John Humphreys OBE DL

Very few escape stories rival that of John Humphreys - the WWII Prisoner of War who was detained twice and twice evaded his captors, with both escapes as extraordinary as the other. 

Posted to Africa in 1940, John spent some time in the Western Desert which was bombed three times a day, every day, with monotonous regularity. It was during this time that John sustained a head injury and when he regained consciousness, he found himself surrounded by German soldiers. 

"When I woke up I was surrounded by a couple of Germans who looked down on me and said: 'For you Tommy, the War is over.' I can still see them now if I close my eyes, two big fellas, looking down on me."

John was promptly captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp in North East Italy, which in his words was a "soul destroying experience."

Starving and on the brink of despair, John knew that the only way to keep his sanity was to formulate an escape plan. He got his hands on an Italian grammar book and embarked on an intense course of study, until he had built an impressively large vocabulary. Realising that he'd have to practise with a native speaker in order to perfect his accent and cadence, he found a bored sentry to converse with on a regular basis. In no time at all, John had acquired the accent of this guard and was almost ready to put his escape plan into action.

In the winter, as luck would have it, John received a Greek army uniform from the Red Cross, which looked very much like an Italian uniform. With a little bit of alteration and a near to perfect Italian accent, John easily passed as an Italian soldier. Grabbing his two closest mates in the camp, John confidently marched them to a sentry, pretending to take them for punishment. As soon as they were waved forward, John and his friends made a break for it and were, at last, free! 

Freedom however was unfortunately short-lived for this cunning soldier, and in 1944, John was once again captured by the Germans in Arnhem. This time, he managed to conceal a jack-knife in his trousers, using the blade to chip away cement surrounding a barred window, in order to execute his second extraordinary escape. 

John's story is legendary amongst the Chelsea Pensioners at the Royal Hospital today and few can believe that this unassuming gentleman had the audacity to blindside the German forces on not one, but two occasions during one of the world's fiercest wars. 

 

Royal Hospital Chelsea Newsletter

Stay up to date with what's going on at The Royal Hospital by signing up for our e‑newsletter.

News

View the archive

HRH, The Prince Philip - Duke of Edinburgh Painting
Chelsea Pensioners share recollections of HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

The Royal Hospital Chelsea community continues to send our thoughts and condolences to the Royal Family at this difficult time. Many of our Chelsea Pensioners were fortunate enough to meet HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal Hospital’s Founder’s Day celebrations or through his other official duties.

Infirmary Bombing
Remembering the Soane Infirmary bombing

Today marks 80 years following the bombing of the Royal Hospital’s Infirmary during the Second World War. The magnificent Infirmary, which once stood on the current site of the National Army Museum, was hit by a parachute bomb on 16 April 1941 – destroying most of the building and tragically ending the lives of 13 people.

Twitter

Follow @RHChelsea