Author Archives: Dennis Hill

Mark Your Calendar for September 2023

View from the hilltop village of Santa Vittoria in Matenano, 9 km (5 miles) south of Servigliano. Escaped POWs crisscrossed this landscape in September 1943.

Organizers at London-based Monte San Martino Trust are now making plans for an eightieth anniversary celebration of the Allied Forces’ armistice with Italy, the event that triggered the escape of Allied POWs from Italian camps in September 1943.

The September 2023 anniversary activities will be based at the site of P.G. 59 in Servigliano.

Servigliano is nestled in the beautiful Le Marche region of Italy, located in central Italy between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea. The main event of the celebration will be a six-day Freedom Trail walk, on September 6–11, co-hosted by the Trust and the WW2 Escape Lines Memorial Society, also of the UK.

The Trust has posted on their website information about the area, links to several area hotels and restaurants, and a brief history of P.G. 59.

The Trust’s founder, J. Keith Killby, escaped from P.G. 59, which in 2021 was designated an Italian National Memorial.

Casa della Memoria (the House of Remembrance association) in Servigliano will be supporting the anniversary activities. The group is active in preserving the history of P.G. 59. Their Remembrance Museum, housed in the renovated railroad station adjacent to the camp grounds, is a hub for educational activity—including classroom activities, tours of the camp, and historical research.

The Freedom Trail walk will take hikers through Tenna Valley terrain crossed by escaped soldiers, visiting historical landmarks and meeting with families of Italians who assisted the escapees. Historians on the tour will serve as guides and answer questions.

For more information on the activities of Monte San Martino Trust, visit msmtrust.org.uk.

Queries about the anniversary events can be sent to the Trust at info@msmtrust.org.uk.

More on the Escaped Prisoners at Fontanaluccia

In Pursuit of Freedom, published by Corgi Books

Yesterday my friend and fellow researcher Anne Copley shared information related to a post I wrote in 2017. See “Escaped Prisoners and Airman at Fontanaluccia.”

“One of the names there is W. J. Bishop,” Anne wrote. “This is Jack Bishop who wrote a book, In Pursuit of Freedom, about his wartime experiences. (He was one of the first to end up on Italian soil as a PoW—captured when his submarine was rammed on 31 July 1940.) 

“Jack has a whole chapter on the convent at Fontanaluccia (which clearly acted as a sort of hospital as well), and in particular a Sister Maria who gave him a rosary. He was with someone he only ever calls ‘The Corporal’, who must be the R. D. Smith who turned up on the same day in October. Jack talks about him having a bad leg. He was eventually betrayed and recaptured. I haven’t been able to trace him post-war. 

“Jack was an OR (enlisted man) but, although he didn’t much fancy being someone’s servant, he volunteered to be a batman in an officers’ camp, knowing the conditions would be better. Thus he ended up in Fontanellato. He actually escaped on his own initiative a day or two before the mass breakout organised by the Camp Commandant and the Senior British Officer Hugo de Burgh. 

“He met up with ‘The Corporal’ later, after those he had escaped with decided to stay on with an Italian family.”

Many thanks to Anne for sharing this new information.

Travis Fowler—A Family Connection

Private Travis L. Fowler, U.S. Army Infantry

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in the United States—an appropriate time to remember a particular soldier who lost his life in World War II. 

For his family, details of Private Travis Fowler’s death have remained unclear for decades.

As a prisoner-of-war who had escaped—very likely from P.G. 59—in late 1943, Travis had evaded capture in Italy for months. Then, while attempting to cross the Allied lines, he was shot by a German sentry. He died 78 years ago this month. See “Travis Fowler—Nearly Home.”

When I wrote about Travis in January 2021, I had not been in contact with anyone from Travis’ family. 

Four days ago, I received a note from his nephew, Jeff Fowler.

Jeff wrote, “Travis Fowler was my uncle. I am the son of Jessie D. Fowler. Until recently I did not know that Travis was a POW; today, thanks to you, I learned even more.”

Some information known to older relatives in the Fowler family may not have been passed down. 

“I am a late addition to the Fowler lineage, as I was born in 1960,” Jeff explained. “Unfortunately, my uncles and aunts were of significant age by my birth and have since all passed. 

