THE LIVES OF POWS DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR

To begin with, a bit of a riddle to stretch your little grey cells – what do Maria from The Sound of Music and a POW in Italy during the Second World War have in common?

No?

OK, Poirot is deeply disappointed in you; he is twirling his moustache in a positive frenzy of disappointment.

Here’s a clue – it has to do with favourite things.

No, it certainly does not have to do with solving a problem like Maria, Poirot being singularly uninterested in women and women being singularly absent from the lives of POWs.

Still no?

Oh, for heaven’s sake then I’ll just have to tell you – packages tied up in string.

There – it was easy, wasn’t it? Now you’re kicking yourself.

Yes, this is a post about RED CROSS PARCELS and my God were they tied up in a lot of string. But I’ll get to that a little bit later.

Here comes the serious and rather touching bit.

Red Cross parcels were absolutely crucial in the lives of POWs and the Red Cross were extraordinarily successful in raising money for them and sending them. During the six years of the war the Red Cross sent out twenty million food parcels to POWs. In 1942, the year my father, Robert Blake, was taken prisoner and their peak year, five and a half million were delivered. By the end of the war the Red Cross had sent out fifty-two million pounds worth of parcels and had incurred no debt. By any stretch of the imagination that is a hugely successful campaign.

Each parcel was 31 cm wide by 17.5 cm tall by 11.5 cm deep. And it was filled with food. The aim was to get one to each prisoner per week but due to the vagaries of war-time transport this rarely happened. At the beginning there was an attempt to send bread but this soon ended as the parcels were taking too long to reach their destination. The contents varied slightly but chocolate, tea and sugar appeared in every one because they were universally popular and could be bartered for other food. Indian POWs had their own parcels which contained atta, flour used in South Asian cooking, curry powder, dhal and rice but no tinned meat. Cigarettes and tobacco were sent separately.

A huge amount of string was used to secure them – ten feet per parcel. The string was three stranded sisal and brutally tough on the hands of the packers but very useful to the POWs.

Here are some of the things the string was used for:

  • shoes
  • bags
  • brushes
  • hammocks
  • pulling the wooden trolleys that brought the earth out of escape tunnels – 300 meters of rope was made by those men taking part in the escape depicted in the film The Great Escape
  • wigs for female impersonators to use in plays
  • cricket balls – the string was wrapped round a pebble
  • golf balls
  • tennis nets
  • cricket nets
  • football nets

An unusual donation to the Red Cross campaign came from Hitler when his  English language publishers, Hutchinson, donated £500, (approximately £18,000 in today’s money) royalties earned from sales of Mein Kampf. 

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gilles

The Barbed-Wire University by Midge Gillies

If you’re interested in reading any more on this subject I’d highly recommend Midge Gillies excellent book, The Barbed-Wire University. To quote from The Mail on Sunday it’s ‘brilliantly researched, fascinating and deeply moving.’

THE FALL OF TOBRUK JUNE 1942

When nations win wars, the defeats they may have suffered along the way tend to be swept under the carpet. However if our personal failures show rather more interesting things about our personalities than our successes then perhaps defeats should not just be the preserve of military historians.

Seventy-three years ago my father, the historian Robert Blake, was taken prisoner at one of these defeats, the Fall of Tobruk, on the 21st June 1942. This is the background against which my novel Far Away takes place.

It was one of the most severe set backs of the war for the Allies, ranking alongside the Fall of Singapore, (which had taken place during February of the same year), as an absolute catastrophe. The Axis forces captured 35,000 soldiers and a vast amount of fuel, rations, transport and equipment – 5000 tons of food, 2000 serviceable vehicles and 1400 tons of petrol. It was a huge victory for the Axis forces and the occasion when Rommel won his Field Marshal’s baton. Of the defeat Churchill was to say:

This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war. Not only were its military effects grievous, but it had affected the reputation of the British armies.’

WINSTON CHURCHILL

Churchill even faced a motion of censure in the House of Commons in the following month. He won it easily enough: 475 votes to 25 but the fact that it had been mooted at all during a time of war shows the level of concern and anxiety.

