Donald I. Jones
«Fortune favours the bold»
Donald (left) and Geoff in Sulmona, 1943
Donald was captured in Tobruk, Libya, on 21 June 1942, together with his comrade and friend Geoff Dunn. After an initial imprisonment in Benghazi, a subsequent boat crossing to Brindisi, a passage to PG 66 in Capua and «six weeks of suffering in Benevento», in October 1942 he was transferred to the Abruzzo region, at PG 78: «located about five miles from Sulmona, in a small hamlet called Fonte D’Amore [Love’s spring]: a suitable name for a prison camp!».
When General Badoglio announced the surrender, on 8 September 1943, the Senior British Officer gave orders that no one should leave the camp, certain of the imminent arrival of Allied troops. A few days later, however, after the sighting of a German motorcyclist nearby, the decision to evacuate the camp was taken prisoners were recommended to remain compact and did not disperse.
The escape involved more than 2,000 men: Donald took part in it, taking refuge in the woods on the surrounding mountains. But it was a short-lived freedom: the Germans had occupied the camp and were working to recapture the prisoners scattered in the area.
We were back five hours later. There were rumours that Germans had dropped paratroopers on the mountain. Geoff was waiting for me, he had been recaptured on the day of the escape near the camp. We were glad to see each other again, although we thought we would do better next time!
PG 78 in Sulmona
Angry at being behind barbed wire again and annoyed by the general apathy of the other prisoners, Donald, together with Geoff and Sergeant Joe Vickers, decided to participate as volunteer in the patrolling of the surroundings of the camp organised by the Germans in search of escaped prisoners, hoping a good escape opportunity would present itself.
As soon as we were far enough away not to be heard by the rest of the group, we neutralised the guard. While I was grabbing his legs he put up some resistance. The soldier was immobilised with the rope from the Red Cross parcel we had with us. I would like to say that we continued on our way calmly, but the truth is that we ran as fast as we could until we were out of breath. At two o’clock we reached the top of Mount Morrone. Here we finally felt safe.
For a few weeks, Donald and his companions, along with other prisoners who had taken refuge in the area, decided not to leave Mount Morrone, convinced that the Allied troops would reach them soon.
Many Italians visited us. On Sunday our sentry warned us that two people were going up the path carrying something on their heads. We recognized women carrying pots full of “gnocchi”, an Italian dish made with flour and polenta, heavy as lead both to digest and to carry. We found out later that it took five hours to get up from the village, and without carrying weights on heads. We were delighted by the visit of these women, who less than two weeks before were our enemies.
Donald’s path to freedom
A few days later they moved to the small village of Salle, hosted and fed by the locals: the parish priest, Don Oliviero, Mrs. Eramina, very poor and with three malnourished children, who fed and dressed them, Marinello who agreed to act as a guide through the mountains, so that some in the group, impatient to move, could cross the lines. The presence of the fugitives in the village, however, did not go unnoticed. Rumours started to circulate about the presence of some spies: quickly, German patrols reached the village, terrorising the population. Donald and his fellow escapees soon had to get back on the road, taking the mountain route again.
On November 13 it had snowed. We decided to go down the valley, cross the river between Salle Nuova and Salle Vecchia, go past the village of Caramanico and up the mountain on the far side through a path that we could see from the refuge. This mountain was called Maiella and assumed that if we had traveled along the top, towards the south, we would have reached the Allied lines which were said to be approaching the Sangro river, which flowed less than 10 miles from where we were.
Battered by the cold wind, disorientated by the abundant snow, without supplies, hunted down by the Germans, Dan and Geoff decide not to continue and instead to seek hospitality at the «circular stone igloo» of the horse trader Antonio, from the nearby village of Rapino. Antonio was a man of many trades, and his house was a crossroads for escaped prisoners which he provided for and moved around to other accommodations in the area.
It was November 17 when we begin living in the cave that Antonio had pointed out to us. We had been informed that the Allies had reached the Sangro River. We could see the bombing taking place in that direction. We knew little and did not even realise that the German Gustav line, a defensive position set up by the Germans with the help of the Italians, was nearby. Only after the war we discovered that our artillery unit was part of the 8th Army, that was facing the Germans between Orsogna and Guardiagrele. Next day Antonio came to the cave with five other prisoners whom he had agreed to feed. We were happy to be in company.
As the days went by, the stay in the cave became more and more difficult: it was freezing and, as the Germans intensified their presence in the area, even the possibility of receiving food became increasingly scarce. Three of the seven prisoners in the cave decided to leave. Donald and Geoff, debilitated by a foot infection, remained together with Len Smith and Edward Johnson (Swim).
Christmas 1943 was not a happy time for us in the cave. A Christmas meal was not even thinkable, but it was also necessary to find something to eat. So, Len and I set off to try our luck. Christmas in Italy is not celebrated in the same way as in England, but it is a feast nonetheless. Many of the peasants we met, though frightened, offered us many glasses of wine and by three o’clock we had managed to fill our bags with food. Begging for food was not my idea of a good Christmas.
Castelvecchio Calvisio (L’Aquila)
Following another snowfall that flooded the cave, the group decided to move. Len, whose boots worn out, preferred not to leave. Swim said he wanted to head north to Switzerland, where he had some friends. Donald and Geoff joined him. Soon Geoff, crippled by the nasty infection, was forced to abandon his companions and returned to the Germans to be treated. The two friends parted with regret.
