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Building a Radio a P.O.W. Camp - Part Oneicon for Recommended story

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Ralph Corps
Location of story: 
Gravina, Southern Italy
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 May 2005

A diagram of the radio.

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Ralph Corp (deceased) and has been added to the site with his relatives' permission. They fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
The building of a radio and its maintenance in a prison camp is an accomplishment, which many people will disbelieve, but it happened. Despite the frequent searches that the living quarters were subjected to, which were 100% efficient, a radio was built and maintained. In addition, it was transported from the camp in which it was built, to another camp more than 200 miles away. . This, in my opinion, was a very good piece of work, especially when one realises that, on leaving one camp, every man and his baggage were searched minutely. The same procedure was adopted when entering a new camp. Such searches were not conducted by soldiers, but by the Italian police who were, so we were told, the elite of the world’s policemen.

The first part of my story takes place in a prison camp in southern Italy near the village of Gravina. The camp itself was still in the process of being built. When completed, it was to hold 10,000 men though at the time, it contained only 6,000. All the men lived in stone built barrack rooms to which the Italian police had access at all times.

Life in the camps was very bad; food was scarce and what there was, was the worst. Many men died there, and hundreds suffered the agony of Malaria, simply because there were no medicines. . If I’d never seen living skeletons before, I saw them there among a group of men taken prisoner in Greece.

However, this has nothing to do with the main narrative, yet, there was one thing we all missed in the P.O.W. camps and that was genuine news. The Italians did sometimes permit their newspapers into the camps, but only when things were going badly for the allies. There was a paper in English, printed in Italy and chock full of fascist propaganda, issued to us about once a fortnight. But to return to the story, which begins in November 1942: one evening, after the usual light meal, I was sitting with my prisoner friend, when suddenly, he said, “Do you think it would be possible to build a radio in here?” Well, after all, I was only a policeman and being a P.O.W. at that time, I aired my views, in no uncertain manner. To begin with, we were at the wrong side of the fence, we could speak very little Italian and the police saw to it that we didn’t get too familiar with any Italians working around the place. Furthermore, we could not get of any Italian money and even if we did, it would mean bribing Italians to bring the necessary articles into the camp.

My friend had had many attacks of Malaria in the camp and I thought it was one of the usual brainstorms before he commenced his first sweat. I was wrong; the Malaria didn’t develop and for many weeks afterwards, he was engaged in building up an acquaintance with an Italian soldier. And what an Italian. A more villainous specimen of humanity I have yet to see. The man was not one of the ordinary sentries, but he was employed as an electrician and in this capacity, he had almost free run in and out of the prisoners’ quarters. He was frequently permitted to enter the camp without being searched. He was interested in radio; this and many other things were taken into consideration by my friend. By offering a cup of tea (when we had any to offer) to this man, plus a few cigarettes, a friendship began to open up. One day in December, the Italian confided to my friend that he was of Communistic tendencies. From that moment, the two of them became the closest of friends.

During all this time, I was in the British Camp Police, although a difficult job, it had its compensations. From time to time, I had to visit the Italian police office on the other side of the fence. Now, normally, I don’t walk around with my eyes closed, but being a P.O.W. increases one’s powers of observation enormously, so much so that one day, whilst in the police office, I espied, lying in a corner, a small coil of insulated wire. Before I continue, I must state that the W.O. of the E.Y.R. had given orders to make as much trouble as possible to the Iti’s. Also, in a P.O.W. camp, stealing from the enemy wasn’t a crime, but rather a commendable act. So, if I were to take that coil of wire, it may cause little trouble to the Italians, but it would come in handy if our radio plan matured. I returned to my sleeping quarters in the highest of spirits. My friend had received a promise from his Iti friend that he would get some parts for us. So far, so good. But Italians are the same the world over, this one wanted paying before he would bring in the stuff. My friend had made out a list of the parts he needed and the Iti agreed to get them, but he wanted 1,000 liras first. That was the snag. 1,000 liras was like asking for a rifle and ammunition. Besides, our pay was only 1 lira 40 cents per day and we were paid with paper money that could only be used inside the camp.