“In my family home Uncle Travis’ portrait always hung in the family room. My dad and my Uncle Lewis were in the army at the same time as Uncle Travis. My dad was in the Aleutian Isles, Uncle Lewis in England, and Uncle Travis in Europe. 

“My dad told me that a uniformed, armed soldier was assigned to casket duty around the clock as the unopened casket lay in the family room till interment in Providence Primitive Baptist Church (Sylvester, Georgia) cemetery. Dad said he believed the casket to be empty, as it was never opened to the family. 

“As a kid I was told Travis was killed in a tank in Italy. To the best of my knowledge, my dad never knew that his brother was a POW—or perhaps he knew and never told me. I know we never watched Hogan’s Heroes, as my dad didn’t find the show humorous. 

[Hogan’s Heroes was an American sitcom that ran for six seasons. The comedy concerned an American Air Force colonel and his comrades who were POWs in Germany during World War II.]

“Uncle Travis’ widow Eva remarried and was always treated as part of the family. 

“I wrote the VA as a next of kin heir and requested copies of his military records to no avail. Thanks to you, I now know more than I ever knew before.”

Jeff sent me a scan of the photo that hung in his family home (above).

“To the best of my knowledge there are no other pictures of Uncle Travis,” he wrote.

As we honor scores of a fallen soldiers on this Memorial Day, I pause for a moment to remember the sacrifice of Travis Fowler—one beloved soldier who has never been forgotten by his family.

Travis’s grave marker in Sylvester, Georgia

Reginald Skinner in Switzerland

Escaped Allied POWs bask in the beauty of their Swiss harbor

Many Allied soldiers who escaped from prison camps in northern Italy in the fall of 1943 made their way safely to neutral Switzerland.

Reginald Skinner was among them.

Reginald’s granddaughter Hannah Angell doesn’t know in which Swiss community he found shelter. Other POWs represented on this site found refuge in Alpine resort villages such as Adelboden, Arosa, and St. Gallen.

Reginald kept the following photographs as reminders of his time spent Switzerland.

(See also “Reginald Skinner—P.G. 59 and Beyond.”)

Reginald Skinner—Notebook Poetry

A poem from Reginald Skinner’s prison camp notebook

Reginald Skinner’s prison camp notebook contains seven full-length poems. (See “Reginald Skinner—P.G. 59 and Beyond.”)

The poems are:
Reflections of a P.O.W.
Appreciation
The Fireside Fusiliers
The Mirage
Evening
The Long Range Desert Group
A Father’s Story to His Son

Reginald did not record the authors of the poems, but some of the poems appear with attributions in other prisoner’s notebooks, most notably Robert Dickinson’s “Servigliano Calling.”

“Reflections on a P.O.W.” is in G. Norman Davison’s diary, and the same poem also appears in “Servigliano Calling” with the shortened title “Reflections.” See “Camp 59 Poets.”

In addition, “The Mirage” and “The Fireside Fusiliers” are in “Servigliano Calling.” All three poems are credited there to Cpl. D. Nevitt. (See “The ‘Servigliano Calling’ Poets,” “‘Servigliano Calling’ Camp Poem #8,” and “‘Servigliano Calling’ Camp Poem #10.”)

Of course, it’s entirely possible Reginald wrote some of the poems in his notebook himself.

Continue reading

Reginald Skinner—P.G. 59 and Beyond

A spread from Reginald Skinner’s notebook

On the inside cover of his POW notebook, Reginald Skinner recorded his name, rank and company, as well as his bed and hut assignment in P.G. 59:

R.E.J. SKINNER. PTE.
6097228 BUFFS
BED. NO 1019 9 HUT.
CAMPO 59. PM. 3300
ITALIA.

Reginald Skinner of the Buffs

Recently Hannah Angell wrote to me from the UK. 

“My daughter has been doing a school project on WW2,” she explained. “My grandfather was a prisoner of war in Italy. After doing a little research, I believe he was a POW in Servigliano. I have attached some pictures of a pocket notebook from his time there and a picture of him. His name was Reginald Skinner. 

“My grandfather passed away eight years ago and he was a man of few words. He never shared any stories from his time in the war. All he told us was he was a POW in Italy and escaped to Switzerland. 

