Friday, February 13, 2015

Fullbore Friday

Some times, a true story is better than any fiction one could right.

Almost a year ago, a great man passed on - a man whose story in WWII fits the bill. This is a longish quote from his obit, but do yourself a favor and go read the whole thing.

Colonel Tresham Gregg, well done.
In Italy, he was sent to Camp PG66 at Capua. After trying to walk out of the camp with a working party, he was detected. His persistent efforts to escape had earned him the label pericoloso, and the irate commandant sentenced him to a month’s “solitary” in an unheated tin shack. But for the arrival of a representative of the Red Cross, he might have perished of cold and hunger. 
In March 1942 Gregg was transferred to Camp PG35 at Padula. A failed attempt to tunnel his way out earned him another month in solitary confinement. As an additional punishment, he was then sent to Camp PG29 at Veano, a converted seminary near Piacenza - its commandant claimed that it was escape-proof. 
Calculating that the last place that the Italians would expect a tunnel to start would be in the middle of an open exercise yard, Gregg and a group composed mostly of RTR officers sank a 16ft shaft into the vegetable plots at the centre of this open space, concealing their excavations with lines of washing. 
There ensued six months of work in claustrophobic conditions. Hair oil provided fuel for a single lamp. Gregg dug with an iron rod wrapped in rope to give a firm grip. One night in July 1943, they reached a slit-trench outside the perimeter fence. 
Four of the six tunnellers broke out, and three were quickly captured. Gregg emerged three yards from a sentry and was shot in the head — but still succeeded in getting away. Disguised as a member of the Dutch Hitler Youth (his cover story being that he was on his way to a conference in Rome), he took a bus to Parma railway station, and seated himself in a carriage full of German soldiers. 
He even borrowed copies of their magazines to add to his camouflage. He hoped to reach the Vatican and use his Irish passport to get him a free passage home, but the Carabinieri were searching for him and picked him up while the train was still in the suburbs of Rome. 
Back in PG29 he was serving a third month in solitary confinement when, in September 1943, the Armistice was announced and he was released. He had relations in Switzerland and could have headed north; but he chose to stay with his closest friend, Captain “Donny” Mackenzie of the Cameron Highlanders, who was suffering from malaria.
The two men sheltered with a local family but, as winter set in, moved south-west into the mountains and settled in the Val Nure with a group of charcoal burners. They lived off an almost unrelieved diet of chestnuts. 
In spring 1944 they were contacted by the partisans. Gregg and Mackenzie led a successful raid on a police station at Ferriere, then ambushed two truckloads of troops sent to flush them out. 
As they moved down the Val Nure towards Piacenza, their force picked up recruits. They liberated Bettola and cleared the valley almost as far as Veano. Gregg (known as “Capitano Ganna” to the Italians) and Mackenzie commanded the fighting elements of what became known as the Stella Rossa artisan brigade. 
Contacts were established with MI9 (the intelligence agency which assisted resistance fighters in enemy-occupied territory) and with an SOE mission code-named “Blundell Violet”. The Prefect of Piacenza put a price on their heads; but they were in a natural stronghold, and when a Fascist Alpini battalion attacked over the mountains, Gregg not only forced its commander to give them all his heavy weapons as the price for freeing him, but also recruited many of his men. 
During September 1944 more than 100 downed Allied airmen passed through their hands towards safety in the south. They built an airstrip for supplies and raided German supply lines. In October they liberated Ponte dell’Olio, the northernmost town in the Val Nure. When Gregg’s partisans took the airfield, they were delighted to find 4,000 bottles of rum and brandy bricked up in a storeroom. 
Mackenzie was killed a few days later while on a patrol, and Gregg had to retrieve his body for burial at Bettola, several thousand people turning out for the funeral. Gregg was recalled to discuss future plans and ran a gauntlet of “friendly fire” on reaching the American lines near Serravezza on December 5. He was again mentioned in despatches for his attempts to escape.

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