3 Squadron STORIES
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The 1943 story of this distinguished 3 Squadron Tomahawk pilot and P.O.W.-Escaper continues...
"Across the Alps to Freedom"
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Padula POW Camp
Soon after our arrival at Capua, we were visited by the Papal Nuncio who read a message from the Pope and left gifts such as table tennis, chess etc and a souvenir card for each of us. The Vatican party inspected our living quarters where we were lined up at our beds. As they passed, I touched one holy father on the arm and told him of my wish to get word to my father in Chungking. He was most obliging and gave me a piece of paper to write down my father's address. Soon after they left, I was paraded before the Italian Camp Commandant who demanded to know what message I had given to the Vatican representative. I told him what it had been and he threatened, "you had better be right! We have sent a fast car after the Vatican party to verify this". I don't know whether they did intercept the Vatican party but I did not hear anything further from the Commandant.
The Vatican showed compassion and the first word of my safety reached my father through the Vatican Radio. My father was at a reception given by Madame Chiang Kai-shek when the good lady suddenly called for silence to announce that Sir Frederic's son was still in the land of the living. This was a relief to him as he had already received a letter of condolence from Nicky Barr who feared I had been killed.
There was a fall of snow during my first weeks at Capua but it did not lie on the ground for long. Nevertheless, the weather was very cold. During the second week, I developed a nagging pain in the back which manifested itself during the night. I reported to Dr. Kok, a South African medico who was a fellow prisoner of war. He diagnosed the trouble as an injury to the lumbar region of the spine and said there was little I could do about it other than to do limbering-up exercises as regularly as possible. I followed his advice and the pain eventually went away. From time to time, ever since, I have had back trouble but have kept it under control by doing callisthenics.
The monotony of being locked up was relieved by various experts in our midst sharing their knowledge with us. I volunteered to give lectures on modern physics and got quite steamed up as I put my memory to work digging up the old familiar ground. The only books we had were bibles belonging to two POW padres. I made the mistake of starting with the Old Testament, and faded out after about 100 pages. We could obtain the local newspapers but my knowledge of the language was quite incapable of coping with the daily journal "Il Corriere della Sera".
Some of us were suffering from "desert sores" which resulted from a fungal infection causing flaking of the skin near cuts and scratches on the hands and legs - the lesions being very difficult to heal and becoming raw and painful after a time. For such minor troubles there was a regular medical parade run by the Italians but the first aid centre was in bad repute due to rusty scalpels and generally poor hygiene. When we called for inspection by the "Protecting Power" the rusty scalpels strangely disappeared.
Hunger, boredom and lack of a change of clothes were our main worries but these were later to be alleviated. On Monday 2nd February, we were joined by two other 3 Squadron pilots - F/O Bob Jones and Sgt Tiny Cameron, who had finally been captured after several successful attempts at walking back to the squadron. It was good to have the latest news of the war in the Desert and of our comrades. Tiny was in a separate compound but we talked through the "wire". I told him how I had stayed to become involved in a dog fight with my damaged aircraft rather than return to base and face Pete Jeffrey, having done nothing while the others were in the dangerous game of strafing enemy transports. Tiny said: "Fred, you should know that Pete Jeffrey was a good C.O. and not judge him too hastily". I was puzzled at this but I eventually came to the conclusion that he must have heard how Pete had bitten my head off during the post-mortem after my first air engagement. In any case, I was thankful for his kind interest.
One incident that remains in my memory of Capua concerns a canteen which the Italians provided for us to get rid of our surplus camp money. We could purchase ersatz sweets etc and, in our state of continual craving for sugar and carbohydrates, we found this opportunity hard to resist. The canteen was in a separate compound and each of the POW compounds was given a turn to visit the canteen. When our turn came, the officers set out in a reasonably dignified manner until someone pressed forward and the others began to run. While scrambling forward with this scruffy mob, I glanced to my right and was horrified to see the looks of utter amazement on the faces of a number of Indian troops in an adjacent compound as they watched the humiliation of the "British Raj".
ANOTHER TWO MOVES
We were moved to a permanent camp during the second half of March. The transfer was by passenger train with compartments reserved for POWs. When the train stopped at Naples, we found we could purchase "cestini" which were travellers' lunches containing rare delicacies such as chicken legs etc. These were very popular! We had a guard at each compartment but this did not deter the inquisitive civilian travellers who stared at us through the glass panels separating us from the passage way. Eventually, we could stand it no longer and, at a prearranged signal we made a concerted effort to stare back at the onlookers who visibly wilted and melted away.
Our destination was a former monastery near the village of Padula situated in a lovely valley in the southern Italian province of Calabria in the "instep" of Italy. We detrained mid-afternoon and marched the three kilometres to our prison. It was an impressive edifice and a regular stop for tourists in peace time. The Village of Padula was clearly visible above the walls of the monastery on the slopes at the eastern edge of the valley. The snow capped mountains to the east and west and the wide green valley made a pleasant change from the flat drab surroundings at Capua. The valley floor is 2000' above sea level so the climate is bracing with glorious sunny days. The new camp was designated P.G. No.35, P.M. 3400.
The quadrangle surrounded by the main cloisters is 120 metres by 170 metres. Senior officers were in rooms off the cloisters and our beds were in the huge corridors above the cloisters. There was a meadow in the grounds for exercising and the dining hall seated 180 comfortably at a sitting. There were 380 officers including 30 Indians who messed separately. The weather could be bitterly cold but we enjoyed beautiful sunny days and soon acquired a healthy sun tan. Rations were a problem as the usual fortnightly supplement of Red Cross parcels had not appeared for eight weeks. An elaborate scheme of vocational training was organised. I did accountancy, company law and German and was to teach physics. The early weeks at Padula marked my first response from the outside world - a cable through the Vatican Radio from my brother Egan in Melbourne and a letter from my cousin Kim in England.
The civilian contractor at Padula must have been a man of great initiative. He seemed to have cornered the entire market for sugar-coated almonds and sweetened condensed milk. These were keenly sought by the POWs. One day we had a bonanza! The contractor brought his condensed milk in large wooden barrels and, on this occasion, one of the barrels fell off his cart smashing open and spreading a sea of sweetened condensed milk over the stone floor of the forecourt. The camp authorities had a brain-wave and invited the POWs to clean it up. We grabbed our pannikins, streamed into the forecourt and scooped up the delicious fluid until there was virtually nothing left. Robbie and I had a wonderful feast cutting our bread ration into small cubes and mixing them with the condensed milk. However, the imbibing of such rich food was too much for some, and sounds of vomiting echoed around the cloisters throughout the night. I remembered my Wesley College Latin Master, Jack Hargreaves, who often boomed forth: "Inconveniences will occur from ingurgitations and excessive feeding!"
One bright sunny afternoon, we were surprised by the sound of fire crackers coming from the village above. By crowding to the far edge of the cloisters, we could just see a procession of men in black hats and long black coats and women in dress clothes. We finally concluded it must be a wedding party.
The Australians were not to remain at Padula for long - being transferred early in May to an "Australian" camp near Sulmona close to the Adriatic coast opposite Rome. We made the journey by train and were fascinated by the magnificent scenery as we crossed the central mountain massif.
Campo Concentramento di Prigioneri Guerra No.78, Posta Militare 3300, was located near Fonte D'Amore, a village six kilometres north east of the city of Sulmona in the Abruzzi district, not far from Aquila and the Gran Sasso mountain where Mussolini was imprisoned in the Hotel Albergo-Rifugio after the collapse of the Fascist Regime, and later rescued by Hitler's airborne troops in a daring operation late in 1943.
Sulmona - Fonte D'Amore
The camp dated back to World War I when it was used by the Italians for Austrian prisoners of war. It is situated on a gentle slope close to Fonte D'Amore with an officers' compound at the top and compounds for other-ranks below. The camp was enclosed by high brick walls with brick walls separating the compounds. Elevated pill boxes and guard boxes were located at strategic points around the perimeter and on the dividing walls. A vertical cliff, some two to three thousand feet high, towered to the east of the camp and a chapel was clearly to be seen half way up. How people managed to struggle up there for a service, I never discovered. Some distance to the right of the chapel was a cave in the face of the cliff where the Roman poet Ovid spent part of his life. In the valley, two kilometres to the north of the camp, is a former Moorish monastery now used as a gaol.
We were delighted to find that the camp at Fonte D'Amore - or Sulmona as we usually called it - was, almost exclusively, Australian. The first I met was Chester Guest, a Melbourne stock broker well known to our family. Then there was Capt. Jack Kroger, who had taught at my o1d school Wesley College since 1934. Jack was a great chap and heavily engaged in vocational training and other essential activities in the camp. Capt. John Fitzharding, an architect from Perth, was in charge of the mess and was a genius in devising useful tools from such things as table knives, forks and spoons. The senior officer was Colonel E. E. Munro - known affectionately as "Bogdew" - and the second in rank was Lt. Colonel "Spike" Marlin.
Others included Major Charlie Barton, an Engineer from Brisbane, Major Ronald Charles Rosier, a Veterinary Surgeon of Maryborough Qld, Major Eric Anderson and Lt "Mac" McDonald from Sydney, Lt Bob Donnan, from the N.S.W. north coast, Lt J. L. "Sandy" Mair, son of the former Premier of N.S.W., and Lt. John Morish, of Adelaide. We also caught up with F/O Mort Edwards of 3 Squadron, who had been shot down on his first operation early in 1942. And, of course, our beloved Skipper Palmer had come with Bobbie Jones and Robbie from our previous camp. There were about 50 in the officers' compound which was well organised and we were a happy bunch.
The officers' compound was rectangular - about eighty metres long and twenty metres wide - with a mess building at the North West corner opposite "Mount Royal", the senior officers' quarters, in the south west corner. Other senior officers were in a building half way along the southern side of the compound known as "Half Way House". Robbie and I roomed in "Slum Alley" which was a long low building at the north east corner of the compound containing about twelve shared rooms opening onto a long passage on the north side of the building. The northern walls of the mess building and Slum Alley formed part of the dividing wall between the officers' compound and the one below. The southern walls of Mount Royal and Half Way House were built against the main southern wall of the camp except where Italian store rooms encroached in a couple of places.
