Prisoners of War
II: The War in Italy in 1944 and Escapes to Allied Lines
II: The War in Italy in 1944 and Escapes to Allied Lines
The heavy snows of the winter of 1943–44 enabled the Germans to hold their defensive line across the narrowest portion of the peninsula with a comparatively small force. The containing of the Allied landing south of Rome at Anzio in January 1944 and the page 411 repulse of attacks on Cassino in February held up the advance until the late spring. In May, however, the fall of Cassino was the prelude to a rapid advance north, attacks from the Anzio bridgehead, and the fall of Rome. The end of the year saw the west coast of Italy cleared as far as the Apennines and the east coast as far as the Senio River, where the winter held up the Eighth Army's advance.
First with the Fifth Army and then back with the Eighth, the New Zealand Division was almost constantly engaged in either an attacking or a defensive role in the Italian fighting of 1944. The year's fighting cost us nearly a thousand killed1 and 3600 wounded, but only a hundred or so prisoners. The battle for Cassino accounted for nearly half of the prisoners, most of whom were lost in the attack on the railway station by 28 (Maori) Battalion on 17–18 February and in the attack on the Continental Hotel by 21 Battalion on 20–21 March. Most of the remainder of the prisoners were lost piecemeal in the series of attacks which brought the Division to the Arno River2 and later in the advance to Rimini. One or two were able to escape to our lines while in transit in Italy.
German policy was still to collect them at Stalag 337 (later Dulag 339) on the outskirts of Mantua and transfer them to Germany after a few days there. Not much trouble was therefore taken to improve conditions in the transit camp. Sleeping quarters remained unheated and the camp had ‘practically no lighting.’ In the latter part of 1944, however, when German transport was disorganised by air raids, men often had to stay several weeks. A kitchen, showers, and air-raid shelters were installed, and the camp managed to acquire indoor games and a library of 350 English books.
During the winter months and the early spring of 1944 while the German line remained static, only a trickle of escapers came through to the Allied lines in the south. It became exceedingly difficult for them to obtain sufficient food, especially when on the move, and enemy security had increased. Most of those who succeeded were helped by guides which the Allied rescue organisation3 had infiltrated into enemy territory. The New Zealanders who came through in this period were nearly all from Campo PG 78/1, and had been living in and about the hill villages south and east of Sulmona since their break-out from camp.
1 Including died of wounds.
2 These included Brig K. L. Stewart who was captured while on reconnaissance. He was the third of three brigade commanders from the Division to be captured in the Second World War. The others were Brig J. Hargest, captured in November 1941 when his headquarters was overrun at Sidi Azeiz, and Brig G. H. Clifton, captured while on reconnaissance during the Alamein fighting in September 1942. The only other New Zealand brigadier to be taken was Brig R. Miles, captured while CRA 2 NZ Division during the Sidi Rezegh fighting of December 1941.
3 See p. 314.
The only New Zealander to come through the lines in January was, however, from Campo PG 107.1 He had wasted no time leaving the camp when a hole had been cut in the fence and had made for the south. When his companion became ill with malaria, he continued to walk on alone and by 20 October had almost reached the front. After spending some time hidden in a hillside tunnel, he was recaptured and taken to a transit camp. But he and five others escaped by cutting a hole in the roof of their hut, and he again went into hiding. When a plane dropped stores for prisoners one night, several of his companions were recaptured while trying to collect them, but luckily he was elsewhere. Finally he met a guide who had been parachuted in by the Allied rescue organisation, and joined a party of twelve which came out near Casoli after a strenuous 23-hour tramp.
In February there came through the lines the only New Zealand escaper to reach the Anzio bridgehead.2 When the armistice was announced he had been recovering from an operation in Carpi hospital, which was taken over by the Germans next day. Four days later, by arrangement with one of the medical orderlies, he was wheeled out of the hospital, hidden in a box of rubbish, and tipped into a pit in the hospital grounds. At dusk he left the grounds, traded a ring for some civilian clothes, and set off for the foothills to the south. In the following weeks he made his way along the eastern slopes of the Apennines, where he was fed and sheltered by Italian households and occasionally by groups of Italian rebels. Skirting the Gran Sasso to the east, he and a British Army officer reached the village of Corvaro to the south of Rieti, where they stayed some two months, as the Englishman had fallen sick. Finally, with four Italian companions, they crossed a mountain range and made their way down towards Anzio. In their attempt to get through the German lines and no-man's-land several of the party were killed, but the New Zealander managed to get through with only an arm wound. He was able to give some valuable information about enemy dispositions.