The Battleground

The Battleground

The importance of Tobruk, a Libyan port on the Mediterranean, was that it gave the Axis forces a supply port much closer to the Lybian-Egyptian border than Tripoli (1500 km away) and Benghazi (1400 km away). Egypt was important because control of Egypt assured effective communication lines and important air and sea routes. The Suez Canal provided much shorter routes for moving troops and material between the European and Pacific theatres of war. It also gave access to the oil fields of the middle east.

So, what on earth had happened? After all, the previous year Tobruk had held out during a 241 day siege, which had eventually been relieved by Operation Crusader.

On August 5th Churchill arrived in Africa with General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, professional head of the British Army to ‘sense the atmosphere’. The conclusion they swiftly came to was:

  • a drastic and immediate change was required to restore confidence in the High Command;
  • this misfortune was not because of a lack of calibre of the men in the ranks who were described by Churchill as being “brave but baffled”.

On the 9th August a decision was reached; General Sir Claude Auchinleck was sacked as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East and replaced by General Sir Harold Alexander and Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery (“Monty”) was put in charge of the Eighth Army. Auchinleck hated Montgomery and tried to delay him taking command. The delay was only a matter of a few days but it was known that the Germans were planning another attack  at the end of the month and so Montgomery ignored Auchinleck and took control immediately.

Montgomery was ebullient, self-confident and brilliant. You feel he would have had no difficulty in announcing himself Mourinho-style as the ‘Special One’.

This was one of his first orders to XXX Corps:

  • All orders and instructions which refer to withdrawal from or thinning out of our present position are hereby cancelled;
  • XXX Corps will defend the present FDLs (forward defensive lines) at all costs. There will be no withdrawal;
  • The above intention is to be impressed on all ranks immediately.

He ordered that all contingency plans for retreat be destroyed. Essentially he was telling his men – fight or die.

On the way back to Britain, Churchill flew to Russia and a humiliating meeting with Stalin. Stalin harangued Churchill and Brooke demanding to know when the British were going to fight. The answer, presumably much to Churchill’s relief, came swiftly. On the 30th August the Battle of Alam Halfa commenced. Monty had been in post for approximately a fortnight. The Eighth Army smashed the assault and never lost another battle.

Unfortunately this was much too late for my father and the many men like him. He was to spend the next fifteen months incarcerated in an Italian POW camp before escaping in January 1944.

The early Battles of Eighth Army by Adrian Stewart

The Early Battles of Eighth Army by Adrian Stewart

If you’re interested in reading more I’d highly recommend Adrian Stewart’s book The Early Battles of the Eighth Army: ‘Crusader’ to the Alamein Line 1941-1942.

What do you think of my assessment? Too unfair to Auchinleck? Too generous to Montgomery?

I’d be delighted if you left me a comment.

ESCAPE!

WITH ONE MIGHTY BOUND HE WAS FREE!

The other day, writing in my local cafe, I watched as a toddler ran shrieking away from her father, who was acting the role of the Big Bad Monster. The child was screaming with a mixture of delight and terror. The ‘monster’ bore down on her, whisked her into his arms, hoisted her aloft and the child gurgled with pleasure. Most of us have either seen or been participants in that scenario at some time in our lives.

One of the themes of my book Far Away is ESCAPE! In this case from a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War.

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

In his brilliant book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says:

‘The thrilling escape from death runs very deep. It is one of the most consistent motifs in storytelling.’

He goes on to say that the vast majority of these stories are tied up with ‘overcoming the monster’. After all, there has to be something the protagonist is escaping from.

