ROBERT BLAKE’S LETTERS HOME: PART TWO 26/2/43 – 4/5/43

If the main theme of my father’s letters during the first six months of his captivity was his request for food, clothes and books, the picture that emerges over the next three months of his correspondence is of a more structured existence, as camp PG21 in Chieti becomes more organised and better supplied. In a letter to his father on 2/3/43 he describes his average day:

The day begins with Roll Call at 9 o’clock followed by a scratch breakfast of Red X food (we get a parcel each per fortnight). I spend the morning reading. Lunch (soup) at 12.30. I usually spend the afternoon reading as there are now quite a lot of books in the camp. Roll Call again at 6 o’clock, followed by supper. I usually play bridge or poker after that or else go to the weekly show – which is often quite good. The weather is marvellous. I usually take my exercise walking up and down the path in the middle of the camp for about one and a half hours in the evening. Lights go out at 10.30. It is as you see a simple life & so dull.’

Robert Blake in Oxford

Robert Blake in Oxford

To his mother on 9/3/43 he writes: ‘Life in some ways is not as bad as it was. There are a large number of books in the camp. The clothing situation since I got your parcel on Dec 29 and we got issued with battle dress has improved enormously. Unfortunately our supply of Red X parcels is nearly finished. We never get more than one a fortnight at any time. The theatre here flourishes. Last week they did Ten Minute Alibi and did it very well. Next week they are doing the Merchant of Venice. Do you remember me as Antonio in it at school – not one of my most successful efforts!’

In a letter to his father on 30/3/43 he celebrates, ‘the first big consignment of books from you all – eight excellent law books & 2 parcels from the Elm Hill Bookshop – one with The Count of Monte Cristo. I must say the account of the hero’s imprisonment makes this place seem like a rest camp!’ In other letters he continues to comment on the books he’s reading. On 13/4/43 he writes: ‘I read the other day for the first time Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son and thoroughly enjoyed it, but felt sorry for the son!’

Perhaps my father  was referring to this piece of advice from the insufferably pompous Lord:

I would heartily wish that you may often be seen to smile but never heard to laugh while you live. Frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners; it is the manner in which the mob express their silly joys at silly things; and they call it being merry. In my mind there is nothing so illiberal and ill-bred as audible laughter… I am sure that since I have had the full use of my reason, no one has ever heard me laugh.’

Fortunately, not advice that my father, who had a very good sense of humour, would ever have dreamed of giving to me and my sisters!

The prisoners are now (13/4/43) being allowed out of the camp. ‘We are allowed out for walks once a week and I take full advantage of it, for I am sure it is good for one’s mind if nothing else to see something other than these four walls. The news is very cheerful these days and so one lives in hope always. It will be wonderful to see you all again after such a long time.’

As the Italian summer sets in he comments in a letter dated 4/5/43: ‘The weather is beginning to get extremely hot. You would hardly recognize me so brown have I become! Also my hair has got very bleached by sitting in the sun! However I expect it is very good for me.’ The theatre in PG21 is putting on such up to date plays that he even ends up recommending a play he has seen to his mother. ‘Last week the theatre performed The Man Who Came to Dinner, an extremely funny American play and film now running in London. If it comes to Norwich don’t miss it. ‘Even Daddy’ (as Jill would say) will enjoy it.’

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THE SCANDAL OF MI9 AND THE “STAY PUT” ORDER

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

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 Power1915 - 1964 by Robert Blake

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.

 

ROBERT BLAKE’S LETTERS HOME: PART ONE 31/08/42 – 26/2/43

Robert Blake (second from the left) at Oxford in the 1930s

Robert Blake (second from the left) at Oxford in the 1930s

My father, Robert Blake, was in three prisoner of war camps in Italy: Bari, Chieti and Sulmona. I have 21 letters and 23 post cards that he wrote to his family between 31/08/42 and 17/8/43. All sent from the POW camp P.G. 21 in Chieti. There is a degree of repetition in the subject matter so in this post I’m going to give an overall impression of the first six months of this correspondence.

At the very beginning his pressing concern was letting his mother and father know what they could send him. He had three things he wanted more than anything else: food, clothes and books.

In a letter of 8/8/42 he writes: ‘There is no limit on books or tobacco and you can send four clothing parcels up to 10 lbs in weight per year which can also contain chocolate to make up the weight. Books are supposed to be sent new from a publisher or bookseller some say but I have had no confirmation of this.’

On the question of food: ‘You cannot send food from the UK, but there is no restriction on parcels from anywhere in the Empire, so if you know anyone in Canada, S.A. (South Africa) or India it might be worth trying. I am trying to get stuff sent from the M.E (Middle East)  where also there are no restrictions… The great thing is to have as many sources as possible, for all sorts of difficulties may impede things coming. I know all this sounds horribly greedy but when one has been as hungry as I have sometimes, one becomes frankly unscrupulous.’

