Claude Max Vallentin

WO 208/3317/1695

Claude Max Vallentin, Brigadier of the 5th Indian Division, was captured on 5 June 1942 during an Italian counterattack near Bir Harmat (Bir-el Harmat), on the border between Libya and Egypt. He was immediately moved to Italy and spent the first few months at PG 35, Padula, before being transferred, on 4 September 1942, to Villa Orsini, an officer camp that was part of PG 78, Sulmona. The villa held a dozen generals and their adjutants, and conditions were generally better than in the nearby camp. Vallentin spent one year in captivity in the villa until the Armistice between Italy and the Allies on 8 September 1943.

On 11 September, when a few German transports were sighted on the road leading to the villa, the prisoners split into groups of five and dispersed in the countryside, thanks to the collaboration of the Italian guards who cut some openings in the fence surrounding the villa.

Leaders of parties arranged to meet General Klopper at an agreed rendezvous to collect news, Klopper keeping in touch with the Italians. The others in my group were: Brigadier Stephen Williams; Brigadier A. Anderson; L/Cpl. Snailum (my batman); L/Bdr. Hay.

The next day, the Germans occupied PG 78 and Vallentin and his companions decided to hide in the mountains; they were still «based on Sulmona area for water and food». During the following days, however, since the German presence in the area increased, they moved south to the Pettorano area, where farmers provided them with food. They managed to stay hidden, changing their hideout periodically until 23 October.

At this point, they decided their group was too large to continue escaping together and split «quite amicably» into two parties: Williams, Hay, and Anderson elected to stay in the area, while Vallentin and Snailum headed south with an Italian guide.

We had let our beards and hair grow and wore very old clothes. We had a story arranged that we were charcoal burners from Pescara and that my son (Snailum) was stone-deaf.

The next day, they visited the village of Opi, where they slept in a shepherd’s hut. On 25 October, they were in San Donato, and the following day, they were near Settefrati. Here, they were stopped by a German NCO in charge of a pack train who asked for their documents:

I told him in my best Italian that we had no papers and trotted the charcoal-burner story. He opened my coat. I had a British water bottle, which he fortunately did not recognize, merely asking if it contained coffee. When I said, “Water only”, he turned away. A few minutes later, I caught his eye, gave a timid Fascist salute, and said, “Good evening”. He waved us off impatiently, and we walked slowly away. I had instructed Snailum to look like a half-wit, and he acted the part admirably.

They were thus able to continue but were immediately faced with another obstacle. Vallentin’s feet were in bad condition (he was almost 50 years old), and the group was forced to stop for about ten days in a small farm East of Picinisco, where the local farmers sheltered them. On 6 November, they resumed their journey, getting closer to the frontline, and reached the village of Acquafondata. The next day, near Viticuso, they ran into more escaped PoWs. The group included, among others, Brigadiers Reid and Thompson. They told Vallentin and Snailum they wanted to cross the frontline the following day. As they wandered through the area on 11 November, the group ran into an Italian, who led them to a «well-concealed hut» where they remained for the following month, until 9 December 1944, hoping the Allied advance would overrun them.

However, this did not happen and, on 9 December, led by a new Italian guide, Vallentin and Snailum resumed their march southwards. On 10 December, they were again near Viticuso, but they were forced to retrace their steps as the area was teeming with Germans. They were even stopped by an enemy patrol:

[…] We said we were refugees from Venafro [and] that my house had been destroyed by bombings, my wife killed, while my son (Snailum) had been turned deaf by the bombings. We all burst into tears at the end of the story and the German NCO let us go.

Finally, during the night of 11 December, the three managed to cross the frontline, reaching an advanced outpost of the American 157° infantry regiment near Possilli. After one year and four months in Italy, Vallentin could return to the United Kingdom.

Camps related to this story


TNA WO 208/3317/1695 Brigadier C M Vallentin, MC (service number 3158). Service: Army. Escaped from Villa Orsini, attached to Campo 78, Sulmona; rejoined British Forces in Italy.