Lieutenant H. E. Stewart

 

National Archives catalogue reference - WO 208/3307/29

 

Name: Lieut. H. E. Stewart, M.C.

Unit: Intelligence Corps, attached to 9th Australian Division, Middle East Forces.

Captured: Nr. Derna, 7th April 1941.

Escaped: Chiete, 30th September 1941.

Left: Gibraltar, 6th July 1942.

Arrived: Gourock, 13th July 1942.

Army Service: Since 3 Oct 40.

Peacetime Profession: Shipping agency.

Private Address: c/o Suez Canal Coy., Suez, Egypt.

 

I was captured near DERNA aerodrome (LIBYA) on 7 Apr 41 while travelling in a Staff car to AINGAZALA, 22 miles S.E. of BARCE. I was following a convoy in which were Generals NEAME, O'CONNOR, and COMBE. At a cross-roads the convoy was misdirected by a Military Policeman, whom we later suspected of being a German in British uniform. The driver of the first vehicle  told me that the man on duty at this particular cross-roads did not speak to him at all, but merely waved him on. While the convoy was passing through a waddi it was ambushed by two German armoured carriers, two anti-tank guns, and about 30 men. I was dragged out of my car by two Germans, one with a revolver and the other with a Tommy gun. We were kept two days in the desert, during which a German Panzer Division came up. We were then sent to DERNA, where we were housed in very bad conditions in an old barracks. We next had an unpleasant trip to BENGHAZI, during which Italian civilians threw stones at us and spat on us. Accommodation was bad at BENGHAZI and the daily ration per man was one tin of bully beef and one biscuit. We were under Italian control. From BENGHAZI we were sent by truck (a journey of 4 days) to TRIPOLI and from there to a transit camp at SABRATHA, where our food consisted of:- coffee in the morning, soup at midday, soup at night, and a loaf of bread per day. On 4 May we embarked from TRIPOLI in S.S. MARCO POLO for NAPLES, whence we were sent by special train to SULMONA (7 May). We walked from the railway station to the camp, a barracks built during the last way by Austrian P/W.

 

I came to the conclusion that escape from SULMONA Camp itself was impossible and decided to get myself moved by feigning sickness. I put my plan to the escape committee and got their approval. On the advice of Capt. RYAN, an Australian doctor, I decided to pretend I was suffering from stone in the kidneys, a disease which (the doctor informed me) could not be detected by X-ray treatment. I did not report sick to the Italians till I had been in bed three weeks, and during that time I feigned the symptoms of the disease so as to deceive the British officers and (through them) the Italians. As part of the deception I had to yell for about four hours a day and I used to be in bed for three or four days and then up for two days. After I reported sick I had two morphia injections from the Italians, while almost killed me. Capt. RYAN then said he would take over for them, and I had no more injections.

 

From SULMONA I was sent to the Italian military hospital at CHIETE, about 40 km N.E. of SULMONA. There was a guard of ten sentries on the building, as 12 British, two French, and 20 Greek wounded P/W were there awaiting the Mixed Medical Commission. The hospital was filthy.

 

I had one thorough medical examination by an Italian Major, who went over my whole body and dictated a report of 25 pages to a clerk. I impressed him by screaming when he touched a spot on my right side. I was then x-rayed - with negative results which the Major explained as due to "gas on the stomach". A second x-ray examination was also negative, but the Major said that, in view of the pain in my right side, I would be detained for observation. Five days after this the Mixed Medical Commission (two Swiss doctors and one Italian) arrived. One Swiss doctor advised me to put down for repatriation, but I declined.

 

During this time I was finding difficulty in planning my escape from the hospital, as it was extremely well guarded. I was fortunate, however, in having the help of Sgt. Pilot DAVIES, R.A.F., who was awaiting repatriation. (Note:- 566249 Sgt. DAVIES, P-F.O., R.A.F., was among the British P/W repatriated from ITALY to the MIDDLE EAST on 11 Apr 42. See Nominal roll, Middle East report on interrogation, AIO/A/11/4 of 11 May 42). Sgt. DAVIES helped me in checking up on the movements of the guards. After I had been in hospital 12 days (30 Sep) Sgt. DAVIES came to me in the afternoon and said he had the time table of the guards fixed and suggested I should try that night.

