anzac POW freemen in europe

Part 2 - Escape from Italian Prison Camps

Chapter 14 - Autumn Again

"Return tickets available!"

With the winter sports season at an end, and the Australian "evades" well settled into their Swiss routines, the June 1944 opening of the second front in Normandy, created a highly optimistic feeling among them, that the time for their repatriation was rapidly approaching.

Possibly by Swiss design or strategic planning, more and more allied "evades" were concentrating in the French speaking part of the country, particularly in the canton of Vaud centered around Montreux. "Camps" were established in large hotels at Glion for the airmen and at Caux , for army personnel.

From July 1, 1944 to December 3, 1944, 414 "camps" were evacuated and 354 "camps " re-opened (A5 p120).

Officers took up sailing on Lac Leman rather than skiing or mountaineering  at Adelboden and Davos. More and more other ranks were pursuing courses in watchmaking, jewellery and the hospitality industry around that beautiful lake. The progress of the American Fifth Army fighting their way north from their beach-head in the south of France, finally ended with their liberation of French Savoie and the first contact was established between neutral Swiss border guards and American liberation soldiers. The Swiss border at Geneva was again open, and the Swiss host could suddenly say farewell to many of his uninvited guests. Repatriation time for the "evades" had arrived!!

But it was not yet time for the "internees".

These were basically airmen and included the two RAAF "internees" from "R-for "Robert" Noel Davis and Murray Bartle (see the "Alpine Airmen").

In contradistinction to allied "evades" who had suffered as POW both in their various prison camps, and "on the run" in Italy avoiding becoming German POW, allied "internees" had made their transition from free "serving" individuals on active service to "internees" in a matter of a few hours, when for one reason or another, their circumstances brought them suddenly into Swiss custody. They were POW who had never been captured by the enemy.

The Hague Convention of 1909 spelled out the fine distinction between military personnel, who had escaped from the enemy and sought sanctuary in a neutral country and military personnel who, whether by accident or design, had sought sanctuary to avoid capture by the enemy. The 45th French Army Corps under General Daille, as well as the ASC British servicemen, who had driven their vehicles into Switzerland after Dunkirk, were obviously "internees". But the situation of airforce "internees" was complicated by the very nature of their participation in warfare, as frequently innocent civilians had met their death through such participation. There was no legal difference under the Geneva Conventions between a German pilot shot down over Coventry, and a British pilot shot down over Cologne. And superficially no legal difference to either one or the other shot down over Switzerland by Swiss pilots protecting their neutral air-space.

But on the first day in April 1944, the Swiss city of Schaffhausen was attacked by a formation of US heavy bombers in a raid that killed some 30 Swiss civilians and wounded another 240. Controversy still rages whether this attack was a deliberate one to wipe out a small group of factories that were producing aircraft parts and ball bearings for the German armed forces or whether it was a tragic error by American planners (See "Hitler's Secret Ally", Don Waters  California (L5 Ch13) and the summary by the Recorder captioned - "The Bombing of Schaffhausen").

Irrespective of the cause, the result enraged the Swiss population and hardened their attitude towards the allied airmen "internees" who were mainly American survivors of the daylight bombing raids, that certainly violated Swiss air space.

While all allied POW had a good idea of their rights under the Geneva Conventions, their responsibilities were not as clearly understood. To most POW it was also their obligation and desire to escape to rejoin their friends in their units and resume the armed duties for which they had been trained and which they regarded as a patriotic call. But this duty if put into effect in a neutral country, could be in direct conflict with the Federal laws of that country. This was the case in Switzerland. So that trying to "jump the border" was a Federal offence to "evades" and "internees" alike.

"R for "Robert"  was shot down on April 19, 1944, shortly after the bombing of Schauffhausen. Bob Peter was repatriated (read "exchanged") for a German pilot on May 12, 1944. Noel Davis and Murray Bartle were transferred to Adelboden as "internees" on May 22, 1944. Noel Davis successfully "hopped the border" with the first wave of returning "evades" on September 22, 1944. Murray Bartle was unsuccessful in doing the same, thus failing to remove himself from Swiss jurisdiction. Murray was to suffer in a Swiss Federal Prison at Wauwielemoos, controlled by a Swiss-Nazi (See "The Alpine Airmen" and "The Yanks are Coming").

As the leaves in Swiss forests began to yellow, nearly 7,000 "evades" began to assemble for their repatriation to their homelands through Geneva. The return tickets were available!

(Statistics taken from A5 "Schlussbericht des Eidg. Kommissariates fuer Internierung und Hospitalisierung ueber die Internierung fremder Militaerpersonen von 1940 bis 1945".)

Acknowledgements and Thanks to:

Kurt Ascher
Werner Balmer
Guido Koller
Dr. Juerg Stussi-Lauterburg

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