Williams, GTG (Toots) Additional memories from 2008

Summary of GTG (Toots) Williams

This account starts with a description of Toots’ journey through various POW camps on his way to Fontanellato, via lorry and train, after his capture in North Africa. Once at Fontanellato he describes prison life for captured Allied POWs but finally escapes Fontanellato (presumably after the Italian Armistice of September 1943) along with all other POWs in the camp. The last part of Toots Williams story is the account of his journey after escaping from Fontanellato POW camp back home to Yelverton in Devon where his mother lived.

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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From India to Iraq

They came to the decision that our ship would stop just off Basra – just off the Shatt al-Arab? On the right was Persia, where there was a big refinery the smell of which was appalling. They [our authorities] wanted some sort of activity as an excuse so that they could listen to the bugged cabins(1). We made the excuse that it was a regimental day – Paarderberg Day or something like that and that we would have sports, sports with the ship’s boats and all that sort of thing. But all that happened was all the Krauts came up on deck and watched the sports. So they weren’t talking in their cabins at all!

We steamed on into the Shaft al-Arab and got off, but without our transport and then we went on down to Shaibah(2) in the desert, about 15 miles out, which is now a town. There was nothing there then and we had a big tented camp there. We consisted of ourselves(3) and the South Wales Borderers and ourselves.

The Divisional Commander was a fellow called Slim, who was a Gurkha. He had never had command of British troops before and was upset that Wavell had sent him some British troops to replace two battalions of Gurkhas that had gone down very badly with malaria. [Succumbing to malaria was a] criminal offence as far as the army was concerned, and so Slim had three brigades, [each with a British battalion, including] the King’s Own(4), who got badly shot up when they landed by air. How the hell they flew in I don’t know, nobody had ever flown in like that before – they were shot up by the Iraqis on landing. The DCLI [Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry] was in a brigade with 4th/13th Frontier Force and 2nd/4th Gurkhas and the South Wales Borderers were in the third brigade.

Slim came down to Shaibah to address the officers and NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officer] of the two British battalions, and this bloody man, who looked a bit like Mussolini, stood up and said “I’ve never had British troops before. They cost twice as much as my Gurkhas, but they can’t possibly be twice as good. And I’m not going to have any rape and pillage in the villages.” We said “F*** you for a start”. Of course, later he became very good in Burma.


1 The troopship, HMT [Hired Military Transport] Lancashire, sailed from Karachi on 11th November 1941. It was also carrying the German and Italian diplomatic delegations from Afghanistan, which were being repatriated to Germany.
2 In 1920 the Royal Air Force set up an airbase at Shaibah. No 244 Squadron was involved in the Rashid Ali rebellion in 1941. RAF [Royal Air Force] Shaibah was a small and primitive base in the desert with a harsh hot and humid climate. It expanded during the Second World War.
3 1st Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (DCLI).
4 The King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). In April 1941 350 officers and men were airlifted to Iraq and took part in action at the RAF [Royal Air Force] air station at Habbaniya against pro-German Iraqi forces under Rashid Ali who had just come to power following a coup d’etat.

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When he became Governor of Australia his son went out there as ADC [Aide de Camp] and his son married the daughter of the big grocer in Haifa in Palestine, whose name I can’t remember. They’re still there – the chap was said to be a deserter from the Australian army in the First World War and he had this grocery business, the biggest I think in the Middle East, it was the sort of Harrods of the Middle East. I think she was the only child and that’s who the 2nd Slim was married to(5). That’s the present Viscount Slim, who I believe is very nice.

Before Fontanellato

We were six months down by Naples in Capua(6) – it was supposedly a transit camp, but it was really not at all good. We got no Red Cross parcels there for the first two or three months and then they started trickling through. A lot of people had jaundice and went to hospital and we never saw them again. The diet was so poor that a lot of us got dysentery. We got one little bun a day and twice a day we had soup with a bit of cabbage in it or something which was warm, but nothing much better than that for a long time. We were all very hungry.

And then about 40 of us officers went to Rezzanello(7), a little castle on a hilltop; it was much easier to guard as far as they were concerned and much better as far as we were concerned as we hadn’t had any new uniform. It was very cold and we only had one blanket each. We were there for three months and then at Fontanellato(8) for six months. Fontanellato was by far the best. Rezzanello is beautiful and has a lovely view; it is in the foothills and there is no village there.