Here are a few examples:

  • a scantily clad heroine in a silent movie is tied to the tracks as the train bears down on her;
  • Jonah is swallowed by a whale and escapes when he is vomited out of its belly;
  • Little Red Riding Hood escapes the Big Bad Wolf;
  • Jack of the Beanstalk escapes and kills the giant;
  • Goldilocks jumps out of the window and escapes the three bears;
  • In the war film The Guns of Navarone, the guns are the monsters which our heroes blow up before making their escape;
  • In the film The Great Escape POWs tunnel out of a camp in Germany and escape;
  • Jerry, that pesky mouse, finds all kinds of ways to escape the malign attentions of Tom, the cat;
  • In the film The Shawshank Redemption a prisoner tunnels his way out of a prison and escapes through the sewage system. This has also just happened in real life in America. Richard Matt and David Sweat have just tunnelled out of a maximum security jail in Dannemora, New York.

You get the general idea and I’m sure you could add a few of your own! Once you start looking for escape stories you’ll find them everywhere.

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

One of the most interesting things about what happened to my father and what I depict in my novel Far Away is how the ‘monster’ to be overcome, (as Christopher Booker describes it), changed into a saviour. To start with the enemy was the Italians who were running and guarding the POW camps. However, on September 8th the Armistice was announced and on the following day the Allies landed at Salerno and Taranto. At that point the Italian army laid down its arms and the guards drifted away. What happened then, as thousands of Allied POWs poured out into the Italian countryside, was extraordinary.

Many of the Italian contadini – the country people – took incredible risks to help and protect these young men. This is one of the most touching aspects of the story. Of course, if you have next to nothing yourself then maybe it makes you all too aware of what it means to be starving, thirsty and cold. But all the same the risks were huge. If caught by the Germans helping escaped Allied soldiers then the Italians were likely to be killed and have their houses burnt down. That is a very big risk to take for people who, before they were imprisoned, had been fighting their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers.  It is possible to argue that the Italians knowing which way the war was going were acting in their own self-interest, however this does not reduce the level of courage shown or the dangers involved.

And the danger lasted for a long time. Germany did not just hand Italy over to the Allies. It took twenty months for the Allies to fight their way up to Italy’s northern border. It was to be a hard-fought, brutal and bloody campaign.

Do you have a favourite escape story?

Or do you have any stories from Italy at that time?

FAR AWAY

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Here is the cover of my new book, Far Away, which is due out this summer. I like it very much for its mean and moody atmosphere. I love those footprints tracking away through the snow. I like that lone wolf of a man on the horizon. I’ve been very lucky so far in the covers I’ve had. I’ve never had much cause to complain.

The cover of my first book, Bloodless Shadow, was Hertford Bridge, the Oxford “Bridge of Sighs,” a bridge I had walked under I don’t know how many times in my life, because it was the route from our home to the market where my mother did most of our shopping. Like this one, it also had the silhouette of a man walking away. The man looked rather eerily like my father. However Dad had died three months before the book was published. Well, I thought he was dead until he materialized on the front of my book!

Bloodless Shadow

Bloodless Shadow

Far Away is the first book I’ve published as an Independent Author and it’s a very different thing when you are choosing your own cover – a degree of paranoia kicks in. After all, even if we wish it wasn’t the case, we all know the snap judgments we make on the basis of appearance. So covers matter. It’s what your prose is dressed in. Anyway, here it is and I’m delighted to show it to you.

What do you think of the cover? If you’re a writer what have your experiences been like with your covers? Tell me the good, the bad and the ugly!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Far-Away-Victoria-Blake/dp/1784623407

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3292

WHERE EAGLES DARE

Where Eagles Dare

Where Eagles Dare or as the Daily Mirror put it ‘a real humdinger’.

When I was writing my book Far Away, which is set during the Second World War, it got me thinking about the influence war films had on me as a child. As I remember it, there was hardly a moment during my childhood when they were not being shown. The most memorable ones were: Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, The Dambusters, In Which We Serve and later A Bridge Too Far (1977). I loved them indiscriminately.

This was probably because Where Eagles Dare was the first film I ever saw at the cinema and therefore is seared into my imagination in the most vivid way. At some point my mother had refused to take me to see the musical of Oliver Twist which came out about the same time but she had taken my two older sisters. I had sulked and raged and consequently I don’t think she could stand the fuss of leaving me behind. Or maybe my father, who had been left with me in a towering sobbing tantrum, just didn’t fancy going through all that again. Who can blame him?

