Ben Ellis, a South African from Johannesburg, was captured on 20 June 1942 in Tobruk, as the Axis forces conquered the city. His journey from there is not entirely clear, but he was certainly transferred to Benghazi, where he was in July 1942, and later to Italy, to PG 82 Laterina. Conditions in this camp were not good; Bill and his comrades had to endure cold, hunger, and parasites. Finally, on 20 February 1943, he was transferred to PG 120 Chiesanuova (Padua), at the work detachment of Saonara (Padua).
We bid farewell to Laterina, that hell hole of misery, bitterness, hunger and wretched conditions for our new quarters – a working camp in North Italy. Our party consisted of 120 South Africans, thin, under-nourished, and many like myself covered in boils and ‘desert’ sores, but in high spirits at the prospect of getting away from this pest hole, where over 3,000 men were penned into an area 250 yards by 175 yards.
Chiesanuova camp today
The prospect of a new accommodation raised their morale. Still, the PoWs had very low expectations: «Bob and I spent much time joking about the luxuries we expected to find in our new camp, such as bungalows, electric light, sheets etc.» However, they were pleasantly surprised:
Sure enough, when we arrived, we found our quarters were in a large brick barn with electric light and sheets on our bunks. I don’t think the boys could believe their eyes at first, but it was not long before we were congratulating ourselves on our good fortune. We had no sooner settled down when we were called to stodge, which consisted of a huge basin of macaroni soup, three times the size of the Laterina ration, two loaves of bread and a piece of cheese. It certainly looked as if we had landed right in clover.
The PoWs were supposed to work in a local estate owned by the Sgaravatti brothers. However, this was not particularly hard, and they quickly regained their strength. The relations with the Italians were good as well. Both with Luigi Sgaravatti, nicknamed «Blinky» because of his habit of rapidly blinking his eyes, and with the doctor who visited them regularly and provided them with news from the BBC. But especially with their foreman, Toni. Often, with a bit of trickery and some help from Toni, the PoWs avoided working completely, putting some effort into their job only when they knew «Blinky» would come for an inspection «so as not to let Toni down. I think Toni used to smell Blinky, as he always gave us the tip a few minutes before the boss came jogging along in his buggy. Needless to say, Blinky thought Toni the best foreman as he always found us working with him.»
The news of the Armistice arrived while Bill and his fellow PoWs were playing football after dinner and caused great excitement. The prisoners danced with the guards, «[the] guards [were] more excited than we were». The following day was spent waiting, but on 10 September, the PoWs decided to leave the camp to avoid being captured by the Germans, who had occupied Padua. Bill, together with Chick (Geoff Sole), Jack Smith, and 10 other companions decided to head for Venice. «The [Italian] kids nearly drove us crazy as they would attach themselves to us, and we could not shake them off. We looked like a travelling circus come to town.» Luckily, the group ran into a disbanded soldier who became their guide and brought them to the village of Lova, on the Venetian lagoon. The PoWs and the Italians were convinced erroneously that the Royal Navy was near Venice, and two Italians offered the escapees to bring them to the city by boat. Meanwhile, more and more PoWs arrived in the small stilt lodge they used as a refuge: « [our] position became impossible as sixty to eighty men congregated there». Luckily, many decided to leave. Bill, Jack, and Chick discussed their situation. Bill wanted to go south, but, in the end, they decided to stay where they were for a while. Their hosts were two girls, Maria Ivanchich e Emily. Both could speak English: «[it was] grand to speak to someone in our own language».
In the following days, more escaped PoWs came and went, and the group’s food supplies started to dwindle. Bill met the landlord, an antifascist Jew, who offered to arrange their journey to Chioggia (Venice) but could not find any boatman to accept the risk. The situation became more critical every day, as it was clear that the Germans were occupying the country and that the Allies were very far from Venice. On 17 September, Bill and his comrades left their hideout and cycled south after one last grand dinner prepared by Emily and Maria. On their journey, the population helped them, both the poor farmers and the wealthy landowners. Thanks to this help, crossing the Po valley was easy, despite the strict German surveillance and the presence of many canals. The group headed towards the Po’s mouth, trying to keep close to the coast.
Eventually, [we] neared the Po and found [a] large house – wanted hot water for a cup of tea. [We were] Invited in by two very pleasant girls – house beautifully furnished – radiogram. [We] Sat back in easy chairs and listened to [the] news. [They] Made tea, gave us fruit and ransacked [the] house for smokes for us. [We] Began to get suspicious when [the] girls started talking about Germans and how much they admired them. [We] Noticed [the] house was full of German books. [We] Made [a] polite departure and [were] on our way as quickly as possible.
The Germans, probably alerted by the girls, were near, but failed to capture the escapees. Bill and his companions ran into a group of disbanded Italian soldiers rowing on a boat, trying to return to their homes. The soldiers gleefully accepted to help them cross the river and even provided them with a map. This way, during the night, the escapees reached the other bank of the Po on 21 September. The next day, Bill and his comrades headed to Porto Garibaldi (Ferrara) even though the Italians had warned them that the area was teeming with spies. However, the local Italians were well organised, they had probably helped other PoWs before, and the group was able to traverse the village without raising suspicions. Following the coast, the three reached Porto Corsini (Ravenna) and then coasted around Rimini, heading towards the mountains this time. On 26 September, after two weeks of marching, Bill began to feel tired. The group continued to avoid enemy patrols thanks to the help of the population, but the terrain became harsher. They decided to try and reach the republic of San Marino « [we] can see it on a mountain top. Thought a lot of Mom today [27 September] – her birthday!»
