This is the story of the Italian equivalent of the German ‘Colditz, whereby the Italians placed all captured British and commonwealth Generals and Brigadiers into a medieval massive stone castle about a hundred miles from the Swiss Border and near to the Northern Italian city of Florence.
- Mark Felton
Most of the internees were captured in the Western Desert by the Germans, and handed over to the Italians because of the inability of the Germans to get them back from the desert to Germany. Two of the Generals were captured due to their air transports being downed in the sea. Carton De Wiart was one of them, he swam 2 miles to shore with only one arm and dragging with him the RAF pilot who had suffered a broken leg on landing in the sea De Wiart was captured on the shore in a ‘concussed’ state, the Italian army doctor that arrived started to examine his head and suggested some medicine or tablets. “Bugger off said De Wiart, I just swam for two hours in a cold sea, and that’s the best cure for any headache, so bugger off!”
The instances of each of the General’s and the Brigadier’s captures are given in detail, and instances of conversations with, and even one General having lunch with Rommel in his tent. Rommel never once mentioned the present war but spoke only of each other’s experiences during World War 1.
Once in confinement in Italy the Generals were allowed their ‘Sgt servants’ and the brigadiers their Batmen. It is fair play to the Italians, that they had searched these respective men out from prison camps, so they could re-join their Bosses. Three ADCs were also found and joined their respective Generals. The ages of the senior officers ranged from 48 to Carton De Wiart’s 65 years.
The Castle building with its ramparts, its large Keep and moat was medieval, and one can read between the lines that the British internees maintained a ‘feudal system. When General O’Connor’s batman arrived he was told by another Batman, “ This place is okay but a lot of top Brass ‘ all a bit frosty, and ‘What Whatting’ all over the bloody place.” It is easy to understand that these high ranking officers, two of them with VCs wanted to get ‘back into the war’ Carton De Wiart was very short tempered in this respect.
Various escape attempts were made, all failures except the last one when six of them got out and split into groups of two and made it out into open country. Two made it to Switzerland and four were re-captured. The journeys of the six make fascinating reading. The excitement builds as they proceed through railway stations, and some on foot through villages, one was captured on the very border with the sound of a rifle cocking in the darkness and the words “You are an English General, Hands up!” Two Brigadiers both New Zealanders got into Switzerland, you can feel the tension as they cut the wire with a pair of ‘home made’ wire cutters within a hundred meters of sentries.
The characters of the Jailers is well described, they ranged from hateful fascists, to just ‘Nice Chaps’ all of them had a fear of being sent to the ‘Front’ After the ‘Escape when the six got away there was immediate sackings all round and off to the Fronts they all went!
For those who are fans of that great character, Carton De Wiart, there is plenty of him in this book, especially his tough cross country march North with a heavy pack and with only one arm and one eye, and with WW1 shrapnel wounds causing him pain.
During the time that the Italians changed sides and came over to the Allies, all the internees escaped, some went north and some south, a few stayed and fought with the partisans. At the end of the book the careers of all the internees are listed giving details of their later military service, their entry into civil life afterwards, and their dates of deaths.
There is some ‘flowering’ of situations in the book, such as ‘Gen O’Conner looked thoughtful, stroked his moustache and drew on his cigarette’ I found this sort of stuff a bit annoying.
It is however a very enjoyable read, especially leading up to and after the escape, the excitement and the tension mounts, and is well maintained by the author.
I recommend the book and give it 4.5 stars.