Prisoners of War
III: Escapes from Italy after the Armistice
III: Escapes from Italy after the Armistice
Of those British prisoners who had managed to avoid being taken to Germany, a few had set off immediately to reach Allied forces either in southern Italy or at the supposed invasion bridgeheads near Genoa and Venice; but the great majority, not quite sure of the best course to take, had remained in the neighbourhood of their camp or gone into the hills nearby. As soon as it became apparent that the Allied advance in the south was held up, that its future progress was uncertain, and that the risk of being rounded up by Germans or Fascists was daily increasing, many were spurred on to make their way out of enemy-occupied Italy.
There were three routes open to them. For those in northern Italy, more especially the north-west, an attempt to cross the border into Switzerland seemed to offer a better chance of freedom than a long trek south; for those in north-east Italy the Yugoslav border was nearest, and it seemed best to try to reach the Slovenian partisans, work south, and so eventually cross the Adriatic; and for those in central Italy the most obvious course was to try and work their way south through the German defensive lines and so reach an Allied outpost. These were broadly the groupings of the successful escapers, though large numbers of those from camps north of the Apennines, especially in the lower Po valley, eventually made their way south. It was unfortunate that the bulk of the New Zealand prisoners were north of the Apennines and in the north-eastern area, for the Yugoslav route proved most difficult in the months immediately following the armistice, and the route south from north-eastern Italy was long and made difficult by German and Fascist control of roads and bridges. It was unfortunate, too, that nearly half the New Zealanders were in Campo PG 57, which was transferred to Germany en bloc. This may explain why the number of New Zealand escapers from Italy was roughly 12 per cent of the total New Zealand prisoners there at the time of the armistice, whereas the overall percentage for British Commonwealth forces was double this figure.1
|British Commonwealth escapers in Mediterranean (West) area (nearly all from Italy)||11,776|
|British Commonwealth escapers to Switzerland||4,916|
|Estimated approximate total of British Commonwealth troops in Italy at the time of the armistice||70,000|
Numbers of Allied escaped prisoners as well as Italians made their appearance on the Swiss border almost immediately after the armistice. The British were mainly from Campo PG 62 at Bergamo,4 which had been thrown open by the Italian camp authorities, and they reached the border near Chiasso. A first party of 70 was admitted by the Swiss frontier guards without demur, but the news that many thousands were also making their way there caused the Swiss Government to delay further parties at the frontier while they considered the consequences of admitting all and sundry.
2 Estimated at 155.
As soon as it was known that they would be freely admitted across the Swiss border, many of those who had been hesitating or sheltering with Italian rebels made their way in that direction. Almost all received some help on the way from Italian people—food, clothing, shelter, maps, money, information about the whereabouts of Germans and Fascists, directions as to how to reach the border, sometimes guides who took them by train or by car to a convenient place and arranged other guides to take them across. Some Italians were very frightened of reprisals, but it should be remembered that many paid later with imprisonment, confiscation or burning of their property, and death, for help given with no certainty of reward.
The Swiss border projects into Italy in four places: near Monte Rosa, near Como, near Tirano, and near Bormio. It was towards the four salients of Swiss territory thus shown on the map that the streams of escapers were directed. On 19 September the first New Zealanders arrived in Switzerland, all from the Vercelli area. An Italian took one man by train to the vicinity of Lake Lugano and showed him how to get across; two others were taken to stations on the eastern edge of Lake Maggiore and made their way over at Ponte Tresa. Four others were taken by car to Piedicavelli north of Biella and made their way to the foothills, where they were taken by guides across the mountains and into Switzerland by the Moro Pass, to the north-east of Monte Rosa in the Pennine Alps.
1 Berne to Foreign Office, dated 7 June 1944.
Many parties hired mountain guides or smugglers to help them negotiate the mountainous part of their journey Some of them included Italian troops who, to avoid conscription into the Fascist militia, chose to flee the country. Many of their fellow-soldiers pursued the alternative course of going into the mountains and taking up arms against the German intruder. Some of our men spent several weeks with these armed bands, which had formed almost immediately after the armistice, in the hills of many parts of Italy. But in most of them there was a shortage of arms and a lack of organisation which decided the majority of our men to seek a way out.
