Category Archives: J. H. Derek Millar

Nicola and Liberato Lagalla—Rescue by Sea

I was pleased to hear not long ago from Marida Parkes. Her father Nicola Lagalla and his brother Liberato were instrumental in transporting Captain J. H. Derek Millar and dozens of other escaped prisoners down Italy’s Adriatic coast from San Benedetto del Tronto to Termoli.

Marida had read Captain Millar’s autobiography and recognized her father’s role in his escape. Soon after, she interviewed her dad so that she could share the his story with Captain Millar’s son, Lenox.

Nicola now resides in Perth, Western Australia.

Here is his story:

“My brother and I knew nothing of the prisoners until we were approached by Commander Nebbia—my nautical professor—and Mr. Antonio Marchegiani.

“Prior to their approaching us, my brother and I had already decided that we were going to escape [from San Benedetto del Tronto] with our boats within two days. The boats belonged to my nonno [grandfather] Emidio Lagalla.

“They were the only two boats left on the wharf—and due to be sunk by the Germans.

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Captain J. H. Derek Millar

J. H. Derek Millar grew up in Scotland. He qualified in 1937 from Edinburgh University and had been working in hospital medicine when the war broke out and he volunteered for service.

He was posted to go overseas in 1941. He served in North Africa and was captured in Egypt and was sent to Camp 59.

As one of two medical officers in the camp, he was confronted by primative hygienic conditions, poor nutrition and insufficient food in general, harsh climate, pests and parasites, and lack of medicine and tools for carrying out routine care.

On September 9th, the day the Italian Armistice was announced in the camp, Sergeant Major Hegerty, who had been commanding officer at Camp 59 for one year, relinquished his duties. Captain Millar volunteered to take over command of the camp.

It was in this commanding role that Captain Millar—just five days later—negotiated with the commandant, Colonel Bacci, for release of the prisoners.

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Captain Millar—Valor in the Hour of Crisis

It’s clear from existing accounts of POWs who escaped from Camp 59 on the night of September 14, 1943, that few fully understood how they were able to escape from the camp in relative safety.

Captain J. H. Derek Millar—who was both the camp’s chief medical officer and highest-ranking British officer—acted quietly to ensure that safe passage.

Italian Giuseppe Millozzi, whose family helped to protect escaped POWs, studied historical records related to the night’s events decades later while in London as a student. In his dissertation, Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano, he reconstructs the unfolding events of the night—as he tells the story of Captain Millar’s heroic fight with the Italian camp commandant for control of the camp, and ultimately his acceptance of full personal responsibility for allowing the men to evacuate.

Captain Millar’s move was in defiance of the “Stay Put Order” issued from London which declared all Allied POWs were to stay in the prison camps until repatriated by the Allied forces. He knew that the Germans would reach the camps sooner than the Allies, and staying would only ensure transfer of the men to camps in the north.

in 2008, in honor of his role in the liberation of the camp, the Associazione Casa della Memoria—the Camp 59 “House of Memory” association—published Captain Millar’s memoirs. In the book, Dr. Millar’s story is presented in both English and Italian.

Within the book, Edward Chaplin, British Ambassador to Italy, wrote:

“[Dr. Millar’s] ‘disobedience’ allowed around two thousand prisoners to escape and seek safety, unlike the prisoners detained in other camps nearby who remained where they were and were deported to Germany. He was decorated for his action at the end of the war. …[His] enormously generous efforts to save others in a time of great peril, will be kept alive in the minds and hearts of future generations.”

J. H. Derek Millar and the Escape

I am extremely grateful to Giuseppe Millozzi for kindly allowing me to share the following account of the escape in this post.

The Armistice in the Marche prison camps

To summarise a complex event like the Armistice, it entails necessarily some imagination and omissions. It has been attempted to unite information found in documents, books and manuscripts written by ex POWs after the war. Regarding Servigliano’s events, it has been possible—after 60 years—to interview living witnesses who played an important part—Capt. Millar—class 1914—was one of these witnesses. Also Keith Killby—class 1916, one of the SAS captured in Sardinia—who pointed out through various interviews unpublished details on the camp escape.

Bit by bit, it has been possible to have a sufficiently clear vision of the “puzzle” and to make a coherent interpretation of events.

The Armistice in the camp at Servigliano

In the evening of 8 September all the villagers of Servigliano were celebrating the announcement of the Armistice, but even though in the camp—only 1 km. away—POWs could hear an uproar, but they did not know why.

The next day, 9 September, started as any other day but during the morning a similar sound attracted POWs towards the main gate of the camp.

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