7. The Italian Diary

The news arriving through BBC radio seemed all good. Allied troops were advancing, and British planes were known to have landed at a nearby airfield within the past few days. But on the late afternoon of September 23, 1,500 men - Robert Otterson among them - were put on a train for Germany.

Hope Rises and Falls

No part of this diary is more fascinating than the account of the closing weeks of Robert Otterson’s Italian confinement in September of 1943. It is one man’s limited perspective from behind the barbed wire of a prison camp, while momentous events were shaping the world.

Of all the camps where Sgt. Otterson had been incarcerated - Benghazi, Tripoli, Bari, Tuturano and Monte Urano - conditions had never been better than at the last of these. Situated in a beautiful green valley in sight of the Appenines for the whole of the summer, with Red Cross and other parcels arriving periodically and with the threat of starvation seemingly lifted, there was reason for optimism. From as early as July, news of the war that filtered through to the camp seemed promising. Sicily had been invaded and by the end of the month Mussolini was out of power. On September 1, Allied forces landed on the mainland at Reggio Calabria, at the very tip of the “toe” of Italy, across the Straits of Messina from Sicily.

Then came news that Mussolini’s successor was seeking peace terms. Sgt. Otterson noted in his diary that on September 8 - the day the Armistice went into effect - the camp band turned out on the green. The following day the prisoners held a thanksgiving victory service.

By September 11, the POWs were walking outside the camp without sentries and picking grapes from the vineyards. From our perspective, knowing that the war still had a year and a half to run, we wonder why the more than 8,000 men in the camp did not escape to the countryside and make for Allied lines.

The reason is found in the diary entries for the third week of September. The news arriving through BBC radio seemed all good. Allied troops were advancing, and British planes were known to have landed at a nearby airfield within the past few days.

Italian POW camps where Robert Otterson stayed - map
Image: Michael Otterson


No doubt the officers worried about thousands of unarmed British POWs wandering about the countryside in a war zone without provisions or directions, especially when a German column was known to have passed nearby just days earlier, hurrying south.

Whatever the reasons, while they were waiting for the liberating forces the window of opportunity suddenly closed on September 17. A German armored car arrived and German sentries were quickly posted around the camp. Although the men were told that these were merely temporary precautions that would be removed in 48 hours, such an opportunity for liberation would never come again before the end of the war.

On the late afternoon of September 23, 1,500 men - Robert Otterson among them - were put on a train for Germany.


Robert Otterson war diary extract
From Robert Otterson's wartime papers

The Diary Content

As events of the war were unfolding rapidly elsewhere in Italy, the POWs were faced every day with the routine of the prison camp. No longer starving for food, and a long way from the misery of Benghazi, many made good use of their time, studying, reading books and keeping fit.

A careful reading of the abbreviated entries from this particular soldier shows the extent to which self-improvement for Robert Otterson had become his priority.  Every book he read is recorded. There are detailed descriptions on how to cook, how to dress game and scale fish. Though to us some of it may appear mundane, to a POW it was the stuff of life - a mixture of diary, personal memos, a record of letters and parcels received, books read, meals eaten. The diary entries themselves provide a fascinating insight into what was important to note as days in captivity turned from weeks into months, yet always with the tantalizing possibility that liberation might be near.

On the page above, each of the three Italian prison camps where he was held is noted by number and date - 75, 85 and 70, each with the prefix of PG, for "prigionieri di guerra," or prisoner of war camp. The map of the Italian camps allows us to pinpoint these places, and on this page he mentions the train station at San Georgio, which was close to the camp at Monte Urano.

Robert Otterson appears to have fashioned his 24-page supplemental diary on coarse Italian paper some time in January, 1943, possibly intending it to serve as a reminder of key events should he be able to resume his more detailed narrative later on. Historically, it also provides the only detailed record of how his Italian captivity ended, how opportunities for escape were missed, and how he and thousands of others ended up as prisoners of the Germans for the last 20 months of the war.

There is an additional “diary” - a small notebook of printed Christmas carols and blank memo pages that was given to Robert Otterson personally by the Papal Nuncio on that dignitary’s visit to the camp at Bari on February 26, 1943. This official visit to Italian-run camps in company with the Catholic Archbishop of Ireland is said to have led subsequently to better conditions for the Allied prisoners in Italian hands, since the Geneva Convention was being seriously flouted. Sgt. Otterson used the small memo pages in this book mainly as a record of letters sent and received, for personal notes and addresses, and for recording the verses of hymns. 


The following are definitions of some of the unfamiliar terms appearing in the diaries and memos.

  • Buckshees - Something left over, obtained free
  • Bully - Corned beef
  • Klim - Red Cross issue of powdered milk containers. ”Klim” is “milk” spelled backwards.
  • L - Lira or lire (plural), Italian currency
  • Musso - Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini
  • Bodleian - New Bodleian College, University of Oxford, evidently a source of books


  • PC - Post card
  • Players - British brand of cigarettes
  • Red X - Red Cross
  • Rowntrees - Popular British confectionary company
  • RSM - Probably refers to Regimental Sergeant Major
  • Skilly - British Army slang for thin soup
  • Palliasse - Straw mattress

Diary transcript

The following represent a full transcript, not extracts

Bari, Italy (length of stay: 3 months)

January 1943 (no diary entries for December, 1942 and most of January, 1943)

1  Attended Holy Communion and afterwards General Service and Methodist Covenant Service. Third day since receiving Canadian Red X parcel. For supper Ted and I had meat loaf, 2 loaves of bread, issue meat and cream made from butter, milk powder and sugar - delicious. Bungalow concert in evening. I gave Ted a talk on telephones and he talked to me about screw bolts.

2  Attended morning service.  Evening had a feast after usual hot meal. Ted and I ate between us 2 3/4 loaves, 1/3 tin meat roll, 1 tin bully, remainder of cream, packet of raisins and two pieces of cheese. Very satisfied.

3  Attended C/E Communion Services.

6  Epiphany. Ted attended and partook of his first C of E Communion. Spent all day trying to sell his pipe and tobacco for 3 pkts. figs. Unsuccessful, but sold ¼ lb. of tea to Indians for 1 pkt. figs.

8  Received Canadian red X parcel. Salmon for supper

9  Issue of 30 Italian cigarettes, ½ cigar, 1/3 pkt. tobacco. Paid 15 Lire (11 days pay). P.C. to Mother. Asked for pipe.

11  Wrote letter card to Doris. Asked for pipe, razor blades, socks, books on freeholdings, Italian, theology, etc.

12  Ted and I bought 6 pkts. of figs between us. For supper we had meat roll, cheese, fig sandwiches and cream.

13  Made fig jam. Cigarette issue of 30 Players. Sold mine for 12 Lire.

16  Unexpectedly received ¼ Canadian Red X parcel each. Had supper of sardines, salmon, bread, butter, cheese, biscuits, raisins, figs, cream, prunes and chocolate. Felt very satisfied afterwards.

17  Attended Communion and General Service. Padre Letcher gave good address on John 9. Sent a P.C. to Miriam Jones.

18  Made two blackboards and received extra hot meal in evening. Also had supper of raw cabbage and carrots.

19  Inked the two boards and had more cabbage and carrots for supper. Search of barracks and personnel delaying first meal until 1300 hours (21 hours since last meal). Found some oranges which had been thrown away by officers.

20  [This entry is damaged by a torn corner page] Issue of Red X commodities recommenced. Received 15 days pay (21 Lire). Bought 1½ kilo figs. [Made] jam with some. Given an orange by Edd-- ... 7 for figs. Put some in jam ...Supp ... grated cabbage and carrots, figs, pr-- ...Evening meal: cheese ----

21  Attended book-keeping and shorthand classes. Received ¼ lb. block Rowntrees chocolate from Red X. Had it for supper with fig jam and cheese, carrot and cabbage.

22  Inoculated against diphtheria. Had a short prayer meeting with two other fellows in evening.

23  Sent P.C. to Geneva Int. Red X for books. English cigarette issue.

24  Indians left camp. Attended communion, general service and prophecy lecture.

25  Received tea, sugar, milk and M.

26  Sent letter card to Doris.

27  Received Italian cigarette issue. Received jam and margarine and ate same with half loaves of bread each.

28  Group discontented over RSM. Ted took over Group ... (unreadable).

February 1943

1  Sent letter to mother.

3  Received issue of 20 Italian cigarettes. Received 50 English cigarettes plus five in lieu of tobacco. Bread costs 15 L. (lira). Players 2½ L for 10. Sent P.C. to New Bodleian College for book keeping and shorthand manuals.