During the month of September and the first half of October 1943 seventy1 New Zealanders made their way into Switzerland, nearly all of them over the Moro Pass, and most approaching it through Alagna and Macugnaga. Extracts from one man's2 account may serve to illustrate their experiences:
So we decided for Switzerland. That night, 16th September, by the full moon we started…. First night 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. we did about sixteen miles over the flooded paddocks to near the city of Biella. We could see the dome of the sanctuary3 by moonlight. We slept in the pines and revealed ourselves to the peasants that evening to get some food…. We ate and paid with soap and Canadian coffee and moved on. It rained and when we ran into a civilian he persisted in us sleeping in a room where we could stay next day. We slept, but when daylight came he insisted we move out … we moved hurriedly. We never stopped until we were about two thousand feet up in the mountain in a dairy farmer's hayloft. We stayed till ten that night and bought some cold polenta for some coffee…. At ten we moved and over the hill at a good speed. At daylight we were forced to ask the way…. We marched till 6 p.m. without a rest until we reached a Refugio on the mountains (about 8,000 feet) … we met a German-speaking Tyrolese who guided us over the mountain…. That day we crossed to the next valley (the Sesia). We had expected to be away from roads but were only really crossing ranges between roads going up the valleys. It was there we saw the notices offering rewards for our capture and the announcement of the death penalty for harbouring us. We slept the night in a house but were ushered out well before daylight and went up the valley and over Col Turlo (about 9,000 feet), and down to our last village in Italy, Macugnaga. We were informed by an Italian who said he was forming a partisan band that the Germans stayed in the village on alternate nights and that Fascists guarded the track over the hills…. We slept under the pines that night. He had told us of these Fascists and their routine. They came outpage 305 at daylight with binoculars and scanned the mountainside, which was visible to them, and if anyone was seen they would send up a patrol with bloodhounds to make a capture.
3 A huge Catholic sanctuary built on the slopes of Mont Mucrone.
However at 1 a.m. we were woken by a cold rain. We started on an empty stomach and found our way through the village and up a track cut in the cliff face for some distance. It was raining heavily and at the end of the formed track we were lost in the rhododendron scrub. Daylight came and we looked down to the village from which pursuit might come. A belt of fog separated us and it was a great comfort to think that no scent would remain for even the most acute-nosed bloodhound. We found the track at about 6 a.m. and moved upwards. The rain changed to snow. There were mounds of stones marking what was apparently a contrabandier track. At about 2 p.m. we crossed the top. We had been told that on the other side the first two villages were Italian and the third Swiss. However we were over Moro Pass (10,400 feet) and the true position was that the border was the mountain top. Down the side a little, the two of us who were bringing up the rear saw our other two mates collected by a soldier in the blue of the Italian Army. We immediately thought of an opportunity to crown him with a boulder or put him over a cliff. Then we looked closer…. He was Swiss and we'd made it … (22 September).
In September two of our men had been able to cross over the Theodul Pass by the Matterhorn. All these men were other ranks from camps in the Vercelli area.
In November six New Zealand officers, five Army and one Air Force,1 crossed the border. Three of them had jumped from trains on the way to Germany, two had hidden up in Campo PG 47 at Modena and got out after the Germans had left, and one had hidden in the neighbourhood of Campo PG 29 at Viano after it had been released.2 They had spent their period at large in Italy with Italian families or with rebels in the hills. Two of those who jumped from a train remained together, and they and each of the others made their way separately to Milan and north with Italian help. They were guided over the Swiss border by Italians, three near Lake Como, one at Ponte Chiasso, and two with a smuggler beyond Lake Maggiore.
