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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Italian Armistice

page 32

The Italian Armistice

PRISONERS of war in Italy waited with eager expectancy for the Allied armies to drive up the peninsula and set them free. An exceedingly sanguine view of the situation was general, and at the Armistice this optimism helped to prevent some getting away who afterwards were taken to Germany. One prisoner wrote ‘we had a grandstand view of the collapse of a nation. If ever a country got poetic justice I suppose Italy did.’ It was satisfactory enough at the fall of Mussolini to see the bombastic symbols of Fascism being publicly effaced. When the axe and rods were being wrenched off a small bridge, the Italians accorded a prisoner-of-war worker standing by the privilege of dropping the emblem into the water. But the overthrow of Fascism did not mean that Italy had yet changed sides. With the disintegration of Italian resistance the situation became more and more confused. Mussolini’s fall, celebrated so freely by the general population, left prisoners of war carrying on as usual and in some camps was the signal for new vigilance and intensive searches in which all surplus Red Cross food was confiscated. In some camps, to prevent the accumulation of supplies for escape, Red Cross parcels were no longer issued weekly but at the rate of one-seventh each day.

At the news of the Armistice most camp commandants told their prisoners that they would release them in good time ‘if the Germans came’; alternatively, they and their men would defend the prisoners against the Germans. Practically none of them, whether from faint-heartedness, treachery, or sheer inefficiency, kept this bargain. In some cases these fulsome promises must have been deliberately intended to deceive prisoners and keep them inside the wire until the German troops arrived to collect them. As for the prisoners themselves, messages sent out by the War Office in code to the Senior British Officer in each camp had ordered that, should peace be declared, everyone was to remain in camp as a special organisation would arrive by plane to take over every camp. In spite of personal misgivings the Senior British Officers passed on these orders, though some afterwards released men from obeying them. This policy of the British authorities has been sharply criticised by former prisoners of war: ‘It had been a ghastly blunder …. Thousands of men had been cheated of the freedom they had so anxiously awaited for so long.’* But many never had the shadow of a choice.

The circumstances at each camp at the Armistice varied considerably. Some were entirely deserted by their guards, who flung away their rifles, climbed into civilian clothes, and disappeared homewards. In these and other camps there were mass escapes. In one instance the prisoners took over their guards’ quarters and lived in them until the Germans rounded them up. In another camp, the prisoners were warned by civilians that the Germans were close and they were able to disperse into the countryside. In some camps the Carabinieri remained faithful to what they conceived to be their duty and kept their prisoners until they could hand them over to the Germans. In many camps a number of the prisoners left hurriedly when the Germans were within sight.

The adventures of those who escaped at the Italian Armistice are told elsewhere. Nobody could have foreseen exactly how the events would shape themselves. Those who got away did not do so solely because they could think quickly; they also had good luck. In many camps escape was impossible, and their inmates, embittered and disappointed, had no choice but to go to Germany.

* The Way Out, by Uys Krige (Collins), p. 181.