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- George Evans
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- 09 November 2003
The following story was written by my father-in-law, George Evans:
Joining the Army
I am George Ernest Evans; in 1940 I was 24 years of age and married with one son. I had two brothers serving in the armed forces.
I volunteered for service in the RAF as a tradesman but was not accepted. I was conscripted into the Army in May 1940 and joined the Royal Regiment of Artillery at Skipton in Yorkshire and commenced training for the Heavy Artillery RA, but was moved down to Devonport (Raglan Barracks) during the emergency in June 1940 with the evacuation of our troops from France. Here I joined the 7th Medium Regiment RA and started training as a Gunner.
Being a butcher by trade I was sent to Topsham Barracks, Exeter in August 1940 to train as a cook and successfully passed the exams, which resulted in a rise in pay. I was returned to Raglan Barracks and continued training in gunnery. I was ambitious and was recommended for promotion but the Army, in their wisdom, transferred me to High Wycombe to join the 4th Durham Survey Regiment RA as a cook. I was attached to the X Troop (Surveyors) of the Survey Regt, who were on standby to go overseas. I got seven days' leave prior to moving to Liverpool and embarking on the liner Reina Del Pacifico whose destination was the Middle East.
Prisoner of War
We arrived in Egypt and from there were shipped to Greece. Our stay in Greece was cut short by the arrival of German Forces; we retreated and were evacuated to Crete and eventually evacuated back to Egypt. We then saw service in the Western Desert and Libya, finally moving into the garrison of Tobruk. In July 1942 the garrison was overwhelmed, we were taken prisoner and transported to Benghazi. The prison camp there was grim and I contracted dysentery. On November 16, 1942 we were transported to Italy and were taken to a concentration camp at Porto St Georgio on the Adriatic coast.
This was somewhat of an improvement as we were given Red Cross parcels containing food, which augmented our meagre rations. I suffered frostbite which resulted in my toes becoming septic, my left big toe being the worst and requiring surgery. I recovered and in May 1943 volunteered for a working camp in Northern Italy. We were transported to the region of Vercelli to work in the rice fields that were situated in the Po valley. Here living conditions were much improved, for apart from receiving better rations, the people we worked for also gave us food. We remained there until the Italians capitulated on 3 September 1943.
We returned to camp on the evening of 3 September 1943 to be told by the guard on the camp gate that the war between England and Italy was over and that we were all friends. Naturally we were all shocked and, although the guards on the camp cleared off, the commandant remained. We went to the dormitory to consider what to do. First of all we said the Lord's Prayer in unison and thanked God for our deliverance.
We surveyed the situation and decided, when darkness fell, to escape rather than stay in the camp. When all was quiet that night we removed the barbed wire from the gate and our working party, numbering around twelve, went to the farm where we had been working. It was here in a barn we spent our first night of freedom. Next morning we talked to our former employers and they agreed that we would stay and work there pending development of the situation.
We stayed there for about a week until German troops arrived in Vercelli and started rounding up PoWs. We now had to decide what to do and I for one had no intention of becoming a PoW again.
The foothills of Biella
Four of us, Maurice Brown, Joseph Dryhurst, Patrick Meehan and myself, decided to go together; we were advised to make for the foothills in the region of Biella. Food was no problem as in this region there was an abundance of peaches, grapes, tomatoes and other fruits; the civilian population were also most helpful.
Thoughts of crossing the border into Switzerland were considered and we made our way to the religious refuge of Oropa, which is 6,000 feet up the mountains and is reached by cable railway. There was a congregation of PoWs exploring the possibility; I considered my state of health and lack of equipment too great an obstacle so we decided to return to the lower mountainous regions.
Life was rather difficult but we always managed to find a barn or some form of shelter to spend the night. If offered I would never accept the hospitality of the civilians' houses as anyone found to be sheltering PoWs had their house burned to the ground. Time passed by, we were now down in the region of the foothills of Biella, and it seemed that something must happen as German planes flew over daily, dropping leaflets asking us to surrender and live in comfort in German prison camps. They then became desperate and offered a reward of 1200 lira to any civilian who affected the arrest of any PoW.
We met up with a party of Australian PoWs and retreated into a valley north of Biella. Here we took over one of the Italian summer houses, which had been vacated by the owners who had moved down to the plains below Biella for the winter months. We would go out in parties to get food from the civilians. The house was well situated and only accessible by foot so we had no fear of troops arriving without us being aware of them. This life continued for a time but with the onset of winter and severe weather arriving we decided to disperse. We four English bade farewell to the Australians and went our separate ways (I later met up with Bill Smith, one of the Aussies, and we were great friends).
