The Nightmare Journey of Albert “Paddy” Douglas

Article from The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), circa May/June 1975

In May or June 1975, an article in The News Letter (Belfast, NI) featured Albert “Paddy” Douglas’ exciting POW internment and escape saga.

It’s interesting to compare Paddy’s account with that of Robert Brawn’s in “Escape to Happiness.

In 2012, researchers at Northwestern University shared a study in the Journal of Neuroscience that indicates when a person remembers an event, their brain network changes in ways that alters later recall of the event; the next time the event is remembered, the person might recall what was remembered the last time rather than the original event.

Over the years Paddy would have shared his story many times, so it’s understandable he might recall details a bit differently by the 1970s, even if the story as a whole is consistent with the story as told by Robert.

Also, in the article Paddy recalls Robert’s surname as Brown, not Brawn, and gives a different street name—which, sadly, led to his failure to find Robert when he searched for him in Sheffield after the war.

Here is the text of the article:

Nightmare journey of a missing ‘desert’ rat

Posted as ‘missing’ in 1941, Belfastman Albert Douglas was actually on the terror trail to freedom. To-day he is spending his holidays retracing his wartime route through Switzerland and Italy where he was on the run from the Nazis. Before he left he told his story to ERIC WILKINSON.

For two days and nights German Panzers had saturated Mechili, a desert fort in North Africa, with shells until very little of it was above ground. In the morning like the “desert rats” they were, 500 men crawled out of their holes and were ordered to surrender. Outnumbered, bewildered and disheartened they stood wondering what the following years held for them.

If Albert Douglas, Royal Army Service Corps, of 89 Twaddell Avenue, Belfast, had known what adventure and hardship lay ahead he might not have been his usual cheery self that morning, following marching to Feld Lager 12545 near Tripoli. For a year his life was forced labour night and day unloading munitions on route to Benghazi for the Africa Korps. Their Italian guards stuck to the Geneva Convention, but with the Germans there was little time to rest on their lice-infected straw mattresses.

As time passed an escape plan began to take shape. With the help of Maltese workmen they purchased a boat with lira paid by the Italians. They acquired a compass, clothing, water and a little food, but fate turned against them. One of their number left a note for their contacts and the Germans stumbled onto it and pounced. Then following a thorough beating and interrogation to try to trap the leaders of the Maltese escape ring. They remained silent but paid dearly.


The Camp Commandant, nicknamed “Hatchet Face” was as hard on his own men as he was on the PoWs. One night the RAF bombed the barracks and the vibrations blew open all the doors including the cookhouse. “Appell! Appell!” All the prisoners were paraded amidst the bombing. Who had looted their cookhouse?

He was even more mad when his guards showed fear and made them march around the compound singing, much to the delight of the Tommies. Under the Geneva Convention men were allowed two post cards and a letter per year, as a reprisal they were henceforth burned.

On March 17, 1941, Albert was sent via Sicily to Italy. They were loaded like cattle into an old ship with a hole in the bows. The fear that they would never reach Sicily was nearly as strong as their disgust with their new quarters. Infested beyond belief, no sanitation, no water, overcrowding, they survived, like sardines in a hot tin can.

At Serviliani [Servigliano] near Ancona, they were interned in PG59 where the Italians were humane, but they were not allowed to work and food was scarce. Soon Albert fell ill with stomach pains. In hospital at Port Georgio he was operated on, he still does not know what they found as he could not speak Italian.

It was here that he met kindness that he will never forget. The three British were looked after by the Sisters of Mercy who, under pain of death, stole food and medicine from the stores to keep their three special patients alive. Here also he made a life long friend in Rinaldi Amedo, an Italian soldier, who visited Belfast recently.

After six months he was nursed back to something resembling health and was returned to camp. One of the three patients did not survive, Albert made it his duty to look up his family. Indeed no one knew where the men captured at Mechili were and they were nicknamed “the lost 350.”


On return to camp they were shipped north to make room for American prisoners and Albert’s health deteriorated. But when his comrades were detailed to a working party he pleaded not to be separated and the senior British officer took pity and his friends covered up for his disability.

You may think that a man, ill with an unknown stomach complaint was in no shape to escape but this was just what happened. Corp. Bob Brown of the artillery from Sheffield and Albert had been particularly good friends and this is where the story really starts, but let him tell it in his own way.

“The two guards were careless, smoking and chattering, thinking that our spirit was broken. Bob and I had noticed that the bank of the river fell away to our left and we worked toward it. Suddenly at a nod from Bob I slipped over the edge and rolled down the bank, where he joined me. We lay in the long grass for a long time, then judging that it was safe to move we crawled down the stream and onto the track. Italy had just capitulated and Bob and I had a long and heated row. He wanted to go to Switzerland and I wanted to reach the advancing Allies in the South.

