I was in the Territorial Army, Middlesex Yeomanry Royal Signals, at the outbreak of the war on 3rd September 1939 so was immediately called up. The first four months I was first at Belgravia and then on a wireless vehicle at East Ham, one of many vehicles supplying a back up service of communication. In January 1940 I embarked on the troopship, Dilwarra, for Palestine as it was then.
My posting in Palestine was by the sea and not having any action a good time was had by all. News of catastrophes was kept from us, we knew nothing of Dunkirk, so morale was high. All this came to an end in January' 1941 when we moved up to the Western Desert and were attached to the Essex Yeomanry R.H.A.. Shortly after arrival I fell with typhus fever and was sent to a naval hospital in Alexandria. The upheaval this caused made me very unpopular. I slowly recovered and within a week of rejoining I was captured.
The day was the 7th April 1941 - a beautiful one still fresh and young. We had been on a big flap for nearly a week now due to the sudden withdrawal of fighting units to Greece and Crete which were about to be overrun by the Germans. We were busily engaged in making plywood cutouts of tanks to deceive the newly arrived Afrika Corps. At the moment we were detached from our regiment. "We" consisting of three fine chaps and myself in the one truck, and in the other truck the second in command of the Essex Yeomanry who was a major, and his batman and driver. We, being the wireless truck, were in contact with our regiment, which was as much the exception as the rule during the last week. We had just taken our time over breakfast, thinking that things were not so bad after all, and were on the move again. We kept going for half an hour and then the major in front stopped his truck to come to ours to pass a message to the regiment. The enemy was sighted. We informed him we were quite able to get the message across on the move but he was anxious to get the receipt right away. We never got the message through anyway, but a far more important one which I will explain in a line or so ahead. As the major was working out the message some vehicles suddenly appeared 200 yards away. They had been hidden before in a wadi. The major immediately took a bearing and a map reference and by the time it was handed to Tony Blenkins who was on the set fire was aimed at us. Machine guns and an anti-tank gun were firing at us. However Tony got the message through and shortly afterwards some tommy gunners came rushing over towards us. The truck was hurriedly but successfully set on fire and the wireless set destroyed which the Germans took a strong dislike to. Before the Germans reached us the major, quite rightly I think, told us to put up our hands. The hundreds of times I had done that in my young days, and here was the real thing. We had to run in front of the Germans back to their echelon in the middle of an action which was now being fought between these Germans and some Australians. They were firing at each other less than 300 yards apart with nothing but flat sand in between.
We were taken to a wadi, a small dried up lake is the nearest description, where many more lads had been collected totalling about 2000 altogether. We were confined to a very small area, why I do not know as there was the whole desert. The first day everyone was busy checking up who was present and who was not. By the second day everyone seemed to suddenly realise he had no food, and the Germans did not seem concerned. As a result of this the cooks were the most popular and the luckiest. It was agreed to pool everything no matter how- much or how little anyone had and some chaps who eagerly called themselves cooks dished out the food as evenly as they could. The number of chaps who called themselves "Englishmen" and who joined the end of the queue again or did not hand in their all at the beginning, I regret to say was surprisingly large. 1 was to become used to that in the next few years. We were there three days and two nights. The sun was very hot and of course we had no shade, and no effort was made to provide sanitation. Water shortage was already acute.
On the third day everybody was made to line up for a march to Dema some 15 miles away, and anyone medically unfit had to fall out and were taken on a few trucks. We all carried kit of some kind and I had my full quota, a heavy pack, three blankets wrapped in a groundsheet, a small pack and a two gallon can of fresh water which I had treasured all the time. We did that 15 miles in 5/6 hours and the number of chaps who came to me for the water I carried and to whom I gave either a little or none at all was all very embarrassing for me.
We eventually arrived at Dema and led into the grounds of a hospital in which there was a pond Here everyone had a wash and bathed their feet, and I felt surprisingly fit. The next day we were marched another two miles to a barracks we were told was only 100 yards away. We were led through the native quarter where the natives jeered to their hearts content. We were also photographed with a cine camera many times.
We remained at the barracks for ten days. The food, issued by the Germans for the first time, was a poor stew twice a day and coffee. Two machine guns were manned and aimed at us throughout our stay. We slept on the stone flooring, very crowded, but there was a roof and morale was good. As usual there was no sanitation and cases of dysentery were beginning.
After ten days we were moved to Benghazi by lorries with German drivers and guards. We had a halt mid-day and got talking to the Germans who were an intelligent lot. They seemed to be students and many could speak English. Quite a lot of them shared their black bread with us and were polite. Of victory they were assured and Alexandria would soon be theirs. It must be remembered that the year was 1941 and they were black days for us. We eventually arrived in Benghazi where the Italian population saw for the first time a sizeable haul of British prisoners. They naturally thought it had been the work of their own troops and were frantic with joy and full of threats and much stone throwing in progress. I think the Germans and ourselves thought the same, what a hopeless race the Italians were.
On our arrival at Benghazi the Italians took over. Our sleeping quarters were two big garages. That night as we were all settling to sleep, first one chap then another got up and sang with the rest of us joining in. This in turn led on to another chap who was a natural born comedian, followed by more singing which everyone was enjoying. It was stopped by an Italian officer. We jeered at him and he fired his revolver which luckily only grazed a chap's hand. Spurred by the success of our very impromtu concert, a proper one was arranged for the following night, but was a complete failure, which is usually the way in life. A raid by the R.A.F. that night provided all the entertainment required and the nervousness of the Italian guards caused much amusement. The feeding there was the worst so far. Two dog biscuits, 4"square each, and a tin of Italian bully beef (camel) between two was our day's ration with no drink. The biscuits were a bitter flavour and the bully beef I can remember to this day, my thoughts make me almost reach. We ate it cold, hot, fried it in bits of tin in its own fat, made pudding with the biscuits broken up with it but that same flavour remained no matter what we did with it. It was here I started to write my first letter home not knowing when it would be posted but it relieved me to write. I remember writing for a food parcel to be sent as soon as possible and writing to every little detail the types of biscuits, cakes, chocolates, and cheese I required. Other chaps were doing the same and we helped each other with suggestions. By now practically everyone had acute diarrhoea. We had no place to relieve ourselves and our area was very small. The queing up for food every day was taking it out of everyone. Our stay here was close on three weeks. They eventually '’liberated” us from this camp. We were to go to Tripoli by road, transported in big Lancia lorries seated on wood the width of the lorry with six rows in all, and seated about six abreast with no back support. We were to travel like this over a distance of 600 miles taking four days and three nights, the convoy formed up outside Benghazi. While we were waiting a nosy, slimy Italian soldier stopped and stared at us as he ate some black bread picking away the bad pieces and dropping them on the sand. As soon as he had pushed on some chaps jumped off the lorries for the bread. As far as I was concerned I could see it was going to happen but I did not think it was worth the effort. We eventually got on the move and the day's journey was uneventful. That night we slept in a sandstorm and I carefully placed my boots behind my pillow. In the morning they had gone. I did not know who had taken them, I will not suggest anything. Being transported I did not have to use my feet much. During the midday stop the next day I spoke to Major Upton who had been captured with me and he gave me a pair of slippers, flip flops with no heels, which was the best he could do. The journey took us all along the coast - Agheila, Mount Brega, Certe, Hommes - and eventually Tripoli. Needless to say during the journey none of the fellows improved in health and although I had diarrhorea I was one of the luckier ones in being able to control myself. The passing through Certe and Hommes was particularly interesting - both being well fortified and of course still in enemy hands. The approaches to Tripoli were also well defended.
At Tripoli we remained for only a few hours, soon to be taken in cattle trucks to a small town called Savratha about 40 miles south of Tripoli. This was the most well organised of camps to which we had been taken up to now. The food consisted of early morning coffee ( black and sweet) which was good, and which it was the custom to queue for three times, making a circle each time, stopping at the water tap to wash away evidence.
Up to about the fourth day here the Italian stooge dishing out never realised what we were doing and quite innocently gave a smaller ration, which in turn necessitated queing three times anyway. It seems the laugh was on us for once. About 10 am a loaf of bread about 250 grams, size of two buns, was given to everybody and later some stew. The queing for meals grew worse. Practically uncontrolled and sometimes ten men wide. There were about 300 Indians amongst the approximately 1700 English and Australians, and one felt very ashamed of the white race when one glanced at the Indians in a separate queue. As meagre as the rations were, the Indians would not touch meat, and their rations therefore amounted to much less than ours. Besides discipline they also set us an example in cleanliness, washing themselves down with water daily and cleaning their teeth with sand. Here at Savratha bread was issued for the first time, but hungry as I was, I could not bring myself to eat it. It made me reach. Some of us washed clothes here, although one article or two small ones was a big enough effort for one day. By now practically everyone had smoked his last cigarette, and all the smokers longed for a smoke. The Italians promised us time and again they would issue us with cigarettes and the day came when they did. As for myself I didn't trouble to smoke them, they were terrible cigarettes. That afternoon a miniature whist drive was held for the price of two cigarettes a man. I won the lot and placed them at the head of my bed. In half an hour they had disappeared, although I was going to give them away anyway. Through not being able to eat the bread I was very hungry and to relieve myself I used to go into semi consciousness and dream of food, good solid English food. I was always doing this. Once to pass away an hour, I remember, I wrote down the food I would like to eat for one week if, by a miracle, I was freed now. I know that between the breakfast, dinner, tea and supper I had written out, I put in cake stales, bread and cheese and chocolate. After a fortnight here we were put on the cattle trucks to be taken back to Tripoli again (en route for Italy we thought) but having arrived at Tripoli and waiting in a siding for four hours we were taken all the way back again to remain at Savratha for another week. The few chaps with dysentry had it badly especially on the journeys to and from Tripoli and Savratha. Luckily I had not got any worse in that department.
