The following four chapters are taken from the memoirs of J. Keith Killby, who founded the Monte San Martino Trust in 1989. A conscientious objector, Keith asked to serve during the Second World War with the Medical Corps because it did not carry arms. He was captured near Tobruk in 1942 but was returned to Allied Lines after his ambulance unit had cared for wounded German soldiers. After the advance from El Alamein, he volunteered to be a parachutist and joined the SAS near the Suez Canal. These chapters tell of his experiences as a prisoner and escaper in Italy, which lay behind his motivation for eventually founding the Trust. Here, he takes up his story at the point of joining an SAS raid on Sardinia.
Sardinia Raid and Our Capture July 1943
Our objective was to make chaos in Sardinia while the main forces landed on Sicily. We were only told they were landing on the 10th somewhere. We were a party of five men and an officer to be landed on one side of the island. The others should join us when their jobs had been done.
In the other two submarines were sixteen men and four officers. Each party of six was to have a different airdrome which they were to raid on the night of 9th. I was in the small party and was told to prepare for anything – casualties of all kinds and malaria. Quinine was not plentiful and of course there had to be a fair distribution of all things that might be needed.
On the way through North Africa, one officer thought it would be useful to have in his party someone who could speak Italian and so an American man was added to his party who was half Italian.
On joining us he said that he could have been an officer if he had wanted. I knew that meant he wanted to be but could not, so his boasting went over badly with me. He also said that having done four months service in Africa he was entitled to home leave. We had had none in two or three years.
Why he was ever allowed to come I don’t know because he had never done any of our training. He did not know what it was like to carry all your supplies on your back over rough country at night.
A day or two before we were due to set off some of the men became ill. It was a strange disease that kept their temperature going up and down. The Naval doctors did not identify it, but they said that the men could not go. The day before we were due to go it was obvious that I had caught whatever it was. However, as I was Medical, I said I could look after myself and I was allowed to go.
The food on the submarine depot ship had been good enough, but when we actually sailed and soon submerged I shall never forget how appetising the dinner of roast lamb and peas looked. However with my fever I was only able to get some bread and butter and strawberry jam down with some cocoa made with as much milk and sugar as I liked.
We were submerged fourteen hours in each twenty-four and allowed up go up the conning tower for a few minutes each at night when we surfaced. Though there were only six extra men aboard, the crew noticed the greater lack of air during the end of the period of submersion and were quietened to inaction by it.
Whatever illness I had, probably malaria, never let up and my headache was spinning round my head and hitting itself. In spite of that I shall always remember the humour of a young cockney aboard. One day he and another fellow gave a description in lurid detail of their night ashore at some eastern port. We had to insist that they stopped as our laughter was using up too much air. But he was always cheerful even when we left the submarine. He said we would soon be in prison camp and he was just as cheerful when I saw him in prison camp six months later for the submarine was soon sunk, but he had presumably come to the surface as he always seemed capable of doing.
Once on board we discovered that our destination was to be Sardinia. I started to learn Italian from a grammar on board in between bouts of malaria. The officer thought I ought to stay on the submarine and go back to base, but the idea of staying there any longer with a head that seemed about to burst and so many hours with so little air frightened me more than anything else. Of course from one point of view the submarine has one great advantage, when it is submerged it was out of the influence of the waves.
One alarming part of the submarine was the lavatory. There was a very complicated system of things to pull and push at the right moment in the right sequence. One mistake and everything went the wrong way. I usually sought the help of a submariner.
Eventually, before darkness fell, we were shown the landing spot through the periscope. It was a little bay with one small house about a mile away. I remember little of the next journey in the rubber boat except that the others had to do all the work as I was too weak to paddle and I had to be dragged up the shore. The boats were deflated and hidden under rocks as soon as we landed.
Oleanda bushes with their wide open flowers in pink or white always bring back memories of those six days and nights. Hiding with a fever during daytime hours, I must have stared at them and through them. One day after we had moved from our first spot just off the beach, I was completely delirious. Water was terribly limited and I could not use all my quinine on myself even it were malaria. I wanted the others to dump me on the road and leave me. They could not do so without giving away that there were troops around. Fortunately for me we found a spring with fresh water.
On the fifth day one of the men recorded a temperature of 104. However the next day he was quite all right and I also really felt far better than I had since leaving Algiers and at lunch time had my first real meal for six days out of the many tins we had brought with us.
We remained well hidden under the bushes and had some of our clothes draped around to keep out of the sun. We had seen one old man hoeing in the distance. We thought we were set for a peaceful stay. Some of us were trying to read the odd selection of books we had gathered and others were having an afternoon nap.
Suddenly eight armed soldiers appeared on the horizon obviously searching the undergrowth. Our officer told me to say something to them as soon as they saw us. I tried “Noi siamo tedeschi”. meaning “We are German”. It didn’t work. We found out afterwards that they were actively looking for us and so were hundreds of troops in the near area, so it was not surprising that they did not believe that we were German. The American, landed on the other side, had given us all away.
It was quite obvious that we could not expect to fight it out and then hide there for another week or two for the others to come across the island to us and so the officer never tried to make a stand. Better to be taken and hope that the other men might make the rendezvous spot and pick up the submarine.
The Captain in charge of our captors was thrilled. He jumped about like a monkey on a stick and soon we realised with relief that he was meaning to only fire into the air. We were not allowed to take any of our kit though I insisted on taking the medical outfit. We had to walk about a mile or more over rugged ground and I felt weak after what I had now presumed was malaria. At least that is what I explained it was to the guards beside me so they carr
We were taken to a little shed near the picturesque house that we had seen in the evening light. There the captain became very excited and searched us and took what watches and fountain pens etc that he liked. Then a little trades van bumped down a rough path and a little fat colonel bulged out of it. He proceeded to take most the men aside and harangue them.
We had been given some wine but that hardly relieved our thirst. We sat there with the complete exhaustion which overwhelms one after a brief period of terrific strain. Some of us wondered what orders he was giving his men. Not far away was an oxen was peacefully chewing the cud. I envied his bovine calmness, compared to our dejection, anxiety and helplessness.
