War history: How Pat and Tom lived on their wits behind enemy lines... for a year
Ipswich soldiers Patrick Boston and his pal escaped a prison camp
Joan Boston and husband Pat had gone to bed at their home in Ipswich when they were woken by noises in the road. “He went to the window and found our neighbours all out there. They were shouting to him ‘It’s over! It’s over! Come on down!’” remembers Joan, now 94.
“We were soon out there, in our night clothes with a coat flung over. It was a scene of unadulterated joy, and quite crazy. Someone dragged their piano out into the road. We sang and danced for hours.
“We lit a bonfire in the road and, next morning, found we’d burnt a hole in the surface! No-one cared. We were too happy that the war was over, and our men and women were coming home at last.”
Her husband was in many ways lucky to be there at all. He’d been discharged just a few weeks earlier, after a year in a Yorkshire hospital that specialised in bad back injuries. Pat’s had occurred during service overseas, while losing his liberty.
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He’d volunteered for duty early on and, as an observer in the Royal Corps of Signals, would find himself on the front line. The Rangitiki sailed from Avonmouth in July, 1941, and arrived in north Africa that October. Many of the men were from the Ipswich, Felixstowe and Woodbridge areas.
In Libya, the town and harbour of Tobruk was a strategic site. It was taken from Italy by allied forces but regained in June, 1942, by Italian and Nazi armies. Many thousands of allied soldiers were captured.
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Pat was among them.
There were so many prisoners that the enemy forces found it hard to cope, says Joan, who’d married Pat at St Augustine’s Church in Ipswich in 1940. “They were eventually carted away in lorries, packed in. They also had to walk a couple of hundred miles to get to where they could be shipped. It was all very tough.”
Pat ended up in a prison camp north of Rome, in the company of several men from the Ipswich area. “That stay in the desert had been extremely difficult. They were in a pretty poor state when they got to the prison camps,” says Joan.
Her husband was already set on getting away if the chance arose. “He’d injured his back when he was taken prisoner, and couldn’t really walk very far, but he was determined.
“As they heard the allies were getting nearer, he thought he might be able to make a break for it. So he did, with another Ipswich chap – Tom Nunn. They’d go out on labour camps. The Italians were getting less watchful than they should have been. They went up into the mountains and they were nearly a year getting through.”
The fugitives were sheltered by local people living a peasant lifestyle, essentially, and who had no love for the Nazis. “They were terribly badly off, but what they had they gave freely. Apparently, the only person they (the British PoWs) had a problem with was a young priest, who was obviously torn between what he thought it was his duty to do and his compassion for people.”
Pat would never speak about his bad experiences, says Joan, but he did tell her about some of the funny and heart-warming episodes that occurred as the pair tried to evade re-capture – sleeping in haylofts and so on – and make contact with friendly forces.
He told, for instance, of one old lady who shared her last loaf of bread with them. “It’s quite something, if you think about it.”
Pat developed jaundice at one stage and the locals arranged for him to see a doctor. Once he’d got a bit better, and was able to have something to eat, the community sacrificed an old cockerel in his honour to make some soup… and at the bottom of the bowl was this bird’s head!
“Just when you’re not feeling too good, having this bird facing you wasn’t the best, was it?” laughs Joan.
Tom was apparently quiet and shy, and said later that he “would never have got through without old Pat, as he put it”. Joan’s husband was a resourceful soldier who strove to learn Italian while on the run. He also borrowed a child’s atlas and made detailed and beautiful copies of maps of Italy that could prove useful.
When Tom had terrible earache, Pat managed to explain to a lady what the problem was.
“She took him across to where her daughter-in-law was breast-feeding her baby. She picked up her breast and squirted the milk into his ear! For a shy, withdrawn boy, you can imagine what that was like! And it cured the earache! Shock, I think!”
Fierce fighting between Rome and Naples in 1944 – The Battle of Monte Cassino – delayed the pair’s progress. They had to wait it out before finally managing to make contact with allied forces, get to Naples and be transported back to England. “Unfortunately, because he’d hurt his back, Pat was sent up to hospital at Wakefield, where they specialised in miners who’d broken their backs,” says Joan. “He was in hospital for about a year before he came home.
“Of course, when he did come home he was a few weeks ahead of VE Day, and so you can imagine how pleased we were about that!”
After the war, the couple wondered what they were going to do. Pat got some work at the sugar beet factory and was asked to stay on as a statistician, “but he came home and said ‘I can’t. I can’t be shut up!’” It was the legacy of being incarcerated.
Fortunately, he was offered a job as a manager with an Ipswich building firm, a role that meant he could be out and about, checking that things were being done correctly. “To be offered that job was an absolute godsend.”
The couple were married for 66 years. Joan says Pat didn’t really talk in depth about his experiences.
“I don’t think many of them could. Pictures of the PoW camps showed people were in a state. There was no doubt about it.” She thinks most captives were affected, with many suffering nightmares as a result. Pat had quite a few bouts of anxiety and stress, “as most of them did”. But he was a lovely man with a terrific sense of humour. “He said ‘That was what got us through on many occasions’.”
Joan’s keen we keep alive the stories of what folk endured during the war. “I think people forget just what these men went through, even those who managed to get home. They were very resourceful. Very brave. Yet they never thought they were.”
She adds: “You just had to get on with life and what it offered you. If you’d got a good partner, you could put up with anything.”
Meanwhile, Joan still remembers that “absolutely riotous” night in Locarno Road in 1945.
“There was a man, a stranger to us, who was going round the streets just to join in the fun. He led us in For the bells were ringing the old year out and the New Year in – complete with actions. I’d never heard of it before but now, all these years after, I remember it vividly, and our happiness that night.
“More celebrations followed, with street parties, but nothing was so spontaneous as that unforgettable night.”