I thought I’d give a brief summary of the military situation in Italy at the point when my father escaped. If you bear with me this will hopefully be more interesting than that first sentence suggests! First a brief timeline:
- 10 July 1943 Allied troops landed on Sicily;
- 3rd Sept 1943 British 8th Army (under the command of General Bernard Montgomery) landed on the toe of Italy and the Italian government agreed to an armistice with the Allies;
- 8th Sept 1943 the armistice was publicly announced. i.e. from this point on Italy was no longer fighting in the war.
Map of Italy showing the three camps: Bari, Chieti and Sulmona where Robert Blake was held as a PoW
The Italians may have laid down their arms but that did not mean that Italy was not going to be a nation that was savagely fought over. There were 80,000 PoWs in camps scattered all over the country. So in this chaotic situation what was going to happen to them? This was something that had been concerning MI9, a top-secret branch of the Ministry of Defence, for some time. MI9’s role was to help bring home Allied soldiers stuck behind enemy lines. Now they had 80,000 of them to think about. The decision they came to was by any standards a complete disaster. On June 7th 1943 they issued the notorious “stay put order” P/W 87190:
“In the event of an Allied invasion of Italy, officers commanding prison camps will ensure that prisoners of war remain within camp. Authority is granted to all officers commanding to take necessary disciplinary action to prevent individual prisoners of war attempting to rejoin their own units.”
The order was issued through the popular radio programme “The Radio Padre”. The Reverend Ronnie Wright began the show, ‘Good evening, forces.’ His use of the word ‘forces’ being the sign to PoWs listening in on their clandestine radios that there was a hidden message further on in the broadcast.
The only justification for this would have been if MI9 knew that the Germans were going to abandon Italy to the Allies. However, the Germans had no intention of doing this; they began to pour troops south to meet the Allied threat. The war in Italy was to be bloody and protracted and only ended when the Germans surrendered in May 1945. That original order was never countermanded.
My father was in PG21 at Chieti at the time of the armistice. When the Italian guards drifted away in the middle of the night, the SBO (senior British officer) Colonel Marshall threatened to court-martial any PoW who left. When there was a near mutiny, he appointed his own guards and ordered them to man the watchtowers. The German paratroopers, who turned up shortly afterwards to take control of the camp, were dumbfounded to find the prisoners still in the compound. There had been a very small window of opportunity to escape and now it had vanished. The PoWs in Chieti were transported to PG78 at Sulmona and from there by train on to Germany and Poland.
In total 50,000 prisoners fell into the hands of the Germans and of those 4-5% are thought to have died in captivity. Of the remaining 30,000, 11,500 escaped by either going north to Switzerland or (like my father) south and crossing the German lines to reach the Allied forces. What happened to the rest remains a mystery.
The Decline of Power 1915 – 1964 by Robert Blake
So who was to blame? My father in his book The Decline of Power 1915 – 1964 (Granada Publishing 1985) writes that it was Montgomery who, “characteristically assumed that he would clear Italy at once.” He goes on to write that Montgomery thought , “it would be tidier if they (the PoWs) could be duly collected in an efficient organized manner instead of being scattered all over the place drinking like fishes and sleeping with Italian girls.” The source he sites is a history of MI9 written by M.R.D. Foot and J.M. Langley. Perhaps this is true; or perhaps MI9 was eager to pass the buck. There is no paper trail to link Montgomery to the decision. Unsurprisingly the original order has disappeared from the War Office archives in Kew, presumably destroyed so that no single individual could be linked to what turned out to be such a colossal and costly error.