Between Mount Royal, at the western end of the compound, and Half Way House, there was open area, about twenty metres long for the full width of the compound where we paraded for roll call and could play basketball. Opposite Slum Alley, at the eastern end of Half Way House, there was a small area against the southern wall of the camp where one of our tunnels was commenced. All the open ground in the camp was covered with white quartz gravel, which made it difficult to dispose of the bright orange soil dug out of the tunnels. There was a gravel road outside the southern wall of the camp and another running diagonally at the south west corner near Mount Royal, inside of which our longest tunnel commenced. The walls of the camp were topped with broken glass and a framework of barbed wire. We were to be at Sulmona for about fourteen months and, as the numbers grew to nearly eighty officers, the compound below was occupied by the later arrivals.
Quite a number of the army officers had been taken prisoner in Rommel's May 1st 1941 Offensive against Tobruk, (although the attack was beaten off, the Germans overran a number of posts on the perimeter) most of them had been in a POW camp Rezzanello on the river Po, east of Gavi in the north, before coming, to Sulmona. One of the officers, Lt Tracey Rowley, in command of an anti-tank troop, was captured at El Agheila on the coast of Cyrenaica after the first Wavell Offensive on 23-02-41. He was the first Australian to be captured by the Germans.
There were several Englishmen amongst us. One of them we knew as "Senussi" had been in the Long Range Desert Group (L.R.D.G.) making raids behind the enemy lines in North Africa. Senussi looked like an Arab and made it more so by lying sweating in the sun all day, acquiring a deep sun tan. There were whispers that Senussi was a worried man - having shot an Italian officer taken prisoner during the Wavell Offensive, who refused to get into a lorry full of Italian soldiers. When Senussi was later taken prisoner himself, there was always the chance that some Italian might recognise him. He was later removed to another camp and I never discovered if they caught up with him.
Most of the Australians had a well-developed sense of humour. One of them, Lt Bob Ross of Sydney, was a complete extrovert and spent hours yarning with the guards until he acquired a very good knowledge of colloquial Italian. On one occasion, just for fun, he poked his head above the outside wall of the camp and hurled insults in the Italian language at the guard outside - ducking just in time when the guard opened fire with his rifle.
Athol Hunter was a South African who had joined the A.I.F. and was captured in Greece. He escaped and spent some time with Greek families in Athens before being captured again. He was a very tense person and a born adventurer.
FONTE D'AMORE. L to R (Back Row:) Chester Guest, Lochie Walker, Doug Neighan, Dick Hooper, Sandy Mair, John Kelly, (Background: Alf Palmer), Fred Eggleston.
(Front:) Cupe Close, Allan Spowers, Len Fell, Jack Kroger [3 Sqn].
Tunnels were the order of the day and ingenious contraptions were devised to assist the tunnellers. To ventilate the tunnel, an air pump was made out of a suitcase - the lid being lifted up and down by an innocent "bod" pretending to read a book. The air tube - sometimes many metres long - was made of cylindrical tobacco tins received in Red Cross parcels. Bags were made of old trouser legs etc to take the sand out of the tunnels and hide it in the ceilings of the various buildings. The tunnels usually were large enough to crawl along them but sometimes they were so shallow, one could advance only by wriggling along on one's tummy. On one occasion, in the Mount Royal tunnel, the roof fell in on John Morish when he was wriggling along a low section. The accident was soon discovered and John was pulled out by his legs. The Mount Royal tunnel was very nearly successful. Sandy Mair broke through one night to find that the exit was in the gravel path crossing diagonally at the south west corner of the camp. The break-through was earlier than expected and no one was ready to leave.
Although Sandy had done his best to conceal the exit, there was heavy rain over night and a donkey being led down the path put its hoof into the tunnel. The next morning, there was the usual panic with check parades on the basketball area.
I did not take part in the tunnelling - being of the opinion that escape to allied territory was a remote possibility. A book, "Within Four Walls", written by Henry Cartwright about his escape from a POW camp in Germany in the First World War, assessed the problem of getting out of the camp as only about 20% of the total operation - getting across enemy territory and then across the frontier being the major difficulties. By a strange coincidence, Colonel Henry Cartwright was now Military Attaché at the British Embassy in Berne and we met him after our escape to Switzerland in 1943. I am not sure whether I would have been able to endure tunnelling. Robbie tried it once in the tunnel opposite Slum Alley but was overcome with claustrophobia as soon as the lid was closed above him.
We were taken for route marches outside the camp every now and then. Quite apart from the welcome exercise, it was great to see some of the countryside. The guards accompanying us were a motley lot - some big ginger headed types carrying light alpine carbines and other little chaps carrying heavy ancient rifles of vintage predating World War I. We concluded that, when the rifles were issued, the big chaps had been able to use their strength to push in and choose the light weapons and the little chaps had to take what was left. Some of the guards spoke good English with an American accent. They had emigrated to America but returned to Italy for a holiday and had been grabbed for service in the army.
I did not meet the Italian Camp Commandant who must have been a decent person as we ware treated reasonably well. The basic food ration was a small roll of rye bread each day plus a plate of wholemeal macaroni, some green vegetables and a small piece of hard cheese. Without the fortnightly issue of Red Cross parcels we would have been in a bad way. These contained tins of jam, margarine, cheese, meat loaf, tea, coffee, dried or condensed milk, biscuits, cocoa and a bar of chocolate. There were never enough biscuits for the margarine and jam spreads so we became expert at cutting our bread ration into paper-thin slices. Red Cross parcels and parcels from home were such a joy that Robbie and I swore we would send parcels to each other when we returned home after the war.
At Sulmona, I received lots of parcels from family and friends including text books and light reading. I dissipated my excess energy in studying languages, economics and company management.
There were many nationalities in the soldiers' compounds below us and we were treated to a splendid concert by a Serbian choir on one occasion - the Italian camp staff being also in the audience. There was no shortage of acting ability and we saw "Pygmalion", "The Middle Watch" and other plays very well done. The troops also had a very good band with instruments purchased from the Italians.
Early in September 1942, we heard that Nicky Barr had been taken prisoner and was in a hospital up north with a wounded foot. We expected him to join us at Sulmona but he was sent to another camp. Geoff Chinchen was also taken prisoner and joined us at Sulmona late in October 1942. Jack Donald also joined us later to make a total of six No.3 Squadron pilots at Sulmona plus Nicky Barr and Tiny Cameron at other camps.
My sister Jean told me in a letter written mid 1942 that Pete Jeffery had called on her at Robertson & Mullens' bookstore in Melbourne where she worked.
During the first half of 1943, the news of the war became more cheerful and, towards the end of July, we were moved to a camp in the eastern outskirts of Bologna - Campo P.G. No.19, P.M. 3200 - which was an army barracks converted for use as a POW camp. The rail journey from Sulmona took us up the coast to Rimini and thence inland to Bologna. As the train approached Rimini, we could see to the west the independent Republic of San Marino which is conspicuously mountainous in the undulating country surrounding it. The Republic of San Marino was founded in AD 301 and is politically independent from Italy. We could not help wondering what would happen to any escaped POW seeking refuge in San Marino but concluded that, even if given asylum there, it probably would be impossible to arrange safe passage to Allied territory.
At Bologna, there must have been at least 600 officers, some quite recently captured, and others from different camps. Nearly all allied nationalities were represented. Officers were housed in six large wings in open dormitories with very good washrooms at the end of each wing. There was a high brick wall surrounding the barracks and a barbed wire fence kept the prisoners from approaching closer than five metres from the wall. Two parallel barbed wire fences, five metres apart, separated the camp proper from the Italian administration buildings on either side of the main entrance.
BOLOGNA EPISODE, OFF TO THE BRENNER PASS
The POW officers at Bologna were in an optimistic mood. The news filtering through left us in no doubt that the war was going our way at last. Following the battle of El Alamein and Montgomery's successful campaign across Libya and Cyrenaica, assisted by the American landings in French North Africa in November 1942, the Axis forces had been driven out of Africa and allied landings on Sicily early in July 1943 had met with success. A massive air raid on Rome on July 17th was followed in a few days by the forced resignation of Mussolini and the eclipse of the Fascist Junta. Rumours of a separate peace between the Italians and the Allies were in the air. With their commitments in Italy, the Germans probably would not let the country fall without a bitter fight but the news was very exciting.
The Americans made a daylight air raid on Bologna during August and it was heartening to see the Flying Fortresses high above the camp with white condensation trails behind them. No bombs fell near the camp. The POW camp location undoubtedly was known to the allies. Some of the locals seemed to be aware of the comparative safety of our location and, after the air raid sirens sounded; we heard them coming towards the perimeter of the camp like a chattering football crowd.
We began to prepare ourselves for likely possibilities. First we sorted our possessions into three groups. One was to go with us if we were moved to another camp in an orderly fashion. The second was to accompany us if there was an emergency move of uncertain destination with only such things as we could carry. The third was a light pack such as we would need if we escaped and were on the run.
In the meantime, there were talks between the Senior British Officer and the Italian Camp Commandant. We demanded to be set free in the event of a separate peace being signed. The Commandant was told that his name would be in our Black Book if he did not comply with our wishes. The Commandant was friendly but not prepared to commit himself. We suspected he was under pressure from the Germans. We later learned that the local German Commander believed we had been armed and had told the Italian Commandant he would shell the camp and take it by force if the Italians did not hand it over to them.
There was a large canteen at the end of the compound which the Italians had allowed us to stock with local wines like sweet Marsala, a popular drink with our craving for sweet things. The canteen was a great place to pick up the latest "Gen" during drinks after six in the evening.
Things came to a head in the evening of Wednesday 8th September 1943. Walking back from the bar after dinner, I noticed a crowd around the cage gate near the front entrance. Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies on 3rd September - to come into effect when a suitable moment arrived. At 2100 hours, we learned that the Senior British Officer, Brigadier Mountain, had asked the Italian Area Commandant for defence of the camp in view of the large number of Germans in the district. All his requests were turned down flat. There were 30,000 Germans in the Bologna district and our position was not rosy. The Commandant agreed to cut the wire and open the rear gate if the Germans threatened the camp.
