Robert Sydney Jones

Imperial War Museums 25573

Robert Sydney Jones[1] was born in Perth, Australia, in 1916. An aircraft enthusiast, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 1939. Initially, he remained in Australia as a pilot trainer, but in August 1941, he was deployed to the Middle East. On 1 December 1942, during a mission escorting a bomber, Jones’s squadron was attacked by enemy fighters. After downing one, it was Jones’s turn, and he was forced to crash land on the dunes of the desert near El Agheila on the Libyan coast. At this point, since he was miraculously unscathed, Jones decided to attempt to cross the front line and get back to British-controlled territory following the coast.

During the second night, however, he slipped and fell on the side of a dune, ending where he most definitively did not want to: in the middle of an enemy encampment (near Marsa Brega). Jones tried to hide in an area used as an outhouse, but it was already dawn, and he was quickly discovered and captured. After a short questioning and a rich meal offered to him at the Italian officers’ mess hall, he was loaded on a truck with other PoWs to be transferred. Without losing any time, Jones attempted to escape:

I was sitting in the truck, and they were loading people, they were loading things onto the truck, and I noticed there was a flap at the side that was loose. And […] looking around, seeing how many people were around the place, and it seemed to be very few around, so I slipped down out of the truck and just started to walk off, and I got around about 80 [yards] going towards the sand dunes and where the bushes were. And I got around about 80 yards […], and I suddenly heard yells and screams and looked around, and there were four blokes with guns […]. I thought I was going to be shot; my hands went up very quickly.

Jones was brought to a prison camp in Sirte, in the desert. The PG camp was little more than an open space surrounded by barbed wire. As Jones recalled, it was «just sand». The PoWs (roughly 1000) could only walk in circles and chat to pass the time.

After a short time spent in these conditions, Jones and his companions were moved again, this time to Tripoli, where they were locked in a prison. With his cellmate, Sargent Cameron (RAAF),[2] Jones began to saw the bars on the cell’s window, using the hacksaw they had with them. «I didn’t even know I had a hacksaw, and he said: “Yes, they are in your flight boots”». During the following two days, the two worked tirelessly and finally managed to saw the bars and escape from the building.

Once outside, however, they did not know precisely what to do. They decided to walk across the desert despite not having any supplies, hoping to receive aid from the local population. After roughly three days, the two ran into a group of Arabs near Misrata, who greeted them warmly and invited the escapees to follow them to an oasis in the South. However, once they reached their destination, Jones and his companions realised they had been betrayed: their guides, in fact, handed them over to some Italian troops, who brought them back to Tripoli.

The following day, Jones and other PoWs were loaded onto a ship and transferred to Naples in very harsh conditions. They were kept in the ship’s hull, in the dark, without food or water. Afterwards, Jones was taken to PG 66 Capua, where he remained for about two months. The camp was severely overcrowded, and hygienic conditions were deplorable. In March 1943, he started digging a tunnel to escape with other PoWs, but the guards discovered their attempt. As a result, he was transferred again, this time to PG 35 Padula, a camp housed inside an ancient monastery, where he was kept until May 1942 when he was transferred to PG 78 Sulmona.

In this camp, Jones met a few familiar faces: some friends from Perth and others he had met in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, it took only a short time for him and his friends to start planning their escape from the camp.

I learned that they had been underway with a tunnel […] for some months, and they were well […] underneath the wall and past a couple of the barbed wire fences […], and they were looking forward to breaking out.

Unfortunately, however, the tunnel was discovered by the guards:

They had reached the stage where they were just about ready to break out and they came up to the surface one night and they discovered they came up just on the path and so that gave them a shock and they had to fill that in and cover it so that nobody could see it. Unfortunately, the following day, one of the [civilians] […] of the area around there was walking along with his donkeys and the donkey put a foot through the roof and that’s how it was discovered.

Jones’ hopes were thus frustrated again, and the Australian spent more than a year as a prisoner in PG 78 until the summer of 1943. By this point, as he recalled, the notion that the Allies were about to land in Southern Italy was spreading amongst the PoWs. However, his hopes of being rescued were shattered once more. In June 1943, in fact, he was transferred again, with other prisoners, to PG 19 Bologna, in the North of Italy, away from the supposed Allied landings. Nonetheless, his stay in this camp was brief. On 8 September 1943, the Armistice was proclaimed, and immediately, the Germans occupied the camp. «One night an Italian guard ran down our hall we were sleeping in and said “The Germans are here! The Germans are here!”. And next thing the Germans were in, and we were all […] put behind a barbed wire fence».

