A piece of military history in Abruzzo, central Italy.
Campo 78 – also known as PG 78 (Prigione di Guerra) – is an Italian, former Prisoner of War camp located at Fonte d’Amore, just outside the town of Sulmona in the Abruzzo region of central Italy.
It was in use during both World Wars, and from 1939 up until the Armistice of September 1943 it held as many as 3,000 British & Commonwealth servicemen – many of whom had been captured during the North African campaigns.
Campo 78 is unusual principally for two reasons. Firstly, a sizeable section of the camp remains intact – almost as it would have been 70 years ago. There are a dozen or so barracks, each of which would have housed up to 100 prisoners, which visitors can enter. Although the huts themselves are now empty, there are several superb examples of regimental graffiti on the walls as testaments to the presence of those prisoners.
Secondly, it is the place from which hundreds of Allied prisoners made their daring escapes following the Armistice of 1943. In contrast to prisoners held at other POW camps throughout Italy at the same time, who obeyed the ‘Stay Put’ order and were consequently rounded up by the advancing Germans, those in Campo 78 were told ‘Every Man for Himself’ and made good their escape in a variety of different directions. Some found their way into Sulmona, some up into the mountains via a number of local villages including Pacentro, and others to Rome via the railway.
Many of those prisoners were both helped and hidden by local Italians – keeping the escapees safe at great personal risk until they could somehow reach safety or rejoin their regiments.
The story of those escapes has been recorded in countless personal journals and in a small number of published accounts. The story goes thus:
“In September 1943, as the Italian government neared collapse, the inmates of Sulmona heard rumours that the evacuation of the camp was imminent. They awoke one morning to discover that their guards had deserted. On 14th September, German troops arrived to escort the prisoners northwards, to captivity in Germany, but not before hundreds of them had escaped into the hills. One such escapee was the South African author Uys Krige, who described his experience in a book titled The Way Out (1946). The nearby Villa Orsini in Sulmona itself was used to house the senior British and Commonwealth officers including; Major-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, Lieutenant General Sir Philip Neame, Air Marshal Boyd, General Sir Richard Nugent O’Connor, Brigadier Reginald Miles, and Brigadier James Hargest”. (Wikipedia)
So what was life like in the camp?
Despite being held against their will by enemy forces, in a spartan place far from home, the reports suggest that the prisoners absolutely made the best of their situation. Red cross parcels arrived at regular intervals and included luxuries such as cigarettes, soap and reading material. Their rations were vastly improved by the addition of vegetables grown in their own plot and by donations from local villagers. The men kept themselves busy with studying, football, music, theatrical performances and the occasional tunnel-digging project. The Italian camp guards were, for the most part, civil and sympathetic.
Organising your visit to Campo 78
Each year, more and more visitors come to Sulmona to see the camp. Some also come with the idea of retracing the steps of a family member and of making contact with the families who helped them.
In 2014, a local association was set up entitled “Una Fondazione Per Il Morrone”. The foundation has as its objective to enhance and promote the immediate area around Fonte d’Amore, with Campo 78 as its focus. At some stage soon it is hoped that the Foundation will take over the care and management of Campo 78 which will enable the site to be preserved, and a more comprehensive ‘visitor experience’ created.
In the meantime, Campo 78 is technically still under the control of the Italian military and is not officially open to the public. It is possible, however, to request a special pass for visitors. The Fondazione Per Il Morrone will contact the military on your behalf and try to coordinate your visit. You can get in touch with them here: firstname.lastname@example.org (please do feel free to write in English). Please bear in mind that a minimum of 2 weeks’ notice is required to open the camp. The Foundation will then engage a guide – often a local historian with expert knowledge of the camp and its history – assisted by an English language interpreter if necessary. When a date has been agreed, it is usually advertised locally to swell the numbers. Visiting the camp is free although everyone involved locally is a volunteer and visitors are invited to make a donation to the Foundation at the end of the tour.
Assistance is also available for visitors who wish to contact the local families who helped and hid their relatives, all those years ago. Thankfully there exists a document called ‘Il Quarantatre’ (The Forty-Three) which lists the names of all those Italians alongside the name, rank and service number of the men they helped. This list was compiled at the end of the war by the Allied Screening Commission. It was intended to serve as a formal record of those who were due reimbursement for their services in keeping the Allies safe from harm. Frequently, the descendants of those Italians still live in the very same safe-houses and a quick phone call or a knock on the door is often all that is needed for a reunion. The Fondazione Per Il Morrone has a copy of the list and can help with research.
The Freedom Trail
Every year at the end of April, hundreds of people from all over the world congregate in Sulmona and together they retrace the route taken by many of these men up & over the inhospitable mountains towards Casoli, 60km away. The hike takes a total of 3-days and, for those who participate, it is an important way to remember and honour those brave soldiers. More information on the Freedom Trail is available here: Il Sentiero della Libertà
Campo 78 Bibliography
- ‘Spaghetti and Barbed Wire’ by John Esmond Fox (Higham Press Ltd. Derby 1986)
- ‘Escape from Sulmona’ By Donald Jones (Vantage Press, New York 1980)
- ‘A Vatican Lifeline: Allied Fugitives, aided by the Italian Resistance, foil the Gestapo in Nazi-Occupied Rome, 1944’ by William Simpson (Leo Cooper, London 1995)
- ‘The Rome Escape Line’ by Sam Derry
- ‘A Dinner of Herbs’ by John Verney (Collins, London 1966)
- ‘Sulmona & After’ by S. Skinner (Portsmouth & Son)
- ‘Passages to Freedom’ by J. Frelinghuysen (Sunflower, 1990)
The above books were also contextualised within the following volumes:
- ‘A Strange Alliance. Aspects of Escape and Survival in Italy 1943-1945’ by R. Absolom. (Olschki, Florence 1991)
- ‘Be Not Fearful’ by J. Furman (Antony Blond Ltd., London 1959)
- ‘Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’ by JP Gallagher (Souvenir Press 1967)
- The Way Out’ by U Krige (Collins 1946)
- ‘From El Alamein to the Sangro River’ by B.L. Montgomery (Garzanti, Milan 1950)
- ‘Mountains of Freedom’ by M. Schou (Microfilmit, Regma, Durban 2000)
- ‘Forty Nights to Freedom’ by G. Smith (Paperback, 1984)
- ‘On Getting Through, Attraversando le linee’ by J. Alexander Lindsay (Civitella Roveto 2013)
- ‘Where the hell have you been?’ by Tom Carver (Ianieri, 2009)
- ‘A Captive Life’ by Helen Saker-Parsons
- ‘The Aussie Camp’ by Gabriella di Mattia (available in hard copy at ‘Punto e Capo’ bookshop in Sulmona)
- ‘To Reason Why’ by Denis Forman
- ‘Love and War in the Apennines’ by Eric Newby
- ‘For you the war is over’ by Gordon Horner (out of print – collector’s copy only)
- English translation of an article about ‘Il Quarantatre’
At the time of going to press in February 2017, the following films were in production: