John Gordon Langdon
Sergeant Major John Gordon Langdon was born in 1915 and was an employee of the oil company Shell in Sierra Leone. He was captured by the Axis forces on 1 June 1942, south of Gazala (Libya). The Italians took him to Brindisi, where he arrived on 17 June. Three weeks later, he was transferred to PG 65 Altamura-Gravina, where he was held until June 1943.
As soon as he arrived in PG 65, John started working on an escape plan. He teamed up with Sergeant Kidd and a sapper from Kidd’s battalion. They worked for three months, slowly cutting a hole in the camp’s fence. In March 1943, everything was ready, but the guards, perhaps tipped on the escape plan, jumped on them, and the project failed. Undeterred, John and Kidd came up with a new plan. They exchanged places with two other PoWs assigned to a work detachment. Their idea was to slip away from the group while they were going to work and hide in an unfinished building along the way. However, a guard kept following Kidd closely and prevented him from escaping. John, instead, managed to slip away and waited for his comrade in the building until nightfall, when he decided to leave. Hungry, he knocked on a farm’s door and was given some food and wine. On the third day of his escape, he tried again to find some help and went to a farm but was captured by the Italians and delivered to the carabinieri. He was brought to Potenza and questioned, but John fabricated a story, claiming he escaped by climbing the fence. «They took all my personal belongings, which I never received back».
When I returned to the camp at Bari, the Camp Commandant was waiting for me at the fence, and I had to demonstrate how I got over. The two guards at that part of the fence were arrested and put into a cell just beside mine. I nearly got Lynched by them. I received eleven days’ detention.
In June 1943, the «unruly» PoWs were moved to PG 52 Pian di Coreglia (Genoa). John remained there until the proclamation of the Armistice. «The Italian Colonel in charge of the camp promised that he would defend us with his 260 men against any German attempt to take over the camp. On 9 Oct, sixty Germans arrived, disarmed the Italians who offered no resistance, and occupied the camp».
On 10 September, the Germans started deporting the PoWs, 1,000 at a time, to Germany. John was in the last group and was brought to the train station on 13 September. He had a «strong string» at his disposal and tied it to the carriage’s roof. Around midnight, he descended into the ventilation hole (which did not have a wire netting covering it) and, while the train was approaching a curve, jumped down together with Sergeant Knowles. Another PoW, Private Smith, jumped after them. The group was about three kilometres from Cremona.
The escapees were welcomed by local farmers, who fed and clothed them. They left the area the next day, heading south and avoiding the main roads. They met another escapee, Private Friedman, a South African. The four decided to split as they believed their group was getting too large. The couples were John and Knowles and Friedman and Smith.
The two marched towards the mountains. On 20 September, they reached Bardi (Parma), where they ran into a Scotsman who introduced himself as «Jock». Knowles and Jock decided to stay in the village while John resumed his journey alone. After a while, he reached the outskirts of PG 52, near Soglio (Genoa), where he met an Italian woman who had lived in the United States for 16 years. She welcomed him into her house, where he stayed for some 20 days, resting and recuperating.
One day I went right into the former P/W camp and got in touch with the Italian Quartermaster there. He supplied me with civilian clothing from a stock which had been left behind by the P/W. I also received from him food and cigarettes. I visited the Colonel who had formerly been Camp Commandant and gave him a piece of my mind about the way he behaved when the Germans arrived and took over the camp.
John met another escapee, petty officer Cantle, who was hiding in the area and was in contact with a Swiss who lived there. In October, the Swiss provided them with two guides and bicycles to reach Cavi Ligure (Genoa). Two German patrols intercepted the group, but they managed to escape each time. From Cavi, «we were marched into a campo, just outside the town, which was the headquarters of a Resistance Group». Here, John met Private Kennard Davis, who was living with the partisans, another escapee from PG 52. The three former PoWs remained with the partisans until 25 October, when Cantle contacted a friend in Chiavari (Genoa), who provided them with some food and 2,000 lire.
On 2 November 1943, John and Kennard left the partisans and headed to Busalla (Genoa). Here, they ran into an English-speaking Italian, who agreed to buy two train tickets for them and accompany them to Genoa. They arrived in the city in the afternoon of 3 November and were housed in the flat of a friend of their guide. «During the afternoon, the RAF bombed the city, and we had to go into a large public shelter, where Davis was nearly caught by a German guard for lighting a cigarette». The friendly Italian gave them some «respectable clothing» and two train tickets to France. The two escapees left the next day and reached Imperia in the evening.
John and Kennard left the town and headed to the hills, marching for the entirety of the next day. After two days, they reached Triora (Imperia). They planned to cross the French border on the mountains, as the enemy guarded the coastline heavily. Once again, they were helped by an Italian who spoke English, who helped them bribe other Italians who became their guides. After an exhausting march, they found themselves in France, near the village of Fontan. From there, they reached Sospel, where they tried to find someone who could speak English. However, the only one they could find was the owner of a small hotel, who refused to help. Moreover, German troops arrived in the village, and the two were forced to escape.
John and Kennard hid in the woods for some time until the Germans left the village and headed south. On the way, they stopped in Drap, where they managed to take the tram to Nice on 12 November 1943.
We wanted food but had no French money. We made our way to a small restaurant in the dock area, where we tried to exchange some of our money. A Frenchman who was eating there recognised us as English. He gave us food and arranged for us to have a room at the restaurant. The next day (13 Nov), he came back with another Frenchman who spoke English very well […]. When the second man had satisfied himself as to our identity, he took us to his flat in Nice and looked after us exceedingly well.
The two remained in Nice for three weeks, often changing their hideout. In the end, they were taken by some Frenchmen to Antibes and hidden in a farmhouse, where they stayed for two weeks. Their hosts wanted to get them to Paris but could not do so. A few days before Christmas, Kennard went to Nice to organise their escape to Spain. However, a RAF bombing stranded him in the city, forcing him to escape to Monte Carlo.
Finally, in March 1944, John was taken to Avignon via Cannes and Marseille. Here, he was welcomed by the French partisans of the Forces françaises de l’intérieur (FFI) and fought with them until the Allies arrived in mid-September 1944, when he was repatriated to the United Kingdom.
TNA, WO 208/3324/64, Langdon, J G. Escape/Evasion Reports: Code MI9/SPG: 2551.