Fred Milner

Signal Corps

Fred Milner, who served with the Signal Corps, was captured by German troops near Tobruk on 21 June 1942, when he was 23. His war experience had been exhausting: «my particular misfortune was being part of Signals because that meant being attached to different units which got relieved from battle areas – but I was always promptly reassigned to units in action». When he was captured, therefore, he accepted his new situation almost with relief.  

The PoWs were brought to an airport by the Germans, but the Allies soon bombed it. At this point, they were forced to march for 33 km until they reached the outskirts of Tobruk.

Just then, who should drive past us, going in the opposite direction, but General Rommel. He stood up in his staff car and saluted us. We had great respect for the Afrika Korps — as they had for us. Each side, in retreats, always made sure to leave water for the other’s wounded.

In Tobruk, Fred was entrusted to the Italians and spent the following two months in an overcrowded camp infested with bugs. The PoWs suffered because of the heat, and many fell ill with dysentery. Eventually, Fred and many others were loaded on a ship and brought to Taranto, then to Brindisi in cattle cars. His first permanent accommodation in Italy was PG 75 Torre Tresca (BA),[1] where the prisoners, exhausted, malnourished, scorched by the sun, and infested by parasites, were placed in tents.

Our plight grew worse as our meagre daily rations — 200 grams (6 ounces) of bread and one pint (0.5 litre) of watered macaroni we called ‘skilly’ — took a toll on our health and morale. The Italians themselves were starving, so any food parcels destined for us, even if they escaped allied bombing, were pilfered.

The situation was critical, and a few weeks after Fred’s arrival, an inspection of the Red Cross led to the camp’s closure.[2] The prisoners were once more loaded on cattle cars and transferred to PG 73 Carpi, where at least they were housed in huts. The food situation, however, did not improve. Red Cross parcels here were distributed to the PoWs, but each parcel had to be shared by six men.

Meanwhile, the war continued, and the PoWs learned about Rommel’s defeat in Africa and the Allied landings in Sicily. When the news of the Armistice arrived on 8 September 1943, the prisoners were optimistic. The Italians perhaps even more so, and the camp’s commander managed to convince Fred and the others not to leave the camp, as, according to him, the Allies would land in the north shortly.           
Instead, the next day, the Germans surrounded the camp and captured the PoWs and the guards. Only at this point did the prisoners start attempting to escape, as they did not like the prospect of being deported to Germany. Fred took part in one escape attempt, which allowed two other PoWs to break out, but not himself.

After a few days, Fred again found himself on a cattle cart, heading to Germany. However, as the convoy stopped in the Trentino region because of some Allied air raids, Fred and another PoW unfastened the screws holding a ventilator in their cart using a spoon and a small army jack-knife. When the train began to move again, Fred crawled into the hole, gained a precarious foothold on the buffers, jumped, and landed, wrenching his shoulder.

The cars loomed above me, rattling past, guards and all, as I lay at the foot of the embankment. Fifty yards along the track, the concrete buttress and wall of a bridge began. I shuddered for Joe, then for myself, as I realised what could have happened had I delayed my jump a little longer.        
I waited for what seemed to be a lifetime for Joe, but he didn’t show up. I searched briefly, and then, finding a vineyard, ran amuck, pressing the grapes greedily into my mouth, their juices making rivulets down my chin.
God, how my heart sang! I was free.

However, Fred did not know precisely where he was. He remained on the run for three weeks, gathering food and sleeping wherever he could, marching towards the north, hoping to reach Switzerland. He ran into two other escapees, and they found a barn to sleep in. Here, they were discovered by a young girl, who brought them to her family, where they were sheltered, fed, and clothed.    

The three resumed their journey, but soon one of them decided to stop. Fred and Vince Burgess, a sergeant of the Royal Artillery, continued to march, reaching the Stelvio pass. The two continued to climb until they met two milkmaids at 2700 metres above sea level. The girls, Rosina and her sister Ada, brought them to a mountain hut, fed them milk and macaroni and then, since the two PoWs were soaking wet, they made them strip to dry their clothes: «I was single then, and I’ll never forget how embarrassed I was; but Vince, who was married, took it all in [his] stride». Fred and Vince rested three days in the hut, and then Rosina guided them «doggedly and carefully» to a guide who could bring them to the Swiss border. The man agreed but requested Vince’s Rolex as payment.      

After one last climb, Fred ended up in the internment camp of Santa Maria in Switzerland, where he remained until the end of the war in Italy, when he was repatriated. Only in 1979, after retirement, did he return to Italy to visit Rosina and Ada, who had moved to Brescia.



[1] Fred mentions an unspecified camp near Altamura; however, checking the data, it is almost certain that he was in PG 75

[2] According to Fred. However, PG 75 was already being closed for unrelated reasons and was definitively closed after the Allied landings in Sicily.