The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 6 No 2 - Desember 1983

An Escape Story

by N.R. Cross

At the age of seventy a man may be fortunate enough to have survived experiences a little out of the ordinary, and the following account will be of such an experience.
In prisoner-of-war camps men tended to form small groups and I was one of a group of four who remained together through the various camps throughout our P.W. existence. We were all from a South African regiment known as the 'Jocks' (Second Battalion Transvaal Scottish), and in order of age the youngest was Pte George I. Deas, then L/Cpl Hugo de Klerk, L/Cpl Ellis G.S. (Red) Dadds and myself. We became members of a working party of just over a hundred men - British and South African - and one New Zealander who was a medic and a nice chap. Our work was building P.W. camp accommodation. This involved putting in the stone and brickwork foundations and the ablution end sections. The rest of the building was of wooden construction. By and large, as far as was possible under P.W. conditions, we were reasonably content. We were imprisoned near Acqua Pendente in the province of Viterbo.
When Italy capitulated we were called in from work and addressed by the Camp Commandant, a Capt Galucci, who gave us the news including the position of the British troops. He advised us to remain in camp until the allied forces reached us which, by their present rate of progress, he estimated would not take more than a month. According to his information the German troops had no established line of defence and would be swept out of Italy in a very short time.
Although some of us were uneasy about the presence of German troops in the neighbourhood, we remained in camp. It was a sensible arrangement as the store of Red Cross parcels alone would provide enough food for three months, whereas if we all broke out the Italian population was too short of food to feed a horde of hungry men roaming the countryside.

For a while things ran smoothly but our idyllic existence was soon to be interrupted. We awoke one day to find German troop carriers outside the camp and guards patrolling the camp. Two machine guns were posted at diagonal corners of the camp and our erstwhile Italian guards, including Capt Galucci, had discreetly vanished.
An air of dejection hung over the camp as the inmates viewed the prospects. However, after two or three days had passed and there were no signs of the severe disciplinary measures we expected to follow the German takeover, the spirit of the camp brightened and some expressed the hope that we might yet be released by allied troops. The guards obviously did not enjoy the role. As combat troops they no doubt felt that such a chore was beneath their dignity and the result was that they were not particularly vigilant. I began thinking of escape.
My companions did not seem very enthusiastic but another South African, Bill (I have since forgotten his surname), of the Natal Carbineers - approached me and asked my opinion on the possibility of escape; (he had somehow acquired a pair of pliers). It appeared that he sought my opinion, as I was one of the oldest men in the camp and not inclined to rush into foolish action. I assured him that I was determined to escape and he began detailing his plan. It was straightforward and simple and as we walked and talked about the scheme I was sure it would succeed.

As with all P.W. camps, there was a double fence about three metres high and at least three metres apart, with overhanging tops. At the top end of the camp the ground rose sharply and there, outside the fence, the slope had been cut into to make a level road for patrolling guards. The bank thus formed continued beyond the camp boundary for thirty metres or more. In the night men would not be seen against this bank from the bottom corner of the camp where the machine gun was positioned. Inside the fence and quite near the same end of the camp, and no more than five metres from the inside fence, was an unfinished building with a hole left through the foundation wall below floor level. The floor level here was almost a man's height owing to the sloping ground. The hole had been left to facilitate the installation of plumbing and drainage. This hole provided the perfect point of departure. Once through the fence one would immediately be under the cover of the bank and obscured by the deep shadow cast by the building under a rising moon.
Bill and I went over the whole scheme in the after noon of the day set for the attempt. As we did so we watched the sentries from a spot close to the fence, fairly near to where we intended to cut the wire. It occurred to me that although they were visible for the whole length of the top beat, having gone no more than thirty paces from where they had passed us they became invisible; from beyond a certain angle, the double fences and standards converged and appeared to be a solid stockade.
'Bill', I said, 'Cut the inside fence now the guard can't see us!' Bill seemed doubtful so I said, 'Give me the pliers' and that settled him. Having asked someone to warn us if anything unexpected was about to happen, Bill set to and with four cuts, as had been planned he cut a flap which could be raised to make a hole through which a man could crawl. Half the job was now done. When the sentry came around again he noticed nothing. The escape parties assembled one by one during the remainder of the afternoon and waited for the night. We were nine in all; four Jocks and Bill's group which consisted of four more South Africans and a Yugoslav major. Part of the finished section of the camp had been requisitioned for Yugoslav officers, with whom we had established friendly relations.
The moon cleared the horizon and our proposed exit point was soon in deep shadow. Bill waited until the guard had passed then raising the flap he had cut that afternoon he crawled through to the outside fence. Clip! There was a slight snap as the wire parted. Bill tensed and paused - no alarm and no signal came from those watching for the sentries. Bill proceeded quickly, and putting down the pliers he lifted the flap and beckoned his group to follow. In a flash he was through and had disappeared into the deep shadow.
As his group followed through I imagined that it resembled a huge snake as, head to foot, the men wriggled through the fences. Within seconds we followed and it was my job to close down the flaps to avoid detection and throw back the pliers. Confident that I could not be seen from the camp because of the high bank, I completed my task and turned to follow the others, when, to my dismay, I saw tins of foodstuff lying right in the sentry's path. Scattering them out of sight, I then noticed Red's dressing case which he had carefully carried through all the different camps. Just as I picked up the case the alarm was given that the sentry was approaching. I dived into the bushes and waited for him to pass, my heart pounding, for now I was really in a dangerous position. He passed and saw nothing and as soon as he was no more than dimly visible I left my cover (and Red's case) and fled! I found my three companions on the point of leaving, for it had been previously arranged that I should be assumed caught if I was more than three or four minutes behind them. Moreover, their cover was still a little too near the camp for comfort. However, after my explanation we all shook hands and feeling tremendously exhilarated with our success, we plunged into a thicket of hazel bush. Red was disconsolate over the loss of his leather case and its silver contents, but with the wonderful feeling we were now experiencing, he soon shrugged off his regrets.

