Sergeant Samuel Oliver
Unit : 1st Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers
Served : North Africa (captured)
Army No. : 4275708
Camps : P.G. 53 and 73.
My father escaped from PG 53, Campo di Sforzacosta, on 15th September 1943 along with approximately 1,000 other POW's who took the opportunity to walk out of the camp in the short time between the Italian guards leaving and being replaced by German guards. One of the few items he took with him was this diary, written in a school exercise book.
After two or three days he was sheltered by an Italian farming family not too far from the Camp, near Mogliano. He stayed there, with another POW, George Caygill of the Green Howards, working as farm hands, for several months before they made their way on foot south, along the Apennine Way. They eventually reached Allied Lines and he was repatriated from Naples in May 1944, arriving in England on 6th July 1944.
My father died in 2001 and never completed the story from escape to reaching Naples. I have pieced together a great deal of information but have been disappointed not to find his POW Escape Report at the National Archives. However I have traced the Italian family and a re-union with the farmer's children who remember my father is being arranged for June 2008. Hopefully I will be able to add an update to this document following this visit and properly round off the story.
My father was always proud to have been a Royal Northumberland Fusilier and once my task is complete I am donating his diary and other documents to the Regiment's archive in Alnwick Castle.
Peter Oliver January 2008
Visit to Marche, Italy June 2008
This story began with a letter written in 1945 to my mother from an Italian family who had sheltered my father after his escape. Details were scant but I had a name and a vague address. As I have previously explained it started a comprehensive search in various archives but in the end it became clear the task could only be completed by a visit to Italy.
The family all agreed and the search for accommodation in the area began. We found a local agent in Mogliano who became interested in my task during the booking process and amazingly the office secretary recognised the Italian family name and within hours located two brothers who were children in 1943 and remembered my father being with them at the farm. After the many months of internet and archive research the result was achieved by using a local telephone directory!
We duly arrived in Mogliano and met the two brothers who were 11 and 4 years old in 1943. They brought their families along and we all went to visit the farmhouse where my father stayed. A very emotional time for me, seeing the room where he slept, the location and trying to appreciate his experience. Being only 6 or 7 miles from the camp brought home the scale of the risk the family took to harbour 2 escapees.
It emerged that my father had wanted to move on after a few days but was convinced to stay for the winter as the only safe route south was down the Apennine Way.
The family took us into their various homes, introduced us to the local priest and arranged a wonderful celebratory dinner. The hospitality was staggering, time almost stood still some 70 years after the event.
There were 2 other notable experiences.
I was surprised to find that many of the buildings used for PG 53 were still intact. Prior to use as a POW Camp it was a factory with concrete buildings which were now used by small businesses. The camp entrance and iron gates were still standing and the recreation area remained overgrown with some evidence of the perimeter fence. In 1944 the camp had been used as a Jewish Concentration Camp and an Israeli organisation had mounted a memorial at the entrance.
I also spent some time in the nearby Sibilini National Park, the starting point of my father's trek, to gauge the task of walking over 100 miles at high altitude to safety with fighting raging below. I could only wonder at the courage of so many who made it home this way.
An account of my experiences since I left England on 4 August 1940
At Sea - Liverpool to Port Suez
We arrived at Liverpool Station on the afternoon of 3rd August and marched from the station to the docks, a distance of about 3 miles. I will never forget that march as we were wearing full marching order and carrying two kit bags each. The people who lined the streets gave us every assistance and carried our kit bags for us. They also gave us small gifts of cigarettes and cups of tea.
On arrival at the docks we boarded the troopship ''Strathaird'', a vessel of some 22,000 tons. We had a very trying time moving kit on board and getting settled down on our mess deck. As soon as all the troops were on board and all the stores were loaded into the holds, the ship put out into the middle of the Mersey. Moving out of the dock we passed the luxury liner ''Queen Mary'', a very impressive figure painted all a sea grey colour. We also passed the Tyne built motor ship ''Dominion Monarch''. All the dockworkers gave us a rousing send off and threw oranges to the troops lining the decks. A good number of troops replied by throwing letters to them to be posted home to their relatives.
On passing through the docks the ship bumped against the side of the dock gates but apart from a buckled plate, no damage was done. We anchored in the middle of the Mersey and the shore appeared to be a speck in the distance. This was my first view of the River Mersey and I had never realised until then what a wide river it really is.
My feelings were mixed as I gazed at the shore. I felt deep regret at leaving my wife and all my people at home but a sense of great pride in knowing that I was going to fight for my country in another part of the world.
I slept that night for the first time in a hammock and naturally some of us fell out of them accidentally whilst others were helped out by some of their more humorous comrades.
I awoke early in the morning to fell a strange sway in the ship and I realised then that the ship was at sea. On going onto the deck I discovered we were sailing close to the rugged Irish coast. The convoy was of a fairly considerable size and was protected by a strong escort of warships. Amongst the larger ships in the convoy were, the ''Empress of Britain'', the ''Empress of Bermuda'', the ''Andes'', and the ''Strathmore'', all of them peacetime luxury liners. Sometime after we arrived at our destination, we learnt that the ''Empress of Britain'' had been sunk off the Irish coast.
Amongst the escort of warships was HMS Cornwall, a cruiser of 10,000 tons, which was later sunk in the Indian Ocean after the entry of Japan into the war. Aircraft of the Coastal Command were flying overhead co-operating with the naval forces in the continuous search for lurking enemy submarines.
The duties of our unit on board ship were the manning of the light anti-aircraft guns, and many a cold night we spent during our tour of duty. Every morning was spent in lectures on deck and physical training. At eleven o'clock in the morning the ship's Captain began his daily inspection of the ship and he visited all main decks. At least once a day we had lifeboat drill and we all had our allotted stations on deck.
The food was quite good but the ship's biscuits and salted beef took some digesting. Beer and cigarettes were very cheap at the ship's canteen and chocolate and tinned fruit could easily be obtained.
Sports were arranged during the voyage such as deck tennis, boxing, and quoits. In the evening a concert was generally given by a very talented set of troops. Contrary to army discipline gambling continued throughout the voyage on a considerable scale. We received pay at the rate of five shillings per week, which was quite ample for our needs.
By this time we could feel the change in the weather as it was becoming much warmer. After having been at sea for about two weeks we put in at a fever stricken West African port called Freetown. It was an inspiring sight to most of us to see the tropical vegetation and the many different coloured tropical flowers on the shore. We were not allowed off ship but we had a most amusing time bartering with natives who lined the sides of the ship in their small canoes. We used to lower our articles down to them by means of a rope and wicker basket and they returned their goods to us by the same method. We obtained from them silks and satin and handmade leather pocket books. We could have obtained fresh fruit from them but the majority of us realised the danger of catching a tropical disease and refrained from buying it. It cost some of us a fortune in copper coins throwing them overboard for the natives to dive into the sea and retrieve them again. After a very short stay in Freetown we once more sailed out into the ocean.
The weather was becoming so warm now that we were allowed to sleep on the decks, which was much more healthy than having to sleep on the mess decks where the atmosphere was inclined to be very stuffy at nights. All port- holes had to be closed at night times and blackout regulations were strictly adhered to.
