Dan Billany was born in Hull in 1913. Leaving school at the age of fourteen, he became an errand boy, and later an apprentice electrician. During the industrial depression of 1939/31 he drew the dole, but when he came before the Means Test Committee his dole was stopped. For a week he banged door-knockers in a vain attempt to sell wireless sets, and then he renounced the world and went back to school. He was admitted as a free student to the local Technical College and to evening classes of the College of Commerce. He won a scholarship for Hull University, took an Honours English Degree in 1937, obtained his teaching certificate in 1938 and worked in a Hull school. In 1940 he joined the Army.
Before and during the war, he wrote several books, of which three have already been published: The Opera House Murders (Faber and Faber, 1940); The Magic Door (a story for boys, Nelson and Sons, 1943); and, in collaboration with David Dowie, The Cage (Longmans, Green, 1949).
Lieut. Billany was captured in Africa in June 1942, and shortly afterwards transferred to a P.O.W. Camp in southern Italy, and later to Campo P.G. 49 in the north. After the Italian capitulation in September 1943, he was released, and in late December of that year he was in Mantua. The manuscripts of The Trap, written in Italian exercise books, and of The Cage, written on sheets of foolscap stitched together, were left in the care of a friendly Italian farmer, who sent them to Billany's parents when the war was over.
What is known about the last months of his life has come to light since the publication of The Cage. A fellow prisoner has revealed how, after the Italians had surrendered and the gates of the camp had been opened, one of the former prisoners kept the Germans supplied with information to assist them in rounding up his own countrymen. Billany tried to put an end to the activities of this informer, and was mortally wounded in an encounter with him.
Dan Billany was buried near Fermo, not far from the Adriatic coast, in 1945.
From the first edition The Trap Faber 1950
Men are perishable goods: warehoused at Benghasi some of us developed dysentery. I had pains in the abdomen when we came to Benghasi. Though the warehouse was not particularly cold, I lay shivering on my bed, massaging my abdomen sometimes to ease the sharp pains. My head ached. There were no blankets. I got up to borrow somebody's greatcoat: I trailed my limbs across the floor like a distempered puppy. There was another issue of tins of beef, but I couldn't eat. As we could have expected, Benghasi was a breeding place for millions of mosquitoes. There were flies from dawn to dusk and mosquitoes from dusk to dawn.
In the morning I was much worse. I could not swallow, my headache was acute, and though I was still able to walk, the effort brought on waves of nausea. I asked a British M.O. amongst the prisoners for quinine or aspirin, and he gave me some tablets.
I had to use the latrine frequently. It was necessary to ask the sentry's permission, and he accompanied me to the latrine each time and stood by. I was long past worrying about that—it would have made no difference to me if the whole of the Young Women's Christian Association had been watching. As usual the latrine was a squatting-place with no raised seat, a trench dug in the ground, only a foot or so deep, with a wooden floor built over it and holes cut in the wood. Many prisoners had used it. The trench was full of ordures, and the boards were broken and fallen in. One squatted on the edge. It was a horrible place, black and buzzing with flies. The act of evacuation, which I performed over a dozen times during the morning, so exhausted me that I came near to fainting: I was afraid of falling into the disgusting trench. I had attacks of vomiting also when I went to the latrine: I became so weak that I clung, trembling, to a nearby railing for as long as half an hour. In the afternoon the Italians took me off to hospital.
In the ambulance I suffered considerably from nausea and the sharp, sickening abdominal pains. The driver took the vehicle very slowly over the cobbly roads so as not to shake me. My intestines worked convulsively: I thought we should never reach the hospital.
When at last we stopped inside the gates, I crawled down and said 'Latrino', and once again was led to one of the universal squatting-places. I foresaw a difficulty about toilet-paper, but it was not in my power to hesitate.
