When Italy surrendered on September 8th 1943, there were 80,000 Allied PoWs in Italian camps. The British and American governments expected these soldiers to be immediately released to prevent them falling into the hands of the Germans. But as a result of a disastrous order issued by a branch of British military intelligence called MI9, as many as 50,000 were shipped by the Nazis to Germany and Poland. It was a scandal that need never have happened…

Extract from “Where the Hell have you been?”…

Richard’s dismay at watching the Germans streaming down the roads of Italy was shared by 80,000 other British POWs who were imprisoned in Italian camps that summer. For some time MI9 had been debating within itself what to do in the event that Italy pulled out of the war. It was MI9’s job to help POWs. But what advice should it give to them? Should it urge them to stay in the camps or try to escape? And once out, should they be told to join the resistance or try to find their way home? In MI9’s short existence it had never encountered the predicament of how to handle thousands of POWs at once.     
The head of MI9, Brigadier Norman Crockatt who had been in charge of the London Stock Exchange before the war, instinctively disliked the prospect of mass breakouts. He believed that it would cause chaos on the battlefield and might precipitate reprisals by parts of the Italian army who did not support the surrender.

Furthermore, he considered the malnourished POWs to be of little value as fighting soldiers.

Crockatt and his team concluded that Monty would sweep up Italy in a matter of a few days anyway. Under this scenario, they believed, the best alternative was to tell the POWs to “stay put” and wait in their camps for the Allied forces to arrive.

At Allied Forces Headquarters in Algiers, MI9’s views were greeted with astonishment; the Italians might surrender but no one believed that the Germans were going to walk away from Italy and allow the Allies to march up to the Alps unopposed. It could be weeks, they argued, before Allied forces reached the camps – and the Germans, who were already in Italy,  would almost certainly get there before them. Even MI9’s own officer in the Middle East Colonel Simonds realised the madness of the order and tried to argue against it.

But on 7th June 1943, MI9 in London issued Order P/W 87190: “ the event of an Allied invasion of Italy, officers commanding prison camps will ensure that prisoners-of-war remain within camp. Authority is granted to all officers commanding to take necessary disciplinary action to prevent individual prisoners of-war attempting to rejoin their own units.”

To get the message to the Senior British Officers in the camps, MI9 used an ingenious method. MI9 knew that many of the camps had built clandestine radios in order to listen to the BBC. One of the most famous figures on the BBC was the “Radio Padre”, the Reverend Selby Wright, who broadcast a weekly talk every Wednesday evening at 7pm to British forces around the world. Thanks to Wright’s simple unpatronising manner, the Radio Padre was the second most popular show on the BBC after Tommy Handley the comedian.

Selby Wright received a 1,000 fan letters a day, but he didn’t like the limelight and was keen to return to being an ordinary military chaplain in the field. In September 1942, he had finally been given permission to step away from the microphone. But MI9 had other ideas and he was ordered to return, this time with an additional mission.

Over the next six months, MI9 inserted a series of messag es using a secret code known as HK into the text of the padre’s talk, being careful not to tamper too much with the meaning. The means of deciphering the HK code had been distributed to the camps on silk handkerchiefs hidden inside cans of food. HK was not particularly complex but it appears that the Germans and Italians never broke it.

The Reverent Wright had no idea what the messages were, only that his talk had been “adjusted”. Each time this happened, he was told to open his talk with the words “Good Evening, Forces” instead of “Hello” or just “Good evening” – this was the signal for any POWs listening on their radios that there was a message for them hidden between the lines of Christian reassurance.

During June and July 1943 MI9 broadcast the “stay put” order to POW camps all over Italy. MI9’s official history states proudly, “It is a tribute to the efficiency [MI9] had attained that almost every camp’s SBO received the message in time.” Brigadier Crockatt, the head of MI9, “was happy at what was being  done”.

Later, when the full disaster of what it had done became clear, MI9 tried to blame the order on Monty, claiming that he “probably gave his directive... in late May or early June when nominally on leave in London.” But the original order has disappeared from the archives – its existence known only from references to it in other communications – so the truth of who actually instigated the notorious “stay put” order may never be known.