Around 10 September 1943, Jones and his fellow PoWs were informed that they would be transferred to Germany. «We were very, very concerned about that». The prisoners were loaded onto a train headed north, and Jones had to share his wooden cart with 35 other Allied officers. At this point, he had lost a lot of strength in his body because of the long imprisonment. The lack of food had caused a considerable weight loss, as Jones had lost about 20 kg. However, he retained his will to escape and he found some support among the other PoWs in the cart.

One of the chaps had a little steel knife […] and then somebody suggested that we cut just by the door handle, and we cut a little square […] sufficient to put your fist through and grab the door handle and open it. […] At about 3 am […] we decided that was the time to go […] and we jumped down in order […]. The Germans discovered that we were getting out […] I heard machine guns been fired. […] I was lucky, I was the third one to go out […] and when I hit the ground, I immediately rolled in towards the wheels so that I was protected. And I just stayed there until the last truck […] and I rolled and got over the line and down into the corn fields as quickly as possible.

Jones had managed to escape, but he did not know what to do or where he was (near Lavis, about 10 Km North of Trento). Wandering across the corn fields, he stumbled across Lieutenant Mair, another escapee, and they reached an orchard, where they ran into another former PoW, Frederic Felix Hendriques Eggleston, «Freddy», a pilot in Jones’s squadron in Egypt. The latter proved to be an invaluable helper, as he was fluent in both Italian and German.

Despite their scepticism, the three soon discovered they did not need to hide their identities from the local population: «We found that the Italians were anti-Mussolini […] and anti-Germans. And as a result of that we were able to get […] some clothes for us». However, they still did not know what to do. After much deliberation, they decided to go to Switzerland. They thus left the area, following the directions of the Italians who had provided them with civilian clothes.

The aid of the Italians was also pivotal when crossing the river Adige. The bridge they wanted to use, in fact, was guarded by the Germans on both ends, but a local woman helped Jones and his companions:

We saw a woman with […] two young children and she spoke to Freddy and said, “You are English, aren’t you?” And Freddy explained […] the situation, and she said, “All right, you come with me”. […] She said to Freddy “Take my arm and the other two take the hands of the two little girls” […]. And that’s exactly what we did, and we walked straight past the guards from both ends without any problems at all with Freddy chatting away and we were laughing at the kids.

The woman then guided them to the village of Fai and the beginning of a path which led into the mountains. The three continued their journey to Andalo, where they were sheltered and fed by the population. In this way, they passed from one village to the next, as they could always count on the locals’ aid.

Very fortunately, all the people were very cooperative. […] In some case we were able to be fed and others would just give us a drink […]. They were very helpful directing us to the tracks across the mountains.

After days on the march, through Sant’Antonio di Mavignola, Ponte di Legno, Santa Caterina, and Bormio, the group reached Livigno, near the Swiss border. Here, they met some local smugglers who agreed to guide them across the border in exchange for payment. Luckily, they all still had their watches, which they were able to sell to pay the smugglers.

The group thus left Livigno and started their march at about 3 in the morning. Guided by the smugglers, Jones and his companions climbed up the mountains. Finally, the following day, 21 September 1943, they crossed the border near the village of Scanfs (today Schanf) without meeting a living soul on the way.

The escapees were taken in by the Swiss police and then passed to the British authorities in the country. Jones remained in Switzerland for about a year and was later evacuated through France, passing through Grenoble. He then reached Rome on 3 September 1944.[3] From there, he was sent to London, where he arrived in December 1944. He remained in the British capital for more than two years and was able to go back home only in March 1946.




Imperial War Museums 25573, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80023979 
AWM65 2917 – [RAAF biographical files] JONES Robert Sydney 290726



[1] Written «Sidney» in the Imperial War Museums’ documents.

[2] Jones referred to him using only the name «Tiny», most likely a nickname making fun of Cameron’s appearance. «Tiny», in fact, was 1.90m tall and «incredibly strong».

[3] Or possibly Naples, Jones’s recollection was not clear on this.