Having finished, for the moment, I tried to explain to the not very intelligent young Italian standing by that I wanted paper. I thought the need would have been obvious, but apparently it was not. I did not know the Italian for 'paper', and however lacking in dignity my position (squatting in the knees-full-bend position in a smelly latrine, balancing on my toes, holding my shirt clear of all contacts), I could not proceed to the last humiliation of demonstrating to him by dumb show what I wanted. I tried him with French, German, English and Latin, gazing up at him anxiously from under my eyebrows. Evidently the situation seemed comic to him, and he laughed—not maliciously, but because he couldn't help it. I peeped sombrely up at him, like an exhausted frog, and—dubiously admitting to myself the remoteness of the Egyptian Empire both in time and space—tried him with 'papyrus', which I later Italianized to 'papyro'. Perhaps 'papyro' does mean something in Italian, something funny. He shook with laughter. He dared not meet my eye, but looked away in polite embarrassment and snorted with laughter. It was an impossible situation.
At last another Italian came, understood, and gave me some paper, whereon the one who had been laughing became conscience-stricken and gave me the envelopes off his letters from home.
The Italian doctor and nurses were very kind. They examined me, made cooing noises expressive of commiseration, and put me in a soft, springy bed with clean sheets and blankets and a white pillow. There they brought me hot sweet milk flavoured with coffee, and asked me if I wanted anything. I only wanted to slip into unconsciousness, and soon did so: and was roused by a pleasant white-clad orderly, who gave me a pair of pyjamas, and helped me to undress. After this activity I had to go to the latrine again. I returned to my bed quite exhausted, and dropped helplessly on it, face down, without strength to get in and pull the sheets over me. As I lay thus, the orderly came in again, turned down my pyjama trousers, and stuck a needle in my bottom. Surprised and pained, I asked pourquoi. He pointed to his heart.
'Pour le coeur.'
'Ai-je done le coeur faible?'
Apparently a camphor injection.
The first two or three days in hospital were heaven itself, though during the nights Benghasi was usually raided by British bombers, and as there was an anti-aircraft battery near my window, I was at first somewhat shattered by the noise. I had the room to myself, and a sentry stationed at the door day and night for me alone. It gave me a sense of importance. Sometimes I could hear through the barred windows the voices of children playing on the beach, which was not far away. And I grew familiar with the song 'Lili Marlene' which all the German and Italian troops used to sing. It was a nostalgic tune with a kindly, if insensitive, swing.
The third day I was joined in my room by two more British officers, both slightly wounded. We talked about England: as I recovered, our conversation dwelt more and more on civilized food. There was nothing but talking, or thinking, or sleeping all the long hot day. Sometimes we played 'Battleships', David's game, which needs only paper and pencil. The two newcomers played at this game hour after hour: tired of it, fell silent till the sheer monotony of silence was unbearable, and started playing again.
Every day we talked more about food—food in England. Here we did not get enough to eat, it was not English fare, it did not have the dear, good savour. We planned enormous meals when we got back—when we felt our feet on our own land again. The longing for England grieved in me like a wound. My belly craved English food, my eyes craved and yearned for English pavements, my ears longed for the sound of English traffic: the shops, the advertisements printed in English, the cinemas, the English half-heard phrases of conversation as passers went by chattering. My nostrils thirsted for English savours. I was one incarnate longing for England. We prepared a menu of all the things we would eat when we got back—we canvassed restaurants in London, considered the Savoy and the Coq d'Or. Our menu included a kipper, two fried eggs and a rasher of bacon, steak, mushrooms, kidneys, beefsteak pudding, roast chicken, potatoes baked, mashed and fried, brussels sprouts, porridge with cream and brown sugar, rice pudding, currant pudding, apple tart with cream—and a list of drinks that began with Bass and champagne and ended with tea.
We had not lost hope of rescue at that stage. The battle at Tobruk ought to turn in our favour. So far as we knew, the 8th Army had more tanks, guns and aircraft than Rommel, and there was a reasonable chance that the Germans would be thrown back and the British once again occupy Benghasi.
We could not escape from the hospital. Our window was barred, and when one of us left the room to use the latrine, a sentry accompanied him. In any case they had our clothes, and one wouldn't get far in pyjamas. One day, when we were all convalescent and able to walk, they took us for an hour into a lounge or recreation room, very bare and rather dirty, but having one or two chairs and a table. We saw there—with a wry pain and amusement—that the walls were decorated with large, bright pictures of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, drawn apparently by British soldiers duringone of the Allied occupations. 'Bashful' was fastening up his trousers, and in the background was a small box latrine. One felt less alone, facing this evidence that the room had sounded with British voices and British laughter, and feet that had walked in England had trodden this floor before we came there.
