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Gnr. Wilfred Baldwin Devenish Royal ArtilleryMy father Wilfred Baldwin Devenish, was a Gunner in the Royal Artillery. He did not talk about his war experiences although we know he suffered post traumatic stress and often woke us up screaming from terrible nightmares.
This is the excerpt from the Goole Times newspaper 19 February, 2004 chronicling stories from the war years for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War two in which his story is told. A version of this story appeared in the Goole Times Feb 18th 1944. The story chronicles my Dad's capture at Tobruk, imprisonment in Italy and subsequent escape from Nazi transportation to Germany.It reads:
Many like him lost their chance of freedom because they obeyed orders to the letter. But Wilfred Devenish, good and disciplined soldier though he was, saw his chance and took it.
It meant spending two months on the run. It involved a long and often perilous trek covering 850 miles, at times through deep snow. Yet he saw it through. And 60 years ago this month, when many of his colleagues were getting used to life in the prison camps of Germany, Wilfred Devenish came home to leave in Goole.
Born in September 1919, Wilfred Baldwin Devenish joined the Royal Artillery in 1938. Serving as a gunner during the fighting in North Africa, he was captured at Tobruk on June 20, 1942. Soon afterwards he became one of about 70,000 Allied prisoners of war held at camps in Italy. For all of those prisoners the future became uncertain when Italian forces quit the war in the late summer of 1943. By then the Allies had landed in Italy. Should the prisoners sit tight in their camps and hope for eventual liberation by British and American troops who were advancing towards them? In most prisons camps orders were given to that effect.
Yet in all the camps when Italian guards threw down their weapons, discarded their uniforms and departed, German troops invariably arrived and took control. And by then the Nazis had already begun transferring prisoners to camps in Germany. So there was a real danger that all prisoners held in Italy would suffer a similar fate.
Despite that prospect it was argued that the sit-and-wait policy would prevent prisoners from being shot while attempting to escape. As a result, in many camps throughout Italy, prisoners followed orders and waited for the advancing Allies. But the Germans moved first and instead of release in Italy, more than 50,000 prisoners found themselves herded on to trains and eventually saw out the rest of the war in Germany.
Some though seized the opportunity to bid for freedom. In all about 12,000 men made their way through Italy and back to the Allied lines and Wilfred Devenish was one of them.
When first captured and transferred to Italy, he was held at a transit camp in Brindisi. Then came camps near Capua and Rome before he spent his last six months of captivity at what was known as Camp 115. In some camps, as the Italians capitulated, the senior officer among the prisoners gave permission for men to ignore the stay-put order if they wished. Whether that happened at Camp 115 is not now clear. But 200 men left the camp and set off to make their way to the Allies.
Wilf Devenish made his run for it with four colleagues, a man from Newcastle and three South Africans. At first they evaded German patrols searching for escaped prisoners and made good progress. Then they were captured and put on a train travelling north and bound for Germany. Eventually they escaped again by jumping from the train, but they had travelled so far north by then that the Allied lines were now 850 miles away. One of Devenish's colleagues had no boots yet once again they set off to walk to freedom. Avoiding roads they made their way through open country, travelling mainly by night and resting by day.
That made it more difficult for the Germans to see them but it also made it was more difficult for the escapers to spot their pursuers. Thus one dark night they found they had wandered into the middle of a German camp. Enemy soldiers fired on the group but again they managed to escape. Night after night they struggled on determined to stick together. On average they covered about 30 km, 18 miles a day. They swam across two major rivers and at one stage, high in the mountains, they battled for 20 miles through snow six feet deep.
At the start of his escape bid Gunner Devenish had carried with him the contents of two Red Cross parcels. This food lasted two weeks. After that the group lived mainly on apples and bread, though occasionally they killed and stewed a sheep. Not that going hungry was anything new to the group. Often while held in captivity they had received no more than a bowl of macaroni a day. Finally two months after leaving Camp 115, they reached the Allies at a sector of the front under American control.
A few days later, in December 1943, news of the escape reached Goole, as Wilf addressed a brief letter to his mother Edith, at her home in Elsie Street. He had hoped then to be home for Christmas. But, like many of his colleagues, those who also escaped and those who remained in captivity, he found that amid the pressing needs of war the interest of prisoners were not the highest priority. So, after leaving Italy, he spent six weeks in North Africa, awaiting transport to Britain. Then, at last, he was able to travel home to Goole.
Wilfred Devenish continued in the army after the war. In his military career he saw service not only in North Africa but also in India, Eritrea, Sudan, Hong Kong, Egypt and Japan, and, in the early fifties was also involved in the fighting in Korea. Among the decorations he won were the 1939-45 Star, the Africa Star, the Defence Medal, and the Victory Medal, together with long service and good conduct medals.
A single man at the time of his escape, Wilf eventually married, his wife Margaret being a native of Crathie, in Scotland. After leaving the army he lived and worked in Scotland and died in 1981. He is survived by his wife and their family of five, son George, daughters Phyllis and Joy and twins Pauline and Pamela.Joy Murdoch
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