William John Frank (Jack) Clarke

Second Lieutenant, Royal Army Ordnance Corps – Lieutenant, Royal electrical and Mechanical Engineers

Jack was captured in Libya on 8 April 1941. He was transferred to Italy and spent two years in various camps. At first, in PG 17 Rezzanello, then PG 41 Montalbo, and finally PG 49 Fontanellato. He escaped on 8 September 1943.

Jack Clarke, 1944
Source: Malcom Tudor, Prisoners and partisans

The possibility of an Armistice with Italy was first made known to the prisoners in camp 49 on the evening of September 8th 1943, at about 8:00 p.m.  No confirmation was available, but there seemed to be little doubt of the fact.  No special action was taken, and the PoWs retired to bed, as usual, that evening.  In the morning, the guards were still in their sentry boxes, and the SBO was informed at a meeting with the Commandant that he had received no orders from his HQ but that in the event of an attack on the camp by the Germans, he would defend the camp, and therefore also the POWs, from such attack.  It was, however, fairly obvious that the forces at his disposal would be unable to put up any effective resistance against any German force, and it was later decided that in the event of news being received of German forces approaching the camp, the Commandant would allow the POWs to leave the camp area and take refuge in the neighbouring woods and fields.

On 11 September, following an order from Lt. Col. Hugo de Burgh,, the PoWs left the camp in groups. Around 1 pm, the evacuation was completed, and the Germans arrived roughly two hours later. The escapees spent the night on the banks of the Rovacchia stream (Bund), a few kilometres from the camp. However, it was soon apparent that keeping together some 600 men was impossible. They thus decided to split the group into smaller parties. Some former PoWs, including Jack, volunteered to work on one of the nearby farms, but this arrangement did not satisfy him or his companion,   Costas Jacovides, a Cypriot.

The two approached Bianca Galati in Fontanellato (Parma), who had previously brought them food and were welcomed in her house for a few days.

However, for security reasons, they soon moved in the following weeks to a farm in Cannetolo (Parma), belonging to the Gotti family. Meanwhile, the German offered a reward to whoever could bring them an escaped PoW and threatened harsh penalties for whoever sheltered one.  «In spite of these notices, the Italians did not, as far as I know, give up any prisoners». 

Jack and Costas stayed in Cannerolo from 16 to 27 September, helping on the farm. Their conditions were good: they were fed and slept in a comfortable bed. Their hosts nicknamed them Gianni (Jack) and Mario (Costas).

On 20 September, however, the Germans started combing through the area, catching many PoWs in the farmhouses that were housing them. Thus, Jack and Costas were forced to make a decision: 

We could have stayed on indefinitely, but it became obvious to me that the British forces were not going to make any rapid advance up the Italian peninsula. In fact, at this time, they were struggling for a very precarious foothold on the beaches of Salerno. It, therefore, seemed to me that something had to be done. Jacovides was in favour of staying and waiting for the British to arrive. At the worst, he said it would be a matter of a month or two. I reckoned about three to six months, which was too long for me to wait.  In actual fact, the 5th Army arrived there at the end of April 1945, nearly 20 months.

Costas decided to stay while Jack left. He departed with Marcus Kane Burman of the African Medical Corps, the dentist at the Fontanellato PoW camp, and his aid, A.B. McLean. The three companions left Cannetolo at 5 am on 28 September 1943, heading north to cross the Swiss border. They crossed the Via Emilia without many problems and reached Costamezzana (Parma), where they were welcomed by a family who let them dry their clothes, drenched in the rain, and sleep in the stable. Every day, they moved to a different locality. Near Pellegrino Parmense, they met David Eraskine, John Dean and Gaston Vian, all from Fontanellato, who were also travelling toward Switzerland.

At the end of the week, they arrived in Morfasso (Piacenza), and here they decided to change their destination. Their objective became reaching the Allied front line in the south rather than crossing into Switzerland.

