Sadly, not all escapes in Italy ended happily. Here, Charles Gordon Clark describes what happened to his uncle, Roger Lawrence, shortly after the Italian Armistice in 1943. It was only in March 2012, during a visit to Italy, that Charles and his daughter finally managed to obtain a first-hand account of his uncle’s last hours.
Roger Fettiplace Lawrence joined up on the outbreak of war. A 20-year-old language student at London University, he was swiftly commissioned in the Royal Artillery and saw active service around Cherbourg in 1940.
In February 1943, his 155 Battery, 172nd Field Regiment R.A., earned the sobriquet “the V.C. Battery” for their gallant action against German tanks at Sidi Nsir, part of the battle of Beja, which cleared the way to Tunis. Most of the battery were killed and the rest captured; Roger was in the military hospital at Caserta during March, then at transit camp 66 at Capua, and arrived at Fontanellato, near Parma, on 13 May. There he rejoined Lt. P. G. King who had also been in 155 Battery; and together they escaped on 9 September.
Until recently, all I knew of his death was that he had been killed on 15 January 1944 somewhere in Abruzzo, when he and King had been surprised in a hut – a paper with some details which I had seen years ago was put in a safe subsequently stolen.
With the aid of the Army Records and the International Red Cross, I discovered that the location was the frazione (hamlet) of Goriano Valli, in the Aterna valley under Monte Sirente, with affecting details recorded by the parocco, the parish priest, who had insisted on his being given a proper burial against German wishes.
My daughter speaks fluent Italian and in March I at last went with her to Goriano Valli to see if there was any old person – that is, at least my own age! – who remembered the incident. The parocco had written that the death was un gran lutto, (a great sorrow) for the villagers, so I was hopeful. Apparently, villagers used to say prayers at his grave in the knowledge that his own family was unable to do so.
We were successful almost beyond my hopes. At the very first house we tried, immediately below the earthquake-damaged church, Enea and Sofia Liberato knew exactly what we were talking about, though Enea is from down the valley and Sofia had not been born.
Sofia’s mother came from next door and became deeply emotional – she had been about seven at the time, and her mother Concetta had been one of those who fed the fugitives. After we had been most kindly given lunch, “Zio Silvio”, actually a cousin, came with us to the church and then to the village cemetery. He had been 17, had heard the shots, had total recall of the incident – how there was a woman making it her business to pass details to the Fascists, how the officers were going to leave the next morning and had gone hastily up to the hut through the snow with no shoes on, how the body was brought down on a ladder by four men and then carried up to the church by another four. The only difference to what the parocco wrote to the ICRC was that it was not Germans but fascisti who shot him – we think the priest knew he had to live with all his flock thereafter.
On the spot where the body was buried before exhumation and reburial in Moro River Canadian war graves cemetery, near Ortona, there happened to be growing irises, daisies and violets – the names of my grandmother and two of her sisters who also lost sons in the second world war.
In 2013, Charles Gordon Clark learned valuable details about his uncle’s experiences during the fighting at Sidi Nsir and thereafter through the memoirs of Lt John Gelly, a brother officer of Roger Lawrence in the 155th Bty/172nd Field Regiment. Lt Gelly was also imprisoned at Fontanellato. The new information enabled Charles to write the following detailed account of the journey made by Lt Gelly, Roger Lawrence and companions after the escape from Fontanellato at the Armistice in early September 1943.
The passage includes extensive quotations from Lt Gelly’s memoirs. We are grateful to his son, John Gelly, who got in touch with Charles Gordon Clark after reading the original account above, for permitting us to publish them.
Late on the afternoon of that first day of freedom, September 9th, Colonel Hugo de Burgh, the senior British officer at Fontanellato PoW camp, said that from that night each of the companies into which the prisoners had been divided was on its own. But the decisions as to what to do were made by far smaller groups. The dozen Royal Engineers decided among themselves: six of the artillery officers, all but one from 155 Battery, made the choice to stick together.
On the 10th, the 155 Battery group decided to stay where they were for a further night until they could hear whether there were really were Allied troops in northern Italy. On September 11th, when they had heard that this was untrue, they decided to accept the offer of a woman who turned up about 10 am with more clothes and offered to take them to Fontevivo, further to the south-east.
The group, by now ten, accepted, and in John Gelly’s words, “walked through fields and along irrigation canals, until about half past one. How unfit we were! In the heat of the midday sun, we were continually resting and reached Fontevivo about the same time as some German soldiers, which put the villagers into complete panic.
“We were pushed into a vineyard to hide until the arrival of our female guide who had gone into the village to find us food and places to stay. She returned within the hour with a farmer who told us that we could not stay in the village as the Germans had arrived! The invasion of Germans turned out to be two soldiers to find a place for the guard, at the railway cross road, to sleep. Four of our party decided to move off, but the rest of us decided to get some food and sit down to discuss what to do next. The food arrived: a loaf of bread, a large piece of cheese and a litre of wine. We sat down on the bank of the canal and ate the food whilst discussing the whole situation.
