Hugh Mainwaring

Lieutenant-colonel Hugh Salsbury Kynaston Mainwaring was a financial broker before the war. He had been captured in Mersah Matruh, on the Egyptian coast, at a roadblock guarded by German troops belonging to the 90th light infantry on the 7 November 1942, during the advance following the victorious battle of El-Alamein. He was immediately transferred to Sidi Barrani, Libya, and then to Tobruk, where he spent the night. The following day, he was transferred again, this time to Brindisi, Italy. To transit camp 75 in Torre Tresca (Bari), where he was kept until the 30 november, when, together with other 33 officers, he was moved to camp 38 in Villa Ascensione (Poppi, Florence), where he spent the following six months[1].

Mainwaring was transferred to camp 49 in Fontanellato (Parma) on the 30 May 1943. The camp prisoners, only officers, had been organised by the British Senior Officer (SBO), the lieutenant-colonel Huh de Burgh, an energetic artillery officer. When he arrived at the camp, de Burgh had found the prisoners in a state of general apathy and this did not sit well with him. He reorganised the prisoners into companies and platoons, each with its commanding officer, so that they could be ready for any eventuality[2]. Mainwaring, after his arrival, entered de Burgh’ “staff” and was put in charge of «emergency» situations, meaning the Allied invasion of Italy or a German attempt to transfer the prisoners to Germany.

We ran the camp with two different staffs – one under the SBO and Adjutant for normal organisation, and the emergency staff run by myself and the G.2. For an emergency the camp was organised into a H.Q. company consisting of all the specialists, four ordinary Companies, and a batmen’s company. The Companies were also organised into Platoons and Sections[3].

Relations between de Burgh and the Italian commander of the camp, the Colonel Eugenio Vicedomini, remained always good. Vicedomini, who fought with British troops during the First World War, enjoyed the respect of his prisoners, who considered him «a true gentleman»[4].
It was indeed Vicedomini who, on the 8 September 1943, gave de Burgh the news of the armistice between Italy and the Allies. Mainwaring witnessed a meeting between the camp commander and the SBO, held around 10pm, in which Vicedomini and de Burgh had a «fank discussion»: «he said that the situation was most obscure. He had heard that fighting was taking place between the Italians and the Germans in Parma and Piacenza, and that the headquarters to which he was responsible at Parma had been attacked and communications cut.» His orders were to oppose the Germans, which the Colonel interpreted not only as the passive defence of the camp, but also as the permission to let the prisoners flee if confronted by overwhelming German forces to avoid letting them fall into German hands.

He asked if the camp was organised and ready to act in an emergency. He was told it was. He therefore said that should the camp be approached by the Germans in numbers too large for his small camp garrison and the weapons at their disposal, he had it in mind to allow the camp to escape, and that he would recall us to the camp if he considered this action would be in our interests. He further said that he had a patrol out on the roads to Parma and Piacenza, which he reckoned would give an hour’s warning of the German approach[5].

Fontanellato camp map

Although they were all tense, the prisoners spent the night without any more news. Vicedomini appeared again the next morning, at around half past seven, announcing that «the situation had deteriorated». Mainwaring was chosen to sitrep the area surrounding the camp, to find a suitable place where the prisoners could hide. This was by no mean an easy task, as the prisoners numbered around 620 (according to Mainwaring they were 540, but this estimate seems wrong). Vicedomini gave him a map and pointed him in the direction he considered best. Mainwaring was this able to locate a thick undergrowth on the banks of a small river (the Rovacchia), roughly six miles from the camp. The officer came back to report around midday and «within ten minutes the alarm was sounded, the wire cut, and all the P/W, organised as I have already indicated left the camp for the river. […] Everyone got out, including the sick and people with broken legs. Those who could not walk rode on ponies»[6]. When the Germans arrived, half an hour later, they found the camp empty, except for Vicedomini who alone faced their wrath. The Germans ransacked the building[7] and deported Vicedmoni to Germany, he would die in 1946 his health irredeemably compromised by the time he spent in a concentration camp[8].

Meanwhile, the group of prisoners reached their hiding spot, guided by Mainwaring and by the camp interpreter, the Italian Captain Mario Camino. They stayed put in the undergrowth during the 9 and 10 September, trying not to be spotted. However, soon after their arrival, the local population started visiting them, bringing food and clothes[9]. Finally, during the night of the 10, de Burgh decided that waters had calmed down enough to let his men move. The companies were dispersed along the Rovacchia and two were sent six miles south, preparing them cross the plain and the Apennines to reach La Spezia, Liguria. There was still hope, in fact, that the Allies would land on the Ligurian coast and therefore that was the most promising directive to escape the German-controlled territory. The following night, the remaining men were similarly dispersed and only some twenty men remained, including Mainwaring himself[10].

It was only when de Burgh decided to leave, following Camino to Turin (where the officer lived), that Mainwaring left his refuge. His group was formed by three officers: Mainwaring, Lieutenant Lascaris (Greek), and Lieutenant Blanchard (Belgian). The three escapees received some clothing from nearby farms and moved out with what food they had on them «a tin of bully beef, one tin of meat roll, and one tin of biscuits among the three of us». Their plan was to move towards the south and rejoin the 8th Army near Foggia. Despite the help provided by local farmers in the Rovacchia area, Mainwaring was still distrustful of Italians: «we were faced with the danger of capture by the Germans and of apprehension by the Italian authorities. The Germans had offered a reward of 2600 lire (or £20[11]) for notification of the whereabouts of any British P/W.» The three thus decided to pose as disbanded Italian soldiers who were trying to go back home in the south. However, language was a problem: «lieutenant Lascaris is a fluent Italian speaker. Lieutenant Blanchard is a good Italian speaker. I am a bad Italian speaker, and anything I said would at once disclose my identity and probably that of the others.» To solve this issue, they had to devise a cover-up story:

We were three Italian soldiers (myself in the Labour Corps) who had been conscripted and absent from home for four years. When the Armistice was declared we were in Zagreb (Yugoslavia). We got on a train and went to Trieste, where the train was searched by Germans for Italian personnel. Shooting took place and we among others were taken P/W with a view to our removal to Germany. This had been too much for me and I had had a nervous breakdown, the symptoms of which were complete silence except for muttering a few words about my family to my friends: I would not talk to strangers. After two days’ captivity in Trieste we had managed to escape and had decided to do the remainder of the journey on foot[12].

This story had the added benefit of explaining why the three escapees were not simply jumping on a train to reach their destination, since in the chaos following the armistice, anyone could take a train without a ticket. However, they need to make a slight adjustment to Blanchard’s backstory as they moved south:

Lieutenant Blanchard’s accent in the later stages was not considered to be that of Southern Italy. This was explained away by his own story of having been resident in Egypt and elsewhere for the last 20 years and of having been employed ad a waiter. As such he had cultivated an Egyptian-Italian accent[13].

During their travels, the three enjoyed the hospitality and support of the local population, who granted them food and shelter. «The food consisted of bread, an occasional egg, a small piece of cheese, and the permission to take fruit and tomatoes growing in the fields. When we asked for it we were given shelter at night times in outhouses, barns, cattle sheds, etc.» The group marched without pauses, keeping clear of roads and approaching farmhouses only at dusk. They always left before dawn. «We moved all day, never resting for more than about half an hour in any one place.» Initially, the three marched along the Via Emilia, until they reached the coast near Cesenatico. Only then they decided to disclose their identity to the local priest, hoping he could get them a boat to complete their journey. He sheltered them for thirty-six ours but, in the end, they decided to abandon the plan, because the priest told them the local Carabinieri caught wind of their presence. Before letting them leave, he gave them a motor map of southern Italy which, according to Mainwaring, was of great help in their journey (they remained, however, without a compass).

They marched for about a month, and finally they managed to cross the frontline (which had meanwhile crystallised on the Gustav Line) on the 13 October 1943. They contacted the il King’s own Yorkshire Light Infantry (Koyli)’s Brigade Major, de Butts, and old acquaintance of Mainwaring, who organised their transport to the 13th Corps HQ, where Lascaris and Blanchard parted with Mainwaring to be later transferred to Taranto, while the Lieutenant-colonel was brought to the 8th Army HQ, as he had previously served in General Montgomery’ staff in Africa[14].

Camps linked to Hugh Mainwaring story

  • TNA, WO 208/3315/3, Mainwaring, Hugh Salusbury Kynaston. Prisoners of War Section. Escape/Evasion Reports: Code MI9/SPG: 1474
  • M. Minardi, L’orizzonte del campo prigionia e fuga dal campo PG49 di Fontanellato 1943-45, Fidenza, Mattioli 1885, 2015


[1] TNA, WO 208/3315/3, Mainwaring, Hugh Salusbury Kynaston. Prisoners of War Section. Escape/Evasion Reports: Code MI9/SPG: 1474.

[2] Marco Minardi, L’orizzonte del campo prigionia e fuga dal campo PG49 di Fontanellato 1943-45, Fidenza, Mattioli 1885, 2015, pp. 37-38

[3] TNA, WO 208/3315/3.

[4] M. Minardi, L’orizzonte, cit., pp. 38-39.

[5] TNA, WO 208/3315/3.

[6] TNA, WO 208/3315/3.

[7] This is Mainwaring’s version of the events. However, Minardi noticed how the local population probably sacked the building well before the Germans’ arrival, attracted in particular by the food rations contained in the Red Cross’ packages. See: M. Minardi, L’orizzonte, cit., pp. 63-65.

[8] M. Minardi, L’orizzonte, cit., p. 61; pp. 126-128.

[9] M. Minardi, L’orizzonte, cit., pp. 67-68.

[10] TNA, WO 208/3315/3.

[11] About £930.

[12] TNA, WO 208/3315/3.

[13] TNA, WO 208/3315/3.

[14] TNA, WO 208/3315/3.