Open letter to all WWII ANZAC POW in Europe
who may still be answering roll-call...
It's now seventy five years since I stumbled into Campo 57, Gruppignano, Udine after a long train trip up the boot of Italy from Bari. It was dark and I was among a small rag-tag group of POW, ex El Alamein, who were among the survivors from the "Nino Bixio" torpedoed off Crete en route to Italy from the Benghazi POW Camps.
VX38610 Cpl Gordon Dare of the 2/24 Bn was one of the curious onlookers watching our small party trudge in to 57. Gordon was already a long-time resident of that camp, having been wounded in action and captured on May 1, 1941 at Derna in North Africa. Gordon took pity on a fellow Melburnian and nursed me through successive attacks of amoebic dysentery, influenza and jaundice after my arrival. We became lifetime mates. After the war, I was to be best man at his wedding back in Melbourne.
In May, 1943, Gordon and I were drafted out from Campo 57 to the complex of work-camps centred around Campo 106, Vercelli. We were mustered out to different work farms. Gordon Dare died of a massive heart attack on April 18, 1976. Years after that, his widow, Joan, asked me to tell her and their four children something about our time in Italy as she "never, ever, heard us speak about it". That was true. We seldom did.
An examination of Gordon's record at CARO doesn't help much either. The record merely reveals that Pte Dare was born on June 16, 1920, that his WWI father was Colonel (later Brigadier) C. M. M. Dare, that he enlisted into 2/24th Bn AIF on August 8, 1940, that he served for 1,917 days of which 1,778 were on active duty overseas and that he was discharged on November 19, 1945 as a repatriated POW.
There was no mention of how he spent his 16 months "on-the-loose" behind enemy lines in the towering mountains of the border between North Italy and Switzerland. For that matter, nor do CARO records reveal much about me, VX 39694 Sapper William Rudd, 2/7th Field Company, RAE, either, only that I had made it to the other side of that Alpine border. Certainly they say little about my 15 month stay in neutral Switzerland.
But Joan Dare's request to re-enter the past, and my subsequent visits to CARO, conveniently located in Melbourne, lead to the discovery there of Box 11. This was a box containing a collection of "odd" files, which had not been integrated into the main archives. It contained many signals and lists of AIF POW reaching Switzerland.
From Box 11, and other records, I gradually put together a nominal roll by AIF Number, Name and Unit of the 419 AIF POW who entered Switzerland in civilian clothes and unarmed. This roll was checked against Swiss Army Records, and has been deposited with the Research Centre of the AWM and the Central Library of the RSL in Canberra. Copies have also been lodged in the Swiss Army Archives, Bern.
When the AWM suggested that my research should be extended to cover other AIF POW who remained behind enemy lines in other European countries, it proved impossible to check names against escapers from Greece and Crete who had eventually re-joined their units back in Palestine. Some managed to obtain abandoned landing barges which brought out well organised parties, some commandeered smaller boats and one rowed a dinghy from Crete to Sidi Barrani in North Africa. Their official records do not discuss this.
Other escapers from both Greece and Crete managed to reach neutral Turkey. But unlike the Swiss, the Turks claimed that they never kept any official records of Allied escapers who reached their neutral territory. They repatriated them immediately either by ship back to Egypt or rail to Syria, then under Allied control. CARO simply amended their records from "Missing, Believed POW" to "Re-joined Unit" irrespective of how long an individual may have taken to do so.
However the status of those who remained "Free Men" on the island of Crete or the mainland of Greece, remains uncertain. Particularly those individuals who had escaped from enemy prison camps and had volunteered to return to enemy controlled territory to help bring out escaped parties through organised naval operations.
The life of a soldier on active duty, is unpredictable at best, but army organisation, standing orders and unit discipline carry him along, even in a prison camp. Those there that have been badly wounded, or suffer medical conditions that prevent them re-joining active combat, can look forward to repatriation on a selective basis. Not so to those fighting with local partisans behind enemy lines.
Not so the AIF POW "Free Man" who has to exist in a very harsh environment indeed. He does not enjoy even a prison camp's minor luxuries such as Red Cross food parcels. He gets no letters from home or much chance at all of letting his loved ones know how he is getting along. He has to live off the land. Harassed and hunted by by the enemy, he enjoys neither the protective benefits of the Geneva or the Hague Conventions. And for many, the knowledge that his own risks may be even greater for the local population who help him to survive and in doing so run a very real risk of savage retribution by the occupying powers.
So at the risk of being over-simplistic, this recorder has included in the nominal roll of ANZAC POW "Free Men" in Europe during WWII, some names have been included who were never technically POW. I have included names of all those that died whilst in captivity, those killed by "friendly fire", those that were re-captured after months of freedom, and those that escaped from German camps as the war wound down in 1945, before all were liberated by Allied troops.
Within another decade, it will be very difficult to tap memories of "those that were there", so I am hoping that this nominal roll can be checked for additions and omissions by those who know and still survive another decade, and only silence will prevail!
Anybody interested can e-mail me about any aspects of the ANZAC POW "Free Men" of Europe that may interest them particularly.