Royal Navy Volunteer Supplementary Reserve (Yachtsman’s Reserve)
Moran, a passionate yachtsman, actor and (after the war) a theatre director, enlisted in 1939 in the Yachtsman’s Reserve. In June 1940, he set sail from Ramsgate to reach Dunkirk and help with the evacuation of the British Army. Later, he became a submariner and was assigned to the HMS Tempest, whose mission was to patrol the Mediterranean. On 13 February 1942, the British submarine was intercepted and sunk by the Italian destroyer Circe, about 30 miles north-east of Crotone. The survivors were captured and sent to different camps. Moran, an officer, was transferred to PG 75 Torre Tresca (Bari).
Moran’s memoir cover
The hut was full of iron beds of the most primitive kind, with only a few inches to spare between each; there was a long trestle table down the middle surrounded by benches, and no other furniture. Most of the beds were occupied by British Army Officers, wearing what was left of battledress. A few of them were Sikhs in turbans. There was a general air of despair. The inmates looked with amazement at the three smartly dressed Naval officers with suitcases who had suddenly arrived in their midst. We found three beds and began to take stock.
Moran marked the poor conditions of the camp. The prisoners did not receive Red Cross parcels, and there were no comforts nor opportunities for diversions. Even though PoWs were often transferred from and to the camp, no one seemed to know how long Moran was supposed to be there nor his eventual destination. The food was also poor: a bowl of soup and a couple of raw cauliflower sprouts, accompanied by four or five pieces of pasta which tasted like cardboard. Moreover, he witnessed the unjustified execution of two prisoners who escaped and were recaptured.
During the following days, Moran and his comrades were told that they would be moved to PG 38 Pioppi (Arezzo), where the situation was supposedly better:
I found myself in Campo 38 in a house on the top of a fairy-tale hill at Poppi in Tuscany. The house was the summer residence of an order of nuns, from Florence I believe, who were remaining in their winter quarters. It was plainly furnished but clean and spacious and we were only four or six to a largish room. My fellow prisoners this time, apart from the few who had come with me from Bari, were all New Zealanders. […] If this camp was not the “villa by the lake” that we had been promised, it was quite civilised.
However, Moran was quickly transferred again, this time to PG 35 Padula (Salerno), «in the majestic, vast and beautiful building of the Certosa». Through the cloister, the PoWs could access their rooms, nicknamed “districts”: each consisted of an entrance, two large rooms and a long hallway which led to the restroom. Each “district” also included a small garden, accessible through a flight of stairs.
The camp, as Moran wrote in his memoir, held roughly 500 officers. It was a mixed group, but Navy and RAF officers were the majority. There were also about 50 men of «other ranks» who worked as adjutants and in the kitchen.
When Moran, an actor by trade, arrived at the camp, improvised concerts were the only theatrical entertainment available:
The first improvement I made was to direct a mixed bill of scenes from Shakespeare, all chosen for male parts only. […] it was a huge success. A small charge was made for the tickets, and by the last performance the black-market price was twelve times its face value; there was even talk of putting the show on in London for charity when we got back.
There were also plenty of escape attempts. In district 5, where Moran himself lived, a group of PoWs decided to dig a tunnel in the garden under the external wall. As some of them had taken up gardening, they began to work without arousing suspicions. The PoWs excavated the tunnel using only a spoon and used a tray, on which they had planted some tomatoes to resemble a clump of earth, to cover the entrance. However, they soon realised that the work was proceeding too slowly, that the tunnel was not deep enough, and the plan was therefore scrapped.
Another attempt was carried on by district 6. This time an opening was dug through the tiled floor in the bathroom. When the tunnel was ready, the PoWs who built it drew lots to decide the order in which escapees were to use it. If the escape were successful, the others could follow them the next day. Moran was supposed to assist the first group of escapees by helping them enter the tunnel and the covering up the entrance. However, after the first 11 PoWs escaped, the guards quickly found the tunnel, which was flooded and walled up.
During his imprisonment, Moran wrote and staged theatrical pieces. At the beginning of April 1943, as he was busy rehearsing a musical comedy, the camp’s interpreter came to talk to him in the refectory/theatre and told him the camp’s commander wanted to see him. The news he received from the camp’s commander was astonishing: Moran and three other prisoners belonging to the Navy were to be repatriated.
No reason was given for our selection; it seemed to be an arbitrary decision. We were not the most senior, nor the least, we were not ill. Nobody could offer an explanation except for the fear at the back of all our minds that sooner or later we would be moved to Germany and that this might be the first of a series of ruses to get us to “go quietly”.
During the following hours, the escape committee equipped them with tissue paper maps, compasses, and cocoa and butter cakes to allow them to attempt an escape if needed. At four in the morning, the PoWs arrived in the courtyard, as agreed. An Italian officer and four guards escorted them to the train station, and their train, to their surprise, headed east, not north: «as incredulous as we were, we started thinking it was not a trap after all».
They reached Bari and boarded the hospital ship Gradisca with a large group of Navy personnel, all of them equally surprised by their good luck. At sunrise, they realised they were going east, en route to Mersin, Turkey. However, they were still afraid, as the British, suspicious of the German hospital ships, might torpedo the Gradisca. They reached Mersin two days later, and there they boarded an old ship with a red flag, the Talma.
We were each allowed to send one short telegram home. I don’t remember what I put in mine and nobody appears to have kept it, but I know the address I sent it to — Hodges Place, Offham, Kent.
- Moran Caplat, Dinghies To Divas or Comedy on the Bridge. Some memoirs of a compulsive sailor in troubled waters, Collins, London, 1985 (pp. 95-116)
- Moran Caplan obituary <https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/jun/27/guardianobituaries1>