Maps

The Mediterranean

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

Photos

2nd Lieutenant A.G. Jowett

Sergeant Percy Clements

 

Jowett's Party

 

2nd Lieutenant Jowett took the most southerly route of the three parties but found the going no easier; Sergeant Clements, a veteran who had served in the mountains of India, regarded the conditions as the most challenging he had known. At dawn they sheltered in an inviting ravine which was thick with bushes, yet on closer inspection it was found to be waterlogged but it was too light to risk moving any further. They resumed the march at dusk, but were forced to part company with Flight Lieutenant Lucky, who had injured his left knee on the drop and could not keep up. He struggled over the hills alone for the next three nights, but very slowly, barely advancing five miles as the crow flies. His ordeal came to an end near Laviano when he was challenged by a civilian, and though he replied in Italian his uniform aroused suspicion, and he was quickly surrounded by others who beat him and kept him under guard until the police arrived.

 

The rest of the party had moved on until they came upon a road and, though it was the longer way around, decided to make use of it to avoid another exhausting trek over the mountains. Without warning they found themselves about to enter a small village and had no option but to advance through it as quietly as they could, leaving it swiftly behind but not without alerting several dogs. Shortly before dawn they came to an orchard near the River Sele where they were suddenly hailed by an Italian civilian, who quickly decided that he did not like the look of them and hastily withdrew; Jowett gave chase with the intention of killing him, but the man had disappeared. Certain that they would be reported, they pushed on to the river and waded out to an islet which seemed to offer good cover, however, this proved to be entirely illusory as they were quite visible even when lying prone, but with nowhere else to go they could only stay flat and hope to remain undetected. Later in the morning a man passed by with a dog which spotted them, swam across, and excitedly darted amongst them, barking and wagging its tail, before being recalled by its owner who then ran away. Jowett immediately ordered everyone to their feet, and they climbed the nearest hill and took cover amongst some shrubs, but as this was almost the only shelter on the hillside they would surely be found if anyone came looking for them.

 

Two hours later a convoy of vehicles arrived and about a hundred civilian men disembarked, all of whom carried weapons, mostly firearms. Sergeant Clements scouted over the summit of the hill to see if they could escape down the far side, only to see an identical crowd forming up. A number of Carabinieri and soldiers appeared, who fired blindly up the hill in the hope of drawing a response to reveal their position. No fire was returned, so the Carabinieri led a line of civilians up the hill like beaters on a shoot. Unlike the civilians with which Pritchard and Lea had been confronted, all of these men were armed and actively taking part in a military operation, and so the parachutists prepared themselves to resist. As they drew closer, Jowett fired his Thompson in the air in the hope that this would encourage them to retire; it did not, and so he fired two bursts at them, killing two civilians and the Carabinieri leader, forcing the remainder to withdraw.

 

The Italian soldiers then started to climb up, halting every few minutes to fire at the British position. They could not hope to hold them off and would be surrounded once the Italians on the other side of the hill came up, so at ten second intervals Jowett ordered his men to make a dash for another patch of shrub which looked more suited to a defence. They came under fire as they went, but all made it across safely except for Driver Crawford who was hit in the arm. The Italians soon surrounded the position but were kept at a distance by Jowett, who fired his Thompson from different positions to give the impression that they had more than one automatic; the other having been lost as they had waded out of the River Sele. Pistols were used as the Italians drew closer, but these proved to be quite ineffective, and the answering fire became so intense that it was remarkable that no one else was hurt. Eventually Jowett ordered Clements to lead the men out and surrender; he had no intention of doing so himself, and recognising this Clements refused to obey until Jowett reluctantly agreed to follow. Having disposed of their weapons as well as they could, Clements marched out with white handkerchiefs in both hands, the firing continued all the same, but finally ceased having done no harm.

 

The British received the usual hostile reception, made worse because three Italians lay dead and others had been wounded. They were stripped to their waist and searched, then marched down the hill and made to line up against a rocky outcrop. A particularly pompous man took charge of the situation, and it was clear that he was organising a firing squad. Verging on hysteria, he proceeded to incite his fellow Italians to do murder, and was about to give the order when the almost unreal sight of an immaculately dressed army officer on horseback arrived, and seeing what was about to happen he placed himself in front of the prisoners. Dismounting, he slapped the ringleader on both cheeks and gave him a severe scolding, before turning to the British and assuring them that they were prisoners of the Italian Army and had nothing to fear.

