(Editor’s note: This report was written a few months before Frank Unwin’s death in December 2018.)
Accounts of incarceration as a prisoner of war in Italy and Germany have had an important addition with the publication of a story of capture and escape by Frank Unwin, MBE.
Escaping Has Ceased To Be A Sport, which took Frank 25 years to complete with invaluable assistance by his daughter Betty Merrick, was launched at a party in the magnificent Library of London’s Reform Club in April 2018. Among those present in addition to family and friends were Frank’s former colleagues from the Foreign Office, for which he worked after the Second World War, representatives from the Italian Embassy and the British-Italian Society, members of his church (Christ Church) and supporters of the Monte San Martino Trust. Frank, now aged 97, has long been a stalwart member of the Trust, which commemorates the bravery of escaping PoWs following the Armistice with Italy in September 1943, and the generosity and courage of the Italian country people who hid them while they attempted to reach safety among the invading Allied troops.
Welcoming the guests, Peter Unwin, Frank’s son, said that “escaping was in Frank’s bones”. The week before the book launch, Peter had rushed to hospital to find his father with blood pouring from a head wound following a fall. “Pete, I’ve got to get out of here by Tuesday,” were Frank’s opening words.
Frank, who now lives in Orpington but whose family home was in Liverpool, enlisted in the Territorial Army in 1939 and was mobilised the same year. He was first deployed to Egypt with the Royal Artillery before being sent to Greece to support the Greek Army. He was evacuated from mainland Greece to Crete and again a few weeks later from Crete to Alexandria. In June 1942 following the collapse of the Tobruk garrison he was captured by German forces and handed over to the Italians, still aged only 21.
Transferred to mainland Italy, he was imprisoned at PG82 Laterina, in Tuscany, where he learned Italian by talking to the sentries. His first escape lasted one week before recapture. He then joined a tunnelling party but shortly before the tunnel was completed the Italians signed the Armistice and he was able to escape by cutting the barbed wire.
This time he spent five months on the run in the Tuscan hills, hunted by the Germans and Italian Fascists. He was sheltered by the people of Montebenichi and other villages. In his book he describes the lifestyle of these peasant farmers, the contadini, who risked their own lives by giving him refuge.
Knowing that their own families had had no word of them, Frank and two fellow PoWs set off to re-join the Allied Lines but were recaptured and taken to a work camp in Germany.
Hopes of an Allied victory grew when gunfire was heard in March 1945. The camp guards ordered them to leave the camp, whereupon they marched for several weeks before being rescued by American troops.
Back home in Liverpool, he discovered that he weighed only six stone.
At the book launch Frank and Betty described how Frank had decided, in his mid-70s, to write it after an Italian historian, Enzo Droandi, had asked him for an account of the escape tunnel at Laterina. Betty convinced him he could learn to use a computer and taught him word processing. Ten of the next 25 years were largely spent nursing Frank’s wife Marjorie, who died in 2005. Betty’s husband Andrew gave technical support and Peter’s wife Maggie, along with friends Jan Whitehead and her partner David Lewis, took the lead in caring for Frank.
Speaking at the launch, Sir Nick Young, chairman of the Monte San Martino Trust, said: “We are here to celebrate the life of a really remarkable man. The book is right up there with the very best of the genre.
“It’s a book of passion, of deprecating honesty and common sense, and of a love of Italy. This book told me that this man is indomitable and undaunted. Frank was constantly on the look-out to escape. And every page of this delightful book spells of hope.”
*Escaping Has Ceased To Be A Sport is published by Pen and Sword, ISBN: 9781526714930, at £25.
Enquiries@pen-and-sword.co.uk, Ref: ESC001. Post and packaging within the UK £4.00 for one copy, no charge if ordering two or more copies.
See the link below for photos taken at the book launch by Mike Unwin, Frank’s grandson.