In the following days, the group began to climb the mountain, housed and fed by the Italian farmers, even if many were scared. However, the Nazi-Fascists kept the area under strict surveillance. The three were almost captured three times on 29 September and soon decided to give up trying to reach San Marino. They turned southwards, hoping to cross the frontline and enter Allied-controlled territory. However, the terrain made their march difficult:
This mountain climbing certainly makes a man hungry. And what mountains! Up and down all the time. Found harbour in a house on the top of a very high mountain. Prepared supper especially for us – pasta ciuta [sic] with plenty of tomato puree. A large dish which the three of us could not finish […]. It is the amount of wine one is expected to drink which gets us. […] Had good sleep – dead tired these days.
Along the way, the escapees met more friendly farmers, the odd carabinieri patrol, and even a group of escaped Yugoslavian PoWs. They never stopped marching: «these days it is just mountain after mountain». However, on 4 October, Chick started feeling feeble; soon enough, his companions realised he had contracted malaria. The group reached Pergola (Pesaro e Urbino) on the following day, where they were sheltered in a big house and «for the first time had supper in [a] separate dining room». They slowly resumed their journey. On 7 October, they found refuge at a farm owned by the Domenica family, who housed them for a while and allowed them to rest for Chick to regain strength.
[The head of the family] Possessor of a great walrus moustache and pair of always twinkling eyes. [A] friend visited [the] family and told us Pescara was in our hands – pray he is right. [I] Have not listened to a wireless [message] for days – no idea how advance is going or how long before we will be free. [It is] All very nerve racking and tiring.
The family fed them polenta and managed, through an acquaintance, to find some quinine for Chick. Meanwhile, the ex-PoWs were shaved. It was only on 10 October that Chick’s fever finally passed, but it was raining, so they decided it was not a good idea to leave the house. In the end, the three resumed their march only on 13 October, leaving the Domenicas: «[the] family wanted us to stay – all in tears. Got a surprise when the old boy kissed me on both cheeks. Chick and Jack made a round kissing the daughters».
On 16 October, the group was near Sarnano (Macerata), and they knew they were approaching the front line. They learned about a group of paratroopers who had landed in the area, a piece of news confirmed by many Italians, and finally managed to find them in a village the next day.
[It was] Most encouraging to see these lads wandering around as they pleased behind Jerry’s lines. It worried us a bit also as we thought Jerry would send troops into the mountains to round them up. They told us the scheme was over and they were in the same predicament as we were – making for their own lines.
The three left the paratroopers (they were «travelling very leisurely»), who provided them with some food and instructions to reach Pescara once the Allies arrived in the city. However, the terrain became harsher and harsher: «the mountains appear to be getting worse instead of better». They were exhausted, and Chick’s fever returned. Despite this, the group continued its journey, always helped by the Italians, even if, as Bill noted, the area was very poor, to the point that: «it would be difficult for you to realise how poor they all are». The group reached the Gran Sasso massif, but they were advised by an Italian not to climb it. On 23 October, the three decided to rest in a mountain hut to allow Chick to recover but were discovered by its owner, who brought them to his house and hid them there until 26, when they left.
On 27 October, the group reached a valley «where hundreds of PoWs were hiding». Even though everyone told them that crossing the Pescara river was impossible, they decided to try to reach Allied-controlled territory. They spent the following days in the area until they learned that an operation to evacuate the PoWs by sea was being organised. Bill left the next day, leaving Jack and Chick behind, «[I] hated leaving them but expected to meet them at [the] coast». The three were reunited on 1 November. However, the boat that was supposed to pick them up did not arrive at the beach, and the group was left waiting in the dark. The next day, the situation became even worse: the boat was intercepted and burned by the Germans. «[We were] all feeling very dejected and disappointed». One of the boat’s officers, who managed to avoid being captured, reached the beach and told them the plan had failed and that they were on their own.
While most of the escapees remained in the area, hoping another boat would come, Bill, Jack, and Chick decided to resume their journey once more. That night they were housed by a professor, who told them the Allies were close to Pescara. On 5 November, the group was near Chieti, where they could hear explosions coming from Pescara. Once more, Chick’s fever returned, and they were forced to stop, sheltered by a local family. They were almost at the front line, but the crossing was difficult, as the area was teeming with Germans. On 9 November, Bill and his comrades were near Lanciano (Chieti), and the next day, they were approaching the Sangro river.
Just as it was getting light, [I] saw [an] Iti [Italian] come out of [an] house. [We] Crept up to ask him dispositions of Jerry. Jack asked him. [We] Sensed something unusual was happening as [the] Iti was waving his arms about and smiling. Jack came back with [the] astounding news that [the] British were only about half a mile away on top of [a] rise. We almost ran the rest of the way.
The three were welcomed by British forces. Bill was finally free after 15 months as a PoW and two on the run. «What a day! […] To think after all this time, I AM A FREE MAN AGAIN».