Part 4 - Nominal Roll All AIF POW "Evades" in Switzerland
Chapter 4 - The Ninth Division
The 20th Brigade
The three battalions making up the 20th Brigade were the 2/13th, the 2/15th and the 2/17th under the command of Brigadier J.J. Murray, "a commander of great imagination and genial temperament, who endeared himself to both his officers and men". The 2/15th was recruited in Queensland, the 2/13th and the 2/17th both in NSW.
As with the 26th Brigade, the 20th had been divorced from the 7th Division and had only been in Palestine for a few months whilst the 24th Brigade had only been there for one month. While the 18th Brigade who had conquered Giarabub still retained their Sixth Division rectangular colour patches, the newly-formed 9th Division, with round colour patches supposedly lacked "Divisional Pride". But this was soon to be rectified. The troops had been trained well, but the officers and their staffs had not been trained in battle management (A3 p11).
General Moreshead in command of the 9th Division was also one infantry battalion short of full strength only two of the 24th Brigade having arrived, the 2/28th and the 2/43rd. The third, the 2/25th, was still in Darwin. It was to be replaced by the 2/32nd.
The 20th Brigade was the first to move westwards into the desert from Palestine. They ended up in Cyrenaic province. The Sixth Division which had captured Cyrenaica were pulled back (to go to Greece in late February, 1941).
By and large, the bulk of AIF POW in Italy were from 20th-24th-26th Brigades, Ninth Division, casualties from North Africa, whilst AIF POW in Germany were from 16th - 17th - 18th and 19th Brigades of Sixth Division, casualties from Greece and Crete.
The fortunes of war saw the 2/13th Battalion lose 88 POW to the Germans, (18 in Switzerland), the 2/15th 170 (40 in Switzerland) and the 2/17th 18 (2 in Switzerland).
Many were lost in the "Benghazi Handicap", the retreat into Tobruk in the face of the fierce Rommel onslaught which snared the two English Generals, Neame and O'Connor, in an ambush off the inland track from Derna to Mecheli, on 7 April 1941. To these were added later casualties from the fierce fighting around El Alamein.
2/13th Infantry Battalion
B27 "Bayonets Abroad" - Benghazi to Borneo with the 2/13th Battalion 1940-1945, G.H. Fearnside Ed. 1953. 1993 Second Edition Reprinted John Burridge, Perth.
2/15th Infantry Battalion
B28 "Let Enemies Beware" (Caveant Hostes). The History ot the 2/15th Battalion 1940 -1945. Ron Austin, Melbourne, 1996. ISBN 0646215949
2/17th Infantry Battalion
B29 "What We Have We Hold" - History of the 2/17th Australian Infantry Battalion 1940/45. Bruce Trebeck, Phil Pike, John Broadbent, Ray Rudkin (Eds.) Balgowlah, NSW, undated.
2/13th Infantry Battalion
B27 "Bayonets Abroad" - Benghazi to Borneo with the 2/13th Infantry Battalion, G.H. Fearnside Ed. 1953. Second Edition Reprinted John Burridge, Perth.
F47 "We Had Some Bother", Ed. Hugh Gillan, 1985. ISBN 0959554017
G14 "Half to Remember", G.H. Fearnside, 1975. ISBN 0909918066
G1 "4 Packs to Freedom" - The story of Basil Brundell-Woods MM.
G2 "A Long Time", A.G "Jim" Kinder, 1996. ISBN 1740181751
G25 " Soldiers Odyssey" R.B. "Bones" Jones (unfinished)
Of the 88 POW of the 2/13th Infantry Battalion lost to the Germans, nearly all were taken at the battle of Er Regima, East of Benghazi in April, 1941. 16 wounded men lost their lives when the ship "Chakdina" taking them back to Alexandria was torpedoed and sunk on December 5, 1941 (see Transport of POW). They were:
NX19455 Pte B.N. Adamson
NX16614 L/Cpl R.J. Bantin
NX18067 Cpl Philip Costello
NX36557 Pte Austin Michael Crawford
NX15037 Cpl F.A. Davis
NX16532 Cpl A.W. Duff
NX24586 Pte C.E. Elliot
NX36789 Pte Kenneth Fisher
NX23202 Pte Bruce Glass
NX21147 Pte Francis J. Hockey
NX16303 Pte Ernest A. Oliver
NX16663 Pte Raymond Ryan
NX35464 Pte James Scott
NX36543 Cpl Arthur James Sheather
NX15684 Pte Harold Smith
NX36244 Pte William A. Venable
A good general account of the involvement of the 2/13th in the battles of El Alamein is given in Chapter 14 of "Half to Remember" by G.H. Fearnside G14.
18 POW managed to escape when Italy surrendered and get to Switzerland.
These included two officers - Lieutenants Donald Alexander McDonald and Harold Peterson - both of whom were among the 50 British officers who escaped from the "Moosburg Express", the train taking them from their camp at Bologna to Germany.
Don McDonald reached safety shortly after he escaped from that train, reaching Switzerland on September 20, 1943, but Harold Peterson remained in Italy with partisan forces and chose a far more difficult route of entry into Switzerland when the Germans began to close in on him and his co-escaper, English Lieutenant, James Riccomini. They reached Switzerland on October 10, 1944 by which time winter had really set in.
Clive "Count" Jagoe was also captured in the fighting around Er Regima and spent two and a half years in various Italian POW camps before reaching Switzerland a few days after Don McDonald.
Cpl Ron "Bones" Jones didn't hang around his work camp IO6 "Casa L'Rossa" very long either after the Italian guards had deserted it. A member of the RAA in the regular army before he also enlisted in the AIF, he too, headed north to Switzerland and after some hiking reached the village of Parogna, where a mixed group of on-the-run POWs, Italian deserters and local patriots were forming the nucleus of a partisan band. The group was surprised and overpowered by a strong German patrol but "Bones" was able to escape with another Australian, Gordon Putland, of the 2/28th Infantry Battalion. After another foray to join a partisan band called "Dante's" Partisans, operating north of Biella, they returned to Ivrea and then made their way further North to Aosta. They finally crossed into Switzerland on October 28, 1943, east of the Grand St. Bernard Pass, with another Australian (see the story of Ted Kent 2/3rd Anti-Tank).
