So near, yet so far: Anthony Simkins

Captain C.A.G. (Anthony) Simkins (1912-2003) served during the Second World War with the 9th Battalion, Rifle Brigade. He was captured by the Germans near Derna in Libya on 7th April 1941, handed over to the Italians and taken first to a prisoner of war camp at Sulmona in the Abruzzi. In May 1942, he was transferred to Montalbo, north of Milan, and in spring 1943 to Fontanellato, near Parma.

The following memoir of his walk down Italy following the Italian surrender in September 1943 was written in 1983.

Recaptured within reach of the Allied lines, he was taken to Germany and the Czechoslovak Protectorate and was eventually liberated from a camp near Brunswick in April 1945.

Curiously, I have no recollection of how, or exactly when, the news of the Italian surrender on the evening of 8th September 1943 reached us at Fontanellato.  I think it must have come from the Italian commandant, who immediately withdrew the guards and allowed us to evacuate the camp the same night. No doubt he acted on the orders of the Italian General Staff in accordance with the terms of the surrender. This cost him dear as the Germans arrested him when they arrived to take over the camp and he was sent to Poland, returning at the end of the war in broken health. Not unnaturally, the Germans regarded the Italians as traitors.

We remained near the camp, more or less concealed, for twenty four hours.  Obviously this could not continue, and we were ordered to disperse and find our way home. We now had to decide whether to go north and try to get into Switzerland, which was the nearest haven (where we would be interned) or south to meet the Allied forces, or to wait for other landings  – for example, in the Gulf of Genoa, which might be conveniently close.

Four of us set off together.  We were anxious to get well away from Fontanellato and the well populated Po valley, and decided to move in the direction of Genoa. I think we spent at least one night in the open, and I cannot remember how we chose the first place where we asked for help.  However, the choice proved most fortunate. It belonged to a substantial yeoman farmer, Signor Borioni, aged probably in his sixties, with a grown-up family, some of whom were living there.  I think there was a son in law (not present) who was an Army officer.

We were made extremely welcome. The atmosphere at that time was euphoric. The Italians hated the war and the Germans, and encouraged by the Allied radio propaganda believed that liberation was really at hand. This family was amazingly kind, a foretaste of what we were to encounter all through our journey. They fed us generously, gave us beds, and fitted us out in civilian clothes so that we could move about less conspicuously. (We kept our uniforms in case we might need them). All that our hosts wanted in return, and this was to prove universally true, was to find out as much as they could about us and our families, and to talk about their own relations in the Services, or abroad as emigrants. Photographs of wives and children were valuable currency. I was able to speak a bit of Italian and became interpreter for the party.  I think we stayed two days in this hospitable refuge. We left in the evening, the head of the family accompanied us a little way and gave us his blessing as he turned for home. We left behind some regimental souvenirs, and a note saying that we had been most generously helped and asking that our hosts be compensated by the Allied forces.

I have no clear recollection of the next two or three days. We were walking west-north-west in very rugged, sparsely populated country, in no particular hurry, hoping to hear that the Allies had landed in the neighbourhood of Genoa. The weather was hot. The grapes were ripening.  I remember washing and shaving in a mountain stream. The Allied communiqués which we heard were now much less optimistic – in fact the battle at Salerno had been touch and go – and another landing looking increasingly unlikely. We debated what to do. The smaller the party, the easier it would be to find food and shelter, and we agreed to split up into pairs. I joined up with Philip Morris-Keating of the Rifle Brigade. We were then in the neighbourhood of Nibbiano.

It would be difficult after the passage of forty years to give a detailed account of our journey over the next seven weeks which, allowing for the inevitable diversions caused by the lie of the land and the difficulties of finding the way using a small school map of Italy, must have covered many miles. Uncertain of the extent of German control, and of how far Fascist authority had been restored in German-occupied Italy, we decided, with perhaps exaggerated caution, to stay as much as possible in the mountains and well away from all towns.This meant that nearly all the route was extremely rugged and arduous, the more so as we were crossing the grain of the Apennines.  Boots took a tremendous pasting and repairs caused anxiety.  Fortunately, we managed to get them competently done a couple of times.  In my memory the weather was always fine and hot. I suppose there must have been wet days but, apart from one near Sansepolcro, I have no recollection of them.  I believe that the summer and autumn of 1943 were in fact very fine. They were followed by an exceptionally severe winter.

So far as meeting Germans was concerned, road and river crossings, and bottlenecks such as that at L’Aquila near the end of our journey, presented the principal danger and we approached them with great care.  We did not know, of course, that our route between Pievepelago and Sansepolcro, via the Futa and Giogo passes, closely approximated to the famous Gothic Line where the great battles of the autumn of 1944 were to be fought.