 

Harassed by civilians on the way, they were marched to a small village, and on arrival were individually threatened with a pistol by one man, but the Italian sergeant in charge of the party swiftly ordered them away. They spent the night in a house, and a doctor was summoned to look at Driver Crawford's wound. An Italian captain offered them the opportunity to exercise outside without a guard if Jowett gave his word that they would not try to escape, but like Pritchard he sensed that this could be a ruse to give the Italians an excuse to gun them down, so he politely declined by saying that they were duty bound to escape if possible. One man was permitted to step outside during the following morning for less sinister but entirely surreal reasons; Sapper Ross had caused quite a stir amongst the female population as they had never seen blond hair before, and though he was not at all enthusiastic about the idea, he nevertheless agreed to be twice paraded before them. Eventually a truck arrived and they were taken to Calitri railway station where they were united with Pritchard and Lea's groups.

 

Daly's Party

 

Captain Daly and his four sappers had been mistakenly dropped in the neighbouring valley, some six miles from the Tragino aqueduct. Although they were too far away to be of any use, they headed in its direction until they heard the explosion, and knowing that their task was complete, disposed of all unnecessary equipment and turned towards the River Sele. Their route across the mountains was every bit as awful as the other parties had found it, but after running into some tracks which they took to be one of these groups, they changed course, and after negotiating more deep mud and snow succeeded in finding a more solid path. Having covered a good amount of ground by dawn, they sheltered in an abandoned hut, and made similarly rapid progress during the following night. Very little evidence of human life was seen anywhere, so they even dared to approach a very isolated farmhouse in the hope of getting some food off the owners, but they were terrified at their appearance and locked themselves indoors.

 

By the morning of the 15th February, having had the furthest to travel, Daly's men had made such good progress that they reckoned themselves to be just 18 miles from the mouth of the River Sele with a fair chance of making the rendezvous. Their energy levels, however, were now perilously low as few had been able to stomach the pemmican rations, and so had been existing solely on biscuits, chocolate and raisins. As it was unlikely that they would be able to cover the distance during the last remaining night, Daly decided to risk pushing on in daylight as there had been so little sign of life up to this point. They proceeded unhindered but their weariness grew on them until, about six miles from the coast, it was clear that they could not go much further. Having spotted a café, they made the extremely bold decision to go inside, under the pretence of being Luftwaffe aircrew whose plane had crashed in the mountains, and ask that a taxi be called to take them to Naples, presumably with the intention of diverting it towards the River Sele once they were underway. They ordered coffee and a few cigarettes were lit, but it is believed that their British brand of matches was spotted because before long the café was surrounded by Italian soldiers. Daly persisted with the bluff that they were Luftwaffe airmen, but their officer could see that their uniforms were not German, and on examining Daly's epaulette knew for certain that they were in fact British. Transport to Naples was duly arranged, but the journey was made in chains and handcuffs.

 

They were taken to the civilian prison, with Daly being kept separate from the others. During the night he managed to force the door to his cell, slipped past the guard room, made his way out into the street and eventually found the railway station. He tried to board a goods train as it was pulling away, but misjudged his jump, lost his footing, and fell unconscious onto the tracks. He woke to find an Italian soldier standing over him.

 

Daly and his men may have been devastated to have been caught so close to the rendezvous, but they were not to know that if they had been successful, HMS Triumph would not have been waiting for them. None of the aircrews involved in Operation Colossus had been informed about the escape plan, and so when Pilot Officer Wotherspoon was compelled to make a forced landing shortly after "X" Troop had been dropped, he saw nothing wrong with doing so near the rendezvous point, nor was his wireless operator at fault by informing Malta with a simple coded message. This caused considerable alarm as the Italians were likely to have intercepted it, and if they were still carrying out an extensive search of the area when the submarine arrived it would be in great danger. They were not to know that Wotherspoon and his men had been taken prisoner long before "X" Troop would have arrived, but the Admiralty felt that the risk was too great and so ordered HMS Triumph to return to port. Their decision was likely influenced by reconnaissance photographs of the aqueduct taken after the raid, which failed to provide any evidence of damage, leading them to believe that "X" Troop may have been taken prisoner as soon as they landed.