"A story not to be missed! Quite simply the best POW and escape story I’ve read." – Peter Brune
Prologue to Escape Artist: The incredible Second World War of Johnny Peck
On an unrecorded date in late September of 1943, a ragged group of Australian soldiers trudged the last metres to the ridge of the Monte Moro Pass in north-western Italy. As they paused for breath, their raised eyes drank in the sublime beauty of the wall of rock that was the Monte Rosa massif.
Behind and below them craggy goat tracks and smugglers’ paths wound tortuously upward from the floor of the forested Anzasca Valley, the ancient home of the Walser people. Behind them, too, were months of privation and misery in the lice-infested POW camps of Libya and Italy.
In front of them was the border that separated fascist Italy from neutral Switzerland. A soaring, gilded statue of the Virgin Mary marked the divide, her halo of snowflakes reminding all those who saw her that they traversed a rarefied world of cold and ice.
One by one the Australians commenced their descent through a jumble of rock and then down a gentle slope to a village, where their Swiss hosts would warm them, ply them with food and drink, and offer them a welcoming home for the months ahead. For these men, the war was over.
Johnny Peck observed these last moments of his charges’ liberation. He was their guide, but he was also one of them. He, too, had fought in the Western Desert; he knew all too well the ignominy of capture and the misery of captivity. And he, too, had seized the chance to defy his captors and leave the barbed wire behind.
But Switzerland did not beckon to the 21 year old, at least not at this time. Back down on the plains of Piedmont and around the rice fields of Vercelli, there were hundreds more POWs needing help. Their Italian guards had long since headed home, because the new masters of Italy were Hitler’s soldiers. If the POWs were to avoid being snaffled by these Germans and sent north across the Alps to spend the rest of the war in a Stalag, something needed to be done, and quickly. What better man to help them than the elusive Johnny Peck, who had already embarrassed a string of captors and saw no need to stop just yet.
More than that, there were still battles to be fought and a war to be won. After the ignominies of Libya, Greece and Crete, there was at last a chance to turn the tables on Hitler’s armies. Stretched to its limits, Hitler’s Reich was tottering, and Johnny Peck instinctively knew it. So with the last of his flock safely over the Swiss border, he drew a deep breath, checked his gear, and descended back into the lion’s den.
Peter Monteath’s book Escape Artist is published by NewSouth in September 2017.