I know now that the Germans had already begun to reconnoitre the position.  However, we did not encounter them.  For food and lodging we depended entirely on the inhabitants who never failed us. Towards evening we would look for a farm, more properly perhaps a smallholding, and the more isolated the better.  If we had to enter a village we would probably call first on the priest, who would tell us where to go. Generally, we would approach someone in the fields, or knock on a door, and I would explain that we were going south to meet the Allies. Could we have shelter for the night and something to eat? The answer seems to have been almost invariably Yes.  There were certainly very few refusals.

The people who helped us were often very poor, particularly in the early stages of our journey. We would sleep in a hay loft if we were lucky, or a cow shed if we were not. Food might be chestnut polenta, bread and cheese.  There was nearly always some rough wine. Where the country was more prosperous we would be given pasta rather than polenta.  Sometimes we had treats such as eggs, or even chicken. One old lady made us cannelloni of which she was rightly proud. Two of three times, the last time somewhere in Perugia, we found ourselves in prosperous circumstances and were given beds. Poor or better off, our hosts invariably gave us something on which to start the day (I remember breakfasting on walnuts and wine) and often food to take with us.

All these people were taking considerable risks. The Germans had threatened dire penalties and were known to be ruthless. Even if the Germans were not close at hand there was the possibility of betrayal by a Fascist sympathiser, few as these appeared to be by now. Our hosts acted out of the goodness of their hearts and the charity which their religion had taught them. (It is right to pay tribute to the efforts made by the Church in Italy, led by the often maligned Pope Pius, to look after prisoners).

All that we could give in return for the help so generously offered was to sing for our suppers: to talk about our homes and families, to show our photographs, to look at theirs and to listen to their stories of sons and brothers in the forces who were often prisoners themselves, and of the relations in America who were mentioned so frequently; and finally, on leaving, to give them a note to show the Allied forces when they arrived.

Where hospitality had been particularly warm we looked for a souvenir, such as a regimental button.  I gave the badge off my side-cap on almost our last night of freedom. Talking did not prove too much of a problem for me.  My Italian, though ungrammatical, was intelligible and improved as my confidence and vocabulary grew.  It was very interesting to note the changes of dialect as we passed from Lombardy into Liguria, Tuscany, Umbria and the Abruzzi.  Perugia, in Umbria, was the most prosperous area and also the easiest walking.

During this long journey one day was much like another except in the severity of the ground and the distance we accomplished. There is hardly any incident that sticks in my memory except for a sudden encounter, probably early on, with two very smart Alpini who were travelling north.  We met face to face, to our mutual surprise, on a mountain path. We heard rumours of partisan bands but never met any. I was not keen to go looking for them.

Every night was different but more or less conformed to a pattern, apart from one that was spent at the Franciscan monastery of La Verna near Bibbiena.  Many years later, I returned and my memories of the two visits are probably muddled.  remember signing the visitors’ book on the first occasion, but when I looked for our names on the second visit I could not find them. I presume they had been removed, very wisely. The food seemed very good on the first visit and deplorable on the second. The contrast is easily explained. We certainly slept in monks’ cells both times.  I think that on our first visit we were taken after supper to a rather grand house nearby, where we met an extremely smart Italian lady and an officer, who may have been her husband or her lover. They must have thought us pretty uncouth in our borrowed and battered clothes.

We made very good speed through Perugia and, after a rather nerve-wracking passage round the outskirts of L’Aquila, headed for Sulmona.  I am not sure whether we actually saw it. The walking during this last stage was again extremely arduous, but we were of course very fit.  It was also November and turning very cold. I think we spent what was to be our last night of freedom (probably 9th-10th November) near Roccaraso, or it may have been Pescasseroli.

We were getting close to the fighting and decided to put on uniform again as a precaution against being shot out of hand as partisans or spies. We strode on,full of confidence that we were going to get through.

There were German tanks moving along the road in the valley below us.  A little later, we saw a farmhouse with men working on the roof and decided to ask them for information. We went up close and I called out in Italian:  the men looked up, saw our uniforms, and seized their rifles. They were Germans and called on us to surrender. Totally taken aback, we did so.

The Germans treated us with absolute propriety, but in the barn where we were held under guard for two or three days we met another prisoner in much worse case. He was an Italian officer, who had been captured in civilian clothes trying to get home. He had been courts-martialled and sentenced to death, had appealed to Field Marshal Kesselring, the German Commander in Chief, and was awaiting the result. He put a very brave face on it, talked cheerfully and played cards.  Kesselring’s decision was not known by the time we were taken away. I fear it was most probably adverse:  when we arrived at Frosinone, after a bitterly cold drive in an open truck, we had a glimpse of another brave Italian officer, this time in uniform, with a priest who had come to hear his confession before he was taken away and shot.

After the Italian surrender my wife, Sylvia, had to wait many weeks for news of me, only to hear at last that I was a prisoner in Germany.