Italy 1943: the 'Stay Put Order'

Discussion in 'Prisoners of War' started by vitellino, Dec 22, 2019.

  1. vitellino

    vitellino Senior Member

    Hello everyone.

    I am interested in your thoughts on the Stay Put Order, which has been blamed for all the ills that befell prisoners of war being held here in Italy at the time of the Armistice on 8 September 1943. If only they had walked out of the camps straight away, they would surely have been able to reach their lines or neutral Switzerland before the Nazis caught up with them......or is that pie in the sky, as I believe?

    The order, P/W 87190, issued in June 1943 by MI9 in London said:

    ' the event of an Allied invasion of Italy, officers commanding prison camps will ensure that prisoners-of-war remain within camp. Authority is granted to all officers commanding to take necessary disciplinary action to prevent individual prisoners-of-war attempting to rejoin their own units.

    Article 32A of the armistice required that:

    Prisoners of war belonging to the forces of, or specified by, the United Nations, and any nationals of the United Nations, including Abyssinian subjects, confined, interned, or otherwise under restraint in Italian or Italian-occupied territory will not be removed and will forthwith be handed over to representatives of the United Nations or otherwise dealt with as the United Nations may direct. Any removal during the period between the presentation and the signature of the present instrument will be regarded as a breach of its terms...The Italian Government will take such steps as the United Nations may direct to safeguard the persons of foreign nationals and property of foreign nationals and property of foreign states and nationals.

    Immediately after the Armistice the Italian King and government fled to Brindisi, already behind the lines – the last thing they were thinking about was safeguarding the persons of foreign nationals, the property of foreign nationals, and the property of foreign states and natonals – indeed,they weren't even thinking about what orders they should give (if any) to their own armed forces! Saving their own skilns was the top priority.

    Although there were some exceptions, the Senior British Officers carried out order P/W 87190 and instructed the men to stay in the camps. They have been blamed for having allowed the Germans to capture large numbers in the space of a few days. Some Italian Camp commanders did, however, permit the men to leave and in one or two cases led them to 'safety'.

    Let's suppose that instead the order had been ignored, the gates had been thrown open and 75,000 prisoners of war had left their camps immediately. Where were these men meant to go? How would the representatives of the United Nations (assuming there were any around) have provided food and lodgings for them in the short time available before the German take-over? Would transport have been provided for their repatriation from Italy? If so, what route would this transport have taken?

    Without considering the implications of the release of such a large number of men into the Italian countryside the following article appeared in the Guardian in November 2009

    A fateful blunder by British military intelligence allowed the Nazis to seize 50,000 Allied prisoners of war from the Italians during the Second World War and transport them to camps in Germany and Poland where thousands are believed to have perished. Newly published evidence reveals that a top-secret branch of the Ministry of Defence known as MI9 ordered British PoWs in Italy to remain in their camps after Italy surrendered...In some camps, British officers posted their own guards to prevent the men from leaving, even after the Italians had laid down their weapons.

    What, according to you, would the scenario have been had the Stay Put Order been disobeyed?

    Harry Ree, davidbfpo and Chris C like this.
  2. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    A good question. From my own research I do wonder if the POWs were fit enough to endure an escape behind the front line. That is both physically and mentally. How many knew enough Italian to converse with the population.
  3. minden1759

    minden1759 Senior Member


    The British Minister at the Vatican, via his butler and a Maj Derry who lived in the Holy City, ran an impressive operation to support the thousands of Allied PWs who did escape from their camps and dispersed all across Italy. Had Maj Derry and the butler been required to support the 75,000 PWs that you mention then I suspect that the whole operation would have broken down.

    PWs found it very difficult to cross over the front line and rejoin the Allies so I suspect that 75,000 PWs stuck and operating in the German occupied areas would not have survived for long. I suspect that, hungry and unable to offer anything to the Italians who were sheltering them at great risk to themselves, they would have been quickly rounded up.


    vitellino likes this.
  4. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    The New Zealand official history was most exercised over this casting blame over the British government. However there was considerable confusion in theatre high command with Eisenhower intervening with an offer of a prisoner swap to the Italian government. MI9 had plans for getting prisoners away but were not allowed to progress to implementation as a result.
  5. andy007

    andy007 Senior Member

    A very interesting question Vitellino.

    I feel that there may have been a number more 'home runs' if the stay put order had been disobeyed, but I also suspect there would have also been more deaths of prisoners and Italian civilians due re-capture actions, summary executions and retaliatory killings.

    There is also a big chance that 75,000 prisoners on the loose would have overwhelmed support networks meaning large numbers may have had to strike out on their own without the proper preparations as well the chance of support networks being betrayed or discovered increasing too.

    All of the above is based on a very cursory understanding of the stay put order!
  6. minden1759

    minden1759 Senior Member

    A Vatican Lifeline '44 by William Simpson is worth a read.


  7. vitellino

    vitellino Senior Member

    Thanks everybody.

    I know quite a bit about Bill Simpson, Frank, from Sam Derry, but haven't read his book. Will get hold of a copy.

    For interest, as it was, this is how three South Africans and an American airman spent their time after escaping from PG 146 before heading for Switzerland:

    John F. Welch, Kaffrarian Rifles on 320bg website

    On 9 September, the Italian officer in charge of our camp - 146 (Castello d'Agogna) a royalist, opened the gates for us just as a German armoured column was seen barrelling down to our farm at full speed. We got out in the nick of time and hid in the bushes, watching the Germans as they roared past...From September 1943 to about mid-November 1944 we remained in the vicinity of the Agogna River. We simply laid low, expecting any day to hear of the end of the war in Italy. We had no idea, of course, that the hostilities in these parts would end only on 2 May 1945.

    During the first period we stayed in a reed shelter which we built in a poplar plantation, and got food from a friendly Italian. After we were warned that the carabinieri knew about us, we moved across the river and lived under a viaduct, over which ran a railway line. We spent the winter of 1943/44 there. A railwayman who lived in a ganger's cottage nearby gave us food. After the winter passed we moved back across the river and stayed and slept out in the open alongside the river and were again supplied with food by a friendly Italian.

    However, by November 1944 conditions became impossible. Not only was another winter upon us, but food was getting scarcer by the day. More importantly, it became much more risky for any Italian to assist us in any way at all. The penalty could easily be death by firing squad. The Nazis were known to burn down whole villages when they couldn't find the culprit or culprits. Instead of the senseless war coming to an end, we had a dreadful feeling that the front line was getting nearer all the time. The Germans were holding 'our' piece of Italy in an ever tighter vice-like grip. We knew it was time to clear out.

    For me, this says it all. The same or worse would have happened if everybody had left the camps in one fell swoop.

    JimHerriot likes this.
  8. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    There appears to be some confusion as to where and by whom the decision was taken. Some have pointed the finger at Brigadier Crockatt who was head of MI9 and MI9 did distribute the order to British POWs. However the same order was distributed to US POWs in Italy by US Army agents and this would be beyond Crockatt's authority. Some, including Brian Lett (An Extraordinary Italian Imprisonment: The Brutal Truth of Campo 21, 1942-3) have attributed it to Montgomery who with his usual over optimism and faith in his own capabilities was anticipating a rapid advance up Italy and didn't want crowds of POWs clogging things up. The only person with the authority to issue such an order covering all Allied POWs in Italy was Eisenhower although he might have done so on Montgomery's advice.
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2019
  9. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    Citing Vitellino's original post:
    The link does not work and this does: Second World War blunder that doomed 50,000 British PoWs

    The cited source was then (2009) a newly published book: Where the Hell Have You Been? by Tom Carver, published by Short Books. Here are two reviews: Where the Hell Have You Been? by Tom Carver: review and Where The Hell Have You Been?: Tom Carver: 9781906021924: Books
  10. vitellino

    vitellino Senior Member

    Thanks davidbfpo for correcting the Guardian link. I have already got the book.

    Robert, could you please give me the references for this information?
  11. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    I.S.9 History—Operations in Italy, Part 1
    T Mason, W. Wynne , The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945 Events preceding and immediately following the Italian Armistice
    Malcolm Edward Tudor. Among the Italian Partisans: The Allied Contribution to the Resistance Chap 2
    Philip Morgan. The Fall of Mussolini: Italy, the Italians, and the Second World War Chap 6
    Roger Absalom. Allied escapers and the contadini in occupied Italy (1943 – 5)
  12. vitellino

    vitellino Senior Member

    Thank you.
  13. Harry Ree

    Harry Ree Very Senior Member

  14. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran


    I wish I'd said that !

