Episodes & Studies Volume 2
The Italian Armistice
The Italian Armistice
In the turmoil that followed the Italian armistice of 8 September 1943, rumour and counter- rumour clouded the issue. Senior officers had been instructed by the War Office that prisoners should remain in their camps; many men who might have escaped let their chances slip. In some camps their guards remained to hand them over to the Germans. In others the guards dispersed or the prisoners successfully took matters into their own hands and escaped en masse. One Fascist commandant had declared his intention of handing over his camp intact to the Germans. The camp leader announced this to the prisoners under cover of a gathering at a baseball match, telling them it was now a case of every man for himself. That evening many men escaped through a hole in the wire cut for them by friendly guards. Their emotions on looking back at the lights of the camp from outside would have been shared by many others: ‘The thought that page 22 they were free and would no more pace round and round inside that wire like animals in a cage made the lads feel like shouting for joy, but all exuberance was suppressed…’1 Awkwardly in the darkness they traversed a region of river and canal inland from Venice until a priest gave them shelter. At his instance they changed into civilian clothes and set out, with guides he arranged for them, to take the train south. ‘They will never forget the strain of those days on the train, when every Ted2 they saw seemed to be on the verge of seeing through their disguise.’ It was a four-day journey to Pescara where they alighted, with changes at Padua and Ferrara. From Pescara they had a week's walk, living on whatever food they could beg from the peasants, until at San Severo they reached British troops.
This party had been lucky; it had reached the Allied lines in a few days. Other parties later took as many months to do the same or a much shorter journey.
All over Italy thousands of British prisoners were at large in the countryside. The Italians rose to the occasion with an unexpected generosity and courage. Soon Italian fugitives (deserters from the army and later most able-bodied men, who were being sought for German war factories) and evacuees were to swell these numbers. Although the wealthier classes of Italians did take part in sheltering and succouring escaped prisoners of war, the chief burden of this task fell upon the poorest classes, the farmers and peasants. It is amazing with what spontaneous generosity this burden was accepted. All escapers in Italy after the armistice could give similar testimony to this: ‘Much has been said in these times (and not least by the Italians themselves) about Italian cowardice and Italian treachery. But here is a man (and there are hundreds of others like him) who had run the risk of being shot, who has shared his family's food to the last crumb, and who has lodged, clothed, and protected four strangers for over three months—and who now proposes continuing to do so, while perfectly aware of the risk that he is running. What is this, if not courage and loyalty?’3
An escaper met a family whose five sons had all been shot by the Germans for helping fugitive prisoners of war, but they still gave them their help: ‘“They have taken everything from me. What more can they take? I started with my sons on this road, I shall continue along it….”’4
1 Account by Pte R. Kendrick.
2 Tedesco, Italian for German.
3 War in Val d'Orcia, Iris Origo (Jonathan Cape), p. 146.
4 The Way Out, Uys Krige (Collins), p. 307. This South African writer's book should not be confused with another excellent narrative of escape in Italy with the same title by a New Zealand officer, Malcolm J. Mason
It is fair to say that the average escaped prisoner was genuinely surprised by the welcome he received from the Italian people. The difference between the negligence and inefficiency of the Italian administration of the prison camps and the kindness, courage, and generosity of the illiterate peasants was as sharp as it was unexpected. Undoubtedly some Italians helped escapers in order to ingratiate themselves with what they thought was now the winning side. Others seemed to cast off the fears that had weighed on them under Fascism, and sustained by their hatred of the Germans, whose brutality and undisguised contempt for their former allies had earned them this feeling, took the greatest risks for their guests without any hope or contemplation of reward. An English escaper remarked that his time in hiding with the Italian people was ‘the greatest experience of my life’, and never again could he think in the narrow terms of nations and races.1 The countrymen of Garibaldi did not lack courage, but it was evoked in them not by the distant, abstract issues of the battlefield, but by the immediate human needs of the unfortunate and the weak, for his own experiences under Fascism had given the peasant an instinctive sympathy for the hunted and persecuted. The mere economic burden on an impoverished and agriculturally backward people of feeding and clothing many thousands of fugitives was tremendous. Many of these men were ill and needed extra care involving additional trouble, expense, and risk. In only one small particular did the Italians fail their guests and that a matter over which they had no control—their tongues. The garrulity of the country folk and villagers, their traditional emotional outlet, provided the news that Fascist spies were waiting to pick up, and it betrayed many prisoners. Yet even this trait was not wholly to the escaper's disadvantage: it induced different neighbourhoods to vie with each other in hospitality to escapers, and it helped Italian morale. Sheltering an Allied fugitive was the resistance of the Italian peasant to the dreaded powers of the Axis and should be held in honour.
