World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Ralph Corp's Story

Building a Radio a P.O.W. Camp - Part One

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Ralph Corps
Location of story: Gravina, Southern Italy
Unit name: Coldstream Guards 1932 - 1940, C.M.P. 1940 - 1946
Background to story: Royal Air Force

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The building of a radio and its maintenance in a prison camp is an accomplishment, which many people will disbelieve, but it happened. Despite the frequent searches that the living quarters were subjected to, which were 100% efficient, a radio was built and maintained. In addition, it was transported from the camp in which it was built, to another camp more than 200 miles away. . This, in my opinion, was a very good piece of work, especially when one realises that, on leaving one camp, every man and his baggage were searched minutely. The same procedure was adopted when entering a new camp. Such searches were not conducted by soldiers, but by the Italian police who were, so we were told, the elite of the world’s policemen.

The first part of my story takes place in a prison camp in southern Italy near the village of Gravina. The camp itself was still in the process of being built. When completed, it was to hold 10,000 men though at the time, it contained only 6,000. All the men lived in stone built barrack rooms to which the Italian police had access at all times.

Life in the camps was very bad; food was scarce and what there was, was the worst. Many men died there, and hundreds suffered the agony of Malaria, simply because there were no medicines. . If I’d never seen living skeletons before, I saw them there among a group of men taken prisoner in Greece.

However, this has nothing to do with the main narrative, yet, there was one thing we all missed in the P.O.W. camps and that was genuine news. The Italians did sometimes permit their newspapers into the camps, but only when things were going badly for the allies. There was a paper in English, printed in Italy and chock full of fascist propaganda, issued to us about once a fortnight. But to return to the story, which begins in November 1942: one evening, after the usual light meal, I was sitting with my prisoner friend, when suddenly, he said, “Do you think it would be possible to build a radio in here?” Well, after all, I was only a policeman and being a P.O.W. at that time, I aired my views, in no uncertain manner. To begin with, we were at the wrong side of the fence, we could speak very little Italian and the police saw to it that we didn’t get too familiar with any Italians working around the place. Furthermore, we could not get of any Italian money and even if we did, it would mean bribing Italians to bring the necessary articles into the camp.

My friend had had many attacks of Malaria in the camp and I thought it was one of the usual brainstorms before he commenced his first sweat. I was wrong; the Malaria didn’t develop and for many weeks afterwards, he was engaged in building up an acquaintance with an Italian soldier. And what an Italian. A more villainous specimen of humanity I have yet to see. The man was not one of the ordinary sentries, but he was employed as an electrician and in this capacity, he had almost free run in and out of the prisoners’ quarters. He was frequently permitted to enter the camp without being searched. He was interested in radio; this and many other things were taken into consideration by my friend. By offering a cup of tea (when we had any to offer) to this man, plus a few cigarettes, a friendship began to open up. One day in December, the Italian confided to my friend that he was of Communistic tendencies. From that moment, the two of them became the closest of friends.

During all this time, I was in the British Camp Police, although a difficult job, it had its compensations. From time to time, I had to visit the Italian police office on the other side of the fence. Now, normally, I don’t walk around with my eyes closed, but being a P.O.W. increases one’s powers of observation enormously, so much so that one day, whilst in the police office, I espied, lying in a corner, a small coil of insulated wire. Before I continue, I must state that the W.O. of the E.Y.R. had given orders to make as much trouble as possible to the Iti’s. Also, in a P.O.W. camp, stealing from the enemy wasn’t a crime, but rather a commendable act. So, if I were to take that coil of wire, it may cause little trouble to the Italians, but it would come in handy if our radio plan matured. I returned to my sleeping quarters in the highest of spirits. My friend had received a promise from his Iti friend that he would get some parts for us. So far, so good. But Italians are the same the world over, this one wanted paying before he would bring in the stuff. My friend had made out a list of the parts he needed and the Iti agreed to get them, but he wanted 1,000 liras first. That was the snag. 1,000 liras was like asking for a rifle and ammunition. Besides, our pay was only 1 lira 40 cents per day and we were paid with paper money that could only be used inside the camp.

And so the radio idea reverted to the background for some weeks. Life went on in the usual way, with the searches and roll calls etc. The radio was forgotten, when one day, I was talking to one of the camp policemen, a Greek who spoke several languages, when the word ‘radio’ cropped up. Obviously, in P.O.W. camps, one keeps one’s ideas to oneself; we knew that there were spies in the camp. But in this case, the radio idea had fallen through, so I told the Greek about it, although I didn’t mention any names. When I had finished speaking, he very calmly drew a piece of paper from his pocket and said, “You can pay me back after the war if you wish. I stared at the slip of paper after unfolding it. It was a 1,000 lira note. Never having seen one before, I was a little unbelieving, but he carried on speaking, saying, “If you can pull this off, it’ll be a smack in the eye for the Iti’s.”

I hurried back to the W.O.’s quarters and was just in time for a spot of char, freshly made on our new blower. Blower was the name given to a charcoal-burning machine. It was made from old bits of wood etc. and by turning a wheel continuously, a current of air kept the charcoal red hot. The prisoners constructed these themselves and there were all shapes, styles and sizes and always much competition among the builders. My friend had been working on his particular model for several days. It was constructed entirely of empty milk tins from the Red Cross parcels. It embodied a new principle of air supply under pressure. When I arrived, the tea was made; the water had boiled in 7 minutes from the word ‘go’.

Having sucked down several mouthfuls of the steaming beverage, I very gradually turned the conversation round from ‘blower’ to ‘radio’, whereupon he said, “We haven’t a cat in h---‘s chance of getting a pukka 1,000 line in this camp.” I grinned at this remark; then very proudly, I handed him the 1,000 L note. His face was well worth writing home about. With an expression of disbelief, he examined the slip of paper, turned it over, held it to the light, and then, pushing his hat to the back of his head, he sat down. “What’ve you done now?” he asked, stuffing the note into his breast pocket. He listened in silence to the story I had to tell. Needless to say, despite the blower’s popularity, for the rest of the day, the topic was radio. Where should we keep it? How to avoid its discovery by the Iti’s etc. etc. From then on, radio was the talk, morning, noon and night.

There was much trouble with the Italian electrician who was to buy the stuff. He brought up many excuses, but W.O. West kept him to his promise. The Greek was brought into the scheme owing to his excellent knowledge of Italian. A plan was devised which we hoped would get the parts into the camp undetected. It worked, too well, I believe for the Italian electrician. He was very nervous about the whole affair and begged us not to mention his name if the stuff was found. We gave him our word, and from that very moment, the building of the set commenced. We now had in our possession, one pair of headphones, one coil, two valves (not new ones), 12 dry batteries (pocket lamp size), one cat’s whisker and some five or six terminals. All our energies were turned to radio construction. A condenser was made from an old aluminium mess tin. A bed for the coil was made from another piece of mess tin, bits of wood and candle wax. I am not a wireless fan and understand very little about them, but was able to render a little assistance in the making of tools. At this stage of the radio episode, one thing troubled us much: where to keep the set when it was completed. Many schemes were put forward and rejected, until in the end, a member of the Royal Engineers came forward and volunteered his services. Being in charge of the British prisoners working inside the camp, he turned out to be the ideal man for the job. He made us a locker with a sliding back door. It was made from the wood from red cross boxes, but before he fixed the locker to the wall, he removed one of the stones, thus leaving a small recess, sufficiently large to hold the complete set. The Greek was the only outsider who knew of its existence. Our camp leader was very interested and gave us his assistance. He even went and ordered a locker to be placed behind every Warrant Officer’s bed in the sleeping quarters. That assisted the deception remarkably well. There were 16 lockers in the W.O.’s quarters but only one with a sliding back. At long last, everything was ready for a trial. It must be said that the results of our efforts didn’t look much like a radio. It was just a box of tin and cardboard, but everyman was excited. Guards were placed around the quarters to give warning should any Italians approach the building. W.O. West switched the set onto the main electric current and began fiddling with the dials of the set. Everyone crowded round; no talking was allowed, at least, not on wireless subjects. By looking at their faces, one could easily imagine what kind of questions they were wanting to ask, such as: “Can you hear anything?” “Is it working OK?” There was no encouragement from our operator. After about ten minutes silence, he turned away saying, “It’s a flop! Anyway, what did you expect, it’s only made from cans and cardboard.” He’d no longer said this when there was a dull flop from the set’s direction. W.O. West in trying to boost up the current, had overstepped the mark. One of the valves was done for. He removed the headphones and informed us that the set had been dead all the time he had been listening.

There was a murmur of disappointment from the men gathered there. We experimented on one or two occasions, but without result. Finally, W.O. West said that it was necessary to have a transformer before the set would function, so he again saw his communist friend, but the Iti had had enough. He refused point blank to have anything more to do with the scheme. Shortly after the unsuccessful attempt with the radio, my friend and I were involved in an escape attempt and after our recapture and subsequent 30 days rigorous punishment, we once again found ourselves back in our old sleeping quarters. We were subjected to severe supervision and therefore, our activities with regard to the radio were of necessity, forgotten.

Once or twice when our quarters were raided by the Iti’s, the wall locker was emptied of its contents and examined, especially on one occasion. The Italians were making a search for gold rings, gold watches, British and allied currency etc. Unfortunately, we didn’t know the object of their visit and thought it was just one of those routine searches for home made knives, compasses etc. All prisoners by this time, were old hands at the game, but on this memorable occasion, we were taken completely by surprise. You can imagine my anger when my signet ring was wrenched from my ring finger. They told us that our troops had been stealing such items from Italian P.O.W.s, so they were now doing the same in retaliation. Two rings and some money were discovered. Much ‘old English’ was used towards our searchers. We didn’t like the latest piece of gangsterism on the part of the Iti’s. But naturally, we had to be discreet; only fools argue with fixed bayonets, nevertheless, we did manage to convey our contempt for their methods. Disapproval was so manifest throughout the camp, that the Italian authorities decided on this occasion, to issue receipts to all prisoners who had been relieved of their property. I kept my receipt for two years, then used it as cigarette paper.

On or about the 12th of May 1943, some 700 men were warned to be ready to proceed to another camp. Both mine and my friend’s names were on that list. In fact, all the sector’s bad boys (the Iti view) were listed for transfer. All warned men began packing their few belongings. In our case, it was difficult; we had the radio. Getting the set into camp was difficult enough, but getting it out was going to be a man-sized job. Besides, we were both marked men. The W.O.s said it would be only right to leave the set in the camp and that they might be able to find someone who could make it work, and that it would be suicide to try to take it out etc. etc. We were discussing the affair, when the Italian electrician, who had heard we were leaving, came to see us. He told us that he was willing to purchase a transformer for us now. But as usual, he wanted paying first. He wanted a gold watch as payment. We hadn’t a watch, but we knew where we could get one, but we were not prepared to hand one over until we got the transformer first.

In the meantime, we devised a scheme to get the radio out of the camp. Two wooden boxes were made, one for each of us, but they had false bottoms, sufficiently large to hold the various essential parts of the set with the addition of the transformer. The Iti arrived the next morning with the transformer. He was fixing a bell in the sector hospital at that time and could walk about with the transformer in his hand without being questioned by the police. The complete set was placed in the false bottoms of the boxes. The set, up to that time, had cost 1,000 lira plus a gold watch. The pro rata exchange rate would have made the watch worth about £3.00 and the total value was about £15.00. I could have bought the lot in Britain for about 15 bob (75p).



PR-BR

 

 

My First Prison Camp - Part 1

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Ralph Corps
Location of story: Gravina, Southern Italy
Unit name: Coldstream Guards. CMP
Background to story: Royal Air Force




Submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Ralph Corps (deceased).
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The first prison of war camp in which I lived was in Gravina in Italy. It was divided into four sections, each to hold 2,000 men. Those lucky enough to have a bed found that they were built of wood and were designed to hold two men in the top bunk and two below; each barrack room held 48 men. It was tantamount to living in a beeline. The water supply to the camp would fail to function for days on end, as a result, the place would become disgusting.

The fences outside the camp were patrolled by sentries, posted every forty metres or so. The Canalimieni (police) were under a separate command and were feared more by the Italians than by the British and colonial prisoners. In fact, the Canalimieni at that time were very closely related to the Gestapo and sometimes used similar methods. Quarters were frequently searched; the storage of food was prohibited. The possession of knives, compasses, wire cutters, no matter how crude, was also prohibited. Anything that may assist an escape such as civilian clothing or shoes, if found, were confiscated by the police.

The food supply was very meagre, hardly enough for a child to live on, let alone a man. A typical day’s food consisted of: bread…….200 grams, cheese……..40 grams and rice or macaroni……..60 grams. In addition to this, each man was allowed one teaspoonful of olive oil and one teaspoonful of sugar. On Saturdays, each man was allowed a small meat portion.

In the camp, men were allowed to write a letter or a card every ten days, but when they had been written, they were censored by the Italians. Any that were deemed ‘not suitable’, were confiscated.

A small number of privates were allowed out of the camp on working parties; for such work they received an extra 200 grams of bread per day.