We all left the hospital together, in the same ambulance, and returned to the warehouse: after that I lost sight of the other two, who were flown over to Italy the following day, while I was sent on to a camp further along the North African coast, near Syrte. There I stayed for two months, and was eventually taken to Tripoli.
The camp at Syrte held, in addition to some medical officers and myself, nine thousand troops, British, African and Indian, all of whom came in a terrible condition of hunger and thirst after I had arrived there. Tobruk had fallen.
The fall of Tobruk was the end of our hopes of rescue. The Italian sentries were jubilant. They said 'Dopo Tobruk, Mersah: dopo Mersah, Alessandria: dopo Alessandria, Cairo.'
The camp was an earthly hell. For food, day after day, week after week, month after month, we ate the tiny allowance of rice stew, the third of a pound of bread, and the half-cup of ersatz coffee which was all the Italians gave us. Once when we had an orange we ate the skin as well. We soaked our bread in water to make it seem bigger. It is the truth that we lived, each week, on no more food than a healthy man eats in a day. Every day I watched the men grow thinner. The medical officers talked about the deficiency diseases which would soon break out. Very soon came the first cases of beri-beri, and malnutrition sores broke out, particularly on the men's legs. I was not affected by actual disease, though I became very thin. Each night I lay down to sleep with a raging, sickening hunger inside me. But it was terrible to look into the men's compound. They were starving to death.
And even at night they had no rest, because the camp was crawling with lice and fleas. We were all covered with vermin. In the evening, when you walked about the compound, the fleas jumped onto you from the ground in dozens. And there was always a foul smell because the Italians had not provided latrines, but merely dug trenches inside the men's compound, covering them over when full: so that in time almost all the ground actually surrounding the men's tents had been dug out, and the reek of decaying excreta came up through the soil. The tents were inadequate to shelter the men during the cold nights: the men slept on the ground, and had only one blanket each: and the flies and mosquitoes were worse than I have ever known them. When I had been there a fortnight, two men died of dysentery, and after that, day by day, the death-roll began to increase. There were no hospital facilities. The British doctors did all in their power, but they had few drugs, and men were dying as they walked about. You could see them lying by the wire, too sick to move. Their comrades carried them out of the tent in the morning, and back at night.
Some men were in that camp, a so-called transit camp, over five months. Many came in and never went out again.
Some of the men were employed by the Italians, loading trucks: they got an extra ration of bread for this. There were cases where prisoners were struck, or beaten, or tortured. A device I saw at the camp was to tie a man's wrists to his ankles and leave him in the sun for the day. A prisoner was struck on the back by a sentry who used the butt of his rifle and inflicted a gash which demanded medical attention. One evening two men were shot and killed—not trying to escape, but shot as they walked about within the wire, by a sentry outside. Also the doctors told me that some men who had tried to escape were punished thus: the Italians twisted their arms up behind their backs, and strung them up to a beam by their wrists, so that their toes were just touching the ground.
We were none of us in touch with home. I had not heard from Elizabeth since I left England. At Barce we had sent off an official card whose message 'I am a prisoner of the Italians: I am well treated', etc., was already printed. During the remainder of my five months in North Africa I wasallowed to write three more letters—so were the men. We handed them in, but never received any reply or acknowledgment. We did not know what news of us had got home. I guessed we had been reported missing, at least.
The summer went over us, at Syrte and then Tripoli, and the short autumn followed, but all that it meant to us was that we grew thinner. It was worst when we went to bed: a frightening ebullience and lightness under the ribs and in the belly. The men were worse than we. Outside the barbed wire the sentries walked and watched. Inside, the weight of hunger day by day broke down the prisoners.
A group of men began to dig a tunnel out of their compound. It was discovered, and they were punished.
