Alfred Hackett, Royal Artillery

Alfred Hackett in Egypt, 1940 

Recently Nigel Hackett wrote to me, “My father, Alfred Hackett (Gunner, 31st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery), was a prisoner of war at P.G. 59 Servigliano from late January/early February 1942 to June 1942. 

“Dad was captured in a desert battle in December 1941 and was taken to Servigliano via the military hospital at Caserta and the transit camp at Capua.

“He was moved to P.G. 29 Veano from which he escaped in September 1943 at the time of the Italian Armistice.

“He made it back to the British lines at Termoli in October 1943 with the help of an Italian family, two Italian deserters, plus special forces taking part in Operation SIMCOL.

“I am a member of the Escape Lines Memorial Society (ELMS) and a supporter of Monte San Martino Trust (MSMT), and I have visited Servigliano a couple of times with ELMS.

“Dad—who was born in 1916 and died in 2002—had dictated his story to Roger Stanton, now Director of ELMS, when my father was a member of the Army Escape Club. I discovered more details at the Paradata Archive at Duxford about Operation SIMCOL some years ago.

“Additional details,” Nigel explained, “came from the Archives of the Royal Artillery Archives (formerly at Greenwich) which describes the Battle of Alem Hamza in great detail and the Battle Honour awarded to the regiment on that fateful day. I also added what my father told me privately and my research from many related books, in particular 31st Field Regiment RA: A Record (compiled by a friend of my father’s) which I was able to find in the bookshop at the Imperial War Museum in London.

“One of my objectives was to verify my dad’s stories to ensure accuracy of his recollections, plus confirm my own memory of what he told me on winters evenings. Apart from the date that he arrived back in Termoli by fishing boat in October 1943, all is checked out. Either Lt. James was a day out or my father was! I guess I might never know, but I have gone with dad’s date for now. I have tried to trace Lt. James’ wife and daughter, but to no avail.

“As you can see this is a ‘journey’ which I have been on for a number of years. My intention is to create a comprehensive record for my three grandchildren, so they know their great grandfather’s story.

“I joined ELMS after dad died. He never met the Italian family again for many reasons, but always wanted to find Marianna Bergonzi, who he said was instrumental in saving his life. 

“I also spent some years trying to find the family, not understanding the Italian system of surnames, as Marianna’s children had a different surname to her! Eventually, at the suggestion of Roger Stanton, I emailed a school in the area I knew Marianna had lived using Google Translate. 

“I had given up all hope of finding the Italian family when, a few weeks before I was due to attend the 75th Armistice Commemoration with the MSMT in Fontenallato (not far from Veano), I received a reply and was put in touch via a distant relative with one of Marianna’s granddaughters. We visited the house at Favale and Maria Elena joined the MSMT event with me. We kept in contact, but then COVID-19 stopped me meeting up with other grandchildren, Marco and Bruno, now living in England. I was able to do that earlier this year as restrictions eased, and I invited them to join as my guests for the November 2022 MSMT lunch in London.

Nigel shared kindly shared his father’s story for this post:

Alfred Hackett’s Story

Alfred (Alf) arrived in Egypt in 1939 and fought in several battles in Eritrea and the North African Desert in 1940 and 1941.  

He was eventually captured during the battle of Alem Hamza nearby the Gazala Line in Cyrenaica, North Africa, on 15 December 1941—towards the end of Operation Crusader, as the Afrika Korps retreated westwards. Rommel mistakenly thought that a major British attack was taking place and his withdrawal was in danger of being compromised. He therefore gathered a large attack force. After a bitter engagement against overwhelming odds, Alf’s gun battery and the others ran out of ammunition. The attacking Panzer Tanks then ran through the field guns killing many of the gun crews and almost wiping out the 31st Field Regiment, with the 1st Battalion of the Buffs suffering a similar fate. Several hundred were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner that day. Those who survived soon became POWs in Italy.

Alf was lucky—he only sustained leg wounds from an exploding shell burst, with his face cut by shrapnel. After regaining consciousness, he was unable to stand. The German troops placed him on the side of a tank and took him to a field dressing station. Subsequently, he was taken by an Italian ship to Naples and was eventually admitted to Caserta Military Hospital, where he was interned for approximately six weeks.

Alf was discharged from hospital in late January or early February 1942 and was sent to P.G. 59 Servigliano via the transit/processing camp at Capua. After several months at Servigliano—where he later said that he attempted to eat grass, as food was in such short supply—an opportunity arose for him to transfer to serve as a batman in a newly-opened officers camp in a former religious seminary at Veano, not far from Piacenza. Alf had joined the Army pre-war at the age of 19 and had at one time in the 1930s performed duties as a batman, so he knew what would be required. Although he did not want to become a ‘servant’, he calculated that by volunteering he would be transferred to the officers camp, P.G. 29 Veano, which hopefully would have better conditions. This indeed was the case—although, of course, those incarcerated there also endured many deprivations.

When the Italian Armistice was announced, Alf, along with two others, left the camp on 10 September 1943 through a gap in the fence. He left just in the nick of time, as it was not long before German troops arrived to take prisoners to incarceration in Germany. Whilst the others chose to head towards Switzerland, Alf disagreed with their plan and decided to head south towards the Allied Lines. Carrying pre-prepared escape rations, he went into hiding on a farm situated on the hill above the camp. He watched the Germans arrive to find the camp empty. 

The next day he exchanged his army uniform with an Italian farmer, also giving away his army boots. He had with him a pair of shoes sent to him by his mother which had, remarkably, arrived at the camp—so now he was completely in civilian clothes.

