British NCO, 107th Regiment, South Notts Hussars, Royal Artillery
Raymond was among the few survivors of his battalion at the battle of Knightsbridge (5 June 1942) and was captured, at the end of it, near Ain el-Gazala (Libya).
He arrived in Italy and was interned in PG 66 Capua. In October, he was transferred to PG 53 Sforzacosta, an overcrowded camp with abysmal living conditions, especially during the long and cold winter of 1942.
Raymond Ellis in Marsa Matruh, 1940.
Source: R. Ellis, Al di là della collina, 2001
I hated being a prisoner, not only because of the hunger and other privations that came with being one. It was my one nature to abhor the idea of being held inside a pen, like an animal, deprived of my liberty. I wanted to wander around without restrictions and promised myself that I would never allow anyone to restrict my movements again.
Raymond never abandoned the idea of escaping. He started learning Italian, and, with other PoWs, he trained in wrestling, which allowed him to regain strength. The evident incompetence of the Italian guards, which he witnessed on some occasions, gave him the idea for an escape plan.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised it was time to regain my freedom, and my plan slowly began to take form. It did not contemplate a heroic attempt at tearing down the barbed wire or climbing insurmountable walls. I was simply to exit from the same gate I had entered some months before.
Sforzacosta PG. 53 map.
Source: R. Ellis, Al di là della collina, 2001
Raymond decided that the best way to escape was to confuse the sentries by walking calmly but firmly towards the gates, giving the impression of being in the middle of some authorised activity. If, after the initial confusion, the guards wanted to shoot at him, Raymond would dissuade them, reminding them that firing against a PoW was a crime and the British commands would punish them since the Allies were rapidly advancing from the south and would reach the camp in a matter of weeks. He shared his plan with Bill Summer, who initially refused to participate but later changed his mind.
Everything went as planned: the guards, taken by surprise, let them pass and, confused by Raymond threatening them with a firing squad, did not fire on them. It was the middle of August 1943.
We did not give them time to think. In a moment, we exited the gates and ran down the road, hiding in the surrounding farmland. We crossed the river and climbed the opposite bank, heading towards a hill. We had just started climbing when we heard some shots. […] We climbed to the top [of the hill] and threw ourselves on the ground. […] While I was lying there, I felt euphoric. I was alive, the plan worked, and I had escaped. I could not believe it. I was free.
The two escapees began their march in the Marche. They planned to go south following the Adriatic coast and meet the Allied troops.
Although they tried to avoid towns and cities, they realised it was hard to go unnoticed in cultivated fields and soon encountered many farmers who worked on them; they did not know if they could trust the Italians. However, they soon rganize they had to rely on the local population to get food and started approaching houses and huts. They soon learned that: «the richer the house, the colder the greetings», and, like some ritual, they decided to knock only at the most poor-looking and isolated houses, where they almost always received assistance.
After a few days of wandering around, they reached the village of San Ruffino (a district of Massa Fermana). Here, they met Alessandro, a local farmer, who invited them to have dinner at his house with his wife Paola and their children. In the following months, Raymond was “adopted” by the Minicucci family.
I will never forget that place. […] We greedily ate an astonishing amount of pasta, without tomato sauce or any kind of dressing, and a small portion of salame to add some flavour to the bread. There was wine in abundance, and we chatted amicably and lively. What a pleasure to be once more part of a family. I had left England four and a half years before, and it was the first time since then that I had this privilege […].
After a few days, when Raymond and Bill wanted to resume their journey, the Minicuccis convinced them to stay. They explained that the winter was coming and that it would be safer to wait at their house for spring. The two escapees accepted but demanded two conditions: they would help the family working the fields, and they would disappear immediately into the countryside at the first sign of danger.
Raymond’s life as a farmer thus began and, as a foreigner, he soon started to observe the life of the locals: their difficult work, their families, homes, religion, their perception of the war, and their way of handling relationships (he soon started courting Elena, the daughter of a neighbouring family, the Lavoresi).