Harold Petersen's story is typical of the initative and quick decision-making that had to be confronted by the AIF POW, who had no orders to guide them, no real knowledge of the terrain through which they had to move, but were determined not to be taken prisoner a second time by the Germans.
"Bones" Jones's story well illustrates the mateship built up between members of different units whose POW experiences brought them close together.
But is the book by Arthur "Jim" Kinder titled "A Long Time" G2 - the story of "Adam Lockyer" which while fictionalised, gives perhaps the best overall account of an AIF POW escapee, who chose to direct his freedom towards Switzerland and how he adapted to the life of an "evade'" in that neutral country.
B. Brudenell-Woods' exploits in escaping from a German POW camp earned him the MM and have been the subject of a book G1 "4 Packs to Freedom" written by a niece in Canada. However he is not included in the nominal roll of the "representatives" of the 2/13th in Switzerland as his escape to freedom did not bring him to Switzerland (for a brief resume of his story see p.86 of "Bayonets Abroad").
Acknowledgements and Thanks to:
NX15573 Ronald "Bones" Jones 2/13th Inf Bn
Cpl Ron "Bones" Jones was a member of the regular Australian army before he enlisted in the AIF joining the 2/13th Infantry Batallion. Lt Harold Peterson was his platoon commander.
He was drafted out from Campo 57 Gruppignano to one of the Vercelli area working camps - Casa L'Rossa - south of Vercelli near the town of Sala. He escaped on the signing of the Italian armistice, together with a camp-mate from the 2/28th Battalion, Gordon Putland.
Their initial decision was to stay on in Italy in their area and join a partisan group. After making contact with a British soldier they finally joined a group at Parogna south of the textile town of Biella. Their group was surprised by German troops but "Bones" and Gordon managed to escape. They teamed up with another Australian "on the loose" Ted Kent of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank,and eventually got to Ivrea in a three wheel ute under a load of hay. Finally they reached Aosta, well up in the mountains near the Swiss border. There, they joined another partisan group.
By this time "Bones" was fluent in Italian and the trio had decided to try and get into Switzerland over the Alps. They were joined by an Italian army lieutenant known as "Beppo" at a Monastery which acted as the centre for their local partisan group who agreed to guide them to Switzerland.
They crossed the border at Mont Velan, some 11,000 feet high, avoiding the German guards at the more accessible pass at Grand St. Bernard and were eventually picked up by Swiss border guards who after looking after them in their own quarters, took them to the Swiss town of Bourg St. Pieres for further interrogation. Then to Osiers where "Beppo" had to leave them and finally to the large town of Brig escorted by a Swiss Officer to a quarantine camp. After 14 days there, they were finally brought to a British camp for "evades" at Dergesheim. Their official date of arrival in Switzerland was October 28, 1943.
"Bones" later moved to the skiing camp at Adelboden and when the season finished, remained there with some other Australians and South Africans at the "Rosenlavi" school of mountaineering. There they were given top tuition at this school where Hillary had trained for his attempts on Mt. Everest.
Eventually when summer arrived, "Bones " was moved to a camp at Elsauer, above Lake Geneva and finally to the British Legation in Bern as an interpreter where he spent the last three month in Switzerland before he was repatriated on September 26, 1944
NX34922 Lt Donald Alexander McDonald 2/13th Inf Bn
When transport orders to move POW were drawn up, the "luck of the draw" frequently split up friends. While many close mateships originated from membership of the same unit, other equally close friendships were forged from subsequent shared experiences.
This is exemplified by the pairing of the officers ex the "The Moosburg Express". The "luck of the draw" saw Fred Eggleston paired with "Sandy" Mair who escaped together and likewise Don McDonald and Bob Donnan. And all four arrived in Switzerland on the same day - September 20, 1943.
Bob Donnan was a friend of Geoff Chinchen and they managed to stick together in the same cattle wagon, but Bob's turn to escape came before that of Geoff and Athol Hunter who had been drawn together. The evidence seems to point to the pairing of Donald McDonald of the 2/13th and Bob Donnan of the 2/15th together for the jump.
Lt. Harold Peterson, a fellow officer from the 2/13th, escaped with an English officer Lt James Riccomini, whom he had only vaguely known in Sulmona.
But although they arrived together on the same day, they had different duties in different camps in Switzerland and when it came time to leave Don McDonald, who had been appointed Werlfare Officer for all Australian "evades", left on the first draft on September 23, 1944, while Bob Donnan left a week later on October 1, 1944.
Every one of the 11 AIF officers however came together at the wedding of "Barney" Grogan of the 2/23rd Inf Bn to Marguerite Christ of Therwil, in Arosa.
NX12414 Lt Harold Andrew Peterson MBE 2/13 Inf Bn
Harold Peterson was one of the officers also being transported to Germany from the Camp at Bologna on the "Moosburg Express". He jumped from his wagon two hours before dawn, two minutes after English Lieutenant James Riccomini. In accordance with a previous arrangement, they met up with eachother and headed for the mountains above the town of Trento. Meeting up with two Italian ex-officers, Alberto Sanchi and Rinaldo Analdi, they joined an embryonic partisan group based around the village of Fara, some 15 miles north of the provincial town of Vicenza. Their partisan group grew and flourished under control of its executive command based in Padua.
About the middle of October they received a message from the resistance Headquarters there, that Riccomini was to be withdrawn, but that Peterson was to stay on in an advisory capacity. Riccomini however, whose mastery of the local Italian dialect was increasing every day, decided to remain at his own request.
The resistance movement around Fara was becoming increasingly well organised and efficient, with a most effective local intelligence service which was hiding some 20 British POW, providing them with sustenance and a health support of doctors and dentists.
Such was their growing nuisance to the Germans, that they arranged for a "rastrallamento" centred on Fara in early December, just when the partisan executive had arranged for an air-drop of arms, supplies and explosives. They were betrayed by a German agent posing as a representative of the Swiss Red Cross and the Germans flung two whole battalions into the area around Fara. Arnaldi's sister arrived with news that resistance headquarters in Padua had also been flushed out and this successful German "rastrallamento" had effectively wiped out the partisan organisation in that district.