Next, he attempted to catch a train, intending to travel south towards Bologna. However, after buying a ticket, this plan had to be abandoned at Ponte dell’Olio Railway Station for he was warned that the Germans were checking the papers of all passengers further down the line.

Alf set off south using the sun as his guide. After a couple of days he reached the small hamlet of Favale, where he knocked on a door asking for water. By a remarkable piece of luck the owner, who answered the door, was a lady of Italian ancestry who had been born in Boston, Massachusetts—in the U.S.—she answered him in an American accent! Alf spent three nights at the house and helped with bringing in the crops. He was able to sleep between sheets in a bed for the first time in several years. However, he really wanted to move on. He knew his presence was very dangerous for Marianna Bergonzi and her two daughters, Elvira and Albina. Two Italian soldiers who had deserted following the chaos caused by the Armistice also arrived at the house asking for food. Alf was hidden away whilst Marianna talked with them and gave them food. Eventually, Alf was introduced to them and they stayed that night. 

It transpired that the two soldiers, Enrico and Giovanni, were also heading south—one to San Marino and the other to Foggia. At Alf’s request, Marianna negotiated with the soldiers. It was agreed that they would walk south with Alf. Albina tore a map of Italy out of her schoolbook to help them on their journey. Alf shared his escape rations with the two soldiers and together they began the long walk south. They walked about ten to fifteen miles each morning, with the two Italians doing the talking whilst Alf pretended to be a mute. Fortunately, Alf was dark-haired and very sun-tanned after having spent two years in North Africa and a further two in Italy. In his farmer’s clothes and civilian shoes he looked the part.

Marianna Bergonzi 
Marianna’s daughters Elvira (left) and Albina (right)
Marianna’s house in Favale, 2018
Albina’s schoolbook map of Italy

The three gradually moved south, for speed often walking directly though villages on the journey. They had several difficult encounters. Once, as they tried to cross a river, they had to hide under a bridge when Germans in a troop train took shots at them. At another time they came across a distraught girl in a village whose brother had just been killed fighting the British Army. Tensions in the village were high and Alf feared he would be identified as a British POW. One day while looking for food they stopped at a farmhouse where a meeting was underway. A young boy approached them, advising that it was a Fascist meeting. The three hastily escaped through a rear window and ran into the night until they felt they were a safe distance away.

Eventually the trio reached a point level with San Marino, and Enrico left to travel alone. Alf and Giovanni continued their walk south. Luckily, as it was late September there were crops in the fields, so they lived off the land and slept in trees and old barns—with mice for company—trying to avoid contact with others as much as possible. By now the German Army was pouring south through Italy, and they were advised that there was fighting on the mountain route they had planned to take towards the front line. They changed direction but did not stop.

By the second week of October, they had reached Ascoli Piceno—not far from where Alf had been a POW at Servigliano the previous year. The pair decided to skirt westwards, or inland, around the town. Just beyond Ascoli a paratrooper holding a Sten gun suddenly appeared from a hedge row. Alf had never seen a British paratrooper in full combat dress and assumed he was German. Expecting that he was about to be shot, he put his hands up and admitted that he was a British POW. To Alf’s amazement the paratrooper replied with a London accent, and after a brief exchange he sent Giovanni on his way to Foggia. Alf was then guided to a hiding place where a group of other escaping POWs were waiting with some paratroopers. By now Alf’s feet were badly lacerated and bleeding. Although he had already walked ten miles that day, with the protection of the paratroopers he walked a further 15 miles to the mouth of the river Salinello near Guilianova to await the Royal Navy. 

The paratroopers were members of a 1st Parachute Brigade led by Lt. Ernest (Jim) James, operating as part of an SAS operation. Lt. James’s “stick” of eight plus an interpreter had dropped behind the lines to look for escaping prisoners as part of the hastily arranged Operation SIMCOL.

The Royal Navy boats failed to arrive, apparently having turned back due to German misinformation. However, the special forces assisting the operation requisitioned some fishing boats from a nearby port. The next day the fishing boats arrived at the river mouth to collect the POWs. That evening a storm had arisen, and the Adriatic was rough. About 20 of the POWs, fearful of the storm, refused to go out to the boats. However, Alf took this opportunity with others to escape around the front line by sea. The fishing boats, with armed guards, sailed through the night. Due to bad weather they made slow progress, with Alf suffering sea sickness all through the journey. As dawn broke, they were still about five miles from the relative safety of Termoli, which had recently been liberated. The boats remained undetected and they made it safely into the harbour and back to the British Army. 

Alf had arrived behind British Lines on 14 October—35 days after his escape from P.G. 29 in northern Italy on 10 September, having walked three hundred miles plus traveling a further 70 miles by fishing boat to freedom.

It was subsequently learnt from Marianna’s family that German troops visited Favale and threatened her. They were looking for escaping POWs in the days after Alf had left. The Germans left empty-handed, but not before burning the remaining crops.

Alf later was told that the POWs who refused to get on the fishing boats were attacked by German aircraft.

It’s not known if Giovanni (surname unknown) made it home to Foggia, as he would have had to cross the front line where many—both Italians and Allied POWs—were either killed or captured and taken prisoner to Germany.

Although Alf had been fortunate both to survive and escape, when he reached home in England in mid-December 1943 he was greeted with the news that unbeknown to him his wife had died in the August, shortly before his escape. His daughter, who he had left as a baby in 1939, was now five years old and had no recollection of him

For more about Nigel’s connection with Marianna Bergonzi’s family, read “Meeting Maria Elena” on the Monte San Martino Trust site.

Alf Hackett in England, March 1944

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