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Prisoners of War

II: Last Escapes to Allied Lines in Italy

II: Last Escapes to Allied Lines in Italy

In Italy the year had begun for the New Zealand Division with reconnaissance patrols on the Senio River, and it was not until early April that there was set in motion the last swift offensive which took our men to Trieste by the end of the month. On 2 May the German forces in Italy surrendered. The few New Zealanders who were captured during this final sweep north were in enemy hands for only a matter of days, not long enough to be recorded officially page 473 as prisoners. With the exception of one airman shot down over Germany in the same month, they were the last New Zealanders to be made prisoners in Europe.

It was in March and April 1945 also that 29 of the New Zealand ex-prisoners who had been at large in northern Italy since the Italian armistice finally made good their escape to Allied lines. They were all from satellite working detachments of Campo PG 107, and they had spent their 19 months since regaining their freedom in the plains north of the Gulf of Venice and in the hills bordering them. After the first few months, when living among the Italian populace presented few problems, they had experienced a period when they had to be on their guard continually against German occupation troops and Italian Fascists.

Many worked on Italian farms and slept in the farmers' lofts. If that proved too dangerous for those who were sheltering them, they moved to improvised shelters in maize fields and vineyards, among piles of cane, or in the hollowed-out insides of haystacks. They were usually not able to stay too long in one place; and the report of one man speaks of ‘moving almost daily, receiving only casual meals, and sleeping in any likely looking house.’ They had all to depend entirely on the generosity of friendly Italians for their food, and those who became sick, for whatever nursing they received. Some were recaptured and were able to make a new break—by jumping from a German lorry for example. A number of their comrades who had been with them since the armistice were recaptured and taken north to Germany. For others the life became one of painful monotony: working as an Italian peasant in the fields, keeping a wary eye for search parties, and studying the news of the war for developments that might bring their final freedom nearer.

A New Zealand lance-corporal,1 who had formerly been in Campo PG 107/7 at La Salute di Livenza, began soon after the camp gates were opened by the Italian guard NCO to find suitable safe accommodation for his camp-mates in the neighbourhood. This done, he gave himself the task of investigating escape routes which might bring them to freedom. From his contacts with the Italian population he heard of the partisan organisation in the hills east of Monfalcone, and in October and November 1943 he organised the moves to this area of 57 men who had been hiding in his district. There was of course at this early stage no organised escape route through Yugoslavia.2 The Slovenian partisans at Ronchis, to whom the escapers reported, pressed them into their service and put them

1 L-Cpl A. W. Scott (24 Bn), awarded MM for his work on behalf of fellow prisoners of war in Italy.

2 See account on pp. 307–9.

page 474 under guard, and it was with some difficulty that they were able to make their way back to the plains.

The lance-corporal made several further attempts to find an escape route for his comrades: through the Communist headquarters in Udine, through the Padua organisation which sent people across to the Swiss border, and at Belluno on the Dolomite slopes, where he had heard in December 1944 of the arrival of British liaison officers by parachute. But those Allied military liaison officers who had been dropped were more interested in stimulating and aiding resistance to the Germans than in helping escaped prisoners. It was not until early 1945 that, in view of the large numbers of escaped prisoners and aircrew evaders reported in the area Verona-Brenner-Udine, the Allied rescue organisation decided to send in a mission by parachute. The New Zealand lance-corporal made contact with one of the officers of this, the ‘Nelson’, mission. The officer arranged by wireless the evacuation of four parties of escapers and evaders by motor torpedo-boat, and with his knowledge of their hiding places, the lance-corporal was able on four separate occasions to bring a party of New Zealanders to rendezvous with guides of the mission.

The first of these parties was taken off on the night of 9–10 March from a point on the coast near Caorle at the mouth of the Livenza River. From the rendezvous the escapers and evaders were led by a carefully reconnoitred track across canals and a piece of land recently inundated by the Germans, to a point among the sandhills near the beach. The six men1 in the party were taken off by lifeboat to the waiting MTB and reached Ancona next day.