At last someone had the courage to tell me to ask if they were going to shoot us as Hitler had ordered for all SAS. The guard who had been left near us looked at me with surprise and then a twinkle in his eye ‘Shoot you? No shoot you, shoot him’ he replied pointing to the Captain who had taken our watches and pens to the disgust of most of his men.
That reply did more than anything else to revive us. We were finally put on a truck and had one of the most nightmarish journeys I have ever known. The details or order of events escape me now, but at one time we became bogged in a stream. One of our sergeants’ had to show the Italians how to yoke it to an ox to help get us out. I have vaguer memories of everybody except the Italians directing operations. We did eventually get going, careering along mountain roads through the night, sometimes perilously close to the deep drops into the valleys below.
We picked up other Italian soldiers and at one time had so many that nobody quite knew who was who and at another time we were left with one guard in the back. We were however, too weak and tired and bewildered and almost too fond of our captors to take advantage of them.
At one village we stopped and crowds began to gather and then to spit on us. Later experience showed that if one of them had given us something to eat all the others might have done the same. I pointed the name of the village to the others in case they could escape, but the next village seemed to be also called “Vinceremo”. And then I remembered Julius Caesar who came and saw and conquered. Veni Vidi Vinci. Vinceremo was simply a fascist slogan.
We were given food at a Carabineri station and then just as we were about to lay on the floor and sleep we were moved on. The food was of course macaroni and two of us were given a canteen full between us. Though we thought that we were much hungrier than that, we could not get through more than half. Later in captivity we could compete with the Italians in consumption.
We were then put in cells in another Carabineri station which appeared to be where the army H.Q. was. We were interrogated individually across a table where lay a revolver and handcuffs. They told me I was a spy and therefore could be shot. I stood up and banged the table saying we were POW’s and that I had assisted wounded German soldiers whilst Rommel was present.
I sensed the lower ranks enjoyed this spectacle as their Officers could only respond with “Calma, Calma.” However they kept us without food and water for 24 hours.
Among the food we had brought with us was some pretty filthy looking dried mutton. I had put some of this in a paper bag in one of my pockets. Fortunately the bag had broken and I kept on finding little bits stuck in creases that I could chew on.
By the time evening came and we could sleep no longer on the bare boards I told the other fellow who was in my cell I was going to have an attempt to get something out of our captors.
I kicked up such a fuss that a little officer appeared who had been in on the interrogating and I was taken out before him and the other colonel who had apparently just come back.
Quite what languages or gesticulations I used I’m not sure but I told them that I, who wore a Red Cross and my fellow soldiers, were prisoners of war and could not be treated this way. I said that there were heavy penalties for ill treating prisoners and that it was quite obvious that they would soon have to pay for their crimes. There was certainly no “piano” about the performance and I rather suspect that it had no real effect – except to make me feel much better.
Shortly after I returned to my cell I and my companion were taken into a yard for exercise. We were not allowed to touch the tap to get water, but just as I had soaked up a pool of water with my handkerchief and begun to suck it we were taken inside to have a good meal.
A couple of days later we were off again and were joined by one or two of the others who had been captured. This time we were in a big town which turned out to be Sassari and so we had virtually covered the whole length of the island.
At first we were greeted with stony stares, especially from the two old hags who had to give us meals in their kitchen of the Carabineri. But in a day or two things were different. When we were allowed out of our cells for air we began to chop wood to keep ourselves fit. Then we were allowed out longer and we could learn more Italian.
I could understand only a little of the news I heard from the radio on the other side of the room -but it was enough to gather that large Allied forces had landed on Sicily. Our job had been done as a German division had been kept in Sardinia. One guard lent me a book and the old hags in the end were feeding us far better than the Carabineri.
But our Indian summer was short lived. The Fascist Mayor interrogated me. He asked why we had money. Was it to buy civilian clothes? My money had been taken as soon as I was captured. One fellow had still got most of his and divided it out among us. I managed to slip a five dollar bill into a hole in the lining of my beret. My interrogator boasted of the thousands of Allied troops that had been captured. I worked out the number of days since we had landed and thought how clever we had been to land that number of men.
Shortly after lunch, the day after I had seen the Fascist, I was taken out of the cell and driven off through the town. The huge building to which I was taken turned out to be the local prison. I was stripped and every bit of clothing was searched and my watch taken from me and my belt, so that escape, if possible, should not at least be dignified. As they turned my beret inside out I could hear the new five dollar bill, crackling. As soon as I got to my cell I manoeuvred it out again and soaked it in water.
I was put into Solitary Confinement. It was at least clean and there was a metal bed frame with cloth case filled with straw and blanket. Sleep was possible and how welcome. For food there was a bowl of beans at midday and two large and extremely coarse rolls.
When I was not extremely hungry I used to squeeze the bugs out of the beans as I picked them out of the dirty water. Fingers and bowl were all the utensils we were allowed, though there was a pitcher of water in the cell.
Except for the ringing of church bells for different services, the sun on the wall was the only way of telling the time . Quite near I could hear children continually crying. In the end I realised I must be near the married quarters of the wardens as I felt that any children of theirs would be crying with their parents looking so miserable.
Each morning and evening the warders came in to tap the bars to see if I had been trying to escape. They were furious with me for not getting out of bed and standing up when they came in, but after several attempts and a blank ‘non capito’ from me they gave it up.
One day I had an attack of malaria. Not for twenty four hours and then only by hammering on the door with my boot and yelling ‘L’officio’ did an officer appear. He said I could not see the officer in charge but he would see if I could have my own medicine which I had brought with me and something hot to drink. The officer in charge was I think the one I actually saw, anyway I was allowed my anti malaria tablets and something hot to drink – it was the water off the beans.
Each day there were ten minutes of exercise in what appeared to be a replica of the cages at the bottom of the Mappin Terrace at the London Zoo, except that you could not see as far. I did however see two convicts – fellow convicts I suppose – doing what I thought was weeding, but then realised that their weeding served a dual purpose as they carefully removed the lower parts of the roots. This explained the occasional green vegetable floating in the bean soup that was gritty with sand.
