Page 1: Biography
Soldier, prisoner of war
This biography, written by Shirley Tunnicliff, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
David Russell was born in Dreghorn, Ayrshire, Scotland, on 30 March 1911, the fourth of six children born to James Russell, a dairyman, and his wife, Jessie Heron, who died when David was six years old. His eldest brother, William, emigrated to Australia, where David followed him when he was in his late teens. He worked on his brother’s farm north of Perth for several years, and then travelled round Australia, probably in 1936–37, before coming to New Zealand, where he joined the staff of Napier Hospital as an orderly in 1938.
Eleven days after war was declared in September 1939 Russell volunteered for active service; he entered Trentham Military Camp on 12 January 1940. As a private with the 5th Anti-Tank Company, Russell left New Zealand with the 2nd Echelon on 2 May 1940. Having landed at Greenock in Scotland on 19 June, he completed a six-month training course before embarking for Egypt.
Russell served through the campaigns in Greece and Crete, and was evacuated to Egypt. Here he served in the New Zealand School of Instruction and was promoted to lance corporal. At the disastrous defeat at Ruweisat in July 1942, Russell and most of his companions were taken prisoner and transferred to Campo PG 57, in northern Italy. From there he wrote to his Napier girlfriend, Nancy Oliver, telling her to buy an engagement ring. But when Italy capitulated in 1943, Russell escaped from his work camp, joined the Bataglione Lepre (Hare Battalion), and began moving round north Italy evading the German security forces. In 1944 he made contact with a British team who were organising partisans and sabotage in the mountains at Tramonti di Sopra. Here he was safe and could easily have escaped through Yugoslavia; instead he chose to return to the plains of Véneto to find and assist other escaped prisoners. The uncertainty and excitement was an irresistible challenge.
Russell had a series of narrow escapes trying to work out safe routes for other prisoners of war. He repeatedly eluded enemy patrols by speeding away on his bicycle. In January 1945 Russell joined Arch Scott, another New Zealand escaped prisoner, in an elaborate plan to organise escapes for other men. He was captured soon after, but escaped again. In mid February Russell heard of the arrest of a companion. Scott recalled later that this news severely shook Russell: ‘By Hell, Scotty’, he said, ‘those bastards are getting bloody personal’. He repeated this as if it were a premonition. They parted, agreeing to meet in a few days. Russell was arrested shortly afterwards, and early in March word reached Scott that he had been shot.
Later a thorough investigation was made of his death by the Special Investigation Branch of the Central Mediterranean Force. He had been arrested by Fascist troops near the house of Giuseppe Vettorello, the Italian peasant who had given him shelter, and who was also arrested on suspicion of having helped him. The prisoners were taken to the company headquarters of Oberleutnant Haupt at Ponte di Piave, where in spite of being beaten by Haupt himself, Russell maintained he had never seen Vettorello before. As a result the peasant was released.
Haupt, however, was convinced Russell knew the whereabouts of other escaped prisoners and of partisans and was determined to force a confession. Russell was chained to a wall in a stable and threatened with death in three days if he did not reveal what he knew. Again he was beaten and again he kept his silence. He was left without food or water for some days, but when an Italian who brought him food tried to persuade him to save his life he replied, ‘Let them shoot me’. On the afternoon of 28 February his captors led him out to the garden, and told him to stand against the concrete wall. He requested a cigarette, and when asked if he had anything to say, shook his head, threw away his cigarette and stood rigidly to attention. His body was left until evening, when it was taken to the local cemetery; the villagers later erected a memorial to him. Even the German officer was impressed by his courage. His Italian interpreter reported: ‘The behaviour of the Englishman was splendid, and it won the admiration of Haupt himself’.
Three years later Russell’s heroism was recognised by the first award of the George Cross to a member of the New Zealand military forces. The Hawke’s Bay Hospital Board in August 1949 named the David Russell Memorial Ward at Napier Hospital in his honour. In 1998, following a long campaign by his friend Arch Scott, he was awarded the Italy Star.