Riccomini and Peterson were now badly wanted men with a high reward on their heads, and despite local advice decided to clear out the British POW to Switzerland. They decided to make the journey themselves first to map out the best route and set up guides, pass over their intelligence reports and maps they had, and return for the POW. Let Harold Peterson take up the story in his own words:
"We moved from Fara on the evening of the 8th of January. We were stopped once by a patrol just north of Vicenza, but when they noticed our smart clothes and Fascist badges, they waved us on with good wishes. There was a check in progress at the station when we arrived, but once again our clothes and our seemingly confident bearing, passed us through with no more than a cursory glance at our papers.
"As darkness fell, we boarded an already overcrowded train. I found myself in a compartment full of German soldiers, all very noisy and more than a little drunk. They asked me some very searching questions about my supposed military service, why I was in civilian clothes etc. and I was very glad when I found an opportunity to move out into the corridor.
"We stopped for an hour outside Verona while the Americans bombed the town. While we waited the guard came aroung examining papers and tickets. I was amazed to see Ricky holding the torch of the inspecting officer and singing - singing all the time - soft Italian songs learnt in the mountains, which invoked immediate response from the passengers.
"At Milan we changed trains and the irrepressible Zanchi, commandeering a compartment, stuck labels on the windows reading "Reserved for German Officers Only". We arrived at Como on the Swiss border without having been interrupted. That night we spent with friends and the next morning contacted the local partisan group to investigate the rumours that there were American parachutists in the area. I found the partisans I met to be unreliable and untrustworthy. They told us torrid stories of the dangers waiting us if we adhered to our original plans and offered to row us across the lake into Switzerland. On Zanchi's advice we pretended to accept this offer, but the following day we were on our way to Biancina. The date was the tenth of January.
"At Biancina we were met by armed partisans according to plan and climbed a thousand feet or so to a little mountain village. Here, inside the church, we met our guide, and for two hours we discussed the plans for the movement of the British escapees. About 6 o,clock in the evening we said goodbye to Mary Arnaldi and commenced to climb. About one o'clock the following morning we had a narrow escape from a ski patrol, and about half past three we crossed the Swiss border at approximately 12,000 feet above sea level. I was too exhilarated to feel tired, but I was terribly thirsty. We had been severely warned about eating snow on such a climb. At about half past five in the morning we sighted a valley below, which seemed to us to be a blaze of lights - the first night lights I had seen in three years. By ten o'clock that morning we were in the valley and walked to the gate dividing Switzerland from Italy. There we stood and gloated over the German sentries. A Swiss sergeant approached us and in a friendly way, said "English eh? You must be hungry"."
Lieutenant Peterson and Lieutenant Riccimoni passed into Swiss Army Statistics as having entered Switzerland on January 10, 1944.
There were only 8 more Australian escapees to trickle in to Switzerland that winter.
2/15th Infantry Battalion
B28 "Let Enemies Beware", "Caveant Hostes", Ron Austin, Slouch Hat Publications, 1995. ISBN 0646215949
"Part of World War Two" QX5457 G. Alford
G12 "Freedom" QX13419 "Fred" Brockel
G20 "My Experiences as a POW" QX5417 Jim Wilson
"Journal of the 2/15th Battalion", stories by Bob Cowie, Bert Lockie, "Snowy" Drew.
The official Unit History does not provide a nominal roll of its POW, but does devote Chapter 7 "In Captivity" to some of their stories.
The unit lost 170 members in the Western Desert campaigns, which included the battles associated with the Benghazi Handicap, Tobruk and El Alamein. The majority were lost on April 7, 1941 in the debacle on the Derna Road. Most of them ended up in Italian POW camps, being later joined by those taken by the Germans during the siege of Tobruk and the battles at El Alamein.
When the Armistice between the Italian and Allied armies was promulgated on September 9, 1943, QX2991 Lt Bob Donnan was in an officers camp at Bologna whilst other ranks were either in the large concentration camp at Gruppignano or at various working camps in the Vercelli area. Bob was an escapee from the "Moosburg Express".
Those who were at Gruppignano, were swiftly surrounded by Germans and ended up as German POW in Germany or its satellites. Those in the various working camps in most cases found themselves "free" with the choices of staying put there and merging into the Italian landscape until collected by the Allies, heading South to Allied lines, or North to neutral Switzerland.
QX5456 George Alford was among the 44 2/15th POW to reach Switzerland.
QX6959 "Snowy" Drew chose with Bert Lockie to go South where they successfully reached Allied Lines.
QX8577 L/Cpl Allen Gomersall, after spending some months on the loose in the North Italian mountains, joined the Italian partisans operating in the Biella area and finally the British Mission "Cherokee" which eventually accepted the German surrender in that area.
QX7984 Bill Powell and QX10626 "Happy" Hungerford finished up crossing the Alps to France and to the American lines.
QX5753 Sgt Ted Triffett, no mention of whom apears in "Let Enemies Beware" B28, made it to Switzerland and married there (see "Love Knows No Borders" ).
With acknowledgments and Thanks to:
Kathy Brockel and Dave Sheath
QX5456 George Alford 2/15th Inf Bn
In his manuscript "Part of World War II", George Alford, "Mac" in "Fred" Brockels book "Freedom" G12, tells of his decision to escape across the Alps in the following words:
"After 14 months on the run, living on handouts and sleeping in hay lofts, we decided to take on the ever-challenging Alps. The group consisted of two other 2/15th members, Bill Powell and Frank Hungerford, five members of 2/28th Battalion, four out of the 2/24th Battalion and a few Frenchmen wanting to get back to France ... It was now the third week in October and winter was approaching ... we were told by some partisans that two trucks were leaving for Valsavaranche after lunch and we would be able to get a lift ...
We set off in two big "Mack" trucks with high sides and it was to be a nerve-wracking ride. The truck that I was on was driven by an ex-Italian soldier who had been wounded in the desert in the early part of the war, and like most Italian drivers, he was a speedster. The road was really only a narrow shelf around these huge mountains, with many hair-pin bends where the driver would slow down. Even the sides of the truck would be hitting against the side of the mountain and if you looked out on the other side all you could see was space, which meant it was a long way to the bottom.
We were very pleased after about two and a half hours of this hair-raising travel to arrive at Valsavranche, where there was another group of partisans who had been in contact with American Alpine troops, and who had been receiving supplies by parachute, and for the first time we were able to sample American "K" rations.