After a day or two I was too weak to take exercise and thankfully sat down in the sun. Those first days were the worst of any that I spent during the war. So often what must have seemed
appalling conditions and situations never seemed to worry you much there were always others in the same boat. In solitary confinement there was nothing and no one to take your mind from wandering back to life you had known, to the desperate and repeating question “When will it end?”
After a few days there was an air raid warning and then the welcome sound of our own planes. It momentarily broke the isolation for slowly from what were as far as I could judge, different directions, came the low whistling of an English tune. There were other sharing my life with me!
I had one vivid dream, while feverish with malaria, of being brought the one thing I most crave when I am ill – bread and milk. The memory of that dream remains vivid too because the contrast of my circumstances on waking, etched it on my mind.
At last one small plan to break the monotony worked. My continuous demand for “papier pour la vasa” in the corner, should have aroused the fear that I would burn my way out if nothing else. No printed paper was apparently allowed in and then I got a few old bill heads and I was able to learn how to say ‘to the account of’’ in Italian. At last by mistake I was given a sheet of an old Italian magazine.
On one side there was a part of a romance and on the other, and I can still see his sickly smile above a rather middle aged figure, the life story of a guitar player. Whenever any captor was close that piece of paper disappeared into my mattress, but I rationed myself out to read that piece of paper so many times before the ‘meal’ and so many times after and each time I was able to understand one or two more words.
On the second Sunday I was on my way to the ‘cage’ when the weekly portion of meat was coming round. I was handed mine on a piece of newspaper which gave news of the fighting in Sicily. It was quite easy to read between the lines to see how well things were going for the allies.
Then after nearly two weeks the warders bounced in to tap my bars as usual and unusually said cheerfully “Buono journo Buon journo”. So I replied appropriately, with considerable surprise, and if my Italian had been more fluent I would have asked them what had bitten them.
Two days later we were to know, for one evening I was taken out of my cell and taken to an office where I found others of our men also waiting. Our watches and other possessions were given back to us meticulously.
The Italians and Germans never attempted to take my watch, which was a favourite trick of all troops on all sides when they captured anyone. In actual fact my captors had every right to my watch as it was army issue that lasted some thirty years.
We were put into trucks and while waiting to move off we saw our friend the Fascist, without his badge, being most polite to the army. Then we got back to the village H.Q. and one of the little colonels who had interrogated us poked his face in and with a beaming smile told us we were now Prisoners of War. The exact significance of that remark escaped us until a few minutes later a young guard seeing that we were rather mystified could not keep it quite any longer and whispered ‘Mussolini caput’.
We were taken to a camp that had recently been evacuated by Yugoslav prisoners of war. We found remains of their Red Cross parcels, but of course there were none for us. Food was very short and one or two of the Italians, knowing we could see it, delighted in giving their left over macaroni to the pig.
I was fortunate to find the remains of some notebooks in which I used to write to pass the time. I also found some notes that one Yugoslav had taken to learn German and Italian. I was able to learn a great deal from them. I also learnt quite a bit of Italian from the guards. The American-Italian in our team, who was also a prisoner, refused to help much.
We began slowly to piece things together. On the other submarine many had malaria and so only two parties were landed and the others taken back to Algiers. On their return they found that half the camp in Bone had gone down with malaria. Those of the two parties which returned but who were not ill, were formed into a group and were then dropped by parachute.
The two parties from the submarine had set out for their respective aerodromes, but on the first night the American-Italian had, not surprisingly, been unable to stand the pace and had fallen out. Some others had dropped out because of malaria. Some died from it, fearful of showing themselves in a search for water and so giving the others away.
Those from the submarine were unable to make successful raids on their airdromes as those who reached them found them very heavily guarded. Those who were dropped by parachute however made a successful raid but were picked up near where they were hoped to find us.
We were soon able to see what had happened. The American- Italian on being captured first, had confessed all. I can never feel sorry for him, though I can see now that he should never have been asked to join us, for all in the unit were volunteers who had been very carefully thinned out. I often wonder whether he returned to the country of his adoption or permanently hid himself away in the Italian countryside when the opportunity arose later.
Though most of the others had been in various prisons, I had been the first into solitary confinement, presumably because I had been able to speak a little of the lingo. The Sergeant with us apparently had been interrogated several times though after some of his answer they no doubt got discouraged by ‘these British’.
He was asked what we had done with our parachutes when we landed and though he could see that they obviously knew we had landed by boat he had told them that we never used them, we just came down without them. Then they were convinced that we had a code in one of the peculiar old books we had with us. The sergeant becoming a little tired of their questioning thought it was easier to say yes that was the truth. Which book? ”N’N’N’No Orchids for Miss Blandish ”, stammered the sergeant, apparently rather fearful of the information he had given.
We often wondered if they managed to find the copy and how they enjoyed it if they did. “No Orchids for Miss Blandish” did the round of the troops as it was mildly erotic for those days.
After a further two weeks there we set off on another journey – and saw most of the arid unfertile and fierce looking island before we left. Here our trip was made mostly on a delightful miniature railway. When the train had come there was not an empty carriage so everyone was turned out of the smallest carriage – which was first class. The passengers protested vigorously as only Italians can and they resigned themselves to spending the rest of the journey in the corridor or in the lavatory. However, they were soon on good terms with us and I was able to inform them that we were hungry with good effect.
In one village we stopped for the night there was nearly a battle between our guards and the villagers. The guards kept the villagers at some distance from the house in which we had been put up. The villagers crowded as near as they could. One ragazzo threw us an apple and then things really started. The guards gave in and we were far from hungry that night. In fact, that evening I believe not only the guards, but some of our men, found there was back way out of the house. When we went down to the station next day a woman brought 20 rolls and 20 little patties which she had made for the twenty of us. Her husband was being held as a P.O.W. in England. The station master gave us bottles of wine.
Move to Mainland Italy and Escape
Our journey took us to a naval base on the north east of island of Maddelena. There were two little rooms for the twenty of us inside the barracks. Two army guards stayed with us, but we sometimes had to wake them. I was looking after them and insisted with the medical officers that their malaria was too bad for them to be on duty.
