Escape of Captain (later Major) Desmond Haslehust
Desmond Haslehust trained at Sandhurst as an infantry officer and was commissioned in to the Worcestershire Regiment as a Second Lieutenant. Soon after joining the Worcesters he was posted with the 1st Battalion to Palestine early in 1938. On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 his battalion was posted to Sudan to counter the potential threat of the Italian Army in Eritrea. When Italy entered the war on the 10th June 1940, the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment played a major role in the heavy and bloody fighting and fought the battle for Keren. For his efforts Lieutenant Haslehust received a Mentions in Despatches.
After Addis Ababa fell on the 3rd April 1941 his battalion were moved to the Western Desert in Lybia to oppose Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Desmond Haslehust was now promoted to captain and played an active part in penetrating the enemy positions for which he received a second Mentions in Despatches.
In June 1942 the British Army found itself surrounded and cut off around harbour of Tobruk and finally on the 21st June at 07.00 hours this strategic port fell into the hands of Rommel’s Afrika Korps with many thousands of British troops becoming prisoners of war. So it was that Captain Haslehust found himself in a prisoner of war cage at Tobruk. The British officers were quickly separated from the other ranks and flown to a POW camp in Italy. Captain Haslehust was sent to Chieti Camp where he was to remain until early in August 1943. He was then sent with a batch of prisoners-of-war to a camp in Bologna.
In September 1943, after fifteen months in the bag, Desmond Haslehust found himself locked in a cattle-truck at Modena, on board a train that was transporting him and other prisoners-of-war from Bologna Camp to a further spell of captivity.
Captain Desmond Haslehust
Once inside the cattle-truck at Modena, he and half a dozen other officers work hard on a scheme to remove some floorboards in the truck. They converting two table-knives smuggled from Bologna into rudimentary saws, by rubbing the blades together at right-angles in order to form small teeth. After some time they finally managed to remove three planks which created a hole sufficiently wide to allow a person to sit on the floor and dangle his legs down through the hole, at the same time holding on to the plank in front of him.
When the train reached Mantua in the late afternoon and came to a halt next to a train-load of parched Italian soldiers who were waiting plaintively for water, a few of the trucks containing the Bologna prisoners were opened briefly to enable the occupants to relieve themselves. Desmond Haslehust seized this unexpected opportunity to hide behind a pile of railway sleepers near the line. His fellow inmates were ordered back into the truck and the door was once again firmly locked by the guards. Desmond’s colleagues reckoned that he might be getting away with his spur-of-the-moment escape, when one of them saw him through the grill over the ventilator being rudely escorted back to the truck at the point of a bayonet, threateningly wielded by a blond young German soldier who had found him crouching behind the pile of sleepers. Desmond had only just succeeded in calming the angry youth by gesturing that he had merely been relieving himself and was too bashful to do it in public view. So he was returned to the cattle-truck — back to square one, but still narrowly unscathed. This abortive bid for freedom had served to whet his appetite for more.
As darkness fell the train eventually left Mantua and it was now that six of the men decided to escape through the hole in the floor. Lots were drawn to decide the order in which they would descend through the hole the next time the trained halted. A few miles south of Verona the train halted and the escapers prepared themselves to drop down the hole.
As the train slowly moved off again, the first escaper sat ready to lower himself down through the hole, mindful of the fact that the quicker he could be gone the easier it would be for those hoping to follow, before the train gathered too much speed. Number one descended on to the track without a hitch and number two lost no time in following him. By the time number three descended, the train was beginning to go uncomfortably fast; but he just made good his exit. The first three escapers had dropped successfully through the hole. It could only be hoped that they had all landed safely and hadn’t been hit as they lay on the track by anything projecting under the train. At least there had been no shots fired, so with luck they might have got clean away.
Soon the train reached Verona where there was a very long delay before the train moved off again.
At last the train slowly moved off and the next batch of escapers prepared to make their bid for freedom. Desmond Haslehust was to be the third to drop and knew that he would have to grab his chance without delay. Again the first two dropped as quickly as they could, as soon as the train was clear of Verona station.
