Australian Lance Corporal Leslie Worthington’s service record from the National Archives of Australia is presented in this post, along with a few comments and photos provided by his son, Ray Worthington.
This portrait of Les Worthington was taken sometime in the latter part of 1940. His army battalion departed from Australia on 3 January 1941.
Written on back: “Taken at Kilo 89. Winner of donkey race.” Les’s battalion—the 2nd/28th—moved from Tobruk to Alexandria on 23 September 1941, and then to the camp at Kilo 89, so this photo was probably taken around then. If you look closely you can see the ears of the donkey Les is seated on.
National Archives transcription from the service record of Leslie Worthington WX4449, pages 13 and 14
Minor edits have been made for readability. Where a name appears to be incorrect or there is a variation, a likely alternative is shown in brackets.
WESTERN AUSTRALIAN SEARCHER’S REPORT ON AN ESCAPED P.O.W.
“I was taken prisoner of war at El Alamein the night of 27 July 1942.
“After being captured, I was taken to the German HQ [headquarters] and questioned, and after that to the Italian HQ at a place called Appaloni [Apollonia or Susah, Libya] for the same purpose. I was then taken to Derna [Darnah, Libya], Tocra [Tukrah, Libya], and finally to the main prison camp at Benghazi [Banghazi, Libya]. This camp was not the best when we arrived here as it was really a staging camp and overcrowded. We slept in the open most of the time, and there was very little water and food was scarce.
[This would have been The Palms Prison Camp also known as Palm Tree Camp, or The Palm Grove.]
“There was only one Italian MO [medical officer] here, and although he did his best as far as we could see, he was hampered by want of medical supplies and bandages. I stayed here until the 7th November 1942 and then I, along with several hundred others, were given two days’ rations and put aboard ship. The trip took eight days, and we finally arrived at Bari, Italy.
“The conditions during this trip were very bad, as there was no hygiene arrangement made for the men and very little water. By the time we arrived at our destination we were very weak for the want of food and in a filthy condition. We arrived here on 15 November 1942.
“We were then taken to the staging camp and given a wash and shave and a hot meal, which consisted of about three ounces of bread and a half mug of macaroni soup. We were also given about 30 cigarettes by the Italian Red Cross women workers.
“On the 30th November 1942, we were transferred by train to Camp 59, at Servigliano, which was then the main prison camp. On arrival here I was given some clean clothes and a bath.
“The treatment here was not too bad, but the food was very bad. Our daily food was as follows: about 3 ounces of bread and 20 grams of cheese made from sheep milk at 11 a.m., and a mug of thin rice or macaroni soup at 5 p.m. That is all we received daily, and as we were getting very weak on this ration I can assure you that when the Red Cross food parcels arrived they saved our lives. At first we had to share a food parcel between about six of us, and that went on for about a month. And then we received our parcel per man every week. We would often find such things as our tea, sugar, or chocolate missing. But upon complaining very strongly and getting one of our men to handle them, we soon put an end to this and had no further trouble.
“I stayed here until September 1943, and during that time I was working at different farms and was boarded by the farmers, and there was no ill treatment. We got better food at the farms and with the help of the food parcels we did fairly well.
“On the 10th September 1943, we heard that Italy was out of the war and our guards changed their uniforms for civilian clothes and went off, so on the 14th nine of us decided to escape if possible. The civilians gave us clothes and old hats and we waited until nightfall and all hid in the fields for two hours and then got moving south. We could not travel during the daytime for fear of re-capture. We always traveled by night.
After about 14 days, we decided to split up into small groups as it was less dangerous, and after traveling about 25 kilos we put this scheme into operation: Some went for the Swiss border, which was only about 50 kilos away. Others went south. And myself and another [by] the name of Edwards of the 2nd/32nd Infantry Battalion decided to stay with the civilians for a while before making a move. [See addendum concerning Edwards at the end of this post.]
“We found that we were in no danger from the civilians, so we stayed with them until February 1944, and during that time they fed and clothed us and gave us shelter.
“However, in the middle of February, we were told that the Germans were looking for us and we decided to move. We knew that the patriots were operating not far away and we made for a place called Mont Vittoria [most likely Santa Vittoria in Matenano], contacted the leader, and joined them.
“After a while, we were sent out on our jobs as a tryout, and we were successful in opening the grain silos so that the civilian population could help themselves.
“My friend Edwards left us here, and the next day I came across an American and three Russians and they also joined the band. By this time we had moved our HQ to a place called Taravaralli and waited further instructions. [Probably it was Taccarelli, a nearby hamlet. Vaughan Carter WX11634, who was with Les in Servigliano and escaped with him, spent time around Amandola.]
“In a few days a plane came over and dropped us ammunition and further orders. We found that our main instructions were to stop the cattle from getting into the hands of the Germans, and we went forth to carry out these orders.