“The only memory he ever shared with me was when he had a toothache an Italian soldier took him away and they ripped the tooth out of his mouth! 

“He was in North Africa before Italy. I’ve found records with dates of capture and when he was interviewed in Switzerland.”

Continue reading

The Departure of Heroes

Antonio Del Gobbo on his ninety-second birthday
Marino Palmoni is interviewed by Italian historian Filippo Ieranò (left) and Ian McCarthy (not shown), 2010

My father, American Sgt. Armie Hill, was a prisoner of war in P.G. 59 Servigliano during the Second World War.

He escaped from the camp in September 1943, shortly after Italy signed the armistice with the Allies. Although the Italian government had capitulated, much of Italy was still held by the Germans. Escapees from prison camps across central and northern Italy found themselves on the run in enemy-occupied territory—and were at the mercy of local Italians for protection.

The Italians themselves were divided between fascists, who cooperated with the Germans, and partisans, who fought for liberation of their country. Rural laborers and farmers, the contadini, were faced with an ethical dilemma when ragged POWs turned up at their doorsteps asking for food, shelter, or directions. 

My father was helped by local Italians—he was fed, sheltered, given directions, and warned of impending dangers. His experience with the local Italians was not at all unusual.

Antonio Del Gobbo was a young farmer in Smerillo when he was approached by POWs from P.G. 59 asking for food. Antonio brought the young escapees home, where his mother, Letizia, took them in. 

Read the family’s story in “A Haven in Smerillo.”

Marino Palmoni was 10 years old when his father, Luigi, discovered escapees from P.G. 59 hiding in woods that bordered his farm fields. Without hesitation, Luigi sent Marino home for food for the men and, when winter set in, the Palmoni family welcomed them into their home.

Read “Marino Palmoni on the Sheltering of the POWs.”

Antonio’s nephew, Marco Ercoli, wrote early this year that Antonio had died on January 2. Antonio was the last living Del Gobbo family member to remember their rescue of the escaped prisoners.

This month, Antonello Palmoni emailed me that his father, Marino, had passed away on February 20.

When I began this website in January 2008 (eight years after my dad’s death), I knew relatively little about P.G. 59 and even less about prisoners from camps across Italy who found themselves on the run in 1943–44.

However, once I established a presence online, I was surprised by how many people contacted me—former POWs who were interned in Italy, their sons and daughter, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and even a few great grandchildren. Researchers kindly shared information with me and, in time, I heard from descendants of Italian helpers, some of whom had living parents or other relatives who recalled sheltering the Allied escapees.

Stories and information these contacts shared with me are on this site. 

Each year, I am saddened to learn of the deaths of contacts, especially those who remembered the war. Many had become close friends. Soldiers who fought and endured captivity are my heroes, of course. But the Italian protectors are my heroes as well. I have deep admiration for their courage and selflessness.

The dangers faced by Italians who harbored escapees are made clear through notices widely distributed in comunes near the camps. A German flyer written in Italian that was posted in Comunanza—about 26 kilometers (or 16 miles) from P.G. 59—was preserved as evidence by British war crimes investigators after the war. 

A contemporary translation by Celestina Moretti of the flyer, now in the British National Archives, reads:

FIGHT AGAINST THE FAVOURING OF THE ENEMY.

  1. Be silent about all you hear and what you see of the German troops. If, for example, the enemy should get to know that German troops are in your town, the town will be bombed by the enemy without pity. Being silent you will save your town, your home and possessions.
  2. You are to notify the German Commands of any P.O.Ws., spies and saboteurs, or of any other persons acting against them. Notify any attempt at sabotage, or any espionage.
  3. A reward of 1,800 lire shall be given to you for every prisoner, saboteur etc, captured as a result of your information.
  4. Notify us of all radio transmitting apparatus.
  5. A reward of 5,000 lire will be paid for every transmitter that is traced as a result of your information.
  6. All offenders shall eventually be punished by the German Military laws
    BY DEATH
    if they conceal any persons or the above facts, or help in the sheltering, feeding, clothing or escape of these persons.
  7. Severe punishment shall be given to the inhabitants of the town if it is known that they assist spies, saboteurs, or escaped prisoners, etc..
  8. The present notice shall be affixed to all public buildings and all churches. Severe punishment will be given to those responsible who do not see that this order is carried out, and to those who remove notices from any of these buildings.