In the beginning, I might have felt superior to them. I thought, and I was wrong, that they were not much intelligent, simply because they were not educated and could not read nor write. However, the more I lived with them, the more I rganize how wrong I was. I soon learned that many of them were very sharp and could do perfectly things I could not. They were able to do several manual labours with such a great degree of ability that it left me speechless.
Raymond worked in the fields and learnt how hard it was. He learnt to yoke the oxen, graze them, and plough. As he was preoccupied with the education of the community’s youngest members, he decided, during the colder months when work in the fields was stopped, to rganize a small school in the attic of the house, to teach them writing and basic maths.
During the winter, moreover, Raymond felt he was not doing enough to help with the war and decided to join the local partisan band. With Harry Day, another escaped PoW from his regiment whom he had met in the previous months and who lived in Loro Piceno, he wandered the nearby hills, passing by Montrappone, Monte Vidon Corrado, and San Ginesio, looking for the partisans. However, when he met them near Monastero he was disappointed. To the eyes of two professional soldiers, used to training and discipline, the partisans looked like brigands, without any actual military preparation, at the mercy of the events, often braggarts, never ready to accept advice, and oblivious to the reprisals that their actions could cause on the local population.
The more time passed, the more I examined the situation, [and] the more I felt anxious. There was no trace of the discipline I associated with war. No training, no guard shifts, no command, no treatment or care for the wounded. We ended up in a band of amateurs who had never experienced war before and were thus oblivious to it.
The two abandoned the band without much regret and returned to their families. During the following months, Raymond went to live in the tiny house of Carlo, a few km away from the Menicuccis whom he continued to see. When, in the summer of 1944, the Allied advance resumed, he knew it was time to go:
We all knew those were my last weeks in Massa Fermana. In the following weeks, I would be either dead, prisoner, or safe behind our lines. Naturally, I was mainly concerned with staying alive, but, at that point, I had to consider two other things: first, there was a girl that loved me; what to do with her? Second, there was the thought of leaving behind a family I had learned to love. It was a paradoxical situation, I was supposed to be happy to return home, and for sure, I was happy, but the pleasure was tainted by the sadness I felt thinking I had to leave that corner of Italy I was now calling my home.
During the following weeks, Raymond managed to pass the front line, and, in September 1944, he returned to Nottingham. After the war, he became a teacher and a school director. He often returned to Italy to visit the places of his imprisonment and escape, and he always felt part of those families who helped him with such generosity.
- Raymond Ellis, Al di là della collina. Memorie di un soldato inglese prigioniero nelle Marche, Maria Grazia Camilletti (a cura di ), Affinità Elettive, Ancona, 2001.
- Raymond Ellis (testimonianza orale) <https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80012392> Imperial War Museum (IWM) London (1992)
- Giuseppe Millozzi, Prigionieri alleati: cattura, detenzione e fuga nelle Marche 1941-1944, Fondazione Ranieri di Sorbello, Perugia, 2007.
- Giuseppe Millozzi, I campi di prigionia nelle Marche e il rapporto tra contadini e Alleati, in Serena Innamorati e Ruggero Ranieri (a cura di), Voci di giovani nell’Italia divisa (1943-1945). Percorsi di opposizione e incontri con gli Alleati tra Umbria, Marche e Toscana, Working paper of the Uguccione Ranieri di Sorbello Foundation, n.7, 2006, pp. 70-82.
 On 8 September 1943, the Italian camp commander, in agreement with the Senior British Officer, decided not to let the PoWs go and kept the camp’s gates shut. On 9 September, in the evening, some 200 PoWs went into the sports field and tried to remove the barbed wire, but this attempt was blocked. From 15 September, the Italian guards started to defect, and roughly 1,500 PoWs managed to leave the camp. Between 19 and 20 September, the Germans arrived, preventing further escapes.
 It is likely that the band was part of the Gruppo Bande Nicolò, created on 23 September 1943 and operating near Monastero, which included various bands active between Amandola and San Ginesio.