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On the Run

by Elizabeth Lister

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Archive List > World > Italy

Contributed by 
Elizabeth Lister
People in story: 
Major John Blackmore and comrades
Location of story: 
Italy
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A5765222
Contributed on: 
15 September 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by a volunteer from CSV Berkshire on behalf of Jennifer Smith and has been added to this site with her permission. Mrs Smith fully understands the site’s terms and conditions

My father was a prisoner of war (POW) for 4 and a half years, having been captured in Libya in 1941 where he was among the first group of British prisoners to be captured in El Mechili on the plateau south of Derna. These prisoners were inspected by Rommel soon after capture. From Libya he was sent to a Prisoner of War camp in Italy.

These recollections are taken from his handwritten notes in preparation for a talk he gave to a group on his return to England. The events described the period from September 8th- December 22nd 1943. During this time he was on the run from the Germans, having been released by the Italians and trying to rejoin the British forces in Italy.

‘I am going to tell you briefly about my experiences in Italy from September 8th - December 22nd. This was the only period during my four years of captivity that I was not behind barbed wire and although it was in a country occupied by the Enemy and therefore required the uttermost caution in all our movements the that fact that I was on the move and not behind barbed wire, to me, constituted freedom.

During my 2 1/2 years captivity in Italy, up to the Italian Armistice I had formed a pretty low opinion of the Italians. As a detaining power their treatment of prisoners was disgraceful. They were vindictive, treacherous and unreliable. I mention this to show you what a marked contrast it was between their behaviour before, then after the Armistice.

Our camp was situated on the edge of the Lombardy Plain, north west of Piacenza. We were therefore badly placed when the Armistice came, being so far north. At 8 o’clock on the evening of September 8th the Italian Commandant came into the camp and announced that the Armistice had been signed. It did not come as a great surprise to us as we had been expecting it since the fall of Mussolini on July 25th. We had therefore had ample time to make plans for taking over the control of our camp when the occasion arose. This then was the occasion we had looked forward to so eagerly.

We took over the camp that night and placed patrols on all roads leading to the camp to give warning of any approach of Germans. This of course was the greatest threat to our Freedom - that the Germans would take us over as THEIR prisoners. For fear of this we all left the camp next morning, carrying with us a haversack of bare necessities. My necessities consisted of mostly cigarettes and two blankets. We listened to the BBC News before leaving that morning, and decided that the news was so encouraging that we only had to take to the mountainns and hide - up for a few days and our troops would be with us. little did we know what disappointments were in store for us.

The Senior Officers gave us instructions to scatter over the countryside in as small numbers as possible and await our troops. I went out with a party of five with the idea of reaching a safe hiding place in the mountains of the Maritime Alps about 30 miles away. The first thing that struck us when we got out into civilization was the friendly behaviour of the Italian people. We were very suspicious of this at first, but we soon realised that the Italian peasant only hated and feared one thing and that was German occupation and they really looked upon the Allies as their liberators. They were as anxious as we were for our troops to arrive to free them from the German Menace.

We had originally intended to walk at night and hideup during the day, but our reception was so friendly that we decided to reverse our plans and walk during the day. Being September the weather was delightful and we could be assured of fine weather for a fortnight at least. We truly believed that a fortnight in hiding would see us safely through. This may have been incredibly optimistic to you now but we firmly believed that these things would happen — (1.) There would be another Allied combined operation in the North of Italy with a landing in the area of Spezia or Genoa
(2.) That the Germans would withdraw to the River Po and form their winter line with that river as an obstacle.

It was hard work walking those first few days. It was very mountainous country and after years in a prison camp we were not as fit as later we became. It took some days for our feet to harden up. After 3 days our party of five arrived on Monte Santa Franca, a mountain of over 6,000 ft. where we felt we could hide away unnoticed by the Germans for some considerable time.

We were amazed at the number of Italians we met who spoke English. A lot of them had worked in England, some of them for as long a period as 20 years. Before Sanctions in 1935 Italy obtained most of her coal from Wales and all around the ports of Spezia and Genoa (the area in which we were then situated) were to be found Italians who spoke English with a strong Welsh accent. On Santa Franca we were assisted by one of these Welsh Italians. He had lived in Wales for many years and had married a Welsh girl. He was a great boon to us, getting us food, civilian clothes and money etc., besides supplying us with BBC News. He was a great character and although he was Italian himself he used to refer to them as ‘these damned wops’.

