Henry William Cantle

WO 208/3320/65

Petty Officer Henry William Cantle was captured on 15 June 1942, when the HMS Bedouin, a Tribal-class destroyer, was sunk off the coast of Pantelleria by an Italian torpedo bomber after a battle with two Italian cruisers. Twenty-eight members of the crew were killed, while the remaining 213, including Cantle, were captured and brought to Sicily. Cantle had his first experience of an Italian PoW camp on the island in PG 98 Castelvetrano, where he was kept for about two months. Afterwards, he was moved to PG 52 Pian di Coreglia (Chiavari), where he remained until the proclamation of the Armistice between Italy and the Allies on 8 September 1943.

The Commandant at Campo 52, in announcing the conclusion of the Armistice to the P/W on 8 Sep 43, said that he, his officers, and his men would defend us from the Germans. At midday on 9 Sep, however, three lorry-loads of well-equipped German troops took possession of the camp without the Italians offering any resistance. As the Germans came into the camp a few of us tried to leave from the other side, but were stopped by the Italian sentries. The Germans were very nervous and appeared to be expecting that there would be Commando landings to help us. Throughout the first three or four nights the Germans kept firing their Tommy-guns and sprayed the camp several times. […] six P/W (no names) were wounded while lying in their bunks.

Cantle, who had not attempted to escape previously, now seemed willing to take the risk, perhaps because he was worried about being deported to Germany. Two days after the Armistice’s proclamation:

On the night of 10 Sep[tember] I made my first attempt to escape. I dropped out of a window and crawled along a depression in the grass till I reached the wire. As I had to break the wire with my hands, it took me some time to get through three sets of wire. Just as I had broken the last set of wire I was seen by a German patrol.

Cantle’s position seemed to be irredeemably compromised. He was brought in front of the German commander, who told him that « there was no excuse for me and that I would be shot in the morning». However, « Each day […] my German guards were changed, and by the end of my third day in the cells the guards did not know the reason for my being there. I was let out of the cell at 0600 hrs on 13 Sep[tember]».

Cantle was put into a group of PoWs scheduled to be deported to Germany on the same day. The column marched towards Chiavari but, at a certain point while on the road, they ran into a bus, and Cantle decided to take his chance:

The Germans made the bus pull into the side of the road to let us pass. I closed up to the guard in front of me and, covered by Sgt.-Major William WARD, […] I walked round the back of the bus and got into it. The bus was full of passengers, who seemed scared but willing to try to hide me, and I sat down on the floor, where I remained till the column of P/W had passed.

Cantle was now an escapee, and, luckily for him, he found help immediately:

On the bus was the Italian wife of a Swiss. She had lived in the United States and spoke English. She gave me the jacket and beret of her 14-year-old son, who was also on the bus, and I removed my battle dress, under which I was wearing khaki shorts and an Italian military shirt. The woman invited me to go to her house at ISOLONA […], and we arrived there [at] about 1300 hrs, having passed the [PG] camp on the way.

Once in Isolona, the woman offered Cantle a meal and more clothes. « She said that, as the countryside was in turmoil and crowded with Italian soldiers making their way home, it would be easy for me to travel». She advised Cantle to go to Rome, but he decided to wait in the village, hoping the Allied troops would overrun his position in a few days. His stay, however, was much longer than he had anticipated: «that night, I went to live in the woods near ISOLONA and remained there for the next five weeks».

Meanwhile, the woman sheltered another escapee, Seargent-major John Langdon, another former PoW at PG 52. Moreover, she put Cantle in contact with a local Resistance member, a doctor, who « said he could find me shelter with an Italian resistance group». Cantle and Langdon decided to accept this offer and left the village.

Guides were sent by the resistance group with bicycles to take us to their headquarters at M[ount] CAPENARDO […]. We were also accompanied by the doctor’s daughter, who rode on the cross-bar of one of the bicycles and flirted with us as we were passing the [PG] camp. At the headquarters of the resistance group, we met Pte. KENNARD DAVIS […], who, on the evening of his escape, had been befriended by two nieces of the doctor.

