This story is a fascinating, detailed and evocative account based on diary entries from the end of September 1943 to 10th November, when Frank Coe crossed the Allied lines. He was imprisoned in PG 78 Sulmona, from which the PoWs were moved out on 30th September.
This account is particularly interesting because it focuses exclusively on the journey from escape from a German train transport away from Sulmona, to re-joining Allied forces. Not only does the diary record in great detail the countryside and villages through which they passed, their adventures, illness and hunger, but also the daily lives of the Italian peasant families who assisted Frank and his colleagues.
The generosity shown to escaping PoWs by the Italians, who themselves were lacking in food and whose homes and livelihoods had been devastated by the Germans, is well described in the following quotation from Frank’s diary: “No food in evening except some foul-tasting paraffiny bread made from an old bag of flour by an old boy who had lost his home, cattle farm and possessions – two bullocks!”
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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“AWAY FROM ITALY”
Italian walking Tour at Army Expense
By Frank Coe
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“Italian Walking Tour at Army Expense”
30 September 1943. Sulmona PG 78. Normal. N. call. Worked on clothes and general I.E. until lunchtime. Unreasonable optimism very strong this morning – been here six days during which time only a few O.R.’s have been moved. Rumoured (and radio) that 8th Army just north of Poggia and Naples about to fall. Just preparing for lunch when it was announced sections one to four on parade – unreasonable optimism dropped to zero with a bang! About seven hundred of us on parade. There was deathly quiet and haggard faces. S.B.O announced we were to be ready to move with all kit at 14.00 hours; on parade ground. Rumour had it that £30 was the price required by O.R.’s to change places. Americans not going. I had my suitcase, haversack, water-bottle and an unbroken Canadian parcel. Paired off with Mike and decided:-
1. We should only attempt to get away within the valley if excellent chance occurred
2. Once out of valley, we should do our damndest to jump train, especially as we were told they would be cattle-trucks – coaches for Field Officers only!
Went in first truck, each collecting an English Red Cross parcel on the way – Mike carried that for me. At Sulmona station we saw evidence of some very good bombing – small bombs. Typical Jerry efficiency prevailed as were made to file past a table where a Jerry took our name, number etc. – he got mine all wrong! Mike and I found ourselves at the head of the first party of twenty, for the first cattle-truck, being led by a typically Prussian Sergeant-Major. Everybody was pretty desperate by this time and we were all looking left and right for an “opening”. We were led a long way down the platform, struggling with our kit, to the end box-wagon. The Hun had discovered that Mike spoke German and using him as interpreter, told Mike and myself to drop our kits and help him close the sliding door on the other side of the wagon, which was open. We pretended to help, but he called several others to his assistance, until we finally managed it. By mutual understanding, Mike and I were slow to move back on to the platform and took a long time to pick up our kit. The Jerry then went round on to the platform, but returned a second later and looked hard at us rather significantly, but went off again. I turned to Mike, “Shall we?” He answered by moving straight off. We threw ourselves over a small embankment after transversing about two sets of railway lines. I thought Mike must have hurt himself, because he tripped and literally fell down the slope. At the bottom was a five-yard river and literally fell down the slope. At the bottom was a five-yard river through which we waded (up to our knees) and found ourselves about 100 yards from the train, which was above us on an embankment, in a maize field, near a road. A bunch of hysterical
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women saw us and pointed out very cleverly that Tedeschi were in the station! We made our way very hurriedly and not really knowing where to go except away from the train, to the ditch bordering the road and sat in it. An old Iti passed in a cart, saw us and seemed quite friendly. He looked up and down the road and waved us on, but didn’t stop. We crossed the road and made for the house which was about 400 yards from the train. It was badly knocked about by bombing and the occupant was very scared and didn’t welcome us. I took hold of him by the coat collar and promised ‘lovely’ things to him if he squealed, but after regaining our breath we went out of the house and up a steep slope to another ditch running beside a footpath behind the house. Whilst resting in the ditch, an Iti youth came up, seemed quite friendly. He was joined by the driver of the cart and two young bints who were very concerned about our scratches. We wished like hell we could speak better Iti, but we managed to make the youth understand a little. We got out of the ditch, crawled through the hedge, some vineyards and eventually found really good cover in some high rushes. The Iti youth was still with us and seemed very keen to help. The time was now 16.15 – we ‘left’ at 15.43. The youth told us he would go away and continue his work; return at 17.00 with some grapes and when night fell, take us to his home. Well, we just had to risk it, but we gave him a bar of soap and a few fags and then moved our position, in case he returned with Jerries. We now had time to stop and think. Mike had one blanket, Iti greatcoat, two bars soap, two packets tea, two books, water-bottle and the battledress and clothes he was standing in (including good boots). We had both lost our side-hats in the fray and I had lost my carved wooden badge! The rest of Mike’s kit which he had prepared ready for this, the Jerry had made him drop in the door closing incident. I had a Canadian parcel (unopened) and a little wet. Water-bottle, haversack containing:-
9 tins made-up ration
1 tin New Zealand emergency ration
1 fig bar
Holdall, containing shaving kit and mirror
Flannel bag containing flannel, 2 bars soap, razor blades, toothpaste
Towel. Mug. Two pairs new socks.
Knife, fork, teaspoon, tin opener.
2 housewives, complete
Approximately 200 fags
Pockets contained more fags., matches, small penknife, handkerchiefs, several yards of torn-up sheet, watch, comb, cig. case, pencils, pen (little ink), book (“Glory Hill Farm” by Clifton Reynolds), note-book.
Such was our total kit. Our legs and feet were, of course, soaking wet and we started to feel cold. Mike had a pony and trap. At about 17.30 the boy returned with a huge handkerchief full of grapes. At approximately 19.00, some friends of his appeared, one of whom spoke a little English and said they were looking after two English prisoners who had escaped after us and they would bring them to see us, but they didn’t reappear. At 19.45 we set off. Our direction was through
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vineyards back towards the camp. We had to cross the main Pescara-Sulmona road, but the boy was very careful and we had no mishaps. Distance about four miles. We arrived at la casa at about 21.00. We went into a pitiful little farmyard kitchen, just four walls and apology for a fire. Father, Mother, small son and daughter, another youth and our friend. All were huddled round the fire. We were handed the enormous communal bowl of soup, some bread and a spoon each. The soup was good, but we didn’t feel hungry. There was no furniture except a few chairs and a cupboard and only candles for light. They dried our boots and socks as best they could. The little girl mended (very badly!) a tear in my trousers. A bint, quite young, then joined the party, named (we thought) Irma. Our efforts at speaking Iti were just appalling, but we made everyone laugh. It all seemed too incredible and “storybook” to be true and we both felt on top of the world. At 22.00 we were led off to our sleeping quarters – a cave of all places situated amongst trees and well concealed on a small ledge on a hill. Straw on the floor. We slept well, although a little cold.
