Edward Henry Duke

WO 208/3324/141; WO 208/3324/138

Edward Henry Duke, born in 1916, worked as a borough council employee in London before the war. He was captured in Libya on 21 November 1941. Unfortunately, there is no information on his capture or the subsequent period, but we know he was moved between different PoW camps during his almost two years as a PoW. At first, to PG 66, Capua, until January 1942, then to PG 59, Servigliano, until the end of February 1943, then to PG 53, Macerata until the spring of the same year. He was later moved to PG 106, Vercelli, and, finally, in June 1943, he was transferred to work detachment number 4 of PG 112, in Gassino, near Turin. During this period, he took part in a single escape attempt in PG 59 (Servigliano), the camp where he remained for the longest time. He dug a tunnel under the camp’s fence with a few companions. However, the excavation was discovered by the Italians.

As at all the other PoW camps, the news of the Armistice arrived soon enough in Gassino and after a few days the Germans made their appearance:

On 10 Setp[ember] ’43, we heard that the Germans were occupying the towns near the campo. After much agitation, we forced the Italians to open the gates. At about 20:00 hours, I left the Camp with Pte. Jackson, John Henry […].

The two reached the road between Turin and Chivasso, where they encountered some Italian cyclists who told them incredible news: «We were told that the English had invaded Genoa and were advancing towards Turin». Therefore, they decided to hide until the Allies’ arrival. During the following days, Duke and Jackson survived thanks to the aid of the local people, who brought them food in the woods they used as a hideout. Later, the two were taken in by a woman in Castiglione Torinese, who hid them for two months and gave them civilian clothes. However, it was clear that the Allies were nowhere near northern Italy, and the area was still firmly in the enemy’s hands.

In Nov[ember] ’43, we decided that we were endangering the safety of these people [the Italians helping them], for the Germans were searching the houses for escaped English prisoners. The woman gave us money and told us we could go to a small house belonging to the family at Alpette.

Duke and Jackson followed the woman’s advice and moved northwards, entering the Alps. Once they reached Alpette, they lived in the tiny house and ran into a partisan band: «The total strength was about 50-60 men». Some of them, roughly 20, were former Allied PoWs: 17 English and two South Africans. Duke and Jackson joined the band, although the Italians did not allow the prisoners to carry weapons.

Little happened until Apr[il] ’44 when the Germans began to clean up the valley. The band had grown to about 200 members, but it was short of arms and ammunition, and the English were still not allowed to be armed. We had heard that the RAF had dropped arms in the valley of Lanzo, but our band had not been able to pick them up owing to the German activity. […] Also, nine Englishmen were ill with flu and pneumonia; one [was] a stretcher case. The band, therefore, split up and took to the hills.

Duke and Jackson went back to Alpette, to their familiar little house. Once again, they were sheltered by the local population, which provided them with the necessary to survive. In June, however, they encountered «an Italian ex-Navy Lieutenant, who was forming a partisan band». Therefore, the two returned to guerilla life.

We rounded up about 20 Englishmen, and the remainder were mostly Alpini troops. We were still unarmed. On 13 Jul[y] ’44, the band attacked a German house at Chivasso, we surprised them while they were in bed, and took one German and 20 republicans [Fascists] prisoner. We also took rifles, six trucks and a quantity of petrol. In the Ribordone district we were attacked by Fascists and Germans, and had to retreat to the mountains. Before we left, we managed to remove the wheels from most of the stolen trucks. We went to the Arzola district and were in a bad state. We were short of food and arms again, and badly needed boots.

However, help literally fell from the sky. On 26 July 1944, in fact, Allied aircraft delivered a large number of airborne supplies to the Mount Arzola area, which solved the partisans’ problems. Consequently, the band launched a small campaign against the enemy in a zone between Pont, Locana, and Sparone, ambushing enemy transports and cyclists «till we were once more short of ammunition». As summer became autumn, the Allied offensive in the south stopped, and the Germans were able to resume large-scale anti-partisan activities. Hunted by the enemy and short on food, after a short stop in Ribordone in September 1944, Duke and the other escaped PoWs decided to cross the border with France. After consulting his superior (probably the local CLN or the partisan zone command, Duke does not specify), the partisan leader agreed to their departure.

On 1 October 1944, Duke left the area with a local guide he met during the summer. The group was quite large. Thanks to the account of one of its members, Private George Albert Drew (who had also been captured with Duke and spent some time in PG 112/4 before his escape), we know it included «our guide, the Italian Lieutenant [the Italian partisan leader], 30 Yugoslavs, five Vichy French, a South African Seargent named Nell, and […] 11 Englishmen [besides Duke and Drew]». Among the names of the Englishmen (Duke, Drew, Roderick, Hughes, Dinning, Painter, Davis, Stephens, Jacques, Snaith, Barnard, and Read), Jackson is missing, and we do not know what happened to him.

The group passed through Ronco, Colle di Bardoney, and Cogne, where they spent the night in a mountain mine. They moved to Pont and then to Colle del Nivolet to finally reach the Pian della Ballotta. The weather, however, was not on their side:

There was already a considerable amount of snow, and a blizzard put an end to our first attempt. One Englishman in the party suffered from a frostbitten hand. Several of the Yugoslavs wore only carpet slippers on their feet. We were roped together and finally crossed the frontier in six feet of snow, on 10 Oct[ober]. We made the crossing at a point called Colle Losa (sic.) (altitude 3280 meters) […]. This region was unguarded, as the Germans considered it impassable.

However, the journey was not over. Luckily for them, as they were going through  Val d’Isere they ran into a French officer who telephoned  the American commander and informed him of the group’s arrival.  The escapees were then able to travel by truck and, after crossing various towns, reached Grenoble, where they were housed at the Savoy Hotel. The Englishmen were transferred by train from Grenoble to Marseille on 12 October. Finally, on the 14th, they were shipped to Naples. After a brief stop in the city, Duke  returned to the United Kingdom on 2 November 1944, arriving in Liverpool on 2 November 1944, after almost three years in Italy.


TNA WO 208/3324/141, Escape/Evasion Reports: Code MI9/SPG: 2695
TNA WO 208/3324/138, Escape/Evasion Reports: Code MI9/SPG: 2698