There had been a cheese issue, 2oz per man, so George & I decided to use some breadcrumbs we had saved to make a concoction of hot cheese and breadcrumbs. We had collected a small store of wood and duly put our very highly efficient little tin stove to use. This stove we had made from Red Cross tins and recirculated the hot gases from the tiny fire so well that we could boil a full billy - about a pint and a half of water on a very small piece of wood. One could hold a finger in the final exhaust without any discomfort. We had got the fire going well and the cheese was giving of a beautiful aroma, when we heard some bods lower down the compound talking loudly about a giant swarm of bees coming our way, then a few seconds latter someone shouted "The Planes"! At this George and I walked a few yards to get a view. Certainly there did appear to be a swarm of bees in the distance up the Sulmona valley. A few seconds later it became obvious that they were planes all flying in a gigantic formation. Suddenly a small Italian fighter plane swept down from the right firing his guns. There was a quick response from the formation and the fighter didn't make another run. By now the actual shape of the planes could be seen and I saw a Flying-Fortress for the first time. There must have been at least a 1000; all apparently heading straight for the prison camp, then suddenly they began to release their bombs. The sky underneath them became absolutely thick with falling bombs, each one adding its own scream to the already fantastic crescendo of terrifying noise. There was nothing we could do to protect ourselves. The guard on the central watchtower provided us a small distraction by first climbing down his access steps then hesitatingly climbing back up. He finally deserted his post completely to the wild cheers of the prisoners. The bombs had at first appeared to be coming directly towards the camp but fortunately when the first bombs actually landed they were on Sulmona itself and about half a mile away from us. In Sulmona there must have been chaos and also a lot of people killed. It appeared that the railhead must have been the main target but the sheer weight of bombs that fell in a space of not more than 3 minutes must have been devastating. Our carefully prepared meal was now a burnt offering and completely uneatable, but this time we didn't mind.
The excitement that night was intense and the roving patrols were visibly shaken, it seemed obvious that the Italians wouldn't stand for much more of this, I don't think many prisoners slept much this night. An order came through the next morning that we were all to parade on the football pitch at 12 noon so as to be addressed by the senior British officer (a South African) and there was much conjecture about what was to be said. This was one of the few times we had been allowed outside the high surrounding walls. The parade time arrived and we all stood before this traitor. He explained that the Italians were in a bad way and after he had given careful thought to the situation, had decided that in view of the fact that some of us may be thinking of escaping, he had decided to issue an order forbidding any attempt to do so. He followed this up with a warning that in the event of anyone escaping and getting back to British lines they would be charged with disobeying orders and Court Martialled immediately. George and I could hardly believe our ears. However on getting back to our quarters, we both resolved that if an opportunity to escape arose, then we would not hesitate to grasp it. We then quietly checked that our escape was still hidden intact in one of the outside walls. The Italian roving patrols were kept going and security was as tight as ever.
Two days later another "Swarm of Bees" appeared on the horizon to the north and a repeat performance was given to Sulmona. The next day the Italians gave permission for the men from one compound at a time to have a walk outside the high wall and inside the barbed wire defence system beyond. Our compound's time was to be 3PM, surprisingly although George and I were waiting at the gate before time, there were only about 20 others interested in seeing what lay beyond the walls and some of the outside world. At 3 o'clock the gate was opened and George and I went out and turned down to the right. We intended to walk all round the camp and try to spot any weak places in the defence system. There was a main camp road along the lower front and to the left a gate which was not used very much but had a lot of barbed wire entanglement both on it and surrounding it. There was a house just outside the wire. Here we turned right and walked past the solitary confinement block where I had served 30 days last Christmas. These were on our right and on the left a few yards further on was the edge of the football pitch. We already knew there was a very strong defence system of barbed wire on the lower side beyond the football pitch. We then went on to beyond the football pitch and arrived at the Italian Administration buildings which was on the left with some Italian barrack rooms on the right. We then continued to the main entrance to the camp, which of course was very heavily guarded, then we turned right again and started to climb a fairly steep hill on that side of the camp. There was a line of sentry boxes behind barbed wire fences 20 ft high spaced about 100 yards apart. Then there was a slit trench behind each sentry box, followed by two more 20-ft barbed wire fences, then a deep area liberally strewn with loose barbed wire. All this was under the ever-watchful eyes of the sentries, - there was little doubt it was pretty difficult to get out of Sulmona!
On reaching the top of the hill and turning right again on our left was the same pattern of wire defences, but beyond the loose wire was wilderness disappearing into the first slopes of the mountain and this looked the most promising to us. We continued along the top edge of the camp and arrived at the next corner. Here was a wide farm type gate set diagonally across the corner. Beyond the gate was the semblance of a roadway, but which was completely overgrown and obviously never used. There was a sentry in his box on the far side of the gate and the gate was not quite closed. We spoke to the Italian guard in our broken Italian and it seemed that he was only too pleased to break the monotony by talking with us. After about 5 minutes talking I mentioned a very large red flower some 30 or 40 yards away on the edge of the faintly visible track. We all marvelled at its size and beauty, then after another 5 or 6 minutes talking I casually pointed out that it would be nice to take it back with us to our quarters. Then a few minutes later partly by sign language and partly in broken Italian we asked him if he would let one of us go and collect this particular specimen. At first he gave a negative wave of his hands, then after a few gentle prods from us he finally shrugged his shoulders and put his fore finger across his lips in a furtive way, then signalled for us to go and collect the flower.
We went through the gate, walked to the flower then started to try and pull it out of the ground, however the earth was very hard and stony. "We're out!" Almost together we voiced the same thoughts, "Shall we make a run for it?" We turned towards the south and bounded away. We kept on running into the thicket until we could run no further and then dropped to the ground while we recovered our wind. We furtively lifted our heads to figure out just where we were. The Sulmona valley stretched out below us and we were able to spot some traffic moving north and surmised that it was a military convoy and German. After laying there for some time it became obvious there was no pursuit so we then took stock of the situation. We had left all our escape gear intact inside the camp. All we had was what we stood in, - no maps, no food and no aids of any description. The only thing in our favour was the fact that the weather was fairly warm and dry. We decided to head south keeping to the high country away from any roads which could be used by the military and hoping that we could get some help from high country farmers. Having decided on a plan, we immediately began to carry it out by setting off to the south and gradually heading up the slopes to our left. We continued on until it was dark and then found ourselves overlooking a large village, which of course we dare not go into at this time. The hillside we were on was quite steep, about 45 degrees and quite thick with grass and weeds. Finding a spot where there was a small hollow we simply lay down together as close as possible and fell asleep.
We were awakened by the sound of a motor vehicle, which seemed very near, plus the fact that we were frozen stiff and damp. The noise of the vehicle was receding as we watched it make its way up the main street of the village and disappear as it turned left out of sight. It was a German light military car and the road actually passed almost directly underneath where we had been asleep, the dirt road was only about 20 yards away from us. We had a perfect view of the whole village, which was really a collection of poverty-stricken buildings spread out in a very untidy way. Even the main road through it was ill defined; and of course just dirt surface, - cows, chickens, goats and dogs wandered everywhere, but there was no sign of any living person at this time. It was about 4-30 am and the sun was just beginning to come up, the cocks were crowing, the dogs were barking and it looked more like a model from where we were perched. We were both very hungry and decided to risk going down to the village, as there was definitely no sign of any military presence. We felt that should there be any negative response to our appearance then we could run as fast as they could. On scrambling down to the roadway we almost landed at the feet of an Italian old man who was walking back towards the village and after he had got over his surprise, we introduced ourselves as Escaparto Prigioneeres Ingleesy. To our great surprise he spoke back in English with a strong American accent, he assured us that he disliked the Tadeski as much as we must do and that he would be only too happy to help us. He warned us that not all the people in his village might think the same as he did, so it might be better not to advertise our presence too much in case someone informed the authorities. There was still no sign of life when we walked down the main street to his home which was about the third hovel on the right, he introduced us to his wife who seemed quite friendly also. She didn't speak English but she instinctively knew we were hungry and started to make us a breakfast of four eggs each and a big thick slice of home made ham. It was the best meal we had had for over two and a half years. The old man was no friend of Mussolini and said he would be glad when the war was over and some pleasure brought back in to life. Finally he got his wife to pack us up some food to take along with us. We considered ourselves very lucky indeed and left before any other villagers had seen us.