3 Ptes L. N. Matthews (24 Bn) and F. Cameron (22 Bn).
A week or so afterwards two groups of New Zealanders came out from enemy territory near Guardiagrele. One group1 of three from Campo PG 78/1 had stayed in the Maiella Mountains for a fortnight after their release, returning to the camp for food when they required it. They had been discouraged by returning Italians from trying for the south and had stayed in their mountain hiding-place until November 1943. Snow had then forced them down to the village of Lettomanopello, where one had lived in a disused mine and the other two in a cave. At the beginning of March they made contact with two Italian guides, who brought them out two days later.
By April conditions for prisoners of war in hiding had somewhat improved. There had been a reduction in the number of German troops used for rounding up; and although some Italian clandestine organisations had been broken up, those which remained were better at looking after the escaped prisoners in their charge. The latter had learned whom to trust and whom not to trust among the population, but their distrust sometimes made the work of rescuers more difficult. The slow rate of evacuation of escapers was due partly to this, partly to a stricter control of documents, and partly to an increasing difficulty in obtaining civilian clothing and money. Many prisoners judged it wiser to wait for the Allied spring offensive which they felt was almost sure to come.
Four New Zealand other ranks2 were guided out in April. They had belonged to parties which, on the break-up of Campo PG 78/1, had made their way to Caramanico. The local magistrate had instructed all the inhabitants to help escaped prisoners, and a New Zealand sergeant, before making his way to the lines in November 1943, had set up a small organisation to maintain contact with the various groups of escapers in the neighbourhood, supply them with money and information, and see that they were generally cared for. These four escapers moved along the hill villages during the winter, living as best they could, and made contact with guides in April 1944. With the latter they travelled across the Maiella Mountains to Fara San Martino, where they met British troops on 16 April.
1 Ptes A. E. Morrison (20 Bn), G. H. Logan (24 Bn) and C. R. Carolin (19 Bn).
Three others came out in March. Two of them,3 after a period in the hills and in a cave, had joined a party which was being guided out. On the night of 2 March the party was split in two, and three days later their portion was recaptured in a village near Guardiagrele by a German patrol operating in civilian clothes. Together with a number of Italian civilians, they were set to work digging but managed to slip away. They found a cave in which they sheltered until they met a guide, who brought them out near Casoli on 10 March.
The last New Zealander4 brought out in March had been recaptured in mid-October 1943 on the banks of the Trigno, south of Vasto, while still in uniform. But, with a companion, he had escaped from the old Campo PG 21 at Chieti, had reached Roccamorice, and had lived in the area for five months. Here the pair met one of the guides of the Allied rescue organisation and were brought out to Casoli on 21 March 1944.
The British generals from Campo PG12, who had been sheltering in the Monte Falterona area, were evacuated in two parties by the boat section of the Allied rescue organisation. With the second of these parties on 9 May came two New Zealand other ranks5 from Campo PG 120/8, the farming detachment at Fogolana. They had left in the large party conducted south to Ravenna by one of the Italian officers of the camp, but after making their way to a partisan band at Stabatenza, had fallen sick with malaria and had been cared for by an Italian family. At the beginning of April 1944 they were conducted to the coast and arrived at Termoli by fishing boat on 10 May.
1 See p. 318.
3 Ptes R. E. Gain and I. V. T. Whitehead (both 24 Bn).
5 Ptes K. C. H. Ellicott (21 Bn) and G. H. Ross (22 Bn).
In May 1944 the breaking of the winter Gustav Line at Cassino and elsewhere and the attack from the Anzio bridgehead forced the Germans to retire rapidly north to their next belt of defence—the Gothic Line. The fall of Rome and the liberation of areas of central Italy where numbers of escapers had been sheltering enabled the latter to come out of hiding and meet the Allied forces, with whom they had originally been led to expect contact soon after the armistice announcement, eight or nine months earlier. Since October 1943 there had been an organisation in Rome supplying money, food, clothing, and accommodation to escaped prisoners both in the city and over a wide radius of country districts. From the beginning of December it had come under the control of a British major. In spite of the activity of German and Fascist police, the organisation continued to help large numbers of Allied prisoners, nearly 40002 having received help from it up to the time of the liberation of Rome.
