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T. J. Ager, after war and imprisonment, looking “rather the worse for wear”

On February 9, I received a note from Gillian Pink of Suffolk, England.

Her father, Thomas John Ager, who served in the Essex Regiment, was captured at Deir el Shein during the first battle of El Alamein. He was sent to Camp 82 at Laterina, Italy.

After the capitulation of Italy in September 1943, Tom and the other prisoners of the camp found themselves free of prison, but behind enemy lines.

“My father’s letters from Camp 82 stop in August of 1943,” Gill explained. “There is one dated July 1944 from the Red Cross to my mother saying he had been sent to a transit camp (Feldpost 31979), and another from the Red Cross dated August 1944 saying he was in Stalag VII-A. Shortly after, he was transferred to Stalag VIII-B, where they all seemed to end up.

“The first letter from Stalag VII-A is dated 16 July 1944. It says ‘The life that I am leading now is not quite so hectic as I have been used to for the last ten months. So I am having a little rest.’ I’m sure his time on the run is what he’s referring to, though my mother may not have known that. I can’t imagine an account of it would have been allowed past the censor.

“It seems the Germans clamped down on letters in and out, as well as Red Cross parcels, from around that date. Then of course the Russians started to advance, and the rest is history.

“I was interested to find some correspondence from the Vatican amongst the papers. It seems there was a Papal ‘go-between’ who facilitated communications between POWs in Italian camps and their families.

“In my burrowings, I discovered a letter dated 5 November 1944 to my mother from a Victor Parkin, asking if my father had arrived home safely. He said he was with my father at first, but then they separated—so he might have been the friend my father mentions in his account. It seems he got away while my father was recaptured. His address was 15 Pendennis Road, Staple Hill, Bristol.”

Although Tom was not in Camp 59, his story of survival in the Italian countryside is typical of the Camp 59 escapees’ experiences.

On his return to England, Tom married his fiancee, Gladys Wash. The two had known each other since childhood and were married for 54 years. They were married by special licence a few days after Tom was repatriated, though he had to return a few weeks later to a transit camp in Oxfordshire, where he helped repatriate Polish servicemen. He was finally demobbed in May 1946.

Tom and Gladys had two children.

“My father’s account is somewhat garbled,” Gill explained, “as by the time I persuaded him to record his experiences, he was dying.” Tom died in 1999.

“His time at large in Italy was really the only part of his war he would talk about when I was young,” Gill said. “I don’t think it was a bad time for him. He always longed to go back to see if he could find the people who helped him, but sadly he never managed the journey.

“I have all the letters my mother received from him while he was a prisoner (though probably not all he wrote), so I know pretty well where he was at any given time. Unfortunately, they don’t say much of interest, partly due to censorship and partly because he wanted to reassure my mother at length that his feelings hadn’t changed.

“I volunteer at a rural life museum and annually we hold a ‘Countryside at War’ day, when some of the letters are displayed together with other relevant documents (my mother, bless her, never threw anything away). Last year, one woman carefully read through the whole ‘story’ and anxiously asked me ‘And did he get home safely, do you know?’ I was pleased to be able to say he did, and produced me two years later!”

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Tom Ager at the start of the war

Gill wrote, “I am sending two photos of my father: one at the start of the war, and one after a time as a prisoner, where he looks rather the worse for wear.”

Tom Ager’s Escape Story

“….I think there must have been about twenty of us; they put the main party to work cutting terraces on the side of a hill—the terraces to put the grapevines in—that was the only way you could do it in those hilly countries. I don’t know how much work they did, or how much sitting down. Jock Wilson and myself were left behind as camp cooks. You didn’t need to be very expert to cook macaroni, as long as we kept them supplied with hot water for the coffee and tea. First thing in the morning it meant getting up very early—chopping wood and lighting a fire—but we managed. The weather was fine. We stayed there for a time and life wasn’t too bad—we managed to keep going, with the odd letter here and there.

“Then in ’43, towards September, the Italians decided they’d had enough fighting—I don’t think they’d wanted to start in the first place—they said ‘Oh well, I think we’ve had enough fighting’, and packed it in. That was when all the trouble started. Before we knew where we were, all the Italian guards disappeared, demobbed themselves—gone home! There wasn’t much else we could do—we weren’t going to stop there and we decided to turn it in as well. Three of us left one night and struck north. Our idea was to get to the Swiss border. But we got into all sorts of difficulties on the way and we never reached the Swiss border—I don’t think we stood much chance at all. Our Italian wasn’t very good and we looked what we were—we hadn’t got wise to it—we turned round—lost one of the blokes, he was picked up. Poor kid—he was lost from the start; we had to mother him. I think he was a Scot—he was a good lad, a tea taster in Glasgow.

