Mementos of a Hampshire Regiment soldier’s audacious escape from a Prisoner of War camp during the Second World War have been donated to the Regimental Museum.
Sergeant Hubert Lawrence trekked for hundreds of miles across German-occupied Italy after escaping from captivity in 1943. He finally reached the Allied lines nine months later. It is believed Sergeant Lawrence, who lived in Andover, used a silk map of Italy to navigate his way across the country during his epic journey. The maps were issued to Allied pilots to help them reach safety if they were shot down.
The map, on which Sergeant Lawrence marked his escape route, has now been handed over to the Regimental Museum in Winchester by his grandson, Stephen Stoodley.
‘I think they [the museum] are the best people to look after the story,’ said Mr Stoodley. ‘They will keep it forever, it will never be lost.’
Sergeant Lawrence was taken prisoner at the Battle of Tebourba in Tunisia in December 1942 while a corporal with the 2nd Battalion Hampshire Regiment. He was taken to Italy and a PoW camp near Milan in the north of the country.
Sergeant Lawrence escaped from the camp along with fellow soldier Private Bill Kirby in September 1943 after Italy signed an armistice with the Allies. The pair inched their way southwards on foot, generally hiding by day and travelling at night. They criss-crossed the country to avoid German patrols and natural obstacles such as the Apennine mountain range.
Speaking some ten years ago about the journey, Mr Kirby, who lived in Poole, said: ‘Escaping from the camp was not difficult because the Italians were not interested in keeping us. The decision we had to make was either to head for Switzerland or take the longer journey south to our own lines.
‘We headed south and were given food and clothing by locals throughout the journey – but we always had to be on the lookout for Germans and also Italian spies. We were spotted by a German one time who shouted “Halten” but we just turned round and ran like the clappers.’
The two men finally reached safety in the summer of 1944, after crossing the German Gothic Line earlier in the year.
It is estimated that some 10,000 Allied PoWs who escaped captivity were fed, guided and hidden from the Germans by the Italian people. Many Italian ‘collaborators’ were shot and it is thought that across all of Nazi-occupied Europe four helpers died for every escaper.
Sergeant Lawrence, who was married and had four daughters, was promoted after the war and he continued to serve in the Army in Africa. He died of malaria in Nigeria in 1948, aged 35, and is buried at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Lagos.
A photograph of Sgt Lawrence taken after the war.
‘Lawrie was a great chap and we became very close during our time together,’ recalled Mr Kirby who many years later met Sergeant Lawrence’s daughters after one of them launched a search for their father’s wartime pal.
Along with the map, Mr Stoodley has donated four medals, a photograph of his grandfather and a picture of his grave in Nigeria to the Regimental Museum.
He added: ‘I’ve had the memorabilia a few years now and since the loss of my dad a few months ago I began to think about how short life is and what is going to happen to this when I go?
‘I think my grandfather was pretty brave and he deserves his story to be told to more people because not many know about it.’
We are very grateful for Stephen’s donation and the Italian escape map is the first we have in our collection. We have a few other escape stories as Hampshire Regiment soldiers seem to be very good at escaping after being captured. However, Hubert Lawrence’s escape from Italy is slightly more unique as he marked the route he took on his map.
The medals and map, together with Hubert’s escape story will be put on display in January 2018.