On the 3/11/42 things have not got any better. He still has no books and no new clothes and is feeling depressed. ‘Fighting in Egypt would be preferable to this dismal existence… there is absolutely nothing to read,’ and on 10/11/42 he states, ‘I want any books you can send on anything.’ He also comments that the weather has become more unsettled  and colder, ‘which is not much fun in view of my lack of clothes.’ At this point the only clothes he had were the ones he had been captured in five months earlier. He has however cheered up enough to make a joke: ‘ “Well, it has come true at last – “In the prison cell I sit, thinking Mother dear of you” !!’  And he writes: ‘Some wit has put up a notice here “Post early for Xmas – and how! as the Americans say.’

On the 27/11/42 he states, ‘I am rather cold but otherwise alright.’

In December the weather improves and with it his mood. 4/12/42: ‘The weather after being wretched has become much warmer, and so one feels considerably more cheerful.’

On 6/12/42 he comments on a letter he has received from his parents describing eating pheasant at a friend’s house and says he would, ‘give almost anything for a real English meal again…’ However he is feeling optimistic, ‘I do honestly believe we shall celebrate the Xmas after this together.’

Robert Blake (far left)  during military training as an officer in the Royal Artillery 1939 - 1940.

Robert Blake (far left) during military training as an officer in the Royal Artillery 1939 – 1940.

On 1/1/43 everything changes because having been a POW for six months he finally receives a parcel from home: ‘Great Joy! The N of K (next-of-kin) parcel actually arrived. Very very many thanks. It is quite the best thing that has happened since I became a POW. Everything in it was most welcome.’ In a letter on 5/1/43 he writes: ‘It was marvelous to have a pullover and a warm shirt and an incredible luxury to be able to sleep in pyjamas. What I really need now is a pair of trousers preferably corduroy slacks which are very warm and comfortable, as my K.D. (khaki drill) shorts are very dilapidated and rather chilly.’ Although he has been getting letters from home it is only now for the first time that he knows that they have received a letter of his, albeit the one dated August 31st. He comments: ‘The delay in the mail has been so bad that you may wait till Doomsday before you get the right letter…’

By 26/1/43 things are looking up because, ‘… the food situation is considerably better, and at long last battle dress has arrived in the camp, and I will get proper clothes.’ Also a law book, ‘Cockle on Evidence’, has finally arrived sent by his Uncle Norman, who was a judge, ‘but it goes to Rome for censorship before I get it.’ In this same letter to his father he gives a snapshot of how he passes the time: ‘I spend the day here playing cards going to some law lectures, which are not really much good, but fill the time learning, as best I can, German and Italian. There is a good band in the camp, and a play or show put on every week. They are really very good. The main need is books, but like being hungry one gets used to being without books tho’ I found it very trying at first. I have become much better at doing nothing! All very demoralizing, I fear.’

On 8/2/43 he writes saying how much he’s missing home: ‘It is already getting on for 2 years since I saw any of you. In ancient times people used to be exiled as a punishment for certain crimes. One can realize now what a punishment it must have been.’

Now finally the book situation is beginning to improve and he has managed to get his hands on a copy of Alec Waugh’s ‘Loom of Youth’ which was presumably lighter reading than ‘Cockle on Evidence’. ‘It’s amazing to think he was only seventeen when he wrote it. Books of any kind are most welcome.’

On 23/2/43 he writes to his mother telling her he has had a tooth out: ‘Owing to the abscess the cocaine which was injected did not work at all, and so I experienced what was I believe one of the oldest Chinese tortures! It really was very painful.’ He adds philosophically: ‘If I had known before the war all the things which were going to happen to me I should have put my head in the gas oven, and yet when they actually happen they are not so bad as all that – which goes to show how fortunate it is that we are not gifted with prophetic vision!’

It’s not really surprising that for the rest of his life my father was always an extremely reluctant visitor to the dentist.

 

A VERY IMPORTANT POSTCARD

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This Red Cross postcard falling through their letterbox was the moment when my grandparents knew for certain that my father was alive. He had been taken prisoner at the fall of Tobruk on the 21st June 1942. Unfortunately the postcard is not dated but I have two letters from the War Office. One dated the 17th July stating that my father was missing-in-action and then one on the 7th September stating he was a prisoner of war. So it was at least two months before they knew he was definitely alive.

This is what it says:

My dear Mummy,
I am alright (I have not been wounded). I am a prisoner of the Italians and I am being treated well.
Shortly I shall be transferred to a prisoner’s camp and I will let you have my new address.
Only then will I be able to receive letters from you and to reply
With love from Bobby

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What a relief it must have been for them to receive this. It’s not surprising that they could never bring themselves to throw this postcard away. Nor could my mother when she was clearing out the house after my grandparents died. These kinds of documents come down through the generations for a reason.

I can’t help but find it incredibly touching and I love the Italian version of ‘with love’ – SALUTI AFFETTUOSI.

Their son was alive!