Lieutenant Charles Napier Cross

 

National Archives catalogue reference - WO 208/3315/10

 

Name: 182246 (War Subs.) Lieut. Charles Napier Cross.

Unit: 1st Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment, 5th Indian Division, attached South African Division.

Captured: Rigel Ridge, Libya, 14th June 1942.

Escaped: Campo 19 (Bologna), 12th September 1943.

Left: Marrakech, 11th October 1943.

Arrived: in U.K., 12th October 1943.

Date of Birth: 2nd April 1913.

Army Service: Since April 1940.

Peacetime Profession: Company director.

Private Address: Spring Grove, Penarth, Glamorgan.

 

1. CAPTURE.

 

I was captured with my platoon at Point 187, RIGEL RIDGE, West of EL ADEM, LIBYA, on 14 Jun 42. We were surrounded by tanks of the 21 German Panzer Division. The rest of my unit was taken later at TOBRUK.

 

2. JOURNEY AFTER CAPTURE.

 

After capture we were rounded up, but were not interrogated. The men were sent back. The Sergeant, a runner, and myself managed to hide in a slit trench, hoping to escape at night, but the remainder of the German tanks overran our "box" and we were captured again. The advancing German Division took us forward with them till they began their attack on the South African "box" on the coast (about 16 Jun). At this point a German Intelligence officer tried to interrogate me, asking what my unit was, but I told him "not to be a damned fool". I was then sent back in a party of officer P/W to TMIMI, where we were handed over to the Italians. We were moved on to DERNA, BARCI, and BENGHAZI, whence I was flown to LECCE (ITALY) (arrived about 21 Jun). The journey from TMIMI to LECCE took about four days, and each of us had only one tin of Italian bully beef and one large Italian biscuit during that time.

 

At LECCE we were sent to an old hospital, and after one night there were moved on to the Transit Camp (No.75) at BARI. On 4 Aug I was transferred to Campo 21 (CHIETI), where I remained for exactly one year. On 4 Aug 43 I was moved to Campo 19 (BOLOGNA).

 

3. CAMPO 21 (CHIETI): ATTEMPTED ESCAPES.

 

(a) In Oct 42 2/Lt. BROAD, 1 Bn. the Worcestershire Regiment, and I began to work on an escape plan, for which we had the sanction and help of our Commanding Officer (Col. KNIGHT) and also of Col. COOPER, who was then in charge of the Escape Committee and who gave our scheme first priority.

 

We planned to escape over the flat roof of a building to the left of the main entrance of the camp. In the inside part of this building was the camp hospital, and in the outside part the Italian administrative offices. We went into training, and collected food for our journey, our idea being to make first of all for the GRAN SASSO D'ITALIA, a peak which we could see from the camp, to follow the mountain range to a point West of MILAN, and make our way thence North to the SIMPLON PASS and into SWITZERLAND. The Escape Committee provided us with 200 lira each and with a map. We made ourselves a compass and each collected the following food:- five tins of Service biscuits, five tins of cocoa, 12 bars of chocolate, two small boxes of Bemax, one Marmite cube, six ounces of sugar, and a tin of condensed milk. This food we sent to the cookhouse, where it was heated and poured into cocoa tins, this making a sort of concentrated ration. To gain the roof over which we hoped to escape we had to climb a drain pipe, and this we practiced during the winter, wearing gym shoes with socks over them to deaden the sound.

 

We made our attempt on the night of 29 Mar 43. Capt. BLACKMAN dropped a tin on a flight of steps, and the searchlight which normally shone on the hospital building was diverted. BROAD went first, and got to the top of the drain pipe. It was a very wet night, and in trying to grasp the gutter on the edge of the roof, which was some distance from the top of the pipe, he slipped and fell about 25 ft to the ground. Three other officers and I dragged him into the cookhouse. He was badly bruised and the British M.O. attended him in his bungalow so that the Italians should not know of his accident. I wanted to try to get out alone that night, but Col. COOPER refused me permission. In falling BROAD broke a telephone wire, and the Italians probably suspected that someone had been trying to escape.

