Albert Edward G. Clapson
Lance Corporal 2nd Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment
Albert was captured at Tobruk in June 1942. After some time in Tripoli, he was transferred to PG 66 Capua. He was later taken to the military hospital in Rome with pneumonia. Finally, in March 1943, he was transferred to PG 54 Fara Sabina.
On 8 September 1943, as the news of the Armistice spread in the camp Albert, who had been a PoW for nine months, felt like this: «I could understand how a bird in a cage must feel when someone leaves the cage door open: not quite sure what to do next».
It was around four o’clock in the afternoon, and my pal and I were in the marquee wondering what would happen now that the excitement of the morning had worn off and we were still there. […] Going outside, I saw a large crowd of P.O.Ws had gathered and were throwing blankets onto the barbed wire fence to cover the barbs, and the fence was being pushed over by the sheer weight of men. Whilst this was happening the Italian guards were coming down from the lookout posts. We both returned to the marquee to collect our blanket and any food we had left. This was it, we were on our way. It only took a few seconds to gather our few belongings and get outside again to find the camp was almost deserted. We lost no time crossing over the carpet of blankets covering the flattened wire fences.
Albert and his companion, a Geordie soldier whose name is not reported, headed to the mountains they had seen previously to cross the front line. Initially, the plan was to get out of the area as soon as possible. They marched until dusk, running into various PoW groups which had escaped from the same camp. Since the situation was so chaotic, they decided to avoid moving further and stop briefly in the area, hidden in a forest. During their second day living in the woods, they ran into an Italian, a former sailor who had worked in the United States, and they managed to exchange a few words in English with him. The man came from Monteflavio (Rome), a village about 500 metres away. They followed him to a small field that the man ploughed and shared breakfast with him. In the evening, the man invited them to his house to get some food: «Our first experience of an Italian house». Soon enough, Albert and his comrade realised they could count on the Italian population for help, despite the German proclamations promising rewards to whoever was able to provide information on escaped PoWs.
We soon discovered in this area the people were very close to nature. They had a hard life; the children had very little to eat, and most of them were without shoes, we discovered later when we were welcomed into so many homes. Wonderful people in spite of the unbelievable poverty, even by wartime standards, and we were very fortunate to have them share their little enough food with us, who only weeks before were their enemies. […] We were living on hope and a slice of bread most days.
They stayed in the area for the rest of September, hoping the Allies would arrive soon. At the end of the month, they met Tony, who housed them in his home and fed them. The Germans and the fascists often combed the area, looking for escaped PoWs. Tony offered them a hut, well-hidden in the woods, as a hideout: they stayed there during the day and visited his home in the evening for dinner. During that period, some RAF planes flew over the area, dropping large flyers, showing the location of the Allied forces. These maps proved helpful: they confirmed to the two escapees their position near Rome, informed them that the Allies were near Pescara and Campobasso and that they had to cross the Apennines to reach them. The plan was to make the trip before winter came.
The two decided to depart, leaving a note written in English for the Allies in the hope that Tony could use it to claim some reward for the help he had given them. During their march, they ran into Sergeant Bill Davis, another escapee from PG 54, who decided to join them. Together, they follow the Roma-Pescara highway, used by German lorries and tanks, to cross the Apennines. Despite the constant presence of enemy troops, they were helped and fed by the local population. One evening, in mid-November, as they were marching at some distance from the highway, they saw two civilians coming their way:
It was now only half light, and we wished them goodnight in Italian. They answered to our dismay in the unmistakable voices of Germans trying to speak Italian. We were not too concerned, there were three of us; if they were not armed all would be well. Coming back to us they spoke to us in Italian which was as poor as ours. They produced their pay books and after a battle of words in three languages we concluded they were deserters from the German army. This certainly took the biscuit! I thought I had seen and heard most things by now. So they had deserters in their army!