Red Cross parcels were issued and all were asked to sleep in full kit ready for instant evacuation. The Italians asked us not to try to get out as straying officers would attract the attention of the Germans. A German patrol asked an Italian this evening if this was a prison camp and got the answer "yes". The Commandant had patrols out and promised to give us reasonable warning of any move by the Germans.
At 0300 hrs on Thursday September 9th, we were awakened by the Italian orderly officer screaming, "I Tedeschi sono qui!" ("The Germans are here.")
We were up in a trice and rushed into the parade ground where the orderly officer directed us to the cage gate. I was in the middle of the pack at this stage but, half way between the cage gate and the main entrance to the camp, I found myself in the front row looking down the barrels of machine guns manned by groups of Germans deployed inside the main entrance. A German voice told us we were surrounded and that we should go back to our barracks. There was instant flight and the rush back to our barracks took no longer than a few seconds.
As soon as we were in our barracks, all doors were covered by machine guns and German soldiers entered shouting "HERAUS!!" ["Out"] - herding us into the space between the two barbed wire fences at the front of the cage near the main entrance. Some officers, including Skipper Palmer, had slipped out the back gate conveniently left open by the Italians but the Germans were not stupid and all were recaptured except for about sixteen.
Whilst we were crowded between the barbed wire fences, we could hear bursts of machine-gun and tommy-gun fire outside the camp as the Germans rounded up the escapers. As we listened, the German Lieutenant approached and announced: "one of your officers has been wounded". An English escaper, Captain P. O. ("Podge") Johnson, had been wounded in the hand and thigh by a burst of gunfire as he went down the road to the north of the camp. He died later of shock and loss of blood. He was the only casualty, which was amazing in the circumstances and indicates the excellent discipline of the German outfit that took the camp. Its commander was an army lieutenant aged 22.
As dawn was breaking, looking at the machine guns pointing at us from either side, I had visions of a massacre and moved quietly toward the centre of the large crowd of prisoners between the wires. I had read a book "Gaspar Ruiz" about a Spaniard who survived a firing squad when he fell down under his dead comrades. After dawn, we were returned to our barracks and Germans took over from the Italians whom they bundled off. After breakfast, life returned to normal except that our guards were now Germans and the camp was under German control. Our position was now "SNAFU" - Situation Normal, All Fouled Up - and we had lots to talk about during the day.
On Friday 10th September, we learned that the German Company that took the camp had been relieved and that a new lot had taken its place. There was a funeral for Podge Johnson. We learned that the Italian Commandant had double-crossed both us and the Germans. The Germans had had a cordon around the camp since mid-day on September 8th so the orderly officer's show was a "put up" job. The German Lieutenant who took the camp told the Commandant he had put up a shocking and disgraceful exhibition in front of the British. The only Italian officer remaining was Tenente Cassani who organised our rations. Rumour had it that several prisoners had gone out under the ration truck.
Early on Saturday 11th September, we were told we must be ready to leave at one hour's notice and that we could only take gear we could carry. (Germany ?? ! ! ) We were told we would go in lorries a distance of about 40 kilometres. At 1430 hrs, we were loaded into 4-ton open lorries - thirty officers and their gear per lorry. The whole camp was emptied except far the "hide-up artists" who concealed themselves in various cupboards and crannies. This was foolhardy as they ran a great risk of being shot by German clean-up squads who used their tommy-guns freely.
At 1650 hrs, we were taken through the city of Bologna. Ignoring our sullen German escort, the Italian people were extremely friendly - smiling and waving to us and blowing kisses. We realised immediately that they would help us if we could get past our German guards.
Our convoy arrived at the railway station at Modena at 1830 hrs and we were loaded into box-cars (30 per car) for the night. The station yard was surrounded by Germans and bristling with machine guns. It was becoming apparent that our destination was Germany.
On the Sunday morning, the Germans issued us with Red Cross parcels to serve as rations on the trip - they had no rations of their own to give us. We had been allowed out of the box-cars to stretch our legs etc and several got away from the station yard including Ted Paul, from Sulmona, who grabbed a case of fruit from an Italian vendor and quietly walked to the fence, vaulted over it and disappeared. Jack Kroger borrowed a pair of blue Air Force pants from Robbie and tried the same trick but found himself looking down the barrel of a tommy-gun and decided that discretion was the better part of valour.
During our period out of the box-cars, we noted that the train was well guarded with a flat car, bristling with machine guns, located between every five or six box-cars. We could not see what was at the rear of the train! The walls of our box-car were timber and there were two sliding wooden doors at the side. The latch looked negotiable, provided it was not to be padlocked or secured with wire. Some of the box-cars were made of steel with wooden floors.
We were herded back into our box car but the doors were left open and we were able to talk to the boyish German guard armed with a tommy-gun outside our truck. I was reasonably competent in the German language and taunted the lad that the Allies would soon invade La Spezia, the naval base in northern Italy, and that it was unlikely he would reach Germany again because the Brenner Pass would be blocked by bombing raids. I desisted when I noticed his trigger finger trembling and decided I was tempting fate.
The doors were finally shut and we left Modena at 1300 hrs. It would have been foolhardy for the Germans to place guards in the crowded box-cars so we were on our own. The boards on the doors were soft and we were confident we could cut our way through to open the latch. The timing would be the important thing! We had heard that POW officers from a camp near Modena were in a similar train following close behind. Our itinerary was to be via Mantova and Verona - thence the Brenner Pass unto Austria.
After a short stop, we left Mantova at dusk. It was a fine night with a full moon. There was some noise of firing guns before we reached Verona about midnight. The Germans were talking about escaped prisoners and the guards were doubled. The train backed down the line at Verona and, thinking the Germans had abandoned the idea of taking us to Germany, we all fell asleep.
We awakened at 0300 hrs to find bright moonlight outside and the train speeding along. Through a small ventilator at the top of the box-car, I was able to read the name Rovereto as we passed through a station. Using a silk map received in a POW parcel, we realised we were well on the way to the Brenner Pass and would have to act soon if we were to find friendly Italians when we got out. Tracey Rowley already was at work cutting a recess in a board near the door latch - leaving a paper thin outer skin that could be broken open at the right moment.
Numbered slips of paper were drawn out of a hat and Tracey Rowley drew number one. Jack Kroger, Barney Grogan, Lex Lamb, Robbie, Johnnie Hall, Sandy Mair, Bob Jones and Bob Donnan all drew low numbers. I drew number ten with Mort Edwards eleven and Geoff Chinchen twelve.
Whilst we were getting ready to leave, I began to think aloud: "We would be crazy to jump! We would lose all our possessions and end up getting shot!"
"To hell with that," said Robbie - nursing his gammy knee - "I'm going!" Ashamed, I quelled my doubts and determined to go too.
(Robbie was recaptured, whilst I was successful in getting to Switzerland!)
When the time came to jump, Tracey decided not to go! Jack Kroger and Barney Grogan did not hesitate though the train was moving at a cracking pace. Lex and Bobbie went, then there was a pause while someone was collecting his gear. "Out you go Eggie!" I heard someone shout, and out I went! They threw out my small knapsack which I retrieved. The train was travelling very slowly up an incline. I found myself in a shallow cutting and tried to make myself invisible by lying down on the gravel at the side of the line but the light was brighter than I would have liked and the gravel was white quartz. Our-box car was near the rear of the train and I did not have to contend with one of those flat trucks bristling with machine guns, but I could clearly see a German with a tommy-gun on the rear platform of the Guards Van as the train drew slowly away. He was distracted by something on the other side of the train and failed to notice me, otherwise I would have been a dead man!
As soon as the train moved out of sight, I crawled through the fence on the east side of the railway line and found I was in a vineyard. I went through the vines as fast as I could on my hands and knees to get away from the railway line before the break of day. It was 0430 hrs and I had jumped near the village of Lavis, eight kilometres north of the city of Trento. It was Monday 13th September 1943! So far so good!
As dawn broke, I was concerned to find I was close to a busy road. To add to my worries, a German motorised unit stopped outside the fence for breakfast. I kept my head down but was scared that one of them might come into the vineyard to pick grapes or to relieve himself. If that happened, I was sure to be discovered because the vines provided only moderate cover. To my relief, the Germans left after forty five minutes and I was still free! There was a steady stream of traffic along the road and the railway line throughout the day and I did not move one inch - except to pick a bunch of grapes hanging above me. About mid-morning, a farmer brought a ladder and picked fruit from a tree just a few yards away. I could clearly see him and I am sure he saw me but he did not bat an eyelid although the tiny boy with him was muttering in an Austrian dialect about all the footprints in the vineyard. I was aware that this area formerly had been under Austrian influence and was worried by the boy's dialect.
Throughout the day, German reconnaissance aircraft flew up and down the valley. At dusk, there were sounds of tommy-gun fire and shouts of "heraus" and barking dogs. The Germans were searching for escapees!
At 1800 hrs it was getting dark and I was delighted to see Bob Jones and Sandy Mair crawling towards me. They had been hiding just a few yards away!
We had a snack from my kit and decided we must get away from the road and the railway line before trying to contact peasants. Occasional shouts and bursts of gunfire could be heard in the distance and were unnerving so we waited until midnight when things were quieter.
We started southwards on our hands and knees in the shadows thrown by the trees. The moon was very bright. We went always through fields and heard nothing except an occasional distant shout of "heraus" and some barking dogs. The moonlight was deceptive and, on one occasion, approaching the edge of an open field, we were convinced we could see Germans creeping towards us out of the trees on the other side. After looking for a few minutes, we decided there was nobody there. Towards dawn, we reached a wide stone wall along the north bank of a river which looked too difficult to cross. We retreated, and took cover in a field of corn. It was 0500 hrs Tuesday 14th September and we reckoned we had covered two kilometres from our hiding place in the vineyard.