Desmond Haslehust, sat down on the floor of the cattle-truck and let his legs dangle down the hole, relieved to find how high the clearance was above the track. Then he held on to the floorboard in front of him with both hands, and let his feet down to the track. For a few strides he more or less ran along between the rails before letting go with his hands and falling forwards on to the ground. Several cattle-trucks rattled past above him without touching him, as he lay there with his arms outstretched in front of him, scared stiff and motionless.
As soon as the train had passed over him he looked up when suddenly he heard a burst of fire coming from the train, wasting no time he quickly dash down the right-hand embankment, straight into some very prickly brambles. It was now 1 a.m. and so he now set off to find a hiding-place before daylight.
Desmond was wearing khaki-drill trousers and a khaki shirt, both of which had been dyed blue with a mixture of ink and wine, in order to give him a somewhat civilian appearance. His brown army officer’s boots he had cut down and converted into shoes. Into his pocket he had stuffed an army emergency ration in a flat tin, a very small Italian pocket-dictionary and a handkerchief. As befits a British infantryman, he had also taken with him a safety razor and a packet of blades, received in a next-of-kin parcel sent from home. On his wrist he wore the gold wristwatch, which had accompanied him through three years of campaigning with his regiment, and had somewhat surprisingly survived the many POW camp searches and remained in his possession.
In pitch darkness he made his way through some vineyards before finally reaching a road. To his surprise a figure stood up out of the ditch on the far side of the road. As far as Desmond could see in the dark, it was a man wearing battledress. Desmond approached him and on the spur of the moment said: ‘Are you English?’ ‘I’m Scottish,’ was the reply— enunciated with sufficient native accent to back up this proud assertion.
The Scottish figure in the dark was Lieutenant John Lewis Cameron, of the Cameron Highlanders, who had also managed to bale out of the train — not through a hole in the floor, but through a door, which had been forced open in another truck.
They immediately teamed up and set off together to find shelter before dawn. They were now somewhere to the north of Verona, not far out of the city. After going through more vineyards, they eventually reached a farmhouse. They knocked on the door, the farmer and his wife were surprised and frightened but after Desmond Haslehust, with his limited Italian, explained who he and John Cameron were they agreed to provide shelter for the night, even though German anti-aircraft unit was only a few hundred yards away from the farm.
In the morning they were invited into the house and given some bread, fruit and acorn coffee for breakfast. They then washed and the farmer provided some Italian workman’s jackets, and a pair of plus-fours for John Cameron.
John Cameron was a young medical student from Kingussie, near Aviemore, and had interrupted his studies in the early stages in order to enlist on the outbreak of war. He was a couple of years younger than Desmond Haslehust and had also been captured in the Desert fighting. He was of medium height and average build. He was clean shaven with black hair and a sallow complexion, which helped towards his disguise as an Italian. He was of cheerful disposition and talked with a moderate Scottish accent, which permeated the small amount of Italian that he managed to utter.
They now wanted to get up into the foothills of the Dolomites which they could see rising in the distance. Between the farmhouse and the hills lay the River Adige, which flows swiftly down from Trento, through Verona, on its way to the Adriatic coast. The Adige had to be crossed and to attempt to do so over a bridge in Verona would be inviting arrest. To try to swim across it would be too dangerous, they were told, and the plan was for one of the farmer’s many relations to procure a boat and row them across.
Late in the afternoon a youth appeared with the news that he had borrowed a boat and was ready to put them across the Adige. They thanked the farmer and his wife and walked across some fields and through some orchards to the bank of the river. They carefully boarded and the youth struck oared towards midstream. The fierce current carried them far down stream and to their horror they soon realised that they were going to land within the built-up outskirts of Verona. After about twenty minutes of hard rowing and uncontrolled drifting, they reached the other bank of the river.
It was now late afternoon and they found themselves in the heart of Verona. They hadn’t gone far before they came to a company of German infantry resting by the side of the road. Haslehust and Cameron just kept walking steadily on there was no point in turning back. The Germans fortunately were busy chatting together among themselves and took no notice of the two scruffily disguised escapers.
