Raymond D. Andrew
Raymond, a New Zealander, fought against the Axis in Egypt and Greece and was eventually captured in the Libyan desert near Sidi Rezegh on 30 November 1941, during Operation Crusader. «For you, my man, the war is over», he was told by the Germans who captured him. The PoWs were marched to the Italian positions: «The German in charge of us explained, […] somewhat apologetically, that though we had been captured by the Germans, it was in Italian territory, so we would now be prisoners of the Italians».
The Italians searched them and confiscated all their belongings. However, Raymond managed to hide his watch in his boots. Then, they were loaded onto some lorries and taken to a camel stable in Buq Buq, a village 150 km east of Tobruk. They were then moved to a PoW camp in the desert, essentially a flat area surrounded by barbed wire. Here, food was scarce and water even more so. After a few days, the PoWs were transferred again, this time to Darna, where, at least, they were housed in tents. Finally, they were brought to Benghazi.
Here too, the PoWs were left hungry, thirsty and without proper hygienic services. On 21 December, Raymond and the other PoWs were loaded on a ship bound for Tripoli, where they remained until 27 December, when they were loaded onto another ship, this time bound for Italy. Raymond spent one month in PG 66 Capua and then was transferred to PG 52 Chiavari on 1 February 1942. Eventually, in the summer of 1942, the PoWs were informed that the Italians were looking for volunteers to work in the fields: «The idea of extra food, coupled with some healthy bodily exercise, was attractive to many of us. Far too long had we rotted in the close confines of the present camp under starvation conditions». Raymond thus decided to accept and was moved to PG 107 Torviscosa, in Udine province.
Life in this camp was better, but it was overcrowded. At least the PoWs could now eat regularly: «During this period, our depleted bodies were gradually built up again. Even water was now to be had in plenty. The exercise derived from our work, extra food, and the glorious sunshine increased our return of strength and also our morale». The PoWs were employed in reclamation works to prepare the ground for cultivation. They, however, did their best not to work:
The go-slow policy was adopted from the start. Leaning on the shovel was the order of the day. It was soon found that as long as one kept moving, the civilian overseers were satisfied and stopped shouting and raving. As soon as they turned away, however, work would come to a standstill. […] The shovel handles were made of poplar, unshaped and brittle. Whenever one grew tired of shifting soil it was easy to snap a shovel handle. […] The guards’ job was to prevent prisoners from escaping, and they weren’t particular about whether men worked or not. […] At the first sign of rain, the men would shout ‘Trumba, Trumba’ [the guards used a trumpet to signal the end of the workday]. The guards who had the monotonous job of standing around all day were only too pleased to march the men back to camp and thus be relieved of their duties for the day.
Moreover, the contact with the local population broke the monotony of the PoWs’ lives and soon developed into a flourishing black market.
The announcement of the Armistice on 8 September 1943 immediately brought work to a standstill, although the PoWs were told not to leave the camp. «It was a time of indecision both for guards and prisoners. Everyone seems to be packing up and preparing to move one way or another. My mates [Sol and John] and I decided to get out if possible». In the end, the group left without encountering any resistance: «hardly a heroic escape, just a walkout!»
Their problem was now how to find a place to stay. The escapees spent that night in a field, hidden in bundles made of corn canes. From their hideout, they witnessed the dissolution of the Italian army:
Peering from behind our shelter, we were somewhat dismayed to see lines of Italian soldiers walking across the countryside. What were they doing there, and would it be safe to reveal ourselves? Plucking up courage, Sol, our Italian linguist, approached a group plodding quietly along. He came back with the news that they were soldiers from the Northern front returning to their homes. There was no transport for them and they were only interested in getting back to their homes as soon as possible. As far as they were concerned, the war was over, and they were not worrying about escaped prisoners.
