R. J. McMahon, Part 2—Escape and Beyond

What follows is the second installment of R. J. McMahon’s autobiography, 1939–44. This post covers his experience in prison at Servigliano, escape, his involvement with the Partisans, and his eventual return to Australia.

Inside the prison walls were about 14 huts and each hut contained 50 prisoners. These huts were the most unstable constructions around and would shake with the slightest movement. When we were in bed they would shake us to sleep. The beds were two-tier bunks made with wooden slats about 6” apart. The mattresses we were issued with were a good kapok style, which were fairly comfortable and [we were issued] plenty of blankets. Having sheets on the bed was a big surprise, as we never had sheets in our own army. The last sheets we had enjoyed were prior to leaving Australia. At the end of the first week we had them taken off us and sent away to be cleaned, and we were issued with another set. Our sheet issue ran out at the end of the second week, when we mustered at the collection point waiting for another lot. The Italian in charge informed us there would be no more sheets as they had found out that the Australians did not give their prisoners sheets so they wouldn’t give them to us.

Six mates and I stayed in this prison camp for 12 months before succeeding in finding a way to get out. We tried digging our way out, emptying the soil down the sewage system and flushing it away. It was only sand and you had to take a chance on whether it fell in or not. There were a few blokes who did escape through a tunnel, but they were caught shortly after and brought back.

After that the guards were more vigilant and carried out daily searches for any more tunnels. Each morning all the beds would have to be carried out of the huts and if your hut had a wooden floor then it came out as well. After they had searched the area and were satisfied that there were no more holes you would put everything back in again.

In the huts like mine that had cement slabs for floors, we only had to remove the beds. The slabs were then checked with an iron bar tapped against them, making sure there were no hollow sounds. The Italian sergeant who always supervised the search of our hut stood in the same position each day, so we decided to dig under that one. We’d take it up and dig down about six feet, and then turn toward the outer wall, which was about twenty feet away. We would finish digging by three o’clock in the morning and be nicely tucked up in bed when they came to call us. After morning parade, where we were given a mug of coffee and a piece of bread, we would start taking our bunks out for tunnel inspection. We had been working on our tunnel for about a week when one morning, during inspection, the tunnel slab and the Italian sergeant fell down the hole, nearly breaking his neck. After he was pulled out he was going to have us all shot. Instead they brought in cement and made us fill the hole in, so we had to find another way out.

I suggested to my mates, one Scot and five other Aussies, that instead of digging our way out we should try going over the top. We nutted this plan out and thought there would be enough time while the guards, patrolling the wall, were having their halfway talk and smoke, giving us about five minutes.

[According to Linda Veness, the Scot was Tom “Jock” Kelly, and aside from her father there were only four Australians who made this break: Tom Alman (from Kalgoorlie) Jack Allen (Kalgoorlie), Les Worthington (Wiluna) and J. Feehan (Geraldton). All five Australians were from Western Australia.]

It was just a matter of climbing to the top of the wall using a ladder and diving over, doing a tumble to break the fall. We had done it before on our training days at Northam, only then we knew what was on the other side. We were hoping it was only sand, the same as it was on the inside, and lucky for us it was. The only remaining problem was the construction of the ladder, a simple matter of nailing our slatted beds together. The trouble was we had no nails and had to get somebody to bring them in for us.

The only possibility was the visiting Catholic priest that came in for Sunday mass, but who would ask him? I volunteered, as I knew the Latin mass and so could become one of his alter boys. I approached the boss of the camp and received permission for the Scot and myself to be alter boys. After getting to know the priest we had the delicate task of persuading him to bring in the nails. First up he said no, but we persisted and then he said he would try. The following Sunday he gave us half a dozen nails. We explained to him that while wearing his vestments the guards won’t dare search him, and they didn’t. The Sunday following that, he came in with a small hammer and two-dozen nails.

On a Sunday night in October 1943, we built the ladder and made our escape around 1 a.m. Things did not go quite to plan, as only four of us were over the top before we were spotted. I was the tail-end Charlie, and by the time I got over the wall there were machine gun bullets flying everywhere. I was not worried about being hit, as I had come up against the Italians in Tobruk and they couldn’t hit a barn wall even if they were inside.

