The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal - Vol 8 No 3


by D D Brown

The author served in the Second Field Regiment SA Artillery (Natal Field Artillery) during the Second World War 1939-45, was captured at Tobruk in June 1942 and escaped from Italy to Switzerland in September 1943.

He maintained a diary consistently throughout his service in the army, and this story is based largely on that diary.

In 1943 there were approximately 90 000 British and Allied prisoners of war in camps scattered throughout Italy, all of them praying fervently for early release from their bondage. Apart from the occasional life-giving Red Gross parcel, this prospect of eventual freedom was all that sustained them in the degradation and deprivation of POW life, and it follows that the progress of the Allied armies at the time, first in North Africa and then in Sicily, was followed with unremitting and feverish interest.

Sicily fell on 17 August 1943 and the Allies proceeded to force a landing in the south of Italy. The Italians seized the opportunity to depose and arrest Mussolini and confined him on the bleak heights of a ski resort in the Apennines. Marshall Badoglio headed the new government, Italy sued for peace and the Allies agreed to an armistice.

At this time we were in a 'working camp' at a factory in the town of Tradate, Province Varese, Italy, and the emotions evoked by the event may be gauged from this entry in my diary:

'Wednesday 8 September 1943: Ceased work in the factory as usual at 5.30 p.m. and consumed our evening meal - the interminable 'pasta' soup. As evening came on the shadows lengthened across our small prison yard and a slight breeze sprang up. Most of the boys were in the yard, indulging in their various forms of horse-play, but I felt chilly, entered the billet and sat upon my bed. All at once the caretaker of the building, signor Martegani, came rushing past, ashen-faced and breathless, incoherent, stumbling into the fence and over the stones in his agitation, shouting "finito" as he went by. We were all out in the yard in an instant.

From outside in the town there arose a murmur of voices, rising to a dull roar, motor horns blew and then we could distinguish the shouts of a delighted populace: "Pace! Pace! Viva Badoglio!" A pretty young girl draws up on her bicycle outside, nearly falls off in her excitement, and shouts in English: "Have you boys heard the wonderful news? The Italian radio has just announced that Italy has signed an armistice with the Allies!" Now there could be no doubting it! There was wild, unreasoning, delirious joy amongst us. We shouted, we sang, we danced. Jock Mcveagh, Cameron Highlander, filled the washing-trough with water and climbed in, fully clad; he poured water and mud on his head, wailing and screeching like a banshee. Signorina Maria came to the fence to shake hands with all of us, tears of happiness streaming down her face'.

After the first delirious outbursts of joy, 90 000 POWs throughout Italy awaited their imminent release. Surely the history of warfare records few examples of disappointment on such a massive scale as was to follow! In a daring operation carried out on the direct order of Hitler, Colonel Otto Skorzeny rescued Mussolini from captivity on 12 September 1943, and by the end of September the Duce had re-established his authority in North Italy in the form of the 5a16 Republic. Great indeed was the consequent confusion among the POWs. As my diary relates:

'Friday 10 September1943: The Sergente-Maggiore told us today that the Germans were approaching and that they had already occupied Milan and Piacenza. On tenterhooks all day. Started cutting the wire grid in one of the windows in case escape became necessary. We are still under armed Italian guard'.

On the conclusion of the Armistice the Allied authorities had issued an instruction to all prisoners of war, via the Senior Officers in the respective camps, that everyone was to 'stay put' for the time being in order to avoid interference with military operations. This instruction was interpreted with varying degrees of strictness from camp to camp, ranging from flexibility to threats of court martial for infractions. In the meantime, with their customary vigour the Germans completed the occupation of Italy. It thus transpired that the vast majority of prisoners were still in their cages when their new captors arrived and transported them to Germany. Harold Miller, Natal Field Artillery, was one of these unfortunate people:

'At the announcement of the armistice we were in camp 52 in the region of Chiavari. A group of us were playing bridge when a fellow came in and said that Italy had packed in. We had all heard this before, so we said: "Bull!" and carried on playing. Then we heard cheering outside, and as there seemed to be something unusual on the go we went out to investigate. Sure enough, it seemed to be true, so we cleaned up what was left of our Red Cross parcels to celebrate.

We were assured that British troops were virtually on the other side of the hill and would be with us the next morning. Next morning I was making breakfast on the "blower" when all of a sudden some lorries pulled up in front of the camp and troops began dismounting. Some blokes cheered and said: "The Yanks are here!" I took a good look and said : "Yanks be damned, those are Germans!" I abandoned the brew which I had been making and rushed to the back fence, but the Germans were already there. They must have been there the night before, laughing their heads off while we celebrated.

They kicked the Italians out and took over the camp. We remained there for about two or three days during which time they imposed a 6 o'clock curfew which made things unpleasant, particularly with regard to visiting the latrines which were located 150 yards from our barracks. Then some bloke - an Englishman - did something that really boosted our morale. One day he walked out of the barrack room after the curfew hour and made for the latrines. The Germans opened up in front of him with sustained machine-gun fire. He didn't flinch but carried on walking at the same regular pace, did his thing at the latrine and slowly walked back again. The boys gave him a great cheer.