THE COMMANDER of the GERMAN TROOPS.

In spite of the threats, hundreds of Italian families and individuals, motivated by their humanity—and many undoubtedly inspired by their faith—chose to protect the escapees. Many had their homes destroyed and many more became martyrs.

The end of the year is a good time to remember and honor these departed Italian heroes. Generations of descendants of Allied POWs are indebted to them. They must not be forgotten.

Copies of the original Comunanza flyer were cut into quarters to fit on four pages of the war crimes report, now on file at the National Archives in Kew; image courtesy of Brian Sims

Antonio Zagnoli, The Airmen’s Guide

“This photo was taken at Poggio di Casola on September 26, 1941. From left, standing, are Ireneo (brother of my grandpa), my grandma Felicita, and my grandpa Sante; from left, sitting, are cousin Vittorio, my aunt Ada, my uncle Umberto, and my father Antonio” —Marco Zagnoli

Marco Zagnoli recently wrote to me from Italy about his family’s support for Allied airmen in 1943–44. 

“My father told me that he—at the age of sixteen—helped British airmen who were evaders or escaped from prison camps to pass the lines and reach the Allied troops,” Marco said.

“Also, my grandfather provided help, hiding the airmen at our family farm called Poggio di Casola, Castel di Casio village, near Porretta Terme (Bologna). 

“On the British military maps of the area—to which my father could get a look—our farm was marked as ‘a family that helps British troops,’ or something similar.” 

Aerial view of Poggio di Casola, 1933

The airmen, Marco explained, turned up individually at the farm over time. 

“My father guided airmen more than ten times—maybe twelve.

“After hiding each British soldier and refreshing him, in the early morning (3.00 AM), my father led him into the chestnut woods, reaching and staying on the ridge of the mountains in order to avoid German soldiers. They passed on the ridge over Suviana Lake, Badi, Taviano, and continued south towards Pistoia.

“As a meal they only had a loaf of bread and at times a slice of cheese.

“Once on the hills surrounding Pistoia, my father left the airman and went back to Poggio by way of the chestnut woods. 

“My father didn’t know the way the airman had to go in order to cross the front line and reach the Allies, but I think the airman knew the next place to go in Tuscany.”

The mountains Antonio lead the airmen though were in the northern sector of the Apennines (Appennino settentrionale), specifically the Tuscan-Emilian subchain. 

On this contemporary map, Marco has indicated in green the route his father took in guiding the airmen to the hills above Pistoia. Poggio di Casola is noted by a circle near the top of the map.

Detail of the area between Pistoia and Bologna on a silk RAF pilot’s “escape map”

It occurred to me that the map the airmen were carrying might be a silk RAF pilot’s map, or “escape map.”

During the war, Allied paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines in Italy on special missions and to make contact with the Italian resistenza. On the ground, the men were on their own. A map of the area, printed on silk, was standard issue for these men. It showed local features, such as roads, rivers, and villages. 

My friend Kirsty McBeth had recently purchased one of these vintage maps at auction. She kindly photographed a section of the map for me that includes Pistoia and Bologna— and the area between, where Poggio di Casola was located. Although the map provides a great deal of information, it’s not detailed enough to show individual farms, so the nature of the “military map” Antonio caught a glimpse of remains a mystery.

Antonio Zagnoli, circa 1942–43

I asked Marco if he was confident the soldiers were airmen.

“Yes, absolutely,” he answered. “Also, my uncle confirmed it.

“Each airman came by himself, not with other airmen, in different periods. 

“Each soldier told the members of my family that he knew that to reach the Allied lines he had to ask for help, food, and hiding at a farm in Gaggio Montano (left bank of the Reno river) and then cross the river and ask for help, food, hiding at our farm (right bank of the Reno river), and then to be guided by a member of my family through the mountains to the Pistoia district. 

“Our family doesn’t know how the airmen knew that at our farm—and at the farm in Gaggio Montano—they were sure to be helped and not betrayed. As a matter of fact, some of the neighboring farms (Prati, Torraccia) at that time were owned by fascists. 