We continued the same way that the German car had gone earlier this morning and turned left at the end and almost straight away started a steep climb. Having spent about 2 hours in Cansano and now making our way to "Campo di Glove", we felt that just now would be safe to keep to the road because there was no traffic and felt we would get plenty of warning should there be any. In fact the only thing we saw was a shepherd with about 200 sheep heading towards us. We didn't bother to hide and when we drew level with the shepherd, he was very friendly. By now the sun was beating down and the roadway was real mountain stuff, hairpin bends and all. The shortest route was straight up and across the road but after giving this method a trial decided to stick to the road until coming within sight of Campo di Glove. We decided not to risk going through this town so we veered to the right and started to make for Palena. The Italian at Cansano had warned us that there might be a German officer in Palena and it might be best to go towards Villa-Santa- Maria. Of course he didn't know if there were any Germans there so we would have to find out for ourselves. After by passing Campo di Glove and rejoining the dirt road again we found the going easier as we began to descend. Then 3 or 4 miles further on we came on a row of houses, which were set about a l00 yards back from the road. There were about 6 or 7 houses only and all looked somewhat tidier than the average Italian scene. We decided to go nearer, where an Italian was chopping wood. He was very friendly and after a few minutes conversation invited us into his house. Incidentally he also spoke a bit of English with an American accent. We took one step down into a small garden before reaching his front door then went into a very neat and tidy room. His wife greeted us in a friendly way and asked if we would like some Munjary then led us into another room beyond. This next room was also very neat and tidy with exquisite home made furniture but the view we got from this room was absolutely breathtaking. The ground in front of this house fell away almost vertically into the valley almost 2000 ft below then rose again about half a mile away up and up into the sky at least 2 or 3000 ft covered with brightly coloured vegetation as far as one could see. It was truly fantastic! We enjoyed a very good meal and a few glasses of wine before thanking them for their hospitality and departing on our way towards Villa-Santa Maria. There didn't seem to be anyone about when we left and I think the rest of the houses were empty. However we left in very good heart indeed and made very good headway for the next hour or so.
The going had been fairly level but gradually begun to become steeper and steeper and the ground stonier leading into a sort of mountain pass. We carried no water bottles and gradually got very thirsty indeed. After another hour of this and a continuing stiff slope we both began to feel some distress, the sun was blisteringly hot and all we could see was parched land everywhere and no sign of Villa-Santa-Maria. Eventually we just had to sit down and rest. A few minutes later we heard some noises of someone following so we hid behind a large rocky mound and waited. Two young Italians appeared over the brow of the hill travelling in our tracks. As they got nearer we were able to size them up and decide that they were not likely to overpower us in the event of a skirmish, so we showed ourselves. They turned out to be quite friendly and also had a large army water bottle each, both almost full. They allowed us to drink our fill of the life giving water and then explained as best they could that they were deserters from the Italian Army and were on their way home to Taranto in the far south. They were very keen to help us on our way if we would vouch for them if we came on the British Forces. We all knew that the Allies were advancing up the country and although we did not speak each other's language, it was surprising how much understanding we were able to exchange. It was decided that we would travel together and whenever we came to a town or village, one of them would go and enquire the whereabouts of any Germans in the locality, we would then act accordingly. With their help, we found it easy to get food from the villagers and also obtain a picture of the movement of the German forces, so the arrangement was very fortunate at the time.
About an hour later we came within sight of Villa Santa Maria and approached to within about 300 yards of the first buildings. Then as arranged one of our new found friends went ahead to enquire what the situation regarding Germans in occupation was. 10 minutes later he returned and assured us there were no Germans, but warned that occasionally they did pass through the town in vehicles but mostly on their own business. He had also contacted some friends who would be prepared to shelter and feed us. So we all walked confidently into the town and went to the house of his friends. They were a bit apprehensive at first, but nevertheless gave us some food and coffee, then showed us where we could sleep for the night in a fairly clean stable. George and I were a bit worried in case we were being set up for denunciation to some passing German patrol. Shortly after, a sudden air of excitement swept through the town, as a small convoy of Germans went past! Obviously the Italians were not friends with the Germans, so afterwards we felt more secure. We could hear the sounds of war further south and estimated it was about 50 miles away, south of Foggia. The Italians seemed to get friendlier and offered us a few glasses of wine, but as there was a black out anyway, we soon went to our straw and slept. We were awakened by the endemic noise of cocks crowing and after a leisurely wash down at the water point in the main street, we returned to our friends house and were provided with a breakfast of eggs; and ham, brown bread and a glass of wine. These peasants were definitely not short of good food and showed no stinting towards the four of us. They suggested that we stay with them and vouch for them when the Allies arrived and were quite confident that the Germans would lose the war. We explained, as best we could, that we were anxious to get on our way again. Our new found companions were of a like mind, with Taranto the centre of their dreams. They had heard that their hometown had been heavily bombed and were very anxious to get home and see their relatives. So, shortly afterwards we shook hands with our benefactors, wished them well, as indeed they did with us and off we went on our way south. Our stay in Villa-Santa-Maria had been a very pleasant interlude and we felt better able to cope now.
Our next aiming point was the town of Trivento about 15 miles south east and although we went across country whenever we came to any small settlement, we would get one of our Italian friends to actually go in first and make sure there were no Tadeski about. If all were clear, then we would follow. We found the average Italian peasant did not like the Tadeski any more than us and noticed a show of friendship towards the English and Americans. They were all heartily sick of the war and with their attitude had little trouble in scrounging food to keep us going. We did have the occasional scare when coming near a track suitable for motor vehicles, when the occasional small convoy of Germans went by, especially when we were near a small settlement. Our Italian friends did make a mistake when we arrived at Trivento. After doing our usual reconnoitre and getting the wrong message we boldly entered the town, only to discover that there was a small detachment of Germans actually there. However after learning of the Germans we simply kept on going through the town without stopping. We saw only one German and he was apparently going about his normal duties and didn't give us a second look.
Our next aiming point was the town of Lucito about 8 miles away across country which turned out to be quite rough and steep going, but there was no sign of any Germans at all. Before arriving at Lucito we came upon a very large vineyard with great tanks showing above the trees. Our Italian friends introduced themselves and us to the few people there who seemed very friendly and who offered us some food as well as a very clean stable to sleep in. They said the Germans were unlikely to come there as they were too far from a decent road, so we were glad to accept their hospitality for the night. Blackouts were in force here of course and after the sun went down there was little else to do but go to bed, which we were all thankful to do anyway. After being awakened by the usual cock crowing, we all cleaned up in quite a civilised wash house, before our hosts brought a really good breakfast with plenty of wine to wash it down with. When we left about an hour latter we were in really high spirits. We passed through Lucito without incident and decided to keep fairly.
About seven or eight miles further on we came to a big junction in the road. We got a very good view from above as we approached and saw that the other road was very bushy with all sorts of German traffic. We decided Campobasso was no place for us and headed south-east, across the main road in the direction of Leisi about 9 miles away across country, This was very hard going and we decided to try travelling along the main roads and risk being stopped by Germans. After finally getting on to the main Campobasso to Foggia road we were able to get along faster and the German traffic went on its way and we on ours. There was little difficulty in finding a stable to sleep in and scrounging food from the small farmers we contacted and within 2 days were on the outskirts of Foggia. Foggia was a very busy place indeed and although there was a lot of Germans about, no one took the slightest notice of us, we were all about equally badly dressed. I remember the large concrete blocks off flats all looking the worse for wear and what seemed great crowds of Italians pouring out of them. There were far to many German troops in the place for us to risk finding a place here for the night, so we continued on.