I arrived at the camp in July 1942 and after a few days of feeling my way around, I became acquainted with a Pilot W.O. of the R.A.F. He had been shot down a year or so previously. He attracted my attention by the fact that he always appeared on parade without a hat. I later discovered that by so doing, he was not compelled to salute the Italian Officer in charge of the parade. Eventually, he turned out to be the best friend I ever had in a P.O.W. camp

Things in the camp began to improve, owing to a lack of co-operation on the part of the Italian Prison Authorities. The food rations didn’t improve, but the Red Cross parcels began to arrive and soon, every man was receiving a parcel every ten days or so. Prisoners were very grateful to the British and Colonial Red Cross. The distribution of the parcels was an event looked forward to by all.

Unfortunately, my friend contracted Malaria in August of that year and owing to a lack of medicines, he had frequent attacks. Malaria in the camps was more the rule than the exception. About this time, the camp leader was transferred to another camp and a new leader was selected. He was a Warrant Officer of the East Yorkshire Regiment. He was only a small man, but he certainly found a way to move the Italians. From somewhere, he obtained a copy of the Geneva Convention relating to prisoners of war, and from then onwards, he made himself a general nuisance to the authorities. It wasn’t long before every prisoner had a mattress and a bed to sleep on. Previously, about 80% of the men had been sleeping on the stone floor.

With a little co-operation, we were able to purchase musical instruments and so, the sector orchestra took its place in the camp. For the show and theatre performance, we made the costumes and wigs ourselves. According to the seasons, basketball teams representing the various regiments from different groups were ‘at it’ from sunrise to sunset.

For the studiously minded, classes were started with such topics as languages, history, law etc. being taught. While the teachers took care of our mental alertness, the body was not forgotten. Regular P.T. classes took place and so long as the Red Cross parcels continued to arrive, there were always plenty of pupils.

By now, the Italian Authorities had become more co-operative. My friend and I were employed on camp welfare. I was in charge of the British Camp Police, something that earned me the name, ‘The Sleuth’.

Naturally, in such camps, there is always talk of escape and we (my friend and I) discussed the chances of success. The only neutral country that could be reached overland was Switzerland and to do that, it would be necessary to traverse the full length of Italy, a distance of some 600 miles. Many schemes were proposed and rejected, and after hearing of many unsuccessful attempts, we rejected the idea. As my friend put it, “To escape from the camp is not enough, one must also escape from those outside.”

One day, we were speaking with a South African pilot, when it came to light that he had some experience with J.U.52 German Transport Planes. Shortly, my friend had the South African making a sketch of the planes and of the starting system, the controls and details about every conceivable subject in which pilots are interested. When my friend returned to our room, he said, “Have you ever been to Brindisi?” Well, it so happened that I had so I replied, “Yes, why?” “Did you see any planes around there?” he asked. “Naturally, “ I replied, “Jerry transport.” It suddenly dawned on me what he was driving at. “I know there are plenty of difficulties,” he continued, but this idea definitely has a chance of success.” Then followed a rough idea of the plan that was forming in his mind. But it didn’t take me long to place a list of difficulties before him. He would not be discouraged however, to every obstacle, he had a panacea.

No mention had been made of the actual escape from the camp, but that same evening, a plan was formulated. It consisted of getting to Brindisi and stealing a plane. More easily said than done; Brindisi was about 100 kilometres away. We had no compass and the only maps available were very poor and unreliable. Aerodromes are difficult places to tackle. The odds are stacked against the prisoners once they are outside the camp. When one considers the problems of language added to the greatest bugbear of all, the khaki uniform, the difficulties become clear. We knew it would be far from easy, but my friend said that we would be fools not to try. “The scheme has more chance of success than any others I’ve heard of,” he said. I agreed, so we continued with our plans.

We began to save food from the Red Cross parcels; items such as chocolate, sugar, biscuits and raisins were placed on one side. It meant denying ourselves much of the food, but it had to be done. A week later, we received a parcel from home, which contained 6 pounds of chocolate, which was put safely away. A few days later, I acquired a compass, a very simple device. We hid it from the Italian police, but we were worried when the quarters were searched, but they never found it. By February, we calculated that we had stored enough food to last for 10 – 12 days. Looking back now, I doubt that such an amount would sustain me for 48 hours, but owing to prison diets, our stomachs had contracted substantially. Yet, we were both fairly fit and had taken part in much exercise, with the escape in view.

Our planning continued and we explored the sector from end to end. There wasn’t a single point that appeared to offer any likelihood of an escape. One could not approach the fences so one could only view them at a distance of about 3 yards. Every 30 yards or so was a board upon which was written, “To pass this notice is to invite sudden death.” There were lamps surrounding the camps, making the fences a blaze of light. Prospects were not looking good.

Frequently, during the past six weeks or so, the Italians were having problems with the lighting; sometimes the lights would go out or become very dim for a few minutes at a time. My friend decided to try to get the same results with dud bulbs etc., inside the warrant Officers’ quarters. It didn’t happen; the lights were all on a direct circuit and all attempts to fuse it failed. My friend wasn’t deterred however, in fact, it fuelled his incentive further. It had previously been discovered that electricity came into their camp via a cable that extended over the cookhouse and then went directly to the sleeping quarters. A bulb shone over the doorway for about 10 years. My colleague got to work and the first fruits of his work were seen when the bulb outside our quarters suddenly ceased to function. He had acquired some rubber gloves, a home made ladder and a school table, with which he was seen working industriously on the mains cabling. Obviously, all of this was done inside the building behind closed doors. The Warrant Officers had to be involved and they gave their assistance whilst the cabling was being prepared. They kept watch for the Italian Police patrols. Not being an electrician, the most I could do was to stand on the table and hold the ladder in position. Soon everything was ready and my friend had the two wires bared. I was unprepared for what followed; a shower of sparks and a loud crackling noise. The cable became hot and my friend had to release the wires because of the heat. We quickly removed the ladder in case of enquiries; the door which had previously been locked, was opened and a wild looking Warrant Officer thrust his head inside and said, “It’s a success, all the lights in the camp went dim, but cover the windows next time. It looked like a fireworks display from outside.”

We went outside to talk things over; the sentries continued patrolling in their usual manner, thinking, no doubt, that the failure of the lighting system had been because of the usual stoppage at the power station. The following day, our luck continued. For many weeks, we had been trying to beg, borrow or steal two pairs of overalls from Armoured Corps men, but had had no luck so far. The previous night however, I had mentioned this to a South African W.O. and he had said that he would see what he could do. He was as good as his word; the following morning, my friend and I were in possession of a pair of overalls. We intended to wear them over the battledress as a camouflage and they would also withstand a lot of rain.

Exploring the fences, we decided on a place immediately to the rear of the cookhouse and within easy call of our sleeping quarters. It so happened that between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., control of the cookhouse came under my direction. During these hours, camp police were in charge. We fixed the date for our escape for the 3rd of March, three days hence. There were many other things to learn during the preparation period. I learned from my friend how planes were ground hitched and how to release a plane from its holdings; how to boost the engines and many other jobs which would be my tasks, if we were to reach that aerodrome.

All biscuits were pounded into flour, then mixed with oatmeal, sugar and raisins, then placed into food bags. Maps had been made of the country between Gravina and Brindisi. For many hours during the evenings, we watched the routine of the police patrols and we got to know what time the sentries on fence duty were relieved. Every evening, two men with an arc lamp made tours of the fences. This was done at staggered times; there was no regular system, but we did notice that they would inspect the fences 10 to 12 minutes before the sentries were changed over at 10 p.m. We took all of these things into consideration and calculated that the best time for escape would be after 10 p.m. and before 10.40.

On the morning of the 1st of March, my companion and I were absent from check parade. Showing sickness, we remained in our quarters. This procedure was adopted on the 2nd and 3rd of March, thus giving the Italians the impression that we were really sick. In the meantime, it had been decided that the escape should be covered up and for this purpose, two dummies were to be made from old clothing. The dummies would be placed in our respective beds. If the escape was successful and there were no gaps left in the fence, the Italians would have no reason to inspect our beds too closely; more especially now because we were both sick men. In order to avoid leaving no visible gaps in the fence, we intended only to cut the minimum number of down wires in the fence and as near to the ground as possible. Two pieces of wood, each about 18” long had been prepared, and with these, it was intended to hold the cross wires in position until we were safely through the gap. Then when the wood was removed, the cross wires would again fall into position, thus leaving little or no signs of having been tampered with. The warrant Officers left behind could be relied upon to play their part.

At about 6 p.m. on the fateful day, I sent for three of the camp policemen and put before them the plan for escape. They could be trusted and were pleased to lend a helping hand, but one of them, an ex Derby County constable, was to await a signal from me when the opportune moment arrived, then go with full speed to the Warrant Officers’ Sleeping Quarters. There, a Sergeant Observer of the R.A.F., receiving the tip from the policeman, would douse the lights and keep them doused as long as was humanly possible. Another camp policeman, a sergeant in the Royal Scots Guards, who spoke a little Italian, was to see that the Italian Police Patrols did not come near the cookhouse during the time our escape was being made. A third camp policeman was to remain in the cookhouse and make as much noise as possible in order to mask any noise we were making at the fence. But to complete our plan, a Greek acquaintance who spoke excellent Italian was brought into the scheme. He agreed to keep the sentry into conversation and away from his box when the lights were dimmed.

At 8 p.m. both prisoners concerned ate a good meal and just after 9 p.m. commenced to dress. Every pocket on our battledress was stuffed with items that would be useful to an escaped prisoner. Lying on my bed were about 2 pounds of dried figs, which had cost me two weeks wages. I didn’t intend to leave them behind, so, opening the breast of my overall as far as I could, I tucked them inside and fastened the buttons. I now felt like a balloon and no doubt, I looked like one too. Although I could walk all right, respiration was difficult. However, once outside the camp, it would be easy to readjust the food bags, but to negotiate the fence, it would be essential that both arms would be free.

We sat down to wait; 10 p.m. came round all too soon for me and as the seconds ticked away, I began to get a strange feeling in my stomach. A few minutes after 10 p.m., we received the signal to proceed. After seizing a pair of wire cutters and a water bottle from my bed, I followed my companion out of the room. Together we entered the cookhouse where the lights had already been switched off, but some light filtered through the windows from the arc lamps outside. Our camp leader was there; he told us that the men with the mobile arc lamp had already passed and were now far away on their rounds of the camp. The door, at the rear of the cookhouse giving access to the fence, was already open. The fence was ablaze with light A bundle of chopped wood had been placed outside the door, thus shielding us from the view of the sentries. On the other side of the fence and to the left of our position was an Italian machine gun post. The weapon had a field of fire directly down the middle of the fences and towards us.

 

 

Ralph Corps - Coldstream Guards 1932 -1940 CMP, 1940 1946

We believed (and hoped) that the sentry would be unable to see us when the lights were dimmed. What was worrying was the sentry to our right, only some five yards away. It was essential that he would move away from his box before any escape could be attempted. Several minutes passed, then I saw the sentry move away from his box and away from our position. I gave the signal for the lights to be dimmed. Now that the moment for action was here, I didn’t feel too good.

The lights dimmed, the man in the cookhouse who had been ordered to make as much noise as possible, began to sing in a loud raucous voice: “Roll Out The Barrel.” To the accompaniment of a muttered, “Good luck,” from the camp leader, we quickly wriggled forward to the first obstacle. It was a barbed wire fence about 6’ high with wire criss-crossing up and down and tightly drawn.
My heart was thumping like a steam hammer and I could already feel the perspiration in the palms of my hands. But I hadn’t much time to think of these things, I had a job to do. My partner was already starting to part the cross wires. In a moment, I was by his side. Holding the wire cutters firmly in both hands, I seized one of the down wires at its base. Exerting all of my strength, I tried to snap it in two. It was tougher than I expected and I had to work the clippers back and forth before it quickly parted. Quickly, I tackled a second and third. Time was slipping away; my partner had the two pieces of wood in place and at last, there was room for a man to crawl through, or was there? In my opinion, there wasn’t. But ‘wasn’t’ is a word written all over the English Dictionary to be crossed out and substituted by the word, ‘was’. In any case. We hadn’t time to barter; the operation seemed to have taken us ages and there were still two more fences to tackle. I held the bottom cross wires in place while my partner, using his heels for propulsion, wriggled through on his back. When he was through, I began to duplicate the manoeuvre and was going great guns when something brought me up with a sudden jerk. A barb in the ground wires had caught in the belt of my overalls and was holding me. My partner was soon at my assistance and in a short time, I was through. He then removed the two pieces of wood and began to fix the wires so that they wouldn’t appear to have been disturbed.