We were not making a lot of noise as we pushed our way through the branches and I don't know who was the more startled when we suddenly broke into a clearing and found Bill and his group sitting and discussing their next move. We decided on a course of action different from theirs and after shaking hands and wishing all well we departed.
We had not covered more than a few hundred metres when we heard gunfire. The anti-tank guns positioned on the high ground above the camp were firing tracers and we could hear the rapid fire of the machine guns. However, we were well hidden for we had stumbled into a deep cutting about two metres deep and one and a half metres wide going in our direction. We pressed on, wondering what had happened at the camp. I learned long afterwards (on meeting another ex-prisoner - Vic Els - in East London) that two men had attempted to escape using our route and had been seen. They were caught by machine gun fire as they were going through the wire. One was killed and the other badly wounded. The following day, Vic said, the German commandant was in a rage and shortly afterwards they were all transported to Germany.
We eventually emerged from the trench to find a stream flowing across our path and tree-clad hills before us. Deciding that we were well clear of the camp with plenty of cover, we sat amongst the trees and gave up stumbling on in the darkness. We dozed until the morning and then set off following the stream which flowed in the direction we wanted to take. The weather was wonderful and as we had some tinned food we agreed to avoid contact with the locals until we had been two or three days on our route, by which time we should have been well enough clear of the German division assembled in the area of the camp to prevent any knowledge of our whereabouts leaking back to the Germans.

The third day had nearly passed when I suddenly realised it was my 33rd birthday (17 September 1943) and, astounded, George realised his 21st birthday had occurred on the day we escaped. What finer way could one celebrate a 21st birthday? And in good humour we attempted to compose ourselves for another night's sleep in the open. The days were lovely and warm but the nights had become chilly and we slept fitfully.
We struck into the hills, taking our bearings by the sun, and attempted to hold a course southwards through the mountainous central areas, in order to avoid roads used by German transport. This meant following hill tracks connecting small mountain villages. Even though our overwhelming desire to reach British troops drove my companions and I to push on ceaselessly, I would often pause to absorb scenes of old villages, often over a thousand years old by repute, perched on hilltops or on the sides of wooded ravines, which would have inspired any artist. We were now becoming fitter and, as Red said, much to George's pleasure, more determined men. It really pleased young George to be numbered amongst a group of 'determined men'. He was a very nice chap and 'game for anything'.