We become partisans
We continued our wanderings and although with the help of the civilians, things went very well, I knew in my own mind that this way of life could not continue. The news we wanted to hear were of the Allies landing and a quick advance with the German resistance collapsing, but this was not to be. We made contact with a civilian who directed us to a remote spot, Trivero, north of Biella, where we made contact with a party of six Jews who had suffered at the hands of the Fascist regime and were now attempting to form a resistance movement (partisans).
They were very good and not only fed us but explained their position and what they were attempting to do. The organiser accepted I was the leader of our four so I agreed we would help because it afforded us a stable existence. In that area there was an abundance of dwellings that were vacated in the winter months. We were becoming quite organised and with my knowledge of butchery the partisan leader purchased a young bull, which I slaughtered, and we had quite a good living for a time.
Information came through that a certain official living in the Andorno Micco valley was collaborating with the Fascists. We were sent to investigate, the party consisted of about ten Italians and we four English, and there was a suitable vacant house on the mountainside, which we occupied. After enquiries concerning this individual, who lived higher up the valley in Sagliono, six Italians and myself set off one evening. We commandeered a bus, which I drove to a spot near this man's dwelling; he was then fetched to appear before a 'kangaroo court'. My knowledge of the Italian language was not too brilliant; he protested his innocence but to no avail, he was found guilty and shot.
We returned to the house, the next day was quiet but the following day a detachment of Germans arrived in the valley below. They mounted a small artillery force in the valley opposite and proceeded to blast our house to pieces. We had seen them arrive and watched the infantry detachment making its way toward us. We had dispersed, each going our separate way, as there was plenty of cover on the mountainside. From my vantage point I observed everything, the attack was quite clinical, after the shelling the infantry moved in and set fire to what was left of the house. They prepared to leave when I suddenly heard shouting in English and lo and behold there was Maurice Brown surrendering to the Germans. We collected ourselves and returned to our base at Treviro after establishing the partisans were there.
The option for any young Italian man was becoming obvious. If you were fit you either joined the partisans otherwise you were conscripted into the Fascist Militia. There was an element of senior types who were serving political sentences and who escaped during the confusion of the armistice; they mainly had communist leanings and they formed the basis of the partisan organisation. The two I was most involved with had noms de plume of 'Gemisto' and 'Nanda' and they were good organisers. We felt quite secure in our way of life in the foothills above Biella, the terrain was such that access by any vehicle was almost impossible, and everything was by foot. We saw Christmas 1943 go by with no celebration.
Life in Rassa
February came and we were increasing in numbers and also receiving arms and ammunition, which increased our confidence to exist. Late February we moved into a small valley off the Borgosesia valley, north of Biella, where we occupied a small village named Rassa, which offered good accommodation for us and here we were very comfortable. I brought my butchering skills into operation again; the leader of our band and I went down the valley and purchased two cows which I slaughtered. Life for a time was very good.
The partisans had acquired a machine gun (which looked very effective), the road came around the mountainside and as you approached the village there was high ground with a promontory, which allowed you to look directly down onto the road. This is where we mounted the machine gun, the only problem being lack of ammunition, for I assumed we had a belt of only about 100 rounds. The road had a sharp bend, which was blind, as it approached the village so anyone coming around this corner faced a drop on the left or a steep mountain to the right. I had expended one or two rounds to get the range and then carried on with our activities.
Time went by and we enjoyed a peaceful fortnight, but information came through that a build-up of German troops and Fascist militia was gathering in the Borgosesia valley. This meant only one thing; we were about to be sorted out. The news came through one particular morning (the couriers were mostly young lads who were not regarded with suspicion by the Germans) that there was a movement of troops coming up the valley. We received the news that they were approaching on foot and I had a young lad to assist me feeding the ammunition into the machine gun. They eventually arrived around 2pm and as they came into view around the corner of the mountain I counted one officer and twenty-two troops. I opened fire and one can imagine the surprise effect. Luckily for them there was a wall on the left of the road which gave them cover and somewhere to drag the casualties as they endeavoured to retreat around the corner.
We kept up this sporadic firing and could only assume that when they eventually collected themselves around the corner they called for reinforcements because they kept up sniping at our position. Time was passing and the ammunition for the machine gun was almost expended, so we had no option other than to retreat around the village and proceeded to climb the mountain. In the meantime a truckload of troops had arrived but met no resistance in the village; they just fired up the mountainside to the accompaniment of Verey lights. No one followed, so we continued our climb and spent a freezing night on the mountain; we arrived on the other side and were very glad to find a little warmth in a friendly villager's home, which was quite cosy.
One could say that this had been the first confrontation of the partisans with the enemy in this area; upon reflection the approach of their troops to our position outside the village of Rassa was quite suicidal. The partisans had made their point as a form of resistance.
At this point I must say that to quote the names of all the villages we frequented is difficult, especially north of Biella. The Italian authorities have supplied me with three ordnance maps of the Biella, Aosta and Ivrea regions for which I am very grateful, but this unfortunately does not cover the Rassa area, which was in the Borgosesia valley.
The Germans went through their usual procedure, burning the village of Rassa. My friend Dryhurst was taken prisoner, Meehan escaped but I did not see him again until hostilities had finished.
We met up with another band of partisans, who had with them an Australian ex-PoW whose name was Frank. Somehow they had found a Thompson sub-machine gun, which Frank had used quite devastatingly during an engagement with the Fascist militia. We rested in a skiing village named Mira and really enjoyed staying in a first class hotel, which had been vacated, we then moved into the Biella region.
Time passed and we were constantly on the move. I was the only Englishman with this band of partisans who had no official name, but we became known as 'Banda Biella'. We contacted many ex-PoWs but they seemed to prefer to live in hiding, gathering food from the local population, who were most helpful.
The news from down south was depressing and I was constantly thinking of crossing the border into Switzerland. The good news was that the partisans were becoming more powerful as we now had a motley collection of arms. I marvelled at where they came from. Our finances were almost non-existent, as we never robbed anyone, although it was heartbreaking when we purchased cattle from the locals as this was their only livelihood. They were told they had to sacrifice for the cause. (During my time with the partisans, I slaughtered one bull, four cows and numerous chickens.)
We went into the summer of 1944 and life became easier with the advent of warmer weather. I suppose we were a nuisance to the enemy forces for Biella was their main HQ as the main road joined the Turin/Milan autostrada there. We frequently moved down into the lowlands, but only at night, hiding during the daytime and returning to the foothills under cover of darkness. The Germans would rake any wood thickets with machine gun fire and all maize was cut in the vicinity of any road.
In July 1944 we were contacted by two ex-PoWs wishing to join our band; they consented to fall in with our system. Their names were Joseph Fenton, an ex-Scots Guard and Percy Dunmore ex-Signals Regt. Fenton impressed the Italians, but Dunmore unfortunately did not make such a good impression, as he would not accept discipline. Time moved on and Dunmore, Fenton and myself talked about crossing the border into Switzerland. Nanda, our leader, begged me not to go, but I could not see our troops arriving to relieve us in the foreseeable future and, with the other two, I felt we could achieve the crossing.
We left the partisans with their good wishes and moved to a spot south of Biella which was a small location named Arro and where there was a railway crossing. I knew the crossing keeper very well and also many of the civilians in the area. We stayed close to the railway crossing beside the river and I went to a local farm to get some food whilst Fenton and Dunmore went to the rail crossing, hoping the man in charge would give them some cigarettes. Unfortunately a German patrol had arrived at the crossing, surprising Fenton and Dunmore, who were asked to surrender. Fenton realised they could not escape but Dunmore made a dash for it and was shot dead. Fenton was then paraded through the streets of Biella. I was left pondering my future, but news travelled fast and Nanda my partisan leader arrived and I rejoined the partisans.
August 1944 arrived and contact had been made with the British Government and after much preparation the first drop of arms was received. A massive letter 'H' was arranged, consisting of flammable material, the time was arranged by an announcement on Radio Londra and sure enough the drone of aircraft engines was heard, followed by parachutes laden with mainly Sten guns, ammo and other ancillary articles. Next day, after the activities of the previous night, we retreated up the mountainside to comparative safety and assessed the contents of the airdrop. I had never seen a Sten gun before, but it was elementary and I gave a demonstration of its prowess. Everyone was impressed except for the Germans who must have been surprised by the sudden arrival of the sound of machine gun fire.
Better things were to come and October saw the arrival of Major Alistair Macdonald whom I made contact with. Although he did not disclose his particular mission, he gave me the option of crossing the border or, he said, a mission led by Captain Bell would be arriving and he wished me to stay and join his team.
