rain, snow, frost etc that we used to go down to the village every four days for a hot meal, returning to our hideout with enough food for the next four days. How we survived I don’t know, but we did. The one break in this routine was Christmas Day when we went to the village and were treated to an excellent meal.
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L’Aquila is in a valley with steep mountain ranges to the south and the Gran Sasso, where we were, to the north. Often when we were sitting in our cave we looked across the valley to the southern range and said that if only we could get over that range we would be in Allied hands. To make the attempt would have been impossible because of the depth of the snow.
We all got a bored with this existence, – moving from cave to hut and vice versa, walking up and down the mountain in all weathers. We felt that we could not continue indefinitely. We often discussed what we should do, because clearly we could not travel as a party of four. Eventually, David Buchanan and David Moyle decided to go off on their own and head down towards Rome. They left us in early February. Andrew and I decided that we would in due course try walking east in the direction of Sulmona. We had heard vague rumours that there were Italian guides who would take us through the German lines and would receive payment for each POW they took through to the Allied lines.
We decided to defer setting off until the weather got warmer but in the middle of February the decision was really taken out of our hands because one morning we looked out of the hut and saw to our horror, a line of troops walking up the mountain. We decided that rather than be caught in the hut we would scramble as quickly as we could further up the mountain. After we had been going for some time we saw a large building in which the shepherds sheltered their flocks. Fortunately, it was unlocked. We went inside and to our relief we saw that a whole lot of branches of trees were stacked at one end We made a hide out of these and awaited our fate. The Germans soon came to search the building. We heard them talking to each other and heard them say “Nichts” “Nichts” to each other. We were just hoping that one of us would not cough and give our position away. Eventually, they left the building and continued their sweep up the mountain. We gave them plenty of time to get out of sight and then returned down hill to our hut.
This incident changed our plans. We thought there must be someone in the village whom we could not trust, so towards the end of February or early March, 1944, we said our farewells to Maria and family and set off eastwards, more in hope than anything else that we would find a guide.
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After a few days walk we were entering a village at dusk. We were stopped by an Italian who told us that there was a curfew. He, however, directed us to a house. We knocked and were let in and taken upstairs. To our amazement we found that Germans were billeted in the house. We could hear them talking and singing downstairs and when I woke up in the night I could hear one snoring in the room next to ours. We lay low in this house while arrangements were made for us to meet our guide. One night while we were waiting, our Italian hosts suggested that we should eat and drink with the Germans. Presumably they thought that they and we would be safer if we looked as if we were part of the Italian family. Clearly, the Germans did not recognise whom they had in their midst as we all parted good friends.
We duly met our guide and were surprised to see so many women in the party which, apart from ourselves, was all Italian. We were walking in single file in the dark and after we had been walking for about an hour the frightening word “Alt” boomed out. We had walked into an outpost. The guide tried to persuade the sentry to allow us to proceed – but without luck. We were held until daybreak and then escorted back. Andrew and I then had to decide on our next course of action. Clearly, the guide would not be taking another party until he had found a safe route. We were in an area thick with German troops and, therefore, we would have extreme difficulty in finding anywhere to lay up. The alternative to going back to the Gran Sasso was to go north along the east coast and either find a boat or if rumours were correct an assembly point where POWs were taken off by submarine. We decided on this latter course which was to be our undoing. We were walking through a village – a thing which we had previously said we would never do when two policemen rushed up to us and took us to the police station. In the interrogation, we maintained that we were Italians returning to our homes in the north and although our Italian was quite good, it was not good enough. We next found ourselves in gaol in L’Aquila where we stayed for a few days before being handed over to the Germans who took us to a transit camp up north. A very basic camp – bunks and palliasses. It was in this camp that I took part in the digging of a tunnel – not a very pleasant occupation – one which you only undertake in desperation. The difficulty, apart from the fear of the tunnel collapsing, was in disposing of the soil. The compound was very small and the ground baked white, so any disposal into the compound would have attracted the attention of the sentries in their watch towers. The alternative which we had to do was to fill our palliasses with it – very uncomfortable and cold. However, before we could complete the tunnel we were put in cattle trucks and taken up to Germany, where we both ended up in Oflag 9A/Z at Rotenberg near Kassel. This was in April 1944.
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Since we left Fontenellato in September 1943, our families had heard nothing about us until late in June 1944 they were told by the War Office that we had been recaptured.
It was hateful being behind barbed wire once again, but since we had been captured in 1942, the balance of power had shifted. In 1942 the Allies had been driven back to El Alemain, the Russians were retreating and the Japanese were carrying all before them in the Pacific. Now the Germans had been driven out of North Africa and Sicily, the Allies were advancing up Italy, the Germans retreating in Russia and the Japanese were being driven out of their conquests in the Far East. Added to this was the possibility of a second front in Europe. So our spirits were buoyed at the prospect that our captivity might be nearing its end.
Prison routine took the normal form. Roll calls twice daily, voluntary classes, bridge morning and evening and a form of cricket in the exercise area. Quite frequently at night the perimeter lights went out – this was a signal that a bombing raid was in progress. Sometimes we heard the bombing, at others we just heard the planes passing over.
As the months went on the prison guards got more and more jittery as the Allied advance gathered momentum. Rumours spread as to what was going to happen to us. Were the Germans going to disappear and leave us to the advancing Allies? The answer was “No”. In April 1945 we were marched out of the camp and headed in the direction of the Harz Mountains where we were, so rumour had it, to be used as hostages. Fortunately, the Allies advanced so quickly that this was immaterial. After a few days marching, during which we were strafed on one occasion by US aeroplanes, we spent the night in a farmyard at Eisleben near Halle and the next morning (13th April), we found that all the German guards had disappeared. About 10am a tank unit of the US 1st Army entered the village and so our captivity was at an end. We were taken to Brussels from where we were flown back to the UK – Upper Heyford and from there we joined our families.
Although the war in Europe was to last a few more weeks that in the Far East was far from over, so after several weeks leave during which I met Erica, I was posted to Catterick for a refresher course. The prospect of being sent out to the Far East loomed large, but fortunately this disappeared with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan.
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During the summer of 1945, my parents attended the ceremony in the Sheldonian in Oxford at which a received my MA Degree. This was awarded on the basis of my war service and the fact that I had passed my first public examination.
On 29th January 1946 Erica and I were married in Christchurch, Cheltenham. Our married life started by renting two rooms in the village of Tilshead on Salisbury Plain. The only water tap was on the village green and the ‘loo’ was up the garden path. We spent a few weeks here before moving to Devizes. In May I was demobilised and took up employment with what was then called “The Shipping Federation”.
P S Thursfield