Summary of Lawrence Bains
Lance Corporal Lawrence Bains was part of the 107th South Notts Hussars RHA [Royal Horse Artillery] when he was captured in June 1942 after his regiment was surrounded at Tobruk. He spent 11 months at PG 53 near Sforzacosta before finally walking out of the prison September 1943 after the Italian Armistice and against the expressed wishes of the SBO [Senior British Officer] at the prison camp.
His account is described as the best in the archives for showing the persistency of PoWs in ‘ducking and diving’ from one Italian family to the next, and of the dangers for PoWs and Italians alike.
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.
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NINE MONTHS BEHIND THE GERMAN LINES IN OCCUPIED ITALY – 1943/44
Lawrence Bains C.B.E. [Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire]
‘Nine Months Behind the German Lines’
In Occupied Italy 1943 -44.
LAWRENCE BAINS. ‘In Tenna Valley’.
In Tobruk siege 1941 and captured 8th June Knightsbridge 1942 June.Camp 53 Sforza Costa. When at Armistice Italians guard go. The Senior B. Officer puts British Guards and says none must go (15th September) 4 decide to go together but many others are getting out. Get a lift in a donkey cart. Soon overwhelmed with food and then clothing. Two of them later hidden in house by road side and so not out by day. Hear of 40 recaptured POWs escaping again from Sforza Costa. Hidden in haystack by another family. Keeping in an area around San Ginesio, Gualdo there is much coming and going of POWs some return having found it too difficult further south. Many Yugoslavs. ’Rebels at Monastero’. Some go off to get away by boat. Carabineri re use to become new born fascists.
THIS ACCOUNT IS THE BEST IN THE ARCHIVES SHOWING THE PERSISTENCY OF POWS IN ‘DUCKING AND DIVING’ FROM ONE ITALIAN FAMILY TO ANOTHER AND THE DANGERS AND VICISSITUDES FOR POWS AND ITALIANS ALIKE. (See also BULLARD).
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NINE MONTHS BEHIND THE GERMAN LINES IN OCCUPIED ITALY – 1943/44
1. The Escape from Camp 2
2. Finding our Bearings 9
3. Our First Hide-Out 27
4. Winter in the Foothills of the Apennines 51
5. Fascist Searches in the Spring 79
6. Liberation – Our Troops Arrive 114
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[Hand-drawn map of Central Italy showing towns as well as Allied and Nazi troop positions and movements]
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[Detailed hand-drawn map of the area around the Province of Macerata South where Prison Camp 53 was located]
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Lance Corporal Lawrence Bains joined the 1st Middlesex Yeomanry, Territorials, in early 1939, and in January 1940 was sent with the 1st Cavalry Division to Palestine.
Here the Regiment acted as Divisional Signals, and his Troop was attached to the 107th (South Notts. Hussars) Regt. [Regiment], R.H.A. [Royal Horse Artillery] – 25 pounder field-guns who, when the Italians declared War in June 1940 were sent to Egypt to garrison Mersa-Matruh as part of the Western Desert Force.
Personnel from the 107th R.H.A [Royal Horse Artillery] took part in the first stages of General Wavell’s advance in December 1940, after which the Regiment retired for a short rest on the Suez Canal.
The withdrawal of some of our Desert Forces for Greece and the sudden appearance of the German Afrikaner Korps caused the March retreat from El Aghelia in early 1941, which soon developed into the famed ’Benghasi Handicap’ as the troops called the route which followed. Fresh troops from the Nile were rushed up to stem the rot, amongst them the 107th RHA [Royal Horse Artillery], which reached as far as Tobruk, and was the last regiment to re-enforce it before the town was besieged in April 1941.
The eight months’ siege lasted till December, when the Regiment returned to the Cairo area for recuperation. Here the 107th RHA [Royal Horse Artillery] was incorporated into the Eighth Army, and returned to the desert in April 1942 to take part in the fighting of May and June, which culminated in the loss of Tobruk and the retreat of the Eighth back to El Alamein.
On the 5th June, the Regiment was surrounded by tanks, and although cut off from all supplies fought at Knightsbridge for two days until – its guns destroyed or out of ammunition, most of its Officers killed and the men dead to exhaustion – the remainder surrendered.
L/Cpl [Lance-Corporal] Bains was amongst these comparatively fortunate survivors, and after spending two months in temporary prison cages in Tripolitania was shipped to Italy, and eventually to Campo Comcentramento 53, near Macerata in the Province of Marche, where this story opens….
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[Two black & white photographs of Prison Camp 53 – SFORZACOSTA. The first photo has the caption “Main View Of Camp, With Water Towers”, the second photo has the caption “Living Quarters – my Sector 1 on left”.]
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Chapter 1. The Escape from Camp
For eleven months we had been in Campo Concentramento 53, for eleven months had endured its privations and squalor, its starvation and overcrowding its dreary, freezing winter and sweltering fly—ridden summer.
We hated every minute of it. We loathed the great, gaunt cement buildings that enclosed us; not with a fierce, passionate hatred, but rather with a slow, smouldering aversion born of the hopelessness of our situation. Occasionally, incidents would fan this latent rebellion to fever heat, and we would dream fantastic schemes of escape and revenge, but common-sense would prevail once more and we would sink back into our well-ordered monotony of existence.
Monotony…..no other word so well describes life in that Prison Camp. The roll-calls twice daily, often taking over three hours each, with the eight thousand prisoners lined up in the sports field, regardless of the weather. The over-crowding – seven hundred and fifty men in each room – the lice, the filth, the bad sanitation and above all, dominating every thought and action – hunger.
Our daily bread ration, a little roll, weighing a few ounces, was usually issued about 10 o’clock. These loaves, although officially of standard size naturally varied a little, and if a fellow was lucky in the draw and got one slightly over-weight, he would talk about it all the rest of the day. Polite conventions were swept aside. Every man was for himself, and, within the limits of decency, fought ruthlessly for his rights.
The bread issue was the climax of the morning. Men would wait for this, thinking of nothing else, and as soon as they had eaten their ration, would begin dreaming of the issue the following day, and hoping they would be lucky in the draw. This obsession with food gave rise to many queer sayings, and taught me two of my few words of Italian:—
‘Roll on the pane domani’*
This expressed the philosophy of most of the prisoners, hurry up the bread, and hurry up to-morrow, we have nothing to live for today.
The second big occasion each day was the issue of ‘skilly’ about 4 o’clock. This foul soup of vegetables, macaroni and occasionally tiny bits of meat was boiled in great cauldrons and then manhandled down the compound, where the prisoners were waiting in their allotted queues. But, no ordinary queues were these – a high technique was involved. The soup varies from day to day, sometimes there would be a glut of onions, and these could be seen floating on the surface, or perhaps the rations would contain a quantity of rice, which tended to sink to the bottom. Accordingly, we would try to manoeuvre for the best places in the queue – on onion days up at the front, so we should get our ladle-full off the top – and on rice days, the queue would hang back, none wishing to be given the first few ladles of hot water and a few wishy-washy greens.
But life was not all hardships and petty scheming; even in the worst conditions men can rise above them and build up some sort of existence. A concert party was formed; rough and amateurish at the beginning but after several months capable of putting on a really good show.
Football matches and sports days were held, rivalry between the various compounds stimulating people’s interest.
Educational lectures and a library contributed towards the intellectual life, whilst the ‘Smart Alecs’ ran ‘Housey-Housey’ and Crown and Anchor and made fortunes by Camp standards.
* pane pronounced parnee – bread
* domani pronounced domarnee – tomorrow
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The Padres held Services and discussion groups and by their leadership and example helped to keep up the morale of many of us.
Thus, for eleven months had we lived at Campo Concentramento 53, with a background of hunger and squalor, against which we built a sham facade of social and intellectual pursuits.
Until one evening in July 1943. The orderlies had just carried away the empty cauldrons and generally at this hour a calm descended on the Camp, as this was the one moment when the ever-present feeling of hunger was partially dispelled. But this evening a new animation possessed the prisoners and they were scattered about the compounds and buildings in earnest conversation. My three friends and I had retired to our living quarters and discuss the latest news – Sicily had been invaded by the Allies.
Jack, my particular pal, voiced the thoughts of us all “How will this affect us? Will the Ities cave in immediately, or will the Jerries hold our chaps in the South?”
“They are sure to fight” I said “and we are equally sure to win, but how long will it take them to reach us?”
“I think we ought to make a break for it” suggested Harry, a tough little regular soldier, who didn’t care a jot for anyone “There’s no knowing what these Ities will do with us before we’re freed.”
“That’s easy to say” retorted Jack “and I’m as game as anybody, but how the deuce can we get out of this place with its search-lights, machine guns and sentries posted every few yards along the wire.”
“I am sure I don’t know” said Mac, the fourth in our party, a taciturn Scot, and added with his usual caution “We shouldn’t act in a hurry; we had better think things over a bit”.
“That’s true, but I should rather be outside the Camp than in, just now” I replied ” We ought to begin to make some preparations in case we have a chance to escape. Save some food, get a map and such like. We don’t even know where the Camp is.”
I must confess I had a sneaking hope that the circumstances would necessitate an escape, and thought what a lark a few days in the hills would be. If only I had realised then how many months we were to spend in hiding, I wonder if I should have been so keen.
And so in early July, we four made our plans, and decided to act together in any schemes of escape. There was nothing we could do at the moment except to ally our hands on any food that would keep, so bit by bit we bartered articles of clothing, sent from home via the Red Cross, to other prisoners in exchange for biscuits, which we jealously stored and guarded.
The weeks slipped by. Our troops had encountered some fierce resistance in Sicily, but gradually had conquered the whole island and were now across the Straits of Messina, and had established a bridgehead on the mainland of Italy itself.
We had discovered that the Camp was somewhere near Ancona, on the Adriatic coast, about 350 miles from the point of the landing, but had failed to think of any method of escape. There were scores of sentries, perched up aloft in little observation posts, who were sure to notice any unusual activities, and beyond our limits there was an area used by the Italian Camp Orderlies, before the outside wall was reached. It was imperative to get out of the Camp some time before the front line reached us, for I felt sure the Germans would evacuate us to the North, and perhaps to Germany, where our chances of escape would be lost. We racked our brains and produced several fantastic but unworkable schemes, and were beginning to dis-pare, when a change in the political scene altered our situation.
It was Wednesday evening, 8th September 1943. I was leaving the Camp Chapel after the midweek Service, and entering the compound was swept off my feet by a mob of excited prisoners, all gathering round the ration lorry whose Italian driver was embracing everyone within reach and shouting “Armistizio. Armistizio”. It was impossible to get any reliable information from anyone in that hurly-burly, so I pushed my way out of the crowd and ran to the Camp Administration Offices. Here I found one of my friends,
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the details of any important news.
“What’s happened? What’s the crowd going barmy for out there?” I panted.
“Don’t you know? The Wops have signed an Armistice. Badoglio has formed a military Government, kicked out (weeks before) Mussolini and sued for peace. We’re free, think of it old man, free. England, home and beauty, and what’s more important — a decent square meal for a change.”
“At last, thanks for the ‘griff’. I must go and tell my muckers*”. I ran back down the compound and almost immediately bumped into Jack, but it was useless to try to find the others in that surging crowd.
All the Camp was there, talking excitedly, patting each other on the back, literally drunk with joy and relief.
About 10.0 pm the British Padre climbed on to a platform in the compound and led the crowd in ‘Oh God our help…’ followed by the National Anthem.
This latter, sung stiffly at the curtain of a play, may have seemed unreal in the past, but on this occasion, the first time many of us had been allowed to sing it for over a year, it was full of meaning. ‘Send him Victorious ‘ the words echoed from the hearts of us all, expressing the desire for which we had longed for months.
This made a climax to the evening. Jack and I wandered idly around amongst our friends congratulating each other, as if we ourselves had won the victory, and gradually the Camp settled down to sleep. It was impossible to take any action that night, our emotions had exhausted us all.
Next day the Camp was early astir, but disquieting rumours were abroad that there had not been an Armistice and the whole thing was just another Italian muddle. Conflicting announcements by various Camp personalities didn’t help and the prisoners were getting restless and truculent. Our minds were put at ease however, when the Colonello Cammandante confirmed the news by withdrawing the armed guards who used to patrol inside the Camp, only retaining the sentries on the wire and gates. The administration of the British section of the Camp was handed over to the Senior British Officer, a Captain in the RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps], the Italians confining themselves to their own quarters and the Camp walls, and gradually we settled down to our normal routine.
But we were not yet free. Although the Calabrian invasion was progressing fast, the front line was still hundreds of miles from our Camp. Our party of four was anxiously discussing the position with one of our room-mates.
“I know the Jerries are retreating quickly” argued Harry “but, they’ve still got time to take us with them. Why don’t these bloody Ities let us hide in the countryside till our troops arrive?”
“We’ve had all this out before” I said “and we’re all willing to chance our luck in the hills, but we’ve yet to find a way out of the Camp. It seems the Iti Colonel is frightened that eight thousand prisoners suddenly let loose might pay off a few old scores on the civvies.”
It was then that our room-mate spoke up ” It’s all very heroic to talk about escaping and living in the hills, but how are you going to get your connor *? I’ve been mountain-climbing in England, and it’s exhausting enough on a full stomach. Why man, in your present condition you couldn’t stand up to the physical hardships, quite apart from the continual strain of being a fugitive.”
“Then you go to Germany, and be a POW for another two years, I’d rather take a risk, and anyway, a party of four ought to be able to frighten a few Ities into giving them food. A hungry man has no conscience, you know.”
* mucker bosom pal, sharer of treasured Red Cross food parcels
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Similar conversations were taking place all over the Camp, whether to leave and chance your luck in the unknown or to stay and hope our forces arrived before the Germans had time to act. The more adventurous spirits were naturally keen on the former, and so the senior warrant officers held a Meeting and formally requested the Italian Camp Commandant to allow us to evacuate in an orderly fashion, in parties under NCO’s [Non-Commissioned Officer].
He refused. It was his duty, he said, under the Terms of the Armistice, to hand us over to the British Commander, and no-one would be allowed to leave the Camp under any circumstances.
This naturally caused an uproar. We suspected that the Colonel wished to secure his position with both sides – if the British arrived he would hand us over and receive congratulations for keeping us in safety, or if Germans beat off the invasion in the South, he would still be in favour with them for having kept the prisoners in, but his decision was final, and so that night, as soon as it was dark, about two hundred of us gathered about the barbed wire at the end of the sports field, while in two places prisoners were cutting away the bottom strands of the fence. This was done quietly, but we were unable to do it secretly, and for several minutes whilst our fellows were working on the wire, the sentries just stood by not knowing what to do. We had hoped with the British advancing so quickly and the threat of early reprisals over their heads, that the guards would not dare to fire, and in typical Italian fashion would shrug their shoulders and look the other way. This they did at first, but someone warned the Camp Commandant, who came running up with the Adjutant and a squad of soldiers, and seizing a rifle from one of the sentries, fired it into the air over our heads. It was plain he meant business, so we backed away from the wire, and one of the interpreters ordered us to clear the field and get back to our quarters, or the Camp Commandant would order the whole field to be machine-gunned. We had no option, and sadly returned to the buildings, wondering how we were ever going to get out. Further action that evening was out of the question for the whole guard was called out, and sentries posted round the wire at intervals of a yard.
Although this unsuccessful attempt was limited to comparatively few prisoners, we had the sympathy of the whole Camp, and next day everyone was in an ugly mood. The authority of the Camp Commandant had been challenged and to show that he still held the whip-hand the armed patrols inside the Camp were re-introduced. The unfortunate Italians who were detailed for this duty looked most unhappy about it, for never before had the prisoners dared to show their dislike so openly, no-one got out of their way as they strolled up and down the compound, and they were obviously expecting to be attacked any minute. However, despite our anger against the Colonel, we had no grudge against the individual sentries, who were a harmless, spineless lot, and no incidents occurred.
The Senior British Officer tried hard to maintain a sense of proportion and reason amongst the prisoners, and although he himself was for remaining in Camp, he had backed up the Warrant Officers in their request for evacuation. Last night’s attempt at the wire had shown the temper of the Camp and so he asked the Italian Colonel for permission to visit a senior officer at a nearby camp for further advice, as the situation was getting out of hand. This was granted and under escort he tried to contact this other officer, but with German activity on the roads he was unable to make the journey. Not being ‘in the know’ I can only write that the above was the common supposition, for we were not told the full facts, but he made a speech over the Camp amplifier the following day.
He explained that the Camp Commandant was adamant in his decision to allow no one to leave the Camp, and in this he fully agreed. If the British continued their advance at the present rate they would reach our Camp in seven to ten days, and there was no danger in remaining. The Italians, now our co-belligerents, had patrols out on all the roads and could give us at
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least an hour’s warning if any German troops were approaching to take over the Camp, and for this eventuality he arranged a plan of evacuation whereby different sectors of the Camp should leave by various exits so as to prevent confusion. He expressed confidence in the arrangements and threatened that if anyone left the Camp before his order was given, the offender would be court—martialled as soon as our Troops arrived.
It seemed as if those who wanted to get out at any cost had been thwarted. Neither the Italian Commandant nor our own S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] wished to evacuate, and now several of the Warrant Officers began to change their minds too, and tried to persuade people it was the wisest thing to stay. Our party of four held a conference.
Harry, aggressive and impetuous as usual, was for getting out by any means, It’s all very well for the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] to talk of remaining, he’s in a cushy billet and gets extra food as RAMC [Royal Army Medical Corps]. He wouldn’t be so keen if he lived like us, seven hundred and fifty sweating men in one stinking billet, living on pig-swill and a penny bun a day. To hell with him and his court-martial. If we get the opportunity, let’s get out”.
I’m with you” said Jack” We’ve each enough food to last us several days, and with the fruit on the trees I reckon we could last a week without having to do any strong-arm stuff on the Wops”.
I tried to sum up “It seems a question of the lesser of two evils, escaping if we can and chancing a court-martial or remaining with the probability of being taken to Germany. I could stand the former, but I’ve had fifteen months as a POW already, another fifteen would drive me nuts. What do you say, Mac?”
Mac as a rule said very little, and even on this important decision only mumbled a non-committal “I don’t know, it would probably be better to leave if we can, but I’ll do what you do”.
“OK then. We all agree to escape if possible, despite the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] and his court-martial. Let’s keep our kit packed and at the first sign of any trouble we’ll all meet at the Sector cook-house. Anyone not there gets left behind. Agreed?”
That’s OK with me” said Jack” What are we going to do if we manage to get out? Make South as fast as we can, or hide somewhere locally till out troops arrive?”
“Better keep going. Hanging about round the Camp might be dangerous. Anyway, I couldn’t stay quiet in one place for long” asserted Harry “even if it was only for a few days”.
“I suggest we follow the road outside the main gates (We later learned this was the road to Tolentino). It lies South-west and leads to the mountains, and that’s where we shall have to make for at first. When we have gone a sufficient distance we can break off into the country, and travel South”.
This seemed to meet with general approval, so we split up and I returned to my bed to have a last check over of my kit. Our chief worry was food. We had no idea how we should fare once we left Camp, so had concentrated on buying provisions. The Italians used to puncture tinned-food sent via the Red Cross, making it turn bad after a few days and thus preventing hoarding, but a few undamaged tins always slipped through. I had managed to get hold of two meat rolls, a tine of margarine, condensed milk and a small cheese all unpunctured, which together with about two pounds of biscuits were worth a fortune in the Camp. That morning they cleared out the Red Cross food-parcel store and the prisoners received one parcel each. This unexpected addition of about eight pounds of food was a welcome extra and I felt well supplied for a week’s tramp on iron rations. The Italians were very short of fats, particularly soap, and as I had been saving up bars of soap for months I took some dozen bars with me, which together with several packets of cigarettes, I thought would come in handy for bartering with the peasants for bread. The nights were cold, so, expecting to be sleeping out, I packed a vest, pullover, spare shirt and socks, and with my personal washing gear and Army greatcoat completed my baggage. The other three were taking much the same. It wasn’t a lot to carry but our physical condition was poor and we had too far to go to be encumbered with any unnecessary weight.
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I had a stroke of luck that day which helped us a lot during the following months. Every morning I used to work in the Camp Library, issuing books to the prisoners and generally helping to run the show. To-day we were spending our time sorting out some box loads of new books just arrived when one of the other assistants held up a little green book. “Hey, this might amuse you. You’ll be able to talk to the guards now”, and threw me across a small pocket English/Italian dictionary.
“Oh. An Iti book. I don’t want to learn their beastly lingo” I replied as nonchalantly as I could, and bending down over my box continued sorting out the books. But I slipped the dictionary into my pocket and at the first opportunity left the Library to hide my find amongst my kit. It proved a god-send later on, for none of our party knew above half a dozen words of Italian, as the discipline at the Camp was very strict and we were not allowed to converse with the guards.
We four had decided to stick to our original plan of escaping if we could, although with our own officers against us it didn’t look as if we should get the opportunity. Many others however, who originally had wanted to get out, had changed their minds when the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] ordered everyone to remain and were scared at his threat of a court-martial for disobedience. Gradually public opinion changed until only a small proportion of the eight thousand prisoners were eager to leave, and as events transpired this was a great help to those who actually did go in the end.
The root of the trouble was the Camp Commandant’s order to keep the prisoners inside, but, of course, he could not do this without his guards. These soldiers were the average home-loving peasant with no interest in the War, conscripted against their will and longing only for the day of their demobilisation. When the Armistice was announced some of them took the law into their own hands and deserted, making their way back to their farms, and the Camp Commandant had to send for reinforcements from Macerata, the nearest big town. To the guards’ dislike of soldiering was now added the fear of being taken to Germany for forced labour on the land, and so, as the confusion caused by the Armistice increased throughout Italy, more and more soldiers deserted until we began to notice certain sentry boxes were no longer occupied. Even by doubling their duties, the Colonello was unable to hide from us that his sentries were disappearing, one by one. These desertions increased day by day until the 15th September, when a sudden panic seized the few remaining guards, and leaving everything behind them, all but about a dozen left their posts, and we could see them legging it for all they were worth in every direction from the Camp.
The guards had gone. We were masters of the Camp….
The obvious happened. Pandemonium broke out everywhere. Crowds of prisoners stormed the Italian Officers’ quarters, stealing anything of value and wantonly smashing all they could not carry away. Another crowd rushed into the Italian troops’ canteen, looting the paltry articles for sale and wrecking everything – chairs were hurled through windows, tables overturned, boxes and furniture scattered to the four winds. After eleven months of repression, these men were like hell turned loose, and viciously broke anything they could see that personified ‘Italian’ to their warped minds.
There are rotters in every community, and prison life brings out the worst in everyone, and there weren’t men lacking to take advantage of the general excitement and confusion by stealing their comrades’ kit. Never before had I seen men so possessed, rushing about everywhere, for no particular purpose, just longing to express an inner desire to create havoc and not knowing how to satisfy it.
Not all lost their heads like this. Some enterprising spirits had found two spades and were smashing the lock on the main gates, whilst others were attending to various small doors in the Camp walls.
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When panic had taken hold of the last remaining guards, and they had fled into the country, a crowd of villagers had gathered at the main gates, watching the prisoners inside with some apprehension. When the gates were smashed open, and the peasants saw that the prisoners were quite friendly they came trooping into the Camp, holding out large loaves of bread and baskets of fruit in exchange for clothing. One enterprising family located the cobbler’s shop and were busily carrying out large pieces of leather, unobtainable in Italy, whilst some of the ragged children had found a football and were kicking it all over the compound. Another villager had evidently thought to make the best of this glorious opportunity for unrestricted looting and was driving his donkey and cart into the Camp meaning to load it up with all he could find. Nobody cared…
We were all so concerned about our own affairs that no-one troubled about anyone else. Occasions such as these, when all restraint is suddenly lifted, can’t be judged by normal standards in everyday life.
The only people who carried on as usual were the cooks. The evening meal, at 4 o’clock, had just been prepared and they had arranged the tubs of skilly to be taken away as usual by the orderlies for the day. But the men were too excited even to think about food, usually the dominant thought in any prison camp, and the great bins of uninviting soup were left there practically untouched.
Our party of four met as arranged at the cook-house. Jack had already got his bundle of kit and a blanket slung across his back and was waiting impatiently for us “Hurry up you so-and so’s, they’ve opened the gates already, let’s get out while we can. We don’t know why the Ities panicked, there may be some trouble on the way”.
“What about some skilly before we go” I protested, with food, the prisoners chief obsession still to the fore in my mind “We can take as much as we like, there’s no-one to stop us”.
“To hell with the stuff. There may not be much time to lose. Let’s get outside”.
“Keep your head, man. We don’t know when we shall get our next decent meal. We’ll be fagged out tonight if we don’t get something inside us”.
Our dispute was cut short by the S.B.Os [Senior British Officer] voice over the Camp amplifier. “All men in the Camerons will form up immediately outside my office in order to place a guard on the main gate”.
“I know what that means” said Harry “the bastard wants to stop us from leaving. I’m off”.
We couldn’t know the reason for wanting a guard, probably it was to stop the Italians from looting, but it might have been an attempt to keep the prisoners in. We needed no second warning, food was forgotten, and picking up our scanty belongings we hurried through the wire gate separating our compound from the Italian section, and were soon passing through the actual main gates, at which I had so often cast longing glances in the past. As I stepped out on to the road I had to look back at the Camp where I had spent so many months; even with its crowded living conditions and ghastly food I had some happy memories there, and seeing the crowds of other prisoners who had decided to stay behind, doubts began to enter my mind. Only a few were leaving; were we being hasty in acting against the advice and orders of those better informed than us? But I was roused from these reflections by Harry’s cheerful and matter-of-fact..
“and good riddance to Camp 53; and as for the S.B.O. [Senior British Officer] and his court-martial, he knows what he can do with that”.
His confident tone dispelled my doubts, and raised a smile on even Mac’s face, and stepping out on to the road we drank in the beauty of the countryside and our new-found liberty, and thrust the Camp, with its gloomy and wretched associations into the back of our minds.
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Chapter 2. Finding our Bearings.
How can I describe our emotions as we found ourselves outside the prison camp walls for the first time for eleven months? The thrill, the exuberance, the feeling of freedom, as we stepped on to the road and gazed at the fields and hills surrounding us were overshadowed by an indefinable suggestion of unreality – could it be true that after all this time we were really free to come and go as we chose? But were we free? We knew very little of the true situation, who were our immediate enemies and were vague as to the exact locality of our camp, so first of all I must give an idea of our position, both geographically and militarily — a much better idea, I may add, than we had ourselves at the time.
Campo Concentramento PG 53 was a converted linen factory at the village of Sforzacosta in the province of Marche, which lay at the crossing of two national highways, the Terni—Tolentino and Civitanova road and the Eastern inland road which latter ran approximately due South from Macerata, gradually veering Southeast as it skirted the Eastern edge of the Appenines. A better known landmark with which to fix our position is that of Ancona, the second biggest port on the Adriatic, which was some forty miles almost due North of Sforzacosta.
Our geographical position was simple but the military situation was far more complex and uncertain, particularly as we had not had any accurate information of German troop movements whilst in the Camp. We knew the British were advancing up the Adriatic coast and were at that time about Foggia; their advance was going well and everyone believed our troops would be up to Macerata in a maximum of ten days. We knew that most of the German transport used the coastal road and did not expect much traffic on the inland route and as events transpired this was our only correct assumption.
So, bearing in mind our scanty information, we had two courses to adopt, either to hide in the neighbourhood for a few days until our troops reached us or to make our way South as fast as possible and meet our Forces coming up. Our party of four had decided on the latter scheme as the more practicable and if we had only carried it out might have been able to get through the German lines whilst they were still disorganised and should have been in British hands in under a fortnight. However, although fate persuaded us later to alter our schemes and thus ruined our chances of an early return, she compensated us with the most exciting, and at times amusing, experience we are ever likely to have. The terrain was admirable for our purpose. No-where was it flat, but with its innumerable little hills and ridges, broken up by shallow streams, formed a fugitives paradise. Every patch of ground was cultivated, the land divided into small fields bounded by hedges or ditches, that gave excellent cover. It was all small scale peasant farming and the countryside, dotted with little stone farmhouses, made a truly delightful picture. In the distance, stretching North and South as far as one could see, loomed the mountains, gloomy and severe, towards which we were travelling. There we should find safety, and, by working South through the foothills, should reach our own lines.
Our great, over-riding fear was that of recapture; having once escaped it would have broken our spirits to have had to endure once again the monotony and hardships of prison life and so we sometimes went to extremes of caution to preserve our liberty, extremes which may seem ludicrous and unnecessary when discussed in the safety of one’s home, but precautions of which we all approved at the time when danger seemed imminent and success uncertain.
Our first thought, therefore, was to get out of the immediate vicinity of the Camp. Quite a number of prisoners were leaving at the same time and it was essential to scatter in case German patrols tried to round us up. Our party stepped it out along the road, but after only a few yards even our scanty belongings began to feel heavy, and we were thankful when we spied an Italian carter jogging peacefully along with his donkey and cart towards
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Tolentino. He was rather scared when we stopped him and clambered up onto his cart, but soon realised we meant no harm. I got out my dictionary and tried to tell him that we were in a hurry, but he couldn’t understand a word and kept repeating..
“Inglese buoni. Fascisti non Buoni. Mussolini e un porco”
Political catchwords are amusing in their way and it was re—assuring that the first civilian we met held such decided anti—Fascist views, but it was not until later that we learned that it is an old Italian custom to be in complete agreement with the winning side.
The old carter still failed to realise that we were in a hurry, so Harry seized his whip, gave the donkey several heavy lashes across the back, and bawled in his ear “Buono, buono”.
At last the old fellow grasped what was wanted and gave the poor beast the lashing of its life, while Harry continued to encourage him with shouts of “Forte – strong”, until we were bowling along the road at a fair pace.
After travelling several kilometres in this way, we saw a footpath leading across the fields towards the South and decided to leave the road, on which we might meet German patrols, and to strike across country. We made the carter halt, gave him a packet of cigarettes to his unbounded astonishment, jumped off the cart, and were immediately surrounded by a crowd of laughing peasants from a roadside cottage, who were pressing quantities of bread, cheese and fruit on us. This was a welcome surprise to us and the first example of the spontaneous generosity of the Italian peasants, without whose help and loyalty we should have had a grim time indeed. I looked at a loaf which had been thrust into my hands and could hardly believe [3 lines of text crossed out in the original] my eyes; did people really make such enormous loaves? Was this really mine to have and to hold? Our daily bread ration at the Camp was a silly little penny bun and here I had over a week’s ration just waiting to be eaten. I don’t think anyone who has not endured a long term of under—feeding can really grasp the feeling of rapture (it would be an under-statement to describe it as less) that one has on seeing one’s first satisfying meal. We thanked them as best we could and started off down the footpath, happily munching hunks of bread and cheese and thinking some of our pre—conceived ideas about Italians would have to be revised.
Not having either map, compass or watch (for use as compass) we noted the peak which appeared to denote the most Southerly point of the mountains and decided to head for that. The leg of Italy does not lie North to South, but slightly Northwest to Southeast and the mountains run similarly but in a more pronounced manner, so our route lay in an East-Southeast direction, but we had no knowledge of the intervening country nor whether it was passable on foot, and our distant peak did look disturbingly distant. However, buoyed up by our first feeling of freedom which had not yet worn off, and fortified by our plentiful supply of bread and the friendliness of the peasants we trudged cheerfully along, till we met our first minor obstacle – the river Chienti. This is very low in summer-time, only some two feet deep, so we could wade across, but it was swift enough to make us take the crossing carefully, as a wetting would not have improved either us or our baggage.
When we had all crossed and rubbed ourselves dry we continued our march but found it best to go in easy stages, with five minute rests every few hundred yards, for our long stay in various camps had sapped our endurance and we soon found we had no real stamina and had to take things easily. Several parties of two, three or four P.O.W. passed in the distance but it was surprising how quickly they had all dispersed in apparently every direction. Some parties even went North from Sforzacosta in the hope that if the Germans searched the countryside they would only do so South of the
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Camp, thinking all POW would make straight for their own lines.
It was hot work climbing the innumerable little hills and just as the sun was sinking we stopped at a farmhouse and asked for water. I say we ‘asked’ which means that I produced my pocket dictionary, and somehow managed to convey the impression we were thirsty, so the farmer brought out a jug of water, whilst another man stood in the background, leaning on his long scythe. I don’t know if he was under the impression we were dangerous desperadoes and his only hope of safety lay in his scythe, but he was an unsavoury looking specimen so I confined my attention to the other, again ‘asking’ where the road running along the top of the next hill went. Not knowing any grammar I had to be content with the Italian equivalent of “road – where to go”. He replied it went to Rome. This was the other side of the Apennines and off our route altogether, so we decided to cross the road this evening and find somewhere to sleep, as the unaccustomed exercise had made us very weary. It afterwards transpired that the road did not go to Rome and my only explanation of his reply is that he wanted to get rid of us at any price as soon as possible and perhaps thought the distant attractions of Rome would act as a bait.
So upward we tramped till we reached the summit of the hill overlooking the road, which still seemed a long distance away, so feeling that we had best not over-exert ourselves on our first day out, we looked around for a place to sleep, deciding to cross the road at dawn tomorrow before there was any traffic about. There was a farmhouse with its scattered and tumbledown outbuildings on this hill, and I suggested to the other three that we went there and asked to sleep in one of their sheds, and to make a brew of tea on their fire. But this was easier said than done. It was now dark and I could not read my little dictionary and felt rather at a loss, but hunger put an edge to our wits and so I dragged the eldest looking male into the house, made him light his little oil lamp and by its feeble glimmer tried to make him understand our wants. He seemed friendly but very suspicious and it took me nearly half an hour to get all we wanted, but once the family understood who we were and that we wanted to be friendly they rallied round and each seizing a piece of our kit carried it up with much laughter and talking to their kitchen, which was on the first floor over the stables in the Italian peasant style.
There the peasants started a fire and after putting on our brew—can to boil, both sides made a frank, and in other circumstances embarrassing inspection of the other. As we were the first prisoners they had ever seen they displayed much curiosity over our attire and despite our remonstrances the children, indescribably ragged and dirty, eagerly investigated the contents of our packs and were very puzzled over the several tins of food, the like of which I suppose they had never seen before.
This was the first cottage we had been inside, and we too were very curious, making a brief survey of their kitchen, opening all the cupboards, inspecting the rows of pots and pans hung peasant-fashion on the wall and generally wondering how anyone could endure life in such a broken-down old hovel, with its tiny window, open hearth and rickety home-made furniture.
Whilst this was going on, the mother of the family, always the hardest worked in an Italian household, was fussing about around the fire and suddenly produced for us a large plateful of scrambled eggs which she put on the table, together with another of those enormous loaves, and pointing at us and the food and kept repeating “tutto, tutto, voi”. On reference to the dictionary this appeared to mean “all. all. you”; we did not need asking a second time and started on our first decent meal since we were captured one and a half years before. How can I explain what it means to be able to cut slice after slice off a loaf until you are satisfied, when in the Camp we were used to scraping up the very crumbs.
We had brought several tins of margarine with us and the children gathered round wonderingly as we spread this on the bread. They looked so
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eager and we were so grateful for the meal that we offered them a slice, but they were too shy to take it at first and then immediately handed it back, apparently being unused to margarine and making their disapproval known to us by the most revolting grimaces. One of my companions had a brainwave and produced a tin of treacle which, smeared in a sticky mess on the bread, earned shouts of approval from all the youngsters. Even the old mother was not above sampling a portion.
But the night was drawing on and although we were enjoying this little interlude we had to bear in mind to-morrow’s march and get in as much rest as we could, so after a round of good-nights we were shown into a room leading off the cow-shed down below on the ground floor, where we spread our groundsheets over a scanty layer of straw and began to settle down for the night. Our host bade us goodnight once again and went out, shutting the door behind him and before we realised what was happening he was turning the key in the lock. Men have seldom jumped to their feet quicker than we did then and thinking we had been trapped on our first day out felt both foolish and furious. Mac and I seized the door and began hammering and pulling, hardly knowing what we were doing whilst the other two frantically felt round the walls in the dark and tried the strength of the tiny window, kicking up an unholy din and upsetting the basket of an indignant broody hen we had not noticed before, which fluttered, clucking and squawking around the pitch-black room. What a lot of fools we must have looked when our host came running downstairs and opened the door.
We angrily pointed to the lock, shouting “Perche?” – “Why?” – until the poor old fellow became flustered and furious himself, answering us in a babble of Italian, not one word of which we could understand. But he calmed down, realising he was making no impression and left us once again, this time leaving the door open. We were undecided as to action – would it be better to leave the place immediately in case the farmer had sent one of the others for the Germans, or should we merely take it in turns to act as sentry? But our weariness got the better of all our resolutions and we settled down to sleep, I being entertained by a ghastly nightmare in which I was cast for ever into one of the dungeons of the tower of London.
I now realise that our suspicions were entirely unfounded and that the farmer had probably feared we should make off with some of his household goods in the early hours of the morning. With increasing experience I began to trust the peasants absolutely, and I personally have not heard of a single instance where the ordinary peasants have betrayed a prisoner, a really wonderful record, that will appear more wonderful when I later recount the measures taken against prisoners and the penalties involved for sheltering them. The above little incident was typical of many that caused much misunderstanding and trouble, particularly in the early days when prisoners and peasants were mutually suspicious, not knowing each other’s ways and being unable to speak the language so as to clear up points of difference.
Dawn next day found us still very tired and loathe to leave our beds, uncomfortable though they were, but somehow the excitement of our new life drove away our fatigue and gave us an almost intoxicating vivacity that helped carry us along. The unfortunate incident of the night before was tactfully forgotten by both parties and we were allowed to make our morning brew, to which they added another of those well-loved loaves. I was so keen on eating everything I could lay my hands on that I consumed far more bread than I really wanted, to my companions’ annoyance at my wasting time by sitting stolidly outside the house, munching slice after slice until I could eat no more. It was just another example of the food complex that had its effect, in greater or lesser degree, on all P.O.W. – ‘eat all you can, while you can, as you may have nothing tomorrow’.
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However, all good things come to an end, even a long Italian loaf, and so we set off down to cross the valley and reach the road that was supposed to go to Rome. When we had first seen the road yesterday it was in the failing light, but now we noticed it passed through a small town. This was right on our line of march but had to be avoided as a possible danger spot, so we picked out a suitable footpath winding up the other hill and made that our immediate objective. The Italian countryside is intersected with these little paths, winding amongst the small fields, and unless the way is well-known it is easy to take the wrong turning; this of course we did, and on rounding a blind corner found ourselves unexpectedly at the gate of the walled town we were trying to avoid. We were still in a combination of British battle-dress and odds and ends of clothing issued by the Italians, and with our bundles and packs attracted a lot of attention. This was the last thing we wanted as these towns were the obvious places for small garrisons of Germans, so keeping a weather eye open for any trouble, we hastily passed on, finding a road underneath the city wall leading to the South. Most of the Italian towns and villages in Marche are built on the tops of hills, a relic of medieval defence, and quite a number are encircled by high walls, pierced at intervals by imposing, battlemented gates; such was Urbisaglia, and it overlooked a larger main road going South and disappearing amongst the valleys and hills of the Apennines.
If we had only had a map it would have been simple to find out our position and decide our route, but as it was we had to rely on asking the people round about. On this occasion we had a stroke of luck for an Italian came up to us, speaking French, and asking if we could understand him. I had learnt French at school, and forgotten nearly all, but with much effort and a fine display of gesticulation and sign language, managed to find out our approximate route for the next few miles and that this national road down below also went to Rome. Whether our informant thought Rome was the only Italian town we were likely to have heard of or whether it is really true that ‘all roads lead to Rome’ we could not decide, for this road lead in a totally different direction from the other, although reputed to go to the same place.
However, we thanked the considerable crowd that had now gathered and continued on our minor road, going down the hill some half a mile till we reached the national road. This stretch of our journey was something of a triumphal procession, peasants from the cottages scattered round Urbisaglia, came running out with gifts of bread and fruit, enthusiastically shouting “Viva l’Inglese. Viva gli Liberatori” etc. under the confused impression that we personally were liberating them. This was all very gratifying and highly amusing, but the very reverse of what we wanted, for our object was to pass through the country as inconspicuously as possible. We feared that this hullabaloo would attract the attention of the Germans, and even if we ourselves got away safely, there were several other P.O.W. in the vicinity and we had to think of their safety as well as our own. Our fears on this point, we later learnt, were well founded, as although there were no Germans stationed there, Urbisaglia was a veritable hotbed of Fascism. It was notorious for miles around and had a permanent garrison of the Fascist Militia stationed there, but on this occasion they evidently thought it wiser to lay low as the populace was excited and the British troops expected in a few days.
We had not gone very far along the national road when some peasants passing in a cart shouted to us to get off the road into the country for safety. This of course was obvious but the road was flat easy walking and the country paths so undecided as to their eventual direction, that we had thought we would take the risk and keeping a sharp look-out for any traffic, be able to make better progress to the South. But these peasants’ warnings made us think again, and as it was approaching noon and the weather very oppressive we decided to rest in the first shady glade we saw, and move off again when it was a little cooler.
It was those few chance words of some passing peasants that made us
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stop when we did and brought about the events of the next few days, which decided the whole course of our adventure for the following ten months. Surely fate had taken a hand in guiding us.
Some few hundred yards down the road we came to a bridge over a dry river bed, into which we descended and moving sufficiently far to be out of view and earshot from the road, settled down for our lunch. The British soldier is fond of his cup of tea, no matter what the circumstances, so I climbed out of our sunken glade and walked over to an old peasant working in the fields, shouting “water — fire — tea”, and holding up my can, pointed to his house. The poor old fellow was rather taken off his balance at my sudden appearance on his land. He poured me a glass of wine, from the bottle the Italian always has near him when working in the fields, and while I was drinking set his ponderous brain to weigh up the situation, which apparently did not give him much satisfaction. But his wine was good. Thoughts of tea were forgotten and leaving my brew-can with him, I picked up his bottle of wine to give my pals a taste, telling him “Friends” and pointing to the glade. The old peasant realised that was the last he would see of his wine, so followed, muttering in my wake, shouting some instructions to his wife who was eyeing the proceedings with some concern, from the safety of their cottage. I gave my friends the rest of the wine, and then tried my luck at another farmhouse the other side of the glade, nearer the road. There I was lucky to find a more intelligent peasant, and while I was brewing the tea in his kitchen he made some attempt at conversation by means of my dictionary. We returned together to the others, who by now had the combined households gathered round chattering and laughing like so many monkeys, and bringing us some more loaves of bread.
The Italian peasant is a strange combination of generosity and opportunism, and we had here our first example of this when a fellow we had not seen before came up holding out a very old pair of civilian trousers and a shirt – “You change clothes. You civilian clothes, Germans no know you English. You soldiers’ clothes, Germans bang. bang. with gun”.
Even these few words were an effort to find in my dictionary and it took me some time to reply –
“No. Germans find me soldier’s clothes – Prison Camp. Germans find me civilian clothes – spy – bang. bang, with gun”.
“No. no.” he was beginning to gesticulate madly with his arms, “You soldiers’ clothes Germans find quick. You civilian clothes Germans no find at all – safe. You look like Italian”.
“Well, what shall we do chaps? It legally makes us spies and if we’re caught we’re for it straight away”.
“Let’s take a chance. He’s right when he says we probably won’t get picked up if we’ve got the right kind of clothes”.
I addressed myself to the peasant “Good, thank you. We take four trousers four shirts”.
The peasants went into a huddle and two of their number ran off to nearby houses, bringing back sufficient clothes for all four of us. It was typical of the Italians that although they had done this to make it safer for us, nevertheless they took care to get the better of the bargain and give us only old and patched clothes. We changed where we stood and held a mutual inspection. Jack and Harry had jet black hair, and looked the part well. With two or three days’ growth of beard they could pass as Italians. The peasants evidently thought the same and eyeing them critically exclaimed – “Good You two Italians”, and then turned their eyes on Mac and me. We are both fresh-complexioned and fair haired and they shook their heads in disapproval – “No You two always English. No like Italians. Long way away seem English”.
This was disappointing but there was nothing we could do about it, and we were beginning to collect our belongings preparatory to continuing our journey, when the former in whose kitchen I had made the tea, Vittorio, made a startling suggestion –
“No go. English troops long way away. Too far to walk. Stay here. I hide you. I give you food till English soldiers arrive”.
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I translated and looked at my pals, “I don t like the idea. It would be better to stick to our original plan, and get down South as far as we can”.
“Why?” said Harry, entering into the spirit of the thing with the peasants, “He’ll keep us, and our troops will be here in a week”.
“There’s not only that” said Jack “We’ve got no maps, don t know the first thing about the country. I’m beginning to feel tired already”.
“Well, these people seem friendly enough. While the front line actually passes, we can hide by that river down there. Seems pointless to walk two hundred miles for no reason”.
“OK then, I’ll tell him we accept – Vittorio” frantically searching in the dictionary for the required words “We stay you, Thank you. You give us bread. We give you work, Everybody happy”.
Our methods of expression were crude, bit we managed to get our meaning over somehow.
“No. No. No work” He spread out his hands deprecatingly. “You stay here. I give you food. I hide you. English soldiers come soon. Fascisti go away. War finish. Everybody happy”.
“Good. When we come to your house?”
“Later. When more dark. You stay here. I come again later”.
It seemed a sound enough scheme. We were in no fit condition to undergo a long march and as the peasants appeared friendly we thought it wise to take advantage of this opportunity.
There we made our big mistake. If we had kept going and reached the front while the German lines were still in confusion I believe we might have stood a chance of getting through. But once the line became static, somewhere round Pescara, it became a hundred times more difficult and dangerous, and we realised we had ‘missed the bus’.
It was nearly evening when Vittorio took us to his cart-shed where he was going to hide us, and I was rather disappointed at its situation. It was in full view of the national road, only a hundred yards away, but it was a place to sleep for one night, and if we didn’t feel safe we had no need to stay there. We carried some straw in for a bed, spread our groundsheets over it as last night and feeling weary with our tramping and excitement, settled down as we imagined, to a good night’s sleep.
It seemed our heads had hardly touched our ‘pillows’ when Vittorio appeared at the entrance calling to us softly to get up; we were still fuddled with sleep and thought that there was some alarm, so hurriedly put on our boots and scrambled out into the moonlight when he explained, as best he was able in the circumstances, that Maria Astolfi’s house, just across the road, had a radio, and she wanted us to come and hear the news. This suited us in every way as it would mean a little fun and, more important, give us the military situation in the South on which we would base our future actions.
This Maria we had met in the glade in the afternoon and found her a great help – she was a city woman, evacuated on account of bombing, and had been a governess before her marriage, and so was fairly well educated. She realised the difficulty of understanding a completely new language and spoke to us in a form of pidgin Italian, which was later used by many prisoners and their peasants. The principle was simple one – always used the simplest form of any word, if a verb the infinitive, if a noun the singular, if an adjective the masculine
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singular etc., and generally omitted all articles and preposition. Admittedly we could not carry on complex conversation in this manner, but we could convey most of the essential ideas and in any case, without grammars or text-books, we had to make a start somewhere.
With Vittorio at our head, we tramped across the fields in Indian file, keeping silent, for somehow the night seemed more dangerous than the day. When we neared the house, Vittorio left us in the bushes, whilst he went forward to reconnoitre and ascertain if there were any strangers inside. He soon reappeared and signalled us to come in, and immediately we were inside the house, locked and barred the door as though to withstand a siege. Along its entire length the national road is dotted with houses, each one detached, at distances round about three hundred yards from each other and so we were not likely to be overheard by anyone except strangers passing on the road. The peasants had evidently decided to make this a gala evening and the little kitchen was packed with the people we had met in the glade that afternoon. They were jabbering away unintelligibly and pressing us to sample portion after portion of a kind of fruit salad which they had specially prepared. The evening was a great success, despite the language difficulty, and the wine flowed and laughter rang out continuously until someone heard footsteps along the road outside.
And try as we did we could not get the peasants to carry on their conversation and it must have seemed strange to the passer-by to hear shouting and laughter from a cottage and then sudden silence. These Italians tended to lose their heads at the least danger – their intentions were good but their hearts were often weak. But the false fright passed and soon everyone was as jolly as before and it was after eleven o’clock before we could tear ourselves away and get back to Vittorio’s shed to sleep.
And so ended our second day out of the Camp. In all it was quite successful, for we had made a host of new friends, particularly Vittorio and Maria, had a place to stay until the English could reach us and thought all our troubles were over and we had only to wait another week to be free. Not having any maps we had taken rather a roundabout route to this district and found we were only some eleven kilometres from Sforzacosta, but considered this was sufficiently far to be out of any immediate danger.
We awoke rather late the next morning and after a hasty breakfast of some Red Cross food and the peasants’ bread we began to wonder how we could best occupy our time. Yesterday evening three German armoured cars had passed along the road and caused a minor panic, so in case we had to make any sudden getaway, we went for a walk in our new civilian clothes to feel the lay of the land. There was a river nearby, the Fiastra, which runs parallel with the national road till they both reach the mountains, so we explored along its wooded banks for likely hiding places. This river is quite shallow in summer time and after crossing by the stepping stones we saw three other prisoners still in military uniforms, just leaving a farmhouse. They looked our way but passed on without comment until we hailed them, when they came running up, eager to exchange any news or information. They had taken us for Italians in the distance and we were very pleased our real identities were not too obvious as we felt both conspicuous and self-conscious in our ill-fitting guard. They had no information to give us and went on their
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way, and my three companions continued along the Fiastra whilst I made my way up the hill on the other bank from whose summit I hoped to get a good view of the surrounding country.
The country paths are rather misleading to the inexperienced and it took me some time to reach the vantage point at which I was aiming, all the time trying to keep out of sight as much as possible. There was a good view from the top of the hill, and Urbisaglia, which we had passed yesterday, seemed quite near, whilst in the distance towards the North was a large town I presumed to be Macerata, the capital of this province and the headquarters of all the local Fascist activities. I made a rough sketch map of all the roads I could see and started to return to the farm, thinking it would soon be midday and time for some lunch, but on passing a cluster of farm buildings noticed two figures in blue-grey uniforms coming up the path towards me. My heart missed not one but several beats and hoping I had not been observed I dodged behind the buildings and awaited their approach. Flight across the fields would have been too conspicuous and made me an easy target. The two men passed by and on closer observation I realised to my chagrin that they were only ordinary peasants, probably deserters, dressed in old Italian army uniforms. I felt very foolish hiding behind this barn and waited till they were well out of sight before continuing my walk.
This is neither a particularly creditable nor heroic incident, but I relate it as it shows how jumpy and nervous we were and how the most ordinary occurrences assumed a sinister significance. We were never able to relax properly at that time. After a few weeks this subconscious background of tension began to have its effect and I fear our tempers became rather jaded, and we were all difficult companions.
I returned to Vittorio’s and found my friends in our cart-shed, joking with Maria and our other Italian acquaintances. We were getting along famously, when one of the women outside commenced shrieking and screaming and literally tearing her hair in such a frenzied manner I thought she had suddenly gone demented. We rushed out of the shed and saw that one of the haystacks was blazing, and was in danger of setting fire to the others, so seizing any long sticks available, we tried to beat out the flames, whilst Vittorio rushed to the well and brought up bucketful after bucketful of water. The flames had too strong a hold however, and the blaze soon attracted the neighbours, who rushed to help bringing pumps and buckets, and one enthusiastic party, taking their cart and oxen down to the river brought back barrel-full of water.
It was an hour or two before we had the flames under control and by that time about fifty villagers had gathered round to help.
This apparently unimportant little episode, a burning haystack, played its part in shaping our future.
Vittorio was questioning everyone present about how the fire started, and finding no explanation, began to accuse us. He hadn’t the pluck to say so openly – we were secretly feared as desperadoes – but we guessed his thoughts by the many black looks thrown at us by his family.
Maria stood by us and showed her good-will by inviting us to lunch, but on account of the language difficulty we were unable to clear the air of suspicion.
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This was not the chief result of the fire….
The thinly disguised hostility of a few peasants did not trouble us particularly, but the danger lay in that our presence had been known to a large number of persons, who would undoubtedly talk to their families and thus the ‘glad tidings’ would spread over the whole district. Nine out of ten of the people were both friendly and faithful, but we had to bear in mind continually the odd one, perhaps a genuine Fascist, or someone hoping for a reward, who would give us up if he could do so.
It was plucky of Maria to have us at her house in daytime or it was right on the national road and anyone might have seen us entering and leaving. She had a little boy and her sister-in -law three little girls, and both from fondness of children and as a matter of policy we made a fuss of these, for the Italians, like parents the world over, love to see their children admired and the centre of attention. The children, somewhat naturally, were suspicious of these four weird strangers dressed in a motley of ill-fitting garments, who muttered a few words of their language with a peculiar accent. I fear our first efforts at fraternisation were not very successful. All the same, both the women were obviously pleased at our effort and so we persisted, in the end achieving such success that our future appearances were usually greeted with howls of delight and we were promptly mobbed by the enthusiastic kiddies. To reach this stage took a long time, but when attained we knew we could trust those peasants with our very lives, and they never failed us.
Lunch finished, we returned to Vittorio’s, albeit somewhat unwillingly, but were not long left in peace for he and an older man came running up in great agitation, —
“Hide in river. Go away. Many Germans come on road. Danger. Go away. Come back when night”.
We needed no second bidding as our shed was only a hundred yards off the road, and covering our kit with straw hurried off to the river. Here we found a stretch of the bank very thick with high reeds and bull-rushes, and settled down to await dusk, when we could return to the farm. I viewed this scare with some apprehension, for I knew the older man had been one of our most active accusers over the haystack fire, and I suspected the whole thing was just a ruse to get us out of the way. This boded ill for our future stay at Vittorio’s, where our welcome was visibly cooling every minute. We were roused from these reflections by hearing Maria walking along the river bed calling out for us. We climbed out of our hiding place, and explained to her what had happened.
“Yes Lorenzo, I understand. Germans no come for prisoners. Convoy pass on road. No danger in country. Vittorio too frightened”.
This was re-assuring but we couldn’t stay with a farmer who was terrified every time a German Lorry passed on the road, and were pleased when Maria suggested, –
“Leave Vittorio. Anna (one of the peasants we had met) has a house near river, far from road, a good hiding place. She give you food. She is not frightened”.
I was thankful for this as Vittorio still suspected us over the haystack fire, and was revealing himself as a rather nervous man when any danger threatened.
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“Thank you Maria. We go when is night, straight away”.
Anna’s farmhouse was built in two parts, she shared it with another family, and had an excellent situation for our purpose, being near the river which provided good hiding places, and also near a bridge and stepping stones by which one could reach the opposite bank and disappear up the hill on which I had made a recce yesterday. The two families were very jolly and gave us another cart-shed for accommodation, providing straw for sleeping and an extra blanket, and did everything in their power to make us comfortable. Unfortunately they were very ignorant and it was difficult to understand them, particularly as they thought that if they shouted louder it made it easier for us. What with this, several lively children, and the natural vivacity of the Italians there was a continual pandemonium in this house and we were never allowed to have a dull moment. It was already late when we had settled down and so we were invited straight away upstairs to supper. This consisted of Polenta, which deserves a special paragraph to itself.
Polenta, or ‘Yellow Peril’ as it was known by the prisoners, is a great Italian peasant institution, and must be seen to be believed. It is made from Maize – Granturco as the Italians called it – finely ground and sprinkled, handful by handful, into a cauldron of boiling water and constantly stirred, where it makes a kind of yellow porridge. When this is sufficiently thick and stodgy it is tipped out on to the centre of the kitchen table, or in better class houses on to the ‘Polenta Board’, from where it spreads out all over the table in the manner of a bucketful of very liquid cement emptied on to the road. This soon sets to a blancmange consistency, and now the skill of the cook receives full scope. Polenta itself is almost tasteless and its attractiveness (?) depends on the flavouring sprinkled about all over its inch thickness of repelling stodge. The usual appetisers are grated cheese and little pieces of rabbit or chicken meat, although sometimes a form of treacle is used to sweeten it instead. The skill required to make this disgusting mixture almost palatable is slight, the whole art lying in the strategy required to eat it. The entire family sits round, waiting expectantly, and on the word ‘go’ each member carves out the portion nearest him with his fork, staking his claim as it were, and after gobbling it up, carves out another portion, all the while advancing towards the centre. The high tactics involved being that most of the meat is scattered about the middle and it is an unwritten law that you must eat the barren polenta adjacent to you before setting out to tackle the more appetising centre. It is obvious that a quick eater reaches the goal first, and unless the others are careful, gets hold of most of the meat, but this rarely happens for the Italians have generations of polenta-eaters behind them and know all the tricks of the trade. It was obvious that we, if it had not been for the huge appetites left over as a legacy from the prison Camp, would have made a poor showing in the polenta stakes. This wretched concoction is the staple diet of the Italian peasantry during the winter, some families having it at least once a day. We prisoners disliked it so much that, if on the tramp and begging for food, we saw the preparations for polenta in evidence, we would often flee from the house and chance our luck at the next.
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But this was the first time we had seen polenta and in any case we were always hungry, so acquitted ourselves honourably and despatched our fair share of the yellow mess, after which the two families and we four paid another evening visit to Maria’s house by the road. This was much the same as yesterday except that, if anything, the peasants were more friendly than ever, but we still had to keep up our system of closed shutters and barricaded doors in case we were surprised by strangers. We now knew about half a dozen families which we had met at Maria’s and Anna’s. The villagers whom we had seen this morning at the haystack fire knew we had left the farm, but I had hopes, soon to be shattered, that they didn’t know where we had gone, for a secret is no secret when known by too many.
The next morning we held court in our cart-shed at Anna’s – by this I mean we tried to be as affable as we could to our innumerable visitors, whose presence soon told us that any hopes of normal concealment were quite impossible. The peasants always passed on to each other every item of gossip, and, of course, prisoners were headline news. Although this was a great nuisance it was a two-edged weapon, as we were able to get information about the local Fascists, where they lived, who was a genuine Fascist and who was one only to be able to keep his job. But the language difficulty in those early days made it difficult to obtain really useful information, and because we still expected the British to be up to Ancona in ten days, we did not try to learn as hard as we should have done had we realised the true situation.
Our morning visitors left us about mid-day and we were wondering where our meal was coming from, when one of our new found friends who lived in the next house down the road from Maria, arrived bringing with him a colossal bowl of stringy yellow material. This he put on the little parlour table with great ceremony, and after setting out plates for us and himself, handed us each a fork and indicated that we were to commence. This was ‘pastasciutta’ – ‘dry flour paste – another of the Italian foods, and generally considered the most tasty. It is found in England under the name of spaghetti, and occasionally peasants also call it this, but whereas in England it forms one course in a meal of several, in Italy it is the whole meal and therefore the average family make a large dish full about the size of an outsize salad bowl, and this is placed in the centre of the table, everyone helping himself as best he can. Spaghetti is common in England today and today (1994) and would cause no comment, but in those days when few ordinary folk travelled abroad, this was entirely new to us. We were not sure of the correct procedure here, so waited until Alfredo, our host, had shown us the method, when we all set to. We were not allowed forks in the prison Camp – they were regarded as possible weapons – and so we were a little clumsy at first, dropping pieces of ‘pastasciutta’ over the table cloth and generally making fools of ourselves, to Alfredo’s great amusement. So hearty were his laughs that the combined households came in to see what was the matter and were so engrossed themselves at our floundering efforts that they stayed till the meal was finished, passing comments on our dexterity which when we understood them were most embarrassing.
Having eaten our fill of this ‘pastasciutta’, we finished off the little scraps of meat used as flavouring, and feeling thoroughly drowsy retired to our shed. I can well understand the Italian custom of an afternoon siesta, for they eat so heavily at mid-day that it is impossible for them to work, and with the sun at its strength, sleep is the only thing.
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But our hopes in this direction were doomed to disappointment. We had hardly settled down when in bustled two older peasant women who had brought us some milk this morning and now appeared in a frightful agitation over something or other. They kept jabbering away in unintelligible dialect, and pointing to the river, so we assumed there was some danger and we had to hide. We covered our few belongings in the shed with straw and followed them out along the river and into some bushes and undergrowth where we had not been before. When safely concealed from view, they proceeded to tell us a long and rambling tale of which we could understand about one word in every hundred, but despite our discouragements they were most persistent, going over it again and again until we gathered we had to follow them to their house. Why we should go to their house I could not understand as we were safe as anywhere in our present position, and had no desire to change, and so when one of Anna’s children came running along the riverside calling for us, we left them, despite their protestations and on our return to the farm found there had been no scare, and could not understand what the two old sisters were up to. Actually they were acting in our best interests, as we learned later.
Next day was Sunday. Much has been said and written about the ‘dress parade’ of the English Victorian Sunday, but I feel sure it could not have exceeded the present Italian one for special dressing-up and showing off. The peasant women wore black, shapeless smocks all week, and the young girls looked rather ragged, but on Sunday we were amazed to see them appear in attractively cut frocks, cleaned and ironed, and generally preen themselves before the public eye. Through many years of war, and the impoverishing effect of twenty years of Fascism stockings, whether of silk or cotton, were almost unobtainable and prohibitive in price, and most of the women have only one pair, but they are loathe to be seen poorly dressed by their neighbours on the ‘Festa’ and so carry their stockings and wooden shoes to within a hundred yards or so of the village church, where any convenient secluded spot acts as a ‘changing room’. This procedure is again adopted on the homeward journey and so they have a brief hour of glory parading up and down the village square with the minimum wear and tear of their irreplaceable finery. To see them trotting home in their bare feet, with their little bag containing stockings and shoes is a laughable sight, their petty vanity is so easily exposed, and yet when one sees a people like these so fond of display and showy clothes reduced to these almost absurd efforts to keep up their appearances, one realises the economic inefficiency of Fascism and feels that any effort is worth while to free the world from this canker.
Church parade finished, the usual hordes of visitors to which we were becoming accustomed invaded our cart-shed, all eager to show off their Sunday-best, and be the centre of attraction. The Italian peasantry have many lovable qualities, one of which is their childlike fondness for attention paid them – the most obvious and crude flattery, which in England would only produce astonishment or annoyance at suggested sarcasm was here received with beaming smiles as their natural due, and the men are as gullible as the women. I soon became expert in this form of propaganda, finding praise of their personal appearance naturally went down well with the women, or when they were too old or so obviously ugly to merit this, a few remarks on the quality of their dress material was received with equal approval. With the men I adopted a different line leaving out personal compliments except to comment on the rare individuals who boasted of a complete suit, jacket and trousers matching. The best way to win their regard was to express wonder
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The Rozzi Family
[Five black and white photographs with captions. The first photo has the caption “Teresa & Maria Rozzi”. The second photo has the caption “Their cottage on the main road”. The third photo has the caption “General View, showing small farms & haystacks”. The fourth photo has the caption “Franco Cecchi’s Villa”. The last photo has the caption “Franco Cecchi and his new wife; postwar”].
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at their many possessions and evident wealth. As most of them were as poor as church mice, this was at times difficult to do, but everyone had something the others hadn’t got even if one had to resort to praising Antonio on his large flock of four geese, which were fatter and more numerous than those of Luciano, discreetly ignoring the fact that the latter had four cows and owned his own ground, whilst the poor Antonio, your victim, had no cows at all and only rented his little plot.
Complimenting them on their noisy offspring was a sure and simple way to their hearts, and when we had progressed a little in the language I set them simple arithmetical problems – four plus six plus two – but they tackled these with such difficulty and made so many mistakes that their parents became a little flustered and I hastily dropped this line of approach, concentrating on remarking on their vivacity and strength of lung, which were more than apparent to all.
It may seem strange, that in an enemy occupied territory, in constant danger of discovery and betrayal, we should waste our time working into the affections of a few peasants and their families, but it must be borne in mind we had no money and no weapons, and so had to rely on the good nature of the population for our food, shelter and information. Our best method to obtain these was to make the peasants regard us as friends and in view of the language difficulty, our easiest course was that of obvious flattery, which, bearing in mind the simple nature of the peasants, was usually well received. As a result, these Italians I met the first few days became our steadfast supporters through thick and thin, and when we eventually left them to return to England, many of them shed tears and implored us to visit them again after the war. This I was able to do several times, and indeed spent part of my honeymoon introducing them to my new wife.
It was nearly mid-day when one of the peasants, standing watch at Anna’s cart-shed door let out a shout that some-one was approaching and they all rushed outside to have a look, immediately toning down their raucous laughter and several of them slipping away out of sight round the back of the house. I could not gather what all the fuss was about, as all I could see were two youths riding up to the farmhouse on bicycles, one of whom I was told was Franco. I appeared suitably impressed but was still in the dark when they dismounted and entered our shed. At first glance I could see they were better class Italians, and was wondering who they were, when the young fellow pointed out as Franco addressed me in English.
“Good morning. I am a university student and I live at Urbisaglia. I heard there were four English prisoners at this house, and as I am studying English I wish to be of help to you.”
I was not too pleased at this. How had someone at Urbisaglia, three or four miles away, heard of our presence. Anyway, the danger was done, and although I didn’t know whether to trust him, the peasants seemed to know and like him, although holding him in some awe.
“Thank you. We should like to know where we are, and how far away are our troops”.
“This place is called Passo Colmurano and is forty miles South of Ancona. The British forces are somewhere near Foggia”.
“We have come from the Campo Concentramento at Sforzacosta. Do you know what has happened there?”
“Yes. It is very sad” The Italians are most emotional and express themselves in a rather florid style “The Germans came on Wednesday evening and shot many prisoners (we later learned this was incorrect) and have taken the rest to Germany.
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You are lucky to have escaped”.
“What is the best thing for us to do?”
“You must keep quiet and unobserved. Too many people know you are here. It is better to stay inside this shed during the day and only go out at night. I know many Fascists in Urbisaglia and they are becoming active again. You must be very careful”.
“We are not frightened of the Fascists. Are there still any Germans near here?”
“No, they have gone away. But it is not the Germans you must fear, they are busy at the front. It is the Fascists. They control our country, by fear and by spies. You must be careful for these peasants talk too much, though their hearts are good”.
“Would you thank this family for keeping us and tell them several things we could not make them understand….”
And so the conversation took a more personal turn and he was able to clear up several misunderstandings between us and the peasants. He and his friend Giorgio, with whom I exchanged a few words of our mutually feeble French, then left, promising to call again that evening. This visit was of first rate importance to us, for this Franco seemed to know what he was talking about and was in touch with prominent people at Urbisaglia and so would be able to give us proper information as distinct from the mere rumours that the peasants provided. His English was not good, at that time, but sufficient for our purpose and it was not until many months later that I fully realised how fortunate I had been to meet him. During the whole of the succeeding nine months I met him spasmodically, receiving clothes, money and information, and at times his help was indispensable.
This turned out to be a day of surprises, for in the late afternoon one of the two old sisters who had lured us out yesterday brought us a note written in good idiomatic English purporting to come from an Englishwoman living at the village of Loro Piceno, some four miles away, who wanted some information and was willing to help us. It all seemed genuine enough and we were undecided as to action, but Franco had said we ought to remain indoors during the day, so we told the peasant woman we would be ready to follow her to the rendezvous as soon as it was dark.
This was the fourth day out of Camp and our exhilaration was beginning to wear off – although we had done quite well, so far, found a good house and friendly peasants, now that we could appreciate the position a little better we began to sense the continual subconscious strain. The FASCISTS, STUNNED BY the shock of the Armistice, were coming to life again and forcing their authority once more on the country, and we could not expect our life to remain as comparatively tranquil as it had been. We had not seen any others prisoners since the day before yesterday and had no idea how the rest were faring, or how far away they had gone, although the peasants told us several parties had passed by on the 15th September, the day we escaped.
Just before dusk, before we had time to make contact with the mysterious Englishwoman, Franco and his friend Giorgio paid us another visit and his first remark was one of disapproval at the number of people gathered about the house. I explained we could not very well tell them to go away as we were unable to speak the language sufficiently to explain the whys and wherefores to them, and would he tell them our wishes and express our regrets. He did this, and then one of the two old sisters
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took him aside for a private conversation which I presumed to be about the Englishwoman’s note.
He conferred with her for some minutes and then came over to us to unfold what I considered a sound but drastic plan.
“You cannot stay here any longer. These peasants are good people but many know you are here and will talk too much at the markets in Colmurano and Urbisaglia. Fascist spies are sure to hear about you here”.
“Do you think it better for us to move off again towards the South?”
“No. The British are advancing quickly. They will soon be here. One of these women has suggested you pretend to leave here and go on a long journey, but that in fact you go secretly to her house, half a mile away, and wait there till your soldier’s arrive, seeing no-one, and telling no-one you are there”.
“Who is willing to take us, and where’s her house?”
Franco pointed to one of the two old peasants who had been bothering us yesterday –
“Maria says she will take you. There are no children at her house who might talk at school” (this was what she had been trying to explain). “It is up there on the national road”.
“Right on the national road? I don’t like that” I demurred “It’s just asking for trouble. We had enough of that at Vittorio farm”.
“Yes, but if you hide in a house near the road, and never leave it in daytime, no-one will know you are there and the Fascists would not think to search in such a place”.
“Well. that sounds reasonable to me. What about you Jack?”
“It’s no good. These women will never keep their mouths shut for long. The whole neighbourhood will know about us just the same in a few days”.
“But no” explained Franco “They must keep silent for their own good as well as yours. If you keep indoors during the day-time you will be safe, and I shall visit you often with news of what is happening at Urbisaglia and at the front. It will only be for a few days”.
“Good Lord” from Harry “Be shut up in a house alone with those two old hens. We should all be barmy in a week”.
“Franco knows what he’s talking about” said Mac “It would be best to follow his advice till we know a bit more about things”.
“Well, shall I say we accept? We can always leave if it gets too dangerous”.
“OK I suppose we’ve got to accept”.
The dread of recapture was uppermost in our minds and so we consented and asked him for the details of Maria’s plans. Firstly we had to bid good-bye to the two families with whom we were staying in the pretence of leaving the district completely and going on a long journey; Franco explained this to them, saying it was too dangerous for us to remain and expressing our regrets at leaving, both of which sentiments were quite true. We collected our scanty kit but were rather embarrassed by the peasants bringing us all sorts of food to help us on our journey – of half a mile. Eggs, fruit, flour and bread were showered upon us in such quantity that we could hardly carry our own possessions and if they had used their heads, they would have known that we could never have gone far with such a load.
Having packed and arranged our belongings, then began the awful ordeal of saying our mock farewells and we were amazed when several of the motherly women began to cry and the rest
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crowded round, shaking our hands, patting us on the back and wishing us “Buona fortuna. Buon viaggio” and generally kicking up a terrible din all round. They meant very well and it was upsetting for us having to deceive them but although their good natures could be trusted entirely, their good sense was another matter.
And so we left Anna’s house, Franco leading the way towards the river, we four following in single file and Giorgio bringing up the rear trying to retrieve the various pieces of kit, fruit and oddments with which we littered our path. It was practically dark and the going was slow along the river bank and as two of our number were townsmen I think we were lucky to reach our first halt with dry skins. Our guide went ahead to reconnoitre and soon returned giving us the OK and leading us across the fields up towards the road. This trip was done in perfect silence for fear of passers-by on the road and if it had been accompanied by the usual awe-inspiring music would have credit to any Hollywood production – ‘The smugglers’ return’ etc.
Our progress was halted suddenly by hearing children’s voices ahead. It did seem stupid to be frightened of children but if this move was to be-a success, absolutely no-one must know of it and the children had always been the most talkative and our chief danger. Franco again went ahead to investigate but soon beckoned us on, and in another five minutes we entered Maria’s farmhouse by the back door, through the cowshed. I stumbled over a wheel-barrow, and Harry narrowly missed a pile of stable sweepings..
“What a stinking hole. Hope we’re not here long”.
“Quiet. Don’t talk so loud. Some-one may be passing on the road outside”.
We followed Franco upstairs to a large loft on the first floor where the two peasant sisters were busily arranging some straw for sleeping. “I must go now” he said “For if anyone calls at my house while I am away, they may ask where I have been, so I must be able to account for all my time”.
“Thank you very much for your help” I replied” We should never have understood these two peasants without you. Where-er-how – what are the sanitary arrangements?”
He turned to Maria, who to my embarrassment laughed heartily and said something in undecipherable dialect.
“She says you can share the stable with their cow”.
“That place downstairs? OK – thanks. Well, good-night. Call again as soon as you can”.
“I will. And remember. The road is just outside your window – you must talk only in whispers. Good-night”.
Maria, and her sister Teresa, saw the two youths to the door, lighting the way with the tiny oil-lamp. She soon came back, hung the feeble flame on our door, and wishing us “Bon Riposo”, left us to our thoughts.
We had not had any supper so first ate a hasty snack out of our supplies, and then arranged our bed and were soon dreaming I need hardly add that it was the most troubled night I have ever had; despite my fatigue I had difficulty in sleeping, particularly when I imagined I heard something passing on the road and in my rare intervals of sleep I enjoyed the most confused nightmare imaginable, chased by Germans along river banks, hiding under bushes and getting lost in the rambling vastnesses of immense farmhouses – in all I think it was pleasanter to lie awake.
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So ended our fifth day of liberty. Liberty which, now we had come to the house in which I was to stay for nearly four months was beginning to seem a little illusory. None of us regretted having escaped from Camp, and we had found the peasants more friendly and helpful than we had expected, yet life was already becoming rather a strain and the prospect of never leaving this cottage in daylight, although apparently necessary, did not appeal to us at all. As the months wore on, we used to look back at these first five days out of Camp, and longed to re-capture their care-free spirit and spontaneous jollity.
But it was the happiness of ignorance. Once we realised what we were up against and the real dangers involved we resigned ourselves to the grim struggle for survival, and our idyllic life changed to one of secrecy and subterfuge.
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Chapter 3. Our First Hide-Out.
Before relating the events that took place during my stay at the cottage of Maria and Teresa Rozzi, I must attempt a description of the house itself and its position. It was comparatively modern and built on the usual peasant lines, low ceilings, small windows and the sweet aroma of the cowshed pervading the entire house. It was double-fronted with the stairs commencing at the front door and on the right hand side of these the kitchen, leading through to the parlour, and on the left the cowshed running the whole depth of the house, thereby leaving a space underneath the stairs through which ran a communicating passage between the cowshed and parlour. These details assumed a great significance later. The first floor rooms were the same as below and there was a small, sloping-roofed loft above, which could be reached from the room over the cowshed; this latter room some six yards in length and three in width was not being used and so was available for us and it was here we made our bed of straw and put our belongings.
The house was right on the national road and as this was banked up at this point persons passing on the top of farm carts or buses could look right into our windows on the first floor, so these had to be permanently closed and the shutters barred. There was a little track leading down beside the house towards the river and as the locals were constantly using this we had to take care not to be seen by anyone at the rear windows, but by standing well back into the room in the shadow we could watch all that was going on. The peasants do not observe any formality and were always calling on Maria and Teresa for a minute or two, and so we didn’t come downstairs in the kitchen in case we were caught unawares and seen by a casual caller. I repeat, there was usually no danger in these neighbours but if a scheme of complete concealment for about a week was to be effective we must see no-one, not even those we could trust. The thing that got us down the most was the necessity of always keeping quiet, and never speaking in a loud or normal voice in case some passer-by heard us, so that after several days our greatest desire was to scream or shout to relieve this soul-killing hush and monotony.
A more amusing factor was our hostesses’ eighty-three year old father who was half imbecile and was treated with less consideration than their only goat, which was his sole companion. Maria had not thought it necessary to inform him that we four were now living there, and when he wandered into our room for the first time he literally leapt into the air with surprise, threw up his hands and began shouting “Ho. Ho.” in a panic stricken manner and ran tottering round the room in a kind of war-dance. He made such a din that we were afraid some-one outside would hear him, so pounced on the poor old chap, stopped his noise by wrapping a towel round his face and held him down on a chair until his surprise and indignation would have abated a little, all the while murmuring “Friend – Good” and such like encouraging expressions in his unwilling ears. When we considered that the old scarecrow had recovered from his shock we let him go and he immediately grasped us by the hands, shaking
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them as if we were his oldest friends and asking us if we were Germans; we did not know what was expected of us from this decrepit old creature and so replied we were, which seemed to satisfy him.
Then he smiled in a crafty way, gave us a knowing wink and tottered over to the door apparently to see if Maria or Teresa were about. Fortunately for him they were away in the village and he came hobbling back, pointing to his mouth and making motions of eating, evidently with the idea of indicating he was hungry, and then seizing Mac by the coat pulled him to the little room at the top of the stairs where the bread was kept on a high shelf. We then realised that his daughters kept the bread up here so as to be out of his reach and make him dependant on them, and by this means they managed to keep him in a state of grumbling subordination. It seemed a shame on the poor old fellow, so we cut him a substantial hunk. He grasped this greedily and tottered downstairs, chuckling heartily and shaking his fist in defiance of the absent Maria as a demonstration of his new found freedom. This gradually became an institution. He would come every morning into our room and after amusing us with expressions and signs of his hatred for his daughters would be rewarded with a piece of bread and go happily away.
If either Maria or Teresa happened to be in the same room as he and us, he would manoeuvre into a position where she could not observe him, and give us the benefit of his grimaces at her expense. This is a normal custom among boys and their schoolteacher, but to us it was a novel experience to see this old man, with his bearded and wrinkled face performing these ridiculous antics with the utmost seriousness. What with the perpetual quiet and the company of these three peasants one of whom was definitely imbecile and the other two decidedly queer, I think all four of our party would soon have lost their reason had it not been for visits from Franco. He called again on our second day at the house and cleared up several points of misunderstanding.
“This house comes under the village of Colmurano for administration. There are only three or four true Fascists there and they are keeping quiet at the moment. Everyone is waiting to see if the British troops are going to advance up to here soon”.
“What about Urbisaglia? We passed there the second day after leaving the Camp”.
“You passed near Urbisaglia? Oh. What a terrible risk (The habitual florid style sometimes became almost ludicrous). You were fortunate not to be caught”.
“What’s so terrible about the place? The people we saw seemed friendly enough”.
“Yes, the ordinary people like the English, but there is a small garrison of the Fascist Militia stationed there all the time. Signor Bonservizi, whose brother was one of the three founders of the Fascist Party, and a personal friend of Mussolini lives there. He is the most important Fascist in the province of Marche. My villa is near Urbisaglia, that is why I have to be so careful when coming to see you”.
“Thanks for taking the risk. Can you tell us anything else about the district?”
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And so the conversation turned to pointing out where the various paths led to and our shortest way down to the river in case we had warning of a search party. The time soon passed and he had to leave us, promising to call again soon. Although we were living in comparative tranquillity at the moment it might not last for long, so when Franco visited us again three days later he described to us the route to his villa, some two miles up the road, where we could have temporarily refuge if Colmurano became too ‘hot’. To appreciate to the full these visits of this university student it must be remembered that he was very well known locally, being a big landlord and owning a brickworks in the vicinity, and his actions and movements formed a natural topic for conversation for the gossip-loving peasants. It only needed an ill-timed remark by one of them in the village and the Fascists would have investigated his outwardly harmless excursions into the countryside; we were not the only prisoners he was helping in this way and I later met several who had received advice and money from him.
We had brought two or three books with us from Camp but apart from these had nothing to do all day except talk in whispers, and wait. This waiting was deadly monotonous and to help pass the time one of us would usually stand at the window overlooking the national road and, peering through the shutters, take not of what was going on outside. This was not a safety precaution, a form of guard duty, for if there had been any danger we could not have escaped from the house unobserved, as there was no natural cover to be used. We did it merely to while away the hours, but it had some use for we gradually got to recognise the peasants who lived in the houses round about, and by asking Maria, came to know their names.
On our fourth day at the Rozzi, just over a week after we had left the Camp, Harry, who was squinting through the shutters at the national road, let out a subdued –
“Crikey. Come over here. There’s a Jerry lorry conked out outside”. We rushed to the shutters in time to see eight German soldiers jump out the back of a covered lorry, and push it up to our front door. The shape of the house prevented us from following their movements for a moment, but hardly any time elapsed before we heard the front door open and some of them entered the kitchen, demanding water for their broken radiator and wine for themselves. They were unlucky in the latter request as our peasants had exhausted their stocks weeks ago, but they managed to persuade the Germans to go outside to the well and draw fresh water.
It is unusual for a peasant house not to have a supply of wine, no matter how little or poor in quality, and I feared that the Germans would not believe Maria, and search the house. So we quietly moved our four packs out of our room on to the stairs which led up to the loft and, treading gingerly lest our footsteps be heard, climbed the stairs into the loft itself. Mac had not come up with us so I went down again to hurry him up, but he refused to budge, and just lay down on the straw as usual.
I remonstrated with him in whispers, “Come upstairs you silly fool, they may have a look around here”.
“If they do, they’ll look upstairs too. We can’t escape. You are more likely to attract attention climbing all over the house like a herd of elephants”.
I saw the reason in his words, and his calmness shamed me, and plucking up courage I tip-toed over to the back window
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from which, standing well back in the shadow, I could Maria and Teresa joking with the Germans and helping them draw water. They were behaving splendidly, never showing any of the fear they must have felt with four prisoners in the house.
A shout from the mechanic working on the engine brought them all round to the front of the house again and we were able to watch them safely through the shutters. One swung the starting handle, while the mechanic fiddled about under the bonnet, and another soldier sat in the driver’s seat with his foot on the accelerator. None of them were so anxious as we that the mechanic’s work should be successful. The engine spluttered, nearly died down and then suddenly leapt to life with a roar. The soldiers climbed up into the back, waved good-bye to Maria and Teresa and the lorry moved off up the road.
We looked at each other in relief. Although the soldiers hadn’t been searching for prisoners and it was just an unlucky coincidence the lorry broke down outside our house, nevertheless it was touch and go if they would come upstairs to search for wine, and the narrowest shave we had had to date. We all looked a bit scared, and personally this little incident frightened me more than any battle experience in the Western Desert, and it was some time before my pulse beat resumed normal.
As soon as the Germans had driven off, Maria and Teresa came running upstairs, grinning all over their faces and jabbering away in dialect so fast we couldn’t understand a word. When they calmed down and spoke more slowly we gathered that they were trying to tell us how stupid the Germans were and that the whole affair was a great joke. It wasn’t our type of humour. We were badly shaken; but we put on a bold face in front of the peasants and tried to laugh it off with them. I don’t think that at this stage they fully realised the consequences to themselves if we were caught on their premises.
It was scares such as this, and fictitious ones in which we believed at the time, that gradually began to tell on us, making us irritable companions and very jumpy at any danger, real or supposed.
In the afternoon we had another surprise, but this time a pleasant one, when Maria Astolfi unexpectedly walked up into our room. Our presence here was supposed to be a secret but the temptation had been too great for the Rozzi and they had felt they had to tell someone, and fortunately confided in Maria, our first benefactor. She pretended at first that she was annoyed at our not trusting her with our intentions, but she was so good-natured she could not keep it up and was soon her usual self. We could trust her, we thought, not to let the secret spread any further, but it was well nigh impossible to prevent people from asking her why she called at our house, as she used not to visit it previously. It would have been better to have no visitors at all, but our life was so dull that we should have been inhuman to ask her not to call, and so decided to chance it.
The next day brought another visitor, this time unwelcome, Franco’s gardener, with a note from our student friend saying Bonservizi, the local leader of the Fascists, had suspicions and perhaps proofs of his activities and he was leaving for the mountains to seek safety with the rebels. As a parting gift he sent us a roast chicken and some money, both of which
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were very welcome. We were troubled over this news as it was rotten luck for him after all his efforts at discretion, and was bad for us as it removed our interpreter and informant just as it was beginning to be important. It also had a bad effect on our peasants, who trusted implicitly in Franco’s abilities and couldn’t understand his flight. I feared they might want us to follow his example, but I had no intention of setting out for the unknown unless it became more actively dangerous in Colmurano or Urbisaglia.