In Fontanellato, MI9’s message was duly decoded and passed on to Colonel Hugh de Burgh, the camp’s Senior British Officer. At first it did not seem an unreasonable order and even added slightly to the sense of optimism. But as summer wore on, and the POWs watched unit after unit of German soldiers marching down the road towards the front, the mood changed. It became obvious to everyone that, despite Mussolini’s departure, the Germans were going to stand and fight in Italy.

… The Germans moved quickly. They swept through central

Italy rounding up the confused units; they treated their erstwhile allies as enemies, showing them little mercy. Many were shot on the spot or sent to German POW camps in cattle trains. On 11th September, the Italian War Office finally sent out a message from the safety of Brindisi ordering all Italian soldiers to treat the Germans as enemy, but it was too late.

General Kesselring boasted to Hitler that within four days 700,000 Italian soldiers had been captured along with 56 divisions’ worth of equipment and material. All of Italy from Rome northwards was placed under German marshal law and treated as an occupied country. German military currency replaced the lira.

Italy may have surrendered but the battle for control of Italy had only just begun.

In the six-week hiatus between the coup against Mussolini and Italy’s final surrender, as British Intelligence described German divisions pouring across the Alps into Italy, MI9 had plenty of opportunity to rescind Order P/W 87190 and transmit fresh instructions via the Radio Padre. But it didn’t.

Churchill and the War Cabinet remained completely unaware of what MI9 had done. In the negotiations that took place that summer with the Italian government, Churchill had insisted that the Italian War Ministry release all British POWs at the earliest opportunity. Article 3 of the Armistice that was signed in Sicily that September stated: “All prisoners or internees of the United Nations to be immediately turned over to the Allied Commander in Chief and none of these may now or at any time be evacuated to Germany.”

As soon as the Armistice was signed, the Italian War Ministry ordered all camp commandants to release British prisoners under their control, but in the confusion of those final days, some commandants did not receive the order. Others chose to ignore it; after years of holding men in captivity, it hurt their professional pride simply to open the gate and turn their prisoners loose. A few actually made preparations to defend their camps against the Germans while others decided to hand over the camps intact to the German occupiers.

At PG5, the “Italian Colditz” as it was known near Gavi in  the Piedmont, the Italian commandant refused to open the gates when the Armistice was declared, despite a ferocious argument with the Senior British Officer. When the Germans arrived the next day the entire camp was handed over to them. Realising what was happening, some of the prisoners tried to hide inside the camp but were quickly found. 800 men were put on cattle trains and shunted north to Germany.

Further north at PG57 near Trieste, the commandant withdrew his guards, but the Senior British Officer, loyal to the ‘stay put’ order, kept the gates closed and ordered the prisoners not to leave. Within 24 hours the camp was surrounded by Germans and the window of opportunity had closed.

When the Italian guards abandoned PG21 in Chieti in the middle of the night, and the SBO Colonel Marshall threatened to court-martial any POW who left the camp, there was a near  mutiny among the prisoners. He appointed his own phalanx of guards and ordered them to man the watchtowers. Many of the prisoners could not bring themselves to disobey a high ranking officer and for a week remained docilely where they were – guarded by British guards in an Italian POW camp. When a Battalion of German paratroopers arrived they were astonished to discover prisoners still milling around inside the camp compound, with no sign of Italian guards. The entire camp population – about 1300 soldiers – was shipped by train to the Nazi camps in Poland and Germany.

At Allied Headquarters in Algiers, the implications of MI9’s order began to sink in. Colonel Simonds, the lone voice of MI9 who had protested the order, was summoned urgently and told to do whatever he could to rescue as many POWs as possible. He was given the use of several boats and allowed to request air sorties. He hastily assembled a small group to organise escape paths for POWs through German lines.  But for most of the prisoners it was too late.

Out of the 80,000 British POWs in Italy at the time of the Armistice, 50,000 – more than half – were immediately captured by the Germans and shipped north. Of those who did escape, only 11,500 made it all the way home: 5,000 by crossing the Alps into Switzerland and 6,500 by reaching the Allied forces coming up Italy.

The rest were either rounded up or shot by the Germans on the run or just faded into the countryside, settling in the mountain villages of the Apennines and never going home. Some 2,000 were never accounted for.

What happened at Fontanellato was unique.