7th Black Watch Battalion (51st Highland division)
Captain Reid was captured on 6 April 1943 in Tunisia, serving in the 7th Black Watch Battalion. He was wounded on the right hand and spent four months in PG 203 Castel San Pietro Terme, a PoW hospital near Bologna. In August, when he was getting better, he was transferred to PG 47 Modena. He had been in the camp only a few weeks when the news of the Armistice arrived.
Even though the Italian commander, in accord with the Senior British Officer (SBO), had ordered the guards to repel an eventual German attack, the Italian soldiers quickly deserted, followed by some English PoW officers, who took advantage of the situation to escape. Ian, who initially wanted to leave the camp, was convinced to stay, encouraged by the news (widely circulated at the time but also incorrect) that the Allies would quickly reach the north of Italy.
Ian Reid (second from the right) in uniform, circa 1938.
(Fonte: H. Reid, Dad’s war)
On 11 September, in the morning, the Germans occupied the camp and the PoWs were called together by the SBO, who gave them an unexpected communication: «Gentlemen, I am afraid we betted on the wrong horse. We must get ready to depart for Germany.»
Ian, discouraged, started examining possible ways to escape. With Tom Cokayne and David Rollo, who joined him in his escape planning, he decided to desert roll calls and hide while they were taking place. When the transfer was imminent, he hid with David in a hole, dug by some New Zealanders in the previous weeks, under the outhouses. (Tom was forced to find another hiding spot, as they could not all fit in). They stayed there, crouched, assailed by the stench and mosquitos, waiting for the Germans to evacuate the camp. Then, they cut the barbed wire and escaped.
I was roosted on top of the wall for what felt like a century, bent over to gather the stuff David was giving me, and passing it to Tom on the other side: David’s backpack, his spare boots, my ordinance box, Tom’s backpack, and his canteen. There was a hole cut in the back fence. I went through it with the supplies while Tom helped David climb the wall. We were free!
After their escape, they headed south. Tom was the only one who understood and spoke a bit of Italian. They passed through Vignola (Modena) and marched for kilometres until they reached the Panaro river. They stopped and were fed at every hut they encountered; some locals even housed them for the night. Many families they met were curious about their story and wanted to hear it.
In the following days, they managed to cross the Apennines on a lorry which transported them to Florence. They planned to move southwards and reach Rome. In the evening, exhausted and hungry, they decided to find someplace to rest for the night in the outskirts of Florence. Unfortunately, they knocked at the door of a policeman, the commander of the local carabinieri district. He, however, decided to help them. He instructed them not to follow the main road to Rome, as it was teeming with German troops, but rather to march through the hills, heading towards the village of Lucolena (Florence).
Following his advice, they traversed the Chianti region, marching for 12 km daily. They were motivated by the fact that the weather was changing (they had to face many storms), and they knew they were ill-equipped to spend the winter in the mountains. They managed to hitch a ride to Rome and reached Lake Trasimeno. On 1 October, they were on the outskirts of Chiusi (Siena).
They had been on the run for 15 days, and so far, they had not encountered any problems. Ian was surprised by the peasants’ sympathy towards them: «We were not prepared for all of this kindness and generosity; every day, someone did all they could to help us.»
After two days of rest in a local farm, the group split up. David decided to go alone, while Ian and Tom resumed their journey together. On 4 October, near the village of Città della Pieve (Perugia), they were recaptured by two Germans while they were resting in a thicket near the main road. They were held in two different cells in the Chiusi prison and entrusted to the Italian carabinieri. At least they managed to elude the surveillance and create an opening to communicate between the two cells. In the following days, they were taken by the Germans to Orvieto and, during the trip, they discussed how to escape again. During a stop near the city’s walls, they had their chance. While a German was escorting them, Ian took advantage of the soldier’s distraction to quickly run on a path down the valley:
In any case, it was now or never. I looked at Tom, who had to run for a couple of metres more but was faster than me. My look meant: “let’s go that way?” I waited for a second to be sure he understood, then I turned and ran. My footsteps produced a metallic sound on the road, and the noise thundered in my ears. I reached the path and bolted. As I disappeared under the cliff, I heard some muffled shots but no bullets flying near me.
