“…one thing is essential, namely a stout heart.”
A bulletin of tips for escapers and evaders (E&Es) behind enemy lines in Italy was issued from the “N” Section unit of “A” Force C.M.F. (Central Mediterranean Force) in February 1944.
This “most secret” document was evidently intended for agents involved in directly assisting E&Es behind the lines. Agents were to read the document and later use the information in coaching E&Es one-on-one in how to avoid capture and find their way to freedom.
The following three paragraphs from the “I.S.9 History—Organization” post will help to clarify the organization of “A” Force as it evolved during the war.
“In order not to confuse the reader more than is necessary it is explained that M.I.9 [British Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 9] work in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations first started early in 1941 and was carried out by ‘A’ Force, commanded by Lt-Col [lieutenant-colonel] (later Brigadier) D.W. CLARKE, CBE. A few months later, ‘N’ Section was set up in Cairo as a separate Section of ‘A’ Force and Major (later Lieut-Col) A.C. SIMONDS, OBE, placed in charge of all M.I.9 duties in the Mediterranean Command.
“On the 1st November 1943 ‘N’ Section ‘A’ Force was divided into EAST and WEST, Lt-Col. A.C. SIMONDS being placed in charge of ‘N’ Section ‘A’ Force (EAST) and S/Ldr [Squadron Leader] (later W/Cdr [wing commander]) E.A. DENNIS, OBE, placed in charge of ‘N’ Section ‘A’ Force (WEST).
“On the 20th August 1944 responsibility for M.I.9 work in the Mediterranean Theatre passed from ‘A’ Force and became the responsibility of G-2 (P/W) AFHQ. ‘N’ Section ‘A’ Force title was changed and became I.S.9 [Intelligence School 9], the initials (ME) and (CMF) indicating (East) and (West) respectively.”
Therefore, “N” Section is essentially synonymous with I.S.9.
I am most grateful to researcher Brian Sims for sharing access to this bulletin from the British National Archives, as well as I.S.9 documents that give the bulletin fuller context.
There is the bulletin in its entirety:
Adv. H.Q. “A” Force
c/o No. 2 District H.Q.
10th February, 1944.
BULLETIN NO. 21
The following are a few hints to Escapers and Evaders in Italy. They are the suggestions of an “A” Force Officer who, out of less than five months service in Italy spent more than three of them behind enemy lines. They are comments by an officer who spent many months with “A” Force patrols operating behind Rommel’s lines in the Western Desert and at one time he escaped from Tortorette Prison Camp after having been taken prisoner.
1. WHOM TO TRUST.
As a general rule all peasants can be trusted, and they will give all possible help in the way of food and shelter that lies in their power. I think it is inadvisable to stay in one house for more than a few days, unless you are sick or wounded, one reason being that most peasants are gossips and sooner or later news of your whereabouts may get to the enemy. Secondly the longer you hide up the weaker your resolution becomes to escape. It is the man who keeps going who finally wins through.
Avoid towns, main roads and even villages like the plague. British and Americans even in civilian clothes, seldom look like Italians.
Should you meet a man of whom you are doubtful, it is not a bad idea to get out of him his name, and where he lives. He will always have vague fears of reprisals if he informs on you.
Give a wide berth to people in cars and whose who look prosperous unless you have definite knowledge of them. In fact, stick to the peasant. He will know all the local Fascists and warn you of them.
As a general rule civilian clothes are the best. You can move much more freely on secondary roads, cross bridges, etc., whereas uniform rather ties you to the fields.
However, within some fifteen miles of the front, civilian clothes are no guarantee of safety, as the Germans pick up all young men for working parties and if you are roped in with a crowd of Italians you will almost certainly be caught.
Uniform has its advantages all the same, for one thing in the more isolated areas the inhabitants regard all men in uniform as Germans. It is no bad thing when finding lodgings to let the proprietor think this and when comfortably installed to announce your identity.
Another thing is that the Italians seem to have much greater respect for a man in uniform than one in civilian clothes. He may be more nervous about keeping you, but then never stay long anywhere and in uniform you’ll get better treatment.
Try to get your clothes washed regularly. I know of many men who died of typhus through becoming lousy.
3. THE LANGUAGE QUESTION. (The officer who wrote this knows no Italian.)
Most men seem to get by with a few words. Where knowledge of language is really useful is in obtaining information about of the enemy’s whereabouts, possibility of getting a boat, etc. However, in most localities there are one or two men who “speak Americaine”. These men are always friendly. It is also useful to have a word or two of German when crossing the line at night or waiting on the beach for a boat. Should you bump into someone, challenge in German. If Italian you are O.K. and if Germans you make them give away their identity. The next move’s yours.