Captain Bell arrived on the night of 16-17 November with his team of Sgt. Bell (radio operator) and Staff Sgt. Johns. We later recruited Bill Smith (Aussie ex-PoW), Jimmy the Scot ex-PoW, who spoke fluent Italian and with myself this constituted the team. (I have enclosed various photographs of the unit). This altered the whole aspect of life for me, because I had a great knowledge of the local countryside and was suddenly kitted out with new battledress, boots etc. which gave me the feeling of at last doing something useful and positive.
Major Macdonald's first task was to organise and distribute the largest arms drop in Italy; this certainly kept our unit very busy for everything would arrive under the cover of darkness when we felt the tension of waiting for the codeword on Radio Londra. The planes homed in on a signal that came from a small case that Capt. Bell described as his 'Eureka', then it was bedlam trying to get everything away as we had no transport except for the odd mule or two.
In the Aosta valley north west of our position there was an important steelworks. Here it was estimated the Germans had 50,000 tons of steel and 6,000 torpedo bodies (presumed to be for V2s) which they wished to move by rail to Germany to assist their war efforts. Italian partisans had destroyed a railway bridge at Porto San Martino and although German engineers had almost repaired it an alternative route was sought. The railway approaches Ivrea and goes underground; it then resurfaces at the rear of The Hotel Dora to cross the river. Civilian partisans who worked in Ivrea contacted Major MacDonald and volunteered to attack the bridge at this point.
Two Italian partisans, 'Noto' and 'Elimiro', were instructed by Capt. Bell on the techniques required. We prepared the charges (my first introduction to Bostick) and on the night of 23 December 1944 we transported them to the edge of Ivrea. From here Noto and Elimiro took over and by devious means via the cellars of the Hotel Dora they approached the railway. The railway crosses over the river Dora and then goes underground and with Capt. Bell's instructions Noto and Elimiro attached the charges. On Christmas Eve 1944, the bridge was successfully blown up and collapsed into the river Dora. (I have enclosed photographs of the hotel and railway and in the background the German Barracks can also be seen). That certainly wished the Germans troops a 'Very Merry Christmas' for it had caused a major disruption and they had to bring in experts to repair the bridge. It was a serious blow to the enemy who then had to laboriously transport goods from the railway wagons by road to bypass the bridge.
We returned to our base on 24 December and purchased a calf on the way, we slaughtered it and tied it whole to the back of the mule but that was not successful so I cut it in two and the mule was able to carry it. We dined on veal steaks on Christmas Day 1944, which was very enjoyable.
The blowing up of the bridge in Ivrea was a shock to the Germans but the partisans followed this up by ambushing a patrol of Germans, killing some and wounding others. This really infuriated them and in January they began house-to-house searches. Major Macdonald was caught conferring with colleagues in a café in Serra. He was captured as they ran out into the snow; luckily the Gestapo took him in for interrogation rather than shooting him on the spot. Major Macdonald managed to escape over the wire around the prison camp and an Italian boy rowed him across a lake right under the noses of German sentries. He then escaped to Switzerland; we did not see him again.
The Germans continued the house-to-house searches in Ivrea and the surrounding area, so Capt. Bell decided we would split up to minimise the risk of capture. The Germans in desperation offered increased rewards for the capture of Capt. Bell or any of his band, but to no avail.
Staff Sgt. Johns and Bill Smith went into a different area while we remained in the vicinity of Ivrea and waited for things to calm down.
Destroying more bridges
The partisans found a farmhouse away from the town, which was isolated, and with a clear view of the countryside, but one morning we had information that our house could be under suspicion. We spotted a foot patrol coming our way so we had to decide whether to take them on or make a rapid escape. Luckily the owner of the farmhouse acted quickly and ushered us through the house and into the farmyard, and then guided us down the hillside. The farmer, being an astute type, had concocted his own sewerage system, which consisted of a septic tank covered with slats, which retained solids. On lifting the cover we discovered that one end of the tank was in fact partitioned off and large enough for four of us to stand upright. The farmer then put the planks back and brushed snow over the top. The experience was not particularly enjoyable for it was very cold and we were crammed in with all our gear but we were thankful to emerge some two hours later and return to the warm house.
Things settled down, we were very busy receiving supplies; the partisans were becoming very accomplished at sabotage. Staff Sgt Johns and Bill Smith made lightning strikes at Livorno and Trozzano, destroying two locomotives; they also dropped a mains electric pylon and damaged a railway bridge at Sala Sola, which caused major disruption.