Ian remained hidden in the woods for a few hours, wondering what had happened to Tom. At dusk, when a peasant family arrived in the area to pick nuts, he decided to leave his hideout and ask for help. They told him the German guard had murdered Tom while he was running away.
I gagged. Tom was dead… it was impossible! Those three shots were aimed at me! Did he [the German] shoot some more afterwards? Tom did not even attempt to run; I would have heard him. […] I had seen people killed on the battlefield, but I never felt death so closely. I was paralysed by horror; my mind could not comprehend such a senseless tragedy.
Ian continued his journey alone. Thanks to the peasant’s advice, he reached Botto, a district of Orvieto. Here he was «adopted» by Ilario and the large family of Pompilio Nulli and lived there for about one month. He also met Claude Turner, an Australian PoW who had escaped from PG 106 Vercelli and was hiding in Orvieto. Claude told him Tom was murdered in cold blood as a reprisal for Ian’s escape. The Germans had his body tossed in a ditch along the road, but the Italians, moved by the events, retrieved and buried it in the local cemetery after giving him a proper funeral.
Despite their hosts asking them to stay, Ian and Claude decided to leave at the beginning of November, heading south. The two escapees crossed the Tiber river on a cart pulled by oxen, thanks to the help of the local population, and reached Montoro (Avellino), near Narni. They wanted to cross the Nera river, but the area was teeming with Germans, and they decided to leave. They passed through the villages of Calvi, Cantalupo, Fara Sabina and Orvinio, trying to reach the main road between Rome and Pescara. In Vivaro Romano (Rome), where they arrived on 12 November 1943, they were welcomed by Camilla and Angelo Cerini and their family.
The following two days were delightful: we were fortunate to have found such a kind family. The girls patched our socks, washed our things, and gave us spare shirts and underwear. The food was exceptional. Although they had no cows, they bought the milk for our breakfast. Every time their few hens made some eggs, which did not happen frequently, they served them to us for dinner. After our arrival, Angelo bought a sheep, and we ate its meat for almost two weeks.
Amedeo Pafi, a local trader, informed them that some 30 former PoWs were living in the area and put Ian and his companion in contact with them. Amedeo was in touch with the Committee of National Liberation of Rome and advised them to stay hidden in the village without attempting to cross the front line. The Allies’ advance had stopped, there was snow on the mountains, and all the passes were under enemy surveillance.
In December, they heard about a supposed spy: a man with a glass eye, pretending to be a tinsmith, sent by the Germans to find escaped PoWs. Ian and Claude decided to remain in the village and tried to convince the other PoWs to wear civilian clothes rather than their uniforms so as not to endanger the Italians helping them. Despite the news about the «spy with a glass eye», the PoWs enjoyed Christmas in relative tranquillity:
Camilla prepared a delicious pasta, she made it with eggs, it was golden and silky, and Angela brought a bottle of special red wine, the best we ever had. In the evening, we listened to the radio, which transmitted the registration of the King’s speech. I imagined Christmas would have made me nostalgic for home. We knew our families were thinking about us, probably thinking we were in terrible danger. However, despite the alarms and the hikes in the hills, I believe we could not ask for a better Christmas.
A few days later, Ian and Claude decided to go to Poggio Cinolfo (L’Aquila). However, the locals were suspicious and scared: there was a rumour about some Germans pretending to be Allied PoWs. Before leaving for Vivaro, they decided to stop and have a drink at a tavern, where they ran into some carabinieri. The Italians thought the two were Germans, and a quarrel ensued, during which Claude was hit by a stone and started bleeding. Suddenly, two Germans entered the place. Ian and Claude were thus recaptured. «I thought about Angelo, Camilla, and the rest; soon enough, the news would reach them.»
They were imprisoned in the Arsoli Feldgendarmerie and then transferred to L’Aquila via Rieti, to the former PG 102, now occupied by the Germans, which housed roughly 1,400 soldiers, mostly former PoWs recaptured while they were trying to cross the front line. Some prisoners began digging a tunnel to escape, and Ian and Claude joined them. On 31 December, however, they were told they would be transferred to Germany. Their first stop was PG 77 Pissignano, between Foligno and Spoleto. Here, living conditions were terrible: the PoWs were hungry, cold, and dirty. Ian and Claude decided they had to attempt an escape. They noticed that a German truck arrived at the camp every other day, carrying food, and left without being inspected by the guards. They managed to climb on it and exited the camp unseen. Once more, they hide in the farmlands.