With dawn came occasional distant sounds of gunfire and more shouts of "heraus" but we were not disturbed. Soon we became aware of bursts of a high-pitched noise which sounded to me like a high-speed machine gun. I talked to Sandy about it and he thought it might be a flame thrower. We had visions of being burned out of our hiding place in the corn. Suddenly all hell broke loose! There was a deafening roar of army tanks on the move! We jumped into a shallow ditch near-by, hoping that the tanks would roll over without crushing us. Our fears died down as the noise receded. We realised that the tanks were going down the road. We then surmised that the high pitched noise we had previously heard was the sound of tank crews cleaning the caterpillar tracks with compressed air. '
After that bit of excitement, we settled down but were discovered by some peasants at 1000 hrs. They were friendly and went off to fetch the local priest who, they said, would advise us what to do. They were back at 1400 hrs with the news that the priest was away. However, they brought us civilian clothes and two bottles of Chianti and said we should try to reach Switzerland which was, " just over the hills". We changed into the civilian clothes and left ours with them. We kept our boots, which we reckoned we would need for the long walk ahead. This was risky because our army boots could have betrayed our disguise but we knew the walk would be much longer than "just over the hills". We smeared our boots with mud and manure, hoping to look like typical peasants.
Sandy Mair really looked the part with his neat pointed moustache and his freckled face set off by a smart blue and yellow chequered shirt and dark grey striped trousers. I had a cream shirt and light grey golf jacket and "plus fours" with long socks. Bob Jones had a light shirt with black trousers.
Our Italian friends had not brought food but we finished one of the bottles of Chianti and set off to walk through Lavis at 1530 hrs. We had to go through the village as there was no other track over the railway line leading to the bridge over the river Adige which we had to cross. The Italians remained behind in the cornfield.
I was in the lead with the bottle of Chianti in my right hand. We soon reached the village and, walking in single file, we made our way along a narrow footpath on the right hand side of the road past a row of small houses. I could see a number of the dreaded S.S. German troops walking towards us in the course of searching the houses for escaped prisoners. I held my breath and brushed past them trying to look downtrodden. Our cover held against the Germans, though some smiling Italian girls on the other side of the road left us in no doubt that they knew we were escaped prisoners.
The road came to a level crossing and, as we went over the railway line, a woman in black came over to me and said in Italian: "you are English aren't you!" I said "si" and she said: "There is a German guard on that bridge - take my hand and he will think you are my son". I did this, convinced that I had never witnessed such a brave act. Undoubtedly that woman would have been shot if our identity had been discovered! I dared not look back but I learned later that Sandy and Bob each had taken the hand of one of her two children.
That brave woman could have looked at us and turned away! Instead, she chose to become involved, even at the risk of her life and, perhaps, the lives of her children!
Our party soon reached the bridge and got across without being challenged. About one hundred metres further on, we parted from the brave woman and her children and continued towards the steep mountain slope at the western edge of the valley. It was not long before we approached the village of Zampana at the foot of the mountain. Suddenly, we became aware of a stocky German soldier in black riding breeches standing in the middle of our path with his hands on his hips and staring at us as we came near. There was nothing we could do but continue on our way. He turned as we passed and stared after us but did not challenge us.
We had been party to another miracle!
We reached the bushes at the base of the mountain in a few moments and, as we entered the track to go up, I looked back to see the soldier still staring at us.
As soon as we were out of sight, we streaked up that mountain to put as great a distance as we could between us and that valley as soon as possible.
About half way up, I was overcome by a dreadful weakness and realised this resulted from blood-sugar imbalance following the Chianti I had drunk with the peasants in the cornfield. I emptied out the bottle I was carrying to ensure we would not fall into that trap again. I was so weak, I had to sit down and eat my entire emergency chocolate ration before I was in a fit state to go on.
After an 800 metre climb to the top of the mountain, we reached the village of Fai Della Paganella (1000 Metres above sea level) at 1830 hrs. People were friendly - leaning over their balconies to greet us. We were joined by a young Italian corporal who said he was on the way to Mezzolombardo where he would stay until the war was over. He asked if we would come with him which we did for a few moments until we realised the idea was a bit risky. We parted company and we went in our previously chosen direction towards Molveno. We reached Andalo (1050m) at 2000 hrs in pitch dark and decided to seek shelter for the night, having got away from the Germans and covered about fifteen kilometres from Lavis.
At Andalo, in the dark, we were discussing what to do, when a voice called to us in Italian through the blackness and we were offered shelter in a barn for the night. The owner of the voice said that some of our companions already had passed through and were making their way over the mountains. It did not take us long to settle down in our friendly barn and we slept soundly until dawn. That morning, Wednesday 15th, our host gave us some breakfast and pointed the way to a mountain path which, he assured us, was the best way to Switzerland.
We started at 0900 hrs and climbed without a stop to reach a place called "Malga Spora" (1315m) at 1145 hrs. We had a rest and a wash then continued, crossing the Brenta Pass (2731m) at 1430 hrs. We caught up with our companions at a place called "Tucket" (2656m) at 1530 hrs. They proved to be Don McDonald, Bob Donnan, Gordon Reneau, Pop Sharp and his son Keith. Our host of the previous evening had been the same man who had shown them the path the day before. We went on slowly until we reached a chalet, in the forest above San Antonio. The beautiful mountains we had come through comprised the "Gruppo di Brenta" a part of "The Dolomites", featuring huge monoliths towering up to 3150 meters above sea level.
Gruppo di Brenta
Our chalet was a private one "Rifugio Vallsinella" (1513m). There was only a caretaker there. He agreed to give us shelter for the night and we trooped in. He said he had no food and was going down to the village after dark to steal potatoes from somebody's garden. We were not sure we could trust him and slept with the windows open in case we had to make a hasty exit. It was too cold to sleep in the open. We had covered 20km from Andalo.
Our host came back in the early hours next morning. He did not seem to have brought any Germans with him so we dozed off though still apprehensive.
Early in the morning, we asked the way to Switzerland and the caretaker produced a tourist map. He did not want to part with it, so I copied the likely route in pencil on a sheet of paper. I still have that escape map. A thing that impressed me at the time was an arrow pointing from our intended crossing point at the Swiss border with the caption: "Five Hours to St Moritz".
It was now Thursday 15th, the weather was perfect and we set out at 0900 hrs. We decided to split up during the day as our big group could attract the attention of any Germans who might be about and could frighten would-be helpers. We were glad we had done this when an army half-track open vehicle with a German officer in the back seat came cruising up the road. The German officer stared directly at us but the vehicle did not stop.
Sandy, Bob and I reached San Antonio (1122m) at 1000 hrs and had some food at a friendly Inn. We then continued toward Pinzolo but lost sight of the others, spending four hours walking up and down the hillsides looking for them. Meanwhile we were given some potatoes by a good woman and lots of good advice.
We were advised it would be suicide to attempt to cross the mountain passes and were on the road to Madonna di Campiglio when we got word that the others had left for the Val Genova a few minutes earlier. We guessed they must be on to something good and went hot-foot after them. We missed their track at a sawmill near Pinzolo (765m) and wandered into the town. Eventually, at 1630 hrs, someone put us on the track for Mount Mandrone and we caught up with the others at 1800 hrs, just before we reached the mountain lodge "Fontana Buona" (1099m). We were made welcome there by Rozario and Ottilia Frizzi who put us up for the night. We had covered twenty kilometres for the day, but probably walked twice as far.
Before we caught the others, we met a pixilated lady who said she was an opera singer and had sung at Covent Garden, London. She was quite taken with Sandy and insisted on holding his hand as we walked along.
There was plenty of room at Fontana Buona - it being out of season - and we were given rooms on the first floor. The W.C. on the balcony outside our rooms consisted of a hole in the floor with a long vertical pipe leading down to a dunny can below.
WITH GOD'S GRACE, OVER THE MOUNTAIN PASSES!
There were eight of us staying at Fontana Buona on the night of Thursday September 16th. The oldest was "Pop" - Lieut. Frank Sharp, born at Newcastle NSW on 6th April 1895, a veteran of World War I and a Hotel Keeper by profession. The youngest was his son Keith, Gunner K. W. Sharp born 17th October 1920. Both were members of the 2/3 Anti Tank Regiment and were captured near Mechili in April 1941, after the Wavell Offensive in North Africa. Pop was worldly, had learned all the tricks and knew all the answers. We got to admire his guts and determination in the face of difficult conditions. He and Keith worked as a team and it was a relief to us, when the mountains made the going tough, that Keith was standing by his father.
Of the others, I was the oldest (28.06.14). I have never seriously aspired to be a "leader of men" but, on this adventure, my companions seemed to accept my plan. Not so Pop! He and Keith were to leave us on the second last day and find their own way into Switzerland! My idea was to avoid all population centres and major roads. This reduced the risk of meeting Germans or Italian Fascists who were more likely to be found in the larger towns. The mountain passes offered the best means of doing this. Our disguise was more suited to mountain tracks and we could move freely during the day. Another advantage was that it reduced the distance we had to cover. The mountain ranges ran in a north-easterly direction whilst we wanted to go North-West. The distance as the crow flies from the start at Lavis to Livino near the Swiss border is 85 kilometres. To go by road would be nearly thrice that distance, whereas our route through the mountain passes was about 165 kilometres.
My plan involved serious risks. We had been warned that the passes were dangerous. We carried no rations and our clothes were not suited for mountaineering. If the weather broke, we could perish. If the fine weather continued, we stood a good chance of achieving our objective.
The day following our night at Fontana Buona (1099m) was going to be a major test. We had to cover 30 kilometres and cross a high glacier. Our hosts seemed to think we had a good chance but strongly advised us to start early.
After breakfast, consisting solely of a cup of "coffee" made from burnt wheat, we left Fontana Buona at 0400 hrs on Thursday September 17th. We continued up the gently-rising Genova valley, between steep mountain slopes, and reached Rifugio Bedole (1641m) by 0645 hrs. The view from there was awesome but magnificent. We were surrounded by towering mountains with sheer bald rocky slopes, practically down to our feet.
We went straight on and the track became steeper as we made our way to Rifugio Mandrone (2449m) by 1115 hrs.