 

(b) In Apr 43 I joined a party of 15 officers under Capt. HAZLEHURST, The Worcestershire Regiment, who were digging a tunnel from the theatre latrine. We worked in shifts, each shift under a commander, and, though there was a sentry posted only 30 yds from where we were digging, we made good progress. After getting through 6 ins. of cement and 6 ins. of brick, we dug down 8 ft. and made a chamber big enough for three or four men. At this point we struck water, and, as we could not go lower, the tunnel was continued outwards through the foundation wall of the building, which was 2 ft., 6 ins. thick. The tunnel had been continued for about 12 ft. when it was detected by the Italians owing to faulty watching above ground. Two members of the party - Capt. RICHARDSON, R.A. and P/O POLLARD R.A.F. - who were caught below ground, were sentenced to 30 days' imprisonment each and had to pay 4000 lira for damage to camp property. The Escape Committee paid the fine.

 

(c) The Italians now established sentries outside the camp, in addition to the patrols inside the camp and the sentries in the eight boxes on the walls. I joined in another tunnel scheme which had the approval of Major DERRY, R.A., who was now in charge of the Escape Committee. This tunnel was from the boiler room. The lower of the two stone steps was removed, and the tunnel was sunk from under the second step and had reached the outer wall by 4 Aug 43 when all the original tunnel party were removed to CHIETI. The Italians had a microphone in the "cooler" and may have picked up some information through it. In digging this tunnel we wore Army pants and vests (both long), a muffler, and a beret, so that we would be clean when we left the boiler room.

 

4. CAMPO 19 (BOLOGNA): TUNNEL SCHEME.

 

This was a new camp, and on arrival there we rounded up 15 of the old tunnelers. With the approval of Capt. MICKLETHWAITE, R.N., who was in charge of the Escape Committee, we began to dig a tunnel from one of the courtyards. The courtyard was chosen because it was now late in the season and we hoped to save time by not having to cut through concrete as we would have had to do from any of the buildings. The entrance to this tunnel was covered by a box of earth which rested on four posts. This tunnel was discovered in its early stages, and Capt. RICHARDSON, who was caught again, got five days in the cells.

 

5. ESCAPE FROM CAMPO 19.

 

About 24 Aug 43 another tunnel was begun, this time from under a wooden platform behind the bar in the canteen. This tunnel was to go through the foundations of the building and the main wall of the camp - a distance of 25 yds. After digging through 18 ins. of rubble we made a chamber in the earth. We had gut about three feet of the tunnel proper from this chamber when Brigadier MOUNTAIN, the Senior British Officer, announced the signing of the Armistice. The Germans came into the camp at 0400 hrs on 9 Sep, the Italians having refused to open the gates to let us out. The Germans had apparently been told by an Italian that we had been armed by British Paratroops. They surrounded the camp and posted mortars and armoured cars outside, evidently expecting terrific resistance. We were all made to come out of the bungalows, and the 800 officers were made to file into a pen behind double wire. By this time the Brigadier had been able to get the north gate opened, and 20 or 30 officers rushed out. The Germans opened fire immediately. Capt. D.L.I. JOHNSON was wounded and died next morning. Two other officers, whose names I do not know, were wounded. The rest of the escapers had to dive through a prickly hedge and were all badly cut. All except two were rounded up next day.

 

All the officers in the camp remained in the pen from 0400 hrs till 0800 hrs, when we were allowed back to our quarters. Meanwhile the Germans had searched the camp for arms and had disarmed the Italians, who put up no resistance.

 

When we got back to our quarters a group of six of us - all original tunnelers - got together and Capt. BLACKMAN suggested we should continue work on the tunnel with a view to its use as a "hidey-hole". Capt. MICKLETHWAITE agreed. We used fruit baskets and even wheel-barrows to remove the soil as we went on digging, and the Germans, who did not know the "run" of the camp, did not detect us. It was agreed that the six diggers should sleep in the canteen bar. We put a supply of food and water in the hole. We slept in the bar on the nights of 9-10 and 11-12 Sep. We had one other officers with us who had volunteered to replace the platform over the entrance when we should get down into the tunnel. The members of the party were:- Capt. Michael BLACKMAN, Sherwood Foresters; Lieut. Richard PARTRIDGE, 1 Bn. The Welsh Regiment; Lieut. Peter NAIMOFF, Paratroops; two other officers, and myself. One of the two officers whose names I do not remember decided, after experience of conditions when we were all in the tunnel, to withdraw from the scheme.

