A comfort in battle and prisoner camps, pocket Bible lands home after 70 years
John Bingham and Mary Blaxland The Sunday Telegraph (London, England) 7 March 2015
Newspaper captions: Clockwise from left: the Bible’s inscription alongside a picture of L/Cpl Albert Douglas and wife Ellen; the Italian Servigliano labour camp; Sapper George Alan Boanas; and Mr Douglas and his wife on their wedding day
IT WAS a special delivery more than 70 years in the making—from the battlefields of North Africa and a series of Prisoner of War camps to a village social club in Hampshire.
When Margaret Boanas handed over a small leather-bound wartime copy of the New Testament to Paddy Douglas last month, it marked the fulfillment of an undertaking linking both of their fathers since 1943.
Richard Minshull, a member of the family of P.G. 59 internee Albert “Paddy” Douglas, sent me the Sunday Life (Belfast, Northern Ireland) article featured in this post.
“The one strand/theme that appears to come through Albert’s story is his commitment to faith. During his period of time as a POW in Campo 59, he became friends with Sapper George Alan Boanas (1907665) and passed his Bible on to him.
“George looked after this Bible throughout the rest of his time as a POW and vowed to give it back. Later, George’s family pursued Albert’s family, and in 2015 they met up to hand back the Bible to Paddy. When they met, George’s family gave their story.”
Here is a letter from Albert ”Paddy” Douglas to his wife Ellen—his first letter sent as a prisoner of war.
050993 L/Cpl. A. Douglas Prisoner of War 14/4/41 [14 April 1941]
My Dearest Darling,
I am now a Prisoner of War. I was captured in Lybia [Libya] but I am keeping very well and am getting treated alright. These people are very good to us, and you have no need to worry about me. I am O.K. and I hope this war does not last much longer, so that we can be together again in a very short time.
Tell my father and mother I am doing fine.
If you have not had word from the War Office, get in touch with the International Red Cross London.
Your Loving Husband L/Cpl. A. Douglas Prisoner of War XOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXO
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.
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.
This story begins with two POWs during wartime whose lives became intertwined, and who formed a tight friendship in Italy.
Corporal Robert Brawn (1433896, Royal Artillery—from Sheffield, England) and Lance Corporal Albert “Paddy” Douglas (T/150993, Royal Army Service Corps—from Belfast, Northern Ireland) were both captured in North Africa. They were interned in Feldpost 12545 and P.G. 59 Servigliano before being transferred north to the Po Valley working farms of P.G.146/25 Chignolo Po.
They escaped captivity on 8 September 1943, met up again on the run, and then made their way together to Switzerland—arriving on October 30.
After the war, the men returned to home and family life.
Robert married his fiancée, Betty Wray, in 1945, and together they had two children—a a son, Tim, and a daughter, Debby. Betty had had her own war service at home—she was cited in Sheffield newspapers as a hero for collecting the dead and injured in an ambulance during the blitz on Sheffield when she was aged 17.
Albert and his wife Ellen had their son Albert, who like his father also goes by the nickname of Paddy.
Ten years ago, in August 2013, I wrote a post on this site, “Peter Grillo—Surgery ‘Sans Anesthetic,’” concerning a harrowing operation P.G. 59 prisoner Peter Grillo had for appendicitis. At the time, Peter’s son Roy and I knew that after Peter had been interned in P.G. 59, he eventually ended up in Stalag 2B Hammerstein, from which he was liberated at the end of the war. (See “Liberated Comrades-in-Arms.”)
What we weren’t sure of until recently was his actual dates of internment and where Peter’s surgery had been performed. We weren’t even sure whether the operation was in Italy or Germany.
I discovered the missing details recently through accessing Peter’s Italian POW card on the U.S. National Archives (NARA) website. (These identity cards were created and maintained by the Italian Ministry of War during the war as a way for the Italians to maintain records on the prisoners—and to meet basic requirements of the 1929 Geneva Convention.)
From Peter’s card I learned that after P.G. 59, he was held in three additional locations in Italy.