The window of the room I was in overlooked a busy path. Within a day or two, though cigarettes were short, I had gathered in through the window over 200 cigarettes and food of a very mixed selection and for myself a booklet on the conjugation of Italian verbs.
The Italian Navy showed that it had learnt something from the British Navy for it treated us as guests and it was the prisoners who were given second helpings first. Just before we left two officers had tried to escape in a boat. They had not succeeded and so when we were taken to the harbour a strong guard lined the route. Many of the faces seemed familiar and one of my best friends I had met through the bars gave me a hearty wink.
We did not know at the time that Mussolini was on Madelena at Villa Weber but we saw the white plane that the Guard told us was carrying Mussollini to the Gran Sasso.
Skorzini was later to get Mussollini off the Gran Sasso which enabled him to set up a puppet state which led to civil war in Italy.
We sailed across to the mainland to a small port south of Naples. We could see the plume of Vesuvius and what we were told was Capri.
Before we landed, civilians around the landing place seemed to be moved away and we thought that perhaps they were hostile to us, but as we drove out of the harbour area we were given a cheer. Later we stopped at a village market while the driver asked the way. I made signs at the villagers that we would not mind some of the melons that were piled up for sale. But a stony stare greeted my gestured and in halting Italian I said that we were Inglesi. The truck started off under a shower of melons. And so it continued through most of our journey. Perhaps it was that we were considered an advance guard of the liberators, but we were certainly popular.
A prisoner of war, after recovering from the first shock, has one preoccupation – food. Until he is in a proper camp he never knows when, where or how much he is going to eat and therefore he eats whatever he can get hold of. Or rather gets hold of whatever he can whether he is hungry at the time or not, in the hope that perhaps his digestive system will emulate that of a camel. After a time and in a permanent camp with food parcels each week, he becomes accustomed to the supply available and some plates of doubtful Italian food will be left almost untouched. But it takes some three or four months before that happy stage is reached.
As we were whisked through Rome we had fleeting glances of its past splendour. Up to then the journey had been interesting, but the train journey from Rome across to Pescara and then up the Adriatic coast on a summer evening will forever bring back one of those moments in life when something of which you had expected much, still far exceeds your wildest expectations. Up to then, of all the places that I had seen which had been claimed as beautiful only one had come up to what I had hoped – Loch Lomond.
Painters and poets have described in their own way Italy’s beauty, but their efforts while perhaps beautiful in themselves have failed to catch the reality. There is neither the forbidding grandeur of Scotland nor the homely prettiness of Kent. I felt and saw an ageless indifference to mankind which has lived, loved and fought across its panorama through countless time.
Finally we arrived at a proper Prisoner of War Camp. There were many long time prisoners there and we were greeted with a cup of tea and also issued with new clothing where needed. The Sergeant Major was given a new pair of army boots and only with the greatest difficulty was he allowed to keep his old ones ‘while he broke in the new ones’ but in actual fact had time to get the gold coins out of the heels where he had put them.
We gathered more news in the camp. However the Italian newspapers I had already read on the journey told me things were not going too badly. Some said that the news came through a wireless in the hospital and others from the little Italian priest who came in every day and had a cup of tea after wood had appeared from the folds of his robe with which to boil the water.
Fuel was always the problem and so as to make full use of what little there was nearly everyone owned or shared a ‘blowere’. These cooking contraptions made with old tins were of the most haphazard nature. Some were small and some were very large.
Making them all was no silent matter and at times caused the greatest arguments as someone started to do the essential flattening out process to a tin which was known as tin bashing, when others wanted to sleep. However, they were essential to life. The Italians allowed us very little wood and often cardboard and paper from old parcels were all we had. All tins of food had to be opened or punctured before being given to us and no knives or anything with a cutting surface was allowed, which made it difficult to cut the bread.
There is a story that in one camp the Italians suddenly realised that a telegraph wire went over the camp and that a pole supporting it was actually in the camp. Knowing their English prisoners this had to be removed. The wires were duly detached and the pole was partially dug up when lunch time interrupted work. When they returned the pole had gone and was never found again . There was a good supply of wood for some time.
In another camp the Italians missed many tools and did not find them on their searches so they had the local fire engine and team in to go down the well as it was thought the tools must be there. They were not nor were there any on the fire engine when it went out.
After about three weeks in this camp we heard the villagers making a great deal of noise and dancing till very late. Rumours were flying. Then we heard that there had been an Armistice. The Italians were out of the war.
On those sort of occasions it is my stomach that feels things and then the feeling begins to ricochet round your body. Excitedly we all moved on to the playing field which was usually only used by a few prisoners at a time. Everyone appeared drunk though none were. The playing field became extremely dangerous as cricket, baseball, soccer and rugger were all played at the same time across and around each other.
As I walked back into the camp exhausted by exhilaration more than exercise I saw on the hillside an ox ploughing. I remembered how I had envied the ox that sat chewing the cud just after we were captured, for his indifference to our life and his inability to feel the utter dejection we felt then. This time I had less envy for the ox.
All that day we argued with the Italians. We wanted to get away but they insisted that we should stay and that they in any case would look after us. We had our doubts about that. Orders had been secretly sent through to all camps that prisoners should remain until Allied Troops reached the camp. So many camps were thuss complete by the Germans.
By evening we had broken holes into the walls and some had tried to get away and had shots fired over their heads. One Italian Sergeant Major came in and discussed the situation with us and in an extremely friendly but highly excited tirade told us not to get excited. Never have I felt so like a phlegmatic Englishman. The SAS though newly arrived, took the initiative just before dark began to go out.
We could hear from the camp that orders to say all could go and orders were given in the most emphatic and precise terms to the guards that they were not to fire. They didn’t. They joined us in leaving the camp.
Without maps, compasses, but with full packs we tramped off in our small groups. We had little idea where we went or how far. After several hours, more and more dropped out quite, unaccustomed to the exercise.