1 Three more New Zealand Air Force officers were successful later.
2 From trains: Maj T. W. Straker, Capt W. G. Gray, and Lt F. E. Wilson, all while in transit from Campo PG 5 to Germany. All were mentioned in despatches for their escaping work. From Campo PG 47 : Lt K. M. W. MacDonald and Fg Off K. L. Lee (RNZAF), mentioned in despatches. From Campo PG 29: Maj R. S. Orr.
Three men crossed the border in December at Campo Cologna, near Tirano in the Tellina Valley north of Brescia. One1 had escaped from Campo PG 107 only to be recaptured; he cut a hole in the side of the truck taking him to Germany and jumped off near Verona. Making his way to Gorizia, he tried to cross the frontier into Yugoslavia but failed and, after some time with guerrillas, finally turned south to Padua Here he met another New Zealander from Campo PG 107 and together they made their way north to Tirano, where they were helped over the border by a smuggler. Another man from Campo PG 107 who had got as far north as Udine, turned back and made his way to Brescia and so to Tirano, crossing into Switzerland on the last day of the year.
Swiss frontier guards were waiting at most of the entrances to their country. ‘They seemed to be expecting us,’ runs the diary of one soldier who came over the Moro Pass. Parties arriving by that route were taken to the Swiss village of Almagell, where in the dining room of a hotel their particulars were taken and they were given a meal; later they were allotted a place to sleep on straw in a Sunday School building, and a doctor attended to raw and blistered feet or any other conditions requiring first aid. For most of them the last part of the journey had been strenuous and not a little nerve-racking, and many arrived ‘all in’.2
Prisoners who had left their camps and were living in the plains surrounding the Gulf of Venice soon heard of armed rebels operating in the hills to the north and east of Gorizia, to which many Italian soldiers1 were flocking to avoid conscription by the new Fascist Republic. Many prisoners made their way to them shortly after the armistice in the hope that they might thus be able to gain entry into partisan-held Yugoslavia.
The partisans in Slovenia were by late 1943 an organised and disciplined military force which had been fighting for over two years. They had survived Mussolini's offensive of May 1942 intended to destroy them, and were in full occupation of considerable areas of liberated territory. Since the arrival of a British liaison officer in April 1942 they had been recognised by the British Government, which was sending them supplies. There was as yet, however, no arrangement with them for evacuating through their territory escaped British prisoners of war, and their outposts operating in north-east Italy, seeing only the need for recruits, tried to persuade or force escaped prisoners of whatever nationality to fight with them. Most British prisoners returned west2 when they found that instead of being helped to rejoin their own forces they were expected to join a partisan3 band; many who had done so soon tired of fatigues and guard duties and hit-and-run fighting with a motley, ill-armed and ill-fed force, in the command of which they had no say, and whose political aims were more apparent than its military objectives.
At the beginning of October, however, when Germans and Fascists began seriously rounding up loose ex-prisoners, a number set out and joined the partisan bands, intending to shelter with them for the time being at least. One man's diary describes his first encounter with a partisan outpost in the foothills of the Julian Alps:
Arrived at a village called Castel Dobra, where we were all given a great time. One chap rushed up and kissed us all. All rebels here giving the closed first salute … climbed high ridge, down a valley and up another ridge where we struck a rebel outpost. All in various kinds of
1 Many thousands also formed their own bands of rebelli.
2 Some were threatened with shooting by the partisans if they ‘deserted’, but these threats were not carried out.page 308 uniforms and with all sorts of arms, covered with hand grenades—one even had a sword. Girls also armed and in uniforms…. Mongolian and two Serbs joined this battalion.
3 To avoid confusion in this section the term ‘partisans’ has been used to refer to the Yugoslav guerrillas and the term ‘rebels’ to the Italian bands formed after the German occupation, most of whom seem to have called themselves in the early stages rebelli.
Men who had jumped from north-bound trains also joined the partisans, and soon there was a sprinkling from most parts of the Commonwealth and from several Allied countries. The partisan headquarters for the area had decided to set up a British camp at Caporetto; mixed platoons of British Commonwealth troops were soon formed and were being used in action against German patrols in early October.