Never carry arms in civilian clothes. If caught you stand an excellent chance of being shot. When in uniform carry arms if you can. You may go a long time without needing a weapon but when the time comes you’ll want it damned badly. Arms, like uniform make a profound impression on the Italian.
Most men get along satisfactorily without money, but it can be very useful. For instance, any peasant will give you shelter expecting no payment, but if you produce a hundred lire he’ll treat you correspondingly better. He probably won’t accept the money but the effect is just the same.
With money you need never go without cigarettes. There are plenty on the Black Market.
Money may also provide a boat for you but this requires a big sum. The promise of payment at this end is often sufficient. With money you can also obtain a guide through the lines.
As time goes on the Fascists are becoming increasingly well organized and are something of a menace to escapers. In some districts they are far more energetic than in others. The whole of UMBRIA seems particularly full of them. The MARCONE is comparatively free. The difference may be far more local than this and one area may be good while another only a few miles away will be dangerous, warning can always be obtained from the peasants as to the numbers and whereabouts of Fascists. The Germans leave most escaper hunting in the hands of the Carabinieri and Fascists Militia who are, of course, uniformed personnel. The greatest danger is the civilian informer.
They are not evident in any numbers except in the vicinity of large inland towns. All coastal towns and main roads until you come to about twenty miles of the front. Here they thicken up and many villages and even farm houses may be occupied. Their whereabouts will always be disclosed by the peasants. Here they tend to exaggerate and ten Jerries in a village five miles away may become five hundred just ‘round the corner’. A great danger is Jerry on the scrounge. They go around the countryside in three’s or four’s “seeking what they might devour”, and it is embarrassing to have them in the same house as yourself. Remember though, they are not on the lookout for you, whereas you are, or should be, always on the watch for them.
8. BOAT OR FEET.
Boats are now very difficult to obtain either on the East or West Coast. There are few of them and these are under fairly effective control. However, small sailing boats can be got and I think the best places at the present (end of January) on the Easy Coast are Porto Georgio, Tortoretto where fishing even at night is permitted, and Rosetto. However, all coastal towns and villages might be tried as conditions change quickly. The wise thing to do is to park yourself in a house, say three miles from the town selected and then make discreet inquiries as to the whereabouts of fishermen. They may all have been evacuated from the town but are usually living around about. If you hear of a likely man it is essential to see him yourself and do not do business through an intermediary. He will certainly take a lot of persuading and no Italian can do this as you can yourself, even in English.
The main point in this is respect is speed in making all arrangements, as, if you wait too long you will be inundated with Italians all asking to come. In this way the scheme usually becomes compromised.
A moonless night is essential for a successful embarkation, but the question of weather should be left to the boatman. If a delay is unavoidable, move right out of the area, is possible taking the boatman with you, and don’t return until the night fixed for the embarkation.
Some beached are patrolled by Germans or Fascists and it is a good idea for one or two members to make a reconnaissance of the beaches on the night before that fixed for departure. Patrols flash torches and smoke, so are easily spotted. Germans are not numerous on the Adriatic Road at night and the only danger is an actual person.
(b) Crossing the line on foot is not as bad as it appears. Don’t be put off by people, Italians or escapers who tell you it is impossible. Go and see for yourself. The main difficulty is living in the area behind the line. Therefore, cross it swiftly. One good march should take you through the bad area, and this should be undertaken at night, to about seven miles of the front. Lie up here for a day and by enquiries and reconnaissance, decide on your route. The following night go through. This all sounds very simple, but more than 2500 hundred men have done it.
It is not a bad scheme, when coming from the North, to follow a route about four miles from the coast and trying at each likely place to raise a boat. If successful all well and good, if not you are going in the right direction and can have a crack at the line on foot.
To sum up – many things are useful, money, a knowledge of the language, etc., but only one thing is essential, namely a stout heart. There will be obstacles, disappointments and hardships, many of them, but a determined man will overcome these and win through.
I will add here a few personal experiences to bring out some of the points. They are all true.
1. “The determination of the Fascist Militia to close with the enemy”
A party of four of us, armed soldiers, two officers and two sergeants, were attacked by a party of ten Militiamen and forced to take cover in a small gully.
A lively battle ensued, lasting about half an hour, during which time we were successful in withdrawing, getting clean away. We rested, smoked, and discussed the battle and then decided on our route and set off. The route took us within half a mile of the scene of battle and on approaching it we were surprised to hear heavy firing. Further investigations showed that the Militia, now considerably reinforced, were still firing at the gully we had vacated two and a half hours previously.