1st October 1943. The cave is excellent – we can see the camp below us about half a mile away to the east – in fact the lights on it looked quite pretty last night, from this side of the wire! We have talked, argued, discussed and at last decided to stay here, as long as possible. Well, we’ve made it, for the time being anyway! Our luck has been wonderful and so far, we feel like characters out of a Bulldog Drummond story, complete with beautiful Irma! Inspected our kit carefully this morning. Nasty shock to discover my Canadian parcel had been eaten by maggots. Only the pips left of the raisins and the chocolate nearly all gone – just a powder. Domenico, (the youth who brought us here) came to see us before he went off to work at the station – he’s a good lad. Little Franco brought us some fried spuds and bread. Life is wonderful – the sun is shining and our boots are drying in it. Many visitors during the day – the word has gone round and we feel a little worried about the publicity with so many Germans and Fascists around. They all bring food – bread, maize cake, grapes and a few eggs. We feel a little embarrassed because we can’t eat it all. One or two customers not too satisfactory, but it is difficult to turn them away. Some bring disquieting rumours: Germans are all round the village – the Americans tried a mass break on their way to the station yesterday and most of them were killed. Rain in afternoon combined with these stories made us feel a little uneasy. At 22.00, two chaps came along and tried to persuade us to go with them to the village of [illegible] said they could look after us much better. They seemed good types and after much thought, we decided to go. They took our kit and gave us two civilian greatcoats to cover our uniform. Taken about ¾ mile to some obscure back street in the village. Biggish fire – better conditions than last house. Boiling vino. Electric light. Many came in to see us and all made us tell our story, which seems to please them tremendously. Apparently, this village is alive with escaped prisoners and the advantage is that it is also full of deserted Iti soldiers, who are scared of being picked up by Jerry and lie up here. Given another meal – vino, hot. Nearly everybody we’ve seen so far has a relative who is a P.O.W in England. One
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very old man speaks very few words of English, but only the ones for which we know the Iti! A very interesting and amusing evening. Our Iti is improving in leaps and bounds already. We keep a written record of all the new words we have learned. Eventually we were taken out of the house, through incredibly dirty and dark back streets, through a small door into a room which seemed to be a vegetable store and also a bedroom. We were just removing our kit, when the bloke moved some bundles of straw, opened a trap door and led us down a ladder to a kind of grotto-cellar, hewn out of the rock. We saw some more people sleeping in the straw – they were Iti deserters, living here at night and working away in the fields during the day. We settled down to a warm, stuffy, itchy night, but we loved it.
2nd October 1943. Taken into the room above. Given glorious cup of sweet and milky coffee. Had long discussion about what date and day it was. These people don’t seem to know, or care! Yesterday we were told that today would be Sunday 3rd, but today they say it is Saturday 2nd, but we don’t mind much! The rumours of yesterday were unfounded, we think. These people are grand and seem very steady. Tell us they will obtain peasant clothes for us and lead us away into the country if Jerry appears. In the meantime, we spent our day in the room, in reasonable comfort with two chairs and a table. Tom-tits in the pigsty! Had a wash and a shave, presented a trinket – bar of soap. We must be careful not to squander our meagre supply. Many visitors again to ‘admire’ us. Old lady brought us ‘bottle of vino’ – we thought of [illegible] – and three eggs. She is feeding twenty escaped P.O.W.s who came to her house one night from the mountains to sleep. Macaroni for lunch – good flavour with grated cheese. Everybody seems related in the village. Lady of the house knitting socks with very coarse wool, made from cheese, they said. The two little girls, seven and nine, are very good and amuse us and are very quiet for children. We learnt a lot today from their schoolbooks – saturated in Fascist propaganda – pictures of Musso [Mussolini] all over. They learn their numbers by number of prisoners taken in Abyssinia etc. – revolting. However, they all talk about their hatred towards Musso and Fascism. All they talk about is the arrival of the English so that they may return to their former simple, insanitary, primitive but ‘pleasant’ way of life. Thank God no alarmist rumours today- still many Jerries on roads and many ambulance convoys which pleases them. In the afternoon visited by a chap who is a repatriated P.O.W. from Australia. He speaks a little English, better French, so we get on quite well, using a mixture of the three languages. He says he is looking after three O.R.’s – been with him five days. We sent them our names and a note. In evening, taken to a nearby kitchen – a very pretty little place, with a fine charcoal oven. Produced most wonderful meal – a kind of yellow dough with tomato, cheese, which was in a large pot which was tipped over the white table and then spread on it, the cheese and tomato sprinkled on top. We were given plates, unfortunately but the rest just dug in with a fork, eating straight off the table. I ate a lot, but our host cleared 18” square I’ll swear. We were then blown out, but alas they produced our eggs fried and spiced and then spiced chillies thick in olive oil and we could do nothing but force them down. Later, our Australian friend came along and took us to see the three O.R.s [other ranks], despite the protests of our people who didn’t like
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us to leave the house at all and seemed very jealous of us. About 50 yards away in a similar place to this, but they have a bed. They are three good lads – been free twenty days – spent fifteen of them in our grotto. One has very swollen lip from a mosquito bite. They get on well with everybody, especially the signorine! Gave them what authentic news we could and they gave us their ‘griff’. They say the alarm system in the village is worked out to perfection and we should get plenty of warning of the approach of Jerry. Given civilian clothes this evening. Shirts, jacket and trousers, almost in rags, and undoubtedly lousy, but they’ll do. These people combed the whole village for them, because clothes are so short. We laughed like hell when we looked at each other, Mike’s trousers are short by about six inches. We have taken the. precaution of sewing pips on our shirts. Returned to a good sleep, despite the fact that we are alive with fleas, completely lousy and covered in bites! Life is marvellous We give our troops thirty days to reach here now, and not until after that time shall we begin to worry.
3rd October 1943. Coffee again – sweet. Didn’t shave today. They tell us many more P.O.W.s taken to station yesterday. Visited by people all day long. One showed us a pistol he has. Apparently, there are four or five Fascists in the village of whom the rest are just as scared as they are of the Jerries and that is the reason we are kept indoors so carefully. They swear when the English arrive, they will kill the Fascists. I’ve tried hard to explain that they will go when the Jerries do! Too much food, as usual. Had meal in the kitchen of corn on cob, baked and boiled and baked spuds. Visited by fat old boy who speaks passable English – in America for twenty years. Took us to his house, about 40 yards away – to see three more of our chaps – two English Sergeants and one Yank Sergeant. They live in a cave in the mountains and very occasionally come down for food. Given a lot of vino there. Two unpleasant bints present. Slept heavily.
4th October 1943. Visited by bint who brought us civilian shirts and pullovers – we were given pants last night. Just after lunch we had our first big scare. Heard German trucks; dived into the cellar and hid ourselves in the straw. Over in a few minutes, but a little later an Iti friend, armed with a pistol (he had no intention of using it of course) took us to the cave where the five Sergeants are, looked after by the old Yankee – Carmen. The cave is wonderful, almost perfectly camouflaged entrance which is covered by a small bush. Very big inside and will hold two hundred sheep. Stayed there and made merry until evening. Heard that Termoli had been taken and a number of landings made at Rimini which we doubted and later confirmed as untrue. Returned to house again. Supper in kitchen and long talk with O—–, whose family are apparently the big people in this village. He has a wireless set and confirmed the news. He is training to be a lawyer and wants us to teach him English and he will teach us Iti. Bringing dictionary tomorrow. We have also heard that the camp has been evacuated by Jerry and is being taken over by the Carabiniere Marshal who has told the people to tell escaped prisoners to remain where they are for a few more days yet. We are a little sceptical and are anxious to return to the Sergeants’ cave and stay there. The Iti deserters who were here, have all gone – we are told, to their own homes, which we think is a good sign. Tonight, we slept in the room with the old man, with
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an eiderdown for a mattress. Sheets and pillows. Very comfortable, but poor Mike had to keep dashing out the pigsty as he was suffering from the squitters.
