6. Dangerous Crossing: The Voyage to Italy

"The ship started to pitch, making many feel sick...Never have I longed so earnestly for the dawn or been so thankful to stretch cramped limbs, when at last morning came." And now the POWs had a new fear - of being sunk by their own planes or submarines.

Ship model of Ugo Foscolo Italian supply ship, 1943
Credit: Steelnavy.com model shipbuilding site.
Ugo Foscolo Italian ship
Credit: Steelnavy.com model shipbuilding site.
Ugo Foscolo Italian ship
Credit: Steelnavy.com model shipbuilding site.
Ugo Foscolo camouflage
Public domain.

The Mediterranean: Ships' Graveyard

When World War 2 began, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini expected Britain to collapse under the weight of the German onslaught just as other European nations had fallen. Obsessed with creating a new Roman Empire, Mussolini saw the key British base on Malta, just 60 miles from Sicily, as a natural and easy target. With no natural resources of its own, Malta, a British crown colony since 1813, was entirely dependent on convoys bringing in food, fuel and military hardware.

The day after Mussolini declared war on Britain in 1940, Italian planes attacked the Maltese harbor at Valetta. From mid-1940 until the late summer of 1942, fire and fury rained on Malta, first from the Italians, but much more intensely from German Stuka dive bombers based in Sicily.  

The most severe, sustained battering of the island was between April and August of 1942, when Malta became the most bombed country of the entire war. By August, the island was on the point of collapse, when an epic battle took place between the Royal Navy escorting merchant ships and the German air force. Nine of 14 merchant ships carrying relief supplies to the island were sunk, together with a number of warships, but those that got through to the island turned the tide.

With Rommel's forces in North Africa needing air support there, Hitler now cooled toward the idea of taking the island and shifted attention to the African mainland. Within days, the Royal Air Force was sinking ships carrying supplies to North Africa. Two weeks after the British relief supplies reached Malta, island-based aircraft sank all four oil tankers on their way to supply German tanks and planes. In August, 40% of Axis fuel was sunk by the RAF and British submarines in the Mediterranean. In September, another 20% was sunk.  

For their valor in withstanding the siege of Malta, King George VI awarded the entire population of Malta the George Cross, a symbol of extreme bravery, which was then added to the Maltese flag.

There was a serious downside to the RAF's new-found strength in Malta, however. At the time of the evacuation of Allied prisoners of war from North African camps to Italy, the RAF was searching for - and sinking - enemy supply ships. They had no way of knowing which of those ships might carry POWs, and some were sunk with significant loss of life. After enduring starvation rations, dysentery and other ill-effects of captivity, the POWs now had a new fear of being sunk by their own planes or submarines.

sinking of Italian supply ship off Tripoli 1942
Public domain.

Top: The Italian cargo ship Ugo Foscolo carried Sgt. Robert Otterson and hundreds of fellow POWs across the dangerous Mediterranean waters from Tripoli to Naples at the end of November, 1942. The model is a meticulous recreation of the Poeti Class ship.   The detailed picture of the rear cargo hatch is where Sgt. Otterson spent a cramped three days and nights, "in a hold, right aft" above the ship's churning propeller. The photograph shows the vessel in her camouflage colors.

Ugo Foscolo was one of the first three ships in the eleven-ship Poeti Class (each named after poets) which entered merchant service for Italy beginning in 1942. They were immediately pressed into service delivering military supplies and equipment to Italian North Africa. Foscolo completed eleven voyages including stopping at Benghazi and Tobruk. Two weeks after discharging her human cargo in Naples, Foscolo was headed from Trapani to Tripoli with a cargo of gasoline. It would be her last voyage. On December 13 she was found by the 828th squadron of the British Fleet Air Arm, based in Malta. Left a flaming wreck, she sank 25 miles southwest of Cape Lilibeo at the western tip of Sicily..

Above: Italian supply vessel Pietro Querini, part of a convoy headed to Tripoli, sinks off of Tunisia after being torpedoed by the British submarine HMS Union.

The Voyage to Naples

EXACTLY TWO WEEKS after our arrival in Tripoli, at 3 a.m. on 27th November, we were roused and told to prepare to move. The whole camp was to be cleared and shipped to Italy. We heard that Benghazi had fallen to our forces on the 16th of the month and that they were likely to break through the enemy line at Agadabia any day.

