From time to time, the Trust is contacted by descendants of prisoners of war in Italy hoping to find out more about their father’s, or grandfather’s adventures. A common regret is that the escapers were not questioned more closely during their lifetimes. Occasionally, the Trust can help out; often, with regret, we cannot fill in the gaps.
In 2016, Chris Gilbey sent the Trust just such an email on spec. As he was only nine years old when his father, Arthur, died at the age of 44 in 1964, he and his two sisters knew very little about their father’s whereabouts in the war. But, as luck would have it, his email (passed on by Keith Janes of the WW2 Escape and Evasion Information Exchange website) hit the spot, as the following edited transcript of his email conversation with John Simkins, Administrator of MSMT, makes clear.
CG: Arthur was a 2nd Lieutenant with the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, and was probably captured in or around the Corinth Canal, following the rearguard action from 25-27 April 1941. We know he spent the next two years or so in an Italian PoW camp, somewhere near Milan (we think) and then we understand he escaped – or was let out – probably on or around 8th September 1943. He spent a bit of time “free” until he was recaptured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in a camp in Germany; which one we don’t know.
We all remember him as not being that keen to talk about his time as a PoW, from the age of 22 for the next four years. If there is anything that you can tell us about our very much loved father, we would be eternally grateful.
JS: I have identified your father as having been a prisoner at Fontanellato, near Parma, from where all 600 officers walked out with the consent of the Italian commandant after the Armistice in September 1943.
In the book Home by Christmas?, there is one reference to him that runs: “The option of a boat or naval vessel did not arise until later, but a few did manage to escape that way. But Tom Pitman, Black, Arthur Gilbey, Tom Wheeler, Eric Hopkins, and Maurice Goddard…. set off in the direction of Genoa or La Spezia.”
After finding that reference, I then remembered that your father was a friend of my own father, Anthony Simkins!
Anthony mentions Arthur in his own account of the war. They were together at Montalbo camp, my Dad writing that he had a link with Arthur through the Routledge family and that he and Arthur became close friends and played Bridge. Both men were then sent to Fontanellato.
CG: Wow, John, that is simply fantastic what you have written, absolutely spellbinding. I am totally thrilled and so will be my two sisters, Linda and Patricia. You have provided more information than I have ever known.
It always intrigued me as to why, being a PoW of the Italians, my father seemed to have such great affection for all things Italy, so much so that my mother (Jennifer) carried through what she told us was his/their long-term aim, and moved to live in Italy, first Terracina, then Rome, where she died in 1991. The fact that there is also the family friendship and war connection with your father is extraordinary.
JS: I have delved a bit deeper into Anthony’s memoir, written in the 1980s. Anthony appended a Dramatis Personnae that includes a snippet about Arthur, which reads thus: “Arthur was the elder son of Sebastian and Peggy Gilbey. He had been at Harrow and may have been about 26 in 1945. Intelligent, charming, artistic, kind, simple-hearted and, like his parents, extremely generous, he was one of the nicest men I have known.”
CG: Today, with your emails, has been a bombshell day for me. You have managed in a few hours to tell me so much of what has been missing in our lives since 1964. Do you know anything about his time in Germany?
JS: Yes, it has been quite a day. I feel equally moved. Right now, as I write this, I have found references to Arthur in the memoir as having been in Germany! When Anthony reached a transit camp at Moosburg near Munich, Arthur was already there. They were taken to Marisch Trubau in the Czech Protectorate.
Near the end of the war, Anthony and others were moved to Brunswick and he says Arthur joined him there later. Anthony says that when a couple of men from his room were moved, Arthur moved into it. “A man of great charm and kindliness, he was a fine games player and a golf Blue. We played a few games of Badminton behind our barrack block and I admired Arthur’s skill.”
The last time they played “was on a sultry July morning, which seemed to presage some disaster”. Anthony takes this as being the July 20 plot against Hitler and air raids, with the Americans bombing the camp. Liberation followed.
I am now satisfied I have found all references to Arthur in the memoir. Quite a treasure trove – I promise I haven’t made it up!
CG: John, you are an A1 Star. I have passed all this through to the family and they are amazed, and so grateful.
The Simkins and Gilbey families then made plans to meet up and renew the family friendship.