Photos

Fortunato Picchi

Trooper Nicola Nastri

Tony Deane Drummond

The majority of "X" Troop in P.G. 78, Sulmona

Members of "X" Troop at P.G. 102 in 1942

 

At Calitri railway station, where all except Daly and his men were held, an Italian general visited "X" Troop to compliment them on their bravery and the audacity of their mission. He assured them that they would be treated according to the Geneva Convention, and on learning from Major Pritchard that they had not eaten for three days, ordered that they be fed without delay. His appearance may have been fortunate for the effect it had on the guards, because a group of Mussolini's Black Shirts arrived shortly after and demanded that the prisoners be handed over to them, but they left after a tense exchange with the Carabinieri officer in charge, who insisted that his orders came from the general, and as he had declared them to be prisoners of war they were therefore the responsibility of the military.

 

On the following day, shackled and under a heavy guard, the men were taken to the railway station and sent to Naples, where they impressed the locals by making a point of marching smartly in step, despite their restraints. They were taken to the same jail as Daly's party, and placed in cells with six men in each. In an attempt to lower their morale before the interrogations began, the cells were left in an appalling state with the lavatories overflowing onto the floor, and each group were told that they would be shot in the morning. Instead they were individually taken for questioning, largely aimed at learning more about Britain's airborne capabilities. The men stuck to the usual name, rank and number routine, though a few gave nonsense answers and were amused to see these being seriously recorded. At the end of the session each man was told that he would be shot at dawn, but as the days passed and the Italians failed to live up to this promise, the threat of the "six o'clock parade", as it became known, naturally developed into a joke.

 

Matters were altogether more serious for the Italian speakers in the party; Flight Lieutenant Lucky, Trooper Tristan (real name Nicola Nastri), and Trooper Dupont (Fortunato Picchi). As an air force officer, Lucky had been separated from the rest and taken to a nearby air base, where his interrogators, unaware of his connections to the Balkans, quickly concluded that from his manner and appearance he was nothing more than a British officer who happened to have an excellent command of the Italian language. Nastri and Picchi, however, were not so fortunate as both had an undeniable Italian look about them.

 

Nastri had been born in Italy but was raised from infancy in Britain, and spoke English with an impeccable cockney accent. Yet his interrogators suspected that his given name of Tristan was a fabrication, and even made the incredible leap of supposing it to be Nastri as it was almost an anagram. They searched for any Italians of that name who were known to have relatives in Britain, and soon located his Aunt Adele, who confirmed that her brother had emigrated to Britain many years ago and had a son who would now be of military age. She had met Nastri shortly before the war and so was taken to see him, but remarkably gave not the slightest hint of recognition. She lied that her nephew was sickly, nothing at all like the healthy man before her, and even yelled "Bastardo!" at the English saboteur. Her extraordinary performance undoubtedly saved Nastri's life, as his interrogators were convinced that he truly was Private Tristan and so paid him no further attention.

 

Fortunato Picchi, however, had no such miracle to come to his aid. He had an obvious Italian appearance, spoke the language with a flawless Florentine accent, and, aged 42, seemed quite out of place amongst the fit, young men of "X" Troop. Worse still, although his 20 years in England had given him an excellent grasp of the language, he had never entirely lost his native accent. Continually questioned and possibly even tortured, Picchi became thoroughly despondent, despite the encouragement of his fellow prisoners to stick to his cover story and only repeat his name, rank and number. Lieutenant Deane-Drummond was alarmed to hear him consider revealing his true identity; his highly idealistic nature reasoning that very few people in Italy had any Fascist sympathies and so they may view him as a loyal patriot. It appears that he may well have done this as he was taken away shortly after, and on the 5th April was brought before a special tribunal where he was charged with taking up arms against his country and assisting an enemy, despite being a British citizen. He was found guilty, and on the following morning, shackled and facing a wall in the manner of a traitor, was shot in the back by a firing squad. Fortunato Picchi has no known grave, but he is commemorated at the Brockwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, and is today celebrated as a hero in Italy.

 

At the air base, Flight Lieutenant Lucky was enjoying considerably better conditions than the remainder of "X" Troop, and he did his best to help them. By conversing affably with his captors and building up a relationship, he managed to persuade them that as the party had dropped from aircraft they really ought to be afforded the same treatment as captured airmen. The other ranks remained at the jail, but all the officers joined Lucky at the air base, where he was even granted permission to go to Naples under escort to buy them washing and shaving kit, as well as fresh underwear and pyjamas.

