Brian Sims oversaw the dedication of this memorial plaque and a commemorative tree planted in the National Memorial Arboretum several years ago.
My first connection with researcher Brian Sims was on June 2, 2013.
In an earlier post on this site I had speculated on the presence of New Zealanders in PG 59, to which Brian responded with this short note:
“There were a very small number of New Zealanders in PG 59—2 in March 1942—3 in May 1942—and only one up to December 1942. None are recorded for 1943.
“The information comes from my database of Red Cross reports copied in the UK National Archives. —Brian Sims”
Thus began a rich two-year correspondence with Brian during which he introduced me to or shed additional light on many aspects the POW experience including:
- The SS Brandenburg Division operations in Italy
- I.S.9 rescue operations along the Adriatic coast
- Recommendations put forward by British and American officers for honors and awards to Italian helpers
- British Special Investigation Branch (SIB) inquiries into the murder of escaped prisoners
- POW escapes into Switzerland
- Sam Derry, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, and the Rome Rescue Organization
Brian’s research into the POW situation in Italy went back 23 years, to the time of his retirement from a career in mining. What began as a quest for information on his father—a British POW who drowned when an Italian ship on which he was being transported was sunk in the Mediterranean—quickly became a calling to learn all that he could about Allied POWs in Italy, and to make that information available to others.
“My father was T/221204 Driver W. H. Sims,” Brian told me. “He was conscripted after the fall of France in 1940.
“As a lorry driver, all he had to do was to learn the ‘Army Way’ and was shipped out from Liverpool in February 1941 for the Middle East with the 5th Reserve M/T Coy, later redesignated as 97 Coy R.A.S.C.
“From what I have pieced together Dad was in the Canal Area, Lebanon, Syria, and back to Egypt in 1942, then Libya building up the huge supply dumps at Tobruk. He seems to have been captured in mid-June 1942. The last documented sighting of him was made around 7/6/42 [June 7, 1942] by one of the company sergeants. He gives the names of those who were with him at the time and the vehicle number.
“That is all I have been able to find in the past 20+ years. I do know he was in the POW camp at Sidi Hussein, on the eastern side of Benghazi, which is well documented in war crimes files.
“Then came the day when the dreaded telegram came saying my father had died as a POW 26/10–14/11/42 [between October 26 and November 14, 1942]. This is all we knew until a former comrade made a visit to my grandparents, telling them my father had died on a ship taking him to Italy from Libya when it had been sunk by an ‘American’ submarine. Later I found out that it was Italian propaganda and the submarine was British.
“The circumstances of my father’s death were still a mystery until 1992, when I approached my M.P. [Member of Parliament] for his help after getting letters of denial from the M.O.D. [Ministry of Defense] for three years.
“The answer came as a shock, as it appears the information had been available since early 1944. Only the most persistent families had been given the briefest of details.
“I advertised on TV Channel 4’s ‘Service Pals’ pages and was approached by a professional researcher.”
He obtained about 20 pages of documents where the camp at Benghazi and the sinking of the ship (SS Scillin) had been described by survivors.
“This was my first knowledge of The National Archives.
“I later found 6 of the 27 survivors through BBC Radio chat programs and when the Daily Mail published the previously untold story of the 787 men lost in the sinking. I also did a recorded interview for the History Channel.
“As said earlier, the Daily Mail and a few others of The National Press printed the story of my research. This was in 1996. My telephone never stopped ringing for over two years.
“[In 1995] the Commonwealth War Graves Commission were unaware of the sinkings. A year later all the 2,000 or so POW who had died at sea had their memorial corrected where necessary.
“There was one survivor from the Scillin and two from the Ariosto. Along with relatives of casualties [at the memorial service] we filled the chapel to capacity.
“Historical data from the period tells without doubt that we knew the ships were carrying POW. We knew the course, speed, route to be taken, and timings along the route. Ultra Intelligence gave us as much information about these ships movements as the Italians had.
“From the R.N. Submarine’s logs it is very clear that they were signalled to patrol on a certain course. They then of course intercepted the ships.
“We knowingly attacked Italian ships carrying Allied POW.
“The P212 which sank the Scillin was the only submarine that picked up POW survivors as there was only a ‘distant’ escort. Of the 814 POW aboard the ship only 27 survived. One died of wounds received in Normandy 1944. Of the 26 others, I made contact with and met six.
“The research on POW lost at sea was completed several years ago, but I continued gathering POW data right up to the present time. S.O.E. [Special Operations Executive operations] comes into the picture from time to time, but the main efforts are now in gathering liberated POW reports which in many cases are extremely informative.
“My research has covered everything related to POW. The camps and crimes committed [against prisoners]. Escape, evasion, liberation, and Red X reports are a constant source of information regarding camp life.