It was late afternoon when we cleared Foggia and headed southeast, but here the concentration of Germans was fairly intense and we deemed it wise to keep away from the main road now. We crossed a main road and started to approach a village on a hill, but were stopped because of a sudden burst of machine gun fire which appeared to come from the northern side of the village and firing over the top of the village south. This firing continued almost continuously. The tracer bullets gave quite an interesting display, gradually other guns joined in and made the spectacle even more interesting and spectacular things went on for most of the night. This night was spent in the open, luckily the temperature was fairly warm so we were able to close our eyes and get a bit of rest. It was obvious now that we were getting close to the actual front line. We increasingly came near German artillery positions but managed to get past without being spotted ourselves. There were plenty of trees and underbrush so it wasn't very difficult to remain out of sight. By the same token we finally broke into a clearing which was occupied by a big gun and its attendant crew. Luckily, they were so engrossed in loading the gun that we just had time to quietly do an about turn. We creeped slowly sway without being seen.
After a few minutes we came on to a rough track and turned right on to it. We continued downwards for an hour or more until we spotted a farmhouse ahead. One of our Italian friends went on his own slowly to investigate the situation and 20 minutes later returned looking very pleased. He explained that the farmer was very upset because the Tadeski had been and taken all his sheep and cattle as they retreated and now there were no Germans left. We then went on to the farm and the farmer confirmed what had been said to our friend. On further questioning it became clear that in fact the hated Tadeski had gone. The tragedy was that the farmer had given us the wrong information or that we had misinterpreted the message. Unfortunately we were overjoyed and thought we had by strange chance walked straight through the front line and that the British troops were on the other side of the valley. We could hear the occasional burst of Bren gun fire on both flanks but not on our sector, we wrongly assumed that Gerry had gone. So the 4 of us shook hands with the Italian farmer and his wife and set of on a continuation of the track we had come by.
Beyond the farm was clear open space, only an odd tree here and there, about a mile away was another farm and our intention was to call our way past. However after walking a hundred yards only, there was a sudden small volley of small arms fire coming from our next calling point. At the same time George burst out, Christ, there's a Gerry observation post up that tree ahead and to our left. I spotted the glint of his field glasses at the same time. We were all in civilian clothes and apparently hadn't a care in the world, we hoped. So all we could do was to gradually change our course so that our track took us well behind the farm. We had been spotted, so we just walked at normal speed across an enormous field which sloped down to our right to the bottom of the fairly shallow valley and about a further half a mile away was covered by a large area of forest. We had got to a point a little past the farm, when Bren Guns fired us on from the other side of the valley. Bullets were landing all around us. At this time we noticed that the track which we had been on originally after passing the farm became lined up with a natural Fault Line and the track was 4 or 5 feet below the ground level to the right, thus providing natural cover from the German forces. We naturally set off running as fast as we could to reach this cover and at the same time veering left towards the forest at the bottom of the valley. We safely reached the track and cover when there was a shout of "Achtung" from a small party of Germans leaving the farm heading down the track towards us about 100 yards away. They were armed with sub-machine guns and fired a few shots in our direction. It was evident they were short on range so we continued running. This track veered to the right and as we rounded it there appeared a party of Italian civilians, all young men stretch out in a long line with their hands held above their heads as they emerged from the forest. We thought that there was a force of Germans behind them, so I said to George, "Dump everything British and try to pass off as an Italian".
By the time the party from the farm had caught up with us and the Italians were near. We realised that there were no Germans behind the Italians. They had heard the Germans firing at us and had thought it had been meant for them. It was too late to do anything about it now, anyway the Germans by this time were all around us and indicated for us to proceed up the track towards the farm. When we reached the farmyard, which was hidden from the British line by a large haystack and some outbuildings, we just milled around until a German officer appeared out of the farmhouse. One of his men acting as a very poor interpreter generally questioned the men in the crowd and everything seemed pretty informal and friendly at this time. Then after about 5 minutes, the officer suddenly brought the proceedings to a stop and ordered us to form up in military fashion. We were all then searched and everything of value taken away. We were then led to what appeared to be an out house to the main farm building, but which was a chicken house, liberally covered in droppings and the rickety door was closed on us. George and I by prior arrangement kept away from each other and spoke to no one, only our Italian friends knew that we were English. Looking through the large cracks in the door we could see the Germans struggling to get a very large gun out of its position and hitched to a gigantic tractor. We looked at each other and I thought to myself, it looks as if they are retreating and will leave us locked in here.
After about 10 minutes the door was flung open and a tall fine looking German stepped into the room. He counted the number, then said "Ah the thirteen apostles" then he pointed two fingers to one of the Italians including George and said "Prima duee" and signalled them outside. A few seconds later there was a number of revolver shots and it was obvious they had been shot. A feeling of absolute horror overcame me and I looked desperately around the room for a possible way of escape, but to no avail. The Italians were in a frenzy. "Mama Mia" they cried, some went down on their knees and prayed to Almighty God. A few seconds latter the door was flung open again. The same German came to signal out the next two. I strode up to him and cried "you can't shoot me, I'm English". He looked down at me questioningly, "Eine Englander?" he said frowning. "Yes I'm an Englishman" I replied. "Eine Tommy" he next asked, to which I blurted "Yes I'm a Tommy". With this he took hold of my arm and led me outside to a waiting officer. This officer spoke to me in English with a strong Oxford accent. He asked me who I was and how did I come to be in this situation. I told him my rank and service number and that I was an ex prisoner of war and had escaped from Sulmona Concentration Camp.
While this questioning was in progress, the chicken run was being emptied two men at a time. As they came out of the door, they faced about 30 Germans formed in a semi-circle leading to the entrance to a square large walled in enclosure with a gateway. As they arrived at the gateway the Germans were shooting them in the backs. I watched in horror until they had all been shot and said "Oh God you've shot my best friend". The tall German, on hearing this, suddenly looked agitated, pointed to the bodies, "eine Englander?" he asked. Quickly I realised my delicate position and replied "No an Italiano". He looked very relieved. They then turned their attention to me again. They pointed to the other side of the valley and were curious as to how I had managed to get where I was. I told them again that I was an escaping ex prisoner of war from Sulmona PG 78. They seemed to be quite friendly and lots of them came to talk to me to give their English language an airing. I was very impressed by the great numbers who spoke fairly good English. Later I was to find that the standard of education of the average German was better than mine, certainly I had no difficulty in making myself understood. They had quickly got back to the job of preparing to move their position and it seemed that they were fairly used to these massacres. In fact the shooting we had heard earlier was probably the same drill, I suppose the German Command did this sort of thing in order to toughen their troops and make them more bloodthirsty.
Finally everything was ready I was loaded into a 3 ton truck, along with about a dozen Germans and had just actually started when a motor cycle and sidecar suddenly arrived. We stopped and I was off loaded in to the sidecar, with a guard on the pillion we then set off on our own. As soon as we left the cover of the haystack and farm building we were fired on by the British forces on the other side of the valley. Fortunately there was only about 250 yards before making some more cover. This was the farm we had visited earlier, but now we motored straight through. About 5 minutes later we came to a tar-sealed road where we turned right. We then went in a dead straight line north for about 8 or so miles arriving at a place called Cerignola where we spent some time trying to locate the proper army unit. Eventually we swept up to a very impressive looking entrance to what appeared to be a stadium of some sort, surrounded by a very high wire mesh fence.
