William McBeth “On the Run”

Photo of William McBeth's family
William McBeth with his family, circa 1965. Granddaughter Kirsty McBeth says, “He’s the gentleman on the right and my dad [Donald McBeth] is the young lad with the tie. He married my dad’s mum, who was separated and already had an older daughter, who is the other lady in this picture with her husband and her son and daughter.”

William Harkins McBeth was never a prisoner in P.G. 59.

In fact, he was captured by the Germans in Italy on 3 October 1943, one month to the day after Italy signed the armistice with the Allies. By the time William was captured, POW camps across Italy had dissolved—the captives having fled into the countryside or been transported to Germany.

William’s granddaughter Kirsty McBeth is in the process of piecing together her grandfather’s wartime story. She shared with me some of the documents she’s gathered so far. 

They’re quite interesting, and I’m eager to share his story on this site.

William was born 1 February 1915.

“My grandfather lived in Glasgow and moved through to Edinburgh when my dad was around four,” Kirsty wrote. “His family had a carter business in Glasgow which was basically transporting coal. I think my grandad was a driver.”

William had just turned 25 when he enlisted in the Army in February 1940. Early in the war he was in North Africa, serving with 1 SAS (the Special Air Service—a special forces unit of the British Army) and the SRS (Special Raiding Squadron).

An SAS researcher whom Kirsty contacted wrote to her, “Whilst a member of ‘A’ Section 3 Troop he was involved in three operations. One of these was in the Desert but I am unable to pin it down to which one. The other two were at Capo Morro di Porco and Augusta in Sicily. His final action with the SRS was in Termoli in Italy on Operation Devon where he was captured on 3 October 1943.”

After capture in Termoli, William was interned in a POW transit camp at Frosinone, Italy, from October 6 to 16, before being put aboard a train bound for Germany—a train he was to escape from 11 days later. 

“I have his escape and evasion report, Kirsty wrote. “He was on the run in Italy from October 1943 until June 1944.”

Here is William’s story, as written in the report:

Account of escape of 173497 Pct McBeth, Harkins William, No. 3 Troop, Special Raiding Sqn., 1st S.A.S. [1st Parachute Regiment]

Capture:

“I was with a party which was landed by sea behind the enemy lines at TERMOLI at 0200 hrs on 3 October 43. By 1000 hrs our section was completely surrounded by the Germans and we were ordered to surrender.”

Camps in which imprisoned:

P/W Transit Camp (FROSINONE) 6 Oct – 16 Oct 43.

Attempted escapes:

“A few days after I was captured I joined a party of about ten men who were planning to escape. We knocked a hole in the corner of the wall of the courtyard in which we were imprisoned and it was agreed the whole party would leave the same night. The first man out, however, was immediately arrested, so that our mass escape had to be abandoned.”

Escape:

“On 16 Oct we were put into a cattle truck, with an armed sentry at each end, en route for GERMANY. Our journey was very slow owing to damage on the line.

“I escaped from the train at 0230 hrs on 27 October as it was slowing up to pass through MESTRE. The three men who jumped with me were Pct. Robert MacDONALD, L/Cpl. WOODS, S.A.S. and a private of the Battle Patrol. We had managed to cut a hole in the side of the truck with the aid of our pen knives large enough for one man to put his hand through and unfasten the wire which held the bolt of the door, and, having done so, we seized the first favourable opportunity we had to escape.

“After we left the train, we decided to split up. Pct. MacDONALD and I headed for PADOVA [Padua] and reached a small village called BORGORICCO, eight miles North East of PADOVA on 29 Oct. Here we stayed for three days with an Italian family, who supplied us with civilian clothing. We set out again walking South about 1 Nov. Five days later, as we were approaching ESTE, MacDONALD left with the intention of heading for BOLOGNA. I continued on my own, for ROVIGO after crossing the river ADIGE at BARBONA by bridge which was unguarded. From here I went to SALETTO on the river PO, where I persuaded a boatman to take across. I by-passed FERRARA and continued on to MINERBIO, FAENZA and FORLI. From here I continued along the foothills to SAN MARINO. Somewhere South of FORLI I met two New Zealanders, one of whom was Frank JOSLING, L.R.D.G., and we continued together to SASSOFERRATO  and FABRIANO, where I left them.

“About the beginning of Dec I reached MACERATA where I stayed with a family for two days. On 11 Dec I came to a town near TERAMO called VILLA RIPA where I remained until 20 JUNE 44. Twice during this time I tried to reach the Allied lines, but though I got as far as CHIETI the first time and PENNE the second time, was forced to turn back on both occasions.