The three remained with the partisans for about one month. However, soon they heard that «carabinieri and Fascists had heard of the existence of a group in the region of M[ount] CAPENARDO». Fearing an enemy attack, Cantle and his companions decided to leave for the French border and leave Italy. Cantle thus returned to Chiavari to the woman who had helped him to consult her on their plan and was sheltered in her mother’s house.

I arrived in CHIAVARI before LANGDON and KENNARD DAVIS and went to the house of the Swiss woman’s mother. When the two others got to CHIAVARI they were seen in the street by one of the carabinieri from the [PG] camp. After eluding him, they met the Swiss woman, who brought them to her mother’s house. They remained here till evening when the Swiss woman and I escorted them to the bus. The woman and I then returned to her mother’s house, where the woman stayed for only a short time before going to her own flat in the town, where her children were living.

However, Cantle’s luck seemed to run out. During the night, the Italian police arrived at the house and « arrested the mother, a woman of about 80, a man lodging in the house, and myself». They were all brought to the local jail, and Cantle was forced to confess to being an escaped PoW. He, however, was unwilling to tell anything else.

When they failed to get me to say where I had been since my escape, they sent for the Germans […]. The German officer tried to interrogate me, but with little success, as he did not speak any Italian and the Italians did not speak any German, while neither spoke any English. The German wanted to know where I had been and who had been feeding me, and I said vaguely that I had been in the mountains. The Swiss woman was brought in, the police having got her address from her mother, but she and I refused to recognise each other. Eventually, however, the old mother admitted to both the Italians and the German that the daughter had been in her (the mother’s) house while I was there. The Swiss woman then told them the circumstances in which she had met me, but maintained that as a Swiss subject she could entertain whomever she pleased in her house.

Satisfied by the old woman’s confession, the Germans left the two women to the Italians and brought Cantle to their barracks in Chiavari. By this point, however, Cantle was almost an escape artist, hardened by months of living on the run, and he proved to be a tough prisoner to control.

The Germans put me into solitary confinement in their barracks in CHIAVARI […]. There was a guard outside my cell, but I had been studying his movements, and about 1000 hrs. I heard him leave the corridor in front of the cell and walk round to the German living quarters which were at the other side of a hall behind the cell block. From my cell I could hear plainly what was going on. I wrenched out the staple which held up my bed when it was not in use. With the staple I broke the wire on the inside of the inspection grille in the door and broke the clasp with which the outside flap of the grille was fastened. I then put my arm through the grille and unbolted the door. The bolt had not been padlocked. When I got outside, I bolted the door and closed the grille.

Cantle traversed the empty hall and then the barracks’ courtyard. He stole a stool and, thanks to it, managed to climb the outer wall, ending up in a garden in the back of the building. By this point, he knew the area well and thus quickly arrived at the village of Cavi, where he met with the partisans he had joined on Mount Capenardo, who brought him back to their camp. In total, Cantle spent only three nights in the hands of the Germans.

Cantle stayed with the partisans for the next few weeks, moving between Mount Capenardo and Mount Domenico. During this period, he met three more escaped PoWs: John Edwards, another member of the HMS Bedouin’s crew, Arthur Everett (RASC), and a South African named Rice. Moreover, even more escapees lived in the area, particularly Grenadier Unger and Leading Seaman Briard. The former attempted to organise the escape of a group of PoWs towards the south of Italy in November 1943, but the plan did not take off. «The day UNGER re-appeared, we were transferred to MONTE DOMENICO», as the partisans had heard that the Germans were about to attack the area. Cantle’s small group, therefore, split up. He, Edwards, Everett, and Rice went to Mount Domenico, Unger went to Pisa, and Briard attempted to reach the French border.

UNGER re-appeared in the district during the first week in Dec, accompanied by L/Cpl. John VIVIER, South African Forces. There was now repeated panic in the district, which was occasionally visited by the Germans and by Italian Fascists, and we had to keep moving from hut to hut at MONTE DOMENICO. In view of this, UNGER and I decided that it was both dangerous and uncomfortable to remain; also, we were no longer useful to the resistance group. (I had previously assisted the group by cleaning and distributing arms to hiding places, but this work was now completed.)

The two decided the most straightforward plan would be to walk along the coast, following the main road to France. Along the way, they were forced to split up but managed to reunite on the French border, which they crossed between the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944, leaving Italy and their pursuers behind.

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