The story of Felice Benuzzi who escaped from a POW camp in WWII to climb Mt Kenya and broke back 18 days later

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Felice Benuzzi was an Italian diplomat and mountaineer who escaped a British prison camp in WWII with two fellow soldiers to climb Mount Kenya with improvised equipment and after 18 days broke back into camp.

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Benuzzi was raised in Trieste before being born to an Austrian mother and an Italian father on November 16, 1910, in Vienna. He spent his early years climbing in the Julian Alps, the Dolomites, and the Western Alps. He earned a law degree from the University of Rome in 1934 while also engaging in a rigorous athletic schedule that included competing in various international swimming competitions between 1933 and 1935. He was assigned as a Colonial Volunteer, dispatched to Africa in 1938, and sent to Addis Abeba in 1939.

He was taken prisoner by the British in 1941, and was sent to a prison camp in Kenya. In 1943, while he was detained in Camp 354 in Nanyuki, on the foothills of Mount Kenya, he planned his escape with two other POWs, Giovanni Balletto and Vincenzo Barsotti, to conquer Mount Kenya, succeeding in February, arriving at Point Lenana (4985 meters).

felice-benuzzi

Deeply distressed and bored by the monotony of prisoner life, one evening he saw the peak of the mountain in a gap in the clouds and was hit by a sudden and apparently crazy idea: escaping from the camp, climbing the mountain, placing the Italian flag on the summit and returning to camp. From this moment on, Felice began to study the mountain, using newspaper articles, sketches from an old book on the Kikuyu tribe, a label of a can of corned beef showing a picture of Mount Kenya as seen from the east, and through some observations of the mountain complex made through binoculars.

In the meantime, Felice involved two fellow prisoners in the project: doctor Giovanni Balletto, also known as Giuàn, an experienced mountaineer; and police lieutenant Marco, who was to act as porter and base camp organizer.

The three had to find the necessary materials for the venture. Two ice axes were made from a pair of hammers taken from local workers, and modified by a blacksmith who was their fellow prisoner. Felice and Giuàn created two pairs of crampons using scrap metal. Mountain clothing (pants, jacket, cap) was made from some blankets, modified and sewn by a tailor who was also a prisoner. The two utilized the administration-provided ropes to connect the bed net to the frame and also used an entire net to construct lanyards out of it. They secured food rations and purchased extra from other convicts. Felice also made several dozen paper indicator arrows, made from a book and painted with enamel, which would later prove essential for their return from the summit attempt during the storm. Part of the material came from parcels sent to the prisoners by relatives; other parts were acquired by selling the contents of the parcels that were not needed for the expedition; finally, part was procured by stealing it from the camp administration’s supplies. Felice even quitted smocking to collect cigarettes used to buy materials.

felice-benuzzi

A few weeks before departure, however, Marco was transferred to another camp, and the two climbers were joined by Enzo Barsotti.

On January 24, 1943, the three fled the camp, leaving the officer in charge a note explaining their intention and announcing their return within two weeks. Moving at night for two days, the three, despite Enzo’s health problems, managed to get through the anthropized area, and reach the equatorial forest at the foot of the mountain.

Over the next few days the three climbed the mountain slopes, following first the Nanyuki River valley, then one of its tributaries, and encountering some dangerous wild animals on the way-a leopard, a rhinoceros, and an elephant. They arrived at about 4,200 m above sea level, when Enzo had a heart problem; doctor Giovanni Balletto didn’t allow Enzo to continue any further, and the three established base camp at this location, a long way from the peak.

tribuna-illustrata-felice-benuzzi

On February 2, Felice and Giovanni Balletto made an initial reconnaissance of the landscape; on February 4 they attempted to reach the top, but the lack of accurate information led them to choose an extremely difficult route; after a few unsuccessful attempts, the two retreated amidst a snowy weather and returned to base camp.

The front cover art for the book No Picnic on Mount Kenya
The front cover art for the book No Picnic on Mount Kenya

On February 6, Felice and Giovanni set off to reach the secondary objective, Lenana Peak. This time the two climbers encountered no particular difficulties, and at 10 a.m., they reached the summit where they hoisted an Italian flag and left a bottle with a message inside. The bottle and the message were recovered a week later by a group of British climbers. The following day the three fugitives began the return journey, which was marked by a shortage of supplies, since they had planned a 14-day trip and by then had reached their 15th. On the night of February 9-10 they managed to break into the prison camp, and the next day, clothed and cleaned up, they turned themselves in to the officer in charge. They were sentenced to 28 days’ imprisonment, but were released after only a week by the camp commandant, who said he appreciated their sporting feat.

After the war, Felice Benuzzi embarked on a diplomatic career, also becoming Consul General in Berlin during the Cold War and Ambassador to Uruguay.

The feat is recounted in his book “Escape over Kenya, 17 Days of Freedom” first published in Italian in 1947 and later in many other editions in different languages (English, French, German, Swedish and Finnish) The French edition came out in 1950 and in 1952 the first English edition appeared with the title “No Picnic on Mount Kenya.”

Source: museoalessandroroccavilla

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