After having sailed for another two weeks we once more sighted land in the form of Cape Town. Long before Cape Town itself came into sight we saw Table Mountain and Tablecloth. Table Mountain is a huge structure which is flat on the top like a table and the tablecloth is formed by the white layer of snow which lies on the top. Cape Town lies at the foot of the mountain but looks very small with the huge mountain as a background. The strong rays of the African sun reflecting from the light coloured stone buildings of Cape Town made a most impressive sight from the sea and it was with a feeling of great expectancy that we sailed into the large modern harbour of the town itself.
Two days before this we had known we were near land because we had been met by planes of the South African Air Force. We had a stay of five days in Cape Town during which fresh stores were taken on board and the troops were allowed on shore. We were given a wonderful reception by the people of the town who were forever asking news of home. They were thrilled at the performance the RAF were putting up in the Battle of Britain and simply amazed at the courage shown by the British people.
As soon as you got outside of the dock gates you were pulled into a car and driven to someone's house. At night-time you were brought back to the ship by private car loaded with food and other presents. What created the biggest impression on us at first was the fact that Cape Town was not blacked out and the ships in the harbour were lit up.
Some of the sights well worth seeing in the town are the park, the museum, and the overhead cable, which runs from the bottom of Table Mountain to the top. I also saw the House of Parliament, the Governor General's residence, and paid a visit to a cigarettes factory. During my stay there I visited many peoples' houses including a Mrs Rooms who was hostess at some of the Governor General's functions in aid of the war effort. I also spent a pleasant time at the Avolon Hotel, a large residential hotel, at the invitation of the owner.
It was at Cape Town that I first fell foul of army discipline for absenting myself from the ship for several hours. I was one out of well over one hundred men out of our own draft alone who had done the same thing and the following morning we were tried for our sins. The Company Commander finding it impossible to try such a large number of men decided to pardon all of them with the exception of the four NCO's. Being one of the unfortunate four I duly appeared before the Commanding Officer who took a very lenient view of the case and reprimanded us.
It was a feeling of deep regret that we said good-bye to Cape Town and it's very hospitable people. The ship was well loaded with fruit given to us by the Fruit Merchants of the town. So once again we put to sea on the final stages of our journey. We passed through the Red Sea right past Italian East Africa but we did go without any interference from the enemy. The only unusual incidence which occurred throughout the whole journey was when one of our naval escorts dropped two depth charges early in the voyage.
Nearing the end of September we saw the sandy Egyptian coastline and finally we docked at Port Suez.
Infantry Base Depot - Geniefa
We moved ashore from the ship by Lighter and immediately boarded a train for Geniefa, where the Infantry Base Depot was situated. The sun was very hot and after a somewhat idle six weeks on board ship, the majority of us were rather out of condition and easily fatigued. On arrival at the railway station at Geniefa we were fortunate enough to have our two kit bags taken from us and sent ahead to the camp by truck. Then commenced our three mile march to the camp. The march commenced about mid-day in the blazing heat of the sun and before we had gone one mile a large number of men had fallen by the side of the road and were taken to the camp by ambulance.
However after what seemed an eternity to most of us, we reached camp safely with blistered feet and much more ready to die than to do. We were put under canvas and spent the next few days visiting the quartermaster's stores to be fully equipped. The rest of my stay there was spent in physical training, digging, and erecting tents.
The Western Desert
After only seven days at the IBD I was drafted to the battalion who were then in our defensive positions in the Merra Matruh area. We left Geniefa by train early in the morning for the western desert and at one o'clock the following morning we put in at Alexandria to have a hot meal. After a stay of one hour we continued our journey and at ten o'clock in the morning we arrived at our destination and were taken to battalion HQ by the battalion motor transport.
Our impressions of the desert up till then certainly didn't coincide with the views of certain authors of storybooks. We were met at battalion HQ by the Commanding Officer who talked to each one of us and told us that the enemy were only about seventy miles away at Sidi Barrani. He said that in modern warfare this was only a few hours journey and we had to be constantly on the alert.
We were then posted to our companies and I was posted to ''Y'' company. On arrival at Company HQ we received an address of welcome from the company commander and then I joined 10 platoon and began to get settled down. We received a rude shock when we were told to dig a slit trench to sleep in and that we would have to do a guard every night. Most of the men in the platoon were regular soldiers who had been abroad for a few years but they were very helpful and we got on quite well together.
After a short stay in this area, the company moved to an area nearer Mersa Matruh where we began to dig machine gun positions. We used to dig all day with the exception of about two hours in the afternoon when we used to go for a swim. It was in this area that I first saw a scorpion, a spider scorpion, and a snake. We had been warned about them but it was the first time we had come in contact with them.
My chief trouble at this time was blistered hands but after a few weeks all was well in that respect. We lived in a wadi, a thousand yards behind the gun positions and there we had our little dug-outs. We had a canteen almost every night and I spent many enjoyable evenings there.
The gun positions finished, we began intensive training and although I found the heat of the sun very trying, I certainly improved my knowledge as a machine gunner.
During this period, nothing of great importance occurred except that enemy aircraft operated behind our lines every night whilst the moon was up and a big daylight air battle took place over the Mersa Matruh area. A large formation of enemy fighters and bombers were engaged by a much smaller force of RAF fighters and in the ensuing dogfight, eight enemy aircraft were shot down behind our lines for the loss of one Gloucester Gladiator and two Hurricanes. The two Hurricanes collided with each other during the battle but both pilots successfully baled out. An amazing incident occurred when they both landed close to each other, they began a heated argument amongst themselves which finally ended in a stand up fight, each blaming the other for his downfall.
During the last week of November our training took a new turn in that for the first time we used live ammunition in co-operating with infantry, artillery, and tanks. We had a good idea that in the very near future we would be in action against the Italian forces. However when the time actually arrived we were very surprised so close had the secret been kept.
First Combat Experience
On the 6 December we joined the 4th Indian Division and were attached to the 11th Infantry Brigade. Before we came in contact with the enemy we had to move over seventy miles of open desert and not once did the enemy attempt to molest us during this period. For a week prior to the move, the RAF had been bombing all the enemy lines in eastern Libya and no doubt this contributed a great deal towards the fact we were not spotted during this initial move up.
On the evening of 8 December we were given all information we had to know by the company commander who wished us all the very best of luck. Late that night we moved forward again ready to begin the attack at dawn the following day. The disposition of the enemy forces was such that they were situated in camps numbering about a dozen with a gap of two to three miles between each camp. All of these camps were well fortified and had minefields around them. We were outnumbered in men but information that had been given to us led us to believe that our equipment was superior to that of the enemy. We had an order of the day read out to us from General Wavell.
Our task was to mislead the enemy into thinking that the main attack was coming from our sector. During darkness we moved into the narrow gap between two camps and we realised that we were in a difficult position as it was quite possible that we could be isolated by the enemy from the rest of our forces. As it was breaking dawn we moved forward again but we hadn't gone three hundred yards when we came under fire for the first time. The first shell fell fifty yards from us and for the next hour we were forced to take cover. By this time the enemy were well aware that a full scale offensive was in full swing and as we moved forward again we ran into an intense artillery barrage which kept us pinned to the ground for several hours.
Enemy aircraft were very active and as we were lying in our slit trenches we could feel the tremor of the earth as hundreds of bullets buried themselves in the sand as they flew down to attack us. The enemy forces didn't prove themselves to be the soldiers they would have the world believe they are and by the end of the day thousands of prisoners were in our hands and most of the camps had been taken or it was only a matter of time before they surrendered.