They soon reached what appeared to be a slum area of Verona and, rather than be caught on the streets after the 8 p.m. curfew of which they had been warned, they decided to seek shelter in a small dwelling which had a stable on the ground floor, with living quarters above. Once again the family of peasants appeared to be scared but were friendly. The two escapers were allowed shelter in the stable and were later provided with some food, on condition that they would be gone early the next morning.
At first light in the morning they headed for a village on the way to the mountains called Montecchio. They came to the Casa Canonica, the residence of the local parish priest. He, like the peasants, was anxious to help but was very apprehensive. He pointed out that the Germans were liable to call at his house at any time. It was out of the question for him to harbour British officers on the run, but he would lead them to someone else who might well hide them for the present. They were guided to the humble abode of a man who agreed to put them up for the present, and thus it was that Haslehust and Cameron found themselves having to sleep three in the only bed available.
Fortunately they weren’t there long, as the next day two young men, came and collected the two British officers and led them further up into the hills to what they called a malga. This was a mountain hut, used by farmers when they move up in the summer to reach the high grazing pastures for their cattle and goats. In this secluded hide-out, Haslehust and Cameron spent the next two weeks, safe from detection but waiting impatiently for news of any signs of the approach of Allied troops. The two Italians, who were in civilian clothes, made periodical journeys on foot down to the village to get bread and the bare necessities to keep the four of them fed.
Finally, contact was made with a group of active Partisans, the leader of whom, Luciano Dal Cero, came to fetch them. They set off early one morning, after two weeks living in the malga, and climbed for hours, right up into the Dolomites. After passing through a village with a church, called Fosse, to their surprise and relief they reached a hotel nestling under a very high mountain, known as the Sega di Ala. This was where they were to stay.
It was a small hotel, with eight bedrooms, occupied by Luciano Dal Cero and his aunt, plus a few friends. For security’s sake, they were given Italian names, Desmond Haslehust became Paulo, and John Cameron was Attilio, which were the names of Luciano’s two brothers, who were elsewhere at this time.
Here they spent a month in reasonable comfort and safety. The surrounding country was magnificent.
After a month at the hotel, Desmond Haslehust decided that some positive action was required, and he set off alone to the village of Fosse, through which they had passed previously. In Fosse, which nestles beneath the high Corno d’Aquiglio, he called at the house of the parish priest, Don Domenico Veronesi, himself a former army chaplain in the First World War. He was a charming grey-haired man in his late fifties, of short and sturdy stature, and he welcomed Desmond to his two-storey presbytery, where he lived with three of his brother’s children for company. He was also a deeply spiritual man, whose example was to exert a great influence on the young army captain who was now his guest.
After a week’s separation, during which John Cameron felt increasingly lonely, he too moved down to the presbytery.
Here once again Haslehust and Cameron began to feel that they were endangering the whole household by their continued presence, yet their plans to make a move southwards with the aid of the Partisans were still failing to materialise. To ease the situation at Don Domenico Veronesi’s, it was arranged for them to move to the nearby village of Lugo, to stay with Don Domenico’s brother Beniamino and his younger children. After nearly a month spent in the enjoyable company of Don Domenico, it was quite a wrench to bid farewell, but they felt that they had to make a move, because it seemed that their presence in the village was now suspected.
Beniamino Veronesi was a miller, and it was he who had kept them supplied with bread at his brother’s in Fosse. When they had been about a week in Lugo, they received the news for which they had been waiting. The Partisans had found a means of getting them across the River Po, which was the first major obstacle to be negotiated on their way south and was by no means easy to cross without travel papers and a good command of Italian.
The idea was for a man from the Vicenza district, called Vittorio Fantenelli, to guide them down into Verona, where he would lead them to the driver of a wood lorry, in which they would be concealed in the load and driven over a bridge across the Po. Fanteneli visited them in Lugo to issue final instructions as to where they were to meet him. He was unusally blond for an Italian, which despite his Italian name perhaps pointed to some Austrian. He told them to climb up to a malga and spend the night there, in readiness to walk down to a certain point on the way to Verona and meet him the next day.