And so the radio idea reverted to the background for some weeks. Life went on in the usual way, with the searches and roll calls etc. The radio was forgotten, when one day, I was talking to one of the camp policemen, a Greek who spoke several languages, when the word ‘radio’ cropped up. Obviously, in P.O.W. camps, one keeps one’s ideas to oneself; we knew that there were spies in the camp. But in this case, the radio idea had fallen through, so I told the Greek about it, although I didn’t mention any names. When I had finished speaking, he very calmly drew a piece of paper from his pocket and said, “You can pay me back after the war if you wish. I stared at the slip of paper after unfolding it. It was a 1,000 lira note. Never having seen one before, I was a little unbelieving, but he carried on speaking, saying, “If you can pull this off, it’ll be a smack in the eye for the Iti’s.”

I hurried back to the W.O.’s quarters and was just in time for a spot of char, freshly made on our new blower. Blower was the name given to a charcoal-burning machine. It was made from old bits of wood etc. and by turning a wheel continuously, a current of air kept the charcoal red hot. The prisoners constructed these themselves and there were all shapes, styles and sizes and always much competition among the builders. My friend had been working on his particular model for several days. It was constructed entirely of empty milk tins from the Red Cross parcels. It embodied a new principle of air supply under pressure. When I arrived, the tea was made; the water had boiled in 7 minutes from the word ‘go’.

Having sucked down several mouthfuls of the steaming beverage, I very gradually turned the conversation round from ‘blower’ to ‘radio’, whereupon he said, “We haven’t a cat in h---‘s chance of getting a pukka 1,000 line in this camp.” I grinned at this remark; then very proudly, I handed him the 1,000 L note. His face was well worth writing home about. With an expression of disbelief, he examined the slip of paper, turned it over, held it to the light, and then, pushing his hat to the back of his head, he sat down. “What’ve you done now?” he asked, stuffing the note into his breast pocket. He listened in silence to the story I had to tell. Needless to say, despite the blower’s popularity, for the rest of the day, the topic was radio. Where should we keep it? How to avoid its discovery by the Iti’s etc. etc. From then on, radio was the talk, morning, noon and night.

There was much trouble with the Italian electrician who was to buy the stuff. He brought up many excuses, but W.O. West kept him to his promise. The Greek was brought into the scheme owing to his excellent knowledge of Italian. A plan was devised which we hoped would get the parts into the camp undetected. It worked, too well, I believe for the Italian electrician. He was very nervous about the whole affair and begged us not to mention his name if the stuff was found. We gave him our word, and from that very moment, the building of the set commenced. We now had in our possession, one pair of headphones, one coil, two valves (not new ones), 12 dry batteries (pocket lamp size), one cat’s whisker and some five or six terminals. All our energies were turned to radio construction. A condenser was made from an old aluminium mess tin. A bed for the coil was made from another piece of mess tin, bits of wood and candle wax. I am not a wireless fan and understand very little about them, but was able to render a little assistance in the making of tools. At this stage of the radio episode, one thing troubled us much: where to keep the set when it was completed. Many schemes were put forward and rejected, until in the end, a member of the Royal Engineers came forward and volunteered his services. Being in charge of the British prisoners working inside the camp, he turned out to be the ideal man for the job. He made us a locker with a sliding back door. It was made from the wood from red cross boxes, but before he fixed the locker to the wall, he removed one of the stones, thus leaving a small recess, sufficiently large to hold the complete set. The Greek was the only outsider who knew of its existence. Our camp leader was very interested and gave us his assistance. He even went and ordered a locker to be placed behind every Warrant Officer’s bed in the sleeping quarters. That assisted the deception remarkably well. There were 16 lockers in the W.O.’s quarters but only one with a sliding back. At long last, everything was ready for a trial. It must be said that the results of our efforts didn’t look much like a radio. It was just a box of tin and cardboard, but everyman was excited. Guards were placed around the quarters to give warning should any Italians approach the building. W.O. West switched the set onto the main electric current and began fiddling with the dials of the set. Everyone crowded round; no talking was allowed, at least, not on wireless subjects. By looking at their faces, one could easily imagine what kind of questions they were wanting to ask, such as: “Can you hear anything?” “Is it working OK?” There was no encouragement from our operator. After about ten minutes silence, he turned away saying, “It’s a flop! Anyway, what did you expect, it’s only made from cans and cardboard.” He’d no longer said this when there was a dull flop from the set’s direction. W.O. West in trying to boost up the current, had overstepped the mark. One of the valves was done for. He removed the headphones and informed us that the set had been dead all the time he had been listening.

