David Neil

WO 208/3325/59

Lance Sergeant David Neil, a Scot from Alloa, a small village near Edinburgh, was captured with his whole unit in Sidi Rezegh (Libya) during the first phases of Operation Crusader on 23 November 1941. After roughly three weeks in Benghazi, he was transferred to Italy, at first to Brindisi, where he remained for two weeks, and then to PG 59, Servigliano, where he arrived on 31 December 1941.

Quickly, Neil joined a group of PoWs planning their escape from the camp. In total, they were thirteen, and they managed to dig three different tunnels during the summer of 1942. Unfortunately, all three were discovered by the Italian guards.

We then made a fourth tunnel from under the concrete floor of the barrack hut in which a number of us were sleeping. This tunnel took 15 days to dig. Our only tools were pieces of iron, and the earth was removed in Red Cross boxes and disposed of in a lavatory. We all got out one night in Aug[ust] or Sep[tember] ’42 through this tunnel, which came up underneath the parcels room outside the camp and not too far from a sentry box.


Once out of the tunnel, the prisoners split, and Neil continued his escape with Sergeant Powell. The two reached Santa Vittoria in Materano, a few kilometres south of PG 59, and there they were stopped by an English-speaking Italian.

Powell, who spoke German, maintained we were Germans, and the man allowed us to go. Just afterwards, however, we were stopped by Fascists in a motor car and were taken back to the camp at Servigliano.
We served a sentence of ten days in the cells and, after that, 15 days [of] “open arrest”, during which we had to sleep in the cell at night. All the escape [parties] were recaptured. On man, Cpl. Park, RASC, took ill in the cell and died a few days later in hospital.

Probably because he was considered troublesome, Neil was moved to PG 53, Macerata, in September 1942. He spent one year there until the Armistice of 8 September 1943 between Italy and the Allies.

Between 15 and 16 September, Neil and hundreds of other PoWs escaped from the camp, as they had heard that the Germans were going to occupy it. Together with Grenadier Edward Welsh and the drivers John Walker and John Woodhouse, Neil reached the village of Mogliano, where a farmer took them to his house, where they remained until 10 December. The whole village helped feed them, and it is clear that they were not the only escaped PoWs in the area who were aided by the locals. On 10 December, Sergeant Ford, another escaped PoWs, was killed by a Fascist, who also wounded a soldier who was with Ford. The latter, however, was hidden away by the village population.

Fearing they might run into a similar situation, Neil and his companions decided to split and leave the village. Neil and Welsh went to  nearby Macina.

We found shelter with a farmer. At 03:00 hrs on 1 January ’44, a party of Fascists from Corridonia raided the house. Welsh and I were taken with our host and his brother to the prison in Macerata. He and I were wearing only singlets and old trousers, and the weather was bitterly cold.
In Macerata, Welsh and I were taken straight to Campo 53 and handed over to the German Commandant, who demanded of the Fascists why we had no clothes.

Neil ended up in the camp’s hospital with 30 other prisoners who had been recaptured in the previous days. His captivity, however, did not last long.

On the first night, we made a hole in the brick wall of the ward. I got out through the hole that night (1-2 Jan[uary] with a Scots soldier […] but had to return because a German patrol came round.
On our seventh night in the ward (8 Jan[uary]), the German Sergeant-Major in charge of us came round and announced that if we were there tomorrow, we would be sent to Milan. We took this as an invitation to escape. Accompanied by the […] [Scottish] soldier and a Rifleman, I got out through the hole in the wall, which had meanwhile been hidden by a bed. It was a bright moonlight night, and our footsteps must have been audible on the frozen snow; but the German sentries paid no attention. […]
As we got out, my companions and I were joined by another man. We went through three compounds and out of the camp through a gate in the football field, which was standing open.

Neil guided the escapees to Mogliano, to the farmer who had taken him in at the beginning of his escape. One hour later, they were joined by other escapees, two Americans and one British. The three told Neil that Welsh had managed to escape as well. That night, the group, far too large to go unnoticed, decided to split up. The latter three went to an unknown location, while Neil’s companions went to Ascoli Piceno, where they knew an Italian who had sheltered them prev iously. Neil, instead, decided to stay in Mogliano.

The next day, Neil met with two old friends: Walker and Woodhouse, who had returned to Mogliano and managed to evade recapture until that moment. Together, the three started looking for Welsh, who turned out to be right there in the village.

He and I went to stay with our original helper in Mogliano but had to leave after three or four days because of Fascist searches. We went to live in an old house, reputed to be haunted and therefore uninhabited, near Francavilla. Local people supplied us with food and money and had our boots repaired for us. After the Fascist search had died down, we went to live in different houses in the district.

Neil and Welsh lived with the Italian population for the following six months. On 22 June 1944, while he was in Macina, Neil learned that Polish troops of the Eight Army were in the nearby village of San Giusto. Immediately, he went there and reported to an officer. He was transferred first to Naples and then to Salerno.

However, Neil made one last “escape”, this time from his superior officers.

From Salerno, I returned without permission to Macina to marry the daughter of the family with whom I had been staying. In Macina, I med Major Lefroy, an officer of “A” force. I explained my position to him, and he employed me for 29 days at Pedaso [near Fermo]. I then returned to Salerno and was there, except [for] a short period during which I was allowed to fetch my wife from Macina, till 16 Nov[ember].

On 2 December 1943, Neil was finally back in Scotland, in Glasgow, after almost two years in Italy. During both his escapes, the local population played a pivotal role. His marriage to a local girl testifies how strong those ties might be, even in such unlikely circumstances.

Camps related to this story


TNA WO 208/3325/59, Neil, D. Prisoners of War Section. Escape/Evasion Reports: Code MI9/SPG: 2803.