Before the armistice it had been difficult to escape from Italy. Most men of British race were easily distinguishable from native Italians by the Italians themselves, even when they wore Italian clothes. At that time the way to freedom led to the north, into Switzerland or Yugoslavia, or through France to Spain. A few prisoners escaped to Switzerland—very few, as Brigadiers Hargest2 and Miles are said to have been two of the only five British escapers to reach Switzerland before the Italian armistice3 — and a few, like Denvir,4 to Yugoslavia. After the armistice a number of men got out to those countries, but most made their way south to the Allied lines.
1 The Way Out, Uys Krige, p. 309.
The conditions along the old frontier of Yugoslavia and Italy (the Italians had occupied parts of Yugoslavia) did not favour the passage of escapers even after the armistice. German patrols were very active in the border area. Some men had bitter disappointments. An ‘escape club’ formed by the leading Italians in a district in the hinterland of Venice passed men in groups of about twenty up to the Yugoslav frontier. Dressed in civilian clothes (one narrator described himself in his navy blue double-breasted suit, pale blue shirt, and semi-stiff collar with the Italian national tie in red and green and a Borsolino felt hat as ‘the complete commercial traveller’), they boarded a train, with guides, and travelled 100 kilometres towards Yugoslavia. Germans passed up and down the train, but all went well. When they left the train, a guide took them up winding tracks into the hills, and soon they were in the hands of partisans, who had quantities of stolen arms but were still an underground movement. They moved on under the care of guides in night marches, hiding by day, nearly to the frontier, where a number of other escapers were harbouring with a group of active partisans. Some New Zealanders and South Africans told them here that it was impossible to cross the frontier and that conditions with the partisans were bad, food and even water being short, and the guard duty imposed on everybody severe. The party retraced its steps, made the original train journey in reverse, and returned to its former excellent hosts to find them now much more fearful. Soon the landowner of the village where they lived ordered all prisoners of war to leave the area, no doubt a necessary action for the safety of his people but one which resulted in the recapture of most of the group of escapers after seven months' freedom.
Not all had such bad luck, though the Yugoslav partisans were not then entirely co-operative. Another party, largely composed of men who had escaped from Campo PG 107 and led by two officers (one of whom—Captain Riddiford1 —had escaped from Spittal in Austria and walked back into Italy from there), won through to Yugoslavia, only to be held up by the refusal of the Yugoslav partisans to give them guides to the Adriatic coast. They were passed on, arguing strenuously and with more candour than is usual between allies, from command to command, at times being virtually prisoners. The Yugoslavs were anxious for them to join their own ranks and also feared the efficiency of a new German drive to clear their area. In spite of their obstruction the prisoners themselves left the shelter of the wooded inland mountains and made their own way without guides across thirty miles of country dominated by the Germans to reach their objective, the coast, where a British liaison officer arranged their passage to southern Italy. They left behind a third of their number on the way (there were 25 New Zealanders in the 62 who reached safety), but the rest were in Bari by Christmas 1943. The authorities in Bari had the singular idea of lodging them first in the old Italian prisoner-of-war camp, which had been perhaps the hungriest and most miserable in all Italy. As a result of representations made by Riddiford, the British Government arranged with Marshal Tito that escaping British troops should receive better treatment in partisan hands and be sure of a passage out to Italy.
Still another way out was by sea. A number of men were evacuated down the Adriatic from near Venice in small naval craft as late as April 1945. In their nineteen months of liberty in Italy they had worked and lived as peasants, but increasingly precariously, as the delay in the arrival of the Allied armies had caused a decline in the pro-British feeling of the months following the armistice. It had been a time of ‘indescribable monotony’, the only course to follow being ‘to watch the news and work in the fields’. They were especially anxious about the feelings of their families at home with no news of them for so long. Aerial combats overhead were an emblem of hope. When Italian partisans proposed evacuation by sea, this group did not hope for too much: they had to be cautious as ‘many of our friends had been sold’. But everything went smoothly. The partisans piloted them to the evacuation beach and then ranged themselves to guard it, while the prisoners went out to the MLs in the rubber boats which brought arms ashore for the partisans.
1 The Way Out, Uys Krige, pp. 371–3.
2 The Way Out, by Malcolm J. Mason (Paul); Unwilling Guests, by J. D. Gerard (A. H. and A. W. Reed); and PoorPeople—Poor Us, by J. E. Broad (H. H. Tombs).