PG47 (Campo 47) escapees and the suicide of the NZ Camp CO

Discussion in 'Prisoners of War' started by davidbfpo, Apr 4, 2019.

  1. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    I am currently reading a privately published biography of a South African pilot who was captured in North Africa, in July 1942 and ended up in an Italian run POW camp, given the designation PG47 or in full Prigioniero di Guerra 47. The camp was outside Modena, in the Po Valley in north central Italy. For mapping see: Modena - Wikipedia

    In August 1943 it was obvious that the Italian guards would withdraw and many POWs considered escaping if the guards left. A covert BBC radio was in the camp and the senior officer, a New Zealand Lt. Col. (or Brigadier) called a parade to inform them that British HQ in Italy order was that no-one was to leave and they should await relief by the Allies.

    Six POWs disobeyed and escaped, two reached Allied lines, two died and two remained in Italy, later joining the partisans.

    The German Army promptly arrived within hours of the Italian guards leaving and all the POWs were moved to Germany.

    The NZ CO later committed suicide knowing his order led to the majority of the POWs remaining in German custody till much later in the war. The pilot was freed near Lubeck on the 4th May 1945.

    I know there are a lot of threads in this part of the Forum and a search found nothing similar, although the camp is referred to. My apologies if there is an answer within.

    Is this suicide true? I do not have his name nor whether his suicide was after the war's end or beforehand.
  2. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    I have followed the link to the NZ Official History and that states for PG47, contained nearly all the New Zealand officer prisoners:
    From: I: Events preceding and immediately following the Italian Armistice | NZETC

    I have not read the entire history available, but there is no mention of a suicide. Yes the history refers to a 'Senior British Officer', could that be a general title for British and Commonwealth forces?
  3. Blutto

    Blutto Banned

    There seems to be a few contradictions regarding AUS/NZ POWs in PG47. Some claim it was for AUS/NZ officers, whilst others claim it was for NCO's.

    The following link may be of interest, I linked it via Google Translate:
    Google Translate
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  4. vitellino

    vitellino Senior Member

    An interesting story....

    Now a few facts.

    1. Apart from one or two instances, the men held in PG 47 were officers (evidence WO 391/21 National Archives UK)
    among them were quite a few South African airmen (see below). What was the pilot's name?
    The Senior 'British' Officer in PG 47 will be named in the last of the Red Cross Inspection Reports - does anyone have a copy for this camp?

    2. It was not obvious that the guards would desert in August 1943. Why would they have done so? Italy was still under the Badoglio government. The armistice may have been discussed behind closed doors but it was not signed until 3 September and not made public until 8 September.

    3. The New Zealanders buried in Italy between 13 August - 9 September 1943, the day after the armistice (Source CWGC) had all been held in PG57 at Grupignano not at PG 47. Source WO 392 /21 The first three were tranferred from there to Milan hospital, two of them probably as orderlies:

    62250' Pte. SULLINGS MAURICE NZ Infantry 21st Bn. died 13/08/43 in H207 Milan as a result of Allied bombings, buried MILAN War Cemetery

    37849' Pte. TUFFLEY DENNIS DRYDON NZ Medical Corps died 13/08/43 in H207 Milan as a result of Allied bombings buried MILAN War Cemetery

    37978' Pte. WILLIAMS GORDON OWEN NZ Medical Corps died 14/08/43 in H207 Milan as a result of Allied bombings buried MILAN War Cemetery

    64981' Pte. HOEY STANLEY WILLIAM NZ Infantry 24th Bn. died 16/08/43 buried UDINE War Cemetery

    33582' Gnr. CORLETT JAMES FRANCIS NZ Arty 7 Anti-Tank Regt. died 09/09/43 buried UDINE War Cemetery

    60284' Sgt. RYDER DOUGLAS MALCOLM NZ Infantry 24th Bn. died 09/09/43 buried UDINE War Cemetery

    It seems obvious that the last two escaped from PG 57 the day after the armistice and were killed by the German forces.

    I wonder when the SBO is supposed to have committed suicide. I will have another look at NZ deaths for the later part of September and will edit this post accordingly.


    S. African Airmen WO 392 21.jpg
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  5. bamboo43

    bamboo43 Very Senior Member

    Using the same source as Vitellino (WO392/21) the camp was definitely made up of many officers from the NZEF. There are two Lt-Colonels listed as being held at Camp 47 as of August 1943, one was listed as being a Temporary Lt-Colonel. There is no NZ officer of higher rank shown for Camp 47. As has been stated many times on the forum, WO392/21 is known to contain errors, so we must keep that in mind.