After a few days we entrained at Chiavari station for transport to Germany in the usual cattle-trucks. While in transit an Aussie by the name of Fred Perry was looking through the ventilation hole in our truck when for no apparent reason he was shot dead. After five days we arrived in Germany.

There they were to undergo a further eighteen months' imprisonment under the most appalling circumstances, in slave labour conditions which many of them did not survive. Thus, those prisoners unfortunate enough to have been in regular POW camps in Italy at the time of the armistice stood very little chance of escape, being subject to camp discipline and the stay put instruction. On the other hand, those prisoners who had been farmed out to the less formal environment of a working camp were not even aware of the stay put instruction; furthermore, being in closer contact with the civilian population they were in many cases able to draw upon the enthusiastic and generous help of the Italian people, now freed from the constraints of being at war with us. In the course of being conducted under heavy guard from our working camp we detrained at Seregno in order to catch the connection to Milan - there, unbeknown to us, to be handed over to the Germans. As we waited on the station platform, surrounded by armed guards:

'Saturday 11 September1943: An Italian civilian sidled up to me and whispered that we were moving right towards the Germans and should do something urgently. By now the civilians were crowding about us, and it would have been difficult for the guards to fire at an escaping prisoner without hitting their own people. We decided to walk determinedly away and out of the station, ignoring any call to halt. We walked, and arrived without mishap at a large intersection in town.

Large crowds of Italians gathered around us, radiating good will. A motherly looking woman grasped my arm and drew me away from the crowd. This good lady took me to her home where I was given food and drink. Exchanged my uniform for civilian clothes belonging to her son'.

In similar fashion, some thousands of escapees found themselves roaming the Italian countryside in a wide variety of clothing, mostly ill-fitting. At this stage they were freely harboured, fed and clothed by the warm- hearted Italian people. Then on Thursday 16 September 1943 Rommel issued a proclamation to the effect that any civilian harbouring Anglo-American prisoners, or assist- ing them in any way, would be very severely dealt with. Anyone familiar with German methods of this time will realize what this meant - executions, concentration camps, confiscations. Thereafter the people were quite understandably reluctant to accommodate the escapees in their homes, but continued to assist them in every other conceivable manner.

Despite this new danger, there were still some families who took escapees into their homes at considerable risk to themselves, thereby forging lifelong friendships and leading to many an emotional post-war reunion. At this stage, however, there were three main options open to 'refugees': to go south to meet the Allies; to hide out in the mountains until the arrival of the Allies; or to go north to Switzerland. This choice was mostly dictated by the locality in which the individual found himself at that time.

Whichever option was adopted, the first essential was to discard the army uniform and to don civilian clothes, hopefully to assume the aspect of a respectable borghese. There were not many funnier sights at that time than that of a hefty South African trying to appear inconspicuous while clothed in a dilapitated suit, two sizes too small, donated by a diminutive Italian. Graham Shepherd, Natal Field Artillery, was one of these:

'I was 6ft 4 ins tall, and so conspicuous that on my way south to meet the Allies even my three fellow escapees, with whom I was travelling in company, could not bear it. They asked if I would mind leaving their group as I was attracting far too much attention! As luck would have it, they all ended up in Germany, while after nine months of wandering on my own in the Italian countryside, being fed by the Italian people, I finally met up with the Allies!'

There was a serious side to this question of posing as a civilian: discarding one's uniform meant abandoning the slender protection of the Geneva Convention and involved the very real possibility of being shot as a saboteur or spy on recapture, particularly in the chaotic conditions prevailing at that time. At best it involved a rigorous interrogation. However, I have no knowledge of Germans in Italy having adopted drastic measures in this regard, at least against British prisoners, apart from an occasional beating-up.

In the midst of the chaos rumours naturally flourished. One rumour was to the effect that British seaplanes were landing on Lake Como for the purpose of rescuing escapees; another to the effect that British submarines were lying off the Adriatic coast for the same purpose. Some years elapsed after the war before I discovered that in fact search parties had been transported to the coast in British submarines and sent inland to locate and assist escapees. By the time these searches were instituted, however, the vast majority of POWs were eking out their lives in dreadful circumstances in Germany or Poland.

For a fortunate few involved in those desperate days, ultimate success made every anxious moment and every privation worth while:
'Friday 17 September 1943: Could this be the border? Could it be so easy? No time to ponder. This was the moment! Slipped down into the gulley and pushed my head underneath the lowest strand of the fence. At that moment, with my head apparently in Switzerland and the rest of me in Italy, I spotted before me a pair of military boots, and then, as my eyes travelled upwards, a menacing rifle and a field-grey uniform, topped by a Germanic- looking face under a coal-scuttle helmet. A guttural voice said: "Heraus". No time to feel disappointment. I rose to my feet, taking care to come up on what I still thought to be the Swiss side, easing my body between the muzzle of his rifle and the rickety fence.

As I look pretty disreputable by now in my second-hand Italian clothing, perhaps I had better identify myself. I face my captor defiantly and say: "Ich bin Englander". He slings his rifle carefully over his shoulder, grasps my hand in both of his, and says: "Welcome! Welcome to Switzerland!"'

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