Henry Denis Armstrong was transferred from Cyprus to North Africa in March 1942. He was captured in the Western Desert on June 6th 1942 and taken initially to a PoW camp in Capua, Italy. From there he was moved to camps in Rezanello and in March 1943 to Fontanellato. He escaped on September 9th and headed south to try to join the Allied troops but was recaptured and taken to Germany where he remained a PoW until the end of the War.
The account consists primarily of contemporary letters, supplemented by a summary section written later in his life.
The full story follows, in two versions. The version in the first window below is the original scanned version of the story. In the second window below is the transcribed version in plain text.
[digital page 1]
[Line inserted at top of letter]: Copy of resume to go with manuscript.
[Right hand side of page]:
Sent by daughter, Valerie Armstrong, Suffolk
Henry Denis Armstrong. R.A. Officer.
Well-presented documents. First letters sent from Italy and Germany – after recapture. Letters of sympathy to mother, from those who got through the lines and home. Good examples of letters written from POW Camps optimistic and cheerful. Red Cross parcels, health, books read, theatrical productions – ‘man playing Eliza was good’. Bridge. The bread ration the size of a Llyons roll’. *Matheson writes that HA was Adjutant and that he (Matheson) had just got home with Maurice Goddard.
In Germany he begins on 16th May 1944 the story of capture.
He and M. Goddard are complimented on dressing wounds. They are moved from the coast on 27th May to Knightsbridge and came into action west of it on 5th May. Slowly get more and more surrounded. M. C. attending wounded has his head blown off. Maurice Goddard is wounded in the head. They are captured and moved back to Benghazi and flown from there with 24 hours. (Compare with 5 months in bare desert camp for other ranks for five months. Blewitt). From Lecce to Capua in comparative luxury. Two were shot dead escaping. Clover came back. Capt. Rogers was a fine doctor. Journey by train to Rezzanello – north east of Fontanellato. Learnt Urdu from Robert Williams. Snow and huge eating at Christmas. Moved to Fontanellato in March.
Works in well stocked canteen. Describes the escape via the playing field and says that among the escapers was ‘Ian English – rugger international – forward’. [Inserted in margin]: this should read (English etc.
Good description of camp life and then ‘exit’. Advised to go to Bardi – with Bill Ried and Binks Forster. They move little being undecided. After BORE they meet two other ranks who are going south to meet Allies. ‘I liked this idea’ and so instead of sitting down they decide to go south. (Few names, distances or route mention). On the edge of Umbria they met a group of (seemingly rich) English speaking Italians and are advised by them ‘not to go south as there would be no food and in the Abruzzi the Italians might be hostile’. They do not really get going until end of September. They are near the Cisa pass, saw San Pellegrino di Montit near Pistoia. They change out of uniform and more and more they meet and praise very poor families who help and feed them. They cross both Arno and Tiber – high up when small streams. End of October they meet Rex Ord and decide to split up pairs. HA continues with Bill, leaving Rex and Binks to go their way. They get in sight of the Gran Sasso – account ends?
[Inserted at end of page]: And are recaptured near Sangro.
[digital page 2]
50th Anniversary Appeal
Patron: Sir Patrick Fairweather K.C.M.G.
British Ambassador to Italy
MONTE SAN MARTINO TRUST
[Left hand side of page]:
Stuart Hood, M.B.E.
Eric Newby, M.C.
[Right hand side of page]:
Chairman of Trustees
Sir Alan Campbell G.C.M.G.
Rep. British-Italian Society
11th November 1993
Prof. Ciro Mendozzi
Gentilisimo Signor ?Sindaco,
Con questa lettera vorrei tentare di ringraziare Lei, Candido Paglione, il parroco e tutti i Capracottesi per la vostra ospitalità ed accoglienza calorosa. Allo stesso tempo vorrei offrire le mie congratulazioni per lo splendido programma di manifestazioni durante tre giorni indimenticabili.
Nemmeno in inglese saprei trovare parole giuste per esprimere i miei pensieri, i miei ricordi ed i miei sentimenti per giornate cosí commoventi. Mi ha fatto molto piacere poter tentare di esprimere la nostra gratitudine per tutto ció che è stato fatto per noi 50 anni fa al Presidente della Camera dei Deputati ed a tutti i partecipanti ad un convegno cosí interessante. La mostra fotografica, cosí ben ordinata, mi ha spiegato quanto Capracotta e i suoi cittadini hanno sofferto.
Ma voi potete capire che la cerimonia “Sotto il Monte” in memoria dei fratelli Fiadino con tanti parenti presenti è quella che ho trovato piú commovente di tutte. Il monumento è stato molto ben restaurato. La sua posizione sul luogo stesso di quel terribile evento con la vista del paese splendido sulle colline avrà per sempre un posto molto importante nella mia memoria.
Per tutto questo e per l’ospitalità e per la generosità ricevuta dai Capracottesi oggi e 50 anni fa vorrei ringraziare tutti a nome di tutti noi che abbiamo ricevuto quella generosità.
Questa lettera sarà forse breve ma spero che sia riuscita ad esprimere la profondità dei miei pensieri e ricordi.
I miei sinceri saluti e la mia gratitudine
[Signature]: J. Keith Killby
J. Keith Killby
[digital pages 3-4]
[Photograph and caption]: Henry Denis Armstrong – Professional photo taken soon after the end of the war.
[digital page 5]
Numerous letters sent home by Armstrong to his wife
17 June 1942. My very dearest Bobs. First of all I am perfectly fit and well. I was taken prisoner and have probably been reported to you as missing, but I was not wounded during our very sticky action. What hurts my heart is the fact that I lost every stitch of kit I had with me at the time. That magnificent shaving brush you sent me and several pairs of your knitted socks in addition to Uncle Enty’s binoculars and some other very good army kit. We are being well treated here, but you know how I hate being locked up!! I want my bank to continue to send you the money each month and will try and write to them. When you reply to this, be careful of the address and put exactly what is on the reverse of this letter. You must find out how to write, as all letters must go through the Red Cross at Geneva, you may not write direct. The Red Cross are awfully good, I have already had some cigarettes and a share of a good parcel from them. Our greatest needs are at present tooth brushes, cards and books. Tea is invaluable and soap. Could you please send a cable for my friend, address R.K. Gemmell, Perth, Canada, you son Tom is POW and O.K. Tons of love dearest one, don’t worry, Denis.
25 June 1942. My very dearest Bobs. My second letter to you. Please let me know when you receive all letters. We are getting on quite well and the ?tea situation is much improved. Do let me know lots of news, as we are entirely cut off here and only get the one sided view of the war, in fact we have to extract that from Italians papers. I gather we are allowed British newspapers only after a strict censorship by the authorities. The biggest shortage is reading material. I wonder if you could send two or three of those Penguin Books. They are very cheap and easy to pack. We are playing much bridge these days and up to yesterday were using home-made cards. Yesterday the R.C. Padre (a very kind English speaking Italian army chaplain) brought us some proper packs of cards and its absolute … playing …! Please don’t worry about me and let me know all you can. We will have a bumper feed at the Café Royal, when I get out of this lot! Please give my dearest love to all the family and explain I can’t write. Love Den.
[digital page 6]
26 September 1942. My very dearest Bobs. Your letter [da]ted 27 August received today. That is the only one I have received since I last wrote. Thank you so much for […]. No sign of the parcels yet, but no-one here had received a parcel yet except an odd one from India. Perhaps you have read in the Red Cross magazine […] fact that this camp is a Transit Camp, but they have been building permanent quarters here and we expect to move into our permanent abode shortly. So many people have held up posting their next of kin parcels pending receipt of their relatives’ permanent address, so I am thankful you have sent my parcel to this address, which would appear to be permanent. I am surprised at Uncle E. and Aunt E. selling their […] at this time. I am sure that if they had left it until the end of the war, they would get hundreds of pounds for it. Thank you so much for your dear […]ghts of the blackberries, how I am looking forward to the time. We have just had two padres […]ted to us here, so for the first time since I have been taken, I will be able to attend a proper service. Please give my love to everyone at home specially Aunty Nan and the Whites. I can only write once […] afraid. Tons of love to you Bobs dear and the people. Den.
27 September 1942. My very dearest Bobs. Your letter of 24 August received on 21 September. Thank you so much. The only other letter received this week was from Amoret dated 30 August and received on 23 September. It looks funny her calling herself Mrs Thornely. When you write, will you tell her I received her letter and forward all good wishes, etc. I am delighted to hear of your bicycle – no more saddles off and “you’ve lost your court Sir”, I hope! Newbury is getting more like 7 ?Brun Hill every day. I do so hope you saw ‘Gone with the Wind’, as I saw it a year ago in Cairo and did so enjoy it, especially after reading the book. The film must have been a bit teary for Aunty Ida!! Still going strong here, the weather being extremely mild still. I am progressing slowly with the Italian, but find it difficult, as there is no-one to practise on. I am trying to improve my chess, as I am sure it is so good for the brain. Hampson is a good player and he and I sometimes play. The exercise necessary is derived from tenniquoits. We are restricted as to space here and that is the most satisfactory form of exercise. Tons of love to all. Den.
[Digital page 7]
6th September 1942. My very dearest Bobs. Your letters of 7 and 10 August received on 3 and 4 September respectively and 27 July, one received on 31 August. Many thanks indeed. I put up a notice re 2nd Lieut. Coleman, but have received no response! I am afraid we have no 8th officers here. The conditions of food are, as follows: two meals per day issued by authorities at 12 noon and 7 p.m. Coffee is issued at 8 a.m. We make up a tea meal from our share of the Red Cross food parcels. We get two parcels per week between five. The meals are very well cooked and consist of usually macaroni soup, vegetables and meat or cheese and fruit. Much better than we expected. We have to do without breakfast, of course. Will you ask the Red Cross about the camps, as they are in possession of all details. This one is a transit [some words covered by label] you have sent the parcel here as they [some words covered by label] if we move. We are supplied with beddin[g] [some words covered by label] […]ick blanket and a pair of sheets. I still wear [some words obscured by label] as the weather is so warm, but we have received through Red Cross again battle dress, thick underclothing and pyjamas. I am sorry you have not received my letters regularly, as I have written regularly. Thank you for Aunty Ida’s address – of course I will write. The letter cards do seem to be much more satisfactory than ordinary letters. Tons of love. Yours ever, Den.
13 September 1942. My very dearest Bobs. Letters received from home, as follows; yours of 18 August. Uncle Bertie’s of 19 August. Uncle Enty’s of 21 August and yours of 21 August all received on 11 September, and yours of 14 August received on 12 September. Please circulate this ration letter so that I can say thank you all so much for your letters, which are such a joy to receive and read. To take your earlier letter Bobs, all the details concerning K.B. have been censored out, but I am afraid I can make a shrewd guess as to their meaning. Poor Uncle [some words obscured by label] so sorry about the tooth trouble [some words obscured by label] by now he is O.K. Wonderful person [some words obscured by label] […]toes put down already. I am so [some words obscured by label] are not receiving my letters as I [some words obscured by label] card or letter on 17 and 24 June, 1, 8, 15 and 29 July, 10, 15, 22 and 31 August and 6 September. Please let me know whether received Uncle Enty. I am so sorry about Aunt ?Mas and I hope by now she is fit. Please thank Aunt E. for her letter too. Very awkward about the beard, but it’s O.K., as we have one razor between three of us and can shave on alternate days. Uncle B. and Aunt F. Thank you so for your letters. I will endeavour to produce a novel, but what will the publishers say? Longing to come home again. Always your loving Den.
[digital page 8]
31 August 1942. My very dearest Bobs. Since last writing to you I have received from you, as follows: yours dated 16th and 24th July on 25th August, your dated 30th July on 26th August, and yours dated 2nd August on 28th August. Thank you so much for all the letters – you can’t possible imagine what joy your letters bring. I do think the conditions of mail are good, don’t you? To take your letters in order: 16 July: I was terribly sorry for you about my being reported missing and I am [Label: 4th February 1991: Buchanan, Hampson and Goddard mentioned in previous letters, are still alive to date and seen recently] [some words obscured by label] news fairly soon. I did not send any [some words obscured by label] […]ge, but I am glad it was a means of re[…] [some words obscured by label] […ty]. I am afraid Tom Gemmell, being a [some words obscured by label], but I think your Ontario Perth is correct. Thank you for sending the cable. I would love to do lots more writing, but we are rationed to one letter and one postcard per week. Will you please tell Mr Murphy the news? I am so glad Gladys looked after you during the dark days – please give her my love and thanks. 30 July letter: We absolutely must have another leave together, but we must see the Lakes and Scotland this time. I shall need a course of Pelmanism and a month on a Devonshire farm to recover from this!! I am afraid I lost the stiff cap, the other is stored in Cooks. I was taken in a steel helmet! My love and thanks to Aunty Ida. Thanks again dearest [some words obscured].
22 August 1942. My very dearest Bobs. Thank you so much for your letter dated 20 July 1942 and received here on 18 August 1942. I have now received a P.C. from Uncle Enty, one from Amoret and a letter and P.C. from you. Thank you so much for all the trouble you have taken over the parcel and for ordering the books and cards from Smiths. No, there is no Major Rodwell here, but I will remember the name and talk Thatcham to him, if we meet. I am trying hard with the Italian, which is a fairly easy language and beautiful to hear spoken. Please [some words obscured by label, which says: Amoret was his fiancée who couldn’t wait. Married someone else – remember Oxford Road, Cambridge Val.] [A]unty Nan and thank her very [some words obscured by label] sent. It was awfully sweet of [some words obscured by label] last letter I sent you Mrs [some words obscured by label] [ad]dress and now here in the address of another friend, who is with Buchanan and me here. His father is J. Hampson, esquire, Leighton Buzzard, Bucks. His son Erik is in our syndicate and we all get on very well. He was in the regiment too. Another great friend of mine here is Maurice Goddard. He was assistant to me. His mother’s address is Mrs M. M. Goddard, Surrey. Tons of love Bobs dearest. Yours, Den.
[Digital page 9]
29 October 1942. My very dearest Bobs. No mail from you received this week, but in case you have not yet received my last letter dated 24 October. I have received your next of kin parcel, (date of receipt 24/10/1942). I will never be able to thank you enough for the parcel. The pipe is going beautifully and you will be glad to hear that I was able to get some players tobacco for it. The washing things are an absolute blessing, and the shoes are wonderful. The vests and pants and lovely socks are being very carefully kept until the weather gets really cold. I just can’t tell you how much I appreciate those beautiful handkerchiefs. Last week my little batman arrived in this camp. He was captured at the same time as I was, but owing to the fact that I had not his address, was unable to inform his next of kin that he was not wounded. Would you please write to his wife for me and tell her that her husband is alright, and that I am doing all I can to look after him. Address: Mrs J.A. Cooper, Salford, Lancs. He was such a good batman and did so much for me before capture that I am trying to repay him now. Love to everyone, and God bless you, Bobs dear. Your loving Den.
7 November 1942. My very dearest Bobs. Still no mail from you except two packs of cards from Smiths. Unfortunately playing cards are now contraband – I can’t say why – and the two packs were confiscated. Would you please pass the information on to the Red Cross so that they can stop other people sending cards for no purpose. One item of interest is the arrival of a [some words obscured by label]. He is an enormous ma[…] [some words obscured by label]. And he told me that he used to be vicar of Canford from 1933 until he joined the army. I asked him about the Wimborne masters and the only one he knows is Meadows, who is obliged to keep to a wheelchair now owing to partial paralysis. The Padre’s name is Collins, perhaps Uncle Enty knows him. Please excuse writing, but the doctor has sent me to bed with a slight dose of flu. Tons of love. Dearest. Your loving Den.
[digital page 10]
20 November 1942. My very dearest Bobs. Received today two letters from you dated 14 and 20 September, and received a few days ago, one dated 8 October. Thank you so much for them all Bobs dearest, they are such a joy to receive and read. I trust this letter will reach you in time for me to say, a very happy Christmas to you and all the family and our friends. I am sorry that once again I can’t be with you, but when we are together let’s have a real family Xmas, you must arrange it! I have received four books from you Bobs dearest, thank you so much. The books have to be sent to the Italian censor and after about a ten days’ wait we are given them. I am expecting them back from the censor [some words obscured by label]. Everything you sent in your [some words obscured by label] kin parcel is absolutely fine [some words obscured by label] [sh]aving brush and soap are si[…] [some words obscured by label]. The pipe is smoking beautif[…] [some words obscured by label] interested in your picture going in Reading. We are all longing to see a picture or a show, of course. Thank you again for everything, dearest one, and a happy Xmas to you and all. Always, your loving Den.
13 November 1942. My very dearest Bobs. Your letter of 18 October was received here on 8 November. Thank you so much for it Bobs dear. Please try and remember to tell me what letters you have received and their original dates. The flu I had last week is O.K. now, although I am still very careful and feel a bit old still! On 10 November I received your pocket chess set. Thank you so much for that too, Bobs dearest – it really was clever of you to think of a thing [some words obscured by label] which is so very useful. How [some words obscured by label] about Aunty Ida’s socks with [some words obscured by label] the Jewish wedding! [Some words obscured by label] was lent a magazine called [some words obscured by label] to read. In the advertisements at the back was one for a hotel in Newbury, giving the owners’ names as Mr and Mrs Norman Hall – so at last I know who the message is from – will you please thank him for me. Just this moment your delightful letter of 22nd October has arrived. How kind everyone is, will you please thank them for their kind thoughts and messages. Thank you again dearest one for everything. All love, Den.
[digital page 11]
27 November 1942. My very dearest Bobs. No letters received from you since I last wrote. I did have one letter from Uncle Enty. The books (four) have been received from the Rome Censor. Unfortunately they take the covers and backs off, which rather ruin the books. I think it’s a new idea, but in future will you be sure never to send any expensively bound books. The best answer is, of course, Penguin paper bound books. It is getting very cold here now, but in case you are worrying about clothing I must explain that the Red Cross have issued us with Battle Dress, an overcoat each and some underclothes. Then I have got the vests and pants in the parcel you sent, so I am quite well off for cold weather. At the same time as this, I am sending a Christmas greeting message via the Vatican. I hope the Catholic people in London pick up the message and pass it on to you. My very dearest love to you and all the family and my fondest wishes to you all for 1942. Perhaps we shall see each other soon. Tons of love. Your loving Den.
30 November 1942. My very dearest Bobs. MOST IMPORTANT. Please note my new address. Would you please also tell the family, etc? We moved up here yesterday. I wish I could tell you where I am, but as in the army, that is not allowed! We are in a castle on top of a hill with a wonderful view and air like wine. Its bitterly cold, but there is centra[…] [some words obscured by label] and that is due to be turned [some words obscured by label]. We have been promised walks to [some words obscured by label] and the Red Cross food supply [some words obscured by label] […]er, so we should be able to keep [some words obscured by label] especial regard. Please [some words obscured by label] the second parcel or any other mail sent to Camp 66, as they re-address all mail very promptly. In fact, there is a British postal staff there for that purpose. I love the books you sent – they are all being read now. I have finished one already and am starting the second today. I am sorry that this is rather a dull letter, but I will try and make the next one better. I do hope you have all had a good Christmas, and best wishes for 1943. My dear love to you. Yours, Den.
