Escaping with his Life: From Dunkirk to D-Day and Beyond

Nicholas Young reveals his father’s truly astonishing story of adventure, courage, dedication, endurance, and good fortune.

Escaping with his Life: From Dunkirk to D-Day and Beyond (photo credit: Courtesy)
Escaping with his Life: From Dunkirk to D-Day and Beyond
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Living a quiet suburban life in post-war Britain, Nicholas Young and his sister knew almost nothing about their father’s experiences during the second world war. He rarely spoke of them, and they never thought to ask. When Leslie Young died in 1986, he left very little by way of memorabilia or documentary evidence of his time in the army. 
But one small notebook, discovered in a bedside table, was the spur that set his son, Nicholas, on a two-year voyage of discovery.  It was to reveal a truly astonishing story of adventure, courage, dedication, endurance, and good fortune.  In his new book, Escaping with his Life: From Dunkirk to D-Day & Beyond, Young not only recounts his father’s remarkable experiences, but tells us also how he himself succeeded in unearthing the story, step by step.
On leaving school in 1929, Leslie Young immediately joined the army Reserves as a Second Lieutenant.  He was therefore in uniform as soon as war was declared in September 1939.  Almost immediately he went over to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, and in due course stood on the beach at Dunkirk with tens of thousands of his comrades, strafed by Nazi Stuka aircraft, waiting to be rescued by the “little ships.”
Fortunate to be among the amazing 300,000 rescued (Winston Churchill expected to bring back 45,000 at the most), he became involved in establishing and training Britain’s elite fighting force, the Commandos. 
In March 1941, he participated in the daring, and successful, Commando raid on the Lofoten Islands in Norway.  Then, early in 1943, he was posted to North Africa where, in an encounter with crack German troops from the Hermann Goering Panzer Division, his men were overrun and he was captured. 
By June 1943 he was in one of the 72 prisoner of war (PoW) camps scattered across Italy. When Italy surrendered on September 3, 1943 Young was among a large group of PoWs who escaped.  Thus began a long, difficult and in some respects tragic period in Leslie Young’s war – on the run in German-occupied Italy.
Jewish Book Week is an annual international literary festival, held in London.  In March 2020, as part of the program, Nicholas Young was interviewed by historian Paul Israel, about two wonderfully brave young Jewish people who tragically lost their lives helping his father in his escape.  “I am sure I owe them my very existence,” says Nicholas Young.
In his trek across the Appenines, Leslie Young and a New Zealander called Charlie Gatenby made their way from village to village in increasingly appalling weather.  When Young developed first influenza and then pneumonia, he was nursed for weeks by an Italian family who ran a shop in the village of Corvaro.
On their first day in Corvaro, a Jewish family came into the shop. Antonio Elfer, a fur trader, and his wife Elisa had fled Rome after the German takeover.  They brought their two children with them – Eugenio, known as Nino, aged 23 and his sister, Silvia, 20.  Nino had joined the partisans in Rome, and had only just managed to escape capture by the Gestapo. 
It was not long before Nino, helped by his sister, joined up with the local partisans, and began seeking out escaped PoWs, supplying them with food, and guiding them towards allied lines.
On January 23, 1944 came news that the Allies had landed at Anzio.  Nino and Silvia offered to guide Young and Gatenby to the allied lines.  It was a nightmare journey. In the second week they traversed the Pontine marshes, a massive mosquito-infested swamp, to reach the Appian Way, heavily used by German transport.  American troops were on the other side.
Nino and another partisan were leading the small group forward when suddenly the clatter of machine gun fire burst out. Both were killed instantly.  Amidst a hail of bullets Silvia, Young and Gatenby ran across a field, and fell into an irrigation ditch. They waited a while and then wormed their way forward.  As they reached a small mound, they again heard a machine gun.  Bullets caught Gatenby in the arm, and Silvia in the throat.  Young yelled:  “Stop shooting!  British!”  An American voice called out: “Advance with your hands up!” Silvia was driven to the American Field hospital at Anzio, where she died the next day.
Piecing together the story, Nicholas Young learned that it was his father who organized Silvia’s burial in the temporary American war cemetery.  He later discovered that Antonio Elfer died shortly after learning of his children’s death, but that after the war Elisa set out to trace their whereabouts and bring them back to Rome.
She located Silvia’s body, and on the second anniversary of her death, Elisa buried her daughter adjacent to her husband in Rome’s Jewish cemetery.  Then, with the help of the Allied Screening Commission, she returned to the place where Nino had been killed.  In speaking to a local farmer and the mayor, it emerged that a young man buried in the local cemetery was indeed Eugenio Elfer.  A year after she buried her daughter, Elisa was able to put her son to rest.
Elisa lived on, working as a teacher and translator. She died in 1995, aged 105.
As for Maj. Leslie Young, he was repatriated to the UK in March 1944.  Twelve days later, at his urgent request, he was posted to an infantry division heavily engaged in preparing for D-Day.  And indeed, on June 6, he participated in Operation Overlord – the allied invasion of Nazi-held Europe.  He was there as the armies stormed the beaches of Normandy, and he fought his way back through the France he had escaped from four years before. At the borders of Germany, he learned that his battalion had suffered so many casualties that it was no longer viable and was to be disbanded. 
Accordingly, within sight of the promised land, Maj. Leslie Young was shipped back to Britain. Finally, he had escaped with his life. 
Escaping with His Life: From Dunkirk to D-Day & Beyond
By Nicholas Young
Pen and Sword Military, 2019
Hardcover $15.95; 256 pages