At the beginning of November, rumours—which were always sweeping the camp—took a new note. The British, driven back in July to El Alamein, near Alexandria, had launched an offensive. Rumour said it had failed: then contradicted itself, saying the offensive was progressing in the south: then in the north. Suddenly we were hearing that the 8th Army were attacking with twelve hundred tanks— they were breaking through—they were surrounding the German formations—they had moved forward from Alamein —they were held at Mersah—no, they were at Sollum -they were moving up to Bardia—there was a column striking from the south-east towards Tobruk—
Tobruk had fallen!
—they were still coming on—they had passed Tmimi—they were at Derna—the German divisions were running like hell for Benghasi—the 8th Army had taken Benghasi and was still coming on.
At this point a rumour came in so fantastic that I waited two days before at least even I was convinced.
Three divisions of American and British troops, with tanks, had landed in the west, in French North Africa, at Algiers, Oran, Mogador, Casablanca: and were driving hell-for-leather east towards Tunisia—towards Tripoli!
All prisoners in North Africa were sent across to Italy. We came across about the middle of November, disappointed, excited and pleased: disappointed because we had had absurd hopes of rescue; excited, because our transfer to Italy proved that the Axis feared the desert thrusts: pleased, because we might get more food in Italy —it was said that prisoners in Italy had a parcel every week from the Red Cross. And above all, from Italy we might get in touch with home.
I was taken on a small German merchantman at Tripoli, with about thirty other officers. At the quayside we saw five hundred British troops who had been captured with us, waiting to go on the same ship. They seemed, by the dust and sweat on them, to have marched some miles, and they were very thin, ill and dirty. All were bearded. They wore the same shorts and shirts as they had on when captured six months before, but these were mostly in tatters. More than half the men were barefoot. A few, who evidently had no clothing left at all, held a filthy blanket round them. Many were trembling with fever. Their thinness was such that their faces had lost individuality: all looked alike, and all like skulls. Cheek bones and jaws were prominent. Their eyes were large and bright, and stared out of their faces like the eyes of animals. One of the men shouted my name as I went past. I looked quickly but could not see a face I recognised, till one waved his arm, and I saw it was George Collinson.
All of us, men and officers alike, were put in the forward hold of the ship. When the men came on we saw several who were too sick to walk, and had to be carried aboard. George came past, and grinned at me with black lips.
'How are you, sir?'
He shrugged and smiled again.
'These buggers have got it coming to 'em.'
'Better on the other side, they say.'
'Yeah. Hope so. See you in Blighty, sir.'
Later, when we were all in the hold, we heard that many of the sick men had asked to be taken into hospital in Tripoli, but had been refused. Two of them were in continuously fainting condition. Between fifty and sixty had dysentery: even on the quayside they had been unable to control their bowels. Some were passing blood.
The legs of all the men were remarkably thin, some had dwindled from the knee down to little more than the thickness of a man's wrist: thus the knee-joint and the ankle were thicker than the calf of the leg, like the legs of rickety children. Many had extensive starvation-sores on the legs, half-hidden by dirty bandages.
The noon sun was sweltering the ship when we went on, but in spite of this we were all ordered into the forward hold, and the sailors proceeded to close and batten down the hatches. On this the senior officer amongst us, an RAMC captain, forced his way back on deck and protested to the commander of the escort and to the Italian commandant on the ship. The latter refused any concessions, drew his pistol, and ordered our man to return below deck. There was some argument, and a further threat that if we were insubordinate we should be deprived of our bread ration. Finally the hatches were battened down on us.
No opportunity had been allowed for any of us to go to latrines. As there was no ventilation, the heat and the stench in the hold became overpowering. I got myself in a corner, my feet on the iron floor, my head and shoulders on the timbered bulkhead. Since there were no receptacles in the hold, the men with dysentery had to relieve their bowels on the floor. Many of them were also lying on the floor, too weak to stand. Urine, and the liquid motions usual in dysentery, soon covered the floor.
We knew from the pitch of the ship that we had put to sea. After some hours a door into a well-deck was opened, and we officers were taken out of the hold and put in another, smaller one, separated from the men's hold by a partition. Conditions in our hold were better: the men continued as before.
On the second day of the crossing, the Italians permitted two men at a time to go up on deck for latrine purposes. There was no latrine: defecation was performed over the ship's side—one wedged oneself in the rail. For the men who could not walk this privilege was worthless. Two men became dangerously ill, and were moved to the forecastle. Every night the hatches were battened down on us as before, but we officers were given two buckets for sanitary purposes during the night.
