Part 2 - Escape from Italian Prison Camps
Chapter 16 - Home
On the 20th September we heard the BBC radio announce that the American Army had reached the Swiss-French border near Geneva. This was the "Operation Torch" group which had invaded the south of France and fought their way north. On September 21, 1944 we were told to prepare to move out and be on stand by. On the afternoon of September 23, 1944 instructions were given that we were going by train that night to Geneva and would be handed over to the Americans next morning - 24th September. That duly happened to us and everything went like clockwork. Three days short of 1 year!
The Americans told us that they were going to take us down to Marseilles by train and it would be a very slow trip because the line had been wrecked by bombing and it was not properly repaired yet. Before we got on the train we were issued, each one of us, with big packets of their famous K rations, which contained food we had not seen for years, including bags of lollies and chocolates. The 200 mile trip down to Marseilles took about 12 hours to complete. After a few days in Marseilles we were put on an LST (Landing Ship Tanks) and taken to Naples in Italy. During the crossing a violent storm occurred and even the crew were seasick. Southern Italy was in Allied hands by now and we had to wait in Naples for a week to join a convoy heading for Port Said in Egypt. The ship we were put on in Naples was an ex-passenger liner "Reina del Pacifico".
Before the convoy sailed, 100 Russian deserters were escorted aboard under heavy guard. As they were all wearing full German uniforms, we thought they were German before we noticed their features were mongoloid. According to the English soldiers guarding them, the Russians had been taken prisoners by the Germans on the Russian front. Then after a short while they were given the choice of being shot or joining the German Army and going to the war zone in Italy. The Russians decided to join the Germans and take their chance in Italy. As a consequence when they got to Italy, they were again captured by the Eight Army. They were now being shipped back to Russia and certain execution. Apparently there were several thousand more to come out of Italy. Most of them were from Siberia, hence their mongoloid features.
We disembarked at Port Said after a pleasant two day cruise from Naples. From Port Said we were taken down the Suez Canal by trucks to Port Tewfik at the southern end of the Canal to Suez. After several days in a transit camp at Tewfik waiting for a convoy to leave, we went aboard the P and O liner "Orontes" which had been used as a troopship since the war started. In the transit camp at Tewfik we were amazed to see hundeds of former Italian POW who were now classed as our allies, since Italy changed sides, strutting around with Italian army colour patches and the word "Italy" on both shoulders of the "British Army" uniforms they were wearing. In the canteen, needless to say, there was a lot of shouting and arguing going on, especially as we knew quite a bit of the Italian lingo by now.
Eventually, the convoy of ships left Tewfik and sailed down the Red Sea to the port of Aden, where some of the ships took on coal etc. At Aden several destroyers joined the convoy and escorted it across the Arabian Sea to the port of Bombay in India. That leg of the voyage took about 4 days. On our arrival in Bombay we were put into trucks and taken to a British Army camp on Malibu Hill. There would have been about 100 Australians in our group by now. Our stay in Bombay lasted about 4 days during which we were allowed out on leave into the city of Bombay. Whilst in the camp we were given money which was later deducted from our pay books, so we were able to buy a few presents in the Army and Navy Stores to bring home to our relatives.
We left Bombay on board an American troopship i.e. Liberty Ship. To our amazement it travelled alone and unescorted. On board there were hundreds of American troops and also a lot of Chinese soldiers. The food was excellent and very plentiful. Shortly after sailing it was announced over the loud-speaker system that if anybody fell overboard, the ship would NOT stop or even slow down in an effort to rescue them. After we had been sailing several days, suddenly the loud speaker system burst into life and a voice shouted "man overboard, man overboard". Everybody rushed to the ship's deck railings and we could see a man in the waters astern. Two life bouys were tossed over the side, but by now the unfortunate man was far behind the ship for them to reach him. The ship just sailed on.
We were later informed that the man was one of those Chinese troops who were exercising on deck near the stern and he was doing "handsprings" and went over the side. By now the ship was well out into the Indian Ocean where there was the ever-likely attack by a Japanese submarine. Us Australians on board the ship - the S.S."Anderson" - reckoned we were heading for Australia, but of course, the ships destination had not been revealed. We worked out that we were on the a south-south-easterly course and were going to Fremantle, but our guess was incorrect.
However as we sailed down the Indian Ocean during the first days of November, it was suddenly announced over the PA system on board, that they (the Americans) would put the broadcast of the Melbourne Cup over the PA system, which they did. It was a very touching time for us and we realised that we were nearly home. Two days before we arrived in Melbourne (after sailing due north for these days) we suddenly became aware of the smell of burning gum leaves but we could not see any smoke. This really made us realise that we were in close proximity to Australia. What a lovely smell!
The Liberty Ship S.S. "General Anderson" berthed in Melbourne on 17th November 1944. It had taken 52 days from Geneva to Melbourne. On the afternoon before arrival in Melbourne, an American soldier on board who was being taken back to America for a court martial, was bing exercised on deck under guard. Suddenly he made a run across the deck and jumped overboard. Once again the PA system blazed out "man overboard, man overboard", several life bouys were thrown overboard, but once again the ship did not slow down to stop - Japanese submarines were still a risk.
Several days were spent in camp at Royal Park in Melbourne where we Australians were issued with new uniforms. The New Zealanders had to wait until they were in New Zealand. We all spent time saying farewells to our friends of several years before us West Australians were put on a troop train for Perth, which took about 5 days to get there. Those who lived in Perth had friends and relatives to meet them. What excitement! After we had been issued with leave passes for one month we all went our separate ways. It was 2 more days before I got to my home town of Kojonup by train to see my relatives. Kojonup was so small and quiet after all my hectic experiences.