We rested there until 1245 hrs and met a woman and her daughter who were collecting barbed wire from the World War I battle frontier between Italy and Austria to sell as scrap. The so-called wire was more like square steel rod, being 5mm x 5mm in section with horrible barbs attached. The woman was carrying a load of 35 kilograms and her daughter 20kg. She had some polenta (maize pudding) for lunch and gave each of us a slice. She apologised that she had no sauce to go with it, offering coarse rock salt instead. We were very grateful as it was the first food we had tasted that day. I asked her if she thought the Germans might abandon Italy. "They'll never give in!" she said.
We said farewell and started an even steeper climb to our next objective, Passo Maro Caro (2975m), while the women made their way down with their heavy loads. Pop was feeling tired and lagged behind with Keith. We reached the pass at 1400 hrs and stopped for a few minutes to look at the glacier we had to cross. Some were worried by the menacing crevasses but I doubted if the glacier was very deep and, after the bout of fine weather we had enjoyed, there was no soft snow cover to make it more hazardous. I considered that the going would be relatively easy. There was no track and we had to pick our own way but it was not difficult. It was roughly a kilometre across the glacier and we did this in a little more than an hour, reaching "Tre Laghetti" (Three Little Lakes) (2583m) at 1530 hrs and "Passo Paradiso" (2573m) at 1600 hrs.
The view from Passo Paradiso was impressive. We looked down on a busy road running east from Ponte di Legno (1258m) through Passo Tonale (1883m) which was 690 Metres below us. Ponte di Legno, six kilometres to the west, was not visible but we could plainly see German military transports climbing towards Passo Tonale. To the north, on the far side of the road, in the direction we had to go, we could see high mountains away into the distance. Gordon Reneau was so fascinated, he slipped and nearly fell over the cliff beneath us. We needed to get down and find shelter for the night as soon as possible but there was a need to be careful with the German traffic below. The slopes down to the road were steep and mostly bare with some patches of scrub toward the bottom. We reckoned the Germans would not spot us unless they were searching the slopes with binoculars, which did not seem likely. We commenced the descent without delay and reached the patches of scrub an hour later.
Just before we reached the scrub, we saw someone running up the slope towards us. We could not make out who or what he was but guessed he would be one of the locals. While the others took cover, "Eggie" went forward to meet the stranger. He was a boy of 14 years with a message from his father who was owner of one of the dairies on the other side of the road. He said there were Germans in Ponte di Legno and along the road and that we should remain concealed until after dark when we would be welcome to spend the night in his barn. The father had seen us as we came over the pass and guessed who we were. I thanked the boy and accepted his father's offer. Good luck once more!
After dark, one by one, we crossed the road and made for the farmer's barn. The door was open and we went inside to relish the warmth of the hay. Soon, our good host came out with some polenta - this time, with warm milk. We had found our lunch sustaining and were glad to have another meal of polenta, which was a food we had not seen so far in all our time in Italy. The farmer told us we would have to avoid Ponte di Legno which was full of Germans, but his boy would lead us along a forest track past the town to reach the alpine road we would follow for the next stage of our journey. We should leave well before first light!
We slept the sleep of the just and left at 0500 hrs Saturday 18th September with the boy in the lead. He obviously was enjoying the adventure and took us through the forests, down and up slopes, over streams and then, steadily up the mountainside until, at 0700 hrs, we reached Pezzo (1565m), a village 3½ kilometres north of Ponte di Legno (1258m) on the alpine road to Passo di Gavia (2618m) which was our next hurdle. Thanking our brave little guide, we commenced the steady climb to the pass. At 0800 hrs, we were overtaken by four of our POW friends from Bologna - Guy Greville, Dick Dennis, Roger Phillips and Derry McDowall. Meantime Pop was getting tired and lagged behind with Keith.
We reached the pass at midday, and did not stop for long as there was a cold wind from the north and it had commenced to rain. We were surrounded by high mountains but could not see the peaks because of the clouds. I noticed Sandy limping and he showed me a blood blister on his heel the size of a bantam's egg. As we hobbled down the long road, I took Bob Jones aside and asked: "What are we going to do about Sandy? If his heel gets worse, he will have to stop somewhere and we will have to go on!" Bob was noncommittal and I did not pursue the matter. That night, Sandy drained the blister and made it bearable.
We arrived at Santa Caterina Valfurva (1737m) at 1600 hrs, wet and cold. This was a lovely alpine village along the banks of a bubbling stream "Torrente Frodolfo". We had to find shelter soon or we would die of pneumonia! We knocked on the door of an inn named "Albergo Compagnoni" and were invited inside. Our host and owner of the Inn was Tenente Colonello Campagnoni, of the famous Bersaglieri Division which had disbanded after the armistice with the Allies. He made us welcome for the night, making it clear to us however that he was risking the safety of his family and himself by doing so. The Germans had notices posted everywhere that people helping escaped prisoners would be dealt with summarily. He would provide us with a meal and beds for the night but we must leave well before dawn. He approved generally our planned route but recommended we make a detour around Bormio (1225m) which was a big town and bound to harbour fascists and Germans, being on the route from Italy to Austria over "Passo dello Stelvio" (2758m). The Stelvio road passed close to Switzerland, but our chosen point to cross the border above Livigno would be safer since it was rarely used.
We were grateful for his counsel and assured him we would do as he suggested. However, we had to tell him that Pop and Keith were still to come. He accepted this news without demur and suggested we await their arrival before starting our meal. We did our best to dry our clothes until Pop and Keith arrived after dark. Our host served us a splendid meal of pheasant and accompanying delicacies with wine, followed by sweets and coffee. It was too much for Pop Sharp who was so exhausted, he could not hold it down. In fact, we all were exhausted, having covered 38 kilometres from Passo Tonale.
The following morning, Sunday 19th September, we started in the dark along the road to Bormio at 0300 hrs and reached the outskirts of the town at 0500 hrs, covering some 15 kilometres in three hours. Pop and Keith left us on this section, taking a path through pine trees above and parallel to the road. We did not think this necessary as there was nobody about. We did not see them again until after we got to Switzerland. They crossed the frontier at "Passo Val Viola" (2432m) well south of "Trupchen Pass" (2860m) which we had chosen.
As we approached the outskirts of Bormio (1225m) in the half light of the early morning, we could hear the gentle clanging of church bells and saw shadowy figures on their way to early mass. We skirted the town, turning north, and came to "Bagni Nuovi" (The New Baths) (1332m) by 0700 hrs. From there, we took the road westward towards Isolaccia (1345m) and our destination Livino (1816m). The road was too large for our liking, so we branched off soon to take a smaller one on the north slope of the valley. This road took us via Pedenosso to Pradaccia (1640m) at 0830 hrs where we saw an "old" (to us) man in his Sunday best, sitting in the morning sun on a bench outside a log cabin and smoking a cigar. We asked him the way to Livigno and he invited us to breakfast, having already guessed we were escaped prisoners. We gladly accepted.
He said his name was Cesare and introduced us to his wife who was dressed in black like nearly every other woman we saw in Italy. As she prepared the food she tearfully told us that their son was a prisoner of war on the Russian front and she hoped someone was being kind to him, just as they were being kind to us. We heartily agreed. While we ate our breakfast of rye bread and cheese, Cesare chewed his cigar and spat on the earthen floor but he was so gentle and nice, it did not seem incongruous.
We got going again at 1000 hrs, and Cesare came with us to show the way to a short cut to Livigno across the mountains. This would let us avoid the roads and save time. Dressed is his heavy clothes, he took us up the steep grassy slopes like a mountain goat. We kept up with him but it was not easy.
With some parting advice, including the news that there was a dairy along the track, Cesare left us at 1100 hrs and turned for home. We reached the "Bocche di Trela" (2349m) at 1200 hrs and the mountain dairy mentioned by Cesare, an hour later. We rested there and had a drink of milk before continuing on our way to reach the slopes above Livigno at 1700 hrs. We sat down on the grass to rest and have something to eat, having covered 40 kilometres since we left Santa Caterina that morning.
There were some people in Sunday clothes, resting on the grass, enjoying the panorama of the Valley of Livigno 400 metres below and the sun sinking between the 3000 metre mountain peaks away in the distance. These were Swiss mountains but we would have to cross a high pass on the frontier to reach them. We would need to make the crossing at night, using mountain trails and, for that, we would need a guide.
Modern View of The Valley of Livigno
I tried to open conversation with these people but they were suspicious. They thought we were Germans in disguise trying to catch them helping escaped prisoners of war. We were speaking in Italian and one of them said: "say something in German!" I obliged. Immediately he said: "Yes! You are a German!" Normally, I would have been flattered by this inadvertent compliment to my ability in the German tongue but things were getting out of hand. Fortunately, a young Italian soldier had just joined the group and he talked to us for a minute or two. "They are not Germans!" he announced, "They are genuine escaped prisoners of war!"
We welcomed this new-found ally and told him of our need for a guide to get across the frontier. He grasped our situation immediately and said he could get guides but they would need to be paid. We had no money but offered him our watches. Each of us had a timepiece, some quite valuable. He thought he could convert them into money and took our six watches, promising to be back later. He told us to remain where we were and keep out of sight as there were Fascist Militia in Livigno. He said his name was Eimenegildo Foroni.
He was back in two hours with the welcome news that he had found two guides to take us over the frontier and that he had sold the watches for 6000 lire which would be enough to pay the guides. It was no use worrying whether we had received value for our precious watches. It was worth a watch apiece to get across the frontier. He gave me six 1000 lire notes and told us to wait until it was really dark and then go down to a log hut at the foot of the slope where someone would pick us up later and take us to the guides' cabin on the other side of Livigno. Well aware of all the unpleasant things which could have happened to us if he were a rogue, we believed we could trust him and did not hesitate to follow his directions. After all, there was nothing else we could do!