I found three – two American and one British fellow and walked with them before falling asleep shortly before day light came. When we woke we realised we needed water. The question we needed to answer was ‘What sort of reception would we get from the Italians?’
Knowing some of the lingo I was sent to find how the land lay. I managed to make some rather frightened peasants understand what I wanted but it was sometime before I understood that all I had got to do was to walk down a path to a spring. That done I was about to return to the others, when I was loudly greeted by an Italian soldier in uniform. I was wary until he turned out to be one of the camp guards and insisted on taking me back to his home. His mother, no doubt thinking that I was pretty washed out after a sleepless night, would not le me go until I had drunk a raw egg and wine. It picked me up, not the effect I had expected.
When I returned we lit a fire, made tea and had a welcome breakfast. The morning sun warmed us and we soaked in the beauty of this strange freedom as we waited for the advancing Allies. Straight ahead was a valley and across the river, our camp. To the left was a ravine and then soaring up above us the hill we had seen from the camp. Like many Italian hills it had a village perched on top. To us it had represented, in our walled captivity, a Walt Disney Castle.
We dozed in the sun. At noon we saw in the valley below us a woman come out of her house from. She was carrying on her head, something heavy, and we watched as she waded through the river in her bare feet and came slowly up the hillside toward us. She had brought our midday meal!
From then on and for two weeks though we moved our sleeping quarters from one barn to another in case we were given away in the night, we never bothered about food only wondering from which direction it would come. I asked one woman the Italian for bandage and when she told me it was “fascia” I said I did not want to learn that as it sounded to close to Fascism. ( She repeated the story twenty years later)
Once or twice we had the embarrassing task of eating a meal in front of our kind patrons having just finished another given by others. The only thing we could give in exchange was soap and that soon ran out.
Two days after our escape I had gone back to the empty camp to see what was left. I brought away some great coats, which I sold to a peasant, for while we did not need money then we never knew when we might.
I found and rather pessimistically took with me a German Grammar. After two weeks we decided that as the Allies had not swept up the country as was expected we ought to make our way down to them.
We had a map of the southern half of Italy torn out of some old railway timetable. It did however mark the rivers, which of course being difficult to cross were more important for us to know about. We aimed at doing about 25 kilometres each day not as the crow flies but according to our feet and in that country which like a crumpled piece of paper was far more than the crow flies.
My diary gives endless details of the people we stayed with and the food they gave us. Never once did we want for food or shelter at night. Sometimes it was in a barn – but often the best family bed was evacuated for us. Except for keeping the peace between the English man and one of the Americans when they would argue over why one of them called braces suspenders and suspenders braces etc we had no internal troubles. However at one village we lost the Englishman. He said he was ill, but that we were to go on. We had noticed the very pretty girl he had met the night before. We went on.
We always set off as soon as it was light in order to make as much ground in the cool of the day and then stop for breakfast about nine or ten. Once we had stopped however we sometimes found it difficult to move on as the nearest family would insist that they kill a chicken and we stay for the midday meal.
Another difficulty was that while one of my companions liked wine he usually refused it knowing that once he started he drank too much. The other did not drink at all. Even though I had become a de-facto leader as a consequence of my training, I too, accepted too much wine and like my Cypriot days, found our path after lunch was more winding that it should have been.
Using roads was of course out of the question and we avoided all large towns or villages. We did not want to meet any Germans, but we also feared meeting fascists. We knew how some Italians could be as cruel as a child with an animal or insect it had got at its mercy. To cross a road we climbed through culverts. Once when one was not available and we had thought all was cleared we ended up head down in a heap rather like ostriches hoping that the rest of our bodies could not be seen.
There came a day when we realised that there was both an important road and river ahead of us to be crossed. We hid that night with some Italians. We left early with warnings from our hosts that many Germans were using the road to reinforce their troops in a fight against some Italians in the hills above Ascoli.
We were urged to go and join them, but we had decided to try and reach our own lines and continued our way. We followed an almost dry tributary of the main river until we were near the main river and the road. It was raining and we found shelter in with some poor farmers in a little house on the banks of the river. We could hear the battle in the hills. But we felt reasonably safe.
The peasants were getting a meal ready for us, when suddenly the house shook and stones fell from the walls. The Italians went screaming from the house followed by two very white faced Americans. It took a while before I could move and then I realised that we had experienced an earthquake. Damage however was very slight.
When the rain stopped we moved on with desperate warnings to avoid the road. We decided to keep going down the river bed and only having gone a short way we came round a bend and saw the a small road bridge spanning the dry river bed. We watched for sometime and saw no Germans.
We made our way along the side of the banks always making sure that there was not much distance between us and a bush into which to dive. It felt very much like the tension of playing musical chairs. We got under the road without incident, but now before us was the main river and between it more bare river bed. To our left was a high bridge over the main river. It was too dangerous for us to use that as there was no hedge to get into should the Germans appear and they could not fail to realise who we were as we were still in uniform. Why we remained in uniform instead of getting into civilian clothes, which we could do as escaped prisoners I do not know. I think we had some odd idea of making it in uniform.
When we had seen that there was no other way but to wade or swim the river and still had not seen any Germans we decided to attempt it. We made a hurried journey to the rivers edge and then began to plan our way across, before however we had reached the water Italian children quickly followed by their parents seemed to appear from nowhere. If a German lorry had passed it was all over. Good luck held and we waded across following two other men who appeared further down the river. POW’s we thought, but they turned out to be two Italians also ‘on the run’.
So we made our journey marvelling at the hospitality and kindness we found. We were struck by the steadfastness of the Italian peasant as he scraped his thin soil on precipitous hill sides beneath stone buildings perched precariously above. Sometimes we helped with a little farm work. We met British or American men with their feet dyed with wine juice. They had stamped on grapes from the harvest.
We could pick grapes as we went, tomatoes too and often we waited for the bread to come out of the primitive but most effective oven to take with us on the journey for the day. We made knapsacks out of old shirts by sewing up the shirt tails and the sleeves to the bottom corners of the shirt and so putting our arms in the loops. This formed an excellent knapsack with the neck of the shirt as the opening in which we put our few belongings.