“The airmen all knew that my family was Christian and against fascists and Nazis. It was indicated on the maps, my father told me.”

Marco said no one in his family knew which one of the farms in Gaggio Montano provided assistance to the airmen. The airmen didn’t share that information with the family.

“The front line was constantly in the move,” Marco explained. “On their way north, the Allies set Pistoia free on September 8, 1944; Florence a week before; Arezzo on August 16th; Ancona on July 18th; and Perugia on June 20th.”

I asked Marco why he thought the airmen chose to travel south to cross the lines, rather than to make their way to Switzerland, the route chosen by many escapees in northern Italy. 

He replied, “I have to point out that in 1943–45 the bridges over Po river (that divides in two parts the Padana plain (i.e. the main part of northern Italy) were either destroyed after bombing or strictly controlled by the Nazis. So if an Allied soldier found himself on the right bank of Po river, it was not possible—or was very, very dangerous—for him to cross the Po, reach the Alps, and then try to cross the border to get into Switzerland.

“The Padana plain didn’t offer many hiding places because it was—and still is—a flat land of fields with few woods. Moreover, the cities and towns were strongly controlled by Nazis and fascists.

“The option to go south was dangerous, but a soldier could find his way through woods and mountains, keeping away from towns and crowded places.

“Longer, but safer.

“And going south made it possible to cross over to land controlled by the Allied army, like your father did.”

Marco pointed out that a third option, staying put, was also dangerous for the airmen, as they ran a risk of being betrayed.

“The journeys would have taken place in the period starting August 1943 and ending in September 1944,” Marco said. 

“I am sure of it, because:

“A. Before August 1943, my father and grandpa were in Milano. My grandpa was a railway worker and also a farmer/landowner of a tiny farm, and they suffered July’s aerial bombardments of Milan. They only went to Poggio in August, when the aerial bombardment was reduced. The rest of my family had yet to move.

“B. The Nazis occupied Porretta Terme in August or September 1943, and retreated in September 1944, after harsh fighting on the mountains north of Gaggio Montano and Riola, which faces Porretta Terme.

“C. On September 26, 1944, the Allied troops of the Sixth South African Armored Division conquered Passo della Collina (which means ‘the Hill’s Pass’) that links Bologna district with Pistoia district. Then, on October 10, 1944, the XI Battalion of the U.S. First Infantry Division set Porretta Terme free.

“From fall 1944 through spring 1945, five Sherman tanks were based on our hill and the soldiers lived with our family. 

“All the members of my family have since referred to the period passed with the U.S. soldiers with a sense of gratefulness to the Americans who brought with themselves freedom, food, coffee, and cigarettes.

“My father died on February 1982. The only members of my family who were living during the war and are still living are my uncle (the youngest brother of my father) Umberto (born 1932), who was a boy during the war, and my second cousin Vittorio (born 1926).”

Recent view of Poggio, 2013

“I am in possession of a certificate of gratitude, signed by Field-Marshal H. R. Alexander, awarded to my father,” Marco continued.

“I had seen this certificate before, but unfortunately I had looked only at the back”—where the document has an Italian translation. “It was not completed, so I thought it was of no importance.

“I said to myself, ‘Why didn’t my father get this certification? Very strange.’ 

“Then last year, in putting old paperwork in order, I had a lucky strike and looked at the front.” 

On the English-language side of the certificate is penned in stylish calligraphy the name “Zagnoli Antonio di Sante.”

“So I then started researching the story behind this certificate,” Marco said, “until a search on the internet led me to your site.”

“I suppose that the certificates—issued to a select group of Italians who had risked their lives to protect escaped British POWs and evaders—were issued after a preparatory phase, as the sequential number suggests.” 

Antonio’s Alexander certificate
The back of the Alexander certificate

This certificate is awarded to Zagnoli Antonio di Sante as a token of gratitude for and appreciation of the help given to the Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which enabled them to escape from, or evade capture by the enemy.

