On 8 September 1943, the day of the Italian Armistice, the gates at the Bologna PoW camp were thrown open and those inside invited by their guards to break for freedom. An order, however, was almost immediately received from British HQ that none of the PoWs were to leave the camp – and would be considered deserters if they did so – but to await “liberation” by the Allied army a few days later when it reached Bologna.
A few hours later the German army arrived at the camp and the inmates were marched to trains that were to take them to Germany. The following morning, one of those trains stopped outside the station of Modena and a number of the PoWs – in a variety of ways – took leave of the train and scarpered into the surrounding undergrowth. On that morning was born the Modena Escape Route, which by 1945 had helped escape some 250 escaping PoWs and others.
One of the first of those to be rescued that September morning was Leslie Nathanson, an artillery captain captured in North Africa some two years earlier. He was sheltered in Modena for about seven weeks and then, on 1 November, La Festa dei Morti, when Italian families visit the graves of relatives he was taken by train dressed as a mourner to Milan.
From there, he was taken to Domodossola in the shadow of the Swiss-Italian Alps and then biked to a small mediaeval hill village, Varzo. From Varzo he set off – escorted by local Italian guides – on the day-long climb through the Alpe Veglia valley, into the mountains and over into Switzerland to safety.
Leslie wrote an account of the climb over Alpe Veglia. Constantly faring betrayal, and exhausted by the climb after weeks of inactivity, he and his brother officer, named Terry, spent the night in a farmer’s barn, after a dinner of roast chestnuts.
They left the barn at first light on 3 November. Their guides were a man Leslie refers to as George, who had accompanied them from Varzo, the farmer’s young son and his nephew, an Alpini soldier who had trekked home from the from the French-Italian border after the Armistice. At last, late in the day, having climbed a pass over Monte Leone, they reached a guard hut in Switzerland, and safety.
Their guides left them to return home and Leslie and Terry fell asleep, waking to the sound of voices speaking in the Swiss-German dialect. The four visitors had come up to look after them. They were wearing uniforms similar to those of the Wehrmacht, but they were friendly and soon a bowl of tea was brewed.
The two British officers were bombarded with questions. “When and where had we been captured? How had we been treated? How did we escape?” “I could feel my head starting to nod and it became increasingly difficult to keep my eyes open,” writes Leslie. “We were soon asleep again, but curiously enough it was only a vey fitful dozing slumber and during the whole night my mind was full of incidents of the past seven weeks which I had never expected to remember.”