Inside the large gate was straight drive leading to some impressive buildings and as we drew up to the side of the gate, a high ranking German officer was strutting down the drive, hands behind his back. The driver and the guard sprang to attention and saluted the officer but I just scrambled out of the sidecar and stood there. The officer came straight towards me and said "ah the Englishman". Obviously he had been expecting me. He spoke perfect English and then said, "I suppose you realise that you are in a very dangerous position being in civilian clothes." Suddenly the effects of the last hour swept over me and particularly my denunciation of George at the murder site. "You've killed my best friend you bastards, you may as well finish me off as well" I blurted out. At that moment I was almost wishing to die, because of the wrong I had done to George. The effect on the officer was remarkable. His whole attitude changed to one of concern. "How long is it since you had a square meal?" he asked. "I've forgotten" I replied. "Just give me your name rank and number" he said, "and then come with me". I gave him these details, he wrote them down and then he led me back towards the main buildings. He entered what must have been the caretakers living quarters, quite a well appointed place. He ordered his batman to run a hot bath for me and while I waited he talked to me in a very friendly way. I volunteered the information that I had been in the same parallel unit to him - he had a parachute emblem on his uniform. I found that he knew more about the raid that I had taken part in way back in 1941 than I did myself. After a really good bath, they gave me a clean shirt a new pair of trousers, underpants and socks, then treated me to a meal which was the best I had had for over 2 years. He told me the war was going against them at present time and that I would be in the charge of a parachute regiment that had been pulled out of the front line for a rest. He said that if I would sign a parole and promise not to try and escape, then I would be given a very good time. I told him that to do so would be unthinkable. He then told me that as soon as they had gathered a big enough party of prisoners to make it worthwhile, we would all be sent back to Germany by train. He told me that I would be expected to work for which I would be paid and that if I co-operated life could be fairly pleasant. An hour later as it was beginning to go dark, the driver and guard who had brought me here returned to collected me and take me away. I shook hands with the officer and we each wished each other luck.
The ride lasted only a few minutes when we arrived at an Headquarters tent set in the edge of a forest. I was to spend about 4 days being centred here. The men of this unit had been told of my arrival and that I was a paratrooper also. They soon crowded round, anxious to test out their English. The concentration of vehicles and masses of war stores all carefully camouflaged under the trees amazed me. I was kept up half the night talking, they issued me with a ground sheet and blankets, a straw mattress, tooth brush, tooth paste, soap, clean towel, I half expected to get a pair of pyjamas, but no. We sat and talked and drank until I fell asleep. I was awakened by my guard in the morning, who took me for a wash then to the field toilets, which were very clean, then to the field kitchen where I lined up in the queue along with the men of the unit. I was given exactly the same food as the others, even to the same extra issue of cigarettes, 2.1nd chocolates. In fact I was given a bit more than they were, because I looked hungrier I think. All the time they seemed keen to practice their knowledge of the English language on me. They kept on warning me not to try and escape, as they said they had orders to shoot to kill if I did attempt it and they assured me they wouldn't like that. Everyone in the unit was resting and a lorry was sent into the town of Cerignola to do some looting. An hour later he returned with the back of the lorry choc-a-block full of all sorts of things, large roles of cloth, curtains, office desks etc, all simply useless but also a great pile of chocolates, cigarettes and sweets. These were all carefully sorted and counted, then divided by the number of men in the unit, including me and so I was handed about 300 cigarettes a pile of sweets and chocolate. Everyone in the unit shared a large quantity of bottled wine and a really happy time was had by all. I found that at this time all my wish to escape disappeared and I felt a pang of conscience. That night I slept very soundly and later realised that as the evening wore on I must have been given a drug in one of the drinks so as to relieve the strain on my guard.
The next morning after our ablutions, my guard told me that I would be going to another unit today, so about 10.30 I was put into the sidecar and of we set again. We motored for about 3 hours. I saw lots of allied aircraft about and several times we got a scare when one of the planes came near to us. However finally after some time the new Headquarter tent was located; the driver dismounted and went into the tent. After a few minutes I heard voices raised in anger and out stormed an officer red faced excitingly telling the driver to take the Englander somewhere else, he had enough troubles of his own. This scenario was repeated more or less 4 more times during the day and I loved every minute of it. Apart from the constant danger of attracting an allied fighter on to our tail it was good. The three of us became quite friendly and all saw the funny side to the situation. We had no food all day and finally when they decided to return to their unit, still without getting rid of me, we all looked forward to some food. On arriving back at Cerignola and reporting to the headquarter tent, we were quick to go to the field kitchen where we given a really good meal. The rest of the night was spent talking and drinking the wine from the mornings looting trip, and so another day sped by.
On the third morning, things livened up somewhat. It was evident that the whole unit was preparing to move their position, trucks were being loaded, the rest period was over, However, the driver told me that I was definitely going to another unit today and about 10 o'clock we set off again. Once again it was practically a repeat performance of yesterday and towards evening we returned once more to Cerignola. This time however the whole unit was actually ready to be on the move, waiting only for darkness. We managed to get a packed sandwich each and washed it down with a bottle of wine. I was put into the back of a 2 ton truck along with several others and as soon as light faded we moved away. After about an hour's travel, there was a few spots of rain, so we stopped in order to put a tarpaulin sheet over the back of the truck. Ten minutes later, the heavens opened and water found its way everywhere. From then on things were uncomfortable to say the least, I think I had the best place being sat right in the middle. The convoy moved slowly on all night with frequent long stops and although it was most uncomfortable I slept (I really now think that I had been drugged). We were still on the move at first light and the driver and his companions in the front cab were becoming agitated because of a wrong turning and becoming lost. The track which we were on was getting steeper by the yard and eventually it was obvious we could go no further. It was fast becoming light and already allied planes were about. The track was quite narrow; the only bit of level ground was a small yard in front of an Italian farmhouse. There were several tall narrow haystacks perched precariously on the edge of a steep drop but this was the only space to manoeuvre, so the driver reversed on to the yard. As he did so a couple of the haystacks were pushed over the edge. The old farmer and his wife were outside observing all the commotion. When the haystacks were knocked over, the old man was livid and started calling the Germans "bastardoes". The sergeant in charge calmly took out his revolver and at point blank range pulled the trigger. The effect on his wife was devastating - I can never forget the tragic look on her face. When I objected, I was curtly told that I should think myself lucky not to have been shot also.
We started down the track again and they were able with the aid of light to finally locate their rendezvous, by which time there were lots of allied aircraft looking for targets. Our new quarters turned out to be a tie factory, naturally camouflaged by a light straw roof set on poles above low rickety tables used for airing the tiles before firing. Strangely, although it had been raining all night, this place seemed to be dry. The German soldiers encouraged me to share in the organising of what was to be our living quarters for the next few days and by evening I began to feel ill. By the next morning I was feeling very ill indeed and kept shivering with cold. They willingly piled their own blankets on to me and soon got a doctor to examine me. He gave me some tablets and left some for me to take later. I went to sleep and woke up the following day feeling very well again. Obviously he had put me to sleep so as to relieve my guards of their duty for a day. I was asked many times in a nice way if I would sign a document promising not to try and escape but in the nicest way said no. They were quite nice about it and I really think meant it when they said they wouldn't have liked to shoot me if I did try to escape.
About mid-day one of the men said that I would be going to another unit this afternoon. Sure enough after a good meal, I was taken in the sidecar of a combination, with my guard sitting on the pillion seat armed with a tommy-gun. We went to 3 different units, the procedure was first to locate each particular unit then be directed to the headquarter office, in a farmhouse or large tent. The driver would disappear into the office then a few minutes later out would come the driver, followed by an officer breathing blue smoke and waving his arms. I gathered from my two companions that they were being told in no uncertain way to take the bloody prisoner somewhere else he had enough on his plate as it was. This scenario was repeated at every unit, of course the distance between each call took an hour or so of travelling, the weather was beautiful, the sun blazed down. Occasionally we had to run for cover whenever an allied fighter came near, but I think we all enjoyed ourselves. The next day was almost a repeat of the previous day; the three of us became very friendly indeed. However, when we next returned, it was evident that the unit was preparing to move on. I realised that I was a complete nuisance to them and did entertain for a short time that they may cut their losses and shoot me. I really think that the fact of having fair hair saved my skin, all was turmoil and I could gather there was a big problem in keeping a prisoner.