After another three or four days we were off to Tripoli again and this time for the last time. When we dismounted from the trucks we were made to walk right through the town, the Italians once again being very threatening making one feel very annoyed to say the least. We had to walk right through to the docks, some of the chaps with dysentry falling out temporarily on the way and of course there was no privacy for anyone We finally boarded the Italian ship "Marco Polo" of the Adriatica line which, I am very pleased to write, was later sunk.
Except for the conditions under which we lived, namely in the very bottom of the boat with plenty of cockroaches, things were quite good. By that I mean the food was the best yet, although I still could not eat the bread, which was always the main food in the daily ration. As far as I could make out, by periodic visits to the lavatory on deck, we hugged the Libyan coast as long as possible and then made a dart across to Sicily, through the Straits of Messina, and finishing up at Naples with a beautiful sight of the volcano belching forth a red glow every third or fourth second. Our naval escort was very large needless to say. We did not stay at Naples but disembarked right away on to a train and taken to Capua, a transit camp, about 50 miles away. Not very big. I think the population knew of our coming as all the roads were lined with curious sightseers, with Italian carabiiniere (police) lining each side of the road. The camp was nearly two miles away and we were crowded into small tents with plenty of mud around. Up to now I was still wearing the slippers and my feet and heels in particular were badly bruised. Here I was lucky in finding a heavy smoker with an extra pair of good shoes. The deal was done to the satisfaction of both sides. I think I paid about 60 Italian cigarettes. The food was fairly good here, consisting of one good stew and of course that detestable bread. Our stay at Capua was about ten days, and we were beginning to get weary of travelling and never settling down.
We wrote our first letters home. We were delighted when we were given official permission to write home and that we were now partly under the control of the International Red Cross.
We were on the move again which was to be our last move. Our destination was Sulmona , and the scenery en route was very grand and picturesque. We were moving practically from one side of Italy to the other which meant tunnelling through the range of mountains which run down the centre of Italy. The rolling stock was very interesting to me. We had an electric locomotive pulling quite a long train, sometimes up steep gradients. The stations were few but of course we stopped at each one. Often a boy was to be seen wheeling a trolley full of Nestles milk chocolate. I think that word NESTLES was forever ingrained on our minds.
After a very interesting journey we eventually arrived at Sulmona - CAMPO P.G.78 in the province of Aquilla. The camp looked good.
It looked clean, well designed and organised. We were relieved, and when we saw some Englishmen already there we were immediately shooting questions right and left. "What's it like here?" "Any Red Cross parcels?" "Any beds?" "What's the treatment like?" The replies were good to listen to. Before we entered the compounds typical Italian organisation had to be tolerated, which lasted several hours. We were all thoroughly searched, money had to be given in in exchange for a receipt, chaps hid their rings in their mouths, and watches were hidden somewhere else. And so at last we finally settled down. I omitted to mention that at Capua we all had to have our hair off. Corporals and above were excused. I suppose they were different types of human beings to the rest of us, immune to catching lice or other disease, although I would not have objected had I been a corporal or above.
The amount so far written covered approximately six weeks from capture. My life at Sulmona amounted to nearly two and a half years, but, apart from any changes we had to endure in the way of living, there will be little to write about. There was the boredom and so the proportion of writing for the next two and a half years will not be the same as for the first six weeks of captivity.
Let me now mention Maurice Taylor. Were captured together and remained together throughout our confinement. A great lad with similar ideas on life as myself, which is essential for a period of boredom. We "messpd in" together all the time, with nobody joining us or either of us changing for a better mate.
Life at Sulmona started for us very pleasantly. Red Cross parcels were usually one between four per week, and after a few months improved to one between two per week. Also from the British Red Cross we had two ounces of tobacco or fifty cigarettes between two per week, in addition to an issue of, very approximately, eighty' Italian cigarettes per fortnight per man. We had three blankets, two sheets and a canvas bed each. There were forty to fifty men in a hut which was not overcrowded. We were issued two hot stews each day and two two hundred and fifty gram loaves daily with a cheese issue every third day. It was early summer (May) with many hot months to follow. The air was good as was also the water. We had hot showers once a week and working parties about once every ten days. We were allowed one letter card of fourteen lines and one postcard per week. Sanitation was limited but, being under our care, was always clean. The surrounding scenery was very beautiful. We were in a valley or basin surrounded by mountains which, even in May, were still snow capped. The skies were deep blue, and being always in the sun life was life again. Unfortunately I was not able to take full advantage of these conditions. I still could not eat the bread, nor could I eat the macaroni or bean stews. As I was always hungry it makes these circumstances difficult to imagine. I know. I used to barter all my tobacco for chocolate from the Red Cross parcels, and as a result of eating so little 1 was a contrasting sight to the rest who were thriving. I was able to make my first finger meet my thumb round the top of my arm with ease. I was therefore very weak and to make matters worse I had to wash my clothes two or three times as often because I contracted lice from my neighbour who was a dirty liver and a menace to the room. This was a very big effort for me. I had lice for at least four weeks which used to keep me awake at night but which I did my utmost to get rid of exhausting myself in the washing of clothes. I am therefore not ashamed to admit all this. I also still had slight diarrhoea.
About November of that year (1941 ) my condition, after nearly six months, suddenly improved. Up to now there had been two other chaps in a similar condition and all three of us had to attend the M.I. room daily for three weeks to be injected with some fluid, which made us like pin cushions but had no effect on us anyway. One chap admitted this to the Italian M.O. who immediately ordered him to be stabbed twice instead of once daily. That chap eventually went to an Italian civilian hospital. It was in November then that I suddenly took a decided turn for the better. Now I ate everything, bread, macaroni, beans, and extra helpings of the leavings of other chaps. It seemed I was making up for what I had lost in the previous six months. November ended and December came with definitely colder weather which in turn made everybody more hungry. Therefore I had to be content with my own ration only. Nevertheless looking forward to food instead of dreading it was a wonderful change. My job was to sweep the room out twice a day. The only chaps the Italians excused from working parties were the cooks, sanitary men and chaps like myself. It was unanimously agreed in the room to let me have the job which suited me.
Christmas 1941 was approaching and Maurice and I decided to put by a little bread each day, only a little, and keep it "floating" so that our little extra for the 25th would not be stale. This saving required some will power but it was to be a very important day. Letters from home were now arriving and even a few clothing parcels were trickling in. It was great to get letters from home, it was good to read anything that came from the outside world. The clothing parcels one always looked forward to immensely chiefly because an unlimited amount of chocolate could be sent. Cigarette parcels were arriving frequently. My mother and father and one or two real friends of mine kept me going nicely. I often did not smoke my tobacco choosing to barter it for food which I am sure the senders would have understood. I did averagely well therefore in mail and parcels from my mother and father, brothers and friends for which 1 shall be eternally grateful.
As luck would have it Red Cross parcels ran dry a few weeks before Xmas, and although we kept on hoping it wasn't until mid January 1942 that more arrived. On Xmas Day Maurice and I woke up earlier than usual and consumed one loaf each, a very rare treat for a very rare occasion. 1 think we had saved six loaves besides the usual issue of two each, which meant altogether we had ten. Not being able to see a bare cupboard quite so soon we ate all but two which we saved for Boxing Day. (A loaf as 1 mentioned before was the size of two small buns.) Also on Christmas Day the cooks made a great effort and made a peas pudding, but the peas were still hard. Again Maurice, who was also a big eater, and myself benefitted well from this from the other chaps. The officers, who were separated from us in another compound, saved some money between themselves and bought us fruit, cakes, nuts and Italian cigarettes. Noble as the effort was , when issued to all of us , each man received one orange, forty cigarettes and a piece of cake 4" x 3" x 1/2”. The cake I know was an exorbitant price and very rich. The Italians also gave us an issue of wine ( vino ) which was very similar to vinegar. However the 25th was different On this day we also had a very heavy fall of snow but "lanes” were formed in no time at all between the cookhouse and our rooms. It was very cold, windy and raw outside, such a contrast to the summer, but we made light of it, even when one had to go outside to the lavatory where there was no protection. Also, every night for months, a chap before getting into his bed would stand on it and religiously shout out without a smile on his face the slogans, "One more day in captivity, one more day nearer to freedom”, "He who missed the bus saved 2d” and "He who never rode a horse was never in the R.H.A.” January was as cold as ever, which made us as hungry as ever. The rushing to form the food queue was really chaotic. Some of us would try to get to the front for one type of stew, or for another type, where it got thicker at the bottom, we would all lag behind to get to the end of the queue. Because of this a system had to be inaugurated which classified the various types of stew as class A, B, or C and a rota was kept in each room for each class. To judge under which class each stew came, a corporal from each end of the room was elected, and between them they made the decision. A rota was also kept of "doubles” or "buckshees" or "seconds” ( every room had a different name for it) for what was left over in the dixie when everybody had been served - and at one time checked off in a book for his food.