It must have been near 2200 hrs when we started to go down and 2300 hrs by the time we reached the log cabin in the valley. We were picked up soon after midnight and crept around the town until we reached the mountain cabin where our two guides were waiting. They were stocky cheerful types and said they were contrabandieri (smugglers) - the main items of contraband being saccharine and condoms. They sat back and insisted that we tell them our whole story. Listening intently, they cried "puovere genti!" (poor people!) as each phase unfolded. Partly, of course, they were sounding us out to satisfy themselves we were genuine but they were also playing for time as the weather had deteriorated and it was too dark to be sure of following the track to the pass 1000 metres above.
We were impatient to get going, always dogged by the fear that someone might betray us, but it was understandable they should want to hear all about us before setting out. Although we must have looked a ragged lot, and the two of them were armed, there were six of us and we easily could have outmanoeuvred them in the dark.
We finally started our last climb at 0300 hrs.
It was now Monday September 20th 1943.
Our party on the final phase of our escape numbered six plus the two Italian guides: Bob Donnan, Fred Eggleston, Bob Jones, Don McDonald, John Mair, Gordon Reneau. We did not know the names of the guides.
Throughout our seven days on the run, we purposely avoided learning anything that might help to identify our helpers. If any information like that came to us by chance, we did our best to forget it. We did not want to be in a position to betray our helpers should we be recaptured and questioned. (The names mentioned in this narrative were revealed during visits to parts of the escape route in 1976 - 33 years later.)
When we commenced our climb to the frontier pass at 0300 hrs on Monday September 20th 1943, we could hear the wind howling in the peaks above. There was light rain, it was pitch dark and very cold. We hoped our guides would be able to follow the track.
Our clothes were inappropriate for such conditions. Bob Jones, in particular, had a thin shirt and no jacket. We tried to make up for this by cutting head and arm holes in a corn sack and draping it around him but this left his arms exposed. It was not so bad when we were climbing but, every so often, our guides in their heavy jackets and breeches wanted to rest and we had to urge them on when the cold became unbearable.
In some places, there was no track and we went straight up a slope so steep that we had to pull ourselves upward by grabbing tufts of grass. In others, we were traversing slippery slopes or moving gingerly along a narrow path with a sheer drop below. A bit unnerving in the dark!
After a couple of hours, the visibility improved as the pre-dawn light filtered through the cloud. It was not so steep, making the climb easier and allowing us to look around. We were coming up to a wide saddle and, with a sense of relief and excitement, we realised this was the frontier pass.
At 0600 hrs, in the grey light of dawn we crested the pass at the southern end to meet a bitter wind blowing sleet in our faces. Our guides led us to the northern end of the pass on the Swiss side where we were able to take shelter in a block-house used by Swiss frontier patrols. There was nobody there but we were able to light a fire to thaw out our frozen limbs. Soon the wind grew stronger and the fall of sleet heavier. It was time to leave. I gave the six 1000 lire notes to our guides.
They seemed happy with the payment and wished us good luck.
Below the block-house, on the Swiss side, there was a steep slope covered with moraine debris. Through the rain, we ploughed our way down, bringing rafts of small stones with us. The moraine ended after 500 metres and we had to pick our way along a zigzag rocky path for a further 500 metres. After that, the path became well defined and it was not long before we came to a flat area known as "Alp Trupchun" (2040m). Later we learned that "Fuorcla Trupchun" (2782m) was the pass we had crossed, and that we were now walking through the Swiss National Park. We had left the block-house at 0720 hrs Italian time which was 0620 hrs Swiss time.
A modern view of Fuorcla Trupchun.
After Alp Trupchun, the path entered wooded country on the right hand slope above a bubbling stream. Suddenly, we saw a group of soldiers in grey uniforms wearing steel helmets coming towards us through the trees. Their helmets looked horribly like German helmets and, for a moment, we wondered if it was a German patrol which had crossed the frontier. Of course they were Swiss and we were mighty glad to meet them. One of them asked us who were we and, thinking by so doing we might avoid internment, I told him in the German language that we were Italian civilians seeking refuge. The Swiss soldier, knowing full well who we really were, said, "that is a pity; we have to put civilians back across the border". This horrified me and I told him we were British.
In fact, by international convention, escaped prisoners of war are not interned but free to move about so long as they keep the police informed of their movements. We did not know this at that time.
Our new "captors" hurried us along so we would not get cold in the rain which was now falling heavily. After a while, the valley opened out and the path improved until we arrived at the village of S-chanf at 0930, Swiss time. Without delay, we were ushered into a hotel where an army of Swiss girls materialised from nowhere, rubbed our backs with hot towels and gave us brandy. It was a wonderful welcome. They told us we were the first British they had seen since the start of the war. They spoke English with a delightful accent.
After a half hour of this treatment they told us that the Mayor of the next town, Zuoz, was making a collection of warm clothes for us and that the best thing would be for us to run the few kilometres on foot so we could keep warm. We covered the distance in twenty minutes and, in another hotel, we were given food and a complete change of clothes. They had thought of everything - even long johns. We stayed at Zuoz until 1500 hrs when we were taken by motor lorry to a collection compound at Samedan, arriving there at 1600 hrs. Mr F. K. Naegeli, the British Vice Consul at St Moritz, called on us there and asked if we had any urgent needs.
We lodged for the night at the hospital in Samedan. There was no trouble sleeping. We had walked 25 km from Livigno under difficult conditions.
We spent the morning of Tuesday September 21st at the Samedan Hospital Collection Point. It was full of refugees - Italians, Poles, Free French, Cypriots, Serbs, black South Africans, British and Yugoslavs - a veritable tower of Babel.
Mr Naegeli, and his daughter, Mrs Gartmann came to see us off as we boarded the train for Chur at 1300 hrs. He gave us cigarettes and an advance of 10 Swiss Francs each for pocket money.
The train arrived in Chur at 1700hrs and we stayed the night in a hotel. We met a very nice Swiss Army Warrant Officer Pierre Tuon and had our first taste of beer. Pierre introduced his English wife after dinner.
On Wednesday 22nd, we spent the morning wandering around Chur and left at 1300hrs to travel by train via Sargans, Buchs, Altstaetten, St Margarethen, Rorschach and St Gallen to Wil at 1730h.
Escaped prisoners of war seeking asylum in a neutral country are known as Evaders. Wil was the collection point for evaders of British Commonwealth nationality.
We met Brigadier R. Miles, a New Zealander who had been in Switzerland for six months, Capt J. R. Fishbourne, Lt J. Payne RN, Lt J. W. G. Birkbeck, Lt F. C. L. Raeder and Capt C. J. R. Hardy who were recent arrivals. We had a marvellous meal with them at "Die Schwanen" and then listened to the BBC news at 2100h.
The Bologna types - Capt G. E. F. Greville, F/L R. B. E. Phillips, Lieut P. C. S. McDowall, Lieut R. W. Dennis, Lieut Frank Sharp and his son Keith arrived at 2130 hours. After much talking and comparing notes, we returned to our hotel, "Hotel Bahnhof".
Another who was at Wil when we arrived was F/L A. D. Beauclaire - "Basher", a bomber pilot who came from a prison in Milan.
On the following day, Thursday 23rd, we were issued with some British battle-dress clothes and explored the town. It gave me great pleasure to be able to go into a cafe and order a cup of coffee. We were free to move about during the day. There was a moratorium on overseas cables. We were to get a subsistence allowance of SwFr 36 per week plus a living allowance of SwFr 20 per day. Full accommodation at the Hotel Bahnhof was SwFr 10.50 per day. Frank Sharp and Keith left for Buetschwil, which was one of the collection points for army personnel. I developed diarrhoea due to the change from a starvation diet and decided to stay in bed for a day or two.
On the following day, there were some new arrivals from POW camps in Italy, including W/C Peter Bragg RAF (cousin of Sir William Bragg - the famous Scientist), F/L Derek Isles, F/L Bill Rainford, Lt Charles Laidlaw RN, Lt "Torps" Smith RN - the last two from Bologna, having come the same way as us.
My illness improved and I was able to get out of bed on Sunday 26th to stroll around the town with Sandy Mair and Gordon Reneau. Things were going slowly in Italy, the Germans hanging on grimly. In Russia, the news was brighter. More escapers arrived from Italy, including P/O L. W. F. Cookman, Lt J. R. Gordon, Lt G. G. Hardy RNVR, Lt J. M. R. Harvey, Lt Commander Scott-Elliott RN, and Lt. A. D. Shorey - the last three from Bologna, having crossed the frontier on 23rd & 24th September.
On Monday 27th, I was given the job of arranging accommodation for the escapers. Lt Frank Vlok arrived from Italy. In the evening, our hosts arranged a dance for us at the hotel. I told Anna-Marie Bannwart, one of the girls, that Melbourne was my home and was impressed when she asked about the rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney. Her father was the medical practitioner.
The next day, F/L Mackay, from the British Military Attaché's Office in Bern, came to advise what arrangements had been made for us. Air Force personnel were to go to Arosa, a ski resort above Chur. We would get a clothing allowance of SwFr 500 and go to Zurich or Bern to buy clothes. Although we were entitled to leave Switzerland, individual attempts to reach allied lines were strongly discouraged by the local British authorities. Sandy Mair, Guy Greville and Arthur Shorey left for Buerglen, another collection point for army personnel.
On Wednesday 29th, I bought a diary and commenced a summary of events from 8th September at Bologna. I wrote to Hedi von Flue, a Swiss girl I had met skiing at Melchsee Frutt in January 1939. I also wrote to Mr Naegeli to try to find the address of the family of Georges Falquier, a Swiss in the Consular Service in Sydney who had married my cousin Pauline Henriques. I had a reply from Hedi who had married but I did not contact George's family. Further arrivals from Italy were Maj A. W. Horton, Capt H. I. Dennis, Capt A. Mentis, Lt J. R. Addison, Lt Peter Foden, Lt J. R. Baynham and Lt F. C. Lorentz SAAF.
On Thursday 30th, I was on a Court of Inquiry with W/C Brag and Torps Smith on the identification of an alleged British civilian Boris Ford-Zovak born 1911 in Milan of English Mother and Russian father. The war threw up problems like this. The BBC News referred to a German proclamation that POWs who don't give themselves up or are found in civilian clothes or who resist arrest by arms will be dealt with summarily by Military Tribunals in Italy. The British replied that such cases have every right as POWs and that it is their clear duty to try to escape from occupied territory. Any German authorities acting against the Geneva Convention would be held responsible.