    One of the Colonels died on the 15th May 1945, recorded as natural causes but on active duty. Due to the sensative nature of the thread, I will not name these officers here.
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  6. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron


    Thanks for your post. You asked and cited in part:
    He was Keith Robert Coster and the biography is summarized by the author on: Lt Gen K.R. Coster: A Life in Uniform
    Yes I see his name does not appear on your list.
    I am relying on the cited biography, which was assembled much later than 1943-1945 and so dependent on the pilot's memory. The passage does refer to the assumptions made after August 1943, that the Italian guards would leave and Allied forces would arrive to liberate the POWs.
  7. Tricky Dicky

    Tricky Dicky Don'tre member

    UK, British Prisoners of War, 1939-1945
    Name: K Coster
    Rank: Captain
    Army Number: P102710
    Regiment: South African Air Force : Officers & Other Ranks
    POW Number: 2734
    Camp Type: Stalag Luft 3
    Camp Number: L3
    Camp Location: Sagan and Belaria, Poland
    Section: South African Air Force : Officers & Other Ranks

  8. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    Stalag Luft 3 being the camp from where 'The Great Escape' occurred.
  9. vitellino

    vitellino Senior Member

    Hello David,


    Capt. Coster is listed amongst the army personnel in WO 392 21 and not amongst the air force personnel.

    If I were you I would obtain a copy of the following from the National Archives, London - two users of this forum offer the service at very reasonable rates:

    Prisoners of war, Italy: Camp 47, Modena; International Red Cross reports on conditions

    Reference: WO 361/1888

    All the Red Cross reports name the Senior British Officer. It was usual for him the hold the most senoir rank in the camp, and he represented the prisoners' interests to the camp commander

    The problem will be the date when the last report was made. If in May the chances are that officer may well have changed by September. If in August or September there is a good chance that the name in the report is the person you are looking for.

    I have posted here all the NZ officers being held in Italy according to my copy of WO 392 /21:

    POWS Italy New Zealand officers a-q.jpg POWs Italy  New Zealand Officers r-z-.jpg


    Attached Files:

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  10. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    Citing Vitellino in part:
    Captain Coster joined the SA Permanent Force in July 1937, receiving his commission upon war being declared and was a pilot during the war. For reasons I do not know he did not join the South African Air Force. That will explain why he is shown as army personnel.

    There is a slim Wiki bio of him: Keith Coster - Wikipedia
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  11. vitellino

    vitellino Senior Member

    Captain Wood gives the name of the SBO at PG47 and describes events following the Armistice:

    The Diary of Captain R M Wood

    He is the same person referred to by Bamboo as having died on 15 May 1945. There's quite a bit about him on the web including a photograph but no mention of the cause of death.

  12. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    Thank you Vitellino. I will read the linked diary another day and look further. Updates will follow.
  13. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    Captain Wood's diary identified the PG47 Senior British Officer (whose name I will not add) and research found he was a New Zealand born officer, a member of the NZ Staff Corps, who led the 24th Infantry Battalion and he was captured in North Africa on 30/11/1941. He won the DSO for his action in Sidi Rezegh; this was awarded in September 1944 and he 'died on active service' on the 15th May 1945. He is buried @ Brookwood Cemetery, Woking. His NZ record shows he died from natural causes and elsewhere 'died in Folkestone on being repatriated at the end of the war.'

    The dairy also refers to thirty odd POWs left PG47 before the Germans arrived, mainly South Africans and it is clear others left too - some of whom may have been shot by the Germans as they did.


    His DSO citation is on Online Cenotaph
    Last edited: Apr 7, 2019
  14. vitellino

    vitellino Senior Member

    If they had been shot they would be buried in one of the war cemeteries - EITHER AS KNOWNS UR UNKNOWNS
    As I have said above, two New Zealanders were shot on 9 September but had been held in PG 57:

    33582' Gnr. CORLETT JAMES FRANCIS NZ Arty 7 Anti-Tank Regt. died 09/09/43 buried UDINE War Cemetery

    60284' Sgt. RYDER DOUGLAS MALCOLM NZ Infantry 24th Bn. died 09/09/43 buried UDINE War Cemetery


    Only three New Zealanders in Northern War Cemeteries between 9 September and 31 December 1943 including two above. Will now look at South Africans.