The blow fell in mid January. Our food ration from the Italians was to be cut down to less than half of what we had been getting up to now. When we first heard this the whole thing sounded so ridiculous we did not attach much importance to it. In another week it came into effect. The biggest blow was bread which was cut from two 250 gram loaves to one 200 gram loaf per day ( we called the loaf "a bun" ).Macaroni and rice were cut to less than half our former ration, which meant only one stew a day instead of two. Meat we put in the stews was cut from five issues to two issues a week. Cheese was the only ration increased from two issues to four slightly smaller issues per week. Our daily issue of rations, uncooked, amounted to 15 ounces per man. To make things acutely worse, the weather was cold which made our hunger so great and there was no sign of any Red Cross parcels. The sugar ration was stopped and one small orange in lieu was issued. The orange peel we fried in olive oil and ate. .Many chaps started spooning Italian ersatz coffee, I didn’t get to that stage, but until the other chaps saw me doing it I picked up cheese rind off the floor. Others adopted the same idea for when the rind was scraped it was quite pleasant to eat. I, like many others, was feeling giddy, lying down or standing up, the room would go round. Fortunately the spasms only lasted for half an hour at a time. Maurice and I had put by two 1 lb tins of butter, two tins of jam and two slabs of solid jam from Red Cross parcels but in two evenings we had spooned it all, neat. Constant rumours of "parcels down at the station" were prevalent but never materialised until the second week in February. Someone spotted the lorry a long way off in the valley approaching the camp laden high with something the colour of cardboard. What else could it be? In no time everybody was in the compound (the compound was on a steep slope) watching it and cheering it, and as it finally climbed the road by our compound, chaps climbed the wall to see it pass and exclaimed "Canadians". What a relief it was for us. A Canadian parcel, although not having quite so much meat stuff as an English or Scottish parcel, had 1 lb of butter, a large tin of Klim (milk in reverse) milk, more chocolate and 1 lb of biscuits. Although the lorry made another journey, it was not known what future supplies would be like.
Nevertheless it was decided to issue parcels out one per man per week. This lasted for two weeks then we went back from "living" to "existing" once again but we were more fortified. The effect the parcels had on us was truly amazing. The atmosphere was one of contentment wherever one walked in the compound and I'm sure not one of us will ever forget the arrival of those parcels. When the rations were cut and when no parcels arrived the boredom had been harder to endure because it was impossible for our minds to work normally reading books or studying We did read books but I don't think many enjoyed them as I know my mind was forever wandering back to the same subject, food.
1942 summer was gradually approached to which everybody had been looking forward. As for myself I was looking forward to it because it would be hot, which would make our appetites less, and which in turn might enable me to get extra food from people not requiring it. I think this was secretly in the minds of everybody, but what we did not realise was that this summer would not be like the last with the rations we had then.
In February or March I went down with a fever for three days. Apart from a temperature which I had I was quite well but I was in the sick bay for eight days. The whole thing was a mystery but it didn't worry me, on the contrary, I was sorry to leave because the inmates of the sick bay were nourished on milk drinks ffom special medical parcels, and anyone who was in there and not too ill was a very fortunate person.
Through the winter boredom was a big thing. Besides the nights we spent most of the days in bed, usually- talking quietly to one another with an occasional shout or announcement to the room that nobody ever took any notice of unless it was to his advantage. The entertainments personel worked heroically during this winter. 1 say heroically because I spent four very cold weeks prior to Christmas in a cold room rehearsing for the part of a major for the short sketch entitled "The Monkey's Paw". I am now convinced I shall never make an actor. The entertainments consisted of a play every two, three or four months, a band concert as many times, a debating society meeting every week but which it was too cold to run the first winter at any rate, and ballroom dancing every week. Reversing the order, only those who were very keen on dancing and felt energetic enough partook. They danced with each other wearing boots of course, and the scraping on the concert floor almost obliterated the gallant band. The debating society provided very interesting evenings in the summer months, but was not pleasant when the cold set in. Some very interesting debates took place and there were good speakers. The band concerts were very stereotyped but some very popular tunes were composed. One tune, Prigionieri Blues, I understand was eventually broadcast on the B.B.C.
There is a history attached to the band. When we first arrived it was brn consisting only of a piano, an accordion and two pieces of wood on a wooden chair. After a year and a half it had grown to a full size dance orchestra of fourteen or fifteen players. After two years a second and different band was formed called The Mandoliers. This band, as it suggests, consisted of mandolins, banjos, guitars, accordions, violins (5), and a piano. Conducted and strictly disciplined throughout by a Denis Fielder who was before the war, I understand, the musical tutor to some Balkan Royal Family. The timing, rhythm and lilt that Denis produced from the mandolins was absolutely first class. The tunes played were on the classical side and to listen to these concerts, which never came round quickly enough, made one feel truly proud of the efforts and capabilities of the band, especially so when the Italian officers entered on the first nights. Another smaller band was also formed of mouthorgans and accordions which was also extremely good. The plays produced went one better every production. Some competition was also created as there was more than one producer. The first Christmas, 1941, Maurice Tylor wrote the script of the play, "Journey's End", produced by Philip de Guingan which started the ball rolling and was a first class production. "Blithe Spirit", "French Without Tears" and other London hits were very successful, besides a variety- show and at Christmas 1942 a pantomine. The biggest successes of all these stage productions were the props on which the stage hands were employed for months beforehand. Red Cross boxes were the chief sources of material, and miracles were made from these. Wireless sets, fire places, lamp stands and shades, and ornaments were made. For furniture wood and clothing was used. Make up for the artistes was eventually supplied by the Red Cross, but in the early days black boot polish was used. The female parts were most life like, some chaps having to grow their hair long for many months before, and shaving their eyebrows. Of course only those chaps who had the more shapely legs were selected and what beautiful sights they appeared. The clothing was also made up and painted from old clothing we did not want and handed in.
In the summer months we had walks, invariably going the same way, the pace was slow, at the pace of the guards who being Italians were always short. The roads were always dusty, but the outings made a change. After our first year in the camp we had our sheets taken away and also blankets, to be left with two large and one small blanket each. By now we each had a British battledress, greatcoat, and boots through the Red Cross so our greatcoat was always used as a blanket when necessary Our second summer was good, not quite a Butlins but never a Belsen. The reason being, our rations had not been raised, but we had one Red Cross parcel each per week practically without fail for these summer months and also the weather was hot. There was no comparison to our living during the summer to those miserable winter months. We wore nothing but shorts and slippers or boots, and when one wasn’t doing some study, I did French and German and later Spanish for so many periods a week, or sports, one was always sunbathing or washing clothes. The Italians make two good things in their country. Roads was one and wooden buckets for jam was the other. The buckets made excellent washing tubs and, especially in the summer, we were always washing something. We were fairly well off for soap, there being one bar in every Red Cross parcel. Especially anything white, like underclothes, we used to wash and wash again and then bleach it in the sun. Nearly everyone took a pride in washing his clothes. It was the general rule, the older the prisoner, the cleaner his clothes were. Sports took place on a big scale It had to be because additional lads had arrived sleeping eighty in a room now using double tier beds. I managed to run four cricket teams and two handball teams for the room which kept me occupied. I say "occupied” because there were always many arguments to settle. I was doing this job not because I was brilliant at the games but more because I think I had more patience than anybody else in the room, and because it would have been a very bad show if Room 60 had not been represented at anything Football in the winter was not done on such a large scale because the chaps were weaker, being the cold part of the year, and also the football pitch was outside the compound which was not very convenient There were, nevertheless, some first class matches played. England v Scotland always drew a big crowd - even from the Italian villages outside the wire. Going back to cricket, the pitch and the conditions under which we played were similar to the "Dead End Kids" serial. Our compound was on a big slope, the bowler bowling up hill When a batsman hit the ball it invariably hit one of the many roofs, and the fieldsman, who was always blind as to where it would drop off the tiles, provided some laughs. The ground was rocky gravel, although a team of enthusiastic "groundsmen" dug the pitch up and "relaid" it.
Musters we always had once a day, and more often twice a day. Our officer (Italian) we usually had for five or six months and then he would be changed He always had two or three stooges to help him. The joke of these musters was, being a parade, we shouldn't move or talk, we did both, amply. There was always a blue haze of cigarette smoke above the squads, and only when the officer was actually counting a particular squad did we hid our cigarettes, inside our coat cuffs, the result of which always produced smoke coming out of the chaps necks. The counting was always a big business. To get an accurate count of a squad, four or five deep, required strict covering off, and of course since we never knew any discipline as far as the Italians were concerned, the fries would soon lose their tempers which provided much amusement. There were occasional musters at night when we were in bed asleep which of course never worried us.
Crib was by far the most popular card game and at the height of its popularity the wager for the best of three legs was to have one’s hair cropped. I did this wager once and won - my opponent being Ted Collins. I felt very proud of myself seeing the result of my win for many months afterwards If a chap had already lost his hair and lost again it then went to an eyebrow, or half a moustache.
In the end I had to have my hair off again through Impetigo on my head, At that time I developed severe earache. My ear looked like a cauliflower and I spent some anxious days in the Infirmary again at the mercy of an Italian doctor known as "The Butcher". The care of teeth went to extractions only, seated on a stool with no anaesthetic. Fortunately for me, my teeth were good. The Italians had the same treatment as we had in this department, and often through cowardice when facing the dentist, were sent out while a Britisher set the example.
