In episode two of WWII’s Great Escapes: The Freedom Trails, Monty follows the journey made by British Colour Sergeant Len Harley (above, left) after his escape from Campo 78, in central Italy’s Abruzzo region.
Len had been imprisoned for more than two years, but in 1943 came astonishing news that the Allies had landed in the south and were advancing north – the fall of fascism had begun. Prison camps across Italy were in a state of chaos, and the guards in Campo 78 simply fled.
Despite a previous order from MI9, stating that all POWs should remain in their camps and wait for Allied forces to arrive, a senior officer told Len and his friends; “Well lads you’re on your own now and it’s all everybody for himself”. They were left with a difficult choice – follow the order from MI9 and risk the return of their guards, or leave the camp for the unknown.
Although the surrounding countryside was still swarming with German troops and Italian militia, Len and many others decided to leave the camp, guessing of the danger they would be in if they stayed. Len spent months on the run, sheltered by local families, before crossing the Majella mountains to the safety of a town on the other side in Allied hands. Monty retraces his route, meeting those who helped Len and other escapees.
But what happened to those who did stay put, why was the order given in the first place?
Taken from The Guardian: Second World War blunder that doomed 50,000 British POWs
During the early summer of 1943, MI9 came to the bizarre conclusion that Italy would be out of the war in a few days and decided to order the 80,000 PoWs in Italy to “stay put” and wait for Allied forces to arrive. The organisation had never had to deal with the possibility of thousands of PoWs escaping simultaneously.
Order P/W 87190, issued on 7 June 1943, stated that “in the event of an Allied invasion of Italy, officers commanding prison camps will ensure that prisoners of war remain within camp. Authority is granted to all officers commanding to take necessary disciplinary action to prevent individual prisoners of war attempting to rejoin their own units.”
MI9 used one of the most popular programmes on the BBC, The Radio Padre, a weekly talk every Wednesday evening at 7pm, to transmit its instructions. Thanks to the Rev Ronnie Wright’s simple, unpatronising manner, The Radio Padre was the second most popular show on the BBC after Tommy Handley’s ITMA comedy show. MI9 inserted the order into the text of the minister’s talk using a secret code known as HK. Wright was told to open his talk with the words “Good evening, forces” instead of “Hello” or just “Good evening” – the signal for any PoWs listening on their radios that there was a hidden message between the lines of Christian reassurance.
By midsummer 1943, as German troops poured into Italy, it became clear that the country was going to take months to conquer. Despite this, MI9 continued to transmit the order. Its unofficial history states proudly: “It is a tribute to the efficiency [MI9] had attained that almost every camp’s SBO [senior British officer] received the message in time.” Brigadier Crockatt, the head of MI9, “was happy at what was being done”. Later, MI9 tried to blame the order on Montgomery, claiming that Monty “probably gave his directive… in late May or early June when nominally on leave in London”, but no evidence has emerged to confirm this.
MI9 did not inform Churchill or the War Cabinet of its actions. Churchill wanted all PoWs to be released immediately in the event of an Italian surrender and insisted that the condition be inserted in the agreement. Article 3 states: “All prisoners or internees of the United Nations to be immediately turned over to the Allied commander-in-chief and none of these may now or at any time be evacuated to Germany.”
The Italian War Ministry fulfilled the agreement on the day of the surrender, telling camp commandants to remove their guards, but because of MI9’s order thousands of Allied prisoners failed to take the opportunity to run. When the commandant withdrew his guards at Camp PG 57near Trieste, the senior British officer, loyal to the “stay put” order, kept the gates closed and ordered the men not to leave. Within 24 hours, the camp was surrounded by Germans and the window of opportunity had closed.
The Italian guards abandoned Camp PG 21 in Chieti in the middle of the night. When the SBO, a Colonel Marshall, threatened to court-martial any PoW who left, there was a near mutiny, so he appointed his own phalanx of guards and ordered them to man the watchtowers. German paratroops were astonished to discover the prisoners milling around inside the camp compound. Some 1,300 soldiers were transported to camps in Poland and Germany.
In all, 50,000 soldiers were seized. What happened to most of the remaining 30,000 is a mystery. After the war, the MoD estimated that 11,500 escaped, by risking a perilous crossing of the Alps into Switzerland or getting through German lines to reach Allied forces.
Of those captured by the Germans, at least 4% to 5% are believed to have died in captivity. After the war, several families threatened to sue MI9.
The original order has disappeared from the War Office archives at Kew, perhaps destroyed by someone who did not want to be linked to the blunder. The truth of who was responsible for creating one of the untold scandals of the Second World War may never be known.
Where the Hell Have You Been? by Tom Carver, published by Short Books, £16.99