The Fascists Militia are not out to “seek glory in the cannon’s mouth.”¬¬
2. My sergeant and I, in uniform, were having breakfast in a farm house, feeling at peace with the world. Suddenly the farmer’s son entered saying “Sergeant major, three more of your soldiers are outside.” I was expecting the arrival of some men, so got to my feet, opened the door – and shut it quickly for there stood three German soldiers. By a lucky chance they had their backs to me and were talking with the farmer. We grabbed our kit and bolted upstairs just as the Jerries entered the house. The Jerries settled down to an enormous breakfast and after giving them time to become fully absorbed, we crept downstairs, out of the door and away.
Remember that few of these peasants can distinguish between Allied and enemy uniform.
3. We were attempting to persuade an Italian to act as guide for us, but the man resolutely refused. Hoping to sting him into agreeing I called him a coward – no answer – “You’re all a lot of bloody cowards” – still no answer – “Do you know that sixty thousand Italian soldiers in Florence laid down their arms to five thousand Germans”? The man seemed surprised at the statement. “Well”, he said “fancy them sending five thousand, five would have done”.
You can move the average Italian by appealing to his sense of pity and generosity but to appeal to his courage, honour or patriotism is a waste of breath.
4. This anecdote will show the value of a few words of German. My sergeant and I were attempting to make our getaway in a fishing boat in company with about fifteen Italians. It was eight o’clock at night and very black. While pushing the boat into the water a Jerry patrol plus Fascists arrived at the scene and commenced some wild shooting. The Italians, like the Gadarene Swine rushed in a body into the sea, three actually being drowned. Three hundred yards from the beach were the road and railroad, and to escape these had to be crossed. The enemy posted men at fairly frequent intervals along the road while combing the beach. Attempting to cross the road we bumped into two shadowy forms. However, we had a plan worked out, “Who is that” shouted the sergeant in German. The reply came back in Italian. “It’s me German comrade”. “Then beat it down to the beach and look sharp” – “Yes, German Comrade”, and we crossed the road unmolested.
5. And here, to end up with, is the story of two ex-P/W.
I had been in an area in which many escapers were lying up. It was a prosperous area, and they were living pretty well, too well. None were prepared to undertake the journey back to our lines, but preferred to wait for the army to arrive. I left them, feeling a bit downhearted. Then I met these two. Both were old regular soldiers, one a sergeant major, having seen service in the last war. They were miserably clad, underfed, and in poor health, but there was no mistaking their determination. They had been trying to cross the lines in the mountainous area, had failed and had been driven to the lowlands by the frightful weather. They’d tried again further East and had been recaptured. The inside of a prison camp must have been preferable to those mountains, but at the first opportunity they escaped. When I met them they were setting off to try again. We joined forces and spent a fortnight together before making a successful get-away. During this time we made two unsuccessful attempts but this didn’t daunt them. These two had never lost their self respect or their strong sense of discipline. They’d never forgotten that they were soldiers. As long as they could move they were going on trying. Well – they made it. The others are still waiting for the army to “come and get them”.
(Note) They tell a story about the author of the foregoing. It is probably true, being typical of the individual, but the will deny it if asked. He is an officer of a famous Scottish Regiment, a regular soldier. His work with “A” Force provided him with excitement he seldom gets even as an infantryman. Needless to say, his work is hazardous in the extreme. He is a languid, unexcitable sort of individual who looks as if he would much prefer to be sleeping somewhere in the sun – which he would. Here is the story:
In one of his errands of mercy and assistance behind the enemy lines, after the Italians Armistice, Jock encountered a large body of prisoners, including some of his own regiment, who had escaped from Italian prison camps. The boys were apathetic, mentally depressed, ill clad, footsore, and wholly inclined to let the 8th Army come and get them. Jock undertook an impassioned (for him) appeal to get them moving South. He explained that he would arrange guides for them and had “safe houses” en route. The results were nil. The boys still wanted the army to come and get them. Whereupon Jock, not being very big, crawled up on the biggest rock he could find and adopted different tactics. “You’re a bunch of Bastards and you’re all under arrest. Fall in and follow me”. Strangely enough, a goodly number did just that.
(Sgd.) P.J. Holder, Major,
for Brigadier, Commander,
(NOTE) This BULLETIN OR EXTRACTS therefrom will NOT BE DISPLAYED on any notice board. Individual members of operational air crews may have access to it at the discretion of, and in the presence of, the Commanding Officer or Intelligence Officer. It maybe used for briefing but notes may not be taken of its contents.