A Talent For Adventure

Posted on Tuesday 15th May 2012


The Remarkable Wartime Exploits of Lt Col Pat SPooner Mbe
Foreword by Field Marshal Sir John Chapple GCB CBE DL
Like many of his generation, Pat Spooner packed in a lot during the Second World War. Very few, however, will have experienced such an adventurous and diverse set of different military exploits.
He started as a young officer, fresh out of Sandhurst, among the last Regular Army entrants to the Indian Army. He joined the 8th Gurkha Rifles in 1940 and started his service with them in the peaceful hills of Shilong, Assam. Then he moved to North West India and went with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Gurkha Rifles to Iraq. In this he was fortunate because his battalion had been under orders to move to Singapore. They were diverted to Iraq to help head off the German interest in the oilfields. He was on active service there until April 1942 after which Pat Spooner went, in a new role, to North Africa. Here, in June 1942, he was captured near Tobruk and was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy.
After fifteen months in various camps, the Italian armistice was announced in September 1943 and Pat managed to get away and head for the Allies’ front line in the South. This was yet another adventurous time. He acknowledges the great help given to him by the friendly and very brave Italian contandini.
In the course of their escape he and his close companion, Jimmie Ferguson, were assigned by British Intelligence to help two British Generals, Sir Philip Neame VC and Sir Richard O’Connor, and Air Vice Marshal Boyd, also trying to reach the British lines. It took until Christmas 1943 before they all got back to safety.
Flight to Freedom
It was clearly unwise and dangerous for us all to remain together in one place for longer than was absolutely necessary. Nor was it fair on our Italian helpers and agents, who were already taking enormous risks on our behalf. Splitting up the party, too, reduced the chances of us all being caught together. And so Jimmie and I, again guided by the indomitable Anacleto, bicycled the fifty miles back to an old familiar farmhouse in Pozzo Alto. There we were to stay while Cagnazzo made strenuous efforts to procure a fishing boat to take the party down to Termoli, as he had successfully done for the first trip.
The skipper of the Cattolica boat, Guerino, had decided, wisely perhaps, not to tempt fate again so soon after the last voyage south. Considering the huge risks to himself and his family, he could scarcely be blamed for his reluctance. Indeed, it was astonishing to me that anyone would contemplate such a hazardous mission, however tempting the rewards.
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Lt Gen Sir Richard O'Connor, AVM Owen T Boyd and Gen Sir Philip Neame VC, the VIP party whom the author and Jimmie Ferguson helped escape from behind German lines.