[digital page 12]
7 Dec 1942. My very dearest Bobs. No mail received since I last wrote (1 December 1942), but I have not expected any, as the forwarding of mail from the last place would take up to or longer than a week – which is the period we have been here. A slight description of this place – it’s a castle, not very old, and we are split up into various rooms holding three, five, six, eight or more. I am in a very nice room for six, and as our gang is all together, we are very happy. Downstairs there is a large music room [some words obscured by label] services, etc, are held, also a very [some words obscured by label]. To our joy there is too a well [some words obscured by label]. A specimen day’s programme [some words obscured by label] 8 a.m., get up 8.30, roll call 8.45 [some words obscured by label] to breakfast proper on Sundays, but usually have bread and jam with tea at this time). 11 a.m. tea and 1.00 p.m. lunch. 2.30 p.m. about Roll Call and 4 p.m. tea. 6.30 p.m. Roll Call and 7 p.m. dinner. 10 p.m. lights out. At present owing to transport difficulties we only get one parcel (food) per fortnight each. I have now been issued with boots and a woolly scarf (Red Cross). In your next parcel would you please include Khaki shorts and blue rugger shorts for the summer. Love to you. Your ever loving Den.
[Stamp]: To avoid delays in censorship please write short and clear letters.
14 December 1942. My very dearest Bobs. Nothing received since I last wrote on 7 December. In my last letter I asked you to send, if possible, a pair of Khaki shorts and a pair of (blue) rugger shorts (for the summer). The request is repeated in case the last letter is not received. Another small request – bridge – what is the very latest no trump scoring? We are now playing 40-30-30, but we have heard that the latest is 30-40-30. Can you tell me which is correct? We are doing our best to have a blow out at Christmas. The Red Cross (O you wonderful people) [some words obscured by label] Christmas parcels, which [some words obscured by label] here and we hope to be able [some words obscured by label] some turkeys. I think it will be a memorable day and I do hope you all have a good time in England. In the regiment there was an officer called Calcott, who was regarded by all as a wonderful character – he was adored by the men and officers alike. I though he was dead, as the last time I saw him he was so terribly wounded. A doctor here saw him in a German hospital in Libya less an arm, a leg and an eye, and the most cheerful patient there. Love to you, Den.
[digital page 13]
21 Dec 1942. My very dearest Bobs. On the 17th I received three letters from you, dated 27th September, 29th October and 11th November. These were in addition to one from Uncle Enty and one from Eulalie. Thank you so much for your letters Bobs dear. I am glad Col. Holderness has received our letters. When you write to him again, would you tell him that I have got John’s M.C. ribbon and his rank badges, the only things of value he had on his person. These things were given to me for safe keeping by the man who buried John. I will, of course, given them to Col. Holderness when possible, but do not like to send them. Thomas Cook in Cairo has three suitcases of mine, would you please write and ask them to look after them, and would you pay [some words obscured by label] for storage. Would you also [some words obscured by label] Cairo bank and ask them what is [some words obscured by label] account. Use the following: National Bank of Egypt, Soliman Pascha, Cairo. Please communicate full details of my current account to my mother, Mrs A.F. Armstrong. H.D. Armstrong Capt. 21 December 1942. Would you please instruct the Midland, Queensway, to accept such money as arrives for my a/c. I am sending LIRE 50 per month (about 13/-). Very dear love to you and all, Den.
28 December 1942. My very dearest Bobs. On Boxing Day I received three letters from you dated 3 October and 3rd and 16th November. Thank you so much for your cheerful news and your loving wishes. Thank you also for your business with Brig. Clark. I am afraid I have never heard of Peter Ward. I knew a Douglas Ward very well, but I know that he was safe when I was taken prisoner, so not much use. Our Christmas festivities here passed off most successfully. On Christmas Eve we had a Carol service at 8 p.m. On Christmas Day I attended the Holy Communion [some words obscured by label] […]45 a.m. and the normal service at 11 a.m. [some words obscured by label] a Red Cross Xmas parcel and fed [some words obscured by label] Mess Secretary had managed to save up some food from previous parcels and we did really eat. In the evening we had an awfully jolly sing song. Buchanan, I am convinced could make his fortune on the stage! Xmas morning was also marked for the first fall of snow here. Uncle Enty is rather worried, as he has been sending me tobacco parcels each month and I have not yet received any. I expect the delay is in the forwarding. Love to you all, Den.
[digital page 14]
4 January 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Two letters from you received on 2 January dated 13 October and 7 November. On the same date there was also a letter from Col. Holderness, but the censors had made it practically illegible. Please give my special love to Aunty Nan and thank her for all her sweet messages and thoughts. We don’t quite know what has happened to the parcels, as no-one has yet received one since arrival here from Camp 66. They are very good about forwarding parcels [1 line redacted in black pen]. Your pocket chess is in use every day, as at every meal I play with my next-door neighbour. It sometimes takes us three or four days to finish a match. We are having financial troubles here, as the Italian government has increased our messing subscription to the equivalent of 6/- per day. We do not get any more to eat, but have to say this, as that is the sum charged to Italian officer prisoners in England. Why don’t they swap us round!! It would all be so much easier. The Red Cross food parcels are still arriving, so we don’t worry too much! My love to you all Bobs dear, and God bless you. Den.
18 January 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Nothing received since I last wrote. Like you, we usually receive letters on Mondays, but as I have to post this at 9 a.m. on Monday morning, I can’t afford to wait. I have carefully kept all your letters and had such an interesting time reading them all through again, the other day. By the way, thank you so much for keeping up the sub to the Regimental News. I call it rather common to make love to Brig. Clark!!! I do like the idea of being really well fed. We are always talking of food and saying what we are going to have, etc!! It’s bitterly cold here now and only about a week ago we had snowing for more than 24 hours. In our room there is a fire and we get a good issue of wood for it. We light the fire at about 1.30 p.m. and let it go out after supper at about 8.30 p.m. We all toast our bread for tea and generally manage to keep quite warm and cheerful, when the fire is on. Exercise is rather a problem, but I always go on the walks whenever the opportunity occurs. If you have not yet read Cecil Roberts’ Pilgrim Cottage yet, do try it, you’ll love it. My dearest love to you and all. Yours, Den.
[digital page 15]
25 January 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Such joy the day before yesterday, as a letter addressed direct here (dated 26 December) arrived. I am so glad you have got the new address and the speed of both your letter and mine seems to make you much nearer. I have been writing to you each week and I was distressed to hear that you had not received the letters regularly. In case more letters have gone astray, I received your first parcel on 24 October. The things you sent are absolutely wonderful and I can’t possibly tell you how grateful I was, and still am for the wonderful [some words obscured by label]. Did you choose the pipe? It is [some words obscured by label] beauty. I much prefer it to cigs [some words obscured by label] get some good tobacco. As Uncle Enty’s parcels haven’t arrived, yet it is rather a business getting hold of English tobacco at all. No – I haven’t yet received Aunty Ida’s telegram or your card yet. The Shetland Island pullover sounds most exciting, and I will be really grateful for and glad of a kit bag. I am sorry I was late for your birthday, but I hope that by now you will have received my card. Tons of love dearest one. Your loving Den.
15 February 1943. My very dearest Bobs. I hope you received my postcard acknowledging the large number of letters I have received recently. In your 26 October letter you asked if I knew Major Clive Walker. He and I were together at no. 66 for about six weeks last June and July. He and I were well known to each other. When he left 66, he went to a senior officers’ camp and I have heard nothing further from him. Your personal parcel, the chessboard and four books have been received. Thank you so much for them all, especially the clothing parcel, which was magnificent. I am so sorry that my letters thanking you for the parcels have gone astray. I am doing courses of Urdu, Company Law and Income Tax at present and my days seem quite full. We are now receiving one food parcel per week from the Red Cross and are living quite well now. The second next of kin parcels are coming in daily now and I am living in hope every day. I have received one of Uncle Enty’s tobacco parcels so far. The other day I received a letter from our old Regimental M.O. He was evacuated sick the day before I was captured. Tons of love to you and all the family. Den.
[digital page 16]
22 February 1943. My very dearest Bobs. On the very day I last wrote to you, your second parcel arrived. Everything was in perfect condition, being beautifully packed. I was not allowed to retain the civilian shirt and collars, or the notebook and envelopes. The former has been packed away for me in my name and will be returned, so I understand, when I leave. The latter items are forbidden. Thank you so much for everything. You can’t possibly imagine what a blessing the cardigan and rug are. I am smoking the pipe now and it’s going beautifully. Did you choose both the pipes? The first one you sent is an absolute beauty and this new one seems as good, if not better. The socks are in use, and are so much appreciated. The Red Cross put in 1 lb. of chocolate, a tin of boot polish (most useful) and some toothpaste. Thank you again and again for the parcel Bobs dearest and please tell Aunty Ida how much I appreciate her rug. I want to use my letter next week for her, in the hope she will get it for her birthday. My very dearest love and thanks again to you and all – Den.
8 March 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Since I last wrote a letter to you, I have received your letter of 1 February. Thank you for it and for writing to Cooks and the Bank. In case you haven’t yet received my letters of thanks, I have received your first two personal parcels. They were absolutely wonderful and thank you a million times for everything. I wrote to Aunty Ida last week and thanked her for the rug. One important matter – I am at present holding what is known as an emergency commission. This emergency commission may cease to be at the conclu[sion] [some words obscured by label]. Would you please write to the War Off[ice] [some words obscured by label] […]em that I am very keen and d[…] [some words obscured by label] commission. Perhaps my name could be put down on a register of those keen or something of the sort, in any case I don’t think any harm would come of your enquiring, if you would please. The Amateur Dramatics put on, “The Importance of being Earnest”, last Friday. It was beautifully done. Buchanan did Lady Bracknell and was marvellous. The authorities kindly allowed us to borrow dresses and the girls (portrayed by 2nd Lieutenants) looked very ravishing!! Thanks again Bobs dear. Love to all. Yours, Den.
[digital page 17]
23 March 1943. My very dearest Bobs. No letters from you since a letter card of 10 February and an ordinary letter of 1 February. On the day after my birthday I received a third cigarette and tobacco parcel from Uncle Enty. Will you please thank him for me, but I will write to him myself as soon as I can. Parcels and rates of receipt are listed under: pocket chess set and 4 books from you received during October 1942. 1st personal parcel received 23 October 1942. Tobacco parcel from Uncle Enty received 30 January 1943. 2nd personal parcel from you received 15 February 1943 and two more tobacco parcels from Uncle Enty received 9th and 19th March 1943. From each [of] the personal parcels a shirt was confiscated, because they were of a civilian pattern and [m]ight aid escape! Thank you very very much for these parcels, they are appreciated very much [in]deed. I don’t think I want anything further […] don’t bother about a fourth parcel unless you […] get some khaki drill shorts and some khaki [co]llars and a tie. Cigarettes and baccy are of course always much appreciated. Thank you […] Bobs dear for everything and look after […] dear self well. Tons and tons of love. Yours, Den.
30th July 1943. My dear Uncle E. and Aunt E. I am afraid I have left this a little late, but here’s wishing you a very happy 24 August and many returns. We are very full of the latest news here. The dismissal of Mussolini was a great surprise to us, but we are hoping to hear more and better news soon. The football is a great asset to us. A league is run and great keenness is shown. We have a team from our room and we hold the exalted position of fourth at present, but I am afraid we will go down a few places this week, as we only managed to draw. How is Torquay this year? I suppo[se] Aunt M’s waffles are still off? Is Aunt Kate still at St Mary Church? Mother mentioned something about Aunt K. in a letter, but I’m afraid it was censored out. An awful lack of news I’m afraid! Many returns to you and love. Yours, Den.
[digital page 18]
9 April 1943. My very dearest Bobs. No letters received from home since arrival here. As you know we moved from Camp 17 on 30th March. The move was quite amusing. We had quite a long march from the nearest station to this place. This place is an enormous building, which was originally destined to be a government orphanage. We are very overcrowded and the space allowed outside in the fresh air is about as large as our tiny garden in Reading! We from No. 17 have joined up with another camp and there are still another 150 or so officers due. So when the full 500 is complete here I can’t imagine what it will be like. Food is fairly plentiful and very well cooked. The kitchens are all new and the cooks are doing excellent work. We are situated right on the ?plain now and the air seems only half as fresh as it was up in the hills. There is a fully qualified dentist here and I have had my teeth examined. He made some notes in his own sign language and then told me that my teeth were nicely looked after. I thought that you would be glad to know. Well Bobs dear, my dearest love to you and all at home. Keep fit and look after yourselves. Always your loving Den.
29 March 1943. My very dearest Bobs. One letter received this week dated 7 February. Thank you very much for it. I am sorry about the pullover, but would feel much happier if you kept it in England for me. Very important news – on 30 March we are moving again, not very far this time, and the new address will be Campo No. 49, P.M. 3200, Italia. Will you please address all my letters there and tell all the family. The move is definite for Tuesday next 30 March 1943. We are very sorry to be leaving here, as we have been quite a happy party of 150 and the new camp is for 500, so we don’t think it will be so good. Where we are going is a new camp altogether – no-one has been there before, but I will tell you all I can about it in my next letter. In case you haven’t received my previous letters – I have received your first two next of kin parcels and three of Uncle Enty’s tobacco parcels. Also 4 books and a chess set from you. The authorities don’t like anything civilian, so please only send khaki coloured shirts, etc. Everything so far has been allowed except two shirts, which have been confiscated. Tons of love, Bobs dearest. Yours, Den.
[digital page 19]
16 April 1943. My very dearest Bobs. No letters from home yet since arrival here about two weeks ago. I expect that is purely because of our move and that the mail will arrive shortly. Life is going on quite well and I will try and describe a typical day, although I am finding it increasingly difficult to make these letters interesting. At 8 a.m. a trumpeter sounds reveille and no-one gets up! Some get up at about 8.30, but other leave it until the breakfast bell goes at 9 a.m. (The same system as running for the train every morning!) Breakfast consists of a cup of tea and as much bread as there is left out of the ration. As the daily ration is the size of a Lyons roll, there usually isn’t very much! Red Cross marmalade and margarine are also on the table. At 11 a.m. there is a hot drink (cocoa or tea) and at 12.30 lunch. Lunch consists of usually two courses and sometimes tea. At 4 p.m. there is a cup of tea and Red Cross biscuits or bread as above. At 7 p.m. supper (or dinner) is served – two courses and coffee or tea. They check our numbers by holding roll calls twice a day. I am playing bridge more often now, and that is usually played after dinner. Tons of love to all. Your loving Den.
23 April 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Nothing from home since my last letter, but we suspect that there has been a hold-up of mail in Italy, and have asked the authorities to make enquiries. Could you please send some cigarettes and tobacco? We have to rely entirely now on supplies from home. I have been on two very good walks here and was to have gone on another yesterday, but the weather, which up till yesterday was perfect, has turned into drizzle and the walk was postponed. The bridge is going strong and my partner and I have at last decided to study and eventually play Culbertson’s system. Books on that system have arrived, so it’s fairly easy. Last night we bid and made a grand slam! The library here is awfully good. I have just finished “How Green was my Valley” and “Wonder Hero”. There are a number of recently printed books in, so we are well looked after for reading matter. Did you get my letter asking you to write to the War Office? I would like to know what their answer is. I hope all you people at home have a happy Easter, my dearest love to all, always your loving Den.
[digital page 20]
7th May 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Such joy this week, as I have received two letters from you and no less than two cigarette parcels from Norman Hall. Your letters were dated 23 February and 21st March. I spoke to Bardell about Newbury and the very same day he received a cigarette parcel from Norman Hall. I don’t remember ever sending you any snaps of myself and batman. Cooper was only with me in the desert, so it was probably a previous one. Last week I used my letter to Norman Hall and thanked him for the first parcel, but if he has not got the letter by this time, will you please thank him for me. I will send him a P.C. next week. I heard from Amoret this week and she says that she is now staying with Margie. I suppose Margie’s children are now enormous. No news of Uncle Bertie and Aunt F. I hope they are both going strong. This camp is fast filling up and we are only about 100 short now. I have got rather an amusing job, which is serving in the canteen. There is not a great deal to sell, but when anything special comes in, trade gets fast and furious! My dearest love to all at home, and thank you again. Yours, Den.
14th May 1943. My very dearest Bobs. On the 10th May I received a letter from you dated 17th March. Many many thanks for it. In case you or Mr Norman Hall have not received my letters by this time, I received two cigarette parcels from the Newbury Association on 29 April and 3 May. Will you please thank him very much indeed, but I have already written a letter and a postcard. The weather here is perfectly wonderful now and they have enlarged our exercise space, so that now we have a field about 120 yards square, where we can play games, sunbathe or exercise. I have been on two magnificent walks lately and the countryside is very beautiful. I don’t quite understand what you mean when you talk about my suitcases. Have you asked Cooks to send them home or are the army authorities doing that? I am afraid I collected rather a quantity of stuff in Egypt and just threw it at Cooks when I went to the desert. No news yet of your January parcel, all the things in the first two parcels are very useful. Tons of love to you and all. Always your loving Den.
[digital page 21]
4 June 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Since my last letter I have received two letters from you, one dated 21 January and the other addressed direct here dated 11th May. I think the latter is about the record, as I received it on 30 May. I was very glad to hear of Uncle E and Aunt E having a holiday. I wrote to Thomas Cook and asked them to send my kit to you. I suppose you have heard the broadcasts about the repatriated prisoners of war. One of the fellows, who went back from No. 17, was a Lieut. Sharp, R.N.R., so if you ever meet him or hear of him in England, he would be able to tell you all sorts of things of interest to you. I have just finished one of Priestly’s more recent books, “Let the People Sing”. I thought it was very good. They are producing Pygmalion here on Friday and Saturday this week. There are some excellent actors here and I was told by a man, who saw a rehearsal, that it is very well done. I played bridge with the POW cat asleep on my lap the other evening and finished up 5,220 to the good. Tons of love to you and everyone. Yours ever, Den.
28 May 1943. My very dearest Bobs. No letters, etc, received since my last letter. How many personal parcels have you sent off? I have received two to date and I don’t think you need send any more. From recent arrivals we have learnt how scarce any kind of clothing is in England and these parcels must cost you a lot of coupons. The extra field we were given is now out of use, as it was used for escapes. None successful, I’m afraid. Although it’s obviously impossible to use the same ruse again, we are denied the use of the field and now are back in the tiny area we started in. We are still playing bridge here – usually for two hours each night from 8 p.m. Do you realise I’ve been a prisoner almost a year now? A dreadful waste of time, I’m afraid, but I suppose it can’t be helped. What is Pat Lur[…] doing now? I think I told you I heard from Maurice Good (before I was captured) and that he was in the Middle East. I have just finished reading an excellent book by Ernest Raymond called “The Marsh”. A disjointed letter, I’m afraid, but no news – Tons of love to you all. Your loving Den.