On about the fourth day we decided to ask for food and shelter. When a small, shabby looking village of no more than a dozen cottages came into view we thought we would try our luck even though it was early afternoon. As we entered the village the only person we could see was a strongly built man of about 50 years old, who watched our approach with apprehension.
We didn't feel too hopeful as we greeted him but after we had explained who we were his attitude changed completely. (I had picked up a lot of Italian having worked with the local people in building the camp accommodation). Our uniforms had put him on his guard, especially as we were still clean shaven and looked fit. He said that he had thought we might be Germans. He regretted that he had no food except bread and gave us a small loaf; however, he added, he did have wine, and disappeared into a cottage to fetch it. The only wine that any of us had tasted was that brought into camp by the civilian building artisans who drank it during their midday break, and, to us it tasted like a very weak vinegar. He returned with a large demijohn. What wine!! We talked, and, as he generously refilled our mugs, he advised us not to stay the night as an active Fascist would be returning in the evening who would convey information about us to the German forces. The bottle was two-thirds empty and he said we might finish the bottle but thought we had drunk enough. When we finally left we realised that his judgment had been correct because our legs had begun to feel rubbery and we collapsed into a bushy hollow at the side of the road unable to go any further than six or seven hundred metres from the village - Fascists or no Fascists. We were drunk but unrepentant. We were not expert judges of wine and so could not say just how good the wine was, but certainly, in my whole life, I have never enjoyed wine more than I did in that little village.
We awakened before dark and set off hoping to find shelter for the night. All things considered, we were not in bad shape and before long had regained our good spirits as we trudged along. We soon came upon another village where a villager allowed us to sleep on the floor of his living room and where we were given a meal which, although meatless, was to us as good as a banquet. The folk were very friendly and full of apologies that they were unable to provide better accommodation. We slept well, nevertheless, and set off in good heart the following morning.

Still following a south-easterly course, aiming for the centre of Italy, we struck easier going and presently came upon a wide stream with an approach from both sides but no bridge. On closer examination however we discovered a line of squared stone blocks just beneath the surface which must have been placed there as stepping stones. The water was about waist deep so, in case the stones were slippery, I rummaged around and found a stick long enough to steady myself a went across safely. When we were all across we saw man approaching, and, after an exchange of greeting we enquired what the name of the stream was and were told that it was the Tiber.
The man was very friendly after we told him who we were and he informed us that we were heading the direction of Orvieto. Bidding him farewell we set off again. Eventually passing Orvieto lying on our right about three kilometres away, we gained the impression that it was an old city still partly walled. Our policy was, however, to avoid all heavily built up areas, so once again found ourselves among the hills and village folk.
Nowhere did we encounter unfriendliness. Our approach was nearly always watched with a caution but once our identity was known no one could have been friendlier and more hospitable than the Italian villagers. We asked the reason for their suspicion whenever we were seen and were told that it was due to our uniforms - we might have been Germans. We therefore decided to change our clothing at the first opportunity.

Almost without exception the hill villages were strikingly beautiful. As we entered one particular village, after struggling up a hillside, we found the inhabitants in a cluster discussing something obviously serious. Such was their concentration that we remained unnoticed until we were quite close. When they eventually noticed us they regarded us seriously with some curiosity. We were now in 'civvies'. Were we perhaps Partisans? Again explanations followed and a middle-aged woman who was working an old- fashioned spinning wheel outside her house nodded understandingly whilst the other folk crowded around us.
We were given news of the British advance which was meeting strengthening German opposition and the heavy fighting that was in progress. Not the best news for us. We were advised to remain in the village and, to encourage us in this decision, we were introduced to the village winemaker who promptly invited us to partake of his wares.
In most houses in small villages the ground floor was used as a byre for whatever cattle the folk possessed but in the winemaker's house the ground floor was his wine cellar. Opening large double doors, he invited us in. We stepped down three steps and saw barrels of various sizes on both sides of the cellar. The sizes ranged from about one metre high to one enormous barrel which was about the height of a man.
We were conducted to the far end of the cellar where a small barrel stood in the corner. Our host tapped the side of his nose, implying that this was something special. It was very special and not unlike the first good wine which had affected our ability to walk!
This wine threatened to rob my companions of all resolve to go any further. A further inducement to stay was the presence of attractive female company who were obviously attracted to Hugo, George and Red. There was no doubt about our welcome and the lure was strong but I argued that to stay anywhere would make it very difficult to get going again. My companions really wanted to stay, however, and my arguments were futile. It looked as though we would have to part so I said that I would stay nowhere more than one night but would not try to influence them any further. If they decided to stay we would have to part company. Regretfully I began walking away.
Having walked about fifty paces, I heard them call and turned to see them walking towards me. They were resentful at first and we proceeded in silence; but soon our comradeship began to assert itself as they good-naturedly chided me for being a man past his youth who couldn't bear to see it in others and we were once more striding out purposefully.
We found sleeping accommodation in an outbuilding in which there was a good store of hay and we slept there comfortably.