Finally the general of the unit said that I would travel with him and his driver! And so started one of the most fantastic nights of my life. There was a large flag on the radiator, which signified that we had priority of way and although the German army was really on the move that night, we encountered many traffic snarl-ups. That flag was a miracle worker. We arrived in Bari in the middle of the night at the same time as lot of allied bombers. The result was complete chaos and even the general's vehicle came to a stop. He told me to keep close or he would be forced to shoot me and I was not at that time in any mood to try, having been on the go all day and now all night. Bombs seemed to be dropping everywhere and in a strange way I felt a bit sorry for the general who was almost as helpless as me. By first light the shambles became apparent. There were hundreds of dead bodies all over the place and they were being collected into heaps at the side of the roads. All in all it had been a ghastly night. Later on in the morning the general decided to move on in order to get some sleep. So we motored north about 10 miles and after traversing some narrow twisting roads came to a farm. The general went inside the house and came out a few minutes later with a sergeant. He told me that this unit would look after me from on, then we shook hands and wished each other the best of luck. He climbed into his vehicle and ordered his driver on. The sergeant spoke extremely good English and his first words to me were "Do you know how to treat chickens?" We were walking up an incline towards the farmhouse and as we got near I could see a lot of Germans chasing after a mass off chickens and then wringing their necks. It dawned on me what he meant and when he waved me forwards I joined in the chase. The poultry were going in all directions and after running after one in particular suddenly realised I might be out of sight of the main party shortly, so speeded up on the uneven ground. At that point one of the Germans was converging on his particular chicken, there was a shout from behind and the game was up! After being led back to the farmhouse, the sergeant chided me and told me if I tried again they would definitely bring my life to a close. This was a small unit of about 12 men only and I was led into the living room, which was fairly comfortable. I sat down in a chair and went to sleep. They were a friendly lot and allowed me to sleep all morning.
I was awakened in the early afternoon by one of the party holding a glass of wine and insisting that I take a good swig. They had raided the farmer's wine cellar and there was a row of bottles all waiting to be drunk (They said). I obliged at first but didn't wish to get drunk and furtively poured my wine in to a large base of an indoor plant whenever I got the opportunity. This party went on all afternoon. There were about 7 or 8 men plus the sergeant in charge and was treated by them as if I was really one of them. Of course they began to be under the influence of all drink which was being consumed. Outside the door into the farmhouse, was a very large Alsation type dog firmly attached to the wall by a thick heavy chain. There was room to get past this dog, but it was a bit unnerving for anyone coming into the house to have this dog lunging at them in a frenzy of bad temper, jaws dripping and straining at the chain. To say it was a bloody nuisance was an understatement! I mention this at this time to help to understand what I was forced to witness later. Everyone seemed to be very happy under the influence of lots wine. I had managed to dump a lot of my wine into my friendly plant pot, so believe that whilst not stone cold sober I think I was completely in control of my actions, although I managed to make them think that I was really drunk. The sergeant came to sit by my side and told me that their unit was going to move off as soon as it went dark. Then he said it would be a good idea for me to drive his vehicle. During the day I had mentioned that I was interested in motor racing and found out from him that he had been to the Dunlop jubilee meeting at Castle Donington in 1939. Of course at first we had both enjoyed talking about our mutual interest, but it now turned out to be embarrassing. I had told him that I had been at the same meeting and also that I told him I was a motor-mechanic, hence his request. I told him that I was not prepared to help my enemy in this way. In answer he took out his hand pistol, pointed it at my chest and told me that I had no option because he would be beside me and if I still refused to drive he would pull the trigger.
I did try to brazen it out, but luckily for me everything changed at last minute. About an hour before we were due to start moving, they all were brought up short by the sergeant and from then onwards there was hard activity packing on the vehicles all the last minute details until the light began to fade. Finally everything was ready; everything checked and ready to start. A last quick look round the farmhouse, then out. The brute of a dog lunged at us all for the last time. The sergeant picked up an old rusty buck which was lying there, approached the dog which was still straining at its chain and at a safe distance brought the bottom of the bucket hard down on the dog's nose. Blood immediately streamed out of the dog, but enraged the animal even more! Every time the dog lunged the rusty bucket was hurled at its nose, - this went on for a long time until the dog became weaker and weaker and its rage gradually turned into a wail of defeat. However the sergeant kept on striking the dog until it lay in a pool of its own blood and died. Each time I tried to turn away from the site a gun was pointed at my head and I was told to keep looking. We moved down to the sealed road and I believe that had I been asked to drive I would not have refused and yet miraculously he never asked me to drive. By morning, we had reached a new position, which seemed to be 3 or 4 separate farms all very close together. The owners had departed. Here it seemed as if we had joined up with a larger unit and I was first in the hands of one unit then an hour later transferred to another unit.
Finally after a few of these changes, the sergeant of the night before came along in a small open tourer BMW, a very sporty looking car and told me to get in. Off we went to another farm close by where the farmer had left. We had the place to ourselves and together we gathered some eggs and bacon from a pantry. He had already brought some German bread with him. We milked a cow and then made a really good meal. Afterwards he told me that he personally had taken responsibility for me and that if I escaped, he would be in deep trouble. At first I didn't realise the implication. After we'd eaten our fill and began to feel sleepy and he started make himself comfortable for a snooze, in a casual way got me to say that I would not go away if he went to sleep. With that he went firmly to sleep. I was very tired myself and was tempted to sleep myself, but my conscience worried me. I had a walk outside and could hear and see signs of activity from the Germans in the adjacent farms, but if I had walked away, I'm quite sure that I would not have been recaptured. Obviously the sergeant was going to sleep for some hours and there would have been no alarm until he awakened. After about an hour I woke him up and told him that if he went to sleep again then I would escape. I was surprised how he accepted the news. He first suggested that we both make a cup of coffee, then whilst we were drinking it, said that he would have to hand me back to the main party where 3 men would be required to guard me. He pointed out that I would not have such a good time, as with him. I never found out what his particular duties were but had a suspicion that he was attached to their security service. Anyway, after finishing our coffee we went to his car and set of back to the main unit where he officially handed me into their care. We shook hands, wished each other the best of luck and parted.
The new unit merely included me in the section so that everyone could keep their eyes on me, always keeping me in the middle of a group. I always had plenty of company, because lots of ordinary guys came to talk to me in English, so the time passed very pleasantly. In the early afternoon of the following day, I heard an American officer who was being escorted towards me suddenly say almost demandingly, "Come on you guys, who's got a cigarette?" The Germans treated it as a huge joke and seemed to be only too willing to offer him one. Of course I was very pleased to see someone on my own side again and I gathered from him that he had been shot down the previous day. He was totally unhurt and was a very happy go lucky type and in the few times we could talk together, I learned that he was keen to escape also. The following morning we were informed that they had captured some more prisoners and we would soon be joining them today so that it would be practical to send a batch of 40 or 50 on their way to the Fatherland. Sure enough about an hour later a small truck arrived, manned by the German military police complete with their ridiculous looking and seemingly impractical large metal breastplates. They seemed to be somewhat aloof from the ordinary Germans, but didn't object to some hand shaking with our previous warders. We both got in the back of a small truck and with a few cries of "Good Luck" from the Germans we were on our way.
About half an hour later we entered fairly thick woods and saw a concentration of armaments spread out under the trees and carefully camouflaged from large tanks to big guns, thousands of them! Our truck went through to a clearing in which was a twin towered religious looking building and stopped near the two towers. It turned out to be an Italian graveyard, under each square tower was a room and each room separated by the roadway into to a walled in graveyard. The room on the left was being used by the Germans as a temporary jail. A sentry outside opened a door and allowed us both to pass in, The room was filled completely, standing room only, with a German armed with a tommy gun sat in each corner. The men inside were from the "Green Howards" except for one US marine. After a few pleasantries I moved away from the corn, away from the Germans in the corner and asked one of the Green Howards if they had been closely watched since capture and had there been many opportunities to escape. Almost at the top of his voice he denounced me, saying they were all quite happy to be prisoners and were not going to allow anyone to spoil their privileges by trying, so of course I was forced to let it drop. I knew that the Yank I had come with was keen to escape anyway. A few minutes later the American marine came to me and said that he was very keen to have a go at the first opportunity. Unfortunately his left arm was in a sling and broken!