At the second fence, there was a little more light as I was almost directly under the arc lamps dimly shining down from above. I began to tackle one of the down wires and was pleased to hear the sound of voices at this stage; a voice I knew well, talking to one of the sentries. It was the Greek. The second fence was more difficult than the first for it would be necessary to cut through four down wires and an unknown number on the curtain net beyond. It was a race against time and I expected the lights to come on at any moment. But there was no retreat now; we either got through the fence or – I didn’t care to think about it. I got through the first wire and I was about to tackle another, when my friend touched me on the shoulder, whispering, “There isn’t time. It’ll take too long. There’s only one way now and that’s over the top.” With that, he stood up against the side of the fence. I did likewise, and saw, not 15 yards away, the Italian sentry in conversation with the Greek. Our scheme was now hair brained; it was sheer madness. It’s not done, it had never been done. If the lights came on when we were at the top of that fence, we’d be knocked off like a couple of coconuts. My partner was going up the side of the fence like a monkey. I began to follow suit and for a moment, I saw my friend silhouetted against the dim arc light overhead. Then he was gone. Now, going up the side of a barbed wire fence is a simple operation when in ordinary attire, but with every pocket filled to capacity, a water bottle in one hand and a pair of cutters in the other, it’s far from simple. However, in less than no time, I was at the top of that fence. I didn’t waste any time there either. Lowering myself onto the curtain net, I began to descend. The curtain net is difficult to describe; it was made of close meshed barbed wire, fastened about 2’ from the top of the outer main fence. My colleague was already at ground level awaiting my arrival. He guided me level to the ground, then, crawling at top speed beside him, I headed for a building that was under construction. When we reached it, we slipped into the first doorway. I breathed a sigh of relief. Escaping from there outside the prison may be difficult, but escaping from inside has its compensations. The building was of course, in darkness, but we picked our way along the walls towards the opposite end. When we arrived there, we slipped out. The policeman in the cookhouse, now ably assisted by the camp leader and others, had changed to opera and was yelling away: “A Lonely Vagabond Am I.”

Reaching the camp boundary, we put on some speed, putting some distance between us and the prison. Like a couple of pursued hares, we streaked up the hillside away from the camp, then down into a valley and on towards another hill.

The country was rough and stony, difficult to walk along, a problem compounded by the fact that our eyes were not adjusted to the darkness. To our relief, the worst was passed and we were out of the range of the searchlights now. Feeling safe from any immediate danger, we stopped to check our course. I looked at my watch; it was only 10.45. The country over the first half had been rough and difficult. We were both blowing from exertion.

According to our maps, there should have been a railway line a few kilometres ahead and it was essential that we put this line to our rear as soon as possible. Railways in Italy came under Military control. If any alarm had been raised, the sentries guarding the railways would be unusually alert – hence our hurry to cross the line. A little while later, after checking our compass, we arrived at the top of a small rise. Looking down, we saw the railway; a farmhouse was a short way off to our left. We listened for a while, heard nothing unusual and then proceeded downwards towards the track. A dog at the farm began to bark. Reaching the line, we strode over the signal wires and across the line. Only a few hundred yards further, we encountered a main road. For a few moments, we listened attentively, then moved silently across, climbed a wall into a field and continued our journey. The country was still hilly, but the ground was now firm and for the next two hours, we pushed on with all speed. When we were near roads, the same procedure was always adopted: Stop! Look! Listen! And then move across as silently as possible. We were making good time, although I noticed that neither of us was as fit as we thought we were. However, enthusiasm was running high and we kept pushing on. At 1.30, we stopped and took a rest. The sweat was pouring out of me and I could see that my partner was in a similar position.

After recovering a little of our strength, we began talking about the escape and it was then that I noticed that half of my store of figs was missing. I decided to put the remainder out of danger, so we divided them up equally between us. And we ate them as we continued our conversation. We were satisfied with our progress. So far, there had been few roads to negotiate and few walls to climb. We had seen no one since laving the camp, not even a vehicle.

After we had rested for some 20 minutes, we decided to move on. I noticed the sky became lighter as the night wore on and after 2 a.m., we were able to use the stars as a guide and did not have to check our course by compass as much. By keeping our left shoulders to the Pole Star, a more or less direct course east could be maintained. The countryside was changing, more land was under cultivation. There were more walls to climb and vineyards to go through. Houses and other buildings became more numerous, therefore our rate of progress began to slow down. Nevertheless, we continued to press on and didn’t take any rest until dawn. 4 a.m. went by almost unnoticed. Climbing walls and ploughing through vineyards was beginning to take its toll on our energy. We were losing our strength rapidly. Through this vineyard and over a wall across a cart track, over another wall, through a ploughed field, over another wall and down a hillside and over yet another wall. And so it went on with the obstacles becoming more numerous.

Dawn came at last, we were both exhausted. Being the first night of our ordeal, we had come across the countryside with all fire and speed. Now we were beginning to feel the effects of too much enthusiasm and were ready to quit. But we needed to find a place to hide out in for the day. All such things had been thought out in the prison camp. It had to be far away from any habitation and to give good cover should it rain. It was easily worked out on paper, but here, we were going from field to field, vineyard to vineyard without seeing anything that offered any likelihood of a hiding place. Another 20 minutes would bring daylight; something had to be done quickly. We didn’t want to be seen in the country in the daylight. Climbing a wall, we entered a wheat field and saw a roadway some 80 yards ahead. The rumble of a cart was heard away to our left. We put on speed to cross the road. As we approached, we noticed, slightly to our right, a large drain, which would, in the rainy season, convey water from our side of the road to the other. The cart was getting nearer, without any delay, we dived into the pipe. It was dry inside and it would make a good hiding place if it didn’t rain and providing no one came to work in the fields. The cart rumbled by overhead. That was the last thing I heard for some hours. I awoke, shivering and aching in every limb. There wasn’t much room in the pipe for a man of my proportions, a fact which very forcibly, impressed itself on me when I made violent contact with the ‘roof’. I swore, yes, it’s not too much to say that I swore. That crack on the head did much to restore 100% consciousness. My friend, sitting near the opening of the drain to gain a little benefit from the morning sun, grieved at my discomfort. “Morning Sleuth,” he said, “I suppose you’re feeling as I did when I woke up. Cement pipes don’t make the best of shelters do they?” He immediately added, “It’s 9 o’clock, shall we order breakfast?” Nothing would have given me greater pleasure and I implied that I thought it was a really good idea.

Breakfast rations were provided by my friend and after studying them for a while, he gave me a biscuit and a piece of chocolate plus a small portion of O.B.S.R. That’s an abbreviation for: oatmeal, biscuit flour, sugar and raisins. He took an equal portion himself and began eating his biscuit. “Hey, just a minute!” I exclaimed when he showed no signs of increasing the amount, “surely there’s more. Is this my rightful share and just ration?” I waited expectantly. My friend stopped eating and handed me the ration orders. He did not bother to reply. My face fell as I examined the orders. There had been no mistake. According to the slip of paper in my hand, we were to eat three times per day: at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and at 6 p.m. I handed the slip back to my friend and made no remark. After the snack (I haven’t the heart to call it breakfast), I decided to take a look outside. Taking care this time to keep my head down, I wriggled to the opposite end of the drain and so went into the sunshine. Everything was quiet. Satisfying myself that there was no one working outside in the near vicinity, and that the nearest house was some 200 yards away, I lay down in the sun. The road, which was a minor one, appeared to be little used.

My friend, as I had expected, soon poked his head outside the burrow. We talked a little about the escape and of the night to come. The homemade maps were produced and we tried to work out our present position. It was a hopeless task and after about 15 minutes’ calculation and study, we both gave it up in disgust. For the remainder of the morning, we drained away the time by sitting in the sun and only twice did we have to move back into the drain when carts passed on the roadway. 1 p.m. found us having another light meal, it was the same as the one we had at 9 a.m. and did nothing to satisfy my appetite. Immediately after the meal, we decided to try to get a little more sleep. But that drain wasn’t made for such a thing. There was a continual blast of cold air blowing through the place, wiping out all thoughts of sleep. Back we went into the sun, yet it seemed to me that we hadn’t been there many minutes when we were compelled to settle back into the drain for safety.

A party of men and women peasants had come into the wheat field. For some minutes, we watched them working. Luckily, they commenced working in a far off corner of the field, but it prevented us from going out into the sun again. The opposite end of the drain was in full view of the farmhouse, so, as was natural, we remained in our hideout. The slow hours ebbed away and the sun began to go down in the sky. The people in the field ceased working at about 8 p.m. It was just what I’d been waiting for. Outside, I walked around to loosen up my joints. Just before the sun disappeared over the horizon, we partook of another meal. On this occasion however, there was an extra portion of O.B.S.R., which we licked out of the palms of our hands as I had seen children doing with sherbet.

At 7 p.m., we were on our way. The darkness of the night had not completely descended and we could see in the distance, our first objective, a large hill, two or three kilometres away. The going was heavy and our progress was slow. Still, we were not in as much of a hurry as the previous night. The air was cool and fresh, ideal for walking, and some time later, reaching the crest of our first objective, we stopped to check our course. Yes! We were going alright, but we wanted to be a little more over to the left – towards that building on the hillside over there.

Advancing into a valley, we moved onwards towards our next objective. More stars began to illuminate the sky and we adopted the same procedure as on the previous night, using the Pole Star as a guide when there was no outstanding object to use as a compass. We were still in open country with plenty of walking to be done. However, by this time, a little experience was showing results and we could now go up and down walls like lizards. Halts were made at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., and after midnight, we kept our eyes open for water because our canteen was empty. We felt certain that we should either come to a river or perhaps a well before morning.

 

We did not worry unduly, nevertheless, when 4 a.m. arrived, we were still struggling onwards and had not seen any water. True, we had crossed a riverbed and many dykes, but we were void of the precious liquid. The situation was getting very serious and we were both very thirsty. We decided to tackle the next farmhouse we came across.
Only a few minutes after making the decision, a building appeared before us. We deviated a little in our course, so as to approach from the side. The dogs barked. Closing in on the place, we found that it was a farmhouse.
We examined the outbuildings, but there was no water. The front of the house and the side produced the same result. Round to the rear we went, moving as silently as possible over the cobbled stones. By the rear door of the building was a huge tank. That, I reasoned, would almost certainly contain water, which it did. We both took a good drink. There were no sounds from inside the house. I began filling up the canteen. When it was full, I slung it over my shoulder and was about to continue my exploration of the farm premises, when my colleague whispered, “Shh, listen!” I listened and I heard a voice speaking in Italian. We faded into the night.
Benefiting from the previous night’s experience, we began to look for a shelter in which to spend the daytime. It was now about half an hour before dawn. Farmers and labourers would soon be up and about. Proceeding along the side of a second-class road, we commenced to ascend towards a hill in front of us. Now, before escaping, we had decided that roads were dangerous and ought to be avoided. Remembering this, we were on the point of entering the country again, when my partner espied a drain. The idea of spending yet another day inside one wasn’t at all to my liking, but I was tired and didn’t put forward any objection.
This drain however, was of a decent proportion; it had a radius of about 4 feet. It was very dark inside. I struck a match or two to examine the interior. Having already spent a day inside a drainpipe , we took a little more precaution this time. Stones and brushwood were gathered and placed at the entrance to prevent the continuous blasts of cold air blowing through the place. Branches and twigs were laid on the floor as a kind of mattress, and when everything had been satisfactorily completed, we lay down side by side to get some sleep. The stones and brushwood idea wasn’t proving much of a success. They were stopping the cold air from getting into the pipe, but they were stopping it from getting out. We were both awake and shivering. The stones at the entrance were reviewed, but it made not the slightest difference; we were unable to catch the sun’s warmth. The drain was only open to the sun at one end. At the other end, the light was unable to enter because of a high stonewall. A further half hour’s shivering was sufficient to convince us that a day in the drain would mean no sleep whatsoever. Sleep was necessary, very necessary at this stage. The previous day we had only been able to snatch two or three hours. We talked the matter over and decided in direct contravention of the plans made, to move in the daytime. No sooner said than done; over the wall we went into a vineyard. Picking our way through the vines, we encountered another wall, and on negotiating this, we found ourselves in yet another vineyard. Right in the opposite corner, we observed a heap of stones and many bushes. In a few minutes, we were there. It was an ideal place, giving good cover from view, should anyone enter the vineyard. Better still, there was a good way open to escape if anyone came to work close by. We lay down in the sun; it was certainly better than living in a drain. At 9 a.m., we had the usual light meal and after this, we got down to sleep. I awoke at 1 p.m. to find my partner struggling with a bristly chin. Seeing the difficult time he was having with his beard gave me no real desire to have to do the same with mine. However, the job had to be done and I was very thankful when that operation had been successfully completed. A light meal followed and we talked a little. It was very quiet there with only an occasional cart passing on the road close by. I again fell asleep and did not wake until the sun was well down in the sky.

We ate our evening meal, checked our compass course and set out once again, yet, I don’t believe I had gone many yards when my foot kicked against something on the ground. Bending down, I picked the object up. It was an earthenware-cooking jar that held about 3 pints of water. “Just what we want,” I said, “we may find a place where we can build a fire.” Producing a spare pair of bootlaces, I tied them together and fastened the loose ends to the jar. I slung the treasure over my shoulder and continued the journey. It was rugged country and progress was slow. A well in the middle of a vineyard brought our earthenware jar into use for the first time. After tying bits of string and lace together, we lowered it into the void and a few seconds later, it was brimming with water. We hauled it to the surface. The jar was well washed out before we used it. We filled up our canteen, took a good long drink of water from the jar and after throwing the remainder away, continued our wanderings. It’s a curious thing, but that night, we came across numerous walls, whilst during our march the previous night we never saw any at all. Later, (it would be about 8 p.m.), we came across a very high wall, spiked at the top and much too high for climbing.

