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MASS ESCAPE FROM CAMPO di CONCENTRAMENTO 57,
GRUPIGNANO, ITALY

Eric Canning describes his adventures "on the run".  30 October, 1942.

http://www.kiwiveterans.co.nz/images/custom/interviews/barb-wire_happy/prisoners_of_war_at_camp_57_gruppignano_italy.ca_1941._da11306f.jpg
POWs at Grupignano.  [Photo credit: Lee Hill.]

MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THE ART OF ESCAPING:

To the best of my knowledge, no instruction was given in the Second World War to servicemen (other than to aircrew and special forces) on the subject of escape.  There were probably several reasons for this, not the least of which was the almost complete absence of knowledge of the problem by military training authorities, at least at the beginning of the war.

In France and the Low Countries there were Underground organisations, which not only gave active opposition to the enemy, but also channelled many shot-down airmen to Spain.  However, no such organisation existed in Africa or Italy.  Most airmen fortunate enough to benefit from the assistance of the Underground had managed to avoid capture, and escape in such instances means escape from enemy-held territory. 

Once captured, entirely different circumstances pertain.

The aim of any escape is to rejoin the force from which the prisoner has come.  It is always attended by reasonably high risk, and in a battlefield situation the best time to attempt it is shortly after capture where in most cases the proximity of the prisoner's own forces is as close as it will ever be, but this is a period in which his morale is at a low ebb.  He is surrounded by armed and hostile forces, and the only factor upon which he can reflect with any degree of satisfaction is that he is alive.  If he is wounded, any attempt is progressively negated by the degree of injury.  At this time, any deviation from submission is attended by maximum danger.

The longer the attempt is postponed, the more difficult the problem becomes, and it is because of the complications of risk, difficulty in freeing oneself from restraint, then remaining free long enough in a hostile environment to rejoin one's own forces, that by far the majority of captured servicemen decide to accept the lot of a Prisoner of War, however unwillingly.

 

ESCAPE:

The first attempted escape from Camp 57 occurred early in the winter of 1942, and resulted in the death of Private Wright, a New Zealander, who was shot at close range while attempting to crawl through the wire at night.  The bullet entered the base of his neck and there was no exit wound, which led to the suspicion that he was shot by a dum-dum bullet.

When this suspicion was conveyed to the Colonel in charge of the camp, (Calcaterra) he paraded all senior N.C.O.s in the camp church, where he pointed out that in the First World War no prisoner escaped from Italy, and none would escape in this one.

In regard to the bullet which killed Private Wright: demonstrating a similar cartridge he pointed out that it was a shrapnel bullet consisting of a tube of brass encasing nine cylindrical steel pellets. When fired, the rifling of the barrel cut the brass into longitudinal strips, and those, plus the steel pellets went on their roving way.  He claimed that the projectile was sanctified by International Law, but it seemed to his audience that it was a considerable improvement on the dum-dum, at least at close range.

He spent some time proclaiming that no one would escape from his camp, and the fate of Private Wright awaited whoever attempted it.

The confidence of the Colonel stimulated ambition to prove him wrong.


The main gate of Campo 57.  About 1,200 Australians were held in this camp.  [AWM P02793.002]

Any attempt to crawl through the wire perimeter, which was well guarded and lit by searchlights, was regarded as too difficult, and in digging a sewerage pit in No.2 compound, the deep soil was found to be heavily-compacted alluvium, far too hard for tunnelling.  It wasn't until a new compound was opened up to house prisoners taken in the battle of El Alamein that we were able to sample the earth under the hut closest to the wire, when it was found that the alluvium at a depth of 10 to 12 feet was friable enough to enable a tunnel to be commenced.

Tight security was maintained throughout the project, as the camp contained a number of Cypriots, some of whom were known informers.  We also had the certain knowledge that most people, when possessed of a secret, have a compulsion to share it with someone else... in the greatest of confidence!

The steady influx of new prisoners in this compound upset the normal search routine and the work went ahead unhindered.  We had managed to pinch a pick from the Italians some time beforehand, and a tin hat was used as a shovel.  The earth removed from the face was pulled back in a sledge to the commencement of the drive, hoisted up, and deposited under the floorboards of the hut, which was built on concrete foundations a couple of feet above ground level.  The floorboards were removable for search purposes, and the concrete surround precluded observation from the outside.

