RAMC, 2 ARMD DIV – ESCAPE FROM ITALY
Eric Holmes was born in Harrogate on 25 June 1920. A member of the Harrogate Red Cross, he was mobilised into the RAMC on 4 September 1939. By 1940, he was serving as a Warrant Officer in 2 Armd Div. when he embarked at Liverpool on route to Egypt in November 1940, arriving at Port Said in December ‘40.
Eric took part in the offensive, led by the 7th Armoured Division which drove the Italians out of North Africa. On February 12th 1941, the British army was reduced and many were sent to defend Greece. On that same day General Erwin Rommel (The Desert Fox), landed in Tripoli with advance troops of his Afrika Korps. On the 31st March Rommel launched his counter offensive.
Eric was now deep into the fighting involving Rommel’s Afrika Corps, and after a fierce battle at Mechili, 100km SSW of Derna, he was captured by Rommel’s Afrika Corps Panzers on April 8th 1941, handed over to the Italians, and transported to Campo PG 78, at Sulmona, Italy.
Following cessation of hostilities between the Italian and Allied forces, German troops occupied the valley around Sulmona, and also moved in to guard the POW camps.
On 12th September 43, seeing an opportunity, Eric escaped from PG78 and headed south intent on joining the Allies. Travelling at night, and hiding by day was a dangerous game in the mountains. While crossing a ravine he slipped, resulting in a fall of about 300ft, and serious injuries to his head and arm. Eric made his way to a road and surrendered to a motorised German patrol who took him to Sulmona hospital.
On the 9 October, he heard from the Italian nurses that all POWs were to be moved to Germany. Wearing pyjamas, with an arm in plaster and bandages around his head, he somehow descended 25ft from the hospital balcony using sheets. He took cover in the nearest building, which turned out to be the undertaker’s workshop for the hospital. Eric calmly got into a coffin, pulled the lid on and waited. The Germans searched the building but did not open any coffin lids.
Later two ladies entered the workshop, shouted, and opened the lids. Civilian clothing had been brought. Eric decided to trust the ladies and, when dressed, followed them at a distance, through Sulmona – which was full of German troops searching for him. He was moved from safe-house to safe-house while he recovered from his injuries. On one occasion he took refuge on a roof in darkness while the house was searched below. During an allied raid on the town, one of his safe-houses was hit, two members of the family were killed and others injured; the family turned to Eric and said, ‘You cannot help it – that’s war’.
Because of the greater German troop concentration in the town, and despite the fact that his host family did not want him to leave, Eric decided that he could no longer put the families at risk. On the 31 January 1944, in atrocious weather conditions, and with many road blocks and searches taking place, he headed south into the mountains in blizzard conditions. After passing through German front lines during an allied artillery barrage, crossing no-man’s land, and having spent four days of nearly continuous walking, Eric reached allied lines on the 04 February 1944.
On 26th June 1945, Eric Holmes was awarded the Military Medal by HM George VI at Buckingham Palace.
Eric Holmes MM, died on the 03 October 2003 in Leeds.