Part 2 - Escape from Italian Prison Camps
Chapter 15 - Repatriation
Just as the rationale of the Geneva Conventions governing the rules of war for belligerents differs from that of the Hague Conventions governing the rules for non-belligerents in times of war, so does the concept of repatriation differ between the non-governmental organisation of the International Red Cross, whose Headquarters are geographically located in Switzerland and the Federal Government of the Confederatio Helvetica.
There is a fundamental difference between repatriation on humanitarian grounds under the Geneva Conventions and repatriation by negotiation and agreement between belligerent powers using a neutral Government as an "honest broker" providing the facilities for physical exchange of able-bodied combatants.
Although, under the Geneva Conventions, "Internierten" should be held by the host nation until hostilities finally ceased, the repatriation of "Internierten" could always be arranged on humane and other specified grounds such as government to government mutual agreement, using a neutral country as a convenient "swapping place".
Lieutenant Ray Worledge, RAN, had been loaned to the RN at the beginning of 1940 and had been captured on September 14, 1942 after having taken part in "Operation Agreement" - a commando raid on Tobruk. He was picked up out of the sea by the Italian destroyer "Castore" and ended up in the Italian POW camp at Sulmona. In March 1943, he was told he was to be repatriated and taken to Bari where he was put on a hospital ship "Gradisca" with other naval personnel, some of whom he knew.
At the neutral Turkish port of Mersin, he and 861 other Britains from Italian prisons, mainly naval personnel, were loaded on to the British steamer "Talma" and taken back to Port Said. Ray Worledge considers that this exchange of fit personnel was due to some Italian naval personnel who had escaped across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia from Eritrea. King Ibn Saud asked what he should do with them, and was told to arrange for them to be exchanged via Turkey for Royal Naval men.
The British Navy had given Ray Worledge the rank of Lieutenant Commander as being the requisite rank for his commando assignments, much in the same way as John Peck and "Butch" Jocumsen had been given the commissioned rank of Captain in the British Army (SOE) when they were sent back to organise groups of partisans in North Italy. For these ranks to be permanent, they would have had to become part of the British War Establishment, not merely attached to it.
However the value of their services was recognised at Governmental level.
"Butch" Jocumsen received the highest military award that could be given to a non-Italian, by receiving the "Medaglio d'Oro" from the Italian President himself, while Ray Worledge was visited by a former Defence Minister of Norway, visiting Sydney for the Olympic Games, to talk about Ray's personal experiences during the German invasion of Norway in April/June 1940, and to personally thank him for "fighting for my country" at Narvik.
In May 1944, under Article 72 of the Geneva Conventions, mutual repatriation agreement negotiations took place between British and Germans for the proposed transfer to neutral Switzerland of POW who were 42 years and over on 1 March 1944 and who had been in captivity for 18 months or more. Nominal rolls were exchanged but negotiations broke down, when the Germans altered the number of personnel involved, and the Swiss could not see their way clear to handling the extra numbers for exchange sought by them.
Smaller exchanges continued to be negotiated, and when the Americans opened up an exit point to Free France via Geneva, the British requested that a Reception Camp be established at La Plaine on the border, so that convoys, returning empty from the front lines, could take repatriated "evades" back to Naples and thence back to Australia by sea.
Most Australian POW "evades" that were the guests of Switzerland for almost a year, would heartily endorse their everlasting gratitude to the International Red Cross and the country which gave it birth. Without IRC camp supervision and the IRC parcels that brought badly needed nourishment to hungry prisoners, many Australian POW may never have survived in their prison camps to even have had the opportunity of escaping to Switzerland.
This Recorder can only remember, with gratitude and affection, how the Richner family of Adelboden and Wildegg took him into their own home as a "foster son", full well knowing what would have been their fate had the Germans occupied their neutral country, as they had seen happen to neutral Holland.
Many AIF "evades" will also tell you of the fate faced by the Italian "contandini" who helped them escape and lost their homes and often their lives for so doing. His feelings are echoed by nearly every Australian escaped POW who sought sanctuary in Switzerland, or among the civilian population in Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete.
It was now time for the AIF in Switzerland to say "adieu and thanks for the memories".
Narrator QX5417, Jim Wilson, 2/15th Inf Bn covers the final repatriation phase of his time as a POW with these words:
"When France fell, we were told that as soon as the railway was repaired we'd be gone. As it happened the Australians were the first to move. On 30th September 1944, each group boarded the train at their nearest station. Next morning we were at the Swiss/France border and that night, 1 October, 1944, we arrived at Marseilles. We'd seen bomb-flattened towns, torn up railway lines and overturned carriages and not a person or even a dog in sight.
"Our accommodation was a bomb-damaged hotel under American control. They treated us royally, plied us with all the food we could eat, stuffed our pockets with cigarettes, sweets and chocolates and opened the storeroom and said "help yourselves".