It was at this stage (about 11 October) that two escaped British majors1 arrived in the area and decided that British troops could be put to better use if they were extricated and brought back under British command. By the middle of the month they had ordered those with whom they made contact to cease fighting under partisan command,2 had collected a party of 85 at Stupizza for evacuation, and were negotiating with the partisan leaders at Caporetto for a safe conduct through partisan-held Yugoslav territory to the Dalmatian coast. Partisan headquarters viewed with disfavour what they regarded as the defection of the British and were uncooperative. After a heated argument, however, they agreed to pass them on to the next command on 17 October, and this process, with much similar argument, was repeated as the ex-prisoners continued their slow journey southwards. They were usually able to arrange for a guide from village to village and sometimes an armed escort.
From command to command we were passed, spending with different units of Tito's variegated forces, sometimes a few hours, sometimes days, and on one occasion over a week. Always there were interminable discussions with the partisans, always the same difficulties in persuading them to agree to our plans. Once we were held captive for over a week, four days being spent in the open with rain falling and snow threatening. With the first winter snow on the ground they flatly refused to give us any [further] guides or escort on account of a large-scale German round-up ofpage 309 partisans, and Stump1 led the party with a home-made compass belonging to me across thirty miles of country dominated by the Germans, into which no partisan would venture.2
Half of them were in civilian clothing, which together with their boots, was in a bad state and the partisans could not supply any more.
The partisans lived by raiding local Italian villages and taking what they required, and were trying to use British troops on these raids as much as possible, for political reasons.
According to a British captain who had been engaged in fighting with the partisans, co-operation was next to impossible because of the language difficulty and differences in training.
The men stated that they only took up arms because they felt under some obligation to the partisans for feeding them, and were intending when opportunity offered to return to western Italy.’
The party crossed the Isonzo River to Circhina and passed into Yugoslav territory north of Idria; 40-odd men with poor footwear and equipment were detached to follow on more slowly. After moving south-east across the large plateau of western Slovenia, they kept broadly to the high country near the coast till they reached Otocac. There were often long marches in all weathers over difficult country, sometimes with German patrols on their heels, and food was poor in quality. On occasions they came under fire, and in the confusion of one hurried withdrawal a portion of the second party became scattered, though 22 of them later rejoined the main body and one or two came out with a later party.
In the course of their journey they met and were helped as far as possible by officers of the British military mission who had been smuggled into Yugoslav territory from April 1942 on. In late November they crossed the Kupa River into Croatia, and were taken on 140 miles by truck to Otocac, the seat of the Slovenian Liberation Government. After 18 days there, during which they were well treated and entertained at a sumptuous feast to receive the thanks of the Slovenian Government for the equipment sent by Britain and the United States, they were driven to the port of Senj. A fishing boat took them to the island of Vis, whence a landing craft brought them across the Adriatic to Bari on 23 December. They were the first party3 to come out through Yugoslavia, and the information they brought helped in the organisation of what was to prove a most fruitful escape route.
1 Maj Gibbon.
2 Capt Riddiford (6 Fd Regt). He commanded the New Zealand section of the party (26 all told) and also acted as interpreter in all the negotiations with the Yugoslavs. For his work with this party and his escapes he was awarded the MC.