H.R. Alexander
Field-Marshall,
Supreme Allied Commander,
Mediterranean Theatre
1939–1945

“My father at the age of 30, taken in Galliate (Novara district, a town between Milan and Turin, south of Lago Maggiore). The reason of the picture taken in Galliate, is that in my family many have itchy feet, so after WW2 my father worked and lived in Galliate, not far from Switzerland. Nevertheless, he kept strong ties to his roots.” —Marco Zagnoli

A Reflection on Heroism and Humility

Antonio and Domenica Cavaciuti

“There is a certificate of gratitude hanging in my grandmother’s house in London that was awarded to my great-grandfather, Antonio Cavaciuti,” Sophia Boeri wrote to me last month. 

“I recently began to enquire about the history of this certificate to my family. My grandfather passed away before I was born and so I was never able to ask him directly about the certificate. My family don’t know too much about the story behind it—all that they’ve been able to tell me is that my great-grandfather helped to protect British soldiers during World War II and that his actions were deemed to be very courageous, especially considering that he had nine young children. 

“I began to search for more information on the internet and came across your website, so was hoping that you will be able to provide me with more information about the actions of people like my great-grandfather.”

I told Sophia I would like to share their great-grandparents’ story and asked if she would send me a few photos.

Sophia wrote again a couple of weeks later. “Sorry about the delay in responding to you,” she said. “It took a while to sort through many boxes of family photos!

“I have attached a picture of my great-grandfather’s Alexander certificate, a photo of Antonio and Domenica, a clearer photo of Antonio and a photo of all their children together.

“I have managed to find out the following so far: Antonio and Domenica Cavaciuti lived in the village of Rusteghini, which is in the municipality of Morfasso and the province of Piacenza in Italy, with their nine children. They lived a very humble life working on their farm.

“Apparently, they sheltered British soldiers in their stable.

“I would like to be able to find out more about what they did to help these soldiers and who the soldiers were that they protected.”

The children of Antonio and Domenica Cavaciuti

Sophia identified Antonio and Domenica’s children as (left to right in the picture above) Rita, Giovanni, Giuseppina, Teresa, Andrea, Maria, Rachele, Giovanna, and Ugo. 

“Unfortunately, Ugo passed away when he was just 10 years old,” she said. 

“Of the remaining children, only Giovanna and Rachele remained in Italy—the rest became economic migrants as they moved to Paris and London. My grandfather was Giovanni—he originally left Italy to move to Paris with his sisters Rita, Giuseppina, and Maria, and his brother Andrea. He then decided to move to London, where he joined his sister Teresa. 

“After Antonio passed away, the decision was made to give the certificate to the only son remaining, my grandfather Giovanni, which is how the certificate made its way to London.”  

Antonio Cavaciuti

The certificate is creased from being folded, as if carried in someone’s pocket at one time. It was ultimately framed and displayed, however the story of the family’s heroism has faded over time—the details forgotten.

The wartime episode is a testament to the Cavaciutis’ humility—when the escapers wandered onto their property, Antonio and Domenica acted on a principal of deeply-felt humanity. Sheltering the men was likely a natural, spontaneous impulse.

Nazi retribution for helping escapees was swift and severe. They were risking their lives—and the lives of their children. I have no doubt they realized this.

The Alexander certificate attests to their heroism. It is a document Antonio and Domenica’s descendants can rightly be proud of.

The Alexander certificate

This certificate is awarded to Cavaciuti Antonio as a token of gratitude for and appreciation of the help given to the Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which enabled them to escape from, or evade capture by the enemy.

H.R. Alexander
Field-Marshall,
Supreme Allied Commander,
Mediterranean Theatre
1939–1945

William McBeth “On the Run”

Photo of William McBeth's family
William McBeth with his family, circa 1965. Granddaughter Kirsty McBeth says, “He’s the gentleman on the right and my dad [Donald McBeth] is the young lad with the tie. He married my dad’s mum, who was separated and already had an older daughter, who is the other lady in this picture with her husband and her son and daughter.”

William Harkins McBeth was never a prisoner in P.G. 59.

In fact, he was captured by the Germans in Italy on 3 October 1943, one month to the day after Italy signed the armistice with the Allies. By the time William was captured, POW camps across Italy had dissolved—the captives having fled into the countryside or been transported to Germany.

William’s granddaughter Kirsty McBeth is in the process of piecing together her grandfather’s wartime story. She shared with me some of the documents she’s gathered so far. 