During the next two days the camps' last line of resistance was broken at Sidi Barrani and at the end of five days there were no armed Italian forces on the Egyptian side of the frontier. Our battalion then found themselves guarding some 40,000 prisoners and we found it tedious work. However we did well from Italian food and cigarettes.
After about a week of guarding these prisoners, we moved up to Lollum which is on the Egyptian Libyan frontier. From there we moved to the top of the Halfayer Pass, more commonly known as Hellfire Pass. This Pass winds up a big escarpment which runs into the sea at Lollum. The Company was dispersed in platoon areas on the top of the pass and it was here that we spent the Christmas of 1940.
The advance had moved so fast that our supply column had experienced great difficulty in supplying the forward troops. Consequently our rations suffered, especially our water supply. So on Christmas Day we fed on bully beef and biscuits and salt water.
On that day an air battle took place over Lollum in which two enemy aircraft were brought down without loss to ourselves.
During this time Australian forces had arrived to relieve British forces and they took up position around the Bardia perimeter.
On or about 16 January the attack on Bardia commenced with a violent barrage by our artillery and was carried on by infantry supported by tanks. After two days of fighting the entire garrison of some 50,000 men surrendered. We had been very fortunate in moving into a wadi in Bardia when we ran into six enemy medium tanks at close range. Fortunately we had two Australian anti-tank guns supporting us and they proceeded to put the six tanks out of action after a short battle.
Tobruk to Bengharzi
For a few days after the battle our task was once again to guard prisoners and then we moved up to the Tobruk perimeter.
After eighteen days around the perimeter the attack on Tobruk opened and after one and half days fighting, the garrison of 30,000 men surrendered. We survived an intense artillery barrage in penetrating the barbed wire defences. My chief find at Tobruk was two hundred bars of chocolate which we promptly did full justice to. The spearhead of our advance had been our armoured division which had been well ahead of the infantry throughout the campaign. The RAF and the Fleet had also been very active in bombarding the enemy both at Bardia and Tobruk.
After the fall of Tobruk we moved onto Derna where the company was strafed by enemy fighters. An air battle took place and two enemy aircraft were destroyed for the loss of one Hurricane. Derna presented a wonderful sight as we moved down the steep winding pass into the town itself. Passing through Derna we came to the bottom of another steep pass which would lead on to the main Derna - Bengharzi road.
However an enemy rear guard was well entrenched on the top of this pass and it took several hours to remove them. The countryside from then on to Benghazi was in many respects like the English countryside. Either side of the road was densely populated with shrubs, trees, and green grass although the soil was of a sandy nature, but very fertile. It was in this area that the Italian immigrants had settled down in farms. Our first glimpse of Benghazi was when we moved down the Barce Pass and we could see the white buildings of the town in the distance. We moved very slowly because of the rain and the muddy nature of the ground. It was so muddy that the drivers had little or no control over their vehicles and some of the vehicles were sliding around in their own length.
There were a number of first rate airfields around Benghazi, and on the largest of these, Benina, there were a large number of destroyed enemy aircraft. We only touched the outskirts of the town as we had orders to go to the assistance of the armoured division who had intercepted the remainder of the Italian forces attempting to escape to Tripoli along the main Benghazi-Tripoli coastal road. However after proceeding for about forty miles up the road we were told we were not required as the battle was over.
The armoured division had moved from Derna across hundreds of miles of uncharted desert and cut the Benghazi - Tripoli road about one hundred miles from Benghazi thus completely surprising the enemy who were defeated after a three day battle. Enemy losses in this battle were many thousands of prisoners and a large number of tanks. We then moved to Lolluch once more guarding prisoners.
After a short stay there we moved into Benghazi and were garrisoned in the Duke of Aosta's barracks where we were guarding some 30,000 prisoners. Duties were very heavy and a complete night's rest was a rare luxury. Benghazi is a fairly large town and had then a considerable civilian population. I was posted to the town bakery on guard duties where 18,000 loaves of bread were made daily for the prisoners. I spent sometime there and then went to the town water works. Most of the water at Benghazi was salt water and it went through a refining process at the water works to take the salt out of it. Canteen supplies came through and we did a little training and spent a good deal of our time playing football.
The Africa Corps Arrives
During this time the Australian forces had been withdrawn to assist Greece in her fight against the German invading forces and consequently there was only a very small force left to protect thousands of square miles of territory. The enemy had made good use of this respite and troops and material were poring into Libya by means of Tripoli. These reinforcements included the newly formed German Africa Corps and the 15th and 21st Panzer divisions. About the middle of March my company was sent to Marsa Brega in a small desert village 150 miles up the Tripoli road on the coastal sector. The ground in this area is ideal for defence because of the very soft white sand which extends for some miles.
Consequently transport and tanks experienced great difficulty in moving and the only route was down the coastal road which could easily be covered by concentrated fire. One of our platoon trucks got bogged in this soft sand one night and it was one o'clock in the morning before we recovered it. It was then that we had our first experience of dive bombing by German aircraft and as they had no fighter opposition they had things very much their own way. We were only allowed to draw our water supply from the village well after dark because enemy aircraft were so active during the day.
During one raid a few of us were fortunate as we were sitting in a dug-out. An explosion took place just outside of the doorway to the dug-out and the blast of it deafened me for three weeks. I thought I had lost my hearing but it gradually came back.
That night we withdrew fifteen miles down the road as the enemy was attempting to encircle us. The next morning I was detailed with the platoon sergeant and two other men to go back to Agedabia to collect rations, petrol, and water and to select new gun positions as the platoon was expected to arrive there about three hours later.
On reaching Agedabia we found that the engineers were engaged on demolition of all military stores. On reporting to company HQ I discovered to my surprise that I was about to be reported missing. Apparently one of our platoon had been seen to be taken prisoner by an enemy tank and he was supposed to have been identified as me. We had only been in Agedabia about four hours when the enemy commenced to shell it and we knew then that our platoon was lost.
From Adgedhabia a general withdrawal was made and except for isolated cases we lost contact with the enemy and finally found ourselves in Tobruk. During this withdrawal we lost some more men between Derna and Benghazi. Just before we went into Tobruk we received an intense machine gun barrage from very low ground strafing enemy aircraft. They lost at least four aircraft during this raid.
The Siege of Tobruk
Tobruk at that time was garrisoned by the 9th Australian division who had only arrived there recently and consequently the garrison had not had time to become properly organised. Apparently it was thought we would have great difficulty in holding Tobruk as we could obtain any equipment we required from the quartermaster's stores without even having to sign for it. At this time we were not completely surrounded but there was some severe fighting on the perimeter defences. However it wasn't long before the enemy were all around us.
Enemy air raids on Tobruk then began in real earnest and large number of enemy dive-bombers operated over the garrison by day and night. At that time we had one squadron of Hurricanes in Tobruk and they fought against vastly superior odds every day bringing down many enemy aircraft. However it was obvious they could not be keep this pace up for long and eventually what was left of them was withdrawn. The only aircraft that were left in the garrison during the rest of the siege were two reconnaissance aircraft. We were fortunate in having a very strong anti-aircraft defence and from then onwards they brought down many planes and damaged many others.
By this time everyone was digging by day and night and we got very little sleep. The garrison commander, General Moreshead who was in command of the Australian forces, together with his senior officers, decided on a fine plan which when completed, successfully defied all enemy attempts to reduce the garrison. We were under constant fire all day but we also gave the enemy enough in return to keep them fully occupied.