My belongings included the German book and two notebooks which I had made out of old ones found in the camp in Sardinia. In one I kept a form of diary and in the other was the beginning (and the end for it never has nor ever will see the light of day, a novel, but it served its purpose as it certainly passed the time of day when needed. Then of course there was the spare pair of socks a small towel and a bar of soap.
The rivers and fast flowing mountain streams that we negotiated by jumping from rock to rock, also had their other uses, though we were at times uncertain as to their privacy as bathrooms.
We stayed close to the hilly sides of the Gran Sasso rather than risk the narrow plain that divided it from the sea. With some trepidation we allowed an Italian to lead us to find some other POWs that he said were hidden in the high forest. It was the only other day that it rained. We found them and they were friends, not a trap as we had thought possible.
There were four of them and they had decided to live up there with the help of the villagers who brought them food each day until our troops got up that far. We decided to keep moving and one evening came towards a village on the mountain side. We saw on the road at the bottom of the village the snakelike procession of army vehicles on the move. They were German and going north.
As though fascinated by the sight we moved as close as we could among the trees above the road. Were they in full retreat or just withdrawing some units? We could not tell. It was impossible to go into the village so we climbed up the hillside and made our way forward but night was falling and mist was shrouding the treeless landscape. We could not sleep on the bare mountain side with only the one small blanket which each of us carried. So we had to make our way back on the road which obviously led to the village again.
We made our way carefully and tentatively past the few houses that climbed highest up the mountainside below we could hear the German lorries still moving through the village at the bottom. A small boy told us to wait and he would see if we could stay somewhere. He soon came back and we were taken to a little house were two women were hurriedly dressing before making us macaroni and vegetables.
We satisfied an extra large appetite from the lateness of the hour and the mountain air. The two old women went out and cleared the floor of their little store so we could sleep there. We found that there were also some of fellows there as regular inhabitants of the village.
It was clear that we were getting nearer the front line and certainly the Italians became more and more excited in their warnings about being careful because of the Germans. We saw them often while waiting to cross a road, but that was all. Early on we had realised that when an Italian yelled to us from a hilltop making signs with both hands as though repulsing us, he was most probably shouting Veni Veni. Come, Come, The sign he was making though completely opposite to our own was really a beckon and he wanted us to have a drink.
This difference in body language and their excitable nature often made it more difficult for us The problem of language was often compounded by strong dialect.
We came down from the hills or rather from the mountain into the hills. The slope was steep and twice we had to cross a road on which there was quite a bit of German traffic. It was a tricky business gauging whether we could make the open bit of country and get into cover on the other side while a German car might be around a bend. We made it and went on down the valley.
Towards evening we walked towards a farm but were immediately chased away with a lot of shouting, but told quietly to hide in a tiny shed until it was dark. This we did and we were then called up to the house. A most colossal meal that included pork chops was waiting for us.
The farmers had decided it was best to eat the pigs themselves rather than have them taken away by the Germans for their own consumption. Unfortunately one of the Americans had stomach problems and so could not appreciate the chops but had eggs specially cooked for him.
During the meal the children of the family had been posted around the house to give warning if the Germans came near. As soon as we had finished we went to the shed and slept. Next day we set off early as usual. We met one Italian who was very excited about the Germans being near but we were used to that and anyway either I had dined too well the night before and my slight knowledge of Italian was not coming through too well or he was more incoherent than an excited Italian usually is but we never found out where the Germans were.
Recaptured and Another Escape
We decided to move on. We believed we could hear a road before we reached it. Coming out from some bushes I saw sitting on a hillock a man. I thought he was most probably one of our fellows like so many had been we had passed. When I was about a hundred yards from him he swung around with a gun and a torrent of German followed. I put my hands up very quickly, whilst grabbing my Red Cross arm band from a pocket. As though speaking to him in German, I yelled at the others to stay in the bushes but they decided to come out.
The next thing was to calm the German before something went off. As soon as I was able to say a word or two in German and tell him to speak more slowly so that we might understand things began to improve.
He came down and inspected our kit. With a little persuasion we were allowed to keep everything. Having brought some other men by his shouts he sent us off with three of them. We crossed a river and climbed up the other side. I took great care to explain that I was a ‘ medical orderly and that the other two were sick – one certainly was still feeling far from good, but the other once cured before we had set off stood the pace very well.
I also told the two Americans what we had been told by an American expert on such matters just before we went to Sardinia, namely that the best time to escape was just after capture and rather than use elaborate plans the opportunity snatched was far more likely to come off and if anyone saw an opportunity to take it and not wait for the others.
We were taken into a village which was obviously near the front line for there were many Germans occupying it. At a makeshift H.Q I put my case that we should have special treatment being a ‘sanitator’ and two sick men. Their questions were more out of interest rather than in the hope of finding any information of military importance once they found how long ago we had been on our own side. They could not understand why we were still in uniform.
We were taken across the village just as it was getting dark. The Germans led the way into a house and as two Americans followed I dodged a few paces sideways and was about to run down a side street. But I quickly realised it was foolish as they would know I was missing in half a minute and immediately have the garrison looking for me. The Americans had thought I had gone.
We were taken upstairs into a room where there were four beds. There were three German medical corps men and two mattresses were found for the Americans . We asked for the lavatory and I and one American went to it on a half landing. The window was too small but on the half landing there was also a French window. I opened that slightly and we went back, wondering whether we might use it later.
We were well fed, but as I was busy talking to the Germans I made eyes at a cold pork chop remaining in a canteen. I thought it would be best to stock up. The Germans, presumably because they could not leave us, had a good stock of wine and I did nothing to discourage them from enjoying it. Later in the evening an Italian came in who had been to Canada. He talked to us for a bit and continuously emphasised that these were good Germans. I never knew whether he was dropping any hints and did not like to ask him direct question. Finally we three went to bed.
The two Americans were on the mattresses and I was on one of the beds between two Germans. I told them if they thought there was a chance in the night to take it. I woke at midnight. Bright moonlight was streaming in through the window and the room was filled with German snores.