They’re quite interesting, and I’m eager to share his story on this site.

William was born 1 February 1915.

“My grandfather lived in Glasgow and moved through to Edinburgh when my dad was around four,” Kirsty wrote. “His family had a carter business in Glasgow which was basically transporting coal. I think my grandad was a driver.”

William had just turned 25 when he enlisted in the Army in February 1940. Early in the war he was in North Africa, serving with 1 SAS (the Special Air Service—a special forces unit of the British Army) and the SRS (Special Raiding Squadron).

An SAS researcher whom Kirsty contacted wrote to her, “Whilst a member of ‘A’ Section 3 Troop he was involved in three operations. One of these was in the Desert but I am unable to pin it down to which one. The other two were at Capo Morro di Porco and Augusta in Sicily. His final action with the SRS was in Termoli in Italy on Operation Devon where he was captured on 3 October 1943.”

After capture in Termoli, William was interned in a POW transit camp at Frosinone, Italy, from October 6 to 16, before being put aboard a train bound for Germany—a train he was to escape from 11 days later. 

“I have his escape and evasion report, Kirsty wrote. “He was on the run in Italy from October 1943 until June 1944.”

Here is William’s story, as written in the report:

Account of escape of 173497 Pct McBeth, Harkins William, No. 3 Troop, Special Raiding Sqn., 1st S.A.S. [1st Parachute Regiment]

Capture:

“I was with a party which was landed by sea behind the enemy lines at TERMOLI at 0200 hrs on 3 October 43. By 1000 hrs our section was completely surrounded by the Germans and we were ordered to surrender.”

Camps in which imprisoned:

P/W Transit Camp (FROSINONE) 6 Oct – 16 Oct 43.

Attempted escapes:

“A few days after I was captured I joined a party of about ten men who were planning to escape. We knocked a hole in the corner of the wall of the courtyard in which we were imprisoned and it was agreed the whole party would leave the same night. The first man out, however, was immediately arrested, so that our mass escape had to be abandoned.”

Escape:

“On 16 Oct we were put into a cattle truck, with an armed sentry at each end, en route for GERMANY. Our journey was very slow owing to damage on the line.

“I escaped from the train at 0230 hrs on 27 October as it was slowing up to pass through MESTRE. The three men who jumped with me were Pct. Robert MacDONALD, L/Cpl. WOODS, S.A.S. and a private of the Battle Patrol. We had managed to cut a hole in the side of the truck with the aid of our pen knives large enough for one man to put his hand through and unfasten the wire which held the bolt of the door, and, having done so, we seized the first favourable opportunity we had to escape.

“After we left the train, we decided to split up. Pct. MacDONALD and I headed for PADOVA [Padua] and reached a small village called BORGORICCO, eight miles North East of PADOVA on 29 Oct. Here we stayed for three days with an Italian family, who supplied us with civilian clothing. We set out again walking South about 1 Nov. Five days later, as we were approaching ESTE, MacDONALD left with the intention of heading for BOLOGNA. I continued on my own, for ROVIGO after crossing the river ADIGE at BARBONA by bridge which was unguarded. From here I went to SALETTO on the river PO, where I persuaded a boatman to take across. I by-passed FERRARA and continued on to MINERBIO, FAENZA and FORLI. From here I continued along the foothills to SAN MARINO. Somewhere South of FORLI I met two New Zealanders, one of whom was Frank JOSLING, L.R.D.G., and we continued together to SASSOFERRATO  and FABRIANO, where I left them.

“About the beginning of Dec I reached MACERATA where I stayed with a family for two days. On 11 Dec I came to a town near TERAMO called VILLA RIPA where I remained until 20 JUNE 44. Twice during this time I tried to reach the Allied lines, but though I got as far as CHIETI the first time and PENNE the second time, was forced to turn back on both occasions.

“On 20 Jun the Germans began to retreat along the main roads in the area and I was able to slip by unnoticed. I contacted Italian troups between PENNE and TERAMO the same day, but they were unable to help me and I continued South on my own for five days till I reached TORINO DI SANGRO where I was sent to a Repatriation camp. From here I was sent first to FOGGIA and then NAPLES, where I was interrogated. I sailed from Naples in Aug and arrived in the U.K. the same month.” 

