Norman Charles Johnson

WO 208/3315/8

Lieutenant Norman Charles Johnson, a cotton broker living in Cheshire, was captured by the Germans, like many others who ended up in Italy, during the North African campaign. The exact location was Medjez-el-Bab, Northern Tunisia, at the end of November 1942. Immediately, he was brought to Tunis, interrogated, and, on 28 November, transferred to Palermo with other PoWs, where he spent his first night in Italy inside a barn. The next day, they were moved to Naples, where they received some food from the Italians and then to PG 66, Capua, where they arrived on 30 November.

Johnson’s stay in the camp was not long. On 18 March 1943, he was transferred again, this time to PG 21, Chieti, where he entered the «fighting squad», a group of officers organising anti-German resistance in the eventuality that the Germans would occupy the camp. However, security was lacking and «a paper containing the names of the fighting squad […] was lost (or stolen by the Italians) with the result that I and other officers on the list were transferred on 4 Aug[ust] to Campo 19 (Bologna)».

In total, with Johnson, 100 Allied officers were transferred out of PG 21 by the Italians:

We sat in 2nd class carriages the whole way, naked to the waist. The sentries would not open the windows, which were securely shut, but fetched us water at some of the stops. We were on the train from 07:00 to 16:30 hrs.

However, the Armistice was soon declared, and Johnson spent barely one month in PG 19. On the evening of 8 September, the officers learned of the news from the camp’s commander, Colonel Aldo Magagnoli. After a discussion between the latter and the British Senior Officer, Brigadier Mountain, Magagnoli agreed to have the camp’s fence cut in a few places. Finally, he also declared that he would free all the PoWs the next morning. However, this was not convincing for Johnson, who noted that «[his] attitude towards the British officers was evasive and unsatisfactory in spite of the most pressing representations made to him by Brigadier Mountain».

Indeed, Magagnoli did not have complete control over the situation (or was not sincere with the PoWs) because, at 4:30 on 9 September, Johnson was woken up by another Allied Officer, who told him that the Germans had arrived at the camp.

We seized our food parcels and made a dash – I estimate about 200 of us in all – for the gate at the North East corner of the Camp. I asked an Italian soldier if there were Germans outside. He laughed and said, “No”. We told him to hand over the key, which he refused to do. Brigadier Mountain then appeared and ordered the soldier to hand over the key. He did so. The gate was opened, and we all crept out. When some of us had got through the gate, the Germans, who had been there all the time, opened fire, wounding two officers slightly and severely wounding a third officer, Captain P.O. Johnson, who subsequently died in hospital. The Germans herded the remainder of us back inside the camp and assumed control of it.

Nonetheless, Norman Johnson and his companions did not lose hope and immediately started planning their escape. Soon, two officers managed to slip away by hanging under the back axle of a ration cart entering and leaving the camp. Johnson was supposed to be the third, and his escape was planned for 11 September. However, unfortunately, the Germans decided to transfer all PoWs on that day, and Johnson, who did not want to give in, managed to find refuge with other prisoners in a loft above one of the dormitories. The group included, beside him, six other officers.

At 14:30 hrs on 11 Sep[tember] we heard the German M/T driving out of the camp with our brother officers on board. I think there were about 60 officers in all hiding about the camp. German soldiers later came into the room below us, and we heard them ransacking our kits. We lay up until 03:30 hrs on 13 Sep[tember], when my own party – Lieut. Ferguson (R.C. Signals), Capt. P. Spooner, I.A., and myself – came down the sheet ladder and made our way to the rear of the camp carrying our escaping kit in bundles.