Two days out, a further privilege was granted to officers and men alike: three of us at a time were allowed on deck for a breath of air.
The officers' hold was covered in grease and black dust. No blankets were provided for any of us, but we were luckier than the men since we found in a corner of our hold some filthy pieces of timber, hatches, etc., and we slept on these instead of on the iron floor. It was very cold at night. One did not like to think of the men, in their thin, ragged khaki drill, lying on the iron: apart from the filth there.
In comparison with the men we had a luxury cruise, each with his own plank to sleep on. We were cheered by finding amongst us two RAF men who had been shot down within the last forty-eight hours before leaving Tripoli— one near Tunis, and the other, operating from the Libyan side, west of Ajedabia. Nothing would stop us now, they said. Rommel was finished, the Axis North African adventure was over.
The crossing took six days. Each day the smell in our hold became worse, for, in addition to the reek from our two buckets, a stench came from the men's hold, through the partition, such as I have never smelt before. It was far beastlier and more unutterably sickening than any pigsty smell. And if it were so to us, in a different hold, it was not hard to realise what the men's hold must be like.
Twice during the voyage we contrived to approach thecommandant for some alleviation of conditions. We had only bad language and threats.
Once the hatches were fastened down and the wedges driven home—as was done every night—we were in total darkness and completely without air for twelve hours. We were also battened down at any time during the day when there was an alarm, and this meant twice or thrice most days, as there was much activity in the waters between Tunisia and Italy. Whilst all the Italians and Germans of the ship and escort had life-jackets, we had none: moreover, since we were tightly battened down at every alarm, we should probably have drowned in our holds if the ship had gone down.
When we had been three days at sea, the Italians did a curious thing.
Our hold was opened, and an Italian officer called us out by name, one at a time, reading from an alphabetical list. I was second. I went out. The door was closed behind me, and the Italian put a revolver to my back. Guarded on either side by a couple of N.C.O.s, I went forward into a little cabin, a place about twelve feet square, and there they tied a bandage round my eyes, took off my shirt, and tied my hands behind my back with a piece of wire. Next they tied my legs together, knees and ankles: all the time the pistol was at my back. I was greatly alarmed.
They then pulled me face downwards over a table and beat me across the back and shoulders, using something hard, rough and heavy—I guessed thick, narrow-gauge hose piping. When they had finished, though I was not bleeding, I was in an indescribable emotional condition—humiliation, insult, outrage, and uncontrollable anger.
On the fifth day we put into port, Tampoli, in Sicily. An Italian doctor came aboard here, and the holds were cleaned out for the first time since leaving Tripoli. While in port, thirty prisoners at a time were allowed on deck. I looked for George, but he was not on deck at the same time as I.
Nearly two days later we reached Naples, and our stinking white cargo, after passing the Isle of Capri, was unloaded
at the foot of Vesuvius. Photographers crowded round us on the quayside and at the station. I daresay they 'featured' us in the press as prisoners newly taken in the British November thrust from Alamein: they would draw attention to our rags and our thinness, and say this was the condition of the British fighting troops. Christ, how disgusting: but the Press is always disgusting.
Our prison camp was not far from Naples. It was a primitive place: the drains were inadequate, the water supply was always failing, there was no heating, the food was poor and scarce, and we slept in wooden huts, on beds made of three planks and a trestle. The best thing was that we had Red Cross food parcels every week, sometimes Canadian ones with plenty of dairy produce in them, and this addition to our diet transformed us completely. Within a week the change was visible. We had at last the one blessing we had dreamed of for six months—we were not hungry.
We were clean, too. Every fortnight we had a hot shower. True, all the huts and beds were alive with bugs, but after North Africa that was beneath our notice.
Every week we were allowed to write home a letter and a post-card. At last we began to hope that our letters would be answered. We heard that letters took about a month in transit, each way.
And now once again the days and the weeks and months fell imperceptibly on us, and our tiny compound, sixty yards by forty, which at one time held two hundred caged men, held also the invisible dead weight of all our wasted hours.