Brawn/Douglas—A Reunion of Families

In 1943 Robert Brawn and Albert “Paddy” Douglas escaped through the Maloja Pass (pictured here) into Switzerland. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons / Böhringer.

This story begins with two POWs during wartime whose lives became intertwined, and who formed a tight friendship in Italy.

Corporal Robert Brawn (1433896, Royal Artillery—from Sheffield, England) and Lance Corporal Albert “Paddy” Douglas (T/150993, Royal Army Service Corps—from Belfast, Northern Ireland) were both captured in North Africa. They were interned in Feldpost 12545 and P.G. 59 Servigliano before being transferred north to the Po Valley working farms of P.G.146/25 Chignolo Po. 

They escaped captivity on 8 September 1943, met up again on the run, and then made their way together to Switzerland—arriving on October 30. 

After the war, the men returned to home and family life. 

Robert married his fiancée, Betty Wray, in 1945, and together they had two children—a a son, Tim, and a daughter, Debby. Betty had had her own war service at home—she was cited in Sheffield newspapers as a hero for collecting the dead and injured in an ambulance during the blitz on Sheffield when she was aged 17.

Albert and his wife Ellen had their son Albert, who like his father also goes by the nickname of Paddy. 

The two POWs never met again. 

Albert died in 1999 and Robert, in 2000.

And this is where our current story picks up—80 years later.

One afternoon Tim Brawn received a surprise email from Richard Minshull. Richard introduced himself as the son-in-law of Paddy Douglas—Albert “Paddy” Douglas’ son.

Richard wrote, “I really am excited to have found you … I had spent rather a long time figuring out who exactly Robert was. 

“Unfortunately, Albert Douglas mistakenly had a slightly wrong surname name and address about your father. Albert came over to England to look for Robert, but sadly did not succeed.

“I’m not sure how much you know about their experiences, but if it was not for your father Albert Douglas would probably not have survived the journey across the Alps into Switzerland. Albert had a stomach operation during their time at P.G. 59, and your father helped him enormously.”

“Whilst researching Albert’s experience in WW2 as a POW. I have also taken a closer look at Feldpost 12545, which was notorious for having one of the worst conditions for POWs during the war. 

“What is remarkable,” he continued, “is that when I received documentation about the ill treatment of POWs in Feldpost 12545, I noticed your father giving an affidavit about the conditions. It was at this point I knew your father must be the same person, as it gave the address of 13 Barkers Road, Sheffield, rather than 13 Bakers Street, Sheffield, that Albert remembered.”

Concerning information on POWs of the work camps of the Piedmont, Richard said, “There are a number of books on the subject—most notably Barbed Wire in the Sunset (1944) by Edwin Broomhead. Also, Prisoners of War in the Lomellina by Janet Kinrade Dethick is an extremely useful book that gives a lot of information about the working camps of 146 Mortara.

“A fellow POW has written an incredible account of his experience, and he followed the exact path Albert and Robert did, right up to the point of being in a neighboring camp in northern Italy—In the Prison of His Days, the memoirs of G. Norman Davison, is an absolutely incredible read, with such amazing levels of detail in all the camps. It’s fascinating that he was one of the ‘lost 300’ from Feldpost 12545 in Tripoli, and he also ended up in Adelboden in Switzerland.

“I know Paddy is excited about speaking with you, as it means a lot to him—and I am also extremely keen to find out more.”

Richard also mentioned that Albert’s escape and evasion (E&E) report contains the name of a person who helped them—Rita Meda. Richard said it is his plan is to track down this family, but he has been struggling to find a “Meda” family in the area where Albert and Robert escaped. 

During his research, Richard reached out to Australian researcher and author Katrina Kittel, author of Shooting Through: Campo 106 escaped POWs after the Italian Armistice, which details Australian and New Zealander escapees’ journey to Switzerland from the Piedmont rice fields—a journey that parallels that of Albert and Robert. (Read more at “Shooting through—Stories of Campo 106 Escapees.”)

Katrina kindly responded with scans of some related articles and observations, and she suggested a means for securing Robert’s E&E report. 

She wrote, “Nowadays my interest in the escapers includes the British men as well, and accordingly an Australian researcher whom I engaged to dig in UK Archives on my behalf was able to find the Escaper reports for a number of men of interest, who cross paths with Australians and New Zealanders in northern Italy.

“Albert’s report reads typical of the Campo 106 men—of which my book Shooting Through is well-populated—who head north after leaving farms north of the Po River, and who are helped by civilians and partisan and organised networks to find their way to the Swiss passes or border lakes.

“On the Pagine Bianche I’ve found two contemporary listings for surname Meda in vicinity of Chignola Po, the distance away which seems small to my Australian eyes but perhaps further away to non-Australian eyes.

“For the vast majority of the Australians who entered Switzerland to remain about a year, the country had fond memories. Adelboden was one of the main ski resorts given over to accommodate the huge number of Allied POWs. I include a couple of my father’s photos from there in the book.

“The Australians and NZ men mostly entered Swiss territory further west than the Maloja Pass area, and among the dozens of escaper groups who travel through Shooting Through are those who were rowed across Lake Maggiore, for instance.

“I am more familiar, slightly, with Maloja Pass for the Giro d’Italia coverage of cyclists at manic speeds in those hairpin roads!”

The actual visit between the sons of Robert Brawn and Albert Douglas was delayed for some months. However, on January 18 I received this from Tim Brawn:

“A wonderful reunion yesterday when Paddy Douglas and I met for lunch. It was a fascinating and emotional sharing of the stories of our fathers who had been such friends and now, 80 years after the event, their sons have met and proudly shared about their own lives.”

In a follow-up email, I asked Paddy about his and his father’s names, and whether he was, in fact, officially Albert Douglas Jr. 

Paddy responded, “The use of Jr is an Americanisation we do use in the UK. In terms of my Christian name, it was something I rarely used growing up. For most of my schooldays I was called ‘Dougie’, except by my parents and immediate family. I have really been known to my friends as Paddy for Patrick since leaving Ulster (Northern Ireland). If you joined the army from Ireland you got called Paddy, from Scotland it was Jock, and from Wales it was Taffs. I never really liked my name so got used to being called Paddy or Patrick. It does cause me problems sometime with official documents. My father was known through his military service for similar reasons.”

Paddy said, “In Switzerland my father was looked after by the Muller family, who lived just outside St. Gallen.”

Tim said his father was interned near the Swiss city of Wil, in the carton of St. Gallen. “He was treated so kindly by the Holenstein family, who made him feel part of their family—so much so, that we are still in touch and have been visited by their family.”

Paddy’s E&E (or repatriation) report contains the following information:

Lance Corporate Albert Douglas, 150993, R.A.S.C.

Place and date of interrogation: 10 August 1944, Caux, Switzerland

Date and place of capture: 8 April 1941 Machili

Brief circumstances of capture:
“On 8 April 1941 we were ordered to surrender by the Brigade Commander”

Where imprisoned:
Camp 145 Tripoli – from April 1941 to 6 January 1942 – forced labor for Germans
P.G. 59 Servigliano – from 14 January 1942 to 6 June 1943 – no labor
Camp 146/25 Chignolo Po – from 7 June 1943 to 8 September 1943 – framework

No attempted escapes during captivity

Details of final escape and subsequent journey until taken over by organisation:

“On the night of 8 September 1943 myself and a friend broke out of camp and started to make our way south. Our attempt was unsuccessful and we were forced to return. After return we stopped in a village (name unknown) for about 4 weeks during this time we were fed, housed and clothed by the people of the village. At the end of this time we returned to Chenoli, where we stayed until 27 October 1943, when we encountered an Italian who offered to guide us to Switzerland.”

Help given:
Rita Meda – Chignolo Po – Food and lodging, civilian clothing, and money (2,000 lire)

Escape information:
“On 27 October 1943 we left Chignolo Po in the company of an Italian guide. We went by train to Pavia, Parin, Milan-Chavenin, where we left the train and walked over some mountains to the frontier which we crossed near Malloyin on the 30 October 1943. Time taken was 3 days.”

For accounts of the internment and escape, read “Robert Brawn—the ‘Escape to Happiness’” and “The Nightmare Journey of Albert ‘Paddy’ Douglas.”

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