On Friday October 1st, Hedi telephoned to tell me her married name was Frau Walter Winkler and gave me her mother's telephone number in Luzern. Her brother Bepi also was married and all sent their greetings.
Two new arrivals were Count John de Bendern & Capt A. Mitchell.
Next day was fine and warm and I went for a walk in the country where I had morning tea at a restaurant "Berghof Wil". The lady there, Frau I. Rebsamen, was awfully nice and gave me 21 clothes ration cards and a sheet of soap ration tickets. The countryside was peaceful and very beautiful and apples were ripening on the trees.
On Sunday morning October 3rd, I called at the home of Dr Simon Eisenring, who had befriended us when we arrived in Wil. In the afternoon, we heard a broadcast of a speech by Goebbels and were not impressed. I had a long talk with a Swiss who had fought on the German side in France in World War I.
On the Monday, I spent a couple of hours at Dr Bannwart's home and met Frau Bannwart and Therese, Anna-Marie's sister. Lady Norton, wife of the British Minister in Bern, came to see us. I sent my first cable, to The Zinc Corporation in London:
SAFE AND WELL. ADVENTUROUS TIMES. PLEASE ADVISE RELATIONS LONDON MELBOURNE. NEW ADDRESS BRITISH LEGATION BERNE. REGARDS. FREDERIC EGGLESTON.
A new arrival was Lt Wakelin. We had another dance that evening and I had a long talk with Anny Stuecheli about the progress of the war. Strictly kept Swiss neutrality did not prevent them showing their strong feeling in support of the Allies.
Tuesday October 5th saw seventeen new arrivals and I was busy finding accommodation for them. Lieutenant Colonels J. M. Lee & Tindale-Biscoe, Major Peter Oldfield, Captains E. D. Thomson & G. A. Ledgard, Lieutenants A. A. Kamm, A. McPollock, James Boyle, M. Ashby, & John Watson arrived in the morning, Colonel De Burgh and Captain Phillips after lunch and Capt. F. Lowsley-Williams, F/Lt J. M. W. Smith, Lt P. R. Jensen, Lts. T. W. Elliott & R. H. Jones in the evening. It was good to see Tommy Elliott and Ron Jones who I had been with us in Sulmona and Bologna. They had crossed the frontier only two days before.
The British Military Attaché in Bern, Colonel Henry Cartwright, called to see us on Wednesday. He was author of the escape classic "Within Four Walls", about his escape from a POW camp in Germany in World War I.
Next morning, I took Major Peter Oldfield to see Dr Bannwart and had a long talk to Anna-Maria and her sister Therese. In the afternoon, Mich Mentis and I went for a walk over the hills and through a pine forest north of the town. I received a cable from Egan and Jean dated Melbourne 7th October:
DELIGHTED HEAR NEWS. OCEANS OF LOVE. EGAN AND JEAN EGGLESTON.
Next day, Saturday October 9th, it was announced that the first RAF types would leave on Monday. Peter Bragg, Bob Jones, Roger Phillips, Gordon Reneau and I went to a cinema, and then sat over drinks talking until the early hours.
Next morning, our departure was postponed to Tuesday. I received a cable from Kim in London:
CONGRATULATIONS ON ESCAPE. THOUGHT YOU'D DO IT. HAVE CABLED FATHER AND FAMILY. REGARDS KIM MACKAY.
I went for a walk in the afternoon and called on the Gutersohn family in Muenchwilen but they had just left for a holiday. I had afternoon tea at Berghof Wil and met Herr and Frau Klaus and their son. In the evening I had a talk with a Swiss Major Heberlein, who confirmed Swiss sentiments in strong support of the Allies.
On Monday 11th, I was busy fixing rooms for five new arrivals. Therese and Anna-Marie Bannwart took our photographs in the afternoon and I went to their home for supper.
At 1030hrs Tuesday 12th October we left for Berne via Zurich. We had lunch on the train and arrived Bern at 1330hrs. We were met by Mr A. E. Reason, the Air Attaché's secretary. He took us to the Hotel Baeren and then to the Legation where Peter Bragg and Roger Phillips were to stay with Sir Clifford and Lady Norton. We spent the whole afternoon with Mr Reason going round the shops and fitting ourselves out with clothes. We had late afternoon cocktails with the Nortons and I told her about Dad being in Chungking. Colonel Wheeler of the Military Attaché's Office gave me the address of the Falquier family. Back to the Hotel Baeren for dinner then to a film - "International Squadron". [Starring Ronald Regan!]
We were at the Legation at 1000hrs next morning to find out about our clothing allowance. We were to get SwFr 500 plus an extra SwFr 150 for winter gear. We bought ski suits and heavy winter overcoats as well as hats. I went to Lady Norton's to meet Mr Sin Jen, the Chinese Charge d'Affairs in Bern.
On Thursday 14th, we collected our money at the Legation then called at the Police Station to receive temporary passes. We paid our clothes bills - suit SwFr 123.55, overcoat 150.00, ski suit 69.95, shoes 60.00, socks 17.50, shirts 34.40, tie 4.80, studs etc 7.80, braces 5.80, hat 27.20, underclothes 57.00. A grand total of SwFr 558.00. Late afternoon, we went to a cocktail party at the home of the Air Attaché Air Commodore F. M. F. "Freddy" West, VC and met his charming wife Winnie. We then had dinner with an Englishwoman Virginia Frewen and went to the Bellevue for the rest of the evening, finally getting to the Baeren at 0330hrs next morning.
On Friday 15th, I bought some grey slacks at the cost of 31.50 plus five clothing coupons. Roger and Peter met us at the hotel to go to Police Headquarters to get our passes stamped, then to the Coupon Office but it was closed. I bought a ski head-band for 2.50, a ski cap for 15.00 and hogskin gloves 32.50. At the Police Station, we picked up thirteen meal coupons each for the next two days. I then went to the Chinese Embassy to have afternoon tea with Mr Jen and to send a cable to Dad in Chungking:
BIRTHDAY GREETINGS. MANY HAPPY RETURNS. EVERYTHING HERE FINE. MUST REMAIN UNTIL WAY CLEAR. MEANTIME SKIING AROSA. LOVE FREDERIC.
I went up to the British Legation and saw Mr Reason. We were to leave at 0930 hrs the following day. I met Beryl Mauerhofer, an Englishwoman married to a Swiss, and had a drink with her, then returned to the hotel Baeren for dinner.
We were up early the following morning, paid our hotel bills and left on the train for Zurich at 0935hrs, arriving at 1130 hrs. The country between Bern and Zurich is very beautiful - green rolling hills, dark green forests, serene lakes, picturesque farm houses. Switzerland is a fabulous land!
At Zurich we were welcomed by the wife of the British Consul General, the Vice Consul and his wife, the American Consul and several other dignitaries. They gave us a sumptuous lunch of venison, and finally got us to the 1340hrs train for Chur with a moment to spare. We reached Chur at 1600hrs and left for Arosa at 1615 hrs in a narrow gauge train which was waiting for us in the middle of the main street.
The journey up the Schanfigg valley was enchanting - green slopes studded with log huts, lovely rail stations bedecked with flowers, pretty villages clustered here and there, rocky cliffs, bubbling streams. Dark green forests and mountains towering all around. It was a veritable dreamland.
We reached Arosa at 1745hrs, bursting through the final tunnel to find Squadron Leader Smith and some of our Air Force friends waiting for us on the station. We went to the Hotel Rothorn which was to be our home for the next six weeks. Officers and sergeants were in the same hotel but they messed separately. After dinner we went up to the Hotel Schweizerhof to spend a couple of hours in the bowling alley (Kegelbahn). We looked forward to the following morning when we would have an opportunity to see the village and explore the surroundings.
AROSA. Escapees enjoying their freedom at the Hotel Beaurivage, Winter 1943-44.
(Back Row L-R:) Torps Smith, Gus Lönneberg, Gerry Orr, Ken Bridges, Johnny Jones, Wilf Gordon, F/O Joe Beeton (Ottawa), Hugh Baker, Gordon Reneau, Denis Berters,
Geoff Chinchen, Frenk Lorentz, Thurston Smith.
(Front Row L-R:) Derek Isles, Bill Reinford, Tony D’Ancy, Bob Jones, F/O Don Wares (Liverpool), Gerry Goodman, Fritz Bornettler, (Kneeling, Front: F/O Ken Lee), W/C Peter Brugg, F/Lt Butch Dawson, Fred Eggleston, F/O Bratchell, Roger Phillips, F/O Ken Hodge, F/O E. Bartlett.
(Denis Trotman in Hospital – injured practising Gold Test Downhill!)
A PAUSE FOR THOUGHT
At this stage in my story, I think I should review events after we jumped from the train at Lavis on September 13th 1943. In all, 102 officers escaped from our train and, of these, fifty including thirteen Australians reached Switzerland.
Mort Edwards got out but was recaptured a few days later when taking shelter on a railway station. While he was asleep, his identification tag slipped out of his shirt and was recognised by an Italian with Fascist sympathies.
Hal Roberts was last seen by Jack Kroger and Barney Grogan the night after they got out. He was about to attempt to cross a river which looked daunting. In answer to a letter I wrote to him in March 1983, he described how he was recaptured:
"Your mention of the escape brings back memories (I think the Old Man Above was looking my way a bit). This little Italian chick found me in an orchard, brought me some food and then brought some hefty Jerries with wicked-looking machine guns. After questioning me, it became obvious I was not a threat to them although the words Saboteur and Parachutist were mentioned. (I was dressed in other than normal battledress.) I was sure I was being taken to a wall against which I was to be shot. I can still remember my feelings of relief when they put me in with some others who had escaped.
Fred, never again!! Best Regards, Robbie."
Robbie finished up in Germany in the infamous Stalag Luft III and, towards the end of the war, had an unpleasant time fleeing across the country, with a lot of frightened German guards, ahead of the Russian juggernaut.