We had many exciting moments during these first few days as the Germans were searching the countryside for escaped prisoners, but we felt confident of our hiding place as it was very thickly wooded and so gave excellent cover. By this time we were all in civilian clothes trying without much success to look like Italian peasants. You seldom saw a tall Italian and for this reason alone I was at a great disadvantage.

After hiding for ten days on Santa Franca we realised that our hopes of an Allied landing in the north of Italy were not forthcoming nor were the Germans showing any signs of withdrawing up Italy. We therefore had to consider what was our best plan. We considered thtree plans (1.) Make for the coast near Spezia and try to get on a boat to Corsica which at that time was being liberated by the Free French. (2. Make for France. 3. Make for our line by walking down Italy, keeping to the mountains and following the line of the Apennines. We decided on the last plan as it was early days yet and we still had hopes of a rapid advance by our own troops. We felt that we would be safer to keep to the mountains all the way For this reason we did not go our shortest and quickest route south, but decided to go due east for 200 miles along the edge of the Lombardy Plain and then at Florence strike south down the Apennines. This meant going 200 miles out of our way but we felt that the extra caution warranted this.

We also had to break up our party of five as it was too large for many reasons. It was too conspicuous and as food was so very short we felt that a party of five would have more difficulty in obtaining food than a party of two or three. I went with two other companions, a RAF Squadron Leader and a Trooper of the Eighth Hussars. We were fairly fit by this time and we planned to walk 20 miles a day. We realised we that we would have to race against bad weather as the rainy periods were approaching.

We decided to travel light and rely on getting shelter each night. We therefore dumped our blankets and sacrificed comfort for speed. So in light spirits we started off on our march to rejoin our troops, little realising at the time that we were in for such a long walk, only to be recaptured 20 miles from our goal. It is a very good thing sometimes; I think that we cannot see into the future. If when I was first captured I knew of all the disappointments that were in store for me during my 4 years of captivity, it would have made life much harder. One thing the last 4 years have taught me and that is never to give up hope.

I will only dwell briefly on our actual walk, we made very good speed, but the weather broke before we expected it and we often had to remain in a village longer than was expedient. Having no coat or waterproof was a great drawback.It is a beautiful country and we would have had no finer chance of appreciating and enjoying its beauty than walking as we did, keeping as much as possible to the mountains. We used to make an early start before dawn. This was for two reasons: we liked to get as many miles covered as possible before the heat of the day and secondly the Germans had a nasty habit of raiding a village in the early morning to try and catch British escapees.

We very seldom had trouble obtaining shelter for the night and although we always slept in straw barns it was quite comfortable and as we were so tired at the end of the day that I think we could have slept anywhere. I always suspected that the straw was cleaner than the house. The filth that the Italian peasant lived in was really unbelievable. They are very ignorant and lead a very primitive life, but for all that we had nothing but kindness from the Italians. Their generosity speaks for itself when I say that during the whole 600 miles we never once had to pay for a meal nor did we ever go hungry and this was at time when they were desperately short of food themselves. Sometimes we had gone into a village at mid-day and a householder had rushed out and insisted that we came in and ate in his house. We have gone in and eaten a meal that they were preparing for themselves and insisted we ate it and they looked on. We really felt quite embarrassed at times, but they would be most upset if we refused their hospitality. It was all very difficult.

It was hard to believe that so short a time before these people were fighting against us or at least our enemies. One wondered from where Mussolini had drawn his Fascist supporters. The answer of course is that Italian peasants are very different to the townspeople. The peasant did not wish to enter into the political field and therefore bore us no malice.

The Italian peasant is indescribably ignorant, many could not read or write. I remember one night an old lady who provided us with food and shelter had three sons all missing on the Russian front. She was very upset as she had no means of obtaining information and she could not write. I wrote a letter for her to the International Red Cross asking them for information of her sons. I have often wondered whether she afterwards received a satisfactory reply.

They were also always most interested in other parts of the world especially London. When you think that many of these people had never left their village and did not read, it is not to be wondered at that they were so ignorant of the world and the people that live in it. In the evenings, after we had been given food, the family and many neighbours would gather around and we would be answering questions for often hours at a time. They wanted to know all your family history.

People in England have said to me how lazy the Italians are; well they be in England,but they are certainly not in Italy. I think it is because of the female influence in the Italian home. I was struck by the hard-working and efficient Italian woman. It is interesting to note that at the forthcoming elections in Italy, (the first for many years); women are to have the vote for the first time.

