F.A. Willans was a Signalman in the 50th Northumbrian Division. He briefly covers his experiences early in the war (Dunkirk), deployment in the Middle East from June 1941 and capture on 29 June 1942 before recounting his time as a PoW in Campo 82 at Laterina near Arezzo and at a work camp at Rufina, near Florence.
He escaped at the Armistice in September 1943 and, with an unnamed bombardier and a Sgt Pearson in the Green Howards, walked south to the Sulmona area. As part of a group led by an Italian guide, Willans and Sgt Pearson make it through the lines in November 1943 and Willans makes it home in time for Christmas.
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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F.A. Willans (resumé)
Captured retreat to Alamein
Brindisi & Campo 82.
To Rufina nr Florence to work.
Finally through the lines south of Sulmona.
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F.A. Willans. 50th Div, Dunkirk, Somerset. ‘Almanzora’ from Liverpool. Port Tewfik. 150 Brig went straight into action. Cyprus, Baghdad, Gazala Line. Captured on way back to Alamein. Sent to Brindisi and Campo 82, then to Rufina west [east] of Florence to work. (Mixes up overthrow of Mussolini and Armistice). 3 get out of camp. Sgt falls down crevice so travel by day. See others captured. When at end of tether dried and fed though Italian wife petrified. They skirt round tanks. Get near Sulmona and hear of Patriot was guiding PoWs through Lines. (See Fox’s book [‘Spaghetti & Barbed Wire’, 1988]) Leave with party of 20 or 3O. Get through and stop a surprised Army truck. Brindisi, Naples, from Algiers home in November – a fast walk. Thanks Red Cross.
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F.A. Willans, Co. Durham
I joined the 50th Northumbrian Divisional Signals in late 1937 and we were HQ Company based at the Drill-Hall, Larchfield Street, Darlington. My service number was 2574498 and rank of “Signalman”. We were the well-known Territorial Division with the TT sign. Our recruiting area covered the distance between Tyne and Humber, and I attended one camp before World War 2 started, which was at Alnwick, Northumberland. Our company was mobilised in July or August just before war was declared. We were soon transported to a village called Blandford, I believe, where we wintered and trained before embarking for France.
It was a cold winter causing delays and breakdowns until the warmer weather made conditions much better. When the enemy made his advance we were ordered forward near the Belgian border, I believe.
I was eventually detailed with my van and a companion to an artillery unit.
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That evening we moved out in a small convoy of four vehicles. We eventually arrived near a farmhouse that seemed to be under fire and an enemy balloon not too far away taking note of their fire.
We drove into the farmyard at the rear and scattered. I pulled up near a slit trench at the rear of the yard and was ordered out of my vehicle and into the ditch in very basic English language. We had just got down into the trench when a salvo of shells hit the farm. All our vehicles were destroyed as were the guns sited in front of the farm. We were ordered to evacuate taking what we could carry of our belongings and so began the trek to Dunkirk.
It was late evening when we reached the beaches and patiently awaited our call to the boats. It was either the 2nd or 3rd of June when I and others of the 5th Division made our way along the damaged pier and onto a boat, after a nasty night on the beaches.
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Our boat docked at Ramsgate where we were fed and washed and entrained for Shrewsbury. The reception from the general public was fantastic, which did much to ease our worried minds. We didn’t stay long at Shrewsbury and were routed by train to Inverurie, south [north-west] of Aberdeen. After a few days I was redirected from 5th Div to 50th Div who were now based near Bridgewater in Somerset.
We began training again and after a winter leave we settled down to routine duties. We took part in some very hard training and duties before we eventually set off by train to Liverpool. Some masochist routed our train through Darlington and the train paused for a few minutes straddling the main road before proceeding north. We boarded the ship ‘Almanzora’ and set sail. We hadn’t been on our way very long when our escort ships were ordered away in search of the ‘Bismarck’, and our convoy scattered.
Our escort ships rejoined us after a few days and the convoy re-grouped.
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We arrived a Port Tewfik about 13 June and our 150 Brigade went straight in the desert.
I eventually arrived in Cyprus after a hair-raising trip on a destroyer that had many shell holes in her superstructure.