[As the mass exodus from Camp 59 occurred on September 14, 1943, it makes sense this breakout would have occurred on or before September 14 rather than in October. Indeed, in another document, a letter written in 1954, R.J. McMahon said that the escape over the wall occurred on a September night. As September 14th was a Tuesday, a Sunday breakout would have occurred on September 5 or 12.]

When I joined the others, who were waiting in a creek bed 100 yards from the wall, we headed up stream into the bush for a mile or so. Once the sound of shooting and the sirens had died down we had some sleep, knowing there would be no search party until daylight. In the morning we decided to split up and, after a feast of grapes from an orchard we had camped beside, parted company. The Scot and I paired up and decided to make for the mountains, knowing all we had to do to get there was follow the creek. While we were walking along we saw some women doing their washing. They noticed us and the Italian uniforms we wore, and must have thought we were their soldiers.

As soon as I tried to tell them I was an Australian, they dropped everything and ran like crazy back to their village. We followed as fast as we could, but found it deserted. The local population had been told of the prison camp and its Australian prisoner and had been frightened of us. So with no opposition from the villagers, we helped ourselves to food and clothes, leaving them our old ones.

We finally made the mountains and settled down with a band of Partisans. They had been up there for some time and were well-settled with supplies and a radio. My luck was in, as none of them knew anything about explosives and being an old hand with thing that go bang, I took over the job.

We were blowing up bridges and railway lines that Allied HQ wanted destroyed, and harassing the enemy whenever the chance arose. All our supplies were dropped to us by the RAF about every second night. Their first supply run included new radios, so we could talk directly with the supply planes. Other drops were of food, arms, ammunition, explosives, and instructions of targets they wanted taken out. Eventually we had everything needed to be a real hindrance to the Axis forces. Toward the end we were out every night on jobs. We would walk and creep to the target, blow it up, and then run hell for leather all the way back home with the Germans after us.

Machine guns were dropped to us by the hundreds, and the bullets by the thousands. The guns themselves were cheap, nasty little things, which you could pull to pieces in a couple of minutes using only your hands. They would break down into three parts, making it easy to carry around in a small suitcase.

After we had been successful on a raid, there would be a note in with our evening supplies saying, “Well done, lads, there is nothing left.” Every different thing they dropped to us was attached to a different-coloured parachute, made out of pure silk. These we would round up and give to the villages around our area. I always kept some for special people I knew.

During my time with the Partisans, I learned to speak Italian as well as the natives themselves. When I had learnt the language, I went back to the village we had first come across. They said they were told that the Australian prisoners were cannibals who would kill the women and eat the children. I explained it was all propaganda and handled them a half a million lira, telling them to share it. The money had been gained from our escapades with the guerillas.

At one stage, while fighting with the guerillas, my Scottish friend and I wanted a rest and decided to go and see Rita Tardella (my Italian girlfriend) and family. They lived in a village not far from where our camp was. We told our boss where we were going and he gave us a week off, telling us that when we got back, if there was no-one there, he would leave a note telling of their whereabouts.

One day during our walkabout we were helping with the seeding when we spotted a German patrol. They were searching the farms for escaped prisoners. Jock and I headed for the barn while Mama and her daughters headed off the Germans by asking if they wanted a cup of tea or coffee, which her daughters made for them. While they kept them busy, Mama tucked us away in the barn where we usually slept.

The barn was where all their animals were locked up at night. It was located directly under the living quarters of the house and this acted as central heating. Each night we would sneak in there, where Mama would have a clean spot for us to lie down on. Once we were settled, clean hay was put over us and a fresh straw put in our mouth to act as a snorkel. When Mama left everything looked normal as cow shit was spread over the top and more hay put down for the cows to sleep on. The Germans never found us.

Before we returned to the hills, we would do our bit for public relations by sharing a quarter-million lira between the local farmers. This is not as much as it sounds, because the lira was worthless.

As we could not head back to our mountain home until it was really dark and we were sure no one was watching us, we stopped at the little half-way shop on the Alpine Highway and played card or wrestled. The journey took two hours and after a good sleep we were ready to continue the fight.

A month after our holiday, we heard that the British 8th Army had landed at Pescara and they had forged a line into the town of Cheiti, which was at the foot of the Appenines on the Adriatic side. The Americans had landed at Anzio on the Mediterranean side and the plan was for them to fight their way toward each other and meet in the middle. Alas, the Americans got tied down in the first ten miles and couldn’t move.