The best part of the day had gone and the next stages would be fairly hazardous, so we decided to wait over till next day as we were getting deep into the uninhabited Italian Gran Paradiso ... we got an early start and we were now in permanent snow country ... the going was fairly slow ... in some places the snow was waist deep and in spots half way up to our armpits. This made progress extremely slow and it meant that the man in front had to scrape the snow away with his hands and then tread it down with his feet as long as he could and then lean to the side and the man behind would take over. This was the only way we could move forward and this went on for hours ... the time up in the snow had affected some of us more than others, depending on what sort of footwear you had - six of us found our boots, socks and feet were just one frozen block ...
Finally our guide pointed to a peak which only appeared to be half a mile away - was probably further - and said it was Truc Blanc, a mountain according to the maps about 3,500 metres high, so we were well up. Our spirits were now starting to lift, although the ones with affected feet knew they would only be able to travel for a limited period but at the time things were going along OK. About 3 o'clock in the afternoon we came onto some tank tracks ... and it was not long before two tanks appeared and fortunately they were American ... that was it - after so many years on the wrong side of activities, we were back with the Allies. It was a feeling that it would be very difficult to put into writing".
QX13418 Frederick Dawson Brockel 2/15th Inf Bn
In his book "Freedom" G12, written but unpublished, Fred Brockel eloquently traces the difficulties of his time "on the loose" in North Italy, the friendship and physical sustenance and support given to him by the Italians civilians fighting against the Germans and Fascists. In particular one family of sharehold farmers, the Grosso family, who paid with their lives for this support.
The Grosso's farmed a property off the banks of the canal running through the town of Santhia. The family consisted of Guissepe Grosso and his wife Amelia, their daughter Maria, and their son Antonio. Politically they could be best described as Royalists.
The leader of a resistance group formed around Santhia was the local Doctor, and the movement's field commander was a deserter from the Italian army, "Gigi". As it was becoming increasingly dangerous for the civilian population to harbour any allied POW so Guissepe Grosso arranged for a camouflaged dugout to be built near the canal among a group of trees, for Fred Brockel and his companions George Alford and Roy Devine of the 2/15th and Ricky Brown of the 2/28th (?). They were told to keep indoors during the day, go out for exercise in the countryside during the night, but not to come into the town unless told to do so. Alfredo - "a special man" would soon be coming to lead them to the Swiss border.
Among the local Fascists was an avid POW hunter, nicknamed "Scarface" because of a large and disfiguring scar running across his chin. Unbeknown to Fred and his friends, a similar dugout had been constructed further down the canal and three other Australians were being hidden and cared for in that spot. Somehow "Scarface" had found out about it and mounted a raid on it and the Grosso farmhouse. The raiding party shot the 3 Australians and also machine-gunned Guissepe and Amelia Grosso to death. Maria, then 14, and Antonio then 22, were both away at the time and so escaped execution. A little later, Fred and his party were also rounded up and taken to the nearby prison in Vercelli, which was the assembly point for POW being "gathered in".
"Gigi" had been a Captain in the Italian army, and the "special man" turned out to be his batman "Alfredo". Maria and Antonio immediately joined them as partisans. They decided to mount a raid on the Vercelli prison and their well-made plan succeeded brilliantly. They were able to team up with another partisan group of some 10 men lead by "Butch" Jocumsen who was known to them as "Frank L'Australiano" and planned to ambush a German patrol that regularly scoured the neighbourhood. Again their plan was brilliantly conceived and executed. "Gigi" killed "Scarface" to avenge the elder Grossos. But Antonio Grosso was killed in this action.
"Alfredo" then guided a group of POW over to Monte Rosa, part of the border between Switzerland and Italy for a crossing under cover of darkness. Fred and Maria had become very close, but had to part at the border. She had relatives in Allessandrio and it was decided she would go and live with them. However in the very act of crossing the border, Fred and his mates ran into a patrol of 5 Germans and had to kill them all before they could cross the border to the lights of Switzerland blazing in the valley below. After interrogation by Swiss border guards, Fred was sent to the Swiss POW camp at Heiden.
QX13679 Alfred Raymond Cotterell 2/15th Inf Bn
The Italian surrender in 1943 provided Ray Cotterell with his friend QX1994 Cecil George Nott a chance to get into Switzerland. They exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothes and Ray who had a smattering of Italian undertook to purchase some tickets on a train whose destination was Switzerland.
The train duly arrived and they seated themselves with the knowledge that the train was full of German soldiers. Seated opposite Ray were two young Italian girls who kept pointing to their feet - indicating that it was their English military boots that were a dangerous giveaway. With conversation in half English and half Italian and plenty of hand gesturing, Ray and his mates were given to understand that the girls would accompany them through the ticket barrier on arrival at the Swiss border. However, when told that other escapees on the train had the same intention that idea was scrapped.
They then formed the idea that the girls were part of an underground organisation when, after walking to the front of the train, they returned to explain that when the train slowed down on a steep climb, the driver would give three blasts on the whistle - a signal for the escapees to jump off the train. This signal duly arrived and they hopped off and immediately dived for cover, but to their consternation, from the girls came "Buona fortuna Aussie" (good luck Aussies) as they waited for the expected volley of bullets to come from the train ("Let Enemies Beware" B28 p202-3).
Rays party now numbered 11 soldiers and they reached an Alpine village from here they were given a guide to reach the border. After 4 days of walking, they crossed over the Swiss border on Ocober 7, 1943.
Australians in his party included:
QX1994 Cecil George Nott 2/15th
NX9065 Ray Hood 2/28th
VX1266 William Charles Doig 2/2nd RAE
VX44067 William "Ned" Inglis 2/3 LAA
VX16600 Kenneth Calder 6 Div AASC
VX21603 Norman Colson 2/3 LAA
The "camps" AIF escapees were directed to in Switzerland, were not military internment camps as such, but civilian accommodation in schools, gymnasiums, private hotels, etc. Ray and his party were first in the village of Gondo, and then to the larger centre of Wald to the north-east of Zurich.
Their accommodation, clothing and meals were free, and their pay allowance - 15 Swiss francs per week - was enough for them to pay for entrance to a cinema, and buy a few luxuries such as a round of drinks at the local pub.
