Part 3 - On the Run In Italy
We split into groups of about 50, ensured we had uniforms and good strong boots and set off for the mountains. My group made for a village called Monte Le Bret where the locals gave us food and drink and directed us to a nearby valley called Fontana Frata. We stayed there for a day expecting our own troops to come by at any time, not realising they were still 300 miles away. Next morning we could hear machine guns and German loudspeaker voices telling us to give ourselves up. Half a dozen British soldiers ran past, pursued by alsatian dogs. At dusk we came to a farm and broke into the stable, hiding in the straw. The farmer came by in the morning and told us to move on. During that day we hid in a dried up stream bed with overhanging trees and at night slept in a hidden cave. For food we ate grapes from the vineyards.
Next day we heard shouts and a British soldier ran past. The Germans were above us on either side of the gully. Suddenly two large alsatians dropped into the gully then leapt out the other side without even noticing us. That evening we left the gully and made for the road. We stopped and hid when we heard men walking down the road. They were talking loudly. We thought they were Germans but they turned out to be South Africans speaking Afrikaans.
I was in a group of seven men. We walked all day then on reaching a hill top decided to split up in different directions. The two sergeants, experienced soldiers, went off in one direction, my group of three, me, Wilf and Phil went another way. (Two years after the war I was at Headingley watching Leeds v Hull when I was tapped on the shoulder. It was Bill Spenceley, one of two the sergeants. They had walked straight to our lines and freedom. Bill was from Hull). We walked all day and slept on farms at night. A local farmer told us that according to the radio any Italians helping prisoners on the run would be rewarded when the allies arrived. So we started signing chittys whenever we ‘bought’ food from the locals. We still had to be very cautious because some of them were fascists and would happily turn us in. We had many near misses in the next two months. The daily drill was to pick out a hill town on the southern horizon and walk towards it all day. One night we were sleeping in a cabin on top of a hill when we were woken by approaching voices and flashlights. The Germans had been tipped off and had surrounded our hill. We somehow managed to sneak out and through their lines then watched them. They mortared the hut flat and then charged it. We had a big laugh at them.
It was now November and we were in the Abruzzi national park. We did not know it but the Germans had built a fortified line across Italy with Monte Cassino as its main base and we were heading straight for it. We heard guns and flashes in the night and saw many Italians fleeing the area. They warned us that other British prisoners had passed that way and been killed by land mines laid by the Germans on the footpaths. We reached a hilltop and could see the German positions waiting for the advancing allies. There was no way through for us so we headed north again and talked about walking to Switzerland. But we were very tired and our valuable boots were kaput.
It was now turning to winter, cold and wet. We were dressed in a mixture of civvy clothes. The countryside was full of Brits and South Africans, ex Italian soldiers, German deserters and people trying to get to safety. Mostly people without documents and people who said they were partisans. We were walking north when we were approached by an Italian. He said his name was Luigi. He gave us bread and tobacco. He was about 45 years old and could speak English. He had lived in BostonUSA for about 25 years but Mussolini had recalled all Italians when he decided to take over the world. He said he was looking after two other Brits. He said he’d look after us because the British Army would be there in days (haha). We went back to his village where we met Jim, who could speak perfect Italian, and Chris. The five of us sheltered with Luigi, his wife Loretta and their three boys but the whole village knew and we could walk around it without fear. When the Germans were around we would run into the hills to well hidden huts. After a couple of months it became clear that the Allies weren’t coming and Luigi became concerned for his family. We had a few very near misses, Wilf and Phil were captured and marched off somewhere. Loretta packed Chris and myself up with food and we took to the mountains. Jim stayed, he could pass as Italian.