- Contributed by
- philip green
- People in story:
- Philip Green and Norman Milson-RAF
- Location of story:
- Tripoli to Italy,via Sicily.
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 August 2005
In earlier contributions to BBC WW2 stories,I related the episode of our capture in the Western desert after being forced to bail out of our stricken Wellington at Tobruk on the night of September 24th. 1942.After a series of journeys that totalled nearly 1000 miles ,uncomfortably on the backs of rickety Italian lorries,we eventually arrived just outside the port of Tripoli,and with a couple of hundred other prisoners,the remnant of nearly thirty thousand,including the large garrison at Tobruk in May/June 1942.Gradually these were all taken to Italy and/or Germany,increasingly so after the Battle of Alamein October 1942,when the German and Italian armies were routed.It was widely thought that General Montgomery would reach Tripoli by Xmas 1942,but for some reason or other did not until the middle of January 1943.However, on New Year's day the remnant including yours truly,was suddenly ordered down to the docks after darkness fell,where we were ignominiously thrust below decks, battened down on a dirty, battered, old tramp steamship,that set course for Sicily across the Meditteranean and it occurred to some that there ws a possibility English submarines would be prowling around to sink the ship! Not a comfortable feeling as we peered through the darkened hold-praying! However, the night proved our saviour,and as dawn rose,we entered the port of Palermo a large bustling town through which we were marched down to the railway station.We looked a very sorry sight,unshaven,dirty, ragged,and though we tried ,with the aid of a sergeant or two to "swing those arms" ,it was hard to imagine a more decrepit rabble. Not helped either by the local populace, who hissed and booed,the more cowardly chucking old fruit and vegetables at us.These same crowds who later were the first to cheer and wave flags as the Allied armies swept through Sicily after their triumphs in North Africa.At any rate,we entrained for Messina and from there across the toe of Italy until we reached Capua, Camp No.66 a few mile south of Naples.Situated on a flat plain,the ancient volcano of Vesuvius glowering over us,the so-called transit camp was a mess.The only accomodation,some tatty tents,into which five or six inhabitants competed for space,an ancient straw palliasse our sole piece of bedding,covered with a moth eaten blanket.Tents were scattered haphazardly,not in lines.Somewhere a larger marquee housed the cookhouse,from where issued what were laughingly called meals-an insult to the word-We received,apart from a small piece of bread and it could only have been a couple of ounces,the usual Italian 'soup',really hot water into which had been thrown a few handfuls of rice,served twice a day.It was really fortunate for us that the first Red Cross parcels of food arrived which transformed our lives and literally saved us from starvation.Parenthetically,when I volunteered for the RAF in January 1941,I weighed in at eleven stone(154 pounds),At the end of our incarceration and following a week or two normal meals in England-May 1945- my weight had shrunk to eight and a half stones(119 pounds).
A normal Red Cross parcel was meant to be shared by two persons,but sometimes there were four or five ,depending on the consignments from Geneva,plundering along the way was suspected,or sometimes the camp population increased when further prisoners arrived out of the blue.It was at this period when out of the crew who were shot down together,it was realised that pairs would be necessay for the purpose, as I mentioned above,of sharing food parcels.The two air-gunners,who both came from the Channel Islands ,Bert Doublard and Bob berry,naturally paired off,I as navigator/bomb-aimer,joined Norman Milson,Captain and first pilot,while because on the night we were shot down our crew had been supervised by Wing Commander Maw (see earlier stories)who himself was captured at a later date and carried immediately to a Luftwaffe POW Camp in Germany,that left "Butch" Gordon,Wireless/operator without a partner.Fortunately another 'spare bod'was on hand to complete the pairings or muckers as Army slang designated them. It is true to say that for the next two and a quarter years, Norman and I stayed together (there were naturally some break-ups,as there are in any partnership),his phlegmatic and calm personality proved to be strong, our comradeship enduring until the day of Liberation.I shall always feel grateful and lucky to have been in his company.
Capua,as I have indicated was only a transit camp,with the next move to the other side of Italy,on the Adriatic. Camp No.70 Monturano ,a mile or two from the sea and Porto San Georgio.This proved to be a collection of hangar-like buildings which we learnt later had been constructed to contain wine making facilities.When we arrived, it was a thriving and bustling camp,housing a few thousand ,mostly 'desert rats'including famous regiments such as the Fourth and Eighth Hussars from the incomparable Seventh Armoured Division.We also met up with many old comrades from RAF Middle Eastern Bombing Command. The Italians had no separate camps solely for airmen as in Germany,NCOs and other ranks shared sleeping quarters and in most of the buildings two or three hundred men occupied one of the tree-tiered bunks with requisite straw pallisse and sole blanket!Fortunately, the construction of the buildings provided very high ceilings,ensuring at least,plenty of fresh air.
I do not intend to writevery much on the day to day life as a prisoner,many ,many,accounts are extant,suffice to say that our main proccupation and topic was FOOD!The rations supplied by the Italians were disgraceful,and as I have intimated ,but for the Red Cross,starvation would have ensued.There was one other supplier of sustenance and that,strangely enough came from home.Families in the U.K. were able to send articles of clothing to their kin in Italy and Germany.Known as Personal Parcels weighing no more than ten pounds were specified but they did not have to be all clothing or articles thereof,curiously one other item was allowed-chocolate,and so,I remember receiving in the only personal parcel that ever got to me in Italy,that contained two pairs of socks and NINE POUNDS OF CADBURY's Milk Chocolate!So that Norman and I bartered some of the chocolate for bread,corned beef,tea,sugar,adding to our depleted stocks. Incidentally,as is obvious,money had NO value in POW camps,in its place cigarettes became the standard currency,against which everything was reckoned.Cigarettes were not included in Red Cross parcels but came separately,and rationed out accordingly.Later,when American parcels arrived,they did contain 200 cigarettes in each.As it happened, Norman and I were non-smokers,so again we benefitted by bartering them for food.And,in those days when almost 90% were fairly heavy smokers, there were some who,if they had none,would sell their bread,or anything to assuage the craving.The more desperate,saved tea leaves,or coffee grounds, drying them to roll in spills of paper.What they tasted of I cannot imagine,but the smell was awful!Even now,I shudder to think what their lungs must have endured!
So life went on,and as in most camps people settled down to various activities,including classes for languages,accountancy,painting,play reading,and so on.It was the last category that I joined at Monturano.The enthusiast taking the course was an ebullient man named Fred Hindle. A tall Lancastrian ,,it was he who devised the idea of presenting a show,roping in the play reading class,plus other volunteers.From somewhere,instruments were obtained (probably the Red Cross),and in a camp of several thousands,sufficient instrumentalists appeared.Fred,who loved operetta,put together a series of numbers,culled from Lehar, The Merry Widow and The Gypsy Baron)Johan Strauss,(Die Fledermaus)and Sigmund Romberg(The Desert Song)and others,wrote a hodge-podge of a story,and this hybrid ,he dubbed The Gypsy King.Though I had not much of a voice,nevertheless was consigned to the chorus numbering some twenty five I believe, and with a few talented principals ,succeeded in putting on a show that was rapturously received.This led to my life-long interest in the theatre,particularly opera and operetta that endures today.
While these events were taking place there was far more drama in the outside world.As I intimated above,following the exulsion of all German and Italian forces from North Africa, plans to invade Sicily and Italy began and it was in September 1943 that a landing was made at Salerno just below the Bay of Naples.How we cursed our luck in being trasferred to the Adriatic.However,it seemed as though Italy was going to surrender,and indeed on a glorious day ,we awoke to find that the Italian guards had vanished!News too of the advance by the Eighth Army from the toe of Italy who were we were told advancing rapidly up our coast!With the landings at Salerno,orders were given for POWS to remain in their camps until we were liberated.Alas, all these rumours and false hopes came to nothing. A week passed,during which we had been free to roam the countryside,scrounging what we could from the local peasantry,eggs and picking lovely fresh apricots and peaches, not seen for a very long time, returning to the camp at night.Then the blow fell.Waking one morning to see grey-green uniforms surmounted by the horrid steel helmets of the Wehrmacht,and the realisation that the Germans had no intention of of allowing the Allies an easy take over of Italy.Salerno proved a bitter example,the Americans almost ejected from the beaches there,and only after a protracted struggle did they manage to hold on and eventually fight through to take Naples.But this was a long time after we had been marched down to the railway station at Porto San Georgio and in the time- honoured manner,herded into cattle trucks, (40 men or 8 horses).More like 50 or sixty were packed into these and for three days endured a melancholy journey that ended after crossing the Italian border into Austria,then Germany, our destination Stalag 1VB, Muehlberg -am -Elbe
our abode for the next eighteen months.The last memory I have of Italy is not unpleasant,but of some Italian ladies,presumably pitying our plight ,doled out some soup (The only hot food for three days)and bread as we waited at Tarvisio Station before crossing the border.To them, I now say a belated GRAZIE after 62 years.
Philip Green (RESEARCHER 230199)
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