William «Bill» Swan

Royal Durban Light Infantry

Prisoners of war being marched out of Tobruk shortly after the surrender
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-785-0294-32A / Tannenberg / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

South African Bill Swan, a lieutenant of the Royal Durban Light Infantry, was captured in Tobruk on 22 June 1942 by the Germans, who took him to Derna and then to Benghazi, «where we were bombed by our own Air Force who did not realise who we were». Three days later, they were boarded onto a plane and flown to Lecce and then Bari, where Bill remained for a month. At the end of the summer, he was transferred to PG 21 Chieti, where he started learning Italian. Three months later, he was assigned to PG 47 Modena. «It was here my old friend Peter Campbell turned up». Peter was in the South African Air Force and had been shot down in Libya. He made the journey to Italy via submarine, lying inside a torpedo tube.

Life in the camp was slow, interrupted only by a few escape attempts, which all ended with the escapees’ recapture. Bill and Peter, too, were plotting their escape, but they were interrupted by the announcement of the Armistice.

I was called to an ordinance […] meeting, there I was told that the plan for a mass breakout would no longer take place. I stood up and said Peter and I wanted to escape anyway and would take our chances. Peter was waiting for me outside, so I collected my pack. The Germans were already in the camp at this stage and were all over the place but had not manned the outside sentry box. We went to the wall. Peter climbed on my shoulders and got on top, then three others came along, and we helped them over, then they pulled me up. We then pulled up the barbed wire and crawled under. We […] crossed a field, then walked about a mile down a tarred road where we came to a house. The people were friendly and gave us civilian clothes in exchange for our uniforms.

The group kept marching, avoiding a German patrol by the skin of their teeth and found refuge in the house of an Italian general, whose wife hid them in a nearby chapel. The next day, they headed to the Apennines, but Bill, exhausted, collapsed. The men were rescued by a local girl, who brought them to her family house in «Ranoccio» (sic.), where they stayed for a few days to allow Bill to recover. Meanwhile, their hosts devised a plan for the escapees: they would reach Florence by train with an Italian guide, Sesto. At this point, the group split, and Bill and Peter went with Sesto to the train station, got on the train to Florence, and got off in Fiesole, where they were housed on a farm on the outskirts of town.

The lady [the houseowner] was a Colonel’s wife, and we were allowed to listen to the BBC news that night – the first news we had heard for some time. She allowed us to bed down in the cow byre in the hay racks above the cows. The next morning we were taken by one of her servants to the station and put on the train, and alighted at a place called Tarantula (sic.). This was fairly close to a large lake called Lake Trasimeno.

Here, they were welcomed into another house. Their previous hostess had given them the address of an Italian officer, General Murro, who lived in the area, and the three went to his estate. However, the servant who answered their call refused to let them in, and soon the situation became dangerous:

While we were arguing at the gate, someone passed and said a German patrol was coming along the road. We dashed into a field and then into a steep, donga-like ditch full of brambles. Peter went first, then Sesto, who got hooked up in the brambles and, in his struggles, landed on Peter, and they both fell through to the bottom, scratched, angry and afraid. I followed more sedately.

The three men skirted round Trasimeno and found refuge in a charcoal burner’s house. On the next day, their host brought another Italian to them, «Count Gianni», who gave the escapees some tea, a new pair of trousers for Peter («I was really pleased that I would not have to look up at Peter’s bottom as we climbed the mountains!»), and a map. Now that they had gained this equipment, the three reached a train station along the river Tiber, where they managed to get on a train. However, they had to get off a few hours later and return to the mountains. « It was not safe to stay too long in the valleys as all the main roads ran here and were swarming with Germans». Along the way, they were helped by even the most suspicious-looking Italians:

At one spot in the mountains, we again asked at a house for shelter and food. We waited there until the husband turned up. To our horror, he was dressed in uniform with an armband that said ‘Polizie’ (sic.) and was evidently employed by the Germans. However, it made no difference to him, and he asked us in to share their meal of grapes and figs picked on the way […].

Other times, instead, they put themselves at risk:

We saw a barber shop, so I thought I would avail myself of his services and have a cut. I left Peter outside, and he soon drifted off and cadged cheese and lots of wine. By the time I came out, he was pretty drunk, so I thought I had better get him off the street. The barber took us into his house, and his wife gave us pasta to eat. Peter was singing and talking loudly in English and missing his mouth with the spaghetti which was draped round his ears. This was all very funny, but I was very anxious as had the Germans arrived, Peter would have given us away. Eventually, in desperation, I spoke sternly to him and said, “Peter, remember you are a British Officer!” This penetrated, but to the day he died, he remembered this story and loved to pull my leg about it.

Avoiding more German patrols, Bill, Peter, and Sesto reached Assisi, but the town was teeming with Germans. The Italians help them, and they found refuge in a stable in the mountains. They soon resumed their journey, even though their path is unclear. They were forced to stop at a certain point as Peter suffered from bouts of dysentery. Once more, the Italians offered them shelter, and they managed to rest and recuperate, even if Peter suffered some embarrassment: «They had no toilet, so Peter had to go among the vines and use vine leaves for toilet paper! This didn’t embarrass the Italians at all, and the women would sit on the wall and talk to Peter while he was busy. He certainly did not appreciate this attention».

The three men were joined by another escapee, Denis Hickman. With some difficulties, the group reached the vicinity of Cassino, then crossed the Rapido River and finally arrived in the village of Guardiaregia (Campobasso), where they met some Canadian troops. They were brought to Bari in the following days, where they said their goodbyes to Sesto. Eventually, Bill and Peter were transferred to Cairo, where Bill, by chance, encountered his brother Jack: «I walked straight up to him and said “Hello Jack”. He turned round to face me, not knowing who the person was that greeted him! He did not recognise his own very thin and emaciated brother at all». The two former PoWs were sent to South Africa, but Bill was soon sent back to Italy: he fought on the Monte Cassino front, the same area he had traversed during his escape.