The first page of Jack’s account.
Source: J.Clarke account, MSMT

Their journey southward started on 2 October and, although regretful to retrace  their steps, they felt it was the right choice. In the following days, they crossed the river Ceno and reached Péssola (Parma), where they were invited into the priest’s house to listen to the nine o’clock news. Unfortunately, the news was not reassuring, as the Allies were advancing rather slowly.

During their journey, they always found a family willing to help them, providing them with food and shelter, often in exchange for dental work.

Before leaving Scanza, K-B once again paid his way by pulling out a couple of teeth, this time for a child.  All this tooth extraction had, of course, to be done without any sort of anaesthetic and was quite unpleasant, not only for the victims but also for us who were helping and listening to their screams.

On Saturday, 9 October, they reached Gazzano (Reggio Emilia) with four other former PoWs who had escaped from Fontanellato. They stopped there a few days to rest and resupply.

On 12 October, they climbed the Appennines, guided by a family (with two mules) who was returning home for the winter. Their journey along the Apennines, now covered in snow, lasted 38 days. In November, the three reached Villa Santa Maria (Chieti), where they met two escapees from Fontanellato. Together, they headed towards Frattura (district of Sanno, L’Aquila). The village was on the hills above the Sangro river, from which they could see the Allied troops below.

On 19 November, while they were approaching the frontline, Jack and his two companions were intercepted and captured by a German patrol. During the following days, they were transferred to Lazio, near Frosinone. On 30 November, they were loaded onto a train heading to Germany. Jack, with many other PoWs, decided he wanted to escape:

An axe, which had been taken from the Germans in the P.O.W. Camp at Frosinone, was concealed and taken into the train.  After the train had started, the wall of the cattle truck was cut partly through by means of the axe. On the first night, however, (Dec. 3rd/4th), the train remained stationary in Rome station all night, and no escape was possible.
On the next night (4th/5th), the train started at about 1:30 a.m. and the work of cutting the hole was immediately completed. Just before 2:00 a.m. I escaped, a number of others having already gone in the previous few minutes.  
Immediately after jumping from the truck, I walked along the track and re-joined Lt. Laing, who had jumped in front of me. We then remained hidden until daylight, after which we continued on our way to Florence.

Florence, however, was 233 kilometres away. The two escapees found refuge in a Franciscan monastery, where they remained for a few days. Later, they reached Santa Brigida, near Pontassieve, where Laing had been welcomed during his journey south before being recaptured.

On 21 December, they were in Florence, guests of an industrialist family, Valvona-Buti, who had already assisted more than 14 escaped PoWs. They spent two months in their house. In January, equipped with fake documents, Jack and Anthony left Florence to reach Venice, escorted by a Communist, Angelo Salvatore. They aimed to cross the Yugoslavian border, contact the Slovene partisans and cross the Adriatic with a boat. The plan, however, did not come to fruition, and they were forced to return to Florence.

On 21 February 1945, they were involved in a new escape plan, this time toward Switzerland. They reached Milan and then left for Laveno, on  Lake Maggiore. They crossed the lake by ferry and went to Cannobio, on the other side. Their instructions were to knock on a coffee house’s door and give the owner a password. He would bring them on a path to Scraggio, where they would meet their guides. The two left at 5 am on 24 February 1945 and reached the top of the mountain around noon. Then, they finally crossed the border and entered Switzerland.

We left at dawn and, like all good Italian businessmen, in gents’ natty city suits and shoes and carrying briefcases, we slipped and slithered our way up to a col, which we were assured was the Swiss frontier, and where we said goodbye to our guides. We descended similarly on the other side and, having just reached the tree line, were happily and carelessly talking when a voice behind us called “alt”. Turning, I saw a German soldier in the usual field grey uniform. My heart sank. Had we failed again? But no, he was a Swiss soldier.

Jack’s journey lasted 168 days (his companions Marcus Kane and McLean also managed to escape and reach Switzerland) and encompassed 44 localities. After the war, Jack received a Mention in Despatches for his bravery during his escape, while Marcus Kane Burman was awarded the MBE for providing healthcare to his fellow PoWs.