Category Archives: ANZAC Prisoners

R. J. McMahon, Part 2—Escape and Beyond

What follows is the second installment of R. J. McMahon’s autobiography, 1939–44. This post covers his experience in prison at Servigliano, escape, his involvement with the Partisans, and his eventual return to Australia.

Inside the prison walls were about 14 huts and each hut contained 50 prisoners. These huts were the most unstable constructions around and would shake with the slightest movement. When we were in bed they would shake us to sleep. The beds were two-tier bunks made with wooden slats about 6” apart. The mattresses we were issued with were a good kapok style, which were fairly comfortable and [we were issued] plenty of blankets. Having sheets on the bed was a big surprise, as we never had sheets in our own army. The last sheets we had enjoyed were prior to leaving Australia. At the end of the first week we had them taken off us and sent away to be cleaned, and we were issued with another set. Our sheet issue ran out at the end of the second week, when we mustered at the collection point waiting for another lot. The Italian in charge informed us there would be no more sheets as they had found out that the Australians did not give their prisoners sheets so they wouldn’t give them to us.

Six mates and I stayed in this prison camp for 12 months before succeeding in finding a way to get out. We tried digging our way out, emptying the soil down the sewage system and flushing it away. It was only sand and you had to take a chance on whether it fell in or not. There were a few blokes who did escape through a tunnel, but they were caught shortly after and brought back.

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R. J. McMahon, Part 1—Battle and Captivity

Earlier this year, I heard from Linda Veness of Perth, Western Australia.

She wrote, “My father was a POW in Camp 59. He and four other Australians escaped together. My father was R. J. (Jim) McMahon WX4445, AIF [Australian Imperial Force]. His companions were Private Tom Alman from Kalgoorlie, Jack Allen from Kalgoorlie, Lance Corporal Les Worthington of Wiluna, and J. Feehan of Geraldton—all from Western Australia. There is an account of their escape in one of our newspapers.

“Also escaping with them was a Scot. He was a man named Tom Kelly (written on the back of a photograph) who was nicknamed “Jock”—how odd for a Scotsman! I have tried to figure out who he was, where he hailed from, and what happened to him, but with no luck.

“My father wrote an autobiography when he was about 70 years old—15 years before he died in 1999.

“I had grown up with stories about my Dad’s war experiences: never the grim bits, just tales of where he had been and the mates he had made along the way. When we lived in Geraldton, Western Australia, he would catch up every couple of years with all the chaps from the 2/28 Battalion when they had their reunions. It was a regular weekend, I can’t remember which month, but the weather was always pleasant. They had get-togethers for the adults and there was always a BBQ or picnic which their children could attend. I loved those days. The men were some of the ‘best blokes’ you could ever hope to meet. It seemed to be a part of my teenage years, waiting for that weekend.

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Ken Fenton on New Zealanders

Early this year I was in search of information about any New Zealand POWs interned in Camp 59. Bill Rudd, a former Australian WWII POW and creator of the excellent web resource ANZAC POW Freemen in Europe, referred me to New Zealand WWII veteran and historian Ken Fenton.

Ken wrote to me:

“I served in Italy during WW2 in the 2nd NZ Division, but was never captured, although there were occasions when I might have come close when on recce [reconnaissance].

“In the last six years I have become interested in the fortunes of NZ [New Zealand] and Aust [Australian] POWs, as I was asked to write a book about those who were detained at Campo 57.

“Most of the NZ and Aust POWs were sent to PG 57 soon after arrival in Italy, following brief stays in transit type camps, but a few drifted in over a period of time as they left Italian hospitals or for other reasons.

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Conversations with Vaughan Laurence Carter

In 2006, Ray Worthington had two conversations with Vaughan Laurence Carter, a former Australian POW at Camp 59.

The two conversations were on June 23rd and June 30th. I am grateful to Ray for sharing his notes from those conversations with me for this site.

Vaughan had responded to a request for information on Ray’s father, Leslie Worthington WX4449, posted by Ray in Tobruk to Borneo, a quarterly journal of the Australian 2nd/28th Battalion and 24th Anti-Tank Company Association.

At the time of these conversations, Vaughan was 85 years old and was being treated for pancreatic cancer, but was still very alert and demonstrated an excellent memory. He served as WX11634 in the 2nd/28th Battalion and was one of the 490 taken prisoner at Ruin Ridge on 27 July 1942. [Miteirya Ridge, near El Alamein, Egypt, was known to the Australians as “Ruin Ridge.”]

