A World War Two veteran escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and fled through the mountains to the Swiss border – only to spend VE day in detention doing cookhouse chores.
That, in short, is the remarkable story of John Mountain, 95. The Green Howards’ veteran recounted it in full last Friday over a coffee in Mark and Spencers on the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe.
In 1942 he and his comrades were captured in the Libyan Desert after 500 of their 800-strong unit were killed.
Mr Mountain, of Outwood, ended up in a prisoner-of-war camp at the foot of the Dolomites in Northern Italy. But in September 1943 his guards changed sides and warned the POWs that the Germans were coming. They took their distinctive uniforms and gave them “rubbishy clothes” so they would blend in.
Mr Mountain said: “By dawn we had to split up, we couldn’t stay in a group. Three of us had many adventures - hairy adventures. The worst thing was the lack of food but we did survive.”
The escapees were helped by hill farmers and by partisans in their three-month trek to neutral territory. They had an old map and walked about 80 miles through the Dolomites. About 20 miles from Switzerland they bumped into some partisans who took them to the border.
Mr Mountain said: “We set off at midnight and walked through the night, there was snow on the ground, it wasn’t easy walking but somehow we all managed.
“At 6am the following morning I saw two little red and white posts stuck into bushes and I knew that was the border.
“We set off to walk down a snowy slope in Switzerland but we got the fright of our lives. We saw a ski patrol bearing down on us quickly from the right. We thought they were Germans because the Swiss Army had similar clothing. But the leader came up to us and said, ‘You are alright lads, we will look after you.’ They were a Swiss Army border patrol.”
But he then faced another long and circuitous journey before getting back to England in 1944. He got six weeks’ leave to visit his beloved wife Nora. An emotional Mr Mountain said: “I got home to my wife who I hadn’t seen for three-and-a-half years.”
But it was a later unauthorised trip home, which landed Mr Mountain in bother. He said: “On VE Day, May 8, 1945 I was confined to the camp for coming home for coming home unauthorised. I was at home when I should’ve been in camp on church parade. I was given a seven-day confined to camp sentence. On VE Day, the actual day, I was doing cookhouse chores – cleaning tables, pots and pans.”
“But the following day the sentence was quashed by the commanding officer. But four days later he sent me to Scotland so I wouldn’t do it again and for further training.”
In 2010 Mr and Mrs Mountain went on to write ‘A Mountain to Climb’ about their experiences. See cover, above.