“Some of my research into the POW losses is in the Imperial War Museum and the archives of the Honourable Artillery Company. Most regiments who lost men at sea have contributions in their archives.”
“As I was born in January 1938, I still remember the shortages due to restrictions on imported food,” Brian explained.
“[During the war] my mother and I moved in with my grandparents who lived just five minutes walk from where my Mother was employed making ammunition at a factory called ‘Barringers’.
“Even with wartime rationing grandad was a good provider who kept a few pigs and hens. There was a great deal of exchanging of bacon, eggs, etc., for such things as sugar, tea, butter as I vaguely remember.
“What has to be remembered also is that Britain in 1945 was virtually bankrupt. Food rationing continued for some years post war. It is only five years ago that we finished paying our ‘lend lease’ debts to the USA.
“The community I grew up in you passed on anything that was of use to others.
“I remember well my mother passing on clothes or boots I had grown out of to a family who lived a few yards away. That was during WW2 when everything including clothes were tightly rationed. It was just the thing to do.
“Later this continued with my mining colleagues, where we would share our last shilling. Nothing was too much trouble.”
Brian worked for 35 years in mining.
“I started at the bottom and worked through the ranks until I finally had 250 men working for me. The days went very quickly as they do when you have the answers for any problems that crop up. Quite rewarding but not as much as being able to solve mysteries that are almost 70 years old.”
I told Brian I found this dedication to research in retirement to be an inspiration. Another example, I said, is Keith Killby, who established Monte San Martino Trust after retirement from his family’s retail business.
It was a comparison what pleased Brian, who responded. “I met Keith Killby once at his London home. He came over as someone ‘special’ during our brief meeting.
“Doesn’t pay to wish time on Dennis, does it? I enjoyed my job greatly, as like research—every day brought a fresh challenge.
“Yet in the past 20+ years time has just flown by, but I do consider the experience has been very rewarding. Thinking back I wondered how time was ever found for anything else.”
Research at the National Archives
“Access to the UK Archives is very easy,” Brian told me.
“All you need would perhaps be a passport and something such as a utility bill to prove your identity and address. You go into the entrance, up to the 2nd floor and present your documents. Within 10–15 minutes you will have a reader’s card which lasts 2–3 years. With this you can access the readers’ room and order original documents. You are allocated a desk to work at and can reserve documents for the following days.
“It would be a total waste of time just turning up and hoping to find what you need. Perhaps with a lot of advice and many hours browsing online through the various classes of documents you would have half a chance of finding what you need. The descriptions given in the online catalogue can be misleading or incomplete at times. An obscurely worded search can bring in surprising results if you are lucky.
“Just same as any other aspects of life it is experience that matters; and of course tenacity if the subject borders on the controversial.”
Brian’s information gathering became accelerated after digital cameras were allowed for copying.
“In the past few years several double-sided tables have been made available with eight camera stands on each. Must be in the region of ten tables. The latest improvements have been daylight-balanced lighting which helps a great deal.
“Living 150 miles north of the National Archives, in Nottinghamshire, means that our visits have to be made at selected times during low demand for accommodation. When copying files with standard-sized pages we usually manage in the region of 4,000–5,000 pages each day working about six hours.
“That is only achieved by using a system that has been developed over the past few years.
“In my early working days the majority of my ‘workmates’ had served in various arms of the forces, so a great deal was learnt from them. A few had also been POWs.
“[My wife] Shelagh has been very supportive regarding my research over the years and understands the need.
“The only problem with war crimes files is that they can be repetitious and not in date sequence. At times they do leave you wondering about the final outcome.
“I do not just copy documents, but I also understand the circumstances in which they were made.
“Many thousands of hours have been spent getting a full understanding of various classes of documents and their descriptions, along with the peculiarities of file descriptions.”
For example, in one note to Brian I asked, “I’m looking through the Italian agent recruits papers more closely. What do you imagine the employment capacity of ‘liaison discipline’ would mean for Ezio Terrizzano?”
He responded, “As we know ‘A Force’ were very informal with their terminology. The abbreviations will in many cases be ‘homemade’. Should imagine it helps with security and does not give too much away with MI6, etc. Always a little ‘political intrigue’ amongst various intelligence agencies.
“In this case Ezio Terizzano was probably in charge of the collection of escapees into some form of order for their final movements through the lines—probably doing the job of coordination between the two sets of agents, those who hunt around collecting POW and escorting them to one spot ready for guides to take them through the lines.
“Escapers = ELKS. Helpers = FORKS. Places of readiness where ELKS were taken by FORKS for passing on = FORKERIES. (Ezio) GUIDES, as read.”
In another case where Brian was able to share a rare bit of information, I remarked he had certainly come up with the “needle in the haystack.”