Escapes were very few. The reason being it was practically impossible to escape. The camp was supposed to be the best escape proof one in Italy and the different layers of barbed wire, brick walls and sentries every 30 yards bore out that fact. Many attempts at tunnelling were made but always just prior to the attempt the tunnel would be discovered So accurate were these discoveries after many months of clever work that I don’t think it was Italian deduction alone. During my time in camp not more than six escapes were attempted in which one officer only succeeded in reaching Switzerland It was because of these attempts the Italians were always searching us At least one room every week was searched thoroughly and the floor tapped. The civilian clothing we received in our parcels from home had to be dyed khaki or else it was confiscated We were all very reluctant to have our clothing dyed especially good clothing such as heavy white sweaters and shirts. Also we were allowed no knives or anything pointed, and all tinned food from the Red Cross had to be punctured and chocolate eaten to prevent any hoarding for escapes. Therefore whenever our room was searched we used to hide our coloured clothing by wearing it , knives were easy to hide, and tinned food and chocolate we stuffed in our pockets without making them too conspicuous. Then we walked unconcernedly out of the room to a friend in a neighbouring hut. The searches were, on the whole, thorough although an English cigarette would sometimes work very nicely. The confiscation of food was always a big penalty as what food we saved we always saved it dearly.
Our beds especially in the heat of the summer became bug ridden, and very often we had to knock them to bits, get a fire going to bum out the bugs, then scrub and disinfect them, and put them together again. The hammering of beds was always to be heard.
The problem of fuel for our little fires was always foremost in our thoughts. As a rule one Red Cross lid or box of cardboard would be sufficient for a brew for two persons. The question of getting these boxes was always difficult. The Italians for some unknown reason would not allow us more than two lids or boxes, and the food and tins from the Red Cross boxes were always punctured and then placed in a box of our own. We never once had the pleasure of cutting the string of a Red Cross food parcel and opening it up and removing the packing ourselves. After an issue of parcels a fatigue party had to take the empty boxes and lids to an Italian store , and although there were two Italian guards to escort the party, we always used to raid the party and get away with more than half the boxes they left with. At one period the Italians banned all small fires and if the two prowling guards saw a fire burning with perhaps a precious brew of cocoa being made they would kick the whole lot over. They never got rid of fires this way though, and through our perseverance we got our own way in the end.
We all looked forward to the one hot stew we had a day. It usually came up at about 5pm, and when the first pair of mess orderlies left the cookhouse carrying the dixie full of steaming hot stew, everybody would go mad shouting "grub up" and a deafening noise of rattling mess tins, from a queue formed in ten seconds, gave vent to everybody's impatience.
The winter of 1942, our second winter in the camp, was not a repetition of the previous one. Although it was a lean time a regular supply of parcels was maintained, and we were also helped by cauliflower we could buy ourselves and cook. I have omitted to mention that when we received a Red Cross parcel the Italians permitted us to have tins put by unpunctured in a store at the end of the camp if we so desired. Maurice and I took full advantage of this and were therefore able to have breakfasts, for the first time in our p.o.w. lives, besides an abundance of other food, over Christmas 42. For three whole days our bellies were full, and we experienced that happy contented feeling for the first time now, which was the same feeling we always used to take so much for granted before capture. We made a tremendous cake and even iced it with a chocolate and cocoa concoction and when set did the decorative icing with Nestles milk. Everybody made a cake, our stools we put together and placed a Persil white cloth on it (Italian issue towel which we washed and washed until white ). The room was decorated, equal to any happy English home, out of Red Cross boxes and packing, and we were so proud of our cake that we had saved and stinted ourselves for that we just sat and gazed at it. It took a great effort to slide it out of its tin and to start eating it. As with all cakes we made it was hardly solid and dry enough to remain intact. It tasted good though. It might have been heavy and wet but it had to be good with all the vitamins in it The tins said so. It was a very happy Christmas for everybody in Sulmona in 1942, and I am sure no one will forget it. I want it to remain in my mind for ever because it was the happiest Christmas I had ever spent in my life, taking into account all the hardships we had had to endure up until then.
During the spring and summer of the following year, 1943, our morale grew and grew. First starting with El Alamein, followed by the fall of Tripoli and the landing in North Africa, then Sicily, the toe of Italy and Salerno. We got the news in two daily papers, Populi d'ltalia and Il Messaggero. We had a team of translators who grew very expert and who were later joined by pressmen recently caught. Among them Anderson of Associated News, Kruger a South African and a very interesting person, and Ward of the B.B.C. besides four or five others. These men could expertly read between the lines of the Italian articles, and such phrases as "elastic defence" meaning a hasty withdrawal, "a Blackshirt division particularly distinguishing itself" meaning it was wiped out to the last man. We also noticed the attitude of the Italian guards and officers definitely changing to friendliness.
Towards the end of August, in a beautiful blue sky, a group of fellows idly talking in the compound noticed what they thought to be a queer formation of cloud in the sky many miles away. This spectacle grew larger and larger, as did the crowd which had now gathered. Let me hear mention that for twenty nine months we had not seen or heard any undue excitement or happening. Monday had been the same day as the Sunday, in fact we often lost count of time Now this formation in the sky was not a cloud formation as it was becoming too artificial, and excitement unknown was suddenly let loose throughout the camp. They were bombers. A faint noise could now be heard, and minute blobs could be seen leaving a trail of vapour behind each blob. We started to count them. We counted on and on, and finally agreed there were forty Flying Fortresses heading dead on for our camp. The war was growing. They were blobs no longer, and still they came, on and on, louder and louder. What an impressive sight to see our own might in the sky. Those guys up there were Yanks. They were free men, and would most likely be back in their canteen on friendly territory in an hour's time. We felt good. Our skin went chicken flesh to see that might in the sky and fighting for us. Still they came, not so good now though as they had not yet turned away from our camp. They were right over us now and if we were mistaken for a factory - well the bombs were away by now. In fact a touch of humour was added when a weak voice from the midst of us was heard to utter, "Right hand down chum". As if they had heard him the leading formation heeled over to the right. The rest followed. They had passed our camp and now, Sulmona town, two miles away, caught it. Our camp rocked and we unconsciously took cover. They carried on, masters of the air, still in perfect formation with the vapour trails behind them presenting a beautiful sight. They were now flying along the other side of the valley and dropped another load on some factories, and then they flew off for another target. Obviously a milk train mission, Sulmona being one of the targets and all in the day's work. I shall never forget that day. At the same time the next day we were hoping for a repeat performance, but we had to wait another seven days before, Liberators this time, flying lower gave Sulmona another pasting. We heard later that two train loads in the station caught a direct hit and two hundred were killed. As we pointed out to the guards - it was a military target.
It was during these attacks that the Italian armistice arrangements were in progress headed by Marshall Bagdolio. They lasted for three weeks before the armistice was eventually signed, but the Germans were in the country in a strong force and during the fatal delay of three weeks were able to reinforce their original army to a size that everybody knows and therefore the armistice did not end in peace for Italy. It was while a football match was in progress that we were aware that terms had been agreed upon between the Italians and ourselves. The Italian guards who were on duty round the football pitch suddenly ran on to the pitch and kissed and hugged our players. "La guerra finito". Little did they know, or ourselves for that matter, what still lay ahead.
Up to now Maurice had been working in the woodshed for many months. It was tough work for which he got extra rations, and which he shared with me, amounting to one extra loaf or bun a day. He became very fit as a result but was unfortunately bitten by a scorpion on his foot and remained in the Infirmary. I took over the job which got me very fit which proved itself in the time that lay ahead.
"The war is over". It sounded good - far too good to be true. We had a parade, nearly 3,000 of us, and the senior British officer, a South African major, addressed us. He told us that the Italian commandant was "honoured" in handing over all the British prisoners to him, but the guards now on duty would remain but for our protection this time (sarcastic cheers), and that an Italian flame throwing division was also in the valley for our protection (more sarcastic cheers). He informed us the position in Italy was vague due to the presence of many German divisions which were not showing any signs of withdrawal. Our camp was situated slightly north of Rome on the Adriatic side. Our troops were around Taranto and pressing on to Bari and the front line was one hundred to one hundred and fifty miles to the south of us. "My orders from the War Department," he went on, "are to keep you here as a body until our troops arrive, and anyone who attempts to escape will be treated as a deserter." He added, "We will not go to Germany." We cheered ourselves hoarse.
The atmosphere was electric. Every minute we expected to hear that our troops were near, and that the pearly gates would open for us. Slowly the days passed by in the hot sun, and reports of German troops commandeering cars and maltreating the Italians in Sulmona were becoming more frequent and our Italian guards were becoming more and more nervous.
The walls and barbed wiring were cut in many places round the camp to make a hurried but orderly getaway should the occasion arise. We had some of our own signallers manning an Aldis lamp focussed on the camp from the side of the mountain reporting German movements along a main road two miles away from our camp. As the days passed optimism waned to almost nothing, and it seemed everyone was waiting for the alarm to evacuate.
