Thomas Daniel «Dan» Knox, VI Earl of Ranfurly
Thomas Daniel «Dan» Knox, VI Earl of Ranfurly, was captured on 6 April 1941 between Derna and Mechili, in Cyrenaica, while he was with General Philip Neame as his aide-de-camp. Initially, the prisoners were kept for three days in a hollow by the Germans, then moved to Derna and handed to the Italians.
When the Generals’ identities were discovered, they were told that they would be flown to Europe at once. That night we plotted to take the plane over in mid-air. General O’Connor would take an airman as ADC [Aide de Camp] and General Neame would take me. We reckoned that if the whole party went in one plane, there would not be room for more than four guards and that once we had disposed of them, we could force the pilot to hand over the controls. […] We had one revolver which was strapped to a very private part of General O’Connor’s anatomy. My job was to knock out one of the guards. […] When the dawn came, an Italian officer told us that only the Generals would go by air. Our plan had failed.
While the generals were flown to Italy, the rest of the PoWs were loaded on some lorries and brought to Benghazi, where they spent a week in «appalling conditions»: they received very little food and practically no water. «The Italians treated us abominably; they even stole things off the prisoners. I reported this and was sent to the orderly room. The Camp Commandant gave the thieves six months and me two packets of cigarettes; he delivered the sentence lying in bed.». The prisoners finally reached Tripoli, where they were loaded on a ship to Naples; «much to our surprise, we were given first-class cabins and good food and were allowed on deck for exercise». In Italy, Dan was initially assigned to PG 78 Sulmona, where he lived «the bloodiest month I ever spent». Later, he was transferred to PG 12 Vincigliata (Florence), where he was reunited with General Neame in October 1941. He quickly got used to life in the camp, managing the cleaning schedule and the distribution of the Red Cross parcels.
On the evening of 8 September, while Dan and other PoWs were playing bridge, they were informed of the Italian Armistice by the camp’s commander. While the commander was hesitant about what to do and wanted to wait for orders to arrive from Florence, the PoWs organised themselves: «we had fetched money from our secret hiding places and collected all the stores and civilian clothes we could muster». Tension quickly rose, and the prisoners managed to wrestle a concession from the commander: the gates were barred, and a ladder was placed on the back wall of the camp to allow the PoWs to escape if the Germans arrived.
On 10 September, General Chiappe sent two lorries from Florence to move the officers to the city. «As we came into Florence, people crowded the streets and cheered us. Perhaps they thought we were the vanguard of the British Army». Chiappe informed them that he had orders to protect them and defend the city.
As he had no troops, arms or ammunition, and there were two German columns within half an hour of the city, the only thing he could do was to send us south by train. […] We drove to the station, dumped our kit on the platform and began to change into our civilian clothes. The Italians on the station thought this was a great joke. […] Cigarettes and chocolates were bartered for caps and coats.
Their first stop was Arezzo, where the Italian commander did not know what to do: «After an hour or more of useless argument, an officer rushed into the room and said that the Prefect of Fascist Police was outside. The Commandant nearly died of fright. Before any of us could do anything, the Prefect came in. He said he knew who we were. There was an uncomfortable silence, and then he said he had come to help us». The prisoners hid until dusk and then were brought with some lorries to a nearby monastery in Camaldoli (Arezzo), where the Benedictine monks welcomed them. Soon enough, the escapees understood that the Allied advance had been stopped and decided to go further into the Apennines to avoid being recaptured.
On 14 September, Dan and other prisoners, guided by a monk, Don Leona, «who had a flowing beard and twinkling eyes and carried in his haversack a flask of the strongest wine», marched towards the Emilia-Romagna region. The food was scarce, and the group was soon forced to split. Dan and General Neame stopped in the village of «Segatina» (Seghetina) (Arezzo), where the population lived in complete poverty, housed by the Rossi family. However, the Germans soon started patrolling the area and seeing that the population was terrified, Dan and the PoWs left the village and moved into the woods, where they built a hut. Finally, when a German patrol arrived in the village on 29 September, they decided to move away. The group reached Rio Salso (Cesena), where they got some news: a plan to evacuate the generals by the sea was ready. Neame, O’Connor and Boyd, therefore, left Dan and the other officers in the village and moved on.
Dan lived in Rio Salso for about four months, often in the barn of Nereo Bertazzoni or in his neighbour’s house.