    Best regards

  15. Harry Ree

    Harry Ree Very Senior Member

    According to MRD Foot and J M Langley, (in their MI 9 ,Chapter V11, Italian Imbroglio) Montgomery as the British force commander was the source of the Stay Put Order.It arose while Montgomery was on nominal leave after the Tunisian campaign in late May or early June.He always attended closely to details.One of those was a doctrine for Allied POWs. He was always an advocate for neatness and order and most important here was that he was not much attached to the thought of irregular operations of any kind.Therefore he insisted,anticipating a short campaign of a matter of weeks, that directions were to be sent to Allied POWs on Italian soil that they should stay in their camps and await being overrun by the Allied armies.

    Montgomery's directive has not survived or surfaced but it is thought that the directive was so secret that it may have been passed by word of mouth. Crockatt certainly was aware of the source and transmitted to prison camp SBOs that in the event of an invasion of mainland Italy. POWs were to stay put and await release;not attempt to break out of camp or the assist the RAF and USAAF in their attacks on the enemy's communications.The US authorities through their MIS-X escape and evasion section were happy to conform with this.In Washington in mid June 1943,Crockatt told the US that his current policy in Europe had three main key points to which the US concurred with.

    (a) To express disapproval with mass breakouts,both for fear of reprisals and because the ex POWs would be such inefficient troops.
    (b) To order the POWs to stay put until the end of the war.
    (c) To encourage escapees to carry information in their heads.

    The end result in Italy was that the Italian Army deserted their security posts at the POW camps.Following the Stay Put Order policy,well over half the POWs who stayed put were taken to Germany by train.Only the rebellious and enterprising types got out and many in this group did not get clean away.In every camp the SBO called a parade and announced the order to stand fast. Crockatt's name was not mentioned and it is extremely unlikely that anyone would be aware of who he was.

    A few British commanders,sharp and well informed,anticipated that the Germans would take the initiative and takeover the camps.They encouraged those who wanted to,to take to the hills and safe havens.However many having received the official order, stayed and once again went into the bag as POWs of the Germans.Many escapees made contact with nascent partisan bands and used their military experience and skills becoming irregulars.There were a number of cases where privates and an ordinary seaman were elected to lead irregulars of battalion strength.Two Australians in Piedmont each commanded a brigade of two thousand strong.

    For the head of MI 9,Crockatt the truth of the difficulties that had been brought on unintendedly by the Stay Put Order were highlighted by General Carton de Wiart in1943 at Beaconsfield. De Wiart had been a POW but escaped and then recaptured by the Italians.He was engaged in armistice negotiations as a semi secret envoy to Lisbon and London for the Italians (between Mussolini's arrest on 25 July 1943 and the official surrender on 8 September 1943.} to discuss the precise conditions on which they were to surrender unconditionally. His task was not an unqualified success for the Italians real objective was to ascertain what help could be given against the Germans,not quite the the same proposition as he thought.

    "Italian Imbroglio" covers the event in comprehensive detail in the MI 9 publication referenced.
  16. Harry Ree

    Harry Ree Very Senior Member


    Finger trouble and the post suddenly disappeared....then I could not get rid of what was left...not like a blackboard and duster.Mind you I'll blame the mouse,its not been the same since it was lathered in yogurt

    Pleased to see that you are keeping an eye on things.

    Kindest Regards as usual.

    Ron Goldstein likes this.
  17. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    Thanks for the explanation I thought it might have been a one finger response to my post. Not that I am unused to such but I am under an irksome vow of non retaliation.
  18. vitellino

    vitellino Senior Member

    Thank you Harry for the explanation of the whys and the wherefores.

    I am still working on my original question, the 'what if' .


  19. davidbfpo

    davidbfpo Patron Patron

    I was trying to think of similar circumstances in the modern era (1900-1945) when one belligerent surrenders during the war and POWs are released. The nearest I could get was the dissolution of Imperial Russia with the October Russian Revolution in October 1917 and the peace treaty with Germany & allies in March 1918. Whereupon Austro-Hungarian POW for example were released and the Czechoslovak amongst them became a fighting force against the Bolsheviks for sometime till 1920.
  20. Robert-w

    Robert-w Banned

    1940 France

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