I was very fortunate one day when we were digging some positions. I was filling sandbags with two other men when the enemy began to shell us as we were under observation all the time. We had filled fifty sandbags when the sergeant in charge ordered us to take cover in a nearby wadi. When the shelling had ceased we went back to our work to find that there were only two whole sandbags left and in the place of the other forty-eight were two shell holes.
The only successful penetration of our defences took place a few days later when the enemy broke through and formed a salient in our defences. This penetration took place in the western sector on the Derna road. This area of ground was very important because of the fact that it was high ground and gave the enemy excellent observation posts from which they could view most of the perimeter defences.
Several attacks were made to retake this area but the enemy held on to it until the garrison was relieved. In one of these unsuccessful attempts to clear the salient I fired three thousand rounds of machine gun ammunition into one of the enemy's defended locations. We could hear the rounds ripping over our heads and observation was difficult because the air was dense with cordite fumes.
From these positions we mover to the right beside a water well and we were allowed to go bathing down to the sea. There was little danger of being attacked by tanks in this area because of a number of steep wadis, some of them over one hundred feet sheer drop.
From here we moved to the El Adem sector and remained there until the garrison was relieved during our November offensive of 1941.
After a few weeks the garrison properly organised and the situation became much more promising as fresh supplies were brought in by sea. Never a day went by without an air raid especially when the supply ships were being unloaded in the harbour. When the situation allowed, training was done and even NCO courses were begun. To relieve the monotony of life as little as two men from a section were allowed to go at a time down to the rest camp on the beach. Here they remained three days and spent their time swimming and there was also a small canteen close by. The rations were always quite good and we seldom wanted for water. The canteen was not as regular because all supplies had to be brought in by sea. However I received quite a lot of mail from home.
Back to Cairo
During the first few weeks of the siege I was promoted full Corporal. I received a greatest surprise of my life one night nearing the end of October when I was informed that I was leaving Tobruk the following night to attend a course at the Infantry Base Depot. I left Tobruk at 11.30 at night on the destroyer HMS Griffin. There were also two other destroyers with us and during the night we had a submarine alert and depth charges were dropped. We had a most uncomfortable trip because when a destroyer gets fully under way it ploughs through the waves and we were soaking wet in the first half-hour. We docked at Alexandria some fourteen hours later and General Blomey, GOC Australian Imperial Force Middle East was on the docks to greet an Australian unit who had come from Tobruk with us.
There were twelve of us in our party and we spent that night at Amyria transit camp which is situated a few miles outside of Alexandria. It was an inspiring sight sailing into Alexandria harbour and seeing all the ships of the Eastern Mediterranean Fleet lying at harbour. I also saw the French naval vessels which had been interned in Alexandria harbour after the fall of France. We fed well that night at the canteen and the following morning we left Amyria for Cairo by armoured car. The hundred miles ride from Amyria to Cairo was devoid of incident except for when in the distance we could see the tops of the Pyramids. The Pyramids and the Sphinx are at Mena a few miles outside of Cairo. The Pyramids are well named as one of the wonders of the world as they are wonderfully constructed.
On arrival in Cairo we reported at Albassia Barracks and spent the night there. It was here that we had our first real bath and hair cut for many months. The following morning we left Cairo main station by train for Geniefa and the Infantry Base Depot. On reporting at the IBD we were equipped with new clothing and told that in two days time we were going on seven days leave to Cairo.
The following day I sent two parcels to two men in my platoon and it was when I returned to Tobruk that I discovered that only one had been delivered as my other friend had been killed whilst I had been away.
Together with my leave pass I drew £10 pay and this together with some money I had saved in Tobruk. I thought would last me the week. We left the camp by truck for Ismalia along the Suez Canal road. I had a good view of the canal and was surprised to see how narrow it was in parts. Between Geniefa and Ismalia I saw the Anzac War Memorial of the last war built after the fighting with the Turks. I boarded the train for Cairo at Ismalia station and arrived in Cairo at eight o'clock at night. Egyptian Railways are run on much the same principal as British Railways but you have not the same comfort travelling.
On arriving outside of Cairo station we were immediately surrounded by dozens of boys attempting to push us into a taxi and drive us to the hotel they represented. After a little deliberation we allowed one of these boys to drive us to the George House Hotel where we booked rooms for the week at the cost of £1.10s. This included bed and breakfast as we had no intention of returning to the hotel for other meals. After we had visited the barber we went out and had a good meal and then returned to the hotel.
For the rest of our leave we had a grand time and we were sorry when it came to an end. Cairo is a large city but it did not impress me a great deal for the capital of a country. The public conveniences are not up to the standard of a small English town. The chief places of amusement are the Services Clubs, the cinemas, the skating rinks, and the cabarets. I took up skating and was improving daily. Whilst on leave I saw King Farouk and the changing of the guard at the palace.
On returning to the IBD we commenced our course and I succeeded in doing quite well but we were not allowed to finish it. At ten o'clock one night we were roused from our beds and told that we had to leave the following morning to rejoin our unit. The expected offensive had begun and our battalion was engaged in some very severe fighting and naturally all men were required.
Return to Tobruk
Early in the morning we left for Amyria transit camp by train and joined other drafts going up to Tobruk. We left Amyria by truck for the docks at Alexandria and boarded a merchant ship which had been converted into an anti-aircraft cruiser. The ship was called HMS Chantala and on the return journey from Tobruk was sunk by enemy action. We left Alexandria almost at once in a very slow moving convoy. It took us almost two days to reach Tobruk and entering the harbour a German bomber flew low over our ship. Accurate anti-aircraft fire from the ships in the convoy nearly brought it to destruction and it made no further attempt to molest us. There was a great deal of sunken shipping in Tobruk and going into the harbour we collided with one of these wrecks but no damage was done.
On arrival at battalion HQ I was informed I had been promoted to Lance Sergeant whilst I had been away. I then joined my own company and took over the command of a machine gun section. The battalion had suffered a fair number of casualties during the fighting but had done very well. One of our company commanders, Captain Jackman, had won the Victoria Cross but had unfortunately been killed some little time later.
The offensive had begun to make good progress and the only action we were involved with was a company shoot on an enemy strong point known as Plonk. The enemy reply to this shoot was too close to be comfortable but we survived it without suffering any casualties.
A few days later my platoon together with a small force of infantry and artillery set out to engage a party of German troops believed to be one hundred strong who were lying in the coastal area between Bardia and Tobruk. We were not required as they surrendered and we returned to join the rest of the company. A few days later the battalion was relieved and we left Tobruk for Cairo by road after having made a detour around Bardia, Fort Capuzzo, and Halfayer Pass as they were still in enemy hands. This relief came as after the battalion had completed almost eighteen months unbroken service in the desert. No other regiment could boast this record but the Royal Horse Artillery came not far behind.
Relief of the Battalion to Cairo
We arrived in Abbassia Barracks on 23rd December 1941, the journey from Tobruk having taken five days. For the next two to three weeks we all had a good time especially at Christmas and New Year. We all had a good amount of money as we had drawn very little money whilst in the desert.
I was promoted full sergeant and received a further increase in pay. On New Years Day a British General visited the dining hall and congratulated the battalions on their ability in the field and wished them all the best of luck in the future. We all received two bottles of Whitbread's ales which had been sent from England for us and on the label it had written ''To the defenders of Tobruk''. We had some good times in the sergeant's mess and a good deal of our time was spent in there.