We deviated from our course, walked along the track. The rumble of a cart was heard away to our left. There must be a road somewhere in front of us. There was, it crossed our immediate front. We stopped, hid ourselves behind a pile of stones, just in case the cart should turn into the track, and waited for the vehicle to pass. When it had gone some distance along the roadway, we proceeded and were almost at the road when I saw a man standing at the junction. My friend must have seen him about the same time for he (my friend) immediately turned towards the wall and pretended to be doing something we all have to do from time to time. I suggested to him that it would certainly arouse suspicion. I continued walking and arrived at the road junction. I turned right, crossed over to the left and walked slowly along. The man, who was of the peasant type, did not speak. He passed me about half a minute later; he was walking fast. I noticed a village some distance ahead when my friend soon joined me. We at once deviated from our course and went due south. The man’s suspicions may not have been aroused, but it would be foolish at this stage, to take chances.

After about an hour’s walking, we again checked our compass course and moved eastwards. The country began to open up somewhat and by midnight we were going great guns. There were not so many walls to deal with; the land was better for walking purposes and so, our rate of progress increased. The night was dark with plenty of cloud and few stars. When 3 a.m. arrived, we were still struggling onwards. I thought a slight drizzling rain had commenced to fall and in consequence, we were looking for a hideout. We were both in the same mind; it must not be a drain. 4 a.m. found us safely in a building at the corner of a field. It gave good protection against the rain, which was falling heavily by this time. The building was a kind of stable with only one door and no windows. When dawn began to break, I looked out. It was at once obvious to us that our quarters would have to be transferred elsewhere, for there, right opposite the doorway and not 50 yards away, was a farmhouse. It had passed unnoticed during the night because of the many trees that surrounded the place. Should anyone come from the house towards our shelter, it would be impossible to avoid detection. We were soon out and away. Some 200 yards further on, we discovered another stone building, very similar to the one we had just quit, but in addition, it contained some straw and a fireplace. There were no houses in the near vicinity; the shelter was deemed suitable. All the straw was scraped together, and when the door of the building had been closed, we got down to sleep. Sleep would not come easily. When breakfast time arrived, I was still awake and feeling cold. But my friend was in a much worse condition, he was suffering one of his shivering bouts of Malaria. This was indeed distressing. It was still raining, for I could hear it beating on the tiles overhead. Inside the building it was very dark I went to the door and opened it. For several minutes, I watched, seeing no movement. I went outside and made a tour of inspection round our new abode.

To the rear of the building I discovered a bundle of wood. It was wet through, but it was wood. It gave me many ideas so I lugged it round the building into the shelter. I told my partner I was going to build a fire. He tried to intervene saying it was certain that the smoke would be seen by people nearby. I took no notice; he was in no position to argue with me anyway, so I continued with my task. Besides, one cannot let a man shiver into the grave without attention. Extracting some of the small pieces of wood from the middle of the bundle, I chopped them up with my knife, then, gathering an armful of straw from the floor, I started to build a fire. At first, there was a little difficulty, but eventually, it came round to my way of thinking and decided to burn. When a good fire was blazing in the grate, I filled the earthenware jar with water, placed it in the middle of the burning wood and waited for the water to boil. It didn’t take long, and as soon as it was ready, I added a half-pound block of chocolate. For some time, I kept stirring the contents with a piece of stick to make the chocolate dissolve. At last it was ready. We had no drinking utensils, but such things are only of secondary importance. The contents were soon drunk by the simple expedient of passing the jar from hand to hand. It tasted really good and both of us felt much better. That fire made all the difference to the place. I decided, despite my partner’s protest, to keep it going throughout the day. I moved my partner closer to the fire’s warmth and covered him with my overalls. He refused to eat any breakfast. I went outside again and took a look around. Nobody appeared to be moving about the fields and there were no roads nearby. I went back inside and procured the earthenware jar. Outside yet again with the aid of some stones and two old roofing tiles, I constructed a rainwater trap. The earthenware jar was then placed in a position to receive the water. Having completed this little task very satisfactorily, I went back into the shelter, made the door secure from inside and then lay down by the side of my very sick friend. I fell into a daze, but I awoke at about 11 a.m. and perceived that the fire was nearly out. My friend was also awake and he said that he felt a little better, which was untrue because I had witnessed too many Malarial attacks and I knew he wouldn’t be any better until tonight or tomorrow morning. Why he should have contracted Malaria and not me, I haven’t the faintest idea. Only an occasional mosquito attacked him, whereas when they attacked me, which they did every night during the season, they always came in battle formation and they dive-bombed. Yet, I never contracted Malaria. Why? It’s a question that puzzled me no less than my friend. That be as it may, it has nothing to do with my narrative.

The fire was soon remade and after the usual precautionary measures had been taken, I went outside. The rainwater trap had been a success. The earthenware jar was brimming with water. I washed it out and again placed it at the receiving end. By mid day, the fire was going well. Another jar full of water was placed in the middle. That meal we ate at 1 p.m. that day was the best we had since escaping from the prison camp. It consisted of a kind of porridge made with O.B.S.R. There’s no denying that it was a trifle burnt. I never did profess to be a cook. At any rate, it was better than eating the O.B.S.R. dry, from the palm of the hand. When it was over, I took the earthenware jar back to the rainwater trap. The fire was made up and my friend and I talked about various subjects. By this time, he was having alternate bouts of sweats and shivers, though fortunately, he had brought a good supply of tablets. I passed the afternoon away by his side and only moved to rebuild the fire when it went low.

It was still pouring with rain and any idea of moving on was out of the question. The earthenware jar was again brought into use and we had another good meal of porridge only this time, it wasn’t burnt and it looked more like porridge than the previous dollop I had made. When darkness came, I went outside to see if any light could be seen coming form the shelter. It could, but the cause was soon eliminated by means of a couple of tiles wedged into the offending ventilation hole.

My partner could not sleep; the warmth from the fire did not stop him shivering, so we began talking to pass away the time. How far had we come? According to the amount of time we’d spent walking, we guessed about 80 miles. But my friend only laughed at this calculation. I halved it and said 40, but he would not even agree to this. In the end, I was compelled to reduce my estimate to 20 miles. Holy Moses! Only 20 miles after three whole nights travelling from 7 p.m. until dawn. That would be less than a mile an hour, yet, considering the matter, 20 miles would be about right, for hadn’t we had to deviate from our course frequently? Besides that, the course was only worked out roughly. Yes, 20 miles was about the limit if our maps were to be believed, though we must have walked a greater distance than that. “But not in a straight line,” stuttered my shivering colleague. Thank goodness we hadn’t to walk to Switzerland. Of such things we talked about when my partner stated his intention of trying to get a little sleep. I made the fire up and prepared to do the same. Several times I woke during the night to put some more wood on the fire. I was pleased on such occasions to see my friend sleeping peacefully. He would probably be well enough to continue the journey the following evening. I was up before dawn; it was still raining, yet, in spite of this, I went out to explore the countryside in search of edible vegetable. I found nothing in that line, but I was cheered to find another bundle of wood. A couple of stakes from an empty chicken run went to reinforce my pile. Had there been any chickens, then I am not going to say that I wouldn’t have committed a felony, to be quite candid, I was hoping to find something in that line when I approached the place. Visions of roast chicken had entered my thoughts at the time and the absence of life came as a very sad blow. Still, reverting my appetite into the background for the time being, I contented myself with the bundle of wood and the two stakes.

 

At any rate, we could have a fire in the shelter for the remainder of the day. On returning to the shelter, I found my friend up and walking about. He said that he felt much better. The fire was going well, and after consulting with my friend, we decided to have a good hot brew. This was soon done and I was pleased to see he was looking much better. A good night’s rest had done the trick, or, as he said, it was probably the burnt porridge.

That day passed very slowly indeed and the rain didn’t loosen off for a minute. Meals were eaten at the usual time and when darkness came that evening, the weather was still bad.

Nevertheless, we had to go on. We couldn’t remain in this hideout indefinitely and our store of food was not inexhaustible. Besides, if our calculations were correct, we had only come about 20 miles and Brindisi was still more than forty miles away. We decided to move on; owing to the rain, darkness came earlier than usual. We ate our evening meal and prepared ourselves for the journey and when all was ready, out we went into the rigorous night. It was the darkest night I had seen for a long time and the rain was coming down in torrents. Italy may be a sunny country, but when it rains, it certainly does it in grand style. In less than an hour, both of my feet were wet through. The day’s rest had restored our energies and the heavy going did not, at first, trouble is unduly.

There were frequent stoppages, but the compass course had to be checked every 150 yards or so. There were no signs of any stars in the sky and it looked to me as if we were in for a rough night’s travel. 9 p.m. found us both drenched to the skin. Some time later, it would be, I believe, about 9.45 p.m., we saw in front of us, the dim lights of a town. “That will be Gioia,” said my friend. A deviation was made so as to pass the town on our left, but the more we tried to deviate, the nearer we appeared to get to it. A secondary road was crossed and soon afterwards, after climbing a wall, we found ourselves near a railway. It was slightly elevated from where we stood. As we stood there, a train passed and came to a stop, some 150 yards to our left. It was a passenger train and there was only one conclusion: it must have stopped in a station. The time was about 11 p.m. We moved to our right away from the place and a few yards further away, I found some broccoli growing. I ate a couple right there on the spot. Having satisfied my appetite to some extent, I gathered three more. My colleague also gathered a few. We then proceeded. Suddenly, a bridge appeared in front of us. It crossed over the railway. Our position here was below ground level. For some minutes, we listened attentively. Hearing nothing, we moved along the wall side; found a place where the wall could be scaled and up I went onto the top. My companion then threw the broccoli up and I, having received it safely, gave him a hand to join me. Again we listened. There appeared to be no one about, but knowing that most bridges were guarded, we had to be exceptionally careful. We decided to cross the bridge. I proceeded slowly along the side of the wall; my colleague was a short distance behind me. The bridge, having been safely negotiated, faded into the darkness to our rear as we continued our journey. We came to a main road lit by overhead blue wartime lamps. There wasn’t a sight, sound or any movement. The place might just as well have been dead. Wasting no time, we scuttled across the road, continued along for a short distance and turned down the first turning. It was another minor road. Our intention now was to get as far as possible from the main part of the town. We walked briskly along and were just about to congratulate ourselves, when out of the darkness ahead, an Italian voice snapped, “CHI VA LA!” My spine rocketed up through the top of my head and my hair stood on end. I stood transfixed; the broccoli under my arm fell to the ground almost unnoticed. I could see nothing of the speaker, but the way that command was pushed out left me in no doubt as to what it meant. Visualising a rifle pointing at my middle, I looked round for some avenue of escape. There was none.

“What shall we do?” whispered my friend. I didn’t know, escape now was out of the question. The more we whispered, the more suspicious the sentry (or whomever it was) became. “The game’s up,” I whispered, “tell him we’re escaped prisoners and get it over with.” Turning toward the hidden voice, my friend shouted in his best Italian. ”Prugianieri di Guerra,” said the hidden speaker, in reply. We advanced some ten yards further along. I saw there, off to my right, a sentry box. I was on a road junction. An Italian Alpine sentry was at the post. As we approached him, he said, “BORGHESI?” to which question my friend promptly replied, “Si! Si!”

“Avanti benne motte,” said the sentry. Suiting my actions to those of my companion, I moved on past the post and let my friend do the talking. I felt like breaking into a gallop right there and then, but common sense told me that such action would be fatal. Straight across the road junction we went, accelerating our speed only when out of sight and hearing of the sentry. Down the first turning, left at top speed, then right, then left again, over a wall and into a field, across the field and over another wall, then we stopped. I shook my friend’s hand. “What’s it all about?” I enquired. “I’m not quite sure,” he replied, grinning, “but I think that sentry took us for a couple of workmen returning by the last train and when I said ‘Prugianieri di Guerra,’ he must have thought I was trying to be funny.” He went on to say that he wasn’t sure of the meaning of the word, ‘Borghesi,’ but believed it to mean ‘workmen’. It was later ascertained that ‘Borghesi’ means civilian. Luckily for us, it was dark and the Italian had not been able to distinguish the colour of our overalls. We had a good laugh over the incident, checked our compass course and moved on.

Had that sentry been intelligent, he would have asked a few questions and thus earned for himself, a medal as big as a frying pan. My friend spoke only a little Italian and a few questions would have had him non-plussed, or so I thought as I trudged along by his side. The rain continued and our progress was exceedingly slow. Some 30 to 40 minutes after passing the sentry, we arrived at another main road. Our compass said, “Straight on!” yet that was impossible, for immediately to our front was a high stonewall, much too high for us to climb. To the right were many buildings, one of which was lit up. So, as was natural, we turned left and proceeded, our intention being to turn right into the country at the first opportunity. I don’t think we had gone more than 20 yards along that road when my friend nudged me, indicating with his thumb, something off to my left. I looked, and there, standing back from the road was a sentry box. I couldn’t see inside, but I could distinguish something which I imagined to be the foot of a man sticking out. No doubt, the sentry there was taking things easy. He said nothing as we passed. A few yards beyond that sentry post, we saw, to the right of the road, a long low wooden building of the type used by soldiers. The windows were blacked out but some light filtered through the sides of the window panes; evidently a guardroom. As we continued along, very much on the alert now, I noticed just ahead and on both sides of the roadway, a series of low buildings similar to the one we had just passed. We stopped walking. A sentry was posted at the entrance, therefore there would be another one, probably two, to encounter on the way out.