Let me here write a few lines on the hopeless position in which our lads in the Infirmary were placed. They had to be left behind, of that there was no doubt, although most of them were able to walk, it required a great effort. This included Maurice with a stiff and painful ankle, although on the mend, but he made the effort. The evacuation soon became a disorderly mass with every man for himself climbing up the side of the mountain. As a result of this we soon became the stragglers, but fortunately the alarm had been given in time and only a handful of Germans arrived at the camp. Luck was therefore on our side, and finding a suitably large boulder to hide behind we stopped for a breather. It seemed quite a safe and hidden position. Two days hence we realised what fools we had been, but we had little option at the time. For the remainder of the day we climbed, rested, climbed and rested, up and up, with Maurice going as gingerly as he could on the rocky surface. A scorching hot day did not help matters. Fortunately most of the way up was wooded which concealed us well, but there were some expanses which had to be crossed, and we looked like an army of ants working as hard as we could, every step was one step further away from the camp. We were actually out of the camp climbing the mountain we first admired two and a half years ago but which we soon grew sore of seeing or any signs the like of it after a few months. We were on our own free to wander where we wished and no one stopped us. But a feeling of being hunted is far worse than a feeling of captivity. We didn’t think this great at all. Plod on was the order of the day, with the gradient becoming increasingly steeper. The next morning we weighed things up. Water was to be had from wells we found on the way up but we had little food. We could only carry a few tins away with us and we ate of these sparingly. The camp could be seen quite easily down below and it looked dead. No one could be seen near it. To think that the Red Cross store contained a considerable number of Red Cross parcels and we were hungry just did not make sense. By now Maurice and I had caught up with some friends, and I suggested going down to bring back more food and milk drinks, and three other chaps agreed with me. We got down in no time; running nearly ail the way, and not taking more than three quarters of an hour on the same route that two days before had taken us a good eight hours to climb. It seemed hundreds of other chaps had had the same idea, and milk drinks were all that was left after the rest of us had taken our pick. Two of the chaps got a few boxes together, while the third one and myself went round to our old compound chiefly to get some biscuits and bully beef Maurice and I had left behind by our beds. Some kit had already been looted that was obvious but otherwise there was stillness everywhere. One or two chaps were beginning to return to the camp for good saying that the flap was over, that there was a bed, blankets and a roof to live under and that there would be plenty of food. Before the day was out a good hundred had returned obviously feeling quite confident over their actions. The four of us, having got as much food as we could carry, started the long climb back. It was hard going and we were wet through with sweat carrying four Red Cross boxes each and we had to halt often. On the way up we found some Red Cross boxes abandoned which at first looked a ridiculous thing for anybody to do but on closer examination we discovered were boxes full of delousing powder. It seemed the unfortunate and no doubt cursing chaps had not discovered this until they had climbed quite a stretch of the mountain. We carried on climbing and were all dead beat when we reached the other lads. I shall not forget that day of toil in the scorching sun.
Although by now many hundreds of us had scattered in different directions up the mountainside, the bulk of us were still in the same vicinity. The next day proved to be a very anxious one starting off with machine gun fire to be heard near the camp. It seemed obvious they were definitely out to get us. So the chase began with the Germans being fit men, carrying little and armed, while we were definitely unfit, carrying plenty and unarmed. We had no option but to keep to the track winding up into the trees. We just followed one another, either overtaking the ones ahead or being overtaken by the ones behind, according to how we felt. The sun was as boiling as ever and everyone was climbing and climbing as hard as he could get his limbs to work. Then the word was passed up, "Gerries are at the well and have caught the stragglers". At the well! We had only left the place barely an hour ago. We put more and more effort into it. It was now obvious that the last ones forming the tail would be unlucky and someone had to be last. Fortunately for Maurice and myself we were fairly well up in the snake and many tailenders would have to go before our turn came. The Gerries weren't exactly desperate as they seemed confident of getting us all eventually. As the afternoon wore on they relaxed their efforts for the day having recaptured enough for one day, but we still continued our climb feeling we could never put enough into the effort of making of a bigger gap between ourselves and the Gerries.
We all slept very soundly that night. About five hundred of us had gathered under a Commando officer in whom we all had complete confidence. Our camp was now very high up and well hidden by trees and it seemed we had found a haven at last and that we would never be traced Some sheep were rounded up for a meal and we started fires and began roasting our meal on a spit turning it over and over. It smelt good. Some later arrivals had been told by an Italian boy, who had come up specially to inform us, that the Germans had left Salmona and it was quite safe to come down. This turned out to be a ruse by the Gerries, and half an hour later Germans crept in on all sides of us and we hadn’t a chance A half a minute before a wild rumour went round that the Gerries had arrived - some of the lads were running round in circles, while others remained disbelieving it. However it seemed we had had it now. We were sitting in small groups and they came up to us and told us to form up to be marched back. Our little group numbered six. We replied, "Jawohl." As they moved on to other groups three of our six dashed into the undergrowth (we were fortunately on the perimeter of the camp) while myself, Maurice and George Pursell were packing up our kit giving the appearance of getting ready to "form up"As soon as we saw our chance we dashed to the side and down into some tree cover. It was miraculous that we were not seen but we had nothing to lose. I don’t think anybody else made any effort as everything looked so hopeless.
Our chief enemy was the leaves. We were treading ankle deep in leaves that had perhaps never been stepped in before and which were very dry. The noise seemed deafening but we had to move in it and not hesitate as we were scarcely hidden. We ran down the side as fast as we could safely go. We went fast chiefly because we thought we had long since given ourselves away by the noise of the leaves. We came across a hollow where we thought we would be sate enough for the time being and we laid low. There were six of us crouched there, and there were as many leaves in this place as anywhere. Anyone could have heard the slightest sound we made a long way off. To move the foot a few inches was very risky and we remained like this for four hours. The first couple of hours we often heard footsteps which got quite close at times but we could do nothing about it but keep quiet. Then we heard what sounded like a dog coming towards us. It wasn’t a dog but a full grown fox. He came right up to us before he noticed us and we could almost have touched him as he looked at us for a few seconds and then a dash, and we only saw his brush it was a wonderful sight and we congratulated ourselves on being so quiet. I was the only one with a watch and we decided we would leave after two hours when it might be safe We kept on delaying it for half an hour until we finally plucked up courage to go.
Let me here mention that Maurice’s ankle had stood up to everything amazingly well, m fact it definitely better and less stiff than when he left the Infirmary. It seemed this was what it wanted. Nature was doing well so well in fact that no further mention need be made of it.
Coming out of our hiding place we were definitely on the ”qui vive" and we seemed to have extra pairs of eyes and ears all about us. We met an agile Italian youth with whom we had a short parley and it was decided he should lead us over the crest of the hill range and down the other side which was just what we wanted He warned us he was a climber and would go fast and we must therefore discard anything surplus to what we were standing up in. He arranged to meet us in two hours time. This gave us ample time to rearrange ourselves which meant making the painful decision to leave behind more than half of our tins of milk food. It just did not seem right that those tins should be left to rot on the ground after our strenuous efforts of a few days ago to get them. However there was no choice. I decided at all costs to hang on to my overcoat. 1 was the only one to do this and roam limes regretted keeping it during the climb, although its worth m warmth amply paid me back in the days to come.
We met the youth again and what an excited state we found him in. All he would mutter with fleeting glances was "Tedesch Tedesch” (Germans). By now our nerves were not of the best and they easily collapsed in front of the scared youth in front of us now. Thank God there were six of us and not two on our own. It was obvious we were all restraining ourselves as an example to the rest and it worked well We were finally away at a breakneck speed, the youth was going like a scared hare and we were determined not to lose him. After half an hour George and Joe Dean were lagging behind. They were the eldest and weakest and definitely could not keep up with us. I found myself lagging behind the forward three, acting as liaison between the two parties. This worked for a while. It was now obvious the Italian would never slacken his speed for anyone He would remain scared until he was over the crest. I therefore dropped back to George and Joe and told them it was impossible to slow up the Italian and that we must split up There were two of them which was a good thing, as I saw no sense in remaining with them if I could still continue with the others when l caught up with them. The climb became steeper and we were now zig - zagging in true climbing fashion but we found no novelty in this. I have never put in so much effort physically, in my whole life, as I was doing now. Wet and panting we were amazed at what we could all do when the need arose.
We were completely exposed and occasionally we could see the slower party and so we waved to them. At last, wonder of wonders, we stopped for a break, and a sip of water, and were away again. We finally reached the top with my coat trailing along the ground. I still remember the relief we felt when we reached the top. Now it was all plain sailing downhill. For some reason we had trusted our guide and our faith was justified, we paid him nothing for we had nothing, but he had not betrayed us. It was about here we met and stopped with a group of about fifty chaps who had arrived several hours earlier and had left the camp on the other side of the mountain before the Germans had arrived. They were unaware of the fate of the other chaps and when we told them they decided to leave at once. We decided we had had enough for one day and stayed the night
We thought we would have a drink of Bengers and a biscuit each before settling down to sleep, by now George and Joe had turned up. How to keep warm half way up a mountain was now the problem. We were standing up in all we had, which was boots, socks, khaki shorts, shirt, pullover and cap. We had no underwear We collected leaves to lie on and slept in twos. Maurice and I slept together with my greatcoat over the top of us. Maurice took his bandage off his ankle and we took it in turn to bind it round our knees to keep warm. We lay sideways, curled up together, the one with his back to the other was the warmer, which meant we were continually turning round. By the morning, none of us having slept particularly well, we did not feel very refreshed. One thing was certain, we must change our camp. We were far too exposed. We decided after our strenuous efforts so far, to sacrifice comfort for safety, and finally settled on the slope of about twenty degrees completely surrounded by the foliage. Here we remained for five days living on the absolute minimum, until we were forced to go down and look for food. Chiefly we slept in the day time and sat and shivered at night. My greatcoat was of immense value and served many purposes. Two of us decided to go down, Freddy Pasque and myself. We each took two large packs with us.