After having had a good spell of enjoyment, the battalion once more commenced work in the form of garrison duties. These duties were very heavy for a time because a certain percentage of the battalion was being sent on leave and those left behind had to do all the duties until it was their time to leave.
It was here that I did my first orderly sergeant and first garrison guard for the battalion. After a short stay at Abbassia Barracks our company left to do guard duties at a RAF wireless station near Amyria. Whilst we were there the RAF challenged us to a game of football and we beat them by two goals to one. We considered this a good performance because the RAF team was near the top of the desert league at that time. It was at this game that I met a friend called Joseph Parker who is also an Old Blaydonian. I had just spun the coin with the RAF captain for choice of kick off when I recognised him amongst the rest of the RAF team. He invited me down to their sergeants' mess the next night and we spent a very enjoyable evening.
The next day we left the wireless station for Sidi Bishr camp which is situated a few miles outside Alexandria. We commenced training at Sidi Bishr but I quite enjoyed it all. At Sidi Bishr I had my first good view of Alexandria and one night I met another Old Blaydonian named Ivan Stark in the Octeon Cabaret. Alexandria made a greater impression on me than Cairo as it appeared to be a much cleaner town. The tram service was good and another advantage was being near the sea. The beeches are quite good and the promenade stretches for many miles. I met a boy from my own village here one night and he was serving in the Royal Navy. Alexandria has a complete blackout at night but Cairo is only semi blacked out.
After a few weeks at Sidi Bishr the battalion moved to Mena camp beside the Pyramids. At this time I was doing acting sergeant major whilst the sergeant major was on leave. Once again the battalion commenced guard duties in Cairo. These guards included one at the Military Police detention cells and one at the British Embassy. I was set around these guards by the company commander to obtain full details of them before the company officially took over. The detention cells guard was a full time job for any guard commander because at all times of the day and night the military police were bringing in servicemen who had offended the laws of military discipline in some form or other. The guard commander's duty was to take over and sign for all the articles on charge to the guard as stated on the inventory board and also all the prisoners. This job alone used to take at least two hours and included all the personal articles belonging to the prisoners and all the firearms of the military police.
When a prisoner was brought into the barracks, the military police who had arrested him brought him to the guardroom and then left the room themselves. The guard commander then certified the offender ''drunk or sober'' and relieved him of all articles on his person including money and gave him a receipt for them. The charges against him were then entered on the guard report and read out to him. He was then given two blankets and placed in a cell awaiting trial. The guard reports had to be made out in triplicate and all details of the guard itself and prisoners entered. Seldom were there less than fifty prisoners during a guard's tour of duty and the amount of work that had to be done by the guard commander resulted in him obtaining little or no sleep at all.
The British Embassy guard had to be perfect. The turn out of the guard had to be beyond question and the guards were relieved in ceremonial manner. All the entrances and the spacious grounds had to be patrolled. Some little time later the battalion, with the exception of my company, left Mena camp for the Citadel Barracks in Cairo.
Our company was left behind to do intensive training and first parade every morning was held at the foot of the Pyramids. By this time I was well used to the heat of the sun but the heat at Mena was the greatest I had experienced since I left England. A football match the company team was engaged in had to be abandoned after only a few minutes play owing to several players being stricken down by the heat of the sun.
Whilst at Mena the company began rehearsing for the St George's Day parade on 23rd April. St George's Day is the regimental day of my regiment, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. The day before the parade the company joined the rest of the battalion in the Citadel Barracks and a full dress rehearsal was held. Every man was issued with a red and white rose which we all wear on our caps on St George's Day. The march round Cairo to All saints Cathedral took place the following morning. The battalion looked very smart as they swung along with the band and the regimental colours in the centre of the parade. The religious service at the Cathedral was conducted by the Bishop of Egypt and the Sudan. Amongst the prominent people present Sir Miles Lampeon, the British Ambassador to Egypt, and Lieutenant General Stone, GOC British Troops Egypt. In his address to the battalion the Bishop said that he had known the regiment in the last war and that we had added new glory to our colours by our part in the successful defence of Tobruk. The Colours were laid on the High Altar and were blessed by the Bishop.
The march past took place after the service and General Stone took the salute. Photographs and a full account of the parade appeared in the Egyptian Mail the following day and we all felt very proud.
After the march past the battalion returned to the Citadel where as is always the custom on this day, the sergeants served the men with their dinner. After we had performed this duty we had a full group photograph of the commanding officers and the sergeants' mess taken. We then returned to our mess and had dinner. The rest of the day was spent in riotous living.
The following morning the company left for Mena Camp again and the day after left for Alexandria to do garrison duties at Mustapha Barracks. At Mustapha I was one of the provost sergeants on the main gate guard. My duties were not heavy as I had every other day free. All the duties were police duties and I enjoyed myself on this guard.
Alexandria experienced a fairly heavy air raid whilst I was there and I saw two enemy aircraft brought down for the first time over a big town. One of the enemy airmen baled out into the sea and was rescued but wounded and brought into the Barracks's hospital.
A few days later Field Marshall Smuts, the South African Prime Minister, visited the barracks and I had a good view of this fine soldier as he returned the compliments of the police. A little while later the company left Mustapha Barracks for Sidi Bishr where we were joined by the rest of the battalion. Here we had very good reason to believe we would be returning to the desert in the very near future. This proved correct and we spent an enjoyable final night in Alexandria.
Return to the Western Desert
Knightsbridge - June 1942
I left for the desert two days before the company as I was detailed for the advance party with the company commander. The morning we left we read in the newspapers that the enemy had begun an offensive on our line at Gazzala. The company joined us at the foot of the Halfayer Pass and we took up position in the Capuzzo area with the 4th Indian division. We were attached to the 11th Infantry Brigade and so we found ourselves in the same division and the same brigade as we had been in the first Libyian campaign.
After a short stay here we left in a severe sandstorm to join the 1st South African Division in Tobruk. The sandstorm was so dense that it was only possible to see a foot in front of the truck and at Capuzzo railway sidings my truck almost collided with a railway wagon.
During this time enemy aircraft had been very active, especially at night, bombing and machine gunning behind our lines. We only stayed two days in Tobruk and then left to join the 7th Armoured Division. Just before dusk that day our tank formations were heavily bombed. The next day we moved right into the thick of battle and began digging positions. We joined the forces in the Knightsbridge area where enemy pressure was very strong. That night a large formation of enemy aircraft flew low over our heads and were met by intense small arms fire and two minutes later were pursued over their lines by a squadron of Hurricanes.
My platoon was placed in position one hundred yards behind a force of our tanks and anti-tank guns. The air was filled with screaming shells and our company suffered casualties. That night our tanks were withdrawn and we could see enemy columns moving past us on our right flank. We realised that the situation was becoming more difficult for us and that we were in great danger of being completely surrounded. After having dug most of the night the company commander attempted to withdraw the company at dawn but we had only moved five hundred yards when we saw shells falling around us in a complete circle.
A gap in the circle still existed but no one knew the exact location of it. So together with the rest of the forces we formed ourselves to fight it out with the enemy. Our platoon was put in position fifty yards in front and to the left of a battery of artillery to give them protection from infantry. We began to dig positions but we had hardly completed the gun pits when the company commander appeared on the scene and told us to take post as enemy tanks were moving into the attack. He gave me orders to open fire at them when they reached the range of 2,500 yards. Although machine gun bullets will not penetrate a tank they force the tank commander to close his observation slit and thus reduces a percentage of the tank's efficiency.
