Lieutenant Norman Charles Johnson

 

National Archives catalogue reference - WO 208/3315/8

 

Name: 149296 (War Subs.) Lieut. Norman Charles Johnson

Unit: 2nd Battalion The Lancashire Fusiliers.

Captured: Medjez-el-Bab, 25th November 1942.

Escaped: Campo 19 (Bologna), 13th September 1943.

Left: Gibraltar, 15th October 1943.

Arrived: Bristol, 16th October 1943.

Date of Birth: 5th September 1909.

Army Service: Since August 1939.

Peacetime Profession: Cotton broker.

Private Address: Copperfield, Roslyn Road, Irby, Wirral, Cheshire.

 

1. CAPTURE:

 

On 25th November 1942 my battalion was ordered to attack and capture the German position at MEDJEZ-EL-BAB. The attack was partly successful, but in the evening the Germans counter-attacked in force. I, Lieut. GIMLETT and 10 O.Rs. of H.Q. Company were cut off and subjected to heavy concentric fire. We replied as best we could for about 20 minutes, but we were then ordered by Captain TOWNLEY, commanding 'A' Company, who had joined us, to surrender. TOWNLEY, GIMLETT and myself together with the ten O.Rs were captured at 1630 hrs.

 

2. JOURNEY AFTER CAPTURE:

 

We were not searched or interrogated, but removed to the German Div. H.Q. in TUNIS on the following day. The three officers were put in a cell with two O.Rs whom we did not know. We were therefore very careful what we said. We were later formally interrogated in turn. My unit, Brigade, and Division were told me. I gave my rank, number, name and home address. I had never been lectured on security if in the hands of the enemy. The interrogation was not pressed.

 

On 28 Nov the whole of our party were flown to PALERMO, where we slept in a barn. On 29 Nov we were flown on to NAPLES and thence taken to CAPUA by truck. We were extremely well fed in NAPLES by the Italians. With this exception we were kept very short of food on our journey.

 

3. CAMPO 66 (CAPUA):

 

On arrival at this camp we were searched for the first time but not interrogated. My stud compass was not found. I, GIMLETT, and TOWNEY stayed at Campo No.66 till 18 Mar 43, when we were moved to Campo 21 (CHIETI).

 

4. CAMPO 21 (CHIETI):

 

I was a member of the "fighting squad", a body of officers detailed for special action in the event of the Germans taking over or being likely to take over the camp. A paper containing the names of the fighting squad was in the care of the Camp Security Committee. It was lost (or stolen by the Italians) with the result that I and other officers on the list were transferred on 4 Aug to Campo 19 (BOLOGNA).

 

5. JOURNEY TO CAMPO 19 (BOLOGNA):

 

In all 100 officers left CHIETI for BOLOGNA. We sat in 2nd class carriages the whole way, naked to the waist. The sentries would not open the windows which were securely shut, but fetched us water at some of the stops. We were in the train from 0700 to 1630 hrs.

 

6. CAMPO 19 (BOLOGNA):

 

On the evening of 8 Sep the Commandant of the camp - whose name I do not know - gave out that an armistice had been signed between BRITAIN and ITALY. The Senior British Officer (Brigadier MOUNTAIN) made immediate representations that the safety of the British P.O.W. in the camp should be protected against possible molestation by the Germans. In particular he asked that gaps in the outside wire fence should be cut at certain places, and that armed support and A/T guns should be provided to cover our departure. The Commandant eventually undertook to have the gaps cut. I later saw (and used) one such gap - half-way down the East wall of the camp. Having given the undertaking about the gaps, the Commandant (whose whole attitude towards the British officers was evasive and unsatisfactory in spite of the most pressing representations made to him by Brigadier MOUNTAIN) then announced that he would free the British P/W at 0630 hrs on the morning of 9 Sep, but that if any prisoners attempted to escape before that time they would be fired on as escaping P/W.

