Following the Trail of Bernard Evans

Bernard Evens beside an ambulance he drove in North Africa

In the Alphabetical List of POWs in Italy published by the British during WW2, Lance Corporal C. Bernard Evans, T/115699, Royal Army Service Corps, is listed as having been interned in P.G. 53 Sforzacosta.

However a single card sent home from P.G. 59 is evidence he was also interned in Servigliano. A drawing on the card is dated 26 November 1942.

“We don’t have any letters that my grandad wrote home—just the postcard,” Bernard’s granddaughter Clare Mason, of Staffordshire, England, wrote to me.

“At first I thought he’d signed it Bern, but it looks like Bun, which my grandma always called him. My Mum said everyone who knew him well called him Bun and he must have also been called that by my great grandparents for him to sign his POW card with this nickname.”

I asked Clare if she recognizes the building, which seems to me an inn—or a toll house, as the road passes through it on the way to a bridge.

She answered, “The drawing is likely to be of one of the many Tudor/mock Tudor buildings around Birmingham where he grew up. He continued to draw and paint buildings and waterways right up until the end of his life. He maintained a similar style of drawing into his 70s.”

Like many former POWs, Bernard did not talk much about his experiences. However 20 years ago he offered some details to Clare.

“I was training to be a teacher and had to complete a project on WW2,” Clare recalled. “I asked my grandfather if he would write down what he could remember and the letter has been kept safe ever since.

“Please share any information, as we would love my grandad’s memory to live on and to let the Italian families know how grateful we are for their sacrifice to help him for such a long period of time.”

Aside from Bernard’s written story, Clare and her mother, Tina O’Callaghan, know little else.

“My Mum remembers him telling her that some Italians hid him in the snow so that the Germans wouldn’t find him and that she should always eat her crusts as he had seen men fight over a crust of bread.”

Here is Bernard’s account:

Brief Account of Second World War Experience

“When I was called up in October 1939 and joined the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), little did I think I would be in the army for nearly six years and that for three and a half years of the time I would be a prisoner of war.

October–January 1940—training in England

“I wasn’t even in a proper barracks. We had to put up with living in farmhouses and old buildings commandeered by the army. Perhaps it was good training for what was to come!

January—off to France—Dunkirk, Cherbourg, etc.

June—back to England—regrouping of unit in Liaddudno [Wales]. No time to go on the beach—more training and square bashing.

January 1941—off to North Africa

“Sailing from Liverpool on a very overcrowded ship. On the sea journey I remember the excitement of a German submarine stalking the convoy, finally being chased off by destroyers. We were escorted by the famous ‘Ark Royal’ aircraft carrier! We called at Sierra Leone—not allowed off the ship—then on to Cape Town. Allowed off for four days and sailed up through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to Egypt. Our corps moved up into the desert—a company of 75 ambulances. I drove one, transporting wounded soldiers from a field hospital (very basic) to a small town on the Mediterranean Sea.

“One day the field hospital where I was working was surrounded by the Germans (and Italians) and 12 of us were taken prisoner. We were taken by the Italians to Benghazi on the Mediterranean for a short time in a camp there, and then on to Naples by boat. Firstly, we were put in a camp under canvas, then in a factory building used as a camp, and thirdly into an Italian army barracks. We were always hungry. The meager rations provided us were very poor. It was wonderful when once in a while a Red Cross food parcel arrived.

“The Italian army finally capitulated, leaving the camp unguarded. Before the German army arrived, I escaped.

Next six months—I lived up in the Italian mountains begging for food from the local farmers—usually potatoes. The people were scared of helping us in case they were caught doing so by the patroling German soldiers. I swapped boots and some of my uniform with the local people so that I wouldn’t be so easily recognized by the soldiers. I was recaught by Italian fascists and handed back to the Germans.

Munich—Taken to Munich by train through the Brenner pass, guarded by the German soldiers. The first Camp was Stalag 7A. [We were] not ill-treated, but I was hungry, swapping tea from Red Cross parcels for bread from the German sentries. Eventually we moved nearer the centre of Munich so that we could work on cleaning the bomb damage inflicted by the Americans and the R.A.F. Here we lived in railway wagons in a station in Munich East. Lastly, we were moved to a disused school nearby Munich East. About 300 prisoners were here.

1945—The Germans were defeated and the Americans liberated Munich and we were released and sent back to England.”

The “camp under canvas” Bernard mentions is likely P.G. 66 Capua, a tent transit camp 25 kilometers north of Naples. He confidently states the order of the camps as the transit camp, then “a factory building used as a camp, and thirdly into an Italian army barracks.”

I can’t help but think he misremembered the order of the second and third camps. The factory used as a camp is a perfect description of P.G. 53, and P.G. 59 would match the army-style barracks. However, in every instance of transfers I know, the movement has been from P.G. 59 to P.G. 53.

