10 September 1943 – the escape

In the camp and also, it seems, outside, the news of the armistice caused great excitement and we had little sleep that first night, our heads buzzing with thoughts of home and freedom. Next day the position seemed more confused: Badoglio’s broadcast had implied that Italian troops should assist the Allies, but had not actually said that they should attack the Germans. There had been no follow-up to the first announcement, nor, it seems, were any orders issued through a military chain of command.

We did not know that this was because Badoglio, the King and his government had fled from Rome to escape the Germans. Local Italian commanders were thus put in the position of having to decide for themselves what they were supposed to do. This presented something of a dilemma to our Camp Commandant, a middle-aged colonel for whom one must have a certain sympathy, as he now found his quiet life disturbed by the unexpected need to make decisions. It was clear to him that he was going to have to answer to someone eventually for whatever he decided to do, but would it be to the Allies or the Germans? His first reaction was that he should support the Allies, but without doing anything as drastic as opening the camp gates and allowing everyone out. He decided to allow a symbolic British sentry – unarmed – to be posted at the main entrance alongside an armed Italian. This resulted in a guard-mounting parade by a corporal and six men from the Coldstreams, looking quite impressive as they had managed to borrow enough items of clothing to make each a reasonable uniform.

As these guardsmen were assembling in the courtyard near the entrance, the Senior British Officer, Captain Allen of the Medical Corps, who had little idea of what was going on, appeared on the scene. Seeing this group of smartly turned-out soldiers, he assumed that they had just arrived to liberate us. Rushing up he shook their hands and said how pleased he was to see them… This farcical note continued when eventually a sentry was posted and, with an Italian, was standing outside the gate facing the main road, when German troops drove by on motorcycles. It was then thought prudent that this token display be discontinued.

Next day a low-flying three-engined aircraft, with Italian markings, circled the camp several times and then landed in a field, out of sight from us, about a mile away. The Camp Commandant agreed that contact should be made with the occupants of the plane and a truck was sent to investigate. With some Italian soldiers went three RAF sergeants who were willing to fly the plane to southern Italy should this prove feasible. There was some vague idea that this might be a prelude to the landing of some troops here. It must be remembered that we had no news from the outside world and were optimistic that the invasion in the South was being followed up by other landings, perhaps throughout the length of Italy. However, when the truck attempted to approach the plane it was fired on by a machine-gun. Since neither party can have known which side the other was supporting, this was the sort of muddled confrontation that must have been happening all over the country. The truck returned to the camp without anyone being the wiser.

There was now a general feeling that it would be best if all the prisoners were to be released; after all there was nothing to be lost should the Allies arrive first, and everything to be gained should it be the Germans. The Camp Commandant however was still against this; I think he had a vision of thousands of us rampaging through the countryside, raping and pillaging as we went. Nevertheless our little group began to make preparations to leave; I sorted my kit and decided what essentials should be taken with me. Things were now complicated by an intervention by Captain Allen who issued a statement in his role as Senior British Officer that anyone who attempted to escape would be court-martialled. Doubtless he had been convinced by the arguments of the Camp Commandant, but such a bizarre ruling could hardly have had much legality. It might more reasonably be said that a British Officer who tried to prevent a prisoner from escaping made himself liable for court-martial. Our party decided that this threat could safely be ignored. Frank Fish, however, as Captain Allen was his immediate superior in the Medical Corps, took the precaution of getting him to sign a piece of paper giving him discretion to do as he thought fit.

Nearly a week had gone by since the armistice but the camp was still being run as before. Rations continued to arrive – they were supplied by local contractors – and Italian sentries were posted as usual around the perimeter watch-towers to prevent escape. Their numbers however now seemed to be fewer, and we realised that they were beginning to desert. Had we but known it, the whole Italian army in the German occupied part of Italy was now voting with its feet and wherever possible was on its way home. By midday on 15 September it was clear that the camp was inadequately guarded and we decided that our time had come.

When assembled, our group now numbered twenty. Bert Ramelson and Frank both spoke some Italian, as did someone from the other sector not previously known to me. The actual exit was easy; although not the first to go, I believe we were the most organised party. We left by a small gate at the far end of the recreation field where there was still a sentry on a nearby watchtower. He gestured at us but seemed to lack the confidence to level his rifle. We continued through the gate and turned on to a small track running alongside the River Chienti. It was about four o’clock on a fine afternoon and we set off briskly in good spirits, not yet realising how lucky we were: a few hours later, in the small hours of the morning and with the majority of prisoners still inside, German troops arrived and surrounded the camp.

Within a few weeks everyone left in the camp was taken to Germany for a further twenty months of captivity.ch 10 Dad delousing

Link to Book 2: Time off in the Marche

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