The tunnel was about 30 inches high by 20 inches wide, which was a fairly tight fit for a big man, and smaller tunnellers had a habit of making it smaller, compelling a larger digger following a smaller one to enlarge it a bit to get at the face.  We couldn't afford the luxury of a larger tunnel, as our calculations suggested that there was barely enough space under the floorboards to accommodate the removed alluvium.

We had planned to bring the tunnel to the surface about 150 feet away, in a crop of millet beyond the barbed-wire perimeter, to hide the exit from the roving searchlights.

We hadn't driven too far before we found that a fat-lamp would not burn, because the strenuous activity had used up most of the oxygen, and the workers became a bit groggy.  However this problem was solved by the construction of a large set of bellows, blowing into an electrical conduit taken from the ceiling of the hut, which managed to get a minimal air supply to the face of the tunnel.

Before the bellows could be built, blown-up footballs were sent to the face each time a sledge was returned, to give the digger a few breaths of fresh air.  At one stage, one of the inflationists got the bright idea of commencing the inflation by mouth - until he was prevailed upon to desist.

At no time was it found necessary to timber the drive, as the earth held well without caving in (other than a few bits falling from the ceiling occasionally) but getting rid of large boulders in the direction of the tunnel sometimes caused a problem.

There had been considerable discussion among the various potential escapees as to destination, once free of the confines of the camp.  Yugoslavia lay about 30 miles to the east, and it was apparent from the casualty lists in the Italian Press that heavy fighting was occurring there.  There were a few Yugoslavian officers in the camp, together with their batmen, but their council was not sought, as they were royalists and the fighting appeared to be between the Axis and partisans of a different political persuasion.

During the progress of the tunnel I had been committed to prison for ten days for being rude to an Italian interpreter.  While there, an A.I.F. lieutenant, taken in Yugoslavia, was put in a cell.  In communicating with him, he advised that Yugoslavia was in turmoil, with partisans fighting the Axis and sometimes fighting among themselves, and that movement in the country was both dangerous and difficult.  He had been captured in Greece in April 1941 and had escaped from a train taking prisoners to Germany, having remained free for 18 months until the forces of hostility closed in around him and he again fell into enemy hands.  He was convinced that he was going to be shot.

When the tunnel was well beyond the perimeter of the camp the Italians began to cut the millet.  This added to the complexity of the escape, as there was now to be no cover when the tunnel was brought to the surface - with nothing between the emergence and a machine gun post 50 yards away in one direction, and another 75 yards away in the other.

As it turned out, it didn't matter, as we struck a band of hard conglomerates which sloped towards the surface and which was impossible to dig through, and the tunnel had to follow it upwards to a point where it was decided to surface it at a length of 125 feet.  The decision was made easier by the fact that the under-floorboard space was fast diminishing and the likelihood of a search was drawing closer, so the tunnel was brought to the grassroots and the softer earth propped up with a few bed-boards.

But before it was propped up, one of the more curious tunnellers (Sgt. Poidevin, he of the football bladder fame) decided to establish the exact point of exit by posting an observer at a window while he poked a stick up through the soft earth.  However the observer was focusing in the wrong direction, and encouraged Poidevin to poke it forever upwards, till panic broke out when three feet of stick was seen waving about where nothing had been minutes before.

On another occasion, a little girl took it upon herself to skip about in the vicinity of the exit, much to horror of a tunneller posted to keep an eye on things, who kept saying in anguish, "Go away, you little bugger," to the astonishment of a passer-by who said, "What's the matter with you?  She is only about nine years old."  The disturbed watcher replied, "I don't give a bugger how old she is, I just want her to go away."  The passer-by walked off convinced that the other was going around the bend, and the little girl skipped off, unaware that she may have fallen victim to engulfment.

A brief description of the local geography will not go amiss.  The camp was situated on a plain north of Udine in the province of Cividale, a kilometre or so from a railway siding of that name.  Ten kilometres to the north rose the foothills of the Julian Alps, that mountain chain extending into Austria. To the west and northwest rose the Dolomites and the Alps of Italy, Switzerland, Bavaria and Austria.  To the east lay Yugoslavia.

