Neil Torssell on Life in Camp


This diagram of the bunk bed construction in the huts of Camp 59 was drawn by Neil Torssell.

The following interview between former Camp 59 prisoner Neil Torssell and Dennis Hill was recorded on October 30, 2008. The interviewer’s questions and comments are in italic.

When we talked before, you told me about your years in the service from start to finish. And when you wrote to me in the past you described being in the camp, but you didn’t say a lot about what daily life was like there.

I made a list of things I would like to ask you about today.

When my dad was in the camp, he was in Hut 4, Section 11. You had mentioned to me there were big barracks that had bunk beds. You sent me a drawing of the bed construction. Does the organization of hut and section number sound familiar to you?

I don’t remember anything like that. Was he in the building where they were digging the tunnel?

No, I don’t believe so, but he said he had heard about the digging of a tunnel.

That wasn’t known about until the Italians had practically quit. It was only then we found out about it, because there were just a few of them [the prisoners] involved in digging.

In the hut that you were in—or barracks—did the Italians come in at night to make sure that nothing was going on, or when you went to sleep at night were you left alone until morning?

Well, they patrolled the barracks all night. They patrolled periodically. I don’t know if there was any particular schedule. We didn’t pay attention to them. As far as how far apart the patrols were—if there were as many on the outside as the inside—I couldn’t tell you that.

You had mentioned that there were guys from the camp from different parts of the British Empire. I think you said that there were Cypriots in the barracks next to you?


Did you get to know any people from the other barracks—people from other countries?

There were those from Australia and New Zealand on the British side, but we more or less stuck to our own group, our barracks. We didn’t associate too much. About the only time we saw each other was during morning roll call.

Tell me about morning roll call.

They got everyone out of the barracks, and there was an Italian officer and an American sergeant who spoke enough Italian so he would call out the names and reveal them to the officer. We had the whole barracks outside for the time it took.

How long did that normally take?

You know, I couldn’t really tell you. It took a fair amount of time because there was the translation of each name that took time, especially when you had 100-plus men. An hour or a half hour—I couldn’t tell you.

And that happened every day?

Every day, yes.

Did they ever not get the count right, or did anyone ever not show up?

That may have happened because on occasion somebody would be singled out to go to what they called “the dungeon.” It was a small, cramped cell separate from the barracks. You could be confined there for two or three days—or maybe a week—depending on what the infraction might have been.

They were very cramped quarters. I never saw the place myself, so I don’t know exactly what it looked like, but I heard about it. It was a cell in a separate building someplace.

Apparently a few of the prisoners volunteered to work in the fields with the Italians—outside of the camp. They were given special rations because of it. I don’t know how many of them there were.

Over there the women worked the fields just as much as the men.

By extra rations, do you mean they got extra rations in the camp, or did they get food outside the camp when they went to work?

As far as I know they probably ate outside the camp. And they might have got a few lire payment, too. I don’t know—it’s possible.

You mentioned that you got some sort of payment in camp money.

Yes, I’ve got some here at home.

And you said you bought things like razor blades with it?

I don’t remember how much they gave us for a week or a month—I don’t remember how it was doled out. But we took that money to the so-called “shop”—that was loosely what it was—and we’d buy a little extra soap or razor blades.

And then they had a library in the camp, too.

What kinds of books were in the library?

They were mostly fiction books. I think they mostly came from England. I borrowed a couple from there. They seemed to be English-related. Of course, England was the first who had prisoners in the camp.

Do you think that these were books that were sent to prisoners by their families?

They were probably sent to us through the International Red Cross, because that’s where we got our extra rations, too. That’s my guess—I don’t know. I never saw any packages delivered to prisoners, though that doesn’t mean anything. I never received any mail while I was there anyhow. I wasn’t there long enough.

I’ve got a number of letters that were written to me, but they were returned to the sender because we had had our mass escape by then.

How many books do you think were in the library?

I couldn’t even make a good guess. It wasn’t too large a selection. I just grabbed a book to read and I didn’t pay much attention to what it was.

Was the library set up in a separate room?

Oh, yeah. That was in the same area as the so-called store.

Was the store run by Italians or Americans?

As I recall, it was Italians. There might have been Americans in there, too. I don’t know.

Were the things they had for sale Italian products?

Honestly, I can’t remember—that was a few years back.

Were there sports and games and other forms of recreation in the camp—or classes or music?

I never heard of it, never got involved in it. I wasn’t there that long. I was there a little less than three months. I was only acquainted with the area I was in—that was about it.

As far as the ones I knew—it was my bunkmates, and two or three others who were friends of my bunkmates. And we’d visit back and forth and that was about it. We were kind of isolated.

How did you spend your days? After the roll call, did you walk around the camp? Did you feel free to move around?

Oh, yeah—you could move around the camp during the daytime. No problem there. You talked with your bunkmates and a few of the others and you wandered back and forth. There wasn’t much else to do. Of course, you went back to reading the books you got in the library or you played cards.

