Harvey Vivian Claxton

Royal Army Service Corps

Harvey Vivian Claxton was born on 1 September 1915 and, before the war, was a removal contractor in South Benfleet, Essex. Once in the army, he was enlisted as a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps in January 1940. He was captured in Tobruk, on 20 June 1942, during the North African campaign.

Harvey was interned for a few days in Tobruk, then in Derna, and finally in Benghazi, where he remained until mid-August. At the end of the month, he was transferred to Brindisi and then to PG 87 Benevento. At the end of November 1942, he was moved again to PG 66 Capua, and then almost immediately to PG 53 Macerata, where he was kept until March 1943. Then, he was transferred to PG 148 Pol di Pastrengo (Verona), specifically to the VI camp in Bonavigo, where he stayed until 8 September 1943.

During his time as a prisoner, Harvey did not attempt to escape, but things changed drastically after the proclamation of the Armistice between Italy and the Allies in September 1943. Harvey says that he was told by the Italians guarding the camps not to move because «the British would be there in a few days’ time». However, one day later, they learned that the Germans were taking over all prison camps and Harvey and his companions decided to abandon the area before they arrived. They split into two groups of 35 people each, collected all the Red Cross parcels they could carry, and left the camp, escorted by the Italian guards. They barely made it: «ten minutes after we had left, the Germans marched into the camp.»

The Italians soon left the group and disappeared, as the escapees kept marching together for roughly five km until they managed to find a hiding spot in a wide ditch, covered by some trees. They stayed there for the following month, helped by local farmers who brought them food, «potatoes, bread, and milk». However, at the beginning of October came the news that the Germans were preparing a search in the area, and the group dispersed. Harvey and one of his companions, vice-corporal Collier, found refuge on a farm near the village of Orte, where they remained hidden for a week. Then, they moved in with another local family nearby.

At the end of the month, the situation became dangerous again because Fascist troops were combing through the area. The family who was housing them thus loaded them on a cart and sent them to their relatives in Begosso, where they arrived on 4 November. Harvey stayed with this family for almost one year, while Collier was housed at another farm nearby. When the Fascists came to search the houses, the escapees were hidden in the fields.

Already in December 1943, Harvey had been contacted by an Italian who claimed he could bring him to Switzerland, but the plan never came to fruition. In July 1944, instead, he met some partisans, for whom he «worked», as he says, while still living with his hosts. In September, the enemy dispersed the partisan band, and Harvey had to live for a week hidden «in a hole in a ditch, being fed at night by my host».

Finally, in mid-October 1944, things picked up again. Harvey bicycled to Lendinara with a guide, where he was hosted by another family of relatives of his previous protectors. Initially, he tried to cross the Adige River on a barge, but the area was teeming with enemy troops. Then, his guide brought him to a bridge in Badia Polesine but there, too, the presence of guards prevented the crossing. In the end, the simplest solution proved to be successful: Harvey made the crossing on a boat a few km downstream. Nobody checked their documents because «the German guard who usually travelled on the boat had been left behind on this trip». Harvey stopped at Lendinara for one day and then reached Milan on a lorry, where he was reunited with Collier, who arrived in the city one month later.

His stay in Milan was tense. Harvey describes the city as a «Fascist stronghold». For example, he recalls that «on 15 Dec Mussolini visited the city and stayed for about three days. He was greeted with enthusiasm by the population». On 23 December 1944, finally, Harvey and Collier arrived at the Swiss border, which they crossed on the same day. On 1 January 1945, they left Switzerland and went to Lyon. On the next day, they were able to report to a British officer and were sent back to the United Kingdom by plane via Paris. Harvey had spent 15 months as a prisoner in Italy, and as many as an escapee, protected by the Italian farmers.

  • TNA, WO 208/3325/28, Account of escape of T/130621, Dvr. Claxton, Harvey Vivian, 903 Coy., R.A.S.C.
  • TNA, WO 208/3325/24, Account of escape of T/86307, L/Cpt. Collier, Thomas, 31 Coy., R.A.S.C.