Below I’ve offered instances of Servigliano-to-Sforzacosta transfers, as well as research by Italian historian Giuseppe Millozzi that makes clear in spite of the “stay put” order that kept internees in P.G. 53 after the armistice, it is entirely possible that if he was in P.G. 53 at the time, Bernard could have slipped away before the Germans took control of the camp.

P.G. 59 to P.G. 53 Transfers

On this site there are a number of cases of British prisoners being transferred from P.G. 59 to P.G. 53:

Denis Crook and Robert Dickinson

Denis Crook and Robert Dickinson were transferred from P.G. 59 to P.G. 53 on 24 January 1943.

Ten letters Denis sent to his parents were from Camp 59. The next two were written from Camp 53. The letters are a testament to the deep friendship between Denis and Robert, who he mentions in each letter.

On 21 May 1943, Robert was transferred to a work camp at the village of Casanova in northern Italy. Denis remained at P.G. 53 until October 1943, when he was transferred to Stalag IV-G. (See “Robert and Denis—“Best of Chums.”)

John Bell

John Bell, Northumberland Hussars, arrived in P.G. 59 on 29 January 1942, and was sent to P.G. 53 in February 1943. He didn’t escape after the armistice, but was sent on to Stalag XVIIA and soon afterward transferred to Stalag VIIIA. (See “P.G. 59 Internee’s Home to be Featured on A House Through Time.”)

Ronald Streatfield

Ronald Streatfield, interned in P.G. 59 Servigliano from 24 January 1942. Like Denis and Robert, he as transferred to P.G. 53 on 24 January 1943. He was then transferred on 18 May to P.G. 133/17 Granozzo, where from 19 May to 9 September 1943 he was employed in farm labor. (See “Ronald Streatfield in Switzerland.”)

Ronald Bertie Bones

Gunner Ronald Bertie Bones, Royal Artillery, was interned in both P.G. 59 and P.G. 53. Dates for his internment at each camp are currently unknown. (See “Ronald Bertie Bones—An Album.”)

Camp 53 Escapees

Three escapees from P.G. 53 were among a group of POWs tranferred on a fishing schooner along the Adriatic coast from San Benedetto del Tronto to Termoli on 13 November 1943. They are Pte. Roland Jenson, Cpl. Leonard Morris, and Gnr. A. Gilmore. (See “I.S.9 Situation Report—November 12–13, 1943.”)

Giuseppe Millozzi on Camp Transfers and Escapes from P.G. 53

Italian historian Giuseppe Millozzi in his excellent history of “Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano,” notes the following instances of escape from P.G. 53:

“At the Sforzacosta camp, on 15 September, many POWs seized the opportunity to escape in the great confusion. Among them there was Lawrence Bains, who escaped with three other companions who soon realized that the Marche countryside was a ‘fugitive’s paradise’, as there were so many places where they could hide—ditches, small woods, bushes, rivers and hills.”

Giuseppe notes that the experience of a group of POWs who escaped from Sforzacosta is recounted by Len Dann in his book Laughing We Ran.

He also points out that Paul Bullard, in an unpublished manuscript entitled ‘Time Off in the Marche’ (Monte San Martino Trust archives), describes his escape with a companion from the Sforzacosta camp. They were part of a large group that split into three smaller groups to avoid recapture.

Gilbert Broadbent, interned at Servigliano and then at Sforzacosta, was one of 150 POWs who was transferred from Servigliano to Sforzacosta on 23 February 1943. His September 1943 escape from P.G. 53 is recounted in Behind Enemy Lines.

And, Giuseppe writes, “Raymond Ellis had managed to escape from Sforzacosta’s camp with Bill Sumner a month before the Armistice. It was one of those rare escapes made in day light—showing confidence but with ‘hearts in the mouth’ they got out from the main gate while sentries under the eyes of the guards. The idea was to give the impression they had been authorised to go to work outside the camp.”

According to Giuseppe, prisoner Algie Poole was taken first to the Capua transit camp, then transferred to Servigliano and later on to Sforzacosta.

Giuseppe has this to say about transfer of prisoners from P.G. 59 to P.G. 53 and camps beyond, and about prisoner escapes from P.G. 53 after the Armistice.

“From February to December 1941,” Giuseppe writes, “the camp held Greek POWs. Probably due to the arrival of Allied POWs who had been captured in North Africa and transferred to Italy, towards the end of 1941 some of the Greeks were transferred in Liguria and Sardinia and others were repatriated. The camp remained empty for the whole month of January 1942 and until in February the first Allied POWs started to arrive. The number grew constantly reaching the maximum capacity of the camp in May 1942.

“According to the Italian military authority, in March 1943 Servigliano’s camp held: 1,445 British; 464 Americans; 4 French.

