Stanley Skinner

WO 208/3325/48

Stanley Skinner, Corporal in the 7th Armoured Division of the 2nd Middlesex Yeomanry, was captured in North Africa on 8 April 1941 during the Axis offensive against Tobruk. Skinner and the other prisoners spent only a short time in the prison camps in Africa, but their captors often used them as workers without regard for the Geneva Conventions. In at least two instances, in fact, Skinner was put to work to help the war effort of the Axis. In Derna, where he spent a week, the prisoners were made to work in the airfield. In Benghazi, where Skinner remained from 21 April until 10 May, he worked in the docks, unloading petrol from the ships. After a brief stop in Tripoli, he finally arrived in Italy on 20 May 1941 and was put in PG 66, Capua. Roughly one month later, on 21 June, he was transferred to PG 78, Sulmona, where he spent the following two years until the Armistice between Italy and the Allies.

When the news of the Armistice spread in the camp, the Italian sentries disappeared, and Skinner and the other PoWs were instructed by the Senior British Officer (SBO) to hide in the nearby mountains to avoid being captured by the Germans. As the enemy drew near, Skinner and a small group of PoWs managed to reach the village of Roccacarmanico on the Maiella mountains, 20km away from Sulmona. Skinner, unfortunately, does not give many details on this first stop, but evidently, the PoWs were taken in by the locals. However, on 10 October, the group was forced to flee again on the mountains, as a German patrol suddenly appeared in the village. The escapees hid in some caves in the area, up the mountains, at 4,000 feet above the ground. The villagers, however, continued to help them by providing them with «blankets and food».

The harsh conditions in which they lived and the awareness that the Germans were hunting them made Skinner and his companions quite uneasy:

By the end of Oct[ober], we became worried and impatient, as the expected push through to Pescara had not come off. We received reports that the Sangro river was in flood and could not be crossed by swimming. All the bridges were very well guarded. It began to snow, and we were forced to abandon our caves […] We tried unsuccessfully to cross the Sangro river near Qaudri but had to return across the mountains to the village of Pacentro, not far from our former P/W camp. The people took us in and gave us every possible assistance.

On 11 November, however, the Germans arrived once more in the village, and the escapees (they were 13 at this point, as four more PoWs joined them while they were hiding in the caves) had to go into hiding again. The Germans, in reality, did not come to the village to search for PoWs. They were instead looking for young Italians to put them to work on the fortifications on the southern front. The fragility of the relationship between the escapees and the local population came to light, and Skinner and his comrades were betrayed:

We had only been in the caves [for] about an hour when a German patrol entered with an Italian, who seemingly had sold the other four soldiers for 1,800 lire to the Germans, who were very surprised to find 13 of us.
We were all put into a goal for two days and then returned to the P/W camp in Sulmona, from where we were moved to Campo 102 in Aquila on 18 Nov[ember].

Skinner’s escape ended after only two months, but he did not lose hope. Escape from PG 102, however, «was practically impossible», and he had to bid his time. Skinner remained in the camp until 8 December 1943, when the Germans decided to move a few hundred PoWs to Germany, as the camp was getting overcrowded. Even though the prisoners had been searched before they left, Skinner managed to smuggle a small penknife with him to the cattle cart on which he had been loaded with other PoWs. Immediately, he started to cut a small hole in the bottom of the cart. However, while the train was still in the station and he was at work, the whole convoy was bombed by an Allied raid on the city:

I was flung out of our truck and lost consciousness. When I came to, I found myself amongst a heap of bodies and pinned down by a piece of rail. I tried to get up, but it was impossible. The station was a heap of rubble. Many of the trucks containing P/W were blazing, and the whole station was littered with bodies. The munition dump near the station had been blown up.

Wounded and unable to move, Skinner managed to attract the attention of two German soldiers who lifted the piece of rail that was pinning him down. The soldiers then left, looking for other survivors and convinced that he was unable to walk. However, despite his conditions, Skinner got up and took advantage of the confusion to disappear from the scene. He crossed a field and got onto a road, where he ran into an Italian who instructed him to reach the town hospital. «I began to feel very weak owing to loss of blood, but I knew that this was my only opportunity to get away».

