“There’s a new one to debrief, Sir, rowed across Lake Lugano from Porlezzo to Gandria and from there was taken to Lugano, arriving yesterday evening.”
“Hmm…Italian border – not had one from there for a few weeks,” Pat Reid remarked. He frowned, “But if he was escaping from Italy, why come that way. From Milan to Lake Maggiore would make sense. That’s where all the others have come from.”
“Says he was in the northeast of Italy.”
“Sounds unlikely; the campaign is coming up from the south, not over from the east.”
“Do you think he may be a plant?”
“It’s possible; one does need to be careful.”
“You might know this one.”
Pat looked quizzically at the corporal who served as his aide. “Engineer?” It was a reasonable assumption. Engineers in the military tended to know one another.
“No, I’ve been told he was a with a medical unit – a doctor.”
“Doctor! Medic I could understand, but however did a doctor end up in German hands. They are normally safely behind the front line.”
The other man shrugged, “something to debrief him about.”
“He is being brought to Berne?”
“He should arrive by this afternoon.”
And what is the name of this possible plant?”
“Your own,” said the corporal. “Sorry, Sir, I thought I had said; it’s Reid.” He consulted the paperwork: “Alexander Thomas Reid.”
“Scottish or English?” queried Captain Pat Reid.
“Doesn’t say,” the corporal checked the papers again.
Pat made sure he had a decent dinner before he had the escapee brought to him. These debriefings could take hours and the last thing he wanted was a rumbling tummy when he needed his wits about him.
He began to laugh the moment he saw the dishevelled man come through the door.
“Well, at least I know you’re no plant!”
“Plant!” exclaimed Sandy. “How could you think such a thing of your own second cousin twice removed!”
“Calling yourself ‘Alexander’ raised some doubt; no one’s called you that since you were christened.”
“It’s what’s on my dog-tags. I could hardly go by anything else when declaring myself to the local bobby at the border.”
“That must have been a first,” Pat chuckled, “you looking for the local constabulary instead of trying to avoid them.”
“Have a heart,” Sandy protested, “I’m a reformed character since my misspent youth. Allow me the dignity of my qualifications.”
“Yes, Aunt Bethany wrote you’d graduated from Bridstow and joined up. However did a doctor end up behind enemy lines and have to escape to Switzerland?”
“If you’ll at least give me a cup of tea, I’ll tell the tale.”
“I can do better than that.” Pat crossed to his filing cabinet and took out a bottle of scotch.
Sandy’s eyes lit up. “The real stuff!” He reached eagerly for the glass and took a long swallow, closing his eyes to savour.
Pat smiled to see him truly relax into his chair. He hadn’t seen his cousin in years, but in these days when each letter brought worrying news about this relative or that, it was nice to know this one at least was safe (for now).
“Come on, Sandy: cough up. How did you get caught?”
“My own stupidity,” Sandy admitted. “I was sent to Ortona at the end of December.
“Ortona?” Pat said, “that bloodbath!” He remembered his young cousin as something of a lightweight. Sandy had been through Ortona? “But wasn’t that held by the Canadians?”
“The soldiers were Canadians; but their medical unit was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of casualities, so a British medical unit was sent in support. The town was largely demolished in the fighting. Basically, between the Germans and the Canadians they blew up one hell of a lot of the buildings. There were a lot of injured, civilian as well as military, and insufficient help for either. After the worst of it was over, we were enjoying a delayed Christmas celebration when I was called out to a woman in labour. I was pretty tired the next morning and there was a bad storm and I got disoriented.” Sandy smiled self-deprecatingly. “You know I never was much good at orienteering. When I found my bearings again, I found I was half-way to Pescara. I narrowly missed a German patrol by hiding out in a sheep hut, and the farmer found me a few hours later. Fortunately, he hated the Germans more than he hated the British.
“Why not go south to rejoin your unit?” asked Pat. “It would have been a lot simpler going what…15 miles, to over 400 miles north to Porlezza.
“I only wish,” Sandy said ruefully. “He did set me in the right direction. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite so lucky at avoiding the next German patrol. Once they realised I was a doctor, being captured wasn’t so bad. They set me to work, of course; but wounded are wounded, regardless of which side they are on. I ended up on a German hospital train going north.”
“And how did you find your way off the German train?”
“I ended up in a Stalag 339 in Trieste for a few months.”
“About six, before I managed to bribe the guard on the work detail to look the other way.”
“Bit risky that – lots of the chaps get caught that way. The guards pocket the money and then report the plan higher up so they are ready and waiting for you. What was the POW camp like?”
Sandy grimaced. “Crowded, cold, never enough food. But the guards were decent enough to us, I suppose, given we were covered by the Geneva convention. Any partisans were shot.
“You saw that?”
“They took delight in executing them in front of us.”
“And after you escaped?”
“I hid in the back of a lorry heading west to get out of the town but after that I walked, for the most part – stole an old bicycle at one point but when the tire parted company with the wheel it was back to shank’s pony.” Sandy decided not to mention the farmer’s son who covered for him at one road block and took him home to hide in the barn for two days. Or how the lad’s father reacted when he found the two of them together in the hayloft.
“See anything interesting along the way? Troop movements, gun emplacements, that sort of thing.”
Sandy hesitated. “Not exactly on the way…. Trieste is a hive of activity.”
“Lots of trains heading north to Poland with Jews.”
“You’ve heard the rumours.”
Sandy swallowed hard. “They’re not rumours, Pat. I hid out for three days in Trieste before I managed to find a lorry heading in the right direction. They’ve converted an old factory into a prison camp for the Jews and the ones they’re not killing there are being sent north.”
“I know,” his cousin said. “You’re not the first to tell me.”
“Are they going to do anything about it?” Sandy asked.
“We’re going to defeat the bastards – that’s what we’re going to do about it, Sandy.
“Yes, of course.”
“Anyway, that’s not for you to worry about. I’ll pass you off to my aide who’ll see you are issued some decent clothes, and a place to stay, and introduce you round to the others. Switzerland's neutral and frowns on escapees using it to rejoin the war. We are sometimes able to smuggle people out, but I wouldn't count on it. You may find yourself here for the duration.”