Although he had not met Les earlier (Vaughan was in D Company; while Les was 8 Section, 12 Platoon, B Company), he remembers Les because they were in the same POW camp. Vaughan’s memory of Les is as a “good bloke.” He also remembers Les as fairly old—Les turned 39 in 1942, while Vaughan only turned 22 while they were in the camp at Servigliano.

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A Timeline of Les Worthington’s Service

The following dates are from Les Worthington’s service record (WX4449) at the National Archives of Australia.

1940

June 1—medically examined and accepted in Wiluna

July 6—ceased work at The Wiluna Gold Mines Limited

July 13—enlisted at Northam Army Camp as WX4449

September 5—transferred to the 2nd/28th Battalion, 24th Brigade, 9th Division, A.I.F.; became a member of 8 Section, 12 Platoon, B Company

1941

January 5—the 2nd/28th departed for the Middle East on the Aquitania

November 12—appointed lance corporal

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Les Worthington—an Australian’s Adventure

Australian Lance Corporal Leslie Worthington’s service record from the National Archives of Australia is presented in this post, along with a few comments and photos provided by his son, Ray Worthington.

This portrait of Les Worthington was taken sometime in the latter part of 1940. His army battalion departed from Australia on 3 January 1941.

Written on back: “Taken at Kilo 89. Winner of donkey race.” Les’s battalion—the 2nd/28th—moved from Tobruk to Alexandria on 23 September 1941, and then to the camp at Kilo 89, so this photo was probably taken around then. If you look closely you can see the ears of the donkey Les is seated on.

Service Record

National Archives transcription from the service record of Leslie Worthington WX4449, pages 13 and 14

Minor edits have been made for readability. Where a name appears to be incorrect or there is a variation, a likely alternative is shown in brackets.

WESTERN AUSTRALIAN SEARCHER’S REPORT ON AN ESCAPED P.O.W.

WITNESS STATES:

“I was taken prisoner of war at El Alamein the night of 27 July 1942.

“After being captured, I was taken to the German HQ [headquarters] and questioned, and after that to the Italian HQ at a place called Appaloni [Apollonia or Susah, Libya] for the same purpose. I was then taken to Derna [Darnah, Libya], Tocra [Tukrah, Libya], and finally to the main prison camp at Benghazi [Banghazi, Libya]. This camp was not the best when we arrived here as it was really a staging camp and overcrowded. We slept in the open most of the time, and there was very little water and food was scarce.

[This would have been The Palms Prison Camp also known as Palm Tree Camp, or The Palm Grove.]

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Australian and New Zealand “Free Men”

I have just added a link to the blogroll on this site, but lest anyone overlook it, I want to take a moment to recognize its excellence. Its impressive collection of information is the exhaustive work of Australian WW II POW Bill Rudd.

The site, ANZAC POW Freemen in Europe, is devoted to records and history of prisoners-of-war in Europe of ANZAC—the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.

ANZAC is comprised of the New Zealand Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF).

When I asked Bill Rudd about the use of his term “Free Men,” he explained:

“When I was asked by the Australian War Museum to extend my Swiss research to all other countries in which Anzac POW either escaped or evaded, but remained behind enemy lines, my first interest was the Anzac POW who had not been captured in Crete. Although technically they had been surrendered to the Germans in Crete, they had not been actually taken POW by them. Literally hundreds were recovered by SOE and MI9 operations and a considerable number came out under their own steam.

“When they eventually re-joined their units, they were never given the status of a POW.

“As a consequence, I had to change my working title to cover such cases and to accomodate the increasing number of airmen, who had crashed behind enemy lines and evaded among the civilian population of the area where that had occurred. Both the peasants of Crete and North Italy took enormous risks in succouring such Allied men. As did those brave patriots manning official escape lines developed throughout Europe.

“So I called all my evaders and escapers surviving behind enemy lines ‘Free Men.’ Many of course carried on their war with local partisan groups.

“My working research parameters was to cover all active escapers and evaders who were NOT sitting in a German prison Camp on VE Day. There were, of course, some exceptions of recaptured POW, but if they had been ‘on the loose’ for at least two months, I included them.”

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