8  Received issue of Cornish pie ½ tin each. Issued with bed sheets. Bread being sold for 25 lire or 25  Players cigs per loaf. Figs 40 lire ½ kilo. Two men caught selling bread to half starved Jugoslavs for 20 lire per ½ loaf or 12 lire per ¼ loaf.

10  Red X food parcels recommenced. One per man per 7 days. Contain 1 lb. sausages, salmon, meat roll, jam, marg, choc., cheese, biscuits. Also issued with one tin of Nestles cafe au lait among four. Delicious on bread. Italian cigarettes issued. 22 cigs, ½ cigar, ¼ pkt. tob.

11  Sent letter card to Doris. Received issue of British under clothes. 2 prs socks, 1 pr long pants, 1 vest and 1 shirt.

12  Issue of 50 Players cigs per man.

13  Ted received his parcel. Had potatoes and salmon for supper. Lectures on theology commenced by Padre Letcher.

18  Paid 22 lire. Issued 50 Players yesterday.

20  Was able to buy 4 cakes at 3 lire each. Had one each with afternoon tea. Ted received a letter. Worked on sports ground for two hours in the morning and got extra pot of “skilly.” Also on Buckshees. Had over 4 pints each of which we saved all the potatoes for supper with salmon and jam. Sent P.C. home.

21  Attended morning service. Finals of sports held, Had our remaining cakes with biscuits and jam and tea at 12 noon. Skilly not until 5.30 p.m. Afterwards, we had a tin of sausages each, bread and jam, biscuits and cheese. Eddie gave us two oranges and a loaf.

23  Received my first letter from Doris. Highly elated. Praise the Lord for answering prayer. No. 6.

25  Received another letter from Doris. No. 1.

27  Received two letters from Doris. Nos. 5 and 9. Last one addressed to the camp, so presume she has heard from me.

28  Paid 18.40 Lire. Bought onions and oranges. Made cream for supper with prunes, raisins and oranges. Also Bully-Hamburgers made with meat roll, onion and bread. Tea issued afternoon and evening. Sent letter cards to Doris and M. Bakhoum, Egypt.

March 1943

2  Orders for moving tomorrow. Made Eddie a birthday cake from bread crumbs, prunes, raisins, jam, butter, biscuits and cream. Had a good supper of bully, meat loaf, bread, butter, jam, biscuits, cheese, prunes, cream. Also received a pot of skilly and two oranges from Eddie. Slept without blankets and palliasses. Received Italian cigarette issue (25).

Tuturano, Italy  (length of stay: just under 3 months)

March 1943

3  Coffee, tin of bully and bread served at 2.30 a.m. Paraded at 3 a.m. Moved off at about 5 a.m. and walked to Bari station. Entrained on cattle trucks and left Bari at about 7.30 a.m. Arrived Tuturano near Brindisi about 1330 hours. Marched from station to POW camp about 6 miles. Accommodated in tents. 1 blanket and no palliasse. Spent very cold uncomfortable night.

4  Roll call 0930. Skilly 1330, tea about 1530. Palliasses issued and 5 cigarettes. Issue of cigarettes 50 a week. Allowed to light fires twice a week on meat days - Thursdays and Sundays.

5  Very cold at night in tents with only one blanket. Skilly very thick, but less of it than at Bari. One 200 gmm. loaf per man. Tea in morning, hot water afternoon. 10 cigarettes issued.

6  Ted received Canadian parcel. We decided to have separate parcels. Loaned me 1 piece chocolate, 5 biscuits, tin of Klim, tin of bully. Started to rain at about 6 p.m.

7  Tent pole broke during night. Rain came in and everything soaked. Brewed tea and coffee from 1 a.m. to daylight.

8  Rained for over 36 hours. Tent almost flooded out. Slept without blankets and palliasses as they were soaked. Stopped raining about 10 a.m. Red X representatives visited camp.