Sometimes we would have to cross a valley through which a road ran carrying enemy transport, which was a hazardous operation. Fortunately, pedestrians did not excite suspicion (unless in groups) so we would cross singly, taking perhaps ten minutes or more before completing the crossing. Small groups of men would immediately be rounded up, if seen by German troops, and used as labour or shot if suspected to be terrorists, so we were careful never to be seen in a group.
We were winding our way down a narrow mountain track and, as we rounded a rocky spur, a village came into view. A car was parked in the track. To our dismay, standing next to the car were two German officers who commanded us to approach them. We instantly turned off the track and fled down the mountainside with bullets flying around us. 'We stood not upon the order of the going', and George streaked past me, his legs and arms going like pistons - an impression magnified by the fact that his jacket and trousers were too short and his arms and legs seemed to protrude everywhere at once. Mountain folk are usually short and George was a good six feet tall; in swapping clothes George had lost out.
Far below the village and well beyond pursuit we stopped to regain breath and laughed at our escape. George declared that we had run so fast that the bullets had been left behind. We did not loiter and sought adequate cover as we abandoned any idea of finding accommodation in that area.
Arriving at a small, half walled-in village with a really medieval air about it, we greeted an elderly man and asked if accommodation could be had there. We were advised that a man of wealth lived in a modern villa nearby and would look after our welfare. Having directed us to the villa, he departed.

We thought that it might be advisable on this occasion to present ourselves as men of substance, so, we promoted ourselves from privates to subalterns, captain and major in order of age, and rang the bell. On approach we had noted the villa was modern and stylishly built and were not surprised when the door opened and a well-dressed man of some forty years stood looking at us in amazement. We explained who we were and he cordially invited us inside. After a wash and shave we were introduced to his wife, his son and two daughters.
It appeared that his son was a subaltern in the Italian Army and the whole family was living away from their home in Rome in order to avoid trouble. The son on learning our ranks assumed a slightly deferential air; it is astonishing what can be achieved with a little acting!
After an excellent supper we thought we had landed a good billet, but I noticed that the man had become aware of his daughters' interest in our company and I was not surprised when he advised us not to stay as there were Fascists around.
That night we slept in a very old, low-roofed barnlike place with no dividing walls. The owner, an old man, and his wife slept at the far end whilst we slept amongst bags of potatoes and agricultural tools. At least we were out of the cold night air and slept well.

In the vicinity of Terni we noticed a well-graded path going up a mountainside and our curiosity overcame our reluctance to take on unnecessary climbing. After ascending, we found ourselves on a broad shoulder where a large and very old building stood with an ornate well in the foreground, its marble surround beautifully carved. The well was covered by a tiled roof which was supported by twisted stone columns. Although we were thirsty we were unable to drink from the well as there was no bucket or rope and the water must have been at least twenty metres down. We were about to look into the building, which appeared to be deserted, when we were startled by a call. Turning around we saw a stockily-built man approaching us who, as he drew near, asked who we were and what we were doing there. He was astonished to learn who we were and said that he knew we were not locals and thought we might be hiding from the Germans, or might be partisans looking for an operational base. When we suggested that we hoped to sleep there, he explained that the building was locked. It was an old Benedictine monastery which had been abandoned and the water in the well was unfit for drinking, and seeing we were in need of food and rest he bade us follow him.
Although we were quite fit we were breathing heavily by the time we had reached a basin-shaped hollow with a well-constructed hut on one side. Here we encountered a couple of men who eyed us with some suspicion which disappeared when our guide explained who we were. We were then invited to sit and share their evening meal, a substantial stew which sated our appetites admirably. By hiding in the mountains in this manner these men had eluded the Germans and had managed to preserve the best of their sheep from German foraging parties. We slept in the hut that night with sacking to keep us warm. Waking early in the morning we set off again with hearty good wishes for our future from our genial hosts who also showed us a secret route down the mountain in case enemy troops were present.

