SARONNO, Italy - During World War II, a total of close to 18,000 Italian prisoners of war were held in Australian prisons. Among the prisoners was a young Italian Lieutenant from Lucca, Italy, Edgardo Simoni.
|Edgardo Simoni, the "Fox"|
Simoni had been captured at Bardia in North Africa and shipped to the Murchison POW Camp near Shepparton in Victoria. It was a high security prison in the middle of harsh, desolate country, an Australian land-locked Alcatraz, escape proof, or so they thought.
But Simoni was not an ordinary POW, but a man of extraordinary daring and cunning who managed to do the impossible. Not only did he escape, but he escaped twice. His escape was so stunning, it made front page news of the June 11, 1942 edition of The Advertiser, the newspaper of Adelaide in South Australia. The article read in part:
“Police and military authorities (are) searching for Lt. Edgardo Simoni, 25, the Italian who escaped on a bicycle from a prisoner of war camp in Goulburn Valley on Saturday. It is believed he has crossed the Victorian border. Detectives and railway Inquiry Officers are checking every interstate and country train and interstate detectives have joined the search.”
This was serious business. Lieutenant Simoni had managed to do the impossible, and they had no idea of how. They began to call him “the Fox”.
|Italian Prisoners in Australia|
But his freedom was short lived. He was captured 24 hours later and when he was returned, he was placed in a solitary cell in the high security section of the prison. Prison authorities slept soundly after that secure in the knowledge that it would be impossible for him to escape again.
What probably tripped him up the first time was his inability to speak English. There was no way he would have been able to survive the hardships of the isolated Australian landscape without having to ask for food or water along the way. But when he escaped the second time, language was no longer a problem.
It was such an incredible feat, the BBC made a film about Lt. Simoni’s, now known as the “Fox”, great escape. It was only then, in the film, that the mystery of just how he managed to get out of that small cell which was surrounded on four sides by steel bars, was revealed. With a twinkle in his eye, Simoni explained that he had somehow managed to get ahold of a file and with an infinite amount of patience he gradually sawed through one of the whitewashed bars that surrounded his cell.
|The Australian Guards|
He said he worked mostly at night, covering the sound of the constant sawing by singing “Waltzing Matilda” over and over again. He told the BBC that he apologized to his fellow prisoners for keeping them awake, but explained that he couldn’t help it. He had to sing. And as the bar became thinner and thinner, he covered his work by molding a piece of white soap over the sawed off section. No one was ever the wiser. And so once again the Fox was free. This time he spoke English.
He almost got caught the day he stole a boat and was rowing down the Murrumbidgee River and a farmer, who was out hunting along the side of the river, spotted him. The farmer recognized him as the escapee the authorities were searching for and told him to row to shore or he would shoot him dead in the water.
|It was the largest POW camp in Australia|
Simoni turned the boat toward shore but stopped several hundred feet from where the farmer had been standing. In the time it took the farmer to run down to where the boat was, Simoni had already swum across the river and was on his feet and running in the opposite direction. The farmer started searching the woods on his side of the river, not knowing that the Fox was on the other side and already long gone.
When Simoni got to Melbourne, he landed a job selling cosmetics door to door. With his good looks and Italian charm it wasn’t long before he became the company’s Number One salesman. That got Simoni, who was Number One on Australia’s Most Wanted list a prize and his picture in the local paper. Amazingly, no one recognized him.
|The harsh Australian countryside|
The Fox was free for more than ten months. Then one day one when he was walking around Adelaide, of the guards from the prison spotted him, walked over and said, “Hello, Eddie, how are you?”
At the end of the war Lt. Simoni was repatriated to Italy where he continued his army career, retiring with the rank of Colonel. In 1974, Colonel Simoni made a sentimental journey back to visit the site of his incarceration and to try to re-trace his escape route. But he was older then and things had changed, but it didn’t matter. The Fox would always be the Fox, the one that got away.
|The Uncertain life of Italian POW's|
They still remember the Fox in Australia. The prison has now been turned into a museum, with a special plaque on cell where the Fox was kept.
As I sat with my neighbor Eddie listening to this story and watching the BBC film that was made about his uncle, it was obvious who in the family had inherited the spirit of the Fox. Not only does Eddie look like his uncle, he is just like him: charming and funny with that ever present twinkle in his eye and his suitcase packed always ready for an adventure. It’s days like these that make this Italian life special.