Captain John Miller had been a prisoner of the Italians for just over a year. From his understanding of the attitude of many of the Italian guards, he had not been surprised when the Italian armistice came. The same guards had made a rapid departure at that time, urging their former prisoners to do the same, ‘before the Germans arrive’.
However, with the Allies landing in southern Italy, the attitude of the senior British officers was that it was better not to leave the camp but to wait until the front line reached them. It was believed that the Germans would form a new frontline in Northern Italy, soon the Allies would reach them. It was an entirely misplaced belief. Very soon the camps were taken over by the Germans. Thousands of British prisoners of war had missed the opportunity to escape.
Now the Germans were transporting the POWs back to camps in Germany. For John Miller the journey itself looked like the best opportunity they would have for escape. Other men clearly felt the same way, as he learnt from events:
A burst of gunfire echoed through the dust towards a distant line of rolling stock and echoed round the vaults of the station. It strangled the words on our lips as we stood chattering together on the platform and left in its wake a silence broken only by the clatter of boots on the railway line and the bellow of raucous German voices. I stepped forward from my place in the queue and stared into the dark recesses of the station from which the noise had come. But I could make out little in the dying light – only the silhouette of a German guard running across the track with his rifle at the ready.
I sensed a tremor of fear run down our ranks and the spittle in my mouth turned sour. I was one of six hundred prisoners of war assembled in the station of Sulmona, the old capital of the mountainous region of the Abruzzi in central Italy.
We looked more like tramps than British officers, perhaps because each of us was dragging behind him a sack, made of blankets, in which we carried the possessions lovingly assembled during our captivity. Yet there was about us a regimented uniformity, both in the dejection of our bearing and in the shabbiness of the clothes, which covered our lean bodies. Only the little eccentricities of dress – the bush shirt, the faded corduroys, the American flying jacket, the spotted scarf, which had started life in Cairo, – gave a clue to the personality of the owner.
Our voices were not silenced for long. An angry murmur rose from the far end of the platform and gathered momentum like the chords of an orchestral movement. The rumour passed from mouth to mouth along the length of the queue and reached the point where I was standing beside Michael Ardizzone, a tall lieutenant wearing the black beret of the Royal Tank Corps.
Apparently three officers had made a dash across the lines towards the cover of a stationary carriage. The German guards had opened fire. Their shots had halted two men, hit and killed the third.
Confirmation came a few minutes later when two guards carried his corpse past us on a stretcher. They walked with a studied deliberation, as though determined to ensure that the implication of attempting escape should not be lost on us. The head and body of the corpse were covered with a blanket. Only the upraised feet were visible.
‘The bloody bastards!’ said Michael.
‘Who was it?’ I asked. ‘Any idea?’
‘No – but a big man, judging by the size of his boots.’ I could see that, like myself, Michael was feeling sick.
I hoped that the incident would not weaken his resolve to escape, for I feared that my own would crumble without his moral support. We both knew that, if we were not to spend the rest of the war in Germany, we must make a break in the course of the journey on which we were now embarking. Under my battle-dress I was wearing civilian clothes, which I had obtained from a friendly Italian guard in exchange for cigarettes and a packet of tea. Michael carried a crowbar secured inside his trouser leg. I tapped his thigh and it emitted a reassuring twang.
It was the last day of September, 1943. When, on the 8th September, the armistice with Italy had been announced to coincide with Allied landings on the southern coast, we had been prisoners of the Italians. We had thought our troubles were over. But the Germans had taken over our camp from their ex-Allies and moved us into the mountains to another camp at Sulmona.
Now we were on the move again. And this time our destination was Germany.
All afternoon we had been kept standing on the sandy parade ground of Sulmona while our German guards, a detachment of tough young parachutists armed with grenades and machine-guns, had combed the barracks in search of the fifty or so officers who, as the Germans rightly guessed, had concealed themselves above the ceilings and under the floors of the wooden huts.
The rest of us had sweated in the blazing sunshine, our eyes glued on the unconstrained spaces beyond the prison wire. We had watched the shadows creep up the grassy lower slopes of Mount Morrone, where the peasants still pastured their sheep in much the same way as they did when Ovid was a boy amongst them, till only the rocky summit glowed pink in the setting sun. And we had cursed the ill fortune which it seemed was to condemn us to Germany when our troops were only 150 miles away to the south.
When the German Commandant was satisfied that our numbers were complete, he had called- the parade to attention and told us that we were going to Germany. He had warned us that his guards had orders to shoot to kill and stressed the futility of attempting to escape. This advice had been greeted with derisive cheers, though when these guards had loaded us into trucks and driven us through a brilliant sunset to the station, it had become increasingly evident that they were both ruthless and vigilant.
They had herded us on to the platform and made us hump our heavy baggage down its long length. By this time we were already physically exhausted and, from the point of view of our guards, psychologically ripe for the sight of a corpse on a stretcher.
‘I wish to Christ they’d get a move on,’ said Michael.
‘Apart from everything else, I’m bloody cold.’ The heat had gone out of the day with the setting sun.
Dried sweat now stiffened our limbs. ‘The sooner we get into the train, the sooner we’ll get out.’