I carried out these orders and when the tanks approached to 1,200 yards, the artillery opened fire at them with armour piercing shells. They halted then and began to shell the artillery.
About this time I noticed that behind me and to the left at about 1,000 yards range, three German infantry-carrying vehicles. It was quite obvious that our position was unknown to this infantry and our platoon opened fire on them. Our fire was so effective that we did not receive one shot in reply and they scattered in all directions.
The artillery also opened fire on their transport. The tanks in front of us were still firing at the artillery and it was quite obvious to all of us that it was only a matter of time before all the guns were put out of action. By this time No.2 section of my platoon, who had been positioned one hundred yards in the rear of my section, had been withdrawn unknown to me. The last artillery gun had been put out of action and we were left on our own.
Having received no information or orders to withdraw I stayed where I was. The tanks advanced forward to about 700 yards, but still a little uncertain, stopped again. The company commander then drove up in his truck in the rear of my section post and began waving a blue flag. He then drove away, apparently under the impression that we were going to withdraw. This flag never having been previously used in our field signals conveyed nothing to me. He returned however ten minutes later and, despite intense machine gun fire from the tanks, we evacuated all the men, guns, and gun stores onto his truck, and escaped without suffering one casualty. The company commander's truck was only an 8-cwt vehicle and how sixteen men and all the guns and stores managed to crowd into it will always appear a miracle to me.
The full length of the truck was all bullet holes and yet we all survived it. Our company commander showed quality of leadership we had never seen equalled before and it was entirely due to him that my section was alive and well at that time. The enemy ring around us was growing tighter every minute and their shelling of us became much more concentrated.
The majority of these shells were airbursts which explode about twenty feet in the air above your head and you aren't very safe even in a slit trench. Although they appear to be more unnerving they aren't as dangerous in my opinion as the ordinary shell which bursts on impact.
By this time a large number of men had been killed or wounded. The wounded had all been placed in an underground cave in comparative safety. Amongst those killed were two of our own officers including my platoon commander, and my driver. All units in the area had suffered considerable casualties and the end was obviously near. All units were suffering mostly from lack of ammunition and what remained had to be used very sparingly. Our company then formed themselves to fire the rest of the ammunition but that was soon all used.
A battery of artillery, who had taken cover in their slit trenches during a temporary cessation of fire, had their guns visited by two German officers in a truck who were under the impression that the guns had been deserted. They paid dearly for their folly because their truck was immediately set up in flames by one of the light anti-aircraft guns. By this time the enemy infantry were at very close range and part of our forces had no other alternative than to surrender. I got out of a slit trench to ask one of our own officers what was happening and he told me that the end was near. I then saw a truck coming towards me and it stopped to allow me to get on.
It was one of our own company trucks, a 15 cwt Morris. It was overloaded with men and I was only able to obtain a foothold with one foot and my arms around two of the men's bodies. We were making an attempt to escape and as the truck moved forward I heard the company commander shout at us but it was impossible to hear what he said because of the noise that was going on around about. Apparently he had seen the disaster we were running into.
We had only travelled a few hundred yards when we ran into a force of enemy tanks and infantry. The enemy force must have been under the impression that we were coming to surrender because we passed within a few yards of them and they did not open fire on us. Our truck was travelling as fast as the driver could make it.
On realising that we meant to escape one of the tanks fired three single shots out of it's machine gun to warn us to stop. One of these shots grazed my left knee but at that time I did not know I had been hit. On failing to stop, all of the enemy tanks opened fire on us and bullets began to fly all around us. Some of the men were hit and fell from the truck.
Suddenly I felt my right leg quiver and I could feel blood spurting over my body. I knew I had been hit and after hanging on to the truck as long as I could, I fell to the ground. I rolled over and over as I hit the ground and I consider myself very fortunate that I didn't break any bones because of the speed the truck was travelling. I discovered later that at this time both the driver and the second driver had been seriously wounded and the truck had been travelling with no one in control at the wheel.
The bullet that had wounded me also went through the foot of the man next to me. Almost at the same time as I fell from the truck another man from my platoon fell ten yards away but died almost at once. I had only been lying there about half a minute when two German medical orderlies came running up to me and put a field dressing on my wounds. At this time two men out of my own platoon came over and stayed with me until a truck arrived to take me to a field ambulance station. I had a most uncomfortable ride but I was not in a great deal of pain. Our fighters were machine-gunning enemy troops and transport and our driver was keeping a wary eye on the sky.
German Field Ambulance Station
On arrival at the field ambulance station I was laid on a stretcher beside about twenty other men. This ambulance station was situated fifty yards behind a battery of German field guns which were in action at that time. A German doctor got out of a mobile operating theatre and looked at us all in turn and then told the medical orderlies to carry me in. I will never forget the first view I had of this man. He was wearing a leather apron which was covered in blood and his face was also covered in blood where he had been removing the perspiration from it with his hands. When I was laid on the operating table he removed the field dressings from my wounds and told me he was going to give me an anaesthetic. Then someone behind me placed a pad over my face and I can remember counting fifteen. I thought it was a wonderful sensation as the anaesthetic began to take affect and I will never forget it.
I recovered my senses outside again and I felt quite well. I was then placed in an ambulance for the night. We had an uncomfortable few minutes when our own artillery ranged onto the enemy battery and shell began to fall on their gun line. However a German soldier took the risk of being hit himself to drive the ambulance to safety. I suffered a great deal of pain during the night and in the early hours of the morning I was given a morphine injection to ease it.
The next morning I was given some bread and butter, a piece of pork, and a cup of lemonade. I drank the lemonade but was unable to eat the food. Although I was wounded in the lower part of the stomach I found I had lost the use of my right leg and could not move it. That morning I was moved to a German field hospital a few miles away and after having been inoculated I continued my journey to an Italian hospital between Derna and Tobruk. This journey across the desert in an open truck caused me a great deal of suffering. At this hospital I received my first dressing since the operation and a very painful experience it was.
From Derna Hospital to Northern Italy
The following day I was removed to Derna hospital and the doctor there told me I had been very fortunate. Here we had all our particulars entered on a card and after a few days, together with other wounded, I was removed to the harbour at Derna to board a hospital ship for Italy.
Whilst lying on the quay an Italian General came around. He spoke perfect English and he asked me if I was in pain. He told us that we would be well looked after once we were on board ship. I was given a cigarette by a German soldier, and a drink of water. We were lying beside German and Italian wounded, the majority of them German. A barge took us out to the hospital ship which was lying well out into the harbour. We were then put into medical wards on the ship.
In my ward, the Italian wounded were put on one side and the German and British wounded on the other side. The Germans were very friendly towards us and kept us supplied with cigarettes throughout the journey to Naples.
Ever since I had been taken prisoner the Germans had treated me very well indeed and when I left them, prior to being taken to an Italian hospital, they shook hands with me and gave me a packet of cigarettes. All of our prisoners, whom I have spoken to since, speak well of the treatment they received at the hands of the German soldiers. This contrasted greatly with the conduct of a few Italian soldiers who took everything from us. I saw one prevented from doing this to one of our wounded by a German soldier.