 

The air supply in the chamber was very poor, being derived from three holes bored with a red-hot poker in the wood work of the wall beside the platform. These holes had to be covered with paper to prevent detection and, though we had a device by which the paper could be raised a little from the inside, very little air got in.

 

At 0900 hrs on 11 Sep the Brigadier informed us that we would be moved at an hour's notice. At 1000 hrs the five of us got down into the chamber. Our accomplice replaced the platform. We remained sealed up in the chamber till 0200 hrs on 12 Sep, when BLACKMAN left. It had been agreed that he should go first.

 

The hole in which we were lying was about 3 ft. deep, 2 ft., 6 ins. wide, and about 12 ft. long. There was just room for the five of us. We were all stripped to the waist. We had our clothes - in my case a shirt, shorts, and boots - and satchels of food with us in the chamber. We did not move so as to conserve air, and we struck a match only once when the water supply was lost. We had tapped the waste-water pipe from the bar and left the taps at the drip. The drops of water brought down a little air and coolness. We were quite happy for about eight hours. After this the air became very foul, and we were afraid to go to sleep and kept calling to one another in whispers to keep the party awake. We were particularly concerned about NAIMOFF who was furthest from the shaft. About 0200 hrs (12 Sep) BLACKMAN, who was O.C. tunnel and nearest the shaft, went up to reconnoitre. (The platform was on a joist, on which it swung, and could be raised by pulling and pushing). BLACKMAN went up bare-footed. It was dark in the canteen. When he came back he said the Germans were still in the camp, and all the lights were on in the bungalows and on the wall. The Germans appeared to be cleaning up the camp for use as a barracks. BLACKMAN then left us. He replaced the platform, and we heard him stamping on it and spreading the dust - a protection we had always taken. I did not see him again.

 

PARTRIDGE, who was next on the rota, went on a reconnaissance about 0230 hrs, intending to leave the camp. He came back and said it was not advisable to go that night. He had seen nothing of BLACKMAN, and reported that the Germans were moving about the camp. He said they were also in the towers at the corners of the camp, where the machine guns and searchlights were mounted.

 

It was getting hotter below, and, as I had a plan for getting over the wall of the camp, I said I was going. I went up with my boots and food satchel in my hand. I was wearing shorts, shirt and socks. I put down the boots and satchel at the canteen door and got out and round the corner of the building. I could hear the Germans in the cookhouse which we in the other half of the building. From the side of the building furthest away from the cookhouse I slipped across to a large ablution trough standing in the open. I crawled along the inside of this trough, which was about 30 ft. long, and threw a stone towards the box beside the guardhouse outside the wire. There was no sign of life. I also tried to find out if there was a sentry in the box in the corner of the camp proper, and, though I could not be sure, I got the impression there was.

 

I then ran back to the wall of the canteen building. I did not take the risk of going back to the door for my boots and satchel, and, after taking off my socks, I climbed the first barbed wire fence at the back of the building. It was about 10 ft. high, but it took me only a few seconds to get over. I crossed a lane in the shadows, and got over another fence the same height as the first. To my right, at right-angles to the fence I had just crossed, there was a door in another fence leading to the guardhouse enclosure. This door was locked. I then got over the outer wall at a dark spot where the light of two lamps met. This wall was also about 10 ft. high with a fence of barbed-wire strands on top. I got over the wire fence and dropped down the other side of the wall into a ditch which the Italians had dug to stop tunnelling. After crossing another wire fence I was outside the camp. I had no difficulty in getting over the fences and wall barefoot, as we had had no boots for most of the time I was in CHIETI, and many of us had gone barefoot there. I was also in good training.

 

There were sentry boxes outside the final fence, but I did not wait to see if they were occupied. I went round the camp from the East side, where I had got out, to the North, where there was a copse. I stayed for about 20 minutes in the copse. There was no alarm and I set off N.E. through vineyards. The going here was difficult in the dark, as I was constantly running against the wire on which the vines were trained. In time I struck the railway which runs in a loop round BOLOGNA. I turned South, following this railway, which [was] going to RIMINI on the coast. I walked mostly through fields now, on the stubble of Indian corn. This was very hard on my feet. I came to a river, which was almost dry, and here had the idea of putting on my socks, sticking my feet into the clay in the river bed, and letting the clay harden. The covering I thus made for my feet enabled me to walk in comparative comfort, as it kept the thorns and stubble from my feet.

 

It was a Sunday and there were no workers in the fields. In the afternoon, after crossing another river, I reached CASTEL SAN PIETRO. Here I went to a villa, and said I was an English officer in need of help. The people spoke English, and received me well. I was given coffee, bread, and fruit, civilian clothes, gym shoes, and 300 lira. I was also advised to wear a knotted handkerchief over my head (to conceal my fair hair) and to shave off my moustache. It was suggested that I might make for the republic of SAN MARINO, but I refused to consider this, as I did not want to be interned.

 

I left the villa about 1830 hrs and walked along the railway line, which was in German hands. I eventually found a stretch of line, [possibly] at IMOLI, which was still controlled by the Italians. At the station I got into a passenger train without a ticket, and stayed in the train till it reached TERMOLI about midnight next day (13 Sep). There was no inspection of tickets on the way. Most of the passengers were young men in civilian clothes who might have been soldiers on their way home. There were also some civilian refugees. I kept in a corner all the time, and did not speak unless I had to. (I had learned a certain amount of Italian in the camp.) Most of the time I pretended to be asleep, and sometimes read a newspaper which I had picked up at a station.

 

At TERMOLI the Germans took over the train, and all the passengers had to file out into the station yard. There was, however, no search. I decided to make my way on foot down the coast in the hope of linking up with the invading British forces. I followed the railway line, keeping off the actual track wherever possible. In this way I reached the vicinity of RIPALTI early on the morning of 14 Sep. Just North of RIPALTI I went to a Casa Coloniali, one of the farms at which there is accommodation for travellers. The farmer was going to POGGIO IMPERIALE in his mule cart and gave me a lift. On the way I told him I was English and he was quite friendly. In POGGIO IMPERIALE I went to a small cafe and had a meal of macaroni.

 

I left POGGIO IMPERIALE about 1800 hrs on 14 Sep and made my way, partly on foot and partly by lifts from Italians, via APRICENA to S. SEVERO. I had no turned in West from the coast and intended to cross the mountains and head for NAPLES. Italians, however, told me there were too many Germans in the hills. From S. SEVERO I went to S. FERDINANDO and MARGHERITA DI SAVOIA, on the coast, intending to make for BARLETTA. Here I turned back inland, because I was meeting too many Germans on the road blocks, and went to ANDRIA. This was the last place at which I met any Germans. Continuing via CORATO, RUVO, and BITONTO, I reached BARI at 2200 hrs on 17 Sep.

 

In my journey from TERMOLI, where I left the train, I rested only between 2200 hrs and midnight each day. The moon was full and walking by night was easy. Most of the way I was able to keep the coast in sight and so locate my position. I had a good deal of help from Italians, who were friendly once they realised I was not German. I got frequent lifts, and Italians often showed me how to avoid concentrations of Germans. They gave me food without asking payment.

 

In BARI I reported to Capt. SPIVEY (Paratroops) who sent me back next morning (18 Sep) to H.Q., 1 Air-borne Div. at TARANTO. From Div. H.Q. I was sent to H.Q., 5 Corps, where Major BRAYNE interrogated me on my journey. I was sent on 19 Sep to BRINDISI to see General MASON-MacFARLANE, chief of the Armistice Commission. About 26 Sep I went to ALGIERS by air, escorting a German Consul and his wife. In ALGIERS I reported to the P/W Distribution Centre. I was in ALGIERS for a week, going from there to MARRAKECH where I was for another week awaiting an air passage to the U.K.

 

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