Bill Garton

Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry

Bill enlisted in the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry when he was only 18 and was sent to Palestine. On 19 May 1941, an enemy bombing raid hit the ship he was travelling on, roughly 11 miles west of Crete and east of Scarpanto. While the ship sank, Bill grabbed a mess hall plank to float. He spent five hours in the water and was finally rescued, exhausted. He woke up in a hospital bed and discovered that his rescuers were Italians and that he was now a PoW.

He was shipped on a former cruise ship to Bari on 22 June and then transferred to PG 66 Capua by train. On 12 July, he was transferred to PG 118 Prato all’Isarco, a few km from Bolzano. The weather in the area was very harsh and, before the winter, the PoWs were transferred once more, along the  eastern coast, to PG 78 Sulmona. Bill was assigned hut 64, which would be his home for a while.

Sulmona camp’s map, drawn by Bill.
Source: Bill Garton, resoconto, MSMT

On 8 September 1943, Bill was playing football with other PoWs when some Italians gathered near the camp’s barbed wire and shouted to them about the Armistice. The next day, the Senior British Officer ordered the PoWs to stay inside the camp, waiting for more news. If the Germans were to come close, the trumpeter would play a note three times to alert the PoWs, and they would escape.

This happened on the evening of 12 September: right after hearing the trumpet, Bill left the camp with some comrades, heading to the nearby mountains where they spent the night. When they realised that the Germans did not occupy the camp but merely passed near it, he decided to go back to organise the journey better and gather some provisions.

September 14th: We had slept outside and awoke to a fine sunny morning. To our dismay Corporal Stapley, standing near, said, “… you are now POWs again, the Germans have taken over”. Needless to say, we were washed and dressed at the double and, with three colleagues, wandered into the next compound. We walked between the top two rows of huts, and before we had got very far, a German patrol with Tommy guns came towards them. […]  We retraced our steps, and as we stepped into the open space to approach our hut, all hell broke loose. We understood later that the firing was not taking place inside the camp, but up the mountains and that underneath the barrage, German infantry were rounding up escapees. Over 70% were forced to return. We were now German prisoners of war.

Starting from 24 September until 3 October, the Germans deported the PoWs to Germany. Bill was loaded on the same wagon as his friends Denis and Cathray, and they decided to try to escape by forcing the compartment’s door: «we had to be home by Christmas!»

When the train slowed, the three men climbed down from about 1.5 metres and glided on the tracks. They did not know where they were, but they approached a nearby two-rooms hovel, where they hoped to stay for the night. They soon realised that there were already some people inside. Luckily they were two young Italians on the run from the Germans, and they all slept on the ground floor, on some straw.

The next morning, they discovered they were on the outskirts of Celano (L’Aquila). During the afternoon, a man asked the three escapees to follow him. They still wore their uniforms but followed him on the hill towards the village. Here, they were welcomed in the house of Domenico Ranieri, a wool clothes manufacturer who lived there with his wife, two daughters, and four sons. They spent about 10 days as their guests.

A drawing of the house where Bill and his companions hide immediately after escaping from the train.
Fonte: Bill Garton, resoconto, MSMT

I was most anxious to be off, but we were well fed, had good sleeping accommodation and in due course Sig. Ranieri provided us with civilian clothing. Our army kit was buried one night behind a wall. I had a suit and cape and, because of my fair hair, a cap. Denis and Cathray were dark-haired.

A few days later, however, two Germans visited the house looking for wool, and this convinced the escapees to leave. The area was not safe any more, and they feared that the Ranieris could be in danger.

On 14 October, they resumed their journey after heartily thanking their benefactors. They went west, beyond the mountains, and then south, towards the western plains. They visited Trasacco (L’Aquila) and the Collolengo (L’Aquila). Bill soon realised that, although he was dressed as a farmer, his fair hair (bleached by the sun) and blue eyes gave him away as a foreigner.

Even though they did not know it, they were following the ancient transhumance way. This path originated from two other paths, starting in L’Aquila and north of Sulmona, which merged in Celano and then, passing through Pascasseroli and Opi, crossing the Sangro river, and reaching Piedimonte d’Alife (Caserta), allowed the shepherds to head south-east towards Foggia or south-west towards Naples. During their journey, they ran into Jack, another escapee from a camp north of Sulmona who joined them.

They soon reached Villvallelonga (L’Aquila), where they asked a local family for a place to stay. The family was from Rome. However, they received a cold welcome for the first time and were not offered food or drinks. Thus, the four quickly departed. In the distance, on the hill, they could see a German detachment guarding an artillery piece.

During the following days, now down to three members, the group reached Pescasseroli (L’Aquila) and  Opi (L’Aquila), a village atop a mountain «which looked like an upside-down ice-cream cone». German vehicles went up and down the main street, and the three escapees decided to climb the side of the mountain. When they arrived in the village, since Bill’s appearance was deemed too «English», Denis and Cathray went in first. They were welcomed for the night in the barber’s basement, whose shop was in the village’s square. 

Their journey towards Molise continued as they coasted the left bank of the Volturno river and stopped in Macchia d’Isernia. They then reached Sant’Agapito (Isernia). At dusk, they approached a farm, where they were welcomed to stay for the night.

On the morning of 22 October 1943, an old lady riding a donkey guided them towards the mountains so that they could meet a local shepherd who knew the area and could bring them to the Allies. With their guide, they skirted mount Miletto and, at mid-afternoon, were in the south of the valley. They were about to get on the street to Piedimonte d’Alife when the shepherd warned them it was mined. So they proceeded with great caution until they stumbled across a hotel.

Here, they met an elegant man wearing a blue blazer with brass buttons and shiny shoes. He introduced himself as an English and the owner of the hotel. Moreover, he claimed he knew how to contact the Americans and offered to be their guide.

What relief when we eventually arrived at the American Regiment’s Battalion headquarters. It was by now dark. We were briefly interrogated and escorted to a large tent occupied by many American soldiers. Everyone was friendly and asked questions – from where, how long, etc. etc. Bill, ever grateful to the shepherd, enquired from the Americans to what extent he would be reimbursed. He was told that anyone assisting ex-POWs through the lines would get money, a figure in dollars was mentioned for each soldier. The amount meant nothing to Bill, but he created a laugh when he said “Are we worth that much?”

The following day, they left for the Corps’ headquarters in Caserta. Bill volunteered to guide the American troops in the valley and show them the German positions.

On 24 October, they were transferred by jeep to the Britsh headquarters in Naples, passing near Capua and the PoW camp where Bill arrived in June 1941. They were housed in a hospice in Resina (Naples), where they received British battledresses. On 7 November, they boarded an American ship and reached Tunis. On 11 November, they went to Algiers by train. On 28 November, finally, they boarded a ship bound to Liverpool. Bill was home, in Nottingham, on 13 November: right in time for Christmas as he had promised himself when he escaped.

 Over the years, Bill kept in contact with those who had helped him in Celano, especially with the Ranieri family, who had housed him for three weeks. On 8 September 1990, he visited his benefactors with his wife. The Cronaca della Marsica reported:

The emotion is great said the nice Englishman with a moustache. I have met Irvin, Egidio and Tonino Ranieri with their sisters Assunta, Olga and Elda, who at that time were all much younger, and we have had a very emotional intense encounter. Of course, many things have changed, but with a little bit of remembering (memory), I managed to recapture the feeling of those days in 1943, which at the same time were terrible because of the danger of being recaptured, and beautiful because of the awareness that we were being protected by great friends.