 

7. ATTEMPTED MASS ESCAPE FROM CAMPO 19:

 

At 0430 hrs on 9 Sep an officer entered the bungalow where I was sleeping and said that the Germans were around the camp. We were fully clothed, lying on our beds. We seized our food parcels and made a dash - I estimate about 200 of us in all - for the gate at the North East corner of the Camp. I asked an Italian soldier if there were Germans outside. He laughed and said, "No." We told him to hand over the key, which he refused to do. Brigadier MOUNTAIN then appeared and ordered the soldier to hand over the key. He did so. The gate was opened and we all crept out. When some of us had got through the gate, the Germans, who had been there all the time, opened fire, wounding two officers slightly, and severely wounding a third officer, Captain P.O. JOHNSON, who subsequently died in hospital. The Germans herded the remainder of us back inside the camp, and assumed control of it. I was informed that the German authorities had excused themselves for opening fire without challenge on the grounds that we were understood to be provided with arms. Some officers had managed to break away but were rounded up later. I believe three or four officers made a complete get-away.

 

8. ESCAPE FROM CAMPO 19:

 

During the ensuing period I had got myself put down third on the list for escape by hanging on under the back axle of a ration cart which was entering and leaving the camp. My two predecessors, Lieut. THOMAS, R.A. and one other (name not known), were successful in getting out. The date for my own attempt was to be 11 Sep. On this date the Germans suddenly issued an order for the whole camp to be ready to move in one hour, and that only kit which could be carried was to be taken. At this stage I was offered a place in a "hiding-up" party, in a loft above one of the dormitories. We stocked the loft with water and food and got up to it by a 20 ft. ladder, made of sheets. We were a party of seven. The names were as follows:

 

1. Lieut. J. FERGUSON, R.C. Signals.

2. Capt. MacGOWAN, Indian Cavalry.

3. Capt. ANDERSON, Cheshire Regt.

4. Capt. BENNET, M.C., R.A.S.C.

5. Capt. P. SPOONER, Sikhs or Gurkhas, I.A.

6. Capt. FITZPATRICK or FITZSIMMONS, (Regt. not known).

7. Myself.

 

At 1430 hrs on 11 Sep we heard the German M/T driving out of the camp with our brother officers on board. I think there were about 60 officers in all hiding about the camp. German soldiers later came into the room below us, and we heard them ransacking our kits. We lay up until 0330 hrs on 13 Sep, when my own party - Lieut. FERGUSON (R.C. Signals), Capt. P. SPOONER, I.A., and myself - came down the sheet ladder and made our way to the rear of the camp carrying our escaping kit in bundles. All the lights were still on including those commanding the 10-ft. high wall, with barbed wire above, which we intended to climb. We managed to get up and over the wall with our kits, though we tore our hands and battle dress badly in doing so. We removed the bulb from the lamp in our immediate sector. We made our way round outside the wall and inside the perimeter barbed wire fence till we found the gap which had been cut opposite the East wall. We got through this gap and made across country for about three miles and a half. When we heard German voices on a railway bridge about 100 yards away, we hid up in some bushes. We found later that the voices came from German sentries mounted on the bridge.

 

We heard further voices at about 0900 hrs, and discovered that the other four officers, MacGOWAN, BENNETT, FITZPATRICK and ANDERSON had come out to the same bushes with the intention of hiding. They were already in civilian clothing. Two boys were with them who had supplied this. We remained where we were, and the same boys provided us with food and civilian clothes at about 1400 hrs.

 

At 2000 hrs on 13 Sep the other four officers left, and we decided to move at 2030 hrs. We did not see the others again. When we originally left our intention was merely to get clear of the camp and we now found we had reached CASALLECHIO (Europe Air Map 1:250,000, Sheet BOLOGNA).

 

We now moved in an Easterly direction for about five miles, where we obtained food from a house at midnight. We continued to a wood nearby, where we rested till 2000 hrs on Tuesday, 14 Sep. We then moved off, still proceeding East, but quite soon stopped at another house and asked for food, explaining we were British officers. The woman in the house suggested we should take the train from a station about two miles down the main road, as several Italian soldiers were making their way South. We proceeded to within 200 yards of the station. This was probably LAZZARO di SAVENA (Sheet BOLOGNA). I volunteered to go ahead and find out if there was a train going South. I discovered that the train was in and was about to leave. I went back and told the other two, but they were not prepared to take the risk of travelling by train, so I decided to leave them and proceed on my own.