«We did it! Give me your hand» said Claude. We shook each other’s hands solemnly; we could not believe we were free again.»
Ian’s memoirs, published for the first time in 1947
Once free, Ian and Claude headed south, trying to return to Vivaro, where Camillo and Angela’s house was. They stole a bicycle from a farmer, which made their journey easier. They came close to Rieti and reached the village of Tufo, near Carsoli (L’Aquila), where the Di Marco family housed them. They were only a few kilometres away from their destination.
I wanted to reach Vivaro around lunchtime, I thought while washing my hands and face. I could not wait for it. It was 13 January, and, just a week before, we were suffering in that horrible camp. Exactly ten days before we decided on that unfortunate trip to Poggio. Now, we were only a half day’s walk from «home».
The only way to reach Vivaro passed through the village of Riofreddo, which was occupied by the enemy. Claude insisted on using the bicycle, but as they entered the village’s square, they realised it was full of Germans. They managed to slip away and finally reach Vivaro, where they were warmly welcomed. However, their stay was interrupted abruptly. The Germans combed through the area in the following days, and many PoWs were captured. Ian and Claude managed to escape but were forced to leave the village and hid in a nearby valley. They spent the following months in Tufo, at first in Enrico’s house, then, when they learned about another German raid in the village, in a straw barn in the vineyard a few kilometres from the village. They were also involved in the creation of a partisan band. What few weapons they had were hidden in their hideout. On the morning of 6 April, they were warned that the Germans were in the village, but they waited before leaving, convinced that the barn was away from the search area. They were wrong. The Germans, guided by an Italian student who was their informant (and knew the escaped PoWs), reached their hideout. When the Germans found the weapons, Ian was afraid they would execute them.
It was then that I fully understood the significance of what was going on, and when it happened, I was blinded by panic. The armed band, the grenades taken from the shelf right above my head: many prisoners had been executed on the spot just because they were carrying a pistol. A cold dread took hold of me, the fear of sudden and violent death.
Instead, they were transferred to Germany. In the following weeks, they were imprisoned in the Avezzano prison and then in former PG 82 Laterina Then, they were held in a transit camp in Mantua. Here, they managed to escape again with a clever plan but were soon recaptured.
In June 1944, they were transferred to Stalag VII A Moosburg, where they were separated. In March 1945, Ian was transferred to Oflag IX A/Z Rotenburg. Conditions were harsh. After five failed escape attempts, roaming Italy, adventures and chance encounters, Captain Reid was finally freed and repatriated on 8 April 1945.
- Roger Absalom, A Strange Alliance. Aspects of escape and survival in Italy 1943-45, Firenze, Olschki, 1991 (trad. it., L’alleanza inattesa. Mondo contadino e prigionieri alleati in fuga in Italia 1943-1945, Bologna, Pendagron, 2011).
- Janet Kinrade Dethick, The Long Trail Home, Lulu.com, 2016 (trad. it., La lunga via del ritorno: i prigionieri alleati in Umbria (1943-44), Perugia, Morlacchi, 2018).
- Howard Reid, Dad’s War, London, Bantam Books, 2003.
- Ian Reid, Prisoner at Large. The Story of Five Escapes, Victor Gollancz, London 1947 (trad.it., Un prigioniero in fuga. Storia di cinque evasioni, edizione a cura di Tommaso Rossi, Foligno, Editoriale Umbra-Isuc, 2019.
 PG 77, occupied by the Germans after the Armistice, was renamed Durchgangslager (Dulag) 226. Cfr. I Reid, Un prigioniero in fuga, note 7, p.166.
 After 8 September 1943, PG 82 was occupied by the Germans and became Dulag 132, one of the main camps where recaptured PoWs transited before deportation to Germany. Cfr. I. Reid, cit., note 4, p. 249.
 It is unclear which camp Ian is referring to. In Mantua there were no PoW camps in the period 1940-1943. After the Armistice, however, the area became a transit zone for the PoWs deported to Germany by train and thousands of recaptured PoWs passed through this area. There were three camps in the city, and a hospital intended for PoWs. Cfr. I. Reid, p. 249 note 1.