The time was about 3.30 and about an hour later the door was opened and a German told us all that we could go to the farmhouse nearby and be fed. A few minutes later we were placed in a very large room, the floor of which was thickly covered with apples. They told us not to eat the apples because we would shortly get some good soup. Sure enough, a few minutes later we were led to a field kitchen a hundred yards away and given some delicious thick soup. Also we were allowed to have as much as we desired. The two Americans and I ate all that we could plus a bit more, I in the surety that I would need all my stamina in the immediate time ahead. After everyone was well fed two lorries appeared, and then two sports cars driven by their military police complete with tommy-guns and breastplates. All the prisoners were loaded into the back of one truck and so with a car in the lead then our truck followed by the second truck with about 20 M.P s aboard and another sports car, they all seemed to be armed with a tommy gun. By the time the convoy started to move off, the daylight was beginning to fade. The road was fairly good but with loose metal and a very twisting terrain through a mountainous area. The two yanks and I got near the tailboard of the truck and it was obvious that to attempt to make a run for it would have been suicide.
About half an hour went by as we slowly wound our way to the railhead at Campobasso. There were lots of hairpin bends to negotiate and about midway on our journey our driver went too near the right hand side of the road whilst going round a right hand bend. His rear wheel went over the edge of a very steep loose embankment and we stopped. The Germans told all the prisoners to get off and form up in threes on the road above the lorry. Then they told us that if we would help them to get out of the situation we could look forward to rest in the warm and dry waiting room at Campobasso station. Otherwise we could choose to stay out here for the night waiting for their own engineers to arrive, pointing out at the same time that it looked like a very wet night was likely as a few spots of rain came down. To the Yank's and my surprise all the Englishmen except me heartily volunteered to get the truck out. So, the attempt got under way, the Yanks and I fighting to push it further in, while everyone else tried to get it out. I'm pleased to say the 3 of us won and so the truck was well and truly in a very bad position indeed. The Germans didn't loose their cool, merely shrugged their shoulders as much as to say "what else could we expect" however they seemed to get some pleasure when it later started to rain and pointed out that we would be here all night.
On the Run Again
After about 20 minutes a really massive recovery vehicle complete with hooks, crane, winches, tow-bars, in fact every conceivable piece of equipment needed to get motor vehicles, even tanks out of a rut. In short time they were organised, the prisoners were lined up in threes above the wreck and a searchlight shone on the group and the wreck. They then set about attaching cables etc to the wreck. While they were absorbed in doing their thing I moved my position so that I was on the back row with the two Americans on my left. I whispered to the Yankee pilot, I wonder where those blokes are that were in the car and truck which was following us. If I took one step back I would be in darkness compared to the light beam. He replied 'Go on boy, Take a chance!' and at that I took a step back then very slowly turned to the right, then very slowly walked away. I had gone about 20 yards when I passed the sports car, which had followed us. There was someone sitting asleep in the passenger's seat, so I just kept going at the same leisurely pace. The moon was rising and I could see fairly well to a distance of about a 100 yards. The hedge on the right hand side was unbroken so far but after passing the car I saw a group of people ahead and at the same time saw a large gap in the hedge. Without hurrying I turned into the gap and immediately found myself at the corner of a big ploughed field with a hedge on my right at right angles to the road. The surface was soft and wet and the going much more difficult, however after getting out of earshot, I started to run for all I was worth. After going about a 100 yards further there was a sudden break out of small arms and machine gun fire from the region of the wreck, I could only assume that the two Yanks had also had a go and had been spotted. Obviously I will never find out what really happened.
I was well clear now so I stopped and sat down on a stone to recuperate, then continued on in the same direction until I came to a vehicle width track across my present track. The moon was fairly bright, but it was a cloudy night. On the other side of the road was a thick forest, so I decided to turn left here rather than go straight into the forest. After starting I found the going much easier. I got into a marching mode and strode on, until about 10 minutes later suddenly heard a field telephone. I stopped and listened then heard a voice ahead and just discerned a sentry at the end of large area covered with tents. Luckily for me the end of the forest marked the beginning of a flat area on which the tents were pitched so at this point I turned into the under growth, fearing to traverse a wide clear area beyond the trees, in case I might be spotted. The going was now very slow indeed but I kept on going at about 45 degrees back and on rising ground. Keeping my direction was not easy due to the clouds, which often put me in total darkness. In spite of these difficulties I eventually arrived at a broad strip of clear grass about 40 feet wide, a fire break! I turned half right into the fire break area, the going was a lot easier and its direction nearly due south so all seemed to be going well. Suddenly I heard a field telephone again and stopped dead to listen. This time there was no human voice, only movements in the grass on the hillside on my left. It then dawned on me that I had merely heard a bell attached to a sheep or a goat, all the same it was quite a fright!
I continued on with rising ground to the left falling away to my right and heavily wooded. Gradually the trees became less and less until there were none. I walked on in the same direction until reaching the start of a dry stone wall, then after a short distance another dry stone wall forming a track, at this time I saw about a mile ahead on my left a farm like building. I knew from past experiences that many of these high country farms were usually empty, so I thought it a good idea to get to it and maybe get some sleep out of the wind if I could find a clean dry spot. After continuing between the two stone walls, about 35 feet apart for about 10 minutes, a dog I had been aware of for some time, took a different tone and much to my horror saw the dog heading towards me. It was so close that there was no time to take any evading action. It was very big dog indeed and I saw visions of me being torn to shreds. There was only one way to deal with the situation, stand my ground and fight it. At the back of my mind I imagined that if I could grab its two front legs and tear them as far apart as possible it would kill the animal, so stood my ground and waited for the onslaught. Half a second before it reached me the dog suddenly stopped dead in its tracks and then scampered whining back the way it had been coming and out of sight and sound. I now felt a bit surer of myself and after a short stop to think, decided to get to the farmhouse which was about a quarter of a mile away.
After reaching the farm I went inside and found it completely empty and filthy, so ruled out the idea of bedding down there. After going outside again and scouting around I found big store of dry hay, then found a suitable spot in a small depression away from the farmhouse in which to bed down. I went back several times to collect enough hay for a bed and then lay down to sleep. I fell asleep immediately and was awakened by what I thought was a rifle in my midriff. It was in fact an old man with a shepherd's crook stick. He spoke to me in Italian and with the word "Questa" coming into the dialog I said " Io Ingleesy escaparto priginary de gwara". He took his stick away and helped me to my feet and so I did my best to explain that I wanted to get as far as possible from the Tadeski. He then waved me to follow him and led me to the bottom of mountain scree, which went upward at an angle of about 30 degrees. He indicated that there was safety for me near the top of the scree and so I shook hands with him and started up the side of the scree. It was getting quite light by now so it was fairly easy to keep climbing in spite of trouble with loose surface. Eventually I saw on my left a large grassy valley, the sun was now rising and the grass was fairly deep and inviting. I made my way to the upper side so that I was able to lay down in the sunshine and again had a sleep. This time I was awakened by low flying American fighter planes, which were starting their dive from the top of this small mountain and machine gunning the German positions in the valley below. I knew that the forests they were aiming at were in fact chock-a-block with every sort of arms and ammunition. They started their gunnery a short distance ahead of where I stood and as they passed sometimes 5 feet above my head the ammunition clips were showering around me. The sight was unforgettable and went on for an hour or more, by which time the forests below were burning from end to end, accompanied by many explosions. To watch one squadron after another diving down to nearly ground level, firing their machine guns and also dropping bombs was a tonic to me. By the time the Yanks stopped the sun was very hot and it must have been about 11 or 12 o'clock, so I again gave attention to my next move.