I whispered to my friend, he pointed to the side of the road where some excavations were being made. Losing no time, we began picking our way through the building materials. It was impossible not to make a little noise. Reaching the limit of the excavations, I looked to my left. My eyes nearly popped out of my head. There, less than five yards away was a sentry box. It was at an angle to our approach and if the sentry was sitting down, he would not see us. But he must have heard us! – unless he was asleep. I pushed my friend over to the right, away from the box, and at the same time, indicated its position. Deviating, we moved away and entered a ploughed field. Crouching low, we were moving silently along when, like a blundering fool, I stumbled against one of the furrows of earth and crashed to the ground. Immediately, from about 15 yards to my left, though not from the direction of the sentry box, I heard the click – click of a rifle bolt as a round was shoved up the spout. And then, although I’d prayed and hoped it wouldn’t happen, that famous Italian call ripped through the night: “CHIVA LA?” I didn’t linger; getting swiftly from the mark, I was up and away. Flight in this case was the only effective argument. With mouth wide open and neck outstretched like a goose in flight, legs and arms working like piston rods and with the old earthenware jar flying in the slipstream, I simply flew over that ploughed land.

The threat of a rifle bullet in the rear portion of my anatomy certainly worked wonders. My tired limbs seemed to be enhanced with new life and although I’m not a sprinter and never was, on that occasion, I was every inch a champion – a living example of perpetual motion, fire and speed. Yes, no man, not even Jessie Owen himself could have got his head in front. Again, out of the darkness came that command to halt, but more important things occupied my mind and I continued my flight. The first hundred yards went by in record time and I could hear my partner somewhere away to my right, blowing hard, yet still struggling valiantly on. Meanwhile, I was going great guns and I was about to do the second hundred in even time, when something appeared in front of me, out of the blackness ahead. I slung out the anchors and they held. There was a crash on my right as I came to a sudden stop. In front of me was a barbed wire fence, regulation pattern. I looked over my shoulder and saw the flashing of torches moving about. They were not moving in my direction, rather they appeared to be looking for something. I moved over to my partner. Being unable to stop, he crashed into the fence. He was unhurt, but that enforced spring had done neither of us any good; we were too much in need of air. And then, that fence. Why was it there? Obviously, to keep someone in or someone out. Even Italians don’t erect wire fences without a reason. We at once decided to join those on the outside for, being prisoners of war, we had a strong aversion to being on the inside looking out.

But what a night; as black as a coal cellar it was. I’ll never forget it, neither will my friend. For weeks (so I thought), we struggled on in the pouring rain, through ploughed fields and olive grove, leaping across streams or walking through them, colliding with obstructions or falling over them. The heavy going sapped our energies in no time, until in the end, I cannot truthfully say that we climbed walls at all, but simply fell over them, or if too high for that, struggled to the top and rolled down the other side. I remember walking along a cart track, which appeared to have no ending. And my friend, after checking our compass course, strode casually over a wall about one foot high. My loud guffaws on this memorable occasion did nothing to improve his temper, and as a result, I was presented with a compass and told to lead on. But that compass! What a boon it was – worth more than its weight in gold, although it always insisted on saying north, instead of east; or south instead of east. Seldom did it agree with directions travelled. But without its assistance, we’d have been hopelessly lost. Our course that night, if it could be worked out on paper (and I’m positive it could not), would have leaked something like a series of flies’ legs and question marks. Very irregular flies’ legs and question marks they’d have to be too. But at long last, our journey did come to an avid end. It would be about 4.20 a.m. We were passing through one of the innumerable olive groves at the time, when a small white conical building was seen a few yards to our left. Had the place not bee whitewashed, it would have passed unnoticed. Further investigation found it to have a thatched roof. There were no windows, but I discovered a door. It was locked by means of a chain and padlock. A little brute force soon provided a key and we went inside. When the door was closed, I struck a match and looked around me. It was a queer place we were in. There was a well in one corner and a fireplace in the other, but what cheered us more than anything was the sight of a huge store of wood, stacked against the walls. “This is it,” I said, “the one place we have been looking for.”

Within a few minutes, a fire was blazing in the grate and the place looked much more cheery and comfortable too. The earthenware jar, still intact after the many shocks it had received during the night, was once again filled with water and placed on the fire. More and more wood was added to the fire. Sitting there, close to its warmth, I looked across at my companion. He was in a sorry state. From head to feet he was plastered in mud. His feet looked about ten times too big for his body. Reverting my gaze to myself, I noticed that I too was in such a condition. I couldn’t see my boots and my overalls, especially around the knees and elbows were thick with mud.

Looking up suddenly, I beheld my friend with a grin on his face. “If only your wife could see you now Sleuth,” he said, the grin extending to his ears, “she wouldn’t know you.” I had to grin too, not only at the remark, but also at the grin on his face. I then replied, “Quite true I don’t doubt, but if your mother could see YOU now, she’d probably disclaim relationship.” This remark opened up the way for further skitting, and by the time our brew was ready, we were beginning to forget the rough time we’d just been through. That brew certainly warmed us up. We then decided to dry our clothing. I removed my boots and socks. Placing the socks near the fire to dry out, I took out my pocketknife and began digging through the mud surrounding my footwear. My companion did the same with his and when the operation had been completed successfully, we placed them (the boots) near the fire. I then began to remove my overalls. As I did so, I saw something fall to the ground. It was the broccoli, though in such a dilapidated condition, that I cannot say it resembled anything edible. In fact, I was just about to pitch it onto the fire when my colleague stopped me. “Give it to me,” he said, “it’ll be alright when it’s washed.” I was going to argue this point with him when I remembered that I had no need to eat any unless I wished. I handed it over and saw my companion and saw him add it to two more similar specimens.


For some time, we busied ourselves in the cleaning of our overalls, making a clothes line, performing our ablutions, drying socks and underclothing near the fire, but by about 5.30 a.m., things were looking more shipshape and my friend, after dragging a piece of flat boarding near the fireplace, got down to sleep. I got down at his side and tried to do the same. It was hopeless, and though I was dog-tired, I couldn’t sleep. In the end, I gave it up as a bad job. I sat up and for some time, contented myself with watching the steam rising from my drying overalls and listening to the rain falling outside the shelter.
Dawn found my companion snoring gently. I moved very quietly to the door, cautiously opened it a few inches and looked out. There was a low wall about 30 yards away; beyond it was another olive grove. Except for the pattering of the rain on the ground, everything was quiet. Stooping, I passed through the now opened door and was about to stroll around to the side, when I stopped dead. In the next olive grove and about 100 yards away, gently shielded by some olive trees, was an Italian Red Cross wagon. Quickly, I slipped back into the doorway and watched. After about ten minutes observation, I felt pretty certain that there was no one in the wagon. At least, there was no movement. I decided to continue my tour of inspection and although the ground was sopping wet, I got down on my hands and knees. You know, sometimes it seems as though the odds are piled so heavily against you that you wonder if it’s worthwhile continuing to struggle, for I had only wriggled myself forward about a couple of yards, when my heart jumped into my mouth. There, less than 60 yards away and in the same olive grove as myself, was a huge pile of wooden crates covered by camouflage. But that’s not all. A little further away and slightly to the right was a long row of army tents, and then yet another row. My enthusiasm for the escape was already on the wave, we had received yet another severe blow.
All those tents? Equipment camouflaged in olive groves? Red Cross wagons? And there, much further away, a group of tethered horses, also in an olive grove. There was only one answer, a battalion or a brigade headquarters. This indeed was a lair’s den to be in. Using yet more caution, crawled stealthily round our abode. There were no more signs of military habitation. I shouldn’t have been surprised if there had been – had Mussolini himself been sitting at the back of our shelter. I believe I could have taken it with a grain of salt.

Slipping back into the shelter, I found my partner awake and in the act of putting more wood on the fire. “Don’t do that!” I exclaimed, “Musso’s black brigade is outside. “What’re you talking about?” said my friend, looking up from his task, “trying to be funny I suppose.” “Not on your life,” I replied, “go outside and see for yourself.”

He went and in a few minutes, he was back and sitting by my side. “Our luck was certainly in when we spotted this place last night Sleuth,” said he. I could make nothing of this. “Our luck was in?” I repeated, perhaps a little indignantly.
“Yes!” “What d’you mean, our luck was in?” I demanded, now very indignantly. “We ought to have treated this place like a quarantine ship.”

Yes, I agree, had we known of what was ahead, but last night, we couldn’t see, remember? And our compass course would have taken us slap bang into that first line of tents. “That would have meant playing hide and seek with more sentries and…” continued my friend, driving home the wedge, “this time we might not have been so lucky.”

Yes, there was no doubt about that, it was quite true what he had said. Perhaps we were lucky to find this place when we did. Old Mother Luck had certainly had us under her wing the night before. Hadn’t she safely escorted us past the Iti sentry in Gioia? And just as we were about to run headlong into disaster, hadn’t we found our present hideout? Yes! Reviewing the situation, I had to agree that our luck had been in. Still, we were on unsafe ground and I shuddered to think of what might have happened had we gone straight on and blundered into that Italian camp.

The rain continued as we talked things through, and we decided, in spite of our position, to keep the fire going throughout the day. There would not be much smoke from dry wood and our overalls and boots were still very wet. As my friend said, “it’s better to have a fire and risk detection than shiver away in the cold and risk pneumonia.” And so, the fire, which in the meantime had burnt very low, was again made up and in a little time, the shelter looked its own cheery self once again. My friend prepared breakfast while I fixed the shelter door so that it could not be opened by anyone attempting to enter. Things outside were forgotten and we ate our breakfast. When the meal was over, we decided to try to get some sleep. We both slept well and 1 p.m. found us both preparing another meal.

My companion, having now completely recovered from his attack of Malaria, proposed that we should eat the main meal of the day now instead of in the evening as had been usual. I acceded to his request. First, we had our usual jar of porridge, and then, when the earthenware jar had been washed out and refilled, it was again placed onto the fire. The three broccolis were cleaned and cut up and placed in the pot. Not being the best of cooks, we had put too much water in the jar and when adding the broccoli, nearly put the fire out. But that was only of minor importance. When cooked, they made a really good meal. I admit that the absence of salt was noticed at the time and that they tasted a bit earthy, but such things mean absolutely nothing to prisoners of war. They did help to fill the void and that was the main thing. For the remainder of the afternoon, we spent our time by the fireside drying our clothing and talking about the night to come.

Occasionally, I made a trip to the door and looked out. The rain continued, the prospects never too good and neither of us was looking forward to another night’s travel in the pouring rain. The weather we were experiencing at this stage would have been alright when we reached the aerodrome, but right now, what we wanted were clear nights and dry ground. Such were the subjects of our conversation as the hours passed away. By 6 p.m. that evening, our clothing was deemed to be sufficiently dry, and having dressed, we prepared our evening meal. It had previously been agreed that we should not move off until about 9 p.m. By taking this precaution, we hoped to escape detection by any Italian soldiers who may be loitering in the vicinity. In addition, we did not intend to follow our usual compass course east, but travel south or southeast for the first half hour or so, and thus leave the camp on our left.

9 p.m. arrived, the rain had nearly stopped and a fresh breeze was blowing. Outside the hut, we stood for several minutes to accustom our eyes to the darkness and to listen for any unusual noises. Nothing was heard; satisfied, we moved off. As on the previous night, the going was heavy, and in consequence, our progress was slow. We were exceedingly cautious too, being always on the alert for sentry boxes, tents and the like. About half an hour later, knowing that the camp had been left sufficiently behind, we switched back to our originals; compass course, that is, towards the east. The rain had stopped, the breeze was freshening and there was just cause to believe that there was a good night’s travel in front of us without getting drenched; excepting the feet of course which were already wet through.

Our path lay through a succession of olive groves with houses here and there which had to be avoided. Owing to the darkness of the night however, we frequently found ourselves right on top of buildings (figuratively speaking) before knowing they were there. This was because of the olive trees. And it so happened that just after 10 p.m. we were trudging along through one olive grove, when we came very suddenly, upon a large house surrounded by many trees. Neither of us saw the place until we were close to a large iron gate with a drive passing through. Perhaps it was a manor or a hall of some kind. I don’t know, we didn’t stop to investigate, but moved away to the right. Silently, we picked our way along the side of a wall and eventually came to another wall, which burdened our progress. Climbing it, we dropped down on the other side and were walking along what appeared to be a lawn, when my friend clutched my arm and pointed to the left. Abruptly, my heart contracted. Ahead and slightly to my left was a very dim light, or probably it would be better described if I said the glow of a light, on the side of a very large building. But what brought me to a sudden standstill was not the glow of that light. Oh no! It was an object placed between it. A small conical shaped box, just sufficiently large for a man to stand in. I held my breath; that box and lamp could mean only one thing – an Italian sentry box. And what was more was that there was a sentry in that box. Maybe there were more of them loitering in the grounds. We at once went into reverse. In a few moments, we were back in the shadows of the wall we had climbed over only a minute before. We stood and watched; because of an angle in the walls of the building, we had not seen the dim light on the box until we had been near. Now, from our position against the wall, both box and light were out of view.