13  Had fried onions, fried bread and fried meat roll for tea.

14  Stopped raining - first time for a week. Very little sunshine

15  Fine day with warm sunshine. Washed some clothes. 1,000 men required for labour camp. Decided not to go.

16  Restrictions against lighting fires in tents enforced. Had steamed apple pudding, syrup and bread for supper. Afterwards had a walk and talk with Jeff Shackle.

17  Creamed rice and syrup for supper. Afterwards five of us sat in a row and each ate a tin of Nestles condensed milk

18  Received news that Arthur had died from wounds when made POW on 2/6/42. (Editor's note:  This refers to Arthur Dix, his wife's brother, who was killed in North Africa a few weeks before Robert Otterson was captured).

21  2 letters from Doris. Had porridge for supper.

23  Drew “Southall” parcel. Fried sausages and scrambled eggs for supper. (Eggs from egg mixture).

24  Made a cake from bread, egg mixture, milk, chocolate, sugar and dates, baked in cookhouse.

27  Ran out of Red X parcels in magazine. Issued with two tins cheese, two tins biscuits, two tins jam, two tins salmon, two tins margarine, five tins milk, tea and sugar among every ten men. A few thousand more parcels arrived in the evening.

31  Received a North Row Red X parcel.

April 1943

1  Had cold porridge and jam for supper.

2  Paid 22.30 lire. Bought figs at 20 L. a kilo.

7  Drew a “New Mills” parcel.

8  Went through disinfester and had a bath. Heated tin of steak and tomato pudding in machine.

14  Received a “London 7” parcel.

16  Moved into “Campo Grande.” Accommodated in bungalow. First meal daily - plain rice. Evening meal vegetables, rice or macaroni tomato puree. Not quite so good food as Picolo.

18  Gave message at service. Spoke on Matt. 27:22.

21  Received “Edinburgh” parcel containing tea, sugar, milk, Fry’s cocoa, strawberry jam, margarine, cheese, meat roll, boiled beef - carrots and dumplings, jam pudding, oatmeal, peas, Duncan’s chocolate, treacle toffees, oatmeal biscuits (16), bacon and soap. Celebrated Mother’s birthday etc by eating. Breakfast - biscuits, cheese, chocolate and toffees. Lunch - double helping of sweetened rice and macaroni. Tea and remainder of biscuits and cheese. Evening meal - skilly with 1 lb. tin of M & V added. Followed by jam pudding, and raspberries in syrup. Cup of cocoa. Supper - ½ lb. tin Cambridge Pork sausages and loaf of bread. ~~~ Received pay - L22. Attended first lesson in German. Finished Marie Correlli’s book “The Master Christian.”

22  Started to read “Barnaby Rudge” - Dickens.

23  Received an orange each from Italians

25  Received extra loaf and extra rice in meals.

27  On “carrying.”  Received two extra meals and one extra loaf. Italian cig. issue. 130 cigs and 1 pkt of tobacco.

28  Received “Lee Green” parcel.

30  Came on to extra loaf and extra meal for one week.

May 1943

1  Paid 21 ½ lire. Bought oranges and made marmalade.

5  Received Canadian Red X parcel

6  Made a fruit cake with prunes, raisins, figs, oatmeal and bread. Creamed it with Klim.

12  Received Canadian Red X parcel.

13  Made and baked a fruit cake.

15  Received pay - 21 lire.

16  Italian cigarette issue. 75 cigarettes per man. Rumours of us moving out tomorrow. Packed up in preparation.

19  Received North Row parcel.

24  Paid 17 lire. Commenced book “The Great Mystery.”

26  Moved from Tuturano (P.G. 3450 P.M. 75). Entrained at 0700 hours. Rations 4 loaves and 2 tins bully.

Monturano, Italy  (length of stay: 4 months)

27  Arrived San Giorgio approx. 1400 hours. Sat outside railway station until about 1800 hours. Exchanged soap and tea for bread from Italian civilians. Civilians very pleasant to us. Electric train to Monturano about 18 km further on. Camp (P.G. 3300 P.M. 70) pleasantly situated in a valley with hills on every side. To the N. (30 miles) peaks of Apennines visible. Huge bungalows in camp originally intended for use as a factory. Number of prisoners (all imperial) about 8,500. Met Hunter Patterson, Perkins, Hopper and others whom I had last seen at Benghazi. Beds 3-decker type and rather closely packed. Advantages of camp - can brew up all day, better water supply than at other camps. Disadvantages - all food tins punctured, no heating of tins in cook house, 2 roll calls, overcrowding.