3 The party finished up with a strength of 62, including 26 New Zealanders. They were: Capt D. J. Riddiford, Pte J. A. Abel (25 Bn), Dvr W. F. Andrews (4 Res MT Coy), mentioned in despatches, Pte P. A. Burke (26 Bn), Pte H. Carson (28 Bn), Pte D. W. W. Chambers (24 Bn), Pte N. A. Gosling (20 Bn), Pte E. W. R. Hart (22 Bn), Pte J. A. Illston (22 Bn), Pte J. Hutton (20 Bn), L-Cpl R. D. Johnstone (20 Bn), mentioned in despatches, Pte H. J. Joseph (23 Bn), Cpl C. H. Kerse (18 Bn), Pte F. J. Laird (20 Bn), Pte J. E. Lockhead (19 Bn), Pte J. S. Lugton (27 Bn), Pte P. S. Mackay (23 Bn), Pte J. W. Mount (20 Bn), Pte H. Nicol (7 A Tk Regt), Pte R. M. Reeve (22 Bn), Pte E. M. Robinson (25 Bn), Pte B. M. Robson (23 Bn), Spr B. H. Smith (8 Fd Coy), Pte N. Smith (20 Bn), Pte A. J. Svenson (20 Bn), L-Cpl J. H. Wildman (22 Bn).
4 Cpl J. Denvir (20 Bn). see pp. 134–5. For the destruction of a German train and its accompanying unit he was awarded the DCM, and he won the Soviet Medal for Valour for the whole period of his service with the Yugoslav partisans.
Those prisoners who were fortunate enough to be at camps in central Italy in September 1943, and who had the additional good fortune to be released or to be able to free themselves fairly easily, had little difficulty in deciding what to do. Some set out immediately to meet the Allied forces in the Naples area, and many of those that lay up for a day or two to size up the situation soon followed them; the remainder who decided to stay hidden and wait for the Allied forces to reach them were far enough south to make such an outcome seem only a matter of a few weeks. For by 27 September Foggia had fallen to British forces advancing from Taranto, and by 1 October Allied forces on the west of the peninsula had taken Naples and were advancing to the Volturno.
The break-out of 300 other ranks from the working camp PG 78/1 at Aquafredda, leaving behind only a medical sergeant and nine sick men, has already been mentioned. They were organised in parties of ten, equipped with a stock of Red Cross food, and told to make for the surrounding thickly wooded and rather precipitous hills. Unfortunately 4000-odd from the base camp at Sulmona had taken similar action, and the German military authorities had sent out strong patrols to recapture as many as possible. Many had taken shelter in the hill villages such as Caramanico and San Spirito, but had to leave when they were occupied by German troops. The Germans claimed to have captured 2000 escaped prisoners in the area around Sulmona, but many were soon in civilian clothing and either being sheltered by Italian families or living in the high country in caves, in both cases depending on the local population for their food. Numbers crossed the Maiella Massif to Pennapiedimonte and Guardiagrele, there to wait a more favourable opportunity of rejoining Allied forces.
Some of the early successful escapers avoided the area between Sulmona, Roccaraso and Castel di Sangro, where the German page 311 rounding-up patrols had been active, and kept in a south-easterly direction to reach the Eighth Army outposts near Bovino, Lucera, and San Severo in the Foggia area at the end of September and the beginning of October.1 Others kept to the idea of making in the direction of Naples. One New Zealander2 got within sight of the American lines south-east of Avellino a fortnight after leaving camp, only to be captured there by German troops. Taken back to Sulmona, he escaped from a train carrying 400 prisoners north to Rome, made his way back and brought 17 Indian troops through to an American division at Cereti, south of Letino, on 13 October.
In this early period, too, a number of men from camps in northern Italy successfully reached the Allied lines, covering the long distance by the simple expedient of getting on to southbound trains and travelling by rail as far as they could, thus obviating the disadvantage under which they had started. The trains in this period were packed with Italian troops and civilians returning to their homes, no tickets were required, and there was no check on who was travelling. For the first few days after the armistice trains were still running from as far north as Ancona down to British-held Bari. Then the Germans stopped them going much farther south than Pescara, and after a while they were roughly checking some of the trains in various parts of Italy; but it was not until mid-November that passenger traffic was strictly controlled. Using the trains four New Zealanders from Campo PG 107, north-east of Venice, were safe in Allied hands by 30 September, and another seven from the same camp, together with one from Campo PG 120/8, near Padua, in early October.
1 As early as 19 September 327 British Commonwealth ex-prisoners had reached Allied lines.
3 Three of the party, Ptes E. Barnett (20 Bn), R. Kendrick (22 Bn), and C. L. Tayler (19 Bn) were mentioned in despatches.