The local Swiss were generous with their hospitality and they were responsible for maintaining their own discipline and curfew through their own Camp Leader, generally a British Officer working in conjunction with the local Swiss Commandant. Within curfew they were allowed to wander around their immediate surroundings and could easily obtain permission to visit other mates and friends in other areas. Certainly there was no barbed wire!
QX2991 Lt Robert Stanton Donnan 2/15th Bn
The 2/15th Inf Bn was formed in May 1940 at Red Bank, Queensland.
Bob Donnan joined as a Lieutenant and was among the first intake of Officers present at the inaugural Battalion Parade held on May 25, I940.
He was to become one of the victims of the "Benghazi Handicap" on April 7, 1941 along with Colonel Marlan, 7 other officers and 155 men at El Gazala.
Bob Donnan was taken to Italy on the liner "Marco Polo" and then to Campo 78, Sulmona a large camp of some 4,000 POW, including many officers and nearly all the Australian ones.
After the Allied landings in Sicily and Southern Italy, most of these officers were moved to Campo 19 in Northern Italy. Several months later on September 3, 1943, the armistice between the Allies and the Italians was signed secretely and promulgated on September 9. This gave the Germans time to evacuate many POW to Germany and Bob Donnan was among the Australian officers loaded on to the infamous "Moosburg Express" in the same cattle wagon as his friend Fl/Lt Geoff Chinchen. In fact, each wagon on this train housed a potential Australian escape party,and when it finally arrived at Moosberg, it was 103 POW short! (see B28 p180 - "Caveant Hostes - Let Enemies Beware").
Not all of these escapees secured their freedom, and some only after many hard experiences on the way. Lt Edwin Paul of the 2/3rd Pioneers jumped the fence of the marshalling yards at Modena where the train was being assembled and disappeared into the street, bobbing up in Switzerland some months later. 50 other POW from the train also made it to Switzerland, including the following Australian officers:
Captain Jack Kroger 9 Div HQ
Lt Barney Grogan 2/23rd Inf Bn
Lt John Morish 2/3rd Fld Rgt RAA
Lt Don MacDonald 2/13th Inf Bn
Lt Harry Peterson 2/13th Inf Bn
Lt Tom Elliot 2/12th Inf Bn
Lt "Sandy" Mair 2/24th Inf Bn
Lt Bob Jones 2/8th Inf Bn (Shown as HQ 19th Inf Brig)
Lt Frank Sharp 2/3rd A Tank Rgt and his son, Gnr, Keith Sharp, his Batman.
Fl/Lt Bob Jones RAAF
Fl/Lt Fred Eggleston RAAF
Their number was to increase to 13, when Fl/Lt Geoff Chinchen, RAAF and Lt Athol Hunter 2/6th Inf Bn finally escaped from Fort Bismark, a transit camp on the way to Moosburg and reached Switzerland on November 18, 1943, after spending many weeks with the French Resistance in the area of Strasbourg near the Swiss border.
QX5733 Sgt Edgar Triffett 2/15th Inf Bn
Although a Sergeant, Ted Triffett volunteered for work within the Campo 106 working complex and was drafted to 106/Tronzano - Vercellese. He managed to escape from his work camp before the Armistice was signed and headed for the Swiss border but returned to the Vercelli area when that was signed, and made contact again with other inmates of his camp. In the confusion that followed the end of the war between Italy and the Allies, the Italian resistance movement was composed mainly of local groups of partisans, with virtually no lateral communication with other local groups. Such local partisan groups were not controlled by anybody except their own leaders, and as often or not, only partially controlled by them. Some were controlled by militant communists, some by Royalist ex-officers, and some merely by local patriots.
Ted Triffett joined a party of partisans who were grouping at a monastery, the Santuario d'Oropa a local landmark a few miles north of the provincial town of Biella. Ted and his party stayed there for 9 days, but when food ran out he gave his party the choice of remaining with the partisans to fight on, or else coming with him to Switzerland. The majority chose Switzerland and he lead a party of 20 POW to the St. Bernard Pass, but left them to cross the border while he returned to rejoin the partisans at the Santuario where abut 400 men were based. However, the Germans raided it in October and captured most of them. Ted managed to escape but was caught a few days later with two New Zealanders he had met roaming around the hills. They were put on a truck with a driver and guard and returned to Vercelli which was now an assembly point for re-captured Allied POW.
When the driver sent the guard away to seek directions, they took the chance to scatter. Ted hid in a hay shed until the coast was clear and then returned to the Santuario where he found about 80 partisans who had re-assembled there. But they were again short of food and ammunition and so Ted left the Biella area and went via Aosta over the Petit San Bernard Pass around the West side of Chamonix, reaching the Swiss frontier near Martigny on October 20, 1943. Ted had hoped to get help or the partisans while in Switzerland and then return to them. He found however that he could not do so and had to remain in Switzerland until he was repatriated on November 16, 1944, after the main body of AIF POW had been repatriated in September of that year. The reason was that he had suffered facial injuries received from a broken bottle wielded by a British "evade" who resisted Ted and a Swiss guard trying to return him to his camp after curfew. These injuries affected his eyesight. He also received a broken jaw and kneecap in the brawl. He was kept back in Switzerland on medical grounds, but reached the AIF Reception Camp at Eastbourne in Sussex on November 24, 1944.
Unfortunately he did not keep the names of his helpers and those he helped on his various travels, although he did report when interrogated in England, that a WX12725 Pte Claude Webb of the 2/28th Inf Bn had remained in Vercelli on false papers issued by his former work camp commandant. He described Webb as speaking Italian and looking like an Italian. Claude Webb was acting as a "passeur" to get British escapees into Switzerland and was in fact working for John Peck. Webb was later captured by the Germans and was last seen in Fossoli Concentration Camp (see "A Strange Alliance", Absalom, F2 p58).
QX5417 James Alexander Wilson 2/15th Inf Bn
"Late March, 1941, saw the Allied Forces in North Africa begin their retreat before a greatly re-inforced German/Italian Force. Along with Headquarters 2/15th, I went as far as El Agheila, the turning point from which our forces began to retreat into Tobruk. I was taken prisoner when our section was surrounded by German tanks outside Derna on the morning of 7 April, 1941. We were kept 2 nights out in the desert and then taken to Derna. The Germans called for volunteers to work at the airfields. A few of us went, thinking there might be a better chance to escape. Italian civilians threw bottles, stones and hand grenades at us with every opportunity. I received injuries to my left leg when a hand grenade exploded near me. I was given first aid treatment well, as much as could be given with inadequate medical supplies.