We went by lorry once we got quite near. From Capua to Rezzanello was by train, crammed into carriages with sealed windows and we all had dysentery. There was one lavatory for each coach, just a hole. In a big station – like Milan – we were pulled up and the curtains were meant to be down, but we all pulled them up, of course, and they were threatening to shoot us if we didn’t pull them down – and we were cheering at all the commuters, who were looking at us in our smelly carriages going by. Then their train came in, so ours reversed and came in next door and there were piles of shit at carriage distances apart! You’ve never seen anything like it! Just a straight hole/shit hole! Well, the axle of the train had topped each one and deposited the shit further on. No loo paper of course, but you had to scrounge what you could!

Then in Rezzanello, a small castle, we got some Red Cross parcels – you never got one per man, which was the intention, so by agreement they were opened in the cook house, cigarettes and chocolate was given out and other food was kept to add to the rations – quite rightly.

5 Elisabeth Spinney. Spinneys is a supermarket chain in the Middle East, which began as railway provision merchants, and expanded into a grocery firm importing British Empire goods to Mandate Palestine.
6 Campo P.G. 66 (Prigione di Guerra; Prisoner of War).
7 Campo P.G. 17. Rezzanello Castle is in the Commune of Gazzola; Piacenza is the nearest town.
8 Campo P.G. 49. Fontanellato is a small town in the province of Parma, in northern Italy. It lies on the plains of the River Po about 20 kilometres west of Parma towards Piacenza.

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[Black and white picture of a Telegram, dated 23rd June 1942, stating that Toots was ‘Missing’]

[Black and white picture of Toots’ POW Identity Card photograph, 20th March 1943 Taken at Campo P.G. 17 at Rezzanello]

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Life in Fontanellato

At Fontanellato we had more Red Cross parcels coming in, which, when spread over a lot more people, made all the difference. One thing that was always in the Red Cross parcel was Ambrosia rice pudding from Tavistock, well, Lifton actually, made by ‘Milko’ Maurice. There were also things like V-macs (?) which were meant to be full of vitamins.

All sorts of classes went on in the prison camp – you could learn about farming, agriculture in general, Italian, all sorts. ‘Trigger’ Tregonning(9) gave farming classes. I played a lot of patience, enjoyed my vino ration, and gossiping!

We were in dormitories of about 20 men. Ted Pryke was with me – a very vulgar man –bloody funny! There were not many married men, but Ted Pryke was married to Peggy, who had come out to India in 1940. It was more difficult for him as he had two children. I was 23 – you grow up very quickly in a war.

My letters were to my mother. My father sent me out some bloody good boots – parcels got through – some got bombed and you never knew they’d been sent.

Books had their bindings taken off in case things had been hidden in them. Bibles were in great demand as they made very good cigarette papers. You never kept letters from home as they were taken off you in searches.

The Italian guards were pretty second class. They weren’t out of good regiments and they weren’t particularly nice and certainly not friendly. Now and again, if people swapped cigarettes for bread, which they weren’t meant to do.

People used to write home. Tony Roncoroni(10), for example, wrote home to his wife saying he wanted Bibles and prayer books because they always got through and the pages made good cigarette papers. I didn’t smoke and so it didn’t worry me. Some wives cut the middle out the Bible to make a hollow and filled it with ‘French letters’ and these was good trading value with the guards. We tried to stop trading with them; it was not a good thing to do as far as the British were concerned. They were there, they were armed and they were very trigger happy. They were scared.

The only German influence on the guards was that they were all terrified of being sent to the Russian front. If a chap had six children, he was allowed out of the army and now and again you would find a guard terribly excited that his wife had had a sixth child and so he could be discharged and sent home.

Escape from Fontanellato

We left the camp at 9.00 a.m. when we escaped. The Camp Commandant had sent some chaps on bicycles further down the town to the cross roads to come and bring warnings if there were any signs of the Germans. Somehow he said “there’s a German company of lorries so you’d better get going”.

