Maps

The Mediterranean

The approximate locations of "X" Troop when they were taken prisoner

Photos

Major Trevor Allan Gordon Pritchard

Captain Christopher Gerald Lea

 

Major Pritchard divided "X" Troop into three parties; one would be led by himself with Lieutenant Deane-Drummond, Lieutenants Lea and Paterson would take the second, and Lieutenant Jowett and Flight Lieutenant Lucky the third. Until this moment the officers had been the only men who knew that a submarine would be waiting for them at the mouth of the River Sele in five days time; the sergeants were now informed of it, but the rest were never told.

 

To ensure that they would travel with the utmost speed the parties were sub-divided into groups of three to spread their load; one man carried the water bottles of the other two, the second had a petrol cooker, and the third its fuel; everyone also carried a pistol and rations for one week. Each party also had one Thompson sub-machine gun, but all other arms were discarded as their weight would slow them down, and in any case if they met resistance which the Thompson and pistols could not overcome, a few additional automatics were unlikely to carry them much further. Even so Jowett's group took an extra Thompson with them, and Lance-Corporal Henderson in Pritchard's party refused to be parted from his Bren.

 

Lance-Corporal Boulter

 

At 00:45, just 15 minutes after the bridge had been demolished, the three parties were on the move. Lance-Corporal Boulter had to be left behind because of his fractured ankle. Pritchard had bound it with a cloth and a splint, and left him with some pain-killers, a Thompson, a map and a compass, and even told him about the submarine in the highly unlikely event that he was able to contrive a miraculous escape. With the best wishes of his comrades, who left him with a generous supply of chocolate, raisins, nuts, and cigarettes, Boulter settled down for the night in an open-sided hut.

 

At dawn, he spotted one of the civilians in the farm taking a quick look outside, and satisfied that the British had left more came out. The Italian soldier amongst them mounted a bicycle and set off for Calitri; Boulter decided to make his presence known and fired a few warning shots at him before he disappeared, and then left the hut to crawl further up the hill to a new position

 

A short time later two cars arrived with a pair of Carabinieri and civilians armed with shotguns, but it was not until a lorry of soldiers arrived that they dared to search the hut. Aiming a few shots at it and finding it empty, they began to move further up the hill, and with no hope of escape Boulter decided to make a show of resistance and opened fire. Shots were harmlessly exchanged until he ran out of ammunition, whereupon the soldiers closed in and placed him in handcuffs. Unaware that he was hurt they ordered him to his feet, and losing patience with his apparent intransigence began to beat him with their fists and rifle butts, which ceased when his uniform was torn to reveal his escape map. Having taken great interest in this, they hauled Boulter to his feet and made him hobble all the way to Calitri, receiving more blows from rifle butts when he fell over or was deemed to be moving too slowly. On arrival he was driven to the prison at Naples, where he managed to convince someone to send for a doctor to treat his ankle. Boulter was interrogated for several days, but was subjected to no harsher treatment than having to ignore endless questions about his comrades and where they might be heading.

 

Pritchard's Party

 

Major Pritchard decided that he would lead his group up the hill until they reached the snow line, and then follow it in a south-westerly direction towards the River Sele, where he hoped to cross to the northern bank. What was certain to be an arduous march quickly became infinitely worse as the hillside was thick with knee-deep mud, resulting in a slow and exhausting ascent as they hauled themselves through the mire by any possible means. Their ordeal did not lessen when they reached the snowline as several ravines lay in their way, requiring long detours which they could ill afford. With several men nearly falling through fissures and the whole party even getting caught in a landslide, it was nothing short of a miracle that no one was hurt or killed. At dawn they hid for the day amongst a small group of trees in a ravine, close to the village of San Lorenzo. Here their spirits were raised by a hot cup of tea, though many struggled with the foul taste of their greasy pemmican rations. When Pritchard studied his map the enormity of their task became apparent because, despite their Herculean effort and covering a considerable distance, they were just three miles from the aqueduct as the crow flies.

 

They set off again at dusk, following a goat track which a farmer had been seen using during the day, but the journey back to the snow line was little easier than it had been on the previous night. Pritchard noticed that the road running parallel to them was devoid of traffic, and as it was clear that they were never going to reach the submarine at this rate, he decided to risk using it. After making immeasurably better progress and covering about five miles, they encountered a woman driving a horse and cart; Nicola Nastri, the Italian speaker in the group, greeted her as they passed, apparently without raising any suspicion. At about 4am they marched through a village, and had almost left it behind them when a farmer emerged from a nearby field and called on them to halt. They kept moving while Nastri did his best to put the man off, explaining that they were Austrians to account for their strange uniforms. The man seemed satisfied with this and even invited them into his home for a meal and some wine, but Nastri somehow managed to summon the willpower to politely decline.

 

With dawn approaching, Pritchard began to look at his map for a place where they might shelter, and they left the road to reach an area of woodland on top of a hill. When they arrived they found there was a farmhouse dangerously close by, and so pushed on at great speed towards what the map promised to be another tree-lined hill near the town of Teora. Their route took them above the snow line, leaving their tracks visible to anyone passing by, but worse still when they reached the summit they found that the trees had recently been felled. By now it was getting light and they were standing on top of a bare hill, visible for miles around, with the only cover being a few juniper bushes and a small cave which could narrowly accommodate four men. All they could do was go to ground, endure the bitter cold, and hope that they were not seen.