I went up the slope and away from the scree and after 10 minutes came to the top of the rise and saw ahead of me the top of a house. At the same time I saw an Italian at the other side of another small valley. He made his way to me and I to him and we met in the hollow. He was quite friendly and spoke a little English with an American accent, so I had no difficulty explaining who and what I was. He told me that he hated the Germans and would be only too pleased to help me. He led me in the direction of the house I had seen and on breasting the next rise I saw a very big valley about 5 miles across and a small village close by. The first house we came to belonged to him and he introduced me to his wife who was quite friendly but could only speak Italian. They made me a drink of goats milk base with 3 raw eggs, a big spoon of honey and topped up with wine and after drinking it down I felt like a new man! They then took me to a higher level at the back of the house into a large room, which held a large double bed with white sheets and was very cosy looking. The rest of the room was filled with sacks of wheat and farm produce. He told me that the road to this village was not good enough for the Germans to use, so they had not been bothered by the Tadeski and were not likely to be bothered in the future. He also said that the rest of the villages equally hated the Tadeski, so there was no danger in the other people knowing of me. They would like to help me in order that I would speak for them whenever the British forces eventually arrived. Although I did not really want to stay with them, maybe a day or so stay might be in order, to allow the allied forces to get nearer, but that would be all. I was glad when the daylight began to fade and lost no time in going to my bed. However after falling asleep it was not long before I was awakened by a very active breed of bug. I got out of bed and although there was no light, after moving the top sheet back, I could see the bed was covered in little red bugs scurrying about at lightening speed. Always having been very allergic to any creeper in bed, it was obvious that I would not get any sleep tonight or any other night in that bed, but I did not want to hurt the feelings of my new found friend. As it was a warm and dry night I went outside and had a long walk and found a grassy bank on which to lie down and had a fairly long sleep under the stars again. Then waking up as it began to come light, I made my way back to my "official bedroom" so that my friend did not suspect that I had slept in the open, of course I also resolved to move on that same day. I told my friend that I had had a strange feeling that I must move on and he seemed to accept it easily. After having a breakfast of eggs and ham with bread and coffee, I shook hands with him and his wife and then headed south east on my own.
My actual direction was simple. By heading towards the noise of war was a reliable guide and so long as I did not go too close to main roads I felt quite secure. As I crested a rise in the land I saw on my right about 3 miles away a train heading southwards, then below the railway which was perched on the side of the next mountain, was a road junction below the railway. From this it was obvious that I would soon come across a busy road, the road running roughly north must have been the main road to Campobaso likewise the railway line. The next train towards Campobaso was a goods train loaded with military equipment, so it was plain the Germans were pulling out of the area, this of course cheered me no end. After reaching the main road I found it very busy with traffic, mostly German, but I crossed it without trouble and not following any tracks, continued southeast. The land was hilly - mainly grassland and just before dusk, I came on a large farm. The Italians were quite friendly and gave me a good meal, then showed me a very clean stable and invited me to sleep there for the night. They confirmed that the Germans were in fact moving north, but they felt secure because the road to their farm was very bad. The noise of war was getting very close now and I got up in the night to witness the sky filled with tracer bullets coming from both directions. The next morning I was beginning to feel the excitement of the possibility of getting back to England and home. The Italians gave me a very good breakfast of bread, a green concoction with onions, paprika with plenty of olive oil. I thanked them for their help, shook hands and then left.
The next time I crested a rise, I could see the flashes of guns and the crossfire of machine guns. Immediately ahead was a deep valley thickly covered in trees, so I felt fairly secure in approaching what seemed to be the front line area. About half way up the other side of the valley there appeared to be a line sloping down towards the left and I decided to get a bit nearer to what I judged to be a road. I plunged straight into the thicket of very deep grass, which gave me good cover all the time, heading towards that road. Even after getting into the trees I still found plenty of natural cover and when I heard Germans I merely veered away and continued forwards. By the middle of the afternoon I started my climb up the other side to the road, having lots of rest stops to listen. The occasional German voices had now ceased so I was able to go forward a little faster, the undergrowth was dry and warm and as I got near to the road I just crawled and could finally see the strong shoulder of the highway. It occurred to me that this could be a possible German defence line and very dangerous for such as me. Suddenly I heard a motorcycle slowly going down the road and it sounded very much like a "Norton" side-valve, so I inched my way up the side of the shoulder so that I could actually look at the road. A few minutes later another motor cycle came in to view. It was a Norton with a guy in battle-dress on board! I quickly scrambled up on to the road and waved him down. He soon asked me on to his pillion seat, turned round and headed back the way he had been coming, then stopped at a house about 300 yards back. It was a signals unit and they had just taken over the house, an officer and 8 men. They gave me a wonderful welcome, fed me and plied me with a good collection of wine. The officer whose name I cannot remember was a native of my own city of Sheffield.
We talked all evening and they had plenty of blankets, so we all turned in. I had talked about getting home as fast as possible but the officer warned me that it could take months for me to get clearance to go back to England. I had no pay book or any means of identification so he suggested that I might hitch my way back faster. He said he had arranged for me to go to a guards unit so that they could arrange for my repatriation and accordingly took me there. When I reported, the guard officer who interviewed me, seemed more interested in seeing me dressed properly, pointing out that I couldn't be allowed to wonder about in my part German outfit. He merely said that I would probably be employed for the time being doing the cleaning up etc. He did however tell me that I would eventually be sent to a camp at Taranto, which would deal with me. After leaving his office I recalled what the signals officer had warned me about, so I merely walked out on to the road and started to thumb a lift Taranto. By strange chance the first truck which appeared was a big Scamnel lorry towing a large field gun and the crew of 4 were on their way to the repair depot at Taranto. My worries were over for the time being. The crew were well organised and knew just where to stop for a meal and somewhere to sleep and so with a few interesting stops in small towns, in 3 days we arrived. The army was everywhere in Taranto, so the gun crew simply dropped me before they disappeared into their reporting base.
I soon located the guards unit responsible for blokes like me and went in. The officer who interviewed me was very stiff and correct. He talked about getting me dressed properly, but also said that my only hope of getting home was to get a boat from North Africa. They showed me where I could sleep and said that I would not be allowed outside until I was properly dressed. They told me I would have to wait till tomorrow for a new uniform so I decided to take a lift down to the docks and look round. I was very interested in a large boat which had the bows so formed that they could be opened to form a runway down which tanks were rolling out at the rate of about one a minute. I watched until the last tank had come ashore, then I went halfway up the ramp so as to get a better view. An American seaman came up to me and asked who the hell I was in that rig-out. I explained that I was an ex prisoner of war and hoped to get to North Africa and then back to England. You're in luck buddy he said, come with me and he led me into the ship to see an officer, where I told my story again. Without hesitation the officer invited me to go to Bizerta with them. Within an hour the boat had set sail again to return to Bizerta, I had joined the crew and we were off. I spent one night aboard and was fed on really good food. The yanks certainly provided their men with the best sort of rations, far better than the English fare.
We docked at Bizerta about midday and once again I shook hands with my American friends, then went ashore. Here I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next, there were a lot of British and American uniforms about and I asked a Tommy where the Naffi was located. He queried my rig-out and I explained about the POW story again and he then walked with me to the Naffi. We both went up to the counter and he introduced me to the girls behind the counter. Of course I had only a little from a gift from the artillery crew, but they just gave me everything that I wanted. I took my tea and cakes to a table and sat down to enjoy it when a sergeant came and sat with me to talk. I told him some of my story and said that I was very keen to get back to England. He told me there was a staging camp on the outskirts of the town. After he had given me instructions on how to get to it I finished my tea and cakes, went outside and soon got a lift in a jeep right to the entrance of the transit camp. I was led into a large tent come office and another guards officer interviewed me. He was very critical of my dress, he told me to draw ground sheets and blankets from the store and make myself comfortable for the night in any of the 600 bell tents which were pitched on a slope. There wasn't a blade of grass in sight, just cracked and parched ground. Cracks 4 or 5 inches wide and a foot deep criss crossed the whole area - it would have been difficult to find an area in any tent big enough to lay a bed down. All the tents were vacant, evidently awaiting the next batch of troops. I considered my situation and remembered that I had no pay book, so simply walked out of the camp and hitch hiked a lift from an American jeep.