"The following day we were all loaded aboard trucks and buses and taken back through Benghazi, El Agheila and along the coast to Tripoli. I came near to being shot by a guard at Benghazi when I could not stand up because of my leg injuries. The doctor intervened and told him to put the gun away. I spent a week or so in an Italian Military Hospital. I had no complaints about the medical treatment but the food situation left much to be desired. Hygiene and sanitation was poor too and for the first time in my life I experienced bed bugs. I was guarded day and night by an armed guard.
"From hospital I was sent by truck to Sabrantha camp, on the road to Tunis, about 20 miles out of Tripoli. The camp had high stone walls, topped by broken glass. I spent 4 days here and it was certainly a shock to the system - I had only my battledress, having lost my greatcoat on being captured, had to sleep on a mat on the concrete floor, no blankets, no other covering and extremely cold nights.
"Our guards here were German, not Italians as previously, of the sadistic, heel-clicking Nazi type. Life soon became a nightmare. Each morning, sick or otherwise, we were roused out between 4 and 5 in the morning by the guards - at one stage, it was 2.30 to 3 am to load supplies for their front lines or unload and stack goods. Breakfast was a cup of substitute black coffee, a small portion of black bread and, if lucky, a spoonful of artificial jam (made by pouring water on a powder). Parade and roll call came next, and we were drafted into small parties, which proceeded to the camp gate where we were issued with our lunch, a small bun of bread and a tin of sardines. Later as food supplies became scarce, this was shared by two people.
"We did not have any means of washing our clothing or ourselves. No way either of eradicating the bugs and lice that plagued us. We weren't allowed to receive or send mail nor did we have any contact with the Red Cross.
My weight dropped from twelve and a half stone to eight.
"I was a POW".
Memories of the Allied victories of a few months earlier rankled with the local Italian civilians in North Africa. Jim Wilson was on construction work at the Derna Airfield.
After spending two months in an Italian military hospital, Jim Wilson was transferred to Sabrantha camp outside Tripoli for four days and then to another work camp in Tripoli, where he chummed up with Eric Edwards of the 2/24th Inf Bn. Conditions in this camp were harsh.
"Life soon became a nightmare. Each morning, sick or otherwise, we were roused out at between 4 and 5 am by German guards. Breakfast was a cup of substitute black coffee, a small portion of black bread and if lucky, a spoonful of artificial jam (made by pouring water on a powder). Parade and roll call next, and we were drafted into small parties which proceeded to the camp gate where we were issued with our lunch- a small bun of bread and a tin of sardines. Later as food supplies became scarce, this was shared by two people.
"We were employed on docks, ammunition dumps, and if lucky, a food dump, where we could scrounge all we dared and woebetide anybody getting caught! We sabotaged all we could, such as loosening, instead of tightening the bungs on fuel drums. The guards threatened us what they would do if we were caught, and fired shots over our heads to deter us. Our sabotage efforts helped keep up morale.
"From Tripoli, I was shipped to Italy and on to Camp Servigliano PG 49, on the east coast of Italy, just south of Ancona early in February, 1942.
"I was now, for the first time in a camp which recognised the Red Cross. Next morning I was able to have a hot shower, my first in nearly a year. Our clothes were put through a delouser. This killed the then alive lice, but served to hatch their eggs the sooner. We were allotted a bunk and hut number and this was branded on our clothes.
"Later that day we were lined up and received a Red Cross parcel. It was like Christmas morning when we were kids. In spite of advice to the contrary some set to and didn't stop eating until they had eaten the lot. One chap sat up half the night licking out his tins until his mates theatened to throw him and his tins out. Many were ill afterwards - not accustomed to so much food. The camp was still not very organised and we did not get another parcel until May or thereabouts.
"Italy was being hard-pressed at this time, and food was scarce indeed - a cup of substitute coffee for breakfast, a small bun and onion, or a small piece of cheese for lunch, and at night a ladle of macaroni or rice soup. At our first meeting with Red Cross representatives we surrounded them and plagued them with complaints. It still took quite a long time before conditions improved any. Attempts were made to escape by tunnelling and removing window shutters, etc. At one stage the tunnel was discovered the night before breakthrough. The Italian Commandant even congratulated us on our ingenuity!
"It was at this camp I met some Cypriot POWs. One, Joakin Panayi, wrote after the war and begged me to nominate him to Australia. With some apprehension I did so and he was to prove a very good, hardworking immigrant and a friend to all my family. As I could hair-cut and shave, I voluntarily did this and there was a line-up from 8am to 5 pm each day.
"Next milestone was the receipt of mail from home. This was a great day, even though the letters were about a year old. It was over a year since we'd been captured. Later, next-of-kin parcels began to arrive, and that made us feel much better. We were not forced to do any work, other than what we did voluntarily, such as my barbering. Some helped with cooking, cleaning etc. Some wrote poetry:
I always think of food in Aussie
For I've nothing else to do,
Then my back starts itching
For the lice are starving too.
"Some of the British got a concert going. Frankie Howerd, whom I've seen of recent years on TV, was one of them.
"There were only about 100 Australians in this camp of over 5,000 and we learned that most of our mates, sent over to Italy earlier, were in a camp in the north of Italy. We asked to be sent there, and on 3 July, 1942 we left Servigliano, via Florence, Turin and Milan to Udine, near the Yugoslav border.
PG 57 Gruppignano - Udine and PG 106 Vercelli - Working Camps
"Udine turned out to be the best camp of all. Welfare and recreation were better organised. We could play cricket or football and the inevitable cards. No-one even stopped us playing "two-up". Some organisation donated musical instruments and for a time we had our own band and put on a couple of concerts. Unfortunately these instruments were soon taken from us as part punishment for some attempted escapes. Some did make it out of the camp but were caught and punished. A New Zealander was shot attempting to get through the wire. An Australian was later shot at this same camp but after I had been sent to a working camp at Vercelli. For any attempt the whole camp was penalised. Men were put into the camp jail for quite trivial offences. There was always that tension, that fear of what would happen next.