The two Germans offered to guide them to a place where they could eat and rest. Despite being worried it could be a trap, Albert and his comrades followed them to a house, where they were given a place to sleep and were fed bread, cheese, sausages, milk, fruit and wine. At dawn, without waiting for the two deserters, who had promised to guide them through safer paths, they left to resume their journey.
Around 10 December, the group crossed the Apennines, marching through snow and ice and sleeping in a charcoal burners’ hut. At dawn, they descended into a valley and reached the river Sangro near the village of Villa Barrea (L’Aquila). Nearby, on a path, they ran into three German officers:
They were as surprised as we were. One of them spoke English and asked us what unit we were with. As we were in uniform they, I guess, thought we were a patrol from the Allied lines. When they realised we were unarmed and ill-equipped they understood when we said we were escaped P.O.Ws. We had no alternative but to say who we were. The English-speaking German told the other two who we were, and turned to the three of us saying “If you had got just one more kilometre through those trees, you would have been home for Christmas”.
It was 13 December 1943. Disheartened, Albert tried to focus on the way to escape again. Unexpectedly, they were brought to a barn, where some 30 former PoWs, escapees like them, were held. In the commonality of their failed escape experience, they started sharing stories:
The sun was shining through the cracks in the walls and here I was locked in this barn with my fellow men, who, thank goodness, were looking on the bright side and planning to escape if at all possible. We knew our troops were not far off and we were hoping perhaps they might be about to advance on us and prevent us being shipped off to Germany.
A few hours later, the Germans ordered them to unload some enormous grenades from some lorries. Albert and others protested, saying it violated the Geneva conventions, but they received only threats in response. Later a new order arrived, agreeing with their complaints, and they were moved to a new task: unloading food parcels. However, they realised that their previous task was being carried out by Italian PoWs, who were treated much worse by the Germans.
On the same day, they were transferred a few kilometres north to a private house near the village of Opi (L’Aquila), where they were locked inside a small room.
Up until now, we had been living on hope, but now we were beginning to feel rather down, physically and mentally. The colour sergeant [Davies] who had joined us on our walk from Monteflavio had been whisked away from our group. I was still with my Geordie friend from the days in Rome Hospital and Camp 54. This life behind the wire was going to be a bit difficult after three months of freedom. It was a year and a half since I was first taken prisoner in the desert.
Albert was transferred to Frosinone, in a military barracks used to hold recaptured PoWs. The building was crumbling, and the food was scarce. He volunteered to do some digging work, hoping he could find a way to escape. A few days later, RAF planes bombed a section of the barracks, damaging them seriously. This attack raised the PoWs’ morale; however, they were transferred again in the following days.
One morning about two hundred of us were gathered together and taken by road to a place we thought we would never see again. It was the old Camp 54 where we had escaped from three months earlier. It was now derelict; the marquees falling down and mud everywhere (but yes, you’ve guessed it, the wire had been put back up at the lower end of the compound from where we had taken our leave of the place). The beds had all gone, which left us the dirt floors to lie on.
After two days in the camp, they were transferred again, this time near to Rieti, where Albert was finally separated from his Geordie companion with whom he had shared the last nine months. For Albert, this period was particularly harsh.
In the following days, his journey to Germany began. Albert tried to escape from the train coach in which he had been loaded with other PoWs, crammed together without food or water. However, he was not successful. On 22 December 1943, he crossed the Brennero and eventually reached Stalag 4B, Mühlberg.
Within a few minutes, we were sent back into the truck and the doors closed and locked again. The train moved off and travelled for about half an hour. Finally, it stopped in what could have been a field. Whatever it was, it was covered in snow. We discovered this when the doors were opened and the yelling started by the guards (we were getting used to this now). ‘Raus, raus!’.
Albert was freed in April 1945 by the American forces and finally repatriated.
Imperial War Museum London, Private Paper of Albert Edward G. Clapson <https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1030001711>
Albert Edward G. Clapson, memoria privata, [s.d.,] Monte San Martino Trust Archive: <https://archives.msmtrust.org.uk/pow-index/clapson-a-e-g/>