There was a murmur of disappointment from the men gathered there. We experimented on one or two occasions, but without result. Finally, W.O. West said that it was necessary to have a transformer before the set would function, so he again saw his communist friend, but the Iti had had enough. He refused point blank to have anything more to do with the scheme. Shortly after the unsuccessful attempt with the radio, my friend and I were involved in an escape attempt and after our recapture and subsequent 30 days rigorous punishment, we once again found ourselves back in our old sleeping quarters. We were subjected to severe supervision and therefore, our activities with regard to the radio were of necessity, forgotten.

Once or twice when our quarters were raided by the Iti’s, the wall locker was emptied of its contents and examined, especially on one occasion. The Italians were making a search for gold rings, gold watches, British and allied currency etc. Unfortunately, we didn’t know the object of their visit and thought it was just one of those routine searches for home made knives, compasses etc. All prisoners by this time, were old hands at the game, but on this memorable occasion, we were taken completely by surprise. You can imagine my anger when my signet ring was wrenched from my ring finger. They told us that our troops had been stealing such items from Italian P.O.W.s, so they were now doing the same in retaliation. Two rings and some money were discovered. Much ‘old English’ was used towards our searchers. We didn’t like the latest piece of gangsterism on the part of the Iti’s. But naturally, we had to be discreet; only fools argue with fixed bayonets, nevertheless, we did manage to convey our contempt for their methods. Disapproval was so manifest throughout the camp, that the Italian authorities decided on this occasion, to issue receipts to all prisoners who had been relieved of their property. I kept my receipt for two years, then used it as cigarette paper.

On or about the 12th of May 1943, some 700 men were warned to be ready to proceed to another camp. Both mine and my friend’s names were on that list. In fact, all the sector’s bad boys (the Iti view) were listed for transfer. All warned men began packing their few belongings. In our case, it was difficult; we had the radio. Getting the set into camp was difficult enough, but getting it out was going to be a man-sized job. Besides, we were both marked men. The W.O.s said it would be only right to leave the set in the camp and that they might be able to find someone who could make it work, and that it would be suicide to try to take it out etc. etc. We were discussing the affair, when the Italian electrician, who had heard we were leaving, came to see us. He told us that he was willing to purchase a transformer for us now. But as usual, he wanted paying first. He wanted a gold watch as payment. We hadn’t a watch, but we knew where we could get one, but we were not prepared to hand one over until we got the transformer first.

In the meantime, we devised a scheme to get the radio out of the camp. Two wooden boxes were made, one for each of us, but they had false bottoms, sufficiently large to hold the various essential parts of the set with the addition of the transformer. The Iti arrived the next morning with the transformer. He was fixing a bell in the sector hospital at that time and could walk about with the transformer in his hand without being questioned by the police. The complete set was placed in the false bottoms of the boxes. The set, up to that time, had cost 1,000 lira plus a gold watch. The pro rata exchange rate would have made the watch worth about £3.00 and the total value was about £15.00. I could have bought the lot in Britain for about 15 bob (75p).
Continued in Part Two..........


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