Paddy’s great escape

William “Paddy” Cullen – a remarkable survivor        of the Second World War
William “Paddy” Cullen – a remarkable survivor        of the Second World War
William “Paddy” Cullen – a remarkable survivor of the Second World War

Dennis Cullen, of East Morton, is on a mission to find the family of Dragoon Guard Alan Smith, who hatched an escape plan with his father during the Second World War

In September 1943, a train pulled out of Chiavari Station in Northern Italy carrying hundreds of British prisoners of war being transported via Piacenza and the Brenner Pass towards Germany. In one of the carriages, where men were herded like cattle, was my father William “Paddy” Cullen, a South African called Fred Frayne and another soldier, Alan Smith, from Leeds.

The three of them had devised a plan to escape from the moving train, my father being the main instigator. This involved removing a grill in the carriage roof and for the three of them to jump out in turn, in the hope that they would survive the fall and avoid recapture. The plan then was to meet up.

Fred was the first man out after standing on my father’s shoulders to reach the opening. My father, standing on Alan’s shoulders, followed. Fred and my father managed to meet, even though they had landed at opposite sides of the River Po near Piacenza. They then waited hours for Alan Smith to appear but unfortunately he never did. Perhaps he never got out. They had all discussed previously the dangers involved and knew that any one of them could be shot and killed if they jumped at the wrong time.
For more than three months, my father and his comrade walked over 500 miles through Italy to reach the Allied lines, which my father did around Christmas 1943. Unfortunately Fred had been recaptured a few weeks before.

After the war my father, who was originally from Southern Ireland, settled in Leeds where he married my mother, Florence Rose Jordan, and they had three children, David, Ann and myself, Dennis.

My father wrote an account of his experiences as a fugitive in Italy which I have put together in a book, Italy: The Hard Way, for future generations of my family, but I have always been intrigued about what may have happened to Alan Smith and wondered if any of your readers may have any information.

Here are some extracts from Paddy’s book:

“We embarked on a long train of cattle trucks … I recalled my boyhood days in Ireland and how I wished for those times to come over again. It was then I noticed the sun, as a massive red ball, sending out life and energy for all mankind to enjoy and here in the truck were forty human beings denied our rights by that same mankind. Suddenly I began trembling and became very agitated. Jumping down from the window, I asked the blokes in the truck: ‘Who wants to go to Germany?’ In unison, they shouted: ‘No-one.’ Then I asked: ‘Who’s willing to escape from this stinking hole?’”

Just Alan and Fred joined the escape plan, deciding that their best bet was to remove the wire mesh from the window and jump from the moving train.

“Then I heard Fred whisper: ‘The coast is clear. I’m off. Good luck boys, see you somewhere in Northern Italy.’ He vanished into the blue. For the next few seconds an extremely tense and deadly silence seemed to prevail. I could scarcely breathe, waiting for the report of a shot or shots, but the only sound was the chug, chug of the engine.

My turn next. With my heart beating treble time and beads of sweat on my forehead, I felt like someone being led to the place of execution. There was nothing I could do about it now. This was my choosing and whatever happened I could not forsake my comrade Fred. I got up to the window, standing on Alan’s shoulders … It was a squeeze getting through the small space as I’m six feet tall and built in proportion … I climbed down the side of the truck until I got within three or four feet of the track and then jumped … Even now I can picture myself tumbling head over heels at great speed, bouncing like a rubber ball and ending up in the dyke below.”

After several hours, Paddy met up with Fred, but there was no sign of Alan and eventually they decided to push on. Their journey to freedom saw the two men dodging German soldiers and being given food and shelter by Italian hill farmers.

“Our boots began to wear thin, causing our feet some trouble. Our bellies began to think our throats were cut from lack of food and rebelled against such treatment. The houses were few and far between and the people in them were poor. as most mountain people are. Nevertheless they made us at home and gave us what they could afford.”

As the days passed, conditions got worse and tempers frayed. Then, disaster struck with Fred being captured by four German officers and Paddy fleeing back into the mountains.

“If the Germans fired, I never heard them, nor did I wait to find out … After getting a safe distance away, I threw myself down on the mountainside, my mind in turmoil. I lay there feeling dejected and an outcast. Every man’s hand seemed to be against me in German-occupied Italy. The more I thought about it, the more dejected I became. I thought of Fred, the trouble we’d had getting out of the train and then walking nearly 500 miles only to be recaptured.”

Paddy continued his journey, with more close encounters with the Germans and, on one occasion, he had to hit a soldier over the head with a shovel to keep his freedom. By December, he had to contend with snow and ice and his physical condition deteriorated.

“My back and legs ached all over and the lower part of my abdomen began to swell. This was the start of neuritis, from which I still suffer. My jacket and trousers were in shreds. There was nothing left of my boots; only the tops. I hadn’t had a shave or a haircut since September. My beard was at least half an inch long. To make matters worse, I seldom washed and so, in fact, my appearance resembled Robinson Crusoe.”

But Paddy found a “guardian angel” – a mother of three who lived in San Vittore, but had spent fifteen years in Scotland. She provided food and allowed him to sleep in her stable. However, his troubles were far from over as the village came under fire by the Americans.

“During the next five or six days, not one German gun position was hit, but everything around me was systematically destroyed. This did no earthly harm to the Germans – only made thousands of Italian people homeless and thousands more were maimed and killed.”

Paddy was forced to break cover to take a mother and her injured baby to a German first aid station. “When I got first sight of the first aid station, I worked myself up into a state of frenzy. I began cursing and damning all the Jews in America at the top of my voice … The nearer I got, the louder I shouted. This ruse worked so well that two German orderlies came out to meet me, one getting hold of the woman and the other the child. All five of us proceeded into the first aid room. Some thirty people had gathered round to have their wounds dressed. While they craned their necks to have a look at the woman and her baby, I made my way out at the back.”

As Christmas arrived, the shelling continued. “The American guns began their Christmas celebrations by pouring thousands of shells of all calibres on the mountainside where we were, until daylight the following morning. As the night drew on, the shelling became heavier. And every time I heard the guns fire, I would think to myself ‘This is it.’ About four o’clock in the morning, a 105 landed in the small courtyard in front of the stable, blowing half the wall down. When daylight appeared, craters were everywhere, with hundreds of sheep and cattle lying dead or wounded.”

The next page of Paddy’s account is missing and the manuscript picks up again with the words: “and torn, but I didn’t mind that. I was near my journey’s end, for a minute after I walked into an American patrol. What I had been through was a mere nothing compared to some. I was hungry, ill-clad and cold most of the time, but I was fortunate enough to survive. Many of my friends and comrades had perished in the POW camps of Germany, Italy and Japan and thousands of immortal Tommies had died in the jungles of Burma and Siam … I hope the time is not far distant when the workers of all lands will awake from their long slumber and sweep all that evil away from the face of the earth, marching arm-in-arm, in harmony – all religions, all races – to a life of happiness and peace.

About Paddy Cullen

Paddy Cullen was born in Ireland and, at the age of nineteen, decided to come across to England. He joined the Army in 1933, serving in the Royal Artillery’s Bengal Rocket Troop in India.

During the Second World War he was captured and was awarded the Military Medal for carrying an injured child into a German first aid post while on the run.
After leaving the Army in 1946, he had several jobs in Leeds, including making aircraft parts and serving as a commissionaire at Burton’s.

He died in 1967, at the age of fifty-two, from kidney problems caused by the harsh conditions he endured in Italy.

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