2 Of 3925 helped by the organisation, only 122 were recaptured and ten died from various causes. Of this total 40 New Zealanders were helped and one was recaptured.
3 Forty-four were New Zealand ex-prisoners of war.
4 Ptes H. C. Podmore (19 Bn), J. C. H. Adamson (5 Fd Amb) and R. A. Morris (5 Fd Amb).
Another1 had tried to get through near Cassino at the end of 1943, but had been recaptured and taken to the former Campo PG 54 at Fara nel Sabina. In January the train taking him north had been bombed while crossing a bridge near Orvieto and he and some companions had been able to escape. After spending some time with different rebel bands, he came through to Colfa to meet the Americans at the beginning of June.
Two officers2 from Campo PG 47 at Modena were reached by the Allied forces on 5 June. Both had escaped from Campo PG 75 at Bari in August 1942 by cutting the wire and slipping out at night, but had been retaken a few days later by Italian civil defence personnel while making their way to Switzerland. They got away from Modena on 9 September, just before the arrival of German troops, made their way across the Apennines to Leghorn, and from there south to the Santa Lucia Valley near Rome. There they made contact with an organisation helping escaped prisoners of war and remained in the vicinity of Rome until liberated by the arrival of the Allied forces on 5 June.
Another New Zealand officer3 cycled to meet the advancing troops at Arimazzo on 6 June. He had been one of eight who had made a break through a tunnel from Campo PG 29 in July 1943, but had been recaptured. On the release of the camp after the armistice announcement he and others made their way across the Apennines to the west coast and then decided to go south, skirting Florence and keeping to the hill country. He eventually reached Vallipietra, near Subiaco, and remained in the area for six months, during which time he was able to look after the welfare of other prisoners sheltering there by buying and distributing food, clothing and medicine.
A New Zealand officer2 who escaped through the lines during this period had first regained his liberty near Verona by jumping from a train taking prisoners to Germany in September 1943. With a companion he had reached the central mountainous region and had worked his way south. He had made an attempt to get through the lines north of the Sangro in December, only to be recaptured by a German machine-gun crew. By posing as an Italian workman he managed to escape from a transit barrack at Aquila, and made his way again to the hill village not far away which had previously sheltered him. German search parties made it too difficult to stay there, and forced him to eke out a cold and hungry existence in a shepherd's hut higher in the mountains, and for some weeks to throw in his lot with a group of Yugoslav francs-tireurs. In mid-April he and a Canadian parachutist again tried to get through the lines, this time at Alfadena to the east of Cassino, but they stumbled into a German outpost when within reach of freedom. While being taken north he again broke free by diving into the Salto River, then in spring flood from the melting snows. Nursed back to health in an Italian household from the resulting pneumonia, he remained in the hills and came down to meet the advancing British forces near Aquila in mid-June.
1 Cpl R. G. Sutton (20 Bn), L-Cpl R. L. Burbery (26 Bn), Ptes R. D. Barrett (20 Bn), W. Buchanan (20 Bn), S. Butson (20 Bn), J. A. Clarke (22 Bn), I. C. Dickinson (20 Bn), Gnr J. I. Flowers (14 Lt AA Regt), Pte F. C. V. Free (19 Bn), Gnr H. J. Gordon (7 A-Tk Regt), Ptes R. W. Pearse (27 MG Bn), J. A. Robinson (20 Bn), and Gnr H. C. Thompson (5 Fd Regt).
The two officers from Modena had both hidden up after the Germans took over the camp, one concealed inside a doorway through a two-foot-thick wall by locking the door on one side and fixing a false one on the other, and the other in a large empty lavatory cistern at the end of one of the barracks. They and their companions had escaped detection in the Germans' final search, had got out of the camp and had made their way south. The first2 of the two officers walked for some 350 miles before the late December mountain snows near the Maiella Massif forced him back. He was pulled exhausted out of a snow-drift by two Italians on 1 January 1944 and was thenceforth looked after by Italian families until the Allied forces overran the area.
