Here is the story of an escape – the story of a man with the will to be free and the courage and strength to gain this freedom. He told it to me when I met him in Italy just after he and his friend had escaped to the Eighth Army lines.
He is 30-year-old Lt. Hugh Gordon-Brown, whose family lives at St. Mary’s Platt, Sevenoaks, Kent. For five and a half months he led 33 British prisoners of war at a camp in Italy in planning and carrying through an escape project rivalling that of the Count of Monte Cristo in tenacity and bitter toil.
Day and night, maneuvering, contriving, improvising, these men sweated underground, choking on gobs of earth, gasping for air in the foetid closeness, to dig a tunnel 22 feet long under the walls of the prison.
By Lt. Gordon-Brown’s side during these nightmare months of drudgery, punctuated by heart-breaking failures, was Lt. Alexander Hope, of Brompton Square, London.
I talked to the two of them in a little café in an Italian town, while our aircraft roared overhead to attack German positions. “I was captured at Fuke on June 9 1942,” Lt. Gordon Brown told me. “Hope was taken at Bir Hamah on May 28. The prison was well guarded, and too heavily enclosed to make escape seem reasonable, or even possible. Stone walls held us in. For many yards beyond the walls the area was devoid of brush, so that the guards could see anything that passed. Powerful searchlights would disclose a rabbit outside the walls, let alone a man.” Lt. Gordon Brown pondered the problem of escape, and finally came to the conclusion that to have any chance of success it would be necessary to tunnel far beyond the walls, where some cover would be available.
The tunnel would have to be deep, since the bastions surrounding them went down many feet.
He calculated that they would have to dig a tunnel about 200ft long.
By April of this year (1943) he had his plans figured out. The next step was to carry them into effect. He put his plan before the other prisoners. Some said it was impossible; others said the war would be over before they could finish it.
Several volunteered and the work began. They had no shovels. These were improvised out of discarded tins. They had no picks, no crowbars, no tools of any sort except implements crudely fashioned out of a few odds and ends of scrap iron. “The chief thing we could count on was our own labour,” Lt. Gordon-Brown said. “We dug for a week, and when we saw how little progress we had made we were very downcast, but there was nothing else to do except go on. The hardest job was disposing of the soil that was excavated. Before anything could be moved from the tunnel, it was necessary to synchronise the movements of the workers with the patrol of the guards. Five or ten minutes of nonsurveillance is very precious for men fighting for freedom. We discovered that there was a sewer nearby, and we dug a side tunnel to it so that we would have a place to dispose of our diggings. Through this tunnel we crawled on our hands and knees, dragging the soil on a sledge we made out of scraps of wood. Then one day catastrophe faced us. The sewer was in danger of being clogged up. We had nowhere to place the soil, and there were many weary cubic yards through which we had to gnaw our way – that’s what it was, gnawing, a few inches a day.”
With their project menaced Lt. Gordon-Brown had to think fast. The problem was finally solved by an ingenious ruse. The men pretended to take a great interest in the trees in the camp area. The guards were probably concerned with the condition of the camp foliage, but they said nothing. The prisoners dug up the earth around the roots, presumably for cultivation purposes.
“We were able to get rid of quite a few yards by mixing the tunnel soil with the fresh earth around the trees. We carried it out of the tunnel by tin.”
Then another serious problem imperilled the project. As the men dug deeper, the shortage of fresh air became dangerous. Men would drop from fatigue after a few minutes work under the earth.
“In order not to suffocate ourselves we built a pipeline, fashioned out of tins. It worked very well and we were able to continue”
No sooner had they solved that then the rains began flooding the tunnel, and threatening to drown all their hopes of escape. They saw the work of weeks crumbling under the floods. It meant that the water had to be drained quart by quart, while men laboured in the mud through the chilly nights. Some grew discouraged and dropped out. Lt. Gordon-Brown felt no resentment.
“I knew how they felt, and there were times when I thought it was more than we could do. I had started the damned job, I couldn’t quit.”
Other volunteers joined the tunnellers. All the prisoners in the camp knew what was going on, and they voted the working party extra rations out of parcels received from home to give them the necessary strength. Every hour on the task, and off, elaborate precautions had to be taken to keep the Italian guards in ignorance. There were many occasions when exposure seemed almost inevitable, but skill and luck held out. Finally, after months of burrowing, the men saw that the tunnel would soon be finished.
“We set a date for escape. It was September 21. Then news of the Italian armistice came over the wireless, and we wanted to act more quickly. Others advised us to delay our move. They believed that our forces would soon be along, and we would be freed. Imagine our bitter disappointment when we found our camp taken over by Germans, and a detachment of German paratroops were put on guard instead.”
With heavy hearts, the tunnellers accelerated their task.
“We finished it at last, and daylight came out of the other end – the most welcome sight in the world.”
The prisoners knew every minute lost was dangerous, as restrictions were tightening, and the guards became increasingly uneasy. Two nights later, filing silently through the long tunnel, the prisoners escaped.
“All we knew was that we must head south.” Lt. Gordon-Brown told me.
“We had no maps, but that did not stop us. We wandered over the mountains, keeping out of the way of German patrols. Wherever we went Italians treated us well, giving us food and even the last clothes they possessed although they knew that if they were caught it meant death. Many times we passed within yards of the enemy patrols. In certain villages we were advised by peasants that local Fascists would give us away, so we moved on. We knew when we were near the front line, but it was very difficult finding an opening. We waited for days before out of sheer weariness, we decided to make a dash for it. We were ready by this time to fight it out with bare fists if we bumped into an enemy patrol. There was one anxious minute, when we thought we would have to do it. We heard noises, and saw soldiers moving. They were Eighth Army men. We had come back.”
What do men say when they reach freedom after harrowing months of scraping under the ground? What do they do?
“Well, we smoked a cigarette and asked the patrol what they were doing. They had a tough job. We talked awhile, and then we hitch-hiked to headquarters.”