Prisoners of War
I: Events preceding and immediately following the Italian Armistice
I: Events preceding and immediately following the Italian Armistice
MAY 1943 saw the end of Axis resistance in North Africa and the surrender of many thousands of German and Italian troops in Tunisia. Prisoners in Italy, closely studying the Fascist press or gleaning the news from friendly guards and civilians, wondered what the next Allied move would be. Most felt that Italy's days of active warfare against the Allies were numbered. Many civilians and camp guards were making no secret of their distaste for the war, and it was clear that the latter would need little inducement to leave the forces and return to their homes. Then on 9 July came the invasion of Sicily, and with it some solid fact on which prisoners might base hopes of liberation. They began speculating on how the end would come, and plans were elaborated for taking over camps and arranging protection and supplies in case of disorder. On 25 July Mussolini resigned, the Fascist Party was dissolved, and Badoglio took over control of the country. Although it was felt that an armistice was very near, it was still hard to foresee the manner in which it would affect prisoner-of-war camps.
There had been a hint in December 1942 that, in view of the impending collapse of Italy, British prisoners held there would be transferred to Germany. But, to an inquiry by the Italian ambassador to the Vatican, Mussolini had replied that there was no truth in the report. Nevertheless between 20 and 22 July 2400 prisoners1 were transported to Germany and accommodated in Stalag IVB at Mühlberg. Men in other camps were warned at about the same time that they were soon to be moved to an unknown destination. After the fall of Mussolini, in reply to a protest by Great Britain, the Badoglio Government gave an assurance that there would be no more such transfers, at the same time explaining that those already transferred had been originally captured by the German forces.2 Visits to prisoner-of-war camps by inspectors from the Swiss Legation had been suspended as from 14 July, and even the Badoglio Government insisted on a month's notice of a forthcoming visit of inspection. To this there was a strong complaint from Britain, for in the difficult situation that might develop it was more than usually important for neutral inspectors to be on hand to protect the interests of defenceless prisoners.
1 Only four New Zealanders.
2 In point of fact most of the British prisoners held in Italy had been so captured. It is possible that if Germany was demanding the custody of all those captured by her forces, the 2400 mentioned above were sent to satisfy her; and the explanation in the Italian Note to the Foreign Office was to give colour to the idea that she had now carried out Germany's demand. On the other hand, Germany must have been well aware that a much larger number had been captured by the Afrika Korps.
Most camp leaders had received the War Office instruction for prisoners to remain in their camps, and had in some made elaborate plans for taking over from the Italians and preventing disorder in the neighbourhood. In Campo PG 47 at Modena1 the plans included taking over a nearby airfield and manning the planes, Air Force prisoners in the camp having undergone a course of instruction from one of their number conversant with enemy types of aircraft. There was in nearly every camp a reserve of Red Cross food sufficient to last a week or two. The instruction to remain inside had not been generally promulgated, and a large percentage of individuals had prepared haversacks, whatever civilian clothes they could lay hands on, maps, and other necessities for a trek in whatever direction it might be best to go in the event of trouble. Prisoners were acutely aware of the possibility of transfer to Germany and further imprisonment there under unknown conditions; but there was so little reliable information about what was happening outside that it was wellnigh impossible to decide on a definite plan of action. As time went on the atmosphere at some camps became tense; early hopes of release gave place to suspense and anxiety. Had all prisoners been able to see German troops nearby digging in at the end of August, as did those working near Bussolengo (Campo PG 148), it might not have been so difficult for them to decide what to do.
The hospital patients at Nocera (Ospedale PG 206) had been transferred to Milan in mid-June and those at Altamura (Ospedale PG 204) a little later. Though moved out of the potential danger zone, their new accommodation exposed them perhaps even more to Allied air operations. A prisoner-of-war hospital (Ospedale PG 207) was set up in a school building opposite a factory in central Milan. On 13 August during a bombing raid the building was wrecked by blast, a number of prisoners losing their lives (including three New Zealand medical orderlies), and the remainder being evacuated to Ospedale PG 201 at Bergamo.
Allied troops landed at Calabria on the Italian mainland on 3 September, the day on which the armistice with Italy was secretly signed. Some camps, for example Campo PG 57, had been kept without newspapers or broadcast bulletins for some weeks, no doubt for fear of demonstrations or even organised rebellion. At most camps, however, and especially at working camps, the news leaked in and soon circulated. Men waited expectantly for the announcement of Italy's capitulation, which they hoped would set them free again after periods of up to two years in captivity. There had been some attempts at escape in July and August, but they now seemed unnecessary and even foolhardy. Work continued at the labour camps and organised recreation and sport at the base camps. With a new and almost entirely unpredictable situation imminent it was easiest to carry on with routine, which helped to take men's minds off too much speculation about the future. There was little interference with mail services: letters poured in, the censorship authorities in Rome apparently making a final effort to clear their office of the accumulation of months. Private parcels, too, arrived in large numbers, and consignments of Red Cross food were kept up, a batch of 2500 food parcels reaching Campo PG 107 as late as 10 September.
1 A New Zealand driver, for example, camp leader of a small working camp, was invited by an Italian guard to fire off the balance of the latter's ammunition, and did so.
2 The view has been expressed that the orders were only intended to forbid mass breakouts, in view of the reprisals it was thought might be taken. But the evidence makes it clear that the orders were meant to serve the needs of the administrative arrangements for evacuating prisoners, which, in the event of an undisturbed armistice situation, would have been all the easier if no prisoners at all had left their camps.
All personnel were to stay put ‘when war ends’; they were to organise themselves into military units and await orders; arms and assistance would be flown in. Officers at officers' camps were to be prepared to take command of nearby other ranks' camps.
The order had been formulated several months previously, and was on 8 September 1943 totally unrelated to the existing military situation in Italy. Nothing could have played better into the enemy's hands. The outcome was the transfer to Germany of tens of thousands of able-bodied British soldiers who might otherwise have rejoined the Allied forces.
The assumption appears to have persisted somewhere, then as earlier, that the occupation by Allied troops of Italy, or a great part of it, would follow almost immediately on the signing of an armistice. A clause in the armistice1 provided for the handing back by the Italian Government of all prisoners of war; and their collection, care and evacuation, therefore, were merely tasks for the Armistice Commission. The admirable administrative arrangements for such an operation, already described, had been cut and dried since March 1943. They were based on a picture of tidy and orderly bodies of prisoners left in their camps (with nominal rolls prepared) during a comparatively quiet occupation of an Italy from which all disturbing elements such as the German Army had withdrawn. The introductory note to the War Office plan submitted to the British War Cabinet Post-war Planning Sub-Committee stated:
It is not known whether on the signing of an armistice with Italy, the whole country or certain strategic points only will be occupied by Allied troops.
Yet the alternative had clearly been considered:
If however the Badoglio Government were to fall or conclude an Armistice the Germans might be able to profit by the confusion in order to seize some prisoners, whose fate in this regard would depend on whether they were north or south of the line on which the Germans decided to stand.2
As it turned out, the Germans formed their line well south of any of the camps for British prisoners of war.
1 Article III of the armistice terms ran:
The supply by the Italian authorities to prisoners of sufficient rations to enable them to make their way to the coast.
The dropping of pamphlets at camps as soon as the announcement of the armistice instructing them to disperse in small groups and make their way to the west coast of Italy.
The rescue of these prisoners by light naval craft with air protection.
Suggested instructions for broadcasting to the Italian people and the text of the pamphlet to be dropped for prisoners were also drafted, and these and the draft plan were submitted to Allied Force Headquarters and to the War Office in July 1943.
1 The importance attached by the Germans to removing prisoners in order of value was illustrated in the Western Desert. RAF personnel, specialist services of the Army and Navy, and all officers were evacuated early. When the Eighth Army reached Benghazi in 1942 only a few labour corps troops remained.
2 It was thought by MI9 that it would be preferable if the gates were opened and liaison officers and food parachuted in on the day before the armistice announcement. But this was not mentioned in the plan submitted to AFHQ and War Office.
Most of the prisoners who obeyed these orders were collected with ease by comparatively small German detachments and sent to Germany; a large number of those whose camp leaders disobeyed them eventually reached the Allied lines or Switzerland. Thus base camps like Campo PG 47 and Campo PG 571 were rounded up almost intact. It was from more remote working camps such as Campo PG 107 or Campo PG 78/1, where the camp leader acted on his own initiative in bringing pressure on the Italians to allow the men to leave, or at others like Campo PG 106/20, where prisoners were released and advised to leave by one of the guards, that the greatest number of our successful escapers in this period was drawn. At many camps these releases were three or four days after the announcement of the armistice.2 Italian camp officers seem, with a few exceptions, to have carried out their orders, namely, to keep the prisoners in camps ready to hand over to Allied troops and if necessary release them to prevent their falling into German hands. But German pressure, and occasionally Fascist leanings, undoubtedly induced a few of them to hand over their camps to the nearby German troops. In any case it would clearly not have been feasible for most Italian commandants to have prevented their camps falling into German hands by force of arms. Nearly a week after the armistice announcement a BBC transmission advised prisoners in Italy that it was their duty not to remain in camps but to make good their escape. By that time, according to the German claims, 25,000 had been entrained for Germany, and judging by eye-witness accounts of the numerous trainloads which went north in the few days after 13 September this figure is probably no exaggeration.3
1 These two camps are mentioned because Campo PG 47 contained nearly all the New Zealand officer prisoners, and Campo PG 57 the greatest number of New Zealand other ranks.
2 Details of the conditions relating to the release of prisoners by Italy were not finally agreed upon until 10 September 1943, the second day after the announcement of the armistice. They were, briefly, that the gates of all prisoner-of-war camps under Italian control should be opened and that prisoners should be advised to move towards the east coast and the south; or north towards Switzerland.
3 The following are the figures (so far as they are known) showing the fate of New Zealand prisoners in Italy at the time of the armistice. Where known, British Commonwealth totals in round figures are given for comparison:
|Numbers in Italy at time of armistice (approximate)||3,700||70,000|
|Successfully escaped to Allied lines||339||12,000|
|Successfully escaped to Switzerland||108||5,000|
|Killed while at large||7|
|Killed in transit north||8|
|Transferred to Germany (approximate)||3,200||52,000|
Though this is the general pattern of events, the details varied in different camps. After the announcement of the armistice in Campo PG 47 at Modena, though the guards were increased, reassuring promises were made by the Italian commandant and the British order to remain was promulgated. A number of prisoners decided to disobey it and left the camp by climbing the fence with little resistance from the guards next morning. That day at 2 p.m. the Senior British Officer, after a conference of senior officers, called the camp together and said that, in view of the uncertainties of the situation, anyone who wished to leave the camp might consider himself no longer bound by the order to remain, and he advised anyone intending to leave to go quickly. Although a few more left immediately,1 most preferred to believe the reports of Allied landings in the north and decided to wait. They had not long to wait, for by 2.30 p.m. German troops had taken over the camp and replaced the Italian sentries on the perimeter. Campo PG 19 at Bologna had been even less fortunate. A strong German force had arrived, anticipating trouble, in the early hours of 9 September, and had opened fire when a mass break-out had been attempted. There had been several casualties and only a few had got away. The German forces had also made sure of Campo PG 5, which they had surrounded and taken over early on the same morning. Thus the three camps containing nearly all the New Zealand officers were in German hands by the afternoon of 9 September.
Near Campo PG 148, the working detachment at Bussolengo, a party of German troops had taken a position just across the river from the camp a week before the armistice. The camp commandant announced it at midnight on 8 September and asked the prisoners to remain quiet so as not to ‘disturb the Germans opposite the camp’. But the latter had apparently already had their instructions. There was considerable noise of motor transport during the early morning and:
At approximately 6 a.m. we saw the armoured cars and tanks coming down towards the camp, and then we had an idea we had become German prisoners again. At 8 a.m. all was quiet and a German officer informed us we were now their prisoners.1
They were marched off almost immediately and by the 14th were on a train bound for Germany. Several other work-camps in northern Italy were similarly handed over to the Germans. The prisoners at Campo PG 103/6, high in the Dolomites, were moved suddenly on the morning of the 9th by the Italians themselves under orders and handed over later to the Germans at Treviso.
1 Diary of a New Zealand private soldier.
2 Diary of a New Zealand private soldier.
A similar break-out was made at Aquafredda (Campo PG 78/1) when an order to return to the main camp at Sulmona was disregarded by the camp leader, a New Zealand warrant officer.1 The men were marched out of camp and told to take to the hills in small groups. At some of the smaller work detachments, such as the satellities of Campo PG 107 and Campo PG 106, all the guards went off in the days following the armistice, leaving the prisoners free to go where they pleased.2 Even then many men preferred to stay and wait for the arrival of Allied troops. At Campo PG 107/5, Torre di Confine, which the prisoners were free to leave on 12 September, 24 out of 50 preferred to remain and were taken over by the Germans when they arrived ten days later. Where it was practicable to bring pressure to bear on the Italian guards, as at Campo PG 107/7, La Salute, they gave way without difficulty. The great majority of the New Zealanders who escaped from Italy after the armistice were from the camps described above, where the prisoners were for one reason or another left free to move out en masse.3
2 An exception was Campo PG 107/2, Prati Nuovi, where the employer, a Fascist, threatened to hand over the entire camp to the Germans if anyone left. He then secretly arranged with the Germans to send a strong guard and take over.
3 The rough percentage of successful escapers among those who got away from Campo PG 78/1 at Aquafredda, where all the prisoners were able to march out, may perhaps give some idea of what the overall position might have been had all camps been evacuated immediately after the armistice announcement.
|Number who got away from camp||300|
|Number who finally escaped||140|
On 15 September the Germans issued a proclamation over Rome Radio and in the Italian press:
Anglo-American prisoners of war who escaped from prisoners' camps in Italy after the armistice are to return to the camps immediately or report without delay to the nearest German military authorities outside the ‘open city’ of Rome.
All prisoners who report will be treated according to the regulations of the Geneva Convention. Those found in possession of arms or who attempt to resist capture will be treated according to martial law.
Italians giving any aid to escaped prisoners in food, money, shelter, or in any other form, will be judged according to German military law.
Many became frightened to shelter prisoners, especially as in most districts there were Fascists, now become bold again and only too willing to denounce people to the Germans and so curry favour with the new controllers of their country. Moreover, the Germans offered a reward of 1700 lire1 for information leading to the capture of any ex-prisoner of war; but in spite of this many Italians continued to help. Eventually on 30 September an announcement over the BBC made it clear to those prisoners still at liberty what their position and duty were, and perhaps helped to safeguard against ill-treatment those who fell into German hands. The announcement took the form of a carefully prepared Government statement:
In His Majesty's Government's view any British prisoners of war at large in Northern Italy, if captured by the German forces, are fully entitled to all the privileges and benefits conferred on prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention of the 27th July, 1929. They are under no obligation whatever to report to the German authorities in Northern Italy and the German demand that they should do so is entirely without foundation in international law. Their clear duty in the present circumstances is to make good their escape from enemy-occupied territory in order to rejoin their own forces, and the mere fact that they have acquired arms or may resist arrest in order to carry out this duty cannot in any way affect their right to be treated in all respects as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention if they are recaptured. Any German authority who treats such British prisoners of war otherwise than in accordance with these principles will be held by His Majesty's Governments personally responsible for his actions.
1 About £20 sterling at that time.
Even so an escaped prisoner usually got shelter and food (if only for a night) when he knocked at a house, and many Italians, apart from the peasant farmers, actively defied the German orders. An Italian Army chaplain led a party of prisoners, which increased to eighty en route, south across the Po to safe hiding in a wood near Ravenna, and then went on himself to investigate the chances of getting through the lines.1 A curfew was imposed after 9.30 p.m. and anyone seen out after that time was liable to be shot at. Many prisoners, however, did their travelling at night by avoiding roads and bridges and keeping to the open countryside. By 25 September the German authorities claimed to have seized about 40,000 to 50,000 ex-prisoners, though they had to admit also that many were still at large.2
1 He left instructions for them to wait a week for his return and then to continue in small parties south, and arranged for them to be fed by the local inhabitants. A great number of those in this party were successful in finally escaping. The original party was from Campo PG 120/8 at Fogolana, near Padua.
3 The following are the approximate numbers of successful New Zealand escapers from such camps:
|Campo PG 78/1||140|
|Campo PG 107 and its satellites||135|
|Campo PG 106 and its satellites||75|
|Campo PG 120 and its satellites||30|
At Campo PG 148, Bussolengo, there was hardly any time between the taking over of the camp by the Germans and the moving of prisoners on the first stage of their journey to Germany. At Campo PG 57 there was little delay in moving once the Germans had assumed control. Campo PG 5 and Campo PG 47 were taken over the day after the armstice announcement, but it was three days before the first prisoners left. In that period those at Campo PG 5 had explored every means of hiding up or getting out. A number worked furiously at trying to open up the sealed entrance to an old underground passage which led to the village of Gavi. Others concentrated on preparing in the roof, cellars, latrines, and walls of the old castle hiding-places ready for instant use on the first word of evacuation. When that came 68 out of 180 prisoners hid up, the rest being taken off by train. But the German troops returned with orders to winkle out every would-be escaper, and for three days they searched the building, not scrupling to dismantle portions of it nor to use firearms and grenades when necessary. All those who had hidden were found and taken to the German transit camp at Mantua, to be entrained for Germany.
The standard type of barrack at Modena did not lend itself to the variety of hiding-place that might be possible elsewhere, and 1100 to 1200 men obsessed with the same idea, many of them examining the same possibilities, did not make concealment easy. There could be no question any longer of control such as that exercised by an escape committee. The moment there were men in one barrack exploring the roof, there would be a rush to do the same in six others; and the same applied to cupboards, tunnels, wood-piles and store-rooms. It hardly seemed possible that any of those who hid up would escape detection when the camp was searched. During a nerve-racking three days while awaiting the orders to move, much clothing and food which could obviously not be carried was given away to Italians over the camp fence, and a good deal more was destroyed on a large bonfire so that it might not fall into enemy hands, until the German guards not unnaturally stopped both these activities. On the early morning of the 12th the first parties moved out of camp to the Modena railway station, and the camp was cleared by the 14th. In spite of the obviousness of most of the hiding-places, about thirty page 288 decided to hide up—in the roofs, behind a disused door, in a slit trench covered over with leaves, and even in a large (emptied) lavatory cistern. The German search was much less thorough than expected and most of these men succeeded in getting out of the camp after it had become almost deserted.