“Most probably a command headquarters,” whispered my friend, “at any rate, that house must be of some importance, they don’t put sentry boxes in the grounds for nothing, do they?” I didn’t reply at the time. A few moments later we were back on the side of the wall and moving away from the place. For some time, we proceeded in a southerly direction, and then having checked my compass course, moved eastwards. After changing direction, I should think we had gone about another 150 yards when we came to a fairly high wall. My friend went over first, and I, moving further to the left, commenced to do the same. I launched myself into space; body bending slightly forward from the waist, legs splayed out to take the shock of landing; mouth shut like a rat trap to prevent finishing up with my tongue in my hand. Well, it seemed to me that I’d only just initiated that jump when there was a yell of pain. My legs folded up like a jack knife and something like a 60 pounder exploded on the bridge of my nose. For a second, the darkness was brilliantly illuminated by an unimaginable number of star shells. The next moment, all the air was knocked out of my lungs as I hit the ground on the flat of my back.

As if from a mile away, I heard someone grunt angrily, “What the devil d’you think you’re doing Sleuth? Couldn’t you see me standing there?” I replied, “No,” very indignantly, and removed the earthenware jar from the nape of my neck. It was not broken (the jar I mean) and I struggled to my feet. Gingerly, I felt for my nose. It was all there, probably a little more if anything and although it hurt, I was pleased to find it in its allotted position. I wiped the tears from my eyes, blew my nose and sat down near the wall, by the side of my partner. He had a grin on his face like a Cheshire cat. It appears that he had seen me on the wall, silhouetted against the dim background of the sky, and had thought quite naturally, that I could see him. My jump had taken him completely by surprise; according to him, my nose had collided with his head; an explanation which at once accounts for the explosion of the 60 pounder and the illuminating star shells. He was unhurt.

When I had sufficiently recovered, we again moved on. Later in the evening, just after midnight, we came upon a cart track, which suited our compass course. The sky began to lighten somewhat. As we pushed on along the track, I noticed that the countryside was steadily changing from olive groves to pasture land. There were many hills and a few villages to negotiate. We pushed on with all speed. If there was a cart track or road suiting our course, we used it. Roads and tracks meant easier travelling and although the orders compiled by us back in the prison camp forbade us to use roads, we neglected the orders and pushed on. By this time, we were little interested in orders made, more especially with regard to travel, for if we were to reach Brinsini within the allotted 12 days, then we had to increase our rate of progress. By making use of roads, we were taking some risks but villages now were becoming few and far between, so our rate of progress increased. We always quit the roads when nearing a village of any kind, even the smallest. We went into the countryside, made a deviation, then returned to the road. Sometimes, the roads did not suit our course at all and on these occasions, we were compelled to revert to an old practice of travelling in the open country. After 2 a.m., we struck a good second-class road. It suited our course admirably, and although occasionally, it would veer a little to the north, or south, we stuck to it.

Somewhere around 4.30 a.m. we quit the road and entered into the open land in quest for a suitable place to hide. It was a very difficult task indeed, for although we explored the countryside in every direction, we were unable to find any likely place for shelter. The result was that towards dawn, we found ourselves back once again on the road. It started to rain. Quitting the road, we went left this time and along a cart track. Another 20 minutes would see it daylight. Farmers would now be up and about, so at the first opportunity, we left the track and walked briskly towards a copse between the road and a farmhouse. It was the only place that appeared to offer any hope of salvation. We arrived at the group of trees and basically climbed a wall and entered the copse. The rain came down faster. In a few minutes, we had completed our exploration. There was no shelter; the prospect of spending the day in pouring rain was not very alluring. We were both feeling very dejected too as we sat down at the base of a tree to gain a little shelter from the rain.

For some minutes, we sat there, when suddenly, my friend exclaimed hopefully, “Let’s build one! There are plenty of stones lying about.” It was the only thing we could do. We set to, using stones to build a wall and branches for the roof. Very soon we had a little place ready. When completed, it didn’t look much like a shelter, more like a heap of stones with a wigwam kind of top looking as though it would collapse at any moment. After a few body manoeuvres, we managed to get inside. There was just sufficient room for us to lie down side by side. However, ten minutes inside that shelter was more than sufficient to convince us both that branches do not make good roofs. The rain was pouring in; my partner was making an attempt to evade one of the waterspouts overhead. The shelter objected to his sudden movement and collapsed.
We stood up among the wreckage and strolled over to a tree and sat down. As we sat there, we became colder and colder until in the end, we decided to disregard the rain (we were wet through anyway) and walk about to try and get warm.

 

My companion went away towards the top of the copse and I proceeded south to do a little more exploring. Perhaps I would find someplace that had escaped detection during the half-light earlier in the morning. I found nothing and began to retrace my steps, when I saw my partner running towards me.

“There’s a good hideout over there in the next field,” he said, pointing out its position. This was good news; together we proceeded to the top end of the copse. He showed me the place. Yes, it was just what we required, but it was going to be a difficult job getting there without being seen. There was a farmhouse not far away and anyone there would be able to see every move we made.

The shelter was only about 120 yards from the copse, but to approach it, it would be necessary to go across a wheat field. There was no cover whatever and no other way of reaching the shelter. We studied the situation, should we run across the intervening space? Definitely not! Such a procedure would most certainly attract attention. No! We must not run, it would be better to walk across.

For some minutes we watched the farmhouse in question. There was little movement. We waited until the coast was clear and began walking across the field. A dog at the farmhouse barked. We took no notice. A man shouted from the direction of the house. Still we took no notice and carried on walking. A man leapt out of the farm buildings and began to move in our direction, then two more followed. Walking casually along, we passed the shelter; all thoughts of staying there were now forgotten. A wall hindered our progress. We climbed it and found ourselves on a cart track. It led from the farmhouse to the second-class road along which we had walked the previous night. Turning towards the road and away from the farm, we accelerated our speed and walked briskly along. It was no use, our pursuers commenced to run and in a very short time, we were overtaken. The elder of the men spoke to us. He spoke very rapidly. I couldn’t understand one word he was saying and from the blank look on my companion’s face, it was clear to me that he comprehended about the same amount. I spoke to the man in what I hoped might be mistaken for German. He at once replied, “Cantu di identitu?” Even without a knowledge of Italian, there’s no mistaking those words, so, turning away from the man to prevent him from seeing the colour of my uniform beneath the overalls, I produced my army pay book.
Meanwhile, I continued with my imitated German. Our interrogator turned over a few leaves of the book and studied the pages. From the blank look on his face, I don’t suppose he could even read them. . He appeared very undecided what to do and said something to one of the other Italians present. From the conversation that ensued, I gathered that they had been warned to be on the look out for escaped prisoners. My companion understood the same. They would not let us proceed. After all, our appearances didn’t help matters at all. No shave for three days, boots and overalls dirty from the rain and mud we had ploughed through, both without hats and me with the earthenware jar slung over my shoulder. Yes, they certainly had just cause to detain us. We must have looked like a couple of disreputable individuals to those Italians. The elder Italian who appeared to be the owner of the farm we had seen, indicated the house. The game was up, we didn’t attempt any resistance. That would have been foolish. Moving along in front of our captors, we walked towards the farm. My friend was walking along beside me, but slightly in front. I had to grin when I saw one of our captors trying to accelerate his speed with a push in the back. My friend stopped walking, turned round suddenly and gave that Iti one of the most contemptuous looks I’ve ever seen, full of malice, aforethought and all that. It was sufficient, the Italian didn’t attempt to repeat his action and we continued our leisurely stroll towards the house. Arriving there, they led us into a stable. Two chairs were produced and we sat down. A few minutes after arriving, the farmer’s wife, with tears streaming down her face, presented us with a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and filled our pockets with home made biscuits. Why she should have been crying, I’ve no idea, but crying she was and in no half hearted manner either. It made us both feel a little uncomfortable. However, our appetites prevailed and we set to and ate a really good meal. More and more people appeared. They seemed to be a little afraid of us, yet they were all very kind and we did not encounter any hostile looks. Many of them spoke in whispers to each other, especially the women folk, probably thinking that we would object to them conversing if they made too much noise. Suddenly, there was a commotion outside the stable and an Italian officer closely followed by a little Italian soldier appeared on the scene. Waving a heavy Luger pistol around his head, the officer shouted in broken English, “I arrest you – you are my prisoners.” People in the stable, at the sound of his voice, scattered in all directions. Any attempt to speak to the officer in English was to no avail. I discovered during the time that followed that the few words he had spoken were the only English words he knew. . He searched us and appeared satisfied, then ushered us out of the building and onto a cart track. The road could be seen about a quarter of a mile away and the track we were now on was parallel to the road. All the farm people trailed along. Some 200 yards further along the track, the officer stopped and pointed to the wall at the side. We sat down. There took place between the officers and the followers, who were increasing as the minutes passed, what I could only describe as a very fierce argument. There was much shouting and gesticulating and waving of arms (in which the pistol played a prominent part), but finally, the officer appeared to get his way, and away went five men, along the track, around a bend and out of sight. In the interval that followed, I removed the pair of laces from the earthenware jar and tossed it over the wall to my rear, into the field. Some time later, three horses and cabs arrived and we were piled into the second vehicle. The officer was undecided where to ride, whether between his prisoners or at the side. My friend advised him, in English, to ride on the horse, but he didn’t appear to understand. In the end, he decided to ride between us, though it was plain that he was a trifle nervous. He edged away from me and nearer to my companion, thus giving his pistol arm more liberty of movement. Perhaps he thought I might try and take his pistol from him. I do not think it would have been difficult. But what should I gain if I were to do so? Absolutely nothing. These were my thoughts as the cab moved off. The three cabs moved very slowly along the track. The farmer’s wife, still crying, waved to us as we left. Our cab went ahead some thirty yards and another kept the same distance to our rear. The one behind had the little Italian soldier aboard. We arrived at the main road and our convoy turned left and then proceeded along for about two miles. At a roadside farm, our cab was stopped and we were signalled to descend. We did so and followed the officer into the farmyard. There was some little delay here while the horses were stabled. My companion and I were the centre of great curiosity,

I’m not certain, but I suppose that they’d never before seen a British soldier. Anyway, they gathered round. The way they whispered among themselves and the timid way they approached us to look at our uniforms gave me that impression. And I’m not inclined to think that all Italian people are imbeciles. The officer, leaving the little soldier to guard us, disappeared into the farmhouse for some minutes and then reappeared looking very fresh and much smarter. He smelled like a barber’s shop. We were wrenched out of the farm and onto the road. Here, the officer indicated that we were to march in front of him towards a town, which could be seen about a mile ahead. We were walking as ordered by the officer on the crown of the roads, therefore, any vehicles approaching were obliged to stop until the procession had passed. I use the word procession because before we had gone a quarter of a mile, about a hundred people were trailing along at the sides and behind us. The Italian officer escort was enjoying every minute of it. He frequently halted us to speak to the multitude. Such discourses, which took place about every 150 yards along the road, were always accompanied by much shouting and pistol waving, yet the people continued to trail along. Probably, he was not telling them to go away; in fact, I don’t believe he wished them to do so, for it was obvious to us by this time that everything was being done for effect. It would have been simpler, much simpler, to convey us into town by cab and such a procedure would not have aroused the public interest at all. Some Italians are certainly vain, and by entering the town by this method, the officer, I suppose, was trying to enhance his prestige and reputation.

Straight down the main street of the town we went. All traffic stopped. People appeared to come from nowhere. Both sides of the road were crowded with sightseers and in a little time, the road itself became thronged with people. Some were even watching the procession from the housetops. It was like Carnival Day without the flags, and I shall not be far wrong if I say that all the town turned out to see us. Our escorting officer told us in sign language to march slowly along and not to hurry. In other words, we were on show.

There were many stoppages while the officer swaggered about and shouted to the crowd. The escort itself increased considerably too as soldiers disengaged themselves from the crowd and marched along proudly by our side. We were just beginning to get a little tired of all this when we were ushered into a large building. I’m not certain, no, I wouldn’t swear to it, but I’d have eaten my socks that morning if any man could have proved to me that we hadn’t passed that self same building before, not once, but at least twice during the march.

Up numerous stairs we climbed to find ourselves in a large room. It was void of furniture, but it wasn’t void for very long. In less than a minute we could hardly breathe. Like all Italians, every man wanted to speak at once, yet sadly enough, no one seemed to know what to do with us. Through the surrounding circle of rifles and bayonets, I caught a glimpse of our escorting officer. He was standing in a low corner of the room, surrounded by a crowd of open-mouthed townspeople. The heavy Luger pistol had now disappeared, but I saw his arms describing imaginary circles around his head. He was certainly in his element. Yes, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say he was in his element. I turned back to my colleague to find him grinning at the object of my excitement. “I’d like to see his diary entry for this day,” remarked my friend, “it would indeed be something worth seeing.”

The Italians in the room (who by the way were not composed only of men, there were several women present), kept us highly amused until an Italian officer fought his way through the crowd to our side. He spoke French, good! He was the man for the job. My companion got into conversation with him and a few minutes later, away we went, plus escort and sightseers back to ground level. Around there, we were led into another room. In the meantime however, a little negotiation had taken place, for on this occasion, only a few officers and what I took to be the town council, were given permission to enter.