The two Americans in the jeep were very curious about my dress so I had to explain again. They were so interested that they suggested that I stay with them for the night and continue the tale. They also told me that the only sea convoys from Africa set off from Algiers, which was nearly a thousand miles along the coast. They arrived at an area where there was about 20 or 30 large square tents and pulled up outside one. We all went inside and I was surprised at the luxury they enjoyed, electric light from their own batteries, proper camp beds as comfortable as civilian type beds. They had proper wash basins, towel racks, shaving mirrors, really a home from home. They had plenty of tinned food of every description, marvellous hand torches and a pile of spare batteries; in fact they wanted for nothing. I slept the sleep of a contented man that night, the next morning after a good breakfast they took me back into the town. They had given me a lot of information and had suggested that I may be able to get a lift in a Dakota to Algiers. However I made my first stop at the Naffi and asked for a cup of tea and then sat down at a table. A few minutes later a sergeant came in and came to drink his tea at my table; again my dress was the first talking point. I told him that I was thinking about getting an airlift to Algiers, which he thought was a good idea and said that there was a bus every hour, which left from just round the corner from the Naffi for the airport. I finished my tea and went outside to where the bus was due to leave. Five minutes later a bus did arrive with the destination board marked "airport". I boarded, it was an American bus and free and well filled. On arrival at the airport, everyone got out.
There was a very big marquee ahead of me and a queue of army and air force types. They were English and American all slowly moving into the tent, under a sign which said "ALL FLIGHTS OUT". I joined the queue and felt very unsure of myself, when I realised that there were a lot of high ranks before me and in short time behind me. Finally after about 3 or 4 minutes I arrived at a great big heavily constructed oval shaped counter, in the centre were about a dozen clerks talking to the people and moving maps and things about and discussing routs etc. I did have an overpowering urge to make a run for it but held my ground. Finally it was my turn and I told him that I was an escaped prisoner of war from Italy and wanted to get to Algiers. For a few seconds there was a questioning look on his face, then he turned to the left and said, "Quick boy, go to the end of the counter"! I turned and met him as he ducked under the end of the desk, "This way" he almost shouted and we made our way outside on to the airfield where there was a Dakota just starting to taxi. He ran out waving his arms and the plane stopped, the door was opened and I scrambled inside and found the only empty seat. As I went down the isle, I noticed that almost everyone was a high rank and when I sat down, it was beside a Major with a red band round his cap. However he was quite OK and accepted me without any questions. I got an occasional view of the desert below whenever the plane banked and in seemingly no time at all we landed at Algiers.
After taxiing to the unloading point, steps were placed against the rear unloading door and everyone trooped out, but I hung back until I was the last man down the steps. There had been a small group of people meeting this plane who were now dispersing and not many left by the time I got down. At this point I had no plan whatever and just looked round in wonder, when a man dressed in officer's clothing but with "ENSA" markings on his lapels came up to me enquiringly. "You must have taken the seat of (and he mentioned a pianist) I wonder where he is?" he asked. I told him some of my story as we walked towards his jeep, then we sat and talked for some time. Finally he told me that the pianist he was supposed to meet was due here to take a holiday from entertaining the troops in the field and that a hotel with all conveniences had been organised for him for 2 weeks even a woman. If I wished, he could easily arrange for me to have that same holiday. I told him that I was tempted but was so homesick that the best way of helping me was to get me on the quickest convoy home. He told me there was a convoy assembled outside the city at this time, but no one knew when it would leave and he promised to try to get me on it. For now he would take me to a troops' holiday camp for the night. On my arrival at this camp, set up in the grounds of a horse racing course, I met a large staff who normally catered for 5 or 600 troops at a time, but at present was empty. They were all bored, so they gave me all the attention that they normally gave the troops. They cooked me a super meal and waited on me hand and foot, I had plenty of wine and finally they carried me to bed.
Early the next morning, about 4-30am they woke me and gave me a ready good breakfast. My ENSA friend returned to collect me and took me to the seafront where I was loaded into a motorboat and immediately set of to catch the convoy, which had already set off. We drew alongside one of the ships and I was helped aboard through a door in the side of the ship. After getting aboard, I discovered that everyone was a free Frenchman and had difficulty in making myself understood. Suddenly an English man appeared and took me to see an English officer, who told me that there were very few Englishmen aboard except for a small number of prisoners who were on their way to serve long sentences in England mainly for murder. They were housed in what they called 'The Island', which contained 6 cells. The number of Englishmen who were guarding them was rather low so I would find living up there a lot better than inside the ship, which was very crowded anyway. After climbing up to the Island and being introduced to the guards, then being shown the prisoners, it appeared that I would enjoy the voyage back to England. There were lots of blankets and mattresses; the weather was warm and the sea calm. Outside the cellblock was a wide walkway and plenty of space to sleep in, food was brought up to us and it was good and plentiful. All we had to do was let one of the prisoners out of their cells for a few hours a day for fresh air and exercise and to see they were fed. Any of the guards were allowed anywhere in the ship so naturally I visited the engine room and also saw how lucky we were up there on the Island compared to the overcrowded conditions in the ship generally.
The only excitement after passing Gibraltar was when the anti aircraft balloon which was fixed to a part of the Island got its cable entangled in another mast nearer the stern. The cable was simply chopped away with an axe, the balloon and cable floating away. I thoroughly enjoyed sleeping in the open and as we moved north making a wide sweep out into the Atlantic ocean in order to avoid "U"-Boats, still continued to do so, merely using an extra blanket as it became colder. We were told the track was over the top of Ireland and then down towards Liverpool. As we rounded the top of Ireland the destroyers, which were accompanying us suddenly, started to weave about and then started throwing out depth charges, but there were no torpedoes fired at the convoy. Now the weather turned very cold and I did consider moving my bed into the space outside the cells, but actually stuck it out for the complete trip until we arrived in the dock at Liverpool. Of course during the closing stages of the voyage everyone had been receiving disembarkation passes, but I, after being questioned several times, had still not been handed my landing pass. Also to complicate matters, one of our prisoners went missing and as he was a murderer there was big concern. Luckily he was found before we actually docked, but in spite of that I still did not have the Landing pass! Finally it was decided that I would be sent to London under escort, this was big disappointment to me because I had expected to be on my way home to Sheffield and actually at home that same night. However they allowed me to send a telegram to my mother.
My escort and I made friends straight away and soon found ourselves on a train bound for London. After arriving in London, we made our way to the Grand Central Hotel in Marylebone. This was very large Hotel and although it had been taken over by the military, it was being used to accommodate strange characters such as myself. I was taken up to a double room and my room-mate was a Russian about my age. I had been told at the main desk come Guard room that I could go out wherever I wished but only with my escort, so after settling down decided to accompany the Russian for a drink. I had been paid about 50 pounds and after collecting my escort at the "Guard-room" out we went into the London of wartime. We had a drink in one or two pubs and I soon became quite tipsy on the London beer. It was a good job that time was called, because our escort had been drinking also, however we did find our own way back to the Hotel and went up to our room. The Russian decided that he wanted a bath and ran a full bath and then, on trying to get in slipped and hurt himself quite badly. Then I went to bed. After a good breakfast, I reported to the Desk and was told that I had to go to Whitehall M.I.9. Another man came to escort me there, then started 2 days of being questioned in the underground City underneath both sides of Whitehall. Eventually I was taken to the private quarters of the Minister of War and being given tea while I told my story to him and his wife. When I arrived back at the Hotel I was told that I would be given a new uniform, Pay Book, travelling warrant, some money, Leave-Pass and ration coupons for 8 weeks leave. I sent a wire to my mother telling the time of the train I would catch and within an hour was ready to move out. It was a really wonderful time for me and St Pancras station never saw such a happy passenger waiting for his train. On getting aboard, I found standing room only and this state of affairs didn't alter until we had reached Leicester, when a lot of people got off and only a few got on. I was able to appreciate the country from then on and when the Crooked Spire of Chesterfield came into view I began to feel at home. Seemingly minutes later we went past Millhouses Park, slowed down and pulled into Sheffield Midland Station and Home! My mother and sister met me at the ticket barrier and that vivid memory lingers with me still. We took a taxi home and there was a small crowd outside my home to greet me. At that time I wasn't thinking of the future, it seemed more like a dream. The effect of the wartime restrictions, shortage of food, petrol and all sorts of commodities, plus the Black Out made normal life very trying for the people, but I was used to that sort of life.
Reproduced by kind permission of John Parker and Mark Hickman (www.pegasusarchive.org.uk)Read More