Escape Routes in Italy – 1943/44

It is now over sixty-five years since the last Allied Escaper or Evader was hidden and cared for by the brave ‘contadini’ of the Italian countryside. Many of the ‘fugitives’ were taken through enemy occupied territory and eventually reached the Allied Lines and freedom. Many more were hidden in the countryside and mountain villages to await the advancing troops. Sir Winston Churchill wrote in his ‘History of the Second World War’, “Some 10,000 POWs in German occupied Italy were fed, hidden and guided by the Italian people, often the poorest from the Italian countryside. Many were shot for this great spontaneous gesture of humanity”.

At the end of the war the courageous ‘helpers’ throughout Europe were at last able to ’take stock’; the cost of their assistance was finally revealed. That cost was appalling. Across all the former occupied territories it is thought that for every escaper or evader who reached freedom, many more helpers died. They died under the worst possible conditions: execution, torture, sub-human concentration camp conditions coupled with starvation and disease. In Italy the homes of the helpers were burnt to the ground and their livestock slaughtered. In Pietranseri, a town in the Sulmona valley, the townspeople were murdered; one child survived. Their crime? Assisting escapers. Other massacres also took place. The German army was particularly harsh on the Italian people after the 1943 Armistice. Sadly, at the end of the war, very little recognition was given to these brave people who had risked so much.

Escaping and evading in Italy was different from that in other parts of Europe. It has been said that it was more difficult to escape from an Italian POW camp than from a German camp due to the unpredictability of their regimes. There were no large, organised escape lines that could provide assistance and the only land border was via the Alps to the north. Most escapers and evaders had to travel by foot and whichever direction they went, whichever route they took, they had no option but to climb mountains.

Although there were no organised escape lines, there were a tremendous number of ‘Special Units’,  ‘Private Armies’ and organisations fighting in the battle plan alongside the conventional armies that also assisted with the collecting-in of escapers and evaders. They were organisations such as: Popski’s Private Army (PPA – 1 Demolition Unit), The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), The Commandos, Phantom Squadrons, Raiding Force, Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Section (SBS), Special Interrogation Group (SIG) (an Intelligence unit made up of German Jews who at times operated in German uniforms), The Parachute Regiment, The Special Operations Executive (SOE), 1 Special Force (1SF), IS9, ‘A’ Force and MI9, Partisans, Resistance Groups, The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and many other smaller groups.

Such an alliance of nations the world had never seen before and they were united in their opposition to the German forces and their allies from Eastern Europe – which included the Italian Fascists and the SS Legions recruited from most of the occupied countries of Western Europe.

The British army itself included forces from the Commonwealth and many other nations, all fighting for the common cause of freedom. They comprised of Indians, Ghurkas, Sikhs, Hindus. Moslems, South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders and Maoris. African Commonwealth countries and the West Indies also supplied troops. Every ethnic group and religion was represented on the battlefield including a Palestinian Brigade, an American Negro Division, a Japanese unit and many Italian Americans. Senegalese, Moroccans, North African Arabs and many African troops were part of the Free French Forces. Poland had an Army Corps that lost many men at Cassino. There were Hellenic Greeks, Cypriots and Egyptians too. Into this truly international environment walked the escapers and evaders.

Very few people escaped before the 08 September Armistice 1943. Some of the Allied POWs in Italy had been moved from France in 1942, but the majority had been captured in the North African campaign, in Libya or Egypt. They were of many nationalities including – Australian, South African, New Zealanders and Americans – but the vast majority were British with contingents from other European countries working as ‘Free’ forces alongside them.  At the beginning of September 1943 there were approximately 80,000 POWs being held in camps in Italy .