These were pleasant months in warm sunshine and warm seas with occasional training schemes to keep us alert.
In November we found ourselves heading around Baghdad and north to Kirkuk. It was the coldest winter of my life and we were all pleased to head south to the western desert early in 1942.
Our unit took part in an operation to draw the enemy attention, which would relieve pressure on a convoy heading for Malta.
We settled down again in the Gazala line and waited to see who would be ready to attack first. Well, Rommel was ready first and the fighting began. We were bedded down with forward HQ, our vehicles dug in and camouflaged. We were in the centre of a narrow valley
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and were surprised to see the number of shells that had missed their target, some skidding and bouncing along the hard ground. Sadly, we learned of the loss of Bir-Hakeim and the fate of our 150 Brigade. We were then told to prepare for a risky breakthrough straight through the Italian lines. Our instructions were to follow the truck in front of us, and when clear of the Italians we were to swing to the left in a wide circle and to head for Maddalena at the Egyptian border.
Well, we made it after a few scares and we eventually reached safety. A few days later we were heading along the coast road heading for Mersa Matruh when we came to a sudden halt. Enemy fire was straddling the road and we were ordered to form up in groups of four or five vehicles and at a given signal we were to drive off the road and into the open desert. We were told to keep going until we were through and to scatter, awaiting regrouping.
We got through ok and joined the many vehicles scattered around us. It was soon dark so we settled down for the night. It was 28th June.
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Dawn broke and we were awakened by the noise of approaching vehicles. To our dismay they were enemy vehicles and we were prisoners of war.
My two friends and I were first put in the care of a German machine-gun crew and then taken to a collection area for prisoners. We found several other prisoners and boarded a very small boat that crept along the coast to Benghazi. We were delighted to see Benghazi under an air-raid before we sailed for Brindisi, I believe. Some days later we were left at Camp 82 near Laterina, I believe it was called, and PoW life began.
The dull routine began and boredom set in. A concert-party was formed and a band, and soon we were enjoying numerous shows. Someone in the band composed a tango that stayed in my mind for many years. On Xmas Day our RSM, superbly dressed in fresh-laundered khaki shirt and shorts led us out on identity parade. He was superbly turned out and he received a terrific reception from the ranks. Red Cross parcels began to arrive and the bartering began. Occasionally the delousing
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machine would arrive and taking each of our seven huts in turn we were stripped and our clothes deloused.
Xmas came and went and the weather turned a little warmer and working parties began to leave. Eventually I was selected for one of these parties and about twenty of us headed north to a place I believe was called Rufino [Rufina], just a few miles south of Florence we were told.
This was the beginning of the best phase of my life as a PoW. We were not burdened with stodgy food and we still had the odd Red Cross food parcels coming in. These Red Cross food parcels were more than just food parcels; they were a direct link with home that kept our spirits high. We worked with pick and long-handled shovels working our way up a hillside of rock and rubble and scrubland. We heaped the soil behind us, removing all rubble and stones and bracken.
The sun and exercise was to put me in the best physical shape I had ever been in, which was to be to my advantage in the weeks ahead. We marched out of our
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barn every morning into the town and across the river to the farm, where we did our work. Our guards were reasonable fellows and gave us no trouble.
The owner of the estate that we were guests of wanted to learn the mouth-organ that one of our chaps possessed so we encouraged him to have a go. I don’t think he was much good.
Two of our group were guardsmen, some infantrymen, signals like myself and gunners. One of these gunners was a very quiet, fair-haired slender young man who never had much to say, but his friend told me that on the day they were caught he had knocked at least seven tanks out before being overrun.
The days went by and we were anxious of any news of our forces’ efforts. Then came the 3rd September, the first overthrowing of Mussolini. We were all delighted when we heard the news whilst we were working at the farm. Our guards and the Italian people were as pleased as were. The farmer produced many
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bottles of wine and we were soon inebriated. I asked for a drink of water, so they tied a rope around my waist and lowered me down the well. Much later that evening we arrived back at our billets. Our billet was a barn on a hillside, containing several double-bunks and a rough table. It was surrounded by a tall wire fence and a deep ditch. We were all excited as we were locked in for the night.
