Occasionally I come across the name of a soldier whom I know little about, other than that he had been interned in P.G. 59. Such was the case with Sjt. Stephen Hargreaves, whom I found on the Alphabetical List eight years ago.
Then, last week I heard from Julie Barkway (née Hargreaves).
Julie and her husband Peter had just returned from holiday in Italy. There they had visited the P.G. 59 memorial site where Julie’s father, Steve Hargreaves, has been interned.
“We were very unfortunate with the weather, which obscured the surrounding mountains. We didn’t have a tour and the museum was closed, so we just looked around ourselves and used what information Peter had found.
“I found it to be a very emotional day that really brought home to me what the soldiers must have gone through as young men. To be on the run at such a dangerous time in a strange country—and totally dependent on others for food and help—required bravery and courage. And, of course, a lot of luck.
“I am so grateful to those kind souls who helped them at great risk to themselves. They, too, showed enormous courage.
“I had been trying to research a bit about my father’s time as a POW and his subsequent escape,” Julie wrote. “Sadly, I have very patchy information about his time and his escape route.
“The information I have is that he was captured in Tunisia while serving with the 72nd Anti-Tank Regiment attached to the 1st Army. He was reported missing 4 December 1942. He ended up in Campo 59, where he escaped through the open gates on September 14th 1943.
“My father mentioned a shot ringing out when they were exiting the site. He talked about being helped by many Italian villagers along the way, and being hidden in a cave and brought food by a young boy. Part of his route took him past the ruins of the gliders used to free Mussolini from the Hotel Campo Imperatore in the Gran Sasso mountains.
“We believe that he stayed near the village of Villa Santa Lucia degli Abruzzi before being picked up by the Allies.
“He also mentioned that he was helped by two South Africans, possibly to get back to Allied lines, but certainly through some difficult parts of the Gran Sasso. Apparently, one of them wrote a book and my father was mentioned, but not by name. Sadly, I haven’t found the name of the book yet but it could possibly be The Way Out by Uys Krige.
“We have not long been retired, so are at the beginning of our journey to discover more about my father’s time in Italy. We would love to go back once we have more details about my father’s escape route, especially the Gran Sasso part, as I believe that is what gave him his love of mountain walking later in life.”
Julie recently came across a letter her father had written to his parents from the camp just a month before his escape.
The letter reads:
12th August 1943. My own darling Mum & Dad Here I am again and feeling so bright and healthy as usual. I received two letters this week, one from darling Girlie, of May, to which I have relied by card and one from Marjorie Boyle, of 29th of June, her second one, and I would like her to know how much I appreciate it. I have started to study “mechanics” again as I think it may prove useful and in any case keeps one alert. The sun is extremely hot and we are all making the best of it. I am rather afraid that things have gone a bit two [sic] far now for me two [sic] expect the Higher School Certificate syllabus for which I wrote to the Bodleian Library, at least in time to prove of much use to me, but then I am not going to grumble about that. Remember me to Mr Millward and give my dearest love to darling Thor, Girlie, and Philly and tell dear Granny and Nanny that I will write next week. You, my darling little souls are always in my thoughts. God bless and keep you, my constant prayer Steve.
“Regarding my father’s letter,” Julie wrote, “I don’t really know why he was so interested in the syllabus, other than he was always a positive character and would no doubt have enjoyed keeping himself occupied by learning and improving his mind.
“I think it would probably have been a good thing to do to plan for a life after the war, not only as a distraction from the situation but also to hold on to hope, which so many POWs must have lost during their incarceration.”
I asked Julie if she could identify some of the people mentioned in the letter; she responded:
“It may help you if I give some background to my family. Dad was one of four children. Thor (Thornton Hargreaves) was the eldest, followed by my father, then his sister Lois (nicknamed ‘Girlie’ by her brothers), and finally Phillip (Philly). All siblings saw active service in the war. Thor was a newly qualified doctor/surgeon and joined the Royal Navy on the convoys to Russia. Dad, as you know, was in the Royal Artillery and joined the day the war broke out. My Aunty Lois had joined the ATS and my Uncle Phil, who was only 14 in 1942, joined the merchant navy and was on the Atlantic convoys.
“My grandparents received, so I understand, three letters within the same week. One informed them that Dad was missing in North Africa. The other relayed that Thor had been dropped in the North Sea while being transferred to another boat to perform an operation. He was suffering hypothermia and wasn’t expected to survive. The final one said Phil’s ship had been torpedoed off the Florida coastline and he was missing.
“Fortunately for us they did all survive the war and lived a good long life.
“After the war my father studied medicine and became a GP (general practitioner) and served our local community with dedication, humour and empathy. He married in 1959 and he and my mother had four children (one girl and three boys).
“Thor was also a doctor, like my father, in civilian life and quite an eccentric one at that. He lived in North Wales for some time and apparently did some of his calls in a gyrocopter because he had a pilot’s licence and was crazy about flying.
“If you could guide me to the correct channels where I can discover more information about my father’s war record I would be very grateful. If I discover more, I would happily pass on the information if it would be useful to you.”