The second3 of the two officers, with a companion, walked south into the Apennines, lived and worked on a farm north-east of Florence and finally had to live in a mountain cave. In late October they swam the Arno and, keeping to the hills and dodging patrols, reached by Christmas a hill village between Rieti and Aquila, where Italians provided shelter and food. From here they sometimes came down to rapid German trucks for boots and clothing, and on such an occasion in February his companion was recaptured but he got away with a wound in the thigh. When the Germans pulled back north, he organised Italian working parties to get a portion of the road workable for the Allied advance. On 14 June he reported in to Aquila with three German prisoners.
4 Without an inordinate amount of research it would not be possible to ascertain accurately what percentage of those who were at large in Italy were recaptured. But of the parties of escapers which have come to the author's notice more than half seem to have been caught.
One6 of the men liberated in July had been a prisoner for only a little over three months. Captured at Cassino in late March, he had jumped unseen into a doorway while being marched from Campo PG 82 at Laterina to the railway station. He joined a rebel band until it was dispersed by a German attack, and then hid until the chance came to rejoin Allied forces. Another man7 had got away from Torviscosa at the armistice and, before he met our troops on 22 July, had been recaptured and had three times made a fresh break. One of these breaks was from Verona hospital, where he had been sent wounded after the Germans had made an attack on the rebel band with which he was serving. Another still8 had served with a rebel band at Vardo Bologna, but when this was broken up by Fascist attacks he joined a larger group at Monte Falterona, where he spent six weeks with their demolition parties. Finally, he joined another band at Arezzo, and was with them when the city was liberated in early August.
4 This was one of the methods used by Germans and Fascists to recapture escapers. A woman or a man in civilian clothes would make contact with a prisoner or a group of prisoners and claim to be the agent for a scheme for evacuating escaped prisoners by submarine. A rendezvous would be arranged and the prisoners duly arrested. On one occasion a whole boatload was caught in this way at Venice. The same method was used by the Germans and Italians in Salonika and Athens.
5 The old Campo PG 82.
Only two New Zealanders were freed in this advance, one a medical officer1 who had walked out of Lucca hospital thinly disguised as an Italian officer after the Germans had taken over in September 1943. He had later become ill and had been looked after by Italians in the hills north of Florence until the arrival of United States troops nearly a year later. The other New Zealander2 had come from Campo PG 120/4 near Padua, had moved south and worked with partisans in the Monte Falterona area on railway sabotage, and finally had got through to the United States troops at Pracchia (west of Fossombrone) in late September.
The boat section of the Allied rescue organisation continued operations on the Adriatic coast, but there was only one further New Zealander3 brought off by this means until the spring of the new year. He had moved south down the east coast from Campo PG 120/5 near Padua and had joined partisans in the hills south of Argenta. While here his evacuation was arranged by an agent of the escape organisation, and he and a party of others were escorted to Porto Corsini by partisans. They embarked on an American motor torpedo boat and reached Ancona on 25 November.
Comparatively few escapers from Italy tried to make their way into France, as it was merely exchanging one occupied country for another. One New Zealander,4 who had joined an ill-equipped partisan band in the eastern Apennines, decided to attempt to enter France in the late spring of 1944. Moving west among the partisans in the Apennines, he reached Bobbio in July, and from there he continued alone until he crossed the French border south of Turin and was picked up by Free French troops. He was taken to Briançon, where he remained until the arrival of the Allied invasion force from the Mediterranean coast.
Strong bands of partisans had been operating in the Bobbio area among the Ligurian Apennines for some time, helped by a British mission and by supplies dropped from the air. In the autumn of 1944 it was decided to organise an escape route through Pontremoli, which would bring the escapers out not far from Viareggio. Before the Italian campaign was ended 31 parties of escapers and evaders came out by this route. The first New Zealander1 to use it had come south to the Etruscan Apennines from Campo PG 107/5, north of the Gulf of Venice. After living with a band of partisans, he was included in a party guided out near Barga on 19 November.
The other two New Zealanders to come by this route were from Campo PG 5, both having jumped from the roof of a train taking them to Germany in September 1943. Both were wounded and separated, and one,2 after lying for three days in a ditch unable to walk, was finally found by an Italian and taken to his house. As soon as he could he hobbled his way south, but was laid up for three months and cared for by Italians near Piacenza. In March 1944 he joined a band of partisans in the Bobbio area and remained with them until they were dispersed by Fascists in May. He was with another group of partisans in the Apennines when, in November, he joined an escape party which reached the American lines at Pietrasanta. A week later his companion of the train jump3 came out by the same route; he had been operating with another partisan band south of Pavia. This was the last party to come through on this route before the winter snows and increased German vigilance made it too dangerous to undertake further operations until the spring.
