The British POWs in Bad Schmiedeberg, in early 1945

Camp 53, Italy, the Italian Armistice of September 8th 1943 and a Cattle truck to Stalag 4B

As with all the other direct quotes in this website, these memories are transcribed from a series of very informal taped conversations with my father in the summer of 1995. Note in the dialect of NE England, ‘Why’ often means ‘Well’.

'When they [the Italians] packed it in they just went and left the camp. They just disappeared. We all got up one morning and they'd gone.'

Was there any warning?

'There was somebody had a wireless somewhere because we used to get what they called "griff"--news. "Have you heard the griff," they used to say. Somebody must have had a wireless because they used to get the news, maybe a while after it happened, but they used to get it.'

Did you know about the invasion of Sicily?

'Oh, aye we knew they were on their way up.'

In a decision which still causes controversy over 50 years later, the Allied Governments ordered POWs in Italy to stand fast and wait for liberation by the advancing armies. As a result of the 70,000 plus British and Commonwealth POWs in Italy, some 58,000 were quickly locked up again by the Germans and transported to the Reich.

As M R D Foot and J R Langley put it in the book MI9 Escape and Evasion:

'Directions were to be sent to Allied prisoners on Italian soil that they were to stay the camps until the advancing armies overran them....Well over half the prisoners who stayed put as ordered were quietly scooped up by the Germans and taken by train to Germany. Only the more rebellious and enterprising ones got out and by no means all of these got away. The most probably reason for this seems to have been a catastrophic staff muddle at a level so senior that no one has quite cared to clear it up.'

'There was a lot of them sloped off [the POWs] Some of them broke into the armoury and they got these old rifles and ammunition out. And on the night time they all headed South. Why, all during the night you could hear firing in the hills and that, you know, Jerries. They must have caught up with them. There's a lot of them would have been shot. And the night after that the Jerries arrived.'

The escapers and evaders from Camp 53 included Pte Tunney's school classmate and future brother-in-law Les Rowley of the Royal Engineers, who along with George Smith from the Wheatley Hill regained Allied lines after a year hiding and sheltering with local people in the mountains. Successful 16th DLI escapers from Camp 53 included Tom Atkinson and George Graham who were both ex B Company men who were captured at Sedjenane.

An then the Germans arrived.

'We were all assembled, anybody that had any weapons had to give them up there and then. And we were told: any weapons, throw them in a heap, which a lot did. They had knives, bayonets, all sorts, which they'd acquired or what they'd picked up out of the Armoury. There was a big heap of them at the finish. And then we used to have to do the Roll Call twice a day. Used to get counted.’

So the Germans took over?

'Oh aye, well it wasn't long after that they shipped us away to Germany. There was a little village outside the camp, it was on a railway and we went up and there was a big train, cattle trucks, and all of them with a guard box on the back, there was a guard in every one; on the outside, he was in like a little cabin of his own, a little sentry box and they could sit in there, they were covered in.'

How many per truck? 'About 40.'

Could you sit down? 'Just! Like this.' Adopting a hunched and very cramped pose.

'We might have had a meal, I don't know, I forget, but they used to stop the train on a morning, it used to pull into these sidings and they had these latrines dug. If you wanted to go to the toilet you used to go, a truck at a time. They'd let one lot out and they'd all just be standing. You used to go there and they'd give you about ten minutes and you were back on and then they'd let the next one out, or maybe there'd be two trucks, there'd be one from each end.'

How long were you on the train?

'We were on it at least three days, maybe more, maybe four. There was two doors in the middle at each side, sliding doors and there was like a window at the top, there and there was the same on the other side. And I was on this one up here.' On the left. 'I used to get something to stand on and I could stand there. There was no bars across it and I used to get up there and stand. I could watch out the window. I used to stand up there all day practically.