On the run from the Nazis - trooper Gordon Lee's Italian adventure
PUBLISHED: 13:16 28 December 2018 | UPDATED: 13:16 28 December 2018
Norfolk Record Office research blogger Rebecca Hanley recounts the wartime story of an escaped prisoner of war in the Apennine mountains.
In the autumn of 1943, Trooper Gordon Lee and three other fellow prisoners of war managed to escape from an Italian prison camp after tricking the military police into thinking they were getting firewood for the kitchens. “So, no exciting Colditz-style escape for us!” he noted in a memoir donated to the Norfolk Record Office.
It was a lucky escape – around two hours later they spotted swathes of Nazi troops descending on the area they had fled; the remaining prisoners would then be taken to Germany.
The escapees trekked through vineyards in the Italian countryside and befriended some of the locals, who offered them shelter. Many of theom took pity on the men and hated Mussolini, probably because these locals were country folk while city dwellers most likely held different viewpoints entirely, according to Gordon.
The four men then journeyed into the Apennine mountain range, also known as the Spine of Italy. On the way they passed through several villages in the mountains where the villagers would often give them decent shelter as well as food. They still had to avoid dangerous encounters with Nazi patrols, who would often scout the area.
It was the rural village of Tresungo, however, that ended up becoming a temporary home for the escapees, where they would stay for about nine months until news of Allied advances hit them.
After one of Gordon’s companions was injured, they were spotted by a group of locals and “a stocky fellow” told the group they would be taken to the village the following day. The river Tronto ran through the settlement consisting of around 500 people. Gordon described the local cuisine as “very filling” and he remembered the sounds of tinkling bells coming from the animals as they were taken up the mountain slope to graze.
During their stay, they met several interesting characters such as Erbe Petrucci and his family who would provide Gordon and his companions with accommodation; a black marketeer called Alessandro who knew when Nazi patrols would appear and would alert the escapees accordingly; and a lively villager called Antonio who would end up becoming a firm friend of Gordon.
There was still the looming threat of Nazi patrols, however, who would arrive from the nearby town of Ascoli. Gordon felt very grateful for the villagers’ assistance, especially as the consequences if one was caught harbouring prisoners was terrible; a nearby village had experienced their houses being burned down in retribution.
On Christmas Eve, Antonio would invite the four men down to his cellar to have “un bicchiere di vino” (a glass of wine) where they would end up singing various local songs which they had picked up. Unfortunately, Gordon ended up missing the big day – due to being hung over from the previous merrymaking in Antonio’s cellar.
Snow arrived on New Year’s Eve when it came down heavily and many of the villagers ended up getting snowed in. Gordon, however, did not report getting sick despite the intense cold and blamed the amounts of wine that he and his companions drank which he described as “better than cough medicine”.
Eventually, hearing news of Allied advances, the four men left the village and ultimately re-joined the British forces. Gordon, however, would re-visit Tresungo twice – the first time when he decided to hitchhike back to the village from his refuge in Bari, much to the dismay of his superiors; and again, long after the war in 1982 with his family.
Both times the villagers remembered him with much fondness crying out “E Gordoni!” (It’s Gordon).
Gordon’s memoirs are included in the Norfolk Record Office (Reference: NRO, MC 2148/1, 925X6). For more information about his adventures after his escape, visit norfolkrecordofficeblog.org
Hunting for history
Do you want to find something out about our county’s past? Are you interested in the history of your family, home, town or community? Then the Norfolk Record Office is the place to go.
At its offices in Norwich and King’s Lynn, you will find:
• Millions of unique archives covering the last 950 years of Norfolk’s history.
• Free access to family history websites like Ancestry, Find my Past and The Genealogist
• Workshops and lectures to help you become a skilled researcher
• Experienced staff to lend a hand
You will be amazed at what you can uncover.
The Norfolk Record Office holds many letters and diaries from individuals in Norfolk. Some of these can be found in family and estate papers.
For more information see www.archives.norfolk.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/using-the-archives/guide-to-holdings/private/family-and-estate
Memoirs and diaries can also be searched via NROCAT at nrocat.norfolk.gov.uk by clicking on “advanced search”, and selecting diaries from the dropdown menu in the categories box.