As the Allied armies advanced slowly north up the Italian peninsula, more men felt they were near enough to be able to avoid the German posts and reach liberated territory. But by mid-October the German forces had formed a defensive line astride the peninsula and their back areas were guarded. Civilian clothes were essential; roads had to be crossed by night and rivers forded. However, the British Intelligence organisation for extricating escapers and evaders (MI9) had field sections with both the Fifth and Eighth Armies, and their guides behind the enemy lines were encouraging and directing out large numbers of prisoners.2 A few came down to the west of the Apennines to meet the American forces south of Venafro.
Many more made contact with Allied units near the Termoli-Campobasso road, among them 54 New Zealand other ranks (50 of them from Campo PG 78/1 at Aquafredda) and three officers from Campo PG 47 at Modena.3 The last left the camp after the senior British officer had given permission but before the Germans had surrounded it, and after a few days in the fields made their way to Bologna in civilian clothes. They travelled by train to Pescara and then inland, finally sheltering with farmers in the Casoli area, with the intention of remaining until the Allied advance overran them. This was slower than expected, and the danger of being rounded up by German troops or betrayed by Fascists forced them into hiding in the hills. Having decided to try to get through the lines, they travelled cautiously southward, eventually crossed the Biferno River and reached a British outpost near Casacalenda in mid-October.
1 Sgt J. A. Redpath, DCM, MM (19 A Tps Coy). He had previously escaped from Galatas camp on Crete, made his way to Greece, and led a party of 17, which he brought back to North Africa. He then joined ‘A’ Force for operations in Greece, but was captured by Italians on the island of Antiparos. Involved in a tunnel escape at Campo PG 35, he was sent to Campo PG 5 and was there at the time of the armistice.
2 The situation report of its No. 2 Section, based on Campobasso, as at 1 November 1943 states: ‘ … last 48 hours 46 E & Es brought out by my guides total since 22 October officers 24 other ranks 188. This figure only those brought out personally by our guides.’ By 20 November the total claimed for all sections of the organisation was 1004.
By early November the Eighth Army had crossed the Trigno River and was advancing towards the Sangro; more prisoners came down from the hills to meet them at Palmoli, and later at Atessa and other places on the coastal slopes. Though they were nearly all from Campo PG 78/1, there was a sprinkling of men from Campo PG 70, from Campo PG 107, from Campo PG 120/5 near Padua, and three from Campo PG 145 at Campotosto, north of Aquila. There had been only a handful of New Zealanders at the last camp, from which about three-quarters of the prisoners had got away. Most of them made for Sulmona and then for the coastal plains; the three New Zealanders made their way south to Palmoli on 7 November.2
As the Allied forces advanced up the eastern Italian seaboard it became an obvious method of escape to secure a boat from a more northerly point on the coast and sail down the Adriatic to land on liberated territory.3 A New Zealand officer,4 who escaped by this means, got away from the camp at Modena after it had been taken over by German troops by remaining hidden for three days in a shallow trench under some tomato plants, and then dodging through the wire unobserved. With help from Italians in the neighbourhood he acquired civilian clothes and a map and travelled by various trains to Senigallia, whence he got a lift in a German truck as far as Ancona. He then travelled by bicycle and walked to Porto Civitanova, where he arranged with a fisherman to take him with a party of others to Termoli, announced over the radio as in British hands. They arrived safely on 14 November. Since the beginning of October an MI9 section based on Termoli had been landing agents on the Adriatic coast, and at the same time taking off escapers and evaders from the coast as far north as Ancona; fishing boats loaded with such parties had been regularly heaving to in the small harbour at Termoli.
A reference has been made to the establishment in Italy of field sections of M19,2 the British organisation for helping escapers and evaders, other sections of which had been operating for some time in Greece and Crete. Based on Algiers, the first elements of MI9 to land in Italy followed closely on the heels of the invasion forces, and by 12 October the responsibility for ‘rescue work’ (as it came to be known) was divided geographically as follows:
From the enemy front lines back to a depth of fifty or sixty miles—the responsibility of detachments with the invading armies.