The escapees had formed themselves into parties of two, three and four men, and lots were drawn to determine the order of exit from the tunnel.  My two partners were Tom Comins (Wellington pilot, RAAF) and Dick Head (2/10th Battalion AIF).

The project had taken some six weeks to complete, and on the night of 30th October, 1942, nineteen of us escaped without incident - other than for one anxious moment when one member (Kevin O'Connell) was caught in a searchlight just as he had cleared the exit.  Being a good soldier he froze, skin a-prickle, awaiting a burst of fire, but the searchlight moved on and he moved off undetected.  It took several hours for the 19 to clear the tunnel, and all headed for the foothills of the Julian Alps.


The barbed wire at Gruppignano.  [NB: WW2 spelling of place-name.  AWM  P02793.006]

The dullness of prison life was relieved the following morning when word was passed around of the escape, and the wise took some food with them on the early morning parade, secure in the knowledge that they were going to be there for some time.  The initiative was taken by the POW Warrant Officer in charge of the compounds from which all escapees had come, by pointing out to the Italian officer in charge of each compound that there appeared to be some men missing, and demanding to know whether anyone had been put in prison overnight, and if so for what reason.  Runners were sent to the prison with negative results, and parades in both compounds were subjected to multiple counts.

Finally the Italian Lieutenant, in charge of No.3 Compound, came racing across to No. 2 compound shouting, "Morticelli, Morticelli, I am missing seven men." .

"Go away," said Morticelli, "I have troubles of my own.  I am missing twelve."

From a distance, the Julian Alps, heavily wooded to the snowline, appeared to be a reasonable refuge, but were in reality fairly heavily populated.  In addition to the resident population, a division of Italian troops were deployed in the region.  All were speedily alerted, and the first two escapees were captured the day after, followed by others at various periods, until the last two were brought in after five days of freedom.

On the third night out, it rained torrentially and was extremely cold, and after nightfall we sought refuge in the bottom floor of a house which, typical of the region, served the purpose of a barn.  We were wet through and pleased enough to share the space with the cows and the chooks.  We left this haven at dawn when we heard some movement upstairs, and headed up the mountainside.  Fortunately the rain had stopped and the day was sufficiently sunny to enable us to get our clothes at least partially dry.

We were recaptured late that afternoon by a patrol from the village in the valley below us, and were taken to that village where we were treated well under the supervision of an Italian colonel who professed to know how we felt, as he had been a prisoner in the First World War.

We disbursed our survival rations amongst the populace who had gathered about us and ultimately some troops from the camp arrived, chained us together, and transported us back to the camp, where we were immediately committed to the prison.  Some of the recaptured escapees were beaten up, but we were not.

In my own case I was put in solitary confinement and in irons for the first 24 hours (for reasons which only became apparent later) and was denuded of all clothing except a pair of pants.  It was one of those occasions where it was too cold to sleep, but one was too exhausted not to.

An interesting feature was the punishment meted out to the various ranks, presumably in accordance with principles of Italian Military Law.  Two of the nineteen were Warrant Officers and they were given 25 days; split up into 10 days of rigorous punishment and 15 days of simple punishment.

Sergeants were given 25 days; split up into 10 days rigorous punishment and 15 days of simple punishment.  Corporals, lance corporals and privates were given 30 days; split up into 10 days rigorous punishment and 20 days of simple punishment.  But the rigorous punishment was of increasing severity as the rank diminished.  Warrant Officers were deprived of outside exercise for the first 10 days, Sergeants were deprived of outside exercise and put in irons for two hours a day, and corporals and below were deprived of outside exercise and put in irons for four hours per day for the first 10 days.  Simple punishment was equal and democratic for all ranks, no irons and outside exercise of two hours per day.

The fellows in the compound, recognising that we had undergone a few privations, donated Red Cross parcel food to the kitchen whose cooks prepared an exotic brew for the first couple of days.  This was duly delivered to the prison, and its aroma could be detected with increasing strength as it neared the institution, only to be carried down the passage separating the cells and tipped down the sewer.

