J. H. Derek Millar grew up in Scotland. He qualified in 1937 from Edinburgh University and had been working in hospital medicine when the war broke out and he volunteered for service.
He was posted to go overseas in 1941. He served in North Africa and was captured in Egypt and was sent to Camp 59.
As one of two medical officers in the camp, he was confronted by primative hygienic conditions, poor nutrition and insufficient food in general, harsh climate, pests and parasites, and lack of medicine and tools for carrying out routine care.
On September 9th, the day the Italian Armistice was announced in the camp, Sergeant Major Hegerty, who had been commanding officer at Camp 59 for one year, relinquished his duties. Captain Millar volunteered to take over command of the camp.
It was in this commanding role that Captain Millar—just five days later—negotiated with the commandant, Colonel Bacci, for release of the prisoners.
Captain Miller himself left the camp with Corporal Howard Jones. The two were assisted by Italians as they traveled over land to San Benedetto del Tronto on the Adriatic coast.
At the port, a plan was hatched for transport of the prisoners to freedom via the coast. Brothers Nicola and Liberato Lagalla, who were teenagers at the time, were selected to skipper two fishing boats, bearing Captain Millar and several dozen other escaped prisoners, south to Allied-controlled Termoli.
The plan—though highly risky—was successful.
At war’s end, Captain Millar assisted in the treatment of the freed inmates of Belsen and Buchenvald concentration camps.
After the war, Dr. Millar wrote his MD thesis and became a consultant physician. He and his wife had two children—Lois and Lenox.
Following in the footsteps of their father Lois (Millar) Sproat and Lenox Millar both became doctors.
I made contact with the two for the first time early this year. In inquiring about their father, I explained that he had treated my own father on his arrival in Camp 59. Conditions in the camp he had been in—Sicilian Camp 98—were deplorable, and my father was critically ill when he arrived in Servigliano. He was treated for several weeks in the Camp 59 infirmary.
I wrote, “My father always felt Captain Millar had saved his life and I wanted after all these years to express my family’s gratitude.”
Lois wrote back, “It was quite strange to look at my e-mails this morning and see my father’s name, as he died six years ago! I am very pleased he was able to help your father. I think he was a good doctor and very caring. He only spoke to us about his wartime experiences in the 1970-80’s and always became quite emotional.
“As a family we always knew he had done some sort of negotiation with the Italian camp commandant to open the gates that night, but we later understood from Guiseppe [Millozzi] that it had always been thought everyone had escaped through the hole in the wall until 2000 when Guiseppe found the piece of paper in the British war museum that Daddy and the commandant had signed agreeing to Daddy being in charge for those two hours.
“None of us knew how it had got there! I think Daddy, or one of his friends, must have agreed it was important and best to give it to them.
“I am sorry your father has also passed away. Thank you again for your kind words. I found it very moving and will pass this on to my mother who is still living independantly at 89 years.”
Lenox Millar wrote, “I have twice been to the camp—firstly with some friends who have a nearby home and secondly with Guiseppe and my son James. He introduced me to some local historians and was most informative.
Shortly after my father’s death in 2004, I pulled together and tidied up his memoirs, which we had persuaded him to write. I tried to edit these as little as possible as they were all written by him when he was an old man.
“I did not realise how many American prisoners were in the camp and what a big impact it has had on so many lives.
“I am delighted to think my father was able to help your father.”
Lois also wrote, “I think we would be quite happy for you to put more information on the website from our father’s little book. My mother was thrilled when I told her last night.
“Did you know the Presbyterian minister in the camp was a Reverend Mathieson who became the Moderator of the Church of Scotland for his year’s term of office—in the 90’s, I think. The two of them stayed in close touch. He died two or three years ago.
“There was another doctor, Aidan Duff, who we also stayed in touch with as a family. Unfortunately, he was recaptured when they all escaped from the camp.”