“I specialise in ‘needles in a haystack’as that was what I learned in the first few years of my research,” he replied. “Never take anything for granted and don’t always take the direct route.
“Time has always been made to do jobs for those less fortunate than myself, and cannot visit the archives either because of the costs involved or their geographical location.
“It is extremely rewarding when you are able to give a family information they have wanted for years.
“What is easy for one can be very difficult for others.”
Years of Experience
“There are also many memorable experiences,” Brian told me. “In the 90s I did a lot of after dinner speaking; usually at regimental association dinners.
“In 1997 when in Egypt travelling the coastal battlefields, a party of 40 or so Germans turned up at Mersa Matruh.
“They told me that they had tried to get into Libya but couldn’t obtain visas.
“The next day at Halfaya Cemetery there was a Libyan tour company with a group of British tourists. After a short conversation they gave me brochures and business cards with an assurance that visas could be obtained for German passport holders.
“After dinner on my return to Mersa Matruh the whole situation was explained.
“The evening turned into a very ‘liquid’ one.
“What other Englishman has shared too many beers overlooking the bay at Mersa Matruh in the company of two of Rommel’s staff officers?
“I was very fortunate in the early 1990s to be a guest at several Stalag IVB reunions. I spoke at regimental annual dinners given by many associations and was made honorary member of quite a few.
“I was a guest on BBC Radio Nottingham on three occasions in the 1990s. The program was a phone-in where listeners participated with little snippets of their own.
“I have travelled quite a few time to Tunisia myself and always rented a car to make forays to places of interest, including Kasserine Pass. The most memorable was in November 1998 when with the help of a Tunisian government minister I sailed from the Port of Mahdia to pass over the wreck of the Scillin (the ship Dad died on). I had been asked by the family of a man who had survived the sinking, but died months previously if it could be arranged for his ashes to be scattered over the wreck.
“The whole process took six months to arrange but the Tunisians eventually pulled out all the stops. We were accompanied by ‘Chef de Maritime’ and had a motor gunboat as escort.
“On the return to port we passed over the wreck of the Ariosto (15/2/42) and laid another wreath to the POW lost on her.
“My work on 8th Army casualties was acknowledged in 2002 when an invitation came to attend the 60th anniversary of El Alamein service at Westminster Abbey. I was there in recognition of my work on POW losses at sea, and the 2,000 or so changes to the registers for the memorial at El Alamein. These were made after my protests regarding their inaccuracies.
“It came as quite a surprise when at the end of the service along with 24 others I was presented to the Royal Family.
The Royals Brian met on that occasion were the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh, Duke and Duchess of Kent, The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and Princess Anne.
“The most interesting to talk to and the most informed was Princess Anne. In the long conversation we had she came over as a very caring person.
“This work has given me a great many friends. Sadly, most of the veterans are no longer with us.”
Brian was pleased that information on the Italian sacrifices was reaching today’s Italians. “I am sure the Italians would welcome a written account of what was happening in those dark days,” he wrote. “Between us we will hopefully be able to show a little more of the help given by the Italian villagers. I will do my best as it was a very important time in history for all of us. Anything to create a better understanding of that period. The information I would think would do just that.”
In commenting on one post, he wrote, “Dennis, though the story is very tragic it shows the sacrifice some Italians made.”
Regarding another post, he commented, “What ‘Handful of Flour’ tells me is that the peasants gave what they really couldn’t afford to. [See ‘A Symbol of the True Italy‘.] While such people as businessmen gave several thousand lire without too much ill effect on their everyday life. [The significance is] not what is given but the cost to those who gave.”
Aside from our communications about POW research, I occasionally received glimpses into Brian’s family life through his e-mails: love of home, time spent with friends and family—including beloved grandchildren, Shelagh’s companionship and her delicious holiday dinners.
And, finally, in Brian’s notes there were from time to time reminders of his declining health.
Early this year, Brian commented on his lengthy medical treatment. “The staff at all the clinics I have visited are very friendly and most efficient.
“Many times when going down the hospital’s main corridor I get the greeting ‘Hello, Brian’ from a member of staff. This in many cases leaves me wondering where we have met, but I have been quite a regular patient for very close to three years now.”
Word of Brian’s death came to me on June 23 from Trevor Smallman, a mutual friend who had been in communication with Shelagh about Brian during the last few weeks of his illness.
I will remember Brian as kind, generous, and ever eager to help me. I will miss him, and I am pleased that he will have important presence on this site for as long as it exists.
This National Memorial Archive plaque reflects Brian’s signature research:
In memory of the 2000 plus British and Commonwealth Forces who died at sea as P.O.W. 1941–42
Jason – 9 December 1941
Ariosto – 15 February 1942
Tembien – 27 February 1942
Nino Bixio – 17 August 1942
Loreto – 13 October 1942
Scillin – 14 November 1942