[digital page 22]
11 June 1943. My very dearest Bobs. No letters from you since my last letter (29 May). I think I told you that we were doing Pygmalion here, well, I saw it last Saturday and it was awfully well done. ‘Enery’ Iggins was very good, indeed, I believe the man who did the part is a professional actor, or something to do with the stage. The man who did Eliza was also marvellous, as that is such an awful part for a man to take. The dustman was very good too. The make-up and dresses, all home-made, were very good and none of the feminine parts except the maid looked masculine. The weather really is wonderful here and we are getting a fairly good supply of green vegetables, which, of course, I love. We manage to play rugger now, which I referee. I had to play soccer for the canteen staff and we gave a large crowd of spectators much amusement! One of our number from No. 7, who was repatriated in March, is back at Alexandria and has written to a fellow here. He seems to be having a very good time. My dearest love to you and all, Bobs dear, from your loving Den.
18 June 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Your letter dated 27 April received on 15th June. Thank you very much for writing to the War Office. On the same day I received a letter from Eulalie. It’s very sweet of her to write, but she never gets the address right, so her letters always take a long time to arrive. I am getting rather worried about the parcel you sent off last January, as it has not arrived yet. I believe you sent it to No. 17 direct, so it should have arrived before we left No. 17. Nothing has arrived yet, but parcels are coming in each day, so I may be lucky yet! I see that the repatriated Italian prisoners are giving quite authoritative articles in the papers about England and Australia. Being a prisoner in a country hardly helps one to know anything about that country. I know absolutely nothing about Italy, so where the Italian prisoners have learnt about England and Australia, I can’t imagine. Tons of love to you, and all, your ever loving Den.
[digital page 23]
[Stamp]: To avoid delays in censorship write short and clear letters.
9 July 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Nothing from you this week, but always hoping! I hope, ere this, that Norman Hall has received my letter and P.C. I do think it was awfully good of him to send me cigs, especially as I don’t know the village. When you see Uncle Bertie, will you tell him that we have at least two Guernsey men here. Quite a lot of news is coming in from the Island and they seem to be having a very thin time. The names of the men, in case he knows them, are Brett and Iles. Football is going strong now, and I get about two games a week. I am very little good, but it means an enormous amount of running about and I enjoy it all immensely. The water situation is very god here and we manage to get as many cold showers a day, as we like. I try to get up early enough to have a bath before breakfast every morning. Thanks again to the Red Cross the food situation is good now, as we have been receiving a parcel per head per week since our arrival here. My dearest love to you, and all, always your loving Den.
25 June 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Two letters from you this week, one received on 18th June dated 24 May (direct here), and the second received 22 June dated 3 March. Thank you very much for them both. I told Bardell about the tea party. The weather is very hot here and we play football (10 a side rugger and 7 a side soccer) every afternoon. It’s great fun, working off excess spirits and, of course, giving us plenty of exercise. We are all getting very brown, but I have noticed that, strong as the sun is, I have no need to use sunglasses, as there is no or very little glare. I am at present reading the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It is awfully good and I am only too thankful for the chance and time available for reading it. Not a word against camels now, do you remember my telling you how I rode Peggy, the one female camel in my party, years ago. Laurence says that females are the only camels in the desert any good for hard and fast riding. Thank you again for your letters, Bobs dear, love and best wishes to you all. Yours Den.
[digital page 24]
16th July 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Two letters from you received this week, dated 31st May and 21st June. I do hope that by this time you have received some of my mail, as I have written either a P.C. or letter each week. I am much afraid there is an absolute dearth of news here. Maurice Goddard, one of our number, formerly my assistant adjutant, fractured his wrist the other day and got it treated and put in plaster of Paris in a nearby Italian hospital. Apart from that our crowd give the doctors no trouble. I don’t know if you remember the money trouble I told you about last January. Apparently now a compromise has been reached between our government and the Italian government and we are to be refunded a considerable amount of lire. My job in the canteen will soon be quite hard work. At present only the senior officers have any money. Please give my love to all the family, thanks again. Yours Den.
6 August 1943. My very dearest Bobs. Your letter dated 17 May, received on 1st August. Many, many thanks for it and for all you have done. I am glad they returned the white shirt, as I have lost one coloured shirt at No. 66 and another they are keeping for me here, as I am not allowed to use it. I am thankful that at least some of my letters and cards appear to be getting home. The authorities have stopped newspapers from coming into the camp and we are not allowed wireless news, so we are at present living on rumours! I think two things I am looking forward to more than anything, are a bath (lying down type), and hearing the B.B.C. news again. Football and rugger are still going on, although it is very hot and now I am playing basketball. The latter is supposed to be a girls’ game, but played here it is pretty dangerous! Thank you again for the letter, Bobs dear, love to all, always your loving Den.
[digital page 25]
20 August 1943. My very dearest Bobs. One letter from you this week (dated 5th April), for which thank you very much. The details of the parcel are very exciting and I do trust it arrives safely. Sometime ago you sent to the POW magazine some details I mentioned re Captain S.T. Calcott. This week I received a wonderful letter from Stanley’s father. (News has evidently reached them that Stanley Calcott died). I have written in reply to the letter I received, but in case my letter fails to arrive, would you [some words obscured]. The address is: T. Calcott, esquire, 46 Southdown Avenue, Hendon, London. W7. I can only repeat what I said previously about Stanley Calcott. He was a wonderful man, and is a very great loss. I was very sorry to hear that he had died, as now previous news had reached us here. Thank you so much for paying of Tommy Cook’s bill. I hope they get the stuff home alright – I wrote to them some time ago. It is getting very hot here now. As you know, we are right on the plains and it is oppressively hot. Thank you again for the letter and all you have done. Always your loving Den.
[digital pages 25-26]
Letter. Stetchworth, Newmarket. 21st July 1944.
Dear Mrs Armstrong, I have just been writing a letter of compassion to Henry in Germany. I am so dreadfully sorry that he has been recaptured. Henry and I were in the same regiment and afterwards in Italy together as POW. He was adjutant of our regiment, as perhaps you know, and was considered in quite high circles as the best adjutant in the Middle East. I’m afraid I saw nothing of him after the armistice, as I was with a different party, but he was always extremely cheerful in camp, and we had some very amusing times together under somewhat trying circumstances. I expect you were relieved that he is anyhow safe. I am sure he won’t have long to wait now. He will probably be released by the Russians and come back very […]. With best wishes. Yours sincerely, Daniel Buchanan.
[digital pages 27-28]
Letter. Harrogate. 28th February 1944.
Dear Mrs Armstrong. It was a distressing shock to me to hear that your son Henry had been recaptured when so very near our own lines.
The optimism that so many [some words obscured] encouraged in by the press and other sources of news will have made this cruel blow even more hard for you, and I do send you my sincerest sympathies.
I only joined the 28th Field in May 1942, when Henry was adjutant, and as ‘new boys’ we saw quite a lot of him. He was an ideal adjutant and greatly eased and helped us in our introduction to these strange surroundings. Later, when we went into action on June 1st, I saw him only when going to Regimental conferences, but he was quite unperturbable. I remember one instance near Knightsbridge on the 22nd, seeing him calmly hiding in his truck, while others were taking cover from some nearby shelling.
Though captured at different times we met again at Capua 66 and were together till the armistice.
We all left camp on September 9th and by midnight on the 10th, seven of us from 28th Flotilla were together making our way to the mountains between Parma and Spezzia. We stayed together till the Sunday by when we had realised it was too much to expect the farms we called at to feed all of us, so we split into twos and a three. Five are home and poor Henry so very nearly. It’s a good record for the regiment, but those who have got over will never know how near they may have been to disappointment.
As we approached the final stages, I think we were mentally prepared for capture and consoled ourselves that at least we had had a few weeks leave, which would help us over any further period we had to spend ‘inside’.
I do hope you have had some letters, and if Henry writes cheerfully, do believe it is not too dull, I’m sure they all feel it won’t be for very long now. Though I know it will seem a long time for you. Yours sincerely, G. P[…] [two words faded].
[digital pages 29-30]
Letter: Albury, Guildford, Surrey. 21/12/1943.
Dear Mrs Armstrong,
I have today seen your appeal in the Times for news of your son. I heard last week that my husband had reached Allied hands and today I received a letter from him and he mentions a Henry Armstrong, who I think may be your son.
He says a large group of men spent four weeks or more living in the hills in the north of Italy, and I gather gradually went off in twos to make their way to the south. He said they fed extremely well and the group even negotiated for a sheep, just when he left them. He says he heard on October 10th that Henry Armstrong, Binks Forster and Bill Reid were happy and well up north at that time, and that it may be soon months before all get through, that there is no need to worry, as they invariably found that difficulties they feared might arise, usually did not, and if they did, were easily overcome.
He says about the wait up north: “I’m sorry not to arrive sooner, but reasons for inaction seemed good at the time and it’s no use crying over spilt milk”.
Binks Forster has got through and his mother heard news of him about December 1st. I will let you know if I hear anything further, or if my husband can tell me anything when he gets home. I hope you hear news soon.
Yours sincerely, Mary Mathieson.
Leighton Buzzard, Beds. 7 January 1944.
Dear Mrs Armstrong,
I was terribly sorry to hear from George Mathieson that Henry had been recaptured whilst trying to get back to our own troops. Maurice Goddard and I arrived in England on Tuesday with George and Joe Drayson. Binks Forster was already through and we only needed Henry and Bill Reid to compete our party of seven, who all started out from Campo 49 together.
I, personally, have been with Henry throughout in captivity. […] as adjutant of our regiment, he was exceptionally kind to me as a newly joined officer, and I had come to regard him as a very good friend.
I know how badly he must feel about being sent to Germany, especially after two months of really “tough” going in an attempt to regain our lines. It must be heartbreaking for him and he certainly has my sympathy.
Could you let me know if it is possible for me to write to him and send him some cigarettes?
I hope it won’t be long before he gets another chance and gets safely home to England.
Yours sincerely, Erik Hampson.
[digital page 31]
My very dearest Bobs. 4 December 1943. I am sorry to have to write to you from Germany, as I was so hoping to be able to send you a wire from Naples or somewhere our side of the line. As I told you in a post and a wire, I was recaptured on 8 November in the mountains south of the River Sangro between it and Isernia, after our people were at the latter place. The cold was awful and we were suffering badly from exposure and hunger, when caught. The German front line troops were very good. [Some words obscured]. We were [some words obscured] the weather broke earlier this year than usual. We walked over 600 miles in 34 days and had some interesting times, details when I see you. We are now at a transit camp and are moving on 6 December – destination unknown. Don’t send personal parcels until I send word. Tobacco would be best, but do nothing until I send word. Anthony Simpkins from Newbury is here as well as Bardell. Simpkins address is Foxhold, Newbury, telephone number HEDLEY 206. He is a charming man. Tons of love to you and the family, dearest, love Den. P.S. Permanent address just to hand – OFLAG VIII F.
[digital page 32]
Notebook 1, Henry Denis Armstrong.
Germany 16 May 1944.
I have been able, up to about the end of 1941, to tell you details of where I have been, places visited and so forth. Owing to being a POW that has not been possible for the past two years. So, in case, when released from this (?life), I am not able to see you at once, here is something in the form of an overdue letter.
At the end of 1941 we were in Cyprus, as you should have gathered from my letters from there! Of life in Cyprus there is not much I can say. It was so peaceful there, it was like going to another world. We left in March, and after an interesting journey, which, like most military journeys at the back, involved much loss of sleep, and some amusement, we arrived at Qassasin, between Ismailia and Cairo, on 16th March 1942.
We had previously handed over all our vehicles, guns, etc, and had much work in getting re-equipped. A day
[digital page 33]
arrived when we found that we were on ‘Priority 1’, which meant that instead of asking for things 10 times and then being refused, we asked for them once and got them.
Very soon after that we were sent up to the desert. I do not remember the exact date, but it must have been in early April. One Battery (Major St Leger’s) was sent to Giarabub, and R.H.Q., and John Holderness’s Battery were sent to Sollum.
We took over from the 25th Field and we were lucky in being encamped on the beach. John was just the other side of Halfaya Pass, but his chaps could come down and bathe most days.
This went on until about the 20th April when we were moved with our brigade (10th Infantry) to the kennels for training.
Thanks to the good leadership and great keenness of the Brigade Commander, this training was both instructive and enjoyable. We got used to our 10/-, our trucks and were able to cook over a petrol and sand fire without using every drop of spare petrol.
It must have been about the 20th May when training suddenly stopped. Geoffrey St Leger’s Battery joined up, and we were all ready to move west.
Move, we did the next day, and finished up that night very dusty and not pleased with ourselves at Gambut. Our job was to guard aerodromes (that most horrible of all occupations).
We had been at Gambut only a very few days – days which seemed to be filled with moving short distances for very little reason – the Batteries being made to dig new gun pits practically every day – when German bombs and M/G arrived and stayed for most of the night. It was not pleasant, but out of about three nights pretty continuous bombing and strafing, we only collected two casualties, the Tiffy staff sergeant, shot in the bottom, and a L/Bdr wounded by bits in the leg. The M.O. at the field ambulan[ce] was quite complimentary about the way Maurice Goddard and I had dressed the
[digital page 34]
staff sergeant. Of course the doctor, Paddy MacCollum, was away at the time. He was a magnificent doctor, but we could not keep him in one place for more than about five minutes!
On 26th May the B.B.C. told us as well as the rest of the world of the German attack on the Gazala Line.
We did not move, but came in for even more attention from the Luftwaffe. I was collecting information from OPs and passing it on. We had to man the telephone day and night and got very little sleep between that and the bombing and strafing.
After a few more not uneventful days at Gambut, we moved on, I think, 30th May to Marassas. This a place on the coast north-west of Tobruk. We followed a route, which took us clear of Tobruk. We were told on arrival that the following day would be one of rest and that all ranks would get a chance of bathing in the sea. As far as I could ascertain, our job and reason for being at Marassas was to put an attack in along the coast. Optimism was rife and I remember someone saying, “First stop Derna”. We went to bed that night with a clear conscience and I, for one, prepared for the first uninterrupted night’s sleep for days.
However, at about 11.30 p.m. I was woken up and told that the Colonel wanted me at once. I staggered across to his truck in the pitch darkness and learnt that he was going off on a recce immediately. He told me to warn everyone to be prepared to move at one hour’s notice.
The following day dawned, but we were still in place, and so I sent an officer to Brigade Headquarters to glean information, as soon as it arrived.
Nothing happened until about 12.30 noon, when an 11th Hussars chap from 8th Army H.Q. arrived with orders for the whole brigade to move to a point in the vicinity of Knightsbridge. This fellow also painted a very optimistic picture of our run through, and I remember Dick Barclay, our A/T Bty Commander saying, “I’ve heard all that before!”.
Move, we did, soon after, due south,
[digital page 35]
to El Adem and then to some map reference, which brought us to a Bir el Harmat on the track from Tobruk to Bir Hakeim. We had a good minefield and considerable wire in front of us. After a night’s digging we managed to get fairly secure.
A night attack by Ghurkas against enemy tanks, thought to be immobile through lack of fuel, failed to materialise owing to the explosives having gone astray.
By the 4th June, after having registered various points, we staged a barrage, or rather prepared for one to go in on the early morning of the following day. An infantry attack was to go forward at the same time.
At 3 a.m. on the 5th we started our barrage and by 5 or 6 a.m. were on the move forward. I saw numerous tanks, mostly Valentines, and thanks to various messages of congratulations, which were coming over the wireless, thought that all was well. We moved forward (westwards) for some 5 miles and came into action on the Capuzzo Track about 2 to 3 miles west of the Knightsbridge Box.
We were in a hollow and on the high ground in front of us a fairly large scale tank battle was in progress. Our OPs could give no definite information owing to their being blinded by smoke and dust. We came in for a certain amount of shell fire and sustained a few casualties, mostly in the Batteries.
Tanks were continually going back past us, but one and all said things were going quite well, and they were going back to re-arm and refuel.
That afternoon the 2nd […] went off to recce a defensive position, which the Gurkhas and ourselves had to form for the night. At about 5 p.m. Brig. Valentine, the C.R.A, and Eric Cutler came up to see what was doing. As soon as it was sufficient[ly] dark, we moved a short distance to the agree[d] night position. This meant the wretched guns had another night’s digging.
When it got really dark, we bega[n] to realise that we were in an unenviable position, as German verey lights were going up on all sides – north, east, south and west!
[digital page 36]
Having made ourselves secure in holes in the sand, we got what sleep we could. I remember we had quite a reasonable supper near our mess truck, which was conveniently illuminated by German verey lights! A number of Valentines collected in our midst and at 11 p.m. moved off east. They wished us goodnight and said they would see us again next day.
After a peaceful night came the dawn, bringing down hate from all sides. I had seen Brig. Valentine, our C.R.A., the night before, and had sent off one truck during the night for more ammunition. The C.R.A. was well acquainted with our shortage but, as I learnt some days later, was captured shortly after he left me. The N.C.O, who went off during the night, got lost, and after several narrow escapes returned. In the morning Ted Kauffmann volunteered to try and find the gap in the German circle and to get to Knightsbridge. I gave him a bearing, which I believed was O.K. It transpired that he did in fact get to Knightsbridge, but having collected the ammunition, was killed when on his return journey.
In the wretched box we were beginning to feel the weight of the enemy gunfire coupled with their numerous machine guns. Our wounded were piling up and the Ghurka M.O., who was working miracles in the nearby Bir (water well, shaped like an underground cave), was just about keeping abreast of the flow of wounded from all sides. In this Bir during the morning an English doctor was also working like a slave, but this gallant man had his head blown off, while attending to a patient only a yard or so from his R.A.P. Apart from rendering some first aid, I found myself without much to do. All our guns were engaged at various targets north, east, south and west. This was a job for OP or GPO and co-ordination of fire was hardly possible, and not needed. I managed to visit most of our positions and found everybody very cheerful.
We were wondering where our tanks and aeroplanes had got to by this time, but despite desperate endeavours on the wireless, there was not a word from the
[digital page 37]
outside world. By about 3 p.m. we began to realise that things were extremely serious. Various people came into our box saying that their Regiments or ?Bus. had been overrun. About 4 p.m. the German tanks, which had been creeping up and up, very steadily from one bit of dead ground to the next, were within our open sights range (800x). I went over to Buchanan’s troop and saw his guns open fire, only to get picked off one by one and smashed. I know his four guns put paid to some tanks, but how many, I can’t say. I did my best to assist his No. 1 detachment. His layer died as soon as I reached him, but I was able to patch up the others and gave them what morphia I had.