Although the Rozzi were unsettled by his departure they allowed us to remain in their cottage, and life dragged on wearily.
This was a smaller household than Anna’s and we four were a greater strain on their resources. Nevertheless they did all they could for us and with Franco’s money bought a little meat and eggs as Maria’s chickens were a particularly unproductive brood. WE had a breakfast of bread given us by Maria and this we supplemented by any eggs she could buy and by Red Cross foods we had brought with us such as margarine, jam etc., and finished off with a cup of tea. Solid substantial Red Cross goods like meat rolls or biscuits we decided to put by for a rainy day. Lunch, at about 1.00 o’clock, was the most substantial meal of the day in which all the family joined and was usually some form of ‘minestra’ or stew made from the same basis as all these Italian dishes – flour and water. This dough would be rolled out like a huge flat pancake and then cut either into long strips which the Rozzi called, I believe erroneously, spaghetti or else into little squares known as ‘quadrucci’; this would be immersed in boiling water until deemed ‘cooked’ and then some beans or vegetables or whatever else was in season would be mixed up with it to give flavour and more body. We still had enormous appetites as an aftermath of Camp and enjoyed five or six platefuls of this ‘minestra’ at a sitting, but later when our appetites had returned to normal it was as much as I could do to manage two, I had had so much of the stuff and was so tired of it.
Supper at the Rozzi was usually ‘insalata’, which we found in the dictionary as meaning salad. When we were first told we were going to have ‘insalata’ that evening for supper we had visions of chopped boiled eggs, lettuce, tomatoes and all the little ingredients that go to the making of a tasty meal, but when Maria went out to collect the salad from her kitchen garden I was first amazed and later horrified to notice her digging up various weeds, looking suspiciously akin to the dandelion species. At supper these same weeds, admittedly with the dirt washed off and with a sprinkling of oil and vinegar, were produced with a flourish as salad and the two sisters began eating with evident relish, and as there was nothing else we had to follow suit and make the best of it. The old father disapproved of salad and contented himself with dry bread, taking advantage of the occasion to make faces at his daughters’ backs.
A few days later we were surprised by a flying visit from Franco himself returned from his brief stay in the mountains. Bonservizi had taken no action and he felt it safe to remain openly at his house if he cut down some of his visiting. He promised he would always call on us when he was able, perhaps in the evening, although one had to be careful of the curfew which was in force in all villages and on the main roads, as there had been instances of Fascists shooting at sight, and in any case there were often German convoys passing in the night. It is difficult to realise how relieved we were to have his help again, for without him all our actions would be based on
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the peasants information which was rarely reliable and if followed might have landed us into trouble.
After the German lorry had broken down outside our house we had a fairly uneventful existence for a fortnight, only enlivened by the taking into our confidence of Onelia, Maria Astolfi’s sister-in-law, and Alfredo, who had brought us our first meal of ‘pastasciutta’ at Anna’s. These peasants were absolutely faithful and we had no hesitation in agreeing when Maria and Teresa suggested they should call, but all the same it widened the circle of those who knew of our presence and might have led accidentally to betrayal. We had two reasons for agreeing to their visits, firstly because it made a break for us in the deadly monotony of uneventful days and also for their material help to our larder. The Rozzi were a small and poor family, and four large appetites were a great strain on their meagre grain reserves, so we were grateful to Onelia and Alfredo for occasionally bringing us a loaf of bread and bottle of wine, and for the latter’s gift of a few eggs every Sunday.
And so our life quietly jogged along, enlivened only by occasional visits from Franco or these peasants, until one morning in early October when Teresa, who was scatterbrained at the best of times, came back from her weekly outing to Urbisaglia market in a state of great excitement, saying that the Fascists had been shooting in the square and were expected to commence a local ‘reign of terror’. We were uncertain whether to remain, but Maria was still prepared to keep us and put forward a scheme for bricking in the little room at the top of the stairs, between their bedroom and ours, to be entered through the window. It was very good of them to suggest such a scheme, fraught with such severe penalties for them if we were discovered, but the idea was quite impracticable and the matter allowed to drop. Maria had so set her heart on it that it was pathetic to see her wandering about with odd pieces of brick, looking at the wall and wondering if it were possible to conceal effectively a space some two yards square and regretfully realising it wasn’t.
The general situation was not improved by the local road-man choosing the stretch of road opposite our house as the scene of his labours for the next three days. As he was employed by the Local Council he was obliged to be a member of the Fascist Party and was secretly feared and hated by the peasants, despite his apparently harmless appearance. He was reputed to be a spy and on his information several persons had had long terms of imprisonment, so he was one of the last people we wished to meet and we passed three most unpleasant days hardly daring to make a sound.
We were beginning to feel very restless, always penned up in that little house with no diversions and nothing to do except to keep quiet and wait, and so on the eighth of October, after nineteen days inside the house, we ventured out at night to pay a visit to Maria Astolfi and Onelie, where we could hear the radio and generally ‘let off steam’. Teresa went along the road first, to see if all was clear as the curfew was in force, and then we followed, the short walk accomplished without incident. On all normal standards our evening would be considered painfully dull – low-toned conversation with the aid of my dictionary, listening to the news with the volume at minimum, starting at any sound outside the house – but to us at that period it was a real ‘Night Out ‘ and we thoroughly enjoyed it, returning home with Teresa again acting as scout ahead.
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It would have been asking for trouble to pay a visit every night so we called in three days time, and again later in the week when I had an opportunity of partially repaying them for their kindnesses, as their radio had broken down and I had been a wireless mechanic in the Army. Actually it was a simple mechanical fault, which was fortunate for they had no tools for me to repair any electrical defects, but I made as much fuss about it as I could, taking everything possible to pieces and reassembling it, giving the impression it was a most difficult job. This rather childish display had the desired effect and they were all very grateful and excited. It was by seizing such opportunities as these that we were able to ingratiate ourselves with the peasants and earn their goodwill, a policy which always handsomely rewarded us.
We had had no visits from Franco for some time as he was ill, although he had kept us posted with news through his friend Giorgio. As he could not speak English his usefulness was limited; but towards the end of October we made the acquaintance of another useful ally.
It was a dark night and we four were sitting down to a meagre supper in our upper room by the flickering flame of the little oil lamp, when Maria came in and asked us if we would like to see Mario Cestarelli, an anti-Fascist from Colmurano. We replied no, as already too many people knew of our presence but our refusal was cut short by the entry of Mario himself. He was better dressed than the ordinary peasant and had quite an engaging manner with him, but he gave us our greatest surprise when he spoke –
“Good evening, boys, how are you?” with a strong American accent.
I couldn’t place him at all. What was he, and how did he know we were here? “Good evening, how are you? Won’t you sit down? and offering him the only decent chair in the house, we waited for him to explain himself.
“Has Maria told you who I am? No? Well then, I live at Colmurano and am in charge of the mill and grain store. Maria usually has only a little grain milled at a time, but for the last two weeks she has been bringing twice the normal amount. I knew that many prisoners had escaped from Sforzacosta, as I have met some and am still helping them, and I also knew the Rozzi had this unoccupied room in their cottage. Therefore –”. He opened his arms in a typically Italian manner “I questioned them and found out all about you “.
He smiled encouragingly, as if to invite us to tell him more about ourselves. I didn’t like it at all. I presumed he must have been trustworthy or Maria wouldn’t have told him, but although she was very good to us she hadn’t much intelligence and I felt most uneasy with this suave stranger, so kept the conversation on general lines.
Mario seemed interested to know which peasants we had met and to my alarm suddenly asked –
“Have you met Franco? He is a young fellow who speaks English a little”.
“No”. I answered promptly, trying to weigh him up in the gloom. “But I should be pleased to meet anyone who can speak my language”.
“Oh. I thought he was visiting some prisoners near here”, and he gave me a searching, and I thought rather pained and
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disappointed look. “You are staying indoors all day, I believe. This is very necessary. Have you heard what happened near Ripe only a few days ago?” and he told us a tale of two prisoners who were tramping along one of the minor roads, going to visit some friends near Caldarola when two peasants, leaning over a farmyard fence near the road, called out to them, holding up a jug of wine. It was a common occurrence to be offered wine and a slice of bread and cheese by these hospitable people, and so thinking nothing was amiss these two prisoners wandered over to pass the time of day and have a drink. When they had come close to these peasants each of the latter suddenly whipped out a revolver and told the prisoners to put their hands up; there was nothing for it but to comply and they advanced to give themselves up. One of the Italians, Fascists in disguise, put down his gun to secure their captives’ hands, and immediately one of our fellows leaped at the other still holding a gun, grabbing his right arm preventing him from aiming and at the same time shouting to his companion to escape. The other prisoner made a quick bolt for it and got away, while the two Fascists set about the remaining prisoner, emptying their revolvers into his stomach. Of course he died almost immediately but by his plucky action his friend was able to make a getaway.
“So you see it is better to be patient and stay indoors” continued Mario “I must go now as it is a long walk back to Colmurano. I’ll call again tomorrow”.
“Thank you for coming, good night” The door closed, —
“What do you think of him; looks a crafty old bird to me”.
“How did he get to know…” Our discussion was interrupted by Maria, who excitedly started to tell us about Mario. How he had spent many years in America – hence his accent – and was now one of the chief men in Colmurano. Although he was a member of the Fascist Party, as everyone of any consequence had to be, he had always been lukewarm in his enthusiasm and was now helping several other prisoners hiding in farms scattered around the village. She thought him absolutely safe and appeared glad that we had him as a friend. She seemed so sure that I regretted taking a slightly hostile and suspicious attitude towards him, but hoped to make amends when next he called.
Staying in the house all day was beginning to get us down, but Mario’s story of the incident at Ripe brought home to us the necessity for these precautions. Life was becoming almost unendurably boring but at least we came through unscathed whereas several others, who were not so patient or discreet were recaptured or shot.
The day after, Mario called again, bringing us some normally unobtainable meat and other foodstuffs which the peasants rarely saw, for although we had sufficient to eat it was always some form of pasta – flour and water – or ‘polenta’ and was not as nourishing as we really needed, particularly after our long stay in the Prison Camp. This Mario was in touch with many other prisoners and promised to arrange us some meetings in the evenings at a dependable peasant’s house away from the road, which would be both entertaining and useful for getting to know what the rest were doing, as we had not seen any other prisoners since we entered the Rozzi’s house.
Two days later we had our first visit from Franco for some time and after he left one of his trustworthy tenants brought us a basketful of goods – a blanket, two chickens, cheeses,
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some wine and a pair of pin-striped trousers for me as my others were wearing out.
Mario Cestarelly called again the following day, to tell Maria to take us to a house he named to meet two other prisoners who were hiding in the neighbourhood. He had arranged the meeting to be at night, at a fairly isolated house well off the road, and so with Maria as a guide we four left the cottage as soon as it was dark and made our way down to the river. Its banks were thick with trees and bushes through which we crawled, cursing every crackling branch that snapped under our clumsy footsteps, and wondering if anyone would see us and have a potshot at us. But we reached the house at last and were surprised to find we had known the peasants previously at Anna’s. They were delighted to see us again, and soon after the two other prisoners arrived, and we all settled down for a jolly evening together, laughing and talking, as we were a safe distance from the road and could not be over-heard. It was a relief and a relaxation to meet some other Englishmen and learn how they were faring, and we were able to help each other by exchanging news and opinions, and getting a wider view of the situation. To our surprise and humiliation we learnt that one of them lived with the Fascist road-mender who had so upset us a few days ago and later in the evening he put in an appearance – in actual fact quite a harmless old fellow who knew which side his bread was buttered now, even if he had been a Fascist in the past. This was but one example of the distorted ideas we had obtained from either not completely understanding the peasants or else because of they themselves having a poor grasp of the situation.
These two prisoners told us they passed the time by working in the fields near their house which was in a comparatively unfrequented district and so the next day we put the suggestion to Maria that two of us should leave in the early morning for their land across the river, a fairly secluded spot, and pass the day there. She agreed, and so next day Jack and Harry went across at dawn and returned in the evening well pleased to have had a breath of air in daytime; but to our amazement when Maria returned from the fields she was furious, as two of our peasant friends had seen them and it would now be known generally that we were at her house.
This was just bad luck, but Maria wouldn’t see it in that light.
“You English are all stupid. Why did you go out in daytime?.
Harry chafing most against these restrictions, had been the prime mover in this and impatiently retorted – “We went at dawn when no-one was about, and took care no-one saw us when we returned”.
“Stupid, all of you. Antonio saw you from his cottage. So did Alfredo”.
“You said it was alright for us to go. Alfredo knew we were here anyway. Now we have been seen you want to put all the blame on me”.
“You are all stupid” and with this final reiteration she stamped out of the room.
“It seems we are stupid ” I ventured..
“None of your bloody sarcasm. We’re in enough bother as it is. I’ve a good mind to clear out and chance my luck elsewhere”.
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“Why don’t you? You’ve been disagreeable enough for the past week. A change of air would do you good — and us too.”
Jack cut short a promising quarrel “This confinement makes us all browned-off, but I agree with Harry, I should like a change. Let’s wait till Franco calls next and he may have some suggestions where to go”.
The matter was allowed to drop till Maria Astolfi called next day when the Rozzi were out, and suggested that Jack and Harry, against whom most of Maria’s wrath was directed, should come to live at her house, thus still preserving secrecy for them, and also helping the food situation at the Rozzi, who were to be kept in ignorance of their move.
We were loathe to split up our party, but this was the only solution and we should still be able to meet each other at night. Accordingly, at the end of October, they told Maria and Teresa they were leaving, pretending they were going to Pescara to try to cross the Line, by now an almost impossible feat. The few peasants who knew us crowded in and tried to dissuade them from this dangerous attempt and once again we had to upset them all by deceiving them. Their well-wishers eventually went and when it was quite dark my two companions left the house, after affectionate goodbyes to the Rozzi. They took a round-a-bout route to the Astolfi’s house, but Maria Rozzi was too fly for them and, being so used to the countryside, tracked them there and watched them go in, later returning to Mac and me, and wanting to know what all the mystery was about. We managed to quieten her ruffled feelings and extract a promise of secrecy from her.
The net result of all this scheming and changing billets was that Jack and Harry were safely settled in a new house, unknown to all except their hosts and us, and that Mac and I remained where we were, our presence known to all our previous friends, at the Rozzi. This latter fact was useful as many of the peasants we had not seen for a month having discovered where we were, brought us food, mainly bread and vegetables, which helped the Rozzi’s small larder. But I was a little nervous now that so many people knew of our presence. It wasn’t so safe for Mac and me.
Although we were separated from our pals and unable to visit them in daytime, we paid a call almost every other night, after our suppers of ‘insalata’, but although we kept closely in touch, in reality our partnership was broken. Our paths crossed several times in the future, but we never again acted as one team together. At first I regretted this break, but later realised that in this kind of life there was no safety in numbers, and a lone hand fared best.
On one of these night visits Mac and I made an unfortunate slip which greatly upset the Astolfi. We had knocked on their door in the evening when it was dark, for as usual it was bolted and barred on account of our friends, and Maria Astolfi called out something in Italian which we did not understand – this was followed by a silence and thinking something was wrong inside we backed away from the house and crouched back in the shadows of the hedge. There we waited for some time, and poor Maria inside the house, hearing no reply to her question of who was there thought it was someone who had suspected she was sheltering prisoners and so dared not open the door. This ridiculous game of hide-and-seek went on for several minutes
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until we both realised what had happened and she opened the door and let us in, but she had been badly shaken and the rest of the evening was rather strained. We were glad when our time came to leave.
One of our newest acquaintances was a soldier who had been a sentry at our Camp at Sforzacosta and he sometimes lent me his bicycle to go for a short night run along the national road for amusement and exercise. This was fairly safe provided one did not meet Fascist patrols or German convoys, but as the latter always used lights we could spot them quite a long way off. On several occasions I had to pedal down little side lanes to avoid the vehicles, and once when in the dark I could not see any turning, had to throw my bicycle over the hedge and climb over after it till the lorries had passed. There was no necessity for these little excursions, they were quite pointless, but they did help to provide a comic relief against the boredom and nervous strain, which seemed to become worse every week, and without these laughs I think I should have lost my sense of proportion.
Shortly after this little incident we had another visit from Franco, who brought me a black jacket, just the thing for my striped trousers and invited me to his house that evening. This was a pleasant surprise to me as I had thought his parents too cautious to have a stranger seen entering their grounds (for the family was wealthy and well-known and a subject of gossip for all) but he seemed quite willing and so in company with two of his friends we cycled some two miles down the road towards Urbisaglia. We parked our bicycles in the garden and while Giorgio took me round the grounds, Franco reconnoitred the house to see if his father had any visitors or strangers about. The coast was clear, so hurriedly passing through the hall we entered the library, where the maid brought us cake and wine. For safety’s sake I had to pretend to be an Italian, so Franco arranged beforehand to speak a few sentences to me in rapid Italian to which I was to answer two or three words as previously directed, hoping the maid wouldn’t notice my deplorable accent. I didn’t understand a word of what he said, but answered as per plan and the maid appeared not to have noticed anything amiss.
The situation struck me as so comical, replying earnestly to what I didn’t understand, that when Giorgio cracked a joke I was glad of the ensuing laughter to let off a little steam of my own.
We heard the radio news and then I set off back across the country, as I didn’t relish walking that distance along the road after curfew. He had a beautiful villa and it was a mental tonic to be in a comfortable civilised house after living so long in prison and then the cottages of the peasants, and it was more than plucky of him to risk all this just to give me an evening’s entertainment.
Conditions were getting easier every day and we began to be lulled into a sense of false security. Two days later Mac and I walked down to Franco’s villa with some peasants in the early evening, and it was only a fortnight or so ago that we dared not leave the house at all. He came out into the garden to meet us, and had just heard the evening news. This was encouraging and our hopes rose at the prospect of an early deliverance. Back at the cottage Mac and I talked it over again.
“Thank God things are moving at last at Pescara. ‘Wonder
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how long they’ll be “.
“You can’t tell if it’s just patrol actions or the real thing. Frankly Mac, I’m a bit despondent”.
“I wouldn’t say I’M despondent, but just bored, plain bored. Day after day in this tiny cottage. If only I had some work to do”.
“First time I knew you liked work”.
“Oh, you know what I mean. Something to do other than just waiting”.
“And there’s nothing we can do about it, that’s what I hate. In the desert we had too much to do, and even in the Camp, we’d both got jobs. Here we just wait, bored with the monotony and yet praying that nothing would happen to disturb it. How long do you think it’s going to last?”
“Do you think the Jerries will retreat along this road. We’re right on the edge of it if anything happens”.
Before I could reply Maria came bustling into the room, full of importance and bearing two plates of nauseating ‘insalata’.
“Here’s your supper. Franco’s cook gave me a little oil so the ‘insalata’ is better than usual”.
“Thank you Maria”. I took one of the plates and tried to conceal my disgust at these filthy weeds “Much better. This reminds me of the fine dinners in my big house in London” – (one of my propaganda lines was to act the ‘great gentleman in misfortune’ and it always went down well with the credulous peasants) – Maria fairly purred at my clumsy flattery and was now in the mood I wanted her.
“Now that the Germans are retreating – (how I wished this were really true) – we must think what they will do. Do you think they will come back along this road?”
I wasn’t in the least interested in what she thought, but wanted to set her mind working.
“Yes, they must. There is no other.”
“Do you think it safe for you, as we are so near the road, to leave the cow and the pig where the Germans can easily take them?”
“But the Germans always pay good prices”.
“Oh, Maria, you do not understand. If they were retreating they would take everything without paying. And the planes will be bombing the vehicles on the road”.
The reference to bombing did the trick. Most Italians were mortally scared of planes, and poor Maria suddenly realised the possibilities.”
“Oh, Lorenzo. What shall we all do? You have been a soldier, you must tell us what is best”.
It was a dirty trick to work on her feelings purely for our own ends but it had to be done.
“You must find another farmer, far from the road, over the river, and move everything there. We will come too”.
“There is only Mino. We rent him some ground. He is a friend and would help us. I will see him tomorrow”.
We had achieved our object.
Though sincerely interested in the welfare of our benefactors, our chief concern in this life was ourselves, and it was with the object of establishing ourselves in an out-of-
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the-way farm that I had brought up the subject of looting and bombing.
It is only when the struggle for existence becomes hard and man’s nature is bared, that one learns how selfish are the best of us.
Maria was as good as her word, and lost no time in contacting Mimo, who, to my surprise, was quite prepared to accommodate the Rozzi, their livestock, and us as well.
The move was nearly arranged when two other prisoners, feeling over-confident and exposing themselves unnecessarily, were recaptured near Urbisaglia, immediately lowering the peasants’ morale and reversing the situation. The family over the river refused to take us and we had to stay on at the Rozzi and even they were a little nervous, so we had once again to say good-bye to all the other peasants and pretend that this time it was Mac and I who were going to attempt to cross the lines at Pescara. As this stratagem had already been tried once and was still fresh in the peasants’ minds we had to vacate our bedroom and live in the loft, a tiny little room, too low to stand upright, and allow Maria or Teresa to show our friends the empty bedroom below, while we waited in silence above. These little deceits now seem so petty and feeble, but at the time they were the only measures I could see to ensure the peasants not letting a word slip out in the wrong place. This period was the most boring we had, as we had long ago exhausted our small stock of books, and continual conversation palled – our only bright spot was a self-tutor ‘English for Italians’ which Franco had given us, and from which, by working backwards, I was able to pick up quite a lot of elementary grammar and conversation, and I found my Italian rapidly improving.
We only visited one house during this late November period, the cottage where lived the two prisoners whom we had met three weeks ago. We had to do this very secretly and I was afraid their peasants might talk about our visit afterwards, but I was tempted to go because they had electric light and a radio, and so we would hear up-to-date war news. This was not very encouraging on the Pescara front, only the routine patrol activities being mentioned. Mario Cestarelli from Colmurano called once or twice, giving us the news of events there, and generally cheering us up with his conversation. As this man was a known anti-Fascist it was plucky of him, and countless others like him, to risk their lives and possessions every day, just to give help and information to English prisoners, Italian anti-Fascists and democrats. All over Italy this was going on, not with any definite organisation, but just local patriots, doing their best under difficult circumstances to combat Fascism in every way they could.
The situation was getting more tense. I cannot record any definite day or action, but at the time I sensed the peasants were getting more afraid, and communicating their nervousness to us. Mac and I suggested leaving altogether if the Rozzi were afraid to keep us, but Maria would not hear of that.
She had thought of bricking in their small room upstairs and now conceived the idea of walling in the two ends of the tiny passage between the parlour and the cowshed. This would completely enclose the space under the stairs – a glance at the house plane will explain this. We spent all our time on the first floor, so intended to cut a hole in this at the top of the stairs, through which we could descend into the hide-out below, while Maria could delay opening the front door.
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It was a fantastic plan, and I thought it too elaborate for us to execute successfully, but when Franco called next time he was quite impressed with Maria’s idea, and promised to arrange for the manager of the local brickyard, which he owned, to call on us one night.
Two days later this man called, and when it was dark and the roads deserted, he and Mac went down to the brickyard. Here, waiting for them, was a heavy barrow-load of bricks, estimated sufficient for our plan, which the two of them pushed back to our cottage. It was too dark to work by the light of the tiny oil lamp, so we stowed them away under the stairs and waited for the morrow.
[Two hand drawn sketches showing the room layout of the Rozzi’s cottage. One is before the alterations for the hiding place had taken place and the other is after the alterations had been completed.]
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The next day we commenced work, hoping to finish it in one day, for if any strangers called and saw a half finished wall in the parlour, it would be more than difficult for the two sisters to explain it away. But it was too big a job and we had to take two days, and were fortunate that they passed without interruption. I thought the actual brick-laying would be easy, but we spoilt so many bricks in cutting them to fit, that in the end we had only just enough to finish the job.
The final result was better than we had dared to hope.
We dirtied the bricks on the stable side so as to harmonise with the rest of the wall, whilst the opening leading in to the parlour we bricked in, not flush, but some eight inches back, forming a recess which we painted and fitted up with shelves. It was perfectly camouflaged.
The trap-door upstairs was our difficulty, and we could do no better than cover it and the whole of the stone floor with saw-dust, and hope it would pass unobserved.
It was such a small house that if the Fascists ever searched it and tried to account for every inch of space I considered they were bound to discover this hiding place despite its camouflage, so we only intended to use it in an emergency and to escape into the country if we had sufficient warning.
It was early December. Mac and I were in our room upstairs one evening when we heard footsteps approaching the house.
A pause … the door bolted and barred as usual, shook as though some-one was trying to force it open. A heavy blow from a brick on the door and “Aprite – Open” brought us to our senses.
We made one dive for our trap-door, pulled it down over us, and waited, trembling with excitement and fear. Franco and Mario Cestarelli were still calling occasionally despite the danger, but they never announced themselves like this.
Through the walls of our hide-out we heard Maria fumbling with the bolts, the door opened, and a cheery English voice enquired ” Mac? Lorenzo? Dove state?”
I looked at Mac – “It’s Harry”.
We waited a second to make sure, and heard Jack’s voice – “Piano Maria, piano, non capisco cosi svelto” (slowly, Maria, slowly. I do not understand so quickly).
“That’s them alright” and we clambered up the ladder out of the hiding place to meet the amazed faces of Jack and Harry who had not seen this alteration before.
“Where the devil have you two come from? Got a secret panel in the house?” Harry looked both astonished and amused.
“You damned fools. What do you want to come banging us up like that for, scaring us out of our wits? Why couldn’t you whisper at the window as you used to?”
Jack stepped in between us “The welcome home. Use those wits wits you were talking of. How did we know if you were still here? We might have landed Maria in trouble if there had been any strangers in the house”.
“Yes – hmm – I suppose you’re right. Sorry Harry, but you know you know we’re all a bit on edge nowadays. Come up into our room and let’s hear what you’ve been up to”.
The four of us entered our upstairs room, and squatting on the straw mattress on the floor, Harry began his tale.
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“You remember that shortly after we left you to live with the Astolfi, they moved lock, stock and barrel over to Loro Piceno. Well, of course, we moved with them, but only stayed there a few days. Did you hear of the two prisoners who were caught outside the village?”
“Yes, in early November. Why, that wasn’t you, was it?”
“No, but it scared the Astolfi family all the same, and as everyone round about was getting the wind up as well, Jack and I decided to clear out while the going was good”.
“Why didn’t you come back to Colmurano?”
“You haven’t enough food to keep us have you? And we didn’t know anyone else, so we thought we’d have a shot at Pescara”.
“To get across the lines? Surely that’s nearly impossible now”.
“Well, we thought we’d try. We did it in easy stages, about fifteen miles a day. That’s quite a bit across country, you know”.
“I’ll say it was” butted in Jack “I’ve lost pounds in weight But it was grand walking. If it hadn’t been for the Fascists I should have enjoyed it”.
“For the first few days” interrupted Harry, anxious to resume his tale “As we got further South the Ities got more and more windy. We had to try six or seven houses before we could get a meal, and as for sleeping in their stables – they were terrified at the idea”.
“Did you sleep out then?”
“In a way, yes. When it was dark we would go up to a haystack, pull down enough straw to make ourselves comfortable and bury ourselves in it”.
“What did the peasants say?”
“If we woke up in time, we cleared off before they were about, but even if they caught us in their straw – it happened I think only three times – there wasn’t much they could do about it. I tried to look tough, and asked them for breakfast as well”.
“Damn me, You’ve got a nerve. Did you usually get one”.
“At first, yes. But as got nearer the Front there were more Jerries about, chiefly on the roads, but it made the peasants scared of reprisals if we were caught on their premises. Even before we reached the real military areas the peasants refused to give us any bread, let alone a decent meal”.
“The rotters” exclaimed Mac “Our fellows are fighting to give them their liberty and they wouldn’t even spare you a piece of bread”.
“Oh, no” corrected Jack “That’s not fair. The peasants were always as friendly as they dared to be. It was pretty dangerous, you know. Everyone had to have a special visa in those areas. You can hardly blame them. There was a big risk of being found out. We were lucky to get back OK”.
“What made you come back in the end?” I asked.
“Hunger” Harry answered ” I got that old Camp feeling again. If we’d hung around there any longer we’d have been too weak to make the journey back. It’s no use without better plans. You want a map, revolver and plenty of food, and then you’ll probably get caught”.
“Did you have any trouble getting back up here?”
“No, bar the usual little scares. There are a number of our fellows who can’t find anyone to keep them, and who can’t get across the lines either. They’re in a sorry state, wandering all over the country. We nearly got nabbed once by a search party, but we got away OK”. I envied his nonchalant
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air of dismissing his adventures. Evidently the experience had hardened them.
“Well, I suppose we had better get you both fixed up here for a bit, but who is going to take you now they’re all so windy, I don’t know” – and so we made out a list of ‘possibles’. Old Alfredo, whose house was only a few hundred yards away, had been fond of Harry in the past, and when we asked him, agreed to hide him, temporarily at any rate.
But we were undecided what would be best for Jack. He could live with us at the Rozzi willingly, but their food was running low, and as he knew several families in Loro Piceno, he thought he would try his luck there once again. A week later I heard he had found a family a considerable distance from the village, who would keep him, provided he worked for them.
These troubles had only just been settled when one afternoon in mid-December, Giorgio, Franco’s friend, called in a state of great excitement.
“Hello Giorgio, sit down, where’s Franco today?”
“No, I won’t sit down, I haven’t time. Franco is out warning some other prisoners but he knew you would understand my Italian, so he sent me to warn you”.
“Warn us. What’s wrong?”
“About forty English prisoners have escaped from Sforzacosta and the Fascists from Urbisaglia are searching for them”.
A few days after we escaped from this Camp, the remaining prisoners were evacuated to Germany, and then it was left empty for some time, until the Fascists began to recapture odd prisoners here and there, and to keep them at Sforzacosta until there were sufficient to make up a party worth while to send away. It was such a party that managed to escape on the 16th December, and of course was comprised of men who had escaped before and knew their way about the country, and they probably kept moving all night until they reached at least the San Ginesio area. However, there might have been one or two who wished to recoup their strength and were hiding near the Camp, so the Fascists began searching the area near Urbisaglia and were coming our way across the country.
“What had we better do? How far away are the search parties now?”
“You can wait here another half an hour. By then it will be dusk and you should hide near the river. Cross to the other bank so you can escape towards Loro Piceno if it becomes dangerous here”.
“Right, Giorgio, thanks for the warning. Let the Rozzi know when the search is over. Now you had better be off”.
“Good-bye. Take care”.
Giorgio pedalled off down the road and we collected a few items of essential kit, concealing the remainder in our hiding place beneath the stairs.
As we had ample warning we did not intend to use the hiding place and were preparing to leave the house to hide by the river when we noticed a youngster outside trying to get the old father to open the door and let him in. Anything outside his normal routine existence was too much for the old fellow and he was insisting that the boy inspected the cabbage patch he had just dug, but the youngster looked so agitated and kept pointing up at our windows that although we did not know him we guessed he must have some urgent news, so went down to let him in.
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THE PIANCATELLI FAMILY.
[Four black & white photographs with captions. The first photo has the caption “Enrico & Sons Ploughing on flat land near the main road”. The second photo has the caption “Piancatelli farmhouse cowsheds & stores on ground floor & living rooms above”. The third photo has the caption “General view of countryside”. The last photo has the caption “Piancatelli haystack, similar to one which we hid during searches”.]
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He quickly told us about the escapes from Sforzacosta and invited us to hide in his ‘grotto ‘ (cave) which was near his house some three hundred yards away. We had never been there before and did not know if they were trustworthy, but he seemed so anxious for our safety that we decided to chance it. We had only to wait a quarter of an hour before it was dusk and then followed him across the fields to his father’s farm, which appeared well-stocked and boasted several large haystacks, to one of which he took us. It was then that I realised what he had meant by ‘grotto ‘ for the haystack had a low passage running through the centre, used for keeping ploughs etc. during the winter, and if blocked up with hay at each end would form a perfect hiding place. This we did as well as we could, for it was now quite dark, and then met the rest of the Piancatelli family in the house, which was well over a hundred yards from the road. A side lane connected this with the house and could be easily watched from the kitchen window, at which the children took turns at sentry-go.
Our first social duty was to enquire the name and age of every member of the family, and as there were nine of them and each one wanted to be presented first, this important rite took some time. We then had a light supper and this was followed by the inevitable barrage of questions concerning ourselves, as though we were applying for a job – name, age, married or single, Army rank, civilian employment, number of brothers and sisters etc. etc. Our Italian was still very limited, but we were able to answer simple questions like these to their evident delight and satisfaction. The Piancatelli were a lively family and after a time I could see this prosaic conversation would soon begin to pall, so suggested one of them should give us a song, and this happened to be just the right note to strike. The eldest daughter, Ligia, and Mario, the youngster who had fetched us, therefore obliged with one of those peasant songs that seem to consist of countless verses and only boast a range of two or three notes, but we had to sit through it, and we regarded our smiles of appreciation and words of flattery in the light of payment for the board and lodging we had received. Events took an unwelcome turn when in reply they asked us to sing an English song, and I was so embarrassed at this prospect that I could only think of ‘God save the King’ which was received with suitable applause.
But the time was getting late and the Piancatelli were a little frightened as several vehicles had passed on the road, so we said good-night and buried ourselves in the middle of the haystack, uncomfortable but safe. The night passed uneventfully and our first job next morning was to perfect our hiding place, so with straw from another haystack we finished blocking both ends of the passage running through the stack, leaving a tiny hole at the side furtherest from the road, through which we could crawl. Once inside we placed a few odd sheaves in place and no one could tell that it wasn’t a perfectly normal haystack.
We spent the first morning inside the stack, as we had no accurate information where the Fascist patrols actually were, but in the afternoon we were able to wait about in the house and farmyard, because the children were back from school, and their ever—watchful eyes would soon have detected any strangers. Twice during this time Mac and I had to bolt suddenly for our haystack when cars carrying Fascist Militia passed on the road,
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and in the early evening we had a real scare.
One of the boys from Anna’s house down by the river came panting up to the Piancatelli gasping out that a patrol of Fascists was searching the river banks. This farm was less than a hundred yards away from the river. We just had time to get inside our haystack and put our camouflage in position when, listening breathlessly, we heard some voices in the yard outside.
We recognised Enrico, the father of the Piancatelli, several of the children and one or two unknown voices. They were laughing and joking so evidently nothing was amiss, but an hour elapsed before Mario pulled away some straw, poked in his head and said it was safe to come out. The whole family gathered round us, jabbering excitedly, and we gradually pieced together what had happened. The main body of the patrolling Fascists had continued up the river, as this was the most obvious place to find escapees, whilst on either side of the river two parties of two searched any other likely places. One of these pairs had come to the Piancatelli and asked them routine questions – “Whom have you in your house?” – “Have you seen any strangers?” – to which they received the expected routine replies. Old man Enrico had some excellent wine, which we went to get from his cellar, and he told me one of the Fascists went with him and had a good look round the wine-cellar and stables, but I strongly suspect this was only an embellishment of his own, for like many Italians he loved to put on an air of extravagant bravado.
The supper that evening was rather hurried, for although it was unlikely there would be a search in the dark, we had had a close shave and didn’t want to risk another. We had also to consider the psychology of the peasants. If we acted prudently now they would have more confidence in our judgement, and would probably keep us again in times of danger, whereas if we were rash they might fear that we would endanger them as well, and refuse to help us another time.
The next day passed peacefully. Although we kept a sharp look-out nothing happened, and in the evening Maria Rozzi came across saying that Franco had called with inside information from Urbisaglia that the search had been abandoned – no prisoners caught. This was grand news and so after supper we returned to the Rozzi.
During these few days we had got to know and like the Piancatelli well for they did everything they could to please us and we never had a dull moment. It was very plucky of them to take us in at this dangerous time, particularly as they had not known us previously, and although they didn’t want prisoners permanently, they made us promise to visit them regularly in the future.
This was the end of the trouble caused by the first escape from Sforzacosta, and our thoughts turned towards Christmas and home as the 25th December drew nearer. We had been unable of course to obtain any news from home since our escape, but what worried us more was that our families would have no news of us, merely learning after many months that we were not among those sent to Germany, and having no idea of our whereabouts or safety. Mario Cestarelli had taken a note from us to the Italian rebels to pass on to our own lines, but these rebels were probably overestimating their capabilities. Anyway, the message never reached my home.
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The peasants realised the trend of our thoughts at Christmas and tried to give us as happy a time as possible, and Franco, whom we had not seen for a month, kindly sent us a charming little Christmas Tree and a basket of festive foods – chicken, wine, oil and other ingredients which the Rozzi lacked. The celebrations lasted two days and we were spared any Fascist activity during this time. The evening of the 24th, St. Cecilia, is the Italians’ big feast, which we spent with Harry at Alfredo’s and Christmas Day itself we were at the Piancatelli, where we had another ‘musical’ evening listening to peasant songs. It was as jolly as our position allowed, but our thoughts over these two days were continually of home, and happier Christmases in the past. Jack was still living at Loro Piceno and on account of the recent searches thought it too risky to join us, so our party was incomplete.
We still considered it too dangerous to be seen about too openly, but in the evening used to walk to the Rozzi’s land across the river and bring back some firewood as we always seemed short of this and the weather was getting colder. The poorer Italian peasants have a simple way of procuring firewood or vegetables. They wait until it is dark and then steal their neighbours’, despite the fact that they are all the best of friends and possibly the neighbour may be invited to supper, to eat his own cabbages cooked over his own wood. They see nothing peculiar in these arrangements and jokingly refer to one of their number as a ‘svelto ‘, a word meaning a mixture of cleverness, cunning and downright dishonesty, and a young fellow is proud of this title. However, there are certain things that are ‘not done’. No self-respecting peasant would dream of stealing chickens or rabbits or ‘polenta’ flour, but it is quite the thing to obtain any vegetables or firewood by this method; how the line of distinction originally came to be drawn is difficult to see.
Every evening after Christmas Mac and I used to go for walks in the dark to stretch our limbs, until the last day of the year when in the evening it began to snow heavily. This continued all night and when we woke to the first morning of the New Year (1944) we found the whole countryside white with snow, three or four feet deep. The Italian scenery is beautiful in all seasons but with this covering of snow, and the background of the white mountains it looked superb and wonderfully peaceful. However, our immediate concern was to dig a path to the well so we could have our morning cup of coffee, made from ground, roasted corn, and our second task was to make a pathway to the pigsty and take its occupant her breakfast. With these two jobs completed, there was no more work to be done so we amused ourselves by digging a pathway through the snow, along the national road, to link up with the various houses we knew. It was grand to be able to work outside, completely free from any fear of observation or capture, as no one could cross the countryside at all and the roads were practically impassable.
Two days later I paid a visit to the Piancatelli in the daytime, meeting a lady and her son who lived near but whom I had not met before. This apparently harmless visit might have had unfortunate consequences for it transpired later that this lady was the wife of the leader of the Fascists at Porto San Giorgio and an ardent party member herself. I had not told her exactly where I lived but it was obviously a house within a few hundred yards as travel beyond that distance was almost impossible in the snow, and I bitterly blamed the Piancatelli for not telling me she was inside before I entered the house.
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However, the harm was done and there was nothing we could do except await events.
The Italians hold a big feast on Epiphany, 6th January, and we were fortunate in being invited to the house of Franco’s confidential steward, a gentleman of some local consequence and absolute integrity who entertained us royally and where we were able to hear the English news for the first time in seven weeks. This latter was necessary as by it we could assess our chances of reaching our own lines and also pass on some useful propaganda to the peasants, who were all too easily encouraged by any little superficial success of our Forces and equally disheartened at a minor reverse.
The calm over Christmas and the fall of snow at the New Year we hoped would herald a period of tranquillity, and the absence of any traffic on the snow-bound roads made us think the winter – and safety – had set in for several months. It was more than a shock when in the evening of the 7th January Franco and Giorgio called at the Rozzi, having waded through the snow two miles from his villa.
“Good evening, how are you?” Franco had an almost old-world courtesy even when there wasn’t a minute to lose.
“Glad to see you again, and you Giorgio. What’s the bad news you’ve brought us this time?” It was a bitterly cold night and they wouldn’t have struggled this far unless the matter was urgent.
“It is the same as last time. Some more prisoners have escaped from Sforzacosta and the Fascists are sending out Patrols I fear the prisoners will not get far in this weather”.
“I suppose we had better clear out, Mac. It’s too late to go to the Piancatelli, they’ll all be in bed now”.
“I think you should go down to the river. You know the little dam? Well, there is a sluice-gate there and by it a little hut. That will keep off the wind”.
“Yes, I know it. We’ll put our kit in the hiding place, and go and warn Harry. He’s only a hundred yards up the road”.
Maria and Teresa usually came in when Franco paid us a visit, for although they were wonderfully good and risked everything for us, yet they were irritatingly inquisitive and hated to miss anything. We had been talking in English when Maria interrupted to ask Franco what it was all about.
He explained. “They must not go” she exclaimed “we have the hiding place. No one will find you there”.
“No Maria. The hiding place is well made, but it is too big. They are bound to notice it if they search the house”.
“They didn’t search the house last time. And you know they never search at night”.
“No. They haven’t done so far, you’re right. Shall we go down to the river till midnight and then if everything seems quiet, return?”
“That would be our best plan” Mac replied “It’s too cold to stay out all night”.
“Alright then. Thanks again Franco. You had better get off home now in case they call and find you away. Good-night. Buona sera Giorgio”.
“Buona sera e Buona Fortuna”.
They opened the door and a gust of icy wind and snow flakes blew into the house – “Gosh, what a night” – and the two youths started their homeward trek through the snow, cheerfully risking imprisonment, and worse, just to warn two foreigners they hardly knew.
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We quickly stowed our kit under the stairs and hurried up the road to warn Harry. He always tended to take unnecessary risks and minimise the danger and as the Fascists hadn’t searched the houses last time he decided to stay indoors all night and chance it, remaining fully-dressed and on the alert.
