Heroes Return Blog – Stories from Second World War veterans’ trips


WW2 bombardier relives his great escape on 67th anniversary of VE Day by Big Lottery Fund
May 8, 2012, 9:00 am
Filed under: Heroes Return, Italy | Tags: , , ,

PoW Eric Batteson crouched in the dark watching the camp guard’s every movement before seizing his split second moment to escape to what would be an uncertain and precarious freedom high in the Italian mountains.

Eric Batteson, 92, is returning to Italy thanks to funding from Heroes Return

Eric Batteson, 92, is returning to Italy thanks to funding from Heroes Return

Now, thanks to a Lottery award the 92-year veteran from Chester is making an emotional pilgrimage to thank the courageous villagers of Colleregnone who risked their lives to feed and shelter him from the enemy. He will even stay in the same house owned by the same family who gave him refuge through those dark days of war.

Eric, who saw front line action in major battles across the Middle East, Greece, Albania and Crete, completed his field training as a Lance Bombardier with the Royal Artillery in 1939, and a year later, aged 21, embarked on the SS Oropesa bound for the Middle East.

He recalls: “We couldn’t go through the Straits of Gibraltar because of the German U Boats. We had to go round South Africa. When we called in at Cape Town thousands of people turned out to greet us. We were let off the boat and people took us to their homes. Everybody had a great day out.”

The troop then sailed to Egypt where from December 1940 Eric was deployed in fierce desert warfare, plotting gun positions to range attacks on Italian forces as his unit fought their way up the Libyan coast to Benghazi as part of Operation Compass. The advance was the first major allied operation in the Western Desert Campaign, which saw the capture of 115,000 Italian prisoners, and destruction of thousands of enemy tanks, artillery, and aircraft.

Following the success of Compass, Eric’s battery was deployed to stem the German invasion of Greece but the allies were forced to retreat into Albania then finally to Crete.

He recalls: “If we hadn’t moved back we would have been totally swamped. The Germans were much better armed. The British Matilda tanks were no match for the Panzers and the Stuka attacks were terrible, we were relentlessly dive bombed.   I was asleep in the back of a truck when one attack began. My battery commander, the signaller, and driver all leapt out into a ditch but I was still in the truck when two huge bombs landed, one in front and one behind. I was very lucky that day.”

Eric was evacuated from Crete on HMS Orion bound for Alexandria, an ill fated voyage that sustained horrendous bombing attacks which claimed the lives of over 360 sailors and troops and injured 280.

He remembers:“I was in the forward part of the ship when a bomb went down the ammunition hatch and exploded. It did terrible damage. We were trapped behind a watertight door and the front of the ship was going down. I had never before anticipated the thought of dying, but I thought I would die. But the sailors finally managed to get us out, and somehow they kept the engines going and we limped back to Alexandria. I have always had the greatest admiration for those sailors, they kept their heads. They did what they had to do.”

Eric’s next action was to see him taken prisoner after a running battle with Italian and German forces from El Alamein up to Tobruk, and where the troop were forced to surrender when Rommel’s Army surrounded the town. Marched across the desert to Benghazi, Eric survived on half a pint of water a day and hard biscuits before being shipped to a PoW camp at Macerata in eastern Italy.

Eric Batteson is just one of many WW2 veterans to have received funding for a commemorative trip

Eric Batteson is just one of many WW2 veterans to have received funding for a commemorative trip

He recalls, “We had to make the best of it. I spent my time making things from old tins. I made bellows to make force draft fires and one chap made a grandfather clock which actually worked! We were treated pretty fairly by the guards but rations were low and we were very dependent on Red Cross parcels, which often got filched.”

However, as the Italians capitulated and news came that the Germans were soon to take over the camp, Eric and two comrades decided to make a daring night time escape by slipping  through an unlocked gate and scrambling to freedom in the Italian mountains.

Steering west by the stars they climbed by night but then switched to daylight travel to avoid stumbling over ledges in the dark. Reaching the village of Colleregnone, tired and starving, they spotted a farmer up a fruit tree and took the gamble to approach him.

“I can’t tell you what I feel about these people. They did so much.”

Eric recalls: “My memory is centred on those wonderful people who helped us. At first we would hide out in isolated places and the village girls would bring us food. Then after five months the snow came and the families hid us in their houses. They were taking a great risk. The Germans had recently rounded up eleven young men from a neighbouring village and shot them as a warning to anyone collaborating with the allies.”

As fierce fighting at Monte Cassino hampered the allied advance in Italy the group decided to try and reach the allied forces, so dressed as Italian farmers they came down from the mountains to the Adriatic. There they found a boat and met a local woman who promised to get them some sails.

He recalls: “She said that she had helped others escape and told us to come back after dark. But when we did a lorry load of Germans arrived and took us back to Macerata jail. Then we were transported by train to a prison camp in Hannover.”

“Here there were heavy allied bombing raids. We weren’t very popular. We would see civilians pushing their dead relatives in wheelbarrows. We were glad the German soldiers were protecting us. But treatment was a bit mixed, especially from the prison guards running the forced slave labour gangs. They were regularly bashed about. One man was shot dead because he didn’t want to urinate in front of the others.”

As the allied bombing increased Eric and his compatriots were deployed to clean up after an intense raid damaged a local oil refinery. He said: “One guy was always doing subtle sabotage and would put cement powder into air pressure instruments, and slightly open the valves on oxy acetylene canisters so that when they came to be used they were empty.”

Eric remained at the camp until he was liberated on April 14th 1945, before arriving back home in time for VE day. Now he will mark the anniversary 67 years on by making a special commemorative trip with his family, to thank the people of Collegerone.

He said: “I think we must have been legend in that village, they remember everything. I used to be a whistler and they told me ‘don’t do that, Italian men don’t whistle’. They passed this down to their children who still joke about it. I can’t tell you what I feel about these people. They did so much.”

To find out more about the Heroes Return programme visit www.biglotteryfund.org.uk/heroesreturn or call the the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return advice line on 0845 00 00 121.


Leave a Comment so far
Leave a comment



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s



%d bloggers like this: