by Mark Felton
John Leeming reflected on the journey that had landed him unexpectedly in the hands of the enemy. They had taken off from RAF Stradishall near Haverhill in Suffolk on 19 November 1940 bound for Cairo via the airfield at Luqa in Malta. Once in Egypt, the 51-year-old Owen Boyd was to assume deputy command of Allied air forces under Air Chief Marshal Longmore. The appointment of the energetic Owen Boyd to the Middle East came at a time when Britain was struggling to maintain its position in Egypt against a huge Italian assault.
Benito Mussolini had entered Italy into the war on Germany’s side in late June 1940, after witnessing Hitler’s triumphs in Poland and against the Western Allies in France and the Low Countries. Il Duce undoubtedly thought that Italy might be able to snatch a few of the victory laurels for herself on the back of Germany’s defeat of France and the ejection of the British from the Continent. But the Italian entry into the war was particularly worrisome for Britain in the Mediterranean, a traditional bastion of British power.
The large and powerful Italian fleet and the massive Italian army in Libya posed serious threats to the British Empire’s lifeline, the Suez Canal, as well as to British bases at Malta and Gibraltar. Already seriously run-down as the best equipment was siphoned off for the defense of Britain against a possible German invasion, the small British garrison in Egypt was vulnerable and difficult to supply.
Mussolini had ordered the invasion of Egypt in early August 1940, and by 16 September the Italian 10th Army had occupied and dug in around the Egyptian town of Sidi Barrani. Outnumbered ten to one, the small British force under General Sir Claude Auchinleck had begun planning for Operation Compass, a series of large-scale raids against the Italian fortresses that would be led by a plucky and aggressive general named Richard O’Connor.
Owen Boyd was being sent to Egypt to attempt to revitalize and reorganize the RAF’s response to the Italian threat. Owen Boyd seemed the ideal choice – a pugnacious First World War decorated flyer whose last post had been leading RAF Balloon Command, providing vital barrage balloon cover for Britain’s cities.
But now, eleven hours after leaving England, Air Marshal Owen Boyd’s plane was a battered wreck lying in a Sicilian field. After they had dodged German flak near Paris, Wellington T-2873 from 214 Middle East Flight had headed out over a wet and stormy Mediterranean towards Egypt, with a scheduled refuelling stop at Malta. But an apparent navigational error and consequent fuel shortage had brought the Wellington too close to the island of Sicily where it was immediately pounced upon by alert Italian fighters and forced down.
Questions would be asked as to why Owen Boyd’s plane had been sent un-escorted to the Middle East by such an obviously dangerous route, especially as he was one of the few senior officers that were privy to the secrets of Bletchley Park and the ‘Ultra’ intelligence emanating from cracking the German Enigma code. It was for this reason that Owen Boyd, still shaken up from the crash landing, struggled to burn the aircraft and his private papers that had been carried aboard…
The routines of imprisonment at the Villa Orsini provided the prisoners with the first notion of escaping. Their guards had settled into predictable activities. Lieutenant Ricciardi, though watchful, was not hostile to them, and Owen Boyd and Leeming in particular were afforded some freedoms within the grounds of the villa that could be exploited for their own purposes. It was also apparent that the Italians did not expect an air vice-marshal to attempt to escape. After much thought, Owen Boyd briefed Leeming on a plan that he had been working out.
‘As you know, during the day the sentries are stationed outside the garden,’ said Owen Boyd in his room that night. ‘It is, of course, impossible for anyone to pass unnoticed through the cordon of sentries in daylight.’
Leeming agreed, pointing out that the sentries were close together and there was scant cover.
‘We know that every evening the sentries close in, coming into the garden and forming a cordon around the villa,’ continued Owen Boyd, warming to his subject. ‘Right now they are only a yard or so from its walls.’
‘It does mean that at night anyone leaving the house will be seen immediately, sir,’ said Leeming, his brow furrowed in thought.
‘Well, I’ve been thinking about that. As it’s impossible to pass through the line of sentries by day or by night, we need to let the sentries do the passing.’
‘Come again, sir?’ said Leeming, nonplussed.
‘Each evening we will walk in the garden, wearing our raincoats,’ said Owen Boyd. ‘We’ll carry on like that for a couple of weeks, so that the Eye-ties get used to us. We will always begin at dusk, just before the sentries march in to the garden and close in for the night.’ Owen Boyd paused and lit up his pipe.
‘The scheme is simple, John,’ said Owen Boyd, puffing contentedly. ‘One evening, instead of going as usual into the house at the end of our walk, we climb over the garden wall.’ Leeming nodded, seeing where Owen Boyd’s thinking was going.
‘Once over the wall, we won’t attempt to go any further, otherwise we will run in to the line of sentries. Instead, we lie quite still beside the wall. I noticed a spot where there are quite a few shrubs. We probably won’t be seen in the fading light.’
‘And then we wait for the sentries to march into the garden and take up their customary positions around the house,’ said Leeming, nodding.
‘Precisely,’ replied Owen Boyd, smiling. ‘There will be no guards between us and open country.’
‘It’s so simple,’ said Leeming. ‘It could work.’
‘Just think about it, John. The sentries will assume that we are back inside the villa. No one will be any the wiser until breakfast thirteen hours later. A thirteen-hour head start!’
It was decided that Owen Boyd and Leeming would remain concealed in the shrubbery until it was fully dark, then walk to the local railway station about two miles away. Their ‘escape dress’ would consist of their blue RAF uniform trousers, black shoes, civilian raincoats and black fedora hats, the latter having already been kindly provided by the Italians since Owen Boyd and Leeming had salvaged so little of their personal kit from the crashed Wellington on Sicily.
‘The streets will be dark, and I’m positive that our escape get-ups will pass muster in the poor light,’ said Owen Boyd.
‘There is the bother of purchasing tickets to consider, sir,’ replied Leeming. ‘I mean, we’d have to have a stab at the lingo.’
‘Due biglietti per Roma per favore,’ said Owen Boyd in halting but reasonably passable Italian.
‘So it’s Rome?’ said Leeming.
‘Yes, Vatican City, the British Embassy there.’
For the next two weeks Owen Boyd and Leeming made their preparations. They exercised in the garden as agreed, lulling the sentries into a false sense of normality. Then, every night, Leeming would creep out on to the villa’s roof and lie concealed, watching the sentries and taking note of the patches of cover and the light and darkness, watching the state of the Moon, monitoring wind and rain, and trying to work out the optimum time for their escape.
Through seemingly innocent ‘chats’ with unwitting guards, Leeming also gained an idea of train times to Rome from Sulmona station, and even managed to persuade a guard to show him a map of Rome, whereupon he swiftly memorized a route to the neutral territory of Vatican City.
Another consideration was money. They needed Italian lira, and began negotiations to obtain some during their fortnight’s preparation. It was complicated, but the Italians permitted officer POWs to effectively draw a portion of their normal pay through the Italian government, which would then be reimbursed by London. One day in April 1941 the lira finally arrived. It was a Monday.
But that night Leeming judged that the position of the Moon was not right: there was too much light to make proper concealment successful. It would be a serious risk to ignore this important point. Owen Boyd and Leeming reluctantly agreed to postpone the escape for one week. But both men remained upbeat – all that was needed was the correct light conditions and they would be away.
MARK FELTON has written over a dozen books on prisoners of war, Japanese war crimes and Nazi war criminals, and contributes regularly to magazines such as Military History Monthly and World War II. His books include Zero Night.