We were now so well established that we received reinforcements, Lieutenant Amoor, Captain Burns (Polish) and a young Nigerian Lieutenant. Captain Burns was everywhere and the other two moved around the different bands of partisans. The main theme was to arm the partisans should the enemy attempt a scorched earth policy. (This was likely as the Olivetti works were situated in Ivrea and steelworks in the Aosta valley)
At the beginning of February 1945 we learned that the bridge in Ivrea was almost repaired and Captain Bell decided that a bridge at Montestratta should be the next target. Charges were prepared and on the night of February 6th Captain Bell, Noto and Elimiro attacked the bridge which unfortunately jammed and did not fall into the river but it took the enemy a month to repair. We then moved into the Val d'Aosta to organise anti-scorch policies.
February and March were very busy months, supplies were arriving weekly we had to be very mobile which meant walking everywhere. News came that the bridge at Montestratta had been repaired so Captain Bell and Staff Sgt Johns decided to carry out an operation on a bridge at Quincinetto; on the night of April 6th they succeeded in destroying it completely. It was observed that with the threat of the French advance, the enemy were moving troops and materials up the valley, transferring the wagons to trucks and entraining again at Ponte S Martino. The men marched from Quincinetto to Ponte S Martino.
Captain Bell decided we would attack two small bridges higher up the valley; this was planned for 13 April 1945. During the walk to the objective, guards on a bridge at Verres spotted us and we came under heavy machine gun fire; we were forced to take cover until dark when we proceeded to the target. The two bridges were fifty yards apart, unfortunately the road ran parallel with the railway line and mobile guards passed by every hour and as was usual they expended a few rounds of ammo.
We took two partisans with us, who stood guard, one at either end, while Captain Bell, Bill Smith and myself placed and fixed the charges. The explosive we used was plastic stock number 808. Captain Bell suddenly realised it was Friday the 13th, but everything went well and the time pencils were set to activate after three hours and fog signals should they not be activated. A train came down the valley two hours later and set off the fog signals thereby activating the charges on the second bridge which in turn activated the charges on the first bridge. This meant that the engine was on one bridge and a mass of carriages was on the other. We viewed this from the mountainside and when a group of partisans arrived they were despatched to attack the train with bazooka shells, thereby making a real mess of things.
A few days later a group of partisans blew another small bridge at Arnaz thus making it impossible for the enemy to use the railway line in the Aosta valley, at this time anything travelling by road was harassed by the partisans.
Things were moving very favourably for us for we had made our HQ at Gressoney San Giovanni, we had blown the approach road and we enjoyed life in a hotel. Everything was going our way. Planes were arriving in daylight, dropping arms and supplies in the Biella region so we decided to move down into Ivrea and await the arrival of the American troops.
We were now in complete charge of this area and comfortable in the Hotel Dora when the Americans arrived.
To conclude I would like to pay tribute to Major Macdonald for his arrival completely changed the scene in the Biella and Aosta area. His award of the MC and the obituary in the Daily Telegraph was much deserved. We later met up with him when we travelled down through Italy to be repatriated; he was on his way to take up the post of Military Governor of Biella and Aosta.
I would like to pay tribute to the many Italian civilians who helped me after my escape from the working camp.
The fact of being English and Italy being at war with us previously made no difference, they were just willing to help. They referred to the war as Mussolini's, in other words; it was 'his' not theirs. The Germans offered a reward of 1,200 lira for information and capture of any PoW, but I never heard of anyone in our area being betrayed.
I was able to return and thank many of them after hostilities were finished for which I was thankful.
I would also like to thank the SOE advisor, Mr Duncan Stuart CMG, for his assistance in providing Captain Bell's report on the activities of the British Military Mission 'Cherokee' of which I was proud to be a member. Mr Duncan Stuart also provided the evidence for me to claim the Italian Star Medal.
Myself, I feel very fortunate to be able to write these memories down.
On 14 November 1942 the SS Scillin, an Italian cargo ship, was being loaded with English PoWs who were to be transported from Benghazi to Italy. We were being counted on to lorries to be transported to the docks. I wished to go with a friend from Raunds (my native town) whom I had met in the PoW compound, but an Italian guard stopped me as the allotted number for the lorry had been reached. That was the last lorry to leave for the docks.
The SS Scillin was subsequently sunk by an English submarine and of the 810 PoWs on board only 27 survived, one being a member of my own regiment.
I am grateful to Vic Gray and the late Tom Fairnington for this information.
I would like to honour those who lost their lives on the SS Scillin. 'We will remember them.'
I dedicate these memories to those who failed to return to their native land and to the 4th Durham Regiment RA.
Tom Fairnington and Vic Gray have been an inspiration to me as were the many members of the 4th (Durham) Survey Regiment RA.
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