In his excellent dissertation, Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano, Italian historian Giuseppe Millozzi gives a clear account of what is known today as the “stay put order.”
This order from the War Office in London was intended for all of the POW camps in Italy after the signing of the Italian Armistice.
In Camp 59, however, that order was defied by Captain J. H. Derek Millar. This decisive action on the part of Captain Millar, chief medical officer of the camp and its highest-ranking British officer, enabled all of the camp’s estimated 2,000 POWs to escape.
Here is Giuseppe Millozzi’s account of the stay put order:
“The secret order not to leave prison camps, that is the ‘stay put order’, was initiated by the MI9, a section of the British Military Intelligence whose logistical head office was set at the War Office in London.
“Together with Middle East and Eastern Europe, Italy fell within the MI9 branch in Cairo. From September 1941 until the end of the war, in charge of it was Lt. A. C. Simonds, who was appointed by the London head office responsible for POWs—Colonel Richard Crockatt.
“For Churchill POWs’ fate was of great concern; he had even put forward a hypothesis of an exchange between the 77,000 Italian POWs interned in England with the 88,000 Allied POWs in Italy, but he had to give up this idea when it was pointed out that Italian POWs were indispensable to England as they contributed to the agricultural production.
“At the end of May ’43, when the African Campaign was over, Montgomery returned to London to rest for a while. On 7 June, Allied landing plans in Italy were ready. According to the most important historians of British Intelligence—M. R. D. Foot and J. M. Langley—Montgomery asked Colonel Crockatt to issue the secret order to all the Italian prison camps not to attempt any mass escapes in the event of Italian capitulation as Allied armies would set them free. They did not inform Churchill of this order and they ignored Simonds’ suggestions [for organizing] escapes from the Adriatic Coast.
“There were various reasons that led Montgomery and Crockatt to issue the stay put order. First of all they did not tolerate irregular actions such as mass escapes, [and] perhaps they still bore in mind atrocities that had happened in Germany during the First World War—POWs escaped from prison camps were killed by soldiers. Mainly, however, they had no doubts that the advance in Italy would have been a quick one and therefore they saw no need to make POWs scatter if they could have been set free by the Allied Armies.
“Nevertheless, German threat was real: the direct result of the stay put order was that within 48 hours from the Armistice a large number of English and American POWs was in Germans’ hands and ready to be transferred to Germany. Deportation was even made easier by British and American officers which, with an excess of zeal, had followed the order and in some cases they had even arrived to put some of their subordinates in the watch towers, left empty by Italian guards who had fled.
“The stay put order was criticized both during and after the War, but—as Foot and Langley suggest—nobody really wished to clarify this question with a specific investigation, probably because responsibility could have fallen at high military levels.
“The Italian campaign would soon become a trench warfare, more similar to the First World War than to the Blitzkrieg dreamed of by the dictators. Both in ’43-’44 and ’44-’45 winters there were two stationary fronts, the first known as ‘Gustav Line’, the second as ‘Gothic Line’.
“When Churchill found out what had happened, he pressed for action to be taken and so Crockatt sent Simonds to Taranto with the order to organise ‘rat lines’. However, Simonds was short of staff and equipment, therefore results were quite disappointing: before the end of 1942, agents of the A-force intelligence bureau saved only 900 POWs. Almost nothing if we think that 29,000 POWs were still hidden in the occupied territory.”