So there I was staring at the biggest screen I had ever seen in my life and I have to say that ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING THRILLED ME. The splendidly curly, red, German font of the opening titles, Schloss Adler (‘the Castle of Eagles’),  the dramatic film score, the beautiful snowy scenery and obviously most memorable of all, the stunt sequences on top of the cable car. Unlike in the book, where hardly any Germans are killed and Major John Smith (Richard Burton) and Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood) are really rather gentlemanly, the film has a very high death count (100 according to the website movie body counts boards. 89 according to one clip on you tube).

This was ironic because the reason my mother had given for not taking me to see Oliver Twist had been that I might be traumatized by the scene near the end of the film when Bill Sykes falls off a roof and accidentally hangs himself. It’s amusing that not long after she then took me to Where Eagles Dare, a film in which 100 people are killed. Of course the violence is actually quite cartoonish, certainly nothing like the kind depicted later in Saving Private Ryan. However at that point in my life I had not seen one person killed on screen let alone 100! In fact the only moving images I had seen were on a neighbour’s black and white TV,  a bit of  Dr Who, involving a dalek with a croaky voice in need of an oil can. I wonder what state I was in when the film finished? I have no recollection of that but this early viewing did give me an abiding affection for the film. I suppose it was my first experience of how exciting and dramatic cinema could be and it also left me with a permanent longing for a retro white winter anorak.

Where Eagles Dare Trivia:

  • It started as a film script (written in six weeks) and was turned into a book later
  • Due to the amount of stunt work on the film Burton nicknamed the film Where Doubles Dare
  • The stunt man who stood in for Richard Burton and did the stunts on top of the cable car had the very lovely name of Alf Joint. He was the same man whom Sean Connery electrocutes in the bath in Goldfinger. He was also the man who dived off a cliff in the Cadbury Milk Tray ads.
  • Clint Eastwood was paid $800,000 and Richard Burton $1,200,000
  • The film’s budget was $7.7 million. At the box office it earned $21 million
  • Clint Eastwood did not initially like the script and he asked for his part to be cut and clunky exposition to be given to Richard Burton. Lucky old Richard! So Burton got to do more speaking and Eastwood got to do more killing. Probably about right.
  • Burton admired Clint’s “dynamic lethargy.” If only someone would admire mine.

What was the first film you remember seeing at the cinema? What kind of impression did it make?

LETTERS HOME: POWS – SECOND WORLD WAR

I’m publishing my book FAR AWAY this year, a novel based on my father’s memoirs of being a POW in Italy and then escaping,  so this post is about POW letter writing in general and his letters in particular. As far as I can tell from the numbers of letters and postcards I have, officers were allowed to write four letters and four postcards a month. There was a magazine called The Prisoner of War, produced by The Red Cross  for the next-of-kin of POWs and in this suggestions were made as to what one should and shouldn’t write about. The concern was naturally for the men’s morale. The resulting lists are rather quaint to today’s eyes and the not list seems altogether more interesting than the first one:

WHAT TO TELL HIM

  • film you saw
  • book you read
  • sermons you heard
  • flowers you grow
  • skirt you made
  • money you saved
  • words baby learnt

WHAT NOT TO TELL HIM

  • dinner you ate
  • cold you caught
  • bomb you dodged
  • fright you had
  • pound you lost
  • vase you broke
  • ration book loss

Letters that were sent to POWs which contained thoughtless comments were known as ‘mail bag splitters.’ Here are a few examples quoted by Midge Gillies in her fascinating book The Barbed-Wire University (Aurum Press).

Darling I’m so glad you were shot down before flying became dangerous.

From a complaining wife: Here I am working myself to death and you are leading a life of luxury.

Do you get out to do much shooting?

From a wife:You have just bought me a silver fox fur – aren’t you glad?

Written in September 1940:Keep your chin up – it won’t be long now. 