Although this was encouraging news, it was to many rather galling that we could not stay in Tripoli for a week or two longer when the prospects of relief were so bright. We handed in our blankets, tent tags and mess tins, and discarded all unnecessary impedimenta and after a shivering wait of four hours, we set off on our march to the docks.

The distance by road via the most direct route was seven kilometres. This distance we covered to the town and were feeling glad it was over, but to our chagrin instead of going through Tripoli, we marched around the outskirts. At last, after a march lasting nearly five hours with short halts, and covering a distance of some ten miles, we sat down well nigh exhausted on the docks. We had had nothing to eat since six o'clock the previous evening.

After another two hours' wait we embarked on an Italian cargo vessel, the Foscolo, and were hustled down the ladders below hatches. I was in a hold right aft, where we received the full benefit from the vibration caused through the threshing of the ship's propeller. There were 203 of us crowded into our hold over a deck space 20 x 20 yards in dimension. When alleyways were made to the ladder, and some space had been taken up by kit and equipment, a space of approximately 4' x 2' remained for each man.   So it was that we had to sleep, in this cramped position and without blankets, on the hard deck.

Uncomfortable as this was to us who were fairly healthy, it was infinitely worse for some unfortunate fellows. Some had dysentery and were unable to get out of the hold to visit the latrines. The worst of these cases lay on the upper deck exposed to the cold and rain. Many only had a ground sheet and blanket between their bodies and the cold metal deck and a small blanket over them. They received no extra diet or hot drink but were issued with Italian "bully" and biscuits which they could not eat.

There was another man with rheumatic fever who passed the first 24 hours under the same conditions. Later he was moved into our hold, where an officer gave him his camp bed. It was 5 o'clock that evening, after a fast of almost 24 hours, that we received our ration of bully and biscuits. There were few who let any remain until the following day.

I spent a very uncomfortable night, snatching sleep a few minutes at a time. The ship started to pitch, making many feel sick. We were trodden on and kicked by those making their way to the ladder in the pitch darkness. This was a sample of the three nights we were to spend on board. Never have I longed so earnestly for the dawn or been so thankful to stretch cramped limbs, when at last morning came.

The ship continued to pitch throughout that day. We were only allowed on deck for the purpose of visiting the latrines, but we made the most of these opportunities. Occasionally, the Italian sentries threw lemons down to us, causing a terrific scramble. A friend of mine received a loaf of bread, two large Italian biscuits and a tin of bully from a sick man who was unable to eat them and it was received by us as manna from heaven.

On the third day I rose shortly after 4 a.m. and went on deck.  It was drizzling a little and the air was cold, but I was thankful to be able to walk around. Looking over the starboard side I saw that we were close in to land and approaching a harbour, which I learned a few minutes later was Naples. Suddenly, as I peered through the darkness at the mist-shrouded mountains, I saw the peak of one glow redly. It was Vesuvius mirroring her fiery interior on the clouds.

Painting of Naples and Vesuvious at night
Public Domain. Joseph Wright of Derby - A view of Vesuvius from Posillipo, Naples - Google Art Project. Created circa 1789.
B-24-Bombers over Naples, 1942
Source: US Air Force Image Gallery

My first view of Naples in the daylight was disappointing.  Maybe it was due to the dull weather or maybe war conditions gave it so drab an appearance. But to me it was no more entrancing than Southampton Water, or many other British ports.  The harbour was filled with shipping of all kinds, while coaling barges passed from one place to another. As we drew into the docks, we could see the houses and streets which looked like most dockside areas.

Most of the prisoners disembarked that morning, but I was among those destined to spend a further night on board ship. There was a little more sleeping space that night, however.

While walking on deck I opened up conversation with an Italian sentry. My knowledge of the language was very limited and he knew no English, but we got on fairly well.

He asked if I was a Catholic and when I said no, he told me that he was a Pentecostal. This surprised me, as I didn't think there would be any of that denomination in Italy. He assured me that they were quite numerous in the district from which he came.

Above: Painting of Naples and Vesuvius by Joseph Wright, about 1788-1790.