I got the No. 1 over to the R.A.P. and on the way back spoke to the Colonel, Binks Forster and Maurice Goddard, who were in a slit trench. Binks gave no news of Stanley Calcott’s troop, which had gone into action on the east flank and had already been overrun.
Except Binks, every officer and a great number of that troop had been wounded or killed.
A burst of Tommy gunfire from someone not visible, but obviously close, made us keep our heads down. Then from behind a neighbouring truck a man, resembling an ape with a German tin hat, and covering us with a Tommy gun, said “Ans! Ans!” Before doing anything, we made sure that this man was well attended by his comrades, in fact in our small area there must have been ten, all with Tommy guns. We then obeyed his command and from then on considered ourselves “in the bag”.
We were herded together and as darkness fell, we were in the desert some three miles east of our position, near an enemy supply dump. During our march of about an hour, a possible opportunity of escape presented itself, when some of our own guns shelled us, but I was assisting Maurice Goddard, who had been wounded in the head, and he could just about keep going and nothing else.
We slept that night under the stars and we all kept a good watch for any relaxation of vigilance on the part of the guard. This was a forlorn hope though, as they had found some fresh troops and a very alert double guard was on duty and wide awake all night.
[digital page 38]
Next morning not long after dawn we were made to march and this continued until about 3 p.m. Our general direction was due east. Some transport was provided for the wounded. No water or food was issued.
Our rate of progress could not have been more than 2 m.p.h., so with halts we must have covered some 15 or 16 miles. By the time many, especially the Indian ORs present, were becoming desperate for water.
At the end of this march our German escort handed over to the Italians. It seemed typical that we should see our first Italian 15 to 20 miles behind any fighting. I forgot to mention that during this march the column of, I estimated, between 2,000 and 3,000 prisoners was strafed by Kitty Hawks. They got in amongst us and the results were not pleasant.
After some delay the Italians brought up some water, but desperately little for that enormous gang. Our Brigade Commander, who had joined our group that morning, organised officers to dole out what water was available, and to present any ugly rushes.
We slept the night at this point and by about 9 a.m. next morning transport appeared to move us off. I, for one, was thankful, for not having another walk that day.
During the journey in these Italian 10 ton trucks there was great excitement when we were firstly shelled by what we though were French 75s, and secondly some British (or S.A.) armoured cars appears over the horizon some distance away. Unfortunately, nothing came of this except that the armoured cars recapture[d] two of the trucks at the rear of our column.
By midday we reached Tunisia and there met some more of our regiment in Tom Gemell, Erik Hampson, and Jim Burnley. Here we were given some food – bread and somethi[ng] else, I think, together with a very limited amount of water. Tom Gemell had his usual bottle of Canadian rye whisky, half empty now, and a tot of that improved things. Maurice Goddard was able to get his wound properly attended to in a German dressing station, and apart from having an extra bit of steel in his skull was O.K.
That afternoon (8th June) we were
[digital page 39]
moved again by M.T., to Serna. We went down the winding road leading down the escarpment at Serna and reached the town in complete darkness. There I considered a reasonable chance of escape offered itself, as our driver had stopped to ask the way and everything was in pitch darkness, but we were at such a low ebb owing to lack of ford and the thought of the enormous hill behind us, that the opportunity was allowed to pass. Our driver eventually got his directions and we were locked up in a large building with a concrete floor. Blankets were not in evidence and the desert seemed somewhat softer than concrete. Next morning, we received some more bread and Italian bully beef. This latter was not bad, probably camel meat, which tasted quite good to hungry men. The building we were in was in the last state of filth and the latrines had to be seen to be believed. I have only seen a sight like that once before when we took over some Italian barracks in Asmara!!
That afternoon we were moved across the Gebel, that part of Libya, which is not desert, the bulge on which Benghazi stands. By nightfall we had reached our destination, which was a Prisoner of War Cage at Barce. Here were officers from the unfortunate Brigade of 50 Division, which had been overrun prior to our capture, also Brian Evans-Gordon and Chris Hatten from the 4th Field, and Eric Cutler, the C.R.A.’s I.O. We were issued with blankets and some good Samaritan gave me a packet of Macedonia Extra (a reasonably good Italian cigarette). There were two tier beds to sleep on and things were slightly better!
At Barce they gave us a ration of black coffee at about 7.30 a.m., a meal of rice, etc, together with a bread issue at noon and another small meal in the evening.
I remember one of our better moments was when someone produced a packet of tea and some sugar, and we brewed up in a tin hat!
I remember the Italian officer in charge of the place was a captain, who told us, in quite good English, that he had fought with us against the Austrians in the last wa[r]. I think he did what he could as our existence
[digital page 40]
at Barce really was quite good. We were given 50 Lire each and were able to buy a limited quantity of Italian cigarettes and some sweets, the latter at exorbitant prices.
After three days at Barce we were put into trucks and taken to Benghazi. This was only a short distance. At Benghazi we were locked up in a storehouse and the system seemed to be to take as many as possible to Italy by air. We thanked our lucky stars that we were only at Benghazi for a short time (24 hours) before they decided to move us on. Trucks took us to the aerodrome and we were put, in parties of about 25, into Savoias.
Before leaving the storehouse prison at Benghazi we had found out how we were to travel. One party had actually got into the plane, but owing to some hitch, the machine had not taken off and so this party returned to where we were, with full details of the accommodation in the plane and their escort. We then worked out a fairly reasonable plan for taking over the plane after it had taken off. To make the whole thing perfect there were one or two Air Force pilots amongst us. This project got to the ears of the senior officers of the party and they, d- them, wouldn’t hear of it.
The most senior went so far as to forbid it. Then people took sides for and against the idea, and that, in my opinion, killed it. A show like that demands 100% co-operation from everyone and surely such a chance deserved such support? At the best it offered freedom and at the worst injury or death, but the latter must have included the destruction of one of the enemy’s valuable transport aeroplanes.
To end a dismal story, we were eventually loaded up and our 25 included only one very doubtful pilot, who years ago had obtained an “A” licence, and who was one of the most ardent of the anti-idea plan.
The air journey from Benghazi took about four hours. The crew consists of two pilots, a W/T operator and an observer. Our escort consisted of an N.C.O. and four men. What a chance missed! We flew very low over the sea, making a big detour as far as I could ascertain, presumably to avoid any funny business from Malta. On reaching
[digital page 41]
Southern Italy, the pilot gained a reasonable height and we eventually landed at Lecce.
From Lecce airport we were driven through the town and put into a large house north of the town. The distance was about 18 kilometres and the drive rather pleasant as the countryside was looking its best, and the sight of green fields and permanent houses a very pleasant change after endless sand and Bedouin camps.
Here we slept on proper beds and they gave us a reasonable meal. Apparently, the place we were in was a state tobacco or cigarette factory, as outside there were women and girls walking about barefooted on piles of very doubtful tobacco. I have never been able to provide a satisfactory reason for this barefoot business! Upstairs in another part of the same house crowds of women and girls were seated at tables making something, I suppose cigarettes. The whole business struck me as extremely primitive and not a good advertisement for Italian cigarettes (or tobacco).
We left Lecce at about 1.30 p.m. and having walked to the station boarded a train. Here we found a first-class coach completely]reserved for us. In the party we were only about 30 strong (possibly forty odd as this was two plane loads), and we were very comfortable. We were in this train for about 30 hours. Where we were taken and why the journey took so long, I don’t know, as we arrived eventually at Capua, not a very great distance from Lecce.
At Capua we left the station, accompanied by what seemed to us thousands of guards, mostly minute men. There were rifles and bayonets everywhere and literally many more guards than prisoners. We had to walk a short distance from the railway to the hutted camp, where we were paraded in front of the administrative block. We were then given a ration of black coffee. Following that a very thorough search was carried out, during which we had to strip naked. Our clothes and belongings were then taken and put through the fumigator and we were given a hot shower. A ration of green soap was issued for the shower and this simply melted in the hand when brought into contact with
[digital page 42]
hot water. Despite this the hot water was most enjoyable and necessary, as by that time we must all have been somewhat high.
In this rather drastic search we lost most of our prized possessions such as large pocket or table knives, compasses, maps, plyers and other easily concealed tools. It was a fetish with the Italians to prohibit our handling knives except pocket knives with blades of a maximum length of a certain number of centimetres (about 2½ inches).
Having issued table knives for eating, they used to collect them again and made a great song when they were deficient. Of course, they were deficient – Erik Hampson and I had our private knives, which we kept for 14 months! At this juncture, it should be noted that stealing from ones detaining power is not stealing in any sense of the word. It is necessary, and sometimes creditable, when the articles stolen are pliers, saws, ladders, any electric fittings or anything valuable to the enemy’s war effort or the confined person’s escape effort.
Some description of Capua seems necessary here. We were confined in what was known as the officers’ compound. This comprised a rectangular area of approximately 100 yards by 70. The whole was surrounded by a high wire fence (barbed wire fence). The actual fencing was double, which means that there were two fences about two yards apart with barbed wire entanglement separating the two fences. There was one wooden gate. Sentries were posted at all corners and there were odd sentries between the corners. There was one sentry in charge of the gate. All these men carried short Italian carbines, which were loaded during the sentry’s tour of duty. We were housed in three huts, which were 30 to 35 yards long. A fourth hut of similar dimensions furnished us with a dining room and a recreation room, where bridge was played and lectures heard, etc. The previously mentioned party occupied this compound for five days when conditions were quite fair. Eventually our total reached about 120 – approximately 40 per hut. This total remained static for about 6 weeks
[digital page 43]
until 40 odd Indian officers (all N.C.Os. except 1) joined us. Just before the latter arrived 6 Jugoslav officers joined the gang. For the Jugoslavs, and later inhabited by the Indian officers, a huge Italian marquee was erected. I should have mentioned previously that in this compound there was also a small cookhouse and a latrine and washhouse. Before the arrival of the Indian officers we had trouble with periodic water shortages and the business of queuing up for the morning necessity was looked upon by all as a great joke, although sometimes highly inconvenient! Last, but not least, a canteen was in existence in this overpopulated corner of Italy. It was a cubby hole partitioned off from one of the huts. Of the canteen, you will hear more later.
We were supplied with a bed, which was either a steel and canvas affair or was a wood and trestle arrangement. The former was possibly more comfortable, but collected more bed bugs. Mattresses, bolsters, two very good blankets, sheets similar to British Army issue and a pillow slip were issued. Furniture consisted of a wooden stool each and a number of tables, similar to barrack tables. In the mess-room there were tables and stools and for our first meal the place was resplendent with table-cloths and napkins, together with drinking glasses. They always gave us table-cloths, but had to withdraw the napkins, because so many were purloined by the inmates (Erik and I were not guilty this time).
To carry on with the events of the eventful first day at Capua – after this bath and fumigation cum search procedure was complete, we were herded off to our hut. There we were brought 50 Gold Flake and a Red Cross parcel between five. You can imagine our delight, especially considering the fact that our last meal was over 30 hours before. I don’t remember the contents of that parcel, but I do remember eating a mixture of cold tinned sausages, pilchards, chocolate and biscuits.
[digital page 44]
At about 4.30 p.m. we were told by the Italian interpreter, a warrant officer by name Mazone, that was possibly his nick-name, but he answered to that name at all times, that a meal had been prepared and was ready for us. In the dining-room a splendid sight met us, table linen already described, a roll of bread and everything properly laid and spotless. This, after eating in the desert, in filthy rooms and generally pigging in, was pure heaven to us. The meal consisted of macaroni soup, a meat and vegetable salad and fruit in the form of cherries. This was served, and served well by Italian soldiers in three courses.
We pinched ourselves many times, but had to admit the whole thing was true, as indeed it was. Our big mistake was taking the roll of bread as a roll! This, it transpired, was 150 grams of bread – one day’s ration for one man.
A day by day description of life at Capua would be extremely boring to read and to write, so from now on I will confine myself to interesting or amusing occurrences only.
In the Red Cross parcels, there was two ounces of tea, some sugar and milk. This stuff together with other odd articles needed cooking, so we began to look around for cooking utensils, etc. One day I found an empty and very rusty tin, which had contained pomodore (Italian tomato essence with which they flavour macaroni). In this tin we used to make tea for ten twice a day over a period of roughly two months. Fuel for these fires was always difficult. Wood was about the only material available and this the Italians refused to supply for some three months. Despite our hosts’ ideas on the subject we never failed to have a hot drink for breakfast and tea and among other things used for fuel was a ladder, at least three spare beds, a trap door cover and odd planks, which a civilian carpenter had left about! Later on the Italians supplied wood for cooking and conditions were eased.
The canteen, which did good
[digital page 45]
service for so long was managed by an Italian soldier, who was extremely tired of the army and caused us no little amusement with his anti-fascist views. The supply was far below the demand, and as soon as anything appeared in the canteen, a panic broke out and the most enormous queue formed. Invariably before half the queue was served, up would go the notice “sold out”, and with a ribald Italian remark our canteen manager would close up and go to bed. After a few weeks, we instituted a system of rationing and kept that going during our stay at Capua. We were able to get fruit in season, plums, greengages, oranges, grapes and walnuts, various toilet articles in a very limited quantity and an even more limited quantity of stationary materials. Later on, a baker used to make some kind of pastry from, I think, maize flour. This was sold to us in the form of cakes, which tasted sweet and were most acceptable. Some factory-made confectionary from Milan also appeared.
We were able to buy tobacco, and Nazionale and Macedonia cigarettes. Both the cigs and the tobacco were the lowest of the low Italian makes, but they gave us something to smoke during the time that our supply from the Red Cross, owing to the numbers in the camp, was very small and uncertain.
The Italian government paid us from date of capture at the equivalent rate. Captains received 1,100 lire per month, an[d] subalterns 950. We paid a certain amount for our messing and apart that and canteen expenses, which for reason of supply were very small, we had nothin[g] on which to spend our money. Despite this we never seemed to have anything left at the end of the month!
Towards the end of July, after we had been at Capua for about a month, an escape attempt was made. Most of us had saved the odd packet of chocolate, and a few unopened tins of meat, despite short rations, but I wrote off escaping at Capua, as the guard and general defences
[digital page 46]
struck me as being too good. Our gang decided to watch for an opportunity during our forthcoming move to another camp. At this juncture, it might interest you to learn that all tins, no matter what they contained, were punctured by the Italians. This obviously ensured that they were not stored, but despite a strict watch we were able to get away with unopened tins, and once or twice complete unopened parcels. To revert to the attempted escape – the participants were Mitchell, a gunner captain, Reeves, a Tank Corps subaltern, and Gordon Clover, an infantry subaltern, who in normal times is a barrister. I know nothing of the preparations, because, quite rightly, only a very few were in the know, and I was not one of those. Reconstructing the business afterwards, it divulged that the break-out of the camp was to be made through the main gate. They had to wait until the sentry dozed and an accomplice in the camp was also laid on to destroy an electric light bulb in the area of this gate. After two unsuccessful nights’ vigil, on the third night the light bulb was smashed and the escapees waited for about an hour. By then the sentry was sitting down and seemed to be dozing. They decided that the time was ripe and away went Mitchell, closely followed by Reeves. Clover came next, but he was rather shocked to find a sentry complete with rifle blocking his path. So he did the only thing open to an unarmed man in the circumstances, he beat it back to his bungalow and disposed of his load of food. By this time the sentry on the gate had opened fire on Mitchell and Reeves, who had both reached a low single strand barbed wire fence. As far as I could ascertain, they were both hit and lay wounded at the foot of this fence. By this time the garrison was aroused and two large picquets turned out at the double together with all the Italian officers, everyone was fully dressed. We heard more firing and then saw two khaki-clad figures
[digital page 47]
being carried in. The time was now about 2.30 a.m. and we were all turned out of bed and an identification parade was held to establish the identity of the missing ones. Captain Drayson was senior British officer and he was taken away to see the two officers. He came back and told us that Mitchell was dead and that Reeves was seriously wounded. He added that it did not need a doctor to tell that both officers had been shot at with an automatic weapon at extremely close range – a fact which was borne out by Col. Sinclair, I.M.S. at Caserta Hospital, under whose care Reeves was for some five days before he died. Before leaving the dining-room we stood for one minute in respect to Mitchell. This idea was Drayson’s and it was a most suitable and impressive idea. All the Italian officers witnessed this and I am sure they were impressed also. Thinking over this affair afterwards we all agreed on whose shoulders the murder of these two officers rested. He was an extremely fat and unpleasant Tenente of Carabinieri. It is fully understood that in attempting to escape, the risk of a sentry’s fire is run. That surely is a reasonable risk? The sentry’s job is to shoot and in this case he shot and wounded. All we can say to that is, well done! He must have been alert and to wound a man at about fifty yards in the dark is quite good shooting. But the needless part of the whole concern was the close-range murdering done, evidently owing to these people entirely losing their heads in any emergency, or the cowardly bully’s way of showing their hatred of the English. All the way through our time at Capua the Italians showed themselves as cowardly bullies. In small ways and big, they showed this, and it is a thing I will never forgive them for. Some few days later a Padre came over from Caserta Hospital and Mitchell was given a full military funeral. The Italians were good over the funeral and even found a Union Jack for his coffin, but none of that atoned for their evil deed that evening.
[digital page 48]
Despite the foregoing hard words about the Italians as a whole, there was one Italian, who did his best for us and was always kind and cheerful. He was the garrison priest, Father Mario. In appearance he was a typical Italian priest, tall, rather dusty, with a bushy black beard, clad in a cassock, on which were the badges of rank of an Italian Lieutenant, and always wearing a soup plate hat. He spoke excellent English, having worked for a number of years as a R.C. missionary in India. He produced a few books from an English pre-war library in Rome, and taught Italian. I learnt something from him, but most of our Italian lessons were taken up in getting him to talk politics (he was an anti-Fascist), and getting him to take messages to friends at Caserta Hospital. He used to hold mass every day at the little chapel near our compound and on Sundays the whole garrison used to attend. The five or so RCs among us used to attend this service also. If ever I meet any R.C. missionaries in outlandish parts of India or elsewhere, I will try to treat them as kindly and considerately as father Mario treated my friends and I.
When we arrived at Capua we were promised that we should be moved in a short time – a fortnight at least or not longer than a month. Before a month had elapsed after our arrival, all the senior officers of our party (majors and Lieutenant Colonels) were moved, but we stayed. In the end, we stayed at Capua from the middle of June until 30th November.
By the middle of August we really settled down in this small place, and a period of intense production took place. People built complicated fire places, which included ovens and hot plates, others produced the most amazing things out of old tins and a newspaper entitled Clickerty Click came into being. In this paper, which was all in manuscript and posted on one of the walls of the dining-room, there appeared translations of interesting articles from the Italian papers, some more
[digital page 49]
amusing nonsense by Chris Hatten, and some very good drawings and cartoons by the artists. In the dining room lectures on every possible subject were heard. Such diverse subjects as the London Stock Exchange, Mining, English Law by a Barrister, Law by a Solicitor, Tibet (2 lectures by Col. Sinclair), scrounging round Australia, and many others were heard and enjoyed.