9 Lieutenant R G Tregonning of the Royal Artillery.
10 Captain ADS Roncoroni of the Royal Artillery.
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[A photocopy of part of the Italian 1:50.000 scale map given to Toots by Italian locals. It shows Casacalenda, where the trio crossed the frontline and Bonetro, where they found the forward Brigade Headquarters]

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We were all ready and eager to go. As you’ll see in the battledress, which I didn’t have, they had cut out a square and we all had red patches on our backs to show we were prisoners. Most of us had the patches sewn over the back so we were able to rip it off.

I had been captured in North Africa where we were all wearing pretty much what we wanted. I was able to get my coat, which was made from a mule blanket that i had managed to ‘lose’ when I was the Horse Transport Officer in India. It was made of beautiful stuff and I got Bearer (?) Hussain, the Regimental Tailor [in Lahore], to make it into a coat.

So I had this coat, it was a Godsend. I carried it by day because the weather was good, but I needed it at night and I was very glad of it. I was wearing by then a pretty thin pair of rather white corduroy trousers and brothel creepers. The Italians wanted to take my coat off me, claiming that it was civilian clothing. And so I quickly got some spare military buttons off someone who had a great coat and I sewed them onto my coat and so I said it was uniform and showed them the buttons. I managed to hang onto the coat despite various searches when they tried to take it off me.

We were all very jealous of a friend of mine in the Northumberland Fusiliers because he had managed to get his sponge bag made of suede with waterproof stuff inside, which was very smart.

I know Italy is more populated now than it was then, but when you get out of prison camp, unshaven, scruffy, and start walking around by day and you very soon get spotted, particularly if there are a lot of people around looking out for people. We hung onto the fourth chap in our group because he spoke Italian – we didn’t like the bloody man, but he was useful. We looked more like Germans, tall, reddish haired and blond – we didn’t look Italian.

Along the way we met a lot of Italian deserters. You could spot them because of their boots. One of the rumours that we heard was that the Allies were trying to land at Genoa. So, when we started off, we walked west and we could hear a battle. Italian deserters were coming through and we said “Is that the British?” and they said “No, it’s the Tedesci” who were after the fleet because most of the Italian fleet was holed up in Genoa. So then we just turned around.

Most of the Italians were in reserve divisions – most of the Italian army was in Northern Africa. A division was on the Russian front, called something like the Blue Division. Our guards around the camp, including the officers, were terrified of being sent to Russia. It was a cushy number looking after prisoners.

You want to escape, if possible, in September when all the fruit is out. Apricots, grapes, almonds, figs, nuts; walnuts made into coffee. We wanted lots of fruit and there was lots of it.

It was getting very cold up near the Grand Sasso. Everybody wore everything. Brothel creepers picked up in Cairo – I never went there, but I had some suede boots, rubber soled, and corduroy trousers etc. We managed to get hold of some

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battledress, but they insisted on cutting a great square out of the jacket in the back and putting a red square in it.

We also saw seaplanes on the small lake by the Grand Sasso. Looking down when we were on the Grand Sasso there was this lake below us and I think there was a small seaplane on it. It would not have been used offensively, but just for taking people about.

We had no forged papers – no papers at all. That was the trouble also when later on we hitch-hiked as far as Algiers and we didn’t have a damn thing. Incredibly scruffy with our boots tied up with string. We got stuff from dead peoples’ kit bags, which helped. We were re-clothed in Algiers on 30th January [1944]; there was lots of Canadian battledress, which was rather better than British battledress.

The captain of the ship that we got on from Taranto didn’t know where he was going until he got outside the minefields and then he opened his orders and discovered that he was ordered to go to Alexandria. Well, that suited Blair(11) and Borradaile because they had left all their heavy kit in Cairo, so they could go and pick that up, but it didn’t suit us at all – we wanted to go back to England, so we jumped ship at Syracuse. We got a little runabout and said we want to get off, so we did.