28  Received a North Row parcel.

June 1943

3  Received a Bermondrey parcel. Phil, Ted and I decided to pool all brewing stakes.

4  Received T.A.B. inoculation in the chest.

5  Suffered from diarrhoea for two days.

6  Attended communion service conducted by Methodist padre.

10  Received 50 cigarettes and Canadian parcel.

17  English parcel (New Mills).

21  Issued with B.D. slacks. Fined 140 Lira for cutting Italian pantaloons. Received 2nd T.A.B. inoculation.

22  Argentine bulk issue of Red X food commodities commenced.

July 1943

1  Received Bermondrey (15) parcel.

8  Received Bermondrey (15) parcel. Received photograph of Doris and babies.

9  Plums and peaches and onions on sale at the canteen 2 and 3 times a week now.

10  Saw Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.”

11  News of severe fighting in Sicily.

21  Red patches sewn on clothes.

22  Suffered from hiccups for 48 hours.

26  News that Musso has abdicated and Gen. Bagdolio has flown to London for terms.

August 1943

1  Parcels started every 10 days.

5  Rumours of peace talks and conditions.

7  Moved into tents while bungalows were fumigated.

10  Moved back to bungalows after a pleasant three days in tents.

14  Received a letter from Eddie Kruger via a new arrival from Bari. Eddie moved to Camp 82 near Florence.

25  Saw play “Philadelphia Story.” Interesting diversion - “dive bombed” by a bat.

26  Dave Hunter admitted hospital.

September 1943

1  Invasion of Italy commenced at Regio Calabria.

8  At 9 p.m. received news that Italy had signed Armistice on 3/9/43 and that they were cooperating with us with effect today. Band turned out on the green.

9  Thanksgiving service for victory.

11  Out for a walk without sentries. Picked as many grapes as we could eat.

12 German columns reported passing through S. Giorgio N. as fast as they can go. British plane arrived at aerodrome about 30 miles from here. More expected tonight. Brindisi in our hands. Landing by our forces expected to be made near Port S. Giorgio at any time.

14  Walks outside the camp stopped owing to bad behaviour of our troops.

15  Out both days for walks. Very enjoyable. Had plenty of grapes and bathed in the stream. BBC news concerning our troops advance in Italy good. Advised by our officers to remain in the camp. We had a prayer meeting.

17  German armoured car arrived at about 0900 hours. German sentries posted around the camp. No one allowed outside. Told that these are only precautions taken until a German division has gone by, and after 48 hours they would cease.

20  Received a N.Z. parcel.

23  At 1530 hours suddenly told to pack as we were moving at 1600 same day. Rumours that move was only to a nearby camp. 1,500 to go. Started move about 5 p.m. We entrained at about 11 p.m. Each received 10 cigs and a Red X parcel. 3 days rations put on train (bread and cheese). Changed at San Giorgio. Usual 40 men to each cattle truck. Very cramped and uncomfortable. Impossible to lie down to sleep.

Editor's note: As the POWs suspected, they were not being moved to a nearby camp, but were on their way to Germany.

Books Read as a POW in Italy

Robert Otterson kept a record of the books he had read as a POW. The list is interesting for three reasons. First, it illustrates the vast range of books that was becoming available to POWs as the war progressed and parcels brought more to the camp collections. Secondly, for this particular soldier from a mining family with little emphasis on education, it shows an extraordinary drive for self-improvement in a single generation. He read at a prodigious rate even for someone with time on his hands - sometimes two or more books in a single day. This was especially the case in Italy. He was like a sponge, absorbing widely varied subjects from gardening to Greek philosophy, from thriller novels to theology. And thirdly, the list itself provides an insight into the meticulous and detailed approach he often seemed to take to tasks at hand. Where he has occasionally omitted an author, this has now been added in italics if known.

