James Hargest

WO 208/3316/1587

Brigadier James Hargest was part of the New Zealander expeditionary corps and was captured in Libya, near the Sidi Azeiz airfield (today abandoned) on 27 November 1931. His position had come under attack by Rommel’s armoured divisions, and Hargest himself had been wounded during the battle. Therefore, he decided to spare his men and personally surrendered to Rommel. Together with other officers, he was brought to Bardiyah, where the Germans offered him the chance to roam their camp on parole freely. Hargest, however, refused and was therefore entrusted to the Italians. They moved him to Benghazi and then to Messina using a submarine. Finally, he was transferred to PG 78, Sulmona, where he was kept for four months.

On 12 March 1942, with a few other officers, he was moved again, this time to PG 12, the Castle of Vincigliata, near Florence.

As the war was still waging, Hargest expected to stay in captivity for a long time. However, he immediately met other officers willing to escape: Generals O’Connor and De Wiart, Air Marshal Boyd, and Brigadiers Combe and Miles. They started working on a plan that kept them busy for a whole year:

We spent several months in the preparation of maps, the collection of provisions, the making and dying of clothes, and a careful reconnaissance of the prison camp with a view to finding the best method of escape. Some of our efforts were abortive and were found to be impossible […].
In Aug[ust] ’42, we decided to tunnel out from the Castello Chapel by first sinking a shaft 10 feet deep in the chapel porch, then tunnelling for about 30 feet under the Castle walls, under the driveway and the outer battlements, and to come to the surface immediately under the shelter of the outer wall.
The tools we had were a kitchen knife, some half-inch iron bars sharpened in the kitchen fire – we used these mainly as levers – some gardening buckets, and some rope for hauling the buckets to the surface.

The work continued while the chapel became a dump site for the earth dug from the tunnel. The PoWs even managed to connect to the chapel’s electric wires and thus brought a line of electric lamps underground. The tunnel was finally ready in mid-March 1943.

We broke the surface on the evening of 30 Mar[ch] ’43 and at 21:30 hrs were free of the Castle. General O’Connor and De Wiart elected to escape through walking to the frontier and left us immediately. I did not see them again [they were recaptured a week later]. The remaining four of us walked into Florence and took a train for Milan via Bologna, separating but keeping each other in sight and meeting from time to time on the journey. We changed trains at Bologna, where we were compelled to wait for several hours owing to the lateness of the train due to overcrowding.


The four reached Milan in the morning of 31 March and discovered that no train was leaving for Switzerland before midday. Therefore, they decided to cross the city by tram, split into pairs, to reach «the Stazioni de Nord». The first two to leave were Boyd and Combe, who, however, were captured during the trip. Miles and Hargest, instead, managed to reach their destination and «after buying a coffee», boarded a train headed to Como, where they arrived at noon. At this point, they walked to Chiasso and then into the mountains.

We encountered the frontier fence after stalking a patrol in the darkness and succeeded in cutting a hole with wire-cutters and so entered Switzerland at 22:30 hrs – 25 hours out from Vincigliata.


They were immediately taken in by the Swiss police and spent a few months there. Afterwards, with the help of the French Resistance, they managed to reach the border between France and Spain. Miles, however, gravely depressed, killed himself in the Pyrenees. Alone, Hargest continued his journey across Spain and was able to return to British territory on 26 November 1943, crossing into Gibraltar. Only three PoWs managed to  escape an Italian prison camp before the Armistice of 8 September 1943; two of them were Miles and Hargest. Unfortunately, Hargest died soon afterwards in Normandy on 12 August 1944, when he was 52 years old.

Camps related to this story


TNA WO 208/3316/1587, Brigadier J Hargest, DSO. Service: New Zealand Army, NZEF [New Zealand Expeditionary Force]. Escape from Campo 12, Italy, to Switzerland; subsequent evasion from Switzerland via France to Spain.