Once more, the Italian network of protection was activated. Skinner was admitted to the hospital and spent a difficult week there, receiving three surgical operations (he had severe wounds and shrapnel that had to be removed deep in his body near internal organs.) His presence was kept hidden from the Germans. He was put in a room with two other wounded escaped PoWs, all under the protection of the head of the hospital. However, once more, other Italians acted differently and on 8 January 1944 a German Seargent Major entered their room, accompanied by an Italian woman interpreter:

I was in the first bed, and he asked me if I was an Italian or an Englishman. I answered in Italian and tried to bluff him, but it was useless, as he knew that all three of us were English. I felt sure that someone had sold us.

After being found out, the three were informed that a German doctor would visit them the next day. During the night, one of them, Corporal Richards (who was lightly wounded in the leg), managed to escape thanks to an Italian girl who brought him civilian clothes.

The following morning, the Germans arrived with a M.O. to find only two of us. Our Italian doctor and two nurses were put into prison […]. The Sgt. Major [the other PoW hospitalised with Skinner] was transferred to a German hospital, but I was left, as I was in too serious a condition to be moved. They threatened, however, that if I escaped, the Italian professor [the hospital director] would be shot.

This threat, however, did not deter the Italian doctor who, after talking to Skinner and reassuring him of his support, devised a plan to prevent his transfer. The two decided to leave open the wound Skinner had from his operation to the colon. This provided a medical excuse to avoid Skinner’s deportation to Germany.

This allowed Skinner to spend the following months in the hospital until, in June, the Allied breached the front line at Cassino. At this point, Skinner was moved northwards by the Germans, passing through various hospitals and Lazzaretts (storage areas). On 2 June, he was moved to the Aquila field Lazzarett. Then, on 7 June, he was transferred to Assisi, where he spent a few days. Finally, on 12 June, he was taken to  San Sepolcro (Arezzo) hospital, where he remained for a week. On 18 June, he was told he was scheduled to depart for Germany in a few days. However, while feeling better, he decided to attempt to escape again, also because he had been told that the Allies were advancing and had been sighted south of Perugia.

I went to the surgery to be dressed, as my colostomy wound was at that time still open. When the medical orderlies were not looking, I stole from the room I was in and went downstairs. I walked casually with my hands in my pockets, expecting to be challenged at any moment. My clothes consisted of a Jugoslav grey military jacket and a pair of German green trousers. I hoped that I would be taken for an Italian who worked in the hospital, as they wore all sorts of odd clothing. I went down three flights of stairs and out in the street, passing several German officers and soldiers without being spoken to. Once in the street, I made my way through the town, which was full of German troops, and entered a big church.

Since he required constant medical attention (his wound had to be dressed regularly), Skinner decided that his best bet was to find shelter again in a civilian hospital. Inside the church, he ran into a woman who was there cleaning, and she sent him to the town’s hospital. Skinner reached it at dusk and immediately went to talk with the director:

He received me in a very friendly manner and promised me all possible help. He said, however, that he was taking a great risk and was afraid that some spy or Fascist might give us away. He told me never to speak English and that he would tell anyone who might enquire that I was an Italian soldier.

Skinner spent the following seven weeks in the hospital, in a room with some elderly patients, sheltered by the Italian personnel until August 1944, when the Allies came close to the village:

The town was filled with partisans who fought the few remaining Germans and drove them out of the town. I sent an Italian across to the British Command with a message asking them to be taken into our lines, but I was told to wait. The following day (8 Aug[ust]), I met a jeep with two sergeants of the Photography Corps, who took me to the British lines.

After a short stop, Skinner was transferred to Naples and on 18 September 1944, he left the city on the hospital ship Orange. He finally returned home after three and a half years in Italy.

Camps related to this story


TNA WO 208/3325/48, Skinner, S. Prisoners of War Section. Escape/Evasion Reports: Code MI9/SPG: 2815.