“As we ate and talked, a man and woman came along, stopped and watched us. Soon they were joined by a man on a bicycle and apparently finding out who we were came over to us and said that he would put two of us up at his farm for a few days. At that, the man and woman came over and made a similar offer. We accepted and paired off, Dennis Brett and myself going with the man and his bicycle, Ken Heck and Roger Lawrence with the woman, and George King and a chap named Smith with the other man. Before we left we agreed to meet back at our position at nine o’clock the next day.”
This they did, and as all three pairs were being well looked after they agreed to stay where they were for another 24 hours and meet again. But with Germans around, it was the 16th before they decided what to do. “That evening we all agreed on the route to take. We would go down the east coast and hopefully meet the Allies in the region of Ancona some 250 miles away, which we anticipated would take about eighteen days if we averaged fifteen miles a day. From the sparse information we had about our forces we thought they ought to take about three weeks to reach Ancona. Therefore our objective was Ancona.
In order to get there we decided to walk north of the railway and road running from Rimini to Parma and beyond, then when near Forli to cross it and make south. We spent the night in Lino’s barn.” (Lino was the prosperous farmer who had taken in Gelly and Brett and was feeding them royally – as well as making them realise that the sympathies of most Italian country folk, actuated as they were by Christian morality, were with the fugitive British.)
On September 17th, the small party began their journey south-east, leaving shortly after 6 am, and having regretfully refused the sheep’s head that Lino offered them. Guided for a while across fields by Lino on his bicycle, they reached the nearly dry river Taro about 10 am, near Golese. Carrying on east they crossed the first road north from Parma safely, but when they came to the Parma-Mantua road it was thick with German lorries and cars. An elderly Italian helped them cross the road safely one by one.
“By late afternoon we reached a river or canal and [had to] walk north until we found a bridge. We must have walked a good three or four miles until we found a bridge, thankfully there were no German sentries. It was during this detour that we realised the difficulties and the extra miles which were in front of us if we kept only to the fields and left the roads alone.”
They were very tired when they reached a village about 6 pm, and discovered that there were Germans there. Luckily, making another detour, they ran into three deserters from the Italian army. One, hearing that they were making for Bologna, offered to guide them there which they accepted gratefully. They skirted the German camp near enough to hear their wirelesses and the noise of men working on vehicles, and about 8 pm a scared farmer fed them bread, cheese, and milk, and allowed them to spend the night in his barn – provided they were away at dawn. This they were, and carried on across fields north of Reggio Emilia, being given lunch of pasta and sugo at a farmhouse beset with flies.
After that they rested in the sun in a vineyard, and met two disoriented British soldiers who had escaped from another camp. They persuaded them to join them, as they had no idea where they were or where they were heading, except “to join our boys”, so they were now a party of nine. By late afternoon, Roger and George King were having trouble with their feet – the party had been forced to walk along a road for about four miles.
“We decided to rest and chose a house lying back a fair distance from the road where we went to ask for some water. We knocked on the door which was opened by the woman of the house. During our conversation with her we discovered that the Germans had been to the property just hours before us and had commandeered their car. It appeared the Germans were moving around the area searching for escaped PoWs so we decided to leave the road and make our way through the nearby wood.
“Just after five o’clock it was decided to start looking for a place to sleep for the night. As our party had grown to nine, this was much harder than before when it was only seven, which was bad enough. It took us some hours, until it was nearly dark, to find a couple of out buildings which meant we had to split into two groups of four and five. We all slept well and awoke the next morning to the sound of a church bell.”
That Sunday they started in high spirits but these evaporated as they seemed to be making little progress. They bathed in a river, and were then given an excellent meal in another house where the owners showed their photograph album and were glad to see the family photos that the fugitives had with them. They then crossed a main road safely but only just missed being caught by a German staff car on the next they came to – fortunately they got into a ditch in time. The locals were panicking at so many Germans around and it took some time for their Italian guide to find a family who would take in Roger and three others; the other four went on until the guide forced a farmer to put them up in a barn. The guide then disappeared – taking John Gelly’s and George King’s packs, and Dennis Heck’s boots. It was a sad end to a day when they had managed to travel twenty miles.
The next morning, September 20th, the party split up, eleven days after leaving Fontanellato. Eight was too unwieldy anyway; and there was a divided preference for which way to go. Roger wanted to cross the railway before Bologna and get into the mountains, Heck and Gelly to stay north of the railway and the Via Emilia. So Roger, George King, Smith, and one of the two soldiers left the other four, intending to move more slowly because of Roger’s and King’s trouble with their feet. Gelly never saw Roger again; he, Ken Heck, and Dennis Brett made it to Allied lines south of the Pescara river in February 1944, after many close shaves and much kindness from contadini.
Charles Gordon Clark