"Next morning Harry Sincock (VX26956, 2/24 Inf Bn) and I went for a walk to the dockyard area. I became ill, vomiting blood. Harry got help from the nearest RAP. They brought a stretcher and picked me up. I was taken to an American hospital with a suspected ulcer. I think they were considering operating on me but - no electric power! I was moved to two other American hospitals in the next two weeks before being sent by hospital ship to a British hospital in Naples.
"After 19 days I was sent by train to a British 8th Army convalescent camp at Bari, on the east coast of Italy. I had a pass to go into Bari whenever I liked. Here I met three groups of Australian ground staff RAAF on their way home. Since I could not get any satisfaction as to when I would be sent home, I decided to join the RAAF group. They did not know all one another, so I was just accepted. I collected my souvenirs, left my clothes behind and joined their convoy to Taranto. When they went aboard the "Duchess of Richmond", I went with the baggage party to load the kit bags onto a barge. I just went on board with them and was handed my bunk number. Leaving the ship at Alexandria I carried a chaps extra kit bag and the Provosts did not question me. I quite thought they might be on the lookout for me, but I think they were mainly there to take charge of a number of German POWs being taken to a POW camp in North Africa.
"At the Airforce camp I drew blankets and mess equipment etc. but did not attend any parades. We were there for about a week. Luckily I met a driver who gave me the information that the RAAF were to sail on the Dutch ship "Indropoera". I'd been on her before, having been transferred from the "Queen Mary" to this ship at Trincomalee, Ceylon, and on to Kantara in the Suez Canal in early 1941. I went to the docks the night before and again joined the baggage party and again received my bunk number. On board I met a party of Australian ex-POWs coming home officially. The Red Cross were at Bombay to meet them, so I joined them. We were billetted at an army camp, and allowed to draw 30 pounds each from our pay-books. A Red Cross lady took us shopping for clothes (I had nothing but what I stood up in) and also told us what was in short supply in Australia but was available in Bombay. In small groups we were taken to the homes of Red Cross personnel and enjoyed a good meal. During the ten days were were there we could go sight-seeing or shopping as we pleased.
"Eventually we were advised to be at a certain dock to board the American Liberty ship "Gen. John Pope" to return to Australia. She was packed with troops, mostly American, some New Zealanders and Australian Ground Staff RAAF. Food was plentiful, help yourself style - stand up at a bench to eat - no seats.
"I was not feeling very well so took my medical papers and reported to the doctor. The rest of the voyage I was in the hospital section being well cared for. Christmas 1944 was on board somewhere off Western Australia. We came into Port Phillip Bay and a small boat brought the mail out. When I asked for mail, they were surprised as it had been noted that I was last seen in "War Zone Italy".
"When we docked, a fleet of cars took us to a hall for tea and sandwiches. Harry Sincock, whom I had last seen when I became ill in Marseilles, was there with his mother, to meet brother Jack, one of the returning POWs. I was granted permission to spend the night in the Sincock home provided I was back in the morning. Arrangements were made to draw 5 pounds each from our pay-books to see us home, and I was put in charge of the group.
"The army makes sure you are well ahead of time to catch a train and the long wait, plus the pub doors opening across the road, made the party realise how thirsty they were. By arrangements among ourselves, we went two at a time for a drink. No one missed the train. On changing trains at Albury, we found we did not even have seats - had to just sit on the edges of bunks or anywhere we could fit - not a comfortable journey.
"The Red Cross at Sydney handed us a few magazines but at Newcastle they apologized for not having had sufficient notice, but they did take us to a separate table. The Taree Red Cross had been advised and they had a special table set up, and a New Year's meal prepared. Relatives with sons who were still POWs plied us with questions. I was appointed spokesman and it was rather an ordeal. Mothers are rather emotional. I tried to convince them their sons should be home in no more than six months. As it was, war ended in Europe in May, 1945.
"An officer of my battalion met us at the Railway Junction before we got to South Brisbane Station and took us off the train to the Brisbane Exhibition Ground to collect pay and an issue of cigarettes. Kathleen was advised by Army Signal that she could meet me after 2 pm on 1 January 1945. It was great to be back - 4 years and 1 week since leaving.
"Our military authorities did not take kindly to me finding my own way home and deemed me AWL for 56 days. I spent four months in Greenslopes Military Hospital to regain my health and was discharged from the Army on 28 May 1945 - exactly five eventful years from date of enlistment."
(Statistics taken from "Schlussbericht des Eidg. Kommissariates fuer Internierung und Hospitalisierung ueber die Internierung fremder Militaerpersonen von 194O bis 1945 " Copy now lodged in AWM Research Centre by kind permission of Dr.Juerg Stussi-Lauterburg.)
National Archive files MP/742/1- 255/18/191 - Negotiation for repatriation of POW over 42 and 18 months captivity. 255/18/247 - Protected personnel 255/1/125 - Exchange of POW at Mersin by steamer "Talma".
"World War Investigator", October 1988. "Contact", Ray Worledge, 1944 (M54).
Acknowledgments and thanks to Murray Bartle.
The No 1 AIF POW Reception Camp - Eastbourne, U.K.