“On 20 Jun the Germans began to retreat along the main roads in the area and I was able to slip by unnoticed. I contacted Italian troups between PENNE and TERAMO the same day, but they were unable to help me and I continued South on my own for five days till I reached TORINO DI SANGRO where I was sent to a Repatriation camp. From here I was sent first to FOGGIA and then NAPLES, where I was interrogated. I sailed from Naples in Aug and arrived in the U.K. the same month.” 

According to the report, William departed Naples in August 1944 and arrived in Liverpool in the same month.

A separate “Recommendation for Awards” document acquired by Kirsty has an additional detail regarding the escape: 

“At the time the train was slowing up to pass through MESTRE; although their departure was noticed and the sentries opened fire, no one was hit.” 

The same document confirms the date William arrived at Torino di Sangro was 25 June 1944.

Near the end of his trek to the Allied lines, William passed through territory escapers from P.G. 59 Servigliano would have traversed, as the camp was directly between Macerata and Teramo.

William’s cross-country journey was truly remarkable—the distance from Mestre to Torino di Sango being about 560 kilometers (348 miles). The landscape was rugged and the threat of being captured or shot constant. 

We understand now that many soldiers of the Second World War who, like William, had been in combat and who were prisoners of war experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—for which, sadly, there was no treatment.

“He died in the seventies, but I know that he suffered from his time in the war, Kirsty wrote. “I think he was remembered as a good dad, provided for his family, but obviously struggled with what happened to him.”

I am grateful to Kirsty for sharing her grandad’s story and allowing me to post it here.

I searched online for information about the transit camp at Frosinone, but found few references to it. 

The most vivid account is a short description of the camp in Chapter 6 of a memoirs entitled “Bill Clark’s War” on BBC’s WW2 People’s War site (Pat Jones, contributor):

Bill Clark recounts:

“Eventually we were sent back to a place called Frosinone, a little south east of Rome, where the road wound round and round until you arrived at the top of the hill. This road was bombed many times and it was our job to fill in the craters as they appeared. Frosinone turned out to be a miserable prison. The guards were demoralised; there were no Red Cross parcels and no cigarettes to be had by Germans or P.O.W.’s. Rations were poor, yet the camp commandant decided, when he realised it was almost Christmas [1943], that he would honour us with his presence together with his officers and try to organise some sort of party. The difficulty was that being hungry; having no drink or cigarettes does not help to generate a party spirit. However, among the P.O.W.s were many nationalities, so a representative from each country gave a national song or did a turn of sorts. We had been round the lot, the French with ‘J’attendrai’, the Italian soldier with ‘O Sole Mio’, the Dutch, Belgian, Yugoslav etc. when the call came up for a German song, but the Germans wouldn’t have any of it, so I got up, much to the surprise of the room, went to the front and sang the song ‘Die Lorelei’ which I had learnt at school and knew to be a folk song and therefore well known in Germany. It was about a mermaid seated on a rock on the Rhine, singing to lure the sailors and so wreck their boats. Well I got through the first verse and then the Germans joined in and we must have sung about 10 verses before it finished. The Germans as well as fellow P.O.W.s were impressed, although that was practically all the German I knew. However, it got us an extra bread roll each, whether it really had anything to do with that I’m not sure, but many of the P.O.W.s thought I could speak German fluently and I had a job to convince them otherwise.”*

*WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar.

Regarding the Battle of Termoli, a warlinks.com page on the battle helps us understand William’s role in the offensive.

The Special Raiding Squadron in which William served conducted beach landings over three days, 3–5 October 1943, Williams’ unit, No. 3 Troop, being the first of these assaults:

“3rd October, 1943 – S.R.S. with No. 3 (Army) Commandos and No. 40 Royal Marine Commando land and attack Termoli. The Special Service Brigade under Brigadier J. Durnford-Slater, DSO took the beach area and town, with casualties, their opponents being German parachutists. Captain J. Tonkin’s S.R.S. section was surrounded and captured in the town, he later escaped.”

See also Wikipedia’s entry on “Operation Devon.”

The capture of Termoli was beneficial to I.S.9 escaper/evader rescue operations. By November 1, a base of the of I.S.9 called the “Boating Section” was established at the port of Termoli by Major J. F. Fillingham. It was from this base that boat retrievals of escapers were conducted along the Adriatic coast—working in concert with I.S.9 field units that guided the POWs from the interior to the coast. 

For more on this, see “I.S.9 History—Operations in Italy, Part 1.”

William McBeth, 1948

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s