George Braithwaite was captured near Benghazi in June 1942, when the Axis troops surrounded the city. From there started his long and harsh journey to PG 70 Monturano (Fermo).
We were then bundled into a large, very high sided Italian wagon […]. Over the desert for hour after hour, it was awful, some were already dying of thirst. Eventually, after what seemed to be days the lorry stopped at a wire encampment my first P.O.W. camp which I found out was just outside Benghazi. Here there were very bad conditions, queuing for water for hours, there was an issue of a tin of meat which turned out to be goat’s meat in olive oil which quickly brought on tummy troubles. After a few days of this ghastly experience, some of us were taken down to Benghazi harbour and put on board [of a] ship […].
The PoWs were brought to Puglia, but it is unclear whether they docked in Taranto or Brindisi. Here, they were undressed and washed, and George’s hair was cut quite brutally, leaving him «practically bald». Their clothes were returned at the end of the cleaning, «cleaner but smelling different».
Another trip by lorry brought the PoWs to PG 65 Bari. Here as well, conditions were terrible and George complained in particular about the poor rations, just 200 grams of food per prisoner. «We spent Christmas in these miserable surroundings, but Christmas was brightened by a fellow P.O.W. with a really glorious voice, coming around the bunks singing carols, I still heave a sigh when I hear (Holy Night) Silent Night».
George, on the left, with Schubert, on the right. The PoW in the middle is unnamed..
(Source: Monte San Martino Trust)
At a certain point, before the summer of 1943, George and other PoWs were transferred northwards to PG 70 Monturano. Here, the situation was a bit better, and the PoWs at least received their Red Cross parcels. Soon, George became friends with another prisoner, a Canadian from Vancouver named Schubert, and the two began plotting their escape. Encouraged by the news from the African front, where it was clear that the Allies were winning, the two examined the guards’ movements in the camp:
A spot [in the fence] was marked, the corner of the compound quite near to bushes, trees, this led we knew down to a river, Schubert could swim, I could not but the River would be very low at this time of the year […]. Then suddenly the chance was there I gathered a few things, met Schubert then crept down to the corner, kicked and knocked away the earth and bottom wire, we then crawled through, crept down to the river, which we found very low indeed, crossed, crept up the bank the other side then forward over lots of rough going, […] then just before light stopped in what seemed a secluded spot to rest and recover.
The escape was successful, but the two had to decide what to do. At a distance, they saw a copse and decided to go there after dark. They reached it without any problems, and, once there, they ran into two other PoWs who had escaped from a nearby work camp. One of them, a corporal, could speak a little Italian and George and Schubert decided to join them in their journey towards the south.
The next day the group arrived at the village of Montalto (Viterbo), where they were sheltered and fed. However, realising that the locals were scared, they decided to leave immediately. The march continued until the four reached a farm:
Friend or foe? Taking the bull by the horns, so to speak, we went to it together and we were welcomed. This proved to be a haven indeed; we were invited in for the evening meal. What an eye opener, there must have been about 20 all-together standing [on] each side of a well scrubbed table, first of all, forks were put on the table, and we all took one, then a lady came in with a very large ladle, this was turned upside down onto the table the contents spread out and solidified just like a large pancake (macaroni I expect), then tomato puree went onto this, followed up with grated cheese, at a sign we started cutting off small pieces and eating them, and could some of those folks go, the flashing fork and the bending arm set up a terrific rhythm, it tasted delicious. When it was all finished with a sigh, we put down our forks […].
The farmers provided the escapees with civilian clothes, food, and directions and the group left the following day. They reached Chieti, where they were immediately recognised as English soldiers by a local whose family «had spent a long time in England before the war on business trips» and who brought them to his house, where they hid in the attic. Their guest organised their next moves: they received four train tickets and were instructed to get on a train headed south separately so as not to raise suspicions. The plan worked perfectly, and the four reached another town, unfortunately unspecified, where they got off the train and dispersed in the countryside, heading for Foggia.
However, the area was teeming with Germans, and their march was difficult. For a time, they were forced to separate to avoid enemy patrols. They ate «grapes and tomatoes» and slept in vineyards. After crossing a river under the nose of the enemy sentries, the group ran into a cart pulled by a horse:
So risking all, we went to it and indicated that a lift was wanted, the driver indicated that we could sit on the back of the cart, down the road we went, and after about 20 minutes or so could hear lots of noise from the front of us, engines running, we froze in the cart then sank as low as possible and decided to bluff things out, it was too late for anything else anyway. The cart was pulled to a halt and suddenly we were engulfed with infantry walking by both sides of the road wearing khaki battledress, quickly it dawned on us that we were through the front line.
George and his comrades stayed on the cart until they spotted some lorries at the side of the road. They waved the cart driver goodbye and reached the Allied soldiers (part of the Canadian forces), who welcomed them and brought them to Foggia. George was later brought to Tunisia and then to Algiers without his companions, who were taken back home by different routes. Finally, he reached Scotland by ship, returning to the United Kingdom after 16 months as a PoW and an adventurous escape.