My uncle, Lieutenant P. A. W. Allan, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, as a prisoner-of-war in Oflag 79, flanked by Denis Clapp and Bill Tedford

Allied Prisoners of War in Italy – Jeremy Archer

Lieutenant Pat Allan was one of many prisoners of war in Italy who were swept up by the Germans after the Armistice with Italy and transported to Germany. In this article his nephew, Jeremy Archer, describes the varied experiences of about 11,000 PoWs who avoided that fate and went on the run, throwing themselves on the mercy of Italian people in their efforts to rejoin the Allies or reach Switzerland

On 25 July 1943, just eight days after the invasion of Sicily and the day of Mussolini’s fall, Hitler ordered three Waffen-SS divisions, five German infantry divisions and a Panzer division to move to Italy, ostensibly in order to stiffen Italian resolve.

On 12 August, unbeknownst to the Germans, General Giuseppe Castellano flew from Rome to Madrid, where he had a meeting with the British Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare. Following a high-level Axis meeting in Bologna on 15 August, the Germans concluded that their erstwhile ally was highly likely to act independently and precautionary measures were duly implemented. They were right: five days later, Castellano met senior Allied representatives in Lisbon.

Although the Armistice of Cassibile was signed on 3 September, the government of Marshal Pietro Badoglio wished to delay any announcement at least until 12 September, to give them more time. Unfortunately, though, the surrender was formally announced on the public service broadcaster, EIAR, at 19.42 hrs on 8 September 1943, just hours after the Allies had already broken the news.

At the time the Italian government’s hand had been forced, it is estimated that there were 76 camps in the country, accommodating some 80,000 prisoners of war. Most of the camps were know by the acronym PG – for Prigione di Guerra, or prison of war – followed by a number. Although the Germans, in Fall Achse or Case Axis, moved swiftly to disarm the Italian forces, there was a brief window of opportunity for Allied prisoners of war to escape, depending on their locality and the attitude of the Senior British Officer, or SBO. The codeword, “Achse”, was issued just eight minutes after Badoglio’s broadcast had commenced. 

While the principal junior officers’ camp was PG 21 at Chieti, south-west of Pescara, in the Abruzzo region, about 600 were imprisoned in PG 49, housed, 26 to a room, in a former orphanage – orfanotrofio – at Fontanellato in northern Italy.

The experiences of the two groups could not have been more different. The Italian Camp Commandant of the former convent at Chieti was a Fascist who personally beat up one prisoner while a guard deliberately shot and killed a RAF officer after an escape attempt. The camp was overcrowded, with little running water, poor sanitation and no heating.

When news of the Armistice was announced, the SBO at PG 21 refused to allow the prisoners to leave the camp, in accordance with an instruction issued on 7 June 1943: ‘In the event of an Allied invasion of Italy, officers commanding prison camps will ensure that prisoners of war remain within camp. Authority is granted to all officers commanding to take necessary disciplinary action to prevent individual prisoners of war attempting to rejoin their own units.’

Lieutenant-Colonel William Dobie Marshall, 1/5th Mahratta Light Infantry, obeyed those instructions to the letter. As a result, 1,000 British and 300 American officers were swiftly transported to Germany in cattle wagons. My uncle, Lieutenant Pat Allan, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, was one of them and he ended the war in Oflag 79 near Braunschweig (Brunswick). 

Although Pat died in 2003, his 96-year-old widow told me: “He never said much about his period of captivity in Italy but he did say that the train journey north was squalid; there was very little room and they were given buckets for the purposes of defecation. When in the cattle truck, the prisoners managed to rid themselves of their chains and handcuffs which they threw into the pee buckets and thence out on the heads of their captors.

“Pat used to talk about Tommy Sampson, a famous band leader who wrote a whole Gilbert and Sullivan opera from memory, as well as other musical shows whilst incarcerated.”

Commandante Barela was later convicted of war crimes while Marshall insisted in front of a formal inquiry on 11 July 1945 that he was “simply following orders”.

The SBO at Fontanellato was Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo de Burgh, who adopted a more pragmatic approach. When the sympathetic Camp Commandant, Colonello Vicedomini, arranged for a wide gap to the opened in the perimeter fence and ordered a bugler to sound the alarm – three ‘G’s’ on the bugle – as the Germans approached, de Burgh said that it was every man for himself.

Author Eric Newby, one of the prisoners at Fontanellato, later wrote: “He [Vicedomini] was sent to a concentration camp in Germany where he suffered such privations that he died soon after he returned to Italy at the end of the war.” Meanwhile, de Burgh crossed the Swiss border.

After the war de Burgh commanded the Allied Screening Commission in Italy.  Its goal was to identify Italian citizens who had helped Allied prisoners of war so that they could receive a certificate signed by Field-Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, together with a financial reward, if appropriate.