We had done a week of our sentence when, at night, a fusillade of shots rang out from the perimeter of No.2 compound nearby, followed by much shouting and the turning out of the guard.  The guard who had fired a full magazine, proclaimed that a prisoner had climbed the main wire under close-range fire, scaled the second wire, and disappeared into the night, and as the range was less than 10 meters he couldn't have missed him.  But there was no body, and quite a pantomime was enacted on the other side of the wire.

The next day a prisoner (Bill Pitt, 2/23rd Battalion, AIF) was brought into the prison, severely injured with a middle-third fracture of the face.  He had become depressed with P.O.W. life, had charged and climbed the main wire under close-range fire, scaled the second wire, and disappeared into the night, only to fall over a precipice, where he was found semi-conscious the following day.  He had not been hit by gunfire.

At the insistence of the Medical Officers (Binns and Levins) he was transferred to the hospital, and after recovery was sent to another camp.  Some time later, Camp Leader W/O Alan Beecroft (2/12 Battalion AIF) was informed by Colonel Calcaterra that Pitt had attempted the same thing at his new camp, and was killed in the attempt.

Colonel Calcaterra was fortunate enough to be away on leave when the escape occurred, and managed to put the blame on his relief commander, but it probably didn't do his chance of promotion much good.  In any case he only had a short time to live, as word had it that he was killed by the partisans shortly after Italy capitulated.

Soon after serving sentence, I was banished from the camp to Camp 73 at Carpi on the plains of Lombardy; nominally for having organised the escape, but more likely because the Colonel wanted a scapegoat.  (Events of this nature happen in a climate where everyone plays a part, and no one in particular organises them.)  However, he did me the honour of labelling me "pericoloso" [dangerous] and this reputation went with me to Camp 73.  The morale of this camp was poor.  There I met Arthur Cottman (R.S.M. 15th Battalion) who had been banished from Campo 57 earlier in the year, and we conspired to be sent back to 57.  On our arrival I was consigned to the now familiar prison, and the MOs consigned Cottman to the Hospital where he lived in luxury until we were transferred back to Camp 73.

 

IN RETROSPECT:

The escape finished as most such episodes do, with recapture of the participants.  It is almost impossible to plan movement in a hostile country without assistance from at least some members of the community, and unlike the escape channels organised in France for shot-down airmen, no such possibility existed in Italy while it was an active member of the Axis.  After Italy's capitulation, the assistance given to POWs by Italian civilians, under penalty of severe German reprisals, was in many instances heroic.

To the best of my knowledge, this escape had the distinction of being the greatest mass-breakout in Italy up to the time of Italy's capitulation, and was probably exceeded only once in Germany ["The Great Escape"], when the recaptured prisoners were shot by the Gestapo.

T. E. Canning

In Memory of Eric Canning, MBE. 
Died 5 Jan 2012 (at home), aged 93.

Eric endured 4˝ years of captivity before he was able to return home to Tasmania.  In an interview given to the Hobart Mercury upon his repatriation, he said that the prisoners could not have existed on the meagre rations - had it not been for the regular arrival of Red Cross Parcels.  When peace came to Europe, he was in the Hamburg sector.  Referring to the devastation caused by Allied bombing, Flt-Sgt Canning said by comparison with the havoc in Germany, the bombing in England was only slight.  He preferred German prison camps and methods to those in Italy.

After returning from Germany in 1945, Eric embarked on an outstanding career in dentistry. He was a highly-respected member of the Australian Dental Association for 60 years and hailed as the "Father of Dentistry in Tasmania".  Eric served with distinction in many ADA executive roles.  He also took full advantage of Tasmania’s spectacular recreational opportunities, becoming President of the Tuna Club of Tasmania and a founding member of the Tasmanian Fly-Tyers' Club.  For Anzac Day 2010, ABC-TV Tasmania broadcast a video of Eric talking about his experiences.


Port Tewfik, Egypt.  23 August 1940.  Contingent of No. 3 Squadron RAAF, arriving at Port Tewfik. 
[AWM SUK14905 - Lugging kit bag No.5071 is AC1 Radio Operator Eric Canning!]

An extensive interview with Eric can be found on: http://www.australiansatwarfilmarchive.gov.au/aawfa/interviews/1332.aspx

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