  • 10/42 Leaves from a Surgeon’s Notecase
  • 11/42 In the Steps of the Master - H.F. Morton
  • 11/42 Life With a Capital L - Lindsay-Glegg
  • 1/43 Philosophy of Epictetus
  • 2/43 Thinking to Some Purpose - L. Susan Stebbing
  • 3/43 Plays of Shakespeare - Merchant of Venice, MacBeth, etc.
  • 3/43 Madame Curie (discoverer of radium) biography - Eve Curie
  • 4/43 The Master Christian - Marie Correlli
  • 4/43 Barnaby Rudge - Charles Dickens
  • 4/43 Cruise of the Conrad - Allan Villiers
  • 12/4/43 An Experiment With Time - J.W. Dunne
  • 5/43 How Green Was My Valley - Richard Llewellyn
  • 5/43 Old Goriot - Honore de Balzac
  • 5/43 Nicholas Nickleby - Charles Dickens
  • 6/43 Dead Towns and Living Men - Sir Leonard Wooley
  • 6/43 The Choir Invincible - Allen
  • 6/43 They That Reap - Gregorio Y Fuentes
  • 1/6/43 Penguin Herodotus - Editd. G.J. Evans
  • 14/6/43 Silas Marner - George Eliot (Marjory Evans)
  • 18/6/43 Columbus - Rafael Sabatini
  • 19/6/43 Rudder Grange - F. Stockton
  • 25/6/43 St. Francis of Assisi - G.K. Chesterton
  • 17/6/43 Grace Before Meat - Winifred Boyle
  • 28/6/43 Tahiti - Robert Keable
  • 7/7/43 Tarka the Otter - H. Williamson
  • 7/7/43 Grace and Truth - W.P. Mackay, MA
  • 10/7/43 Rubaiyat - Omar Khayyam
  • 12/7/43 The Conquest of Fear - Basil King
  • 12/7/43 Mrs Green - Evelyn E. Rynd
  • 13/7/43 Captain Cook - Rowe
  • 13/7/43 Women of the Bible - H.V. Morton
  • 14/7/43 The Conquest of Death - F. Townley Lord, DD
  • 19/7/21 Wild Wales - George Borrow
  • 20/7/43 Silver Ley - Adrian Bell
  • 21/7/43 Cherry Tree - Adrian Bell
  • 22/7/43 The Green Mirror - Hugh Walpole
  • 26/7/43 Twenty Years After - Alexandre Dumas
  • 27/7/43 Three Men in a Boat - Jerome K. Jerome
  • 28/7/43 Eve’s Ransom - George Gissing
  • 30/7/43 The Body in the Library - Agatha Christie
  • 31/7/43 Belly Fulla Straw - David Cornel DeJong
  • 1/8/43 The Laughing Cavalier - Baroness Orczy
  • 2/8/43 Black Water - Divine
  • 3/8/43 The Runagates Club - John Buchan
  • 4/8/43 The Beautiful Years - H. Williamson
  • 10/8/43 The Historic Faith in the Light of Today - B. Colgrave and A. Rendle Short
  • 12/8/43 John McNab - John Buchan
  • 14/8/43 Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier
  • 17/8/43 The Faithful Years - Robert Eaton
  • 23/7/43 Britain B.C. - Winslow
  • 24/7/43 Prester John - John Buchan
  • 27/7/43 Martin Chuzzlewit - Charles Dickens
  • 30/8/43 Fate Cannot Harm Me - Masterman
  • 1/9/43 Guy Mannering - Sir W. Scott
  • 2/9/43 Poems Selected from the Works of Lewis Carroll - Rev. C. Lutwidge Dodgson
  • 3/9/43 Experience (Library of Classics - Collins C.T. Press) - Catherine Cotton
  • 4/9/43 The Old Stag - H. Williamson
  • 5/9/43 Tales of the Golden Company - P.J. Fisher
  • 8/9/43 Random Harvest - Hilton
  • 14/9/43 The Elephant Man (and others) - Sir Frederick Treves
  • 15/9/43 Rupert of Hentzau - Anthony Hope
  • 16/9/43 The Lake - George Moore
  • 18/9/43 Queen Victoria - Lytton Strachey
  • 19/9/43 The Gun - C.S. Forester
  • 22/9/43 Collected Poems - G.K. Chesterton



For books read in Germany, see "Letters from Germany"

The gift to Robert Otterson of a small “Christmas 1942” calendar, memo notebook and hymnal from the Papal Nuncio during a visit to the POW camp at Bari in February 1943 was put to use. The pages here are scanned images of some of those pages. Mostly, the notebook records dates of letters and parcels sent and received, and addresses of friends.

