Today, we might think of spending a few months in a world heritage site in Southern Italy as an enormous privilege. During the Second World War, however, it was anything but, as Marcus Binney explains as he tells the tale of his father's escape from the most notorious Prisoner of War camp in Italy.
Every year brings a new crop of accounts of Second World War gallantry, including a growing number of remarkable escape stories. Among the latest are Sir Tommy Macpherson’s Behind Enemy Lines and The 21 Escapes of Lt Alastair Cram. Their interest, for me, is that the authors escaped from the very same prisoner-of-war camps as my father, Lt-Col Frank Simms. Soon after Mussolini fell in September 1943, there were 11,000 Allied prisoners on the run in Italy – 3,000 of whom reached freedom.
Many received medals for their escapes.
My father had been captured behind enemy lines in Libya in January 1942, when serving with the Long Range Desert Group, forerunner of the SAS. Soon, he was interned in Campo 35, the Certosa di Padula south of Naples (not to be confused with the Charterhouses at Pavia and Parma). He wrote that ‘it was probably the most beautiful pow camp in Europe set in a fruitful shining valley surrounded by mountains… a large building with honey coloured walls and of old and lichened tiles’, built on a grid-iron plan in honour of its patron saint, St Lawrence. Today, the monastery is a World Heritage Site open to the public all year.
The grand cloister, the largest in Italy, is surrounded by airy Renaissance arcades. My father was lodged in the ground floor of one of 24 houses for the monks. In a clever move, the Italian commandant had offered the Allied officers a wine ration, on condition that they didn’t try to escape.
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My father and others, however, were set on escaping and found an almost invisible manhole opening into a cellar below. He told the story in his regimental magazine (Royal Warwickshire), The Antelope, just before he was killed on service in Turkey in 1952. In the course of a morning, the escapees removed the ancient bricks forming the cover, placing them on a circle of wood cut from a table, with string handles from Red Cross parcels artfully concealed in the dust.
The disused cellar was the perfect place to hide the soil—no need to dribble earth from trousers onto the exercise ground, as in The Wooden Horse. They now worked hard and fast on the tunnel. ‘We had two shifts of three hours each in the morning and two in the afternoon. We worked nearly 12 hours a day,’ he wrote.
‘Finally, the moment came to tell the escape committee. Immediately, 40 more demanded to escape, too.’
The diggers noticed with delight that the field they were tunnelling under, still within the monastery walls, had been planted with sweetcorn. This ensured that any movement in the earth above the tunnel would be unseen for weeks. The space they created was unsupported, but the soil remained firm.
Initially, they were able to tap into the camp electricity to light the tunnel – until another group of tunnellers, tapping into the same source, was discovered. As the tunnel grew longer, they had to pump air constantly to the face. It was about 3ft by 2ft, ‘so big we worked quickly, often doing a yard in a day’.
They constructed a rudimentary railway to bring out the soil, which had to be lengthened almost daily. The leading Italian tunnel diviner was continuously on the look out for would-be escapers and often stood on the trap door, tapping it with a heavy iron staff, yet still failed to notice it.
Finally, the moment came to tell the escape committee. Immediately, 40 more demanded to escape, too. The diggers stood firm, insisting that, as they had dug the tunnel, they should escape the first night, but as many as wished to could follow on the second.
My father emerged breathless from the tunnel to find he was looking through the maize stalks at the sentries’ feet, only 10ft away. Yet, minutes later, he had vaulted the wall. ‘Just after we struck the road the monastery clock struck twelve. It was the 13th of September 1942, my brother’s birthday.’
In such a populous area, recapture was inevitable, although two reached the Adriatic coast. Recapture meant transfer to the ‘naughty boys’ camp’, the fortress at Gavi in Piedmont (today best known for its excellent white wine, first planted on the ramparts).
Gavi is essentially a Genoese fortress on the long contested border with Savoy (modern Piedmont), fortified with walls and bastions, in 1540, by the military engineer Giovanni Maria Olgiati. It was later transformed into a still more powerful fortress by the Dominican friar Vincenzo da Fiorenzuola. A fortifications expert, he was also the inquisitor in the trial of Galileo.
From Gavi, my father wrote to his mother in February 1943: ‘David Stirling has just been captured and brought us all the news.’ Gavi was the Colditz of Italy, from which his new captors said no one had ever escaped. Yet a shortlived opportunity came when Mussolini capitulated on September 3, 1943.
‘They went round the castle threatening to drop hand grenades into every possible hiding place, flushing out every prisoner’
According to my father, the options were to walk out of the castle gates and make an immediate bid for freedom – which, without papers or disguise, was dangerous – or to hide in the castle and hope that German searches would not be too thorough.
However, when the Germans discovered the brigadier himself had gone missing, they went round the castle threatening to drop hand grenades into every possible hiding place, flushing out every prisoner.
My father chose a third option – jumping from the convoy of open-top cattle trucks taking prisoners to a train that would carry them to Germany. Each lorry had a machine-gun nest on the top of the cab, trained on the lorry in front and ready to gun down anyone who tried to jump over the high sidings. My father waited for the moment when the convoy was crawling slowly up a zig-zag mountain road and his lorry was out of sight from the one behind for a minute after it had turned a corner. Amazingly, the moment came.
He scaled the side of the lorry and jumped, running into the trees.
He ran and ran until he collapsed from exhaustion and eventually awoke to find a small boy of about eight years old looking at him. The boy excitedly agreed to bring him clothes, a map and food, after which my father set off on a 48-day walk down the Apennines. He was joined after a week by a naval officer, Peter Medd, who had jumped several hours later from a train.
Again and again, they were given food and shelter by brave Italian families who risked immediate death if they were found to have helped Allied prisoners. Remarkably, many of these families had worked in Britain or America before the war, making ice cream in Glasgow or toiling in Pennsylvania mines.
Most prominent among their hosts was the Abrami family, living at Roggio in the sylvan valley of Garfagnana. They had lived in London for several years before the war, bringing up their three daughters and son, Frank, and running a flourishing cafe.
‘They walked into a barber’s shop and found a Canadian officer being shaved. That night, they were in battledress.’
Medd was suffering from boils and badly blistered feet and needed to rest, so the Abramis led them to a chestnut-drying hut high in the mountains, where they spent several days. On the last night, they were invited to the village, after dusk had fallen, to the Abramis’ house. After a copious meal, their hosts tuned into the BBC on a clandestine radio, only to hear that the Allies were far south. Despite being invited to stay for the winter, they walked on through the mountain landscape so vividly described by Eric Newby in Love and War in the Apennines.
Medd’s perilous escape is described in The Long Walk Home, published after his early death in 1944. It was completed by my father, who had always hoped to write the story of his own adventures.
The chance to do this, long after he was killed on service in a car crash in Turkey in 1952, came to me as a result of two other sons’ searches for the story of their fathers’ captures and escapes. First was Ian Chard, whose father was captured with mine in Libya, and second was Andrew Adams, whose father had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy. Andrew had met many Italian families, including the brave Abramis, who had helped Allied prisoners on the path to freedom.
Freedom came for my father in the village of Lucito, 100 miles north of Naples, where they walked into a barber’s shop and found a Canadian officer being shaved. That night, they were in battledress.
A new edition of ‘The Long Walk Home: An escape in wartime Italy’ by Peter Medd and Frank Simms, updated by Marcus Binney, is a Sickle Moon book by Eland Publishing (£14.99; www.travelbooks.co.uk)
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