It must not be forgotten that very severe penalties were inflicted by the Germans on any Italian caught aiding any escapee. If British were caught in a house, the dwelling was burnt to the ground and the family taken off to Germany as slave labour. The Germans offered substantial monetary reward for any British handed over by an Italian. This makes it all the more remarkable that so few of us were given away and that the Italians risked so much by helping us. A favourite trick of the Germans was to place a Fascist spy in a village and get him to report on any movement or arrivals of escaping British. The villagers soon found him out and we were always warned which village to avoid.

Within a month of leaving Santa Franca we were around Florence and then we really felt happy as we turned south and every mile meant a mile nearer our troops. We had been keeping in touch with the news as most villages had at least one wireless set. The news at the time was not as encouraging as we had hoped and we began to see that we would have to go to the Eighth Army and not the Eighth Army come to us as we had hoped.

From Florence we had a fine spell of weather and we made very good progress walking 400km in 12days. Then at the beginning of November we ran into our first snow and from then onwards the going got harder and harder. Perpetually cold winds and wet feet made life very miserable, but we were gradually drawing to our line and when we reached Avezzano on November 25th we only had 30 miles to go. Here we met a very useful contact. A local landowner who was in a position to help us with food , as by this time food was very short and only big landowners such as our contact were in the position to spare food for escapees for any lengthy period. This man persuaded us to stay with him and have a rest before our last effort. As we hoped for an advance by the Eighth Army at this time we gladly accepted his invitation and for a few weeks received every kindness first at his palazzo and then on one of his farms.

By the middle of September with the Eighth Army not having advanced as much as we had hoped, we decided to attempt the final stretch. The weather had now broken and all the mountains had one metre of snow. For one week we ploughed through this snow, but on December 22nd our luck which had been so kind for us failed. We ran into a mountain patrol of 6 Germans and we had literally had it’

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Message 1 - Re: On The Run

Posted on: 17 September 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mrs Smith

I read Major Blackmore account of his wartime experience in Italy with great interest. I am surprised though, that although he saw repeated instances of Italian generosity and of help given him at great personal risk he still retained a very negative view of Italians in general.

I was going to let the matter pass without comment, since there is little one can say to dispel strongly held personal opinions. However, in view of the fact that this story will now be in a permanent archive and will be read by future generations I cannot let it pass without comment. I am well aware that I may be accused of being biased since, although I am British, my father was Italian and my British mother of Italian descent, nevertheless I hope I have responded factually and dispassionately. For convenience I have numbered the paragraphs in your father's story that I have commented on.

1. "During my 2 years captivity in Italy, up to the Italian Armistice I had formed a pretty low opinion of the Italians. As a detaining power their treatment of prisoners was disgraceful. They were vindictive, treacherous and unreliable."

Obviously I do not know what the personal experience of Major Blackmore was with his Italian guards, but "vindictive, treacherous, and unreliable" are not normal adjectives used of camp guards anywhere. These range from 'kind' and 'considerate' at one extreme to 'sadistic' and 'brutal' at the other, but I cannot see how one could categorise all guards as being 'treacherous and unreliable'.

My only experience of being detained is very brief. When my father was expelled from Britain in June 1940, my mother chose to go with him, accompanied by myself and my sister. We sailed to Lisbon across the Bay of Biscay, zig-zagging all the way to avoid mines and submarines across the Bay of Biscay. On the British ship taking us, the Monarch of Bermuda, I only saw the tiny cramped cabin where we were confined and had to eat, and the portion of the deck where we were subjected to continual and seemingly endless boat drill wearing life jackets. The life jackets were a particular petty torment as we were not allowed to take them to our living quarters; they were stowed in large containers and there was always a crushed crowd trying to get one and put it on quickly. It was wartime, we were all considered to be enemy aliens (I say 'considered' for my mother was British born as I was and many other wives and children were). We had rifle-armed guards and all orders came over the tannoy with minimal personal contact.

Contrary to this, on the Italian liner, 'Conte Rosso' which we boarded in Lisbon where the exchange was made with the British citizens being repatriated from Italy, we had the full run of the ship and we ate at tables in the restaurant with menus. I remember my father asking one of the stewards where the British had eaten and the steward replying in surprise in English 'Why, here of course', or words to that effect.

2. "I mention this to show you what a marked contrast it was between their behaviour before, then after the Armistice."

We cannot shed our personal human natures on a change of government. You are either a kind considerate person, or you are not. We either have generous natures or we are prone to meanness. The same goes for every other aspect of human nature. There can never be marked contrast in human behaviour from one day to the next.