It was at this stage of the proceedings that I suddenly remembered a knife tucked in my boot top. It was no ordinary implement for culinary purposes, but a very wicked looking weapon with a long pointed blade. It would have been confiscated back in the prison if it had been found and I knew that the people here would take exception if they discovered its presence. Had I had my wits about me, I’d have disposed of it, immediately after capture would have been the best time. Still, the officer at the farm had searched us, well, at least he had gone through the motions and if these people here knew of this fact, they probably wouldn’t bother to search us again. I wasn’t disposed to take chances and observing a wooden box near the opposite wall of the room, I casually strolled across and took a seat. My intention here being to dispose of the knife by sliding it between the box and the wall.. But it was not to be for I had only just begun to rummage for the knife when the Italians decided to search us. Horridly, I pushed the knife back into its original position and stood up. It was a good search; they did not ask us to remove our footwear and I almost got away with it when a young Italian officer came over to me and felt at my gaiters. He felt the bulge. As a result, I was compelled to remove my boots. You should have seen the faces of our captors, more especially the Italian officer who took charge of us at the farmhouse when the knife was produced. The finding caused some little consternation among our captors, and my friend, like me, had to remove his footwear, which revealed a compass.

All of our documents were retained for the time being and we were taken into an adjoining room where we were left in the charge of 3 Italian sentries, two of whom guarded the door. Yet even these precautions did not prevent the constant stream of visitors. Every few moments, the door would open to admit such people as the town Mayor, town clerk, surveyor, local bell ringing officers on leave and a host of other persons who had appeared to have some position of importance in the borough. I suppose I’m not certain, but I suspect we were the first British soldiers they had ever seen. When in our presence, they always spoke in whispers. They appeared to hold us in some kind of reverence, as though we were untouchables, so to speak, and were nearly all very tired when they approached to see the texture of our uniforms. All were surprised to see us wearing woollen socks and underclothing. As a point of interest, it may be worthwhile for me to mention that the Italian government did not issue under clothing or socks to their soldiers. If an Italian soldier wished to wear socks, he may do so, providing he buys them himself. The same applies to underclothing too. For this reason, our interviewers wished to make sure our socks were made of wool. In this respect, we gave them every assistance and willingly allowed them to examine our clothing.

Meanwhile, the Italian officers examined our documents in the next room and discovered we were both Warrant Officers. From that moment the good treatment increased 100%. My stock of cigarettes retained by the Italians after the search, were now readily returned to me. Towels and soap were also returned to us as was the remains of our store of food. We asked for permission to wash; it was given. They would not return our razors for the purpose of shaving.

A number of Italian soldiers escorted us out of the building into a large square, then across to a large water trough in a far corner. It must have been a public square for in a few moments, we were surrounded by the usual crowd of onlookers. The production of two pieces of white soap caused much whispering among the watchers. They hadn’t seen white soap for nearly two years. My companion distributed a half block of chocolate between several children gathered around and this caused much consternation and shaking of heads. We knew that the Italians at this time were constantly being told that Great Britain was starving, and a little genuine propaganda, whenever an opportunity presented itself, was never wasted by prisoners of war.

We purposely received our shirts and white woollen under vests so that the people could see them. And, from the whispering that went on between the many people gathered there, I’ve no doubt that we struck a very severe blow at the Italian Propaganda department. Yes, direct propaganda, like direct evidence is far and away the best of all. Having completed our ablutions, we walked back through the crowd and so into our room. Here, they gave us some bread and cheese closely followed by a piece of meat, bigger than I ever saw in a prison camp. Then, feeling a little fortified, I got down to try and snatch a little sleep. An Italian sentry, seeing my intention, disappeared for an instant and returned shortly afterwards with a couple of blankets. From that moment, I refused to be awake to any visitors.

At about 4 a.m. I was awakened by one of the sentries and ushered into the next room. My eyes were still full of sleep and I wasn’t in the best of moods when I was introduced to the town’s Chief Of Police, a sour looking individual, about 5’8” tall with a short bull neck and a bald head. He was standing in the middle of the room and looked at me as though he had a grudge against all the world. The way my escort scuttled out of the room at a wave of his hand did much to confirm that first impression. When the sentry had flown, my new acquaintance turned to me and gave me what is usually called, the ‘once over’. By the look on his face, I gathered, quite rightly that he was not at all satisfied with the inspection.

However, I decided to be polite. I grinned ay him pleasantly and asked in one of the Italian phrases I knew if he was well. I thought he was going to choke. An angry flush overspread his features, wiping the grin from my face in an instant. Muttering something under his breath, he came close to me, placed his bald head under my chin and started speaking in rapid Italian. He had one of those nasty rasping voices with just the hint of a snarl. The sort of voice I have always associated with ex-guards N.C.O.s after having been introduced to the drill square at Caterham. Definitely not the voice of a friend.

On the table beside him was a small pocket edition of English-Italian dictionary. It belonged to my friend. Whilst speaking, he frequently pointed in its direction and although I understood nothing of what he was saying, I gathered from his antics that he thought the book belonged to me.
When I made no response, he began to get a little hot under the collar. In less than a minute he was shouting and roaring and waving his arms around his head like a lunatic. I tried to tell him in sign language that he was making a mistake. It was all to no avail. Quickly, I appealed to an officer reading a book in the far corner of the room. How the devil he could read in that bedlam of noise, only Heaven knows, I don’t. But there was no sympathy from that quarter. That much was obvious for he simply ignored my presence and continued reading, or pretending to. I don’t know which, but I have my own opinion on that subject.

There was nothing else I could do; I just stood there listening to the discordant voice of my genial host. What he was thinking about me, I’ve no idea, though any man with a speck of common sense would have seen immediately that I understood nothing of the Italian language. But the longer I stood there without saying anything, the worse he seemed to get, until in the end, I tried to quieten this imbecile in front of me. Now, in fairness to myself, I must mention that at this period of my prisoner of war life, I understood very little Italian, in fact, my knowledge of the language extended to only a few words and phrases. However, I decided to have a shot at it.

I raised my hand. For the first time since this interview had started, peace and quiet in the room. Then, in halting Italian and with much study, I said, indicating to the dictionary, “NON E MIEI E LA MIA AMICA,” which in English, I now know means: “It is not mine, it is my (feminine) friend’s.” Typical of me to get mixed up with the masculine and feminine gender. Still, at that time I didn’t know this.

My instinct told me that I’d made a bloomer. The way my interrogator’s face turned crimson, the way he scowled at me and the way he began doing some deep breathing exercises through the nose and all at the same time, told me better than words could ever have done that I’d slipped up somewhere in my Italian. There was a profound silence. For a number of seconds, we stared friend to friend, just glancing at one another. Then, appearing to make up his mind, he buttoned up the neck of his tunic with what I could only call a very determined air, and a manner that suggested a very definite point of view. Having completed this operation successfully, he took a deep breath and shook a fist in my face and recommenced his ravings all over again. Well, I’d done my best; there was nothing more I could do. I simply ignored him, in fact, I had turned away from the man and contemplated the ceiling above. He was mad, that’s what he was, a raving lunatic. But in ignoring his presence, I committed a very grave error. My conduct only tended to ruffle his feathers more than ever and he closed in on me, still bellowing in Italian whilst jabbing me in the chest with a very blunt forefinger. Now, if there’s one thing I take exception to it’s a jab in the chest. I stepped back out of the finger jabbing range. But I do believe the man thought I was becoming afraid of him for he at once closed in and brought the blunt instrument into action again.

It may only have been imagination, but those digs in the chest seemed to get more forceful every time he jabbed and although I knew I was doing wrong, I could not for the life of me restrain my actions at the time. I gave him a push in the chest with my open hand, not a strong push, just sufficient to put him out of range. Imagine my surprise and consternation therefore when he suddenly catapulted back into the small table behind. Only a remarkable contortion of the body prevented him from finishing up in the lying position. The way he snarled when he struggled back into the vertical position, he grabbed me by the battledress and poked his nose into mine, which made me feel just a little uncomfortable. What would have eventually happened no one knows. At that critical stage of the proceedings, the officer who spoke French entered the room. He soon put the matter to rights and the rightful owner of the dictionary was produced for the interrogation.

The Chief Of Police believed (or said he did), that my colleague could speak Italian and that he was only shamming that he could not. Eventually however, with the help of the officer who could speak French, the matter was brought to a satisfactory conclusion. That I’d made an enemy, I didn’t doubt, for during the interview with my colleague, the Chief Of Police kept glaring at me with a look that was far from brotherly. You know, the sort of look the Chief Constable reserves for the unfortunate police officers who have to visit his office for purposes other than promotion. In other words, a trifle too hostile for comfort.

At about 6 p.m. that evening, we were both given a meal of macaroni. Even at this time, the visitors were still arriving to view. There was a constant stream of people filing into and out of the room. My friend and I were highly amused. Neither of us could visualise the same procedure being adopted by British Military Authorities. However, it all helped to pass away the time. Soon after we had finished the meal, we were ushered into the next room. There we found quite a number of people gathered together. The majority of them appeared to be friends of the Italian officer in charge of us. There was a number of women present. One man who was present asked many many questions. He spoke French and for more than an hour, he conversed with my colleague. I understood next to nothing of their conversation, but my friend would, from time to time, enlighten me on some of the subjects being discussed. Many of the questions he asked, I have since forgotten, yet a few still stick in my memory. It may be worthwhile to mention those. I remember such as: was Churchill a Jew? Was it true that there was no religion In England except Protestantism, which was of course no religion at all? Was it true that Great Britain was starving? Was it true that British soldiers were supplied with cigarettes containing drugs to make them fight better? Plus a load of other questions, which to us were highly amusing at the time, but I have forgotten them with the course of time. Later in the evening, at about 7.30, someone produced an accordion and began to play. He wasn’t much of a singer, yet he did try. He was also ably assisted by other people present, excluding us of course. My friend and I began to settle ourselves down to a nice evening’s entertainment. My colleague was amusing himself with an Italian acquaintance (female). I sat on a chair near our musical friend and prepared to enjoy the music. Things were just beginning to look up very nicely when there was a bellow from the doorway. The Chief Of Police came into the room, closely followed by more members of his gang. As if by magic, the singing stopped. The man with the concertina was certainly the most uncomfortable man in the room and looked as though he would have eaten his instrument, had that been within his power. As it was, he tried to slide it under my chair out of sight; sort of transferring the onus, as it were. He then turned his back on us and tried to appear casual. I remained seated throughout the interval. I could not now see the Police Chief because of the Italian in front of me. And I cannot say that I had any wish to renew my old acquaintance. Recent occurrences were much too fresh at that moment, so, unlike my colleague, I remained seated and did my best to avoid detection. Some kind of an argument took place between the Chief Of Police and the Italian officers in charge of the barracks.

Whilst this discussion was taking place, I noticed that the persons in the room began disappearing one by one. By the time the palaver had ended between the Chief Of Police and the officer, there were very few people left in the place. From what happened next, I conceived that my old ‘friend’ had won the dispute.

We were told to get our belongings and prepare for a short journey. We did so and were then taken out of the room and along a passage and into the street outside.

Before I continue with my narrative, I would like to mention that the Italian Police is a military organisation. Every man carries a rifle and bayonet and a pistol. Although I cannot vouch for its authenticity, I am told that they also carry a couple of hand grenades in their pockets during the war. Even without the grenades, every member was a miniature arsenal.

In the street outside, we were very unceremoniously pushed, pulled, butted and shoved between countless numbers of police. After some little delay and a whispered conference between the Chief of Police and some of his subordinates, we set off through the town. The chief, as I had expected, took up his position immediately to my rear, just a little too close for comfort, and every now and then, he gave me a very nasty prod in the back as a reminder. I presumed he was in close attendance. In this manner, in company with my friend, I proceeded to the town lock-up. Arriving there, we were placed in a cell. Here, we once again had to submit to a search, but this time we were obliged to remove all of our clothing. It was an exceptionally well-conducted search. They’d most probably heard about the knife episode and being police, they were taking no chances. They even examined the linings of our jackets, trousers and overalls, and even our underclothing was subjected to minute inspection. Our boots, especially the heels and soles were thoroughly examined. The result was that they were satisfied. They returned our shirts and pants, then left us alone in the cell. For about a minute, I looked round and I grinned. Yes constable, almost the same as a British police cell. There was the regulation wooden bed, the barred inaccessible window, the electric bulb on the outside, the bell push on the wall and the solid door with the lock on the outside too. Yes, just about the same. It agreed favourably in every respect, except one, and that was the one I was looking for at that particular moment. There wasn’t one. I examined the blankets, they were a bit rugged in places but appeared fairly clean.

Together we made the bed. The light in the cell went out. I rang the bell. After waiting some time, I rang again, and again, but there was no response. The place was dead. There was only one thing to do now and I did it: get into bed and sleep. In a few minutes, I was dead to the world. Prison beds may be hard and uncomfortable, but on that one in the Italian cell, I had one of the best nights’ sleep I have ever had.

Daylight was streaming through the cell window when I awoke. It would be about 6 a.m. Everything was quiet; my fellow prisoner was still sleeping peacefully. That night’s rest had done me a world of good and as I lay there, I began thinking of my position. In a few moments, I was chuckling merrily away to myself. The irony of the situation struck me as being remarkable. For I could not help but look back upon life in the W.R.C. Many’s the time I’d lugged prisoners along to the lock-up, but never in my wildest dreams did I foresee the day when someone would do the same with me. Yet here I was, on a wooden bed in a police cell. There was no doubt about that, a fact which very forcibly impressed itself on me when I sat up suddenly, to feel what I imagined to be a thousand needles sticking in my spine. That flat wooden mattress had certainly done its best to smooth out the rough spots in my anatomy. Having recovered sufficiently from the effects, I sat for some time looking at the bare walls in front of me. I remember very well that I was in a particularly merry mood that morning. There was no apparent reason why I should have been, but the fact remains that I was, and as I sat there, I thought of a particularly good joke. My mind being made up, I decided to put it into practice right away.