Below left: American B24 Liberator bombers out of North Africa dropped 100,000 lbs of bombs on Naples Harbor on December 6 - less than a week after Robert Otterson's group of POWs had passed through the city on the way to their next camp. 

Below Map of Italian POW camps in southern Italy. A copy of this map, including the north of the country, was with Robert Otterson's wartime log and other personal papers.

Map of Italian POW camps 1940s WW2
Map from Robert Otterson war memorabilia

Then he asked if I had been baptized by water and the Spirit and was delighted when I replied in the affirmative. He told me his name and address and before parting gave me two handfuls of broken biscuits. When I attempted to thank him he cut me short, and pointed upwards with the word "Dio"!

8 a.m. on the 30th we commenced to disembark and were taken ashore in lighters.  Once ashore, we found better organization than we had hitherto experienced. On the docks was a Prophylactic Station into which we were marched.  After only a few minutes' wait we were given soap and towels. While we were having a hot shower bath our clothing was going through a disinfesting machine and were ready for wear a few minutes after we had finished bathing.

We were then taken outside to a railed-off compound adjoining what seemed to be a workmen's club. Here we were the centre of interest to the civilian population in the vicinity.  I had expected to find them antagonistic towards us, but was agreeably surprised to find them so pleasant. Many threw us cigarettes when the sentries were not looking. I talked to a group of Italian Marines who were very pleasant young fellows. They passed us cigarettes and exchanged Catholic insignia with a Roman Catholic friend of mine.

We had a long wait before entraining, during which time we consumed the last of our rations. I had already committed my needs to the Lord so was not anxious concerning when or where we would receive the next to eat. He did not disappoint me.

Our compartment was second class and very comfortable.  Eight of us did not make it overcrowded.  Connected by a short corridor was the compartment containing two sentries and six more prisoners. While waiting for the train to start, I received cigarettes and a lemon from passing civilians and soldiers. A German officer handed me his tobacco pouch from which to fill my friend's pipe.

As these little acts of kindness were performed for us, it seemed incongruous that these people should be our enemies and if we met on the battlefield, should seek to kill or maim each other. Yet, not twenty yards from the train was a ship being loaded with tanks and other machines of war for the purpose of destroying perhaps my own brothers in the flesh. It was in moments like these that one saw, not a war between nations or individuals, but between the forces of evil and God.

The Train to Bari

The train crawled away from the dockside at dusk. As we started, one of the sentries came into our compartment. He told us he was going on two months' leave after three years' service in Africa. Then he gave us some bread, Italian army biscuits and cigarettes. The next morning he gave us more biscuits, a heaped dessertspoonful of sugar each (which was indeed a luxury) and cigarettes. He was voted unanimously to be the most generous Italian we had hitherto met.

We had hoped to see something of Naples from the train, but the darkness rendered this impossible. We caught glimpses of a dimly lit street containing massive blocks of buildings, separated by narrow alleyways and of crowded tramcars with blue lights. Before entraining, we had heard from a variety of sources that our destination lay only three hours' journey away, but as the train went on for hour after hour through the night we realized that as usual our information was unreliable.

“As we passed through the city, the doors and windows of every house were filled with curious spectators.  There were giggling girls, mocking youths, grave-faced men and an old lady who watched while tears ran down her furrowed cheeks.

Truly, our appearance was more to be pitied than laughed at, but ragged, unkempt, dirty and half-starved as we were, we unconsciously held our heads erect, got into step and gazed defiantly back at the mocking faces, while the war songs of 25 years ago burst from our lips and echoed through the street.”

Daylight dawned, and with the appearance of the sun we found our direction of travel to be roughly ENE. This was rather puzzling, as we expected to be somewhere near Rome, until we realized that we had crossed the "foot" of Italy and were traveling parallel with the east coast.  Occasionally we caught glimpses of the blue Adriatic in the distance, while close to the railway track acres of vineyards sped by. There was row upon row of dead-looking branches, which in a few months' time would shoot out green tendrils and produce luscious grapes.

At about 9 a.m. that morning the train came to a halt at what looked like a typical English country railway station. It possessed no waiting room or stationmaster's office but was clean, destitute of any other traffic than our own train, and surrounded by green fields and hedges. This was the suburbs of Bari, an Italian sea port. In the distance could be seen the smoke stacks and spires of the city.