Newby wrote: “As is usual when official attempts are made to repay something with cash which was freely given at the time out of kindness of heart, a great deal of ill-will was created in this case by the Treasury, or whoever held the purse-strings, who decreed that any money that was disbursed to these people in 1946 should be at the old, pre-Armistice rate of exchange which was seventy-two liras to the pound, which was now absolutely nothing.

“Most Italians, too, took exception to the official certificate which was given to them as a testimony to what they had done, and which had at the foot of it what was obviously some sort of artificial reproduction of the signature of Field-Marshal Alexander who would, undoubtedly, have been shocked if he had known what the effect would be on the recipients. It would have been better to have given nothing at all.”

In an attempt to make amends, J. Keith Killby, who had been an inmate of PG 59 at Servigliano in Le Marche, together with other former PoWs, founded the Monte San Martino Trust in 1989. In its own words, the Monte San Martino Trust “awards English-language study bursaries in England to Italians, aged 18 to 25, in recognition of the courage and sacrifice of the Italian country people who rescued thousands of escaping Allied PoWs after the Armistice in 1943”.  It is estimated that as many as 11,000 prisoners of war were on the run, of whom some 3,000 eventually reached Allied lines. Colonel H. G.  de Burgh OBE MC died in 1954 and his grandson, Christopher Woodhead, became Treasurer of the Monte San Martino Trust.

Some 600 prisoners from PG 49 hid initially in an overgrown drainage ditch, just five miles from the camp, concluding that the Germans would concentrate their efforts further afield. One of those prisoners, who fortunately managed to keep his identity secret, was Richard (Dick) Carver, one of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s stepsons. He walked 500 miles south to the British lines, only to be greeted by his stepfather at Tac HQ, Paglieta, on 4 December 1943 with the words: “Where the hell have you been?” Colonel Richard Carver OBE died on 24 July 2007.

Another PoW at Fontanellato was Captain Carol Mather, Welsh Guards, who walked for some 600 miles down the Apennines, eventually reaching the Allied lines near Campobasso, north-east of Naples. He described his wartime experiences in When the Grass Stops Growing (1997).  A third was Major Leslie Young, 2nd Battalion, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, who was captured in Tunisia; his son, Sir Nicholas, later chronicled his story in Escaping with his Life (2019).

Perhaps the most famous escapee from Fontanellato was the well-known travel writer, Eric Newby (quoted above), who later wrote Love and War in the Apennines (1971). His wasn’t the only story on that theme, though: Major Michael Ross married Giovanna Porcheddu, daughter of Beppe, who had sheltered him in the coastal town of Bordighera; he subsequently wrote From Liguria with Love’(1997), reissued as The British Partisan in 2019. 

Norman Lewis, who was fluent in Italian, landed at “Red Beach”, Paestum, at 7pm on 9 September. A member of the Field Security Police, he was attached to the Headquarters of the American Fifth Army. In his book, Naples ’44’, he wrote of interviewing five British private soldiers who had recently escaped from a German prisoner of war camp near Terni: “All these had picked up enough basic Italian to be able to persuade the Italians working in the camp to bring in odds and ends of civilian clothing, which they stashed away until each man could dress himself up as an Italian civilian. 

“The Italians did this out of the goodness of their hearts. Not only did they give away garments which they would probably have been glad to keep for themselves, but they exposed themselves to a terrific risk in doing what they did.

“Workers were put through some sort of perfunctory search both when arriving at the camp and leaving, and parcels were opened, so the spare items of clothing had to be worn.  A man would come in wearing two pairs of trousers or two shirts, or he would stick a pair of canvas-soled shoes into his jacket pocket, leave his boots behind with the British prisoner, and wear these to go out. When all was ready the escapees quietly mixed in with the Italian workers and walked out through the gates. One of them described a tense moment when a guard didn’t seem to recognise his face, and stopped him, but was quite happy to let him go on being assured in broken Italian, “Noi lavorare per voi”.

“Thereafter the five calmly set out on their 150-mile walk back to our lines. The journey was undertaken in the most leisurely and relaxed fashion and there was nothing furtive about it. When they saw Germans ahead they kept up their stolid march, ready to wave, smile and shout encouragements in their broken Italian.  Before their capture they’d listened to a standard S-force lecture on how to handle a situation like this, and had noted the recommendation never to go to the big house in any village for help or food, but to rely on the poor, ‘because they have nothing to lose’. In fact they had their lives to lose – because the Germans gave short shrift to the shelterers of escaped prisoners – but none of the Italians who helped our five friends to get back gave any thought to that.