5th October 1943. Explained our intentions – they said they wanted us to do just as we felt best, but were obviously keen for us to stay on. Rumour this morning that our troops have taken Ortona a Mare, due east from here, on the coast. If true, magnificent, but we must confirm it. Proved later to be untrue, as usual. Much aircraft activity (ours), both bombers and fighters. Seven ‘Kittyhawks’ came over quite low. Two circled over camp. Three did spectacular dive and machine-gunned convoy on road. Set one lorry on fire and killed five, so the Iti’s tell us. We left our battledresses and parcel behind in order to make our people feel a little more secure about our intentions. When we arrived at Carmen’s place, below the cave, there was a scare that some Jerries were coming along the footpath, but it was a false alarm and we were able to crawl out of the pigsty we were hiding in. Got up to cave and Carmen brought us large dish of fried spuds, which these chaps have trained him to cook (Iti’s think spuds only fit for pigs) and then ‘Digger’ turned up with food. Old Carmen hates him and has told us before that he is a Fascist, but tonight I think I have discovered the root of the trouble, because he said ‘Don’t give him your names, because he collects all the prisoners’ names, so that when English arrive he will take credit for them all, when in fact, most of them are mine.” Slept well, but a little cold.
6th October 1943. Eric brought up coffee as usual and old Carmen the spuds. His two daughters are amazing. Young and as strong as oxen. They carry tremendous loads on their heads, in bare feet, like all the other women. Today they carried a bath full of water up here and one was carting away a tree which old Carmen was sawing down. Big scare today, when a Jerry drove up in a car just below us and then later another one appeared in sand pit and a little later the whole place seemed alive with them. Their uniforms are black, I’m certain! Carmen was only visitor during day. We kept careful watch and stayed inside. Eventually decided we should have to move tonight, especially as Carmen tells us that two Jerry officers turned the people out of yellow house so that they could live there themselves. There are Jerries scattered about all over the valley. At the village of L……. there was some trouble between Fascists and the people. Jerry intervened and, in the process, recaptured fifty of our chaps. When darkness fell Natalie (Carmen’s daughter) took Mike and I down to the village by a new route, in order to skirt well round the Jerries. When we arrived at the house, we found the Angelos had left for the cave, with all our kit! Back we came again, by yet a different route, led by a swift, bare-footed Natalie. Met everybody at Carmen’s place, except Ericolo, who is afraid of the Jerries and is staying in the fields for the night. Eventually left the cave at 08.30, heavily loaded with kit, water and enough food for two days. I was carrying haversack, water bottle and blanket roll containing battledress, civvy greatcoat and the Red Cross parcel.
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The journey was frightful – I’ve never done anything like it before. After the first 500 yards we had to stop about every 100 yards as the hill was so steep and the ground loose – two paces gained meant four faces forward. Poor old Mike felt it a bit. We lost our way once and several times thought we had reached the top, only to be disappointed. Arrived eventually at the nearest woods, about 1500 feet up at 01.45! Got down under pine trees and tried to sleep, but we were soaking wet with sweat and soon became too cold.
7th October 1943. At 05.00 made large fire, brewed some tea and had breakfast. In the shepherd’s hut here, there are fifteen chaps, two of them from 2/5 – medical orderlies, but the hut they say is not big enough to take us all. Scenery is glorious. Water point half a mile away. Mike lost his water bottle last night and I my home-made knife – both rather serious losses. Mike went down and found his bottle! I’d give a lot for a fag – they ran out when we first visited the cave. Rain started and we went into hut. Stayed there the night. Very cold and didn’t sleep much.
8th October 1943. Awakened when “Ace” Krieger, a South African P.O.W. journalist, turned up with another officer (Signals). They had been warned to move up because Jerries were getting a little more active. Also warned us that it was probably dangerous for us to stay in the hut during the day now. Accordingly, we all ‘moved out’ into the nearby woods. At about 10.00, Carmen turned up, followed a little later by Natalie and Signore ‘L’ Angelo. They had climbed the mountain, carrying an enormous load of food in 2 ¼ hours – against our five hours. After visits by several other Iti’s, we decided this was all a flap and returned to the hut. I got my first bout of real depression today, but in late afternoon went along to the water point and had a bath in the trough there in very cold water – felt much better for it. We had decided to go down again with the Sergeants, but after consideration, decided to stay up here until the position was clearer and then we should either go down to stay or carry on over the top. Today a party of seven passed through, accompanied by an Iti guard who was taking them to Vasto, reputed to be in our hands. He promised to call here on his way back. Ace and his friend also went down again.
9th October 1943. Feel reasonably secure now, as we leave hut during the day, sleep there at night – the fire is magnificent and we rise very early in the morning to watch the approaches, as we think this is the most dangerous time of the day. At about 08.00 old Grandpa D’Angelo turned up! He said Carmen had told them that we were going over the top and the grand old boy had come up to say goodbye. I asked if they wanted their clothes and he said not. He is 69 and bent nearly double! Made the arrangement with him that, if we were not down by Monday night, then the Signora would bring up food for Tuesday morning. Until then, we must live on the little macaroni we have, the bread and perhaps a few spuds from the boys here and a little of the parcel. A little later, Mac (Sergeant) and Marchant (Signals’ Officer), appeared as I had arranged to make a recce of the ascent with them today. They brought us no fresh news, which was disheartening. We started off 09.30 –
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passed water point and turned left, found track and made up. Passed some ‘Quindici’ (call-up) class Iti’s coming down again, after their hiding, with the few sheep they hadn’t eaten during their exile! Track quite good and not difficult without kit. Passed two small shepherd huts where the Quindici had evidently been living. Pushed on up again, steep slope, and then saw two blokes we thought were Iti’s. They turned out to be a Cameron and a Guardsman, who had walked from Sienna in Tuscany! They wore civvy clothes and carried absolutely nothing. They have only been refused food once and they have slept in shelter every night. On their way down, they’ve been to three dances! Wonderful lads, fit as fiddles, but boots nearly worn through now. They said, “If we meet one Jerry, it’ll be too bad for him, if we meet two, we’ll have a go, if we meet three or more, we’re in the bag again.” Reached what we thought was top, only to discover three more ranges. Climbed these and talked to a shepherd who said on a clear day it was possible to see Pescara and the sea, thirty miles way. Came down again taking it easy and arrived back at 16.00, satisfied we had made good time. ‘Mac’ and Titch have decided to ‘go over’ tomorrow. In the evening Iti came along path on a mule, who said he was a padrone and dopodomani (day after tomorrow). As was going to Foggia with his three thousand sheep. A tempting bait, but decided to wait until Tuesday.
10th October 1943. Mac and Titch came up 08.00, bring depressing news that our troops had been pushed back a little at Termoli. They had decided to join the sheep drive and on the spur of the moment, we decided to do the same. Dumped most of our kit, including uniforms and only took one blanket. I carried haversack and water bottle. Mike carried blanket, great coat and water bottle. Feeling in fine fettle and remarkably fit. Made way over the top. Met our old shepherd of yesterday, who gave us enough food for our lunch and directed us to the hut where the round up was to take place. Arrived there and found little hut nestling in a dream-like valley. Day not quite so pleasant because of low cloud. Got a nasty shock when six more P.O.W.’s turned up, but thank God, four carried on. Eventually we ended with nine wanting to come in the party – our four, two who have been living in this hut for three days and have laid this on for themselves (1 Yank Flying Officer and 1 R.A.F. Flying Officer), and two Arabs who have been working with the shepherds. It was explained to us that the party originally was to consist of the airmen only, but they were willing to take us along if we could provide our own food. We said OK, and then started to work out what our ration would be. It would have been, in fact, three slices of bread per day and a little of my reserve ration. Went into the woods, built a fire and made covering for ourselves for the night. Had meal of spuds and bread and spent a frightfully cold and miserable night. Three sleeping and one tending the fire.
11th October 1943. Rain, buckets of it. Went into already crowded hut, which was frightful. Smoky, overcrowded and bad feeling amongst the P.O.W. parties. To make matters worse, Ace Krieger turned up with a Palestinian friend! Rained the whole day, which we spent with streaming eyes and guilty consciences for eating the shepherd’s macaroni and mutton – a sheep had fortunately died. My most miserable day yet and the night
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was even worse. By this time there were about thirty people in the hut. The shepherds and their boys were soaking wet, the fire was smoking horribly. Slept on the stone floor in a very cramped position, praying for fine weather and a move. Lambs bleating all night, rain running in, my feet in Mike’s face.
12th October 1943. Heavier rain! The Padrone of the shepherds – the Big Boss – announced he could only take four of us with him, so we backed down. Later he decided to cancel the whole trip. He would have to risk his sheep dying of cold, because the Germans would get them anyway if he went South. We decided to go over the mountain into the village of Sale as soon as we had had a meal. Made two abortive attempts, because of wind and rain, but eventually got away in fine weather, guided by an Iti who was taking a mule down to collect water – another of our troubles here. The two airmen, Ace Krieger and the Palestinian are staying on, waiting for two medical students from Sulmona, who promised to bring food, maps and a guide. We started 11.00, reached water point 12.00 and a little lower down, a charcoal burner’s hut, where we had some food and hot milk. Here, we sorted out our stuff and decided to separate from Mac and Titch – a party of four being too conspicuous. Tossed who should go down to the village first. We won and sent them. We started 16.00 and arrived at an O.P. overlooking village at 18.00 (the journey from the shepherd’s hut to the village, was 1 ½ hours, according to the Iti’s!) Observed for a time and then very carefully approached the village. Approached a bunch of people, told them we were ”Ufficiali Inglesi” “Avete da mangiare e dormire” (English officers, do you have anything to eat and a place to sleep?). Taken to a house in Old Sale – a very broken down and poor village (demolished by an earthquake). Dirty, narrow streets, ladders up to the second storeys. All the muck in the streets. Had a meal of fried egg and chopped bacon, just as I had told Mike we should! Dried our boots and socks – burnt large hole in one of Mike’s. Visited four other prisoners, two of them 2/5, L/Corporal Cole and Patience. Also, four Sergeants, one of them 2/5, Sergeant Carter (new intake). They say the old village is very safe because it is a dead end, but Jerries have visited New Sale and taken eggs and pigs. Also say it is very difficult to get from here to our own troops, as all exits through the mountains are watched and the mountain Maiella is a stumbling block. Slept in straw in a loft, reached by ladder from the street.
13th October 1943. Slept well. Only few fleas. Good breakfast down below of ham and fried spuds. Took walk in morning, wrote diary sitting in sun in woods behind village. Visited Sergeants and spoke to George, an American citizen of Iti parentage and wife. Came here 1940 for medical reasons and had to stay. Trying to obtain guide for us. Spent most of day in hills. Met seven more of our people who are working in the fields around here. In evening in the house, it was amusing to watch the complete process from sheep to socks. Too much food. Radio news that Italy declares war on Germany!
14th October 1943. Too many fried spuds for breakfast produces slight tummy palaver. Talked to two escaped Yugoslavs and lent them my shaving gear. Patience and party pushed off, all except L/Corporal Cole, who is a little sick and wants to stay on. Gave me small kit-bag this morning. Mike saw two blokes, one a paratrooper who was quite recently dropped. Told
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us to make for Campobasso. Pescara beach held for one hour last Sunday for taking off P.O.W.’s. In afternoon, met Lieut. Maxwell, been in bag two years – commando in Greece. Nine months in civvy jail. Last in PG78. Released Captain Savage from penitentiary there. Advised us to remain put. Went down to his hide-out in the old village perfect. He had a good map and everything ‘laid on’. He is well in with the village priests and local mayor (speaks perfect Iti). He has party of four O.R.s with him. They have decided to take supplies up into the mountains and stay there until our troops arrive.
15th October 1943. Maxwell was going to change my Egyptian money for me, in the village (£2E 10 piastres) at the rate of 400L to £1E. Slight flap in village as at Caramainico, Jerried walked in and whipped their mayor off to gaol for hiding P.O.W.’s. In afternoon, were taken to a ‘Cassetta’ (small hut) in the hills – the Sergeants have moved there also. Decided now that we shall attempt to move on as we think these people will soon be unable to feed us. They are terribly poor. Electric light, but it is frightful. Village is disgustingly filthy – the children annoy me and we want to get out.
16th October 1943. Arose early and shown the way to go to get round Maiella and told to go to Santa Spirito. Went round to say adieu to L/Corporal Cole, when the women rushed us away up the hill, saying that Jerry was in the old village. Returned few minutes later on discovering that only two had arrived in main street on a motorcycle and sidecar, looked at a map and then moved out again! Nevertheless, if we hadn’t gone to see Cole, we should have bumped straight into the. Skirted round village and went to Maxwell’s place; nobody there, made us swear, particularly as he had my money for changing. Suddenly, two of them appeared through the floor! On hearing the flap, they had ‘gone to ground’ in the most efficient way, sentry posted and all. They had been unable to change the dough. Directed us the way across the river and main road towards Caramainico. At 00.30 waded across river, very cold, carrying boots and socks. Walked up very steep slope and then rushed across main Caramainico road – arrived in cover very puffed. Met three chaps going other way, saying that our way had to transverse two bridges which were held by Jerry. Passed several Yugoslavs who passed us again when we were having lunch (meat roll). Crossed an amazing ravine and reached the little retreat and monastery with a small chapel, Laninyan the opposite side – Santa Bartomoleo. Shown a short cut by shepherd boy. Obtained guide and left for our kit on mules, led by two bints. Eventually reached Santa Spirito, which was not a village, as w expected, but the remains of a monastery – only the beautiful chapel in good repair. “Hung on the side” of the ravine, with a rather lovely little lawn in front. Went up several flights of precipitous steps and found five New Zealanders living in considerable comfort in a very pleasant little room, hewn out of the rock. When the armistice came, their camp, a working one, moved out completely and they came here, bringing a large supply of parcels with them! We had tea and sugar. Canadian biscuits with butter and jam!! Evening meal of spuds, mushrooms cooked in margarine and milk and Canadian meat roll!!!! Wonderful night’s rest – gave them my tin-opener – we have no further use for it, now!
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17th October 1943. Started off at 08.30. Had look at beautiful little chapel and surroundings. Village people still come on some Sundays. Yugoslavs turned up – they’re fine chaps, but rather a nuisance to us just now, as they want to stay with us and that will make our party too large. Scrounged a little tobacco off a civvy. (New Zealanders had all turned out their pockets and collected a little baccy dust previous evening). Reached top of hill – about 10,000 feet up – able to see valley and sea perfectly for the first time. This is on our left and on our right, the majestic Maiella. Found some queer cuttings in the turf – airplanes cut out – but had no idea what they meant, possibly paratroopers? We can see as far as the British lines now, anyway! Went into an Alpini hut and found a few small spuds which we collected. Found we couldn’t get further along the mountain at this height and to get higher would be difficult climbing and time is short today. Decided to go down and experienced great difficulty in doing so. Pestered by Slavs all the time, who wait for us to make the first move. Had lunch of Bully (our last Red Cross food). Nearly reached the foot when warned by an Iti civvy that Jerries were in the village at the bottom – Penna Piedmonte and were holding the bridge we should have to cross. In desperation, we went down – at least it separated us from the Slavs. Carefully, we approached the village which was in an awful flap. They tried to rush us away, but we were desperately cold and hungry and it was nearly dark. Asked for food and they gave us little bread and some grapes. Shown an excellent map which I offered to buy, but fellow wouldn’t part with it. Villagers said they would show us path and small bridge over ravine and eventually we were led off by small boys of about ten! Wonderful kids. Found the very small earthen bridge and then had to do some real rock-climbing. The Slavs were with us again and now for the first time, they were useful – can’t understand why the heights didn’t worry me. Eventually, when it was dark, managed to slip the Yugoslavs and found one small shepherds’ cave, with an English Sergeant and two other Slavs in it. Tried to sleep on bundles of brushwood. Most uncomfortable, cold and hungry, worst night yet.
18th October 1943. Pushed off 05.00 to get good day’s marching in and get ahead of Slavs. There followed a terrible day – our first real hardship yet. Reached top of mountain range after six hours’ really hard climbing, only to find Maiella facing us on one side and impassable ravine on the other. Cold when having lunch of bread and water (the water had been our main trouble, but managed to find a spring on directions of a shepherd). Had also two prunes, two Horlicks tablets. Thank God we found a shepherd who directed us the way down and sent his boy with us. Feeling very tired, we then met another impossible situation. Village of Fara San Martino is on side of mountain and main roads right up to the foothills, alive with Jerries. Met six of our chaps who had also found it impossible to go over the mountain and who had been trying to push on through the valley. They said it was very bad down below, but they were going to risk it as soon as darkness fell. Approached a house where we find one Yugoslav living. He had been in an internment camp, escaped and was now living with these people. Given food – chicken, macaroni and a good bed in a shed, on straw. Joined by two more Slavs and one Palestinian. This place has been ravaged by the Jerries. Most of the buildings burnt down and in ruins. Jerry
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Suspected these people of helping P.O.W.s coming down from the mountains, approached with armoured cars, put two shells through it. Pinched everything he wanted, including all livestock and burnt everything else. Poured paraffin on the flour. Slept well, feeling almost exhausted after fourteen hours’ march, but satisfied we have achieved something, although in actual fact, we have moved only five kilos in the right direction in that time!
19th October 1943. Slept for twelve hours. Shall have to stay here for a time as Mike’s feet are bad – a bloody mess, in fact. Found good hide-out in wood and tried to get food, but wasn’t received too well. Tried my Egyptian money and bought wonderful breakfast of veal and bread for five piastres! I “fixed” rate of exchange at 500 lire to £E. Stayed in woods all morning – treated Mike’s feet. No visitors. Eat bread. In afternoon, climbed part of mountain to make a recce. We decided on a route to cross the two main roads and the river. Glorious day with hot sun. Can’t decide whether to go early morning or evening. No food in evening except some foul-tasting paraffiny bread made from an old bag of flour by an old boy who had lost his home, cattle farm and possessions – two bullocks! In evening the two young Yugoslavs returned saying they had searched all day for a way through the Jerries, without success. The old boy said he thought this was their second time. We, at last, decided to retire to the mountains, if we could collect sufficient food and wait for things to ease a little. We decided we might have to spend most of our Egyptian money to get it.
21st October 1943. After negotiation, these people prepared seven days’ food for us – to get us away I think, as much as anything! Large sacks of spuds and twelve onions. Two large loaves of bread, bottle of olive oil, salt and small bag of macaroni. Cooking pot and a broken knife. Mihailovic said he’d show us the way to a cave in the mountains where he and other Yugoslavs had lived before. Started off, I carrying the sack of spuds and Mike the rest of the kit. I was just able to lift my load on to my back. Struggled on until Mihailovic relieved me. I took over again a little later, but literally could not make it, because he was leading us straight up the side of the mountain, which included some real climbing. He took over and carried for the rest of the day. He is an amazing bird and one of the strongest men I’ve ever known. We completed a terrible climb which I should never have attempted even without kit. Arrived at his O.P. – just a little perch ledge, with a nasty drop below. His reason for climbing up here every day, is to watch for the Germans approaching ‘his’ house again, give the warning and then deal with the Jerries with the ‘Spando’ machine gun and bags of magazines, which he has beside him. He ‘collected’ this from the Germans earlier in his escape. He refused to tell us his name ‘a bad thing in war-time’, so we gave him the name of the Slavs’ great leader. He speaks quite good Iti, better German and French and very little English, so he and Mike speak in German and I attempt to converse with him in French. Had some bread for lunch, whilst watching Jerries preparing demolitions on the roads and bridges below. Just after midday, saw about ten figures coming straight for us up the mountainside as though the devil himself
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were after them. Turned out to be Iti’s from Fara, where Jerry was taking all males between the ages of 15 and 55 years to work for him on fortifications. They really were scared and breathless. Some nearly in tears. We now, also, pushed up the mountain and it was terrifying and exhausting. Terrible tragedy occurred when the two tapes of my sack slipped and the two loaves went spinning down the mountainside, smashing into stems. The bottle of oil went also, but Mike did a mad thing, by springing and catching it. Tried again to relieve Mihailovic of the spuds, but couldn’t manage it. Can’t understand why these heights and the climbing doesn’t frighten me. Heavy mist came down, but Mihailovic seems to know his way well enough. “How old are you?” he said to Mike. “Twenty-four was the reply. “Well, you should be able to walk at that age!” He is a superman. Arrived at the shepherd’s hut we passed several days ago on our way down. Got a smoke here – tobacco leaf and newspaper; then pushed on again. One of the little shepherd boys carried our kit for us. Arrived at this cave, which is quite good. Well concealed in a deep re-entrant in the mountain. The sides just out sufficiently for us to be able to have a fire at night without risk of it being seen from the valley below. There are only two approaches to it and both of these on ledges. One side is open, except for a stone wall. There is an erected brushwood platform, with a little straw on for a bed. Thanked Mihailovic as best we could. He then pushed off to go down the mountain again! I went with him to see where our nearest water was. About half an hour away. A very good supply. Rather surprised myself by finding my way back in that mist! (Woke up this morning to find the glass of my watch broken, so we are virtually without that now). I’ve hung it up in the cave and it seems to be going OK.) We’ve also lost the small penknife. The people from down below gave us another, but that is almost useless. Two Italians turned up later in the evening, Fara people. They kept the fire going all night. Pushed off in the morning and promised to bring us food later.
22nd October 1943. Had considerable difficulty in frying spuds for breakfast. We only have a pilchard tin and the lid off the cooking pot for frying pans. We’ve counted out the spuds and find that if we stay here for ten days, we have enough for eight each per day. We’ve decided to fry them for breakfast and boil or bake them in the embers for our evening meal. Last night the mice got at them, so we’ve hung them up. They also got into our previous small store of macaroni. Went up to the shepherd’s cave – about an hour away. Cadged a little baccy. Told to come back at seven tomorrow morning to see the Padrone. Found some mushrooms and our evening meal consisted of boiled potatoes, mushroom and macaroni stew. Drank the liquid also.
23rd October 1943. Mike went to see Padrone and obtained a very small lamb (just born I should think). The only meat you can see on it is the kidney and liver! Had fried kidneys, liver and spuds for lunch and a grand mix up for dinner. Three Iti’s passed by, retreating from below. Managed to scrounge some bread, a little oil and three apples from them. We have scrounging down to a fine art now. If we can get anything extra, we have lunch, otherwise we have to make do with breakfast and dinner. Mike does the negotiating and I hide, because he always looks
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hungry and I look too healthy. He approaches them and goes through the normal Italian ritual of talking about anything except the important issue for the first ten minutes; then he broaches the subject if grub. Usually he meets with a certain amount of success. On receipt of this mite, he then writes one of our famous chits addressed to “The Compensations Officer”. As soon as this is explained, the victims turn out their bags and give us quantities of food! We’re both feeling as weak as Hell – probably reaction as much as lack of food. We can hear distant rumblings all the time and occasionally closer bombing. Wonderful weather.
24th October 1943. Padrone – a good old boy – brought round half a lamb – gave him another chit. Went round to his cave after a bath at the water point. Have managed to keep shaved and reasonably clean so far, except for fleas, which have marked our clothing rather badly. Scrounged a little bread and some ham. Had to use our first match today, but we’ve discovered a way of avoiding using these precious items in future. We keep a small fire going all day and sit round a big one in the evening. Just before turning in, we take the last burning log and plunge it deep in the ashes. The following morning, there appears to be no life left in the it at all, but by dint of much blowing, covering ourselves in ash, swearing and many unsuccessful flares that lead to nothing, we manage to get it going. Amongst the shepherds, rumour has it that our troops are now advancing on Sulmona and this front is stationary, but we are cautious, very cautious about believing anything new and pay little attention to it. Excellent stew in evening of spuds, macaroni and half a lamb; despite the fact that blow flies laid many eggs on it during the day. We brushed ‘em off and it tasted fine.
25th October 1943. Sunday. Glorious weather and thank God for it. We both feel weak, but whether it is laziness, diet or change of exercise, we don’t know. Washed my clothes today. We’re told by the shepherds that the Jerries came up the mountains yesterday and pinched three of our blokes. Only the remainder of our prunes for lunch. Our main difficulties and hardships are lack of news and hunger, which is as bad as it was at Bari PG75. We ‘touch’ everybody who passes by, but most of them are in the same boat as we are and we haven’t had much luck yet.
26th October 1943. Last evening an Iti passed by and confirmed that three of our chaps were recaptured by the Jerries yesterday and were planning to come to our area today. We regarded it merely as a rumour, but decided to take reasonable precautions. We got up at dawn, cleared everything up and went up higher into the woods and found an excellent O.P. where we could see:-
- The approaches to our grotto
- The water point (on which they might put a piquet)
- The Padrone’s cave (which they would probably visit first
- Also the road below.
Padrone came up with a few apples and grapes! Also scrounged a little
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bread and some more apples from another Iti. Later in the day, Mike went off to collect water. I saw him surrounded by a crowd of chaps when he got to the water point. I was very worried, but unable to do anything about it. He returned very much later and said he had met Francis Brady (of Brown and Brady of Chieti!) and a party of seven O.R.’s. I went round to see him at the Padrone’s cave. His party is one Iti officer and his batman, three English privates and one Iti. They wanted to carry on over the mountain after staying the night here. Eventually Francis and one English O.R. came and slept at our cave. We want them to stay. The strain is heavy and Mike and I have run out of conversation. New blood will do us good.
27th October 1943. Had usual breakfast and went up with Francis and Jack to see the party of O.R.’s off. Eventually the main party decided to go down into the valley, but Francis wanted to stay with us. The Padrone gave us another very small lamb. Later in the day, by dint of our now expert scrounging, we got two loaves of bread, spuds, apples, macaroni and the real nectar, a little baccy! Taking it all round, a terrific day ad we’ve decided to stay here another ten days. The news (if such rumours can be called) is good. Our ‘chits’ work wonders and always produce extra grub. Recent news had improved their attitude towards us and we have had offers of food from below. Had very large evening meal and suffered accordingly during the night. My only trouble at the moment is very violent indigestion, which attacks very badly at night.
28th October 1943. Bad attack indigestion. Rain all day. I was going off to the fountain for a wash and then on to another shepherd’s cave (from where we had a good offer of goats’ milk) when I met two Iti’s who spoke quite good English. They asked for Franco, so I stepped forward, but they then decided it was Francis they wanted. They gave him a note, which came from Jock, telling us that these people were OK (they had spent a night with them) and advising s to go to their (the Iti’s) hide out with them. They brought a good feed of delicious apples, bread and meat. After consultation, we decided to go. Very heavy rain held us up until 02.00. We then started, giving all our surplus stuff to Michele (he’s been a great friend) and pushed on. Rain started again and pelted down so heavily, that we were literally wet through before we were half way down. Met Padrone coming up on a pony, carrying his supplies. Stopped at Jimmy’s house and dropped the utensils we had borrowed (except the broken pen knife), All the men had rushed off when they saw us coming and the women were scared stiff! Our two new friends are grand old boys. One is 55 and the other 58 years of age and walk at an incredible rate. Louis spent a long time working in a bank in USA. He is wearing good clothes, has an excellent map which he understands! His English is Americanised, but quite good; well-read and educated. Melio is a very happy fellow – the local butcher – English not so good, but we like his meat! We took shelter in a hut for a short time and then pushed on again down to the river and main road which the two Yugoslavs told us seven days ago was ‘alive’ with Germans and quite impassable. This trip really was worth a ‘guinea a minute’. Both the Iti’s are extremely
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cheerful and seem to be oblivious of danger. We walked along a path parallel to a road for a short time – keeping pace with a couple of Jerries! I forgot I was wringing wet and thoroughly enjoyed it all. We crossed the river by stepping stones, just by a monastery. Crossed the road by an excellent route. They talked of the Allies’ excellent bombing and showed us the remains of a house which had been a German HQ – just one bomb they said and all the Jerries were killed. Louis, particularly, was in great form. “We willa maka dis bloddy German look a foolish”, he kept saying. He’s a grand fellow and doesn’t seem to be a bit frightened. Melio, I think, is rather a ‘hanger-on’. Stopped at a house and filled up with some good vino. Pushed on and eventually arrived at our destination – a little hamlet just to the East of the village, on a hill, Civitella. Our house is on the edge of the hamlet, excellent cover for a getaway. The house belongs to an old typical Iti called Domenico, who is a friend of the other two. Everybody here seems to speak a little English. Had very good meal of spuds and re-filled with vino. Went to bed feeling very happy and just a little light in the head. The best bed we’ve met yet. Mattress on the floor, sheets and pillows – beautifully warm and only a little smelly.
30th October 1943. Breakfast of polenta – delicious. Melio turned up and told us the Jerries were close, so we pushed off into the fields with the old boy. Lunch out there of bread. Rain started and back we came. Melio appeared again, with some pork, so pork and fried spuds were cooked – the pork in little square cubes – silly, but good! The scare this morning was caused by the Jerries looking for three rucks – they knew where they were in the village, found them and went. Made copy of Louis’ map. Frightful indigestion during the night. Mike got up twice suffering from squitters – and he was in the middle!
30th October 1943. Mountains are snow-capped this morning! Discovered definitely it is the 30th and not 31st. Spent useful morning in and around the house. ‘Repaired’ my boots from an old one I found at the grotto and was carrying for such a use. Patched jacket in many places. Washed pants. Louis and Melio turned up with apples, more meat and some tobacco – leaf, wonder of wonders, a little tea, too! Also, they produced an English book – Michael grabbed that greedily. Their so-called news which they say they got from the radio, is hopeless and we don’t know where our forces are – their version of the front varies with the state of their morale. After much arguing and wrangling, I personally have decided to wait until Monday and then, weather permitting, to push on. Louis had a friend in the next village on our way. He talks about coming with us, but wants to wait a little longer. At any rate, he will give us a letter of introduction to his friend. I hate this waiting, when it is, we know, possible to get on a little way and the countryside is not ‘piena di tedeschi’. This place, however, is very safe. Swapped my deerstalker hat for a slouch-type, with old Domenico.
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31st October 1943. Sunday. Had good breakfast of spuds and pork. Went back to bed almost immediately with bad headache and shivers down the back. By evening, high fever and feeling lousy.
1st November 1943 to 4th November 1943. In bed all time. Only up for ‘bed-making’. Lived principally on eggs and milk. Thank God for the milk – between two and three pints each day. Few eggs, which Mike cooked for me. But the flies! The people tried to be kind, but they have no idea how to treat a sick person. Every time they go in and out of the room, they slam the door and they are in every few minutes. They shout in the next room. This room is above the pigsty and the stink is unbelievable – almost suffocating with ammonia at times. The worst aspect is that I am so anxious to get on while we can – I had decided quite definitely, to go not later than last Tuesday. Today, Louis came in with news that the Germans have given an order that the villages of Lama, Fara and the others along the base of the mountains and also Torricella, are to be evacuated by all Iti’s by Saturday! Obviously, it is going to be unhealthy here very soon and we’ve decided we will go tomorrow, despite the protests of Louis and Melio. This evening, three Sergeants came in, still wearing battledress! They told very exciting stories of avoiding the Bosche. We went along with Melio to hear his wireless. It is not in his house, but at 21.00 we heard an American broadcast from Tunisia – really reliable news at last. Back to bed feeling satisfied with the night’s expedition. The bed now holds six of us!
5th November 1943. Now we have to leave old Domenico and his even older wife. They were a nice old couple. He, traditionally, extremely lazy and rude to his wife. She is very hard working and does everything for him. No children, apparently. He, as a young man, did the usual thing of going to America – Philadelphia or somewhere, where he worked like Hell, learnt to drink whisky (it was his proud boast that he had ‘run’ whisky) and earned enough money to come back to his beloved Italy, marry, buy a small-holding and house and spend the rest of his years, mainly lazing in the sun and bibbing wine, but occasionally helping the willing soil to produce his grapes, loves, wheat and spuds. His main interest in life was ‘miss Jackassa’ (donkey), when the Bosche demanded all animals, he meekly complied, much to our disgust, but almost wept when he said goodbye to the beast. The best fed soul in the household was the pig, which is fed to capacity, then killed and salted down for the rest of the year. He also had two cows. All these animals lived on the ground floor of the house. Their way of life was very simple and illustrates to me the typical weak, small-minded Italian, who should never be allowed to become anything very much in the world. The breakdown in all civil services had hit these people seriously. No salt to treat their meat. If they killed their beasts they had to be eaten at once and for all our trying to explain, they just couldn’t get used to the idea of killing a few each day and sharing the meat in the village – rank capitalists! Instead
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they tried to hide them and when the Jerries were far away talked about dying before surrendering their food, but when the time came and the German order was issued, we could see the cattle being driven down the roads to the German, driven by Italians! No coffee – how should we feel without tea. No macaroni from the factory which meant that the women had even more work to do to make their own. Domenico did try to bury some of his food – flour and spuds, but he talked about it so much that I think he will have lost it by now. These two’s normal daily routine was a fairly early rise – about 06.30. Domenico would then sit in front of the pipe smoking his pepe – an old clay, filled with potato tops, dried. The old lady would prepare breakfast. Cold polenta or bread and perhaps a little ersatz coffee. While the ‘washing’ up was going on (all water was carried in pitchers from the local stream – this carrying on the head gives the Italian peasant women a lovely carriage), Domenico would smoke his pipe again. Then the two of them would go off to the field, armed with a kind of fork. She always worked harder and faster than he and quite often we would see him flat out under an olive tree, while she worked. At lunch time, he would come up to the house and give us lunch – invariably bread with olive oil poured on and just a pinch of salt. Meantime, the wife continued work. Between six and seven, the two would return. He to sit down and smoke and she to prepare the evening meal. Nearly always ‘pastaciutta’- macaroni. Water carefully and slowly added to flour until the mixture was just moist, but extremely heavy to handle. Then rolling-pinned out flat and cut into strips and put in the pot on the fire which contained boiling water and perhaps a few onions or garlic. Twenty minutes and the wonderful pastaciutta was fit to eat. It is not hard to imagine what it was like – no wonder I had indigestion. The macaroni was eaten with chitters, tomatoes, onions etc. which were being fried in olive oil, at the same time. Plates piled high with the stuff and a little grated goats’ milk cheese, put on (the cheeses are about 6” round and as hard as stone) and eaten rather noisily, but quite cleverly with a fork. Early to bed was their usual habit. So it went on for six days. Sunday is a day of rest in Italy, but only for the men. Poor old Mrs. Domenico used to come in on Saturday evening, prepare the meal and then start making the next week’s bread supply. She worked most of Saturday night and was then up very early Sunday morning to prepare the oven for baking. For the only time during the week, we would see a really good fire, made in the large oven above the normal fireplace. When this was sufficiently hot, it was cleared out, sponged out with a wet rag on the end of a stick and the very slightly yeasted bread put in. For a special treat, they made some really light bread and polenta cake for us, which baked in a much shorter time and was quite delicious when hot. The old lady was quite embarrassed when we praised her and were polite. The normal load is very heavy, both in poundage and consistency and is flat and round. After lunch she did have a short rest, but she was always busy doing something about the house – there was no dusting or cleaning to be done anyway! They had us up very early on this morning. Breakfast of bread and milk to drink. Domenico led us down to the river and across the road. We crossed the river by a single plan footbridge – Domenico’s plan was good, so far.
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We had with us a note, written by Louis, for his friend at Caramainico – a priest. At about 08.00 we stopped at a very pleasant farmhouse, where we were given milk, bread, new soft cheese and plenty of dried figs. Very decent English-speaking fellow there. Moved on towards next village, Caramainico, but warned by a bunch of Iti’s that Jerry was in there in force, so tried to send our note to the priest – we were told he was in bed with a broken arm – waited a couple of hours and then decided to push on to the village of Buonanotte. We were now travelling across wooded country and later the scenery appeared like that of the Yorkshire moors – rocky and bleak. Crossed two minor roads and a major one. Quite difficult as there was precious little cover. Francis did most of the recce’ing excellently. Given a grand meal. Mike’s jacket was taken off him and repaired in a most professional manner. Pushed on again. Had a rather uneasy time when challenged by an Iti carrying a shotgun. Had difficulty in convincing him we were not Jerries, but eventually persuaded him we were OK by producing some Iti Lire chits marked PG21! Stopped at a little hamlet just outside Buonanotte. Not frightfully well received. Had interesting time with a man who spoke French – discovered I could only speak a mixture of French and Iti – my French was mixed! Found a young doctor living here who had evacuated himself and his family from Rome – his wife is about to have a baby. Speaks little English and says he will try to get a guide for me. Slept in hayloft – fleas rather bad.
6th November 1943. Guide not forthcoming because he has no boots. Breakfast of fried sausages, delicious!!! Doctor came over to see us with man called Paol. He is Italian, an Officer from the north of Italy, trying to get through the lines, an excellent fellow who has once already bluffed his way through the Jerried at Guardiagrele. He speaks very good English and is anxious to join us. He said he would come with us to see this guide. The guide lived in the next village and after about an hour’s talking, the guide promised to lead us as far as just across the Sangro river. It is bad form in peasant Italy to come to the point quickly when wanting something and, consequently, Paol spoke to the guide for half an hour about everything except the question of guiding, until he eventually approached the subject. On our way back, we met a Pole who said he wanted to come with us with his two pals, who were away at the moment, but he expected them back at four o’clock. We decided to wait until then before departing with the guide. Back in our little village, we found quite a colony of well-educated young men and women who have evacuated themselves from Rome. Many speak excellent English and we had an interesting day with them. Mike and Francis played bridge with two of them! Lunch of bread and sausages and glorious grapes. At about four o’clock we started off. We were a party of six and guide. The Pole’s friends didn’t return, so we went without them and were joined by one of the ‘Colony’. Our party, therefore, consisted of we three, Paol and his batman, the Colonist and the guide. We then did a very excellent night march, crossing two roads, a railway and the river Sangro. The latter was very painful and cold. We slung our boots ion our necks and waded through on the very stony bottom, with water up to thighs. The crossing of the two roads was rather difficult as the German convoys were passing through, but we managed to work out the interval between groups and crossed over singly without incident. On the other side of the river, we found ourselves in a field of grapes and had our fill. It was now too late to find a village and so we slept the night in a little cassetta. About the most uncomfortable night I have ever spent – my bed was half floor and half plough.
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7th November 1943. Glorious day. Pushed on, left the guide and gave him a ‘chit’. I believe Pepino also gave him some money. After travelling about two miles, we were on a hill overlooking the road, which was obviously being used very much by the Jerries. We made down towards it and tried to cross, but ran into a party of about six Jerries working on mining the road. We withdrew very carefully and at this moment Mike and Francis have gone off to make a recce. It is rather queer to sit here and listen to the Jerries talking quite plainly. Large-scale demolitions are going on continuously in the village which is to our right – Villa Santa Maria. Despite many recces, we did not find a really suitable place to cross and decided not to risk it, so in the early evening we started to look for a suitable house. We found a RAMC Sergeant living in a charcoal burner hut and had a few words with him and then we pushed on to the little village of San Buceto. Quite a charming little place where wine was being distilled in the village square. Invited into a house – the normal peasant kind – and had a good feed of macaroni, bread, meat and wine. Our sleeping place tonight is in straw in such a hut.
8th November 1943. Breakfast of cheese and bread. Shaved and started off again. Only a few yards from the village when the usual hysterical women stopped us to inform us that they had just met a small boy who said he was returning to his village, which was Bomba, having taken a party of British through the German lines. They said he had a note on him from the British. We were immediately interested and made arrangements to meet him and went back to the village to wait. Another flap, rushed into the woods, but as usual it was a false alarm. In the woods we saw an Anglo-Indian soldier, who had been within two kilometres of the front and was captured by the Germans. He again escaped and is very optimistic about the situation. He thinks we will be over-run by our own troops within three days. The boy who said he had been to our lines, did not turn up because the people of his village thought he was a ‘spia’ and had beaten him up. This we were told by a man who came from Bomba. Poor misguided people. We later found out that the little boy was genuine and had been doing a very good job of work. Back in the village, one old merchant came in with a wonderful story that he had seen our artillery fire on a village close by and had then seen the Infantry attack, go in and take it. We are now talking about strolling over to our won troops after breakfast tomorrow morning. Good meal in the evening with hot maize bread, despite the arrival of four more of our chaps.
9th November 1943. Took the address of Paol which is:-
Captain Paolo Fiori, 80 Regiment Infantry
Breakfast of bread and olive oil, then off to the top of the hill to a woodcutter’s hut. Heavy rain started. Paol and his batman decided to make a go for it, leaving we three and Pepino. A little later Pepino went off to look for a guide. He returned to say that a wood cutter would take us up this evening and take us over the road to his own house on the other side and then pass us on to another guide who would take us all the way from there. That evening, we had an excellent meal of meat, which was very well cooked and flavoured by the woodcutter’s wife. It was bought by Pepino, who seems to have a lot of money. He is very helpful to us,
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but entirely reliant upon us to get him through. The woodcutter lives here in a very small home made of wood and logs, with his wife and two children. They all sleep in one bed!! As usual, the blasted guide did not turn up, so down to the village we went again to sleep in our straw hut. The rain came in and I suffered from indigestion. To hell with all the guides, we will pass through tomorrow!!
10th November 1943. Breakfast of cheese and bread. Started 08.00 for the charcoal burner’s hut. It was cold and drizzling with rain. We stayed there a short time and were then taken on in heavy rain by an old Italian shepherd, to a good cover crossing on the road. I was born lucky, because there we saw the answer to our problems – a culvert under the road. We moved with caution to within 150 yards of the road and then decided to chance our arm individually. It was decided we should cross at three-minute intervals, because German vehicles and motor cycles were continuously going up and down the road. Francis went first and we were relieved to see him come out the other side. I went second – no mishap. Mike followed me and had a very close shave. When he was no more than fifty yards from the road, a German motor cycle combination passed slowly by. Mike was in the open, but automatically froze and got away with it. As was to be expected Pepino then lost his nerve and rushed straight across the road; luck was with him and he was not seen. On the other side was a small-holding farm and I took the opportunity to fill my pockets with some delicious apples. For the first time we met some Italian men who were not hiding in the hill. They told us that our troops were in Gwilmi. Our route to this village was along a river. We could not believe it was true, but kept going and then the artillery opened fire from our own lines. The shells went over our heads, to be countered by German counter battery a few moments later, well behind us. At-a-boy! We were at least in ‘No Man’s Land’. We approached a house and found an empty British ration biscuit tin. Then we almost ran. At the next house, we saw a party of troops dressed in battledress around a large cooking pot. They said they were the 11th Platoon, ‘B’ Company, 18th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers.
I was convinced they were our own troops when I was offered a Craven ‘A’. It was hard to believe it was true. I had my cigarette, my cup of tea, my tot of rum as I always said I would. The Platoon Commander made us feel at home and we were conducted back to Headquarters – it was in Carpineto, then by jeep to Battalion Headquarters, Gissi. Oh, wonderful, wonderful vehicles. Battalion Headquarters in a bank. We were very well received, given a meal, and a camp bed and three blankets.