The Hospital ship was very well equipped and I enjoyed the voyage very much. We sailed past the Isle of Capri and finally docked at Naples. Before the wounded were carried ashore there was a ship's inspection by the Italian General I have mentioned previously. Countess Edna Ciano, Mussolini's daughter, also came on board and visited the wounded. She appeared a very determined woman in my estimation.
After the inspection, German doctors, nurses, and medical orderlies came on board to remove the German wounded. Germans and Englishmen are very much alike in some respects and I was one of a few of our wounded who were mistaken for one of them. I received three small packets from Italian nurses that included chocolate, cigarettes, an apple, an orange, and some biscuits.
We were then taken ashore and removed by ambulance to Caserta Hospital which is situated about six miles outside of Naples. The Italian ambulances were not very comfortable and once again I had a painful journey. At the hospital at Caserta were an English medical officer and an Australian padre who were stationed there.
After being in hospital for two days I wrote my first letter home and received my first Red Cross parcel since being taken prisoner. I also met some of the men from my own Company, including my Company Sergeant-major, who looked after me very well. I only stayed at Caserta for a short period and was then removed by ambulance train to a military hospital at Piancenza , which is in Northern Italy. I had eaten very little since 6th June, the day I was wounded, but I recovered my appetite on this train journey and ate nearly all the food I had. I also had my best night's sleep on the train.
The journey lasted a day and a half and we arrived at Piancenza on 26th June. We saw some wonderful scenery on the journey and the railway ran parallel to the coast and the sea was seldom out of sight. On approaching Northern Italy we passed through numerous tunnels hollowed through the mountains. It took the train twenty minutes to pass through one of them.
On arrival at Piancenza station we travelled by ambulance to the Morigi military hospital. The hospital was for British wounded only and was very well organised. The doctors were very good and most of the nursing was done by the sorellas, who are a Roman Catholic religious body and are sisters of mercy. A little later one of our padres and three South African medical officers were attached to the hospital staff. The food we received was very good and we also began to receive Red Cross parcels regularly. The British Red Cross also provided the hospital with its own library and there was a set of games in each ward.
We received a cigarette issue weekly from the Italians and we also had fifty English cigarettes weekly from our Red Cross parcel. Educational classes were begun and a concert was given each week. The majority of the educational classes were held by British Officers of whom there were a good number in the hospital.
With regular treatment my wounds healed in fourteen weeks but my leg improved very slowly. I received electric treatment but it did little to improve use.
A Prisoner of War
On 28th November I left hospital for a prisoner of war camp. The camp was situated at Corpi which took a two hour train journey from Piancenza. On arrival at Corpi station I was sent ahead of the remainder by truck to the camp as I could not walk very well.
The camp was known as Campo PG 73 and had only been built recently. On arrival at the camp we were searched and received a medical inspection. We were then taken to the camp office and had our particulars taken and we were then issued with a little more clothing, a straw mattress, two blankets, a tin bowl, and a spoon. I was then sent the sergeants' hut and I began to settle down.
The British officers in command at the camp were two medical officers and a few warrant officers. The total strength of the camp consisted of about 4,000 men. The camp was divided into two compounds each with 2,000 men. We slept in stone huts on wooden bunks which were too high. One hundred men slept in each hut with four sergeants in charge. Other huts included the camp office, the canteen, and the cookhouse.
At the far end of the camp we had a small parade ground which was totally inadequate for the large number of men in the camp to exercise on. At the other end of the camp were the Italian administrative buildings and barracks for the guard. Beside these buildings the camp infirmary was situated. Sick parade was held every morning and men who were suffering from more serious complaints were either detained in the camp infirmary or removed to the Italian military hospital in Carpi. An outbreak of diphtheria occurred at this camp and we were all given a preventative inoculation. The greatest discomfort we suffered was from the unwelcome attention of lice.
One of our own padres was stationed at the camp and services were held daily. I found camp life vastly different from hospital as we only received a small quantity of food and the Red Cross parcel issue was not good at that time. Italian sentries patrolled the barbed wire around the camp at intervals of about thirty yards. A tower with search lights and machine guns was situated at each end of the camp. Roll call was held once a day either on the parade ground or in the huts according to the weather. I found the weather cold and we experienced a good deal of rain and snow. Periodic searches were held and parties of men were allowed to go outside of the camp for walks under escort.
I received my mail from hospital and also my first cigarette parcel from home. We also received an Italian cigarette issue. We were not allowed to make our own fires and we had our own camp police to maintain discipline in the camp.
Our food ration for twenty four hours consisted of a small bowl of coffee which contained a small amount of sugar, a loaf of bread which was supposed to weigh 200 grams, a small piece of cheese, and a bowl of stew. Two days a week we received a piece of meat instead of cheese and every two days we received half an orange and a spoonful of olive oil. We had to wash our own clothes at the Wash House and we were able to obtain a hot shower.
The prisoners had very little work to do in the camp and could stay in bed all day if they wished. We were allowed to write one letter and one post card home every week. We had to salute all Italian Officers and breaches of discipline were tried by the Camp Commandant. Punishments ranged generally from ten to forty days detention in the Italian Guard Room. Whilst in detention prisoners were not allowed red cross parcels or cigarettes but they received them all when their period of detention concluded.
We received pay at the rate of forty four lire per month, the equivalent in English money of 11s:9d. The entire camp contributed towards the cost of instruments to form a band and concerts were held every evening.
We were able to obtain a the camp canteen such articles as, matches, razor blades, pens, pencils, ink, exercise books, cigarette papers, tooth paste and brushes, pumpkin, onions, carrots, oranges, and apples. From the canteen profits we obtained a free issue at intervals. At Christmas I had four pounds of apples, two pounds of oranges, two pounds of pumpkin, and two small bottles of beer from the canteen.
On Christmas Day, we each had a red cross Christmas parcel which included milk, sugar, chocolate, chocolate biscuits, a tin of sweets, a Christmas cake and pudding, and two tins of meat stuffs. I attended a Christmas Carol Service held by the padre and the Bishop of Corpi paid a visit to the camp. A pantomime was given on Christmas Day and a concert was held in our hut on New Year's eve. This concluded our festivities for 1942.
I took my turn as camp orderly sergeant, my only duty being to be present at the ration stores to see the food being issued to the different huts.
Since being a prisoner of war I had received a good amount of mail from home and this had greatly relieved the monotony of the life. A news sheet was read out to us every night obtained from the Italian newspapers most of which we doubted as to its truthfulness. We also received the Prisoner of War News magazine weekly which mostly contained a detailed account of the wrongs imposed upon Italy by Great Britain over a number of years. It also gave small news items from the English speaking world and a sports summary from home.
On first entering a prison camp I was surprised at the number of rumours that used to spread around the camp. Some of which were too fantastic to credit. Most of these rumours centred around Mr Churchill and if he only heard some of the statements he is supposed to have made he would be a very amazed man. I used to enjoy listening to them as they amused me greatly.
In my opinion to make prisoner of war life a comparative success it is essential that you should maintain your self respect at all times and set yourself a daily routine which you should strictly adhere to.
I have seen men lose their self respect to such an extent that they have even neglected personal cleanliness and I have often thought that they would receive a rude awakening when they once more returned to full British Army discipline. Apparently they do not realise the danger of adopting an attitude of this nature.
The facilities for forming educational classes were inadequate, but even then, those classes that were held were not very well attended considering the number of men in the camp.
My stay at Campo 73 was broken short when on the afternoon of 13th February 1943 I left for Campo 53.