I thoroughly enjoyed that day. It didn’t take us very long to get down, about an hour. As usual it was a beautiful day, and the going was easy. There seemed to be a different atmosphere on this side of the range, due to the fact there was only one road in the valley, which was second class, and running a mile beyond the village we were heading for. The village was called Salla Vecchia and within a ten minute walk there was another village called Salia Nuova, and as the last two words suggest they were the old Salla and the new Saila respectively. From our position on the mountain only the new village could be seen with its bright roofs and walls, the old one through dilapidation, looking from a military point of view, non existent and perfectly camouflaged. It was to the old one, Salla Vecchia, we were heading.
When we reached the fields and orchards of the village, Freddie Pasque remained in the orchard, while I proceeded with the two packs to the village. The hour which followed was of amazing interest to me. I walked on until I approached some houses and asked the first person I came across for some food. I was the centre of interest in a very short time. I was wearing my khaki shorts and shirt, I was tall and fair, and these two characteristics made me either a German or an Englishman. I easily convinced them I was English, a prisoner escaped from Sulmona , and then there followed nearly a free fight as to who was going to have the honour of having me in their house. The houses appeared to be made of very rough stone reinforced with mud when required There were no roads of any kind in the village, just rough paths, with cattle roaming around and needless to say chickens everywhere. Sanitation, of course, just did not exist, in fact very primitive and similar to many Arab villages I had seen in the past. So this was Mussolini’s modern Italy! Admittedly I might not have been able to find a worse example in all Italy, and my thoughts perhaps a little hasty. Nevertheless I had not realised life such as this existed in the Italy of 1943 .I was led up some stone slabs into a house whereupon I was immediately in a room where three people tried to get hold of the same chair to place under me. The room did not measure more than ten square yards, in one comer two bambinos were stripping com off the cob in remarkably quick fashion, using their feet as well as hands and sitting in the midst of it all. Flies were everywhere and as many as nineteen or twenty people of all ages and sexes were in the room looking at me including a mother with a babe in her arms presenting a very embarrassing picture for me. They gave me a large bunch of grapes to suck and bombarded me from all sides with questions, spoken in a very broad accent which was hopeless to translate, ail shouting at me at the same time, the women nearest me having the greatest advantage as they could get their mouths right up to my eardrum and shout
As soon as I stopped eating to make an attempt to answer them they would immediately shout, "Mangi, mangi", (eat, eat). Very' well then I started eating again As soon as I did all their numerous questions started again. It was a no win situation. In a short time two large army packs were filled with bread and potatoes, grapes and figs and I was veryr grateful to them. They wouldn't accept my thanks but pressed me to come again with my friends for good and live in the fields where they would feed us. They assured us there were "niente tedeschi" (no Germans) and I didn't blame them either. The offer was very tempting and two days later we all went down and lived in an orchard. The intense cold at night was chiefly responsible for this, and as we were perfectly hidden we waited with optimism, though slightly waning, for our troops to overtake us.
We spent several more days in an orchard and lived like lords. Every day at about 11.30 am a procession of women, we called it a convoy, approached us with baskets on their heads. Their gait was slow but their heads with the baskets on top were steady as rocks. Also accompanying them were many excited children who were very amusing. They always came out to us , we never went to them. The meal was invariably macaroni, or nee or both but superbly cooked in tomato flavouring with cheese and vegetables and always very hot. We were served on china plates with a second helping if required, plenty of bread, and sweet black coffee to finish. They always brought grapes and figs for us to eat during the afternoon. Again about 5 pm this procedure was repeated with another meal but this time not quite such a heavy one. After the way we had been living this food was wonderful, and about the time the convoy was due we would be watching for them and we were never disappointed. With what little variety they could give us their efforts were beyond praise, and as poor as they were I think they would have given their all had the need arisen. Through heavy and torrential rain we took shelter in a small barn in the village where they looked after us as well as before but we did not stay here for long. Notices suddenly appeared stuck on the walls in the village stating that harbouring, feeding or even speaking to escaped p.o.w.s now roaming the countryside was a criminal offence and the penalty would be death. One thousand eight hundred lira would be awarded to anyone giving particulars of escaped prisoners. This had a definite effect upon the villagers, and as much as they still wanted to help us they would rather we pushed on giving us full directions and much advice. There were however a section of the villagers, mostly the women, who wanted us to remain and who were most concerned about us. We decided to move off in the early hours of the next morning, taking advantage of the darkness to cross a small river and the main road I mentioned earlier. This was our first crossing of a road We were given as much food as we could carry and were given a great send off, everyone wanting to know where we were heading. Our reply, Foggia, ninety miles away leaving them in tears. The crossing of the road proved surprisingly easy after our careful planning, in fact such an anti climax that we were slightly disappointed After another nine miles we reached a village called Demodo. Walking along a path approaching the village we spent fully half an hour picking blackberries with not a thought for any thing else. Many a time later we looked back on this and realised how careless we had been. Demodo was another village completely isolated with only a rough path stretching two or three miles to a main road and a larger village. It was situated at the foot of two ranges of mountains at the end of a rugged valley and was completely hidden from all sides. Very much contrary to our plans we remained here for ten days. It must be remembered we were still optimistic of being overtaken by our troops, our morale being boosted by an occasional reconnaissance plane that was obviously an Allied plane. Moreover to continue our trek south meant the crossing of what I believed to be the Maiella range of mountains, enough to make any amateur think twice. Coupled with this we were made most welcome by a family of mother, father and daughter and fitted out with Italian clothing which was most generous of them. Here we learnt even more of Italian peasantry. Our party of six had now dwindled to four over a disagreement with the other two. A smaller party' was a better idea anyway and even four were two too many. However we were static for some days and this was not very important just now.
This family was far easier to understand than our previous contacts but like all Italians anxious to talk to us. Their first enquiries were the same namely, "How old are you?" "Have you any brothers and sisters?" "Are you married?" "Are you Roman Catholic?" "Where do you live?" They gave us a very satisfying meal of Pasta- asciutta (macaroni flavoured with tomato pure and cheese) on our first evening. The meal was cooked in a cauldron in front of a log fire and we ate pop com roasted in the fire to tide over our hunger.
We learnt from them that the population consisted of twenty six families - that was the most accurate answer we could obtain from them in answer to our "How many people live here?" They had no social organisation of any kind and no sport or recreation. They were only in contact with the outside world by walking to the nearest village and collecting their mail. Every family farmed and worked every minute of daylight picnicking in their respective fields for their first and mid-day meals. Their evening meal was eaten on their return from the fields when dusk set in. Their main meals were either Pasta-asciutta, made with rice or macaroni or both, or Menestra, which tasted the same but was dished up differently. Occasionally there were boiled potatoes, which we peeled ourselves after they were cooked and then dipped them in a small bowl containing a small vegetable similar to a shrivelled up carrot, called a "Parica", lying in hot olive oil. This gave a very hot flavour to the potato. Also the mid-day meal was often a vegetable stew. Menestra was similar to porridge and had to be stirred during the cooking. When it was ready to eat it was poured out of the cauldron on to the table, it was thick and therefore did not run quickly. We all sat round the table with a spoon each and spooned the nearest section to us.
Those people had no politics. They lived for themselves with no ambitions and were content to remain the same having seen or known nothing else but the land on which they worked.
We slept in a nearby barn and remained there for ten days. After the first two days we decided to earn our keep by helping on the land which was when we were given some Italian clothing. This was very vivid in colour and holed and patched in countless places but which converted us effectively into Italian farmers - from a distance. Our work consisted solely of digging up potatoes which tired us considerably. We were put to shame by the mother. When we arrived the first evening she reminded us of "the little old lady" in the well known song. She appeared to be about eighty, very slight in build, pure white hair, and with a very kind face. Her work if, we thought, she was capable of any was obviously in the house. We were wrong. She worked as hard as her husband in the fields throughout the day. One day she might be ploughing, another day helping us with the potatoes, and doing as much as at least two of us, pausing for a breather with always a smile on her face. She truly amazed us and we felt very ashamed of ourselves, trying as hard as we were to keep up. It was the daughter, a girl of about thirty, buxom, hard working, and quiet who always appeared in the field with the mid-day meal, and who, when her housework was done, came out to the fields to help. During our work Maurice lost his gold signet ring in the earth. It had often been admired by these people, they had been compelled to surrender all their gold on Mussolini's orders a few years before. The patch of ground where the ring was lost was therefore sifted most thoroughly by many a villager.
We had many scares when we had to disappear quickly up the mountains. They were without ware telephones, yes, but the good old bush telephone worked well here and was fully up to legendary standards. These scares were made many times worse by the panic the villagers worked themselves into. Our last three days we remained in the mountains throughout the daylight hours, returning as darkness fell to a hot evening meal. Caramanica was the nearest village to De Modo, a good size for a village, and was on the main road German vehicles often stopped there for a few hours which I think was the reason for the scares we were forever getting.
At one point we were walking confidently along the road, when we heard the sound of an approaching German convoy. We hastily leapt into the ditch, and tried as best we could to hide ourselves under the leaves. The vehicles grew closer, and we feared that they might be on the lookout for such an obvious hiding place: far worse if some were on foot. The vehicles passed what seemed inches from me, and I cannot remember ever being so scared in my life: either before, or after. Eventually they passed, but we remained as were were, under the leaves, for some time.
