Captain Robert Roderick Charter
Unit : No.5 Battery, 2nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, Union Defence Force, South African Land Forces.
Served : North Africa (captured), North-West Europe.
Service No. : 107117
Camps : P.G. 75, P.G. 21, P.G. 47
Robert Charter was born in Pretoria, South Africa, on the 11th April 1918. He studied Chemistry and Biology at Pietermaritzburg College, Natal University, and the University of Cape Town, gaining a Batchelor of Science and a Master of Science degrees. From August 1938 he worked for the South African Government in the Division of Fisheries in Commerce & Industries until he volunteered for active service in April 1940 when he was commissioned into the 2nd Anti Aircraft Brigade. He married Hazel on the 15th August.
'I was captured in Jun 42 in the Western Desert and was taken to Tobruk. I escaped from the Camp together with Capt I Simpson and we stole a veh from the German veh car park. We succeeded in masquerading as German soldiers and joined a German convoy heading for Sidi Barrani. At one of the 'short halts' we broke away, and although shot at succeeded in evading immediate capture. That afternoon, however, we were seen by an eight wheeled German armoured car which gave chase. This veh could do 60 mph over rough country and rapidly closed in on us. After a burst of MG fire we gave ourselves up.'
'We were then sent to Hengazi under escort for trial, but in the cage managed to join other PW and lost ourselves in the throng. I was then taken via Bari and Chieti to Modine in the Lombardy Plains. We spent many weeks digging a tunnel, but the entrance was discovered and the plans consequently failed. I did manage to escape in Aug 43 with the assistance of the Escape Committee whilst on a fatigue party fetching Red Cross parcels. I stowed away in a train which was unfortunately placed in a shunting yard in Bologna. I was forced to leave in daylight and was caught by the Police whilst trying unobtrusively to saunter through the gates. I was returned to the camp and sentenced to 30 days cells on bread and water.'
'Whilst I was serving my sentence Mussolini was arrested, and for this reason I was not sent to the special camp for "desperate characters" from which escape was difficult. Before the Italian capitulation the Germans took over our camp and moved it to the Austrian Frontier. Our guards were, however, inexperienced and whilst some of my friends created a disturbance on one side, thereby focusing the attention of the guards, I managed to climb the wall on 10 Sep and was joined by Capt Simpson who had also managed to escape by a different method, and later by Capt Walker and Lombard, both UDF.'
'We walked from the Italian Austrian Frontier to Francoville South of Pescara and met a British parachutist who informed me that a British vessel would be at a certain RV at a certain time to evacuate escaped PW. The vessel never arrived, and we were captured by a German patrol at the RV and placed against a wall preparatory to being shot for being in civilian clothes. Before this could be done, the German offr was himself shot by the British parachutist and his 2IC thought it best to take us to HQ 2 German Para Div for interrogation.'
'The Div Comd, after a very thorough cross-examination aimed at finding out why the parachutist was behind the lines, decided against shooting us and in due course sent us to Chieti. Here Simpson and I dug a hole unobserved and hid in it for four days, at the end of which period the guards abandoned the search for us. We resumed our progress in the direction of the British lines and managed to cross the Triquo over which was the German F17L, under cover of darkness. The whole journey was 750 miles, and the period taken to cover this distance was eight weeks.'
'I seconded immediately to the British Army, and was sent to Italy. Capt Simpson did the same and was killed in action. He has, I believe, been recommended for a posthumous VC.'
Later Service and Post-War
For his actions as a prisoner of war Robert Charter was awarded the Military Cross. From 1943 to 1945 he was a Major with the 43rd British Infantry Brigade, leaving Italy in July 1944 and posted to North-West Europe in January 1945. It was here that Charter was Mentioned in Despatches in recognition of "gallant and distinguished services". He returned to South Africa after the war and was a Company Director in Johannesburg, remaining on the lists of Union Defence Force reservists until 1970.
My thanks to Chris Brooks, Member of the UK Orders & Medals Research Society, for all that details on this page.
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