By the 8th September 1943, when Italy formally surrendered to the Allies, thus making invasion of Italy from the Island of Sicily easier, there were still around 80,000 allied prisoners of war (POWs) in camps across Italy. Unfortunately, they were all in areas that the Axis army were about to take control of.
The Allies had also issued a ‘stay put order’ to all senior Allied officers in the prison camps, to deter escapes due to concerns over a massacre and in the belief that the Allied landings about to take place on mainland Italy would sweep across Italy driving the Germans out of the country. But it grossly underestimated the German resolve. Many of the POWs realising this decided to make their own bid for freedom.
For those locked up in prison camps in the north, or the more fortunate who had been allowed out to help on the local farms, they faced a difficult choice. Many had been prisoners for over two years or more, after being captured in the North Africa Campaign and transported to Italy. Their clothing was in a poor state, their boots were in tatters and perhaps most importantly of all, their physical condition was poor due to malnourishment and other problems such as dysentery and lice.
During this period, food was just as scarce outside the camps – the local populous were only just getting by on what they could afford or able to grow themselves. The shortest route to freedom was perhaps the most difficult of all, both mentally and physically – crossing the Alps to reach neutral Switzerland.
Many of the soldiers had never left their home country before the war and almost none of them had knowledge of the techniques involved in successfully navigating mountainous terrain let alone crossing a glacier or climbing a rock face. It was September, at the end of an alpine summer, when the weather starts to rapidly change as the snow and ice begin to claw back the territory lost during the brief summer period, even at altitudes as low as 2,500m. This was made even more difficult by increased activity of German troops and Italian Fascist forces in the border area, who were trying to hunt down those that had already left the camps.
If you were lucky enough to find clothing or to be offered it, you ran the risk of being shot as a spy if caught without uniform. Many Italians helped hide, feed and in some cases offer guidance to help escaping prisoners of war. But the stakes were high for everyone: any Italians caught helping were summarily executed, along with their family. Their houses were then burned to the ground as a warning to the rest of the local populace. However, resistance was now on the increase and many soldiers received a cooked meal, a bottle of wine and offers of overnight shelter in farm outbuildings, which were sometimes bartered for using chocolate, tea or even a bar of soap from their Red Cross parcels.
Some were lucky enough to be passed into resistance groups, including those operating in the vicinity of Biella, Piemonte. From here, they were guided up to the Roman Catholic monastery, Santuario di Oropa, up in the mountains above the city where they could stay overnight. From here they could head north on foot crossing several mountain ranges, each one with a valley to descend into and climb out of on the other side. After four to five days they would reach the Macagna valley and dodging the roving patrols climb up to the summit of the ‘Passo Del Monte Moro, 2,868m high, one of the lowest crossing points between Italy and Switzerland. Once on the summit they were out of range of the Germans who, in some cases, fired at those they saw scrambling up the mountainside.
The border had no fencing, so they could simply walk down the other side into the Saas Valley, Switzerland, and on towards freedom. Many were initially frightened when they met Swiss soldiers patrolling their border, as they wore helmets similar to the German soldiers and spoke in a German dialect. But upon realising they were Swiss, they would allow themselves to be escorted down into the valley where they received a warm meal, fresh clothes and occasionally the opportunity to have a bath for the first time in a couple of years.
Others crossed the Alps over the glaciers around the Monte Rosa. This included Italian soldiers who were fleeing the fascist regime, which still had a strong grip in northern Italy. Crossing glaciers without crampons attached to boots, an ice axe and a partner to rope up to, was perilous. Some of those making this desperate bid for freedom fell into the crevasses on the mighty Grenz glacier, nicknamed the ‘Man-eater’. Unable to climb back out, they faced freezing to death and being permanently entombed. Such was the desperation of ordinary people who wanted to escape the war.
Those who had not escaped before the German’s took over, jumped from prison trains that were taking them north over the Brenner Pass into Austria and, ultimately, into Germany. The lucky ones were able to prise the wooden doors and floorboards away in the cattle trucks they were riding in, before jumping from the train as it slowed to climb the steep incline up the Brenner Pass in the Trentino Alto Adige region. They would lie up in the valley’s lush vineyards the following day, before starting the walk across the Brenta Dolomites and Alps – a staggering distance of 190km, climbing in excess of 10,000m in eight days.
They did so with little rest or food and no proper clothing, especially considering colder conditions they encountered on route. They were at war with nature as much as they were at war with fascists! But in the end over 20,000 allied servicemen did successfully make it to Switzerland and a relatively comfortable internment until they could be repatriated.