David Russell was born in Dreghorn, Ayrshire, Scotland, on 30 March 1911, the fourth of six children born to James and Jessie Russell. His mother died when he was just six years old. When William his eldest brother emigrated to Australia, David followed him and he worked on his brother’s farm north of Perth for several years, before travelling around Australia. Around 1936–37 David moved to New Zealand and in 1938 he joined the staff of Napier Hospital as an orderly. He was soon engaged to his girlfriend Nancy Oliver, from Napier.
Eleven days after the war began Russell joined the NZ Army. He deployed as a private soldier with an Anti-Tank Company, leaving with the 2nd Echelon on 2 May 1940. Then after six-months of training in Scotland he embarked for Egypt.
In Egypt he was posted to the 22nd Battalion NZ Infantry and saw action in Greece and Crete. When he was evacuated to Egypt, he was promoted to lance corporal while serving at the New Zealand School of Instruction. In 1942 during the battle at Ruweisat he was wounded and taken as a prisoner of war to Camp PG57 in Gruppignano north of Trieste, Italy. He must have been optimistic for the future as he wrote to his girlfriend Nancy, telling her to buy an engagement ring.
When Italy capitulated in 1943, Russell escaped from a work camp and joined the Bataglione Lepre (the Hare Battalion, a group of hundreds of escaped prisoners who were hunted like “hares”). He arranged for many escaped prisoners to join an escape line to Yugoslavia, but was recaptured and sent to another prison camp. This time at Traviscosa, once again he escaped. He was pursued south to the region of Ponte di Piave where he was hidden by some Italian families. He was soon back to work assisting escaped prisoners of war and would visit them on bicycle. In 1944 he met with a British team organising partisans and sabotage missions in the mountains. He was safe there and it was his chance to escape through Yugoslavia; instead he chose to stay and help other prisoners.
Russell had many narrow escapes trying to find safe routes for the escapees. He used his bicycle to good effect repeatedly dodging enemy patrols by simply speeding away. He was captured soon after, but escaped again. Eventually his luck ran out and he was arrested, tortured and shot.
When the Special Investigation Branch of the Central Mediterranean Force made a thorough investigation of his death. They discovered that he had been arrested by Fascist troops near the house of an Italian who had helped him, and who was arrested alongside on suspicion of having harboured him. The two prisoners were taken to the company headquarters of Oberleutnant Haupt. Even after being beaten by Haupt himself, Russell maintained he had never seen Vettorello before and he was released.
Haupt was still convinced Russell knew the whereabouts of other prisoners and partisans and tried 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. He was tortured many times but still refused to speak. When he was left without food or water for days, an Italian brought him some and tried to persuade him to save his life, his response ‘Let them shoot me’. On the afternoon of 28 February the Germans led him out to stand against a 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. The Germans were impressed by his courage ‘The behaviour of the Englishman was splendid, and it won the admiration of Haupt himself’.
After he was shot his body was left until the evening, David Russell was buried with great respect by the local people. The grave selected was the first on the right inside the main gate - a place of honour. Later the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, against the wishes of the local people, removed David Russell's remains to the Udine Commonwealth War Cemetery.
It is the practice in Italy to re-use grave sites, but the people of Ponte di Piave resolved to never allow his gravesite to again be used and instead they erected a stone memorial on the site.
In December 1948 the award of the George Cross to David Russell was approved by King George VI and in July the following year the King presented the medal to his father. David’s decoration was kept by the Russell family in Scotland for almost 50 years. Then in 1998 the family passed his medals to the NZ Army Museum at Waiouru, for safekeeping.
His citation reads:
"Like so many other escaped prisoners-of-war, Lance-Corporal Russell had obtained civilian clothes and was living with an Italian peasant, Giuseppe Vettorello. He was well-known and liked by the people of the locality. According to Giuseppe Vettorello, Lance-Corporal Russell maintained contact with a number of other ex-prisoners-of-war, visiting them regularly by bicycle. On about 22nd February, 1945, Lance-Corporal Russell was arrested by a patrol of Italian Fascist troops near the house of Giuseppe Vettorello. Giuseppe Vettorello himself was arrested on suspicion of having harboured Lance-Corporal Russell. Their captors were members of a mixed German-Italian police regiment. The prisoners were taken to the Compay Headquarters of Oberleutnant Haupt at Ponte di Piave. Here an attempt was made to force Lance-Corporal Russell to betray Giuseppe Vettorello, but he refused to do so, denying that he had ever seen him before. According to an Italian soldier who was present, Lance-Corporal Russell was beaten up by Haupt, but maintained his silence. Thanks to Lance-Corporal Russell's loyalty, Giuseppe Vettorello was released. The Germans were evidently convinced that Lance-Corporal Russell had been in contact with other ex-prisoners-of-war and Partisans, and were determined that he should disclose their whereabouts. He was chained to a wall in a stable, and told that, unless he gave the required information within three days, he would be shot. Again, on the testimony of two Italians who were present, Lance-Corporal Russell was beaten up, but he resolutely refused to speak. A civilian who took him food tried to persuade him to save his life, but he replied, 'Let them shoot me'. Haupt's interpreter, an Italian says: 'The behaviour of the Englishman was splendid, and it won the admiration of Haupt himself'. On the third day Lance-Corporal Russell was shot. The German warrant officer who witnessed the execution, says: 'The prisoner died very bravely'. There can be no doubt whatsoever that Lance-Corporal Russell in the midst of his enemies and in the face of death, bore himself with courage and dignity of a very high order."
Russell’s was the first award of the George Cross to a member of the New Zealand Defence Forces. In August 1949 the Hawke’s Bay Hospital Board named a ward at Napier Hospital in his honour. In 1998, following a long campaign by his friend Arch Scott, he was finally awarded the Italy Star.