2 Lt E. H. Bishop (27 MG Bn), mentioned in despatches for his attempts to escape. He had evaded capture at Kalamata in the Greek campaign in April 1941, but was captured in May 1941 and taken to Italy. See p. 290.
3 Capt J. W. C. Craig (22 Bn, seconded to ‘A’ Force). He had escaped from Greece in 1941, and returned there as a member of ‘A’ Force, but had been captured and sent to Italy. For his escapes and work while at large he was awarded the MC and bar.
4 Service for Prisoners of War.
The New Zealanders helped by such organisations to reach Switzerland were almost all from Campo PG 107 and its satellites in the plains north-east of Venice. Several had at first attempted to reach Yugoslavia and some had been recaptured and had to make a second break. Two men from Campo PG 107 who crossed the frontier on 1 February had previously attempted to get through to Yugoslavia but had failed, one2 being captured near the Trieste area by Fascists and the other3 in the south during an attempt to reach the Allied lines. The former escaped from a German transit camp at Padua and was shortly afterwards taken in hand by a group of the National Liberation Party. He travelled by train to Milan and thence up the Tellina Valley to Tirano, from which a four days' walk with a guide took him over the hills to Campo Cologna. The second escaper was sheltered and fed by an organisation for a month before he was sent out by the same route.
1 The committee and the British agent between them produced chits for 802 escapers assisted over the Swiss border. A number of others were lost during a round-up by Fascist and German security forces.
Although more carefully guarded, the Lake Maggiore-Lake Lugano portion of the frontier, being more populous and having more and easier places at which the crossing into Switzerland could be made, was favoured by the Italian escape organisations. And apart from those whose journeys were arranged from somewhere in the Po Valley, there were others who made their own way to the Lakes district and there stumbled on a friendly household which put them in touch with a guide.
One New Zealander1 had this experience at Lecco, which he reached after walking and cycling across the plains from Gorizia, where he had been with a mixed band of Italian and Yugoslav partisans. After extricating himself with difficulty, he had had a narrow escape from arrest by a German patrol and a nerve-racking winter moving alone across northern Italy. Twenty-four hours after meeting his guide he was climbing up a mountain track, and the same night (1–2 February 1944) he crossed the frontier on the bed of a stream, near Chiasso.
Another New Zealander2 who crossed in the same place had walked to the Como area after having been in the hills north of Verona with partisans. He paid a smuggler 1000 lire to bring him to the frontier fence and then burrowed his way under it with an old spoon.
When arrangements went well it took only one or two days to complete an escape into Switzerland from the eastern end of the Po Valley. A New Zealander3 who fell a victim with numbers of others to a ‘submarine’ trap4 and was recaptured at Venice, escaped from the transit barracks at Padua and later made contact with an organisation there. In less than forty-eight hours he had been fitted out with clothes and passport, had been taken by train to Milan and on to Como, and a guide had led him over the frontier near Chiasso on 13 March.
4 See p. 419.
Although some groups of Italian rebels had been reported in January 1944 as ‘melting away’, others reinforced by escaped prisoners of war had from the end of 1943 been causing sufficient trouble to outlying German forces and Fascist police for the latter to urge the shooting on recapture of all former prisoners of war. Many of those recaptured were thus denied prisoner-of-war status and were held in civilian jails, such as the Villaro prison in Milan, under deplorable conditions.
In May 1944 the German and Fascist forces in northern Italy carried out a large-scale round up, in the course of which some members of the liberation committee at Milan were arrested and a belt three kilometres wide along a part of the Swiss frontier was cleared of all inhabitants. This, combined with a lack of funds and the expectation that the Allied drive would sweep up to the north of Italy in a few months, caused the committee almost to cease its evacuation of escapers and evaders, though it continued to arrange for their food and housing. Most of the men who did get through to Switzerland after this period came through the mountain passes after long and difficult treks in almost inaccessible country.