Mac and I made our way down to the river and soon found the little hut Franco had mentioned. We took it in turns to watch, for it was a bright moonlit night and any movement would stand out black against the snow. If we were caught unawares we should stand little chance of getting away. Nothing happened however, so when we estimated two or three hours had passed we returned to the Rozzi, and after bolting all the doors securely went to bed, leaving the trapdoor open for a sudden entry.
This turned out to be a false alarm as far as our immediate environs were concerned although several houses were searched near the Camp. These scares were getting too frequent, and we could not hope to be always so lucky, so Mac and I spent the following evening at Alfredo’s discussing leaving the district as it was too near the Camp. Harry knew more about the country than Mac and I, as he, with Jack, had attempted to cross the lines at Pescara in November, so we listened attentively to his advice.
“Most of the peasants are friendly and will give you a meal, but they are scared to have you in their houses to sleep at night, in case you get caught on their premises. I should travel light, leave everything behind. The further South you go, the worse it gets”.
“Which direction would you go?” enquired Mac,”The weather is so bad I don’t like the idea of going to the mountains”.
“The mountains are safer. The rebel bands are up there and the peasants aren’t so scared to help you. But the snow will be deeper, perhaps it would be better to strike South-East, towards the coast where there are more farms and the weather will be easier. I’m staying on at Alfredo’s a bit longer to see how things turn out”.
“I should prefer to go to the mountains and try to contact one of the rebel bands” I said “We have been in this cottage four months and the restriction, constant tension and passive waiting are getting me down. I think a little activity would do us both good”.
“The rebels are poorly armed. And would they take us if we had no arms for ourselves?”
“Mario Cestarelli would know. He’s in contact with all sorts of people. I’ll write a note to him, and to Franco, and see if they can suggest anything”.
The two notes were written, and taken to Colmurano and Urbisaglia by some peasant women whom Maria knew were trustworthy I have often wondered how many of the peasants one saw everyday were playing a small part in the struggle against the Fascists, how many apparently innocent journeys to the local market were in reality just excuses to carry message and arms about the country.
Franco replied immediately, sending money and a letter by one of his servants he feared he was under observation and dared not come himself. Mac and I split the money and eagerly read his note. He had heard that the Fascists in Urbisaglia were making preparations again and thought it best
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for us to get away whilst we could. He had no definite ideas where to go, but vaguely suggested the rebels.
The following day Mario called in person, but he too was suspect and so had to camouflage his visit by a totally unnecessary inspection of a grain store a little way down the road. He had mentioned before that he knew several rebels and suggested a scheme that greatly took my fancy.
“There is a rebel captain I know, Faliero, who visits me every time he passes through Colmurano. He travels about the country a lot collecting information and getting recruits for his band. I am expecting him again to-night or tomorrow night, and will tell him you are keen to join”.
“Thank you Mario, that’s just what we want. Will you send for us as soon as the captain arrives?”
“Yes. If he is willing, we will both come down here and he will give you your instructions”.
“Good. Do you know where his band is?”
“Er – no” liar, I thought, but I suppose he had to be very discreet “But Faliero will explain everything when he comes. I must go now and have another look at the grain magazine”.
“Right-ho. You must keep up appearances as a respectable citizen. Thanks very much”.
He left the house, and we saw him hurrying down the road for all the world like an ordinary little Government Official. He gave no impression at all of courage or initiative, no-one could have suspected him as the liaison between the rebels and the more passive Anti-Fascists in Colmurano.
“What do you think of it, Mac? If this captain turns up it will be just what we want”.
“Yes. If he turns up? If he doesn’t, I feel inclined to stay on here. The Rozzi are prepared to take the risk and Harry is staying”.
“I know, but this district is gradually getting hotter and we shall have to leave soon”.
“Why not wait until the Spring, when the snow will have cleared a little? You can’t travel far across the country now, you’ll have to stick to the roads”.
“We can travel at night. It will be safer that way”.
“Well let’s wait a few days in case this Faliero fellow puts in an appearance” It was clear Mac wouldn’t leave unless Faliero did come.
I waited several days, but there was no word from Mario. I was impatient to be away and feared the captain would never come, so spent my time studying a crude map of the country that I had copied from a road-map of Franco’s. This gave an idea of the position if the various villages through which I should have to pass.
After three days had passed and there was still no sign of this captain, I gave him up and decided to risk it alone, and make for Sanginesio, a small walled town eight miles from Colmurano, in the foothills of the mountains. I chose this place because a rebel band had recently driven the Fascists out and held it for two days against all comers, and it appeared that it might become a headquarters of organised resistance and I hoped to be able to contact some of the rebels there.
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Accordingly, on the 14th January I bade farewell to Harry, Alfredo and the Piancatelli. They were all much against it, imploring me to stay, minimising the danger in Colmurano and pointing out the hardships in the snow-covered mountains; but I had made up my mind. I entrusted my incriminating diaries – from which this account is compiled – to Mac in case I was caught, and in the middle of the night left him and the Rozzi and set off up the main road, along which a path through the snow had been dug, wide enough to take a small cart. As it was not a practicable proposition to travel any distance over the country while the snow was on the ground, I was forced to use the national road, and this meant travelling at night. I did not know how far I should be able to walk after living indoors since September, but estimated I could manage a three hour tramp, and if I arranged this to end about dawn I should be able to find a house in which to hide during the day, continuing my walk the following night.
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Chapter 4. Winter in the Foothills of the Apennines.
The prospect of leaving for the rebels must have overexcited me because I woke up early and left the Rozzi’ s house much too soon.
It was a beautiful calm night, crisp and clear, and for the first half hour I enjoyed tramping up the road on the hard trodden snow but after a while realised I was not very fit after months indoors, and burdened with my greatcoat and pack began to feel very weary. I had no watch, and had estimated the time by the stars, but was woefully out in my calculations, for although I passed kilo-stone after kilo-stone I saw no prospect of dawn in the sky. It was an eerie sensation, tramping all alone in the moonlight in a strange country, not a sound from anywhere. It seemed as if I were in another world, and even the sleeping villages through which I passed seemed unreal in their quietness. But with every step I was feeling more tired, and despite the cold after four or five miles I desperately needed a rest, so sat down in the snow with my back against a tree. It was fatal to remain sitting in the cold for long, but I could not help falling asleep for a few moments, only waking when my head dropped with a jerk on my chest, recalling me to my senses, when I once more set off along the road. I felt compelled to have three of these breaks and not long after the this was so exhausted that I had to find somewhere to sleep, preferably some shed or outbuilding, a few yards off the road.
It was still night and no farmer would have opened his doors to any stranger in the dark in those troubled times.
Shortly after I had decided to rest, I saw the ideal spot, a barn near a farmhouse on the outskirts of a little hamlet, sufficiently far from this and the road to be safe for a day, so I climbed a ladder to its upper floor which was open to the four winds, and settled down on a bed of dried reeds and sticks. It would have been impossible to sleep here normally, for it was bitterly cold and the bed too uncomfortable, but the walking and difficult terrain had so played me out I think I could have slept on the proverbial clothes line, and I didn’t wake up till next morning when the peasant moving about below disturbed me. He looked rather surprised when I descended the ladder into his yard and I admit I must have looked a weird object with an Army greatcoat, civilian trousers, my pack slung over my back and literally to crown it all my large black, wide-brimmed hat which I had borrowed from the imbecile father of the Rozzi.
“I am an English prisoner. May I come into your house to warm myself?” This was not really a question, but rather a statement of fact that I was coming in, whether he liked it or not, but it seemed more polite to appear to ask his permission.
“Yes. Come in…Maria. Maria (I have hardly met a family whose members did not include at least one Maria). “Here is an English prisoner, make him some coffee and toast. Sit down by the fire, you look so cold . What is your name?”
“Lorenzo. I am very hungry and cold. I have been walking all night”. When one’s knowledge of a language is limited, it is difficult to avoid plain, rough statements of facts.. take it or leave it style… but I didn’t want to create any false impression of incivility. “What are your children’s names?”
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“My son Ennio, he is fourteen, and my daughter Maria” (one more, I thought) “she is seventeen”.
I addressed myself to the latter “Have you a ‘fidanzato’. Somewhere half-way between a mere boy-friend and a proper fiancee”.
A shy reply of “no” and an immediate pre—occupation in preparing my toast.
“I do not believe it. How could such a beautiful girl be without many suitors?” I dread to contemplate the effect of such an outburst in England when had been in the house less than five minutes, but I had come to know the Italian ways and this was just the right note to strike.
The boy, Ennio, jumped up excitedly “She has, she has, there’s Quinto, who called five times last week”.
It was not for me but to buy father’s eggs”she quickly replied, but with her colour mounting, and soon the rest of the family and I were roaring with laughter over her confusion. The Italian peasant likes his jokes obvious, and there are no such things as delicate feelings or ‘private’ lives.
Confidence having been established, I was soon made to feel at home, and commenced my toast and coffee, whilst Maria scraped the caked mud off my boots, to the accompaniment of the inevitable series of questions regarding my age, rank, marital status and all the other questions so beloved by the peasantry, but this time I was not merely paying a social call but making for Sanginesio, so cut them a little short and asked them how far it was. It came as a shock when they pointed out a picturesque town on a high hill, only a mile and a half the other side of the main road, as according to my map it was still several miles away, and in any case I had heard no shooting or activity. When questioned on this point they said the rebels had been driven out by the Fascists only a few days ago, and on learning that I intended to join them they strongly advised against it, saying they were ill-armed and had no discipline or organisation; when I persisted they told me that a certain rebel lieutenant often passed by this way and next time they would stop him. In view of this and the fact that they said it was impossible to obtain any food in the mountains, which were only another two miles on, I decided to accept their invitation to stay a few days instead of forging ahead immediately. This gave me a chance to see this rebel chief and also to rest my weary feet.
I passed three days in this farm outside the village of Santa Croce, trying to obtain all the information about the district I could from the family. On the second day another prisoner called in, returning from Santa Croce on his way back to his house. He looked tanned and fit, his Army greatcoat (in daytime) buttoned up and a scarf flung round his neck –
“Welcome to Happy Valley, old man” was his astonishing greeting – was he advertising a holiday camp? – “You’ve picked the best spot in the whole of Italy. Where have you come from Did you escape from 53?”
I briefly told him my tale, and the growing unrest at Urbisaglia.
“Well, you’re alright here. The Fascists have taken over Sanginesio again, but this part of the country is too deep in snow for them to bother us much. You see that ridge running along the East of the national road for miles. I live in the valley on the other side. There, are over a dozen POW’s scattered about in farms there, and I’ve heard one of the peasants is willing to take another one, so if you’re wise you’ll accept his offer”.
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“Thanks for the advice, but I came up here with the intention of joining the rebels. The constant confinement at Colmurano got me down and I want a little more excitement. The Vissani, the family here, seem all against it however and say I can stay with them. But it’s too near the road”.
“Yes. This house is no good, but it would be alright across the ridge where I am. There’s no need to stay indoors at all, everyone knows where I live but they are all trustworthy. It’s a sort of rebel sphere of influence, you see. You’re alright provided you keep clear of the main road and towns”.
“Could you give me any reliable ‘griff’ (Army slang for information/news) about the rebels round here?”
“Yes…” and he rambled off into a stream of reminiscences..
As he had been living near the mountains for several months he had come into casual contact with quite a number but confirmed the Vissani s opinion that they were ill —armed and now doing little useful work. In the past they had occupied a village for a few days, opened the Government grain store and sold the grain at cheap rates to the local peasants, giving first preference to those families shielding prisoners or refugees. This done, they would leave the village and return to their hiding places. On these expeditions they were often assisted, or at least never hindered, by the Carabinieri – the Italian national police – but they always ran the risk of being surprised by a patrol of the Fascists Militia, and several small skirmishes had occurred. The rebels were doing a useful job of work in robbing these granaries, but now most of this work had been done and many bands were degenerating into mere bandits, plundering anybody and everybody, solely for the sake of their personal gain.
“So you see” he continued “It is really better to settle down in some peasant’s house and keep out of the way of trouble. You can always change your mind later”.
“Well you live here and ought to know. If this fellow comes who is willing to take a prisoner, I’ll go with him and see how it turns out”.
“Yes I should. I’ll be seeing you in a few days. Cheerio. Arrivederci Maria” and he stepped out into the snow and was soon lost to view on the winding road leading to the top of the ridge.
The rest of the day I spent with the Vissani, getting to know them and the district better. I was tempted to accept their offer and make their house my permanent home, but although they were a jolly and hospitable family, the house was too near the main road and I had had enough anxiety on this score at the Rozzi.
In the early afternoon a priest called at the cottage. He had evidently heard of my arrival for he evinced no surprise at seeing me and addressed me in English –
“Good morning. How are you? Are you well?”
Thank goodness for some—one who could speak my mother tongue. “Yes I am well. How are you? Are you the priest of the village of Santa Croce across the national road?”
He stared at me blankly and as the peasants were watching, replied in some confusion “I no understand”.
I repeated my question in Italian and we were soon getting along famously. It was sometime before it dawned on me that he only knew those three phrases in English, and thus habitually addressed every Englishman he met, thereby impressing the peasants with his learning and culture. He was a good fellow
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THE LUCARELLI FAMILY.
[Four black and white photographs with captions. The first photo has the caption “The Lucarelli family. Grandma, Mother, Maria, Son Primo, Father Giovanni, Daughter Isolina”. The second photo has the caption “Lucarelli Ploughing, Semi-walled town of San Ginesio on hilltop in the distance”. The third photo has the caption “Lucarelli Cottage, outside staircase to living rooms The Barn where I slept in background”. The last photo has the caption “Another view of Lucarelli cottage; sheep pen on left under the bedroom window”.]
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however, and apart from showing a slight disappointment when I told him I was a Protestant and not a Catholic, he was most friendly. He had a relation living over the ridge who was willing to hide a prisoner and the priest had asked him to call on me; and later in the afternoon I had a visit from this peasant in whose house I was to live until our troops reached us.
I was rather startled by his appearance when he first entered the cottage. Above average height but slightly stooping, he looked rather emaciated and thin, his cheek bones prominent, but the most outstanding features were his beak-like nose and keen, glittering eyes. His dress was weird in the extreme. Broken down boots laced up with string, trousers patched and torn, and slung over everything a swanky black cape, that with his beaky nose gave him quite a bird —like appearance. This was strengthened by a comical little fur cap pulled well down over his ears. Obviously a ‘character’ and more intelligent than the average peasant.
To my delight he spoke English, or rather a form of American slang, which, though difficult to understand at first, soon came to me quite naturally. He had spent several years in the USA as a labourer, and had picked up all the Yankee idioms.
“Them priest tell me you was here, so I come to ask, see you are comfortable. Alfredo, this man here, a good man, but him house too near the road. You come to my house, up above there, long way from road, you be safe”.
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you. Alfredo has been good to me here, but I don’t wish to stay as this is not a good place. Where is your house? Can I see it from here?”
He took me outside.
“You see them hill (the ridge running alongside the national road) and them roof (the top of a roof was just visible over the skyline) my house is next to them house up there”.
“A good place. How can I find my way through the snow?”
“I will ask Alfredo to bring you up. You come when you want. Ask for John, my name – in my language Giovanni”.
“Thanks. I’ll come tomorrow and bring my things”.
“Bad times..” He shook his head mournfully and I thought I was in for a bout of Italian emotionalism, but no – “Bad times for you, but bad times for us too. That son of a bitch (all the American-speaking Italians knew this phrase) Mussolini, he make trouble for everyone in all the world. Him Re (Re is Italian for king, and Giovanni had learned that this word was different in the two languages) Him Re just the same, make trouble for everyone. I am Anti-Fascists, that’s why I work on my farm”.
This was all rather confusing, and I feared was only the usual line the peasants always told us, that they were Anti-Fascists etc. etc., and always had been pro-British. But I later learned that Giovanni was a serious, if somewhat muddled, Socialist and had resigned a local Government appointment in Sanginesio when the Fascists came into power, refusing to work under them. This required great moral courage, and afterwards he could get no other work in the town so despite his ill-health he had to return to his farm where he had lived ever since. By sheer luck I had encountered that rare Italian, a consistent and effective Anti-Fascist, and throughout the following five months he helped me through thick and thin.
“I must go now, my wife waiting for me. I expect you tomorrow. Buona Fortuna”.
“Goodbye Giovanni. I’ll see you tomorrow” and I returned to the house to explain to Alfredo
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to the house to explain to Alfredo why I was going away and to thank him for his help.
The following day, January 17th, was an important date for prisoners in this district as British planes dropped leaflets offering a reward of 5,000 lire for anyone shielding prisoners, and generally exhorting the peasants to help us all they could. This was very encouraging to us for as well as influencing the peasants on our behalf, it was the first sign we had that it was officially known there were prisoners in hiding who needed assistance. The leaflet was well written. With its simple and plain language it evoked an enthusiastic reception from the farmers, who were very excited about it, and about the promised 5,000 lire.
Not so well written was a double page leaflet dropped at the same time relating to the Meeting of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at Teheran – the results of this conference were clearly set out, but I fear talk of democracy and freedom meant very little to the peasants, who have never had any experience of either; possibly if these had been dropped in the industrial areas amongst a more educated population they might have been appreciated, but they fell on barren ground in the countryside. Propaganda for these backward areas must be simple and straightforward, avoiding the least reference to theories and ethics.
The next day, after the usual breakfast of coffee and toast, I bade farewell to my temporary hosts, the Vissani. They were a generous friendly family, and I was sorry to leave them, but when the snow cleared the house’s proximity to the road would be dangerous, and I should have the same trouble as at Colmurano all over again. Alfredo, carrying my greatcoat, let the way up the winding path to Giovanni’s house, whilst I clambered up behind him, shouldering my pack. The snow here was quite deep, four or five feet in places, and even on this little track was an average of over two feet, so we took some time to reach the top of the ridge which I later estimated to be about 1800 feet up. We had to stop frequently to recover our breath, and when I turned at the summit to survey the countryside, was quite staggered with the beauty of the scene. Little farmsteads sprinkled about the landscape as though by a careless sower, the national road straight and uncompromising far below, and across this on the summit of the far hill the pretty town of Sanginesio with its snow-covered roofs and several campaniles shining in the bright sunlight. But although I appreciated this splendid panorama, my chief delight was in the isolation and remoteness of the little hamlet we were approaching, where was Giovanni’s house? There was the usual well, and a miniature village green, and round this huddled six stone houses, the oldest of which belonged to Giovanni Lucarelli. It looked so ancient that I enquired its age, and was told told it was five hundred years old, though it had been modernised seventy years ago.
All the living rooms were on the first floor – kitchen, parlour, bedroom and two small rooms that served as bedrooms for the son and daughter – and downstairs were the wine-cellar and sheep pen. The four cattle were kept in a separate building next door, the second story of which was one large room used as a grain store, and it was in here that they fitted up my rough bed of leaves sewn in a canvass palliasse. I had a fine view from my windows, looking over the valley towards the East,
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with the hillsides dotted with little farms, covered with snow as far as one could see. The terrain was so irregular, with its innumerable ridges and hills, that the view never seemed the same. Change your position, only a few yards, and an entire different aspect greeted you, all equally attractive and a mental tonic in a life so drab.
Giovanni Lucarelli, my new host, was out on my arrival, but his son, Primeto, about my own age, made me welcome, proudly showing me round the ‘estate’ a few ramshackle old outbuildings and pointing out which of the fields surrounding the hamlet belonged to the family. I had been in a number of different houses at Colmurano and soon realised that the Lucareili were fairly comfortably off according to peasant standards; for one thing they had a little parlour, whereas most of the peasants have only the kitchen as a general living room and another indication was the quantity of general household goods – plates, saucepans etc. of which many peasants have only the bare minimum. We had just completed our tour of the premises when Isolina, the daughter, returned from a day’s shopping at Sanginesio, and proudly displayed a few household articles which she had bought, explaining they were not really necessary but she liked to have a well-furnished house.
I was then introduced to the mother, Maria, who was a really kind old soul ever ready with material assistance to any passer-by in need; unfortunately she spoke in strong dialect and I found her difficult to understand, so we adopted the procedure that she should speak to Primeto or Isolina and they would pass on her remarks to me in correct Italian. I rapidly became accustomed to her ways and speech for most of the normal requirements, but even after many months I still had difficulty in carrying on a conversation. Such were our little trials.
Giovanni arrived in the evening in time for the supper which was a meal of ‘pastasciutta’ specially prepared in my honour. This was served in the parlour, with much pomp and circumstance, as the arrival of a prisoner was evidently considered an event of importance and they wished to create as good an impression as possible – providing a clean table-cloth, silver-plated cutlery and some of Giovanni’s unsurpassed wine. This may sound inverted – it was I who was receiving charity and I who should have been trying to create the impression, but all the peasants are proud of their scanty possessions and love to make a show. Possibly a little subtle propaganda I had indulged in at the Vissani may have helped to raise my stock. Thanks to Franco I was well-dressed for a prisoner and although I spoke little Italian, at least my grammar was reasonably correct which created a good impression, and last but by no means least I wore horn-rimmed spectacles. This latter remark may sound strange, until it is realised that hardly any of the peasants were known to have bad sight and to wear spectacles is regarded as the mark of the ‘city’ man of good education. They were very interested in all the information I could give them relating to Britain and the outside world, for their schooling is limited in scope and their newspapers – when they read any have been under strict censorship for years, and I regarded this as a good opportunity to broadcast a few English ideals amongst the peasants with whom I came in contact.
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Several other English prisoners living in the district had heard of my arrival and during the day came up to see me, size me up and hear what news I had to bring. There was a fine spirit of comradeship among most of the prisoners, and a new arrival was soon made to feel at home, and given all the information about the district – which peasants were shifty, which roads safe, which villages dangerous etc. etc. The most obvious example of this spirit was the way we never let another Englishman down in front of the Italians – for reasons of policy sometimes a prisoner would spin some unlikely yarn about his importance and wealth in England, and the Italians would invariably question all the others as to the tale’s veracity, and rarely would our answers fail to agree. It was normal to ask any newcomer what he was posing as, and back him up all the way. Many persons had different roles in different districts so their movements were more difficult to follow, and I myself had recourse to this when later on the move.
Other interesting personalities in our little hamlet were four Yugoslavians, one of whom, Tina, could speak halting English and whose acquaintance I made the first day. They had all been civilian internees and escaped after the Armistice, but they had the advantage of plenty of money and lived fairly well although exposed to the same risks of recapture. As persons of obvious breeding and education, their word carried some weight with the local peasants, encouraging them to keep both Yugoslavs and British when times were dangerous and the peasants were becoming frightened, and in thus helping themselves they rendered us valuable service.
On my second day at the Lucarelli two more prisoners called at the house, en route to a friend, so I went with them, getting to know some of the locals and the little footpaths across the countryside; this latter was important for although this district was at present deemed safe, it was chiefly on account of the deep snow and when the weather became warmer, this protection would no longer be with us.
The day after, Primeto took me through the snow to hear the radio at a nearby house. This was the first time I had heard it for a fortnight, but it was rather discouraging for it was always substantially the same; the Front at Pescara, from where our deliverance would come, was still static and showed no activity bar the normal patrols, so to cheer us up in this dreary and uninteresting hamlet, the Yugoslavians arranged a party that evening. This was the first of several such parties we had during the ‘winter season’ and helped to buck us up immensely. Present were our Yugoslavian hosts, the Italian peasants and usually two or three prisoners who would sometimes have to come a mile or two across the hills in the bitter cold, returning, well ‘fortified ‘ to their homes in the dark, floundering through the snow, often losing their way and arriving back hours late. Our life was terribly monotonous but these prisoners thought it worthwhile to venture out on those bleak nights for the sake of a few horse-play games in an Italian cottage; it was our only recreation.
The sun made spasmodic attempts to warm us up and on bright days I used to go visiting other prisoners, getting to know their peasants, but the biggest social event was the Sunday morning Mass at the village church, about a mile from our hamlet. Most of the prisoners used to attend the little church out in
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the wilds at Cerreto, and for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there were a few Catholics amongst us who had sincere religious regard for their faith, and there were also several Protestants, who although not completely agreeing with the form of worship thought it good to attend as Service of some kind, but the main reason why the bulk of the prisoners went was for propaganda and social intercourse. It was essential to create a good impression on our benefactors. This was one of the underlying principles of our life and could be done by no better way than showing respect for their religion. A second reason was that it was the only social occasion when all the Englishmen were gathered together at one time and was most useful for exchanging news, introducing new arrivals and settling upon a common line of action in the event of trouble.
Of course, there was a danger if it became known that there were, say, a dozen Englishmen every Sunday at a certain church, and in several places the Fascists had surrounded churches, demanding identity cards from all within. Sometimes the prisoners had good warning and all got away, but on many occasions they barely had time, several being fired upon and recaptured. Fortunately, nothing like this took place at Cerreto for we were a cautious crowd and avoided the church when times were bad; at the period of which I am now writing, in January 1994, it was fairly safe so we took advantage of this means of propaganda and sociability.
The next few days I spent wandering about the local countryside visiting various prisoners, and the Vissani again, and at the end of January had an amusing diversion taking a litter of squealing piglets in the farm-cart to a dealer just outside Santa Croce on the main road. The minor road leading there was by now fairly clear of snow and the bullocks were able to drag our cart without too much difficulty; it was my first experience of a bullock cart and I cannot recommend it as a means of transport – slow, bulky and cumbersome, its sole advantage lies in its safety and certainty of arrival, sometime. To reach this dealer we had to ride a little distance along the national road, but I felt quite safe in my role of a peasant carter and caused much amusement among Giovanni’s grandchildren by my poor handling of the oxen. I considered I was managing well, but when Giovanni saw me return to the hamlet in sole charge of his two precious bullocks, he let out a stream of abuse at his daughter who had given me the reins and I was never allowed to take the cart out again. Though tolerably successful in other things, I fear I made a poor showing at any kind of farm work.
This brings me to the question of working for one’s keep. During the last Autumn, the prisoners round here worked in the fields with their families, but now snow covered all the land there was little to be done except routine jobs in connection with the animals. At this period at the Lucarellis’ I made it my duty to draw water for the beasts and chop the wood; neither of these were light tasks, but I hoped the exercise and slightly better food I was getting here would make me fitter for any emergencies in the future.
It was early February when six of us escapees met together in a house some three hundred yards away from the Lucarelli, listening to the radio news. Few houses had electric light or radio, and Arthur, the prisoner living here, was fortunate in having found such a prosperous family to keep him, and we used to meet at his house to hear and discuss the news every Sunday.
“As usual, ‘Patrol activity at Pescara’. When will those blighters get a move on?” Dick, our local pessimist started
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off once again on his favourite line of thought, “The weather will be clearing up soon and when the snow melts we shall be for it. Our life won’t be worth living when the Fascists start searching the countryside”.
“Get away with you” Arthus, our ‘host’, possessed an abundance, and sometimes an irritating superfluity, of optimism and animal spirits “No blooming Iti puts the wind up me. We ought to get organised now, in good time, and fight them”.
“Don’t talk stupid. What have we got to fight them with? And even if we were armed, we are so few we couldn’t put up a show”.
“All the same” I butted in “A few arms amongst us would be useful for tackling small patrols. If there was a big search we should just have to run for it of course”.
“I’ll tell you what we’ll do” Arthur conveniently assumed our consent “Two or three of us will go to the rebels at Monastero, pitch them a tale about conditions here, and persuade them to let us have some arms to bring back to defend this”.
“The tripe you do talk. Do you think the bright boys up in the mountains are going to give you their precious Stens and rifles because you smirk sweetly at them. You’ll have to stay with them and join their band if you want to use their arms”.
“Alright Dick, keep your wool on. I still think it s a good idea. At least we can try. What do you say?”
Opinions were divided. I thought it unlikely that the rebels would give anything away, but the experience gained might be useful later. So a party of four who had been in the district the longest and knew their way about fairly well set off for the rebel village of Monastero. The trip took them five days in all, through the most difficult country and appalling weather, and as we had suspected, they had to return empty handed. Their efforts were not entirely without result, however, for we now knew where we could contact a reasonably armed force to operate in our district, the chief difficulty being that it took nearly two days to reach them, as the country and weather were progressively worse the further one went into the mountains.
The evening before Arthur’s party left for the arms expedition, we six were walking together along one of the country paths, when we spotted two fellows ahead, sitting on a tree trunk, with that tired attitude that suggested the end of a long day’s walk. They were strangers and our suspicions were immediately aroused, but their strange apparel and small tramps bundles proclaimed them possible Englishmen, so relying on our numerical superiority we hailed them in Italian. They returned our greeting and by their atrocious accents we immediately knew them as Englishmen. We knew all the local peasants by sight but in times such as these any stranger was naturally suspect.
“Where are you two off to? Where have you come from? Why are you on the move? Are you hungry, would you like some bread and cheese at my place?” The usual barrage of questions were fired at them.
“First things first” said one of the newcomers, name of Brian “We are not really hungry, but could do with a glass of vino”. I soon realised that he was one of that not uncommon type who could always do with a glass of wine.
“Let’s all go down to my house” suggested Arthur “We hear the late news and your story at the same time”.
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His house was not far of the path, and we were soon seated in his comfortable parlour, enjoying his host’s wine and listening to Brian’s tale.
“Do any of you know where Loro Piceno is?” murmurs of assent. “Well, it’s only about eight miles from our Camp at Sforzacosta and quite a number of our fellows were living round about there, going to Mass on Sundays and generally throwing precautions to the winds. It was a pretty good district. The people were friendly, bags of the old vino” he took another generous sip. “Everything was going lovely. We had a few minor scares of course; in December and January there were some more escapes from the Camp”.
“I know that” I interrupted “I was living in Colmurano at the time”.
“Were you? That’s all right but it’s too near the Camp. Loro Piceno was sufficiently out of the way to be only slightly affected. But some chaps had to spoil it, and started walking about in day-time in the village itself, and getting boozed up”. I looked suspiciously at his empty glass which he was refilling and wondered if he were one of the culprits.
“Yesterday dozens of Fascists drove up in their lorries and searched the village, ill-treating anyone they didn’t like and taking away everyone suspected of rebel activities. They didn’t find any prisoners in the village so started searching the farms round about, and that’s when the fun started. Struth, what a picnic. The poor old Ities nearly went scatty” – Brian seemed to have no affection for any of the people who had helped him, just regarding them as tools to be used – “The Fascists stretched out in cordons across the country, searching the farms as they came to them. I believe one or two prisoners got caught but most of us had ample warning and cleared out in time. The Black-men (we often used terms such as this for Fascists, so that the peasants could not guess the trend of our conversation) had a list of some of the houses sheltering our chaps, and if they couldn’t find anyone, were burning the haystacks, either for revenge or to stop people hiding in them”.
I thought, with a shudder, of Mac and myself lying concealed in the haystack at the Piancatelli two months back. If they had guessed we were there, and set it on fire….
“What happened to the peasants when a prisoner was caught on their farm?”
“It depended on the Fascists. I cleared out as fast as I could and didn’t wait to watch what was going on, but usually they smashed up the home a bit and took away some member of the family. If they’d a pretty daughter, they usually took her. The Fascists have got nasty minds”.
“Didn’t this scare all the peasants for miles around?”.
“I’ll say it did. First the firing, and then the burning haystacks. The whole countryside knows about it and no-one will help a prisoner round there just now. A few of the peasants said when everything quietened down again, they’d take their prisoners back, but most of us have been kicked out for good. There’s hardly an Englishman left within five miles of Loro Piceno you can t get food, you can’t sleep in their stables, you can’t even get any vino. They’ve scattered in all directions. Billy and I got away early and are probably the first to get as far as this, but some more will be drifting through soon, mark my words”.
“What do you two intend to do now? Are you going to join the rebels in the mountains?”.
“No bloody fear. We’ve run enough risks as it is. I’m not keen on going back to Loro Piceno either. I want to find a billet round here”.
“Easy to say” put in one of our crowd “I’ve been here four
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months and only got a poverty-stricken family to help me”.
“Maybe you have” replied Brian, his supply of self-confidence rising as that of the vino diminished “I’ve done pretty well so far and think I’ll manage alright”.
“What about you, Billy?”.
“My family at Loro Piceno are willing to have me back after a week if everything’s quiet then. If I could get fixed up here temporarily it would suit me”.
“I’ve got a double bed” I said “If my old fellow doesn’t object, come and live with us for a few days. Perhaps I can fix Brian up at the Yugoslavs cottage pro tem”.
“Thanks. Let’s see what the Ities have to say about it”.
Our gathering dispersed, and we three made our way back to the Lucarelli. Giovanni was quite willing to help Billy temporarily, and we fixed Brian up with the Slavs for the night, arranging for him to stay at Ernesto’s, a relation of Giovanni’s, whose house was only a quarter of a mile away. He was fortunate to find anyone to keep him just then and it was chiefly due to the good offices of Tina, the English-speaking Slavian lady for whose constant propaganda among the peasants we were most grateful.
We had been able to accommodate these two, the first on the scene, but when six more fellows came into our hamlet later the same evening, we could do little for them. I supplied them with bread and cheese, and pointed out the best route for them to take, but we were unable to find them houses – the locals were becoming scared at this sudden influx of refugees. More important to us, our own peasants betrayed some uneasiness, and began wondering if this big search would continue right across the country to Cerreto, and several of us had a hard job persuading our people to let us stay on. During this period old Giovanni kept a cool head and I didn’t have much trouble in minimising the importance of these events to him, but was obvious that even he was a little perturbed by seeing occasional groups of Englishmen wandering through our valley during the next few days.
These events took place in early February and were the first of a long series of local ‘rastrellamenti’ (as these searches were called) lasting until our forces came through to our district. We were fortunate this time that it was completely localised to the Loror Piceno area and so were able to remain in our homes, but each time the Fascists instituted a search, it made all the peasants everywhere a little more frightened and the cumulative result after a period of time was that you were lucky if you had a house at all, no matter how poor or squalid.
A few days ago three Englishmen had visited me from their homes near Gualdo, a little, partly-walled village on the next hill to Cerreto, so soon after these Loro Piceno refugees reached us, I paid a return visit to find out the situation in Gualdo. This tiny town, with its cramped, narrow street was built on the summit of the highest hill for miles around, and in times past must have made an excellent little fortress. The backs of the outermost ring of houses had few windows and gave the appearance and effect of a city wall, whilst a considerable cliff underneath on one side of the village formed a natural defence. Most of the time after the Armistice Gualdo was known as a ‘rebel town’. That does not mean it was heavily garrisoned and fortified, the rebels had not sufficient strength for that, but that it came vaguely in the rebel sphere of influence.
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It was dangerous for Fascists to go there unless in armed parties, and conversely was fairly safe for prisoners unless they happened to be unlucky and choose the same day for a visit as the Fascists. The most prominent man was the Doctor. He was a typical example of the Italian local politician, changing his party to suit the changing times — at one time Secretario Fascista, after the Armistice a rebel captain, again Secretario and finally a member of the Local Committee of Liberation when the British Troops came through.
Such was Gualdo, where I hoped to get some information on the situation in Loro Piceno, what tales refugees had to tell, and if the searches were likely to spread. I found my three friends gloomily discussing the situation. They had spoken to a number of prisoners from the unlucky district and were pessimistic as to the future, thinking that if these searches continued the whole district would become untenable. We should have to attempt to cross the lines or if that proved impracticable to adopt a policy of virtual surrender and retreat gradually to the North away from hope of deliverance. This was the first big search near us and we overestimated its importance. For one thing, the Fascists, though still in nominal control of the country had not sufficient forces to police adequately all the districts at the same time, and I later realised that there was always somewhere of comparative safety, when there was trouble in one’s own district, if only one could find and reach it.
On the 7th February Billy returned to Loro Piceno we had heard the search was over and he had a plucky family there who was willing to take him back. This is an example of how we kept in touch with events. When he arrived first at Cerreto, we had all the news of his previous district, and now he would take back news of ours to any of his friends remaining there, and if it were still unsafe and he remained uncaptured would bring fresh news to us again of Loro Piceno. We were always keen to meet any prisoner without a home, for we could give him a meal and send him on, and he in return could give us information which might be vital to our safety. This ‘news service ‘ was quite unorganised, but very useful all the same; I have sent several letters to other prisoners living miles away whose exact whereabouts I did not know, by giving them to the wanderers in the hope they would be passed from hand to hand.
Two days later we had another fall of snow, followed by yet another the next day, not so heavy as that of the New Year, but as little snow had melted since then these two last storms made the countryside quite impassable. The peasants said it was the worst winter they had known for over twenty years and although it restricted our wanderings to see our friends and made life very boring, at least it made it safe for it was impossible for the Militia to patrol in such weather. Fortunately my boots were in fairly good condition and with the air of a pair of Italian Army puttees wound round my legs up to the knees I was able to get around the hamlet, but I had to borrow Giovanni’s top boots when walking further afield, such as going to hear the wireless at our neighbours.
During the monotony of these winter days I used to teach my Yugoslav friends English in return for Italian grammar lessons for it was difficult to learn correct Italian from the peasants.
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There were a number of children in the hamlet and I used to borrow their schoolbooks and try to understand History from their point of view – extolling the greatness of the Italian Empire and its founder, Mussolini, and minimising all other nations with the exception of Germany. It brought home to me the terrible effect that long-term propaganda in the schools can have on the mind of a nation; all those under thirty years of age had known no other kind of schooling and, although sceptical of the newspapers and radio, had implicit faith in the veracity of their schoolbooks.
We had a new interest in life when seven Yugoslavian rebels turned up in late February, billeting themselves on their compatriots next door to us. They had been living at Calderola but the Fascists had surrounded and searched the town at night and they had only just got away, which was doubly fortunate for them as they were all armed and if caught would certainly have been shot. They were good company and full of boisterous fun, but life had hit them hard, all had had many relatives murdered in Yugoslavia, and this made them rather tough customers. The evening they arrived we organised one of our horse-play parties which cheered everybody up and the following day, Carnivale, was the last before Lent and so merited a dance and party at the Lucarelli. This all sounds very gay but in reality was a tame affair, but it was the best we could produce and with the aid of Giovanni’s wine a jolly time was had by all.
I was struggling through an Italian schoolbook in the kitchen a few days later when one of the prisoners called to ask my help for three refugees from Colmurano. This was where I had been living before and so I was most anxious for their news. The three prisoners were warming themselves round the Yugoslavs’ fire and on my entering the kitchen one of them jumped with a startled –
“Good Lord. It’s Lorenzo, at the Rozzi”.
I stared at them for a moment before I recognised them. They were the fellows we had visited at night from the Rozzi’s cottage and so were intimately acquainted with my former locality and our tongues were soon wagging over events past and present.
“How did you happen to land on this place?” I asked.
“We walked all night from Colmurano, felt dead beat this morning – this snow’s a bastard – and rested most of today at a cottage a little way down the track. We scrounged one meal off them so thought we’d better move on somewhere else to try for a supper and night’s kip”.
“I can’t do much for you here, the peasants are still scared from that Loro Piceno business. What brought you up here?”
“The Fascists started searching round Colmurano again and we got out while we could. They searched the Rozzi’s cottage you know, that was why I was so surprised to see you here”.
“Oh. I left in early January. What happened to Mac? and to Harry at Alfredo’s?”
“We’re not sure about Mac. I believe he was living across the river at the time in some little shack the Rozzi have. Harry’s alright. They didn’t search his house” and he turned to answer one of the others. The Rozzi haven’t got a shack across the river, I murmured to myself – I wonder what’s happened to old Mac. I’ve had no news of Jack either. He was living at
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Loro Piceno but probably cleared out with the search.
This was disastrous news. It was with these fellows that I had escaped from Camp and I felt it imperative to find out what had happened to them, but it would have been foolish and useless to return while the Fascists were still searching the district.
“I say, is it safe to go back there now? I must find out what’s happened to my pals”.
“I should wait a day or two” said one of them “I’ve got a damned good family back there and I’m returning as soon as I can, but it’s too risky just at the moment. Now what can
you do for us in the line of a kip for the night?”
“I think I can find one of you a temporary house, but it will be strictly temporary, and not much of a house either”. I turned to my neighbour who had originally called me in “You’d better take the other two up to Carreto itself and see what you can do for them in the village”.
So we parted, and managed to fix these three up, but the peasants were most unwilling and we had to practically force them to take them. Even then it was on the strict understanding that they would only stay a few days. I hated this high-handed attitude, but we had to adopt it, for we couldn’t let our fellows sleep out, with snow on the ground and the weather as bad as it was. It was increasingly difficult to obtain help from the peasants for the dangers of sheltering us were being brought home to them more vividly every day, and as we couldn’t work for them while the ground was under snow they got no return for the risks they ran.
Four days later I set off for Colmurano in search of my friends. It was impossible to use the route by which I had come, for the Fascists were patrolling the national road night and day, so I made enquiries of all the other prisoners who had been in that neighbourhood. It appeared there was a footpath across the top of the ridge to the little town of San Angelo, and from there a second class road ran to Loro Piceno from where I could find my way to Colmurano.
I left Cerreto after breakfast, amid protests from the Lucarelli who were certain I was putting my head into a noose, but I felt that provided I stayed at Colmurano only a short time there would not be too much danger. It was hard going across the ridge top, for some of the snow had melted and the result was just one path of mud, and I took longer than I anticipated over the journey; it must be remembered that although the route looks short enough on the map it was very hilly country, rising in places to 2,000 feet and the paths twist and turn in a disconcerting manner. From San Angelo to Loro Piceno was a little road, suitable for motor traffic and clear of snow, for this part was much lower than Cerreto and Gualdo and had had lighter falls. It was easier walking on this road but I was rather apprehensive for it was on such routes, easily accessible, that most of the unpleasant ‘incidents’ occurred. However, I was lucky, and reached Loro Piceno without trouble in the early evening.
I skirted the village, following a track I had been told about and soon spied my friends’ cottage about a mile away looking like little dolls’ houses straddled along the national road below. The sight of these revived memories of past kindnesses and I began to feel almost sentimental about the coming re-union. But my journey was not yet done. This last lap was the most difficult of all, for it might be dangerous
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to be seen near Colmurano in daylight, so I had to approach it cautiously across the fields avoiding the footpaths. A last obstacle was the river Fiastra, as the little wooden bridge normally in use had been washed away by the torrent caused by the melting snows, but I was able to find a temporary tree trunk bridge the peasants had improvised and was soon at Anna s house close by the river.
They were surprised to see me, and gave me a grand welcome, all of them jabbering away at once, but my chief concern was for news of Mac and Harry. The latter they said was still at Alfredo’s but Mac had gone away, they didn’t know where. I wanted to see the Rozzi and the Piancatelli, and as it was getting dusk felt it safe to venture near the national road, keeping a sharp look-out all the time.
Maria was working in the kitchen garden outside the house and catching sight of me hastily entered the cowshed and beckoning me to follow, shut the door.
Evidently they were not at their ease here. Teresa then appeared from the kitchen and both began asking questions in their broken dialect about where had I been for the past six weeks, but seemed to have something up their sleeves as a surprise.
The house door of the cowshed, in which we were talking, opened. The ‘surprise’ entered.
We both stared at each other foolishly for a moment, and then grasped each other’s hands.
“You old rascal, so you’re still here. I’d heard you’d been recaptured, you’d been chased away, you’d left the district, and here you are all the time, right as rain”.
“I’m glad to see you, Bano. Where have you been? On the tramp all this time? I thought I’d never see you again. And by the way it isn’t as right as rain here either”.
“Why, what’s wrong? I heard this district had been searched that’s why I came down from my ‘mountain lair’” and I struck a mock heroic posture.
“You idiot” he laughed “I bet you don’t live in no lair. How did you hear of the searches?”
“Those fellows at the mill ‘scampa viard’* and came up to my district. I live near Guildo now. They told me this house had been searched. How did you get away, OK?”
“They searched here twice. First on January 22nd, only a week after you left. Bonservizi, that bastard up at Urbisaglia, sent two of the Fascist Militia to arrest the two prisoners living here. Maria kept them waiting, talking through the kitchen window, while I had time to get down into the hiding place and shut the trap door. She couldn’t persuade them not to enter the house, and I heard them tramping about, opening all the cupboards and drawers, but they didn’t find anything and soon left, saying they weren’t satisfied and would call again”. “Did they?”*
“Not by themselves. The second search was exactly a week: later when these two Fascists returned with ten soldiers, in two cars. Eleven of the party surrounded the house, whilst the leader hammered on the door, demanding entry. They caught us on the hop, for I was chopping wood in the cowshed, and one of them outside must have seen me through the dirty window.
* Our conversation gradually became a mixture of English and Italian, anglicised. This one derived from ‘scampare via’ meaning ‘to escape from’.
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He thrust his rifle through the glass and shouted to me to stand still. I thought I was a goner. Maria kept her head though, and signalled to me to go upstairs to the trapdoor, at the same time talking to the leader through the closed front door.”
“I thought it was useless. They had seen me. But she evidently had some plan so I nipped upstairs and was inside our old hide-out in a flash. When Maria opened the front door the leader burst in, said he had the house surrounded, had seen the prisoner and wanted him produced without trouble”.
“What did Maria do?”
“I’ve always thought she was a bit scatterbrained, but she was smarter then them. She denied it was a prisoner they had seen in the cowshed, and said it was the old father, who had fainted with the shock of having a rifle pointed at him. She had drag and assisted him upstairs to bed, and wasn’t able to open the door till she had done this”.
“Of course the officer didn’t believe her, and demanded to see the old man, so Maria took him upstairs and there was the old fellow asleep on the bed, where he’d been all the time. I should like to have seen that officer’s face. Maria told me afterwards he couldn’t make head or tale of it. One of his men thought he had seen a prisoner, but here was a perfectly plausible explanation of the whole thing”.
“What did the Fascists do then?”.
“What could they do? They just went off with their tails between their legs. I could hear Maria shouting at them to go and defend their country at the front, instead of worrying defenceless peasants. I don’t think they’ll call again in a hurry, she made them look such bloody fools”.
“Good for her – and you..” and having got his story off his chest, Mac set about preparing some bread and cheese for me after my long tramp.
One of Alfredo’s children had called in at the Rozzi shortly after my arrival, and had gone home to tell Harry I was here. Whilst I was having my scanty supper he came along to see me, taking the usual precautions that were becoming a second nature to us – keeping in the shadow of the hedge lining the road, dodging behind it if anyone passed by, and most important of all, listening carefully outside the shuttered house before knocking in case any strangers were within.
It was the first time we three had met since I left in January – our party was still incomplete for Jack was living somewhere at Loro Piceno – and we eagerly gave each other the ‘griff’ on our activities and then Mac introduced the subject uppermost in their minds –
“It’s getting too hot round here. Harry and I were thinking of clearing out for a fortnight until things settle down. But the weather’s so bad now. Except in the plains every where’s snow-bound” – this was true even though it was already March.
Harry butted in “We could go towards the coast, but there the Fascists would be as active as here”.
“You had better come back with me” I suggested “I can put you up for a night at Cerreto, take you on to Sarnano the next day, and by then you will be miles away from Urbisaglia. It’s hilly country and still plenty of snow around, but if you get stuck for a place you can always come back to me”.
“Well, we could try it, and return here in two or three weeks time when things are quieter”.
And so it was agreed. Mac and Harry were impatient to start the following morning and not stay a day longer in the district, but I wanted to contact Franco again before I left, so sent
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him a note by one of the peasants. I wrote saying I would wait till midday the day after, but no later, for everyone was so jumpy here after the searches that it began to get me down as well, and I wanted to be away as much as any of them.
Poor Franco had been in trouble too, for helping prisoners. Twenty Germans, an unusual honour, had been sent to surround his house and the local Fascist chief, Bonservizi, had arrested him, but he was released on the representations of his father, a gentleman of considerable local influence, who was able to convince them that the charges were false. As a consequence he was now lying low and was very chary of visiting anyone.
The first evening after we three had settled our future course and written to Franco, I spent at Alfredo’s and later at the Piancatelli having a very jolly time, telling them all sorts of impossible tales about my activities with the rebels in the mountains, all completely untrue but they were very credulous and it made the evening more hilarious. The following day we waited in vain for Franco and at noon the day after set off back without seeing him; this was a disappointment as he might have had some useful information but he was very fly and evidently thought it better not to draw attention either to himself or to us.
We decided to return via Loro Piceno, now at peace once again, for although it made our journey several miles longer we could call on Jack, whom I had not seen for over two months. We found his house without much trouble, Harry had been there once before in the dark, and were relieved to find he had escaped the big search. He had had advance information and spent about a week further North, going on a sort of walking tour and getting to know the country, combining business with pleasure, as it were. Back to Cerreto was a gruelling tramp for us, for I was still tired from my journey here, and the others were then unaccustomed to long walks, but we stuck at it, spurred on by the prospect of a good night’s sleep in contrast to the wakeful apprehensive nights at Colmurano.
The trip was made without incident but the going was so hard that darkness fell before we were anywhere near Cerreto, and as I had only been that way once before, and the moon was obscured, we often lost the track and began floundering about in the snow. This was beginning to melt and the footpath was transformed into a river of slush, making progress slow and tiring us out.
I was beginning to despair of reaching Cerreto at all that night, and our endurance was nearly exhausted when I saw the lights of the tiny hamlet across the next hill. I nearly cried with relief.
The Lucarelli family were goodness itself when we entered their kitchen, drying our clothes and bringing us bread and cheese and wine. Primeto and Isolina had taken bets on my safe return and we had much joking over their lack of faith in our initiative and common sense. They wanted to know everything we had been doing, but we were too tired to go into details and soon rolled off to bed. There was no difficulty in sleeping that night, although the three of us packed together on my bed of straw were a tight fit.
The next morning, after breakfast, we set off for Sarnano. It was not far away and despite the snow we reached it before
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noon, when I wished my friends ‘Best of Luck ‘ on their travels and returned to Cerreto for an early night in bed. That was the end of my first return to Colmurano. No actual incidents had occurred – we had been both lucky and careful – but the potential danger was always there, and the feeling of uncertainty and strain was beginning to tell on us. Every tramp across an unknown stretch of country, every request at a farmhouse for food, every stranger passing on the path held the possibility of recapture and many more weary months in a prison camp, which we had endured once and so much dreaded to suffer again. Even a short trip of this nature called for a little planning – the best route, what food to take, if a greatcoat was necessary – although some prisoners did not weigh alternatives so carefully, but just jogged along in a carefree fashion, quite often getting away with it, but not always, so I preferred to think things out beforehand, and in the long run I am sure it was the sounder policy.
The nervousness in Gualdo and Cerreto since the Loro Piceno scare had been gradually subsiding, but only a week after I returned from Colmurano we had an alarm from Sanginesio. I was having a chat with Brian in his cottage late one afternoon when Giovanni Lucarelli came panting into the kitchen, nearly breathless with exertion and agitation –
“The Fascisti – from Sanginesio – them come here quick – half hour ago – look for you – the cobbler told me – you beat it – quick”. Poor old Giovanni had nearly lost his wits with fright, and his American slang, unique at the best of times, was practically beyond understanding. But he was a good fellow and I knew his ways, and thought it would be better if he spoke in Italian.
“There’s no-one in sight at the moment” I said – Ernesto’s house where Brian lived commanded a good view of the national road and Sanginesio only a mile away .”What did the cobbler say?”
And Giovanni, slowly recovering his breath poured out his story. The Fascists stationed at Sanginesio were about to sweep the country towards Gualdo, searching for prisoners and Italians of military age who had evaded the Army call-up. Their intentions had leaked out to the populace and a first class scare was born. We did not know whether to credit it or not, but Giovanni was no fool and was so genuinely frightened that it would have been stupid to ignore it.
Brian grabbed his little haversack of essentials – shaving gear, towel, pair of socks rough map – such as we all had handy to be able to clear off at a minute’s notice, and together we hurried up to my hamlet to collect my similar belongings and from where we would have a better view of the danger area. On our way we discussed our plans. Brian decided to make for Loro Piceno. He knew that district well, and as it had only recently been searched he thought it unlikely the Fascists would trouble the same district twice in so short a time.
I bade him ‘Good Luck’, and hurriedly picking up my haversack, thrust in a few crusts of bread and took a couple of swigs from the ever-present wine bottle, at the same time shouting to the daughter to hide my greatcoat and spare clothing amongst the straw in the yard.
A ‘bambino’ came running into the house to see what the noise was about, so I promptly dispatched him to warn Arthur some two hundred yards away. It was a sign of the times that this
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little boy, only nine years old, took it quite as a matter of course, his only outward emotion appearing pride at being trusted.
I was undecided where to go, but just as I was leaving the house Giovanni came puffing up and pointed out an isolated cabin across the river which ran in the valley between Cerreto and Gualdo, where the Yugoslavian internees had gone and which commanded a good view of Cerreto. I set off for this, making a rough passage through the snow in tracks hardly ever used in winter and getting a partial ducking when jumping across the little stream, the plank bridge having been washed away by the swollen winter torrents. Gualdo was built on the end of an escarpment up a very steep hill, and although the hut was only half way up, the snow had made the tracks so difficult to follow that it took me nearly an hour to reach it. I had also to bear in mind that deep footprints in snow are a first-rate trail, and to avoid going straight to the cabin.
I found three of my Yugoslavian neighbours already there, trying to look as unconcerned as possible, but nervously starting at any sound across the river from where we had come. Here in this hut we waited till dark, shivering with cold and wondering if it would be safe to return to our homes for the night, but after dusk we were not left long in suspense for one of the peasants where the Yugoslavians were living brought a ladder down to cross the river and came up to tell us the scare was over. We were relieved to hear this and immediately returned to the hamlet, but our trip was not improved by a sudden downpour of rain which together with the ever present snow made us take a good hour over a distance less than a mile. We arrived home drenched to the skin and had a quick meal and so to our rough beds, feeling even more thankful than usual that we had a roof over our heads and were not obliged to sleep out during these winter nights.
The next day we heard the truth about the alarm, and it was a good example of how the Italians exaggerated the least piece of news into something of terrifying proportions. A party of five Italian Army conscripts had deserted, stolen German uniforms and been seen passing through Sanginesio on their way to join the rebels in the mountains. From this harmless incident had been built up a story of a comb-out of the whole district and sent prisoners and political refugees scurrying for cover in terrible weather for miles around. Admittedly, we might have chanced it, and stayed at our farms if the peasants allowed us, but one could never be sure, and it would have been stupid to ignore information, however dubious its veracity, if there were any likelihood of recapture. Sometimes these scares were based on fact, as at Loro Piceno, and the odd prisoners were caught.
The following Sunday we went to the little village church for Mass as usual despite the recent scare. We went to show the Italians our faith in the security of the district and our contempt for any possible danger; this latter may now seem mere bravado, but at the time it was sound psychology and, I believe, encouraged the peasants who at times were naturally very shaky.
Again it snowed, but this time not so heavily as previously. This weather was playing havoc with our army boots, for we were without polish to preserve them; but Giovanni patched up mine on the soles with pieces of leather cut from an old disused
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pair of his own. Boots were almost unobtainable and prohibitive in price, so if a prisoner’s wore out he was in a very bad way and had to walk about in Italian clogs, just pieces of shaped wood with straps across the front.
The day after, Brian returned from his trip to Loro Piceno. He had not been content to go merely there, but had made a round trip of several villages, re-establishing contacts he had made previously, crossing the national road and returning near Sanginesio. He gave us all the ‘griff’. The districts just North of us seemed quieter now and several prisoners had returned to their former homes after the searches and the situation seemed to be temporarily settled.
On the 15th March, I celebrated my escape from Camp exactly six months ago. The British forces at Pescara were stationary and our deliverance still looked a long way off. Nevertheless I had managed to evade recapture for this period, and it included some sticky times, and I felt confident of carrying on for another six if necessary, provided the peasants continued to stand by us when the snow melted.
When the snow melted.
Our thoughts were dominated by that idea. What would happen when the countryside became easily accessible to Fascist patrols? Urbisaglia, Colmurano, Loro Piceno – all comparatively low-lying villages where the snow had melted earlier had been combed out. When would be Cerreto’s and Gualdo’s turn?
This, and preparations to meet it, were our main topics of conversation. We realised the futility of ‘defending’ our area – our numbers were too small and weapons few – but an automatic apiece, for self-defence in an emergency, would be handy. The peasants round about, like all folk in wild country districts, used to possess fire-arms, but some time back the Fascist Government collected these, to prevent any risings. Nevertheless, several of the peasants had hidden theirs, old sporting guns and revolvers, and we could have used them if only they weren’t too frightened to produce them. I had let it be known that I would pay 3,000 Lire (about £8) for a revolver – I hadn’t got the money but could always borrow from Franco — but even at that price there were no takers.
However, in late March I had a stroke of luck. A prisoner was tramping the country in search of a house and, as was the custom, I gave him a meal and exchanged news. He was, or rather had been, a heavy smoker and was grumbling about the high price of black-market leaf tobacco. Several hundred lire a kilogram where he had come from. I had none to offer him and the talk veered round to arms, whereupon he opened his pack and laid a beautiful little Italian automatic on the table.
“That’s Beretta, and I’ve got twelve rounds for her. No use to me. Just a dead weight. At the first sign of trouble I m always off”.
“How much do you want for it? I’ve been looking for something like that, but I’m practically broke”.
“I’ll let it go at 2,000. Money’s more use than a gun. Can buy some weed”.
“I should like it, but 2,000 is above my mark. I’ll give you half”.
We bargained for a minute and it changed hands at 1,500, nearly all the money I had left over from Franco. He went off, well pleased with the prospect of several kilograms of foul Italian tobacco, while I say musing on my purchase.
It was a lovely little job, but already I was beginning to doubt if I had done wisely. A gun had two uses. Firstly, to cow
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to cow unwilling peasants to feed and house you – this was against our general policy (and I wouldn’t have dreamt of threatening the Lucarelli) but if the people turned against us from fear of Fascist reprisals, we should be forced to make them fear us more. Secondly, for self-protection if stopped by one or two Fascists – it would have been useless to try to shoot it out with a patrol armed with sub-machine guns, the only course then was to throw the gun away and surrender..
Against this had to be weighed the certainty of being shot or hung, and probably maltreated in the bargain, if caught possessing a gun, as legally this made one a bandit and not an ordinary escaped prisoner of war. I considered it from all angles, and eventually thought it worth the risk. It is surprising how the feel of a gun in one’s pocket affects one s outlook. From that day I began to feel more confident; I felt possessed of some secret power and unconsciously adopted a slightly more arrogant tone when on the tramp. The peasants, used to being bullied by their ‘betters’ recognised the new note of authority in my voice, and I always received better treatment and more deference than before, even though they didn’t know I possessed arms. Only twice did I actually draw my gun, but the mere possession of it was a powerful psychological aid.
With this extra confidence and Brian’s reports of calm in Colmurano, I decided to make another trip there in the middle of March to see if Mac and Harry had returned from their travels. Brian accompanied me across the hills to San Angelo. He knew a peasant near there who, in a weak moment, had confessed that he possessed an Italian Army rifle, and Brian thought he would try to intimidate him into giving it to him.
Just before parting outside San Angelo, we stopped at a cottage and asked for wine, and whilst we were waiting Brian got out his rough map and began studying the country. The peasants brought us out the wine and then asked me what he was doing. I don’t know what seized me, but I had a sudden impulse to pull their legs.
“He’s a rebel chief” – he had a commanding aspect and a weather-beaten face and quite fitted the part “and I am his interpreter. We are going down to the plains to collect more recruits for his band in the hills. Soon we shall be strong enough to raid San Angelo and kill the Secretario Fascista”.
“Oh Signore” they looked at us piteously “Will there be shooting in our village?”
“Yes, a little, but we will only attack the Fascists who are your enemies and ours. Don’t be afraid. There are many rebels in the hills and the British troops will soon be advancing to here. The Fascists have not much longer to live”.
“I pray to the Madonna you are right. We are only peasants and want peace, so that we may work on our farm“. In these simple terms they expressed the whole philosophy of humble folk the world over.
But I had not said this solely for my own amusement. It was good propaganda to make them think the rebels were active and powerful, and Fascist influence was on the wane, and if I passed that way again they would be more willing to help me.
I said good-bye to Brian, and continued my tramp without further incident to Loro Piceno and then on to Colmurano, arriving at dusk so I was able to go straight to the Rozzi’s cottage.
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Maria told me that only Harry had returned so as soon as I had had a bite of supper I walked up the road to see him. it was a bright moonlit night and I felt a little uneasy out on the National road after curfew, but it was only a short distance to AIfredo’s house. Waiting a moment, listening outside the shuttered windows, I soon detected Harry’s awful accent a laboriously telling some joke – his grammar was atrocious but his stories always went down well. I banged on the door, which was opened after a short delay by Alfredo himself; he peered nervously into the dark, recognised me and dragged me into the kitchen, calling to his daughter to bring me some wine. Harry crawled out from a cupboard under the stairs, where he had bolted when I knocked on the door, and we settled down round the fire to hear where he had been for the past three weeks. He had only returned to Alfredo’s the day before and was full of anecdotes of his wanderings south of Sarnano, where he had left Mac whose shoes had become too bad for walking. Though we were normally keen to hear such tales, tonight the peasants were anxious to get on with another job.
The big excitement in the air was that a Government Grain store near Colmurano had been broken into and last night the peasants had stolen most of the grain, intending to carry away the remainder tonight. I was all for a little excitement, and about eleven o’clock accompanied the Rozzi with their hand-cart to the magazine which was only three hundred yards up the road. All the local peasantry were there, many of whom I knew, and they were running about like ants round a nest, filling sacks and buckets with the precious grain and hurrying off to their homes, soon to return for another journey. The Piancatelli even had the nerve to bring their bullock cart and take the stuff away in cart-loads. It was a scene of utter confusion, each struggling to take away more than he could carry, shouting and swearing at anyone in the way, making such a noise that it must have been heard miles away. As a matter of fact it was, but I only learned that later. The Fascists at Urbisaglia had heard of this raid and had sent a squad of men to deal with it; this squad had met a peasant on their way down, and when asked how many persons were at the magazine he had answered, with commendable smartness, that he had seen many peasants and about fifty rebels, armed to the teeth. On receipt of this disquieting news, the Fascists thought better of it and returned to Urbisaglia. Of course, there were no rebels and that peasants quick wit had saved imprisonment for the forty peasants and six Englishmen present.
I had sent a message to Franco as soon as I arrived, and the next day he turned up at the Rozzi. I was not now dependent on him as I had been in the past, but was just as glad to meet him, and he me, and we had an interesting conversation about events past and present. In contrast to the peasants, he deplored the raid on the magazine, saying the Fascists were bound to take reprisals on the local community, and all would suffer for the greed of a few. Events proved him right.
The following day saw a minor tragedy. I had lunched with the Piancatelli and was playing with their youngsters in the farmyard when Guido, Alfredo’s young son, came bursting in amongst us..
“Lorenzo, Lorenzo. Came with me, quickly Enrico (Harry)” and he burst into tears, and grasped my hand, dragging me away across the fields to his house.
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“What is the matter, Guido?”
“Enrico – cut his hand off – blood everywhere – all blood” the poor kid sobbed out his story and I was still not much wiser, I had thought at first that a Fascist patrol had got him.
I found Harry in the kitchen, bathing his left hand over a basin in the sink. Nearly all his fingers were missing.
“I’ve had an accident. Almost cut me bloody hand off”.
How are men so laconic when in pain?
It was no time to ask questions. I adjusted the tourniquet Alfredo’s wife had applied, took away the vino he was fortifying himself with and asked Alfredo if there was a doctor nearby.
“Yes, at Colmurano, a good man, against the Fascists”.
I called Guido “Get your bicycle, hurry to the doctor in Colmurano, and tell him to come here immediately. If he is too frightened to come, tell him I will see him about it later” and I tapped the pocket containing my gun. The last phrase was intended to be a threat, for the doctor might be scared to attend an escaped prisoner.
The natural anaesthetic caused by the shock was wearing off, the nerves were coming to life again and Harry was in considerable pain. I pushed the peasants out of their kitchen.
There were no antiseptics or dressings of course in the cottage, but I had heard was a useful substitute for the former, so bathed his hand in a dilution. Harry retained sufficient humour to mutter “Wicked waste of Vino” before another spasm of pain attacked him. This lasted for about half and hour after which he felt easier and told me how it had happened.
“I was cutting up the fodder in the cow-shed on that machine. You know, it’s worked by a foot-treadle, and four steel blades revolve on to the straw. Well, I shoved me hand in too far. Didn’t notice anything at first, till I saw blood all over the place. Then it began to give me hell”.
“Damned bad luck. I’ve sent Guido for the doctor. He’ll be here in a minute and we’ll get you fixed up”.
But Guido returned without the doctor.
Apparently he was an old man and didn’t leave his surgery at all but was willing to see Harry that night when it was dark. His house was right in Colmurano itself and I was not at all keen on taking Harry up there, but it was better for him to have proper treatment and to run the risk of re-capture, than to remain free and possibly contract gangrene, so when all seemed dark and quiet two of the boys, our patient and myself stumbled across the fields up the hill to the village. It was unsafe to go on the roads for the Fascists were about after the grain store raid, and if we had been spotted, Harry could not have run for safety. It was hard work getting him up to the top of the hill for he was very weak with loss of blood and nearly collapsed several times. His hand was bleeding freely and his jacket and trousers were wet with blood. Near the top of the hill he had to rest by a farmhouse and one of the occupants came out to see who was abroad after curfew. I called him over.
“Fetch me a glass of water immediately”. He didn’t know who I was, but one didn’t argue with strangers in the dark in those times. He hurried back with a glass of water, and a wine bottle in the other hand.
“Thanks” I gave Harry the water, and the boys and I had a swig of the wine.
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“Listen. This is a wounded patriot. We are taking him to a safe place in the mountains. Don’t tell anyone – you hear? – anyone, we have passed here or it will be the worse for you. Goodnight”.
“Goodnight, Signore” he nearly bowed us out of his farmyard, he was so scared. “I shall not speak – to no-one, not even my wife”. Liar, I thought – “Good journey, Signore, Goodnight”.
Poor old fellow. It was a poor return for his wine and water to scare the wits out of the old buffer, but we mustn’t let anyone suspect we were visiting the doctor in Colmurano.
Outside the village we halted a moment while one of the boys reconnoitred the dark streets for signs of activity. All seemed quiet except for several bullock-carts which were out exceptionally late. We walked into Colmurano hugging the walls and shadows, trying to tread quietly in our hob-nailed Army boots. We heard a man approaching from the centre of the village so flattened ourselves against a dark shop doorway, I supporting the nearly fainting Harry with my left hand, and drawing my automatic with my right. We waited. The villager went straight by without glancing at us. He was walking in the middle of the road in the bright moonlight, and like a wise citizen kept clear of any shadows or noises in the dark.
We waited till he was out of earshot and continued on our way to the doctor’s. Fortunately his house was not in the centre of Colmurano, and so we were soon inside, and the door bolted and barred. His surgery faced the street, and a thin streak of light shone out across the road, so we had to keep our conversation low, in case anyone should hear our foreign accents. Harry was too far gone with loss of blood to say much, so I did most of the interpreting, assisted by Mario Cestarelli, who had braved the curfew to come round and help us. The doctor dressed his hand and it was as much as Harry could do to stop himself from yelling with pain. This doctor deserves special mention… for it meant certain imprisonment and possible death if he were caught treating a prisoner, and Colmurano was not a healthy spot at that time, but he was deeply conscious of his calling, refusing any money and giving him the best of attention, only marred by the lack of medical supplies that was prevalent all over Italy.
After bandaging him up, the doctor told us to call in a week’s time and we made our way homeward, back to Alfredo’s, this time in complete darkness – the moon had gone down – and safety.
Although I did not know at the time we had run a great risk in going that night, for acting on the success of yesterday’s grain-store raid, some other peasants had decided to open the main magazine in Colmurano itself, and this explained the presence of several bullock-carts out on the roads at night after curfew. The Urbisaglia garrison of Fascists were not to be caught out a second time however, and surrounded the magazine, where with much noise and a little shooting they captured about forty raiding peasants, killing one of them. This occurred only half an hour after we left the place, but we were in blissful ignorance at the time.
The following day I spent mostly with Harry trying to cheer him up over his hand, and telling the peasants what he would be needing. As he was in no fit condition to run away if the Fascists searched nearby, we arranged that if caught on the
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premises he should say he had been wounded elsewhere, and was making his way South when he collapsed in their yard. They took him in the house in compassion, and had not yet had time to notify the Carabinieri. A pretty feeble story, but the best that could be thought out in the circumstances.
I stayed on with Harry till noon next day. Jack, at Loro Piceno, was expected any time – he used to visit Harry about once a week – and he would be able to give him any help necessary I had by now been away from Cerreto for five days and did not want the Lucarelli to become worried about me, for they knew where I was going and would have heard about the fiasco at the Colmurano magazine. I returned by a new route, the other (West) side of the national road, thus learning a little more about the terrain which might, and did, prove useful some day. It was a quicker route, almost entirely along minor roads and once out of the sphere of Colmurano was fairly safe. If only one could have relaxed the constant tension and necessity of keeping alert, it would have been glorious walking. In that part of the country the snow had melted and an ever-changing panorama of valleys and hills, and picturesque little villages perched on top of them, was unfolded before me. The wheat was coming up, everywhere was covered in green, and along the skyline stood the mountains, sombre in their majesty, like the back-cloth of a stage, their forbidding slopes still covered with snow. Truly the most beautiful country in the world. It was grand to be alive, and an inspiration that lifted one out of the mire of furtive secrecy and caution. I had a sensation of complete freedom – no man was my master – and strode along whistling Italian airs, putting thoughts of Fascists and spies to back of my mind.
Just outside Sanginesio, I met another prisoner on the tramp, and as he had no home we went back to Cerreto together. It was always pleasant, and useful, to meet another Englishman who had been in a different district, for we swapped tales and information and the sociability livened us up generally. Our conversation was getting more dreary every day for we had no outside interests, and talk gradually narrowed down to solely ‘shop’ or Fascist activities and the possibility of a British advance at Pescara. To these basic subjects of discussion was sometimes added that of farming. We had all by now acquired a good superficial knowledge of Italian agriculture – even the townies amongst us, like me, and used gravely to discuss that state of the crops, or the weight of our pig or other kindred subjects. We were quick to learn to say the right thing to the peasants. For example, I would pass a peasant working on his land who would shout out that some rain would improve the potato crop; I might then come up to old Giovanni working amongst his potatoes and after complimenting him on his plants, would add, with what I intended to be a knowing look, that all they wanted for perfection was a good shower of rain. This interest in their work was quite genuine, but also naturally flattered them and all helped to improve our relations.
I had been away from Cerreto several days so the day after my return I spent wandering round to the other prisoners, enquiring if anything of note had been happening in my absence. I first called on Brian to see if he had returned safely with the arms he had been after. The peasants told me he had returned in two days but that some friends had called for him and had put on Ernesto’s best suit and overcoat and gone for a walk, telling the family he would be back by noon. Since then nothing had been seen or heard of him. I was worried over this, and
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on returning to the Lucarelli found he and three others had called for me whilst I was at Colmurano, but they wouldn’t wait until my return and had hurried off towards Gualdo. This seemed strange, so I continued my tour of the other prisoners living nearby, but could get no information from them, and it was only months afterwards on my return to England that I heard the story from Brian himself.
Three of his friends had been living on the western side of Sanginesio, and had heard rumours that a British Navy boat was putting in to shore at a certain spot South of Civitanova to take off any prisoners waiting there. This rendezvous was many miles away and would take several days hard walking, so the three had immediately called for Brian and set off together, calling for me but not being able to await my return. They reached the place appointed in time, but unfortunately too many prisoners had come to learn of this plan, and the Fascist Secret Service had heard that small groups of men were converging at a spot on the coast. The obvious happened. On the given day several scores of prisoners were wandering on and near the beach, and the Fascists made a lightning raid, killing and capturing quite a number. Brian and two of his friends got away in time and this incident must have whetted their appetites for maritime adventures, for after a few days they stole a small boat and set sail down the coast, hoping that when their scanty supply of water had run out and they had to put in to shore they would be sufficiently far south to be behind our lines. It was a blind chance, and they took it and won through, although the odds must have been heavy against them.
These fellows had managed this expedition very successfully but it was a pity that Brian had given no clue to Ernesto as to his intentions, because for days afterwards the family were worrying what had happened to him, and why he had pretended he was coming back, and they never ceased to bemoan the loss of Ernesto’s best suit. This made no difference to Brian, he was far away, but caused me some difficulty when I wanted the family to take in another prisoner some weeks later, for they feared he might act in the same way.
The following day I set off to find Mac, who was living somewhere near Gualdo, the only clue I had from Harry being the name of the peasant with whom he and Mac had stayed one night in their travels together. Soon after I started it commenced snowing and raining, making the way difficult to find in the winding hill paths, but this storm was the last to afflict us and after this the weather began to clear up and the snow to melt. I found the address Harry had given me, but Mac had left, and I spent almost the whole day tracking his trails from one house to another. This was made more difficult for when I last saw him he had grown a beard, but now had shaved this off and temporarily changed his name to avoid his movements being traced. The peasants regarded me with great suspicion when I asked if they had seen this ‘non-existent’ prisoner with a beard, for although I could not speak sufficiently well to be mistaken for an Italian, I might have been a German, and until I more or less proved my identity by citing the Lucarelli and others as friends of mine, I made very little headway with them. I found him at last, heard the story of his three weeks tramp and after pointing out the best route by which he could visit me at Cerreto, I returned via Gualdo, meeting several other prisoners on my way.
A stranger passing through these parts would never have
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seen a prisoner, for we were all dressed in Italian clothes, and kept well out of the way. It was something like a very exclusive set of friends who disliked adding to their circle of acquaintances, but once one found one prisoner he would give the address of another and so on, until a long visiting list could be built up. A large number of us at this time had no fixed abode as the peasants were becoming too frightened, and so this floating population lived in one of two ways.
Firstly, a group of prisoners numbering, say half a dozen, would find some deserted hut in the hills and make this their headquarters, fitting it up with boxes and straw and any other refinements they could lay their hands on. From here they would go out every day, in some cases all of them, in others a representative would be sent, to the houses in easy walking distance to collect the day’s food. By this means they were able to spread the burden of their keep over a large number of families, without involving them in too much danger, an arrangement satisfactory to all.
The second method was never to stay in any one place, but wander singly or in small groups all over the country, making for breakfast at one house, lunch at another and supper and sleeping accommodation at a third. This method was much harder for it meant constant tramping and the uncertainty of the next meal, but had the attractions of variety and a touch of adventure. In particular it was difficult to find anyone to put you up for the night in their cowshed for it meant ruin if a prisoner was caught on the premises; This difficulty became more acute as time wore on.
An an improvement on this latter method, some fellows gradually established contacts in houses stretched in a chain over the countryside, where they were known and trusted, and could be sure of a meal. This considerably mitigated the hardship but even then the continual uncertainty and strain told on the men in the long run.
The next Sunday I paid my first visit to Sanginesio, as it was a local festival and a good opportunity to get to know the lay-out of the town, whilst mingling with the crowds. This was the largest town for miles around, though small according to English standards. It was quite a gay sight in the piazza, for although the Italians were rather drab after many years of war they still managed to retain one bright suit or dress for feast days, and loved to stroll up and down the town displaying their finery. As a general rule it was unwise to venture into these large places, not only on account of the risk of capture but also for the advertisement it gave of one’s presence and the provocation it gave to the local pro-Fascists and spies. Even if the Mayor was sympathetic towards the English it was unwise to count upon this for the local informers would denounce him to the Fascist headquarters and a comb-out of the district would probably ensue, together with the removal of the Mayor, thus benefiting no-one in the end. A few prisoners disregarded this and foolishly flaunted their freedom in the villages, with the inevitable result that sooner or later was a search and the district became unsafe. I fear I should not be giving a true record of these days if I did not mention that one of the chief attractions of these villages was the ‘cantina’ or wine shop where the crude country wine could be bought very cheaply. This was all too popular with a few
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prisoners and was the cause of many brawls amongst themselves, and with the Italians, who being accustomed to wine from their infancy were able to take it in quantity without ill-effect. It was the only stain on the character of the prisoners as a whole, who otherwise behaved very well considering their trying circumstances.
Six days after I had returned from Colmurano I went back there again to see how Harry was getting on with his injured hand and to take him up to the doctors. I used the Sanginesio— Ripe route as before for it cut across the arc of a circle and so was shorter and easier travelling. On my two previous visits I wore a suit that Primeto had given me but this time wore the suit I had obtained at Colmurano; this was not due to a sudden outburst of vanity, but rather I thought it a good idea to change one’s personality as often as possible when away from one’s HQ., [Head Quarters] for the peasants became too curious if they saw the same stranger often using the same road, and might begin talking about him. This in itself was not dangerous but one never knew when these people might let a word slip out in front of untrustworthy persons. It was rare for the Fascists to go after any one prisoner individually, but it had been done, a case in question were the searches for Mac and me at the Rozzi.
I arrived at Colmurano in the afternoon, and as soon as it was dark helped Harry up to the doctor, as before sending one of the boys ahead to make sure the road was safe. The moon rose later now, and some of the excitement over the magazine raid had died down, so our visit was made without trouble. Harry had a trying time in the surgery as he was in considerable pain and had to restrain every murmur but the doctor soon patched him up and we were on our way back to Alfredo’s. His hand was progressing satisfactorily, but he was still weak with loss of blood and the doctor really hadn’t proper medical supplies. It was one of our chief fears that we might fall ill so badly that we should have to give ourselves up. Harry’s was a borderline case, and it was only through his determination and the helpfulness of the people with whom he was staying that he managed to stick it out.
I spent the next day calling on my friends and the following day Jack came over from Loro Piceno to see me. This is an example of how news travelled, though in this case only a short distance. Jack was living about three miles as the crow flies from Colmurano, and although I had sent him no message, he had got to know within twenty four hours of my arrival. This gossiping habit of the Italian peasants always amused the prisoners, who sometimes used it to spread favourable rumours, and nicknamed it the ‘Bush Telegraph’ after the drum-beating in the African jungle.
Harry had found some other friends nearer than I and there was no necessity for me to stay any longer, so the day after I returned to Cerreto by the same route. Although the peasants at Colmurano were always friendly, these last two visits I had felt a little uneasy there, and was glad to get back to Cerreto, where we were in semi-rebel territory, and the whole atmosphere seemed easier. It is difficult to be precise, but some places had a subtle air of tension about them that greatly increased the strain of living.
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Chapter 5. Fascist Searches in the Spring.
It is not possible to state exactly when that air of tension and unrest, mentioned in the last chapter, commenced to pervade Cerreto, Gualdo and Sanginesio districts, but I think the 31st March 1944 saw the intensification of our local troubles, as it was on this date that a pamphlet was dropped by German planes over the area.
This pamphlet was in two sections, the first describing the conditions in Southern Italy under the invader (i.e. the British).There disease and hunger were rampant and appalling brutality governed the British Administration — young girls were rounded up in camps for the use of Negro and Moroccan soldiers, the old folk massacred wholesale, the children sent to Russia and would never see their parents again, the young men forced to work on fortifications in the front line, this last enough to terrify any Italian. This was all written in such lurid language that it overstepped the mark and was generally regarded as something of a joke by the peasants who as a whole were consistently anti-German.
But it was the second section that caused us so much trouble. This commenced by exhorting all true Italians to resist the invader and showed how everyone, even miles from the front line, could play their part by denouncing all rebels, prisoners etc. Knowing full well that the Italian countryfolk would never do this the pamphlets then went on to describe the punishments to be meted out to offenders, i.e. anyone who harboured, clothed, fed, or failed to give information as to the whereabouts of these ‘ banditi’. The Germans threatened to confiscate all their cattle and movables, burn their haystacks, blow up their houses and, just as a final gesture , shoot the peasants. There is hardly a peasant in the whole of the province of Marche who has not helped a prisoner at some time, and so this pamphlet caused widespread alarm and many prisoners were turned out of their houses adding to the ever-increasing floating* population, and making our district one of the ‘distressed areas’.
We prisoners realised that the Germans had not sufficient troops to carry out these threats and tried to explain to our local peasants that this was just one big bluff; in this we were assisted by our Yugoslav neighbours, who had a high standing with the Italians, and whose opinion carried more weight than ours. It was an uphill battle and several of my acquaintances had to go on the roam, but I was fortunate and allowed to stay on at the Lucarelli.
In the late afternoon of the memorable day when these pamphlets were dropped, I was playing with the children on the green outside our house when Dick, one of my prisoner neighbours came running up the hill towards us. He was panting for breath and had ‘news’ written all over his face.
“Hey, Lorenzo – heard the ‘griff’ from Gualdo?”
“No. What’s up? Another ‘rastrellamento’?” (sweep of the countryside).
“Worse than that. It’s those pamphlets this morning. A patrol of Jerries in armoured cars has just entered the village, I suppose they’re searching the houses now, and pretty soon they’ll be coming across the fields to here”.
“How many are there? Had we better scram or wait on here till nightfall?”
“No idea how many. Let’s warn the Slavs and see what they say”.
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We told Tina and her friends, and then took up our positions to watch at the top of the path leading down to the river between us and Gualdo. Any patrols approaching would probably use this route and we should have ample warning. Gualdo was only on the top of the next hill, within easy range of rifle fire, so we had to keep careful watch, the only points in our favour being the hilly country, our knowledge of it, and the tortuous nature of the footpaths. We hung in till dusk, and as no Germans had yet come our way we retired to our several cottages for it was unlikely the Germans would search during the hours of darkness.
I stayed awake in my bedroom, long after the rest of the household were asleep, gazing out across the fields towards Gualdo, but nothing happened during the night and next day came the denouement, when we heard what the alarm had really been about. A party of ten British prisoners were roaming the country and had come to Gualdo for food these had been spotted while still some distance away by the rebel sentry on the old medieval watchtower, and he had promptly panicked, reported a patrol of Germans and fled into the countryside, where most of his fellow ‘patriots’ soon joined him. The story had been magnified in being passed on till it put the fear of God into everyone for miles around. It all seemed so obvious afterwards, but it is easy to be wise after the event, and at the time it was quite a reasonable rumour. Our only way of verifying its truth would have been to go right into Gualdo itself to investigate, and that we naturally declined to do; even the peasants who had nothing to fear were terrified at the very mention of the word ‘German’.
So ended the ‘Germans in Gualdo’ scare, which together with the pamphlets, began the demoralisation of the peasants in our district and subsequent hardships for many of our fellows. It may sound unreasonable, but the peasants were just as frightened over a false scare as over a real alarm, and even when the mistake was made public afterwards, they would not be comforted, saying “It might have been true”, in which they were unfortunately correct. Every one of these incidents, and I have not space to mention many of them here, made them a little more frightened, and of course they also had their effect on us, although the British are a more stable breed and do not show their feelings so freely.
The day following was Sunday and if the situation was quiet, the day when we used to visit other prisoners in the neighbourhood My first guest was Mac from Gualdo, for whom I had brought a pair of trousers from Colmurano on my last visit. He had left his surplus kit at the Rozzi when going on his travels, and asked me on my next journey to bring these trousers back with me – this was another use of these wanderings to and fro, carrying odd items of clothing as well as gathering information. He told the same story of the recent Gualdo scare, and added that several prisoners round the area were being turned away by the peasants as the tension was increasing, particularly as some Germans and Fascists had been stationed permanently in Sarnano.
There was a good road from this town to Gualdo, only a distance of a couple of miles, and this made our district easy of access to this permanent garrison if they wished to start a local reign of terror. There had been considerable rebel activity round about Sarnano, partly be local rebels assisted by the Gualdo band, and partly be a band living in Monastero, a little village over the first two ranges of mountains and almost inaccessible except by a single mule track running up the valley of the river Fiastrone; this was a first class site
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for the rebels, but I fear they made little use of it, only very occasionally making any offensive patrols against traffic on the National road. They chiefly confined themselves to garrisoning their positions against attack and making them a refuge where any Anti-Fascist or person liable to military service could go for safety. However, the Germans had sufficient respect for their work at Pian di Piega, the local crossroads, that they established a small garrison at Sarnano, on the National road, to keep the route open for their southbound convoys, and it was this garrison that made our district uneasy.
Fortunately the Germans were short of men and used sometimes to withdraw them to other sectors so in actual fact they were only stationed there at intervals; but sufficient time to make a nuisance of themselves, drive out the rebels and hang their lieutenant in the market square.
It had been an exceptionally hard winter and so all the work on the farms was much in arrears, but as the weather was now clearing up the Lucarelli set to work pruning their vines, of which they had over seven hundred. In the province of Marche all the fields, whatever crops they are growing, have rows of small trees which, about five feet from the ground, divide up into three or four branches. These trees, and wires strung between them, form the support for the vines themselves which thus stretch in long rows across fields of wheat or maize or pasture land, and annually in the spring both vines and supporting trees have to be heavily pruned, and the cuttings tied into bundles and stacked for use as firewood. Everyone was behind with the work this year and as soon as the weather was fit we laboured from dawn to dusk, cutting and bundling these wretched twigs; and I was truly thankful when evening came.
My main object in life was of course to keep my liberty until our Troops arrived, and everything else – finer feelings for the peasants, respect for their property, normal ethics-was secondary to my goal. But the tension was not always at top pitch, we could not have stood the strain, and on days when there were no scares and nothing more useful to be done, I used always to help the Lucarelli with their farm work. I did this partly as a form of payment for their help, but more to identify myself with them, make them regard me as one of themselves and win a place in their affections. But inwardly I hated the work and was thankful for the excuse for a talk provided by the occasional prisoners wandering about the country.
My hamlet was at a little crossroads of country paths and prisoners coming back from the mountains or going south to attempt to cross the lines all used to pass near our fields, and I always stopped them, exchanged news and if they were hungry told them of a likely house for a meal. I rarely asked Giovanni for food for other prisoners now, unless they were my personal friends for it was unfair that those peasants willing to take the risk of hiding a prisoner should also be asked to feed the floating population. In any case, there were many families who were too scared to keep an Englishman permanently, but pleased to help anyone just passing, which didn’t involve them in any danger. At this period, in early April, there had been several searches further south and many prisoners who had lived there in comparative calm for many months, had been forced to travel northwards; this, together with the general uneasiness, caused dozens of Englishmen to wander about in the province of Marche, and every day a few passed by my little hamlet.
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On Good Friday I went up to Sanginesio, for a great procession round the churches had been arranged and I thought it would be safe to mingle in any large crowd of this kind; I wanted to have a look at the inside of the town and thought I might meet some other prisoners with similar intentions. I had hardly been in the square ten minutes when I caught sight of Sergeant-Major or Youngman and Jock Spencer, of the 107th RHA, [Royal Horse Artillery] old comrades of mine in N. Africa. The crowd was strolling about idly, carelessly watched by the Carabinieri, and I had to conceal my natural impatience and wander slowly over to them, greeting them “Buongiorno. Andiamo insieme all cantina”* with a simple phrase like this my accent was sufficiently good to pass unnoticed in the crowd, and together we made our way towards one of the side streets where S.M. [Sergeant Major] Youngman knew a little wine-shop. Here, in this quiet backwater, we talked our heads off, as friends long parted will, and exchanged all the news we could about other fellows in the Regiment, who were in the Camp but of whom I had since lost track. It was nearly dusk before we left, they to Santa Maria, some three miles away to the West, and I back to Cerreto, and before parting I pointed out the roofs of my little hamlet, just visible in the fading light on the next hill, so that if ever they were stranded for a home I might be able to help them. This casual meeting nearly led to my recapture a few weeks later.
Easter Sunday itself meant a big dress parade in the village and as there were no rumours of any Fascists searches all the prisoners remaining turned up at the church. One of the fellows living near by had just returned from an attempt to cross the lines at Pescaraand told us all of the difficulties further south – confirming what Harry and Jack told me last December, though since then the situation had become worse – the Germans had burnt down houses suspected of sheltering prisoners and shot several peasants and the whole population had taken fright, refusing even to sell bread to an Englishman. Life down there was impossible and we wondered how long our own peasants would remain favourably disposed towards us – already there were indications that their feelings were changing.
A few days later three American prisoners on the roam called on me, having been told further down the valley that I could put them up for a night, but I had room for only one, and sent the others along to a house half a mile away, calling there after supper to see if they were fixed up alright. By a fortunate coincidence two British prisoners called whilst I was there, fellows I had known in Camp, so I was able to get them fixed up in the cow-shed as well, and arranged for them to call on me the following day. They arrived early at the Lucarelli and soon told me their tale. They had been living the other side of Gualdo ever since their escape, with a peasant family who were still willing to shield them, but as often happened, the landlord was frightened for his property and ordered the peasant to send them away. There was no refusing him – he might have informed the Fascists – so they were ‘on the tramp ‘ without a home, though a peasant near Gualdo had offered to hide one of them and they were going to accept if the other could get fixed up nearby. As I knew them both well as first-rate fellows, I took them along to Lucarelli’s relation, Ernesto, whose former prisoner, Brian, had walked off without warning in his host’s best suit, and had never returned. It was most embarrassing to have to ask him to hide another Englishman after his
* “Good-day. Let us go to the wine-shop together”.
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unfortunate experience with Brian, but we had become very brazen-faced and practically forced Ernesto to agree to a kind of week’s probation, which in the end turned out quite happily as Ben, my friend, worked hard and was very popular with the family. There were several such occasions of finding homes for one’s friends but I only have space to mention those incidents which have a bearing on the narrative later on. Ben’s house was less than half a mile from mine and so we knocked about together quite a lot.
Mac had just returned from a visit to Colmurano, and called on me the following day with news of all our friends, English and Italian and suggested I should go to see them again. Although it was only a fortnight since I last went there I thought it would ease the Lucarelli’s mind if I disappeared from the scene for a few days and it would also make a change for me. Although I was as happy as the circumstances allowed with the Lucarelli, and was very grateful to them, the life was bound to make one very restless and temperamental, and I found that a change of haunts, even if only for a few days, made living more tolerable, and us more appreciative of our good fortune to have a house at all.
It was mid-April when I left for Colmurano for the last time. On my previous visit the Rozzi and others had seemed so nervous they had made me uncomfortable too, and if it had not been for Harry’s wound I should not have gone back again, but Mac told me they were asking about me, so I thought I should chance it.
I made the usual preparations before leaving the Lucarelli – hid my kit under the straw in the cow-shed; told one or two other prisoners where I was going in case I never came back; oiled automatic with pig’s fat, the only lubricant I could find – and set off once again via Sanginesio and Ripe. I could not help noticing that Giovanni Lucarelli’s customary farewell “Buon viaggio, don’t stay down there too long” had lost some of its former force.
I reached Colmurano without trouble and was made most welcome by the Rozzi and the others I knew, but they all hinted I should stay only a short time. Harry had to be accompanied to the doctor to have his hand dressed again, so we went up together the first night; he had passed the critical stage and hoped he would not now have to give himself up on this account.
We got to the doctor and back without interruption and as Harry was feeling much stronger I wished to return to Cerreto straight away, but a sudden spell of bad weather held me back. For three days it poured continuously, and I knew the paths up in the foothills would be practically impassable, so had to wait impatiently at the Rozzi till the weather cleared. My one consolation was that the Fascists were unlikely to cause us any bother during this summer storm.
The first fine day I left for Loro Piceno as I wished to see Jack again before returning. The peasants had been so jumpy this visit that I determined never to come to Colmurano again until our troops arrived, except in dire emergency. Reports and rumours from all over the country told us of searches, spies, betrayals and I began to realise that before our deliverance came we should have to pass through a very sticky period. I only hoped the Lucarelli would continue to allow me to use their house as a base, even if I was not allowed to stay there. I
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had my gun, but couldn’t think of compelling a family who had already done so much for me. If this life made us hard and callous in some respects, it also accentuated our feelings of gratitude to those who had helped us, and bonds of strong friendships were formed, overcoming our differences of race, creed and background.
I returned to Cerreto after an absence of five days, luckily sandwiching my tramp between two spells of bad weather, for almost immediately on my return the rain set in for a few days more. The countryside became filthy, paths full of mud, and even the farmyard itself was nearly impassable with wet, sopping straw a foot deep. It was very depressing but our spirits were buoyed up by seeing many lorries and carts on the National road, loaded with furniture and refugees from the recently bombed town of Macerata. It had only been bombed once and comparatively little damage done, but the inhabitants were leaving it in all directions seeking safety in the countryside. We were glad to hear of this air-raid, for Macerata was an important Fascist HQ., [Head Quarters] and also had a German Command in the town, and we hoped, I fear in vain, that they would move their administration elsewhere, perhaps to Ancona, where they would make less trouble for us.
By the following Sunday, in late April, the weather had cleared a little, and most of the local prisoners took advantage of this to assemble at the village church. We swapped recent news — I of Colmurano and Urbisaglia another prisoner of a trip he had made across the river Tenna, etc. – and having had my fill of gossip I was returning to our little hamlet when I spotted SM [Sergeant Major] Youngman and Bdr. [Bombardier] Schofield coming up the path towards me. The former I had met in Sanginesio only a fortnight ago, but the latter, also of my old Regiment, I hadn’t seen since escaping. I realised they were nearly dead-beat, and they said they could do with a meal, so I told them to keep their story till we had eaten, although dying with curiosity to know where they had been.
Seated around the Lucarelli’s kitchen table, bread and cheese before them, their glasses full of old Giovanni’s wine, they felt their strength returning and Youngman began his tale.
“You remember I left you in Sanginesio on Venerdi Santo, I mean Good Friday. Damn it. We speak so much Iti we are forgetting our own lingo. Well, a couple of days after, Geoff and I set out to cross the lines at Pescara. It was a risk, we knew, but the Santa Maria district where we had been living was getting too hot and as we had nowhere else to go, we thought we would have a shot at it”.
I had met several prisoners who claimed to have been near the front line but I could never be sure they were speaking the truth; but with these two it was different, I had known them for years and felt confident of their tale.
“We took a small supply of bread and cheese, but intended to live mainly on the peasants as we passed. Here’s where we went ” and he spread out his rough map on the table. “We followed the National road down south as far as we could. Not along the road itself of course, but keeping it in view as a general guide. We did this all right till we reached the area where the Jerry base troops were. Then our troubles started. The peasants wouldn’t give us any food or information, so we had to leave the National road and get up into the hills”.
“How did you find your way about? I’ve never been up into the actual mountains themselves, but it looks pretty grim from here”.
“It was. Even up there the peasants weren’t very helpful
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and our stock of food began to get a bit low. We wasted hours taking the wrong paths, they kept leading us to little isolated shacks or up lonely valleys. We couldn’t have made more than a few miles a day towards the end. The further south we got, the worse were the mountains and the more hostile were the peasants. I don’t think they were really against us at heart – they were just scared stiff. We had about reached the end of our tether when the weather settled it for us. It poured buckets-full. There was nothing to it but to turn back. Little streams suddenly became torrents, the route we had come was practically unusable, and we thought we would have to get down to the plains and pass back through the military areas”.
“Surely, that would probably mean recapture”.
“Yes, but we had no food. Anyhow, we managed to struggle back across the hills somehow, and thought we’d pass this way on the off-chance of seeing you – and getting a decent meal” he added with a grin.
“Damned glad you did. I’m always ready to help the worthy poor. What’s your next move?”
“We’re thinking of returning to Santa Maria, for two or three weeks and then having another go when the weather’s better. If we carry more food and travel quicker the first few days, I think we might make it”.
“You’ve certainly got guts. I’m not sure I should like to try it. Are you going to Santa Maria now – well, I’ll accompany you as far as the National road”.
Together we left the hamlet, walking down towards the road across which, some five miles away, lay their destination. On the way they told me more details of their plans, and when we parted they promised to call again some time if they were unable to reach our lines. Grand fellows, full of pep and go, this life of subterfuge and concealment would never break their spirits.
Personally I thought it a moot point if these expeditions were really worthwhile. Of course it was everyone’s duty and desire to reach our own lines, but we had heard so much of the difficulties and dangers involved from fellows who had tried and failed and that many prisoners had been shot or recaptured in the attempt, that I considered it wiser, if one was fortunate enough to have found a good family, to wait quietly in the countryside until the British should advance at Pescara, and then in the ensuing confusion, slip through the lines. If one did not have a house the situation was different and it was worthwhile to try any scheme, no matter how hazardous, before thinking of giving oneself up.
The day after, three Englishmen, who had been living previously at Gualdo and been forced to leave, returned from a fortnight’s tramp, in the province of Abruzzi, south of Marche. They brought back the same tales of events down there.
There had been many searches by the Fascists conducted in rather a brutal manner, presumably with the object of establishing a kind of reign of terror, and several instances had occurred of prisoners being killed without reason; the most common example of this was when a prisoner had been sighted and called to halt, and as he was walking towards the Fascists to surrender, was just show down. We all admitted both the legal and moral right of search parties to fire at anyone who would not halt and give himself up, but it seemed cowardly and treacherous to shoot those who had surrendered and were defenceless. The Fascists’ brutality was not confined to the
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prisoners and found an even wider scope amongst the peasantry. The fate of any Italian caught with an Englishman in his house was uncertain – sometimes he was shot, sometimes merely beaten up with rifle butts, and occasionally taken off to prison from whence he would probably be sent to Germany on forced labour. The punishments varied with the mood of the Fascist in charge. Sometimes the house was burnt down, on other occasions they contented themselves, with smashing all the furniture and household goods. Occasionally the women folk of the family came in for severe manhandling. Can it be wondered at that the population was becoming terrified to give even the least assistance to prisoners and that many of our fellows further south had given themselves up in desperation? My three Gualdo friends were uncertain as to what to do. Their former family was too frightened to keep them now and they set off two days later for the coast, in an endeavour to steal a boat and sail down the Adriatic to Bari – a wild-sounding scheme, but one which a few enterprising prisoners had managed to effect. We saw no more of them, so they were probably recaptured in the attempt.
The Italian National (not local) police are called Carabinieri, and are a semi-military formation with strong Royalist leanings. They are not directly under the Fascist Party as such, but under whatever government is in power, and in the past had usually turned a blind eye if they saw a prisoner. A new general order had recently been issued however giving the Carabinieri the choice of joining the Republican Guard, a Fascist Corps, or leaving the Service, which latter many of them feared to do having no other form of livelihood. This was disastrous for us, for persons previously friendly would be forced to conform to the spirit of their new Corps and take action against us, and the effective Fascist control would be spread throughout the country instead of being more or less confined to the towns as at present. The 28th April was the date fixed for the change and we were all on tip—toe awaiting events, when, the news spread around that almost all the Carabinieri had refused to sign. The Fascists were not powerful enough to enforce this Order, and so let the question gradually be forgotten. This was a big blow to Fascist prestige, and our spirits rose once again with this assurance that our enemies had not sufficient man-power to make their Orders effective.
In an endeavour to re-establish their authority the Fascists then formed a new Corps, the SS [Schutzstaffel] modelled on the notorious German organisation of the same name, having a similar uniform, and I believe its higher ranking officers were Germans. Its purpose was to maintain law and order according to Fascist ideas and enforce the decrees of the Republican Government, and we first heard of their activities near us when they organised a big sweep of the country round about Tolentino to Santa Maria, rounding up many Italians who had evaded military service and capturing several prisoners. A number of our fellows had managed to get away in time, and some of these came across the national road passing through Cerreto and Gualdo on their way, and it was from these that I got my first information about the SS [Schutzstaffel] methods.
I was working with the Lucarelli in their fields one afternoon, when two ragged strangers passed by on the footpath, but I took no notice of them, busying myself with my work, till one of them shouted to us, asking the way to Gualdo in a deplorable accent. I knew immediately they were English, so dropped my hoe and hurried over to have a chat with them —
“All right, drop the Iti, I’m a prisoner too. Where are you going?”
“We’re off to Gualdo, where’s the best path?”.
“Down the hill there across the [Rest of the line obscured]
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side. It’s that little walled village on the next hill. Are you on the tramp, where have you come from?” and I poured them out a glass of wine from the bottle old Giovanni always had near him in the fields. They looked footsore and weary, and were glad of the excuse to sit down a minute and rest.
“We’ve come from Santa Maria, over that way, towards Sanginesio. Do you know it?” He pointed towards the West. I nodded, having a fair idea from my map “We’ve just had a ‘rastralamento’ by the SS, [Schutzstaffel] only just got out in time. I don’t think they’re coming this way just yet, so don’t pack your bags tonight”.
“Give me the ‘griss’ on how they go about it”.
“They work in patrols of three or four, spread out right across the country, like beaters driving game before them. When they come up to anyone working in the fields, they demand his identification papers, and if these are not in order they hand him over to a squad that follows up in the rear, which guards prisoners and suspects. They cross the country at a fair rate, but always stop to examine little valleys, woods and such like, and it was these delays that gave us time to get away”.
“Do they search the houses?”
“Not generally. As far as I could tell, when they come to a farm they would glance around the cow-shed and yard but not often go into the house itself. You see, the Ities are too frightened to hide indoors and the SS [Schutzstaffel] know this. They fire bursts of machine-gun fire into haystacks and cornfields in case anyone is hiding there, and this so scares the Wops that they always bolt for it, and are either caught or shot running away”.
“There’s not much chance of escaping one of these searches, then?”
“It depends on the warning and the start you get. You see, although the rank and file of these bastards are only youngsters, most of the officers and NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officer] are older chaps, probably been Fascists for years, and they know all the tricks of the trade. At Santa Maria, judging from the firing, they seemed to be converging from all directions, on a properly arranged plan, not the usual Iti muddle. As they generally start at dawn, if you’re not up and about early in the day, you may wake up to find your district surrounded”.
“Pleasant prospect. I suppose they’re well-armed?
“Yes. The usual. Rifles and light machine guns, looked something like our Sten guns in the distance, and I think some of them carry a few hand grenades, in case they meet any rebel opposition I suppose. They’ve given the Santa Maria district the fright of its life and I’m not going back there for a few weeks. The peasants ‘ll be too scared even to speak to you”.
“Well, good luck on your travels. Do you want to take any bread with you, my chap’s got plenty?”
“No thanks, we’re travelling light. Cheer-oh” and they walked off, down the path towards Gualdo.
Their information, first hand and not a day old, made me think hard. Santa Maria less than five miles away, was the nearest place to us where there had been a big search, and as we were expecting some trouble in our district any day, on the 2nd May I went round to see the other prisoners living near, to find out the reactions of their peasants, and what they intended to do. Some were for evacuating whilst there was yet time, tramping about the country and returning when Gualdo and Cerreto had been searched. This was a sound scheme but for two weak points. Firstly we did not know how long it would be before the SS [Schutzstaffel] came to Cerreto, and did not wish to be tramping about for a long time unnecessarily, and secondly it was our
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policy to hold on to our houses as long as possible. Once we gave our peasants the idea that we were frightened and thought the area dangerous, they too would become scared and turn us out, and once one fellow was ejected in this way it would not be long before the others followed him.
There was also another point of view to be borne in mind, that of the vast majority of the peasants who were not hiding any prisoners or anti-Fascists. Up to now they had been friendly towards us, but if they got the impression that the presence of a few prisoners would cause a search over their land, they would naturally try to force us to leave the district, and would try to persuade our families to turn us out. Ours was a precarious existence, and we had to read warily, giving offence to none, being conciliatory towards all, and yet still maintain that bearing and poise that made the peasants look up to us as Englishmen.
I was undecided what to do, but Giovanni had heard about the ‘rastalamento’ at Santa Maria and was too frightened to have me in his house any longer. We had formed a close friendship and respect, and he didn’t want me to leave altogether, so hid my kit in the sheep-pen and told me to go across the river toward Gualdo and sleep that night in one of the mountain huts. I was in no position to refuse his request and in any case did not wish to frighten him after all his family had done for me, so took a couple of blankets to the hut, where I found several other prisoners in similar straits. The owner of the hut had heard we were there and allowed us to stay that one night, but told us that we were not to use it after this. It may be wondered why six or seven prisoners did not take the law into their own hands and refuse to leave when the peasants asked us, but a moment’s reflection will show that once we adopted such an attitude the peasants would all turn against us, our sources of information would be stopped and we should have to roam the country, with every man’s hand against us. This we were prepared to do if necessary, but it was both pleasanter and more politic to keep on good terms with the population if possible and leave these extreme measures until we were forced to adopt them.
It was a most uncomfortable night in the hut, cold and draughty and when morning came at last I had already decided not to spend another night there. My companions, having no homes, were leaving anyway, and on my way back to the Lucarelli I met Arthus and two friends, my nearest English neighbours, with their packs on their backs, evidently just starting out. I hailed them and asked where they were going.
“Don’t know yet, but we’re clearing out of here while we can. You remember we made a trip up into the mountains in the Spring to get some arms? We’re thinking of going up there again and joining in with the rebels”.
“Have you got any arms yourselves?”
“Two pistols. That’s all. They’re ancient, Boer War style, but they look good and that’s all that’s needed to frighten the Ities. What are you doing?”
“I’m leaving too, heading for Colmurano district. I know that part well. When are you coming back?”
“Oh – after about four or five days. See you then – Buona Fortuna”.
“Same to you”.
I continued on my way to the Lucarelli, had breakfast and then strolled over to see Ben before I made a final decision. His house was in a danger spot, in view of the national road,
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and I wanted to make sure he knew that the others were leaving. I was just approaching his house, taking a short cut across the fields I knew so well, when I spotted two people coming up from the national road. Standing stock still, I waited for them to pass the hedge behind which I was hiding, but as they approached I was amazed to recognise two fellows from my old Regiment, Jack Spencer and Sgt. [Sergeant] Field. I had met Jock in early April but hadn’t seen Field since escaping from Camp and after hearty handshakes all round, I suggested we called on Ben and sampled his host’s wine. They fully agreed and we had hardly taken a dozen steps towards the house when Jock let out a yell—
“By God. There’s Doug” and coming down the little path from the house was Schofield, closely followed by Ben.
Ben of course lived here, and his presence was no surprise, but no writer of fiction could have conceived the unlikely chance that four fellow escapees, all from the same Regiment, should suddenly meet at some unknown spot in the Italian hills without pre —arrangement. I believe Providence threw us together and had a hand in guiding our counsels.
Jock was Scofield’s particular pal and eagerly asked him where he had been the last few days.
“Youngman and I have had another shot at getting across the lines. We got further this time, the weather was perfect, but when we got within about fifteen miles of the Front, Youngman got picked up”. “Oh Lord. What happened?”
“We were crossing a cornfield, each crawling up one of those drainage channels, through the corn, making our way towards a little built-up road. Youngman reached it first and as he was scrambling up the embankment, I saw two men walking along the road towards us. It was too late to warn him, and when one of them pulled out a gun, there was nothing Youngman could do but surrender. They casually searched him and then the three of them went off down the road together, apparently quite friendly. Thank God they didn’t try any strong-arm stuff. I was still hiding in the corn and followed them for some time in case he made a break for it and wanted help, but he didn’t get an opportunity. So I came back”.
Those last four words. What a wealth of finality and despair they conveyed to us. We, who knew the life, understood what it meant to see one’s best friend recaptured and be unable to help him.
“Tough Luck” – “Bloody shame” – “He’ll get away again” – in our various ways we tried to cheer him up but we couldn’t help feeling the inadequacy of our words.
But Schofield was a plucky fighter and soon shook off the despondency that recounting his tale had brought back to him.
“Well, what do we do now? How’s Santa Maria district? I could do with a couple of days rest”.
“We’ve just come from there” said Jock “There has been a ‘rastrellamento’ from there to Tolentino and we’ve all had to scampa via” and he told us about the same event that the two strangers had told me yesterday. “We came this way hoping to find Lorenzo in, and get some ‘connor’ off him”.
“You can have some bread and cheese with pleasure. It s all I can offer. I say, now we are all here, what about going off together?” I suggested “I’m not staying here any longer till things cool down. What do you say, Ben?
“I’ve been on the tramp once before. I’m hanging on here
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till the last possible moment. It’s no holiday, you know, roaming about an unfriendly country”.
“Oh, I know, but we shall not be able to stay here much longer anyway. But please yourself. What do you say?” I turned to the other three.
“We’ve been kicked out and got to tramp around. Good idea to stick together. Let’s go up to your house for some ‘connor’ and decide where we are going”.
Ben returned to his cottage, and we four climbed up the hill to the Lucarelli, where, Isolina, the daughter, was preparing the lunch. I asked her to make enough ‘pastasciuttta’ for us all, and then we discussed our plans, AND AFTER MUCH TALK DECIDED TO MAKE STRAIGHT FOR Santa Maria, the centre of the trouble. This may sound crazy but I think our psychology was sound. It was unlikely that the Fascists would search the same district twice in so short a time, and provided we encountered no trouble in getting there we should survive this present crisis.
Just as we were finishing our lunch, old Giovanni came in from the fields and I told him I was going away with my friends, and should not return until it was quite safe again. He tried to persuade me to stay, but this was merely his natural courtesy, and his relief when I refused his kind offer was comical to see.
But time was getting on, we had to be well past Sanginesio before dusk, so we bade the Lucarelli goodbye and set off down the hill to the national road. There was no traffic or patrols on this, so we quickly crossed it and climbed the hill up to Sanginesio. The town seemed quiet, there was no firing, and several peasants we asked assured us that there were no SS [Schutzstaffel] there, but it was too risky to chance it and so we gave the town a wide berth, striking out into the country towards the north-west. I found it much easier travelling with these three friends than on my previous tramps alone to Colmurano, for apart from their companionship, we shared the duty of watching the countryside and it greatly lessened the strain.
The danger at Santa Maria was always in our thoughts but we didn’t let it get the better of our sense of humour, and enlivened our time by making an egg collection.
It was sometimes difficult to find peasants to give us a meal, particularly as we were a party of four, so we adopted the procedure of calling at a farmhouse and asking to buy four eggs. In almost every case the people took pity on us and refused any money, which was of course what we intended, and by the time evening had come we had acquired quite a stock of provisions – about sixteen eggs, cheese and bread – and so were able to call on a house the other three had visited before and prepare our own supper, putting them to no expense and improving their opinion of us. This house was somewhere between Sanginesio and Santa Maria and on the edge of the district that had just been searched. They would not agree at first when we asked to sleep in their cowshed, but after half an hour of arguing they consented and we settled down for the night, making ourselves as comfortable as possible amongst the straw and harnesses.
We left early after dawn next day for the peasants were frightened to have us on their premises and our first job was to find breakfast. For this we split into pairs and were both
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lucky at the first houses we asked; despite the recent alarms, the peasants were not too scared to have us for a quick meal, provided we did not stay about the farm longer than was strictly necessary. Breakfast completed, we had a discussion on our route for the day.
“I suggest we make for the West of Colmurano” I said “That would skirt Santa Maria, and bring us out behind the area that’s been searched”.
“That’s alright, but we don’t know the district” objected Field “We want to be sure where we are in case there’s any trouble”.
“I know a family near Sarnano” said Schofield “they would put us up for a night”.
“But look here” I protested “That’s going right back towards the area we expect to be searched” – a glance at the map will make this clear “I’m not going that direction”.
“Have it your own way. I’m not going further North, and we do know several people near Sarnano; where you suggest, Lawrence, we don’t know a soul”.
“We never shall do till we go there. Anyway, that was our original plan and I still think it the best. What do you two think?”
Unfortunately they both agreed with Schofield and so we parted. I was sorry to leave them, but one had to have a mind of one’s own in this life, and I couldn’t see the sense in retracing our steps, even though they knew friends in the district they wanted to go to. No-one could have foreseen the results of this small decision, but it turned out disastrously for my companions. Thus I carried on alone to Colmurano, talking to any peasants I met, encouraging them in their belief that the British would advance one day and generally attempting to spread tales of quiet and peace in other districts to reassure them. Most prisoners instinctively adopted this form of propaganda. Even if one’s vocabulary is limited, it is fairly easy to convey the above ideas, and although some of the peasants were suspicious of our intentions they all realised that the average English soldier was educated far above their standard and accordingly respected his opinions. I learned that there was a temporary garrison of SS [Schutzstaffel] at Colmurano, which was expected to make trouble somewhere soon, but as the immediate environs of the village had been searched only a few days ago I thought it safe to venture fairly near, and when within half a mile began to look for a house to put me up for the night. The Western side of Colmurano was a new district to me and I was lucky to encounter two other prisoners who knew this part and were also looking for a night’s lodging, and they pointed out some likely houses to me.
When asking to sleep in a peasant’s cottage I always used the same method. Adopting rather a swagger, I would stride up to the door and, my hat at an angle, swinging my stick jauntily, demand to see the head of the household. This usually produced some wrinkled old peasant who would nervously ask me what I wanted, and from here the conversation would normally proceed along orthodox lines –
“I am an English Captain travelling the country. I want to sleep here to-night. Have you a place for me?”
Vigorous shaking of the head and wild gesticulation.
“I am only a poor peasant and have no room in my little cottage. I should be pleased to help you but am not able, signore”.
“Oh, but I don’t need a proper bed. A place in the cowshed
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is good enough. Have you plenty of straw?”
“I have hardly any straw, and my cowshed is full of cattle. I cannot…”
“Fine. If you have so many cattle you must be rich” and about this point I would push my way into the cowshed to see what room he really had got. If it was obvious there was no accommodation, I would just thank him for his courtesy and move on to try my luck at the next house. If, however, there was room and yet he persisted in refusing me, I would ask his name, and pretend to write it down in my notebook. The written word has a strange influence on illiterate peasants, and it was a certainty he would ask me what I was writing.
“You have refused an English Officer help. When my troops advance to here I will give orders for them to burn your house down”. It was hard to keep a straight face when adopting these pseudo-indignant poses, but they usually had the desired effect.
“Oh Signore. I have always been a friend of the English. It was only because of fear of the Fascists. You can sleep here if you wish. Do you want any wine? Do you want…”
“I want nothing from you. I have your name. If any prisoners ask you for help, make sure you do everything for them, or I will give your name to my troops” and with a final glance round the farm, I would stride off into the fields. A moment’s reflection would have shown how ridiculous were my threats, but I understood the peasant psychology, knew how dear his little homestead was, and hoped he would be more accommodating if any other prisoners passed that way. Although it usually ended in a place being offered me, if this were done purely out of fear I never accepted but walked on. A frightened man is a dangerous man, and would probably have given me away to the Fascists whilst I slept.
All this was rather heartless, and despite our life making us callous I was never able to overcome completely my dislike of using intimidation. But it was wartime, our position fairly desperate, and it just had to be done.
The majority of the peasants were friendly and it was only twice I had to threaten them openly. Many of the families were obviously too poor and had no room so I just accepted their protestations of regret and passed on to the next house. I tried at three of the houses the two prisoners had indicated but they were all small with no accommodation, and it was not till I asked at the fourth that I had any luck. Here they were most hospitable, cooking me a special supper and allowing me to share a bed with one of their sons, an unexpected piece of good fortune. At this juncture I was pretending to be a Captain in the British Intelligence Service, and rewarded their kindness by telling, in somewhat halting Italian, a thrilling story of how I had crawled through the German lines and was making my way North with important messages. These good, simple people swallowed the story whole and soon I was bombarded with questions of military strategy, chiefly about the expected invasion of France, which I told them in confidence was due to begin in exactly two weeks, if the English Channel was calm. What was my reason for spinning these yarns? Partly, I must confess, from a mischievous sense of fun, but the main reason was that one received better treatment and more respect from the peasants if of commissioned rank and one’s propaganda was listened to with greater belief. It also stopped one’s tracks from being followed up by interfering busybodies.
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I slept well, and was more than annoyed when the farmer came rushing into the bedroom soon after daybreak and shook me by the shoulder.
“Fascisti. Fascisti. They are coming over the hill towards the house”.
Fool, I thought, trying to put the wind up me with that old dodge. I knew the peasants’ sense of humour.
“Capitano, it’s true. The Fascisti” he looked out of the window “I can see five, no six, no seven. They are carrying guns. Oh Madre di Dio. Sesto Luigi” and he ran out of the room to warn his sons of military age.
I was by now fully awake and realised he was in earnest, so flung on my clothes and scanned the country from the window, standing well back in the shadow in case they saw me. They were there all right, seven of them, not more than two hundred yards away. There was not a minute to lose. I ran out of the house, shouting a casual “Grazie” to the family, and made straight for a little stream running at the bottom of the long ridge, on the other side of which was the national road.
I had run hardly twenty yards from the house when I met the two prisoners, of yesterday hurrying up the stream.
“There are seven of them coming over that hill there” I panted, pointing to where I had just left.
“God. We’re trapped” one of them ejaculated “They’re coming from Colmurano way too. We best beat it up the stream towards Sanginesio”.
It was no time for words, we needed our breath for running. Fortunately there was a little path alongside the shallow stream, well sheltered by high bushes and reeds which afforded splendid cover. After sprinting far as we could could along this, we settled down to a hurried walk, for we had no idea how long this search would last and had to conserve our energies.
They started firing. A few single shots and then a burst of machine gunfire.
“That wasn’t at us. They haven’t spotted us yet. Where did it come from?”
“Along the ridge, and behind us, and Santa Maria way”.
The firing was a help to us, for they hadn’t seen us and thus gave away their positions. They were probably shooting at runaway Italians.
“They’re in the form of a ‘U’, a sort of pincer movement, with its mouth towards Sanginesio. Our only hope is to outdistance them, get out of reach of their flanks, and then strike round in a big circle to left or right. Get behind them”.
Afresh burst of firing, with more machine guns, and nearer.
“We’re in the middle of it. Let’s get a move on”.
For ten hectic minutes we hurried through the bushes. Keeping under cover we couldn’t see where the SS [Schutzstaffel] men were, but the insistent crackle of the rifles and occasional bursts of machine-gun fire gave us a rough idea of their positions. As we tore our way through the undergrowth my mind flashed back to Schofield and the other two. So they had been right after all, and it was I who was going to be caught . I felt the gun in my pocket – I wouldn’t be taken alive, I wouldn’t suffer a prison camp again, I would take some of them with me. Bravado?
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No, not really, only the mad intoxication of fear and despair.
My companion brought me back to reality; –
“I think we have outdistances the ends of the ‘U’. The firing is all behind us now. Shall we chance climbing up the ridge?”
“Yes, come on. It’s our only hope of getting behind them”.
The little stream had given us temporary cover, but we were bound to be caught if we stayed there, and climbing the ridge and getting down towards the national road the other side was our only chance of escape. As soon as we left the banks of the stream we lost our cover, but the lie of the land and height of the crops were in our favour. We reached a little farm halfway up, and rested a moment to regain our breath. I looked back down the valley. I could still see the squad I had spotted originally, and I now saw that they had large dogs on leashes with them, and these were excitedly sniffing the ground – they were passing almost exactly where we had been five minutes ago. From Santa Maria in the West there were other patrols moving steadily towards our valley, and we could hear the fire of the parties from Colmurano, although we couldn’t yet see them. Only towards Sanginesio, where there was a garrison of SS [Schutzstaffel] and the national road was there no firing.
We hurried on up towards the top of the ridge. Once there, we would command a view of all the countryside and could probably make our escape. My hopes began to rise again.
Swish. Swish. Swish….
Three bullets whistled over our heads. My two companions and I flattened ourselves on the ground. I realised we had exposed ourselves against the skyline, and the nearest patrols, those from Colmurano had spotted us. Such a little way to safety, the top of the ridge only a little over a hundred yards away, and we pinned to the ground here. Our one chance lay in the cover afforded by a patch of horse beans, two feet high. Beside these we crawled for several yards, whilst a few erratic shots passed above, but our progress was necessarily slow and the patrols were advancing all the time.
“Here, I say” I whispered – the Fascists were still many yards away, but I dropped my voice instinctively “I’m dodging off to the right down that little cutting. They’ve seen us here. We can’t get up to the ridge now”.
“That’s crazy” one of them replied “You’ll expose yourself again. I’m hiding in the beans – coming?”
“No. – Best of Luck”. I watched them creeping in amongst the beans where they were soon hidden from view, and then crawled towards the little cutting I had noticed. It was quite a drop from the path we were in, and I tore my hands badly and ripped a piece out of my jacket in the fall, although I didn’t notice it at the time. At the bottom of the cutting was a little glade at the far end of which was a filthy, muddy little stream, covered with undergrowth, leading unobtrusively towards the top of the ridge. This was just what I wanted, and although it was slippery climbing and I had to keep low for odd shots were still flying about, in a quarter of an hour I had gained the summit of the ridge.
At last. I rested a moment and listened to the firing.
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The patrols were passing below me. I had outflanked them. I was safe.
But one couldn’t tell where they would search next, so I decided to hurry down to the national road and get into the district that I knew so well the other side of it. Before leaving the ridge I cast one look back at the scene below me. Odd Italians could be seen running for all they were worth in every direction; deserters who had hidden in some place till the last moment and then lost their nerve and run for it; little groups of people, presumably the SS [Schutzstaffel] advancing towards the ridge from almost all directions, and above all the insistent crackle of rifle and machine-gun fire. I have been in many actions in North Africa and experienced far heavier fire than this, but never before had it made me so afraid. I believe in battle most men have the faith and hope that the enemy are not aiming at them personally, but in these circumstances the reverse was the case, and we knew we should get rough treatment at the hands of these Fascist thugs if we were caught.
It didn’t take long to descend the ridge to the main road, and after watching carefully for patrols, I was soon across it and walking; back along the banks of the river Fiastra, past Ripe towards the North, the firing getting fainter and fainter as the SS [Schutzstaffel] advanced towards Sanginesio. I had not had anything to eat or drink the whole morning and it was now about ten o clock, and after some three hours hectic running and climbing I felt ravenous. My luck was in as usual for working near the river bank I found a party of peasants at their late breakfast, which I was allowed to share, and so carried on refreshed down the Fiastra several miles till I reached Passo Colmurano. Here I called on the Piancatelli as it was easy to approach this house from the river without being observed from the road. They were frightened when they saw me, for although my old haunts had not yet been searched, the panic was speeding throughout the countryside and everywhere the peasants were afraid to help prisoners and refugees. However, they gave me a hurried lunch but I could find no-one of my previous friends to put me up for the night, even the Rozzi with their secret hiding place were afraid and all begged me to leave at once and not to endanger myself and them. I wanted to see Harry before I left, but they told me he thought Colmurano too dangerous and had gone to live with Jack at Loro Piceno.
That settled it. Harry was not one to run away in a hurry so I decided to look them both up at Loro Piceno. It was by now early afternoon, in the heat of the day, and most of the peasants were enjoying a brief siesta. I felt strangely conspicuous in the deserted countryside, even the yard dogs barked in distrust as I passed. The Paaloni, where Jack lived, were just stirring when I strode into their kitchen, running with perspiration, and I must have presented a rather bedraggled appearance.
“Buon Giorno. Where’s Giacomo?”
“Who are you? We don’t know anyone called Giacomo”.
“Oh, come now. I’m Lorenzo, Giacomo’s friend who used to live at Colmurano. I have come to see him. Is he in the house?”
“I’ll tell you again we have no-one called Giacomo here. I don’t remember you either”.
“No? I came here before with two friends to visit Giacomo, in early March. Don’t you remember? It was about this time”.
They whispered amongst themselves –
“Has Giacomo – your friend, we don’t know him – got fair hair?”
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Jet black and this was just a clumsy trap to fool me.
“No. You know his hair is as black as coal. He usually wears a grey pullover and – yes I remember – he has lost a tooth here” I pointed to a spot in my mouth.
Signs of recognition were passing over their faces when one of the children piped up “I remember this man” – it was enough. They crowded round and the old man offered me a drink of wine. “We are sorry not to have trusted you”.
“No. You did right. It is better to be always careful now. You acted wisely”.
“Ah, you understand. Some people…” he threw out his hands as a gesture of despair at the stupidity of some “These times. You know the Fascisti, the spies…they send people into the country, people who speak Italian badly” I blushed inwardly at this reflection on my ability “and we peasants believe they are sincere. Then later the Fascisti come with their cars and machine-guns and bloodhounds”.
These last words sent a chill down my back, remembering the dogs I saw on leashes earlier this day. “Do the Fascisti use dogs when hunting for prisoners and rebels?”
“Sometimes, yes. The they can’t hide in the corn fields, you see”.
I gave a thought for the two fellows I had left this morning lying in that patch of beans –
“Let’s pray the English troops will be here soon to liberate you from these murderers. Now, is Giacomo living in your house?”.
“No, not now, because the Fascisti” – he was just about to launch out on his favourite topic again, but I hadn’t all afternoon to waste, so cut him short –
“Yes, it is bad for you. Where is Giacomo now?”
“I have a small hut in the country, my boy will take you” and so after a round of farewells and another drink of wine, his little son led me across the fields, through one of the rare woods to a tiny shack completely overgrown with creepers and plants. So well was it camouflaged that I didn’t notice it until within a couple of yards, and then hearing no-one about thought Jack and Harry were away. But they were merely being cautious, and having heard footsteps approaching, kept perfectly still. As soon as they saw it was me, they rushed out of their shed to meet me and soon we were talking our heads off, about the only subject that really interested us at that time – searches Harry told us about the Fascists at Colmurano, whilst I recounted my experiences of the morning and then we thought about getting me somewhere to sleep for the night.
The hut was too small, it would only just take them, so Harry took me to a relation of the Astolfi, whose house was well outside Loro Piceno village, and where he and Jack had previously lived for a few days. The family had not seen me before, but had heard about me from friends at Colmurano and gladly made me welcome for the night, evidently pleased to do anything to help a friend of Jack or Harry. It was very plucky of them to do this at such a critical moment, but the searches had mostly been on the West of the national road and perhaps they did not realise the full danger. So ended the 5th May, my most hectic day to-date, and I went to sleep profoundly thankful that I had managed to evade the biggest search we had so far experienced. When I later learned the complete story I realised even better how fortunate I had been, for about eighty English prisoners, and hundreds of Italians had been caught and were confined in my old Camp at Sforzacosta.
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There were the usual stories of prisoners being shot whilst attempting to get away, and although it was sometimes difficult to check their veracity, I can vouch for the story of the murder of John Parkins as both true and typical of many others. He was living on the far side of Colmurano and had not had sufficient warning to get away from his house before the Fascist SS [Schutzstaffel] had surrounded the district. He couldn’t escape, so hid in the attic, hoping that they would pass by the actual house and only search the yard and outbuildings as was their usual custom. But he was unlucky for someone had given the Fascists a tip that the family was hiding a prisoner and while three of the patrol covered the outside of the house, the other two entered and began searching the lower rooms. John, apparently realising it was useless to remain in the house, leaped from the attic window to the roof of some stable buildings and from there to the ground, but the three Fascists guarding outside had heard his first jump and shot him as he landed on the ground. They didn’t challenge him or give him a chance to surrender, but fired point blank at a range of two or three yards. The peasant family was treated leniently. in this instance – the father was beaten up with rifle butts and taken to Macerata prison for two months and all the household furniture was smashed. It was stories such as these that made us all keep very alert during this period, but it had a worse effect on the peasants, who were gradually becoming more and more frightened to assist us.
The next day was Saturday and Loro Piceno had its weekly fair. During the winter months this had been an occasion when the local rebels took possession of the town, appropriated the best goods, chiefly livestock, for their own use, and generally made a nuisance of themselves and ran the place. But their day was over and this Saturday several trucks of Fascists drove up to the village to take charge and made a display of strength. Harry and I had just had breakfast when we heard this, so thanked the peasants for their hospitality and hurried off to warn Jack. We questioned several peasants but couldn’t find out whether the SS [Schutzstaffel] intended to search the whole district or merely occupy the village, but my two friends felt confident in their hut, preferring to lie hidden there rather than risk exposing themselves in the country.
After my narrow escape of yesterday I was taking no chances at all, and wanted to get right out of the danger area, as soon as possible. It was useless returning to Cerreto until I knew that the SS [Schutzstaffel] had passed through there, so I decided to make for Montaponne, the nearest village towards the East, and return later to Cerreto. I always carried my rough map with me and intended to keep between five and ten miles away from my hamlet, travelling round in a wide circle, so that I could keep in touch with events there and return as soon as it was safe. At this time of the year, in early May, the countryside was a delightful picture, the little hills covered with ripening wheat, the rows of grape vines already blossoming into tiny clusters, the picturesque farmhouses lying snug amidst their fruit trees a paradise of fertility. Tramping along the footpaths, away from the minor roads which were always a source of danger, up and down the little hills and valleys, it was hard to realise that I was in enemy occupied territory and only yesterday was fleeing for my life. Being of a fairly imaginative nature I fancied myself back in England, and wondering how long it would be before this became a reality, felt an inwards longing for peace,and security, and home.
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But a hungry man can’t afford to dwell on the abstract, and I began to look for my midday meal. My method was simple – to pick on some isolated farmhouse, neither too grand nor too small, but one in which I could hope to find a numerous family so one more would not be a burden to them, and then wait some distance away until the chimney began smoking – another interval of ten minutes and the meal would probably be nearly prepared, and the family coming in from the fields. That was the right moment to put in an appearance and make requests, for as most families usually prepared more than they could eat at the time, there was no excuse they could offer not to give me some. I had become expert at judging the possibilities of a meal from a house’s exterior and was lucky first time, getting a good helping of ‘minestra’, not very tasty but welcome none the less. The family seemed friendly, so I cadged some hot water for a wash and shave, as there is nothing so refreshing after a long dusty walk. In answer to their many questions I told them I was a Yugoslavian rebel captain, rejoining my band in the mountains, both to increase their respect for me and to conceal the least trace of my real identity. As I was not sure of my exact position I produced my battered old map, and orientating it as best I could, asked them the names of the various villages that could be seen on the summits of the nearby hills. I think my exacting questions on the local terrain convinced them of the truth of my story.
I decided on my route for the afternoon, thanked the family, and leaving Montaponne behind me set off for San Angelo. This village was only a few miles from Cerreto, within easy ‘rumour distance’, and I hoped to find a cottage to sleep in that night and to learn the latest news from Gualdo and Sanginesio. But I was unlucky. As I was nearing San Angelo, a peasant passed me, walking rather hurriedly away from the village, and something about his casual ‘Buon Giorno’ struck me an unusual and made me turn and look at him again. He had also turned and was eyeing me, and at that moment I knew instinctively that he was English.
“Hello. Where are you going in such a hurry?”
“I thought you was English” he replied “Couldn’t be sure though”. He looked me up and down “I say, didn’t you used to work in the library at 53 (Our Camp at Sforzacosta)? I’ve seen your mug before”.
“That’s right, but I don’t remember you. Living round here?”
“No. Just out for an ‘ike. My family’s out Montaponne way. You’re not going into San Angelo are you?”
“Not in the village itself, but I was hoping to find some-one fairly near to put me up for the night. Why?
“Go in if you like. It’s your quickest road to Germany. Three or four truckload of SS [Schutzstaffel] arrived about half hour ago. They’ve come to get a ‘dangerous—anti—Fascist’. Some harmless old beggar of over eighty. About their bloody mark I d like to see them up against some of our boys. You wouldn’t see em for dust”.
“You’re right. They’ve got no guts for a real fight. I think I’ll clear off to Penna and see what’s on there, though it’s getting late now”.
“Yes. Don’t stay ‘ere. Your best path to Penna is through that corn field, then cut through the wood on the far side. You can’t miss it”.
“Cheerio, mate. All the bloody best”.
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I followed his directions, and by dusk was near the village of Penna San Giovanni, but at the first three farms where I asked for a night’s sleep I was met by refusals. I was feeling tired, and was tempted to show my automatic and coerce them, but with the SS [Schutzstaffel] as near as San Angelo they might have given me away, so I had to restrain my impatience. At the fourth house the farmer consented to my sleeping in a little wattle-shed lying away from the farm where as he optimistically explained “If you are caught, I can pretend I have never seen you”. He gave me a supper, and treated me to a long discourse on the evils of the Italian Tenancy system, and as by now I was fully conversant with this, he was delighted to have a sympathetic listener. If I showed signs of leaving the table, he would fill up my glass once again to detain me, and then go rambling of once more, but I was very tired after a full day’s walking and late in the evening managed to excuse myself.
I had hardly settled down to sleep in the straw with my jacket rolled up for a pillow, when I heard voices in the night outside. I was wondering if I could conceal my self amongst the junk lying around when the door was suddenly thrown open, silhouetting the figure of a man with a rifle at the ready against the noon—lit sky. Another man from the group outside approached the hut door, and searching with his feeble oil-lamp, called out –
They hadn’t seen me, so drawing my automatic out from under my jacket, I pushed forward the safety catch and replied,
“I am an English prisoner, alone and unarmed”. It would have been wiser to conceal my gun, but I was caught unawares and acted on the impulse.
“We are ‘patrioti’ from Gualdo, and are sleeping in this shed tonight”.
“Thank God”. I mumbled some reply and hid my gun in my trouser pocket, getting up to make room for them in the straw. A third fellow entered, closed the door after him and we were left in the dark. The first rebel lay his rifle down beside him and I then noticed the other two carried huge revolvers, like ancient highwaymen’s pistols. More bark than bite here evidently those pistols didn’t look too serviceable.
“Why have you left Gualdo?”. I really wanted to get to sleep, but had to find out a bit about them first.
“A patrol of Fascisti entered Gualdo this evening and we were forced to run away. We wanted to stay and fight them – but our comrades deserted us. We couldn’t fight alone”.
The usual line of brag.
“Have the Fascisti searched Cerreto as well?”
“Yes, they have completely swept the whole countryside. They caught many Italian and English prisoners. But I think they are finished with us here now”.
“Are they likely to come this way?”
“We don’t think so, they left Gualdo about an hour ago, but we are not going back till morning” – it must have suddenly dawned on him that this was not very heroic, so he hastily added “But if they come here we shall fight them – from this hut. Here, take these two grenades, you can fight with us.
Melodramatic talk harmless enough, but I thought things had gone far enough when he tossed two grenades across to me. I handed them back.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand them. I was only a mechanic the Army”.
“Oh, but they are simple. You pull the ring, so – count [Editor’s Note: Part of the last line of this page is obscured and unreadable.] from him and with a
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with an oath of the type that only the Italian language can boast, told him to go to sleep. It was thus tacitly agreed to leave the matter, and we settled down together in the straw.
It was not from fear that I refused his grenades, and I knew perfectly well how to use them, but it would have been mere folly to make a stand in that little hut, with no cover and no getaway, especially as I suspected these three would leave me in the lurch if we were in a jam. I slept but fitfully that night, for if surprised by a patrol, we should all have been shot on the spot together as armed rebels, and I should have been classed with them.
Shafts of light streaming through the cracks in the reed-walls woke me at dawn next day, and as the three rebels were still sleeping, I got up softly and crept out of the hut. I wanted neither their company nor their dubious fighting qualities a minute longer than necessary. The farmer was already up, sweeping out the cowshed, and seeing me, beckoned me in for a spot of breakfast. He was very angry with the three rebels and only too pleased to give me a decent meal, because I had asked his permission to sleep in his shed whereas these three had terrified the old boy with their unnecessary bravado and threats.
They had told me that the Cerreto and Gualdo area had been thoroughly searched and so I decided to return to the Lucarelli that day. My route took me by Gualdo, and while passing the village I learned a little more about the searches, but it was not till I nearly reached Cerreto that I met Arthur and learned the whole story. He was washing in the little river with his two pals and called me over..
“So you got away OK, Lorenzo. Good work. Where have you been?”, and without waiting for me to tell him, he launched out on a long recital of his own adventures. The same day that I left Cerreto with my three friends, his party tramped up to the mountains and hid there till they heard the danger was over. They had returned late last night.
“Are you sure it’s all right here now? If there’s any doubt I’ll clear off again for a day or two to make sure”.
“The SS [Schutzstaffel] are still at Sanginesio” he replied “but it’s unlikely they’ll come this way again just yet. They’ve captured dozens of Ities of military age and a few of us. There’s only Ben left, and Dick…” and he mentioned two or three other fellows who had been hiding round about.
“Were all the others picked up?”
“Yes. So the peasants told us. There were scores of these SS [Schutzstaffel] men. You didn’t stand much chance once they surrounded your district. Here – how did you get away? You were going to Santa Maria, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I went there. I left my three pals and went on alone to Colmurano. Had some narrow squeaks”.
“Your three pals got picked up”.
I looked at him in horror “No. How do you know?”
“When the ‘rastralamento’ started they were between your hamlet and the national road. They kept out of sight for some time but the SS [Schutzstaffel] had got the area surrounded. They were caught hiding in the grain fields, only a short distance from the Lucarelli. When the patrols handed them over to the main body to guard, and they marched past your place, the Lucarelli were wondering what had happened to you, as you set off with them”.
“Oh, bad luck. They were grand fellows. I wonder if they’ll be able to get away?”
“I heard they were all being taken to Sforzacosta Camp again. There are about eighty English prisoners there and goodness knows how many hundred Ities”.
“Poor devils. Well I must be getting along to the Lucarelli
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But they’ll be surprised to see me. Cheerio. I’ll be coming round to hear the radio to-morrow”.
Arthur’s house was one of the few that boasted a radio, and at the evening news I hoped to meet the other prisoners who had evaded recapture. The Lucarelli’s house was only half a mile away and although I tried hard to think of my best method of re-establishing myself there, my thoughts continually returned to my three pals in Sforzacosta Camp. What rotten luck for them. What a pity they hadn’t come with me – and yet, I had nearly been caught; a few more SS [Schutzstaffel] at Santa Maria, a few less at Sanginesio, and our present positions might have been reversed. But this life was not for the introspective, and on nearing the hamlet and catching sight of old Giovanni working in his vegetable plot, I was brought back to the present.
“Hello there” I called out, and the old fellow turned round as though he had heard a ghost.
“Oh. Lorenzo. You are safe. We thought you had been captured I am so glad to see you again”. But he didn’t look as glad as his words indicated.
“No Giovanni. I was lucky this time. Told you it was better to go away for a few days” – it was always policy to appear prudent in front of them. “How are you all here?”
“It was terrible, Lorenzo. The Fascistsi -” he spat vigorously “They came here, searched everywhere, dozens of them. They took away my Primeto..” He was the son of the house, and a great help to me.
“Good Lord. But he was exempt from the Army. He had a pension”.
“Yes, but they took him just the same. When they had marched all the prisoners to Sforzacosta, he was able to explain and show his papers, so they let him go and he is back here again now. But we are very worried, they say his papers are not in order”.
I felt really sorry for them all, they were such a devoted family. And how would it affect me. With the probability of a patrol of SS [Schutzstaffel] being sent up especially to examine Primeto’s papers, Giovanni wouldn’t want me hanging around the farm. Should I have to go on the tramp again? When I entered the kitchen, the old mother was nearly in tears, still thinking about her son although he was safely back, so I made myself scarce until the evening meal when I joined them at supper. Old Giovanni was really worried over my return. He was genuinely thankful for my escape as he had quite an affection for me, and yet he had to think of his family and this search had brought home to them how dangerous it was to hide any anti-Fascists – Italians or prisoners – on their farms. So for that night he suggested I should sleep out in the fields with my greatcoat and a spare blanket, and to ease their minds I consented. They were so nervous that I was surprised they didn’t ask me to go away altogether.
The day following I kept away from the hamlet except for meals, spending my time visiting the few prisoners remaining and exchanging stories about the search. Ben, my nearest neighbour, had had a narrow escape, but by keeping cool and knowing the country well, had managed to work his way along the little footpaths to San Angelo where he spent the night. The next day he had heard that Cerreto was safe and returned, but his peasants too were very jumpy about keeping him.
In the evening I returned to the Lucarelli for supper and Giovanni, still too shaken to allow me to sleep in my bed,
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suggested that I should spend the night in a broken-down building in his farmyard. This had been partially burnt down over ten years ago, and a casual glance would convey an impression of utter dilapidation – there was no roof or floor, one wall had fallen down and the whole structure was overgrown with moss and weeds – but underneath the stone stairs, still more or less intact, was a small pigsty, now disused and almost hidden by weeds and fallen masonry. Even if the SS [Schutzstaffel] searched the hamlet it was unlikely they would notice the tiny sty in the middle of an old ruin. Ben, whose house was nearer the scene of danger, the national road and Sanginesio, had been sleeping out as well, so he joined me and the two of us were just able to scramble into this little hide-out and make ourselves as comfortable as possible on a bed of straw. From this time until the British troops reached our district this pigsty was my usual sleeping quarters, although occasionally I was allowed to sleep in my former rough bed when the Lucarelli’s confidence was high. Where a prisoner slept was always an indication of the morale of his family and some unfortunate fellows had a very chequered existence – one night in a bed, the next in the fields and the third in a shed – according to the family’s reception of the local rumours.
The following week we were chiefly occupied in keeping our eyes open and trying to reassure the peasants. Several prisoners were wandering through my hamlet, but there was little I could do for them, bar giving them some bread, for I had a hard enough job to persuade the Lucarelli to continue to keep me. They were gradually becoming steadier, and my continual propaganda at last had its effect when in the middle of May they suggested I should once again sleep in my bed in the room over the cattle-shed. The actual comfort was comparatively unimportant, we had all become used to hard-ships, but it was an indication that their confidence was returning and for this reason I was thankful. We were further cheered by witnessing some British fighter aircraft strafe a small German convoy on the national road; several of the remaining prisoners and most of the peasants ran to the top of our ridge which commanded a good view of the road and we were greatly heartened to see the complete superiority of our planes.
This air attack, and the waves of bombers passing high overhead most days, restored everyone’s good humour and we were hoping for another settled period when there came a strong rumour that the SS [Schutzstaffel] at Sanginesio were about to search our way again. I had had one close shave and didn’t want to risk another, so immediately left with Ben to spend the day with some friends at Gualdo, being careful not to appear in an undue hurry so as to scare other peasants and spread the alarm further. We returned at night and of course had to sleep in our pigsty again. Although the alarm was false in that no SS [Schutzstaffel] came to Cerreto itself they did search the area down by the national road less than half a mile away and we now learned there was a permanent garrison of SS [Schutzstaffel] stationed in Sanginesio, which was less than two miles distant. The next day we heard quite a lot of firing from the town, but apparently the SS [Schutzstaffel] were only trying to terrify the local population, firing into the air, and taking pot-shots at bottles in bars in true Wild West style showing how tough they were. It was rather nerve-racking, for we never knew when all this noise might be a real search commencing and so for the next few days I spent most of my spare time at a good vantage point on our ridge, from which I could command a view of the national road, and Sanginesio beyond, and should have adequate
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warning if the SS [Schutzstaffel] sent out patrols in our direction. It was all very worrying, particularly as these worthies had been boasting in the town that they would shortly clear the whole district of rebels and prisoners and no-one knew when or in what direction they would start.
It was evident that this district would soon become too dangerous to live in, so Ben and I packed our bags with food for a day’s tramp in the mountains, hoping to discover some hut or cave we could use as a headquarters, coming down to the farms every so often to replenish our stock of food. This plan would also be useful if the German divisions at Pescara were forced back and we temporarily to clear out of the district. We set off after breakfast southward along the local ridge and after an hour reached the national road half-way between Sanginesio and Sarnano. We had to be on the alert here for the road was patrolled and the country flat, giving little cover, but once we crossed it, it only took us a quarter of an hour to reach the mouth of the gorge formed by the river Fiastrone, an impressive cleft in the mountains, sometimes wooded, sometimes bare rock, guarded at its entrance by an old ruined castle, that typified the days of robber barons and recalcitrant rebels defying authority in their mountain strongholds. There was only one way up the gorge, a narrow mule track, and it made a natural defensive position, for the steep slopes above and below it were practically impassable and at times overhung the pathway. This was the first time Ben and I had been in the mountains proper, and the grandeur and ruggedness impressed us deeply. From the mule-track it was impossible to see far up the winding gorge, whilst all around us the towering heights seemed to hem us in – we felt alone and far from the world of normal men. At each corner we turned, new ranges came into view, each higher and more massive than those just passed, whilst hundreds of feet below, the river Fiastrone fought its turbulent way through the rocks, leaping and splashing in innumerable little waterfall.
The mule track lead to Monastero, a little village several miles up the gorge, which was our destination. A rebel band had made this their headquarters all the winter, and in the Spring had operated from there, attacking odd vehicles on the national road, but they were poorly equipped and when a mixed company of Germans and Fascists had attacked them, they were forced to evacuate as their ammunition ran out. Since then Monastreo had been neutral, grudgingly giving food to the rebels, and being subject to occasional raids by the Fascists.
When Ben and I arrived in the early afternoon we met with a very cool reception and could extract little information from the villagers who had suffered too much at the hands of both factions and were weary of the continuous strife. WE could not hope to find any hideout there, for the peasants were distinctly hostile and without their help, or at least their acquiescence, we could do nothing, for the village was so far away from the agricultural area that we should be dependent on Monastero for food. We had seen no likely spot for our purposes off the mule track up the gorge, so made our way back along another track which led through the wooded slopes over the tops of the various ridges making up that section of Apennines. It was hard going over most difficult ground, but we were rewarded by learning a little of the nature of the terrain and realising what a fine district it was in which to hide.
These mountains are covered with bushes and stunted trees, and provide the best natural cover I have ever seen. There are a few rough paths running through the woods, but once any
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distance away from these it would be almost impossible to see or catch anyone without employing scores of men. It was the ideal district for our purpose except that there was no food, and we had not seen any hut for sleeping; the latter difficulty could be overcome by building a covering of branches and leaves, but the former seemed unsurmountable because of the attitude of the few villagers at Monastero; we should have to tramp down to our former haunts at Cerreto every three or four days to bring back food and if the Germans were retreating over the countryside this would be nearly impossible. However, we had seen the possibilities and returned late that evening to the Lucarelli family well pleased with our day’s expedition. Even if we had not found any definite spot for our hideout, we now new the difficulties we should be up against and had learned the attitude of the mountain peasants and the lay of the land.
Sunday, two days later, was ‘Cresima’ at Sanginesio, a feast of great importance when the children about eight years old were received into the Church by the Bishop. All the families in my hamlet made this an excuse for great festivities in the peasant manner – killing a chicken, using a clean tablecloth, and other indications of high life – but when the various parties returned from the church for the mid-day meal the usual jollity of the occasion was marred by reports they brought back from the town. There were now three hundred SS [Schutzstaffel] men stationed there. They had requisitioned many houses and the only hotel, and were adopting an aggressive manner to everyone, and it was feared that with these reinforcements they would soon carry out their previous threat to clear the district once and for all of undesirables. They continued their policy of terrorising the locals and had sent several of the passive anti-Fascists to Macerata for trial, usually on trumped-up charges or false evidence supplied by the numerous informers. This situation brought home to me the inability of any ordinary population to withstand government by force. Previously, when the rebels had been in control, these informers had lain low, but now they were busy again, willing to betray their neighbours for Fascist favour and paltry rewards.
The peasants who were still sheltering prisoners became more and more nervous, and one evening in the middle of May, Ben and I were discussing what we should do when old Giovanni came in the kitchen and sat down with us. Although he spoke English badly, he could follow it fairly well, so we immediately dropped the subject, not wishing to alarm him further.
But he evidently had something important to say..
“Them Fascistsi in Sanginesio, make more trouble again”.
“What’s wrong Giovanni? We thought things were settling down again”. This was a bold lie, but we always tried to allay his fears.
“The world never be quiet while them Fascistsi here. The cobbler told me there be a big ‘rastralamento’ on the 25th May. All the English will have to go away from here”.
I exchanged glances with Ben. Giovanni obviously wanted to hint something, so it was best to assume a bold front.
“Ah, there have been rumours before and nothing has come of them. I shall not leave until the danger is really near”.
“You will get caught. Everyone in Cerreto says it’s not safe for the prisoners to stay. Not safe for you – nor for me”. The last three words revealed his thoughts. He had done his best for Ben and me, but the constant strain of discovery or betrayal was getting too much for him. I promised I would be careful and then turned the conversation on to other topics-
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the height of the corn, the shortage of fodder, the high price of tobacco – but I could see his mind was still dwelling on this new rumour of a big search on the 25th.
During the next few days Ben and I sounded our friends, English and Italian, about this rumour, and everything pointed to its truth. It seemed there was to be a sweep of the whole countryside carried out by the SS [Schutzstaffel] garrison at Sanginesio, assisted by patrols from the neighbouring towns and villages – Sarnano, Ripe, Colmurano etc. I don’t know how this information leaked out but it was very widespread, practically common knowledge.
It would have been too much to expect the Lucarelli to shelter Ben and me with this imminent threat hanging over them – they had been dropping hints about us going every day – so we told them we would leave the district for a few days until the trouble blew over. From their relief at this it was evident they were just about to turn us out anyway, and we had ‘saved their face’ by going at our own suggestion and spared them the unpleasantness of sending us away.
Accordingly, at dawn on the 25th we rose from our pigsty bed and set off ‘on the roam’, destination unknown, to while away a few days until the situation became easier.
We were under no delusion that this was just a walking holiday. We had both tramped the country before and knew what to expect – the strain of constant uncertainty when in new territory, the difficulty of finding somewhere to sleep, the possibility of walking unwittingly into danger – so we decided to ease our discomforts by visiting some of our scattered friends The first was Mac, living the far side of Gualdo. I intended to visit Colmurano later and thought he might like to send a message to our former family, and also I wanted him to know my intentions in case anything happened to them and I disappeared. Such cases were not unknown.
If we could have forgotten our reasons for this walk, and ignored the subtle threat that seemed to hang over everything, it would have been really enjoyable tramping along the little country paths, passing the time of day with the peasants and drinking in the beauty of Italy in May. Ben and I were both fond of discussion and while tramping along would talk about every conceivable subject till we knew each other’s every souls. It takes a life like this, when every motive is bared, for a man to know himself and others truly, and firm friendships were formed, far stronger than any in more normal times.
But, out thoughts soon descended from the abstract to the more immediate problem of scrounging our lunch. This proved fairly easy, for although we were only given dry bread at the first house we asked, at the second we pitched a more heart-rending tale of woe and struck lucky with a special meal of fried eggs and strips of fat as is the custom here.
Although we had been walking all morning we were still not far from Sanginesio for this country was so hilly and the little paths so circuitous that it was difficult to make good progress when off the roads. We were surprised not to have heard any shots or explosions from the garrison. Perhaps the rumour; of the search were false or the date was incorrect, but we were taking no chances and continued towards Penna San Giovanni, where I hoped to stay the night with the family I
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met on my previous tramp. Although no firing had been heard so far, the rumour of a big search on the 25th was widespread and I feared that no-one would take us in that night unless we had been there before, and they knew us as trustworthy. We waited till dusk before approaching the house, for it was near the village itself, and putting myself in the farmer’s position I knew he would feel easier if we were not seen entering his premises. Even with these precautions he was very frightened to see us and started making all the excuses he could think of. Somewhat heartlessly I brushed these aside saying we had to sleep somewhere and were going to use his shed whether he liked it or not, but for his sake we would leave at dawn before anyone was about and not use any blankets from the house, just covering ourselves with straw. He seemed more satisfied with this compromise and grudgingly consented, though I noticed he did not invite me in to supper as before.
We were off at first light the next day as we had promised, for we did not wish to antagonise him more than necessary, as we might have need to use his shed again. I must point out that we asked the peasants’ permission to sleep on their premises not because we were afraid to take what we wanted but because it was more politic to keep on good terms with them. If we used his shed against his wishes, and he knew about it, it was always possible that he would go to the local Fascists at night, in self-defence so to speak in case of discovery, and give us away when we were sleeping.
As we had no particular destination except to get away from Sanginesio, we thought to call on my friends at Loro Piceno, which was a good day’s walk. The cold morning air gave us hearty appetites but it was still very early and we had to walk for a couple of hours before we saw the tell-tale smoke rising from a cottage chimney – breakfast. We introduced ourselves and were invited to join the family at their meal, and soon got them talking about the present situation.
“We have come from the far side of Sanginesio” I said, for although this was untrue, we knew enough about the country now to make our stories sound convincing. “There is a garrison of 300 SS [Schutzstaffel] there who have caused much trouble to the peasants”.
“Ah, Porco Dio. They won’t trouble us any more” asserted one of the young fellows. “They’ve all gone to Yugoslavia”.
“Yugoslavia?” Ben interrupted incredulously. “Why have they gone there? Have all of them gone?”
“Luigi, you are stupid” jeered one of the others. “The patrioti told us the SS [Schutzstaffel] went to Germany to guard Italian prisoners”.
“It is you who are stupid” retorted Luigi “They have gone to Yugoslavia to fight the Communists. The priest of San Angelo told me..”
A third brother butted in “My cow has more sense than you two. The carter from Sanginesio told me that he’d heard they had gone to Pescara to fight the English”.
The whole family now joined in and each added his own version until in the general confusion we couldn’t hear anyone distinctly. And none of them really knew anything at all. Ben and I looked at each other across the table and shrugged our shoulders hopelessly. How could we get accurate information from such a disorderly crew; on one fact alone they all agreed the SS [Schutzstaffel] had left Sanginesio. We couldn’t rely even on this,
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nor could we tell if they might return, so decided to carry on with our tramp and not return to Cerreto for two or three days, to make quite sure they had left. This was a typical example of how we obtained our information. The peasants were goodhearted and faithful to the core, but the situation was so bewildering to them that they became muddled and often gave us quite an incorrect picture of events. We ourselves obviously could not go and find out the true position and so were forced to depend on them for all our news.
Breakfast over, Ben and I continued on our way to Loro Piceno, in really delightful summer weather, across gently undulating hills, covered in corn almost as tall as ourselves. We could not get lost, for the villages were all on top of hills, perfect landmarks, and we had got to know their individual silhouette, the battlemented wall of one, the old square watch tower of another, the tall tapering belfry of a third, a shining brilliantly under the Italian sun. The weather put everyone in good spirits, and at the first house we asked the peasants gave us some lunch, though the old father made us sign our names in a book. He kept it hidden in the great open fireplace. He explained that he had given food to several prisoners during the past months and had taken all their names, so the English Government would compensate him when they won the War. We were entirely happy about this, but he was quaintly naive about all this and had some confused idea that gold sovereigns were still in circulation in Britain, but what pleased me most was his simple faith in English credit and integrity. Even to this uneducated old peasant, living in an agricultural backwater, who knew little about the world in general, the word English meant trust and stability, and he was proud to help us even though we were fugitives. Civis Romanus in reverse.
On nearing Loro Piceno, we met two other prisoners, also on the roam, who told us they had come from there and it was fairly quiet, so we decided to go ahead and see if we find a night’s lodging amongst the peasants we knew.
When we reached the outskirts of the village in the evening we were stopped by an Italian who said there were some Germans in the village and it was dangerous to enter, but these Italians got excited over little things and we thought he was exaggerating. It was unlikely any Germans would spot us, the Fascists were our danger, and as the alternative route round the outside the village would take us much longer, we decided to chance going in and find out what it was all about. There was a small crowd in the piazza round the door of a wine shop and we learnt that a lorry-load of Germans had come in during the morning, tasted the wine and found it good, stayed there all day and were now all hopelessly drunk, staggering about the ‘cantina’ and piazza quite oblivious to the gathering crowd. I was surprised at this break away from discipline when not under the eyes of an officer, even though they were all young and presumably ‘raw’ troops. These were the ‘dangerous’ Germans, so we skirted the crowd and passed through the village, soon reaching the Astolfi’s house where Harry and I had been so welcome three weeks ago. But a lot had happened in those three weeks and our former friends didn’t seem so pleased to see me this time. We exchanged greetings, I enquired after members of the family and then asked if Jack and Harry were still living in their little hut.
“Oh no, Lorenzo, no. They went away two weeks ago. It was too dangerous here. The Fascisti came to Loro Piceno every day sent out patrols round the country nearby”.
“Do you know where they were going?
“No. They didn’t know themselves, though I believe they
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were going to visit you at Cerreto”.
I turned to Ben “That would be out of the frying pan into the fire. Well, Luigi, it’s nearly dark, do you know anywhere for us to sleep?”
“I would like you to sleep in my house, but my bed is poor and I have lent my blankets to a friend” it was evident he was too scared to have us in the house, and as he had helped me before, I didn’t want to press him. “But, there is a family down that little path there, well out in the country, away from the village. I believe they would help you, and if they don’t – well – you can – you can come back here”.
These last words came unwillingly, as though his better nature was asserting itself over his fear, and I thanked him cordially, for I knew what it had cost him to say them.
We soon found the house he had indicated, and on Ben giving them an imitation of the drunken Germans we were immediately taken in the house for supper, chiefly, I believe, in the hope of some further histrionic displays. They were a hospitable family, and allowed us to sleep in their cow-shed with plenty of straw and blankets, and gave us a good breakfast on which to start the next day.
As we had no particular objective on this expedition, I decided to pay a flying visit to Colmurano, and reached there about mid-morning. There was rifle-fire the other side of Urbisaglia which we could not make out, but as it came no nearer we hoped it meant no trouble in our direction.
We met Anna and her family, and Maria and Teresa Rozzi, and they all seemed pleased to see us, with the significant proviso that we didn’t stay too long.
I wanted to visit the Astolfi family, but as their house was on the far side of the road, on which I didn’t wish to expose myself, we had to crawl under a road bridge and pass through the fields, entering the house at the back. They seemed rather alarmed at our sudden appearance but nevertheless asked us to stay to lunch, which they were just preparing. During the meal we talked on all the usual subjects, but I couldn’t help wondering why they kept on insisting we were very plucky to visit them just then and weren’t we afraid of the Germans. But I didn’t want to stay there too long as the house was right on the road, and I left the table, telling them l wouldn’t be long, but was just going to see Franco’s steward in the next house, some thirty yards along the road.
Maria Astolfi jumped up and laid her hand on my arm, “Lorenzo, you must be mad. You mustn’t go. Send one of there ‘bambini’”.
“But Maria. I know Faliero, he is trustworthy. It is important that I see him”.
“But the Germans, they will catch you. There are over twenty of them there”.
“What. Twenty Germans at Faliero’s?”
“Yes. Didn’t you know? They have parked their lorries outside his house”.
“Twenty Germans… Why didn’t you tell me before? We’ve been here over half-an-hour and there are twenty Germans in the next house. Twenty….” I was so astonished I could hardly speak.
“We thought you had seen them”.
Ben interrupted. “We came under the road bridge remember, and approaching your house from the back, we didn’t look along the road”.
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“Good Lord, that’s right. Well I’m not stopping here another minute. Maria, tell one of the children to go to Faliero, and ask him to come to Alfredo’s to see me. It s important. I’m sorry to have stayed here so long. I wouldn’t have put you all in danger had I realised”.
“That’s alright, Lorenzo. But we thought you knew”.
“Yes, of course you did. Thanks for the lunch. We must hurry off now”. And, with the usual round of farewells we slipped out of the house at the back and made our way through the fields to the Rozzis, a good two hundred yards away. There we waited for Franco’s steward, Faliero, who soon came puffing into the house, his corpulent frame shaking with excitement and exertion and eyes full of questioning fear.
“Buon girono Lorenzo, how are you? One of the ‘bambini’ told me you wanted to see me?”
“Yes, thank you for coming, with the Germans at your house. I know you are not afraid, but…”
“Oh, but I was afraid, Lorenzo” the Italians seem to have no sense of shame in admitting fear. “There are two lorry loads of men in my house, eating all my food, drinking all my wine. So far they have been orderly, but they keep asking for more wine, I fear soon they will begin to break my home to pieces. But, I must get back quickly or they will ask questions. What do you want? More money from Franco?”
“No, we have enough. You remember Franco fled to the mountains last October, and stayed at one of his farms?”
“Yes, I remember”.
“I want the address of that farm and the name of the peasant so if I am forced to retire into the mountains, I shall be able to collect food from him and not have to venture back across the national road to Cerreto”.
“Oh, I see. A sound scheme, but I hope you won’t have to live in the mountains for long. The peasant’s name is Paparone and his farm is right at the mouth of the Fiastrone gorge, just right for you”.
“Fine. When you next go to inspect the farm, tell him who I am and that he must give me everything I need. Franco will pay”.
“Yes, I will. Franco will gladly do this. He would like to do more for you prisoners, but he is so well known, he cannot”.
“I quite understand. Give him my best wishes and thanks. You must get back to your Germans now. Goodbye Faliero, Goodbye Alfredo, Goodbye all” and Ben and I crept out of the house, first looking carefully around for any signs of the Germans. But they were busy drinking poor old Faliero’s wine.
We had been away from Cerreto several days now, and all the peasants told us the SS [Schutzstaffel] had left Sanginesio, so we thought it safe to return. We were in no hurry; the longer we stayed away the more settled the Lucarelli would feel so we made our way back slowly, via San Angelo, where I knew a family who I thought would put us up for a night.
There were drew a blank, for although the family had been most friendly when I had passed before, they were scared now and would not let us in the house, so we asked at the next farm who were not keen either. But as it was dark, and no-one had seen us entering the cottage, and as we were most persistent, they let us sleep in their wine-cellar, lending us a couple of blankets.
We were only about four miles from Cerreto so the next day we missed breakfast and walked straight back to the Lucarelli who, now that the SS [Schutzstaffel] had left Sanginesio, greeted me like the long-lost son, deploring their previous hints that I should
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quit their roof and vowing that I should never leave again. As events transpired, I didn’t. Several other prisoners who had had to leave round about the 25th May were gradually returning and we had an enjoyable day swapping experiences and giving each other the news from different parts. The three hundred SS [Schutzstaffel] at San Ginesio must have had a terrible shock for we now heard their previous orders of sweeping the countryside were cancelled, and instead they were ordered to the Rome front to stem the general retreat that seemed imminent in that area. The Italian SS [Schutzstaffel] were very heroic when chasing defenceless prisoners or rounding up unwilling Italians for was service, but they had no stomach for a fight of even odds, for at least fifty of them deserted the transport lorries before the convoy reached Tolentino, about fifteen miles away. Such were the products of Fascism, and we heard many tales of their holding up peasants and stealing their clothes, and then trying to get back to their own homes in civilian disguise. Now the garrison had left Sanginesio, the situation was reversed and it was dangerous for a man to express Fascist sympathies; the rebels, those who had not been killed or captured previously, began to work more openly and in their turn adopt an arrogant air towards everyone.
I had only one more scare from the SS [Schutzstaffel].
A couple of days later, I was with the Lucarelli in their fields when Maria, the old mother, suddenly spotted five men, carrying rifles, coming quickly down the little footpath adjoining the field. Their uniforms appeared grey through the trees lining the path, and I was wondering what on earth to do, when they stopped and glanced in our direction. I thought I was for it. They were only five yards away, a straggly hedge all that was between us, and although my appearance would deceive anyone at a distance, a closer scrutiny always gave me away as English. The Lucarelli were struck dumb, and ceasing work, just stared petrified at the five soldiers. This was likely to attract their attention even more. I whispered to Maria to carry on working, and we two together continued our haymaking, completely ignoring the patrol. The rest of the family gradually followed our example and the soldiers continued on down the path, till they were temporarily obscured by some high bushes. This was what I had been waiting for. I dropped my pitch-fork and made a dash for a ditch running down the other side of the tiny field. Once in this I was able to wriggle through the hedge and lying dead still watched the patrol through the foliage. They were still marching down the footpath and didn’t look back at the field again. I waited a few minutes to make sure and then re-joined the Lucarelli, all excitedly discussing my narrow escape. Old Giovanni expressed a doubt that had occurred to me.
“I don’t understand why they didn’t question you, Lorenzo. Even if they thought you were an Italian, you are obviously of military age”.
“I can’t understand it either. I think I’ll get back to the top of the ridge, by the hamlet. You can see more from there, in case there are any others about”.
“Yes, a good idea. Hurry up”. Giovanni was not only thinking of the advantage of the ridge as an observation post, but he evidently didn’t want to be caught napping again with me in his field.
It was but five minutes to my favourite vantage point on the ridge, and catching sight of one of the villagers, I called him over.
“Vincenzo, did you see the five SS [Schutzstaffel]?”
“Yes Lorenzo, they asked me the way”.
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I looked at him incredulously. “Did you tell them to go down that little path by the Lucarelli’s field?”
“Yes, of course. It is the quickest way down to the national road”. He looked at my gathering anger.
“Porco Dio. You fool. You knew we were all working there. You knew they were bound to see me”.
“Oh, Lorenzo…”he burst out laughing.
“I’ll teach you to laugh at me. I might have been captured. You frightened the Lucarelli, too. I’ll…”.
I pulled out my gun.
He stepped back a pace, his face a picture of fear and distrust. “But they were deserters. They were running away themselves, they wouldn’t have troubled you”.
I lowered my gun. “Are you sure? How do you know?”
“They told me. When they asked me the way they told me they had left the Front as the British were winning and so they were making their way home. They asked if there were any SS [Schutzstaffel] in Sanginesio as they were frightened of being seen”.
It was my turn to laugh. “I’m sorry Vincenzo, I didn’t realise that. You must forgive me. But you shouldn’t have sent them down that path for we couldn’t tell who they were”.
“I didn’t think of that. But I knew there was no danger”.
Tempers rise quickly in Italy, but quarrels are as speedily forgotten, and we parted the best of friends. I felt very foolish now at being so scared, but there was nothing to distinguish them from genuine SS [Schutzstaffel] and I consoled myself by thinking that at least the Lucarelli were equally deceived. The fact that the scare was soon proved false did not minimise its effect at the time, and for several days afterwards the Lucarelli kept referring to It and saying “It might have been true”. And in this they were correct.
The radio at Arthur’s had at last broken down and as it was essential to keep up to date with the situation, the following day I went with Ben on a day’s tramp to a house he knew the far side of Gualdo to hear the British News, for wireless sets were few and far between. It was encouraging, with heavy attacks on the Rome front and air bombardment of the coast of France; but of the sector in which we were vitally interested, Pescara – nothing. The local Italians were beginning to lose faith in an Allied advance, and several of the English prisoners were getting despondent as to when it would come, though none of us doubted our troops would reach this district some day. Although the SS [Schutzstaffel] had left us for the moment, it was probable some others would be sent to take their place and the situation was only temporarily eased; most of the peasants were still too frightened to help us.
Ben and I discussed this on our way back from the radio, and decided I must contact Paparone, Franco’s tenant, the next day. I chose the same route by which we had walked to Monastero and reached the mouth of the Fiastrone gorge well before noon. There was only one farm-house really near the gorge, so hoping this would be the one, I walked up to it and catching sight of a peasant working amongst some harness strode over to him.
“Buon giorno. Do you know Paparone?”
The peasant gave a non-committal grunt, and nodded.
“Where does he live?”
“He lives here”. Fine, I thought, struck on the right house first attempt.
“Is Paparone in the house?”
“I’m Paparone. What do you want?” he growled in as in-civil a tone as I had ever heard.
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I glared at him for his impudence. “I have come from your ‘padrone’ (landlord) Signor Franco Cecchi. He is a friend of mine..” The name of the wealthy young landowner made some impression, for he unwillingly got to his feet… “I am an English prisoner and may be living for a few days in the mountains. If so, I shall want some food off you – bread and cheese – Franco will pay for everything I take”.
He scowled as I made my ‘request’.
This was not the usual servile peasant I was used to, perhaps the proximity of the mountains had imbued him with a certain independence, and he answered roughly..
“I have nothing to give. First the rebels, then the Fascisti then the rebels again, they all come demanding food, wine, money. I have nothing left. My house is bare”.
“You must have something left. It is Signor Cecchi’s orders that you give me what I want, out of the produce that is due to him (most of the peasants pay their rent in kind, a percentage of the harvest). When his steward, Faliero, calls next time you can ask him if this is true”. The fellow still looked at me disbelievingly. “You see, I lived near Urbisaglia for many months and know his family well”.
“I have a little grain – and a few cheeses – if you need them, they are yours”. His manner was very grudging. “But they are very dear now, I shall want a high price, for I must think of my wife and children”. The usual sob stuff, or harsh reality.
“Yes, of course. I know exactly how much things cost. I hope I shall not need your goods, but if I do, the English troops will reward you well, when they arrive”. A gleam of greed lit up his sullen eyes. “I must be returning now. Goodbye and thank you”.
I took a few steps and then turned. “And remember, if I’m in need and you refuse me, I shall inform the English troops and they will know what to do with you”. He understood what I meant.
I was thankful to get out of his inhospitable yard. Rarely had I met anyone so obstructive, for although other peasants had refused me aid before it had always been because they were afraid of the Fascists and not that they didn’t wish to help. Paparone evidently held Franco in some awe, and I had tried to frighten him a little, so I hoped that if I required anything of him in the future, he would let me have it immediately without a fuss.
On my way back to the Lucarelli I called in on Ben to let him know I had found the farm.
“I’m glad you found the place OK, but I don’t like the fellow’s attitude. Did you show him your gun?”
“No. I thought I’d keep that for later”.
“You know, if he is truculent with you now, what’s he going to be like when you need his help? If we have to hide in the mountains because of searches or a German retreat, he’ll have the whip hand”.
“I’ll have my gun. We’ll have to bluff him, that’s all”.
“Hmm. That won’t be easy. We’ll have to see if the time comes” I shared Ben’s doubts. It did seem that Paparone, in whom I had hoped to find a willing ally, would not prove much use to us after all.
The following morning I spent in the fields with the Lucarelli, but after lunch, it became so stifling hot that all the family, except the daughter, went for a siesta, while I fell asleep, half-sprawling across the kitchen table. With
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yesterday’s walking and the heavy atmosphere I was sleeping soundly when Isolina came running into the kitchen and roughly shook me by the shoulder.
“Lorenzo. The Fascisti, at Giansanti’s. Quick”.
I woke slowly, and in my sleep — fuddled condition vaguely heard firing in the distance. “What’s the matter?” I enquired vacantly.
Isolina repeated herself, and throwing my jacket over my shoulders, afirly pushed me out of the door. Her sense of urgency roused me, and waiting only to hear a fresh burst of firing to establish its direction, I ran off down the path to warn Ben. He was just coming down from his siesta and together we made off through the fields of tall corn. The family of Giansanti, where Isolina said the Fascists were, and from where I heard the firing, was only some two hundred yards from the Lucarelli, on the Gualdo side, so we had to get away from the scene as quickly as we could. The corn offered us good cover and keeping amongst the little hollows we knew so well, we soon reached the ridge leading to San Angelo. On the top of this was a vantage point from which we could see both my hamlet and Gualdo, and here we waited, anxiously scanning the countryside for signs of movement. But this had been a lightning raid and by this time the Fascists had ceased firing, except for a few desultory shots, and were nearly back in Gualdo. We remained up on the ridge for half an hour in case anything further occurred, and then returned to Cerreto.
The hamlet was buzzing with excitement over the raid. It appeared that a truckload of Fascists had driven into Gualdo, and chased out the rebels nearly as far as my hamlet. I could not find out the reason for this raid; they only stayed about an hour and then returned to the headquarters at Sarnano, after which quiet reigned once again.
This was the final scare we had from the Fascists. This last month or so had been pretty hectic in one way or another, most fellows had had a far rougher time than I, and the general tension overlying the whole country had been getting gradually more acute. Many prisoners had been re-captured by the SS [Schutzstaffel], a few had been shot. Quite a number had given themselves up in the hopelessness of their situation, and we were beginning to wonder how it was all going to end, when, on the 6th June, we heard the long-awaited news — Rome had been captured by the Allies.
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Chapter 6. Liberation – Our Troops arrive.
On the morning of the 6th June I was drawing water for the cattle at the hamlet’s little well, when I spotted Arthur running up the path towards me. His house lay towards Gualdo, so I immediately guessed he had warning of another search and ran anxiously to meet him.
“What’s up, Arthur? Another search?”
“No. It’s come – at last” he panted out “It won’t be long now”.
“What the devil are you talking about? What’s the matter with you?” He was flushed and so excited he could hardly speak.
“I’ve just heard it – on the 8 o’clock news. They’re in Rome”.
“Who are?” I enquired stupidly “The British?”
The news meant so much to us I could hardly believe it.
“Yes, they entered yesterday, and are sending out strong columns in all directions from the city”.
“Oh. Good work. That means a big general advance I suppose. I wonder if they’ll reach here. Let’s go and tell the Ities”.
“OK. You go and tell the Lucarelli, I’ll tell the Slavs” and we hurried off to spread the news amongst our neighbours.
The Lucarelli had heard us talking excitedly and came streaming out of the house to enquire what was the matter, fearing like I had, news of another ‘rastrallamento’.
“Giovanni, Arthur has just heard the English radio. Our troops have captured Rome, and are advancing everywhere”.
“Oh, Lorenzo. Are you sure?” Their faces lit up with happiness and relief. “We must all have a glass’ of my wine” and old Giovanni bustled off importantly to his wine cellar, whilst his son Primeto went to tell the rest of the hamlet. They all gathered round, and pledging a toast to the ‘Liberatore Inglese’ fell to discussing what effect the news would have on us all.
It is hard for us to realise what Rome means to an Italian – far more than London or even his home town means to an Englishman. To the peasants it personified the soul of Italy, the heart of their church, the centre of their government and the mother of all civilisation. These are not just idle words but the very phrases the rough peasants used to me when talking of the event – peasants, who in the normal way showed no interest in anything outside their farm and family life.
Many in the hamlet confidently expected the Germans to sue for peace immediately, thinking the fall of Rome was a final, catastrophic disaster for them. We prisoners realised of course that although a major victory it was only one event in a long campaign, but I have stressed the Italian viewpoint for that was the one that mattered. Italian morale rose immediately and from that day we never heard doubts expressed as to Britain’s eventual victory being secure. All the peasants rallied round us, and one or two came to tell me privately that they had always been anti-Fascist at heart and only joined the Party from compulsion; probably true, but it was pathetic the way these men cringed to me for fear of possible retribution for their petty faults in the past.
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We had hardly settled down after the excitement when the next day Arthur came running up again with fresh news. The invasion of France had commenced. This was of course more important than the fall of Rome – although not to us – and was the news we had been awaiting for months for it showed our forces were everywhere taking the offensive, and again we rushed around to all our friends, spreading the glad tidings. Coupled with the optimistic reports from all the Italian fronts, it seemed that our own troubles would soon be over and we could hardly contain ourselves for joy.
The next day a party of our friends who had been living the far side of Gualdo came to visit us, and we had a party in Ben’s house – an event that would have been impossible a week ago. After these months of uncertainty, the very countryside itself seemed changed to us and wore an air of security and hope, for although the front line was still miles away southwards and there was more German transport than ever on the main roads, all the Fascists were fleeing, and the countryside was rarely visited by the German troops. In the evening, about which time the convoys on the national road were most numerous, we saw a splendid display by our fighter planes, shooting up a petrol column at Santa Croce. All the vehicles were completely destroyed and only one German escaped, to be finished off later by a wandering band of rebels. Two days later an ammunition convoy was attacked and for several minutes the scene was one of lively confusion, ammunition exploding in all directions. Again two days later another convoy was destroyed and after that little traffic used that section of the road in daylight.
The behaviour of the peasants during these attacks was amusing and typical of their outlook. We were able to watch the national road in perfect safety from our hilltop, and the Italians used to gesticulate and shout as though at a football match. As soon as the planes had left and the danger over, in the peasants would descend from all directions like vultures, to salvage what was left of the vehicles. As these were usually blazing there was nothing left, but sometimes a little could be saved and the peasants would carry the pieces home in triumph. It was comical to see them gingerly approaching the burning vehicles, their greed slowly mastering their fear, and then quickly scattering after a fresh explosion.
These minor incidents were merely the forerunners of the big German retreat in June, and it is necessary to glance at the map at the beginning of this narrative to understand how very lucky was our district, and how eventually we reached our own troops with few of the dangers we had thought inevitable. The front at Pescara was still fairly static, and although we had hoped for an advance from there, co-incident with that at Rome, we were disappointed. But the fall of Rome turned out to be our salvation and helped us better than an advance from Pescara would have done, for our Rome forces seemed to divide into several columns, one of these striking towards Terni, up the river valley, towards Foligno and eventually Ancona, thus forcing the Germans at Pescara to withdraw before they were cut off. They had little time for this manoeuvre owing to the rapidity of our Terni advance and for several days after this we saw them streaming back northwards along the national road at dusk and during the night on every conceivable type of vehicle. They were chary of using the road in daylight.
It had been part of German policy to plunder any district they were forced to evacuate, but here they were too hurried to be systematic, and looting was more or less confined to
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disorganised bands of soldiers sacking villages and houses on the roadside. They took everything they could carry, even sewing machines and bed —stead’s, not for their own use but to sell to the peasants in the next villages; the next batch of Germans would carry off these same articles again and re-sell them further up the road, until the poor peasants took to hiding everything they possessed. The Lucarelli dug two holes in their kitchen garden, about the size of graves, filled two coffin shaped chests with all their little valuables – clothing crockery, cheeses and hams etc. – and buried them. Other families hid goods in their baking ovens and one of our neighbours concealed a trunk-full of his most prized possessions up a well-leafed tree. Farm carts were dismantled and the pieces scattered about the wheat fields, poultry was distributed into old, disused hen-coops in out of the way places, but the worst sufferers were the cattle who had a most chequered existence, being hurried from ditch to ditch, from one place of concealment to another, as fresh rumours reached us of German looting parties.
They were eager to round up the cattle for they helped their rations and could be easily driven off, and a few days later from our ridge we saw about a hundred beasts being driven into Santa Croce. There they were rested an hour and a rumour spread that the Germans were about to collect all the cattle in Cerreto as well. This threw the peasants into a panic, for their cattle are essential to the working of their farms, for ploughing and pulling their carts. The Lucarelli got their two beasts out of the cow-shed and took them down amongst the tall grain, whilst several of my friends and I beat a hasty retreat across the river towards Gualdo, which we hoped was sufficiently far away from the main road to be safe from the Germans. We stayed over there all day; calling on the few prisoners still remaining, to give them up-to-date news from Arthur’s radio. I saw Mac and had a long chat with him; neither of us had seen anything of Jack or Harry for some time. In the evening we returned to Cerreto, and learned that the Germans had continued straight up the national road with their cattle, and apart from some casual looting parties had not molested our district.
By dusk, the national road was again one long column of retreating Germans. From the safety of our ridge, less than a mile from the road we could see them making their weary way northwards. Many appeared to be marching, and there were a number of cavalry, but in the twilight we could not see clearly that distance. We thought it might be useful to our reconnaissance units when they arrived to know exactly the state of the German troops and what equipment they had, so Ben and I left our ridge and went down to have a closer look. As it was dark and we were in civilian clothes we did not expect to attract any attention and plucking up courage, crept down a little footpath to the road where under the trees we watched them pass a couple of yards away. It was one of the greatest thrills of my life, seeing that decrepit and broken army, our old adversaries of North Africa, trudging slowly northwards in the dark, knowing that they were defeated and we should soon be free. We could see their dusty faces and hear scraps of conversation, although the majority of them were silent and looked dead—tired. I felt a sudden mad impulse to shout defiance at these men who had destroyed my old Regiment and imprisoned the survivors. A shout of victory, of exultation – but Ben touched my arm to draw my attention to a passing staff car, and brought me back to earth again. Together we peered through the trees, taking mental note of everything that passed. Most of their motor vehicles had others in tow, whether because of breakdowns or lack of petrol we could not tell, but what amazed
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us most was the number of horses, both ordinary cavalry and drawing carts. Most of their infantry were marching, though a number of bullock carts had been commandeered for the baggage, and a few wily infantrymen were perched on the top of these. It was a revelation to me to see in what bad shape they were and how antiquated was their transport, and it cheered us no end to think that they, the relics of the famed Afika Corps, were reduced to such straits. We watched them go by till past midnight, and then as the column seemed unending, returned to our pigsty bed at the hamlet.
The following day there was another scare over the cattle and we again had to flee to Gualdo. One of the peasants spotted a small body of Germans coming up towards Cerreto, and although the chance of being recaptured by accident was slight, and I felt confident of deceiving an ordinary soldier with my Italian, we were so near safety that it would have been tempting fate to run any unnecessary risks now.
We passed the day at the house of one of Ben’s friends, and were fortunate in hearing the 5 o’clock news. Most of our electric power came from Terni, and we had been without light, and consequently radio, on and off for a week, but by a lucky chance the power came on just in time for us to hear the news – Foligno and Teramo had been taken and it could only be a matter of a few days before our Troops reached us.
In the evening we returned to Cerreto, and were able to cheer up its apprehensive population with our good news. As soon as it was dark Ben and I again went down to the national road to watch the retreat which started immediately after nightfall gave them some cover from our aircraft. Their transport was in the same sorry plight as before, and the soldiers, if anything, looked more dejected than last evening. We watched for a long time, but there was no variety in the column and nothing further to learn, so we returned to sleep.
No other prisoners had been tramping through our district recently, for there had been too much Fascists activity, so we were without news of events further south and could not know how far away were our Troops, or if sufficient Germans remained between us to fight a rearguard action over our territory. It was a very unsettled period, but we were sustained by the thought that so far the bulk of the enemy had kept to the national road and not passed along the footpaths.
On the 18th June, Isolina, the daughter of the Lucarelli, pluckily went up to Sanginesion, to glean some news, and came back with the tale that it was full of German artillery, several hundreds of men, but these were probably the last and when they left tonight our troubles would be over. This was not reliable information, as she was liable to misunderstand military matters, but it eased our questioning minds, the main point now in issue being the position of our troops, whom no-one had yet seen. Heavy firing had been heard in the direction of Tolentino, but as everybody – peasant’s and prisoners – were lying low till the front passed, we could get no accurate information, and could only maintain a watchful alertness. Except when I was hiding over at Gualdo, I spent most of my time on our ridge keeping a weather eye open for any trouble coming up from the main road. Everybody was keyed up, just waiting till our troops arrived. All day small parties of Germans on foot would be passing along the national road, sometimes searching the houses at Santa Croce under the delusion that their previous comrades might have left something worth taking.
A small band of rebels plucked up courage and fired a few desultory shots at one of these parties, but the experiment was not repeated for the troops in Sanginesio burnt down three houses just outside the [Editors Note: Rest of this line is unreadable.]
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SANGINESIO – PROVINCIA MACERATA
[Two black & white photographs with captions. The first photo has the caption “GENERAL VIEW, from Cerreto across the main road just out of sight in the foreground”. The second photo has the caption “TOWN SQUARE, with statue of A. Gentili, and cathedral with, unusually two tower, which helped us to recognise it from a distance”.]
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of the rebels at the crossroads. The Italian rebels, who were fairly well-armed now with British Sten guns and ammunition, could not be expected to attack large bodies of German troops, but these last few days provided countless opportunities for sabotage and hit-and-run raids which the rebels failed to take. With a few exceptions they were a spineless lot, strutting about in the villages when times were safe but running for safety when danger threatened. There were odd bands that had put up a fight against Fascists or Germans, and once Sanginesio itself was captured and held by rebels for three days, but these more enterprising spirits were usually Yugoslavians, whom the atrocities perpetrated in their country had made bitter and hard against the Italians. The Italian rebels who had been robbing and plundering in the past under the pretext of patriotism, a poor disguise for personal greed, now had an opportunity to justify their past actions, by attacking the retreating troops and harrying their lines of communication. This opportunity they did not take, although in their defence it is only fair to add that some of them assisted British reconnaissance and reported pockets of enemy resistance.
That evening the last Germans left Sanginesio. Ben and I and a few of the villagers watched the column of waggons and guns slowly wind its way down to the national road and march off – towards the north. It was the last we saw of them. No more Germans were evacuated along our stretch of the national road and we only had to await the arrival of our troops.
There was one German, however, who remained behind in Sanginesio. He had indulged too strongly in the local vino and, oversleeping several hours, woke up to find himself the only remaining German in the town. He must have thought his number was up and leaving his arms behind he went to the Mayor’s house to surrender, but such was the fear inspired by the word ‘German’ that, despite his comrades being miles away up the road and the British troops advancing quickly, no-one would take him prisoner. He had to make his way northwards alone along the national road, where he was doubtless finished off by some enthusiastic Slav.
The Germans had gone. The crisis was over. Although heavy and continual firing could be heard from Tolentino and was threatening to come our way, yet the immediate position seemed secure, so the prisoners roundabout trekked spontaneously to Sarnano to celebrate in style. Although the British troops had not yet arrived the little town considered itself already liberated and was gaily hung with British, Italian and Red flags, the latter predominating. The whole population was promenading the streets and everywhere was an air of excitement; we few English prisoners were given special deference and were pestered with questions and assurances of loyalty. Ben and I were strolling down the Via Umberto when two Ities we had never seen in our lives before came running up, and seizing both of us by the hands, overwhelmed us with a flood of Italian. I couldn’t follow it exactly but the gist was “Ah, our two friends. At last we can speak to you in safety. Come to our house for a glass of wine. We will celebrate your country’s victory together. At last we are free from the Fascistsi. We never supported Mussolini. Come to our house for some good wine and we shall prove to you we have never been Fascistsi, and when your troops arrive you can explain to them”.
Ben grinned at me “The usual dodge. The rats and the sinking ship”.
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I took my hands from his oily grasp and tried to hide my disgust. “We can’t come to your house, signore, but don’t be frightened. No true anti-Fascist need fear anything from the English. But our troops have lists of all the Fascists and none will escape”.
It was comical to see the look of consternation on their faces. They gave themselves away completely, and muttering their thanks, shuffled off into the crowd. There were many Italians who were honestly anti—Fascist – such as old Giovanni-and many who had assisted us in danger; we knew these and I had a list of our helpers to give to our HQ [Head Quarters] and shall never forget their aid. But I had no time for these fair-weather friends, who if not actual Fascists, had probably been secret informers.
We wandered on idly through the crowd. The question on everyone’s lips was “When will the English troops arrive, to make our liberation secure?”
No one seemed to have seen or heard our troops, not even the rebels who were making the most of their brief hour of glory, swanking up and down the square with the Sten guns they had never fired and the grenades they had never intended to throw. Some were brave fellows who had done useful work, but we recognised several who had been living quite peaceful lives in the country and who now appeared armed to the teeth, self proclaimed saviours of their country.
It infuriated me, but with their bandoliers stuffed with ammunition, gaudy costumes and strutting gestures they were so like a comic opera that we had to laugh. There is no-one braver than your Italian – when the fighting is over. Owing to the food shortage our celebration ‘banquet’ was hard to arrange, and we had to rout out the Mayor for a special permit to buy some pasta. After much searching we found a small hotel who promised us a meal and twenty of us were tucking in to some tasteless ‘pastasciutta’ and a meagre ration of wine. However what our celebration lacked in substance was made up in spirit, English and Italian songs rocked the roof, toasts and speeches were made by all and we provided some novel amusement for the large crowd of Italians gaping in at the windows and doors. This was the first time we had dared to assemble like this in a town, and with all the restraint of the last nine months suddenly lifted, we really let ourselves go.
After the party had broken up, Ben and I waited about in case our troops arrived that evening, but when it got later and there was still no sign of them, we made our way back to Cerreto. We returned along the national road, this in itself a novel experience, but our route was lengthened considerably as the Germans had blown up a large bridge which would greatly delay our forces when they reached here. We arrived at the Lucarelli as dusk was falling, and spent the evening telling the villagers about the excitement in Sarnano, the rebels and the expected arrival of the British.
The next day our Yugoslavian neighbours decided to celebrate and invited us all to a formal dinner in the Sanginesio hotel where they had been living before the Italian armistice as ‘free’ internees. At one time there had been many prisoners in our district, but with the searches, re-captures and shootings of the last few months our number had dwindled to eight, which with the two Slavs made up our dinner party.
We had arranged to meet in a bar in the piazza, and arriving
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and arriving early, Ben and I secured a table against one of the large windows, where we could watch the colourful scene outside. All Sanginesio was there. The piazza was thronged with the townsfolk and neighbouring peasantry decked out in their best clothes, the bright jackets of the men and gay frocks of the girls making a dazzling picture against the sun-scorched stones of the old church and the colonnaded facade of the opera house. Slowly patrolling through the crowd were several carabinieri, splendid in their blue uniform with white sword band and shining top boots, whilst hurrying quietly about their business were the priests, in long black robes, an ever present reminder of the authority of the Church. The crowd were in a festive mood, laughing and whistling; although the British troops had not yet been sighted, the hated Germans had left and that was sufficient cause for rejoicing.
One by one my friends arrived, till our party was complete, but we had plenty of time before dinner and, sipping our wine, pointed out the local personalities to each other. The scene was perfect but for one thing – the rebels. There had been a band operating in the Sanginesio area for some time, but they were very half-hearted and had degenerated into extorting the locals and filling their own pockets. Many of these rascals we knew by sight, and were at first amazed and then furious to see them swaggering up and down the piazza, Sten guns across their shoulders, grenades hanging from their belts, attracting the admiration of all. They had done nothing to achieve this liberation, and we knew it, but had to sit impotently watching them take the credit for our troops’ successes in the south. This life made us excitable, and my blood boiled with anger.
The leader of this band was an Italian lieutenant, Antonio Palumbo, and his second-in-command his brother. Renaldo, about both of whose pasts I knew quite a lot. During May, our most dangerous period, they had actually joined the SS [Schutzstaffel] at Macerata, but seeing the red light when Rome fell, had deserted and reformed their band of cut-throats. These were our liberators.
We were discussing these two ruffians amongst ourselves, when the bar door was suddenly flung open and Renaldo himself walked in. He glanced round a moment, then noticing our party strode up to the table and sat down. I was too amazed even to reply to his hearty greeting.
“Ah. My English friends. How are you all? At last we have defeated the Germans; you need not be afraid any more”.
I glared across the table at him for his impertinence and implied insult, and was searching for a suitably crushing retort in Italian when I was forestalled by another of our party, a rather slow-witted fellow called Stan.
“You are a leader of the rebels? We are glad to see you; yes, our troubles are all over now”.
Renaldo quickly sized up the situation and, sensing some hostility, confined his plausibilities to Stan, whose Italian was poor and who hadn’t understood correctly what he had said. I looked at Ben and shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t want a scene in public, but when Renaldo loudly called the waiter for more wine “for my English friends” I saw red. Tina, our Slav hostess, leant across to me “Are you going to allow this murderer to drink with us? “Her scorn gave me courage and I banged my glass on the table for silence. Renaldo looked round startled.
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“How dare you sit at the same table as Englishmen. You, a rebel? You’ve robbed your countrymen, terrorised peasants, filled your own pockets. When have you ever fought the Germans?”
The crowd was suddenly silent. All eyes were on our table. He glared back, and then realising he was alone assumed a sickly smile. “Signore, I do not understand. I have always been a rebel, and a friend of the English. I have…”.
“Quiet. I know all about you. You’ve sold clothes dropped by plane for the prisoners. You’ve sold arms. You’ve been an SS [Schutzstaffel] man”.
He rose in horror. “I? An SS [Schutzstaffel] man? Oh, but this is not true”.
I leant across the table “Get out. Get out of this bar. We want no cut-throats here”.
He hesitated a moment, turned and walked out without a word, the crowd hastily opening up to let him through. The door closing after him let loose a buzz of talk from the excited Italians, who secretly hated his arrogance and greed.
Stan turned to me “You bloody fool. What you do that for? He was just going to buy us some more wallop”.
“Didn’t you understand what he said? He meant you had been windy of the Jerries”.
“The bastard. I’ll show ‘im whose windy. Sten gun, or no bloody Sten gun”.
“You’ll probably have a chance to” Ben interrupted drily “He won’t take that lying down. These blighters are hot on their honour and all that”.
“Is honour? What honour’s ‘e got? “Stan launched out on a vivid description of what he would”like to do to him. I hardly listened but kept glancing out of the window for signs of the other rebels. Everything I had said was quite true, but I had acted on the impulse in anger, and was now thinking of the consequences. What would the gang do? I had even left my revolver at the hamlet, thinking all danger over. Our troops were expected soon, would they be in time for me?
My reflections were cut short by the sudden entrance of the leader, Antonio, closely followed by four of his gang. They had come for me. The bar was full of people and he didn’t see us at first so walked straight up to the counter, where two of our party who had met him before went to join him. It was obvious he meant trouble for all of us, and these two hit on the idea of telling him I was a captain in the Secret Service (SS). This made him pause, and glancing back at where we sat, he ordered drinks for my two friends . They were taken off their guard and had picked up their glasses when Ben jumped up besides me and shouted out “Don’t drink with that SS man”.
Again dead silence in the bar. This was not just the leader’s brother, but the boss himself, backed up by four of his bullies, armed with Stens and revolvers. He spun round and faced us, his features a picture of cold fury, his bodyguard grouped behind him. The crowd backed away, leaving an empty space between us. We had crossed the Rubicon. We would have to bluff it out now.
I strode over to him, followed by Ben “Why are you carrying that gun? You’ve never fought any Germans. You’ve robbed the peasants but you’ve never attacked the Fascists”.
His fingers were working with rage, but he didn’t know who I was and had to restrain himself. “I see you don’t know who I am. I’m Lieutenant Palumbo, leader of the rebels of Sanginesio”.
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So he was going to bluff it out too.
“Rebels. What have you done? Stolen clothes, money, food from your countrymen, and now pretending you’ve liberated Sanginesio”.
“But I have only these clothes I wear. You are mistaken. Our wine is too strong for you” he laughed and invited the crowd to join him. My Italian was too poor to indulge in repartee and I felt the initiative slipping from me. I was losing. I played my last card.
“I have proof you have been an SS [Schutzstaffel] man, and went to Macerata to enlist”.
He hesitated a moment and I knew I had hit the right note. “Yes, I have been to Macerata. But I have never been an SS [Schutzstaffel] man. How could I, a rebel leader?”
“You’ve been to Macerata. Why did you go there?”
He realised he had made a slip and tried to cover it up. “I went to escape the Fascists”.
The fool. I raised my voice and addressed the crowd.
“Listen, this brave rebel leader says he went to Macerata. And why? To escape the Fascists. He went to the Fascist HQ [Head Quarters] to escape from them” A few people tittered at this clumsy blunder. He blushed, angrily.
“I’ll tell you why he went “I continued “To join the SS [Schutzstaffel], as it was too dangerous being a true rebel. Assassin. Get out of here. Friend of the Germans. Get out”.
He was about to speak, but I had worked myself up to such a pitch, that he probably thought I had some more accusations, and with the temper of the crowd against him, he thought better of it, and muttering a word to his men, they strode out of the bar in silence.
We watched them go, heedless of the excited comments of the crowd, only thankful that there had been no violence and we had been able to disgrace them publicly. “I need a drink” said Ben, voicing the common thought, and we were returning to our table when my arm was seized viciously from behind. I turned quickly round and confronted one of Antonio’s bodyguards.
“I told you to go”.
His face was flushed, and he was shaking all over with anger and excitement. “You have insulted my Lieutenant” he screamed. “It was not true. You must be punished. Come with me to our Captain”. He pulled me towards the door. I dared not go with him, for I knew what these rebels were like if they got an enemy alone. It was only safe in public view. I shook my arm free. “I also am a Captain, an English Captain. Your commander must come to me”.
“No. I order you to come”.
“Who has liberated Sanginesio?”
“We, the rebels” His voice rose to a frenzied pitch.
“The English have liberated Sanginesio, and the English give the orders now. Your gang has never done anything but plunder peasants. Go back to your wine” and dodging his grasp, I rejoined our party. But his blood was up, and muttering incoherently in his frenzy, he followed me back to the table.
The crowd sensed another crisis. The bar was silent.
A small crowd had gathered outside the window. The rebel came
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up to our table, cocked his Sten gun, and levelled it across the table at Ben and I..
“Come with me to my Captain”.
I sat dead still, not daring to move and not knowing what to say.
“Come with me. Quick, or I’ll fire” His voice rose “I’ll shoot up the whole bar” and he glared round, his eyes on fire.
Inspiration came to me “I am in the Secret Service. I am expecting the British Troops” I paused to look at my watch “here any minute. That’s why I am here. Anyone who touches an Englishman, even with only a finger, will be shot when our troops arrive.
A murmur went round the bar. My words had struck home, and struck deep. The rebel lowered his Sten gun, glanced round as though cornered, and muttering “I’ll come back for you” hurried out ignominiously into the piazza. Thank God. Ben and I clinked glasses, and drank to our good luck.
We were just sitting down again when a sudden commotion outside drew our attention. One of the rebels was running across the piazza yelling like mad, and the crowd was momentarily silent. Then, they all started shouting again and with one accord streamed for the side roads leading from the piazza. A bearded rebel, Sten gun at the ready, revolver in his belt and weighed down with ammunition, burst into our bar. “The Germans are returning. Our scouts have seen their tanks approaching the town. Everyone must take cover. We are defending the gates”. And he hurried out into the square to join three others of the gang. One of them had obviously never handled a Sten gun before and was struggling frantically to cock it. Our bearded rebel snatched it from him, pulled back the cocking handle and accidentally pressed the trigger – a stream of bullets spattered over the fleeing civilians, till the gun jammed, probably though bad maintenance. The four of them hurried sheepishly out of sight.
Some of the Italians in the bar had fled with the crowd, but we thought it safer to remain quietly inside. It might be dangerous on the streets, and we could always slip out at the back if there was any shooting.
Five minutes elapsed, and scattered groups sauntered back into the piazza. The German tanks had evidently passed by on the national road and not come up to Sanginesio as the rebel scouts expected. The piazza gradually filling with people again and we had settled down at our table to while away another half hour before our dinner would be ready, when one of the townsmen I knew came up to me and whispered.
“The Captain, the chief of all Sanginesio, is coming here to make you prove your accusations against the Palumbo brothers. He is not a rebel, you must be careful”.
I thanked him, told the others and waited his arrival.
It was not long before we spotted him, correctly arrayed in full military uniform, striding across towards the bar, followed by the Palumbo brothers, and three of the gang. From the comments of the crowd I gathered he was a local gentleman who, by virtue of his rank and personality, had taken control of the town after the Germans had evacuated. I wondered how much authority he could exercise over the unruly rebels.
Ben and I stepped outside the bar to receive him, and after mutual salutes and courtesies (I was still posing as a British Captain). I made a little speech in my halting Italian to the
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growing crowd, that I wished well to all true patriots, but would see punishment meted out to mere thieves and robbers. This was well received by all and we ‘two’ captains proceeded to a back room of the bar followed by the two accused rebels, some two or three ruffians of their band, and Ben as my henchman. My two Slavian friends also joined us, Tina assisted as interpreter if required, for my Italian was not good enough to follow any verbal trickeries the rebels might use.
The little ‘court’ was quite informal, the Captain, Tina and I seated round a table, the Palumbo brothers standing rigidly to attention in front, three of the gang and Ben grouped in the rear, with a background of stacked chairs, glasses and the smell of stale wine. He first interrogated Antonio, the leader, but I had no tangible proof of his thefts and couldn’t pin him down to anything, even with Tina’s help, but in his haste to clear himself, he clumsily implicated his brother. I immediately picked him up on this, pointing it out to the Captain, but he was nervous, not wishing to antagonise the only body of armed men in the town, and refused to convict him without any more evidence. I was at my wit’s end, for if I couldn’t discredit at least one of them, I and all the prisoners with me, would become the laughing stock of the town, and the rebels have more prestige than ever.
Ben came to my rescue “Renaldo robbed the ‘Carraducci’ a fortnight ago. Edwards lives there, I’ll see if I can find him outside”. He hurried out to search for this Edwards, who was one of our dinner party, and returned in three or four minutes with him. The effect of his evidence was slightly marred by his having celebrated so well that he could hardly stand, let alone speak Italian, but he was just able to give the essential details of the robbery and convince the Captain.
It was all he needed. He stood up, walked over to Renaldo, and stripping him of his gaudy tricolour emblem, said he was a disgrace to his country and ordered him to be taken to the Sanginesio gaol. He turned to Antonio, told him nothing was proved against him, but he had better watch his step.
We filed out of our little back room, and the Slavs, Ben and I rejoined our expectant companions. I had been unable to catch the bigger scoundrel, but had the satisfaction of knowing his younger brother would have to pay for his crimes.
We had one scare during this scene in the back room, when a patriot came rushing in to report the approach of another small column of German Tanks, and the Captain gave the order for the partially felled trees along the approaches to Sanginesio to be cut down and laid across the roads. As events later proved the rebels did this effectively.
It was now late afternoon, so we rallied our friends at the hotel, and went in to dinner. Our Slav friends had arranged things beautifully, spotless cloth and napkins, choices of wines, various delicacies, so different from the hospitable but uncouth peasants. We sat down at our places and Tine rose to make us formally welcome, when the waiter rushed into the room, waving his arms excitedly…
“Signora, in the piazza, the English have arrived” and dashed out again down the passage.
Dinner was forgotten, and we ran out into the piazza just in time to see a reconnaissance car turning up a side street towards the Mayor’s office. The square was full of people,
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singing and shouting, kissing and dancing. The church bells were ringing out, everyone was delirious with joy and excitement. We had some difficulty in pushing our way through the crowd, but my recent promotion to ‘Secret Service Agent’ let me and my friends through the cordon of rebels outside the Mayor s office. A pathetic and ludicrous sideshow were individual members of the town band, struggling alone in the midst of the crowd, trying to re-unite so as to give justice to the great occasion. In typical Italian fashion they had assembled at the wrong place, been overlooked by our recce car and swept off their feet by the crowd.
We found our fellows in the Mayor’s Parlour and nearly wrung their hands off in greeting, but they were on a hurried reconnaissance and had no time for gossip. We gave them what information we could — how many Germans had passed here, what areas were mined, what bridges down – and then returned to our dinner, which was the merriest we had had for a long time. The main body of troops was some way back but we could consider our district safe as the Germans were establishing a rear-guard line on the river Chienti near our old Camp at Sforzacosta. Later in the evening we took a stroll in the piazza, where we witnessed the arrival of the remainder of the recce column, some twelve, lightly-armoured trucks. These fellows were sleeping the night in Sanginesio and so had ample time to tell us all the War news and of events at home. It has to be experienced to understand the feeling of exultation and relief we had whilst talking to these soldiers., to think that once again we were safe and could lead normal lives free from the overhanging fear of detection and recapture. These troops had had a fairly easy journey from Ascoli Piceno, but were greatly hindered when approaching Sanginesio by many felled trees across the road. So much for the rebels’ ‘German tanks’, in reality a British recce column, whose advance they had effectively hindered.
WE returned to Cerreto late that night, eagerly discussing plans for bidding farewell to our many helpers during the last ten months, and how we should eventually make our way south to the British GHQ [General Head Quarters].
The day after the ‘Official Liberation’ of Sanginesio, I spent wandering around Cerreto and Gualdo, saying goodbye to the prisoners scattered over the area, some of whom were making their way south immediately. I decided to wait a few days for although I was as eager as any to return to England and my family and home, I felt it would be ungracious and callous to leave the peasants at the very first opportunity.
My first visit was of course to the Rozzi at Colmurano, but this time instead of trudging across the country for the better part of the day I borrowed Primeto’s bicycle and did the journey on the national road in under an hour. It was exhilarating to be able to cycle along and freely enjoy the country without having one eye always open for trouble. I managed to visit most of the peasants and the next day accompanied the Piancatelli, who had hidden me in their haystack in December, to the Mass at Colmurano. Here again I met many old friends, and was lucky to be on the spot when the first British reconnaissance car rolled in. This part of the country was definitely held by the British but no troops had until now actually passed through the village itself, as this was off the national road, so they received a great ovation, were hurried to the barber’s shop for a clean-up and asked to sample the local wines, which they did with little reluctance. They were not on a military recce, but merely trying to purchase some [word unclear] bread etc. so I was able to act as interpreter with the
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Mayor, returning some part of the way with them, clinging precariously to the top of their jeep. At every house the people rushed out to cheer and wave, and many flung them garlands of flowers as we sped by. We were grateful for the cheers and waving, but the peasants did not realise how hard a bunch of flowers can be when you hit them at sixty miles an hour.
The following morning Jack and Harry arrived from Loro Piceno and Mac turned up from Gualdo in the afternoon. Together we visited Franco, our student friend, in his palatial villa. He was delighted to be able to entertain us properly at last, but was very upset at the wanton damage the Germans had caused everywhere before they evacuated. We four of course were all travelling south together and arranged to meet at Sarnano in five days’ time. That evening I returned to Cerreto, after promising the Rozzi to come again before finally leaving.
The next two days were spent in goodbyes to various folks round the hamlet. Ben was travelling south in company with some of his former Gualdo friends so I passed a last evening with him at Ernesto’s and the next day had a farewell lunch with the Yugoslavs, now comfortably settled in their hotel at Sanginesio. These final farewells were very heart-rending to me. One hears a lot about the comradeship formed in the trenches amongst soldiers, but how much more is that spirit of mutual help and regard engendered by the kind of life we had been leading – hardly daring to trust anyone and being always on the alert – these conditions exposed a man’s character bare, and to be a man’s friend became a sacred trust and a high honour.
Mac and I had agreed to spend two more days at Colmurano before leaving together for the south. Again, this meant a round of farewells to friends who had helped me through some very difficult times, and I was sorry to part from them, particularly the Rozzi who had kept me in their house for so long. It was most moving to see how these peasants really regarded us as friends, some of the more emotional crying when we left them and all imploring us to write when we arrived home safely. We tarried one more day and then tore ourselves away to spend one last evening with the Lucarelli at Cerreto.
Although the predominant tone in these last few lines should be one of joy at the prospect of returning home, in actual fact a note of sadness prevailed, which reached its climax on my last evening with the Lucarelli. This family had done more for me than any other, allowing me to sleep on their premises, even if only an old broken-down pigsty, when most other prisoners were forced to go on the roam, supplying me with clothes, repairing my boots, and doing everything they dared to make life endurable. That evening they gave me a small parcel of food to eat on the journey, and on the next day, 30th June, Mac and I said our final farewells and set off for Sarnano, which we reached about 10 o’clock. We soon spotted Jack and Harry in the piazza, patiently waiting by their bundles, and together set off to find the British Commander, a sort of local Governor, and hear his advice on our best route south. He was most helpful but there was little transport going south and it was well past mid-day before we were able to find a vehicle going our way. Once found, however, we made rapid progress down the national road, finding fresh trucks going south at every town. Sarnano, Amandola, Ascoli Piceno – and evening found us at Teramo where we were lucky in encountering a company of Field Engineers, who took us back with them to spend the night
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at their camp at Rosette on the coast road. Here we were able to send a brief letter home, and this was the first news my family had had since I escaped from Camp Sforzacosta nearly ten months ago.
It was like old times to be in a British Camp again, even if it only consisted of a few tents, to eat a good soldier supper, and listen to the talk of the lads. Naturally they were very inquisitive to hear about our life for the past months, but the constant repetition of our story soon became irksome, and we winced when the inevitable questions re-occurred What was it like?” “Did you see any Germans?” “What did you do for money?”. These questions nearly always followed the same lines, and I was surprised that most fellows had so little idea of what life in an enemy-occupied country was like; I suppose I was the same when I first escaped. This was one of the reasons that prompted me to attempt this narrative, for although this account is purely personal and subjective it is representative of the experiences of many of my fellow escapees, some of whom did not have my good fortune and will never return.
The RE’s [Royal Engineers] at Rosette were sending a lorry down the coast road to collect some stores the next day, so we accompanied them, passing through the shattered towns of Pescara and Ortona, across the river Sangro, to the railhead of Vasto, a little town wee south on the Adriatic coast. Here we found a general reception camp, where we stayed for two or three days and were fitted out in British African kit, shorts and shirt, a welcome change from our heavy, clinging civilian rig-out. A few necessary formalities followed, our bonafides were established, and then it was only a matter of being sent to Naples and waiting for a convoy home. These last few days were full of incident, for quite a number of prisoners had come through during the confusion following our rapid June advances, and many old friends met once again for the first time since escaping, AND MANY WERE the convivial evenings spent in reminiscent mood – the snow in the winter, the searches in the Spring, anecdotes about the peasants, about ‘polenta’, about the farms – like old soldiers reliving their battles we gathered in the cafes to tell our stories.
And so my journey came to an end. It was more than nine months since the Italian Armistice and our escape – nine months of excitement interspersed with boredom, fun mingled with sadness kindnesses from many contrasted with persecution and brutality from a few. I cannot close without again paying tribute to the Italian peasants without whose help and loyalty we should all have had an even harder time than we did, and many of us would not have got through to freedom at last. In all my experience the peasants were always friendly at heart, and only refused us food and shelter when they were too afraid of reprisals from Fascists and Germans; and one who has not lived under these conditions cannot fully appreciate the constant strain of fear, suspicion and betrayal – with their homes and families at risk-under which the country was living.
I, personally, was helped by so many I hesitate to single out individuals, but I must mention Franco, my student friend, and the two families of Rozzi and Lucarelli whose homes I made my ‘headquarters’ and who for many months risked the most, perhaps their very lives, for me.
[Editor’s note. In the original file there follows two newspaper articles that could not be reproduced for copyright reasons. They were:
Newspaper cutting from The Times dated May 25th 1989 with the title “On the run behind enemy lines”.
Newspaper cutting with the title “Lawrie’s War On the run like a hunted animal, the young soldier lived on his wits.”
Please contact the Monte San Martino Trust if you wish to view these newspaper cuttings.