“Progress was much slowed down because one of the party had a poisoned foot, and could only make a small number of miles a day, so the journey took over two weeks. When the men were hungry they would decide on a small house they liked the look of in a village street, knock on the door, explain who they were, and ask for food. In no case was this ever denied them. After they had eaten they were often offered beds for the night, and for this purpose were shared out among the neighbours. Sometimes they were urged to stay as long as they liked – in one case to settle down and become members of the local community.  Money was pressed on them.  The old people in Italian villages treated them as sons, and the young ones as brothers.”

The Italians held some high-profile Allied prisoners of war, including Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Neame VC; Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O’Connor; Major-General Adrian Carton de Wiart VC; Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry; Air Marshal Owen Tudor Boyd; Brigadier James Hargest, New Zealand Army; and Brigadier Reginald Miles, New Zealand Army. They were all held at PG 12, a camp for those of the rank of brigadier and above, at Vincigliata, a medieval castle near Florence.

Their experiences were very mixed. The first to escape were Hargest and Miles – through a tunnel, designed by Neame, who was a Royal Engineer, construction of which had begun on 18 September the previous year – on 29 March 1943.  After catching trains from Florence to Milan and thence to Como, they crossed the Swiss border the following day and were released in Berne on 2 April. They were two of the three Allied prisoners of war known to British Military Intelligence to have escaped from an Italian prisoner of war camp prior to the Armistice, finding sanctuary in a neutral country. The other four tunnellers were swiftly recaptured.

After their release in Switzerland, the two men split up: Miles reached the Spanish frontier on 20 October 1943 – and, depressed, promptly shot himself. He was buried with full military honours in Figueres Municipal Cemetery, just over the border from Perpignan.  His only son (he also had four daughters), Lieutenant (A) Reginald Joseph Braithwaite Miles, Fleet Air Arm, was killed in action when HMS Glorious was sunk by the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau in the Norwegian Sea on 8 June 1940.

Meanwhile, after returning to England, Hargest was appointed as New Zealand’s official observer of the D-Day landings. Attached to 50th (Northumbrian) Division and later appointed to command the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force Reception Group, responsible for repatriating New Zealand prisoners of war, he was killed by shellfire on 12 August 1944 and is buried in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery at Hottot-les-Bagues (I. C. 2).

His elder son, 447418 Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Robert Hargest, 23rd Battalion, New Zealand Infantry, was killed at the Battle of Monte Cassino on 30 March 1944, at the age of 22, and is buried in Cassino War Cemetery (VI. G. 14).  His younger son, 207275 Second Lieutenant Peter Miles Hargest, 1st New Zealand Regiment, was killed on 19 December 1952 during the Malayan Emergency.

Neame, O’Connor and Boyd made their way south, holing up in the monastery at La Verna in Tuscany.  Guided by Captain Pat Spooner, 8th Gurkha Rifles, who had escaped earlier from PG 19 near Bologna before returning to assist others, they missed a rendezvous with a submarine, before escaping by fishing boat from Cattolica and sailing to Térmoli, which had been liberated by the time they arrived on 20 December 1943. 

Welcomed at Bari by General Alexander, they arrived back in England on Christmas Day. Neame’s son, also named Philip, referring to Italian helpers, told me: “My father could not speak highly enough of their courage and selflessness. I have a copy of a letter my father received from the War Office in 1945 relating to the repayment of IOUs for cash lent by some to pay for travel but which I suspect was paid at the post-war rate, so was also probably meaningless. He kept in touch with a few ex-partisans, particularly a Signor Spada, until he died.”

The letter, from Brigadier Norman Crockatt, Deputy Director of Military Intelligence and Head of MI9, which was responsible for prisoners of war, is dated 6 January 1945 and reads: “I have been informed by my people in Italy that Signor Arpesella has now been repaid in full for the loan which he made to you.  I thought you would like to know that this is settled.”

Philip also explained that “Spooner was accompanied by another, Ferguson [Captain Jimmie Ferguson, Royal Corps of Signals], although only Spooner ever seems to get acknowledged. Whilst giving due credit for their courage, however, my father’s view was that as neither spoke any Italian, both were more an encumbrance to the partisans than an asset!”

Despite being denied military employment, Neame served as Lieutenant Governor of Guernsey from 1945 to 1953. O’Connor, however, commanded VIII Corps in Normandy and during Operation Market Garden, before being posted to India, where he served as GOC Eastern and Northern Commands.

Boyd was appointed to command No 93 Group, Bomber Command but died of a heart attack on 5 August 1944, little more than a week after his divorce, for adultery on his part, had come through. Gambier-Parry eventually arrived in Rome, sought sanctuary in a convent and was released when Rome was liberated on 4 June 1944. He was neither decorated nor offered further employment.

In mid-August 1943, Carton de Wiart was selected to accompany General Giacomo Zanussi to Lisbon for discussions concerning an armistice; having been released, he reached England on 28 August 1943.  Appointed Winston Churchill’s personal representative in China, he left by air for India on 18 October 1943.