After the successful invasion of Europe in June 1944 by the allies, it became obvious that Germany was going to lose the war, and the allied POW it held would be liberated from their various camps in Europe. Originally, all AIF POW "evades" in Switzerland were to have been repatriated via Eastbourne, but as shipping had become available through allied occupied ports such as Naples, nearly all Australian POW in Switzerland had been repatriated in September or October 1944 from the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, there still remained some 6,000 Australian POW under German control at war's end.
Plans were drawn up to receive these POW as they were released and the No 1 AIF Reception Camp was established in southern coastal at Eastbourne, while an RAF Reception Depot was set up a little further along the coast at Brighton to process returning air force POW, including RAAF personnel.
Staff of the AIF Reception Camp were selected so that there would be at least one member among them who had been an original of each AIF unit that had served in the Middle East. This would ensure that each returning AIF POW would be welcomed by one known face. Fortuitously enough perhaps, the staff of the No 1 AIF Reception Camp also managed to produce a Test-level cricket team!
Headquarters were established in a stately mansion called "Gowrie Gate" and each arriving ex-POW was fitted out with new army clothing, issued with new pay books, given a Red Cross parcel, a rail warrant good for any part of the U.K. and 60 days leave. Each arrival was interrogated by Intelligence and given a thorough medical checkup before proceeding on leave.
The system worked well for those POW, like the Recorder, who was among the early arrivals to Eastbourne, but broke down somewhat when the flood of AIF POW began to arrive from Germany. "Exit" interviewing was one of the first procedures to be abandoned and had already lost its significance in any case.
The HQ of the Australian No 1 Reception Group was in London under Brigadier Eugene Gorman under British command, but at the Reception Camp at Eastbourne, all the administrative officers were Australian.
Among those early escapers coming back from Germany was Bob Hooper "escaper extraordinaire" whose stories of his nine escapes is outlined in "Barbed Wire and Bamboo" by Hugh Clarke and Colin Burgess. QX930 Bob Hooper was one of 16 sappers from the 2/7 Field Coy taken POW with the 2/28th Inf Bn at Ruin Ridge, El Alamein. His final escape came as he met up with the Americans at Charleroi in Belgium.
"We remained with the American unit for about 10 days and they and the Belgian people gave us lots of wine and food. Due to the hangovers we felt at times, it may have been better if we'd stopped in prison camp, as our health was pretty run down. The Yanks then told us that the railway line to Brussels would be repaired in a couple of days and that the planes were flying into the airport there with supplies. So we got on a train and went to Brussels, were interrogated, deloused and given papers to say we were ex-POW and where we were originally captured. Then we got on an empty plane for England. Now this was OK for my mate (a Scottish paratrooper) as he was back in his own country, but they didn't know what to do with me and eventually placed me with an English Army unit in Surrey. They gave me a clean English uniform and money, but I didn't have to attend parades or anything like that. The only place I could go was to a pub, and the Australians were very popular at the time, so more hangovers.
"Eventually word came through that Lady Blamey (the wife of Australia's GOC and a Red Cross worker) had arrived in England and was taking over guest houses and hotels on the South Coast - Brighton, Eastbourne, etc. - for use by POW when they came back. I was sent down to tell the English cooks what the men would like to eat - what a stupid job. Anyway I told them plenty of meat and then I enjoyed four months holiday in England. On VE Day and night, I was at a little village called Snodland, about 12 miles from Maidstown in Kent - what a party that was!"
The Recorder left Geneva in February, 1945, and like Bob Hooper, was looked after by the Americans and flown to Croydon. Offered a posting to the staff of the AIF Reception Camp and substantiation of his rank of Sergeant given to him in Adelboden, he was put in charge of waste disposal and billeted in St. Andrews school. Waste collection was commenced at 8 am and was finished by 3 pm.
Back in Geneva, his wife Caty, had managed to obtain a position with the Netherlands Lwgation in London and soon was also in England. Some way or another, a flat was obtained at Greenwich, and due to the magnificent efficiency of Southern Railways, he was able to commute between Eastbourne and London, a journey of almost exactly one hour. The 6 am train had him back in Eastbourne well in time for "waste parade" each day.
UNRAA (The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Organisation) was looking for "officers" who could handle European languages and conditions for handling refugees and his application to join it was accepted. He was discharged in London and returned to Julloville in Normandy and from there was selected to go to Haaren in South Holland to run a transit camp for Dutchmen returning from forced labour in German factories.The transit camp was a former Roman Catholic seminary taken over by the Germans during their occupation of Holland, as an interrogation and concentration camp. He subsequently found out that a cousin of his wife's, a Dutch naval lieutenant, who had beed dropped back over Holland to liaise with the Dutch underground, had been betrayed and had been executed it that seminary.
Acknowledgements and Thanks to:
M1 "1 AIF Reception Camp - Eastbourne, June 1944 - July 1945", AWM, War Diary, 52/1/13/5.
M4 "Barbed Wire and Bamboo", Hugh Clarke and Colin Burgess, 1992. ISBN 186733132.