On the subsequent trips there were delays owing to bad weather and difficulties in crossing the canals, though this was made easier by a deflatable rubber boat which was part of the equipment of the mission. On one occasion a party had a narrow escape from running into a German patrol, but the members of the mission who acted as guides and guards for the escape party were well armed, and at that stage of the war it would have been unwise for a small German patrol to attack a party of Italian rebels of unknown size in the half light. There was always the difficulty of security, for the presence of strangers soon became a topic of local gossip. Four parties were successfully evacuated, and among those on the last trip was the New Zealand lance-corporal who had during his captivity contributed a great deal towards the safety of his comrades and towards their final evacuation.2

Another New Zealander3 who had done similar work for his fellow prisoners of war since the armistice had the misfortune to

1 Including three New Zealanders: L-Cpls F. T. Avery (21 Bn) and W. G. Morrish (26 Bn), and Pte R. Williams (21 Bn).

2 In the second party there were eleven New Zealanders: Cpls. S. J. Weir (20 Bn) and H. E. Wilson (18 LAD), Pte E. A. Eagan (25 Bn), Dvr R. P. Langley (ASC attached 5 Fd Amb), Gnrs S. G. Williams (5 Fd Regt) and H. R. McAllum (6 Fd Regt), Ptes J. A. Morrison (20 Bn), A. H. Pitcher (25 Bn), E. L. Ransley (22 Bn), W. F. Ross (27 MG Bn), and N. M. Sims (24 Bn). On the third trip there were nine New Zealanders: Sigmn M. N. Martin (Div Sigs), Ptes R. J. Anderson (5 Fd Amb), K. G. Key (19 Bn), A. C. S. Pearce, R. E. Ryan, J. M. Senior, D. M. Taylor and J. Waddington (all 22 Bn), and C. V. Wills (23 Bn). On the fourth trip there were six New Zealanders: Cpl T. E. Crack (24 Bn), L-Cpls A. W. Scott (24 Bn) and W. Wickliffe (18 Bn), Pte R. H. Johnston (22 Bn), Spr O. J. Locke (7 Fd Coy), and Pte R. V. N. Trayes (24 Bn).

3 L-Cpl D. Russell (22 Bn), awarded George Cross posthumously. See p. 429.

page 475 be recaptured by the enemy early in 1945. He had succeeded in the previous summer in making contact with the Allied military mission at Tramonti di Sopra, and later in arranging for several escaped prisoners to reach the mission and so be put on their way to Allied lines through Yugoslavia. After his recapture he and several others escaped from a prison camp near Udine at the beginning of February, but were pursued to Ponte di Piave, where they hid with Italian families. He then intentionally led the pursuit away from his companions, but was himself recaptured on 20 February and handed over to the German forces. Under severe interrogation he refused to give any information concerning his own activities or where his companions were sheltering. On the grounds that he was in civilian clothes and carrying a map and was therefore a spy, he was shot by a firing squad a week later. His courage in refusing to give information concerning those who were helping him and his companions was recognised immediately after the war by the members of the Italian local community, who erected a fine memorial over his grave, which they tended as that of one of their own.

There were many other examples of this quiet kind of courage on the part of escaped prisoners, fortunately not many with such a tragic sequel. A great many more Italians who helped and sheltered them, and even some who were merely suspected of doing so, were tortured or executed. Some of our men learned the language so well that in normal everyday life they could pass fairly easily for members of the Italian families with whom they lived. It was less easy to maintain the pose under long and close questioning by Fascist security officers and German Gestapo, with its accompaniment of kicking, punching, whipping, arm twisting, hanging by the arms, and the other skills of the trade by which these modern hired assassins served their governments. Some of our prisoners who had first broken free at the time of the Italian armistice were in enemy hands in northern Italy at the end of the campaign and had to wait for release by Allied troops or Italian patriots.

An Allied Screening Commission was early given the task of obtaining evidence concerning those of the local populations who helped Allied escaped prisoners and those who ill-treated them. The page 476 section of the commission operating in Italy had a busy time in the spring and summer of 1945, examining the statements of ex-prisoners of war and investigating the circumstances of people to whom escaped prisoners had given certificates describing the help they had received from them. For the proven cases of ill-treatment there followed the more searching proceedings of the War Crimes Commission. For the proven cases of help there were certificates from the Allied commander, small monetary rewards, and sometimes more considerable compensation for loss.1 This is no place to discuss the merits and demerits of War Crimes trials and of the punishments meted out to those found guilty. The allocation of rewards must also have been a difficult business. It seems likely that the small monetary rewards made to those who risked much and went without to feed and shelter escaped prisoners may have been received with mixed feelings. Many of our men who escaped have remembered those who helped them in their lean days and have made some return for the precious gifts of food, clothing, and shelter they then received. No doubt most of these Italian people chose the Allied cause and took some pride in doing what they could to help it, but many of them also liked and respected the men they sheltered and fed. There must be deep satisfaction to them in later receiving proof, in the form of letters and parcels, that what they did is not forgotten. There is scope for international understanding on this level that no scheme of official rewards and punishments can replace.

1 For example, the head of a family whose members had helped many escaped prisoners received £205, and the members all received certificates. The widow of a man who died in prison as a result of helping escaped prisoners received £500.