 

About 1930 hrs we put our plan into execution. Two other airmen assisted. One of them engaged a guard in conversation at the end of the corridor. Another stood outside the latrine while Sgt. DAVIES and I went in. Sgt. DAVIES helped me to pull down the window. The latrine was on the second floor, and I slid down a drain pipe to the ground. The guard was five yards to the right of me with his back to me. I walked along the side of the building and found an alley leading into the garden, where I was out of sight of the guard. From the garden I jumped a wall about four feet high and found myself in the street.

 

I had the following equipment:-

 

Dress:- S.D. trousers, very old. They were Australian and a very dark khaki. Civilian shirt, bought during the first few months in SULMONA when we were allowed to get civilian clothes. Mackintosh: exchanged for a great coat with another officer in SULMONA. Pullover: from a Red Cross parcel.

 

Map:- Of the Italian-Swiss frontier. Done in the camp and given me by the escape committee. It was not detailed. I lost it when leaving the hospital, probably when jumping the wall.

 

Money:- 300 lira (more than I required) given me by the escape committee.

 

Identity card:- Italian: made in the camp by two officers and given me by the escape committee. On it was my photograph (in civilian clothes) which I had kept from my identity card on capture.

 

After getting out of the hospital grounds, I lost my way and walked round and round for three hours, trying to find the railway station. Eventually two civilians directed me there.

 

At the station, about 7 km from the hospital, I bought a ticket to PESCARA. I waited an hour for the train, which reached PESCARA, after a journey of about 15 minutes, just after 0100 hrs (1 Oct).

 

I found there was a train leaving for MILAN almost at once and got a ticket. I asked some one where the MILAN train left from and was directed to a platform, where I got, not the train I had intended taking, but an "omnibus" (or slow) train. The journey to MILAN involved a change at BOLOGNA. Someone had left a Fascist cap in the train and I hung it behind me. Identity papers were not asked for, and no one spoke to me. I heard two Italian passengers complaining about the food situation and saying that everything was being sent to GERMANY.

 

I arrived in MILAN about 1640 hrs and had some food and a hair cut at the station. I stayed in the buffet till 2100 hrs, when I got a train to COMO, arriving at 2230 hrs. In COMO I went to a bar and saw a man whose name had been given me by a French P/W in SULMONA. This man denied all knowledge of the Frenchman. I said I was an escaped French P/W, but the man in the bar would not promise me help beyond saying I could return to the bar when I wished and giving me the name of a hotel - the Albergo di Ter Rei. At the hotel my identity card was accepted without question and I filled up a registration form. I stayed the night in the hotel.

 

Next morning (2 Oct) I walked to PONTE CHIASSO without encountering any police or frontier guards. After lunching in a small restaurant, I followed a road running N.E. along the frontier. I was stopped once by a guard and had to show my identity card. At this point the frontier was in a dry river bed, where there was a high wire fence with bells at intervals of a yard. The fence was guarded by Blackshirt Militia and Aplini troops at intervals of 20 yards.

 

Seeing no possibility of crossing the frontier at that time, I returned to COMO by bus. In COMO I walked about a bit, had my photograph taken by a street photographer at the lakeside (so that if I were recaptured I could prove to the Italians how far I had got), and went to a cinema. I then went back to PONTE CHIASSO by bus, arriving about 1900 hrs. I stayed the night in a small hotel, from which my identity card was sent to the police office and returned as correct.

 

About 1130 hrs next morning (3 Oct) I set out for MONTE OLIMPINO, a hill to the South of PONTE CHIASSO. I followed a steep path running East over a railway tunnel. This path took me quite close to the frontier, on which is a 12 ft wire netting fence with small bells every yard. There were sentry-boxes every 100 days, but they were empty and dusty as though never used. After waiting about quarter of an hour, I climbed a tree and shinned over the fence, making a great noise.