Every year on the third Monday in January, in the United States we celebrate a national holiday honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Beginning in 1955, Dr. King was one of the most prominent human rights leaders in America, heading a movement to advance equal treatment of people of color through nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. As a Baptist minister, he was inspired by his Christian beliefs, as well as the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.
Dr. King knew the personal risks he faced, but in an atmosphere of ever-present hatred and threats, he remained steadfast. He was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Italian Heroic Resistance
During the Second World War, not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of Italian citizens—many of them poor farmers and laborers—risked their lives to practice the type of compassion resistance and civil disobedience Dr. King was later to embrace through their feeding and sheltering of escaped POWs who appeared at their doorsteps.
In a preface to Monte San Martino Trust founder J. Keith Killby’s memoir, In Combat, Unarmed, Giuseppe Millozzi writes of the courageous humanity of these Italians:
“They reached out despite this October 9, 1943 proclamation of Mussolini: ‘Anyone who helps escaped prisoners of war or any enemy by assisting them to escape or by offering them hiding places will be punished by death.’ An evangelical doctrine states, ‘There is no greater love than this: to give up your life for your friends.’ In light of the actions of these Italian peasants, this doctrine might be rephrased to read, ‘There is no greater love than this: to give up your life for your enemies.’ Even though fascist propaganda painted a gloomy picture of the Allied soldiers, these uneducated, simple, and poor farmers were capable of immense courage when they were confronted by these young men. Thanks to their alacrity and kindness, many escapees were saved from deportation. Their selfless actions helped to counterbalance the shame of Italy.”
Today, I remember these remarkable people, just as I pause to remember Dr. King.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day has a further personal significance for me.
It was on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 2008 that I began camp59survivors.com. The website is 15 years old today!
To date there are nearly 500 posts on the site. Through my research, I’ve made dozens of wonderful new friends—former servicemen interned in P.G. 59, descendants of the POWs and of Italian helpers, relatives of agents active in the I.S.9 rescues, researchers, and archivists.
I’ve found that in spite of the fact 80 years have passed since the escaped POWs were on the run, there is no shortage of interest in this subject. Whereas in the beginning I was being contacted by children, nieces, and nephews of POWs, increasingly I am hearing from grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
My own interest in the POW stories is as keen as ever, and I’m looking forward to the next 15 years.
While on a mission, American airmen John Gaffney and Albert Romero’s B-24 bomber was shot down over the sea near Messina, Italy, on 30 April 1943. The only two survivors, they were interned in P.G. 59. Both escaped on the night of the 14 September 1943 mass breakout. Although John Gaffney paired up with Sgt. William Casey and Albert Romero traveled alone, they all headed south for the Allied lines, arriving a couple of days apart in late October.
The following information is from their POW repatriation reports prepared by MIS-X Section, POW Branch, of the U.S. War Department. The reports are courtesy of the United States Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama. Their reports contain a wealth of information, including the names and addresses of Italian helpers.
“Peter” is described in Robert Williams’ repatriation report as a “British agent dressed in civilian clothes,” typically “accompanied by an Italian civilian carrying a box of pigeons.”
The agent is mentioned three times in the official I.S.9 history of escaper/evader rescues in Italy. The first mention concerns I.S.9 Boating Section landings on the Adriatic coast, north of the Allied lines. The particular landing was accomplished in late February 1944, “during the non-moon period” (the new moon was on February 24): “The seas during February were again exceedingly rough and prevented all but two operations – ‘PETER’ and ‘JUG’, both of which were successfully carried out.”
Later in 1944, the agent was described as, “not only one of our most likeable officers, but he was thoroughly efficient and sincere in his work. He had previously been in command of our Boating Section based at BASTIA, in CORSICA, where he personally planned and took part in many hazardous landing operations on the WEST coast of ITALY.”
There is a final mention of the agent at the end of 1944—the history states, “‘PETER’ had joined the CLN and was now an active ‘saboteur’. W/Cdr DENNIS said he would deal with Peter later on for deserting the cause of ex-P/Ws.”