From those camps that were taken over by German troops, all except the few who succeeded in hiding up were marched to the nearest railway station. The Germans took what precautions they could to prevent escapes—a strong guard along the route, threats before setting out of the dire consequences that would follow any attempted breaks, even a demonstration with a flame-thrower at Campo PG 57. The weather was at its hottest and men struggled along in the dust, wearing or carrying whatever possessions they could, at the pace set by the guards. Some dropped with exhaustion from the heat and the exertion and were brought along later by truck. Although it was a matter of a few miles only, the weight of the food, clothing, books, and musical instruments which some felt certain they would regret having left behind, and the awkwardness of the packages, told on men who had once been used to doing route marches many times that distance, but in suitable kit and with proper equipment. The guarding was efficient and there was little chance of breaking away. From smaller camps such as Campo PG 148 or Campo PG 51 the prisoners were taken by truck to a main collection centre set up by the Germans in a commandeered sports ground at Mantua. Many of those in north-east Italy were held in smaller centres such as Palmanova before being sent to Austria by the shortest route.
A few were able to make a successful getaway by jumping from moving trucks en route to a railway station or to a transit camp. One2 of the half dozen or so New Zealanders who were still at Campo PG 52 at the time of the armistice jumped into a ditch unnoticed while being marched to the Chiavari station. With a companion he made his way over the hills to Genoa and along the Riviera to Nice. There he made contact with an underground organisation, which made arrangements for him to go to France and so to Spain. In mid-February 1944 his party crossed the Pyrenees in deep snow and blizzards, and he eventually reached Barcelona and Gibraltar.
From the moment they were locked inside, men in almost every truck looked about for ways out of it. Before the train bringing those from Campo PG 57 had reached the junction at Udine, some had crawled through the small windows and jumped clear, and from Udine onwards the stream of escapers continued. There were similar losses from the first trains on the main line north to the Brenner Pass. In later trains those openings that were not barred were closed with barbed wire to prevent such escapes. Nevertheless, in some of the wooden trucks2 a hole was made near the bolt securing one of the sliding doors, a hand was put through and the door opened, leaving the whole truckload free to make a break; and several truckloads did.
1 The phrase used in one New Zealander's eye-witness account.
2 Numbers of the trucks were of iron, which presented an almost insoluble problem to the escaper.
Now we're through [the station] and she's going lickety split and it [makes] you dizzy to watch the telephone poles. Say to Ted, “she's moving a bit fast, isn't she?” Ted says, “If we don't go now, mightn't get another chance.” Fling off into space, hit the ground running, falling forward over embankment, falling forward and smash down in a hedge. Lie doggo expecting the works any moment and watch the carriages flicking past. Now the last with dim forms on the platform, but no shot and no alarms and just a small red light fading in the distance….1
Some men were injured by hitting posts and other objects alongside the line after they had jumped. With guards firing along the outside of the train, and in no mood to be trifled with, it was a doubly dangerous operation. Of three officers who sawed a hole through the ceiling of their truck and jumped from the roof, one was killed and two wounded.2 On the whole serious injuries seem to have been remarkably few and most of the train-jumpers got off with bruises and scratches.
Occasionally a break could be made from a stationary train. A New Zealand sergeant squeezed through an opening in the end door of his truck while at a station and hid under the train until the guards' attention was distracted, when he boldly walked across the platform into the country.3 After escapes, or the discovery of a hole cut through a truck wall, the German guards were vehement in threatening severe reprisals on the occupants. But though there was some rifling of kit on the pretence of looking for cutting-tools, some rough handling with use of rifle butts, and some brandishing of firearms, there were almost no cold-blooded shootings of British prisoners.
3 Sgt H. P. Campbell (19 Bn), mentioned in despatches for his successful escape resulting from this break. He had previously escaped from the Palm Tree Camp in North Africa by hiding under the wood truck.
For most of the prisoners the journey was one of acute discomfort and, for some, of real physical hardship. But it was relieved by glimpses of splendid alpine scenery, which led at least one prisoner to call the Austrian Tyrol ‘the most beautiful country I have seen since leaving my own’.1 There was interest in the difference of landscape and dwellings from those in Italy; interest too in calling out to groups of British prisoners working alongside the railway, some of whom had been in German hands since the end of the campaign in France.
1 Account by a New Zealand private of his experiences while a prisoner of war.