"POWs from compounds in North Africa, men who had been captured at Alamein arrived at the camp and among them was Ted Cox of Maleny (my home town). They were a pitiful sight - starved and badly needing medical treatment. Some did not make the grade. In March 1943, a call was made for volunteers to work on the rice fields. Most of us refused, considering it would help the Italian war effort. Then it was made compulsory if we passed a medical examination.
"On 25 April, 1943, a train load of us made the 15 hour journey in cattle trucks from Udine to Vercelli, and then our group of 40 marched to the small village of Carpanetto, to be billetted at a farm managed by the Peno Brothers. Carpanetto is between Milan and Turin. Here we were split into 3 groups, again, each directed to work on a different farm. Other groups of approximately 40 were sent to other farms. Here again, I worked as a blacksmith while the rest were out in the fields, not always as useful to the farmer as they were supposed to be. For this work we were paid 3 lire a day - just chits to that value, not Italian money - nowhere to spend it anyway. It was here that John "Paddles" Law of the 2/15th Inf Bn was shot whilst attempting to escape. Half-a-dozen of us were allowed to attend his funeral as pall-bearers. "Titch" Messenger followed with a huge wreath he had to look through. A 2/13th Sergeant took the purple ribbon from the wreath and sent it to "Paddles" parents in Sydney.
"Whilst working in the blacksmiths shop, I had made contact with civilians and been able to exchange my clothing bit by bit and had been paid for small jobs I'd done for them so that when I escaped, I had enough civilian clothes and money to get by with. Also I was well sun-tanned and learnt sufficient Italian to pass for one of them.
"I had been told of the Allied landing in the south of Italy, and both the guards and civilians were apprehensive about the future. One day in early September I was told not to go to work and was taken by a guard (walking along the canal) to another camp in a nearby village. Here I found POWs who had been earlier volunteers to work, locked in a building. I don't know what became of the rest of my group at that particular time as I had worked alone at the blacksmith's shop and they in the fields These POW had been locked in for a couple of weeks. I did not take kindly to this and asked to see the CO. I was taken to him and to my surprise he was in civvies and spoke good English. I learned that he had just arrived too and was puzzled as any as to what was to be done about us. He was friendly anyway, and just wanted to talk about Australia.
"Then came the day when the guards downed their weapons, unlocked the doors and cleared off. The CO advised us to go south by an inland route, catching trains for short distances only. I'd sometimes walk to another station before boarding a train again.
"I had difficulty understanding the dialect of the south. There were a lot of German/Italian troops about and I could not seem to get on to anyone to get information from to get through the lines. I decided to return north. I had sufficient money. I stayed away from big cities and slept in haystacks, lofts and barns. On one occasion a farmer was just about to dig his fork into the hay where I was hidden. I threw the hay back and he staggered back in surprise. Fortunately he was sympathetic and gave me food. He was as glad to see me go, as I was to be gone. Rewards were being offered by both British and German governments for escaped POWs. The Germans were offering ready cash and this was always my greatest risk.
"From time to time, I met other POWs on the loose, but preferred to travel alone. When I got back into the Vercelli area, an Italian, himself trying to avoid Germans, helped me build a dugout in the side of a canal. One day I heard Aussie speech and found three Aussies on the other side of the canal. (There is a tremendous canal system through all this area, from the Po river). They wanted to go to Carpanetto so I went along to show them the way. Some distance on two Italian provosts jumped from behind a hedge, each with a revolver and a rifle aimed at us. I stopped promptly and was able to tell them we were on our way to Carpanetto. They let us go, but advised us to give ourselves up to the Germans. This, of course, we were not prepared to do.
"Another time I met three British heading south, and still in their uniforms. They thought they would be shot as spies if they were out of uniform. I even met deserting Italian soldiers making their way back to their homes. The Italian people were friendly but wary, knowing the Germans would deal harshly with the whole family, not just one member, if found helping us.
The weather was starting to get cool, and I decided to visit the farm manager where we had been billetted at Carpanetto.
"He and his wife had always been friendly to me. They invited me to their evening meal. They gave me money and two letters of introduction to contacts. I left after the meal, but saw that there was a light in the office of the other brothers home. He too invited me in and gave me some more money towards my rail fare. I caught a train that night from Vercelli to Domodossola. I talked to fellow passengers, mostly folks down from the mountain area for rice and grains. They advised me to be careful on the mountains, to keep my hands off the snow, and to keep my face away from the wind.
"I went to the Hotel at Domodossola, producing one of my letters of introduction. When I walked into the dining room there were 6 or 7 German officers dining. I was on the alert. I had a revolver and was prepared to use it if accosted. I'd brought a newspaper with me and pretended I was absorbed in that. No-one bothered me. I checked my room carefully and looked to see how far I'd have to jump from a balcony if need be. I was off at daylight, not even waiting for breakfast and caught a train on further north.
"Following the farm managers instructions, I left the train at a certain station (forgotten its name now) and again presented a letter of introduction at a hotel. The proprietor whisked me out the back and cared for me, sending his son to purchase my train ticket for that afternoon. I left the train at the last station in Italy (next stop would have been in Switzerland and there would have been German guards at the border). It was mid-afternoon as I walked out of the village and commenced my trek over the Alps. At first I had a small bitumen track to follow and I continued climbing even after dark. The moon had given me sufficient light to climb by. Before dark I looked down and saw vehicles which appeared no bigger than match boxes, so I must have been a fair height even then.
"I came across a small tunnel with a narrow gauge trolley line running through it. A man stood in a pill box, something like our telephone boxes, reading by the light of a candle. I spent some time checking carefully to see any silhouette of a guard at the other end, before sneaking past the candle lit box. Through the tunnel and off the track was a small village where people were singing and dancing.
"Continuing to climb on until early morning, I came across a farmhouse with a couple of small sheds. I made use of one to burn some leaves and twigs for warmth and had 40 winks. Daylight brought a little old lady, very annoyed because of the fire. She directed me to a track on up the mountain. Soon I could look down on a 50 or 60 acre flat and what appeared to be a guest house. I met and spoke to a chap who came from the guest house and he pointed up to where I needed to go, to be in Switzerland. I had to climb part of one mountain then cross over to the other. It didn't look all that far, but I walked all day before even meeting the snowline. I met a herd of quiet goats and milked one into a small jar I was carrying. I really enjoyed that glass of milk.
