Albert William Benstead
Sapper Albert William Benstead was a carpenter in Cambridgeshire before the war. He was captured, with his company, on 30 May 1942, in the desert between Libya and Egypt. His journey to PG 53 Macerata was long and lasted more than a year. Initially, he spent a few days in a camp near Benghazi; then was transferred to Tripoli. On 3 July 1942, he boarded a ship headed to Brindisi, where he remained for one week. He was transferred to PG 66 Capua, a transit camp where he spent the following two months. On 14 September 1942, he was transferred to PG 87 Benevento and the next month to PG 65 Gravina (Bari), a camp notorious for its terrible living conditions. Albert spent eight months there. In July 1943, the Italian authorities decided to close PG 66, and the PoWs were distributed among other camps. Albert was assigned to PG 53 Macerata, his last camp in Italy.
Albert had never tried to escape, but, after the announcement of the Armistice on 8 September 1943, he decided it was time to do something. «After the Armistice had been declared […] the Italian guards were increased in strength at Campo 53. On the afternoon of 15 Sep, all the guards left the camp». Following the Italians’ example, Albert left the camp from the main gate with three other PoWs: driver Johnson, grenadier Pearson, and private Wills. They headed southeast and reached Monteleone di Fermo (Fermo) on 18 September. They stayed there for a month, most likely protected by the local population. On 20 October, they ran into two paratroopers, corporals Weaver and Brown. They told them to head to a rendezvous point for evacuation via sea, a bridge about 4 kilometres north of the village of Cupra Marittima (Ascoli Piceno).
The group reached the location on 23 October and found roughly 400 PoWs already there. The plan, however, failed: «shortly afterwards a skirmish took place between the Commandos and the German and Fascist troops. We were then ordered to scatter». The four comrades decided to withdraw to Rocca Monte (Ascoli Piceno), where the group split: Johnson and Will headed back to Monteleone (Fermo), while Albert and Pearson were housed by two local families and stopped in the village until the beginning of 1944.
At the beginning of January, Albert and Person met an Italian officer, Captain Fisher, who told them of a new plan to evacuate PoWs via sea. On 7 January, the two left the village, guided by some Italians, and reached the coast, some 15 kilometres west of Pescara. However, this plan also failed: «approx. half an hour after our arrival there we learned that the area was being surrounded by Germans and we scattered». Albert headed north, but this time he was intercepted by an enemy patrol and captured, around midnight on 15 January, in the outskirts of Giulianova (Teramo). However, he did not despair:
I was taken to a guard room. At midnight on 16-17 Jan, I removed the wedges from the window of the room and was able to raise the lower half of the window. I climbed through and avoided the sentry outside. I crawled for some distance through gardens until I met an Italian who told me that a German Brigade was bivouacked in the area. I crawled for several hours and passed a number of German sentries. At 0730 hrs on 17 Jan, I met another Italian who escorted me towards the mountains and gave me directions.
Thanks to their help, Albert reached Rocca Monte again on 21 January, where he was reunited with Pearson, who also had returned to the village: «his feet were in a very bad condition due to forced marching». Fisher contacted them again, but the two had to wait. On 20 March 1944, the Fascists arrived in the area, forcing them to leave their hideout. However, they remained in the village, protected by the local families and frequently changing their hosts.
On 13 May, they received a new message from an Italian who had arrived from Rome and told them to go to Rotella (Ascoli Piceno), where they would be evacuated. Albert, Pearson, and 12 other PoWs reached the village and were housed by the local population. The next day, Albert discovered that the Germans had organised a mop-up, and 12 of his companions, including Pearson, had been captured. Only he and private Rickett were lucky enough to escape, fleeing to Ripatransone (Ascoli Piceno) and hiding in the nearby fields. Even in this precarious hideout, they received the help of the local population, who fed them for a month. Finally, on 19 June 1944, the Allied vanguard entered the village and rescued the two escapees.
After being identified, Albert was sent to Naples, where he had a surprise encounter: Johnson, his companion who had left him at the end of October and went to Rocca Monte. The meeting was saddened, however, by the news that Wills, Johnson’s companion, had been killed months before by the Germans during their escape.
After two years in the country, Albert left Italy on 31 July 1944 on a ship headed to Liverpool.
- TNA, WO 208/3324/75, Benstead, A W. Escape/Evasion Reports: Code MI9/SPG: 2784.