Escaping with his Life is the book Sir Nicholas Young has written about his father, who died in 1986. Among his effects was a modest notebook, kept in his bedside table, revealing a period of his life about which he had said nothing. It proved, on inspection, to be a record, kept in pencil, of his release from a northern Italian prison camp and his dangerous journey to the allied lines in the south of Italy, during 1944.
This discovery was to cause a major event in his son’s life, by causing Nicholas to find out what had happened to his father throughout a war about which he never spoke. Leslie Young had a full war. He was present in the BEF and was rescued at Dunkirk. He trained as a Commando and took part in the Lofoten Islands raid in Norway. He fought in North Africa, and was captured after a traumatic experience in the hills of Tunisia. When the Italian prison camp was opened up during the chaos of the collapse of the Fascist regime, he did what Eric Newby did: he set out through the Apennines in search of the advancing allies. After all that he enlisted for further service in France, and after D-Day he served until the allies got to Germany. This is the career which the soldier’s son carefully uncovered, visiting the sites his father knew, and even, in Italy, meeting the last remaining partisans who remember those dark days. One person even recalled his father hiding in the barn behind their house.
Part of the book is a tribute to the people of Italy who risked their lives by sheltering such refugees. Nicholas chose to be interviewed rather than give a monologue. He did however read two extracts from the book, conveying the excitement of the story and the personal involvement of writer and subject. This style of interview achieved something else: we learnt that this book is not simply a story of the war. It is the record of a personal tribute to a father, even a personal search for somebody whose life hid a secret and painful history, and the cost Leslie Young’s escape involved for the people who were there for him in the hills of Italy.
There was a good turnout for the meeting on December 11th 2019, and the questions that followed Nicholas’s presentation showed our engagement with the story we learnt. The Italian campaign was, at the time, overshadowed by the huge events taking place on other fronts in the great conflict. It was a brutal and bitter struggle, from which Italy recovered slowly. The friends Nicholas has made have earned him the title of Cavaliere in recognition of his discovery of this little known heroism. It was a pleasure to learn from Nicholas, following the meeting, that he had enjoyed his visit to us enough to take out a membership of the SBL for himself and his wife.
Escaping with his Life: from Dunkirk to D-Day and Beyond (2019) is published by Pen and Sword (Military).
Written by Keith Jones
Sir Nicholas Young's Book Recommendations
Nick Young listed four books that he used during his research. He writes, ‘They are all 'good reads' and by no means dry and dusty war stories!’
Love and War in the Apennines
Eric Newby - the famous travel writer (A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush etc.)
Tells of his time in PG Campo 49 in Italy (the same camp as my father), and his adventures whilst on the run after his escape, aided by the beautiful Wanda - whom he eventually returned to marry;
The full story of the horrendous but little-remembered Allied campaign to liberate Italy from the Germans, fought over nearly two years from September 1943 by men who were insultingly dubbed the 'D-Day Dodgers'.
A haunting account of how the author became close to the old people of a remote Italian mountain hamlet, as they told her their stories of times gone by. 'Write it down for us,' they said, 'because otherwise it will all be lost.'
The Desert War
The classic war correspondent's account of the see-saw fighting in North Africa, in which the Allied First Army and Monty's Desert Rats finally triumphed over Rommel, the German Desert Fox
In Combat Unarmed
Keith Killby OBE
The founder of the Monte San Martino Trust (see above) recounts the extraordinary tale of how, as a conscientious objector during WW2, he came to work as a Medical Orderly with the SAS, and of his various attempts to escape from captivity.