The British were willing and able to advance, but politics got in the way, forcing them to stay put until the Americans got going again. The Americans were held up there by Germans bunkered into the San Benardicto [Benedetto] Monastery. They didn’t bomb the place for fear of breaking it up, and they had no intentions of going in and flushing the Germans out by hand-to-hand combat. So the British sent over a mixed battalion of Poles and New Zealanders to show they how it should be done, [and this] they did with no trouble at all. The Germans fled and the Americans carried on moving up their side of Italy.

After about eight months with the Partisans, toward the latter part of June, we made up our minds to head for the Allied forces. We estimated the distance to be about 80 to 100 kilometers, and by taking the safest and shortest possible route figured we should meet up with our troops within the week. We had been down that way before to blow up one of the bridges, so we drew up a mud map of the area and set off.

We had travelled about 60 kilometers before deciding to venture into the next village we came to, to restock our supplies. We had no problems with the people. They fed us and invited us to stay the night, saying it was too late to travel. After breakfast next morning we got ready to set off again. Our feet were sore from all the walking over mountains, as the soles of our boots had worn down to paper thin, letting everything stick into our feet. The village people went and found about a dozen pair of boots, from which we picked out a pair each—the oldest we could find—and gave them 100 lira each. They did not want the money, so we gave it to the children on the way out.

We left that village as quickly as we could and set off in the same southeasterly direction. We had been walking under cover, but after 20 kilometers we decided to take a chance and walk in the open. Four kilometers later we spotted a patrol coming towards us. They were Polish and, not recognizing us, confiscated all our gear. This included Sten guns, hand grenades, and also a couple of Italian Beretta handguns. They decided to take us prisoner and marched us off to headquarters. An officer had to be found that could speak good English so they could ascertain who we were and where we had come from.

The Polish officer had us searched, and out of one of my pockets came the silliest thing, my duplicate pay book. The original book had been stolen by some Arabs in Palestine. They had got into the camp one night, past the guards, slit open the tents as we slept, and took everything they could lay their hands on. The original was a brown colour and the duplicate green. The Poles were determined that we were spies and decided to shoot us in the morning.

As we were outnumbered and had no chance of escape, we tried one last bluff and requested to see a British intelligence officer. The interrogator agreed to our request. In the lockup that night they gave us a very good supper. The next morning, after a filling breakfast, they took us along to the British officer and he gave us a terrible roasting. Finally he said that he believed us and that he had known who we were right from the start. He had cabled London Headquarters with our names the hour we were brought into camp and received the answer earlier that morning.

The people in London had all guerilla fighters from Ancona to Marcerato named and numbered on file. He sent for the Polish officer and told him we were not only genuine but folk heroes, and asked him to return all our possessions.

They did better than that, issuing us with full uniforms and kit, which made us look more like soldiers than we were. They let us keep the revolvers and Sten guns. The only thing they did not do was officially put our names down as belonging to their army.

As we were not part of the British 8th Army, we were quite happy to be accepted by the Polish. It didn’t really matter to us, so long as we were treated as soldiers and fed. Their food was pretty good.

We stayed with them during their push up the coast, which saw little action as the Germans had gone. During the advance more and more POWs cum Partisans joined in with us, and by the time the top of Italy was reached we numbered 150. It was then they decided something definite had to be done with us and we were sent by train back down the Mediterranean side to Naples.

The fifteen Australian POWs were separated out from the rest and told by one of our colonels too keep to ourselves. A couple of days later all ex-POWs were put aboard a transport plane and flown to Cairo. Here we were put in a New Zealand camp and the ones that did not have a uniform were issued a full kit and separated into different nationalities. The Australians were told we would be homeward bound around the 6 August. The Kiwis then issued us with a 10-pound pay cheque, the first I’d received since capture.

Trucks took us to Port Suez, and from there [we were taken] to Bombay aboard a Dutch ship. This we really enjoyed, as we were treated like real VIP’s, even eating our meals at the captain’s table. At Bombay, we left the Dutch ship and boarded a British ship bound for Australia.

The troops aboard this ship included English, Poles, and New Zealand soldiers. Separate from this rabble was the Australian Air Force. The airmen were not liked, as they thought themselves better than the rest. This was encouraged by the High Command, who treated them like royalty—whenever and wherever they had meals proper china would be used. They were even waited on by the girls in blue.