I nudged my friend roughly in the ribs and said in an urgent voice, “Come on! Quick, snap out of it!” He shot up like a jack in a box, then stopped, as though transfixed. “O-o-o-oh,” he groaned, sinking slowly back into the horizontal position.

 

When he was back to normal, that is, his usual moaning mood and always a trifle feverish, he refused to see the humour of it all.

The noise we made, and there was plenty of it, brought our jailers hurriedly onto the scene with our clothing. We dressed, and having done so, we were conducted into a parade room. No meal was offered, but our property was returned to us. They were very careful to see that it was all there too. When this little item had been seen to, the Chief Of Police appeared on the scene. His appearance was a signal for movement on everybody’s part. Two Italian policemen in the room, who had, prior to this animal, been having some kind of dispute, suddenly became very industrious indeed and began cleaning their equipment. Another policeman, who had been reading a book before the chief’s arrival, was now industriously writing in a pocket book. Another policeman who, had he retained his former position, should have been asleep on the sofa, suddenly appeared with a broom in his hand.

One moment, all the room was quiet and serene, and the next, a centre of universal activity on the part of every member around. Such was the effect of my “friend’s” entry into the room. More policemen appeared and a suitable escort was selected by the chief, and off we went into the town. The town clock, I recall, said 7.10 a.m. The name of the town was NOCI. Arriving at a public square, we stopped and waited.
About half an hour later, a bus appeared on the scene. It was crowded with people; a fact that did not worry our escorts in the least. They told the occupants of the rear seats to move. The passengers in those positions did so quickly. In Italy, the people feared the police. In a little time, we were seated in the positions they had previously occupied. Our presence in the vehicle caused much whispering and nodding amongst the passengers. Only three Italian police accompanied us as escort. The chief, satisfied that we were safely accommodated and after giving some final instructions to the escort, stood on the side of the road to await the bus’ departure. As it did so, I could not resist the temptation to grin at him through the rear window. Whether he saw me or not, I cannot say. But I think not; I was disappointed when he didn’t shake his fist at me. That was the last I ever saw of my unpleasant “friend” and today, although I bear him no ill will, I’ve no desire to renew my acquaintance with him.

As I have said, the bus was crowded when we were put on board, but before it had gone a couple of miles, it was simply bursting with passengers. Actually speaking, my friend and I, and the 3 escorts were the only people sitting on seats. The remaining occupants of the vehicle, together with such a varied conglomeration of luggage that I would not even attempt to describe, were just jammed into every available position. I remember one old man who had a goose under each arm and who, having regained his breath after a fight for position, said, “Good morning,” to us in very good English. He didn’t say anything else. A glance from one of the escort was sufficient to control his tongue for the rest of the journey.

An hour or so later, we arrive at a railway station. It was the station at GIOIA; a place I will remember if I live to be 1,000 years old. We were signalled to descend from the bus, and, having done so, were ushered into a waiting room. Inside the room, we sat down to await a train. Several trains came and went. We made several false starts, but eventually, a train did arrive which our escorts deemed suitable.
We all piled on board and after a little more delay, it moved off. It was a slow passenger train. Anyone who has been to Italy will know what I mean by that. It stopped at every station, between every station, on every bridge and in every tunnel, and also, as my friend remarked, whenever the driver saw any of his own friends. But finally, we did arrive at Gravina, the nearest station to our prison camp. That place came into sight much too soon for me. I had a good idea of what would be waiting for us at the camp and wasn’t looking forward to it. During the train journey, my friend and I had concocted a tale, which would, we hoped, lead the prison authorities ‘up the garden path’ regarding our escape. I think it was about 1 p.m. when we arrived at Gravina and a ten-minute walk found us back inside the prison camp. Our escorts handed us over to their counterparts, the Italian Camp Police, who in turn, conducted us to the Camp Colonel’s office. Here, we were subjected to what might be termed, a preliminary interrogation. The Colonel, through an interpreter, began asking questions. When the usual regulation questions had been answered, more or less truthfully, the Colonel said, “I know it’s your duty to escape, but why did you take three more men with you? This information staggered us; it took us completely by surprise. Three more men? When? How? Where? I took up the roll of interrogator and discovered that three more men had escaped. To use the words of the interpreter, “ They left a gap in the fence, big enough to drive a horse and cart through.”

We were non-plussed. We knew nothing about three more escapees, and we said so. The colonel, a rather decent sort, received this information with a snort and awarded us 30 days rigorous confinement. And so we went, plus escort, around to the Italian Police office. This was where the real interrogation would take place. My friend went in first whilst I was hustled into a cell until required. I spent the interval doing a little recapitulation on the story I was to tell. That piece of information concerning the three escapees had enlightened us as to an important particular. The Italians did not know where we had escaped. It would be quite a simple matter for us to say that we had made our escape along with the other three men, but for several reasons, the principle of which being that the other 3 men did not belong to our sector, we did not wish to do this, so we decided to stick to the story which had been conveyed. Outside the police office, I had to stand for a while, then the door opened and I was pushed inside. In the room were six Italian police plus an interpreter. That particular interpreter was not, let me add, a friend of mine. The head of the police took charge of the proceedings. He ordered me to remove all of my clothing. When this order had been complied with, they commenced a search. This took them some time; when it was concluded, I awaited the return of my clothing, yet, they did not appear to be in any hurry to do this. I asked the interpreter about it. He told me very unpleasantly, to shut up and await their pleasure. Circumstances have separated us since, or I would have shut him up and willingly, at my pleasure. Still, as the camp leader often told the men, “One Britisher is worth 50 Italians.” Remembering this and recalling also stories (probably untrue versions) concerning third degree methods used by the police, and not being at that time, in any state to put forward any argument, I stood there shivering in the cold.

Presently, after an interval, which seemed intolerably long to me, the chief, who had been writing at his desk, looked up and appeared to remember that I was still there. He stood up, removed his spectacles from his nose, and then, and only then, did he signal the interpreter to his side. And so, surrounded by the Italian police, began my interrogation.

When did we escape? How? When? Where? Telling lies is no habit of mine, though obviously, on such an occasion as this, I could not speak the truth. Such a procedure would have brought rigorous confinement to all our helpers. I had to avoid that at any cost. There’s a code of honour among prisoners of war and I wasn’t going to be the one to break it. Had I done so, I would never have been able to hold my head up again. I started, as arranged, to lead my interrogators up the garden path. They were not satisfied; that much was evident from their faces. The interpreter kept saying, “Your friend says this,” or “your friend says that.” But I knew what he had said, at least on the main points. Any questions brought up that had not been previously decided upon, were always covered by such comments as “I don’t know,” or “It was too dark and I couldn’t see,” or “Perhaps you’re right,” etc. Answering questions through an interpreter is the easiest thing in the world and cannot be compared to answering direct questions. I purposely made my answers obscure and frequently (when I had reason to) refused to understand the questions. Even so, I knew that my story could not hold water.

There was a pause; for a number of seconds, the chief aimed a frosty gaze in my direction, then told the interpreter to tell me that I was telling lies. I didn’t care tuppence what he thought, but I didn’t say so. It was clear to me that though they disbelieved my story, they were unable to produce any alternatives, except of course that we had made our escape along with three other men from Number 5 sector. This, to them, was very very puzzling, because, had we made our escape from Number 5 sector, it would have meant passing through 3 sets of wire (separating the sectors), before being in a position to tackle the main fence and thus make an escape from the camp. The questions put to me were all on this theme.

I stuck to my own story and at length, much to my relief, they returned my clothing. Having dressed, and believing the interrogation was completed, I made a beeline for the door. But I was a little premature in that intention. The interpreter told me to wait. He then went on to say that my friend had shown them a place in the fence where he had made his escape. . They wished me to do the same. At first, I was inclined to be obstinate and refuse to accompany them. . But then, I glanced around me and saw the 6 policemen standing in various positions, fore and aft, so to speak. I assented; outside, we walked along the sector fences. My mind was singularly active. I had not the foggiest idea as to the actual place in the fence which had been indicated by my colleague, but I did know that it would be somewhere between Nos. 6 and 7. Yet, I knew that my colleague would not have pointed out any definite place in the fences, unless there was some just reason for doing so. He was nobody’s fool; whatever he had told them as to the place of escape, must have been very vague. Of such things I thought as I strolled away by the side of the interpreter, and in the end, I decided to bluff my way through and bluff my way through and say I wasn’t quite sure where I’d made my escape.

But I needn’t have worried myself at all. Many prisoners were standing outside their barrack rooms (Italian police were inside the sector to prevent the men from coming near the fences), and as I walked along, a loud raucous voice bellowed, but not in my direction, he was shouting to a group of Americans inside the camp. There was no mistaking the voice, I’d recognise it anywhere. The last time I’d heard it, the owner was trying to sing, “A Lonely Vagabond Am I.” I readjusted my hat in acknowledgement. The interpreter at my side suspected nothing though the chief did cast a suspicious glance towards the Bradford man.

By the fence, I stopped and pointed towards it. “Impossible!” said the interpreter, “a cat couldn’t get through the fence there.” I heartily agreed with what he said, but I replied, “Nothing’s impossible.”

“You show us how it was done,” demanded the interpreter. I refused and told the interpreter that it was a military secret. Meanwhile, the officer who had been examining the fence at the place indicated, pushed his hat to the back of his head in a perplexed sort of manner and waved a hand in the direction of the punishment cells.

Some minutes later, I was sitting on a wooden bed with the unhappy prospect of 30 long weary days in front of me. So commenced my rigorous punishment. After 7 days in that cell, I thought I’d lived there a year and I was just beginning to wonder which would expire first, me or the 30 days, when an Italian sentry appeared on the scene to escort me back to the prisoners’ sector. The colonel, it appeared, had reduced my sentence because of good behaviour. I didn’t expect this and it came as a complete surprise, for, during my confinement, the Italian police had presented me with a number of statements re. my escape. Those statements were all in Italian and I refused to sign. In the end, the police became a little exasperated by my constant refusals and requested me to write a statement myself. They provided me with pen, ink and paper. I got into communication with my friend; we had a really good medium of communication. The statements made (my colleague also made one) were almost identical and needless to say, both did full justice to our imagination. It was a tale which the Italians did not even pretend to believe, however, a day or so later, I was conducted to the Italian police office; my friend was also in attendance. There, I was shown a document in Italian, which, so the interpreter said, was an exact word for word copy of the voluntary statement I had written. He went on to say that a copy had to be sent to Geneva for record purposes. For this reason, they requested my signature. I believe, I’m not certain, but I believe it was a true translation of the statement made by me. As far as I could see, they’d have nothing to gain by representing it to be false. But it must be remembered that I was a prisoner of war and as such, I believed, stupidly perhaps, that it was my duty to cause as much trouble to the Italians as possible. At the same time, their request to a signature for a statement I could not read was, in my opinion, idiotic to say the least. I refused to sign and my friend did likewise. He told them to pin a copy of our original statements to their copies and send the lot to Geneva. Back we went at top speed to our cells.

Afterwards, our relationship with the Italians was always a little strained, therefore, as I stated earlier, a remission of sentence was quite unexpected and it came as a complete surprise to find myself being conducted back into the old quarters. My friend was released at the same time. The Warrant Officers of our sector gave us a great reception and they all crowded round to listen to the stories we had to tell.

To complete my story, I must say a few words about what happened in the prison camp after our escape, as told to me by our camp leader. The escape was a complete success; it was unnoticed and no alarm was sounded. Back in our sleeping quarters, two dummies were constructed and made to look as lifelike as possible and then placed into the two vacant beds.

However, at 11.20 the same evening, the escape alarm sounded and a roll call parade was called by the Italians. The Italian officer inspecting the W.O.s quarters was very astonished, on shaking the bed of my friend, to see a pith helmet fall to the floor. We immediately threw the blankets back to reveal a bundle of old clothing. All Warrant Officers denied any knowledge of the affair. But they too were very surprised to hear that more men had escaped from another sector. It was in that sector that the escape had been detected by the men with the mobile arc lamp.

 

A few days after my release from the prison camp, I obtained a detailed account respecting the escape from Sector 5. It appears that every night for weeks, the three men concerned had been waiting patiently for a break down in the lighting system between the hours of 10 and 11 p.m. But on the night of their escape, they were found unprepared. This fact did not deter them however. The mobile arc lamp had already passed and luckily for them, the sentry near the place chosen was away from his box. Using all speed, they crawled on their stomachs to the fences and without any delay, began to attack the wires. All three prisoners were armed with wire cutters. They got through, but had only gone 10 yards from the fence when the arc lights came onto full power again. They kept crawling for some distance, then made off in a southerly direction. After 4 days freedom, they were recaptured and returned to the camp. They were also surprised to learn that more men had escaped.

It was just coincidence that our escapes took place on the same night. Had they not made their bid for freedom on that particular evening, our plans may not have failed, though it must be admitted that at the time of our recapture, my friend and I were just about all in. Still, the experience does lend a little glamour to what would otherwise have been a very dull life as a prisoner of war.



Pr- BR