According to the report, William departed Naples in August 1944 and arrived in Liverpool in the same month.

A separate “Recommendation for Awards” document acquired by Kirsty has an additional detail regarding the escape: 

“At the time the train was slowing up to pass through MESTRE; although their departure was noticed and the sentries opened fire, no one was hit.” 

The same document confirms the date William arrived at Torino di Sangro was 25 June 1944.

Near the end of his trek to the Allied lines, William passed through territory escapers from P.G. 59 Servigliano would have traversed, as the camp was directly between Macerata and Teramo.

William’s cross-country journey was truly remarkable—the distance from Mestre to Torino di Sango being about 560 kilometers (348 miles). The landscape was rugged and the threat of being captured or shot constant. 

We understand now that many soldiers of the Second World War who, like William, had been in combat and who were prisoners of war experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—for which, sadly, there was no treatment.

“He died in the seventies, but I know that he suffered from his time in the war, Kirsty wrote. “I think he was remembered as a good dad, provided for his family, but obviously struggled with what happened to him.”

I am grateful to Kirsty for sharing her grandad’s story and allowing me to post it here.

I searched online for information about the transit camp at Frosinone, but found few references to it. 

The most vivid account is a short description of the camp in Chapter 6 of a memoirs entitled “Bill Clark’s War” on BBC’s WW2 People’s War site (Pat Jones, contributor):

Bill Clark recounts:

“Eventually we were sent back to a place called Frosinone, a little south east of Rome, where the road wound round and round until you arrived at the top of the hill. This road was bombed many times and it was our job to fill in the craters as they appeared. Frosinone turned out to be a miserable prison. The guards were demoralised; there were no Red Cross parcels and no cigarettes to be had by Germans or P.O.W.’s. Rations were poor, yet the camp commandant decided, when he realised it was almost Christmas [1943], that he would honour us with his presence together with his officers and try to organise some sort of party. The difficulty was that being hungry; having no drink or cigarettes does not help to generate a party spirit. However, among the P.O.W.s were many nationalities, so a representative from each country gave a national song or did a turn of sorts. We had been round the lot, the French with ‘J’attendrai’, the Italian soldier with ‘O Sole Mio’, the Dutch, Belgian, Yugoslav etc. when the call came up for a German song, but the Germans wouldn’t have any of it, so I got up, much to the surprise of the room, went to the front and sang the song ‘Die Lorelei’ which I had learnt at school and knew to be a folk song and therefore well known in Germany. It was about a mermaid seated on a rock on the Rhine, singing to lure the sailors and so wreck their boats. Well I got through the first verse and then the Germans joined in and we must have sung about 10 verses before it finished. The Germans as well as fellow P.O.W.s were impressed, although that was practically all the German I knew. However, it got us an extra bread roll each, whether it really had anything to do with that I’m not sure, but many of the P.O.W.s thought I could speak German fluently and I had a job to convince them otherwise.”*

*WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar.

Regarding the Battle of Termoli, a warlinks.com page on the battle helps us understand William’s role in the offensive.

The Special Raiding Squadron in which William served conducted beach landings over three days, 3–5 October 1943, Williams’ unit, No. 3 Troop, being the first of these assaults:

“3rd October, 1943 – S.R.S. with No. 3 (Army) Commandos and No. 40 Royal Marine Commando land and attack Termoli. The Special Service Brigade under Brigadier J. Durnford-Slater, DSO took the beach area and town, with casualties, their opponents being German parachutists. Captain J. Tonkin’s S.R.S. section was surrounded and captured in the town, he later escaped.”

See also Wikipedia’s entry on “Operation Devon.”

The capture of Termoli was beneficial to I.S.9 escaper/evader rescue operations. By November 1, a base of the of I.S.9 called the “Boating Section” was established at the port of Termoli by Major J. F. Fillingham. It was from this base that boat retrievals of escapers were conducted along the Adriatic coast—working in concert with I.S.9 field units that guided the POWs from the interior to the coast. 

For more on this, see “I.S.9 History—Operations in Italy, Part 1.”

William McBeth, 1948