Charles Napier

V Indian division

Charles Napier, a lieutenant of the 5th Indian Division, was captured with his men on 14 June 1942 by the German 21st Panzer Division, west of El Adm, in Libya. Immediately after his capture, Charles attempted to escape by hiding, with a sergeant, in a trench, hoping the Germans would not notice he was missing. However, the two were recaptured when other German troops arrived in the area. So, on 16 June, Charles’s voyage to Italy began. The Germans took the PoWs to Timimi, where they handed them to the Italians, who transferred them to Benghazi via Derna and Barca. The officers were later loaded onto a plane and flown to Lecce on 21 June. The next day, Charles was transferred to PG 75, a transit camp in Bari, where he remained for a few days. On 4 August 1942, he arrived at PG 21 Chieti. 

Soon, Charles resumed his attempts at escaping. He teamed up with Lt. Broad, Worcestershire Regiment, and was given permission by the camp leader, Col. Knight, and by the leader of the Escape Committee, Col. Cooper.

We planned to escape over the flat roof of a building to the left of the main entrance of the camp. In the inside part of this building was the camp hospital, and in the outside part, the Italian administrative offices. We went into training and collected food for our journey […]. To gain the roof over which we hoped to escape, we had to climb a drain pipe, and this was practised during the winter, wearing gym shoes with socks over them to deaden the sound.

The two made an attempt on 29 March 1943, while a fellow PoW provided some distraction for the guards: «Capt. Blackman dropped a tin on a flight of steps». Broad attempted the climb, but the night was wet, and he slipped, plunging from 25 feet to the ground. Charles, with the help of three other officers, carried him to the cookhouse, where he was treated by the British medical officer in order not to alert the Italians. However, Broad had cut a telephone line during the fall, making the guards suspicious. 

Despite this failure, Charles did not despair and joined a group of PoWs who were digging a tunnel in the outhouse to escape. They were 15 men, led by Captain Hazlehust.

We worked in shifts, each shift under a commander, and, though there was a sentry posted only 30 yds from where we were digging, we made good progress. After getting through 6 ins. of cement and 6 ins. of brick, we dug down 8 ft. and made a chamber big enough for three or four men. At this point, we struck water and […] the tunnel was continued onwards through the foundation wall of the building […]. The tunnel had been continued for about 12 ft. when it was detected by the Italians.

The Italians increased the surveillance, but Charles was relentless and joined another group of “diggers” to escape. This time, the entry point was located in the boiler room:

The lower of two stone steps was removed, and the tunnel was sunk from under the second step and had reached the outer wall by 4 Aug 43 when all the original tunnel party were removed from Chieti. The Italians had a microphone in the “cooler” and may have picked up some information through it.

Charles was thus transferred, on 4 August 1943, to PG 19 Bologna Due Madonne. Here, however, he was reunited with some of the original «tunnelers». Now that they were all seasoned miners, they started working on another tunnel. Since autumn was getting closer (and they planned to escape to Switzerland), they decided to dig directly in the courtyard in order to avoid having to dig through the buildings’ foundations and thus gain some time. However, this attempt was quickly discovered, and they were forced to abandon the tunnel.

Unfazed, Charles found other PoWs who were willing to dig another tunnel. Still, their work was interrupted once again, this time by the proclamation of the Armistice between Italy and the Allies. The Italian guards refused to let the PoWs go, and Charles and his comrades were all captured by the Germans on the next day when they arrived at PG 19.

Blackman, his old accomplice during his very first escape attempt in Italy, suggested they could use the tunnel as a hiding place when the Germans deported the PoWs from the camp.

We used fruit baskets and even wheelbarrows to remove the soil as we went on digging, and the Germans, who did not know the “run” of the camp, did not detect us. […] We put a supply of food and water in the hole. […] We had one other officer with us who had volunteered to replace the platform over the entrance when we should get down into the tunnel. The members of the party were: Capt. Michael Blackman […], Lieut. Richard Patridge […], Lieut. Peter Naimoff […], two other officers, and myself. One of the two officers whose names I do not remember decided, after experienc[ing] [the] conditions when we were all in the tunnel, to withdraw from the scheme.