"The track divided. I took the left one as instructed. It was very narrow and needed all my concentration - one slip would have taken me down thousands of feet. I did slide about 20 feet down when making my way across to the second mountain - rubbed a hole through my pants and removed a piece of skin which took me nearly a year to heal.
"On reaching the top of the mountain there were the cement crosses marking the Swiss border! It was moonlight again and I saw a log cabin about 12' x 4'. I watched carefully for a time and as there was no movement about, I entered. I dossed down on the straw hoping to get some sleep, but it was full of fleas so needless to say, I did not get much sleep at all. It had taken me about 40 hours to reach the mountain top.
"I set off in the morning down a slope and met a Swiss guard with his Alsatian dog. Their uniform is similar to the German and I had a few anxious moments until I saw the white cross on his cap. He asked if I were Italian. When I said Australian he thought I said Austrian. When I said British he understood. He gave me coffee a sandwich and an apple which was very welcome. I'd run out of food.
"We set off down the mountain and I had difficulty keeping up with him. He had good strong spiked boots, and I only had shoes. We came on to the main road (Italy to Brig, Switzerland) and he took me to his headquarters. Across the road was a peacetime restaurant (now their canteen) with a big sign - "English Spoken". The local policeman arrived to see who I was and that evening took me for a meal to a restaurant. He said he spoke five languages.
"Next morning he dressed in civvy clothes and took me by bus to Brig. At a stop on the way, he told me that that was where Napoleon had built the road over the mountains commencing each end, and was only 6" out, as it met up. The policeman took me to an office, probably a government or a military concern, because I was interrogated, the details taken in shorthand by a typist, and read out to me next day, before I was required to sign it. I remained in Brig for several days before being escorted by train to Wil in NE Switzerland. This was the headquarters for escaped POWs - Australian, New Zealanders, South Africans, and British. We were outfitted with British uniforms and a group sent to Sirnach.
"At first we were housed in a school then a gymnasium. The CO told us we could accept jobs on farms, or digging peat etc, and half our pay would go to the British Government. I decided to stay in Sirnach and worked in our Orderly Room. My job included arranging for our wood and coke quota for the boiler in the school basement. Everybody had a hot shower there once a week. Also I had to escort anyone who got into strife, to the CO and get leave passes stamped by the Swiss authorities etc. besides taking my turn at policing the guest houses and getting the chaps out by 10 p.m.
"We were told we could accept accommodation with private families if offered and they would be paid $1 Swiss per week. A Western Australian, WX15431 Albert Grimsey 2/28th Inf Bn and I shared an attic room, offered us by the family Britenmoser, the father being caretaker of the school. Their own quarters were above the school. Our meals were still cooked by our own cooks and delivered to pre-arranged guest houses. We were free to move around the village but needed a pass to go further.
"I spent some time out on a farm belonging to relatives of the Britenmosers, helping make the hay etc. One one occasion, I ploughed the drills for potatoes with one horse and one bull harnessed together. Their children, 2 boys and 2 girls, helped with the farm work. Mr. Britenmoser and I cycled to Schauffhausen on the Rhine river to see the damage done by the first bomb to land on Swiss soil. I dressed in his son's civilian clothes.
"I helped to organise a Christmas concert soon after I arrived in Switzerland. A bigger concert party later travelled around the various camps. We printed our own newspaper keeping our men informed on war news and everything else of interest. Printed Christmas Card - had my own name on mine. There was also a travelling cinema.
"I learned to speak German and visited many of the larger towns and cities about us. The Swiss people made us very welcome particularly if you could converse with them".
2/17 Infantry Battalion
Unit History: B29 "What We Have We Hold" A History of the 2/17th Australian Infantry Battalion 1940 -1945, Trebek, Pike, Broadbent, Rudkin (Eds.), Balgowlah.
NX21761 William Leslie Johnson - entered 5.10.43, left 1.10.44
NX21419 William Blair - entered 7.3.44, left 23.9.44
Of the 18 POW taken in the fierce fighting generally lumped together under the headings of the "Benghazi Handicap" and the "Siege of Tobruk" the above two members of the 2/17th Infantry Battalion finally reached the safety of Switzerland.
All of them had been incarcerated in Campo 57, Gruppignano, and from that camp, some were drafted out to Campo 106, a collection of big rice-growing farms in the general region of Vercelli, between Milan and Turin. L/Cpl Paul La Vallee, was among them and he acted as his camp interpreter as he spoke French and Italian. On the promulgation of the Italian Armistice with the Allies, their guards flung open the camp gates and changed into civilian clothes and "went home". Their former charges didn't quite know what to do, but the civilian population was very welcoming and many stayed near the camp and "worked for their tucker". But as the Germans and Fascists re-organised, the local population could not overtly assist them and as the escapees tended to bunch into largish parties, the authorities were soon able to round them up. Paul and a mate Norm Freeburg, were finally rounded up and sent to Austria, Stalag 18A.
R.A. ("Bob") Ford stayed behind in Gruppignano and had very little chance of escaping as the inmates of that camp were swiftly rounded up by the Germans. He ended up working in the coal mines of Poland as a German POW until repatriated through the AIF Reception Centre at Eastbourne, Sussex, England returning to Australia via the Panama Canal and was discharged in September, 1945.
William Blair was among the last escapees to reach Switzerland and these included "Butch" Jocumsen and John Peck, who actually re-entered Switzerland. It was most probably that he too, had been serving with a partisan group, as he left Switzerland with another group of Australians who had been fighting with the partisans, who never officially entered Switzerland except in transit on their way from Italy back to the United Kingdom, where he arrived on December 2, 1944. This is long after he officially left Switzerland (on September 23, 1944). It is possible that he too, like Jocumsen and Peck, was recruited by the SOE to return to Italy where the various British Missions could take advantage of the knowledge he had gained as a partisan, which would explain why he again crossed through Switzerland with the other Australians.
He is not mentioned in Roger Absolom's definitive book "A Strange Alliance - aspects of escape and survival in Italy 1943-45" F2, which contains a long account of the exploits of Sgt Ted Triffett of the 2/15th Bn (not covered in "Let Enemies Beware" B28 in pages 56-59.)