 

During the early morning, while most of the party slept, a civilian leading a donkey came very close to their position and stared in their direction for an uncomfortable moment before moving away. Certain that they had been seen, the sentries roused Pritchard, who immediately sent Nastri to chase the man down and assure him that they were a mixed party of German and Italian mountain troops on a training exercise. From his manner it was clear that the man did not believe a word of it, and he headed off to Teora, where he reported that men in strange uniforms were on the hill.

 

A short time later, the sentries spotted two Italian civilians with shot guns on the ridge above them; they did not know it but others were lurking nearby to keep a watch on them. By midday a mixed group of Carabinieri and mountain troops had arrived, and these were preparing to advance up the hill when they were overtaken by a crowd of civilians, with curious children in the vanguard followed by their anxious parents. Faced with this ridiculous scene, Pritchard knew that he could not order his men to open fire without risking a dreadful massacre of innocent lives, and so he told them to surrender. Lance-Corporal Henderson, who had somehow managed to drag his Bren gun all the way from the aqueduct, tried to make a run for it but was quickly cornered.

 

The entire party, except for Pritchard, were shackled together via a long chain, with handcuffs at intervals for each man and every one in two being further encumbered with an iron ball. In this somewhat medieval manner the prisoners began the difficult and exhausting trek to Teora, accompanied throughout by insults, spitting, and threats of execution. When they arrived, a prominent individual did his best to incite a lynching, but before it could gather any momentum the Carabinieri formed a protective cordon around the prisoners before locking them in an empty room. Later, an elderly Italian general informed them that a lorry would shortly take them to Calitri railway station, and if Pritchard would give his word that they would not try to escape, he would even allow them to drive it unguarded except for the escort cars in front and behind. Suspecting that this might be a ruse by which they could be imagined to be escaping and then justifiably murdered, Pritchard thanked the general for his offer but politely declined, saying that they would prefer to be treated like any other prisoners of war. The lorry arrived shortly afterwards and they were driven away, in chains and under guard.

 

Lea's Party

 

Captain Lea's party moved parallel and some distance to the North of Pritchard's group, and their experience during the first hours was much the same, with any attempt at an ascent requiring an exhausting trudge through thick mud. They also had to contend with a series of fast-flowing streams created by the melting snow, feeding rivers which were much wider than they would normally be. They crossed these with everyone holding on to the pack of the person in front; one man was nearly swept away but was hauled back by Sergeant Walker. By dawn they were six miles from the aqueduct, though they had covered about three times that distance. Exhausted, cold, and soaked to the skin, they sheltered in a dry river bed surrounded by a thick canopy of trees; ironically the river bed was the only patch of dry ground, and uncomfortable as it was they decided to sleep on it. The melting snow, however, gradually filled the bed, forcing them to higher ground when they awoke to find themselves lying in water with their kit floating around them.

 

Wet and cold, they pushed on as soon as it was dark, but no one in the group was in any way rested and several men began to lag behind, forcing the party to march at a slower pace. Sheer determination carried them on until dawn, where they were fortunate to find a good spot to shelter on the mountainside. Even so they were nearly discovered by a shepherd boy, who remained uncomfortably close for some time before moving on, entirely unaware that he was being watched by men who had eventually decided to tie him up if necessary, as they could not bring themselves to kill him.

 

Lea was confident that they could remain undiscovered in the mountains, but during the third night's march he realised that his tired group would not reach the submarine at their current pace, and so he decided to take a chance and move onto the road below. This proved to be very difficult as a swamp lay in their path, and as no better route could be seen in the darkness they formed a human chain and waded directly across it, sometimes up to their waists, and in their exhausted state they were fortunate that no one drowned. On reaching firm ground they rested for just five minutes before taking to the road, and despite their sorry condition their spirits rose to be on it, covering about six miles in a few hours.

 

Eventually they came to a stone bridge over a tributary of the River Sele; Lea advanced alone, and seeing no sign of activity beckoned the rest to follow. As soon as they were all on the bridge it became apparent that they had walked into a perfectly laid ambush, as a crowd of civilians, several armed with shot guns, charged down the hill and cut them off on both sides. A number of Carabinieri emerged, and Lea attempted a desperate bluff by pretending to be a German, but their sergeant pointed his rifle at his chest and insisted that they were English. In a remarkable display of nerve, Lea drew his pistol to his side, stared the man in the eyes and repeated, "Deutsch", but it was to no avail as the Italian told him that they were not wearing German uniforms, and furthermore they had been watching them for miles before springing their trap. The parachutists briefly considered trying to fight their way out of it, but like Pritchard knew that this would certainly result in civilian deaths, and so they surrendered.

 

To a similar accompaniment of insults and threats of execution, they were marched to a small village, where they were stripped and searched, though not very thoroughly as none of their escape apparatus was discovered. Handcuffed and chained together, they were put aboard mule carts and, escorted by another screeching mob, were taken to Calitri railway station where they joined Pritchard's group.