Gunner John Mallen
Unit : 3rd Field Regiment, RA, 8th Army.
Served : North Africa (captured).
Camps : P.G. 54.
I'm John Mallen of the 3rd Field Regiment Royal Artillery in combat with the German Afrika Corps in June 1942. After some combat we were overwhelmed by the German Forces and taken prisoner of war. Having been taken as prisoner with quite a few of my comrades, we were taken by boat to Sicily and thereafter to the mainland of Italy, roughly half the way up the ‘boot’. To camp PG54. This was towards the end of June 1942.
In September 1943 our captors were expecting their government to sue for an armistice with the Allies and consequently our guards were taking a little less trouble and gave us the chance to exit the camp and find ourselves in open countryside. We, myself and 7 comrades, were in a working party to go out into the fields and we were waiting outside the camp but the guards who were supposed to escort us didn't turn up, so we just walked off. Of course we were aware of the possibility that we would be shot as we went off. We dived into the trees and so were hidden.
There was me and 7 others. There was Jack Royal who was from Worksop, 'Smudger' Smith - Smudger was a nickname of course, W. Batchelor who came from Yorkshire somewhere, Cliff Connor who came from Skelton and Bill whose name I can't recollect. Lastly there was Ken Barnes who was from Colchester area. I really would like to get in touch with them again. (Any knowledge of these men, please contact Caroline Beasley Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum 01722 332151; John is very keen to hear from them or about them).
There were hundreds of other POWs on the run as soon as Italy capitulated as the guards just walked off. Many POWs stayed where they were because there was a coded message sent to the British Officers in charge of the troops to say that POWs should stay put in the camps. The reason was that the Allies, having landed in the Southern tip of Italy were expected to advance rapidly. That didn’t happen and Hitler sent an order that all POWs were to be marched to camps in Germany. Maybe he wanted them all as hostages in Berlin; I don’t know. Of course they were starved and winters were very hard. When the Americans found these POWs being marched they brought them home. My mate Ken Barnes was one of them. He had quickly been recaptured after we split up but when he was rescued he was only 4 ½ stone. I didn't know that at the time of course.
We moved at night time for about 2 weeks and scrounged food from the fields. A good time of the year as every Italian was a smallholder with a few animals and vines, olives and vegetables - very much self-supporting. We evaded Italians as we were not sure if they were anti-British. But eventually we arrived at the village of Montebuono. We came across a young chap and fortunately our sergeant, 'Smudger', was able to speak a few words of Italian. He told us that they did not care for Mussolini and that they were out of the war. He took us to his home and his parents came out and shook us by the hand. The war had finished for them. The other families adopted one each of us. I was taken in by Shar Ezio (spelling may be incorrect), his wife and daughter.
A few weeks later there was an order sent out by the Germans that said that Italians harbouring POWs would be shot and their houses burned. We had to move out as we could not put them at risk. We were back to square one back in the fields and open country scrounging in the fields for what we could. So we again had to scatter. The Germans would send squads through the countryside looking for us. We could hear them but we knew our way around the area by then and kept out of their way.
After a couple of weeks we had a message from the Italians to go back to the village. The bulk of the Italians were keen to help but a number were still fascists. We were reluctant for them taking the risk then, but they insisted that the Germans had gone out of the area. We stayed there for about a month or 6 weeks.
We decided to split up as we thought we would have a better chance of survival on our own. Some went North to try to reach Switzerland which was neutral but a long way away, or South to try to get through German lines and make contact with the advancing Allied troops. We found out that we were free to contact the allies. Bear in mind that when the Italians packed in when the Allies landed. German troops were still occupying. Now free from POW camp, we were still careful to keep away from Germans.
I remained in the area as I found what I considered to be good hideaways - one was a cave in an area of dense woodland and the other was a barn. It was just bare ground in the cave and I had just one blanket that I had been given. As I was still in the area I could still contact my Italian family through another person. The next night after I had done this, the 11 year old daughter arrived in darkness, at my cave. 'Giovanni, I heard... Camilla' And there she was with a big basket strapped onto her back loaded with meat, cheese, bread, a bottle of wine and a big bunch of grapes. Dear oh dear.... that was very welcome. Just imagine though a young girl going a mile and a half in the dark and taking that risk.
My next hiding place was a barn – a big cow shed where cows were living at night and what better hiding place than a manger? I would tuck myself in the edge of the manger, a pile of straw over me. Warm - big cows generate a lot of heat in this confined space! They kept away from me and they gave out a lot of body heat. I would only go there at night of course and leave very early in the morning and wander round in the hills and woods.
In addition to us 8 escaped POWs, there was an American Bomber came down but the crew landed in open country by parachute and were unharmed. There were 8 of them. Like me they were hiding and they found an old shed at the top of the mountain of Montebuono.
One early morning I was about to move off from my cowshed and I was looking around to see if anyone was around, any nasty people in German uniform, when I heard machine gun fire. The sound echoed round the valleys and it was hard to tell where it came from. Later I heard that a squad of Italian SS had tracked these Americans down to their hiding place. The sound I heard was them being shot. The Italian SS were just as bad as the German SS. That didn't improve my morale I can tell you.
I spent just under 10 months in the Italian countryside until June 1942. When the Germans were retreating I spent a couple of weeks with Italian partisans who were disrupting troop withdrawals, although they had to be careful as if they fired they showed their position.
From the mountains I watched the German army retreating. When they had all past, lo and behold there was a British jeep. I had made my way down to the road and I jumped out in front of them waving my arms. I was in Italian clothing and they thought I might be a spy. They gave me cigarettes – my first English ones for a long time – but as they were Reconnaissance, checking the road ahead was clear of Germans, they just took my ID and my Italian family’s address and went off. Finally a letter came from Rome to say that I could report there to Allied Screening for repatriation. I gave my information about the killing of the US aircrew which they investigated as a war crime. I was sent to Naples and after a time transported back to England in early November 1944.
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