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15 October 2014
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Fred Hirst's Story Part 3: Life in an Italian POW Camp 1943icon for Recommended story

by Stockport Libraries

Contributed by 
Stockport Libraries
People in story: 
Fred Hirst, Ron Ford
Location of story: 
Laterina, Italy
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
24 June 2004

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Chris Comer of Stockport Libraries on behalf of Fred Hirst and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

Fred Hirst had been serving with the 2/5th Battalion Sherwood Foresters in Tunisia when he was captured by the Germans. He was handed over to the Italians and sent to an Italian POW camp.

Fred ended up in Campo Concentratomento P.G.82 near Laterina in Italy. The camp was organised into huts about 40 yards long and 8 yards wide. The bunk beds were in blocks of nine, that is three on the top, three in the middle and three on the bottom. All one structure. Life in the camp seemed to be largely one of tedium coping with a fair degree of physical discomfort, the ubiquitous lice and coping on very limited rations. The food supplies were greatly enhanced by the prized Red Cross parcels – each man got one parcel per week.

“The parcels were oblong cardboard boxes weighing approximately 10 lbs, containing various tinned foods i.e. a 2 oz packet of tea, a 2oz packet of sugar and a tin of condensed milk, with 20 cigarettes and a tablet of soap in each. The tinned foods, previously mentioned were usually made up of a 2oz round tin of cheese, one standard sized tin of stewed steak or similar, a small tinned sweet pudding, an 8oz tin of hard biscuits, tin of jam, a small tin of margarine, a tin of fruit, a tin of diced carrots and also included was a 4oz block of chocolate”

The Red Cross parcels were a vital supplement to the poor rations provided by the Italians consisting of ladles of ‘Stodge’ containing various unidentified green vegetables with sometimes a little meat – again of unknown origin. This was issued twice a day. Two or three times a week bread buns were also issued and cheese once or twice a week which was cut into 1oz portions. There was a rigid rota system for ‘first choice’ to ensure everyone got a fair share.

A camp market developed where cigarettes were exchanged for various food items. This operated a bit like the stock market with the rate of exchange varying according to changing levels of supply and demand.

“Some of the men became experts at playing the market and would take their entire food parcel and offer its parts for cigarettes, then exchange those cigarettes for the food items which they preferred……If there was an arrival of some individual personal parcels from home containing cigarettes the prices on the market could fall….. The clever ones in the camp would get wind of such events and play their hunches according to the intelligence gained……Runners would dash into huts yelling ‘A tin of cheese has just exchanged for four cigarettes, down by two!’ or conversely ‘They are now wanting 20 fags for a tin of jam sponge, that’s five up on yesterday!’…Being a rather cautious type I usually kept what I had got and did not dabble in the business of the market”

News eventually reached the camp that the campaign in North Africa had been won and that the allies had gained a foot on Italian soil. It was hoped that the Italians would soon give in. Some two months before this Fred received news that volunteer POWs were required to work on a farm some miles away from the camp and he and two para pals decided they might be better placed at the farm if the Italians did surrender. Fred and about 30 others were transferred to the farm in June 1943. Life on the farm was a little better with better accommodation and food supplies but the work was pretty hard and physical.

People from the nearby village of Pietraviva used to come to the camp perimeter and exchange gossip and information with the prisoners whenever they could overcome the language barriers. The guards did not discourage this – the prisoners even started to receive Italian newspapers. In August news was received that Mussolini had been overthrown and taken prisoner and that the war in Italy would soon be over. Italy asked for an armistice and requested to join the allies in the fight against Germany. This came into effect on 8 September as allied troops began landing at Salerno.

“On the 10th of September we were all called on parade by the Italian Officer. Italy had signed the Allies terms of surrender two days ago. We would now soon be free to join our own people. He asked us to remain calm and stay in the camp area until the Allied troops arrived. Jubilation knew no bounds. Local inhabitants flocked to the gate shouting their delight that the war in Italy was over. Vino found its way into the compound and merriment went on late into the night and we were joined in this by the Italian guards who had indicated for some time that they and the majority of the Italian people were fed up with the war.”

The following evening Fred and his friend even crept into the local village to continue the celebration.

However the celebrations were short-lived. The following morning the farmer came into the compound very agitated shouting ‘Tedesci’. It seemed that the Germans, instead of getting out, were pouring into Italy and seemed determined to oppose the allied advance and to also take over the POW camps and ship as many POWs as possible back to labour camps in Germany.

The Italian officers and guards abandoned the camp and Fred, his friend Ron Ford and an Irish Guardsman decided to take matters into their own hands and set out in an attempt to reach Allied lines. This meant walking many miles south whilst trying to avoid recapture by the Germans or Italian Fascists.

Fred Hirst wrote a book about his experiences called ‘A Green Hill Far Away’ Extracts from this book have been reproduced with the permission of the author and the publisher.

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