Our object of remaining in the village was becoming very negative and the only answer for us seemed to be to push on. This we decided to do on the tenth morning remembering the name and address of the family in our minds. They had sheltered, fed and clothed us which certainly deserved mentioning to the proper channels as soon as we were able to do so. To make a note of the name and address in writing would of course have been a very dangerous thing to do. Our parting was again a very touching affair but the longer we had remained there the more difficult it would have been to leave so the sooner we were on our way the better.
We started in the late afternoon to go up the mountain carrying provisions sufficient for only three or four days. These were chiefly potatoes. Our climb that afternoon was entirely uneventful, and we eventually came to a halt at some caves where, upon a closer inspection, we found nine New Zealanders. They had escaped from a similar camp to ours but were fortunate in having escaped with five Red Cross parcels to each man. Without any hesitation, when they saw how we were placed, their true comradely spirit of all mucking in together came into force. From then on we were a party' of thirteen. It was evident they had intended to remain in the caves for at least a couple of weeks, which they could have done quite easily, but with four extra men to feed this was impractical. Being grand lads they did not admit this. After spending three days and cold nights we pushed on to higher heights.
The outlook was now very uncertain but we all had the adventurous spirit in us. It was still nearly all climbing but occasionally there were level ridges to walk along until eventually we were three quarters of the way up. We came to a sheltered bowl of land where we decided to rest for the night. Here three others and myself went on almost to the top for a recce while the others got down to cooking potatoes and making a brew. We arrived back three hours later and it was decided we would start at first light the next morning. This we ridiculously carried out according to the plan. We awoke to find a misty rain but we were soon on the move hoping to climb out of it. We met the reverse but foolishly we carried on. There were thirteen of us in the party but we were still able to see each other. We were by now soaked to the skin although our bodies were warm enough with the climbing. By now we had climbed as high as we could with only ridges to walk along. The ridges often branched off in different directions and we had not the faintest idea which direction to take. Everywhere was barren and when walking along a ridge the sides left off very obliquely to wastes of mist. We were becoming very cold. The mist had thickened and we were down to six yards visibility so that to keep the thirteen of us together we were consistently shouting to one another. We were definitely lost and even uncertain of the way we had come. We got off a ridge to a flatter one with huge boulders where we decided* to shelter as best we could. We remained for an hour and decided to share a tin of precious bully beef between three and one large biscuit each. Here we were, on top of the Maiella Range, 2,793 metres up, taking refuge behind a boulder, wet through and shivering, gulping down our bully beef and biscuits, with visibility practically nil. It has taken me perhaps eight minutes to write this paragraph but the experience on the top lasted eight hours. There was little to describe except our miserable state which I defy any man to combat.
It was obvious we could not remain as we were and something had to be done before darkness descended on us. Two stout New Zealanders decided on a recce and to return to us remembering the route as best they could with us constantly shouting, although the mist deafened this considerably. They returned after about twenty minutes with a hazy idea of direction. We had nothing to lose so we decided to follow them hoping for the best. I shall never forget walking back along those ridges with the mist as thick as ever. Luck was with us, we had retraced our steps and were on the way down. What a relief we felt. We kept passing marks we had passed on the climb up and vve felt good. We went wrong twice and halted while the same two New Zealanders had a look around keeping in touch with us by shouting. A further two left the main party to be placed between the two parties which meant the two lads could stretch to twice the distance in their recce. After these reversals we finally got down to a level where there were paths to guide us, and by now darkness, which we had just beaten, descended. The mist had now changed to a heavy rain and we plodded on and on. The New Zealanders knew of an Alpine hut and we eventually reached this. Our traipse in the rain lasted three hours and at times we doubted if the leaders really did know the way. It seemed endless. We were wrong. They did know the way and what a grand effort it was on their part. The Alpine hut loomed out of the rain and the darkness in a ghostly effect and was our haven for the next two days. Fortunately three other chaps were there before us and had a good fire going. A brew was immediately put on the fire and potatoes to boil while the drying out of clothes began. The dark tin steel beds upstairs were good, well sprung beds and we were asleep in no time. The next day four of us went out in search of potatoes which meant practically an all day effort descending to the potato fields around DeModo.
Over a good meal of potatoes that evening we decided to share out what little tinned food we had left into small parties and to disperse the next day. Our experiences of the last few days, especially the last, had definitely made us change our plans. Our original scheme was an optimistic one of crossing the entire Maiella range, which would take us approximately thirty miles nearer our objective which at the moment was Foggta. It was now a case of no more mountains for good, but rather flat low land, hiding on the move, rather than mountaineering. This was unanimous and the next morning we set off in good heart, Maurice Taylor, Freddie Pasque, George Pursell and myself forming our original party again. The descent was easy. It was only a question of following a path. The scenery was grand and the whole day was most enjoyable. We came across some charcoal burners who were pleased to see us and gave us a generous helping of junket which was a surprise and was delicious. It was made from goafs milk, as was also the cheese they gave us. We enjoyed this little break and it was here I discovered the condition of my boots. Before leaving camp they were about to be repaired and now they were in a sorry state, both soles were completely holed, the right boot being very bad. We continued to the bottom arriving in the middle of the afternoon. At the foot of the mountain there was a large village called Piedmonte, which as the name suggests is, "foot of the mountain" and is not, I understand the only Piedmonte in Italy. It was just before we reached the bottom that we saw two peasant looking figures walking along another path that eventually converged with ours. We were ready to do anything but the pace at which they were walking , which was fast, and their upright bearing, obviously made them English. We stopped and had a short talk exchanging news and had a brief look at a map of Italy they were carrying which was just what we wanted at that moment. We exchanged names
The map overleaf shows our camp at Sulmona and our route to Allied Lines near Foggia. The first part of our journey was through the Maiella mountains over difficult terrain but the mountain people were helpful and friendly. In the mountainous region we did not have to worry about re-capture just survival. After leaving the mountains the going was easier but we could not trust the locals. With the odd Fascist in their midst and placards everywhere putting a price on our heads for information we decided to travel by night. So with the North Star to guide us we made a beeline south east to Foggia or Fog ( with a soft g ) as the locals would have it.
On the second part of our journey the map shows the four rivers we had to cross. The Sangro, the first and widest, was as wide as the Thames at Henley. This was not as bad as it sounds for we were moving in late September and at the end of a hot summer when the river levels were very low. In fact waist high was as high as the water came in any one of the four ri vers with perhaps the Sangro being the deepest. To the best of my knowledge we managed to wade across without actually swimming. We dare not use the bridges.
Editing note from Robin: Click on the maps to enlarge. That on the left is from a poor photocopy. You may explore that on the right by clicking here .
and when I said Davies one of them asked if I had a brother cal led Stan. I said, ’’yes”. His name was Hubbard. Many a time I had seen the name written in my brother’s letters from India.
Before entering Piedmonte we were hailed from the other side of a small ravine along which we were walking. There were two lads like ourselves in hiding and advising us not to go into the village until dusk. We lay low till then when we stealthily went forward into Piedmonte. We got food and found a bam for the night but it was more difficult than we had anticipated. The villagers here were as friendly as ever but there were Fascists about the place who were a worse menace than the Germans. We promised to move off the next morning before dawn which eased the situation.
By 5 am we were on the move again walking very boldly through the cobbled streets, which were dead quiet, and the noise our boots made sounded deafening to us. There was not a soul about this Fascist frequented place and it all seemed very easy. It so happened I was leading, we were walking Indian file, when all of a sudden a stationery German armoured car loomed out of the darkness. As soon as I recognised it, I noticed a path in the grass leading to a lower level among orchards, I immediately took advantage of this golden opportunity, with the others following, saying nothing as if this was the way we were going anyway. We carried on through orchards helping ourselves to fruit which we could now see as the dawn broke. We crossed the road which was the same one we had just left but which had curved round and carried on walking steadily with plenty of trees, hedges and orchards to cover us. Fig trees were everywhere with sugar bursting out of the fruit. There were two kinds, dark green and light yellow in colour. Their taste and sweetness was exactly the same and with a slight lift of the hand the fruit dropped. We made good progress for many miles like this, the abundance of cover and fruit to pick and eat as we walked made the going as pleasant as any we had had up to now. We were walking at an angle slightly higher than our immediate surroundings and the view this gave us was very helpful. At Piedmonte we had been given an approximate direction and we headed straight for it regardless of the nature of the ground. Choosing always cover of hedges we headed south. When one landmark was reached we chose another one, always checking our direction and gathering information from the locals as to the whereabouts of German troops . We were making good time when lower down we saw a farmhouse that looked deserted. Straining our eyes we saw a figure moving slowly round and placing cloth on the hedges. We saw fruit trees in the garden too, we had run out of fruit by now, and we decided to go down and see what was going on. Approaching the farmhouse it was obvious there had been a fire. On closer inspection it seemed the bams and wagons and everything that went to make a complete farmyard had been burnt. The old boy, who had been placing pieces of burnt curtain, bedding and everything he treasured on the hedges, was broken hearted. He spoke broken English having spent many years in America, twenty five years before, and his words were full of hatred for the Germans. He explained as best he could what had happened. He had talked to, fed and helped escaping p.o.w.s like ourselves on their way. An Italian who was obviously a Fascist must have seen this and told the Germans. As a result the Germans had arrived yesterday, he said, and sacked the whole place including a bam full of cows who had been burnt to death. Nothing was left to him and we felt very sorry for him. Three other farms in the vicinity which we passed later on had suffered the same fate. We continued on our way finding the going very easy. We did not stop on a road or path except to cross them, always making our way along hedges and seldom deviating to any degree from the beeline course we were following. We found a particular type of dried leaf quite suitable for pipe smoking and we found the going far pleasanter and no comparison with our experiences on the mountains. By now my boots were giving me trouble making me limp a little. Footwear was practically non existent in Italy so it seemed there was no alternative for me. We once came across two chaps like ourselves in an orchard. News of the surrounding district was eagerly swopped and we continued on again. We slept in barns and haystacks at night and were always on the move and in hiding before daylight. We lived on figs, tomatoes, grapes and apples which we helped ourselves to, and bread we were able to get from the locals. Apart from my feet we were fit. One morning we were awoken by an artillery barrage, which lasted half an hour and then there was complete silence. We gingerly proceeded south and came across a German encampment with pigs penned up, they loved their pork, and "fresh" latrines still uncovered. It was obvious a hasty retreat had been made. After the cacophony of an hour ago the silence was eerie. It seemed we had walked through no man’s land without realising it. We couldn't believe our luck We continued until we met Allied troops, Indians, new to battle and nervous. They were rightly suspicious as our Italian clothing was torn exposing our khaki shorts and shirts not unlike that worn by the Afrika Corps. We demanded to see an officer. This was met with a white officer thank God. He asked me where I lived and I told him Wimbledon, London which he did not know. He then asked George, who came from Wallesley, the other side of the Mersey to Liverpool, which was where the officer lived. He asked George the name of the main railway station to which George gave the correct answer. We were accepted with open arms and embarrassed with chocolate and cigarettes coming from every direction. Two and a half years of captivity at an end. FINITO.