Transfer to Campo 53 near Macerata
On leaving the camp we were issued with a loaf of bread and a tin of Italian bully beef each. This we ate on the train journey not realising that this consisted of our following day's ration, and on arrival at the new camp, it was only through the generosity of the men there that we obtained any food at all that day. My chief concern on leaving Campo 73 was three miles march from the camp to Corpi station as I was not sure whether my leg would stand the strain of that distance. My fears were unfounded however because I arrived at the station in a much better condition than a good number of other men who were with me.
The train journey commenced about four o'clock in the afternoon and we arrived in Modena an hour later. We had a stay of four hours in Modena during which the guards obtained hot water for us to make tea from the houses close by. We travelled all night during which I made several attempts to obtain some sleep, through the cold and the confined space we were in. When daylight broke we found that we were travelling through mountainous country dotted with numerous farms.
Soon after we arrived at our destination and were met by a strong military escort. At the moment I have been unable to obtain the name of this locality but the village only consists of a few houses. After walking for a very short distance we arrived at what had obviously been a factory of some description. On entering we were searched and then placed in the No. 2 compound. Here we were issued with a spoon, a bowl, a pillow, two white sheets, and two blankets. The issue of two white sheets came as a very pleasant surprise to us. The wooden bunks were three tiers high and about 500 hundred men slept in the building that I was allotted to. The water supply was very unsatisfactory and consisted of a few taps connected onto a water pipe. However improvements in the camp were under construction and better organisation was being instituted.
The food was identical to the previous camp but I thought we obtained a little more. The strength of the camp was some six thousand men. The administration was the same as Camp 73 with the padre, the medical officers, and the warrant officers in command. The camp was divided into 3 compounds and we had a large exercise ground including a football pitch. I spent a good deal of my time on the exercise ground as walking was improving my leg but I deeply regretted being unable to play football. The camp was situated no great distance from the Adriatic Sea and the snow clad mountains made an impressive sight. These mountains I believe to be the Appenines that run roughly north to south across central Italy. The greatest surprise I received at this camp was meeting the majority of my company who told me of the difficult times they had experienced since I last saw them.
They were all under the impression that I had been killed and my company commander also believed me to be dead. They were all very pleased to see me and they paid frequent visits to my compound to have a chat with me. I learnt from them that one of our officers whom I thought to be dead was safe as a prisoner of war. They also told me that the Camp Army Commander had promised a grand reunion when we once more regained our freedom.
At the time of my arrival in this camp the death rate was at a high figure but I was told it had decreased. During my first few days in camp one man had dropped dead on the exercise ground and another man was found dead in bed. Red Cross medical supplies had only just arrived at the camp and previous to that the medical officer had little or none at all. The Camp Commandant was a strict disciplinarian but I was told he had greatly improved the camp since he took over command.
Reveille was at 6.30am every morning and roll call was held at 10 o'clock in the morning and about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The majority of lights were put out at half past nine at night. Periodical searches were held and inspections of sheets and blankets. If sheets or blankets were damaged in anyway the holder was made to pay for them. The supply of Red Cross parcels up to the time of my arrival had not been good but had improved a great deal since. As a POW Red Cross parcels are our first consideration as we would have great difficulty in existing without them.
This account has now been concluded up to the time of writing, February 21st, 1943. My hopes are that by the end of this year or early in 1944, I will be released from captivity.
During my first 2 weeks in Campo 53 further drafts of prisoners came in and at the moment the camp is overcrowded and the sleeping accommodation is inadequate. My first tour of duty as orderly sergeant was difficult to that of Campo 73. My duties included the following: a tour around all platoon areas at 07.00 hours to ensure no man was too sick as to be unable to get out of bed, to open all windows in the barrack room at 09.00 hours and to keep them open all day, to parade all fatigue parties required that day, to warn the following day's orderly sergeant that his tour of duty was approaching, and finally to put lights out at 21.00 hours.
On the late afternoon of February 24th one of our prisoners was fired upon by an Italian sentry and killed. I do not know at the moment the full authentic circumstances of his death. Inside of the main barbed wire fence and placed about three yards from it was a trip wire attached to small pickets about 50 inches high. This trip wire extended right around the camp and prisoners were warned that they had not to approach over this wire. Apparently the prisoner concerned was on the wrong side of the wire and was fired upon by a sentry.
On February 23rd I had a most pleasant surprise when an old school friend of mine, John Phillips, visited me. We both live close to each other at home and it was difficult to ascertain which of us was the more surprised. He wore signs of the difficult times he had experienced but was still very cheerful. We talked of old school friends and future reunions we would attend at school. Both being married men we also talked of our future domestic worries. We now see each other regularly.
The camp is not in a very happy state at the moment as the number of Red Cross parcels available for issue is not great. I have visions of eating olive oil and bread as I once had to do at Campo 73. I thought then I would have difficulty in convincing my people at home that I had been reduced to such a state.
The nearest place of any importance to the camp I am in at present is Macerata. I saw the name on the vehicle that brings the camp rations in daily so I think I am correct. During the past few weeks the strength of the camp has increased to over seven thousand men and the result is that the camp is overcrowded. For the past week I have been suffering with a very severe cold but I appear to have recovered from it now.
A large number of men in the camp spend their time constructing many useful articles from empty Red Cross food tins. These tinsmiths have produced some amazing work to suit their various needs. As is to be expected, amongst the large number of men in the camp, there were many who possess a great deal of talent in many different subjects. Consequently an Arts & Crafts exhibition was held and the works displayed in the Camp Chapel. Prizes were awarded for the best entries. The Camp Commandant viewed the display and also offered prizes. Amongst many articles displayed were tin cups and plates, xxxxxx, drawings, cloth embroidery, packs of playing cards, xxxxx, and tin suitcases. The highlight of the exhibition was a clock made entirely of tin that kept the correct time. A close second was a tin cross dedicated to the fallen of this war and a portrait of a girl.
This exhibition must have greatly impressed the Italians. To relieve the Sergeant in charge of our platoon of some of his work my friend and I took over the platoon canteen. Since then we have had a very busy time juggling with masses of figures on paper and sorting onions into kilos. The staple food of POW's in this camp is definitely onions in my opinion. I received a pleasant surprise last night, 8th of March, when my name was called out for a cigarette parcel which I should receive today. On or about the 12th March two of our men succeeded in escaping from the camp but unfortunately they were caught the following day. As a result of this attempted escape we now have nominal roll calls very frequently. The two white sheets we had issued to us have also been taken from us. The reason given for this was that Italian prisoners in our hands were without sheets and so the Italian authorities had to adopt similar measures.
The camp is now almost 8,000 strong and is perilously overcrowded. During recent days the news has been in our favour but the news of two severe air attacks on Newcastle on successive nights caused me some concern. Conditions at the camp greatly improved when the new shower baths were put into operations. Nearing the end of March an earth tremor shook the camp buildings and I might add the prisoners also. The months of April and May brought us favourable news of the war in Africa and brought to our minds the possibility of an invasion of Italy. During these months almost 3,000 men left camp to work. The majority of these men were detailed and had no other choice than to go. Their going improved the camp in that there was more space in the rooms and this improved health conditions. The supply of Red Cross parcels has been very good and we have seldom been without them during recent weeks. At the moment slit trenches have been dug around the outskirts of the parade ground, no reason was given for their use.
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