Can you buy beer over there or do they only sell wine?

I am having an affair with a Canadian airman and he is having cigarettes and parcels sent you from Canada

Letters were censored and if you ignored that then your relative was likely to receive a letter that looked something like this:

Dear Buddy






Love Nana

This was exactly what happened to Clive Dunn of Dad’s Army fame when his gran sent him a letter. He didn’t seem to mind, suggesting that the hilarity it produced was much better for morale than the crossed out contents could ever have been.

Some people used code words or expressions that might slip under the censor’s pen. Uncle Joe for example was code for Stalin and therefore a reference to what was going on in Russia. Bill Murray, who was captured in North Africa, used a coded message relying on a sequence of letters to his mother informing her that his boots had been taken and they had no suitable footwear for the bitterly cold Italian winter. She went to the Glaswegian branch of the Red Cross and they arranged for 2000 boots to be delivered to the Italian POW camp where her son was being held.

In a letter to his sister Jill on 6/7/43 my father wrote:

‘I shall be writing my next letter home in French as they say letters written in a foreign language get home quicker. It will be good practice for you to correct the grammar!’ 

In fact he wrote one letter in French and an almost identical one in Italian. Here’s the French one.

My dear Mother

Imagine how happy I felt to receive four letters from Brundall (the village in Norfolk where he was born). However I feel very sad at the news of Colin Pitman’s death. Many of my best friends have died since the beginning of the war – Bill Garnet, Christopher Cadogan and now Colin. It’s very sad. I can’t help but wonder what life will be like after the war and I can come to no real conclusion other than to think it will be very different to the life we have at the moment. I am quite well. The censor prevents me from giving you all the details you ask for or from speaking of the war. I pass the time reading and taking a bit of exercise. I recently read a biography of Catherine of Aragon which I found very interesting. It is written by an American and consequently the style is rather barbaric! I must finish now. Tell Jill as far as I’m concerned she shouldn’t worry too much about exams! My love to Jill and Daddy

Love Bobby

It’s interesting that this is one of the few letters in which he expresses his feelings. Maybe writing in another language gave him permission to do that. I remember once when I was quite young saying to my mother wasn’t it lucky that neither she nor my father had anyone close to them killed in the war. She came out with some rather vague response. How naive I was. Of course they had losses but like many of their generation they simply chose never to talk about them.

 

THE IMITATION GAME versus BREAKING THE CODE

Andrew Hodges brilliant book which inspired the play, Breaking the Code, and the film, The Imitation Game

The brilliant book by Andrew Hodges which inspired the play, Breaking the Code, and the film, The Imitation Game.

Every war has its invisible heroes. I’ve been thinking about that recently in the context of the novel I’ve been working on, Far Away, which is based on my father, Robert Blake’s, account of escaping from a prisoner of war camp in Italy during the Second World War. In some respects his account is a classic Boy’s Own account of derring-do. But what he never wrote about was that when he got back to England he was in MI6, albeit at a fairly junior level. So there is the visibility and drama of his escape story contrasted with the complete silence of what happened next. At least he could talk about some part of his war experience if he wanted to.

Alan Turing could not say a word.

He’s the subject of the recent film The Imitation Game and if ever there was an invisible hero it’s Turing. He was the British mathematician, who, at Bletchley Park, was responsible for creating the machine which broke the German Enigma code during the Second World War.  That act, the film tells us, is supposed to have been responsible for ending the war two years early and saving 14 million lives. Turing is also viewed as the inventor of the digital computer. So, an extraordinary thing to have done, and by any consideration an extraordinary individual.

However, he was a gay man at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. In the 1950s he was prosecuted for gross indecency (i.e. sleeping with his boyfriend in his own home) and given the choice between chemical castration and two years in prison. He chose the drugs and then one year later committed suicide at the age of 41. His security clearance for GCHQ had been removed by the government because at that time homosexuals were viewed as a liability due to the risk of them being blackmailed. The way he was treated was eventually viewed as so shameful that Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology in 2009:

‘On behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work, I am very proud to say we’re sorry, you deserved better. So much better.’