The escapees reached a village, where they were welcomed and fed. «Our troops had been doing well in the south, and it looked as though it would only be a short time before they would be conquering the north. Rather than travel the length of Italy and attempt to pass through the front lines of the opposing troops, it looked a better proposition to stay out of trouble and wait for our troops to reach our area». However, their situation soon worsened as one of their hosts, Giovanni, told them that the Germans had occupied their former PoW camp. Fearing that the villagers might be in danger, they decided to leave. However, the Italians convinced them to stay in the area: «[they] said they would give us a tent and bring us food. They led us to a wood where we would be hidden. It was a short walk from the village to an area of swampy land and some thickly wooded ground behind it. Here we pitched our tent in the undergrowth. Each day some of the family appeared carrying food and vino». Nonetheless, they soon had to abandon this hideout as well, as the Germans launched a search in the area. The three spent a night in a ditch and then ran into some farmers working in a vineyard:
They seemed very surprised to see three somewhat bedraggled uniformed men climb out of the ditch. There was much talking and looking in our direction, but they went on working. […] We approached them, indicating we were hungry. Could they spare us a little food? This they willingly obliged, giving us each a little from their lunch baskets. Confiding in one old lady that we were New Zealanders and not Germans, she didn’t comprehend. However, she said, ‘Si, Si’ when we said we were British soldiers. Then the dear old soul said, ‘I don’t care if you are Germans, or British or Italians, you are hungry men, and hungry men need feeding.’ We found [that] many of the peasant people didn’t comprehend the intricacies of the war. They knew Italy had capitulated, but the Germans were forcing them to keep in the war when all they wanted was to be left alone.
Raymond, Sol, and John continued their march but did not know where they were and were constantly hungry. They ran into other former PoWs and decided to join them. The group made camp near a stream, building a large tent by patching together multiple sheets. Soon, the population discovered them and started bringing them food. There were also some Italians who came just to observe them or have a chat about the situation:
Were we volunteers, or had we been conscripted?’ Our group were all volunteers. ‘Why did you volunteer to fight against the Italians?’ ‘We didn’t volunteer to fight against the Italians. We volunteered to fight against the Germans, and then Mussolini joined in with the Germans to fight against us.’ This led to a discussion with much waving of hands and denouncements of Mussolini. We were all friends again.
However, at the beginning of October, two girls they knew, Elsa and Margherita, warned them that their position had been reported to the Nazi-Fascists. The group had to pack and leave. Guided by the two girls, the escapees reached a deep forest, where they built a new camp, also helped by the girls’ father, Augusto, who brought them some supplies to make their bedding.
On 21 November 1943, their peace was shattered as the Germans discovered their hideout and jumped on them, firing without warning. The group was forced to disperse, and perhaps some of the PoWs were even killed. Raymond bolted away to the countryside, hiding in a ditch along a road. « A few chains down the road stood a German soldier. On seeing me, he immediately unslung his rifle and shouted. Jumping back across the ditch, I was out of his sight, but the alarm was raised. Tally-ho! the hare was sighted!» However, Raymond managed once more to escape by entering a swamp, where he remained hidden until the Germans abandoned the pursuit. Cautiously, he retraced his steps and ran into Elsa and Margherita, who brought him to their home. Here, Augusto fed him and gave him some civilian clothes.
In the following days, Raymond wandered around in the nearby villages, looking for Sol and John, his fellow escapees, whom he knew had escaped the Germans because they were away from the camp when it was attacked. Finally, he met them again at Giovanni’s home, in the village they first visited after escaping from PG 107. In this period, the three changed their hideout frequently, sharing with the locals their diet based on polenta.
At the beginning of January, the three barely managed to escape the Germans once more, thanks to the help of some farmers who hid them and misdirected their pursuers. However, the group was sighted in the fields by a motorcyclist with a sidecar. Soon after, Raymond, Sol, and John were surrounded by the enemy: «The motorbike and sidecar were the first to approach us. Stopping about a chain away, a man jumped out of the sidecar brandishing a Tommy gun. He fired a burst over our heads. We stopped in our tracks. After all, one can’t argue with a Tommy-gun pointing at one!» It was 4 January 1944; they were captured, searched and questioned.
Raymond was taken to Germany, to Stalag IV Brüx (Most), in Czechoslovakia. He was finally able to regain his freedom only on 8 May 1945. He still had his trusted watch with him.