Donald and Swim continued together. They headed for the peaks of Gran Sasso. It is the New Year’s Eve of 1943 when they arrive in Castelvecchio Calvisio, a small village located over a thousand meters above the sea. Immediately, the whole community mobilised to help them
I think Saint Anthony had put in a good word for us: it was snowing and with the wind blowing hard it was impossible to continue the journey, so we were delighted when the owner of a stable, Gina, who had six children and a husband who was a prisoner in England, told us that we could stay there until the time cleared up […] Many families competed to bring us food and to invite us to go to their house in the evening […].
One morning a woman came with something to replace my jacket which was literally falling apart, taking mine away to repair it: after ten days we moved into her stable, which was under Gina’s dining room. Her name sounded like “mamouch”, so we called her Mama. She might have been forty-five years old. She reminded me of those witches in Macbeth: she had no teeth and was tall and straight. I have never met a kind person like her and many Pow have reason to be grateful for her assistance.
In those weeks my idea of Italians as a people of slackers vanished when I saw how hard the peasants, and especially women, worked in the countryside. In peacetime, these peasants barely earned a living. They literally scratched the life out of the land. When the children grew up, as there was not enough work for everyone, they had to emigrate.
In the last days of January, the snow started to melt. Donald and Swim thought that it was a good time to continue their journey to Switzerland. Thus, they left Castelvecchio, even though the people in the village tried to convince them to stay.
The plan was to head for the Adriatic coast to avoid the snow. Along the road that connects Penne to Ofena, however, they choose to split up: Donald wanted to travel along less busy routes, fearing that he might be prey to the German patrols passing through the area, while Swim insisted on continuing along the main road, which was more convenient to run across.
They therefore decided to meet up again later, at some houses, and each followed their own route. However, they quickly lost sight of each other, and Swim did not show up at the meeting point. Donald would discover that he had been captured by German truck which was travelling along the road.
I had never before had such an experience: being alone in enemy territory. Being in company always instills a certain courage and also the weather did nothing to lift my mood. A violent wind whipped at my face and it also began to pour down. The alternative was to continue north or to return to Castelvecchio. I realised that I had better find a shelter. I didn’t need a thermometer to know I had a fever, my head ached and soon I had a terrible cough.
After spending twenty days with Benito and Maria Fusco, who provided him with food and care, Donald decided to return to Castelvecchio to Mama and the other families who have already hosted him. The welcome was warm. However, there were rumours of a possible German incursion in Castelvecchio, as a similar occurrence had already happened in the neighboring villages. Donald therefore decided he should leave. It was Mama, once again, who helped him finding a new accommodation. She told him he could hide in a family cottage in the hamlet of Cervano. Donald accepted the offer and followed Mum and her daughter Giovannina into the new accommodation. He was housed in the stable, reamining hidden during the day and coming out only in the evening to join the two women and have dinner with them.
Few weeks of relative tranquility passed. After Easter, however, the wounding of some Germans by an English prisoner who had taken refuge in the area triggered a real manhunt. Donald realised that it is time to leave once more.
Mama was still willing to provide for me. I felt that it was unfair for them to risk being captured in their own home, knowing that the Germans would be ruthless. Thus, on March 22, the most pleasant period of my semi-freedom ended and I decide to put a plaque on one of the houses of the village when I returned after the war, to remember my happy stay in Cervano. I left the house the following morning, without any plan.
D. I. Jones, Escape from Sulmona, Vintage Press, New York, 1980
Donald passed through Campo Imperatore, near the hotel that hosted Mussolini as a prisoner, and again returned to Castelvecchio Calvisio. Then, along the way, he had a dangerously close encounter with a German patrol who mistook him for an Italian, and he shared caves and ravines with other prisoners he met on his way. At this point, he felt that his freedom was now at a crossroads: he had to rejoin the Allied troops as soon as possible or he would soon end up as a prisoner in Germany. Spring was just around the corner, and he had been on the run for nine months.
On his way to the coast, he arrived in the area of Palena, but he realised, as he was walking, that he had ended up in a minefield:
What bad luck: avoiding capture for nine months and being blown up before seeing freedom! They say, «Fortune favours the bold». It also helps the reckless, the foolish and the unconscious. I was in one of these categories.
I waited until the afternoon before I decided to crawl towards the path. I staggered a little, happy to find myself in one piece. In front of me I could see the plain that stretched to the Adriatic. I walked south. After about an hour I saw a group of tanks. Had my good fortune changed? I was wearing a green shepherd’s cloak over torn trousers, and as I approached the camp sentry appeared: he was English. I was worried because he was pointing his rifle at me. Only the arrival of an officer convinced him that I was not a cheater. A week later, I was on board a ship bound for England.
After the war Donald returned to civilian life and became director of a finance company. In 1947 he returned to Castelvecchio with his wife, to thank and say goodbye to those who helped him. He was best man at the wedding of Gina’s two daughters, Armida and Zina, who married two Englishmen in Leeds. Mama and Giovannina moved to the United States to be reunited with their husbands, Donald met them in 1972.
Campi legati a questa storia
- R. Absalom, A Strange Alliance. Aspects of escape and survival in Italy 1943-45, Firenze, Olschki, 1991 (trad. it. L’alleanza inattesa. Mondo contadino e prigionieri alleati in fuga in Italia (1943-1945), Bologna, Pendagron, 2011);
- D. I. Jones, Escape From Sulmona, Vintage Press, New York, 1980 (trad. It. Fuga da Sulmona, [a cura di] Liceo scientifico statale E. Fermi di Sulmona, Torre dei Nolfi , Qualevita, 2002).
- Monte San Martino Trust: https://archives.msmtrust.org.uk/it
- Sulmona camp: https://campifascisti.it
 PG 87, a tent camp in Cardoncelli (BN) closed in November 1942.