Our first request was for a local map. We were able to pinpoint a pocket of Germans, and were later informed the R. A.F. had taken it out. Dog eat dog.
We were put on an open truck and truly feted all the way back to Regimental H.Q. Suddenly life was wonderful. We were freshly kitted out including footwear The soles of my boots presented an extraordinary sight. They were completely worn through and the leather had somehow piled up in layers in the toe area. Maurice Taylor and Freddie Pasque had gone on ahead a few days earlier because George was always lagging behind and my footwear was slowing me up. They had arrived only twenty four hours ahead of us and we rejoined them at H.Q. We, and a few hundred more who for various reasons were to be repatriated, were shipped across the Mediterranean to Tunis where we entrained in cattle trucks to Algiers. This was slow and arduous, taking three days and nights. Of course we were in high spirits and everytime the train stopped, which was often, we would jump out and start a "brew up" - getting hot water from the engine we brewed up on make shift stoves made from tins suitably cut out. We frantically fanned with pieces of cardboard and not forgetting a splinter of wood floating on the top of the water which was supposed to take out the smell of the smoke. The engine driver always gave us a good warning of starting with a long blast on the whistle, and any brew not completed, the embers were somehow scraped up, we would continue making on the truck. We must never be denied our mugs of tea.
We arrived at a transit camp at Algiers where I went down with yellow jaundice. It was reluctantly agreed to allow me to embark and I was taken straight to the sick bay, It was here that an amazing conversation took place We were in double bunk beds. I was in the bottom bunk. The chap in the top bunk looked down at me and said, "Is your name Davies?" I said, "Yes". "You have a brother called Stanley?" I said, "Yes", and of course asked after him. Was he alright, has he got through? Then I asked, "How do you know me?" He said he recognised our facial resemblance, side face. We were a different build. Out of all the hundreds of thousands of troops in this theatre of war that I should come across this unknown who knew my brother well was truly amazing. Such happenings are what dreams are made of surely? He told me Stanley had got through safely. (He was imprisoned in North Italy and daringly took a train heading south.)
We sailed in convoy to Liverpool via the North American coast. At Liverpool the Pay Corps worked flat out for forty eight hours to get all our documentation and pay up to date. I was given six weeks leave on double rations.
The train journey to London was one of joy and excitement. To see the old country again was indeed wonderful. Stanley had just beaten me to our house in Wimbledon. To meet my mother and father again was a reunion beyond description. Here they were stoically living through the air raids and enduring severe rationing, unsung heroes as far as Stanley and myself were concerned. Mother and father slept in a Morrison shelter designed to go under a medium sized table. Our six weeks leave was interrupted by air raids every night it seemed. We all pulled together putting out incendiary bombs, neighbours who were strangers to each other all worked together regardless. Our eldest brother, Ronald, was in the RAF. stationed mostly in Scotland. He was non operational due to a motor cycle accident before the war which left him with permanent trouble with his right leg. Unfortunately we were unable to meet. What a reunion that would have been!
At the end of our leave Stanley and I returned to our respective centres. I headed for Catterick for retraining. Signals procedure was now all new to me, having to adopt the American version On completion of our retraining programme I applied and was accepted to rejoin the 7th Armoured Division and so joined my close friend, Jack Quibell, who had been a fellow scholar of Rutlish School, Merton, and also many other fellow Yeomen I knew. This was great. Jack and I had been together all through our school years. While I had been a p.o.w. he had been in the thick of things and a more unassuming character I have yet to meet. This account of my p.o.w. life and escape is one of self preservation. There must be many others whose experiences would fill a tome if they put pen to paper, and Jack is one of these, Noel Morris another. They saw through the desert campaign to the finish and then went on to Sicily. After this the 7th Armoured Division was returned to England to spearhead the landings in Normandy. They had five years of active service.
We were billetted at Brandon in Essex prior to the invasion of France. We had a weekend left and most of us took French leave. We had nothing to lose. I went to my parents , now evacuated to a village called Buckland between Farringdon and Oxford. It was good to see them again but I had to leave on the Sunday. I cycled back to Oxford station. All the way back the grass verges were covered with ammunition boxes. I arrived back at Brandon and at dawn on the Monday we were on our way to Tilbury. We sailed later that day and were on the Normandy beaches on D+2. We landed on Gold beach near Arromanches. I was in a A.C.V. (armoured control vehicle), a large cumbersome vehicle built like a tank with armoured plating that could withstand shrapnel and sniper fire. Besides the wireless compartment there was a control room and the whole set up was very elaborate. My set was controlling a network out to the artillery batteries. The morse was high powered stuff and at times beyond my ken. I later got myself forward to a smaller unit where life was more basic and enjoyable.
We were not able to make any deep incursions with the Germans dug in around Caen. Troops, ammunition and stores continued to be landed and the pocket of land we held, presented easy targets for the Luftwaffe. They couldn't miss. After some three months, Montgomery visited various units of the 7th Armoured, to inform us we would have the "honour” of breaking out in the Caen area. We were seasoned campaigners having been through the Desert Campaign and the Sicily landings, he told us. This was why we had been withdrawn from the Italian theatre. The reception he got was ice cold - on the point of rebellion. The 7th Armoured division consisted of one (sometimes two) Armoured Brigades and one Infantry Brigade. The latter was made up of three battalions of the Queens Regiment - London Cockneys and.the salt of the earth. The Brigade had been decimated and made up time and time again. We were also aware that the Guards Division had been held back in England since the outbreak of war - WHY ?
We made a successful breach and poured through. There then began one big "swan up" through France and into Holland. No sleep for several nights but we were getting somewhere. The reception in villages and towns was overwhelming. We finally reached Nijmegen which had been captured by glider borne troops. There were gliders everywhere in every field. The touch downs must have been hairy because the gliders were pointing in all directions and very close together. Arnhem was the next objective but I wasn't to stay. Being amongst my many friends did not quite work out, although I made some new ones. A Signals Regiment split into troops become very scattered because they are attached to various arms of the army, as against an Infantry, Tank or Artillery Regiment which holds together. A Signals Regiment maintains the link between the adopted Regiment and Corps H Q. and the rear of the Corps. A scheme was afoot called Python, an acronym of words I cannot recall, but anyone who had been out of the country for four and a half years or more, could apply for repatriation. I decided to apply. This was granted and I spent the last six months of the war in Paradise. Whitby, in fact, in North West Yorkshire where I was employed in teaching recruits signals procedure. During this time peace came first with Europe and then with Japan. My demob number was twenty six and I was due for this in February 1946.
During my stay in Whitby I met my first wife, Ada, who lived in Thirsk. Every weekend I took French leave preferring buses to trains because of "Red Caps" (army police) who were usually around the railway stations and of course this included York station. We became engaged and later married in December 1946, a marriage that was to last forty nine and a half years. My memories, both happy and sad, of Thirsk, York, Hemsley, Coxwold and the North Yorkshire moors have never left me.
On the day of my demob I journeyed by train down to King's Cross, as also did Ada to meet my parents for the first time. From King's Cross I went to Olympia where I handed in my khaki and was issued with civilian clothes - shirt, tie and grey pin striped suit, fawn raincoat and brown trilby hat. We could be spotted anywhere having exchanged one uniform for another.
A new life beckoned. So - that's it then - thank you very much and good afternoon.
© Alan S Davies. Written by his father T.B.Davies, known as Bert. Put online by
with help from Peter Facey. Click on links or pictures for more information.
The extra paragraph, near the fox, about hiding in the ditch, was added by Robin, based on what he remembered of Bert's original handwritten manuscript, read years earlier.
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