Lt. Kenneth Bligh had a long and arduous journey to safety after escaping from Fontanellato PoW camp, near Parma, which included a three-month stay in a village called Castel San Angelo. In this memoir, however, he leaves some doubt as to the precise location of Castel San Angelo, as there are several villages in Italy of that name. In 2016, his son Patrick attempted to clear up the confusion by visiting the most likely candidate. He reports on his findings in the article at the foot of this memoir.
My greatest surprise, next of course to being made PoW, was to meet Alistair Goldie of Stoke on Trent Office at my first PoW camp at Padura near Salerno. He was an “Old Boy” having been shot down off Pantelleria in the Mediterranean, some weeks before, and so he did his best to make me feel at home. We were together from June ’42 until Feb ’43 when I was moved north to a camp near Parma [Fontanellato].
The Italian Commandant and most of the officers of this camp were for the most part pro-British. The Commandant was liaison officer between the British – Italian forces in the Great War ’14-’18, the two interpreters were in the Bank of Italy before the war in London and one had an English wife. Thus on the 8th Sept when Bagdolio’s Government declared unconditional surrender, they informed the Senior British Officer that they would let us use our own judgment, should an attempt be made by the German garrison in Parma to take over the camp.
From that time onwards we had our own guards on the camp and, during the night, patrols went out and alarms arranged to give adequate warning of the approach of the Germans. That night we organised small parties that should stick together when the time came, and we made up bundles of necessities and a small amount of tinned food from Red Cross parcels. During the night many of the former guards deserted.
At 9 o’clock the following morning a German recce ‘plane flew over the camp exceedingly low and shortly after that the alarm was sounded, as a message was received that two German tanks and lorried infantry had left Parma for our direction.
It is hard to explain one’s reactions, walking through the wire, free and yet not free, that feeling of uncertainty, wondering what to do for the best, what the future is going to bring; whether to change into civilian clothes, if so would we be shot as spies, should we go north or south. Immediate decision is the only thing in such a predicament and hope for the best.
We were twelve in our party, all Sapper Officers led by Major Carver, stepson of Field Marshal Montgomery. We made off across some adjoining vineyards at a brisk pace and finally halted and lay down in a place where we could not be seen, under some grape vines. It was quite pleasant, bright sunshine, a cool breeze and clusters of juicy grapes within easy reach, and freer than I had been for nearly a year and a half.
A short time passed like this, and of course it was not long before we were seen by some farm labourers, who told us that the Germans had arrived at the camp and were now searching the neighbouring farmhouses to find those who had escaped; and that we had best stay where we were.
Meanwhile we had decided that we would go south to meet the advancing 8th Army, if we went to Switzerland it would only mean that we would be interned and we would be very little better off than being PoWs. There were so many rumours of landings all the way up the coast and of the amazingly rapid advance of the 8th and 5th armies that we felt certain that it would only be a matter of days before we were really free. As it turns out it was nine months.
Now near where we were commences a drainage canal which ran due south for about twenty miles, under roads and railways and which had deep undergrowth and trees on either bank all the way. It was an excellent route to follow and the canal ended up at the range of mountains which runs from La Spezia on the Mediterranean coast down central Italy to the Gran Sasso and the Adriatic Coast, and so it was decided to take the harder, though safer route, and follow this mountain range.
We walked all that night and at dawn we were beginning a mountain trek and by midday we were well away from civilisation and halted at a group of lovely farm houses for rest. The peasants were friendly people and declared that they would be only too pleased when the “Inglesi” had arrived, in fact I believe some thought that we were parachutists. We let them think; it assisted us to get food and drink.
We spent two days here and then finally split up in pairs and continued on our way, and at first opportunity changed our uniforms for peasants’ clothing, it was quite easy and a good bargain for the Ities. My companion had a little difficulty in perfecting his disguise – he was 6 ft 4 inches and ginger and so did not pass off too well for an Italian and unfortunately was picked up about two weeks later.
I don’t know how it happened. We were walking along a mountain track and he was following along behind. He stopped to tie up his boots which were in rather a dilapidated condition and I carried on slowly for some time, anticipating that he would catch me up and then I stopped and waited for him, he did not come and so I walked back to where I had seen him last and could find no sign of him. I heard eventually when I arrived back in England that he was a PoW in Germany, but how he was taken I have yet to find out.
During my travels there were many amusing incidents. I had met another escaped PoW and we were travelling across fields by the hedgerow approaching a rather busy main road. As there was plenty of traffic, extra precautions were necessary. We approached the roadway without being observed and, thinking the road was clear, came out of the hedge into the roadway and to our surprise only a few yards away was a rather tough-looking German soldier, who apparently had been conducting traffic.
A few hundred yards along the road a considerable number of German soldiers were escorting what appeared to be Italian deserters away to captivity. I felt certain we would be asked to produce our identity cards and realising it would be useless to turn and run, we both walked across the road as unconcerned as possible, said “Buon Giorno” to the German, who just glared, and we vanished into the woods beyond the road – and then we ran!!
Thinking everything had passed off all right we sat down to regain our breath and to smoke a cigarette which we made from Italian-grown tobacco leaf and rolled with newspaper, when suddenly the staccato sound of a rifle shot rang out, and then shouting and then again more shots.
I did really think that we were being chased and so the only thing to do was to lie in the undergrowth and try and hide from view. Thus we stayed for about ten minutes and we could still hear noises and voices. Suddenly through a path in the woods appeared a farmer and his boy, leading two large oxen; the farmer had a whip which he had been cracking in the air to give them a little encouragement to hurry!
In about three weeks we had covered over 350 miles and had covered the larger part of the distance. At about this time I was feeling extremely ill and really couldn’t carry on until I had recovered. I felt so weak and had such a fever that my companion would have wasted much valuable time if he had waited until I recovered.
However, I was extremely fortunate, in that a German Jew, a freed internee, came to my assistance. Disregarding all risks to his own safety he lodged and looked after me until I was completely recovered. I stayed with him for over a month. During my period of convalescence I was out walking with him one day when a German Bren Gun Carrier unexpectedly came round the bend of the road, with three SS on board. My friend and I carried on walking and as the German passed the former raised his arm and said Heil Hitler and I did likewise. The SS returned the salute and carried on their way.
As soon as I had completely recovered I carried on south spending a day here and there. The weather was beginning to get bad and the snow had begun to fall. It was an extremely bad winter and it would have been impossible to pass the Gran Sasso mountains to reach the Allied lines and so I decided to settle down with a party of escaped prisoners of all nationalities who had made the HQ at a small village called Castel San Angelo. There were all nationalities, Yugoslavs, French, Russians, Albanians, Italians, Poles, Americans, South Africans and my German Jew friend who came and joined us masquerading as a Greek. This three months is a story in itself and so am afraid that for the time being will have to be omitted.
In about the middle of May, the snow was beginning to melt and the weather was improving, but there was no sign of an offensive which might assist us to penetrate the line which had now been static for such a long period. One day a South African Air Force Officer passing by our hut called in for a rest. He had come from the next village over the mountain and was going down to the coast about 70 miles due east, to see what chances there were of picking up a fishing boat. I decided to accompany him. A month to the day we were in Allied lines.
Click on the link below to read Patrick Bligh’s account of his attempt to discover where his father spent the winter of 1943-44.