My father, Derek Cotton, born in Leeds, 11.04.1916, found himself in Rome at the outbreak of war. He served there as a Commercial Attaché at the British Embassy till 04.06.1940 when he was repatriated to UK, arriving on 06.04.1940.
Owing to his mastery of French, German, Italian and Arabic, he underwent training in the Intelligence “I” Corps in Oxford up to Dec 1940 and in Farnborough in April 1941, and sent off on 19.07.1941 by sea via Durban in South Africa to join the British forces in Cairo, Egypt, where he arrived on 23.07.1941.
Sent on with the advance forces, he was in Beghazi in January 1942, and at Tobruk thereafter.
He was present at the fall of Tobruk in June 1942, and with Rommel’s rapid advance, found himself behind German lines. He tried to re-join the British forces by rowing boat, but was captured by Italian patrol with Ronnie Noble, and Sgt Moher (RTR). This episode is recounted in Ronnie Noble’s book, “Shoot First: Assignments of a Newsreel Camera-Man”, Pan Books 1957, ASIN B0000CJS58, pp 71-77.
He was subsequently taken to Bu Amud on 27.06.1942, and on to Derna the following day, and on to Barce the day after, staying there till 03.07.1942, when he was taken to Lecce and transferred for internment at PG Bari (Torre Tresca) till 07.08.1942. There conditions were particularly dire. He was however transferred to PG Chieti on 08.08.1942 and stayed there till 30.04.1943. Together with a number of other officers, he was, fortunately then taken to PG Veano on 01.05.1943.
Two days after the signing of the Armistice by Marshal Badoglio on 08.09.1943, all the Italian guards deserted; the camp commandant advised all prisoners to quit the camp, unlike his counterpart at PG Chieti, who ordered all prisoners to remain, whereupon they were rounded up by the Germans and taken away.
In the company of Major Fieldhouse RASC and Major Bransom, on 10.09.1943, my father left PG Veano, which is still standing, intending to head West to Genoa. This however was already in German hands. The next plan was to head south towards Bettoia. However, learning that the British forces were 500km away, further south than expected, they decided to backtrack and head east to the region of Ferriere, 10-12km from the camp, staying in the mountains with locals. In particular, he was helped by:-
Luigi & Giacomo SCAGLIA (3 weeks lodging),
Elvira CARINI (3 weeks food),
Piera SCAGLIA (one month food & lodging),
the families BATIANI, CAPPUCCIATI, and VINCENTI (clothing).
Having made contact with partisans, he made a night march with seven others including Jonny Mclean, “Fairy” Fieldhouse (VC), Jack McGinty, Barney Grogan, Lt Col Tuck, and Jock McGinlay (an Anzac tank commander together with my father in capture of Tobruk) on 13.11.1943 from Tornarezza eastwards to Bettoia, and arrived at 6am at the house of Signora BAIO in Piacenza, where he was provided very welcome food and drink.
Guided by Franco & Giovanni PARETI, who were coordinating the smuggling of POWs into Switzerland, with three others, he travelled by train to Como. There arrangements had unfortunately broken down, and the acquaintance, Sgr Maschetti, at whose house they arrived in the evening was unwilling to accept them, firstly because he had not been paid, but more importantly because German frontier guards had replaced the Italians who had had a special system with the Swiss frontier police at nearby Chiasso, when slipping POWs across the border. Ultimately, Silvio Novoloni, who had intended to flee to Switzerland, being on the run from the Fascisti, was found to take my father and others with him across the frontier wire in fog, avoiding the sentry patrol.
(Having no money, he boarded the efficient, sparkling clean, Swiss train and announced to the ticket inspector that Mr Churchill will pay the fare.)
In Switzerland, he arrived in Wil, Canton St Gallen on 22.11.1943, where he stayed at a camp for escaped POWs. Once on the Swiss side, my father picked up a phone and telephoned my mother, a Swiss national, whom he had not seen for three years….the rest, as they say is history.
Incidentally, Ronnie Noble had arrived in Wil as well, though it is not clear if he came with my father or not.
PS. A diary was kept by one Stamatis, a friend of Belefantis, in Cairo, now lost.