David Robillard escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy but was recaptured and accused by the Germans of being a spy. His son, Chris, has written a book about his father’s adventures entitled From Barry to Bari * Here, he kindly summarises David’s story for the Monte San Martino Trust.
My father, David Charles Robillard, who was born in 1919 in Torquay, Devon, joined the Devon Regiment in 1940. After training in Exeter, he was posted to Plymouth where he helped out at the fuel depot and drove ambulances at night during the Blitz. He was leaving for Norway on a boat from Southampton, to help the Allies, when the Germans invaded Norway and the expedition was cancelled.
Eventually he left Barry, in Glamorgan, for Egypt in early 1941, and was posted to Tobruk. He was captured in June 1942 together with 30,000 other Allied troops. He was captured while burning £30,000 in notes, which his CO had ordered him to destroy.
The prisoners were put in a compound for several days in the burning sun with little or no water. They were then put in the hold of a boat and shipped to Naples. From there they were taken to a prison camp at Lucca, in Tuscany, and in November 1942 to Sforzacosta, in the Marche, eastern Italy, in November. They were then moved again, to a work camp at Zevio, east of Verona.
David escaped with 20 others in July 1943. They split into groups of four, with David leading one of the groups. They embarked on a four-month trek towards the Yugoslavian border. En route they had several close encounters with the Germans. By now David had learnt Italian and was able to ask for food, etc.
Eventually in November, with the temperature at minus 10 degrees, they were taken in by a family named Ferrari , about 30 miles south of Verona, and hidden for the next 18 months. David worked on the farm and provided his services to the village as a butcher. His Italian became good enough to fool the Germans, to whom he talked on a regular basis. He stole food from The Germans and even helped a partisan group.
In April 1945, disaster struck and he was recaptured. He endured three days of interrogation from the Gestapo in Verona and was placed in a condemned cell where 12 out of 18 inmates were shot. The Germans were convinced David was a spy, but a miracle happened and he was saved from execution by a pre-war association with Devon!
David was then taken with other prisoners up to the Brenner Pass. He escaped again with the help of two Ghurkhas and reached the American lines on 7th May 1945. He returned to the UK from Bari.
My book is dedicated to two Italian women who risked their lives to help David’s group. David went back to Italy to meet the family on a couple of occasions. The book was written with the help of descendants of those brave women.
From Barry to Bari, by Chris Robillard, is for sale at £7.99, post-free. It can be ordered by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 01626 832070. Payment can be made via bank account or by cheque. A Kindle version is available at £4.99.