The detachment of MI9 at Termoli was occupied at first with sea operations on the Adriatic coast, and main headquarters at Algiers with operations in Corsica and the western Mediterranean and with the dropping of agents in north Italy to carry out long-term plans.
1 Lts H. F. Flower (25 Bn) and R. M. Wood (19 Bn), both mentioned in despatches.
3 Money, maps, compasses.
4 These two sections were in operation by mid-September, but the boat section not till October.
Many of the escapers after coming through the lines were given meals and somewhere to sleep and were generally looked after by the field sections of MI9. But as these units were not equipped for this type of work, the men were sent south as soon as possible. The Allied Repatriation Unit, with forward sections to do this work, had not yet been formed, and transit camps were set up by the Armistice Prisoner of War Sub-Commission in this early stage only at Taranto, Naples and Algiers, though by 3 December there was also one in operation at Bari. After the collapse of the plan for a smooth evacuation of prisoners from their camps in Italy and the consequent scrapping of the large organisation set up to carry it out, the Sub-Commission took a little time to adjust itself to the new situation.
There was another factor working on the side of the escaper. In the months following the armistice, Italian underground ‘Liberation Committees, had sprung up out of hatred for the German occupation forces in some of the Italian cities—Milan, Florence, Novara, Brescia, Como, and others. Many of them set up organisations for assisting prisoners to escape, operating mainly across north Italy to the Swiss border.2 There were also ‘rebel’ bands of Italians in most of the mountain districts: in the Italian Alps, to the north of Biella, of Lecco, Bergamo, and Brescia, and of Udine in the east; in the Apennines, from Genoa to Monte Falterona and south to the Abruzzi. Many were soldiers from the former Italian Army and some were fairly well equipped; but equipment, numbers, and reliability varied a great deal. Nevertheless, Italian resistance to the Germans was such that as early as 13 October 1943 Italy was recognised as a co-belligerent by Britain, America and Russia. Escaped prisoners could usually find refuge with such bands, and often guides to take them on by the nearest escape route.
1 The British and United States personnel consisted of guides and ‘rounders-up’, who were parachuted in or landed by sea, and beach parties. Most were sent in as part of a special operation mounted during October to bring off quickly as many ex-prisoners as possible. Later, British and US personnel were used sparingly behind the lines, as it was found to be more practical to employ Italian agents as guides.
2 See p. 303 for a reference to such an organisation.
One escaped officer, in his interrogation, described the southward escape routes of prisoners of war from north and central Italy as forming a funnel at the southern end of the Apennines a few days' march from the Allied lines. Here in late 1943 were gathered men who had been forced up from the plains or deterred from making the last stage of their journey by the thickness of the German forces on the ground. Many of them had been compelled to live in hill caves and mountain huts, in order to avoid betrayal in a village and the consequent implication of the Italian family which sheltered them. With them in the high country were Italian rebels—soldiers avoiding conscription into the Fascist militia and civilians avoiding digging and other forced labour for the German forces. One estimate put the number of British escaped prisoners in these areas as high as 6000, and it is clear from the reports of escapers as they came through that the number was very large. For food they depended on the generosity of the local peasants, who however found the task of providing for increasing numbers very difficult. Some prisoners who had come long distances had worn out their boots, and to those with little clothing the cold of November and early December brought great hardship. Finally the snows became deep, and most of those attempting to get through the lines returned with the story that it was impossible. Sickness and the prospect of a winter under those severe conditions caused many to come down for shelter to the lower villages, hoping to make another attempt in the spring. But though many remained successfully hidden through the winter, others were caught and a few killed in the German round-ups that took place after the front became more or less static. One or two, undaunted by previous failures, pushed ahead over the mountains and reached the Allied lines by Christmas Eve.1