Our train was stopped soon after I jumped and before Geoff Chinchen had a chance to get out. The German officer in charge of the train was shocked at the number who had escaped and worked himself into a frenzy. One of the German speaking POWs reportedly heard him send a radio message requesting permission to shoot the remaining POWs as an example to discourage any further attempts.
The remaining POWs were bundled back into their box-cars and the doors secured with wire. This did not stop Athol Hunter and Bert Comber who had been with us at Sulmona and Bologna. Their escape attempt was to cut through the end of their box-car and squeeze through onto the buffers. This took a long time and they were in Austria by the time the hole was big enough to get through. The train was on the downhill run to Innsbruck and travelling too fast to think of jumping. After nearly an hour perched precariously on the buffers in the cold mountain air, Athol and Bert were relieved when the train slowed down. They finally hopped off but had not gone more than a few metres before they were picked up by a German patrol. When questioned, they said they had come from the train which had now stopped near-by.
The Germans bundled them back into their box-car, "the same way as you came out!" Soon, a senior German officer came along and angrily asked: "Who has been damaging the property of the German Reich?".
Athol, unabashed, replied: "We did!'', which sent the German officer into a rage and made him dance up and down. After he had calmed down he asked: "And what did you propose to do after you escaped from the train?"
Athol said: "Oh! We were going to have a look at Germany and meet some German girls!".
This was trigger for another fit of frenzy by the German officer and, when he finally got control of himself, he said peevishly: "The trouble with you English is you think this war is a joke!".
Those recaptured went to camps in Germany and were not released until Germany surrendered; but Geoff Chinchen and Athol Hunter escaped from Fort Bismarck, Strasbourg and, with the help of the French Resistance, got through France to Switzerland. When the camp was about to be moved, they had themselves bricked up in an alcove in the basement and managed to escape after the others had left. When they were picked up by the French Resistance, they had an anxious few days while their identities were verified with London. When they were cleared, they were given forged papers and travelled across France by train. Their papers described Geoff and Athol as being deaf and dumb French workers so they would not have to answer questions but Athol, throughout the trip, had such a wild conspiratorial look in his eyes, Geoff was frightened it might give them away.
To me, our eight-day adventure from Monday September 13th at Lavis in Italy to Monday September 20th at Zuoz in the Swiss Engadine, was exhilarating! We covered 190 kilometres through some of the most beautiful mountain country in Europe. We crossed four high passes, each of the order of 3000 metres (9843 feet) above sea level and our entire party got through to Switzerland thanks to the courage, compassion and generosity of the Italians who helped us on the way. We depended entirely on them for shelter, food, and guidance as to the path to follow. The other factor enabling our success was the weather. For the most part we had beautiful clear days, except when we came near to Santa Caterina, crossing Passo di Gavia, and as we made our last climb to Trupchun Pass and entered Switzerland.
At the same time of the year, on September 23rd 1976, when I made the comparatively easy climb from the Swiss side to Trupchun Pass, the sheer slope was covered with a sheet of hard snow. The climb was risky, one slip would have resulted in a headlong plunge to the rocks 500 metres below. The snow on the Pass itself was three metres deep and, to the east, the mountains we had come through in Italy were deep in snow. We could not have succeeded in such conditions. Good fortune had smiled upon us!
All of this makes one feel very humble! How could one survive without the hand of providence? Where are those brave people who helped us at the risk of their lives and the lives of their loved ones? To what splendour can the human spirit rise? What impelled those ordinary, magnificent, human beings to become involved in our earthly survival? Truly it was a soul-stirring, deeply emotional experience!
My wife Heidi and I visited parts of the escape route thirty three years later. The reaction of my mountain-born beloved as we drove through the towering mountains was, "why did you choose to come by such a difficult route?" I explained that it was, in fact, the shortest way and that it allowed us to cross the land without undue risk of meeting Fascists and Germans.
I guess a reason beneath it all was my love of the mountains which have always given me the feeling that my soul is free. It was no idle love. I had learned to respect the mountains in my early days skiing when survival following a sudden change in the weather was an ever present consideration. We skiers were amateurs. Not because Australian mountains are less dangerous. They have claimed many victims! No, we were city dwellers, not mountain people.
It was an inspiration to meet those mountain people of Italy! People who have survived, generation after generation, by the sweat of their brow, the support of their community, and the power of their intellect. The mountain people of Europe are reverent, god fearing, compassionate, humble, and proud - their roots deep in the soil handed to them by their forefathers. They are no "factory people"! The land is theirs and they belong to it!
When Heidi and I were in Venice some years ago, I can remember the reverence of the guide when he showed us the magnificent painting of the Virgin Mary behind the altar in the Parish Church. "Titian, the artist, was a mountain man," he explained, as if he felt some explanation was needed for the sheer beauty which filled one's eyes with tears.
Perhaps a simple incident can illustrate the strength of their roots and the communal strength of those people close to the soil. Heidi and I, in October 1976, drove up the Val Tellina to Bormio and thence to Pedenosso on the northern slopes of Valdidentro along the escape path I and my companions had followed thirty three years earlier. At Pedenosso, Heidi felt the going was too difficult so I left her in the car and walked on towards Pradaccia. I had been through only once but the scene was indelibly in my mind. There it was; the log cabin where we had been given food and guidance on that Sunday morning, September 19th 1943! It was deserted and in ruins! I saw two young people loading grass hay onto a cart a few metres further on.
I walked up to them and asked: "Who is the old man who used to live in that house? He and his wife helped us escape thirty three years ago. I don't know his name but they had a son who was a prisoner of war on the Russian front. "
The young people talked together for a moment and then came back with: "That was Cesare Martinelli! He has since died but his son Dino lives in that white house you can see in the valley below." As soon as they mentioned his name, I recalled he had told us he was Cesare. Those young people had not been born when we went through but the legend had become part of the folklore of the community.
Heidi and I went down to the white house in the valley and saw a woman digging potatoes in the garden. I told her I was looking for Dino Martinelli whose father had helped us 33 years previously. She was Dino's wife, and her initial caution was allayed when I told her how Dino's father and mother had spoken of him being a prisoner on the Russian front. She said Dino was working in a garage in Bormio and she was not sure when he would be back, but her daughter would take us to Dino's brother Guido who lived just down the road. Guido proved to be well off and produced Johnny Walker Black Label Whisky for the men and sweet Marsala wine for his wife and Heidi. We yarned with them for a while but explained that we couldn't tarry, having a long way to go. They vowed they would give Dino our best regards and we parted richer for the experience.
That evening, we drove to Santa Caterina and spent the night at the Pensione Confinale where we were made welcome by the Lady of the House, Signora Bonetta and her son Giuseppi. During the evening meal, I told of my quest and Signora Bonetta said I should try the Albergi Compagnoni, Pedrancini or Baita Fioriti as places likely to have been our haven of refuge and succour on September 18th 1943.
Next morning, we found Albergo Compagnoni with some difficulty as a new road had been built through the village but, as soon as I entered, I knew this was the place. There seemed to be nobody about but eventually a woman came down the stairs. I told her my story and she said, "Alas, my husband is out hunting but I am sure he would want to see you." We could not wait but I left my card with notes of gratitude for the help we had received as our escape party passed through. A few weeks later, in Arosa, I received a charming letter from Luciano Compagnoni, who remembered well as a teenager the time we stayed at his father's hotel. His father had died in 1965 but the family often had spoken of us and wondered if we had made good our escape. He ended his letter with the remark that he was overjoyed to learn that a sense of gratitude was still alive in mankind. It seemed, Signora Bonetta was his sister.
During the following days, Heidi and I drove through the mountains to Passo Tonale but there was no chance we could ever locate the farmer who had given us food and shelter nor his fourteen year old son who had come out to meet us as we approached in the afternoon and, early next morning, had guided us through forest tracks to avoid the Germans. There was a funicular to Passo Paradiso and we went up to have a look. People were skiing on the glacier but we could not stay.
Our next goal was Fontana Buona in Val Genova. We stayed the night at Pinzolo and drove up the valley next morning. We went as far past Fontana Buona as the road would allow but it became too difficult and, for an hour, I left Heidi in the car and went on by foot. The view which finally opened up before me was awe inspiring, and brought memories crowding back.
On our way back, we stopped at Fontana Buona and I asked Pino Ciaphi behind the Bar who it would have been who had given us shelter. He said it would have been Rozario and Ottilia Frizzi. Rozario had died in 1973 but Ottilia lived in Strada Val di Genova, Carisolo. This was on our way back to Pinzolo and we called at her house but no one was there. I wrote to Ottilia from Arosa and received a reply in which she told me how pleased she was to hear from me. The difficulty to me of corresponding in the Italian language inhibited our exchanges and I was not certain whether Ottilia really knew who I was, but it was nice to be in touch after all those years.
Pinzolo was near to the mountain chalet Rifugio Valsinella in the Brenta Group where we had spent the night and I had drawn the escape map; but it would need two days to visit the chalet and it was unlikely our caretaker would be there. At Andalo on the other side of the Brenta Group, I did not know at which house it was where we had stayed in the barn but I did recognise the start of the track we had taken next morning.
At Lavis, I found the spot where I had jumped from the train and my hide-out in the vineyard; but it would have been futile to try to find the peasants who had found Bob Jones, Sandy Mair and me in the cornfield and brought us wine and clothes. We could never hope to find that brave woman and her children who had accompanied us across the bridge over the river Adige at the risk of their lives. Our most magnificent helpers must remain unknown! They truly were "lives obscurely great"!
Thus ended our pilgrimage.
Later we were to visit the camps at Bologna, Sulmona and Padula, but that is another story.
- This article has been reprinted with the kind permission of Mrs. Heidi Eggleston. -
1944 Newspaper Clipping from the Collection of Harold ("Robbie") Roberts...
Editor's Note: Our website has further details about Fred’s fellow 3 Squadron escapees who made it to Switzerland: Robert Sydney "Bobby" Jones and Geoff Chinchen.
Fred's role with the British
Legation in Berne is briefly hinted at in:
(He was probably involved in some shady administrative work with the Secret Service!)
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