GORDON BROWN

In August 2009 a petition was started to get him pardoned, leading to the Queen signing a posthumous pardon for his conviction of gross indecency, on Christmas Day 2013. I had seen Hugh Whitemore’s play, Breaking the Code, with Derek Jacobi playing Turing, in the late eighties (that was adapted for TV in 1996) and loved it, so I was interested to see what the film would be like. Click below if you want to see the 1996 TV drama and do your own compare and contrast.

Benedict Cumberbatch is wonderful and I can see why he’s been tipped for an Oscar but the film he excels in is rather pedestrian and filled with the sort of fake obstacles that screenwriters use when they are not trusting the innate power of their story or the intelligence of their audience. The effect was to stretch my credulity to breaking point too many times and make me wonder what might have happened if Tomas Alfredson, who directed the film of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, had been in charge. Or indeed Mike Leigh.

There are some striking differences between the play and the film. In the film there are no scenes which depict Turing with his male lovers whereas in the play there are several. The film focuses instead on the relationship between Turing and a female code breaker, Joan Clarke, played by Keira Knightley. Obviously, I can see the commercial reasons for giving Knightley a prominent role but the absence of his male lovers still seems to me pretty baffling. We are supposed to live in more enlightened times, aren’t we? and yet this is a film that seems to have taken one step back into the closet. In the play we also see Turing with some kind of emotional hinterland; there are his lovers and also his mother. The depiction of him is of a less traumatized and more connected individual. Certainly he’s eccentric but he’s not as isolated. In the play it is also clear that Turing naively shops himself to the police by telling the truth about his relationship. There’s none of that in the film or the fact that he killed himself by biting into an apple laced with cyanide. So, no mother, no lovers, no apple and no cyanide.

So what does the film have going for it?

Well, it’s got Cumberbatch’s performance and it’s also got the machine (or Bombe as it was called) and that’s gripping, lots of red spaghetti-like wiring and whirring and clicking cogs. And it also has a stand out performance by Alex Lawther as the young Turing.

One other thing that I liked very much in the film was the phrase ‘blood-soaked calculus’. This was used to describe the calculation the secret services had to make about whether they could act on the information they got from deciphering German messages. This was because they did not want the Germans to know they had broken Enigma. So the decision with each piece of information was: Can we use this or will it give the game away? As a writer, I’d have been very proud of myself if I’d come up with that expression. As a human being I’m very glad I’ve never had to make those sorts of  decisions.

Both Jacobi and Cumberbatch are fantastic actors and where they both excel is in conveying in a compelling manner reams of barely comprehensible (to me anyway) mathematics in a way which means that you completely believe that they understand what they are saying, even if you haven’t got a clue. On the whole I think I preferred Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code, which seemed to me  more sophisticated and more nuanced than the film.

One last point. As the film points out, 49,000 men were prosecuted under the same law as Turing. What about them? It makes no sense to pardon Turing and not them. No sense at all.

This is what Lord McNally, the Lord Chief Justice at the time Turing’s pardon was being considered, had to say on the matter:

‘A posthumous pardon was not considered appropriate as Alan Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence… It is tragic that Alan Turing was convicted of an offence that now seems both cruel and absurd – particularly poignant given his outstanding contribution to the war effort. However the law at the time required a prosecution and as such long standing policy has been to accept that such convictions took place and, rather than try and alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right ensure instead that we never return to those times.’

To paraphrase: Back then the law was an ass but it was the law. I can see where he’s coming from but I’m glad his view and ‘long standing policy’ didn’t prevail. The human heart requires a different response, doesn’t it?

Andrew Hodges’ brilliant book  Alan Turing: The Enigma published in 1983 was the source material for both Breaking the Code and The Imitation Game. Here’s the link to his website: http://www.turing.org.uk

What do you think of retrospective pardons and apologies? Too little too late? Or an important way in which society seeks to tell itself that it’s changed for the better. What did you think of the film?

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.’

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.