“For a total of 1,913 POWs, it should be noting that with ‘British’ Italian Authorities included other nationalities—Irish, Canadians, Cypriots, New Zealanders, Australians, Poles, South Africans, Palestinians (2), Maltese (2), Rhodesians (1) and Norwegians (6). Figures of other nationalities of the above POWs are in the Swiss Red Cross report that covers the same period. In the latter the total figure of POWs is 1,902 and the slight difference of 11 POWs between the two totals is not of significance.

“During 1943 many English POWs were transferred to Sforzacosta’s prison camp (CPG 53) and also to various working camps in North Italy in order to make space for American POWs. In fact the number of the latter increased from 445 in March ’43 to 913 two months later, that is in June when the Red Cross delegates inspected the camp for the last time. The number of English POWs in the same span of time decreased from 1,337 to 313.

“All the POWs present in the camp escaped en masse the evening of 14 September 1943; exactly six days after the Armistice had been announced.”

Giuseppe refers to the Report of the Swiss Red Cross on Servigliano Camp, 12 June 1943, to back up this mass transfer of prisoners from P.G. 59 to P.G. 53.

“The most important information that this report gives is on the number of POWs in the camp; in fact the total is only 1,328. As seen in the previous report, the American POWs had increased from 445 to 913 (all of them arrived through Capua’s transit camp–CPG66 -), while the number of English POWs decreased drastically. Not less than 1,000 POWs had been transferred; the majority was sent to Sforzacosta’s camp while other POWs were transferred to work camps—most probably in North Italy.”

Concerning escapees from P.G. 53, Giuseppe recounts events in the Sforzacosta camp following the the Armistice:

“Among more than 7,000 POWs who were in Sforzacosta camp, there was Corp. Lawrence Bains, whose manuscript gives clear details on the post-armistice in the camp. On 8 September, he wrote:

‘At about 10.00 pm the British Padre climbed on to a platform in the compound and led the crowd in ‘Oh God our help….’ Followed by the national Anthem.’

“In the evening of 9 September, after sunset, approximately 200 POWs gathered near the football field and started to remove barbed wire. While sentries hesitated, Commandant Petragnani saw what was happening and, continues Lawrence:

‘came running up with the Adjutant and a squad of soldiers and seizing a rifle from one of the sentries and fired into the air over our heads.

‘After this failed escape attempt there were feverish consultations among POWs for a few days as:

‘More and more soldiers (Italian) deserted until we began to notice certain sentry boxes were no longer occupied. By doubling their duties, the ‘colonnello’ was unable to hide from us that his sentries were disappearing one by one.’

“On 15 September, a great number of sentries deserted and POWs took advantage of the following chaos. Some started to destroy and take what they could, while others started to break down the main exit gate. Local peasants had heard the uproar coming from the camp and for curiosity they gathered outside the main exit gate. As soon as POWs managed to break it down they entered the camp making friends with POWs and offering them food and increasing the chaos. In this chaos, Capt. Frewen, RMMC, who was in Command of POWs:

‘Broadcasted over wireless that POWs were not to attempt to escape, otherwise they would be court-marshalled when they returned to their own lines. He called for 50 volunteers to guard the camp.’

“However, before Capt. Frewen managed to find about 50 volunteers who replaced Italian sentries, not less than 1,500 POWs sneaked away, escaping from the main gate. When this was shut, still taking advantage of confusion, some other POWs managed to escape from a secondary gate and pass through the lines on 15 October–exactly a month after their escape. In order to escape they used a stratagem:

‘They took women’s clothes out of an outer office (…) and changed into women’s clothes in the office and took battledress in suitcases and they walked out of a side gate disguised as women and went through the town. Here they passed the Italian Padre who recognised them and said: ‘Good luck boys.’

“According to the already mentioned Sergt. Rogerson Wallace’s escape report, between 19 and 20 September Germans surrounded Sforzacosta’s camp and from that moment it was not possible to attempt further escapes. In groups of 40s, POWs were loaded on lorries, transferred to the local railway station and by train sent directly to Germany. On 20 September, at 9 pm, Sergt. Rogerson managed to break the wagon door and jump from the moving train in the dark—they still hadn’t reached the Brenner.

“The last Swiss Red Cross report—dated 3 September—registered a total of 7,437 POWs. In his escape report Sergt. Rogerson Wallace estimated that around 1,500 POWs managed to escape. Therefore, there were in the camp approximately 6,000 POWs who were blocked by Capt. Frewen and then deported to Germany.”

In general, Giuseppe explains the camp at Servigliano as it was built in 1915 as a POW camp and during WW2 it reopened on 5 January 1941 to again hold captives, although only at half its First World War capacity.

Sforzacosta was a factory converted to a prison camp during the Second World War.

Bernard at the wheel of an ambulance

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s