We were in bad odour with a chap in the Hampshire Regiment, who was meant to keep an eye on about 20 escapees. I met him later and always thought him a nasty bugger. We jumped ship there and then hitch-hiked to Catania, which was the most enormous airfield I have ever seen and part of the HAC(12) were Ack-Ack [Anti-aircraft Gunners] guarding Catania airfield. So, Ted Pryke was HAC and the battery commander was a chum of his, so we fell in with him and we slept on the floor of his tent, drunk, but with a promise from an American who said he was going to Tunis in the morning. So, he flew us to Tunis and then we hung about and he gave us a flight the next day to Algiers.

In Algiers we got more or less arrested as we had no papers and they thought that we might be deserters, so we were told to go to a transit camp on the racecourse and we waited for one of the Strath(13) class ships to come through. We were there 2-3 days and got on a boat which took us to Glasgow where General Thorne(14), who was GOC [General Officer Commanding] Scotland, met us, half a dozen of us, and we were feted royally and taken to a football match – Scotland versus England and England won(15) – and we had a lot of free gin and tonics on the army.

Lot more interrogating by intelligence and then we were given rail warrants – Ted and Hugh(16) went to London and I went to Plymouth and changed and went to

11 Captain D A Blair of the Seaforths and Captain R G Borradaile of the Cameron Highlanders.
12 Honourable Artillery Company.
13 P&O had five famous ships whose names began with ‘Strath…’.
14 General Sir Andrew Thorne KCB [Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath] CMG [Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George] DSO [Distinguished Service Order]
15 In the main document the game is described as being Scotland versus the RAF [Royal Air Force].
16 Captain T H Jobson DCLI [Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry], married to Hester Williams of Caerhays.

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Yelverton on the train, which is no longer there of course, and walked up carrying my 1/2 kit bag, which is all I had, and there was a man with a bicycle outside all those shops in Yelverton selling fish. Well, my mother liked fish, so I went over to him, an awfully nice chap, and said “Where does Mrs, Gage Williams live?” and he said “Oh, she’d dearly love a bit of fish” and she lived in either Estella or Westella Road.

So I walked down the road, looking in all the windows until I spotted furniture and pictures I recognised and a woman living opposite, called Mrs O’Reirdon, also a New Zealander, came out and said “Are you Toots?” and I said “Yes” and she said “Ah, your mother is expecting you – I’ll ring her up as she works for the YMCA [Young Man’s Christian Association]” and my mother came out by bus and that was that.

And then Liz (my sister), who was a boating Wren [Women’s Royal Naval Service] came back in the evening – and I suppose it was a Wednesday or Thursday and every Saturday there was a wonderful party at the Moorland Links Hotel. It was an enormous naval area and Plasterdown Camp was a vast American hospital with swarms of doctors and randy nurses there and they used to come in ambulance vans – every bloody thing was going on in the ambulance on the way home I can assure you.

And so Liz came back the next day from Plymouth and said “You’re coming to the party and I have got a tall one, a short one and a fair one and a dark one for you – and Yvonne was the tall one!” So I went around and inspected my pre-war girlfriends and decided she was the one to settle for.

Yvonne came to pick me up in a taxi to go to the party – we had never met, and I had had three or four whiskeys – it was in the dark and I had a pee on the back wheel of the taxi. She must have thought “What have we got here?!” Her boss was Sir Robert Hughes of Hughes and Wilbraham, who started life in Truro. Yvonne was his secretary and driver. He was an old hunting chap and always wore breeches and gaiters and she did all the driving. He was the agent at Pencarrow and all sorts of other places, and she said to him that she was going out with me or something and he said “They’re mad that lot – those Williams’s – they’re all mad”.

My father, in fact, before I got home, over a year before, had picked her up hitch-hiking when he was going to Yelverton – and he told her he had a son who was a prisoner of war and a daughter who was in the Wrens, so she remembered that.

So it was nice that she had met him.

He was killed a year before I got back – I had a POW letter through the Red Cross. First of all my grandfather died of a heart attack when he heard that Stephen was a POW and I was ‘missing, presumed killed’, and then three months later we had to pay double death duties – another letter came when I was at Castello Rezzonella.

This one said that my father had been killed. I wrote to my mother – I had had a post card and a letter card – only two cards in the whole war. They apparently went through the Vatican. All were censored, of course.

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[Photographs with captions]: Images of Toots Williams as a young man and in retirement.
Colonel Toots Williams 1920-2012



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