We were given the order to de-train and form up on the platform. After half an hour of bustling, shoving and shouting by excited Italian officers and NCOs, we set off to march to our new prison camp. On querying the sentries, they volunteered the information that this was about five kilometres away.

As we passed through the city, the doors and windows of every house were filled with curious spectators.  There were giggling girls, mocking youths, grave-faced men and an old lady who watched while tears ran down her furrowed cheeks.  Truly, our appearance was more to be pitied than laughed at, but ragged, unkempt, dirty and half-starved as we were, we unconsciously held our heads erect, got into step and gazed defiantly back at the mocking faces, while the war songs of 25 years ago burst from our lips and echoed through the street.

In our weak condition it was a weary march and I shall never believe it was only five kilometres.   Leaving the city we passed between gray stone walls, behind which we occasionally obtained a glimpse of vineyards and olive groves.

It is a plain philosophical statement that all things, good and bad, must have an end, and it was while comforting myself with this thought that we at last arrived at our destination. As we halted the camp Sergeant Major appeared on the scene and was at once besieged with questions - "When do we get a meal?" "Is there any Red Cross representative here?"  "Is there a cigarette issue?" - and so forth.  His answers varied between the non-committal and the pessimistic tone.

Our spirits rose as we marched into the barbed wire enclosure and between the lines of spacious bungalows. Good accommodation at least seemed promised. These hopes were dashed to the ground a few minutes later as we entered another enclosure where tents were pitched. Rumour had it that these were to be our quarters and I for one visualized a very uncomfortable night lying on the damp ground without a blanket or ground sheet.

Weary though we were, we found it necessary to keep walking around in order to maintain some bodily warmth as, despite the sunshine, a very cold wind was blowing. After about an hour of this a blessing arrived in the form of hot soup and the bread ration. The soup contained cabbage, pumpkin and a little macaroni. It went a long way towards warming and reviving us. The bread ration turned out to be 4/5ths of a 250-gramme loaf per man, which was less than we had ever received. This also was consumed avidly. Shortly afterwards we were further cheered by the news that there were sufficient bungalows to accommodate us after all.

At about 3 p.m. we were marched into another enclosure where we stripped off all our clothing and put it through a disinfesting machine while we lined up for hot shower baths. It was a shivering experience standing naked on the cold cement floor waiting for one's turn to bath, then this procedure was repeated after the bath while we waited for about 20 minutes for our clothes.

After all the men had been bathed and disinfested we formed up to be searched. It turned out to be the most thorough search we had yet experienced. I had my jack-knife and tin opener taken from me, besides other articles of lesser value. Other men lost blankets, razor blades etc. In some cases the search amounted to a mild form of looting.

By the time it was over darkness had fallen. We were issued with empty palliasses and a blanket each and moved into the bungalows. These were large and airy, divided into seven bays. Each bay held fifty men, while a corridor ran the full length down the centre of the bungalow. Latrines and washhouses were situated at one end. The beds were made of wood and were of the "double-decker" type.

Immediately after being allotted our beds, another hot meal was served. This was the same kind of soup as at first and was appreciated just as much. Having consumed it, I followed the example of the majority. Spreading the palliasse cover on top of the bed boards, with my haversack as a pillow, I lay down fully clothed and, pulling the blanket over me, was asleep in a very few minutes.

I awoke next morning very much refreshed after the best night's sleep since leaving Tripoli. Coffee was issued at 7 a.m. After a wash and shave, during which operation I removed a ten days' growth of beard, I felt a new man.

That day was spent in getting to know the routine and organization of the camp. We were divided into groups of fifty. Meals, rations etc. would be issued to the group commander of each fifty, who would be responsible for the re-distribution to individuals. Meals were served daily at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.  A piece of cheese weighing about an ounce was issued before the first meal every day and the bread ration usually immediately afterwards.  We learned also that there would be a daily count and roll call, in either the afternoon or morning.