Occasionally we were obliged to sleep uncomfortably. One night, after tramping through a rather desolate, wet and cold upland area, we reached a lime kiln. The lime had been burnt and the kiln covered over with sheets of corrugated iron. There were branches of firewood lying around which we used to improvise a roof, leaving sufficient room underneath for us all to lie in. We then made a small fire to ward off some of the chilly air. My companions slept more soundly than I did, so, whenever I felt the need, I replenished the fire. We at least remained dry and not too cold.
The following day we climbed two ridges of some 2 000 feet (610 m) and found ourselves in a wooded area in which we came upon some curious structures about seven or eight feet high covered with turf. Wisps of smoke were issuing from them, and I realised that a charcoal burner had been busy. We came upon him in a hut a few yards further on. He was friendly and offered us food and wine and invited us to stay, but it being still early in the day, we declined and pushed on.
We were now approaching an area which had been described to us as a stronghold of partisan activity. A small army was said to have established itself on the Mamella mountain which had foiled all German efforts to wipe it out. Hugo and George were keen to join this organisation and, although I was set on reaching the British forces, I too was curious although at the same time, doubtful, about the exploits of this fabled force of men. However, the mountain lay more or less in our path and so we eventually found ourselves in the vicinity of the Mamella, the partisan fortress.
As we walked along the path we met an Englishman who had a Beretta pistol strapped to his side. After introductions we learned that he had been a member of the much lauded army. He was highly amused when we told him of its heroic deeds. He said there had been a band of almost a thousand men on the mountain including Bersaglieri, Carbinieri and about twenty or thirty ex-P.W.s. who were all armed, and had in addition, three mountain guns and plenty of ammunition. Unfortunately, he said, they had no fighting spirit.
It appeared that a section of German infantry had decided to investigate a rumour of the presence of a partisan force on the mountain and had been driven off by gun fire. Within a week, a fully equipped German battalion had arrived which began preparations for an attack. The Englishman believed that the partisans could have wiped out such opposition, but, after the first shot was fired the Carbinieri fled and after the second the Bersaglieri also fled, leaving the few ex-P.W.s, who decided after the third shot, that there was no future for them in such circumstances. So evaporated the myth of heroic resistance!

Thus disabused, we set our sights to the hills. Further on we met up with six Englishmen, obviously well educated, who claimed to be officers. Thinking we might learn something to our advantage we asked them how they planned to reach the British. They airily replied that they would sit it out until the troops advanced past them. We left them.
We found shelter and food in a very rough dwelling which was as much a home for the poultry as it was for its owners, an elderly man and his wife. We slept there on the earthen floor.
We were by now having to dodge Germans more frequently. One day whilst descending a steep track, being on the outside edge of the path, I was able to see around a sharp bend which was obscured by a projecting rockface. As we were about to turn the bend I quietly said 'Quick! back up the hill', and led the way into the bush. I had seen two Germans no more than ten yards down the hill climbing up, fortunately with their heads down. When we were well into the bush, Hugo voiced his disapproval of our action. He felt that we could have disposed of the Germans but I could not agree. There was a village below us which might have harboured a company of enemy troops and we could well have been in a dangerous position had the two men managed to give the alarm before we silenced them.
Shortly afterwards we decided that it was becoming too risky for the four of us to be seen in such enemy infested territory. We were too conspicuous and decided to split into pairs. Hugo eventually elected to go with George, which left Red and I together. We parted company, and set off in different directions.

The next day we found ourselves in a valley which rose up to a saddle from where an occasional vehicle might be heard. Reaching a point where we could see the vehicles as they passed, we crouched behind a boulder for a few minutes until sure that there was no convoy and then decided to cross the road one at a time. Red was to go first and once across was to pick the most obvious cover and wait for me. He was to wait no more than approximately five minutes and had I not arrived in that time, he was to head for a ruined tower we could see on a hillside about a half to three-quarters of a mile away and wait there for fifteen minutes. If I did not show up he was to assume I had been caught. Red crossed the road and a truck passed shortly after. No more than three minutes after Red had crossed I followed, and as I entered in to a shallow valley dropping away from the road, I saw what appeared to be a U-shaped farm building which was the only convenient hiding place within striking distance.
As were the other two, Red was a thoroughly reliable man and I knew that the building would be his choice. I walked down rapidly and reached the building. As I was about to turn into the courtyard, instead of finding Red waiting for me, I saw a German Tiger Tank. I turned quickly in the direction of the ruined building and began walking with a limp and stooped shoulders. As a fit man I could easily be pressganged into service, so I acted as a rather feeble one. As I breasted a small rise I observed a German walking towards me. I assumed he must have been a member of the Tank crew as he was carrying an oil can. At that moment some R.A.F. 'planes began bombing nearby. I stopped and watched them, calling them all the unfriendly Italian words I could think of. The German passed me and spat in contempt. 'If he only knew who I was', I thought, and carried on towards the agreed rendezvous. I reached the ruined tower but Red was not to be seen. I saw a family in a makeshift shelter nearby who had been evicted from their home which was required by the Germans. I asked them if they had seen anyone during the last half-hour and they told me that I was the only man they had seen that day I would now, obviously, have to proceed alone.
I learned long afterwards that Red had got such a shock when he saw the tank that he forgot all about the rendezvous and walked straight on, and only remembered that he was to meet me after he had gone too far.
Ahead of me I could hear an engine being revved as though under test and I asked the man of the family what concentration of German troops there was in the area. He said it was large as the fighting going on was not far off. I could only go forward. I reached an open meadow and noticed 'phone wires on the ground leading to a house at the lower end of it, outside of which two men in German uniforms sat smoking. I would have been conspicuous had I acted otherwise than as a peasant and so I walked on past the seated men almost close enough to be touched. They merely looked at me disinterestedly when I wished them a good day. Fortunately many Italian phrases came to my tongue quite readily and were accepted by the Italians as being completely Italian in tone and pronunciation. Nevertheless I thought anything could happen as I turned past another house and struck up the hill.
As I was about to go over the hill I saw a concentration of anti-aircraft guns hidden by wickerwork and a background of trees. I turned away and followed a track which led to a house which I hoped was not occupied by Germans. About thirty metres below me a self-propelled gun fired a round. It was so well camouflaged that I wouldn't have noticed it had it not fired. I reached the house to find the occupants sitting down to eat the last bit of food that they had; yet they invited me to share it with them and would not hear of refusal. I left them sadly, wondering what would become of them when the last of their food, macaroni and tomatoes, was gone.

I plodded on past a thicket of trees in which could be seen oil drums and tank tracks and then turned into a wooded bank above a small stream, hoping to find a suitable spot for the night. I found a hut occupied by a young Italian man who was hiding from the Germans. He thought the possibility of getting through to the British was very remote. He pointed out that the small stream ran into the Trigno, whose near bank was some thirty metres high and continued a considerable distance towards the Adriatic with machine guns posted along its entire length. I slept that night in another little hut, as the young man thought his father would be too scared to bring his evening meal if he saw someone there he didn't know.
I spent the next day in the cover of the trees, considering the problem. I thought that by following the small stream I would have cover and should be able to cross the Trigno before the moon rose as the weather had been so dry that the river was no more than knee-deep just above its junction with the stream. There were two hilly spurs at right angles to the stream and then the Trigno bank, all the same height, and I noticed what seemed to be a check point near the stream below the second spur. I decided to follow the little stream and then circumvent this point by leaving the stream and going over the spur and then returning to the stream just before it entered the Trigno. Having decided on this action I waited for nightfall. I would have to cross the Trigno before moonrise, which would not leave me many hours of darkness.
Before dark I made my way down through the trees. Upon reaching the stream I waited hidden in the bushes until darkness. I then crossed the stream and began walking along a rough track. It was pitch dark and keeping to the path wasn't easy. Suddenly I became aware of a motor-cycle engine running quietly behind me. I slipped into the stream and crouched below the bank. This was really a bit of good luck, I reflected, as I could follow the bike and would know when the check point had been reached. As the 'cycle passed, I climbed back out of the stream and followed what appeared to be 'cycle with sidecar travelling at no more than walking pace showing no more than the barest glimmer of light.
After a while the driver stopped and I heard voices. I concluded that this must be the check point. I struck off to my left, and reaching the spur, began feeling my way over it, thinking that my chances of getting down to the stream and then across the Trigno in such darkness were good. As I reached the top of the spur, however, I realised to my dismay that it wasn't the spur I had climbed but the bank of the Trigno itself. There was the river gleaming dully below me!
I could do nothing else now but go forward and hope for the best. I had not taken more than three paces when the German command to halt rang out. My heart fell into my boots as I froze. Two Germans came up and prodded me with their rifles. I thought I might have stood a chance disarming one - one doesn't poke a rifle at an intended victim; it is too easy to be disarmed. However, there were two of them and they had apparently taken me for a stupid peasant. When they questioned me in German I replied in Italian. Thankfully I realised they knew very little Italian, for once away from stock phrases and into proper conversation my Italian would not stand the test.
Suddenly a voice of authority asked what was going on and the Germans replied that they had caught someone going through their position. 'What now', I thought, 'this will be either an officer or a sergeant who will quite likely have a good command of Italian'. 'Bring the schweinhund here!', the voice ordered. That much I could understand and I wondered if I would be shot on the spot or if further questioning would take place in the morning. If I was discovered I knew that I would definitely be shot as I was in civilian clothing. I was prodded over to the officer. He was a short man who angrily tried to ask me what I was doing there and told the two men to search me. With some relief I realised that his Italian was poorer than mine so taking off my hat, I said I had been on a visit to my sick brother and was on my way home. I was wearing an old tweed cap and an old tweed coat, and had about ten days' growth of beard on my face. I really looked the part! I had a stick and a basket containing a bit of bread and cheese and an onion. I was searched, but not too thoroughly, and the identity disc hanging from my neck was not noticed. To my great delight, he told me to go, saying that I was lucky they had not shot me. He imitated the sound of a machine gun and pointed out the machine gun positions along the top of the bank. Gratefully, I bowed my head several times in peasant fashion and made my way back. Eventually I chanced upon a beehive-shaped straw hut of the kind used by shepherds during inclement weather and there waited for morning. I dozed fitfully, thinking every time I woke of how incredibly lucky I had been.