The following day we stayed in the billet awaiting developments. Many of us thought that British troops would soon press forward and that we would soon be released.
A few like myself were not so sure and a bombardier and a sergeant in the Green Howards and I began to discuss plans for an escape.
Sergeant Pearson and I carefully took a good look at the ditch and wire and took note of the comings and goings of the sentry. Usually there was just one sentry on guard after 10.30 pm and he kept vanishing. The following day we were told that very soon we would be taken away by Germans
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and the three of us decided we would break out that night. We discreetly got our belongings together and packed what little food we had stored. We didn’t have a lot, just a few tins of meat or fruit and some cheese and the odd loaf of bread.
About 10.30 the light were put out and we got ready. It would be about 11.30 when our guard ambled away and I dropped into the ditch. We had removed two small bricks near the base of the rear wall and I was quickly through. The barbed wire didn’t give us much trouble and we cut and hacked it loose.
We held our breath as we scramble through the ditch and made a dash for the nearby trees. We were out and on our way. I was wearing a khaki shirt and trousers and my battle-dress tunic and my army boots, and my companions were dressed much the same.
Our plan was to walk at night and stay low during the day. We hoped to live off the land when we could and hoped to find apple trees and vineyards, with turnips and potatoes as a last line.
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The first two nights passed without any problems and we were well away from our camp. On the third or fourth night we came suddenly to the edge of a wood and very nearly walked over the edge of a cliff.
The following day we had to stop after passing a farmhouse as I had lost my pay-book and wallet. The other two waited while I backtracked past the farmhouse and I eventually found my wallet and pay-book. I rushed back to my friends and we pressed on. Sergeant Pearson was leading, I followed, with our bombardier friend at the rear. The sergeant scaled some rocky slopes ahead and then vanished with a yell of fear.
I carefully scrambled up the rock-face and could hear the sergeant’s voice but I couldn’t see him. He had fallen into a narrow but deep crevice in the rocks and couldn’t move or help himself. I told him to relax while the bombardier and I went back to the farmhouse we had passed. We looked around for some rope
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or anything that might help us. We almost gave up when we spotted the single-piece ladder laid along the gable end of the farm. We both grabbed it and quickly ran back to our friend.
Standing the ladder on its end, we carefully lowered it into the crevice until our sergeant told us to stop. We stuck a strong branch of a tree through the rung of the ladder and spanning the crevice. Carefully our sergeant friend climbed his way out, and we legged it away as fast as possible.
This incident, along with one or two more, and knowing that our sergeant friend could have badly hurt himself, made us decide to travel by day instead of at night.
We began that day and keeping to high ground and woodlands and traversing along any valley that we came upon, we made good progress.
We came to a small village high in the hills and isolated; it was cold and foggy and the main building in the village was like a village pub. Our bombardier, who could talk the language, wandered in and soon they made us welcome.
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They fed us and wined us and they even had a knees-up-mother-brown for us. They were lovely people and they bedded us down in a hay barn.
The next day, we exchanged our clothing for civilian gear and were warned to be on our guard of the Carabinieri who were anxious to catch us for a reward. We stocked up with bread and cheese and we were on our way again.
The advice served us well a few days later when we were heading down the side of a valley on our way to a farm building. We noticed another group of persons moving down the other side of the valley and watched as they entered the farmyard. Suddenly they were surrounded by gun-toting Carabinieri and were hustled towards a large motor vehicle.
It was a narrow escape for us and we were determined to exercise more care in the future. We had stayed overnight at a village, always in an isolated barn or dwelling or even a haystack and were often fed by the villagers who would bring us bread and cheese and fruit. They were becoming more and more afraid as the
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days went by and the last time we were helped was the last straw for me.
We had made bad progress that day having had to skirt around open land and rocky areas and when the storm broke we were all soaked to the skin. The wind and rain were extremely cold and we were almost out of food. One of us had a gashed hand that needed attention and we decided to head for the first light we saw. We scrambled down a steep slope as it was turning dark and stopped near an end-terrace house.
We were debating our next move when an Italian voice challenged us. It was the owner of the house standing by a rear door, and when we told him who we were he let us into his house.