Papal Nuncio diary given to POWs
From Robert Otterson's POW papers - Papal Nuncio diary
Robert Otterson POW war diary extract
From Robert Otterson's POW papers
Robert Otterson POW war diary extract
From Robert Otterson's wartime papers
Robert Otterson POW war diary extract
From Robert Otterson's wartime diary
Robert Otterson POW war diary extract
From Robert Otterson's POW papers


The following memos appear in the Italian diary as notes under the months from January to May, 1943. Not everything is clear as to meaning, but most can be guessed. Much of it has to do with how to obtain food, clothing and items that could be used as currency - the key to survival for a POW.

January 1943

  • Contents of Canadian red X parcel 30/12/42. 1 pkt large biscuits (13), 1 tin salmon, 1 tin sardines, 1 tin meat loaf 1 lb., 1 tin milk powder 1 lb., 1 tin corned beef, 1 6 oz. pkt cheese, ¼ lb. tea, ½ lb. sugar, 1 lb. tin orange marmalade, 1 lb. butter, pkt salt, large pkt raisins, pkt prunes (35),⅓ lb. block milk chocolate, 1 tablet toilet soap.

February 1943

  • Tobacco and cigs.
  • G. Murray Frame, 151 Queen Street, Glasgow.
  • Spiritual Food Parcel
  • Rev. David Kyles, MA, Drummond Tract and Book depot, Stirling, Scot.
  • Weigh not more than 10 lbs.
  • Packing - use towel etc. to wrap round contents. Soap in --- bag. Wrap loose blades and comb separately. No prohibited article.
  • The Deputy Director, Foreign Relations Dept., Warwick House, St. James Palace, SW1.
  • Name and address of sender, name and address of addressee, clearly written on paper inside parcel, together with list of contents. Solid choc may be sent. Re clothing coupons enquire Red x Bureau. Enquire Red X Message Bureau re 25 w. mges for 1/- (25-word messages for 1 shilling)
  • Italian - Pratt 10.30 Sat B.7 Bay 4


March 1943

  • 3rd March Eddie’s birthday.

April 1943

  • Medical Corps personnel repatriated on 7/4/43. Some naval personnel left a few days earlier.

May 1943

  • Note: Naples 30/11/42, PG. 75 1/12/42 - 2/3/43, 85 3/3/43 - 25/5/43, 70 26/5/43.

Monthly memos cease after this note on dates in each Italian camp. Other notes appear as shown below.


The Geneva Convention’s articles relating to the treatment of prisoners of war stipulated that POWs receive pay for work performed, although the amounts were minimal. Certainly this allowed prisoners to feel some sense of responsibility, and to work in order to earn money for extra food bought at the “canteen.” The memo below on pay received and owed during the Italian captivity appears in the Robert Otterson diary. Currency changes since 1943 make comparisons today meaningless, but it can be noted that according to the diary, a small loaf of bread cost L 15, and L 20 would buy a kilo of figs.

Pay received from Italians

  • 1/12/42 to 31/8/43 = Li 363.30
  • Stoppages for bk. dam etc (barrack damage?) = 30.00
  • Amount due for period 29/6/42-30/11/42 = Li 223.08


The pre-eminent concern for prisoners of war was always food. Letters and diaries are full of references to meals eaten and parcels received. At the start of captivity in Benghazi, the situation looked dire. The men weren’t receiving enough to sustain themselves, and they were losing weight and strength. Blackouts were frequent. Although these conditions improved markedly in Italy and Germany, especially with the arrival of Red Cross and other aid parcels semi-regularly, the POWs were by no means assured of a sustaining diet. Many of them became adept at creating cooked meals from available ingredients, stretching commodities to last as long as possible.