Ever since capture we were very short of reading matter. The one book in circulation, when we were flown over from Benghazi, was “Gunbuster”. That was a story of Dunkirk and not the most suitable matter considering the circumstances. A few books arrived via Father Mario and among them was the Hornblower series by C.S. Forester. The waiting list was tremendous and in the interim period all there was to wade through was Marion Crawford (about six different books), Oliver Twist and a ghastly book called Lena’s Picture. A life story of Madam Curie and a fiction work called “Little Red Horses”, I waited for until November and never managed to get hold of.
[original page 35 missing]
[digital page 50]
Notebook 2, Henry Denis Armstrong.
By now I am sure you are bored with Capua, so the remainder of our existence there will be glossed over as quickly as possible.
When the second party arrived, about a week after we had taken up residence, Doctor Dutt, the 2/4 Gurkha M.O. arrived. He was an Indian with a complete English degree and did magnificent work in the R.A.P. in our box both before, and I am told, after capture. Our Italian M.O. was the doctor responsible for the whole camp and after a few days, owing I suppose to Dutt being an Indian, the latter was forbidden by the Italians to work in the camp dressing room. This was a great pity, because the Italian M.O., like all Italian doctors and surgeons, was prehistoric in his practice of medicine. The other day in Germany Ted Bardell put the fact to me that in the middle ages the Italians were to the fore in their study of medicine, but nowadays they continue to live on their old reputation and have failed to keep themselves up to date. From the experiences of our fellows
[digital page 51]
who were captured after having been wounded and thus came in for various periods in enemy hospitals, I have learnt that major operations without anaesthetics were by no means rare in Italian hospitals. This does not include only Ps of W, but their own officers and men too. Some fellows have made remarkable recoveries from extremely bad wounds, but against that I am afraid that many lives have been lost through carelessness and ignorance.
To revert to Capua, pardon the digression, in the following weeks no less than five English doctors joined us. Of these the senior, Captain Rogers, was a fine doctor and had the confidence of everyone. He picked up a fair amount of Italian and improved relations with the Italian Medical authorities and ourselves. One of the doctors, who must be nameless for this purpose, appeared to know nothing and do less! About him Erik Hampson made his famous remark. “Oh him, he’s not a doctor, he’s just a man from Boots”.
[original page 38 missing]
[digital page 52]
delay, during which time Eric and I managed to get our coffin on to a hand cart, we started off on our walk to the station. This was taken quite slowly and half way down George Mathieson started disintegrating. It had four cardboard Red Cross boxes and some wood supports all fastened on his back with string. The jolting was too much for this contrivance and we finished up at the station each with parts of George’s kit! At the station we found a train of second class carriages waiting. We were herded in eight to a compartment, but the four of us managed to get a half compartment, which was not too bad, but didn’t allow any of us to stretch! The coffin was dumped in the corridor outside and sat upon by the sentry. For this journey we had received a piece of bread and some cheese, but we were quite O.K. for food, as we had by this time a large reserve of Red Cross food to fall back upon.
Of the journey there is nothing to relate. We left Capua at about 3 p.m.,
[digital page 53]
skirted Naples and went through or passed Rome during the night. I must have slept some of the time, as I did not remember Rome. At about 6 a.m. the next day we drew into a huge station and discovered it to be Florence. We stayed here for about an hour only and got hooked onto a fast train and arrived at Bologna at about 11 a.m. We stuck at Bologna until about 3 p.m., when, at last, we moved and arrived at Piacenza at about 7.30 p.m. All the time we had noticed that it was getting increasingly cold, and when we got off at Piacenza it was bitter. The sentries did much shouting at us in Italian and we answered no less loudly in English. After this pantomime, we were herded onto the platform (counted at least four times) and marched off. Eric Cutler and I still had the coffin. We were unlucky over this as Erik Hampson was very seedy and Buch just ignored it with a camel-like indifference. We staggered outside Piacenza station in the partial blackout and were delighted to see
[digital page 54]
some very comfortable looking motor coaches and an open van. The coffin was hoisted on to the latter vehicle and we got a place on a coach. After a journey of about an hour, mostly uphill, we stopped and it transpired that our coach was too long to take the small roads and that we had to wait for the return of one of the smaller ones, which had gone on first. At last we arrived at our castle, which in the dark looked very impressive. A further search took place, during which all the cooking pots and pans, which we had so closely quarried, were taken off us. A staff of British Other Ranks was present and they showed us to various rooms. Beds were made and everything looked extremely comfortable and clean. After a cup of tea, we all had one of the best sleeps of our lives.
The next day we spent exploring and sorting ourselves out into rooms. Rooms accommodated various numbers from three to twenty. After much wangling, the four of
[digital page 55]
us with Peter Smith and Simpson managed to get a room for six. There was a central cookhouse and proper dining-rooms. I will attempt to draw a diagram of the castle and give you some idea of our conditions. The nearest village was called Rezzanello and the camp was always referred to by that name. We were about forty miles from Milan, twenty odd from Piacenza, both places being north of us. We were in the foothills above the plain of Lombardy and the view from our room looked out over the plain, through which the Po was visible, and on a clear day the Alps could be seen. The Matterhorn was easy to pick out, but I was unable to recognise any other peaks.
There was a fair supply of Red Cross parcels available in the camp parcel store, and we were able to live on one parcel per week. The bulk of the parcel was retained by the mess and only such things as jam, butter, chocolate, soap and biscuits were issued. Jack Gatford took over P.M.C. and
[digital page 56]
went full out to build up a food store for Christmas.
There was a central heating system in the castle, but it did not work owing to some technical fault, until sometime in January. In most of the rooms there was a wood stufa (store), for which we got a slender wood issue. We found we could manage to keep it going on the wood issue, provided we did not light our fire until after lunch. It was extremely cold and keeping warm was a business especially in the morning. I remember one of the dodges was to play one or two energetic games of volleyball and then go to bed fully dressed until lunch!
A day’s feeding was usually on the following lines: breakfast 08.45 – 1 pint of tea, nothing to eat except on Sundays, when we had an issue of porridge. Normally we saved half our bread ration and had that for breakfast together with butter, jam or anything else. Lunch was at 12.30 and consisted of macaroni, risotto (rice and essence of tomatoes) or sometimes spaghetti with
[digital page 57]
vegetables, the latter potatoes and cabbage, varied by carrots, beans and once or twice cauliflower. With lunch there was an issue of bread, (150 grams – a slight enlargement of an average Lyons roll), and fruit, the latter one or two oranges, sometimes some grapes, and once or twice dried figs. At 4 p.m. we had another cup of tea, again it was up to the individual whether he had anything to eat then. At 6.30 p.m. or nearer 7 p.m. dinner was served. This consisted of two courses, soup and meat, together with fruit or meat and a sweet and fruit. Cocoa or coffee followed so that the evening meal was something. Such meat, as we had, was practically all from tins from parcels, but we did get some very good vegetables, mostly black market, and later on managed to obtain eggs. [Line added by a different pen]: Was this Italian food or produced by prisoners?
During our time at Rezzanello we had three roll calls per day. The first at 08.30, the second at about 2 p.m. and the third at 6.30 p.m. We were only about 120 strong so these did not take more than ten minutes
[digital page 58]
a time. A penetratingly loud electric bell sounded for roll calls and we used to be pretty good at getting out of bed as soon as the bell sounded and still being in time for morning roll call!
Our other rank contingent was a very mixed collection. Our batman, one Quick (as he himself remarked Quick by name and quick by nature) was a L.P.T.B. man in the Service Corps, who was caught at Mechili after the Wavell Campaign. We also had a number of ratings from the submarine Oswald. As some of these worked in the kitchen, that place was known to all and sundry as the “galley”. For the most part, these men and the soldiers had been in the bag a long time and our predecessors at Rezzanello, a batch of South African officers, had somewhat relaxed discipline with obvious disastrous results. After some time we got a semblance of discipline into the ORs, but it was always a source of trouble.
At this castle we were introduced to the Black Market. On the second day after
[digital page 59]
arrival Mr Quick stated that he could obtain for us Italian brandy at a price of 180 lire. This was pretty expensive, but we paid it and the stuff was not too bad. We eventually bought another bottle for Christmas, but found that the whole business was too much for our slender accounts. As far as alcohol went, we were able to get a drink of vermouth or marsala most evenings in the canteen. Both these wines were much watered down, but it was rather fun to stand in the bar and drink and talk. The whole atmosphere got very smoky and used to resemble a pub near closing time, which made most of us forget the wire round us, at any rate for a time. Our other black-market business was conducted by Jack Gatford with an awful gentleman called Brusemonti, who was our contractor. He used to produce vegetables, fruit, some extra flour and rice, at Christmas a number of turkeys and other forbidden luxuries, and later on he produced an egg each on two occasions.
[digital page 60]
Twice a week it was possible to get outside on a walk and this form of exercise was much appreciated by most of us. The country round was hilly and I used to get a great deal of pleasure from a sight of the countryside and some really fresh air.
All this time various energetic souls ran classes of some sort or another, which we used to attend. I remember learning Urdu from Robert Williams, Company Law and Income Tax from Eric Cutler, and after the new year, Navigation and Pilotage from Sharp. The South Africans had left us a reasonable library and personal parcels brought in some additions, so that there was a reasonable selection of books to choose from. I remember reading Llewellin’s “How Green was my Valley”, some C.S. Forrester, Thomas Armstrong’s “The Crowthers of Bankdam”, Stenson Cook’s “This Motoring”, among hundreds of other less remembered books.
All this sounds rather as if the
[digital page 61]
place was rather a heaven on earth, but when writing from memory one is always inclined to remember the best and forget the worst. We had our tribulations, the chief one being, I suppose, the couping up in a small place and always seeing the same old faces. Water was often difficult. It used to go off at various times, those times invariably being when one wanted a wash or was using the latrine.
Not long after our arrival letters and parcels were forwarded from Capua. This caused great joy as the mail is one of the great delights of a POW. I remember receiving my second personal parcel in January. Prevedini, the Italian office interpreter, insisted on removing a civilian type shirt, but otherwise everything was allowed. The rug received was of the greatest benefit during that cold weather.
Hot baths were possible once per week. The rule was four to a shower, time limit about three minutes. You usually
[digital page 62]
found yourself soaping someone else’s leg, but on the whole we managed to keep clean.
At this juncture, I should give our Christmas Day 1942 a word or two. Jack Gatford assisted by John Alexander, both sappers, were responsible for the food programme.
On Christmas Day I got up at 7.15 p.m., opened the shutters and found the whole place covered in snow. This was the first fall and most appropriately timed.
At 7.45 a.m. a communion service was held by Padre Day in the ante-room. After roll call at 8.30, a breakfast was waiting. As we trooped in, the amazing sight of 50 cigarettes on each plate met our eyes. The breakfast consisted of porridge, sausages, bacon and omelette and coffee. Having gained a real “after breakfast” feeling from this meal, we had a look at the snow and finding it damp and unpleasant, returned to our room and lit the fire. Wood had been carefully saved for this event. Another service was held by Padre Day at 10.30 a.m., after which
[digital page 63]
we spent a very pleasant hour in our room sipping brandy and eating chocolate biscuits! Volunteers had served the ORs’ Christmas dinner to them in the time-honoured fashion, and then at about 1.30 p.m. our own lunch was served. This was a cold meal and consisted of meat roll, bully, some Italian meats, together with the biggest assortment of vegetables I have seen in the bag. The sweet which followed was home-made mince pie, blancmange and sauce, followed by nuts, fruit and tea. Most of us by this time were nearly unconscious! You must understand that the helpings were enormous and we were used to only a little food for months past. After helping with the washing up I got on my bed and felt awful!
Three or four hours rest from eating and a sharp walk round and round the courtyard at about 6 p.m. restored matters, however. After a roll call at 6.30 p.m. we filed into dinner. This consisted of soup, followed by turkey and appropriate vegetables with hot punch to wash it down. After this
[digital page 64]
came a full-sized Christmas pudding with coffee and the usual dessert to follow. I am afraid that I just couldn’t face the pudding and carried it away for future reference! After some speeches by Tom Oekleston and others an impromptu concert was held in the ante-room. The whole thing was great fun and most informal. After a very good cup of cocoa as a night cap we retired to bed very satisfied! That for a Christmas spent in captivity is surely a record?
The snow, which fell at Christmas time, soon went, but during January we had one or two proper falls of dry snow, such as one expects in North Italy, which remained for months.
At about this time we used to hear our bombers going over the camp on their way to Milan and Turin. The Milan raids we were able to see through the slats in the shutters and even there the doors rattled and plaster came down owing to distant blast effect.
[digital page 65]
There is not much more I can say about Rezzanello. We celebrate new year and the fall of Tripoli with special dinners. The weather got much warmer until by the middle of March we were doing some mild sunbathing.
It was at the end of March we received orders for another move. After packing up we got up dreadfully early one day and (after the usual search) found ourselves on the road down into the plain and on to the Piacenza road. There we piled into coaches and were taken to Piacenza station. After a short journey we got off at a station near Fontanellato. From there to our new camp was about an hour’s march, which done on the place, as this new place was, at midday, was extremely hot. After yet another search we reached our rooms at about 4 p.m. This searching was the most extravagant waste of time, as none of us had the slightest difficulty in
[digital page 66]
concealing any articles specially required for nefarious purposes.
Our new camp started life as a state orphanage. It was a new uniformly shaped building, four storeys high with good kitchens and sanitation apparatus. The area allowed to us was extremely small, especially as we had joined up with a camp from Mont Albo and our numbers were in the 400s. As far as room was concerned the Italians promised that as soon as wire could be put round it, a neighbouring field would become ours, as a sports, etc, place.
Life at this new camp was for the first few weeks somewhat difficult. People were rather inclined to group themselves into one of the two groups, either Mont Albo or Rezzanello and Bicker, but as more arrived from other camps the spirit became better until at the time of the Italian armistice the spirit was very good indeed.
[digital page 67]
Volunteers for working in the canteen were asked for, so wanting some job, I applied and was taken on! It took about two weeks for the canteen to get going, but after that time we were well stocked out with toilet paper (stacks of it!), practically anything in the toilet line from very expensive sponges from Benghazi to packets of shampoo powder, all sorts of stationery articles, some smoking materials such as a few pipes, pipe cleaners, cigarette holders and cases, a rationed supply of Italian cigarettes and tobacco and matches. In addition to the above we sold some very expensive sweets, some heavily rationed ersatz chocolate and dried figs and fruit or nuts according to season. The job consisted of being on duty one day in three with another chap – the opening hours were 9.30 a.m. to 12 noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. After closing down we had to check receipts against stock each evening, entering up all articles, whether sold or not, in the
[digital page 68]
form provided by the Italians. All this had to be done in Italian and I found myself with quite a good Italian vocabulary, which proved very useful later on.
At this new camp the Italians allowed us a much better ration of wine. They allowed two varieties, vermouth and vino. The latter was similar to the vin rouge of France. In order to keep people to their correct ration we had cards printed which read, as follows: GOOD FOR ONE VERMOUTH RATION.
These cards were handy sized, coloured yellow for vermouth and red for vino. On the reverse side was written your name and room number. Thus for a drink one had to pay the price required and hand over a ticket. It was possible to have ten drinks always provided ten tickets were forthcoming, but more than
[digital page 69]
one or two extra ones were usually practically impossible to obtain. We were not allowed to trade tickets for money, although I believe certain racketeers did that. One or two non-drinkers used to swap their wine tickets for a week for the other man’s chocolate!
On the subject of trading, it is essential at this point to introduce you to Bill Rainsford. Bill at his time of capture was a Pilot Officer, Air Gunner in the R.A.F. He was shot down over the desert somewhere. Before the war he said that he had had thirty-seven different jobs. I heard various stories of these jobs, but the one that stuck in my memory was one, which Bill had for six months, and that was efficiency expert to a laundry! When we arrived at the camp the firm OPPORTUNITIES LTD was brought to our notice through an enormous placard. After a few days we found that Opps Ltd was Bill Rainsford and he was prepared to anything or trade anything. He charged 5% on all deals, the charge being
[digital page 70]
levied against the seller. Thus, if I had a shirt above my needs, I could take it to Opps and ask him to sell it for 50 cigarettes. Provided the deal went through at the price, I would collect 47 cigarettes and 3 went to Opps. You can imagine that trade was fast and furious all the time. Italian money (that is the money as issued to us) was of some considerable use and much of Opps trading was in cash. A very necessary rule existed, which laid down that any article other than food, which was supplied by the Red Cross, would not be exchanged for money. This rule was strictly adhered to, as far as I know. More about Opps Ltd will appear later on!
After about a month the promised recreation field had been surrounded by barbed wire and we were allowed in. It was a great relief to be able to walk or sunbathe in this unaccustomed space, but our worthy exercise worshippers decided that football, basketball and other forms of
[digital page 71]
violent exercise must be played! We then asked our hosts for picks and shovels with which to level this very rough field. This request was granted and squads could be seen daily levelling, and causing much dust.
During the period the tools were available a very reasonable escape scheme was put into operation. The details of the business were, as follows: at a certain part of the middle of the field a fairly large hole was discovered. By devious means this hole was enlarged sufficiently to take three men sitting, and a wooden cover was made. The wooden cover was well camouflaged and the hole remained undiscovered for what must have been at least two weeks.
On the appointed night, the home-made civilian clothes were brought out in a medicine ball, and at about 5.30 p.m., that is half an hour before the field was closed, the first two escapees got into the hole. This operation was easily covered by numbers of men throwing a rugger ball to each other, standing in a
[digital page 72]
circle round the hole. When safely in, the two were covered and given air line in the shape of a rubber tube. At 6 p.m. the Italians closed the field, and when clear of prisoners they searched it, satisfied themselves that no-one was hiding, and then locked up for the night and called the extra guard off. On the night everything went according to plan and the guard was called off. At 6.30 p.m. there was a roll call, but it was easily to make up a deficiency of two, as sick men were allowed to remain in bed. All we had to do was to report two extra sick and the British Assistant Adjutant would then take the Italian Orderly officer round the sick. The man appointed for the job would be found lying in bed at one end of the building, and having been seen, had to double to the other end, probably up or down a flight of stairs and then get into another bed and get counted again. There were two men appointed for this duty, which was done for three days without mishap. No more was heard of the two that night, which was a good thing,
[digital page 73]
as the sentries were always eager to open fire. The next day arrived and nothing more was heard, so it was concluded that the first two were safely away. That same evening the main attempt was to be made. This was Roncoroni (an English rugger international forward), Graham and Joscelyn, who together, dressed as Spanish workmen, were to try and get to Switzerland by train. The same business went forward that evening and for the roll call five “sick” men were needed. Everything went forward as arranged and we all thought they were clear. The roll call the next morning was as usual, but at about 10.30 a.m. we were all made to go into the field and a special roll call went forward, in which names were called out.
