A COMPETITION – A PRIZE

So here’s the question. Part of my novel FAR AWAY is set in a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War and part of the escape described there (based on what actually happened to my father) involves five men hiding in the roof of one of the prison huts.

So in order to win a copy of my book answer this question: How long did they manage to stay in the roof? This includes the day they got in and the day they got down.  The camp was in Sulmona in southern Italy and the month was October 1943. The roof’s proportions were as follows: 14′(L) x 6′(W) x 3’6″(H) – yes, that’s right they couldn’t stand upright.

Here’s a rough sketch from Beverley Edge’s diary; he was one of the five. I’ve coloured the men in orange.

A sketch from Beverley Edge's diary of one of the huts in Sulmona POW camp in Italy

A sketch from Beverley Edge’s diary of one of the huts in Sulmona POW camp in Italy

The person who gets closest  will be the proud winner of a signed copy of FAR AWAY. I mean how can you resist? I would particularly encourage people to enter who have never won anything in a competition before – that would be me, by the way. My father, on the other hand, only had to sneeze on a raffle ticket to have a bottle of sherry winging its way to him from the church fête.

A great deal of luck was involved in his escape and maybe it stayed with him afterwards.

If you’d like to read about the book please click the link below for a lovely review from the Manchester Military History Society:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1360145221

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RETURN OF A DIARY

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Robert Blake

My father, Robert Blake, was one of a group of five men, consisting of Arthur Dodds, George Burnett, Ken Lowe and Beverley Edge, who were involved in an escape from Sulmona POW camp in Italy in September 1943. When Dad wrote his memoirs he relied on the diary of a fellow escapee, Beverley Edge, because as my father wrote on the outside of the copy it was ‘kept at the time and probably the most authentic of all.’ This is a short post on what happened to that diary.

The diary itself was written on a small paper calendar which had been handed out to all POWs in Italy the previous Christmas, prefaced with a goodwill message from Pope Pius II. As Edge comments, ‘No Christmas pudding and turkey!’ He wrote on the few blank pages between the lines of music and hymns and along the margins. The first part of the escape involved hiding in the roof of one of the huts in the camp. At the point where they were about to get down from the roof, Edge began to rip up the diary but then he changed his mind and wedged it between the tiles of the roof and the rafters.

It wasn’t until July 1961 that an attempt was made to find it. Ken Lowe another of the five men wrote to the mayor of Sulmona asking if he might help. The mayor wrote to the Italian War Office in Rome because the camp was still under the administration of the military and Ken was then contacted by an Italian, Colonel Georgio Bonoli, saying that he would try to find it   but that the POW camp had been 75% demolished. Ken and Beverley then sent a plan, marking the hut they thought they had hidden in.

In January 1962 they received from Colonel Bonoli some notes, which had been made by another of their cohort, Arthur Dodds. This meant that the Colonel was looking in the right roof! They wrote to him again and asked if he might investigate further which he did. In July 1962 the diary was handed over to the British military attaché in Rome and in September it was sent back to Ken nineteen years after he had originally written it. It was a little bit nibbled but otherwise in very good condition. They were lucky because the end of the hut they had hidden in made up part of a brick wall which surrounded the camp. So presumably the hut was left standing because if it had been demolished it would have created a hole in this wall.

Far Away by Victoria Blake

Far Away by Victoria Blake

If you’re interested in reading a book which is set against the background of escaping POWs in Italy my novel FAR AWAY is available here:

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

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.