Guardsman Rowland Hewinson was captured in Tobruk in June 1942 and immediately moved to a camp in Derna, where he proved his resilient attitude by giving the «V» sign with his finger to the guards, who reacted by firing on him. Later, he was transferred to Benghazi, a camp where the hygienic conditions were terrible, and he suffered from dysentery without being treated by his captors. Eventually, after three months, he was transferred again, at first to Tripoli and then to Sicily, finally reaching PG 146 Villanterio (Pavia). He was put to work on a farm, «which I hoped would build up my strength again so that I could escape». However, he did not need to escape. The farm’s owner, a German, grew respectful of him, and when Rowland and another PoW decided to leave, he let them. Moreover, he also supplied them with a hat and a cape to better blend with the population and instructions on how to reach Switzerland. However, the two escapees decided to head south to meet the Allied armies, which had just landed in Sicily.
During the first period of their escape, Rowland and his comrade lived off stolen grapes and some bread provided by the local farmers. The two claimed they were disbanded Italian soldiers travelling to Naples.
This at one time almost proved our undoing, for we were spotted by a Fascist Colonel who told us who we were and who he was as he was dressed in civilian clothes. However, as he saw I was about to disarm him, he decided to help us through the town to get even with the Germans who had shot his son as a deserter the previous evening.
The journey was long and difficult, but the two avoided being recaptured. However, by this point in the season, the rivers were becoming swollen, and they could only cross the Trebbia under the nose of the German sentries patrolling it. In the end, Rowland managed to cross «in the midst of a flock of sheep which were driven into the water» on the main road to Bobbio (Piacenza). However, as winter was approaching, the two had to change their plans because it became impossible to march in the snow. Rowland and his companion were welcomed by some friendly Italians who hid them between Pradovera and Bettola (Piacenza). Paolo, their host, housed them in a barn and brought them milk and bread every morning. Rowland felt finally safe: «we thought no-one would come in such bad weather». However, soon enough, an enemy patrol arrived:
Fortunately, that day we had been invited to the house opposite Paolo’s, and we looked out to see the Fascists surrounding Paolo’s. As the penalty for harbouring any escaped P.O.W. was death, we decided to leave the comfort of the barn and take to the mountains. We built a hut there and only a few trusted friends knew of its existence.
Rowland, in the middle, in front of the hut in the woods.
The two slept in a different place every night and were always hunted and hungry. They were helped by another Italian who was eventually caught by the Germans and deported to Germany. «At one time, 200 troops, tanks and spotter planes failed to trap us, and many Italian youths died.» Exhausted, Rowland returned to Paolo’s house, where he caused a commotion, as the family believed he was dead and they were having a wake.
At this point, Rowland decided to aid the Italians helping him, becoming the village’s handyman. He took the name «Rolando» (which he used for the rest of his stay in Italy) and did various jobs, including as a veterinarian and as a sawing machine mechanic. «My ‘fame’ spread, but of course, there were failures too. […] Anything broken required my attention – ‘Rolando will fix it – God willing’. Most of this work was done in secret at night».
There were also partisans organising in the area. Rowland contacted a band led by «Rosso», under the control of a Communist Yugoslavian, which operated in the mountains. However, he disapproved of their methods («many an old score was settled on the pretext that the victims were fascist»), which often resulted in brutality: «I reprimanded him about his brutal treatment of a Fascist Colonel who was led like a prize pig round the villages, his moustache pulled out with a pair of pliers, kicked, beaten and finally killed with a pick axe». Rowland, thus, decided to join the Resistance with two otherBritish officers in March 1944, «to band the Italian youths together». Soon, he met Captain Treham Gregg (known as «Ganner» among the partisans), the leader of a partisan band, and became his second-in-command. Ganner’s band was in contact with Gordon Lett and the Special Operations Executive (SOE), and soon the first airdrops started to arrive. To receive them, the partisans even built a small landing strip.
Rowland seemed to enjoy his life as a partisan and fought with intensity and bravery. He enjoyed far less the political disputes among the bands. Tensions with Rosso rose with time, despite the meetings between Captain Gregg and the partisan leader. When the former was called for a secret meeting with representatives of the Allied Military Government (AMG), Rowland found himself in charge of the situation:
I little thought that power meant so much to leaders like ‘Montenegreno’, ‘Rosso’ or ‘Barbera’ and I never knew just how much work Captain Gregg had to put in to uphold the British prestige until I was left in charge. […] when he was secretly called away, many [Italians] thought he had forsaken them. I could not tell them the truth under oath and so only I stood between right and wrong. Gregg and I set out to sell the British way of life to the Italians, we tried to be fair and fight fair and to achieve the same results as others were, by torture and murder, and I think we did too. We gained respect from his [Gregg’s] leadership and a cloud settled over our detachment when he disappeared.
Rowland, bottom right, with his partisans.
Rowland escaped an attempt on his life one night in Bettola, as shots were fired upon him. The officer was convinced that Rosso was trying to get rid of him. Moreover, he was ordered to move his band to the plains, in a more dangerous area, exposed to the enemy’s attacks. «I obeyed as I couldn’t lose face at this stage». As tension skyrocketed, Rowland challenged Rosso to a duel to settle the score. However, as the duel was about to start, Captain Gregg came back. «I never was so glad to see anyone in all my life.» Taking advantage of the confusion, Rosso slipped away. Gregg used his influence to move the band back to the mountains and managed to defuse the situation:
After one heated exchange, a meeting was arranged by letter between Gregg and Montenegreno both to meet unarmed at an appointed village. I was instructed by Gregg to cover him from inside an old barn in case of treachery, such was the distrust and tension at this stage. Rosso was moved with his band and given the post of Chief of Police at Borgotaro, 50 miles away.
At this point, the officers started evacuating Allied PoWs to the south, as the AMG delegates had ordered Gregg to do. In November 1944, Rowland decided it was time for him to return, «hoping then to join A.M.G.O.T. [Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories] to be parachuted back into northern Italy to help escapees and shot down airmen». After a difficult and perilous journey, Rowland ran into some American soldiers in the village of Levignani (Lucca). He was finally in friendly territory after 15 months as a PoW and more than one year as an escapee. However, things did not go as he had imagined. He was brought to Florence, interrogated, and then asked if he needed to see a doctor: «I accepted as I had a nasty rash, was taken to hospital in an ambulance for treatment, but ended up in a V.D. ward full of American negroes». After one week, the mistake was discovered, and he was transferred, but again to the wrong rest centre and, on top of that, wearing an American uniform. «I painted the town red with a Canadian Sergeant recuperating from war wounds, he supplying the money, I supplying the Italian language [sic]. We were picked up by Red Caps and placed under arrest.» Rowland was loaded on a lorry and treated as a deserter. « When [I] asked where they were taking me, they said “Back to the Battalion”, I said “Where was that?” to which they replied “Where do you think it is – where did you leave it?”, I said “Tobruk.”» Finally, things were adequately explained, and he was taken back to Florence and, from there, to Naples. There, the AMG interviewed him, but they told him he could not enlist with them before returning to the United Kingdom.
Back at Pirbright, I was told once a Guardsman, always a Guardsman, but I would be trained for Japan. I was told I would be recommended for the Military Medal. […] I visualised having to parade before the Battalion to be presented with this, but it was presented to me by a postman at a farm cottage in Buckinghamshire, two years after official notification in the London Gazette.
- MSMT: https://archives.msmtrust.org.uk/pow-index/hewison-rowland/ da qui provengono anche tutte le foto
- TNA, WO 373/64/669, Recommendation for Award for Hewison, Rowland Rank: Guardsman Service No: 2660313.