By now things were becoming desperate. Official efforts to rescue us having failed dismally, we were now left very much to our own devices. Jimmie made several abortive attempts to contact other A Force agents in the area. I found it incredible that not a single agent had been in touch with us since Jimmie’s return from Termoli. Surely, I thought, A Force would move heaven and earth to keep open whatever lines of communication were available, however slender, given the vital importance of getting the three senior officers back to safety.
I was puzzled, too, that Jimmie had not been issued with a two-way radio. For two simple reasons, he explained. First, they were in very short supply. And secondly, even the so-called ‘portable’ units were bulky and heavy, too cumbersome to carry around and hard to conceal.
It was a question of relying on our faithful Cagnazzo, or one of the other Italian ‘helpers’, to pull something dramatic out of the fire. Neame, in particular, was becoming fractious and frustrated; O’Connor and Boyd also were understandably restless. On the other hand, we were aware of the danger of relying too heavily on our Italian friends, however loyal and trustworthy their motives might be. There were ominous signs, too, of a jealous rivalry between the partisan factions, each vying for the honour and glory of helping the British VIPs to escape.
Cagnazzo, Spada and Sovera, we knew, had maintained close contact with resistance groups in the area: but the partisans’ help, incalculable though it was, had been confined to the provision of ‘safe houses’, guides and transport. Indeed, had it not been for them, undoubtedly we would have long since found ourselves behind bars in Germany, or suffered an even worse fate.
Under these circumstances, Jimmie and I thought it prudent to move the generals and the AVM down the coast to Riccione as soon as arrangements could be made. Two days later, they were driven there in the same taxi that had brought Cagnazzo from Pesaro. The driver, Signore Lisotti, was blissfully unaware of the identity of his passengers for the hundreds of miles he was engaged as their chauffeur. It was not until the very last journey that the secret was finally revealed. Perhaps this explains why he drove them so nonchalantly through four German checkpoints on the way to Riccione!
Lisotti took them straight to the house of Signore Pietro Arpesella, a wily young Italian, proud of his business acumen and financial manipulations in the real estate market. His shrewdness came to light over the loan of the 100,000 lire (about £800) which we needed to pay, in advance, to the fishing boat captain who was prepared to take us down to the Allied lines. No fool, Arpesella was willing to lend us the money on condition the IOU, signed by Neame, was repayable in pounds sterling, and that he received a letter of commendation from Neame. Not surprisingly, both conditions were agreed with alacrity.
The fact that Arpesella’s house was situated next door to the German headquarters appeared not to bother him at all. He even encouraged his British guests to venture out after dark to walk the streets which were crawling with German soldiers. The danger was not so much from the Germans, but from the chances of being stopped by an inquisitive Fascist or an alert Carabinieri patrol.
The next day, 7 December, Cagnazzo turned up at our farmhouse in Pozzo Alto with the grim news that the Germans had seized and impounded the fishing boat we were to use. Their suspicions had apparently been aroused: how, we never knew. Thwarted yet again, our spirits plummeted to an even lower ebb.
Cagnazzo then suggested sending the generals and the AVM to a place called Cingoli, some eighty miles farther south, where a band of partisans under a General Ascoli claimed to be in radio contact with Allied headquarters in Bari. O’Connor and Neame both endorsed the idea on the grounds that to do anything faintly constructive was preferable to prolonged inertia.
On 10 December, Lisotti drove the three men down to their new place of refuge near Cingoli without mishap. There they spent three uncomfortable days in primitive lodgings, sleeping above stables which stank abominably. They were all suffering from heavy colds and nasty coughs. Neame, we heard, was in a particularly bad way, showing signs of a fever and the possible onset of influenza. This presented a serious problem. Thanks to the ministrations of a local doctor, however, he recovered with commendable speed.
General Ascoli readily agreed to transmit a message from Neame to General Montgomery, asking him to send a naval craft to Porta Civita Nuova, south of Ancona, to rescue us. Being Jewish, General Ascoli had gone into hiding and was himself trying to get out of the country. While the generals were in Cingoli he was tragically killed. He was being chased by the Fascist militia when his bicycle skidded over the side of a steep bank and he suffered a fatal fracture to his skull.
Yet again the generals were moved, this time to a small flat in Cingoli itself, rented by Cagnazzo. One night the police conducted a thorough search of the town. Whether they had got wind of the generals we never discovered. It was, in any event, time for them to move from an area which had become increasingly hazardous.
On 16 December the generals were driven back to Riccione, once more passing all the German checkpoints without any problems. Neame was angry at being made to move yet again. He had wanted to wait in Cingoli for a reply from General Montgomery. In the event this never materialized. Jimmie and I strongly suspected that the much vaunted radio link was a myth dreamed up by the partisans to impress the generals.
Meanwhile, at Jimmie’s suggestion, Vailati contacted Ezio Galluzzi, the fishing-boat owner who had arranged Jimmie’s and Cagnazzo’s trip south the previous month, and who had stoutly offered to repeat the process, using the largest boat in his fishing fleet. We trusted him implicitly. But Jimmie sensibly insisted on Galluzzi meeting the generals and Boyd first, to make sure that they, too, were happy with his credentials. After a brief meeting, Neame expressed their joint approval and confidence in him. This was just as well, for we were running out of time. Tempers were increasingly frayed. Moreover, the weather was becoming problematical for a voyage in a fishing boat down the Adriatic, which, we were warned could be dangerously tempestuous in winter.
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Bridge at the port of Rimini on the Adriatic coast. En route to an earlier destination, Cervia, the escape party cycled across this bridge.