“We decided to part and divided our food 7 1/2 biscuits each. We shook hands, wished each other luck, and parted believing we would never meet again. I walked all day till I came to Saint Angelo near Pavia where I met a snag. A long viaduct spanned a chasm, but it was guarded by German troops. I returned to the field, got rid of my PoW rags, stole a lady’s dress and the contents of a clothes line and lay down for a day surveying the performance on the viaduct. They were repairing telephone wires.


“About mid afternoon, a tramp crossed the viaduct with a bundle tied characteristically on a stick and hung over his shoulder. If he could do this then so could I. Wrapping a sod in part of the dress, I tied it to a stick and set off, heart in mouth.

“As I drew near a young blonde soldier stopped his work and spoke to me. He may have said “Your friend has passed this way,” but I fixed him with a stare and walked on expecting a shout or a rifle butt in the back. Every second the end of the viaduct came nearer and still no shout. I was across knees knocking. I looked for and found a barn.”

Tired, bewildered, fed up, Albert wondered if he was right to risk all. This was not a story book which would have the desired ending. He could have had a bullet in the back that day. Of stout Ulster Baptist stock, Albert knew that his future was in stronger hands than his own and sank, trembling onto his knees praying for guidance or a sign, something to tell him he was doing the right thing.


That night he slept the sleep of the exhausted and next morning set out along a road to the south. He had not gone 100 yards when he was met by a horse and cart. “Inglesi!” He turned his head as he passed but walked on. The cart turned around and drove up behind him.

“Inglesi!” He stopped and nodded. The man motioned that if he stayed there he would bring food. PoW life had Albert to be cautious, and he waited and watched in a nearby wood.

The man returned shortly but his companions were decidedly non-Teutonic. Two women spread a meal of bread, cheese, grapes, and wine and he needed no encouragement. During the meal they indicated they had another escapee under their protection and bundling Albert into the cart brought him to their home.

It was Bob. The two embraced and vowed they would never be separated again. The family set about contacting the partisans, and for two months they both became part of the Meda family, sleeping in the barn by night and sharing their simple lives by day.

They had a couple of scares but finally they were denounced and the militia came pounding at the door. Giovanni hustled them out the back way. They ran heedless of where they were going till lack of breath brought them to a halt. They could not return to the Mida’s so they continued north day after day till they were stopped by bad weather.

It broke when they were in open country and they sat contemplating their miserable lot in the middle of a potato field. They just sat all day with rain dripping down their clothes and bodies to join the puddles at their feet. How a sick man, who to-day can catch cold in a shower survived, well God only knows. 

Day after day they pushed north and contacted the underground at Milan. They were sent by train to a priest at Chiavenna but before the station something told them to jump train; five minutes later it was stopped and searched by Gestapo and German troops.

The priest gave them his bed, fed them and presented them with a bottle of schnapps before leading them up to the snow line. (I have climbed in this area of the Italian Alps, rising to 12,000 feet. It was not easy with modern climbing equipment.) All they possessed were their worn clothes, holed boots and a bottle. Albert’s stomach was not the best but they laboured on through the snow, their feet and ankles chapped and sore knowing only that freedom lay beyond that range.


“Freeze!” hissed Bob.

“I am,” retorted Albert.

“No! Look, down there, ski troops!”

A patrol dressed in winter warfare equipment was combing the area. Had they been betrayed or was it just routine? Up and up they climbed till the mountain gave way and before them lay Switzerland. Down they stumbled reaching a village as the church bells rang out.

“It’s a memorable day—what is the date?” “The 30th October, 1943,” replied Bob after some calculation.

“Fitting it’s my wedding anniversary,” mused Albert as they linked arms and walked merrily into St. Moritz as if they owned it.

“Halt!” They froze as a German voice inquired who they were. Turning they saw the smiling face of a Swiss major who took charge of them. Learning they were British he told them they were the first ever to escape over the mountains.

Interned at Degersheim, they received a little work and much hospitality at the textile mill of Herr Habis for Christmas 1943.

The experience took its toll and Albert was operated on at St. Gallen then followed three months recuperation, skiing, tobogganing and skating (but no climbing) with two families at Adelboden.

Repatriated, Albert was never able to contact Bob Brown of 13 Baker Street, Sheffield. He returnd to Belfast where the Lord Mayor was to meet him at York Street. Unfortunately Albert came via the Glasgow boat.

“Hatchet Face” was tried for war crimes at Nuremberg and the account of the camp documented in the book “Barbed Wire in the Sunset.”

Now after 30 years he returns to the area. Starting in Switzerland he will cross into Italy retracing his route and staying with the people who risked their lives for a stranger in need. 

The occasional nightmare reminds Albert that adventure and fortitude demands a price, the faith that overcomes. The journey of the future is always more exciting than the past.

Newspaper photo caption: Chiavenna, the village where the nightmare journey began. And in the background the mountains which Albert and his comrade had to climb.

Albert Douglas in a photograph that was likely taken in Cairo, 1941
A letter dated 9 June 1941 reported Albert as missing in action on 31 April 1941, and another, dated 11 June 1941, indicated he was a prisoner of war, “camp location not known”
Albert in Switzerland

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 )

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