Little did Trooper Gordon Lee, of the 44th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, know of what was about to meet him when he, along with three other POWS, took the opportunity to escape back to allied occupied territory. The four men would journey across the vast and treacherous Italian landscape, getting to know the often friendly locals and evading hostile Nazi patrols at every turn. His memoirs (NRO, MC 2148/1, 925X6) explain his experiences.
Gordon Lee was captured by enemy forces in Libya on the 5th June 1942. As a POW he was transferred to Macerata, Italy where he became friendly with three other men, Ernest Johnson, Philip Millard and Jim Farnsworth. On the 3rd September, 1943, the Italians made an armistice with the allies and the camp guards became surprisingly friendly towards the prisoners. Two weeks later German troop transporters were spotted flying south, obviously seeking to take control of the country themselves. Noticing this the Italian guards retreated and the camp was left unguarded. Contrary to the wishes of the Senior British Officer, Lee and his three companions seized the opportunity to escape. They shouldered past the military police placed there pretending that they were simply collecting firewood for the kitchens, Lee exclaims ‘So, no exciting Colditz-style escape for us!’. Two hours later as they began their journey on the run, they saw swathes of German troops swoop upon the camp and take the place over. The remaining POWs were later transported to Germany.
In order to stay concealed Lee and his three companions travelled westwards towards the Apennines aiming to meet up with the advancing allied forces. On the way to the mountains, Lee and company walked through vineyards, taking whole bunches of grapes as they did so. In order to be provided with shelter Lee’s company resorted to begging the locals for a place to stay for the night. According to Lee the response was usually good, especially as many Italians from that region felt sorry for them and hated Mussolini. Lee felt this may have been because these locals were country folk and that the city folk may have held different viewpoints.
Some ‘special memories’ soon followed when they spent an evening with the villagers of Pianella working in the maize field. This work left them with a heap of maize cobs and ‘empty wine bottles’. However, their afternoon siesta was interrupted by a German patrol, causing everyone to scatter in various directions. Lee was badly scratched after jumping into nearby bramble bushes to hide but avoided capture and was soon greeted to a bed and some delicious gnocchi. Unfortunately, the next village they arrived at had more inhospitable residents who called the local police to arrest them. The men escaped their assailants by hiding in yet more bushes.
Most of the villages the company came across ultimately ended up being welcoming and one of them would end up being their home for nine months. One of Lee’s fellow travellers Phil slipped while descending a steep and rocky slope and ended up with a bad leg injury. Thankfully a group of local people arrived and assessed the damage, instructing them to stay put. Not long after a ‘stocky little chap’ told the group to wait until the next day when they would be taken to the nearby village. This village turned out to be Tresungo and they befriended and rested in the house of Erbe Petrucci. Alongside his wife he took care of the four men, providing adequate food and shelter. The village itself had the river Tronto running through it and a ‘self-supporting’ population of about five hundred. They lived off the land, growing their crops in the areas around the settlement and keeping numerous animals. Fuel supplies came from the nearby woods where firewood would be stocked by the houses ready for the winter, while chestnuts were collected to feed the pigs.
For the majority of their stay they lived in small stone huts just outside the village and dined on the local cuisine which was often ‘very filling’. In good weather Lee remembered the sounds of the tinkling bells coming from the animals as they were taken up the mountain slope to graze. However, there was still the constant threat of sudden German patrols from the town of Ascoli. The consequences if one was caught harbouring prisoners was terrible, as a nearby village experienced when their houses were burned down. Thankfully ‘a bold and fierce character’ a black marketer called Alessandro who regularly supplied the villagers with goods from Ascoli, was able to determine when patrols would visit, and would inform Lee and his companions when to ‘disappear’. In these times the group would wander into nearby valleys and villages before it was safe again to travel to Tresugo. On Christmas Eve they met their new-found friend, Antonio who they had helped previously with the grape harvests when he was ill. Upon meeting him that day Lee describes how Antonio ‘put his thumb to his mouth, the invitation to have ‘’un bicchiere di vino’’ (a glass of wine). Looking forward to starting the Christmas festivities the group followed him into his wine cellar where they started to sing a combination of the local songs they had picked up, together with our own offerings, including ‘’Oh, oh Antonio’’ which of course he loved. Lee spent Christmas day hung-over, something he later felt guilty about, he ‘regained consciousness in a sorry state and they never let me forget it. And neither did I!’
Gordon spent the rest of winter in Tresungo where starting on New Year’s Eve the ‘white stuff’ fell and left many of the villagers snowed in. Due to the heavy snowfall a German truck consisting of two privates and a sergeant ended up having to camp in the village until the snow cleared, Gordon commented ‘we had neighbours wearing swastikas’. The Germans found out about the four escaped English prisoners and Lee and his friends were invited to meet with them, but they politely declined not wanting to take any chances and were happy to see them leave when the snow finally cleared. Soon after however the four escapees heard on the radio that the Germans were finally retreating and decided that it would soon be time to re-join the British forces. Although sad to leave the former POW felt relieved when they finally met up with a Royal Engineers unit in a nearby town. They were sent to a rest camp in Bari with other escapees to await a return to England. Gordon became bored and managed to hitchhike his way back to Tresengo where he desired to give Erbe a ‘gift of clothes and boots as ‘thank you’ for his kindness’ and was greeted with much delight by the villagers.
Upon returning to Bari the authorities were obviously displeased with his absence stating that as an ex-POW ‘I was not quite sane!’ In 1982 Lee returned to Tresugo one last time with his family. To his surprise and delight, many of the villagers remembered him chanting ‘E Gordoni!’ (It’s Gordon). Antonio was still there too, and they vividly remembered that glass of wine in the cellar.
Compiled and written by NRO Research Blogger, Rebecca Hanley