Bruno Vailati arrived on 13 December with the welcome news that Galluzzi had agreed to take us south himself, sailing out of the port of Cattolica. He was influenced in his decision by two very strong motives: to prevent the ‘flagship’ of his fishing fleet being seized by the Germans or damaged by Allied bombing of the port. Also, he asked to be allowed to take his wife, as he was unwilling, for obvious reasons, to leave her behind on her own. This presented no problem and was readily agreed.
There still remained the critical question of laying our hands on the money to pay Galluzzi. This now being a matter of top priority, Jimmie sent an urgent message to Arpesella. Two days later, to our immense relief, he obligingly turned up with the required 100,000 lire in cash. This was immediately handed over to Galluzzi on the understanding that, all being well and weather permitting, he would be ready to leave in the next day or so.
An urgent meeting was arranged with the generals and Boyd, at which both Cagnazzo and Vailiti were present. It was essential to plan the embarkation in detail so that everything went smoothly for what was to be our eighth and, hopefully, final escape attempt. None of us was under any delusion as to the risks and difficulties we faced. Timing, for instance, was a crucial factor; much depended on us all getting down to the boat speedily, unobtrusively and on a tightly controlled schedule.
It was already dark, on 18 December, when Vailati went off in Lisotti’s taxi to pick up Father Leone from the monastery in Pesaro, where Jimmie and I had spent several days in hiding. Father Leone had been heavily involved over many months in helping escaped PoWs and was now forced to flee from the Fascist regime. Vailati then went on to collect Jimmie and me from the Terenzis’ farm in Pozzo Alto. From there he drove by a circuitous route, carefully avoiding the main roads, to the outskirts of Cattolica. There we met our skipper, Galluzzi, who was to guide us on foot down to the port area. At 8.30 pm we crept silently and stealthily along the quayside for a hundred yards or so, until suddenly we found ourselves following Galluzzi up a short gangplank onto his fishing boat. Cagnazzo and his wife, together with Signora Galluzzi, had already been smuggled aboard; also a South African corporal, named Macmullen, who had had the good fortune to encounter Cagnazzo the previous day.
The unflappable Vailati then went off, again in Lisotti’s taxi, to fetch the generals and the AVM from Riccione. He found them waiting, nervously impatient and anxious. The agreed pick-up time was 6.30 pm. So for two hours they had become increasingly fearful that, yet again, things had gone wrong. Against Vailati’s advice, Neame insisted on taking with him a bulky suitcase containing his precious diaries and the draft of his book on the desert campaign.
They left Riccione at about 9 pm, only half an hour before curfew. Just outside Cattolica they were halted at a German control post. Their papers were examined but miraculously passed muster and they were allowed to proceed. Half a mile from the port they met Skipper Galluzzi at the same place where Jimmie and I had stopped. An emotional scene followed. Lisotti, their stout-hearted driver, embraced the generals and Boyd and, somewhat to their embarrassment, kissed them each on the cheek. We heard later that he had been betrayed and arrested soon after our escape. He was tortured by the Gestapo but remained silent. Tragically, he died soon after the arrival of the Allied armies as a result of his brutal treatment.
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Cattolica, the port from which the party eventually made its escape in a fishing boat.