When the Allies announced the armistice,  they anticipated a German withdrawal from Italy, and orders had been issued to all POWs to stay put and await the arrival of the Allies. The reverse happened. German reinforcements poured into the country taking over the POW camps and most of the country. There were many escapes in the ensuing confusion. Those from camps in the north headed for Switzerland. Further south, thousands of escapers headed for the Allied lines in the south. Many escaped from the camps at Bologna, and at the officers’ camp at Fontanellato 600 marched out of the main gate, aided by their Italian guards, just one hour before the Germans arrived.

With little escape and evasion knowledge, no kit or equipment, each escaper organised his own ‘orders for the day’, mapped out his route as best he could and headed south. Reluctant to make contact with local people at first, they soon learnt that the prosperous looking farms were probably fascist and the small, old farms were the ordinary people of the Italian countryside, the ’contadini’. Once contact had been made the ‘contadini’ hid, clothed and fed the escapers, sharing what limited food they had – the Germans often stole the food from the farms and villages. Under a German proclamation, which covered Italy as well as the rest of Europe, the penalty for assisting escaping or evading Allied troops was that the men would be shot and the women sent to concentration camps – after harsh interrogation and torture, the torching of their homes and loss of their livestock. The escapers treatment, by comparison, was usually lenient – a return to a POW camp, although a number of former POWs were shot by the Germans when they were captured.

By Christmas Day 1943, the Allied front line had settled on the Sangro River. Allied Escapers from the north tended to head towards the less populated but mountainous east coast region. Escapers were already heading south and east from the camps at Servigliano and from three camps in the Tenna Valley near Pescara. Some were given shelter by the ‘charcoal burners’ in the woods or by the folk of the mountain villages. Many escapers joined up with the partisans and others worked the land for a short period as payment to their helpers.

Although Italy had few escape organisations, there was the Rome Network, which was ran by an Irish Priest in the Vatican, Monseigneur Hugh O’Flaherty [known as the Scarlet Pimpernel]  Working out of the security of the Vatican, O’Flaherty  found safe-houses, distributed food and provided money to escapers. It is thought that he assisted over 4000 escapers before he was denounced to the Gestapo and withdrew to the Vatican to escape further attention.

To the north, a POW escaper, Major Gordon Lett, was running his own ‘International’ Partisan Brigade based in the area around Rossano. The group was so successful that it also worked alongside the SOE and SAS, providing an extraction route for the SAS and an evasion route for escapers to the west coast. Records indicate that over 800 escapers followed this Ferrovia route which was run by Lt Danny Buchionni (later General Buchionni).

At PG 78 at Sulmona (which is still there today) many men had fled from the camp and headed south along the Sulmona valley. Other prisoners were rounded up and put on trains destined for another camp in Germany. But this was not the end of escaping; some POWs jumped from trains and others escaped through the floors of cattle trucks. Once free, they also headed south. Many headed for the villages in the Sulmona Triangle; Anversa to the west, Campo di Giovi to the east and Castle di Sangro, where the River Sangro was fordable at the south point. [Sulmona lies between Anversa and Campo di Giovi.] However, once escapers reached the Sangro River they had to be quick to identify themselves as there was the real danger of being shot by Allied troops!

The informal support networks provided by the villagers [often family groups] were vital to the survival of the escapers. They provided shelter and food; nursed the sick; moved escapers between homes, farms, caves and the woods whenever compromise seemed likely. They acted as guides, taking escapers towards Allied lines.  The simple-living contadini and charcoal burners possessed little, but shared what they had for the benefit of the escapers.  It is worth noting that of the estimated 80,000 POWs in Italy most were moved to other camps in Germany, or German occupied territories.  Less than 10,00 were recovered by the Allies and returned to the UK.  The number of Italians who died helping escapers/evaders will never really be known, as the German forces were quite ruthless and indiscriminate in their repression of the local population.  That, coupled with the vicious inter-factional fighting between the various Italian groups resulted in widespread devastation and loss of life across much of the Italian peninsula.  The Armistice, which had promised to bring peace for Italians and a return to the UK for POWs, proved to be the beginning of almost 18 months of unmitigated pain and misery for both.