The cards were made out of cardboard from British cigarette packs. It had all the aces, spades, diamonds, queens—all that stuff—hand-drawn on the cards. Actually, nothing was wasted there. The tin cans were made into stuff.

There was the writing of postcards once a week that we could send out. I have a couple of those cards that I took along with me that I wrote calendars on to figure out what time of the year it was. There was a reason they were postcards—they wanted to censor the things and it was easy for them.

Just like the cards I never got—the censors went through all that.

Were you told what you could write on cards and in letters?

No, they didn’t say anything about it, because if they didn’t like it they’d automatically block it out.

So you self-censored what you wrote, guessing what they wouldn’t allow?

That was a foregone conclusion. They’d take care of it. If they didn’t like what you wrote they’d block it out and that was it. Most must have gotten through, because there were a lot of those that I sent that were here when I got home.

There were different places I wrote to, like I wrote to all of my relatives, I wrote to a couple of ex-girlfriends. I wrote a letter to a gal in England I went with while I was over there. I’ve got those letters still, upstairs in a box. For the most part the guys were very careful what they said about any activities military-wise.

Did you and the other prisoners make any plans to escape, or did you talk about how you might escape?

No, because at that time there wasn’t too much chance. As I mentioned, between our barracks and the wall was a ditch, and the wall was about 10 feet high, the cement caps were embedded with shards of glass, and there were watchtowers spaced around the top of the fencing. You didn’t go near the ditch—because then they had you.

I think I told you that when the Italian government folded the guards took the glass off the top of the cement, and you could get closer and talk to them because they were friendly. Most didn’t say anything. They were fed up with the war to begin with. They had been kicked all over the place. The Germans had taken over their country and half the Italian army deserted.

And one place where I stayed an Italian sergeant who had deserted showed me the sidearm he had just brought home with him. About half of the Italian army had just quit—period. They headed off to the hills.

Were there any clergymen, or were there religious services that went on in the camp?

There may have been, but I never knew about them. I’m quite certain there must have been Protestant and Catholic services of some kind. But I never heard anything about it, and my buddy and my bunk buddy was a strong Catholic and he never mentioned anything to me about it, so there may have been but I can’t say there was.

Do you remember the names of some of the guys who were around you in the camp?

I have a little notebook upstairs with a whole list of names. Most of them I didn’t know personally but I thought, well, I’ll get as many names as possible and if I get back I can notify some of these people.

A lot of the addresses may have changed, and some of them may have gone to the great beyond, but I can copy some of that for you.

What about doctors? I know there was an infirmary in the camp.

Well, I assume there was. I never had to call on them for any reason. There must have been a medical officer, though.

What about a dentist—or barber?

The dentist—is the same story as the doctor. I never had any tooth problems, so I never inquired.

There was a time when I was flying that I had a crew cut, because it was so hot and dirty in North Africa they you didn’t want long hair. So I didn’t need a haircut for a while.

After we escaped this Italian soldier that I told you about—who had his sidearm—I got a haircut from him.

Do you remember ever getting a haircut in the camp?

No, I never got one in camp. I assume someone must have been doing it. It’s quite possible maybe one of the fellows had his clippers and for a lire or two he cut your hair—I don’t know. I’m just guessing on that.

What about water supply? Where did you get your water from—and was it good, clear water?

Yes, right at the end of the barracks was a latrine and water from a water faucet, plus a canteen if you needed it. Of course, there was no hot water.

Did I mention to you before I took one bath when I was there?

You mentioned taking a bath after your escape.

Well, this was in the camp itself. One day they announced that everybody was going to get a shower. So we all stripped down. And the bunch of naked characters went down into the shower stalls, put soap on and scrubbed as quick as possible and rinsed off—and that was it. It was only a couple of minutes, but at least you got some of that crud off.

So they did have shower stalls?

Yeah, well, it was just one big room with showerheads.

That was the only time you got to take a shower?

Yeah, just once while I was in camp.

There was a camp kitchen, right?

I don’t know where it was. I know they came around twice a day with an assortment of stew, or whatever. What part of the camp it was in I couldn’t tell you. I don’t remember.

OK, but you didn’t have access to a kitchen? They just brought the food out?


You sent me the picture of the little camp stove. Did you just have the little camp stoves in your barracks and you used them there?

Yeah—of course, the barracks had cement floors. Did I send you the design of one of those?

Yes, you did. [See post from August 3, 2008.]

You put your little twigs in there. It had a little blower with a handle. You put your cup where it would heat up. It took a minute or two to heat up the fire. All you needed was a few twigs, really. There was an airshaft between the firepot and the cooker. I don’t know who designed it, but it worked out good.

Did you make tea or coffee, or did you cook other things with it, too?

