Royal Engineers – British Army
Peter was captured in North Africa. He spent some time at PG 75, Torre Tresca (Bari), and later was transferred to PG 21 Chieti, where he spent the rest of his imprisonment.
On the evening of 8 September 1943, the PoWs learnt of the Armistice through the radio. The senior British officer of the camp, Col. Marshall, ordered them to stay put and «stay calm and quiet». The idea was to live in the camp as usual until the arrival of the Allies. However, in the following days, German troops were spotted on the road near the camp and, on 11 and 12 September, after a visit by some enemy officers, most of the Italian guards decided to abandon their post and desert. In the camp, as Peter recalled, the prisoners started getting agitated and again asked the colonel to let them escape. Not only did he deny these requests but he threatened anyone who attempted to escape with a court-martial. .
On 20 September, the last Italian guards left and the Germans took over the camp. Col. Marshall once again addressed the PoWs, claiming, erroneously, that the Germans did not want to transfer them to Germany. Escaping was now impossible, and only those who managed to dig tunnels in the previous days were able to do so. Peter was among them. On 24 September, the Germans ordered the camp’s evacuation and transferred the PoWs to PG 78, Sulmona, the first stop on their journey to Germany.
On 8 September we stopped working and waited two or three days to see how things developed. When it was apparent that we should not be liberated immediately, work [on the escape tunnels] was resumed by those fourteen who had been chosen (in order of priority) to use it, if it were to be used as a hide for a day or two. […] One afternoon the SBO called a meeting of all escape-tunnel personnel, as a result of considerable unrest at the order not to use the tunnels. There were about 200 of us there […]. When the Germans did come in the end and moved everyone to Sulmona he still believed that we prisoners would not go to Germany and when we did escape – 43 of us in 4 tunnels — it was against his orders.
When the news that the Germans were transferring the PoWs to Sulmona spread in the camp, Peter and other prisoners climbed down into the tunnel. They remained there a few days, waiting for the camp to be emptied. At midnight on the third day, they were informed that the Germans had discovered the tunnel and were going to wall it; Peter, Bill, Bob, and Badgie decided to risk it and leave the tunnel. They managed to reach the external wall and use a ladder to climb it, leaving the camp. They crossed the river Pescara, with some difficulties, at three o’clock in the morning, on 27 September 1943.
The following day they marched for about 20 km, deep into the hills of the hinterland. They passed the village of Cepagatti (Pescara), heading to Catignano, and were housed by some local farmers.
These good people gave us a delicious dish of macaroni, spice and oil, with new bread baked today. This with a liberal supply of figs, grapes and apples, is feeding us magnificently. This is all a most interesting experience and I am enjoying it immensely. This is quite a small farm, but the man (Diodato Emilio) has 10 children. They are fine-looking children and the wife is a good sound woman. There is a great shortage of cloth, boots and everything which does not come off the land locally. Mussolini and the Fascists, and the Germans are universally hated among these people.
They soon resumed their march and reached the village of Villa Celiera (Pescara), where they stopped for a few days, once again aided by the local farmers who hid them in an abandoned school. The area was teeming with escaped PoWs from the Marche who were trying to reach the south of Italy. A British sergeant coming from Castel del Monte (L’Aquila), on the other side of the mountains, told them that, in the village where he was hiding, there were 25 British escapees. When the Germans arrived, it was only thanks to the courage of the Italian women that all of them managed to escape. At this point, Peter felt safe, as he knew he could count on the locals’ support.
On 6 October, the four escapees received a note signed «American lieutenant». It said that a group of Americans had been parachuted into the area to help the PoWs contact the Allies. The lieutenant asked them to come and see him at 9 pm that evening.
It all sounded rather suspicious and when Bill arrived he sent a message back saying that we were going to make our own way back. However late that evening one of the American’s men came up to see us and everything seemed pretty genuine, so Bill set off with him to see his officer, who was several miles away down in the country. He returned at about 5 am somewhat displeased at finding the American drunk and all his ideas pretty hopeless. However, he put several prisoners passing through this valley on the right track (about 40 in all in 24 hours) and arranged for the Americans all to come up to our place after dark last night (Tuesday) to organise an efficient combing system in this area.
However, the presence of the Americans, who moved into Celiera and claimed they were ready to fight the Germans if they had come into the village, convinced Peter and his comrades to leave, as the area was too crowded and no longer safe.
They marched through the mountains and reached Carpineto della Nora (Pescara). This area too was filled with escaped PoWs cared for by the local families who, on account of this, were not willing to help the four. In the end, they managed to find accommodation by splitting into two pairs: Peter and Bob, Badgie and Bill. Peter grew particularly attached to the Moscas, the family who housed him.
On 16 October, Peter learned that a group of paratroopers commanded by a French officer was in Celiera. They had arrived on the previous days and their mission was to gather 300 PoWs in Francavilla al Mare (Chieti) in order to evacuate them by sea. The operation failed, as the boat did not arrive. Therefore, the PoWs had dispersed and some started marching southward. The paratroopers, instead, withdrew to the hills and were planning to make an attempt to reach the front line. Peter and Badgie decided to join them. They left the Moscas, who wanted them to stay longer, and, a few days later, left together with the paratroopers, aiming at requisitioning a small boat to reach Termoli, in the Molise region.
At about 9 am we all set off from Celiera. We have been taking it very easily and are at the moment stopped at a farm 2-3 miles south of Penne. […] We left the farm near Penn between 5.30 and 6 pm last night and walked towards the coast until midnight when we stopped at a farm near Città Sant’Angelo. Slept in a barn and got very cold. Moved off again at 10 am this morning and walked about 5 miles to the farm where I am writing now. Have been here since midday, when we had some bread, meat and wine, after which I slept as soundly as I have never slept before.
At dusk, on Sunday 24 October, Peter and Badgie, with the paratroopers, managed to get hold of a boat, after many misgivings, and set sail. However, during the trip, the diesel engine broke down and the group was forced to use the sails to continue. Around 3:30 pm they spotted Termoli, but they were still far from the coast. They finally reached their destination at 9 pm, as they were picked up by a British landing craft infantry.
Peter and his companions were housed at the Allied HQ. However, it was decided that either he or Badgie should go back to contact Bill and try to evacuate as many PoWs as possible. Both volunteered, but it was Badgie who, in the end, left for this mission. Peter, meanwhile, made a surprising but happy encounter:
Who should I run into in a truck in the streets of this town but Mick, my brother!! For all I knew he was somewhere between Cairo and Casablanca. He had just written home to say that he had given up hope of seeing me in this country. He had heard of our party coming in and that one of the party was a sapper, which was quite true. He had come down to see if he had any news of me. And then to run into each other like that!
On 31 October, Peter left Termoli with Mick and reached Bari. Here, he was identified by the Prisoner Commission and placed in the transit camp of Torre Tresca where, 18 months previously, his imprisonment in Italy had started: «a strange and ironic turn of fate!» On 6 November he travelled to Taranto, from where he was repatriated.
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).
Peter Stern, Pow in Italy. Part of a diary, settembre-novembre 1943, Monte San Martino Trust Archive: <https://archives.msmtrust.org.uk/pow-index/stern-peter/>