Although the Tirano route had been used by some Italian organisations for assisting escapers, most of the prisoners who came out by mountain routes had joined partisan bands in the high country to the north and were led out by partisan guides. Two New Zealanders1 had come through to Switzerland by this means as early as January. Both from farm detachments in the western Lombardy plains, they had joined partisan bands north of Biella. Their encampment was attacked by Germans on 17 January and they had to move to another area. Two days later they left with a guide for Switzerland; moving north to Domo d'Ossola and east to Santa Maria, they crossed the mountains north of Lake Maggiore into Switzerland on the 23rd.
1 Ptes D. M. Craib (26 Bn) and L. J. Read (24 Bn).
2 L-Cpls P. E. Moncur (18 Bn) and E. O. Martin (22 Bn).
Another New Zealander,1 who made the journey without a guide, had got away north of Verona through a hole cut in the floor of the railway wagon taking him to Germany from Campo PG 19. He lived with Italians until May, when Fascist activity forced him to leave. He too made for the frontier salient near Bormio, and after ten days' walking crossed into Scampf.
The last of our men2 from the north-eastern camps to reach Switzerland had jumped from a train and joined partisans near Asiago in the Dolomites, with whom he remained until early August. He then tramped across the mountain country towards Tirano and crossed at Campo Cologna in the same month.
The other New Zealanders3 to reach Switzerland were men from Campo PG 106 and its satellites in the Vercelli area, who had joined a partisan band and were supplied with a partisan guide. A few came through in May and June of 1944 and two4 as late as January and February 1945. Altogether 110 New Zealanders escaped to Switzerland5 and were there for varying periods before leaving to return to Allied territory.
It will be seen that many of those who eventually reached Switzerland or rejoined the Allied lines to the south had first made an unsuccessful attempt to get into Yugoslavia. A certain number, however, did succeed in crossing the border into partisan-held territory. The story of the party which made the journey in November and December 1943 has already been told,6 but there were others at that time in Yugoslavia with partisan bands, usually in small numbers. Those of them who came out did not do so until the spring of 1944; some were recaptured and taken to Germany, and a few were killed.7 It was not until late 1943 that Allied military missions were put into the country in large numbers, and could act (in addition to their normal duties) as rallying points, arrange safe accommodation, and generally provide help for escapers and evaders on their way south. And it was not until the spring that the Allied rescue organisation was able to drop in officers to work with these missions on purely escape work.
4 Ptes R. R. Cameron (22 Bn) and W. Frost (24 Bn).
5 This figure includes Brigadiers Hargest and Miles, who escaped before the armistice.
6 see pp. 308–9.
7 No New Zealanders, though some were very near to being shot after capture. Those who fell into the hands of the Ustachi in Croatia were regarded as lucky if they were handed over to the Germans and not tortured or murdered by their captors.
At the beginning of 1944 Tito and his National Army of Liberation, helped by British and American arms and supplies, were increasing their control over portions of Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Once routes for escapers were established, Allied military missions in northern Italy were told to send through to Yugoslavia all escapers and evaders encountered east of Verona.1 But crossing the border was often made difficult not only by German patrols, no doubt intended to prevent the linking of Italian with Yugoslav partisans, but also by the mutual distrust and ill-feeling between Tito's Yugoslav partisans and some Italian bands of different political sympathies, who were alive to the objectives of Yugoslavs in north-eastern Italy and resented their presence. There was another difficulty once the escapers had reached Yugoslavia, for early in 1944 Germany gained a firm hold over the whole coastline and retained it until nearly the end of the year. This meant that escapers and evaders had to be taken across the Adriatic by air.
Two New Zealanders came out by this means from a landing ground at Petrovac in March 1944 in one of the first parties to be evacuated by plane. One2 was from the group which became detached from Major Gibbon's second party during a German attack in late October 1943. For a while he was with some other New Zealanders who were attached to a partisan brigade, but became separated and travelled alone to Circhina. Here he remained to assist the British liaison officer to 9 Partisan Corps until the latter was recalled, when he went with him to Petrovac to await a plane.
After the arrival in Yugoslavia of officers from the Allied rescue organisation in April 1944, landing grounds for the evacuation of escapers and evaders were established near Glina and Crnomelj. Near the latter a transit camp was set up, and clothing, food, and comforts were dropped in. The numbers to be catered for were considerable; not only were there ex-prisoners of war from Italy, but there were also numerous Air Force evaders who had baled out over Yugoslav territory.