 

Three weeks after they had been captured, it was at last decided that "X" Troop would be treated as prisoners of war, and both groups were sent to P.G. 78 at Sulmona. Here the sergeants and men were initially kept in a separate compound to the other prisoners and locked in their hut at night, and to protest against this they annoyed the guards by singing boisterously as well as refusing to salute Italian officers, resulting in numerous trips to the camp jail. Eventually the Red Cross intervened and it was agreed to let them join the other prisoners in the main compound.

 

Their subversive activities continued, with those who had learned how to incorporate coded messages into their letters home passing on any useful information that came their way, and an Escape Committee was formed by Major Pritchard and Lieutenant Paterson to help anyone in their efforts to break out of the camp, as several members of "X" Troop attempted to do. Captain Lea and Lieutenant Deane-Drummond had identified a weak point in the perimeter, and in December 1941, armed with a ladder and disguised as electricians, made a show of climbing the wall to replace a lightbulb, and had got on top of it when they were fired upon; Lea was seriously wounded in the leg but made a full recovery. Deane-Drummond managed to get away and, using a few phrases he had been taught by Flight Lieutenant Lucky, caught several trains but was recaptured a few miles short of the Swiss border; his bedraggled appearance giving him away. In his absence, Lucky had made an unsuccessful attempt to escape and, along with Pritchard and Paterson as the suspected ringleaders, was transferred to a higher security prison; P.G. 27 near Pisa. Deane-Drummond joined them, and with the assistance of some French troublemakers they began to dig a tunnel into the adjoining monastery but it was discovered. In June 1942, Deane-Drummond feigned sickness and was sent to a hospital, then escaped through a window and again caught several trains towards Switzerland, this time successfully crossing the border.

 

Back at Sulmona, numerous other members of "X" Troop attempted to break out. Lieutenant Jowett cut through the perimeter wire and also took a train to Switzerland, but was soon recaptured. Not to be outdone, the other ranks tried to dig a tunnel out of the camp, but it was discovered after 172 feet and three months hard work. The greatest opportunity for escape came in September 1943, when the Italian government capitulated and the camp commandant told them that they were no longer prisoners. Although free to roam, they received orders to remain in the general area until the Allied advance overtook them, however German troops soon arrived and began transporting them to the Reich. Yet several members of "X" Troop managed to slip away; Sergeants Clements and Lawley moved together and reached the Allied lines within a month, as did Sapper Parker, who was lucky to avoid execution when the party of Italians he had fallen in with was captured and murdered by German troops. Lance-Corporal Boulter was on the run for three months before being recaptured and put on a train to Germany; he got away when it was bombed, only to be taken prisoner later with three others, but they managed to overpower their solitary guard and joined a partisan group before encountering Allied troops in June 1944. A month later, Lance-Corporal Watson crossed into Switzerland after roaming Italy for nine months, during which time he twice escaped after falling into German hands.

 

Transferred to P.G. 5 near Genoa, Major Pritchard, Flight Lieutenant Lucky, and Lieutenant Paterson were never left unguarded and so did not have the opportunity to get away. When they were shipped to Germany, however, Paterson was one of five men who managed to break a hole in the side of their carriage and jump out. He joined and organised a partisan group near Brescia, and in coordination with the Special Operations Executive helped to smuggle hundreds of Allied prisoners of war into Switzerland. Paterson was captured in January 1944 and sent to the SS prison in Milan, but managed to escape in July and crossed the Swiss border disguised as a fireman. At the request of SOE, however, he returned to Italy to organise a partisan group near Val Dossola, organising, training, and leading them into action against enemy forces. Captured again in October 1944, he remained a prisoner in Milan until the final days of the war, when he persuaded the Commandant that it would be in his best interests to release him and the other prisoners.

 

Captains Daly and Lea, and Lieutenant Jowett made several attempts to escape including participating in tunnelling schemes, but they remained prisoners until the end of the war. Such was the fate of Major Pritchard, who ran the Escape Committee in Stalag Luft I, where he was joined by Flight Lieutenant Lucky, whose many bids for freedom finally succeeded in September 1944; not by breaking out of the camp, but by going to extreme lengths to feign an illness and being repatriated as unfit for military service. A year earlier he had started the process by smoking cigarettes containing crushed aspirin to bring about palpitations and a heart murmur. Admitted to the camp hospital, he then stole some ephedrine tablets and caffeine capsules, which he took a few months later shortly before undergoing an electro-cardiogram test. Diagnosed with myocarditis he was returned to the UK, by which time his condition had miraculously vanished, though he did have to spend several weeks recuperating in hospital.