Of course, we heated water for tea and coffee. We did minimal cooking. It was just to get something hot to go inside.

Of course, the so-called stew—or whatever you call it—that they gave us was warm, not hot. But it was warm.

You remember getting Red Cross parcels?

Oh, yes. They came every week, or week and a half. As I mentioned, all the cans were punctured. That was to prevent hoarding. The last week they weren’t punctured and then we knew something was coming up—that there was going to be a break.

In the parcels, were there things you looked forward to getting in particular?

Oh, just food. It didn’t matter. There was hard cake, crackers—they’ll keep anyplace—small cans of cheese, small cans of some kind of meat. There was tea, coffee. There might be powered milk in there, a can of English stew. Anything there was to eat was eaten. There was nothing wasted.

I’m sure. Were you hungry all the time?

Oh, yeah. Food was our big topic of conversation—what we’re going to have when we got home, all that sort of thing.

Did you lose a lot of weight while you were in the camp?

Surprisingly, I didn’t.

Of course, I was just there a short time and things in this camp were relatively good. It was run by the Italians—not the Germans. If it had been the Germans it would have been a different story, I’m sure.

We wouldn’t have been left in Italy that long. There was a camp near by us that had Allied officers in it. When the Italian government folded, the camp was ruled by the highest-ranking Allied officer. It was an Englishman who was in charge of it. His idea was we’ll just stay here. They’ll liberate us in a couple of days. Well, they ended up in Germany.

But in our camp there was no waiting around—we just went.

We were all sitting around after early evening. We had all of our stuff packed, and just a few shots were fired—in the air, I guess—and everybody dashed out the gate. There was stuff all over the hillside where the guys had just left stuff [behind]. In fact, I traded the jacket I had for a British battle jacket. It fit me better and it looked better. I found it on the hill someplace.

Can you think of anything I didn’t ask about that you care to share with me? If you were there three months, you must have arrived late in the summer?

I got there July 5th, and it was in the middle of September when we had the mass break. So I hadn’t been in the camp too long.

You know, when you dash out like that, in a foreign country, you have no idea who’s friendly and where you’re going. You just go.

As I told you, we were in the same clothes for a whole year without having them washed. The only time I had them washed was when the Italian family dyed the clothes I had so they wouldn’t look too much like a uniform.

I think I mentioned about taking a bath in the middle of the winter. And of course in the spring when it warmed up enough I took a bath in the river. And we had gals in the bushes watching these crazy Americans taking a bath.

After we escaped, for a couple of months we wandered around the hills. We stopped at all different kinds of places, just for something to do. And here comes this fellow, I had no idea who he was. As it turns out he was an American. He could have passed as an Italian farmer just as well as not. I don’t remember where he was from, but he was just an old farm boy who adjusted well into that setting.

Was he an escaped prisoner?

Oh, yeah. He was from the same camp.

I heard later as we were going south, after the war had gone by us, one of the villages near where I had stayed was supposedly one where an American had found a great place and an Italian gal and he had the life of luxury living with her. I wouldn’t say he lived in the village.

Now how much of this is true—or if this was a lot of B.S.—I don’t know.

Of course, there’s all kinds of stories come out of that. As I said before, you can talk to a dozen fellows from the same camp, same building, and you get a dozen different stories.

As I said before, the experience was worth a million, but I wouldn’t take a million to do it again.

You certainly have had a more interesting life than most—having been through that.

One thing—I’m not a super-religious person, but I’ve got religion. A few days before I got shot down, for some unknown reason I went and got my parachute repacked. They get kicked around from daily use—getting in and out of the plane and wearing them and what not.

Whether that was a lifesaver or not I don’t know, but sometimes I sit and think about it. The man upstairs was looking for me. It’s my theory.

Another thing I might mention, I was Protestant at the time I was captured. Not so religious. I believed in religion, but normally didn’t indulge in it. At some place I saw these religious cards. I think they were trying to make me Catholic or something. I kept the cards anyhow.

What kind of cards were they?

Oh, you’ve seen these cards—like what they have at funerals. They have a drawing of some state on one side and something religious in Italian on the other. I’ve got them here someplace.

I don’t think my parents ever knew everything I went through. At that time I was trying to put everything out of my mind that I had gone through.

One surprising thing in a way is that in this rural town where I live there was one Italian family. I think they were the only Italian family in my hometown. His name was Ganeti, and he had a couple of daughters. And I knew him. So when I came back I went down to see him, see if we could swap a few Italian words back and forth. He was a good fellow.

There were two other camps that I heard of where the conditions were terrible. They were probably the first camps after the African campaign got going. They didn’t have any place to put prisoners, so they struck them in camps way out of the way—with nothing around, food, warmth. A lot of prisoners died in camp from malnourishment.

When I look back and say, “Can you imagine nine months sleeping with the oxen?”

But it was warm. Hay was soft. Of course, you had the darned fleas and bedbugs.