Hiding in the roof: Robert Blake

Lord Blake, the historian and political biographer, who died aged 86 in 2003, was the father of the Hon. Letitia Blake, secretary of the Monte San Martino Trust. Letitia was introduced to the Trust after his death by Nan Burnett, widow of George, who had escaped from Sulmona PoW camp with Robert “Bobby” Blake and Arthur Dodds in 1943. Lord Blake completed his war memoirs shortly before he died; a copy is in the Trust’s archives.

After his capture at Tobruk, Robert Blake spent a month in a transit camp at Bari, which he described as “the most hateful period of my life”. There followed 15 months at Chieti camp where he developed a serious aversion to tomatoes and underwent an agonising tooth extraction with only a little rough brandy as anaesthetic. This explained his subsequent refusal ever to visit a dentist.

At the Armistice in September 1943, he obeyed the “amazing, scandalous and insane” order to stay put and was moved on September 23rd to Sulmona. Deciding with four others to hide in the roof of their hut, they stayed there for 18 days of “boredom, discomfort, fear and hope”. He spent his time trying to learn the contents of a pocket English/Italian dictionary and worrying about his companions’ heavy colds, as at one point German soldiers were living below them for three days and the slightest sneeze or cough would have given them away.

Lack of food and water finally drove them out of the roof. After getting out of the camp, they split into a trio and a pair (the pair ran into a German patrol and were recaptured almost immediately). The trio hid in a broken-down building in the fields before making contact with an elderly contadino whose female relations brought them a luxurious meal of gnocchi, bread and red wine.

After a couple of days, they were taken at nightfall into a flat right in the centre of Sulmona where a Signora Di Cesare was to shelter them for nine weeks. Despite at one point the three of them having to share a letto matrimoniale with Mario, the 18-year-old son of the house, they were well looked after and fed by the Signora.

They had several narrow escapes. One day, five German soldiers arrived in the flat and the three escapers were crammed in the lavatory, prayed that none of the visitors would be caught short.

Eventually they were put in touch with a shepherd, Alberto, known as the “wolf of the mountains”, who was going to guide a party of 25 through the Maiellla Pass on a freezing January night in 1944. They had a nerve-wracking and exhausting journey. This included jumping across a treacherous mountain stream, being shadowed by a pack of wolves and enduring a long, cold wait while Alberto, caught up in a rastrallamento (raid), shovelled snow for the Germans. But Robert, George Burnett and Arthur Dodds finally made it to an Eighth Army outpost.

They were to remain firm friends for the rest of their lives.