    Seven South Africans, all ex.pows, buried in N. Italy between 9 September-31 December. Only one officer, Lt. Watters, who had been held in PG 5 Gavi, and he was buried in Padua. No one from PG 47.

    I have read Captain Wood's account again. He talks about shots being fired and about a man managing to escape only to meet Germans with a bayonet - but he doesn't talk about anyone being killed.

    Last edited: Apr 7, 2019
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  15. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    Captain Wood's diary also refers to Charles Upham, VC winner twice, who was in PG47 and who advised against escaping before the Germans arrived.
  16. Tricky Dicky

    Tricky Dicky Don'tre member

  17. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron


    There are many threads on the Forum on Charles Upham and I have asked that a Moderator considers merging those that can be merged.
  18. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    An update on the PG47 NZ CO. I have requested his official records and have been advised it could take four months. A NZ-based historian has suggested another military historian to ask, so that will be done today. An update when I can.
  19. vitellino

    vitellino Senior Member

    Looking forward to whatever you discover,

  20. WJG

    WJG New Member

    Thanks for the interesting discussion.
    My father Lt Ernest Gumbley (27 Battalion 2nd NZEF) was an inmate of Campo 47 after being captured at the first battle of El Alamein so the line of information here is of personal interest. I had a number of conversations with him over the years about his time as a POW, including at Modena. This is a summary of those with regard to Campo 47.
    It was a camp for British officers as stated above. My general impression from his comments are that conditions were relatively good - especially compared to their later situation in the Oflags in Germany, particularly regarding the quality of the food (which was heavy on rice - to the degree that he was a reluctant rice eater for the remainder of his life). They were even given chianti when they first arrived, but that apparently did not last long. While the food and general conditions of the barracks were OK the medical care was poor. The Italians were short of medical supplies and reluctant to supply any to the POWs. Without access to antibiotics (only available to the allies at that time anyway) infections often turned septic. This led to some quite ghastly situations, operations were carried out without anaesthetics, including major amputations of limbs. One of my father's friends had his leg amputated at the hip without any form of anaesthetic more sophisticated than brandy. Remarkably he survived. Not long after, my father slipped over in the latrines and cut his elbow, which quickly became septic. He was taken to an Italian army surgeon who draw a line around his arm below the shoulder and said this was where he would cut it off. My father was not inclined to accept the offer and on the advice of the British doctors commenced a regime of immersing his elbow in boiling hot water several times a day to try and control the infection. He commented that this was agonising but for the time being it was still a better prospect than an amputation. I am to sure how long this went on but to his great luck (and relief) a South African doctor arrived in the camp. This man had somehow managed to smuggle sulfa drugs into the camp. The wound was opened up and the crushed tablets applied directly into it. Ernest said this was even more painful than immersing his elbow in the boiling but the result was almost miraculous with the infection disappearing in hours. My father credited the South African doctor with saving his life.
    How did they find the Italian guards? Mostly slack and relatively disinterested but without the nastiness and pettiness they found in Germany. My father did make one interesting comment once when describing the guards. One of the things the prisoners found both weird and disgusting about the guard's behaviour was their predilection for spending their time in the guard box masturbating - which they did relatively publicly.
    So what happened when Italy surrendered? There was no order to remain in the Camp from the SBO. The camp was open and Italian partisans came into the camp and encouraged POWs to come with them. Which a number did. Others, like my father, were keen to to take up the offer but thought it a good idea to go back into the barracks to collect their effects. In the few minutes this took the Germans had arrived and secured the camp. Ernest thought this was one of the poorer ideas of his life and he had another two years of captivity to endure. Shortly after they were transferred to Germany by train (in cattle trucks) via the Brenner Pass. At the last train station before the pass (I can't remember its name) the platform was crowded with Italians including partisans and a number POWs managed to break out of the cattle trucks and escape with the partisans help. Once on the other side of the pass the POWs were paraded and absentees were identified. The German commander was apoplectic and selected a number of prisoners who had their arms bound with barbed wire (my father was very clear on this detail) and these men were lined up in front of the other prisoners. The POWs were then lectured by the German commander before he order those selected to be machined gunned to death as lesson to the rest. Ernest said that he new at that moment this this was now an entirely different game to that at Camp 47.

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