The first volume of Robert Otterson's detailed, hand-written journal in the form of a narrative ends here in Bari, quite suddenly and without explanation. Instead, he began to keep a separate, abbreviated diary on the same coarse, thick pink paper. Fashioned into a booklet of ten leaves, it gave him in 20 pages enough space to record what he thought was important until the POWs from his camp were moved to Germany some nine months later. Possibly, he laid aside his detailed narrative simply because of the scarcity of writing materials but intended to take it up again later. At one point he hints of a book. Whatever the reason, the Italian diary together with another primary source - a large number of letters preserved by his wife, Doris - pinpoint his location and activities from December 1942 to September 1943.

Bari, or Campo 75, was a typical transit camp where prisoners landing from North Africa were de-loused, cleaned up and had their clothes fumigated. Usually the POWs remained for a few weeks until a more permanent camp was assigned.

As Robert Otterson describes it on this page, Bari was a place where camp guards and inspectors freely confiscated personal items, no doubt to sell on the black market.

By the time he arrived at the beginning of December, 1942, Bari was a much less crowded place than it had been a year earlier, when 2,500 officers and men had been crammed into space designed to hold perhaps one fourth of that number. Gradually, the crowded conditions were eased and by the spring of 1943 there were improvements in both sanitation and, to a small degree, in availability of food.

The biggest problem, always on the minds of the men, was the absence of a decent meal, and without the occasional Red Cross parcel that was allowed through, many would have starved. Surviving accounts from other prisoners confirm Robert Otterson’s description of the marches and the spartan camp conditions. One prisoner recorded the same wearying march from Bari station to the camp, but records it as 8 km rather than the 5 km noted by Robert Otterson:  “... The journey on foot in our condition seemed like a death march. Our food since capture had been very small, clothing was bad and boots badly broken. Prior to entry in the camp the men were searched and deloused. The camp itself was a well built place of stone with plenty of running water. That, however, was the limit of the amenities. Camp life at Bari consisted of the usual round of roll calls, and the food was generally meagre, with bread the mainstay. Dysentery was rife.”

Another soldier - a Major Donald Brettell - described at length the camp itself and something of the boring routine.

“Disorganisation reigned supreme for the next hour. I have had my fill of Italian organised chaos, but none of it ever came up to the standard set by the authorities of Bari camp.

The newcomers to the camp were all kept in one building until they had been disinfested. This building was separated from the rest of the camp by a high wire fence ...

Reveille was at about 0700 hrs and was accompanied by the usual -- litre of ersatz coffee. Four of us would take it in turns to roll out of bed and fetch the coffee for the other three. We then went to sleep again until Roll Call which started at about 0800 hrs and lasted anything up to 1 1/2 hours. We were lined up in threes and counted and recounted and checked and rechecked until by some miracle or other the numbers on parade coincided with the numbers on the sheets of paper carried by the Italians. They were really hopeless at it. At no other camp that I have heard of did roll call take so long.

After roll call we were free to do as we pleased until lunchtime which was at about 1200 hrs. Lunch was more or less the same as in Barce except that the loaves were no longer loaves, but were more like the scones which the French used to serve with coffee instead of an Englishman's breakfast in Peacetime.

The soup was very thin and was usually a watery mess with bits of unripe tomato floating about in it. The chief glory was the fruit which was dealt out in fairly liberal quantities. But the food on the whole was not enough to sustain a normal man, and we found that we were getting weaker and weaker as the days passed.

To start off with, we had a certain amount of stored-up energy in us, but soon even that failed, and we found that all we wanted to do was to lie on our beds all day and do nothing except dream of Home and all the good things we were going to eat if we ever got back there. I say this because at that time things were looking very black from the point of view of war news, and it appeared to us that it might possibly be some years before we got home. To walk round the perimeter of the camp once a day was considered a feat. It is interesting to look back and realise just how low our strength and morale had sunk."

Preaching a Sermon

The following is the most detailed, first-person account available of Robert Otterson delivering a short sermon. It is full of born-again evangelical doctrine, which may have been the dominant sentiment among the prisoners who identified themselves as Christian and attended meetings. Delivered before the departure from Tripoli, it makes mention of the possible dangers of a move to Italy across the Mediterranean.

Owing to the varied times for meals and the frequent rain, we found it difficult to arrange a suitable time for fellowship meetings and Gospel services. We were able, however, to hold a service each Sunday morning.