[Those of us in] the army in comparison were given a rusty old tin mug and dixie (First World War relics), and the same with our cutlery. We had to scrub them out with sand till they looked respectable. The excuse High Command gave for favoring the airmen was that whenever they went out on a bombing raid they did not know if they were going to make it back again…. Big Deal, what about us?

We were aboard this ship for a fortnight before it set sail. Each day we were allowed to leave. Along with the pay that the Kiwis had given us, I received 80 pounds for the 2 million Italian lira I had brought with me. I had also sold both my Beretta pistols to a couple of our American GI’s for $80.00 each. With this money I purchased cotton, silk, and cigarettes, as I had heard that they were in short supply back home.

After spending all our money, we dropped in on the English colonel, who was in charge of all fighting personnel on board. And after telling him a little “story,” he went to the Australian consul and was able to obtain for us 200 rupees each. It was the last day in port and nobody was allowed off the ship, but the colonel told us that seeing we had no money to go off with until then, he would allow us to go and shop, much to the displeasure of the other troops.

We left Bombay the following morning with the escort. To pass the time during the long voyage home we played two-up on the top deck. One of my mates and I had a good run of throwing heads, fifteen in all. We started with ten pounds and would have walked away with 30,000, but we tossed once too many and lost.

Shortly after our voyage started, the orderly officer tried to put us on fatigue duty, but we all stood up as one and said “NO.” The officer stormed out. We thought we’d had a win, but he returned with the colonel and the captain of the ship. The colonel tried to put us under close arrest, but the captain threw his lot in with us and said there was to be no close arrest aboard his ship unless there was a mutiny. The colonel reluctantly agreed, saying we would be dealt with by High Command when we arrived in Melbourne.

We called in at Singapore to take on fuel and stores. While there we went to the Raffles Hotel for a beer, but were told they only sold spirits and that was at one English pound per nip. Needless to say it was only the one drink before we returned to the duty-free beer on board.

We docked at Melbourne on the 14 September 1944 and, true to his word, the colonel marched us up in front of the general of the Melbourne Command. To the colonel’s dismay, though, it backfired and instead of us being clapped in irons, he had to face the wrath of the general instead for daring to treat ex-POWs with scorn.

The Red Cross were let on board to meet us. We were each taken by a Red Cross car to the governor’s residence, where we stayed a fortnight. During our stay with the governor, they were preparing the train to take the SA and WA soldiers home. [SA and WA being South Australia and Western Australia.]

Our stay was most enjoyable, as we were shown all over the countryside—the Dandenongs, Aspro King’s residence, and higher up in the hills to see the wildlife. We were very fortunate to see a pair of very shy lyre birds.

The Red Cross officials did not want us to go wandering around by ourselves for fear we would make for the nearest pub and blow their public image. Young and Jacksons (a well-known hotel) was not very far from the residency, and each night we used to sneak down there for a few quiet ales.

We left the Garden State aboard the Indian Pacific from Spencer Street Station. The Red Cross gave each of us a parcel containing toothbrush, toothpaste, a cake of soap, face washer, and also a box of chocolates. Our first stop was Adelaide, and again the Red Cross welcomed us by taking us up to Mt. Loftus for a picnic lunch. After lunch, the South Australian POWs left us and we headed back to the train. The next stop was Parkstown, just out of Kalgoolie, where we spent a cold, miserable night, as nobody knew we were stopping over. Even the pub was closed and the publican nowhere to be found.

Finally arrived at Perth railway station after a long, tiring journey. Once again the Red Cross were there with their cars and parcels. A few of our relatives were also assembled to meet us, and the Red Cross had informed them on what each one of us had gone through and gave practical advice on how to manage the “new” us.

Spent a week holidaying with my brother Frank before returning to Swanbourne Army Camp where I and the other POWs were issued with new uniforms (made to measure, would you believe), and also a pass to take us to anywhere in the state.

The first place I wanted to go was Wiluna to see my father, younger sister, and an old mate, Les Worthington. After an enjoyable stay at Wiluna, headed for Geraldton via Meekatharra, Tukenarra, and Reedys. Small stops were had at these places, and a large party was thrown in my honour at Reedys. Finally reached my destination and spent the last part of my leave with friends.

Back at Swanbourne, I awaited my discharge. They told me I was A1 when I joined up, but now I was classed B, which meant I would not be able to do any heavy work. On the advice of the doctor, I put in for a 10% pension, as I would then have a claim for it in the future.