A hale and hearty Thomas Penman in 1946, after medical treatment for malnourishment in Chepstow, Wales— a “fattening up” gradually on small amounts of food, chocolate, and milk
I received a note from Helen McGregor, who lives just outside Glasgow, Scotland, last month.
She wrote, “My father was one who escaped from the camp at Servigliano and lived with an Italian family for at least one year.
“He is dead now, but I know he was mentioned in dispatches and given a hero’s welcome home. His name was Thomas Penman and he was from Glasgow, Scotland.”
Thomas Penman, Highland Light Infantry, was captured in North Africa between El Alamein and Tobruk and shipped to Italy. He escaped capture twice.
The following accounts are among those Helen’s father shared with her older siblings over different periods of time. Although the details are sketchy, the stories are nonetheless compelling.
“Chronologically and geographically, we have no idea of the order of most events,” Helen explained.
Here are the accounts, as shared by Helen:
“On September 1943, dad escaped through a hole in the wall [of P.G. 59] along with numerous others. He, Jimmy Feehan of the Australian army, and an unknown soldier were together.
“The third soldier was shot in the back whilst escaping.
“Dad spotted the guards jumping into trucks to chase the escapees, and he told Jimmy to hide only about 300 yards from the camp, believing no one would look for them so near to the scene. They watched prisoners being rounded up, so they made their move and ran into the Italian countryside.
“Dad said he had nothing to eat but tomatoes for about six days, hiding in the fields and moving at night when it was dark. He and Jimmy took shelter in a barn, and there they were found and helped by the Italian family who owned it.
“Dad and Jimmy kept moving as much as possible. Eventually they were captured and put onto a truck with other prisoners. As the truck passed through the countryside, dad threw Jimmy out of it and jumped out himself. They ran as fast as they could across the fields. A few minutes later, they heard gunshots and realised the truck had stopped. All the soldiers in the back of the truck had been shot dead where they sat or lay.
“At some point, an Allied plane came down and two men parachuted out near a river. Dad watched as both men were picked up by soldiers and taken up onto a bridge. Two soldiers put their thumbs into the eyes of these men, gouged their eyes out and then threw them into the river.
“No wonder he rarely spoke about the war.
“At one point dad and Jimmy were found dressed in ‘civies,’—civilian clothing—by the Canadian army. When Jimmy told them which unit he was from, he was released and sent to the relevant base, but dad was imprisoned for six weeks—possibly in Milan—until they could verify his details. Apparently, they were suspicious of him, especially as he spoke Italian. I suppose they had to verify he was a missing soldier and had been a prisoner of war.
“We do not know when dad and Jimmy separated, but dad spent possibly a year or more living with a family who hid him in Italy. He learned to speak basic Italian. Due to his dark hair, brown eyes and tanned skin, he passed himself off as a local.
“On one occasion he went into a shop where a group of Germans soldiers were drinking coffee. Dad had to hope that they wouldn’t speak to him, and he was able to leave. He said he passed German soldiers on a few occasions and it was only luck they never stopped him to see his papers—although he had obtained some!
“Dad met up with a group of partisans. I do not know if Jimmy was still with him. He made his way to Yugoslavia and fought with Tito’s men for a period. Apparently, he was awarded a medal, but never claimed it. I need to try to verify the details. I believe it may have been the Tito Star.
“I do not yet know how dad made it back to the UK, but when he did he was so badly malnourished that he had to be hospitalised. His family were told he was alive, but they didn’t see him till many months later. We understand from army papers that he was in Camp 197, Mount Stuart, Chepstow. We have a photo that shows him after having been ‘fattened up’—dad was never that size. He was fed very small amounts of food, chocolate, and milk until he recovered.
“At one point after recovery, he was sent to guard German POW’s in Liverpool! He said he wasn’t sure if he wanted to open the doors and let them go or shoot them all, after all he had seen during the war.
“I am in the process of tracing my dad’s army service records, which I hope will help put the pieces together. A certificate we have states that he recounted his experiences to intelligence officers at army headquarters. So hopefully we can learn more from that.
We are still trying to determine who the Italian family was who sheltered dad—and where they lived—by sourcing family letters.
This certificate indicates Thomas Penman (service number 3321620) rendered a statement regarding his experiences while captured and behind enemy lines to the British Section, C.S.D.I.C., C.M.F. (Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre, Central Mediterranean Force). The form is dated July 4, 1944.
A fragment of a health form indicates Thomas Penman’s service record and apparent current medical condition:
…BEF [British Expeditionary Force] then N. Africa…Mersa Matruh. Escaped…with. NI Absinil. Improved eating.
Thomas Penman Pte [Private]
The document is rubber-stamped: “Cmdg. [Commanding] 197 P.W. Camp [prisoner of war camp]” and “MILITARY DISPERSAL UNIT No. 2 – 13 JUN 1946 – YORK”
A partially discernable stamp reads: “ORDERLY ROOM – June 19…MOUNT, …STOW”
A list of POW camps in the UK during WW II published in The Guardian, (“Every prisoner of war camp in the UK mapped and listed”—November 8, 2010), includes Camp 197 known as “The Mount,” located in Chepstow, Monmouthshire (Gwent), Wales.
The document also bears a written date of 14/11/47 (November 14, 1947).