It was now mid-December and, though the winter snow hadn’t yet arrived, the malga would have been very cold if they hadn’t managed to get a good fire going to warm them. They survived the night and duly kept their rendezvous with Vittorio Fantenelli the next morning.
The descent to Verona went without a hitch and when they reached the flat area on the northern outskirts of the city, Fantenelli led them on to a tram. By the time they reached the city centre, it was late afternoon and they hurried off to meet the lorry-driver who was to ferry them across the Po. They hadn’t gone far, however, before the three of them were surrounded and seized by a posse of eight German soldiers and were securely held with their hands behind their backs. They were bundled off to an old fort in the city, which was now being used as a prison, and a very forbidding and insanitary edifice it proved. Fantenelli wasn’t seen again and by now Haslehust and Cameron were convinced that he had led them right into a trap. With hindsight they felt that Vittorio Fantenelli’s blond hair, so untypical of an Italian, should have alerted them to the possibility that he was of Austrian extraction. Although their suspicions mounted, but it was too late now. It was only after the war was over that these suspicions were confirmed, by the news that Fantenelli had been executed by the Partisans for his pro-German activities.
Haslehust and Cameron now found themselves sharing wooden bunks with an assorted collection of prisoners. Food was minimal and sanitation was by means of a revolting communal bucket in the cell.
Christmas 1943 came and went, leaving their spirits at a low ebb. Eventually they were carted off to a large house not far away, which was being used as a Gestapo headquarters. Here they were to face their first Gestapo interrogation.
They were brought before a middle-aged German officer in uniform, with an expressionless face and cold cod-fish eyes. Before the interrogation began, they were stripped naked. They were pushed and slapped, but not at this stage beaten up or tortured. The main object seemed to be frighten and humiliate them. The interrogator told them to explain who and what they were. He brushed aside their assertions that they were escaped prioners-of-war and their claim that they should be treated as such. They were asked for the names of the people who had aided them, and when this information was not forthcoming, despite threats and manhandling of increasing intensity, the interrogator lost patience and declared that they were obviously spies and would be shot the next morning. They were given their clothes back and were bundled off to a room used as a cell.
The following morning, resigned to being shot, they were led out into a courtyard and made to face the wall. It all seemed very final, but no firing-party arrived. Instead, an escort of German guards appeared and marched them off to a truck which was waiting outside. They were ordered to climb into the back and were driven off to an unknown destination. This turned out to be a POW camp at Modena, where they had first boarded the train for Innsbruck three months previously, before all their wanderings. There they joined other prisoners awaiting transport to Germany. Some were recently captured in the fighting in the south; others were re-captured escapers like themselves. It was both a disappointment and a relief to be back with the status of prisoner-of-war, with their own kind, without the strain of having to talk Italian.
So ended an escape which had begun three months earlier and, despite much friendly help from Italians in the mountains, had ended in betrayal in Verona, not far from their starting-point. At least they had tasted freedom for a while — and mercifully they were still alive.
Captain Desmond Haslehust, was Mentioned in Despatches three times. After the war ended in 1945 he rejoined the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment in Germany and reached the rank of major commanding the Support Company.
He then answered the call to become a priest, his memories of Don Domenico Veronesi at Fosse, in the hills above Verona, having made a lasting impression on him. It was only fitting that, after a year’s training at Downside Abbey followed by four years of further training in Rome, he should return to Fosse to celebrate his first Mass in the village where he was, and still is, so well known. His friend and mentor, Don Domenico Veronesi died at the age of ninety-eight in 1983, less than two years after Desmond Haslehust’s last visit to him. Desmond’s years as a parish priest have been spent in the southwest of England — in Dorchester, his home town Plymouth, Liskeard, Exmouth and lastley at Axminster, with summer duty in the Scilly Isles. In 1981, by now The Very Reverend Canon Haslehust, he returned to Rome for a visit to mark his Silver Jubilee as a priest, and shook hands with Pope John Paul.
Major Haslehust (on the right) in Germany 1946
Source: This story is an edited version taken from the excellent book by Rex Woods "Special Commando" (ISBN 0-7183-0570-1) and it is recommended reading for a more detailed story. Details of the book are also in the book section of this website.