Robert «Bobby» Walker-Brown
Captain «Bobby» Walker-Brown was wounded and captured on 10 June 1942, during the battle of Ai nel-Gazala in Libya. He was taken to Italy and remained in Lucca hospital for a while. Then, he was assigned to PG 21 Chieti during the autumn.
As soon as he arrived at the camp, he started plotting his escape. With other PoWs, he started digging a tunnel under the camp’s fence. The plan was to have the entry point near the building housing the outhouses and lavatories (presumably to allow the digger to wash away the dirt once they exited the tunnel) and then emerge under a large fig tree, away from indiscrete eyes. The work was difficult, as the tunnel was cramped and wet, and they had to dig naked not to dirty their clothes.
After some days’ progress, spoil handling became difficult. An improvised sled was made from some slats from our wooden, bug-ridden, three-tier bunks. With the aid of string, it then became possible to haul filled boxes from the face, and to return the sled with empty ones; this saved a lot of time.
The work continued slowly, as the Italian surveillance was strict, but also because the other PoWs did not support the group:
The sight and smell of naked clay-covered men jumping through the ablution windows evoked very little sympathy from the majority of PWs, many of whom resented our activities as a threat to a peaceful life. Of a PW complement of some 900 officers, including some two or three hundred South Africans taken at Tobruk, fewer than forty were engaged in active escape attempts.
After five weeks, the PoWs reached the external wall of the building (and therefore of its pavement) and were thus forced to dig down to avoid being detected on the surface. More slats were removed to prop up the tunnel. They also had to think about the air supply, which was ensured using some empty Red Cross tins glued together with clay. After a while, they hit a cement object. Once they opened it, the PoWs realised it was a sewer drain, which spread its stench in the tunnel. The work had to stop «just in time». The Italians, in fact, were suspicious of something and conducted a surprise search which led to the discovery of two unused tunnels and supplies hidden by the PoWs. The prisoners were forced to attend another roll call at noon, which hindered the excavation of the tunnel, but Robert’s group did not give up and organised shifts to continue.
Six non-digging officers pretended to be sick in bed. Their names were handed to the Italians each day on a nominal roll. However, they paraded, their places being taken by dummies to cover the six people in the tunnel. Surprisingly, this ruse succeeded on the several occasions when there was a snap search.
The work continued, although the conditions underground were hellish: the outflow from the sewer drain, which had to be “pierced” to continue digging, caused two men to faint, and one of them almost died. However, after three more months, the group hit the wall’s foundations. Emboldened by this success, they kept digging and soon encountered some roots and other signs confirming they had reached the camp outside. They also built a rudimentary periscope to determine their position more accurately.
At this point, however, it was already September. Robert and his comrades did not fully understand what was happening in Italy but decided to wait since the Senior British Officer ordered all PoWs not to escape. However, a few days later, the camp was occupied by the Germans, who got ready to deport the PoWs. Although the SBO insisted they had to stay in the camp, «we decided that it was time to go». «The break-out was somewhat of an anti-climax; after waiting underground for several hours, we assumed that the camp was empty and made a trouble-free break out at night».
Robert began marching toward the south with two companions, keeping to the hills near the Adriatic coast. After 10 days, they started hearing the explosions coming from the front line. However, when they came close to it, they ran into a German patrol and were captured.
The section commander was suspicious, as well he might, and ordered us to dig a slit trench while mounting the MG 42 facing us. Unpleasant thoughts crossed our minds. However, “luckily” we all came under fire, and the Germans departed – in very good order.
Robert and his companions were spotted by the Allied vanguard, who rescued them. He was brought south, but his stay in Italy was far from over. He would be in charge of operation Galia, conducted by the SAS. He and his men were parachuted onto the position of another escaped PoW, Major Gordon Lett, in the Valley of Rossano, and fought the Nazi-Fascists between the end of December 1944 and February 1945.