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A Prisoner of War Remembers

Philip Sydney NORTON, 1907 - 1989

Photograph © Copyright Blanche Norton Charles

An account, by Philip Sydney Norton, of his experiences as a Prisoner of War escapee in World War II, and his tribute to the Italian family who saved his life

Domenico

For the purposes of this vignette it should be borne in mind that, upon the Italian surrender in September 1943, many of Mussolini's Fascist troops and supporters espoused the German cause. This lead to much bitterness between the Fascists and those Italians opposing them. It also contributed to the difficulties of the many hundreds of escaped Prisoners-of-War.

We had escaped from Prison Camp 54 at Fara Sabina, near Rome, some weeks previously, just before the Germans took the place over after Italy's capitulation. Keeping to the mountains to avoid detection, and the possibility of recapture, for the last three days we had passed through country of indescribable beauty. It was autumn, and the beeches, which everywhere decked the rough and semi-precipitous mountains, from a distance presented themselves as a sheet of burnished copper. Add to this the azure of the sky above and the verdure of the valleys below.

We drank of the ice-cold water of the fountain of San Trinitas and descended towards the village of Meta, whose inhabitants, according to a charcoal-burner we had encountered earlier in the day, were kindly disposed towards escaped allied prisoners.

The track we were following brought us out at a picturesque mill astride the path linking Meta with the small town of Civitella-Roveto in the Liri Valley some two miles below. The miller appeared to be doing good business, for several peasants were idling the time away until the grain they had brought to him earlier in the day was reloaded on their long-suffering donkeys as flour and bran. We approached the group, after first ascertaining that it contained no Fascist or German uniform, to enquire whether or not it was safe to continue on the track. Our Italian vocabulary was then limited but we gathered that it would be unwise to proceed further as, at that very moment, a party of Fascist soldiers was searching the houses in the neighbourhood for escapees. We were strongly advised to omit Meta from our itinerary but to cross the valley and to continue our journey towards the Allied lines, in the mountains on the other side. It was dangerous for us to remain thereabouts, as apart from local Fascists, a battalion of German troops was billeted in Civitella. We thanked them for their information and the three of us retired to a thicket to formulate fresh plans.

It was then that we met Vincenzo. A peasant lad of about eighteen, he had been up above gathering firewood and was homeward-bound with his load when we attracted his attention. We subsequently found out that he had been conscripted some months earlier and was in barracks in Milan when Italy capitulated. He caught the first available train home.

As the crossing of the Liri Valley, which meant not only traversing the railway line and busy east-west road, but the river itself, appeared to be a hazardous undertaking without guidance, we asked him if he would conduct us over early next morning. We were amazed at the alacrity with which he signified his willingness to do so and at his obvious wish to help us. But we must be hungry and we must also have a good night's rest. We must certainly go with him to his father's place nearby and he, too, would be only too pleased to assist us.

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