“We would get up in the hills and wait until it was dark and catch the pro-German farmers driving their cattle down to the town to sell them to the Germans for killing the next day. After which, they would be sent to the factory for making tinned rations. We had orders from our leaders not to kill, so we used to sneak up on the cattle drivers and bind them to a tree and then drive their cattle away through the night and hand them over to the civilian population to share.
“On one occasion they sent two armed guards with the drivers and we captured them through the night. These two were Germans and we took them to our HQ. We were told not to shoot them, so we took their boots from them and their rifles, and after staying with us for about three weeks they joined our band and did a good job.
“Unfortunately, they were hated by the Russians that were with us and one night they shot them saying that the only good Germans were dead.
“Another time two Austrian soldiers fighting for the Germans deserted their lines and joined our little band, and when I left them they were still fighting for us.
“About this time my former mate that I escaped with, by the name of Edwards—of the 2nd/32nd—re-joined us. But, as we were running out of food and equipment, we decided to join a larger force of men that we heard were operating not far away. We eventually contacted them at a place called Ascali [probably Ascoli, or Ascoli Piceno] and joined up. There was an American with this band of patriots and the officer in charge was an Italian. Our main job was to steal the cattle, as we did before and, in addition, we had several battles in the villages when we caught the German patrols.
“In one of these fights the American was killed, but that was the only casualty we suffered. From the civilians we heard that the Germans were coming in one day, so we made for the hills for safety and stayed there for about a week.
“Edwards and myself after a while decided to try and get to the Allied lines, so we started off down the Sangro river and after four days contacted the British HQ and safety, that was on the 26th June 1944. From here we were then taken by stages to Taranto.
“And from there we sailed to the Middle East and arrived at Alexandria [Al Iskandariya] where we were met by the Red Cross Representatives, who did everything to make us comfortable.
“From here we went to the NZ [New Zealand] camp at Helwan and were again well looked after. After a stay here and some leave we boarded a hospital ship and duly arrived in Australia.
“I would like to thank the Red Cross for all they have done for us in the past in the way of food parcels, for without those many of us would not be here today. Also, for their kindness in arranging for our relatives to meet us when we arrived and transporting us to our home.”
Witness. WX449. L/Cpl. L. Worthington. 2/28 Infantry Battalion (Escaped POW)
Date. 26 September 1944
Private address. 4 Normanby St, Inglewood, WA
Place. Bureau, Perth
Comments by Ray Worthington
“The Edwards mentioned above from the 2nd/32nd Battalion was probably Edward Albert Edwards WX17234 who was in Campo P.G. 59 P.M. 3300.
“A photo exists of Lance Corporal Les Worthington with Private James William Feehan WX14366 and Private John Albert Allen WX12806 on their way home as escaped POWs (they had all been inmates of Campo PG 59 in Italy). This photo—which is held by the State Library of Victoria as H98.103/4720—was taken in Royal Park, Victoria. It must have been taken on 10 September 1944 because Les’s record shows that was the day he arrived by ship in Melbourne and then departed from Melbourne by train.
“Les also told me that when they decided to escape they just kicked some holes in the wall and walked out. The guards fired a few shots into the air but made no real attempt to stop them.”
According to Ray Worthington, “This is a souvenir that came home with Les. It is a 6.35mm (.25 Colt) caliber S.E.A.M. self-loading pistol, and had two nickel jacketed military issue bullets with it. Quite illegal to have such a thing in Australia, so I gave it to the Western Australian Army Museum a few years ago. The story Dad told me about it is this: The partisan group he was with heard that an Italian officer was coming home on leave so they went on a raid and captured him. The officer had this small sidearm in a holster and Dad immediately seized it. The group then executed the officer. I don’t recall ever being told how that was done.”
“My father was medically examined on 1 June 1940, and actually joined up on 13 July 1940. At that time he would have been 36 years and 8 months old. My mother always said he put his age down a year to enlist, but his record does show his correct birth year of 1903, so she was wrong. I think 36 was the maximum age at that time, but in June 1940 the Australian army lifted the recruiting age to 40.
“In 1940 there was a lot of bad news. In late May the British evacuation of Dunkirk started so it was obvious that France was lost. I think that spurred a lot of Australian recruiting because of our strong ties with Britain. My Worthington grandfather was born in England and came to Australia with his family in 1880—only 60 years before.
“Many of my family served. Eight of my father’s relatives served in WW I, including his father, who joined when he was 47 years and 11 months old. He lied and said he was 44 years and 11 months, but he did not need to as he had mining experience and for people like that (required for digging tunnels under enemy lines) the [enlistment] age was up to 50.
“My father’s oldest brother, Enoch, was killed in 1918, just three weeks before the war ended, and I have Enoch as a second name. Two of his cousins were also killed.
“On my mother’s side, two of her brothers served, and the eldest one was killed in 1917.”
[On December 2017, historian Katrina Kittel wrote to Ray Worthington and me, “I believe that ‘Edwards.’ as mentioned by your father in his report, was Robert Edwards WX17234, 2/32 Bn. I have viewed his file in Canberra.”]