The Bertazzoni family were wonderfully kind to me. They always fed me. When food was short, Theresa gave me a double helping because she said I was twice as large as they. Often there was nothing to eat. On one occasion, she killed the cat which we ate with considerable pleasure. Its skin was sold for one hundred lire. […] My life became bound up in the pattern of the village. […] Imperceptibly, we found ourselves in the grip of winter. Snow came and it was no longer possible to cross the mountain passes. We settled down to wait for the spring. Time seemed to stand still.
The local partisan band, however, alarmed the Germans, who decided to send some troops to eradicate it. «Someone warned the Partisans to clear out of the district, but no one warned us». On the night of 29 January 1944, Dan was awakened by surprise: his host’s kitchen, on the lower floor, was filled with Germans. He tried to escape, but enemy soldiers were everywhere. Ultimately, he returned to bed «where my tallness would be less noticed». Thanks to the courage and cold blood of the woman who housed him and her three daughters, Dan avoided being captured. The next day, with Rudolph Vaughan, he filled his pockets with bread and climbed a cliff over the village. The Germans combed through the houses for the rest of the day, but their results were scarce: They managed to capture only two PoWs before leaving. At night, Dan and Rudolph returned to Rio Salso.
Only in March was the weather good enough to allow the escapees to resume their journey. Dan assembled a group with his fellow former PoWs, Rudolph, John Combe, Ted Todhunter, Guy Ruggles-Brise and two other former PoWs who lived with the partisans, the Irish John Kerin and the American Jack Reiter. As soon as they left, a snowstorm forced them to stop in Santa Sofia (Cesena) for about one week. They left again on 12 March. The group had an appointment with some Italian agents on 18 March, but the distance they had to cover seemed too much. They thus decided to split: «into a fit party and an unfit party, hoping that the former would be able to contact the agents and get them to wait for the others. I went with the unfit party». The journey was terrible: the terrain was harsh and covered in snow. However, in the end, «on the eighteenth, we arrived at the rendezvous two hours before the fit ones».
However, this was not the end: they had to march for other 32 miles to a second rendezvous point. They reached it two days later. Here, they found a lorry waiting for them, which brought them through the Tenna Valley. «Passing through villages, we felt painfully obvious to the people who hung out of upper windows. However, no comments were made: the Italian people had become used to the underground business long ago». The plan was to meet on a beach with a torpedo boat, which would bring the escapees to the south. During the following six weeks, Dan and his companions made «eight or nine rendezvous on the beach».
Sometimes we heard the powerful engines of an MTB [Motor Torpedo Boat], but they never seemed to see our signals. Sometimes when we least wanted illuminating the RAF [Royal Air Force] dropped flares by the Tenna bridge, which seemed to be one of their particular objectives at that time. We whistled the German song ‘Lili Marlene’ to recognise each other in the dark. Each time we were disappointed and had to make the whole risky journey back again.
During that period, the escapees contacted Roger Cagnazzo, «a Jew, and one of the most gallant men I ever met». Cagnazzo had previously helped with Neame’s escape and now wanted to do the same for Dan and the other PoWs. The group decided to get a boat by any means. This was not a difficult task, as fishing in the area was impossible because of the war, and many boats were simply abandoned on the beach.
We moved down to a house by the Tenna bridge where lived the old Count and Countess of Salvadore. The Countess had already spent two years in a concentration camp for her pro-Allied sympathies but, nothing daunted, she had us all to stay while we were getting the boat ready.
On the night of 10 May, the group enacted their plan:
We put the mast in place and the rudder. But when we came to move the boat it would not budge. For half an hour, we sweated and pulled and pushed. Gradually the moon began to rise. Slowly inch by inch, we managed to shift it. Finally, we got it into the sea. It floated. We got the sails up and were caught before a stiff breeze, but then we discovered the boat was as waterproof as a sieve. […] We began to bale. The wind freshened and blew hard. Everyone began to be sick. Water crept up above our ankles. We worked like demons to bale it out. Then the mast broke and went over the side. After half an hour of sweating and cursing, we hauled it back.
At dawn, the wind died, and the escapees started to row. From the position of the mountains, now visible, they realised they were precisely on the front line. Finally, they were rescued by some fishing boats, which towed them to Ortona. Dan was at last free after three years in Italy.
- MSMT: https://archives.msmtrust.org.uk/pow-index-2/ranfurly-dan-6th-earl/
- Sir Carton De Wiart, Happy Odyssey, Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1950 (reprinted by Pen & Sword Books, 2007).