Robert Brawn—the “Escape to Happiness”

Robert Brawn

Tim Brawn shared with me this narrative written by his father Robert.

Escape to Happiness

When reading this, remember I was a young man when it all happened, I was unarmed and therefore any risks taken could have had no repercussions—and the events took place in a world at war.

Firstly, I must stress that I’m no hero and therefore the story contains no heroes, but it is the truth. 

Secondly, if from time to time I say we and not I, it is because for part of the journey I had the company of an Ulsterman, (Paddy) Albert Douglas.

At the time of the overthrow of Mussolini and the return of the monarchy, I was in charge of a working camp of 100 British POWs at a small village on the banks of the river Po in the fertile Po valley, growing crops and rice. The POWs worked on local farms, and as camp leader (capo banfo) it was my job to act as liaison with the detaining power, see that what the POWs were asked to do was within the terms of the Geneva Convention referring to POWs—and what I didn’t know about the Geneva Convention I made up! How I came to be in the north of Italy is another story. 

In September 1943, the Germans were pouring vast numbers of troops into the north of Italy under Field Marshal Kesselring to fight the Italian Campaign, and to keep as many Allied troops occupied and therefore away from the European second front—which was overdue.

One day I was informed that no working parties would leave the camp that day. Then, in the late afternoon, I was told to assemble the men and take the minimum of what little we possessed. We were marched about 10 or 15 miles to where was a similar camp to mine. I never found out the reason for this move.

We spent one night sleeping in straw at the new camp, and we woke in the morning to chaos reigning. I learned that the panic which arose was because the Germans were to occupy the village. This news caused considerable consternation among the Italian guards, as the last thing they wanted was to be sent to the front under German command and, in any case, by now the Italians had lost all stomach for the war. There was considerable dashing in and out of the camp gates by the Italians, and during the mêlée I and many others took the first available opportunity to “pop” out of the gates with the avowed intention of not “popping” back. Hiding was the first priority and this I did by making my way down to a riverbank which afforded good cover. So far so good, but I was still in battle dress with POW patches, and it was obvious that the riverbank, much as it afforded cover, was but a temporary lull. If, or when, the Germans came recapture would be swift.

Behind the river was a field growing maize, which is a tall crop, and through this I crept until I could see the road and the village. I could see no Germans, so I needed to get down to a spot of serious thinking. One thing was urgent—to get out of my battledress and into other clothing if I were not to be picked up quickly. I found some clothes on a scarecrow in a field and believe me the result would have been worth photographing. When the Italians put clothes on a scarecrow at the end of a war, they are not much good to say the least of it, and my appearance can be imagined—but I was able to ditch my battle dress in the river. I needed a shirt, but the only thing I could find was a woman’s black dress hanging on a clothesline. I can see this dress so clearly in my mind – long, a little round collar, and fastened down the front by I swear at least fifty tin-press studs, and whether I started fastening from the top or the bottom I seemed to have about 10 spare each time. This dress could only provide temporary disguise as, of course, at that time the fascist black shirts were not popular, they being Mussolini’s crack troops and being held responsible for the state of Italy.

However, I now had clothing of a sort—so far so good. I was “free”! —and disguised.

Back in the village, so far as I could ascertain, all the chaps were out of the camp. Many were still hiding on the riverbank or had moved into the first cottage where there was a presentable woman whose husband was in the army, or who didn’t understand her! Obviously, food was necessary for them and, if possible, they had to be dispersed because when the Germans occupied the village the POWs would be recaptured in one swoop. So one night I set off to find my way back to our original village to see what the situation was there.

As camp leader I was known at the local farms and known in the village, because I had been out with fatigue parties to collect rations and bread locally. This was a good thing and a bad thing, as it meant that I had contacts who might be kindly disposed towards us—but conversely, if I was ever seen, the news soon spread that Roberto was back, and that Roberto had to make himself scarce if he were to keep his freedom. I knew one rich farmer who had a tall son about my age. I made my way to that farm to try to get some more presentable clothes. By bluff and threats (and to get rid of me) I obtained an old pair of shoes (repaired by tacking a piece of red rubber inner tube on one sole) a shirt, tie, trousers, a jacket of sorts, and a trilby hat sufficient for my new role as a businessman, complete with newspaper under arm.

I went back to the camp which we had left to find, as I feared, that our kit which we had left behind had been looted and nothing of value was left. But what I did obtain was an old bicycle minus the left-hand pedal. On this bicycle I used to travel by night to and from our village to where the chaps were hiding out, with the handlebars festooned with what I had been able to obtain. I remember with clarity pushing down with the right pedal and bringing my toe under the left crank. For about a mile of these nightly journeys I had to use a main road which the Germans were using to move troops and equipment. If I heard a sound, the only thing to do was to fling the bicycle into the ditch by the side of the road and dive in after it, praying that the drop was not too deep nor wet.