The main problem was the air supply, provided only by three small holes in the platform placed over the entrance, and camouflaged with a sheet of paper placed over them. Although there was a system in place to lift the paper from the inside, the airflow was scarce.

On 11 September 1943, the PoWs were informed that the Germans would deport them on that day and Charles and his comrades entered their hideout, where they remained until the next day. 

The hole in which we were lying was about 3 ft. deep, 2 ft., 6 ins. wide, and about 12 ft. long. There was just room for the five of us. We were all stripped to the waist. We had our clothes […] and satchels of food with us in the chamber. […] We struck a match only once the water supply was lost. We had tapped the waste-water pipe from the bar and left the taps at the drip. The drops of water brought down a little air and coolness. We were quite happy for about eight hours. After this, the air became very foul, and we were afraid to go to sleep and kept calling to one another in whispers to keep the party awake.

Blackman exited the tunnel around two in the morning to discover that the Germans were still in the camp. «He replaced the platform, and we heard him stomping on it and spreading dust – a precaution we had always taken. I did not see him again». Patridge was the next one to leave, but he also found that the Germans were still inside the camp.

It was getting hotter below, and, as I had a plan for getting over the wall of the camp, I said I was going. I went up with my boots and food satchel in my hand. […] I put down the boots and satchel at the canteen door and got out and around the corner of the building. I could hear the Germans in the cookhouse […].

Crawling, Charles reached a corner of the camp, where a guardhouse was located. However, he was unable to determine whether there was a guard inside or not. He came back and climbed the fence surrounding the canteen, then another one. Finally, he climbed the camp’s wall, about 10 feet tall, and jumped into a ditch. After climbing one last fence, Charles was out of the camp. He was barefoot and found refuge in a small copse to the north of the camp. «There was no alarm and I set off N.E. thought vineyards». He reached the Bologna railway and used the tracks to direct himself towards the coast, heading to the south with the intention of getting to the sea.

I came to a river, which was almost dry, and here had the idea of putting on my socks, sticking my feet into the clay in the river bed, and letting the clay harden. The covering I thus made for my feet enabled me to walk in comparative comfort, as it kept the thorns and stubble from my feet.

Charles marched for many hours and, in the afternoon of 12 September, reached the village of Castel San Pietro (Bologna), where he was sheltered in a villa. The Italians gave him food, 300 lire, and a pair of shoes. Charles left his benefactors on the same evening and headed again towards the railway. He reached Imola, where he managed to jump on a train without a ticket in the general confusion: «most of the time I pretended to be asleep, and sometimes read a newspaper which I had picked up at a station».

The train was stopped and requisitioned by the Germans in Termoli. The passengers, however, were let go without being searched. Charles, hoping to meet the Allied troops on the Adriatic coast, continued his march heading southwest, following the rail tracks. He reached the village of Ripalta on 14 September, where a farmer agreed to bring him to Poggio Imperiale (Foggia) on his mule cart. In Poggio, he «went to a small café and had a meal of maccaroni».

Charles’ plan now changed, perhaps because he was updated on the situation in Italy by the population. He decided to cross the Apennines and reach Naples. He reached San Severo (Foggia) by foot and hitching rides, but the locals told him the area was teeming with Germans, and he was forced to go back, reaching Margherita di Savoia, on the Adriatic coast. However, he was once again compelled to go back, as German soldiers were everywhere. In the end, he found an opening: he reached Andria and, from there, Corato, Ruvo, Bitonto, and, finally, Bari on the evening of 17 September. His escape lasted less than a week.

I had a good deal of help from the Italians, who were friendly once they realised I was not German. I got frequent lifts, and Italians often showed me how to avoid concentrations of Germans. They gave me food without asking for payment.

After a short time in Puglia, Charles was sent to Algiers and then to Marrakech, where he took a plane home. He arrived in the United Kingdom on 12 October 1943, 16 months after his capture in Libya.

  • TNA, WO 208/3315/10, Cross, Charles Napier. Prisoners of War Section. Escape/Evasion Reports: Code MI9/SPG: 1466.