The Camp 59 Tunnelers

Thick, well-guarded walls must have seemed an impenetrable barrier to the prisoners of P.G. 59. But miners in the camp envisioned another way out.

In his dissertation on Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano, Italian historian Giuseppe Millozzi described a dramatic breakout from P.G. 59:

“Twelve POWs had managed to escape through a tunnel on the night between 11 and 12 September 1942. They were all recaptured and put in close confinement cells for ten days.

“Inspectors also reported that three POWs – Kuhn, Lacey and Well – had been charged with crime and therefore brought to trial. Red Cross delegates would have checked that the court-martial complied with the Geneva Convention.

“Gilbert Broadbent, an ex pow who was interned first at Servigliano and then at Sforzacosta, in his book Behind Enemy Lines, recounts the escape of the POWs in September:

“‘On this occasion, the tunnel started from n. 1 hut on the north side of the camp (…) . Men who had been miners, helped to make the tunnel. (…) The date for the attempt was the 11th and rumour quickly spread around the camp in the familiar words ‘tonight’s the night’. Early the following morning we all knew that 11 men succeeded in escaping. Many more had been ready to go, but Cpl. Holland, a big man, had unfortunately knocked in the sides of the tunnel and it took two and a half hours for the rest of the party to dig him out.’”

(Gilbert Broadbent, Behind Enemy Lines, Bognor Regis, Anchor Publications, 1985, pp 105-106.)

In two repatriation reports, held today at the British National Archives—sent to me in 2014 by my late friend Brian Sims—P.G. 59 internees Armand Blondel and Christopher Cookson recount this tunneling effort.

Although the two men were repatriated by two different interrogating officers on different dates and in different Swiss villages (Armand on July 22, 1944 in Caux, and Christopher on August 17, 1944 in Arosa), both give the date of the attempted escape as July 1942—instead of September:

Curiously, the accounts on the two reports are the same word-for-word, one evidently having been copied from the other report as the two were being filed:

“I was one of forty who helped to dig a tunnel. The night we decided to go 13 got through, but Chief Petty Officer Holland (Submarines) got struck in the tunnel for 2 hrs. I was behind waiting to go through but by the time he got through it was dawn and no one else got through the tunnel.”

Armand Blondel began internment at P.G. 59 on January 1, 1942, and then was transferred out on January 15, 1943.

Christopher Cookson entered the camp on March 10, 1942, and he transferred on May 31, 1943. In P.G. 59, he worked in the tailor’s shop.

Robert Dickinson, in his journal entitled Servigliano Calling, documents multiple tunneling projects that occurred during 1942 in P.G. 59:

Apr 30th
Iti’s in uproar; kept on parade while huts searched, found a tunnel; but not the right one, suspect somebody of splitting to the Iti’s.

May 1st
Big search again, this time found the right tunnel. A few more days and half the camp would have walked out. The Commandante complimented the men on the digging; the tunnel finished off by miners pit-props as well one could walk down it.

Jul 20th
Another tunnel suspected; turfed out with all kit and beds at 7am while Iti’s search, tapping floors, nothing found.

Sept 12th
Escape!! 11 men escaped through a tunnel in No. 1 hut between the hours of midnight and 4:30am. Only 11 because 1, the ‘P.O.’ was stuck for 2½ hrs. The tunnel only being similar to a rabbits; about 50yds long and he a giant. 4 captured by 6am. Iti’s amazed, counted like sheep for the remainder of the day. Tunnel started through a concrete floor and came up under the parcel shed.

Sept 13th
Turned out with all kit while rooms searched for tunnels; canteen closed: no parcels. 5 more prisoners caught leaving only 2.

Oct 26th
Still being turfed out 2 or 3 times a week with all kit while huts searched for tunnels.

To read Robert’s complete camp diary, see “‘Servigliano Calling’ Calendar of Events.”

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