With Galluzzi leading the way in the pitch dark, they moved slowly, in single file, down the canal path towards the little harbour, and along the narrow jetty to where the boat, rocking gently on the evening tide, lay moored. Scarcely daring to breathe, they crept on board and joined the rest of us below decks. The time was 10.25 pm.
All night we were battened down in the cramped bowels of the sixteen-metre vessel, huddled together in what Neame likened to the Black Hole of Calcutta. The hold was dark, damp, very hot and stuffy, and smelled strongly of fish. Conditions were scarcely conducive to sleep, desperately tired though we all were.
The night seemed interminable, each of us lost in his own thoughts – and fears. I doubt that I was the only one praying fervently, as even the bravest atheist is prone to do when faced with real danger. Nightmarish thoughts leap to mind at such times. Could the owner of the boat really be trusted? Here we were sitting ducks, an enviable prize for the Germans. What was there to stop him taking the 100,000 lire from Arpesella and handing us over to the Germans for a further reward, except perhaps the certain knowledge that he would face the vengeance of our partisan friends? Might not the German guards search the boat before allowing her to sail? And so we waited, and waited, increasingly apprehensive, tension mounting as the minutes ticked by, inexorably, through the night.
At 5.30 am, while it was still dark, we heard heavy footsteps on the gangway, of men coming aboard. Were they crew members? Were they German or Fascist harbour police? Had we been betrayed? Moments later we heard muffled voices – Italian voices – the skipper giving orders to his crew, followed soon after by the reassuring sounds of a boat getting underway, the diesel engine starting up and ticking over, the clanking of chains, the casting off of ropes, the gentle easing away from the quayside, and the movement of the boat as it chugged slowly towards the mouth of the harbour. By decree, all boats were compelled to stop at the German pierhead control to be given official clearance to leave port. On no account were fishing vessels permitted to leave harbour before dawn: and they had to return to the same harbour one hour before dark. Any infringement of this strict edict was severely punished.
Then came the moment of truth, and a collective holding of breath, as the boat slowed, engines in neutral, waiting to be checked out of the harbour entrance. The Skipper yelled out a pass- word: ‘Sessantootto’ (sixty-eight), ‘Dux!’ (the name of the boat), followed immediately by an unintelligible, guttural response from the German guard at his pier head post... a brief pause... then, we heard the sound of the engines being revved up as the boat gathered speed and, unimpeded, made for the open sea. The noise of the engines, now at full power, became almost deafening. And suddenly we found ourselves rolling and pitching violently as the boat battled her way out into the wild waves of the Adriatic.
Dick O’Connor, eyes gleaming, shook hands all round, exclaiming: ‘We’ve done it! We’ve done it!’ somewhat prematurely, I felt, since we still faced a hazardous sea trip.
The skipper, taking no chances, insisted we remain below deck during daylight hours, doubtless a sensible precaution. Nevertheless, it was pure purgatory for his human cargo, cooped up in the confined quarters of a smelly, foetid hold. The weather was worsening and with one exception we were all horribly and continuously sick. Jimmie somehow survived the entire voyage without any apparent ill-effects. That evening he generously offered me some greasy fried fish which he himself was devouring with great relish. I declined, none too gracefully.
The stormy conditions and poor visibility, on the other hand were in our favour, since we were less likely to be spotted from the shore or from an enemy aircraft or patrol boat. Towards nightfall the weather improved. The wind fell, the clouds cleared away, and soon the boat was bathed in bright moonlight. Now we were in danger of being spotted by an aircraft or patrol boat out searching for us, or even by a lurking submarine.
The seas became calmer, and to our immense relief, we were allowed up on deck. In the early hours the skipper altered course to the southeast. An hour before dawn we suddenly saw, westward towards the Bay of Pescara, signs of a fierce battle raging on the coastal plain: flashes of opposing artillery batteries, tracers streaming wildly in parabolic curves, occasional Very lights. Urgently, Jimmie told the skipper to alter course again and head back out into the Adriatic. An hour later, by now well clear of the battle zone, the skipper edged slowly back towards the coast line. We now knew, for certain, that when we made landfall it would at least be on the Allied side of the lines.
As dawn broke we were greeted by the gloriously welcome sight of Allied aircraft flying low overhead. Our Odyssey was nearing its end. With mounting excitement we approached the coastline. Passing close by the Islands of Tremiti, we chugged slowly in towards a town with a sizeable harbour which Jimmie recognized as the port of Termoli, near where he and Cagnazzo had landed on their previous trip.
It was 11 am on 20 December 1943. As the boat drew alongside an empty space on the harbour pier, two armed guards raced down the quayside and arrested us as we disembarked. O’Connor asked to see their commanding officer. When he arrived O’Connor was surprised and delighted to find that the man had been on his staff when he was a Brigade Major. The poor fellow was utterly astonished and immediately took us all to the officers’ mess where we were invited to wash and shave before being given a hearty English breakfast.
Jimmie immediately contacted the local Brigade Intelligence officer who, in turn, alerted the A Force commander. Both these gentlemen reached the mess with remarkable speed, prompted no doubt by the unheralded arrival of the generals and the AVM on their doorstep, and particularly in view of A Force’s signal failure to rescue them.
With mixed feelings of jubilation, relief and mental and physical exhaustion, we foregathered in the lounge of the hotel requisitioned by the local Allied command as their officers’ mess. We were joined by Cagnazzo and Vailati for a celebratory drink of Italian champagne. The mood was exuberant. The generals and Boyd were properly lavish in their praise for the bravery of our Italian colleagues on whose selfless help their successful escape had largely depended. Shaking each of them warmly by the hand, they vowed to return to Italy after the war to visit their homes and families, and to thank personally the other courageous people who had so readily risked their lives on their behalf.
Then, after thanking Jimmie and me equally profusely, O’Connor, Neame and Boyd were driven off to General Alexander’s headquarters in Bari where they received a hearty welcome. At dinner with General Alexander that evening, still dressed in their filthy, ragged Italian civilian clothes, they were joined by none other than the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Italy, General Eisenhower himself, who was paying Alexander an official visit. Next day they were given new uniforms, put on a plane and flown to Tunis where they were met by Air Chief Marshal Tedder.
At this time the Prime Minister was in Tunis, but confined to his bed convalescing from a bout of pneumonia. Churchill had sent a message to say that he wished to see the generals and the AVM, and that they were invited to dine at the mess at Supreme Command HQ, which was where he was staying. In his memoirs, O’Connor recounts the historic meeting as follows:
Directly after dinner, we were ushered into the Great Man’s bedroom by Lord Moran (Churchill’s personal physician). There he was, like an old Buddha, sitting up in bed. The first thing he said to me was: ‘Why did you allow yourself to be taken prisoner?’ And then, after a moment he added: ‘But you are forgiven.’
He then went on talking to us for nearly an hour and a half, hardly pausing to draw breath... He really brought us completely up to date... we sat there completely spellbound.
On 22 December they were flown to Algiers. Bad weather delayed their departure for England, so they stayed the night and dined with Harold Macmillan. Next day, they flew over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh in Morocco. There they changed planes for their final flight to Prestwick, arriving in Scotland, safe and sound, on Christmas morning.
On the whole they had survived their ordeal remarkably well, considering they were well into middle age. At times, Neame had proved difficult to deal with, betraying an underlying resentment that he, a full blown lieutenant general (and a VC) was not solely in command. On the other hand, O’Connor, who was of equal rank, and Boyd only slightly less senior, had given Jimmie and me their wholehearted and ungrudging support, and had been consistently friendly and gracious towards us.
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The author in the uniform of his regiment, 8th Gurkha Rifles.
Pat Spooner started as a young officer, fresh out of Sandhurst, among the last Regular Army entrants to the Indian Army. He joined the 8th Gurkha Rifles in 1940 and started his service with them in the peaceful hills of Shilong, Assam. Then he moved to North West India and went with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Gurkha Rifles to Iraq. In this he was fortunate because his battalion had been under orders to move to Singapore. They were diverted to Iraq to help head off the German interest in the oilfields. He was on active service there until April 1942 after which Pat Spooner went, in a new role, to North Africa. Here, in June 1942, he was captured near Tobruk and was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy.
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Bayonet training, India.