Many of the POWs had, like me, been “in the bag” for almost three years and having tasted “freedom” were not really interested in advice from me and, in any case, they understandably gained (false) security from being all together, running risks which were all too apparent from being so close together. Conversely, I felt that an individual stood a greater change of eventual escape. Eventually I ceased the nightly journeys and moved back to my own village where a butcher let me hide out in a hayloft over a stable. One day I was told that there was “an Englishman” in the local cemetery. I made my way there and found Paddy Douglas, grinning cheerfully, sitting on a tombstone eating grapes. Paddy had been in my camp, and he stayed with me until we eventually reached Switzerland. We lived and slept in the hayloft covered with a tarpaulin at night, and the rats running over at night sounded as though they had clogs on. At night we would go into the house for a bowl of macaroni or risotto, and there we lived for a month or five weeks.

I have said I was well-known, and if a neighbour came in whilst we were eating usually news got round that Roberto was back.

The problem was, no one trusted his neighbour—such is an offshoot of informing under fascism, the man at number 1 says that the man at number 3 was a fascist and vice versa—but the risks had to be taken.

When we were seen, things hotted up. There was a price on the head of each escaped POW, but our “host” knew everything that was going on. If he heard that the police were making a search, he would tell us, and even at night the drill was to drop through a trap door down among the horses, out through the back, through fields down to a riverbank, and lie low there finding another hayloft to sleep in. We could always scrounge something to eat—a bowl of polenta, or grapes were always in abundance.

It was obvious that this sort of life could not be lived indefinitely. There was the ever-present risk of recapture, but that was a more serious risk that would involve the people who had helped us, with possible dire consequences to them. So I decided a move had to be made. There were two possibilities:  to go south and try to join up with our forces or to go north and try and get to Switzerland. So far as going south was concerned, we could not find any real news or information. The Italians certainly didn’t know, and it was obvious that if we had landed and the Germans had formed a line, then the farther south we got the tighter the Germans grip would be and the less help we could expect from the Italians. It would have meant a long journey, living off the land as best we could until we found battle lines—even if we found that the Allies had landed. In my case, we were in no physical condition for such a journey, neither had we the necessary clothing and equipment, particularly as winter was approaching. So, Switzerland appeared to be the better choice—in any case it was much nearer where we were, but far enough distance in all conscience.

Having said one had to take risks and trust somebody, I was introduced to an Italian who said he had contacts with the underground movement. It was agreed that Paddy Douglas would remain at Chignolo Po (our village), and that the Italian and I would take the train to Milan to contact the Maquis. We had “breakfast”—hot, sweetened milk and crusty bread—and went to another district and waited for the contact man in an empty flat. Whilst in Milan I had a good look round. I had been told that the Pope had given instructions to his cardinals that help had to be given to escaped POWs, and therefore my plan was that if I was spotted, I would make for Milan Cathedral, get into a confessional box, send for a priest, and ask for help. But I was only stopped once—a woman stopped me outside a tobacconist and asked if the shop had any cigarettes. My reply satisfied her. I also looked at La Scala, which had not been bombed but had been on fire. Eventually the day was wasted, as the contact man hadn’t turned up. Milan, at this time, was full of Germans. They evidently weren’t looking for “Brits” under their noses, but the need to move became increasingly important and pressing.

Another week passed and I was told that a man and his wife who lived at Chiavenna near to the Swiss border was visiting a relative in Chignolo Po the following week. I met this man and discussed things with him, and he said he would help us. The man and his wife went back to Chiavenna a day to two later, and then the man came back on his own and said that the following day we would make a dash for it. The day dawned, the women went to church, and they collected money for our railway tickets. Early in the morning we caught a train to Milan, changing at Pavia.

When I thought about the journey to Switzerland, I was convinced, and I still am, that there was the easy way and the hard way—the easy way where one took a big risk for a short time, used trains and cities for a comparatively short time; and the hard road, where one took a little risk for a much longer time using the mountains, with the consequent risk of frostbite, etc. The three of us spent the day in Milan in a flat, and about four in the afternoon the Italian said, if we were ready, we would go to the station. The plan was that we would not talk to the Italian at all, but merely follow him at a suitable distance, that Paddy Douglas and I would not walk together, but follow each other, Indian file, and therefore if one were spotted the other would have the opportunity to make his getaway.

We caught a tram to the station—which could have ended in disaster. When the tram was stationary in one of the main streets in Milan, some of Italian passengers noticed Italian girls with German troops on the footpath. In their voluble way, some of the passengers leaned out of the tram and gave the girls a piece of their minds, which brought the Germans haring across to the tram—but suddenly the tram moved off and we eventually arrived at Milan station. We already had tickets for the train and, watching our guide, we went up the steps, through the barrier, and on to the station. We were helped in the matter of trains, because by this time the Germans had commandeered the passenger carriages to move troops and the Italians (and us!) had to use goods wagons. The difficulty in travelling by train in Italy is that they are such a friendly and voluble people who want to talk to everybody. Paddy and I got into a dark corner and feigned sleep and off we went. It was quite late when we arrived at Colico, where the train lines fork. The one straight ahead leads to the station nearest to the Swiss frontier, Chiavenna. We had to change trains there, and as we stood in the shadows on the platform, I saw the wife of the Italian we were following meet her husband—she was in tears. It was evident that something was wrong, and I said to Paddy Douglas to be ready to make a dash for it. What had happened was that there were two trains a day to Chiavenna, and the night before we were travelling, the Germans had surrounded the train at Chiavenna and interrogated all the passengers. If the same thing happened the night we were travelling, we would have been caught and her husband possibly implicated—the wife had come down to Colico warn her husband. The man we were following wandered along the platform, pointed out another man standing in the shadows, and said, “You can trust him, whatever he does you do”.

When the train came in, we got on and stood on the observation platform at the back of a carriage. After a time, the train started to slow down and the man we were watching dropped onto the lines and off into the darkness. Paddy Douglas followed. I went last across the lines and under the pole shutting off a farmyard from the railway, running fast as we went through the farmyard. We ran until we reached the foothills of the mountains. After resting, we made our way to Chiavenna. The town of Chiavenna was under curfew, so we had to steal silently through the deserted streets until we reached the room where the friends who were helping us were living. The husband and wife got into bed, and I slept on the floor at the foot of the bed and Paddy Douglas on the table. We stayed in this room until towards the next evening, when the Italian with whom we were staying said we had to go to the local priest’s house, and that the priest would obtain a guide to get us over the frontier to Switzerland. When it was dark, we went to the presbytery and hid in the cellar until midnight, when the priest went to bed. I then went to sleep on the dining room table and Paddy on the kitchen table.

At about 4 a.m. there was a knock on the back door, and Paddy stupidly opened the door before calling me. We were confronted by a little man who it transpired was to be our guide. The man earned his living by smuggling rice from Italy in exchange for chocolate, etc., from Switzerland—contrabandiere. We woke the priest who took us to the bottom of the garden, blessed us, and we crossed the road and started to climb. The idea was that we would climb steadily for about three hours, until it was properly light, turn left, and eventually cross the frontier parallel with the main Milan–St. Moritz Road, which ran through the valley before climbing the Maloja Pass. The distance between Chiavenna and the frontier is only about six miles, but we were on foot for almost 14 hours. We would traverse the mountainside for a few hundred yards, then be confronted by a deep ravine carved out of the mountain by water from melting snows during the centuries. We were still in the trees below the snow line. I shall never forget that morning—the colours on the mountain were unforgettable. I saw pink and blue snow! Which, if one sees the same scene painted by artists, one wouldn’t believe that such colours were true. Some of the ravines were quite deep, and of course after years as POWs we were really in no physical condition for mountaineering. At each ravine we had to clamber down steep sides and scramble up equally steep sides. The guide himself was an infuriating man—a peasant—unshaven, slouch hat, rough tweeds and heavy mountaineering boots. Whether we were going down steep slopes or going up steep slopes, he would continue the slow, unfaltering, measured step, whereas we were often actually on our hands and knees.

At about 4 in the afternoon, the guide told me that through the next belt of trees there was a very wide ravine. When we were over that we would be in Switzerland, and he dare not take us any farther. We crept through the belt of trees and looked out onto a ravine about 100 yards wide. We got our breath back and made a dash for trees on the other side.

We had been told that immediately after we got over the Swiss frontier, the guard dogs would be on us—that we should stand still until the guards came up and called the dogs off. No dogs appeared, but as far as we knew we were in Switzerland. I thought it best to make certain, so we still carried on the same line with the road at the bottom of the valley until it started to lose daylight. We hadn’t food or clothing to spend a night in the mountains, so we started to drop down, often sliding on our backsides as we went down the mountain far quicker than we climbed up. Eventually, we found a small path which widened into a track, and coming up the track we met a youngster—the first human being we had seen all day. I stopped this youngster and asked if we were in Switzerland or Italy. He said we were in Switzerland, although I had looked at his boots and assumed we were in Switzerland—no one in Italy had boots like that at the end of the war. The track became a lane which led to the village square. We had a drink at the village (Castasegna) drinking fountain. Swiss soldiers were milling around, but no one took any notice of us. I stopped the next lot and said we were English and what was he going to do about it. He said to follow him. He took us to their headquarters, gave us a meal, and took us for interrogation. The officer in charge of intelligence asked if I had seen any Germans on the frontier. “No—only manning the roadblock down in the valley”. Had I seen any Italians? “No—only down in the valley”. “Did you see any Swiss?” “No—none”. At which the officer went mad—the frontier we had walked across was supposed to be manned by the troops he was attached to. Afterwards, we were taken under escort, given fresh straw and a palliative, and taken to the local police station. What transpired and what followed for a whole year I spent in Switzerland is another story. Suffice it to say (with apologies to Elizabeth Bergman) that we had “Escaped to Happiness.”

R. Brawn
31 October 1945

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