 

I asked an old woman the way to the Swiss town of CHIASSO and walked there with her. I did not give myself up to the police in CHIASSO, as I had been told in the camp the Swiss would hand me back to the Italians if I were caught just over the frontier. In CHIASSO I stole a bicycle and cycled along the main road to LUGANO, where I reported to the British Consulate at 1645 hrs.

 

I spent the next day in LUGANO and was sent to BELLINZONA for interrogation by Swiss officers. They were very friendly and asked me about the Libyan Campaign, conditions in SULMONA, and the state of troops and fortifications on the Italian-Swiss frontier. I was sent to BERNE by train with a policeman in plain clothes to be handed over to the British authorities, but, as it was a Sunday, the Legation was closed. I spent the day sightseeing in BERNE and stayed the night at a hotel. Next morning I reported at the British Consulate and Legation.

 

 

The following information was obtained from BRITISH personnel who have been repatriated.

 

If further circulation of this information is made, it is important that its source should not be divulged.

 

ESCAPER's NAME, etc:- Lieut. H. E. STEWART, M.C., Intelligence Corps.

DATE OF INTERVIEW: 13 Sep 42.

 

(1) Notes on SULMONA.

 

The Escape Committee (May - Sep 41) consisted of:-

 

Col. Munro, S.B.O.

Cdr. Brown, R.N. ("adjutant")

W/C Kelly.

Lieut.-Colonel Mitchell.

 

The three first-named were very efficient.

 

I do not know the source of the 300 lira the committee gave me. It was given by inside the cover of a book on flowers. When I left in Sep 41 money was badly needed in the camp.

 

The Escape Committee also gave me a forged Italian identity card made in the camp by Capt. Fitzpatrick, R.A.E., and F/Lt. Downey, R.A.F.

 

(2) Journey from SWITZERLAND.

 

I left GRINDELWALD on 27 May 42 for BERNE, and was sent to GENEVA, where Mr. Farrell, the P.C.O., put me into the Salvation Army Hotel for two days. On 29 May two Swiss civilians collected me by car at 0300 hrs and we drove to the frontier near GENEVA. There were also two Poles in the party. At the frontier we crossed a stream, walked for half an hour, and were picked up by another guide who took us to his house. After breakfast and a rest of about two hours a third guide collected us and we went on foot to ANNEMASSE, which we left by train for MARSEILLES about 1630 hrs. I had identity papers according to which I had been from MARSEILLES to ANNEMASSE to buy wood. These papers were supplied by Mr. Farrell.

 

In MARSEILLES we went to the cafe AU PETIT POUCE and got in touch with MARIO, who took us to a flat. From there a girl took us to the house of Dr. NOUVEAU, where another Frenchman gave me a French identity card which stated I was going from LILLE to TOULOUSE to see my grandmother.

 

The two Poles and I had to leave MARSEILLES suddenly because of some scare and went to the Hotel de Paris in TOULOUSE. There I met S/Ldr WILKINSON (S/P.G.(-)750), three more Poles, and a Yugoslav naval officer who had escaped from ITALY. FELIX was in charge of us during the two days we were in TOULOUSE.

 

We then left by train for OSSEJA, on the Spanish frontier. A Spanish guide travelled on the same train. With the guide we walked into the mountains, the party consisting of one of the Poles from SWITZERLAND, two Belgians, and an Englishman called NAPIER. We were picked up by another Spanish guide who took us over the PYRENEES. The crossing was very strenuous, and one of the Belgians, a Major, gave out and NAPIER and I carried him for about four hours. After 14 hours walking we reached the small Spanish village of RIBAS. I spent a day in bed there, and at 0600 hrs the following day the party walked to a bus station and then went to the railway station at RIPOLI and got a train for BARCELONA. We had no difficulty on the way, as we had a Spanish guide and had been given false papers in RIBAS. In BARCELONA we went to a cafe, whence a Belgian took me to the Consulate. Two days later (7 or 8 Jan) I was sent by car to MADRID and from there (11 Jun) to GIBRALTAR.

 

20 Jul 42.

 

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