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The Author.

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Gurkha soldiers in the Western Desert. (Gurkha Museum, Winchester)

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Captain Jimmie Ferguson, who shared the author's adventures.

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Author's 'mug shot' as a prisoner of war at PG21 PoW Camp, Chieti, February 1943.

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Author demonstrating method of escape over the wall from Camp PG19, Bologna. This photograph was taken after the war.
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The Author on the camp wall, also after the war. At the time of the escape a 4-foot barbed-wire fence topped this wall.
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Silk handkerchief issued to all service units operating clandestinely behind the Japanese lines in Burma, Siam and Malaya.

Dick O'Connor, eyes gleaming, shook hands all round, exclaiming: 'We've done it!' somewhat prematurely, I felt, since we still faced a hazardous sea trip.

Further Reading


A Talent for Adventure
(Hardback - 256 pages)
ISBN: 9781848848108

by Pat Spooner
Only £19.99

Books on prison camps, daring escapes and life with the Resistance abound. Pat Spooner's story is different and more compelling in one important respect. It recounts the gripping and dramatic rescue of two senior British generals (one a VC) and an air vice marshal from occupied Italy by the author and his companion who had themselves both escaped from an Italian PoW camp.

This book covers a range of wartime exploits from operating behind Japanese lines in Burma and Malaya to laying secret dumps on remote islands…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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