After some considerable delay, they found out that five were missing. That afternoon we saw the Carabinieri bring Roncoroni, Graham and Joscelyn in – their disguises were, most certainly, very good indeed. It might interest you at this point to hear the story of these three – they left the camp at about 11.30 p.m. separately,
[digital page 74]
having previously decided upon a rendezvous on the Parma road. Roncoroni and Joscelyn arrived at the R.V. safely, but no sign of Graham. They waited until about 3 a.m. for him, but as he didn’t turn up, they went on to Parma. At Parma they found the station and in order to get a ticket they had to hand in all their papers. The papers made them out to be Spaniards, who had a job in Brindisi, and had been granted leave for a period. Their passes (forged in the camp) were found to be in order and tickets for Milan were issued. They boarded the train at about 5.30 a.m. and had half an hour to wait for it to set off. Graham eventually turned up at 5.50 a.m., rather bedraggled, as he had torn his shirt getting through the barbed wire. The Carabinieri had another look at papers just before the train moved and shook hands with the three as true friends of Italy and fascism. At Piacenza, which was about ninety minutes run, the three were hauled off the train and thoroughly examined and searched. Again
[digital page 75]
the authorities were satisfied and they were just about to depart, when one wretched NCO said, “If you are from Brindisi as the letters says, why are your tickets only made out from Parma?” This was very unanswerable and it dawned upon the authorities that these three were British officers. We heard that when our camp was rung up and informed that three officers had escaped and were being held at Piacenza, the Commandant said, “Rubbish, our prisoners are all here”. I suppose other neighbouring camps were rung up and then a full check-up was made with the previously related result. The reason for the search at Piacenza was understood to be that the man at Parma became suspicious of Graham’s appearance and the fact that he was separated from the others in the first instance. The two previous escapees were clear for a fortnight and did very well indeed in getting to Como. They walked the distance, without any assistance
[digital page 76]
from the locals, and consequently were on very short rations while walking. Trying to hire a boat at Como, they aroused the suspicions of a boatman who reported them to the police. As they were not able to speak Italian with any fluency, and relied on getting through unseen, they stood little chance on an interrogation.
When all the excitement (and there was plenty) had died down, the camp resumed its normal life. The Commandant even went so far as to congratulate Roncoroni on his good attempt to get away. This Commandant was a cut above the usual and his outlook seemed so much broader than that of his contemporaries. As a matter of interest, he was reputed to be an international bridge player and he certainly took quite an interest in our bridge, which he watched occasionally. The chief interpreter was another Italian officer with a very English outlook. This man was a captain named Camino, who spoke excellent English, continually smoked
[digital page 77]
a pipe and had an English wife. The Commandant spoke very good French and he and John Birkbeck got on very well together in that language. John was in charge of the canteen.
By this time (about the middle of May) the football pitch was ready. It was decided that the first match would be between the canteen staff and Opps Ltd. The teams were 7 a side. This proved quite a success and a large crowd watched and were well amused by Rainsford’s antics and clowning. I don’t remember the result, but I do remember Rainsford falling into a very muddy ditch and causing a scream of laughter.
After this initial football attempt we were asked to form sides from rooms, regiments, departments or anything else, and a league was run. I played for my own room and we found we could field a fairly useful side. Not long after the league was started, Opps Ltd, not to be outdone, started football pools. People very soon caught on and the Italians printed the necessary forms. The week’s
[digital page 78]
fixture list used to be posted up and then the ten odd matches to be forecast with the necessary 2, 1 or X would be posted on the Opps board. First page grew eventually to about 700 lire and second about 200. I used to try each week and eventually “netted” a second.
Of course, this made the football much more serious and the games came to be watched by anxious people, who stood to lose or gain hundreds of lire! Later on, a cup was made out of old tins and a knock-out competition was played off. When the armistice came in September, our room team was second in the league and in the semi-finals of the cup, having knocked out the favourites.
Another form of camp life was devoted to entertainments. The plays I remember best were, Pygmalion (very well done), Blythe Spirit and the Circle. The theatre was in the anteroom and the stage erected at the south end. The stage managership
[digital page 79]
was in the capable hands of Hartley, a sapper, who seemed able to make anything out of nothing. Several variety concerts were held on Saturday evenings.
Every so often someone would come forward and lecture. The most interesting series was given by Col. Mainwaring on the Desert Campaigns. As he was for some time G. I. to 70 Division in Tobruk and later held a very good post in 8th Army H.Q., he was able to see everything from the commander’s point of view, and provided answers to many of our long unanswered questions.
I should have mentioned that during May and June our numbers were swelled by senior officers from Poppi and a mixed crowd from Chieti, until by the time of the armistice our numbers were over 500 officers and just over 100 ORs.
There is not very much more of interest I can tell you about this camp. The education went on, but conditions were not so favourable here. The building was made
[digital page 80]
of reinforced concrete and with six hundred people milling about, mostly in steel shod boots, the noise at all times was bad.
One great advantage here was the possibility of having a shower at any time. When playing football or walking most of us had three showers a day.
All the time we were at this camp there was a good supply of food parcels, and when it was hot during the summer, we had one parcel every ten days. Even then there was a considerable saving of food. The mess was run under a committee presided by Col. Lee on hotel lines. That is to say, that we did not see our parcels and everything was issued in the mess. When there enough chocolate to issue one bar per head, then that would be found on one’s plate at lunchtime.
A day’s feeding would be, as follows:
0900 hrs. Breakfast. Tea, 2 biscuits, marmalade and butter.
1100 hrs. Elevenses. Cocoa, ovaltine or tea.
[digital page 81]
1300 hrs. Lunch Macaroni, or risotto and boiled potatoes, cabbage: or cold tinned meat with salad followed by fruit.
1600 hrs. Tea Tea, bread (150 grams issue), jam and butter or margarine.
1900 hrs. Dinner Soup. Tinned meat and vegetables followed by a sweet, fruit and coffee or cocoa.
This fare we found adequate and as it was eaten in thoroughly civilised and decent surroundings, it was much appreciated.
Again, there was a very good library and this was a great joy to most of us. It was very well run by about six men who gave up a great deal of time to it.
When the camp was first established, the senior British officer was a captain, but later as the senior officers arrived, a Lieutenant Colonel took over, and at the end, when the armistice came, we were under the very able leadership of Colonel de Burgh, R.A.
[digital page 82]
As far as matters financial went, we were still receiving the same pay, that is Lire 1,100 per month for captains and more or less than that according to rank. In July 1942, the Italians got a ridiculous bee in their bonnets about Italian officers in captivity in England being charged 6/- a day for their messing. So we were charged the equivalent in Italy, that is Lire 21. We were only allowed to spend Lire 13 per day on actual messing, the remaining 8 lire had to go to the treasury. This order appeared in December 1942 and consequently, as the cash had to be paid in for all the months prior to that, we were all labouring under an enormous debt of thousands of lire.
In July or August this order was rescinded and then we found ourselves with thousands in credit! We had been working all the time under a camp bank, and when cash was required, all one did was to appear at the bank at the correct time, and ask. As with all banks, if provided our balances stood it, cash
[digital page 83]
was forthcoming. The Italians for reasons of security, I suppose, allowed us no Bank of Italy money, and local camp money was printed locally for each camp. I have managed to procure two specimens, which are shown here:
[Photograph and caption]: Value 10 centissimi or .1 of a lire.
[Photograph and caption]: Value 2 lire.
Official exchange rate for PsOW 72 lire to £1.
[digital page 84]
On about 26th July we heard over the wireless of the fall of Mussolini. This made little or no difference to us except that we found a much friendlier attitude from the locals, when we went on our walks. Fascist placards, etc, which were pasted on about every other house in the neighbourhood, were erased. Italian papers still continued to come into the camp after a pause of about ten days. Large spaces were in evidence in the papers where the censors had been at work! We followed the landing and progress in Sicily with great interest and then early in September heard of the landing at Reggio Calabria.
On the evening of 8th September, I had arranged a party for a number of friends. After dinner on that evening I was making everything ready, when from outside, came the sounds of a great commotion. People seemed to be racing up and down the road shouting “PACE, PACE”. We didn’t know how to take this business until at about 7.15 p.m.
[digital page 85]
Col. de Burgh assembled us in the anteroom and told us that an armistice between Great Britain and Italy had been arranged. He went on to say that he wanted no demonstrations from us, everyone was to remain calm and quiet and that he would let us know of any developments.
I went on with the job of entertaining my friends and everyone agreed that I had timed the party date most appropriately. The Colonel’s orders were obeyed to the letter that evening and everything was O.K. I was on special police duties with a squad of twenty or so, and we were warned to parade at 6 a.m. the following morning. The following morning we got on parade as ordered, but were told as everything was normal, we could go back to bed again, which we promptly did. Breakfast that morning was at 8.30 a.m. and following that was a parade for the S.B.O. (and no Italian roll call as usual). At the parade Col. de Burgh addressed us again and explained that at any time, German forces
[digital page 86]
who were believed to be in Parma, might attack the camp in order to take us. He said that the Italian Commandant had stated that the Italians were going to defend the camp and that an exit for our escape would be prepared. We were to pack up our small kits in haversacks and be ready to leave the camp in an organised body as soon as the bugler sounded the alarm.
That morning we spent packing up haversacks, etc, and an emergency ration of 1 tin of bully, 1 tin of meat roll and 1 tin of biscuits per head was issued. At about 11.30 a.m. a German plane flew very low over the camp, but it didn’t do anything. So bar for a momentary alarm, we were alright. At 12.30 p.m. we were drinking a glass of vermouth prior to lunch, when the alarm blew. We all dashed down, grabbing our haversacks and fell in by Companies. In a very orderly fashion we all filed out through the hole the Italians had made in the barbed wire.
[digital page 87]
We walked through fields of wheat and grape vines and sometimes along dusty paths led by Camino. It was incredibly hot, especially so, as we were all in battle dress. Having put about five miles between the camp and ourselves, we came to rest in a well concealed spot chosen by Camino. There we sat drying out our sweat soaked clothes. News reached us that the camp had been attacked by the Germans and after a few shots the Italian Garrison had surrendered. The Germans were reputed to be looting our kit and food and tobacco supplies.
We realised then that it would be impossible to go back to the camp. We all thought that the morning out would only be for a few hours, or a night at the most. Just prior to the armistice rumours had reached us of British landings at Genoa and Leghorn, so we thought then that we would be seeing British troops within a few days.
That evening we were moved a short
[digital page 88]
distance and stopped for the night on the banks of a stream. We were told to lie low and not to smoke during the hours of darkness. One rather funny thing happened during the night, when Erik Hampson complained of a water rat running over him. He complained of the weight of the rat! During the night there was a considerable noise of explosives, which no one could account for.
The next morning dawned and everything was quiet. Some nearby Italians brought us some food and we were told to remain out of sight and await orders. A lookout was posted to warn us of approaching Germans. Keeping hidden was somewhat difficult as Italians, especially children, insisted on coming in their tens and twenties to look at us and in some cases to bring food.
Sometime later that day we received our orders and they were briefly that we should cross the main Via Emilia and the parallel railway as a company
[digital page 89]
that evening, after which we were to split up into platoons and dispense in the foothills south of the plain.
As soon as it got dark, we set off, and after a considerable walk, which was made rather more difficult owing to the necessity of avoiding roads, we reached the railway. This seemed deserted, so we crossed it without mishap and then came up against the road. This was also deserted, so we dashed across and gained cover the other side. We then split up into platoons and started off towards the foothills. Our direction was south-west. Having got well clear of the remainder of the company, we then split up again, and then the seven of us (all from 28th Fd.) went off in search of a safe place to rest in for the remainder of the night. After much stumbling through the darkness we found a very good concealed place for the night. In the morning George Mathieson, who could speak Italian after a fashion, and Joe Drayson
[digital page 90]
set off to pump the nearest Italian for advice and to listen to the BBC news, if possible.
After some time, these two came back having heard the news. We gathered that British troops were nowhere near Genoa, which was a blow. The Italian they met recommended us to go to a place called Bardi, which was about half way between Parma and Genoa. He stated that a number of people near Bardi spoke English, and he thought that they would be willing to help us. We had acquired a very good map of the province of Emilia, so decided to walk at night in the direction of Bardi. Later on that day, we called upon a farm near us and asked for food. They produced for us a dish called polenta. This was akin to porridge, made out of maize flour. The method of preparation is, as follows: boil up a huge cauldron of water, and when it is boiling hard, pour in a quantity of maize flour. Keep stirring hard and add flour until the required consistency is attained. When it is finished
[digital page 91]
the stuff is poured straight on to a slab of wood and cut into slabs with a piece of wire. As far as I could see, the stuff tastes of nothing, but it is food – although not very sustaining. Having eaten as much of this extremely unappetising fare as we could, we set off again after dark.
We found walking in the dark across country very hard going and by 2 a.m. we had enough of it. Soaked with sweat as we were, we dropped exhausted near a village. They sent us (or rather me) to a woman in a valley about five miles away and 2,000 feet below. I went down there and found the woman, who could certainly speak English and had a wireless set. She didn’t offer to turn the thing on for me and didn’t appear to want me to stay, so being unable to get any more sense out of her, I tracked back up the hill to the others. The village had taken the party under its wing and I found something
[digital page 92]
civilised to eat at last! After a meal we then decided that we ought to split up into pairs and that walking by day was the only feasible thing to do. So that afternoon we all split up and I found myself with Binks Forster and Bill Reid. Just before we parted company George Mathieson very kindly gave me his spare watch, as none of our trio had one. We started off that day walking in a general south-west direction and ended in a huge farm a few kilometres from Pellegrino. The farmer and his family were very good to us and we partook of a meal of milk, bread and grapes. After dinner we amused them with our bad Italian and card tricks. We made ourselves very comfortable in the barn. Bill Reid had, against order, brought from camp a Jaeger sleeping bag and an overcoat. We found that the bag would take two fairly well and the third man had the overcoat. In this manner we passed a very comfortable night, and after more milk and bread, mended on our way again in the morning.
[digital page 93]
We carried on south-west, skirted Pellegrino and came upon a man tilling his field. He asked us, who we were and where we were going, and when we told him, he told us to go and wait at the next village for him. We went on to the village where the people, without so much as a word of question, made us welcome and gave us wine. We waited for about ¼ hour, when along came our friend, who took us up to his house. We were made most welcome there and given dinner, consisting of minestra, bread, cheese and wine. This minestra is a dish we were to meet often and is prepared: mix up wheat, flour and one or two eggs and water into a stiff paste. Beat it about as for pastry making, and then roll it out into long thin strips. Fold the strips together and then cut them lengthways, about ¼ inch or less, wide. All this time the caldron should have been on the fire with potatoes, garlic, tomatoes, chopped cabbage in it boiling. At a minute before everyone is ready, throw in the thin strips of
[digital page 94]
dough, and leave them in the boiling can for about two minutes only. Serve the whole lot on to plates piping hot. It was a good meal that and every peasant (who could afford it) had it once per day. You must remember that Italy at this time was practically meatless. Having had at least three platefuls of minestra and enormous quantities of bread and cheese followed by grapes, nuts and wine, we felt much better! All sorts of people from the village just walked into the house where we were eating and sat down and looked at us. One woman with a very small child in arms, as soon as the child woke and began crying, undid her dress, and fed the child. This was a bit steep during lunch, we thought, but no-one took the slightest bit of notice, so, of course, we did not either. Among the crowd of spectators (the “gate” was getting fairly big now) was an oldish woman who started talking to us in very good English. She asked us to her house, so after thanking our kind host and
[digital page 95]
shaking hands with most of the “gate”, we followed this woman to her house. There we found her husband, her daughter, Margherita and an adopted son, Jonni (pronounced Johnnie). Marubbi was the family name and Signora M. was the only one able to speak English. The first thing we had in this delightful house was a cup of tea, beautifully made and thin bread and butter. We were asked to stay the night and that evening to have supper with another family in the village and later on go to the maize festival in the village. They took us down to the other family for an excellent supper, where we met an old woman with two lovely daughters, one of whom had been in England and could speak good English. The maize business consisted in sitting in the village square and pulling the leaves off the maize pods. Everyone took part amid much laughter and singing. At 11 p.m. we broke off and partook of wine and polenta and cheese. We then went back to the Marubbi household where we were given a room with a double bed
[digital page 96]
and a single bed. There were clean sheets and everything was spotless. The next morning Mrs M. (as we called her) gave us breakfast and sent us off to the other family, who had promised to try to replace our battle dress with some sort of mufti. Sure enough, some mufti was produced and the girls got busy with needles altering and repairing it. In the end I was arrayed in a mechanics outfit, while Binks got a questionable pair of plus fours and Bill arrayed himself in a well-fitting tweed outfit! We visited another family that evening and saw a cheese actually walk! On a shelf hanging from the ceiling of the cottage were about six homemade cheeses. While we were talking, a cheese suddenly dropped on Bill. We discussed it and came to the conclusion that this cheese must have walked off the shelf.
The next day we were asked by the Marubbis to help pick the grapes. We were told that we could eat as many as we liked. I think I ate a million and picked three million. We worked from eight in the morning until darkness,
[digital page 97]
and we were certainly tired after it. We had realised that day that the room the three of us were sleeping in, really belonging to the daughter and the small boy. In order to make us comfortable the husband and the small boy went out and slept in the barn, while the daughter and Mrs M. shared the remaining room. We naturally couldn’t allow that to continue and after a fight we slept in the barn and the rooms went back to their rightful owners. I have never met such kindness as these people showed us, and I am fully resolved to see that this family is well cared for after the war, if it is in my power to do so.
By this time the Ms. were getting a little nervous, as Germans were reported to be in the neighbouring town. So the following day we went into hiding during daylight. At midday a magnificent lunch was brought down to us, and when darkness came, we returned to the house. That evening one of the girls came and told us that a notice had
[digital page 98]
appeared in the local papers to the effect that Italians found harbouring escaped British or American prisoners were liable to dire penalties. The girl laughed at this, but she agreed with us that the business was not so good for the Marubbis. We then decided to move on the next morning. The next morning we declared our intention of moving and after some argument, and floods of tears from Mr Marubbi, we left. From the preceding sentence please don’t get the idea that old Marubbi was at all effeminate or anything of the sort. He was an enormously sturdily built man and typical of the type, which lives on the land. He was very strong and far from afraid of hard work.
We journeyed again south-west and met various people, who were all most delightful. The country here was hilly and very beautiful and higher mountains could be seen to the south. We stayed that night in the smallest and dirtiest of villages. They gave us bread and milk to eat and the usual barn to sleep in.
