Georgina Stewart, daughter of Don Robinson, who was a prisoner in P.G. 59, shared a letter with me that was written by Reverend Nathaniel “Niel” Nye to her mother during the war.
The letter offered reassurance as to the likely current situation of Don Robinson, then missing in Italy after the breakout from P.G. 59 in September 1943. It also offers us insight into the character of Niel Nye, and it provides details about the breakout.
Nathaniel “Niel” Kemp Nye was an Anglican chaplain in the British Royal Air Force.
The London Gazette of February 6, 1940 indicates Niel (service number 77267) was granted a commission “for the duration of hostilities with the relative rank of Squadron Leader” on January 18, 1940.
After his capture, Niel was interned in Camp 59.
Here is the text of the letter:
c/o Mrs Villis
7/12/43. [December 7, 1943]
Dear Mrs Robinson
I was delighted to receive your letter as you would have been one of the first I should have written to were it not that I lost my most valuable book of addresses on the trek down to our lines.
I am presuming that your son is the tall Sgt. Robinson in Camp with whom I spent many most enjoyable hours walking and talking about everything under the sun — mostly “When do you think it will all be over”!! He is one whom I very much hope I shall see again soon—in fact he has promised to let me and my wife visit your farm.
However! On the night of the 13th Sept. we (six officers — 3 Padres, 3 Doctors) managed to force the Italians to give us our freedom. So that as I was one of the last five to leave the camp I know your son got away with the rest. We had given them all rough maps, rough directions and 2 Red + [Red Cross] Parcels each and advised them to move in small groups, living on the land and keeping out of towns and large villages (where there are always fascist spies.) The points of news I can assure you are — 1) Your son was in Excellent health 2) The Italian peasants are only too willing to house clothe and feed you (in my own experience) so long as the Germans are not too close. 3) Obviously no communication is possible so long as he is on the march so that no news is good news 4) If the Germans should recapture him by bad luck, then you will hear very soon from Germany, and they are treating us very reasonably.
More I do not know — but if you do hear anything please let me know: I cannot tell you how much it cheered me to talk of farming etc to your son as we walked round and round and round the camp at night You must be a very proud mother!!
Yours very sincerely
S/C Rev. R.A.F. [Squadron Chaplain, Reverend, Royal Air Force]
P.S. After Xmas I maybe in Leominster & should hope to visit you if I may!
P.P.S. All information I’ve given you is strictly unofficial and private—and for security must NOT be made public.
In The Memoirs of J. H. D. Millar (published by Quaderni della Memoria, 2008), Captain Millar, the British officer in change of the P.G. 59 at the time of the breakout and the camp’s chief medical officer, writes of the arrival (presumably in spring 1942) of two “padres.”
He says, “One was Neil [sic] Nye, very hearty and not very academic, but a very keen R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] chap. The other was Jim Mathieson, who had been a Free Church minister brought up on Skye. He had a rather dour, but pleasant sense of humour, a charming character. Neil and he got on increasingly well, again totally different characters.”
According to his obituary from heraldscotland.com, Jim Mathieson died in 2007 at the age of 95.
Giuseppe Millozzi, in his dissection Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano, mentions Niel Nye several times.
In addition to the chaplains mentioned above, Giuseppe mentions another clergyman—Italian Catholic priest Don Antonio Borghi, who spoke English.
In his paper, Giuseppe shares details from reports on periodic Red Cross visits to the camp and from the proceedings of the postwar trial of P.G. 59 commandant Colonel Enrico Bacci.
In the September 1942 Red Cross Report, it is recorded that Niel Nye asked permission of the Italian authorities to invite the Anglican bishop Gerard, who was interned at CPG 52 (Chiavari), to celebrate 50 confirmations.
I cannot say whether that request was honored.
In accessing the same report, Giuseppe explains, “Besides the walks and football as mentioned before, Chaplain Nye was organising for the end of September a ‘carnival’ with a jury to award prizes to the best costumes improvised by POWs. These kinds of events were organised regularly; in fact they had a double function: to boost POWs’ morale and, even more important, to divert the POWs thought from the obsession of food. In Sforzacosta’s camp POWs organised wrestling tournaments while in Monturano’s POWs published a magazine for the camp.
“In addition to the already mentioned activities, POWs in Servigliano made a collection for buying musical instruments and managed to set up a band which became very popular. On top of that, in September books—approximately 700—arrived. Chaplain Nye made a request to the Red Cross inspectors for 15 bibles.”
See “Carnival Time.”
In November 1942, Giuseppe explains, “The camp library had 1,000 books. For his religious functions, Chaplain Nye made a request for 400 books of Psalms or alternatively 400 books of prayer.”
In March 1943, it was reported “Besides carrying out his usual pastoral work, Chaplain Nye had obtained permission to go and visit patients who were in Ascoli Piceno’s hospital.”
Regarding testimony at Colonel Bacci’s trial, Giuseppe explains that English officers who were responsible for the POWs—Captain Millar, Regimental Sergeant Major T. W. Hegarty, and Chaplain Nye—had been interned in the camp for one and a half years, and the time had given opportunity for them and Bacci to get to know each other “and clearly to detest each other.”
Giuseppe acknowledges the role that Neil Nye played in the decision to break out of the camp in 1943:
“On 11 and 12 September Capt. Millar carefully thought on what was the best action to take. He consulted his colleague [Aiden] Duff and with father Nye and together they discussed the implications of the stay put order. Furthermore, they asked themselves if the news coming from the camp was from reliable sources—was it true that the Allies were landing on Italian coasts and could arrive in two or three days?”
Then, on September 14, “Capt. Millar met the interpreter Giorgio Cusani in the morning and confided his intention—decided with Duff and Nye—to give the order to evacuate the camp. Cusani agreed with him and thought it that was the right decision.”