The three climbed the outer wall and escaped through one of the gaps in the fence opened by the Italians a few days before. While passing through some bushes, the group ran into the other four Allied officers, part of the group who had hidden with them in the camp and had managed to escape: Captain MacGowan, Captain Bennet, Captain Fitzpatrick, and Captain Anderson. They were guided by two Italian boys who had supplied them with civilian clothing. As Johson, Ferguson, and Spooner joined the group, the two Italians left, coming back soon after with more civilian clothes for them. At 8 pm, the party split: MacGowan and the rest left, while Johnson, Ferguson, and Spooner remained hidden in the bushes until 11 pm, when they also left, heading east. During their journey, they relied on the aid of the local population:

We now moved in an Easterly direction for about five miles, where we obtained food from a house at midnight. […] We then moved off, still proceeding East, but quite soon stopped at another house and asked for food, explaining we were British officers. The woman in the house suggested we should take the train from a station about two miles down the main road as several Italian soldiers were making their way South.

The three thus reached a train station, probably the one in Lazzaro di Savena, and Johnson scouted the place, discovering that a train heading south was about to depart. His companions, however, «were not prepared to take the risk of travelling by train, so I decided to leave them and proceed on my own».

Johnson boarded the train, which departed at midnight on 14 September, passing through Rimini and Ancona. A few kilometers from Pescara, Johnson once more had the chance to interact with some Italians:

An Italian soldier shook me and asked me where I was making for. I had pretended to be asleep. I feigned to be deaf and dumb, but later, the same Italian was more persistent, and I could see that they took me for a German. I then made my identity known. They asked what I intended to do, and when I said I had thought of making my way to the Vatican City, they said this would be madness, as Rome was completely surrounded by Germans.

Bounded by the necessity to escape the Germans, Johnson and the disbanded soldiers in the cart became unlikely companions. When the train arrived in Pescara, they realised that the platform was teeming with Germans; therefore, «all the occupants of the carriage and I climbed out of the window, crossed the railway track and mingled with other Italian soldiers». The group marched through Pescara and reached Ortona, where Johnson and other Italians managed to catch another train, planning to go to Foggia because Johnson’s companions had heard that the British had conquered the city. «Owning to a misdirection, we found ourselves in Torremaggiore. We were then directed correctly to Foggia». At this point, the group had split, and Johnson was with two other Italian deserters.

However, as they arrived near Foggia (around 16 September), the three discovered that the city was still in German hands and decided to head south again, this time to Bari. Along the way, during a stop in the village of Orta Nova, the two Italians decided not to risk crossing the frontline, preferring to wait there for the Allies to arrive, while Johnson wanted to continue towards Bari.

As my feet were badly blistered and my boots had burst, I knew it would be impossible for me to walk any further that day. I saw an Italian and explained the position to him. He was sympathetic and took me to his house, fed me, and gave me a bed. I had lost count of dates, but I believe that this was 23 Sep[tember].

Johnson remained with his protector until 25 September, hiding in the bushes outside the house during the day and sleeping inside at night. During the night of 25 September, the farmer entrusted Johnson to one of his workers, who hid him at his house for the night. «He was a coffin maker and was prepared to hide me amongst the coffins in case of a search».

On the morning of 26 Sep[tember], his wife came rushing into the room, shouting “The British are here!” I tried to restrain her, thinking it was a trap to draw out prisoners from the houses, but she flung open the door and shouted, “There’s a British officer here.” Crowds came into the house. I was embraced by men and women alike. I heard firing and was prepared to get away, but found it was merely excited Italians firing their pistols in the air. A lad brought in two loaded pistols and offered me one. Another lad soon appeared, bringing a British sergeant, and I was taken to the Headquarters of the Advanced Recce. Unit of the 78th Division.

On 28 September, Johnson was  in Taranto, where he was treated at the hospital. He was suffering from myopia and bronchitis. On 4 October, he was transferred to the Catania hospital via air and then immediately to Algiers. On 16 October 1943, Johnson finally returned to the United Kingdom, in Bristol, after a brief stop in Gibraltar.


TNA WO 208/3315/8, M.I.9/S/P.G.(-) 1468: Name: Norman Charles Johnson , Lieutenant, 149296., 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers. Place captured: Medjez-El-Bab, 25 November 1942. Arrived in UK: 16 October 1943.