It is because of this that Sgt. Robert Otterson’s cooking notes hold special interest. He is clearly proud of his culinary accomplishments, and in one letter even tells his wife that he’s looking forward to cooking her some POW meals. The notes here are all reproduced from the 24-page diary he fashioned at the beginning of his Italian captivity. Most of the pencil notes are still clearly legible, but the original front and back pages have become detached and the remaining outside pages are badly faded.


Break into small pieces and boil for 35 minutes. After boiling it can be put in pan with a little butter and grated cheese. Stir gently until cheese melts. Baked - boil as above, drain. place in deep pan. Add cupful of cold milk, 3 tablespoons grated cheese and one tablespoon butter. Bake until brown.


Should be put into furiously boiling water for 20 minutes. Do not stir. Drain off and allow to dry over moderate fire for ½ hour in a covered vessel. After boiling and cold, can be cut into cakes and fried.


Mash boiled rice smooth. Add slowly, stirring to thin paste, ½ pint milk and three beaten eggs. make into stiff batter with flour, and bake.


Do not wash until just before cooking. Put into plenty of fast boiling salted water. Lid should be left off. In soup, the above is reversed. Beans and peas - put in cold unsalted water and boil slowly. Potatoes - put into furiously boiling water and then boil moderately.


To cook meat, first sear in bright flame or very hot pan, boiling water or grease. Then cook gradually until done. Materials (fish or flesh) should be dry when put into pan for frying. Turn frequently and do not jab with fork.

For broiling, cut meat at least 1” thick. Thrust for a moment into flame, then broil before a hot clear fire. A steak 1” thick should be broiled five minutes, 1½ “ thick ten minutes. Covering the meat with hot ashes is a good way.

Braising - Put meat in pot with about 2” of water in bottom (hot). Cover and cook for about 15 minutes to the pound.

Boiling - Fresh meat should be started in boiling water, salt or corned meats in cold. Skim off all scum as it rises for first ½ hour. Ten lbs. take about 2½ hours. A tablespoonful of vinegar added to boiling water makes meat tender. Vegetables should be added only in time to cook (potatoes 20-30 minutes, carrots and turnips sliced 1-1½ hours from end). If water needs replenishing, do it with boiling, not cold. Boil slowly, keep covered.

Rabbits are best eaten several days after killing. Soak in cold salted water for one hour.

Frying fish - Sever backbone of small fish to prevent curling up. Fry in plenty of hot grease. Olive oil is best. If the fish is not wiped dry it will absorb too much grease.


Heat fat in pan gradually almost to browning point. Beat eggs just enough to break them well, or whip thoroughly with a little milk. Put two heaped tablespoonfuls of butter (for 4 eggs) into pan and heat. Pour in eggs and tilt pan. As soon as egg begins to set, draw it to raised end of pan. Turn egg into small --- until ---. Chopped bacon etc can be mixed in the omelette before it sets.

Dressing Game and Fish (this page of the diary page is faded and difficult to read)

Bleed the animal or bird as soon as shot. Remove entrails as soon as possible. When skinning a rabbit, first put stick (?) through hind legs. After skinning remove scent gland from between forelegs (small white kernel).

To draw a bird, first cut off head and legs first joint. Make a lengthwise slit on back at base of neck and sever neck very close to body, also membrane which holds windpipe. Make a lengthwise incision from breastbone to ---. Vent in order to draw insides, care --- taken not to rupture gall bladder.

Small game can be cleaned by pressing a thumb on each side of the breast and with a swift push break the skin back carrying skin, feathers, backbone, entrails with it, leaving only br---. The crop of a bird should be removed ---as it ---. Powdered charcoal stuffed into abdominal cavity, bill, eyes, will keep bird sweet for a week in warm weather.

To clean fish. First scale. Cut off belly fin, side fins and head all in one piece. Remove spine fin and spines by making a deep incision on each side of the fin and pulling the spines out. Slit and remove entrails. To salt fish, put two ha-- ---- in two or three quarts of water. Let it come to a boil. Dip fish into water for five minutes. Water should not boil while fish ---- (last, bottom line is unreadable).