[digital page 99]
The next day we reached a village on top of a hill called Bore. Here we found a woman who owned a wireless set and made us welcome to play with it and listen to the news in English (European service). That night the biggest house in the village asked us in. We fed very handsomely that evening and after supper most of the men in the village came round and talked to us. Among these men was one ex-Carabinieri from Rome and another who had been one of our guards at Rezzanello. Both these men had deserted when the armistice with England was announced, and putting on their civilian attire, had walked or bicycled back to their village. They were all very good to us in the matter of cigarettes, as by then we had run out, and they clubbed round and produced 12 or 15 cigarettes for us. Cigarettes and tobacco at that time were very scarce in Italy as supplies were continually being taken away by the Germans. We slept that night in a loft, and as the people
[digital page 100]
were very good over supplying blankets, we slept, warm and comfortable.
The next day we decided to return to Mrs M. in order to pick up our uniform. We found that, although the weather at the moment was good, we would be extremely cold later on. So back we went and walking quickly managed to do the journey by midday. We didn’t stay long and went off back to Bore, where we spent another night. After supping with one villager and breakfasting with another we set off on our way to Bardi.
At midday we reached the hillside above a village called Varsi. Here we found a most picturesque group of houses. In one of these, owned by a dear old couple, we begged a meal. It was rather amusing, as we had to eat this in the kitchen (with the] cat), but for us the meal suffered not on that account. Our Italian was improving daily, but we still found some mental strain attendant to making polite conversation
[digital page 101]
over the dinner table, especially when we were ravenously hungry as was normally the case!
I should have explained that just after leaving Bore that morning, we had met two British Other Ranks, who had escaped from a working camp just south of the Swiss frontier. These fellows told us a thrilling story of their adventures, which included swimming the Po. They said that their own idea was to go on walking south until they met our own forces. Personally, I liked their idea and I managed to make the other two of our party agree to follow suit. At that time we were rather inclined to sit down and wait for the arrival of our forces, but after talking it over, we decided to walk as far south as necessary, relying entirely on the people to help and feed us.
So, when leaving Bore, we changed our direction somewhat and were now heading south rather than south-west. We had no compass, but kept direction by means
[digital page 102]
of the sun, assisted by the map. We kept to country lanes, but were quite prepared to move over mountains or go across country whenever necessary. We avoided railways and motor roads like poison.
After the meal, as described, we set off down the valley to cross a main road, which ran to Bardi. When crossing a field, a woman addressed us in English (with a marked Selfridges accent), “Where are you off to?”. So we told her and she then asked us to come back to her house and meet two Italian officers, who had escaped from Parma. We met these fellows, one was a most delightful major and the other was a captain, who had been educated in England and spoke English as well as he spoke Italian. They persuaded us to stay the night and advised us not to continue south, as we would find a great scarcity of food south of Tuscany, and possibly south of the Abruzzi people would be hostile to us. Personally, I was all for disregarding this
[digital page 103]
advice, but had to admit that they knew the country, so I gave in. That evening we visited the Padre of the village, listened to the news on his wireless and spent some time over his very good map. We eventually decided to go to a friend of the major, who owned a big house in a lonely district in the mountains south-west of Bardi. The people the Italian officers were staying with gave us a very good meal. The family consisted of an old mother and father, three girls and one boy. All the girls had worked at some time or other in London and the boy had worked in the Café Royal, Piccadilly, as a kitchen boy. Everyone talked at once and it was like being in Selfridges Bargain Basement on a busy day in that house!
In the morning after the usual coffee and bread breakfast and a gift from the major of ten good cigarettes each, we moved off again in the Bardi direction. It might interest you to have a description of the coffee and bread breakfast, which most of the inhabitants
[digital page 104]
of the north used to have. With a few rich exceptions no-one had seen proper coffee for three or four years, so they made coffee by toasting rye or even maize and grinding the result in a coffee-grinder. This, when made, as Italians know how to make coffee, made a very good substitute drink.
They always served it in a large bowl, about one part coffee to two parts milk, and plenty of sugar. With this they served bread, dry and cut thin. The thing to do was to break the bread into the liquid and eat with a spoon, drinking any remaining liquid straight out of the bowl. This made a most pleasant and, we found, adequate breakfast.
That day bad weather overtook us and we sheltered in a tiny cottage, the inhabitants of which were delighted to feed us. On the clearing of the weather we walked on and came to rest in a little village overlooking Bardi. The people here were considerably frightened, but we eventually got fed and lodged in different houses. I talked to my
[digital page 105]
farmer host, who had been in America years before and understood a limited amount of English. He was strongly against us going to the valley where the major’s friends lived, as he had heard that some ex-prisoners had been recaptured there by the Fascists. In the morning we decided to return to our Italian officer friends and then to resume our journey south. The return journey, which was done in beautiful weather, took only about four or five hours. Our friends were delighted to see us and made us stay the night again. They just wouldn’t hear of us going south and found an empty barn, where we made our H.Q. and sleeping quarters. I must say that all this was against my wishes, but these Italians were so good to us that I couldn’t bring myself to be rude and make a fuss. In this village, we were very comfortable and were looked after by various families for about eight days. We saw much of our old camp-mates. Erik Hampson and Maurice turned up one day,
[digital page 106]
and we spoke to a number of R.A.F. officers and some ORs, who were living in the vicinity.
After this period we were told that the Fascist Carabinieri had their suspicions about the area we were in, and that they were about to institute a thorough search. This time we decided to clear out, to go south and not to be turned away again. This decision was taken on or about 27th September (it may possibly have been as late as the 2nd or 3rd of October). The next day after farewells had been exchanged, we set off.
I am not going to attempt a day to day description of our journey, because I cannot remember sufficient details, having destroyed my diary, and it would take too long to tell. We always moved warily until we had confirmed that the district or village was free of Germans, Fascisti or Spie (Spies). A reward of Lire 1,800 was up for anyone capturing or causing our capture,
[digital page 107]
but most Italians laughed at this, as it was impossible to buy anything with Lire 1,800 anyway!
The first day we cleared about fifteen miles, having to cross a main road and a river. We were comfortably slept in a barn. The first place of any interest I remember was a village called Belforte. It was perched right on top of a hill, and having stopped at an old man’s house in the country, after dark we were taken to the old man’s son’s house in Belforte, itself. We slept in a beautiful dry barn and the next morning met a couple of the men from 49. They were living with the local parson and were busy collecting fire-arms and making ready to do some sabotaging. A scare that Carabinieri were about to visit the village cleared us out in a hurry and we set off on a difficult walk, which took us near the Cisa Pass. The road through this pass was much used by the Germans, as it was one of the main connections between Genoa and Parma. We heard much and saw a little
[digital page 108]
of the German traffic on this road. A family living within 800 yards of this road put us up for the night and insisted that we moved very early in the morning. We eventually cleared the road with no difficulty. Later on that day we were making our way across some high ground, when we saw in the valley below us about a company of German infantry. We watched these people for some time and as they seemed to be doing some sort of training exercise, took no further notice of them.
Shortly after this we ran into the high forest area north of the Florentine Plain. The people, who lived in this country, were the poorest we had met so far. Their staple diet was polenta made, as described previously, but with chestnut flour instead of maize flour. The colour of the resulting dish was a brownish chocolate and the flavour somewhat sweeter, but for its sustaining qualities – well, chewing gum struck us as better food. Anyhow, we lived on this and a limited
[digital page 109]
amount of bread for four days and managed to keep going at much the normal pace.
By this time in our wanderings we had learnt one or two things from the people and were managing to speak Italian moderately intelligently. One of the peculiar things the country people all did was to give all distances in hours. One hour was, of course, the distance a man could walk in that time. We found that, although we seemed to be able to walk as fast, if not faster than most peasants, what they estimated as an hour invariably took us at least an hour and a half. One day we set off across a lovely stretch of mountains bound to San Pellegrino nel Monte. The people at our departure point said it would take us eight hours. We set off at 7 a.m. and reached San Pellegrino just before dark at about 5.45 p.m. We only stopped for a short time at midday. So eight hours was a slight underestimate.
Another interesting point about our
[original page 97 missing].
[digital page 110]
We walked on and on, only stopping for bad weather. Once or twice we slept in a bed – usually a double bed, which had to accommodate the three of us – but mostly we slept in barns or stables. A stable was the nest, as the animals kept us warm when we were not given enough straw. I well remember one night when we were in a stable and a calf got loose and woke us up, I found a pigeon dozing on my leg. It was very fat and, like Erik’s rat, heavy! The animals were always most kind to us and always seemed to try and make us welcome in their stables.
All the peasants, I think without exception, shaved once a week – on Sundays. We did our best to be English and shave every day, but in the end, due to shortage of blades and the scorn poured upon us, we gave up and shaved once a week. We washed when we could, which wasn’t often, and the last bath we had was in September in a river!
We reached a point near Pistoia
[digital page 111]
and then found that accommodation was very hard to come by, as all the people were afraid of being given away to the Germans, who were in strength on the Florentine plain. After a dismal day or two on the foothills above the plain, we went back to our friends [in] the mountains and walked due east for two days. Having at last lost sight of Pistoia, we came upon some more large towns in Central Italy, but managed to walk round them. Eventually after crossing the Arno, where it was quite small, we were faced with a huge main road and railway to cross. The railway presented little or no difficulty, as all we had to do was to cross it by means of a tunnel, but the road, on which was a quantity of German transport, was difficult. We decided that the time had come to get rid of our uniform, […] we got hold of a farmer and told him to produce three hats and two coats. After some time he did this and got our uniform together with Bill’s great coat and sleeping bag and
[digital page 112]
various other items, which we carried in our haversacks. We then moved off with nothing to carry except our uniform trousers, clad in old jackets with hats. This we considered would enable us to meet Germans face to face, if necessary. We had no trouble with the road, which we crossed one by one. At the other side of the valley a very friendly farm took us in for the night and they dyed our uniform trousers black with some Italian dye we had bought previously. Having ridded ourselves of so much extra weight and of the tell-tale military haversacks, we found we could cover much more ground.
Our next big obstacle was the Tiber and here again we managed it, so that we came upon it, where it was only a shallow stream. Even so, we had a small amount of trouble owing to floods following heavy rain. Once across the Tiber we thought we were well over halfway home.
We followed the mountains still
[digital page 113]
going south and passed out of Tuscany into Umbria. We sometimes heard the news. We were refused food only about five times altogether and refused accommodation for the night very seldom. The people were delightful to us and would keep us talking for hours, if we didn’t watch them! Our Italian was fluent by this time, although our grammar was vile. We often found considerable difficulty in understanding dialects which vary, I think, far more than our language does in the British Isles. Living and talking daily with these people, we managed to get moderately used to their dialect, and only when we met the local Padre or some other educated person did we realise how easy to understand was good Italian (and what a beautiful language it is). I must say that all Padres we met and the one monastery we were entertained in, were one and all very helpful and kind. I used to believe in going and having a talk with the Padre and then asking him to assist us in finding accommodation in the village. We did
[digital page 114]
not expect him to put us up, but his assistance was always invaluable with the villagers. A Padre practically always had good food available and better wine than most!
The monastery was a dream place miles up in the mountains, and the monks did not even ask us in or anything, but led us to a table (in the open with a glorious view), and gave us a wonderful meal. They were so kind and courteous and the head monk (whom we called Padre) gave Binks his last cigarette, while the others rolled us cigarettes from home grown tobacco.
With little or no difficulty, we proceeded down south, when at the end of October we found ourselves in a tiny village about eight hours walk from the town of Norcia. Here we met Rex Ord and over some wine at the local Osteria (pub), we decided to split into two pairs. We had found three an awkward number for feeding and accommodation, and although we had had great fun and were sorry to part, it was much
[digital page 115]
better to be alone or at the most, one of a pair. Rex Ord had been captured by the Germans near Pistoia, taken to Florence, where he managed to escape again, and had walked down south by himself. So Rex and Binks joined up and Bill and I made the other pair.
The next day, Bill and I reached Norcia. On the road there we had met a returned soldier, who said he would introduce us to some pro-English friends of his. It was a Sunday and this man took us to the gates of a large villa, where we met his friends. Luckily, we had shaved that day, as the party consisted of the owner of the villa and most of his family, a naval officer with his sister and father, and two army officers and the local doctor. They took us under their wing and Bill was entertained in the villa, whilst I went off with the army officers to a nearby farmhouse, where they lived, and was given an enormous meal. We were not allowed to move that day and had great fun with this crowd. The naval officer gave us detailed instructions of certain bridges
[digital page 116]
to be blown up, which action would hinder the Germans, and a code word, which we would get broadcast on the wireless, if we reached our lines. There seemed to be no shortage of tobacco and they were very generous with cigarettes. Later on, I gave the two army officers a lesson in English pronunciation. They, neither of them, could pronounce “TH”. “The” and “that” were continually pronounced as “dee” and “dat”, but they improved. As all beds were occupied, we were given some blankets in the barn of the villa, where we slept like lords. The next day, after a breakfast of coffee (ersatz) and bread and real butter, we left complete with a huge sandwich lunch. The day we left Norcia was one of the loveliest we had seen since the armistice. Later on that day, we came into view of one of the snow-covered peaks of the Gran Sasso to the east of us. It was really lovely. We walked a considerable distance that day, not reaching our final resting place for the night until well after dark.
[digital page 117]
[Hand-drawn map of Italy]
[Handwritten comment on the following pages of text] This section seems to be a general summary written late in his life but does, in brief, finish off his story, in long hand, and his capture near the Sangro.
[digital page 118]
Wartime censorship was such that events some 12 or more months old could be related in letters but information concerning location was inevitably ruled out – i.e. cut out by the censor’s scissors. During 1941 the 5th Indian Division was sent to Cyprus. This followed after the fall of Crete, when it was thought that exactly the same might happen to Cyprus. Considerable preparations were made such as communications, gun pits dug, and command posts dug-in and concealed. Preparing for defence is a depressing business and personally I thought that we should concentrate on mobility rather than static defence; in the event the Germans did not attack Cyprus and during March of 1941 we were taken off the island.
Our H.Q. had been Limassol together with one Battery, one other Battery was in Larnaka and a Troop (4 guns) in Paphos. It was a pleasant break with a bed to sleep in, a roof over our heads, quantities of a doubtful white wine called Aphrodite, and as neighbours, the 3rd/l2th Frontier Force Rifles, (known as the ‘Piffers’)- a charming crowd, a first class Regt. with whose Officers we used to drink sherry!! I am quite certain that the few months (about 5 in all) spent in Cyprus did the 5th Indian Division little good: as Adjutant I had to refuse several requests from soldiers to become married. The C.O. had a girlfriend and eventually the affair became such that I mentioned it to Hereward Hard, our Padre, and he spoke of the affair to the Divisional Padre with the result that the C.R.A. rang up and told the Colonel to stop being an idiot. This Colonel had a wife in India. He became somewhat obsessed by being a C.O. and I am afraid that Binks Forster (the Intelligence Officer), Tony Mitchell (the Signals Officer) and myself referred to the C.O. as “God”.
Kinlock McCollum was the Medical Officer and one day I was requested to destroy some unexploded mortar bombs and shells. Obviously a task I should have entrusted to a Subaltern, I saw this as a pleasant day out, the weather being fair, and I asked Kinlock to come along. He was delighted to do so and we had a good day, finding large quantities of u-x-ps; unfortunately the local boys heard what was going on and insisted on finding these extremely dangerous bombs and shells and bringing them to us. The one thing which I had been most carefully briefed on was NEVER to disturb an unexploded round. They are most unstable and very dangerous. However we and the boys got away with it.
At about the middle of March 1941 were told to leave Cyprus. Having previously handed in all our vehicles and guns we had to rely upon the R.A.S.C. for transport. The journey, once we had left the port of arrival – Haifa – was difficult and varying from fast to very slow. This transport department of Divisional HQ. is known as ‘Movement Control’. John Holderness, later regretfully killed in the Desert, described all periods of very slow as being in the hands of Control, while when we
[digital page 119]
proceeded fast he described it as being in the hands of “Movement.” With “Control” in charge, we would stand still. With “Movement” it would be a case of going so fast that we would get lost.
There seems no point in repeating the tale of what happened next; in between times I think I managed a trip to Cairo. I formed the impression that they never knew that a war was taking place within 300miles of the city and possibly well under 150 from Alexandria. I understand, however, that when Rommel reached Alamein some files were destroyed and evacuation plans were made to disappear in the direction of Palestine.
The famous date, or better stated as infamous, as far as I am concerned was the 6th June. We were over-run as described with a large number of casualties. My final memory of the Western Desert was an extremely fierce man, not very big, but carrying a machine gun called, I understand, a Smeitser – probably spelt wrong, but having a fast rate of fire and a weapon which its owner was patently eager and willing to use at the merest provocation. I recall the words “AUS” and “SNELL”, which required us to leave the slit trench we were in. Loosely translated (very loosely indeed!) those words might be said to mean, “Excuse me, would you people mind getting out of that trench quickly?”
Having got us out of our slit trenches and formed us up into some sort of order, they then marched us EAST. We eventually reached a spot where there was water, & I had to organise it so that everyone had some. We were all very dehydrated by then. We were guarded by tanks with their machine guns trained on us. Incidentally the column which was of considerable length was shot up by R.A.F. fighters, unfortunately resulting in one of our men receiving a cannon shell in his stomach, (it is believed that he eventually recovered.)
That night was spent under German guard and they were extremely alert.
I am unable to remember the sequence of events but I can recall being taken to Derna in a lorry. It was dark on arrival and we had descended a steep escarpment, eventually we were handed over to the Italians.
Being a prisoner and not free is a terrible blow but being a prisoner of the Italians is the greatest insult. Be sure they made a big meal of it!
I well recall talking to an Italian Captain who had been in the 1914 – 18 war, on our side of course. He spoke good English. I remember his saying that we had done well in 1914-18 but we were losing the present war. The considerable efficiency of the German Troops we had encountered making that a distinct possibility but it wasn’t until later that I realised that Rommel was an exceptional Commander and the Afrika Korps which served under him were specially picked men. On the other hand the Italians were not well led, neither were they picked except with a pin from a telephone directory
[digital page 120]
We were kept in North Africa for some five days and fed something – what I am unable to remember. Eventually we were taken in transport and locked up in a warehouse type building in Benghazi.
The next day we were escorted to an Italian aircraft – this was a 3-engined aeroplane equipped with seats and took some 50 Officers. There were some 10 scruffy and small Italians as guards. Landing was made in the extreme south of Italy and we were taken to what was a public building of some sort at the small town of Leece. This was done in view of many civilians, mostly women and children, who showed intense interest in us.
I think we spent only two nights in Leece and on the second morning boarded a tram under the usual large numbers of guards which conveyed us to Capua situated not far East of Naples. Here a reception committee had organised all sorts, including to our intense interest, a most palatable meal of pasta. What also interested us was a roll of white bread on each plate. This was most acceptable but being made of maize flour, as it was, did little to cure hunger pains earned over several foodless days in captivity in the desert. It was only after a day or two at Capua did we realise that these maize flour rolls, issued at breakfast time, were one man’s bread ration for a day.
It was at Capua that our initiation into PoW camplife was made. In Italy in 1942 there seemed to be few shortages. There was a Canteen and when people were asked to volunteer to serve in it, I put my name forward. Thus I had an occupation for limited hours of the day but, more important, was the rule that the books had to be kept in Italian. This had an extremely useful result in helping me to learn that lovely language.
The rudiments of escaping were taught, possibly in the hard way. I would suggest that those rudiments are – clothes, documents and food. Obviously it is absolutely necessary to have something other than battle dress or indeed any kind of uniform, unless of course, it is a uniform of the Army of the Country from which the escape is being made – in which case fluency of language must be added. Documents one always needed. These can be forged but those forgeries must be good and such papers normally incorporate a photo. Food can be stolen but it is dangerous to do any stealing in a town while in the country there are always dogs which make a great noise barking at strangers. In order to provide such as listed it was considered wise to have an Escape Committee in all camps. It was the business of these committees to vet an escape attempt, advise the participants, back them up usually with forged papers and the necessary tailoring for the conversion of the uniform clothing into reasonable civilian outfits and money.
To cut short the story, we were quite well initiated into the business
[digital page 121]
of keeping alive as Prisoners of War. To eat we built stoves (Stufas) of sand and scrap metal, usually empty Red Cross tins, which kept going quite well. It must be admitted that the weather was quite good and the temperature high without being excessive.
Up to approx. mid-July 1942 there were at Capua Officers of ranks up to and including Lieut. Colonel. The seniors, i.e. Majors and above were moved off in July to a Senior Officers’ Camp. The office of S.B.O. (Senior British Officer) was an important one. In fact he was responsible for dealing with the Italians It approximated the office and duties of a Trades Union Shop Steward. His requests etc., were taken note of, but not always granted.
We were kept at Capua until the end of November 1942 when we were told to pack up and be ready to move. The move took place and consisted of an over-night train journey which went via Naples (non-stop), Rome, (non-stop) Florence and by approx. 11am the following morning arrived at Piacenza where we had to leave the train. Our new camp was a castle near the village of Rezzanello in the foothills of the Alps.
Here life became much more civilised because the climate was easier with lower temperatures; there was a good supply of food, cooked centrally and cigarettes were available.
Christmas 1942, was spent in this camp and thanks mainly to the Red Cross and the centralised dining facilities there was a reasonable supply of food daily. The Christmas Day fare was really something and reading about it years later makes me wonder why we all did not blow up!
At the end of March 1943 we were moved yet again – this time it was from Rezzanello to Fontanellato. The latter was a small town on the plain situated near the River Po and half way between Piacenza and Parma. The building was cramped and more so when others were moved in from a camp at Mt. Albo, Sardinia, and the total numbers went up from our original conservative 200 to over 400.
For readers interested in life in P.O.W. Camps in Italy and escape attempts please see accompanying Note Books 1 & 2.
We made life in captivity reasonable. Admittedly we were not imprisoned for a crime of any sort but on the other hand, those that are so are at least aware of when they might be released. We had no idea of this in early 1943 when the war was not going very well. However, we heard of Monty’s success in N.Africa and his eventual capture of Tunis. Moreover he and his 8th Army landed in Sicily and following hard fighting, over-ran the island and crossed the Straights of Messina some eight days after landing. The 8th Army’s progress on the mainland of Italy was not nearly so quick due to poor weather, easily interrupted communications and efficient defence by predominantly German Troops.
Politically this led to the capitulation of the Italians and, through
[digital page 122]
the offices of a British General captured earlier in the desert, the Italian Government succeeded in extricating itself from the war.
I think the actual date was 9th September 1945 when we heard great cries, from outside the Camp, of “PACE” (= peace) at about 8pm. This rumour turned out to be true and the next day the Italian Commandant had a hole cut in the barbed wire fence and told us that if we stayed where we were the likelihood of our capture by the Germans was high. We had to get well clear of the area of the Prison Camp and then decide whether to try to go to Switzerland or try to rejoin our own troops who were reputed to be in the area of Campobasso, South of the River Sangro, some 600 to 700 miles distant.
In all there were nine of us from 28th Field Regt. and we stayed together for at least 36 hours, travelling by night and lying up by day. This was found to be extremely tiring and the heat by day excluded much satisfactory rest. Eventually we decided to split and people paired off leaving three of us, Binks F., Bill R., and myself. The three of us decided that we would have a go at rejoining our own Army in the South. It was possibly easier, certainly not so far, to go to Switzerland. However we could not get any maps and reckoned that any likely frontier crossing point would be very well guarded. Another factor to be considered was that we were liable to be made prisoner again in Switzerland. Of course we realised that we ought not to be seem by any German, but there were also the Italian police (Carabinieri) who were not to be trusted.
We walked south and finished up in a village where the Grape Harvest was being celebrated. This took the form of a gathering of the village people in a large hall where food and wine were shared. Of course we were delighted to be given something to eat and to realise how friendly the Italian people were. While busy eating I heard a sucking noise just behind me and turned round to discover an Italian woman suckling her child and watching those mysterious beings – ‘British Soldiers’!
Not long after this we heard a quiet voice saying in English: “would you like a cup of tea?” None of us could think of anything we would like more so we accepted this woman’s invitation to visit her house where she brewed us each a cup of tea; moreover, this tea was served in thin china cups!
Having previously lived in England she spoke good English, but her husband spoke only Italian and her son who had learned English as an infant, remembered nothing of it, and like the father spoke only Italian.
This family, by name Marubbi, lived in a small house and were small-holders. They had a few animals and about two or three acres planted out in vines. Signora Marubbi then said that we could have beds to sleep on. She showed us a room containing a double bed and a single
[digital page 123]
one. Naturally we were delighted and slept like logs. The next morning however, we discovered that the room we had occupied was normally used by husband and wife and son aged about 6. This led us to ask where they had slept. ‘In the barn’ we were told. “If anyone sleeps in the barn, we do”, we replied, having been quite amazed by the incredible kindness of these people. I think Signora M. put us up for at least ten days. She used to pack us up a basin with lunch in it, some fruit and often a little wine. She also found odd jackets which more or less fitted us.
The grapes were ripe and had to be picked. This job the family were doing until we realised that it was a way of earning our keep. We then took over the grape picking. This was a means of repaying and we were very glad to be of use.
As far as language was concerned we were able to speak in English to Signora M. but few others spoke anything but Italian. We had some Italian, as I have said I used it for my canteen work in the camp. We found that when travelling we had to speak Italian, and it did not take us long to become fairly fluent in that language.
Realising that we were becoming a burden to the Marubbi Family and a danger, because it had been announced that Italians assisting escaped British P.O.W’s were liable to be taken into forced labour in Eastern Europe or Germany. The women were not taken but their lives without their men folk would be particularly difficult. We therefore decided that we had to move South. We had something over 600 miles to walk and this by mountainous routes, in order to keep clear of main roads and railways; also we needed to avoid cities and large towns.
Our clothes consisted of jackets produced by the Marubbi Family, some sort of hat each, Army shirts, together with battle-dress trousers, Army socks and boots.
All distances we measured in hours – a certain village was said to be 8 hours away – that incidentally would mean a long way as it represented the number of kilometres that could be covered in 8 hours, at 5 km. per hour – a fair speed on rough tracks, it would mean 40km or 25 miles. When travelling and arriving at a village, we found it best to approach the village Priest. He rarely would accommodate us himself, but always knew a family which would; (and which had the best wine!) At the house of one of these good people we ventured to suggest that our Battle-dress trousers were far too obvious to any German or Italian policeman; the lady then told us that she had some dye, black, and would that do? “nothing better”, we replied. With which into an enormous iron pot the three pairs of B.D. trousers went and were boiled up with black dye. The trousers were dry the next morning and I was glad that it was not possible to bathe in public, because the black streaks on our legs made us look as if
[digital page 124]
we had developed some curious disease.
If ever we came upon a map, sometimes one could be seen on the wall of the local priest’s study, we would make sure we were on the right route and take note of troubles, if any, ahead. When on the same latitude as Rome we realised the need to cross the River Tiber. When we came to it, it was so small a stream that we were able to step over it.
A day or so later we lost Binks. Not quite as dramatic as that might sound! We lost him because we had found three to be an awkward number; whereas two is far easier to accommodate. Binks found a man walking alone. He had been, as far as I can remember, imprisoned in our camp.
That left Bill R. and I to carry on. This we did and arrived at the North bank of the River Sangra. It was early November 1943 then and we discovered no means of crossing this river, something of the width of the Thames west of Reading. So we decided to wait and watch events on the other side. There seemed to be much German activity, so when it began raining hard and all the Germans seemed to be taking cover, we took our chance and waded in. All was well until, despite the weather, a German patrol came along the south bank. We simply had to duck down into the water, leaving just enough out to breathe. Thanks to the heavy rain we were not seen and scrambled out on the other side, very wet but still free! By this time it was late afternoon and getting dark and we realised the need to find shelter for the night. We walked along this bank of the river until we spotted a barn. Upon investigation we found that this barn housed a German tank. Judging by the sounds of revelry from a nearby farmhouse, the crew of this tank appeared to have discovered the farmer’s wine supply, so shouldn’t worry us.
As there was a ladder to the upper floor of this barn, we decided that it should contain straw and thus give us shelter and possibly warmth for the night. We calculated that we should be able to wake, hungry and cold as we were, at least one hour before dawn.
Up we went to discover that the substance stored was not straw but chaff. It was dry and we stripped off our wet clothes and spread them out to dry and did our best to get dry and warm ourselves. This happened to such good effect that it took the light of dawn to wake us. Then occurred one of the worst moments of my life! I found, when I came to put them on, that my trousers were frozen! Possibly other items were frozen as well, such as boots and socks and shirt. It was, however, the trousers and their razor-like small creases and bits of chaff, which remain in my memory. The need for haste was obvious and we dressed and cleared out of that farm area before the tank crew had recovered from their celebrations of the night before.
It was easy walking in the Sangro valley but the direction was more
[digital page 125]
or less due East. We had to go South if we were to find Allied troops. Turning to the South we found pretty high hills all covered with snow. We then found a path which appeared to have been well used. Following this we came upon a party of Italians, I believe that they were busy creating a ‘Black Market’, or even possibly re-stocking one! They would creep over the division between the two fighting formations, evading not only German troops but Allied ones as well. We spoke to these people and declined their offer to join them because we or at, least me with my six feet in height were obviously not Italians, and secondly we knew pretty well what was going on and did not like it. It was by now approaching mid-day so we went along the used path and suddenly came upon a German Cookhouse where the cook was “dishing out”. One of the men saw us and shouted in German to the cook who seemed to be in charge. He was told to shut up and almost unbelievably we went on. Not wanting to risk another such encounter, we left the path with the object of gaining height.
We climbed to a fair height. There were many trees but the whole place was covered with some 10 to 12 inches of fresh snow and consequently extremely slippery. Then I lost my footing and found myself glissading, completely out of control, down the steep slope we had been at such pains to climb. The same thing happened again, the second time less seriously, but I realised that such accidents could result so easily in broken bones. Bill rejoined me and we decided that in our present state it was best to remain on the path. So we did that, and after another hour or so we were stopped by a German Feltwebel (Warrant Officer) of Engineers.
Our German was non-existent, and he could speak fairly good English so obviously smelt the English accent in our Italian. The result was re-capture.
I am sorry to have to say that neither of us were particularly sorry that this had happened. We had not had a decent meal for over 48 hours. The German who had caught us spoke the English which he had learned at school, so we were told. He found us some bread to eat, and gave us a cigarette each.
We had heard stories of the German Scorched Earth Policy which was several miles deep behind their lines. We now were able to see it for ourselves and judge its effectiveness.
Being wise after the event, we realised that the Black Marketeer’s offer was probably a good bet. If as I suspected, this trip was not the first, then they must have known the way. We should have followed them, and taken a chance. On the other hand I am glad we refused the offer to stay with them, those rather oily Italians with their money and vast numbers of cigarettes were quite something. I am sure we were right in going South in the first place. Switzerland managed to remain neutral and if any British Officer presented himself at the British Embassy,
[digital page 126]
presumably he would be conveyed home. In most cases, I believe that P.O.W’s were simply re-imprisoned, admittedly possibly far more comfortably, but still prisoners.
The other option, one which I was very keen to try, was to appeal to the Italian Railways staff – all in a Communist Trades Union, we heard – and taken through the lines in a train. How easy it is to be wise later!
To continue the story. The two of us had to return to the Sangro valley and spent the night in a temporary place at Viletta Barea. Here I spoke for many hours to an Italian doctor who had been captured carrying a revolver. He was due to be Court-Martialled at 8 am the next morning. The court took place as far as I know, at any rate we heard a volley from some 10 or so rifles and I never saw the charming young Italian doctor again.
The particularly unpleasant young German Officer in charge of this temporary prison camp told us that we were liable to go the same way, because we had been found just behind the German front lines in Civilian clothes. We possessed no identification papers but an R.E. Captain from our camp in N. Italy, who was dressed in Battle Dress identified us.
I think we spent at least five nights at Viletta Barea because on the second day we witnessed a remarkable sight – a figure, very tall dressed in a smart, (and clean) white shirt, dark glasses and a white hat carrying a stick was escorted in, ” who are you”, we said, “I am Jack Frost”, came the reply. Apparently he was originally a P.O.W. in another Italian camp and was an Australian. He certainly brightened us all up.
We were then loaded into a German truck and conveyed to a town not far South of Rome, called Frosinone. It seemed a fairly big town and we were confined, some four or five of us, in a room on the second storey. I recall an Infantry major, not a tall man, very anxious to get out of this place, but I thought that a drop of about 15 feet or more to the ground, without a parachute, wouldn’t leave the feet very well for the distance we were then from our own army. The next day, I think, a large number of prisoners, and ex-prisoners who had been recaptured were ordered into cattle trucks in order to go to Germany. I remember some twenty characters in our truck with at least two, probably up to five, German sentries. They seemed fairly reasonable. We were extremely carefully kept out of sight when going through Rome. After that however, I remember that we were allowed out of the truck for natural reasons. The drill we followed was for half to go one way and the rest in the opposite direction: any cigarette ends found immediately became common property and were handed to Capt. J.J. Frost, I.A.F. He had a bible of the convenient size with very thin rice paper pages. He then broke the cigarette ends found into a tin and rolled fresh ones with this paper from the Bible. It was a reasonable smoke if your turn was but five
[digital page 127]
or six from the original; if, however, your turn was towards the end and your smoke had been drawn on by about 15 to 20 others, it was wet and apt to collapse!
The destination of this cattle truck journey was Moosburg, This was a camp containing every nationality in Europe. There were large numbers of Russians. They had mostly been travelling for weeks in cattle trucks from the Eastern Front battlefields. The feeding of these people was sporadic at the best and we had quite a number of them next to us – that is divided by a barbed wire fence. Moosburg was near Munich. We did not stay there long but found ourselves once again in a cattle truck bound this time for Märisch Trübaeu. We were housed in an ex-Czech Military Academy and found comparative luxury. Here we had central heating, room for a rugger pitch, and Canadian Red Cross parcels once a week.
This was inevitably short lived. So within two to three months we were on our way again. This time through the industrial heart of Germany, with our destination Brunswick. This was a city which attracted great attention from the U.S.A.F. during the day and the R.A.F. at night. The most important target was an aircraft factory within 400yds. of the camp. It is of interest to record that when we were able to see around we discovered that the aircraft works had been severely damaged while the camp was marked and no bombs fell on it during the several severe night raids but we were hit by one of the U.S.A.F. daylight raids. This in addition cut the camp electricity supply so that we were denied news of the Allied advance over Northern Europe. The date would be early 1945
[Note inserted in margin]: see opposite page.
By March this was put right and I witnessed one of the latest bombers attacking the Mittel-Ems Canal which was some 1000 yds. or less south of the prison camp.
It was early in May 1945 that there was a great commotion and we learned that forward units of one of the American Armies had arrived. This was a wicked rumour to put round, I thought, but on investigation found it to be correct. Together with most of the other “Krieges” I collected a day’s ration – a packet containing a C Ration. In all there were 6 tins of a size approximately that of 50 Players. These contained breakfast, dinner and supper in 3 tins: the remaining ones contained 3 cigarettes, boiled sweets and lavatory paper. I well remember it took me all day to consume the breakfast ration. The American Padre rode round in a jeep full of cigarettes.
It was some time before we could realise that we were free. We were permitted to go out in the local area which we did and collected much food and alcohol. How it came about that no-one suffered from over-eating or alcohol poisoning is difficult to account for!
After some ten days of this semi-freedom we were instructed to make
[digital page 128]
our way across the Autobahn and on to the airfield where there were a number of transport aircraft which had been requisitioned to take us away. Accordingly we embarked and were flown westwards, landing at, I believe, Brussels. There we were billeted for the night, the next day taken by transport to Ghent, where we re-embarked, and flown across the English Channel. As far as I could tell our landing was made at a Midlands airfield – possibly Bicester or Aylesbury. This would be about April 1945. I had little or no trouble finding a train to carry me to Reading where my Mother, accompanied by Gladys Hodges met me.
Gladys Hodges was a friend of my Mother’s. She was good enough to house my Mother during the war, so it was to Gladys Hodges house near Newbury, Berks that I was taken after being met at Reading Station. Gladys was a widow and her house was large enough to find a room for me as well. Having undergone such privation over the last 6 months in Germany, I was given double rations. I can’t remember how this worked. I don’t think I was issued with a second ration book but the fact remains that I was able and entitled to eat two peoples rations.
The two ladies, (A.F.A. and G.H.) made sure that I did so and by the end of the first week I recall having to go to the local G.P. who immediately discovered that I was eating too much and ordered that I must go back to the single ration. I must add that I found the system of rationing in the U.K. very strict. The rationed foods were meat, except for offal for which, when available, there was always a queue. Butter and sugar were both strictly rationed as was tea and all tinned foods. Vegetables home grown, e.g. apples, potatoes, onions etc. were to be had but again there were queues. I well remember talking to youngsters, probably born during the war, who didn’t even know what a banana was! Bread and petrol were rationed after the end of the war and alcohol in the form of spirits was obtainable if you were a regular customer at the off-licence. I remember the story of a friend who had just bought his bottle of whisky which must last him the month, when he reached the shop door the bag broke as of course did his precious bottle of whisky. I understand that the shopkeeper saved his life by supplying another bottle!
In all I spent 6 or 8 happy weeks at Cold Ash. Leave over I had to report to Catterick, near Richmond in Yorkshire for re-training. While there I was accepted as a student on a Gunnery Course. This course, lasting approx. 8 weeks in all, assembled at Larkhill, Wiltshire. After a short time there the Course was required to attend at the Military College of Science, which at that time was established at Stoke-on-Trent. A number of us, students at the Military College of Science, as well as a number of Royal Marines Officers were billeted at a Boarding House, with address 1 The Villas, Stoke. I remember being persuaded to make up the numbers for a party which was being given by a Mr. and Mrs. Tom Simpson.