In my jacket was everything that I considered essential including my two notebooks and a very small apple, the only portable food available. I put my feet into my boots and slipped my jacket on. The German word for lavatory would have come out with a bark if anyone had said anything.
I made my way to the door which was just open and through which a streak of light shone. The door had to be lifted and even then it creaked. Across the landing was another room with the door open and a light on. The stairs creaked as I slid almost to the half landing. The French window had been shut, but it opened and there was a balcony. I climbed through the window then swung myself to another balcony and dropped to the ground.
By good luck the house was on the edge of the village and I quickly left the village behind walking down into a valley. For about two hours I walked south. Before dawn I had found a barn in which to hide and made a hole in the bales of hay so that I could lie there should they start searching for me. I had also made the hole at the back of the barn so that I could see out of it and so that air could come in through the wall. There was however still time before sunrise and so seeing another barn across a gully I thought I would go there in the hope of finding some food if only apples. Even though I had eaten very well in the previous thirty six hours, I did not know how long the one small apple I had would have to last.
Then I saw something silhouetted against the skyline. It was a gun of some sort. The possibility of a few apples was not worth it. I went back and went to sleep. When I awoke it was full daylight and across the little valley I could see my gun. It was a plough.
I waited there until about 4 o’clock but saw no sign of life at all. Finally up the hill plodded a little elderly Italian man carrying a huge umbrella. The umbrella is not an uncommon sight in the Italian countryside, but I always remember that one. I went to the front of the barn and just as he was passing I made a sort of shish cluck clucking noise which I suppose must have frightened him very much. However he recovered and told me I ought to go up the hill to where his son lived as he spoke English. I said it was not safe to go out into the open but the old man reassured me so I climbed the hill and found the son with two other Italians.
This time I was not going to try and be clever and so I asked for civilian clothes. They told me to go back to the barn and come up to the house at dusk. This I did and found some old clothes prepared for me. They scarcely fitted. Sadly only the British Army could ever find boots to fit, so I kept my old ones’,
I had a good meal and slept in the barn beside the house. They had killed the last of the chickens as the Germans were taking them all. The next day I went and hid in the woods on the hillside. Not far from me was the last pig. This I feared would not know when to keep quiet. The grandmother brought me food at midday. I slept fitfully not only because of the pig but also because malaria was attacking me again.
The next day I found a new hiding place under a huge piece of overhanging rock. Thankfully the pig had been killed the night before as dead it was easier to hide. Whilst in my semi-cave I heard people running, then some shouting in German that culminated in a very heated conversation, seemingly directly above me on my rock. I was hoping that I looked as small as I was trying to be.
After further scuffling the Germans went further down the wood where they had heard some other noises. I heard one of them say “Och nur ien Eisel”, in disgust as they had discovered a donkey and not the supper they had been hoping for. Silence returned. My lunch was late that day and in the end was brought down the hill by the old grandmother. ‘It was not safe for the others to come’. She said.
My malaria was still causing fevers and I worried about my family.As I had only been able to write once, when in the POW camp before the armistice, that they had no idea of what had happened to me. The sooner I got to our lines the better.
Years later, I learnt that while they had not heard from me for very many weeks, my first letter dated 14th July ,from prison camp, had arrived ten days after they heard officially that I was listed missing from 1st July. They argued with the War Office that the letter was proof that I could not be missing from that date. It helped to assuage their anxiety.
That letter I had left with a friend in Algiers to post. It had the desired effect though I never meant to confuse anybody or upset the War Office. Unfortunately in telling my family that ‘with Commandos it was very difficult to get definite news’ they became more flustered. I was in the Medical Corps, not a Commando! The War Office did not help – they could not explain what the S.A.S. was, or the difference between Pct or Pte.
Even if I had known my family were not frantic with worry I doubt I would have been content to sit and wait for the Allies to advance around me, though I think it would have only meant a week or two.
I thought I should remove the untidy walrus moustache that I had grown for the second time and which would give me away if I were captured again. It had never been very successful, as one side was always more luxurious than the other. I was given a cut throat razor which I used for the first time in my life. It removed what was a considerable growth.
Early one morning I set off in what they had said was the direction of the front line. Two Italians I sought direction from warned me as usual to be very careful. “Three British soldiers were captured near here the other day”. I did not say that I already knew.
Certainly I was far less conspicuous but there were now many more of the enemy about. The jacket was certainly very old and the trousers had very long before been some bank clerks best black stripe and not too thick at that. I carried a napkin with food.
Hidden in my shirt was my Commando beret and somehow I had kept with me my two notebooks. When crossing one field I had to lie down very quickly, much to the surprise of an Italian working in the field. However when he too saw the German walking along the road, he understood and went on with his work.
I crossed a road and then found a military telephone line stretching across the grass in the direction of a distant hill. I lay down and rested as the malaria had left me weak. I could hear three guns firing. Then I could hear only two. The one in the middle was obviously the place to aim for. But soon night began to fall. I found the gun site and empty shell cases.
For the first time and not entirely surprisingly, I was turned away from a house, but only because of their terror at the thought of hiding an Englishman. It was now very dark. I could hear children crying and I made for the spot where the noise came from. I found a house that was not much more than a barn.
Living here were the poorest people that I stayed with, but there was never any hesitancy in telling me that I could stay and share with them the potatoes and pears that they were just cooking and which was all they had. I slept in the straw in the loft with the children curled up around me. There was an abundance of fleas in the straw.
As the sky began to lighten I moved off. Hopefully our troops were across the river. I found a gully leading down to the river and began going from rock to rock, slowly making my way down, but it was very exhausting work and I was feeling weaker and weaker. I decided to try the softer descent by the hillside. As I came out of the gully on to the hill I ran into a small patrol of Germans just waking up.
A Prisoner Once More
They I think, were more surprised than I was. When they shouted at me, I looked most surprised and when they pointed to my napkin I merely said as very stupidly as possible ‘Pane’ which was quite true as it only contained bread. As they led me off I tried hard to look like a stupid Italian who did not really know there was a war on. They took me along a path which crossed the gully I should have descended, to an Officer. He merely looked down at my boots and said ‘British oder American?’ The game was up and I did not really care as I was too tired.
