BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
How Montgomery's stepson escaped the Nazis
, October 29, 2011
WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?
Monty, Italy and One Man’s Incredible Escape
by Tom Carver
(London: Short Books)
Paperback: 356 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
In the decades following World War II, the public were fascinated with stories of Allied prisoners-of-war who escaped from German POW camps. Perhaps the best known of these accounts was Paul Brickhill’s book The Great Escape (1950), which 12 years later was made into a popular Hollywood film starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough.
However, in recent years there has been a dearth of such accounts. Fortunately, Where The Hell Have You Been? fills this void.
It tells the story of how, in November 1942, only 48 hours after the Battle of El Alamein, General Bernard Montgomery’s stepson, a young British army officer, Major Richard Carver, was captured by the Germans.
This book was written by Richard’s son, Tom Carver (now a BBC Washington correspondent), when Richard was an elderly man. Tom Carver wanted to understand his father better and to discover, in particular, why he was so reticent about aspects of his military service.
At the time of his capture, Richard Carver was a major in the Royal Engineers and a member of Montgomery’s headquarters staff. He was captured by the Germans in November 1942, some 48 hours after the Battle of El Alamein, after straying into German-occupied territory. He was trying to reconnoitre a spot for Montgomery to move his HQ, now that the British were advancing.
Unknown to the Germans, they had captured Montgomery’s stepson. Major Carver’s own father had been killed in action in World War I, and his widowed mother befriended and married Montgomery in the 1920s. Tragically, she died of blood-poisoning in 1938 while her eldest son Richard was stationed in India.
After his capture by the Germans, Carver was taken to Italy, where he spent time in various POW camps guarded by Italians. However, the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, and the Italians’ subsequent surrender to the Allies on September 3, 1943 (announced publicly on September 8), dramatically changed the fate of Carver and other Allied POWs.
Some POWs in Italy were able to use this as an opportunity to escape, but most remained in German custody. However, the fate of Carver and 600 other POWs in a camp in Fontanelleto, near Milan, differed from that of many others. At great risk to himself, the Italian commandant, Colonel Eugenio Vicedomini, ordered that the fence wire be cut, thereby enabling his prisoners to escape en masse.
The 600 escapees broke up into smaller groups, with Carver heading south with Colonel Tony MacDonnell. They were aided by a primitive compass Carver had constructed and also by maps which had been smuggled inside a comfort parcel into their camp by MI9, a branch of British military intelligence responsible for aiding resistance fighters in enemy-occupied territory and recovering Allied troops who found themselves stranded behind enemy lines.
Carver and MacDonnell evaded capture largely by travelling at night and following the sparsely-populated Apennines, where they were less likely to be detected. The pair were also aided and abetted by Italian peasants, many of whom risked their own lives to provide them with food and shelter, in the knowledge that the Germans would have shot them for helping Allied POWs.
At one point, MacDonnell managed to escape by sea with a number of other POWs from the port of Termoli, where some of the escapees had succeeded in establishing contact with French commandoes assigned to facilitate the escape of Allied POWs.
Carver, however, opted to remain behind, since unlike most of the escapees, he possessed a rudimentary knowledge of Italian, which he had acquired in prison camp in the hope of using it should an escape opportunity present itself. Accompanied by another escapee, South African infantry officer Jim Gill, he resumed his southward journey.
The absence of villagers willing to assist them, the freezing mountainous weather and the lack of food — all these began to take their toll on the morale of Carver and Gill.
More than 400 miles south of the camp from which they had escaped, they eventually drew near to the front line. The de Gregorio family provided them with shelter and food for a number of days. However, on one occasion, a German patrol almost discovered the pair as they hid under a rock.
When the German line retreated in early December, Carver made it to Montgomery’s HQ. His famous stepfather, on spotting him, greeted him gruffly with the words, “Where the hell have you been?”
After recuperating in England, Carver returned to active service, but was later wounded. After the war he continued his service in the British Army. He was eventually promoted to lieutenant colonel and took command of a military base on Christmas Island, where Britain’s first H-Bombs were being tested. He died in 2007, as his son was compiling the book.
Although the book is marred by some proofing errors, particularly in its earlier sections, Tom Carver deserves much credit for writing such a riveting account of a perilous POW escape. Moreover, he provides a fascinating close-up personal perspective on Montgomery, one of Britain’s greatest military leaders, whom Tom Carver visited regularly with his parents as a child.