3. "We were amazed at the number of Italians we met who spoke English. A lot of them had worked in England, some of them for as long a period as 20 years."

Your father might have been even more surprised that many would be fluent in French too, as well as their own regional dialect (Italian dialects are almost separate languages with almost entirely different vocabularies).

4. "You seldom saw a tall Italian and for this reason alone I was at a great disadvantage"

Were this the case then I can only say that my father and uncles on both sides of my family must have been abnormally tall. My paternal grandfather was well over six feet tall. I am only 5'9", and was perhaps an inch less at 15, but I wasn't considered unduly tall in the small village of Musadino.

5. "I always suspected that the straw was cleaner than the house. The filth that the Italian peasant lived in was really unbelievable. They are very ignorant and lead a very primitive life, but for all that we had nothing but kindness from the Italians"

I wonder just how many Italian houses your father actually entered. My recollection of Italian homes, peasant or not, were that invariably they were meticulously clean. Of course there are exceptions in every country, but as a general rule, Italians don't live in filth.

As for leading 'very primative' lives, Italians are steeped in culture and surrounded by art. Incidentally, Italy does not have a 'peasantry' as such, 'peasant' is simply the nearest word in English to translate 'contadini'. 'Contado' means the countryside around a town. Town life dominates Italian life and has done since the Renaissance.

6. "One wondered from where Mussolini had drawn his Fascist supporters. The answer of course is that Italian peasants are very different to the townspeople. The peasant did not wish to enter into the political field and therefore bore us no malice".

This is wide of the mark, whilst fascism was strong in some cities, particularly Milan, the real Squadristi were in the countryside, often in the employ of the great landowners. Far from not wanting to 'enter the political field', the great majority of the 'peasantry' was anti-fascist and some of the finest partisans came from Italian villages. Many contadini were socialists, many communist, but most were ex-Popolari (the party that later became the Christian Democrats).

7. "The Italian peasant is indescribably ignorant, many could not read or write."

This surprised me. I lived in a typical Italian village throughout the war and I cannot remember anyone being illiterate. Even under the Fascist regime, elementary school was compulsory from the age of six. At 14 I discovered Victor Hugo and had read 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' and 'Les Miserables' in Italian translation; books lent to me by my 'contadini' village friends. I had already read Manzoni and much Italian poetry. Again this was by no means uncommon, nor was Musadino an atypical village.

8. "They were also always most interested in other parts of the world especially London. When you think that many of these people had never left their village and did not read, it is not to be wondered at that they were so ignorant of the world and the people that live in it".

Like European Jews and the Irish, Italians had a long history of migrating and were very conscious of world geography most villages and town having relatives who had emigrated all over the world since the early 19th century, principally to the USA, Argentina, France, Switzerland, and the UK. None of my friends in Musadino were ignorant of world geography that I can remember. There had also been the Italo-Turkish war of 1911 when Italy acquired Lybia; the Italian Fascist aggression against Abyssinia in 1935; and WW2, where Italian forces had served in Africa, Greece, and Russia. In my own village school I remember a large wall map of Italy and one of Europe. I think these were standard issue to all schools. Cinemas were as popular as in Britain both before and during the war.

9. "People in England have said to me how lazy the Italians are; well they be in England, but they are certainly not in Italy. I think it is because of the female influence in the Italian home".

I only have knowledge of Italian emigrants in Leeds and, to some extent, Manchester. They were hard-working, self-sufficient, and usually had their own businesses or were otherwise self-employed. I have good reason to believe that Italian immigrants were the same in the rest of Britain. That is the whole point of emigrating to a foreign country. There was no welfare state in Britain before the war and foreigners were not eligible for poor relief.

10. "It is interesting to note that at the forthcoming elections in Italy, (the first for many years); women are to have the vote for the first time".

This was not the case, Italian women were enfranchised in 1919, the same year that proportional representation was introduced. To put that in context, in Sweden women did not obtain the right to vote until 1921; in Britain not until 1928; in France in 1945; in Belgium in 1948; and in Switzerland not until 1971. There is confusion here with the suppression of democracy by the Fascist dictatorship and the subsequent first post-war elections of 1946, to which Major Blackmore refers.

Sadly, Major Blackmore was only free in Italy for just over three months, from 8 September to 22 December 1943. It is a great pity that he was then captured by the Germans, just as the Italian partisans were really getting organised. Just a few weeks more and he might have met up with a partisan band which, I am sure, would have changed his view of Italians completely.

Peter Ghiringhelli

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