I went to sleep on the hillside where German soldiers were resting in a small house. They gave me food and later I went outside and sat beside some Germans talking to two Italians who were apparently cooking for the Germans. Soon the Germans went back to the house a few yards away. I began to talk quietly to the Italian and was getting the lie of the land nicely when the officer shot out and shouted at the German soldiers for letting me talk to the Italians. I went back to the house and lay there shaking with my fever.
That night they were to withdraw from the frontline. I was feeling very weak and could not walk at their pace so they commandeered a donkey which was patient even with my weight, but whose thin skeleton was not a comfortable seat.
Finally we stopped at a house and I was put into a bare room with only a mattress.The door was locked. Perhaps they had heard that POW’s disappear. Next morning a party of about six of us set off – that is to say certainly five Germans and myself. We walked through the heat of the day until it was time for a meal. I had seen some likely spots where I might be able to lie up if I got the chance. The corporal in charge stopped at a farm house and ordered meals for us all. I ate with them and tried to apologise to the Italian, but he seemed to be glad that at least one enemy of the Germans was being fed as well as them.
Next day they were going and so was I. At least it was by truck. There were about a dozen German soldiers and myself. Presumably I looked a comic sight in the old civilian jacket, my beret and old black trousers, which by then had to be shielded round the back with my beret as they had split, being rather too small for me.
When darkness fell, they gave me a blanket and curled up under their own. The convoy consisted of about six trucks. I arranged my legs so that for everybody’s convenience they hung over the tail board. I hoped for three things to occur at once. My companions would be safely curled up under their blankets, the truck to be going slowly uphill and the truck following to be hidden round a bend.
I was quite prepared to have another attempt at freedom, but as before I was not prepared to risk being shot at. Suddenly I realised there was nice ditch to roll into as all three conditions presented themselves. I heaved myself up on the tail board and was about to go only feeling sorry for the fellow who had lent me his blanket, when a draped figure beside me stirred. By the time I realised that he was not coming out of his cocoon the moment had gone. I could keep awake no longer.
Next day the sun was unmerciful and the fever was sending me nearly demented. The Germans treated me as well as they could but I really let fly at them and told them what I thought of them when they would not seek permission from their officer to leave me at some hospital. However later I discovered the reason for their reluctance.
Their officer was one of those men found in all armies, but in a higher proportion in the German, who had no natural leadership ability and thought that leadership is synonymous with degrading people. He did not see that the person he most degraded was himself. He missed his calling as a member of the Gestapo. He had no whip but his tongue sufficed. It was impossible to have a reasonable conversation with him.
At one point I saw from the truck, a huge white building on the mountain. It was the convent of Cassino whose destruction still remains a debateable factor of the war.
For many hours we drove towards Rome but stopped at a small but most beautiful village beside a lake. I was put in a room and waited to be interrogated. At the end of this room, which seemed so cool and comfortable compared to my feverish day, stood a bookcase. How nice, I thought, if these were books in English and I could just sit there and read them. I was told to go to the desk and saw that indeed they were all English.
The German Officer who interrogated me said his mother was English. He wanted to know what forces we had in Italy but eventually accepted that I could not possibly know and settled for an amicable conversation.
I made a point of saying to him that as long ago as the battle of Alamein, a German solder had told me that we had more to eat for breakfast than the Germans had all day. I said that we could not have all that food without other important supplies and that we had an endless stream of supply in North Africa and a terrific fleet gathered in Algiers just before we left.
We also discussed the treatment I had received. I made much of the lack of treatment during that day and he promised to see that I was well looked after and asked me if there was anything special I wanted. Yes, please, a needle and thread to mend my trousers.
Next day he took me into Rome in a little Volkswagen. There was the driver and another German in front. On the Via Appia we ran over a dog and the screams of an Italian woman could be heard. In the side mirror I could see the dog twisting its life out in agony. The two Germans laughed. The Officer next to me was silent.
The callous brutality in the cause of duty for Germany began to show. I was taken to what, years later, I found to be the large Villa Borghese Park. There I waited on a hard bench all day. No food was given to me or the Guard. No one came to relieve him so he could not leave, nor take me with him to find food. Towards evening I was taken to be interrogated again, but they soon gave it up when they found I could not know much, even if I was in a fit state to tell it.
The next day I was then taken by Lorry to the Regina Coeli, Rome’s largest and most notorious civilian prison. I was given special treatment! I had a cell to myself, about half a pint extra of the ersatz coffee each morning, and a few olives or a piece of pumpkin in oil each day.
In the surrounding cells were political prisoners, both women and old men. I presumed all were anti- Fascist. For our section of the prison there were only German guards. On the whole they trusted us and I was able to get some paper so I could pass the time in writing. We were even allowed to write home, but the letter was not sent until we got to our Prisoner of War camp. We had the luxury of hot showers and were allowed out en masse for exercise. In fact I always claim that Rome Civilian prison was the most comfortable abode I struck as a P.O.W..
To my surprise I found that I could understand the Italian of my fellow prisoners much better than I expected. I presume this was due to the dialects that I had experienced among the contadini (peasant farmers).
One day, on the exercise ground, I saw a little priest with a beard and the brown robe of a Franciscan. He looked very familiar, but then I thought, so many priests look alike until I realised that it was the little priest from the camp on the Adriatic. Apparently when the Germans arrived there to take over the Camp and found we had gone, the Italian commandant had laid the blame, most probably correctly, on the priest.
After ten days we were taken to an improvised camp in the old building of Imperial Airways beside a lake north of Rome. The three weeks I spent there were about the worst of all my prison days. It was November and beginning to turn cold, food was scarce for the two hundred odd men who were captured trying to cross the lines. Here there seemed little chance of being able to make a breakaway again or the British Army arriving and freeing us. But I did not stay long enough to find out.
Following this, Keith Killby was transferred to a PoW camp in Germany and was eventually liberated. He returned to the UK in 1945.