 

I boarded the train at about 2330 hrs (14 Sep). It moved off at about midnight. Our route by train was RIMINI - ANCONA - PESCARA. About two hours before we reached PESCARA an Italian soldier shook me and asked me where I was making for. I had pretended to be asleep. I feigned to be deaf and dumb, but later the same Italian was more persistent and I could see that they took me for a German. I then made my identity known. They asked what I intended to do, and when I said I had thought of making my way to the VATICAN CITY, they said this would be madness, as ROME was completely surrounded by Germans.

 

We reached PESCARA at 1500 hrs (15 Sep). I could see Germans on the platform, and I and all the occupants of the carriage climbed out of the window, crossed the railway track and mingled with other Italian soldiers. We walked through PESCARA to ORTONA. Here we took a secondary train inland to CASTEL DI SANGRO (Europe Air Map 1:250,000, Sheet FOGGIA). Our purpose was to reach FOGGIA, as we were told by the natives that this had been occupied by the British. Owing to a misdirection we found ourselves in TORREMAGIORE (Sheet FOGGIA). We were then directed correctly to FOGGIA. I was now with two Italian ex-soldiers.

 

On reaching the N.W. side of FOGGIA, we found there was evidence of the place still being occupied by the Germans. We saw German telephone wires, tanks, A.A. guns, etc. We were spoken to three times by Germans. Oddly enough twice in English. They appeared to want us to think that they were English troops, but we were left in peace. We were now told that the English were in BARI, so we decided to make for there.

 

On reaching ORTA NOVA (Sheet FOGGIA) my two Italian companions decided things were too dangerous, owing to numbers of Germans being in the neighbourhood, and left me. In case I should be captured I gave them a slip with my name on it, and a note to the British authorities in BARI informing them that I was travelling South. As my feet were badly blistered and my boots had burst, I knew it would be impossible for me to walk any further that day. I saw an Italian and explained the position to him. He was sympathetic, and took me to his house, fed me, and gave me a bed. I had lost count of dates, but I believe that this was 23 Sep.

 

I stayed with him till 25 Sep, hiding outside in the bushes during the day and going into the house at night. On the evening of 25 Sep my host handed me over to one of his workmen, who took me to his house after dark, gave me food and a bed, and kept me until the morning of 26 Sep. He was a coffin maker and was prepared to hid me amongst the coffins in case of a search.

 

On the morning of 26 Sep, his wife came rushing into the room, shouting "The British are here!" I tried to restrain her, thinking it was a trap to draw out prisoners from the houses, but she flung open the door and shouted, "There's a British officer here." Crowds came into the house. I was embraced by men and women alike. I heard firing and was prepared to get away, but found it was merely excited Italians firing their pistols into the air. A lad brought in two loaded pistols and offered me one. Another lad soon appeared bringing a British Sergeant, and I was taken to the Headquarters of the Advance Recce. Unit of the 78th Division. From here I went to the 78th Division Headquarters, where I was interrogated by the Divisional Intelligence Officers.

 

On the morning of 27 Sep I was sent to Main Army Headquarters, where I was again interrogated. The same day I was sent by truck to No.1 P.O.W. Commission, TARANTO. Here I was equipped with small kit and clothing. I stayed the night, and on 28 Sep was sent to the Transit Camp just outside TARANTO.

 

I was here till Monday, 4 Oct, when I was evacuated to TARANTO Hospital suffering from myopia and bronchitis. Next day I was moved to CATANIA Hospital by air, and the following day to a hospital just outside ALGIERS. I flew in the plane of General BARTROM, U.S.A.C., and it was through his courtesy that my evacuation from TARANTO to ALGIERS was so prompt.

 

In ALGIERS I met Col. NOEL (KNOWLE ?), P.O.W. Commission, who arranged my transport by plane to the U.K.

 

My route was ALGIERS, RABAT (where I stayed one night), and GIBRALTAR. I left GIBRALTAR on 15 Oct and arrived in the U.K. at WHITCHURCH, (Bristol), on 16 Oct 43.

 

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