“The two of us got on quite nicely together; we wandered along until we met up with some other people and off we went together. We were on the way back by then—on the way back past Florence. Our idea then was to go to the east coast and try and get picked up, because we’d heard rumours that every now and then someone would arrive and pick up people—but how true it was I have absolutely no idea. But we never reached it—it was too heavily fortified. By that time my friend had gone off and I was alone. But by that time I was a bit wiser and managed to disguise myself as a travelling shepherd. I had a big stick and a cloak and a sheepskin. Whether or not I looked like a shepherd I don’t know—I hadn’t got any sheep—I hadn’t even got a sheepdog! But I managed to keep out of trouble, travelling alone was the best way of doing it. When you had friends with you, you spoke English; when you were moving alone, you had to speak the language, and I picked up quite a bit. People I met used to think I was a forestieri, which in Italian is a foreigner from another village, and the dialect used to alter from village to village in those days.

“It was getting on for winter and it was a very bad, snowy winter. I spent one night in a shepherd’s hut, way up in the hills, and there I made myself a meal—somebody, at some time, had left a lump of fat pork up there and I managed to get a fire going. Next morning there was only one thing to do—make for the lower slopes, and then on the way down I slipped and fell into a snow hole. I don’t really know how I got out; I think the only thing that saved me was my big old shepherd’s cloak. I remember being able to fling it out and it gave me a bit of purchase. By that time I was frozen with cold and soaking wet and I went down to a village, a little place I think was called Marucci which is not far from Pizzoli. I remember Pizzoli well. I’d just come down from the hills above Marucci, which was on the slopes of the Apennines not far from the Gran Sasso. I’d been trapped in the snow and I was cold, soaking wet, and the ladies of the village took me in, put me to bed and I finished up with double pneumonia and pleurisy, but they were very kind.

“The people of that village were very strong, including the old parish priest; and they put me to bed, kept me warm and got a doctor and when you hear people standing behind you who can’t make up their mind what to do with you when you pop off it’s a bit disconcerting! They didn’t know whether to take me back up the hills and leave me as if I’d died of exposure or whether to bury me in the churchyard, which I don’t think the priest was very happy with, or just to hand me over to the Germans who were left. But I fooled them—I got better! And they were most kind—they looked after me, fed me and kept very quiet. The men of that village weren’t bad, but a lot of them were deserters who’d hopped it when Italy packed up, so they were half hiding as well, because if the Germans got hold of them they would have taken them back into the army again—and I don’t think they were very keen on that.

“I stayed there for some time building myself up, wandering about, hiding away, doing a little work helping them plant a few potatoes and odds and ends; trying to earn my keep. I gave them one of my photos—of myself and Gladys—where it is now, who knows! Tucked away in somebody’s bits and pieces, no doubt.

“Then after a time summer came, the weather was fine and we heard that the Yanks were on the point of entering Rome, so I thought it was about time that I made a move; so without saying anything to the people, which I suppose was pretty rotten, I wandered off in what I thought was the direction of Rome. Luckily, I seemed to be on the right road. I was getting quite close to Rome; my plan would have been to enter Rome and try and get into the Vatican because once you’d got in there, you were in a different country and you were quite safe. But unfortunately on the track I met up with two Italian yobbos who walked along with me and talked—of course they knew who I was and it was no good trying to hide. Next thing I knew one of them had dropped back—said something about going somewhere. I ought to have done the other one in and scarpered, I suppose, but then again that’s not me. Next thing I knew, waiting for us along the road was a German patrol full of guns, all looking fierce, just to catch one poor old English prisoner who’d had a lot of luck—and now his luck had run out.

“They stuck me on a truck and took me back to Aquila. And I’d been so close! Another hour or so and I’d have made the outskirts of Rome and could have hidden myself away. But it wasn’t to be. In Aquila they questioned me and stripped me—I hadn’t got anything with me—no incriminating evidence, absolutely nothing at all. The only book I’d got with me was a small Bible and they went through that like I don’t know what—I don’t know what they expected to find!—but they didn’t find anything at all.

“Next thing I knew I was on another truck going back up north again to our old camp at Laterina which had altered quite a bit since I was there—they’d put buildings up and it was quite smart. Then we were all rounded up, lined up, and put onto cattle wagons and taken up into Germany into another camp, at Moosberg, which I don’t think is very far from Munich. We didn’t stay there very long. We then moved on up to another camp in Poland, Silesia or somewhere—a huge camp, Stalag 8B—Lamsdorf, I think it was called. I was there for some time, bored stiff, ill-fed—the camp was rife with blokes on the fiddle all the while—blokes who’d been there since 1940 and made it their home. I don’t know what they did when they got home! They must have been completely disorientated.”

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Gill says of the image above, “There is a bit of a mystery about this last photo. It was amongst the letters, and has a name and address on the back. As far as I can read it: Maglioni (and I cannot read the other name, something like Oronuoso) No 1, Via Roma H10 Premilcuore Forli Italia. I wonder if it was someone who helped him when he was on the run.”

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“There is a scrap of paper with it in a different hand,” Gill adds, “which says—as far as I can make out—‘Colgo l’occasione per farti gli auguri della J. Pasquas. Spero con ausia la vostra gratitudine, R. Giuseppe’.”

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Telegram to Tom’s fiancée Gladys, announcing “Tom safe prisoner of war in Italy”

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Address panel from letter to Gladys, showing Tom Ager’s Camp 82 address