I was requested to give a message on the first Sunday. As it was a fine day, and we were gathered in a very conspicuous place, a good crowd of fellows collected around us.

I had felt led to speak on a text which I had already used at Benghazi. It was taken from Luke 4:18 - "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.... to preach deliverance to the captives...”

With the constant anticipation of being shipped to Italy hanging over us, deliverance seemed to be out of the question, but I emphasized that many had been delivered and more could be delivered from far deadlier enemies than those around our compound.

"Supposing," I continued, "you were in a prison camp covering so vast an area that you never saw the barbed wire fences and other means for keeping you confined. Supposing the sentries kept discreetly out of sight and you never saw the camp Commandant. Besides this, your familiar relatives and friends were allowed to live with you, there was plenty of food, clothing and amusements, you could carry on with your profession - in short, imagine you had every amenity you would normally have in a so-called free country.

As a prison camp, to imagine such a place administered on the lines stated sounds fantastic. But is it?

We are told in God's Word that men and women are led captive by Satan at his will and that the whole world lies in the lap of the wicked one. Many people who are surrounded by the pleasures of the world and are in a position to partake of them to a greater or lesser degree are as certainly in bondage as we in the P.O.W. camp.

Many in the camp were in double bondage. The "Camp Commandant" was Satan; the sentries his angels or demons. He provides us with doubtful pleasures in order to make us satisfied with our lot and blind to our danger. He uses many means to lull us into a false feeling of security and succeeds so well that comparatively few realize that they are prisoners of the enemy of God and man.

Only when we listen to the voice of God either through His Word or one of His servants are we made aware of our state. It is then, if we make an effort to be free from his yoke, that Satan shows himself in his power and cunning. His demons begin to whisper, "Don't be a fool - you will lose all the years of toil and reward I have given you," and many other insinuations does he put into our minds. 

If his arguments fail he often enters into the men and women around us and uses them to be directly antagonistic regarding our liberty. John Bunyan explains this thoroughly in the opening chapter of his immortal Pilgrim's Progress, where Christian meets opposition from his own wife.

So powerful a gaoler is Satan that it is impossible for anyone to escape without outside help. But that help is available. Around this camp is a wide gulf fixed over which none can pass except at one point. At that point the gulf is bridged by a Cross. Standing by the cross is One who with arms outstretched is constantly sending out the invitation: "I am the way, the truth and the life; no man cometh to the Father but by Me. Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

As soon as we become aware of our danger and make a sincere attempt to escape, the Lord Jesus Christ shows us the way and gives us His help. He has already come that way himself, even allowed Satan to accomplish what he would regarding Him, in order that by so doing the evil of Satan and the omnipotence of Christ would be manifested to the world.

Every step we take on our way to liberty, He has already trod; every trial and temptation we undergo, He has also suffered. We have His promise that if we trust in Him, none shall pluck us from His hand. Once over the gulf there is happiness and peace with Him for evermore. It is then that we fully understand what life really is, because we partake of it more abundantly.

What of those who never make the attempt? All at some time during their lives hear the gracious invitation to escape. Those who have consistently refused to avail themselves of the opportunity will one day suffer the same fate as the Devil and his angels. When the Lord of Glory comes to take vengeance on them they shall be destroyed from His presence with everlasting punishment.

In this prison camp we can here and now obtain deliverance from the enemy of our souls by listening to the voice of Christ, repenting of our past allegiance to Satan, forsaking him and his works, and accepting Christ as our Saviour.

We may still have to go to Italy. How do we know that we shall cross the Mediterranean safely when so many other ships and men have been lost? Are we prepared and in a fit state to meet our God should we be ushered into His presence at any moment? Let me answer this question honestly and accept the liberty wherewith Christ can make us free, for “if the Son make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”

We had opportunity for only two more Gospel services and the day before leaving Tripoli we had a fellowship meeting.

At the last Sunday service a South African Staff Sergeant repeated the challenge which Elijah uttered to the children of Israel: "How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, serve Him, if Baal, serve him." That challenge had gone forth from our gatherings night after night. Christ had been presented in many of His beautiful aspects, yet on the eve of departure on a perilous journey, hundreds around us were still unsaved.

The voice of God speaking through His servant Ezekiel seemed to echo through the camp: "Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die...?"