Arthur and his brother Tom, both Australians, were captured on 27 July 1942 near Miteirya (Ruin Ridge, Libya). They were transferred to El Dabaa, Mersa Matruh and reached Benghazi, where they remained for roughly 15 days. From there, «packed like sardines», they were shipped to Puglia, Italy, and transferred to PG 85 Tuturano (Brindisi).
A few days later, they were moved to PG 75 Torre Tresca (Bari), where they ran into some officers of their battalion. The camp was divided into two sections, one for officers and one for the other PoWs, separated by a barbed-wire fence which guards patrolled. In the evening, as Arthur recalled, the PoWs in both sections would play some music: those in one section would listen to the others and vice versa.
Arthur became ill with malaria and was taken to the camp’s infirmary. After his recovery, he was sent with other PoWs to the north, to PG 57 Grupignano (Udine), the main work camp for Australian PoWs. They arrived in Cividale after a few days of travel, and Arthur, with his brother Tom, was housed in hut number three.
In April, he was sent to work in the paddy field in the Po Valley. The group, of about 60 men, was transferred to an area between Milan and Turin by train. Initially, they were housed in the village’s town hall and later in some huts scattered in the area. Once more, at the beginning of August, Arthur suffered from bouts of malaria and was hospitalised for four weeks. He was still in hospital when the Armistice was announced.
That evening just after the last gang had returned from work, one of the guards who had been listening to the news came running back to our area shouting, ‘La Guerra è finita! Armistizio!’ (The war is over! Armistice!) ‘Is that true?’ asked a guard at the gate. ‘Si, è l’armistizio’, was the response. Thereupon the guard raised his rifle, pointed at the sky and emptied the magazine in that direction. Then he flung open the gate and in rushed the guards, shaking hands and behaving very excitedly.
During the following days, the PoWs were kept working. On the third day, the Alpini officer in charge of the camp told them they could choose between staying or being released. The majority of the PoWs choose the second option.
While we were gathering our meagre possessions, most of the guards had packed up and said goodbye. Bruno [the guard who had shown the most sympathy for the PoWs] was the last to come in. He came straight up to me and, pointing to the north, said, ‘Arturo, Svizzera’ (Arthur, Switzerland) and said farewell.
Arthur left with his brother and two other comrades. They decided to stay at a local farm, which offered them shelter and the chance to work, and wait for the Allied troops to arrive, thinking they would not take long. When they learnt about a German proclamation which threatened death for whoever helped escaped PoWs and offered a reward to whoever captured them, they decided to leave. Following their host’s advice, they headed to the Alps to escape into Switzerland.
Near the Oropa sanctuary (Biella), they ran into some partisans who were in the area to assault Germans convoys coming from France. The group was looking for 25 volunteers among PoWs, and Arthur and his comrades joined the band. However, they were soon discharged and told to reach Switzerland, as the partisans were utterly disorganised.
Thus, they resumed their journey in the mountains, reaching Scopello (Vercelli), where they were welcomed in the village’s bar and could listen to the BBC. They were almost at the border when some locals alerted them about a German patrol. They were hidden, by two local guides, together with another group of PoWs, inside a hut, where they spent the night. There were 16 of them, and they were ready to cross the border:
We started early the next morning, and when we reached the crest of the range, one of our guides pointed to a higher range across the valley and said,’ There is Switzerland.’ And for the first time in our safari, it would really have hurt me if we had been picked up by the Germans.
The group reached the village of Macugnana, which was occupied by an enemy patrol. Their guides handed them over to two other guides, who were in charge of the last part of the journey to Mount Mora’s pass. Those who still wore uniforms were dressed in civilian clothes. They were told that 19 PoWs had been captured on that route the day before.
We were aroused about 2 am, and at 2.30 am, we set out on our last climb, and as dawn was breaking, we were walking along a path about five feet wide set in the face of a precipice which seemed to extend over a thousand feet below us and a hell of a long way above us to the top. We came to a spot where the path came to a stop; the rock face extended across the path. The method of overcoming this obstacle was a hole sunk in the face of the rock at shoulder height and one at toe level. The top hole was grasped in the right hand, and the right foot was pushed into the bottom hole. Glancing down, the conifers below seemed about the size of mushrooms in the faint dawn light.
When they reached a less difficult area, they resumed their climb. At the same time, one of their guides used his binoculars to keep an eye on the Germans in Macugnana because, although they were above the village, they were still in range of the enemy’s machine guns. Their guides left them just below the snow line, advising them to avoid the left side of the mountain, as it might be occupied by the Fascists. They ran into many small groups of civilian refugees and soldiers along the way, all heading to Switzerland.
They reached the pass after midday (at 2,740 metres above sea level), after eight hours of marching in the snow: they took a few steps and were finally in Switzerland. It was 2 October 1943, and Arthur remained there, working on a farm, for some time.
He was repatriated with his brother in November 1944, after a stop in Marseille and one in Naples.
- Roger Absalom, A Strange Alliance. Aspects of escape and survival in Italy 1943-45, Firenze, Olschki, 1991 (trad. it., L’alleanza inattesa. Mondo contadino e prigionieri alleati in fuga in Italia 1943-1945, Bologna, Pendagron, 2011).
- Arthur Jobson, memoria privata, [s.d.,] Monte San Martino Trust Archive:https://archives.msmtrust.org.uk/pow-index-2/jobson-arthur/