All three of us were soaking wet, hungry, bleeding and scratched. We stripped off our clothes and he gave us towels to dry ourselves and dried our clothes, then he filled our stomachs with pasta and bread. His young wife was almost frantic with fear of discovery. Apparently several prisoners had been recaptured in the area and the Carabinieri were very active. When we were dry and warmed through
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we said we would go at once, but he insisted we stayed until 4 in the morning.
Once again dry and warm, and restocked with food, we were on our way.
We skirted around convoys of enemy tanks and vehicles and patrols of infantry.
During our trek south we had glimpsed some really wonderful sights of nature and the morning mists clearing, revealing a large blue lake in the distance.
We were nearing a place called Sulmena or Sulmona that had a large PoW camp. Apparently the prisoners had all got out and the Germans were frantically rounding them up again. We settled into a small clump of dense trees and waited for information. Our bombardier friend set out to see if he could find out what was going on. When he came back he said the whole place was swamped with German troops and Carabinieri who were desperate to recover the escaped prisoners.
He said many had settled in with villagers and farms and that some had got through the enemy lines guided by a patriot. This chap would be in the vicinity the next
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evening ready to take another batch through. Sergeant Pearson and I decided we would go, but our bombardier friend wanted to say for a while.
The next evening we left him on good terms and joined a cosmopolitan group of tramps and we began the last part of our escape attempt. Our guide gave us strict instructions that we would not talk at any time, and if he ordered us to halt we were to be face down immediately. If the enemy challenged us we were to surrender at once or they would shoot us at once.
The party of about twenty or thirty quietly crept through fields, along hedgerows, through lakelands[?], wet and cold and across roads. Several times we had to drop onto our faces as German vehicles swept by us. Our closest call was when we just managed to dodge a German patrol.
It was almost dawn when our guide stopped and told us we were on the edge of no-man’s land between enemy positions and our forces. “Leave here in pairs and don’t bunch up and keep separated and when you get by that wood
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ahead of us you will reach a road that is patrolled by British forces.”
Sergeant Pearson and I rested as I tied my left boot up again. It had split up two days ago, the uppers parting from the sole and I had wrapped some old cloth around it and tied it with string.
We shook hands and headed for the wood and were then on the road. We squatted for a while, then heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. We were in a hedgeback when the vehicle was on us and we saw it was one of ours, but we were too late to stop it. We were cursing our luck when another vehicle approached and I stood up in the road. The vehicle stopped some yards away and I was asked who was I. I told him as his mate kept his gun on us. He was delighted as I approached him and spoke to him and his mate and he told us to climb aboard and he ran us back to his camp.
We had made it, we were free again and in one piece. We were passed on to various camps and eventually boarded a boat at Brindisi that took us to either Bizerta or Annaba where we boarded a train. The train was comprised of cattle-trucks or goods-trucks and we were given rations and
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water and some petrol.
When the train stopped we would drop off the side, throw some sand and petrol into a cut-down petrol can and try to make a quick brew-up. Quite often the train would re-start without warning and we had to grab our gear and climb aboard very quickly. Some of the fires were still burning and some were hung by wire to the side of the wagons. This was the most primitive train and adventure that I had ever been part of. It was hilarious as there was no discipline, no orders or anything. We were on this train for two or three days before pulling into Algiers where we were interviewed before boarding a boat for home. It was well into November now and I was very pleased to be home for seven weeks’ leave that included Xmas. I was separated from Sergeant Pearson once we reached our own forces and I never knew what happened to our bombardier friend. I had letters from the War Office enquiring after the bombardier but I don’t know what his fate was.
I would like to mention the help we received from the very ordinary people of the villages who gave us help and food, though many
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of them were very much afraid of the Germans and Carabinieri.
I must make a special thanks to the Red Cross for their food parcels that managed to trickle through from time to time. They were more than food parcels as they were a tangible indication that we were still fighting and they raised PoWs moral to a high level.
I have been contacted by a Mr Harrison of Scarborough who was in the same main camp 82 as I was and he was captured at the same time.
I have written this letter to the best of my ability and have given the facts as near as I can remember. The only thing I have retained as proof of my escape is a notification of an interview by an officer at Algiers.
Please excuse bad writing, hope you can decipher this epistle and a Merry Xmas to you.