At the end of April two more New Zealanders were flown out. They were both from Campo PG 107/2 at Prati Nuovi, where the prisoners had been sold to the Germans by the Italian padrone. When the German guards moved the prisoners, these two hid in the camp, got out later and then separated. One1 joined the partisans at Castel Dobra and remained with other ex-prisoners in a machine-gun crew rather than join Major Gibbon's party, but decided in December to leave the partisan force on account of the poor food and the language difficulty. After being arrested by Germans and breaking free twice, he was taken to the transit camp at Trieste. Here, among 60-odd prisoners, he met his companion from Prati Nuovi, also recaptured. On the night of 9–10 March, the latter2 picked the locks and cut the compound wire while others watched the sentries. Six got out of the camp and made for the hills, where they met partisan patrols. They were put in touch with a British mission, sent to Semic, and flown to Brindisi.
The work of the Allied rescue organisation in assisting escapers from camps in southern Austria and evacuating them through Yugoslavia has already been mentioned.3 Sometimes parties from Austrian camps joined up in partisan territory with others from Italy and were moved south and evacuated together. Five New Zealanders4 from Campo PG 107, who had lived in the countryside of north-east Italy until the summer of 1944 and then reached the partisans in the eastern hills, linked up with four other groups of escapers from Austrian Arbeitskommandos. The party was passed south along a chain of military missions and eventually flown across the Adriatic to Bari in mid-July.
3 Page 383.
During August and September a New Zealand officer2 came through in a party of fifteen or more British and United States escapers and evaders. After unsuccessful attempts to get away by hiding in the camp at Modena and walking off the Modena railway station disguised as an Italian, he had jumped from a train near Trevignano. On the way to Switzerland he met Italian partisans at Combai, and his and a number of other small groups of escaped prisoners spent the winter and spring in this area fed by the partisans or by local farmers. In early August he and five United States airmen set off for Yugoslavia with partisan guides, picking up other escaped prisoners on the way. Two of these were New Zealand other ranks, both of whom had taken shelter in the hills, one3 with a party of Italian rebels operating near Tramonti di Sopra. The party reached an Allied military mission in Yugoslavia and was evacuated by air on the night of 17–18 September.
It has been seen that those ex-prisoners who joined Yugoslav partisan units found great difficulty in getting in touch with Allied mission officers. In the first stage they felt that they owed the partisans some service for the food and protection they had received from them. If they proved useful, the partisan leaders were reluctant to lose them and made it difficult for them to get in touch with an Allied mission. One New Zealander4 joined the partisans north of Trieste in early January 1944, and spent eight or nine months operating with a battalion in the Gorizia-Trieste area until he met a British officer on 8 September. He was then guided through and flown to Bari on 24 October.
1 Ptes L. J. Nixey, R. E. McEwan, W. W. Lowther, and A. T. Anderson (all 20 Bn), and C. F. Anderson (24 Bn).
Eight New Zealanders were among a large party which left Zara by British warship on the last day of the year. They had come through Yugoslavia in three separate parties, all of whose journeys had been arranged in November by military missions in north-east Italy. One group of five1 had been together since the break-up of Campo PG 107, and had eventually been forced into the hills by German and Fascist activity in the district where they were being cared for by Italians. Others2 had been operating with partisan bands until they were dispersed by a German attack. Another,3 who had worked on a farm until August, had to undergo an operation for appendicitis, but was fit again in time to join a party for Yugoslavia which he heard was being organised.
The last group of New Zealanders to come out through Yugoslavia were set on their way in December. Several had been put in touch with a military mission by a New Zealand ex-prisoner lancecorporal4 who was acting as an escape agent for a number of prisoners in this area. They5 travelled south-east on the usual route and arrived at Bari from Zara on 11 February 1945. In late December the Germans began a drive against partisan forces in northern Slovenia to clear the way for the final evacuation of their forces. In early 1945 it was reckoned that the escape route from Italy was closed and Allied rescue organisation officers were withdrawn. Since the Italian armistice two thousand or more American airmen and several hundred ex-prisoners had regained their liberty by this route. Among these were 90 New Zealanders, 64 from Italy and 26 from Austria.
1 Ptes A. W. Bassett (21 Bn), T. C. Green, G. A. Greer, and L. S. A. Mair (all 26 Bn), and S. D. Rutherford (20 Bn).