The following morning I had no plans but decided to allow whatever good spirit it was that had me in its care to guide my footsteps. I set off, striking inland parallel to the Trigno. As I walked I thought how fortunate it was that the country folk had remained in possession of their homes, thus enabling me to pass for one of them.
The country surrounding the road I was using, had houses scattered here and there, and as I limped along with my walking stick and little basket I noticed a grief-stricken woman being comforted by a man and two or three women outside the open door of a cottage. As I stopped I saw two Germans coming up the opposite incline so I promptly turned into the gateway, where the little group looked at me questioningly. When I was close enough I told them I was an escaped P.W. and had only entered their garden because of the two Germans. They congratulated me. I then asked why the woman was so upset and was told that the Germans had driven her out of her home as they wanted quarters.
The enemy had now passed, and as there was nothing I could do to help the woman who had been thrown out of her home I went on my way. I walked downhill and along the tree-lined bank of a stream until finally the track ended at the water's edge. In the centre of this stream was a small island where a boy sat with a few sheep grazing around him. When I asked him if he could see any Germans nearby, with complete indifference he said yes, that they were as plentiful as fleas on a dog. I told him that I was an escaped P.W. and his eyes sparkled as he exclaimed 'Bravo!'. I asked him to help me by pretending I was his father who had brought him some food and had come to sit and talk a little. He gladly agreed to the little subterfuge and I forded the stream, which was little more than ankle deep, and sat beside him.
He pretended to eat and I asked if the stream was deeper on the other side of the island. He said it was the same on both sides; shallow because there had been no rain for a month or more. He told me the British were at Guglionese, a small town about sixteen kilometres away - less in a straight line. I thanked him for his help and a little group of Germans who had paused in their work to watch us bent to their task about thirty-six metres away as I splashed through the stream and limped up the hill following the direction the boy had advised. I continued up the hill past the boy's home, watched curiously by his mother, and then bore left past another house with a gated wall. A German officer with a horse hitched at his side was leaning against the wall looking through binoculars. He gave me no more than a glance as I passed through the gate and stepped along a road flanked with trees among which I could see more oil drums and tank tracks. I turned and descended into the valley in which there were several cottages and at the end of the valley, about two miles away, I could see Guglionese. I limped a little faster and whilst going through the valley a very agitated man called to me that the whole valley floor was mined, so I made my way along the slopes instead.
Eventually I saw a gun of a sort unknown to me, with an artilleryman sitting on the trail reading a book. About a kilometre away at Monteoilfone I could hear gun and small arms fire. As I approached the gunner I said, 'That's a useful looking gun you've got there - you should be able to cope with any tank that comes along'. He looked at me in amazement. I explained who I was and he said, 'Lord, I thought I had never heard an Itie speak English so well!'. I replied that I would like to shake hands with the first free Englishman I had seen for a long time. He grinned and said 'Put it there, pal', and so ended an experience a little bit out of the ordinary.'

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /