F.W.J. Cowton’s account is a transcript of a taped interview where he describes his war experiences in Italy after escaping from Bologna after the Italian Armistice. He describes in detail his involvement with the Italian Partisans that were operating around Roti near Matelica with other POWs. With his expert help the Italian Partisans were able to operate as an effective unit and they performed many acts of sabotage against the Germans. Also of interest is his detailed explanation of the procedure used to secretly contact S.O.E [Special Operations Executive] in the UK to arrange supply drops behind enemy lines.
After some time with the Partisans he decided that there wasn’t much else he could do to help them (they were now an effective fighting force) and he decided to move on south towards the advancing Allied lines. He eventually gets through the Allied Lines in Oct 1943 near the Carrara marble mines.
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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[Photocopy of a black and white photograph of FWJ Cowton taken around 1943/44 in Italy but precise location is unknown. Cowton is on the far left. Also in the picture are Flight Lieutenant A J Payne, Squad Sergeant Major Douglas (Ginger) Davidson and some of the Italian Partisans which Cowton was helping during World War 2]
Major General F.W.J. Cowton
Translation of excellent and honest report of Partisans of ROTI near Matelica with other POW’s. Raid on Villa Spada near Treia to obtain arms. And letter from Cowton to ‘Ginger’ Davidson’s daughter (14th April 2000) who were together with the partisans. Excellent PHOTO of Cowton, Davidson, J.Payn (RAF) [Royal Air Force] and Fane with other Allied and in centre small Italian Priest Don Enrico who was shot after helping them. C. recounts how to attack they had to cover at night 53 miles of mule tracks and paths. (for 19 hours). Also account of the raid on the grain store at Matelica. They took all they could or the Partisans and then told the populace to help themselves until 3am when they had to return to the mountains. All except Davidson decided to move on further south. Payn was recaptured near the Sibillini with the other Partisans, Fane left them but got through the lines. Cowton joined up with Murray and went north again. (See other account.)
See also account of his time with Murray from Sibillini Mountains North again to touch Lett’s Partisans and to final escape North of La Spezia (A.R. 1999).
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[Handwritten notes by Keith Kilby] from Alasdair Murray.
Interview of Major-General F.W.J. Cowton who met John Murray.
Cowton escaped from Bologna camp and met Murray, with malaria, in the Sibillini Mountains.
Murray captured with K.K. in Sardinia, had escaped with the whole camp at Servigliano.
C. and M decided to go North again and having encountered some of Letts Partisans north of La Spezia got through the lines finally near the marble mines at Carrara.
J.M. was awarded the M.M. [Military Medal] for sabotage [word unclear]. Presumably at recommendation of Cowton for work with Partisans.
Cowton also was with Ginger Davidson.
Account of time with Ginger Davidson and photo of them together with Partisans and Priest who was shot.
Photocopy of Photo
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Interview with Major-General F.W.J. Cowton – 19th April 1997
Conducted by John and Alastair Murray @ The Old Rectory Cottage, Coleshill Swindon Wilts SN6 2PR 01793 762655
JC: Anyway we were up in that bloody roof – 3 of us for 12 days and 11 nights, because they were using the kitchen all the time – they were using it as a transit camp, the Germans – and they were cooking all the time 24 hours a day – you couldn’t get out.
JM: It was like a movement camp was it?
JC: Well, it was a transit camp. We took a lot of food up with us, and water. Dealing with the affairs of nature was quite interesting actually – in this roof you couldn’t make any noise because of these buggers down below. So if you wanted a pee you had to – it was a modern barracks, there were sort of brick bulkheads if you like – so if you wanted a pee you peed up against a brick bulkhead. If you wanted to do the other thing you had to lower your bum onto the purlins and push, and slowly lift your bum up – it was called laying a turd actually.
AM: 6 people for 11 days and none detected – it’s amazing.
JC: Well not really brilliant because they didn’t know how many of us there were. They took 500 people up to Germany so they were quite happy with that. All the Italians had been taken away. So I got the big map out because I wasn’t sure how well up you were on dates.AM: Oh, probably hopelessly muddled I should think.
JC: Well really this is historical more than anything else.
AM: [pointing to Servigliano] there it is, camp number 59 apparently.
JC: Oh – that’s near where I met him. There’s no point in going into the dated history – he would have operated out of probably…, the submarine would probably have come out of…., when was he picked up? was it July?
JC: If he was picked up in July the submarine probably would have come out of Algeria, or it might have come out of Malta – I don’t know. He was captured somewhere here – but where I don’t know?
AM: Near Cape Verrato is where the Base camp was.
JC: Be that as it may, that would probably have been in January, sorry June/July. They would have been taken prisoner there and taken up to Servigliano. So he would have been in the camp in Servigliano from July until the 8th of September when the armistice blew, and he got out of the camp, and the distance he went was not very far as I will show you.
AM: At the time you were where? stuck in Bologna?
JC: I was in Bologna on the 8th – I got out of Bologna on…. I went up into the roof on my mucker Pissy Payne’s birthday which was the 12th, and we really went up there in desperation – we couldn’t think of anything else to do. Pissy Payne made an announcement before we went up in the roof – he said “ever since I was old enough to drink I have always managed to get pissed on my birthday”. We took up with us 20 2 litre, 20 times 2 litre flasks of wine which we’d nicked out of the canteen – and we got pissed up in the roof on his birthday – silently pissed. Anyway that’s another story.
We were up there until, whatever, 12 days plus 20, no 12 – the 24th September. And then we decided to head off for Ravenna to nick a boat and to try and get across to Yugoslavia, but we didn’t know what was happening, no-one had any idea. We thought any allies in their senses would put parachute troops into Rome and parachute troops into Genoa, and possibly even up here on the French border to stop anyone getting out and up the Brenner Pass. But they didn’t do that as you know – eventually they had a landing here at Salerno – but that didn’t occur until late in September. At one stage up in the roof we heard gun-fire and we thought “Oh that’s all right, they’ve done something sensible for once, and it won’t be long now”. So we decided that going to Ravenna was going to be too difficult – so we’d hang around in the mountains somewhere near where we’d heard the gun-fire coming from – but it wasn’t gun-fire at all, it was quarrying. So we moved South down the East side of the Appenine Range. Down South we started a band of Partisans at a place called Latolica (? is this Matelica??).
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AM: Did you have things like maps with you?
JC: We had an escaping map – it was a handkerchief really, which showed the whole of Italy – it didn’t help very much. No, we got up into the hills and we relied on word of mouth. Pissy Payne spoke very good Italian -I didn’t speak a word – and we relied on the friendliness of the natives. They were wonderful – the natives. The war had stopped as far as the natives were concerned, but the war was still going on because the Germans were still there, and so were a bunch of Black-Shirt Italians. So there were plenty of enemy about, but not so many up the mountains – they were more on the plains and round the towns and so on. While all this was happening the Germans set up their main headquarters at Macerata which is that place [pointing on the map] – that’s where Kesselring had his main Headquarters. And us chaps, people like me and Pissy, set up [getting out another map].
Well, Jock and Bill Brown moved as far as Colle delle Prata/Vallegrascia. This was a huge mountain called Vettore, about 8,000 feet, a very spectacular mountain indeed. And the Sibiline Appenines (Monti Sibilini) – they run, that’s the spine, and those are the passes – that’s the spine running up from Vettore. Everything we did was on the East side of Vettore, and the little shack, village, in which Jock and his mate Bill Brown lived was just about there [pointing to Vallegrascia]. They had obviously gone there in September when they had got out of Servigliano – they got as far as there, and holed up there, expecting the Allies to come up and then they could hand themselves over. Anyway that’s where I first met him, in the cottage top (?) which was owned by a guy called ‘Pop’ – he was an old boy, a farmer really – and it was a village of about 10 houses, a hamlet, and it had Pop’s house and 2 or 3 other houses and a pub, and that was it.
AM: So you’d come an awful long way.
JC: Yes, but then I’d stopped along the way at Monte San Vicino – and we had stopped there at the end of September/beginning of October and there were signs of a Partisan band starting up really, and they were short of arms and so on and so forth. We at the time had no communication with the other side, the South side. Anyway we helped them to set up their Partisan operation here, we assisted them getting arms by putting a raid in on a prison camp where they were holding black Africans from a previous war that they’d had in Africa, Abyssinia. You may, or not remember, that in 1935 or thereabouts, II Duce, Mussolini, decided to expand the Italian Empire by taking in Abyssinia and Eritrea, and Italian Somaliland and all that sort of thing – well Italian Somaliland was already theirs, but expanding Italian Somaliland to include the areas North of it which are Eritrea and Abyssinia. During the course of this they had taken prisoner a quantity of Abyssinians and Somalis to be used as hostages eventually because they were nobility, if you can call it such – they were Ras so-and-so which means Prince so-and-so. They were all black as the Ace of Spades half- way up a chimney, but let’s say they were Princes. And they dumped a whole load of them into a prison camp which was still guarded near Cingoli. And so we decided that if there was a prison camp guarded Italians, Black Shirts, near Cingoli, we might as well go and collect the arms from there. So we did a very hairy operation cross-country in the pouring rain, from there [Monte San Vicino] to there [Cingoli] and back – it took 19 hours, it was 56 miles if you walked. There we clobbered the guard, killed the Commandant and took all the arms away and carried them back here [Monte San Vicino]. We had a lot of arms, you’re talking about not big arms but medium machine-guns. And so we got them all going, and then we helped them quite a lot there going in and cutting the telephones one night, manning the walls of the old city, and opening the grain stores. The Germans had sequestered all of the grain, the crops had been cut in September, and it had been threshed – there was masses and masses of wheat inside the store, inside the main city of Matèlica. And so we guarded the gates, took all the grain we needed for our own uses and loaded that up onto donkeys and carts, and took it back it up the mountain. Then said “be our guest until 0300 in the morning when we’ve got to disappear for our own safety”. So they came and took the grain out, and they came in hundreds. That night a woman came in her night-dress – took her night-dress off – she had nothing on whatsoever – filled her night-dress up with grain, tied the ends of it together, put it over her shoulder and buggered off – it was great, it was great sight anyway! I’m eternally grateful.
AM: Were you a small band, or what sort of size of operation?
JC: We were a few of us English, and one or two Yugoslav, and the rest were Italians including one very brave one called Baldini (?), who subsequently got captured. He was taken to a
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Gestapo place at Ancona castle, and he was going to be shot tomorrow morning at dawn, and he had the last rites. By chance the English bombed Ancona that night, and in the confusion he scarpered. He had 19 teeth removed under torture – I knew he was dead, and we all knew he was dead funnily enough. At an earlier visit, about 10 years ago, Rose and I visited Matelica and we found Baldini alive. So it was a pretty cheerful get-together. It was amazing. He couldn’t believe that it was me, and I could hardly believe that it was him, but it was and there we are. That has all been written up in Italian. If you want to see what I looked like in those days you would not recognise me .
AM: At that stage you were a Captain?
JC: Yes – here I am a handsome fellow. That’s a Priest. And that’s Pissy Payne, and that’s me. AM: With a moustache?
JC: Yes that’s me in the bad old days. That’s the Priest who got clobbered by the Gestapo, and together we put a lot of money together to build him a memorial in this village which is called Braccano, which is just below where I’d been staying. And we put up a statue. Rose and I went to look at it, and then we went and met Baldini. A very brave guy that.
AM: That’s the Priest?
JC: Yes that’s the Priest.
That’s the Parish church after the bastards had been in [showing photograph]. Anyway that’s nothing to do with your uncle.
So anyway after a bit of all that, we decided, the 3 of us, to go on South because we could be of no further use to them. We went on South for the same reason as Jock stayed. And we went on down, and the 3rd member of our party, who was called Jock Fayne (??) decided he didn’t like us any more, we wouldn’t always do what he wanted, so he got rather pissed then he buggered off. He disappeared, he went up North, he got home eventually. Pissy Payne, my RAF [Royal Air Force] friend and I went on, and he had a very bad leg – 1) because he had a wound in it, a bullet had hit him somewhere in the leg, and 2) because he had had a false landing earlier on – and we landed up in a place called Pretare – which is on this road running North from Arquata del Tronto. We were looked after by a family called Fiarmani (??) and the village school was in their house, and the village school-mistress who called Edwina Tollorollo (??) who was a very godly woman, and God and goodwill came before everything, and so compassion and all that went with it. She risked her life and, indeed, the family Fiarmani by letting us hold up in that house while Pissy’s leg got better – it took about a month. So we were stationery in that place. And that’s how I learnt to speak Italian – I was forced to read Charles Dickens in Italian by this school-mistress and things like that – it did me proud, it really did. And then things got a bit dicey, but during the course of that I had been myself out without Pissy, by myself, and I had discovered this place called Piano Grande. Now Piano Grande is what it says – it means a Plain, Grand, a large plain – indeed it was a large plain, it was absolutely huge – it was 10 kilometres long and 4 kilometres wide. It was an ideal place for landing parachutists. Indeed up there I met up with a Special Force man, he was deliberately there, I was there by mistake you might say. I walked from Pretare round the edge of Monte Vettore over the Forca di Presta pass onto this plain, and that is Castelluccio there which is on the West side of the Monti Sibillini. This had always been populated by sheep-stealers, rustlers, and for time immemorial they rustled the sheep. And they’d collect them together, and by back roads, they’d take them to Rome and try to flog them. I’m talking about centuries ago, but they were still there, so it was a very secretive sort of place, nobody went too near it for fear of getting knifed or something of that sort. It was good Partisan country. It was absolutely ideal for landing parachutists, supplies or anything else. Anyway I managed to get a message back via this guy to our people down below about who we were, what we were and everything else. By various arrangements we acquired later on a radio and an operator working on the Special Forces net which went back to a place called Monopoli which is near Bari where the Headquarters of the Special Forces were and where they mounted their operations from, and that was to prove very useful later on. Because we, later on, could then get occasional drops of goodies from the air like food, cigarettes, new boots, weapons, explosives, ammunition, whatever. We used that facility a little bit down here before we started moving North, and indeed, we used it particularly just before Easter of 1944 when Payne and I had left Pretare and we had moved up to Propezzano. That road didn’t exist then [looking on the map] that was a mule track and that
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road did exist. We moved to Monte Propezzano which was in about February – we had already been up here from Pretare on foot, it was always by foot, and I had already met your uncle before we moved to Propezzano. When we moved to Propezzano we found ourselves within 2 or 3 miles of each other. Mind you 2 or 3 miles was a pretty hairy walk when you’re going up things like this [indicating level of verticality], and when the snow was on the ground and you didn’t have proper facilities it was hard work.
Anyway we met up and we became great friends – all of us up there. And we had a parachute drop in there just before Easter, and Pissy Payne and I got hold of a couple of the parachutes on which all of the kit was dangling, and we were a bit short of cash so we cut up the parachutes which, in those days, were actually made of silk not nylon, and flogged beautifully coloured silk to the girls of the village so that they could make nice Easter what-nots in return for money for Pissy and I. So that sort of funny sort of thing went on. The Germans when I say they were all round us, because they weren’t all around us, hadn’t picked up on before that but you had to keep a weather eye out let’s put it like that. We did, we did altogether, a few raids, we did a raid on Comunanza which got a few more arms in.
AM: Are you having to lug everything back by hand, or have you got any donkey assistance?
JC: Occasionally we had donkeys and things, but mostly by hand. And when it came to hiding weapons and ammunition that wasn’t required for the moment it became a bit of a problem until we thought that one out. We saw the Priest of the commune of Propezzano and we asked whether he could help, and we said “Aha, well we’d like to hide weapons and explosives in your crypt”; he said “Well I suppose that would be alright”; and we said “Are you friends with the Germans or not?”; and he said “No” he wasn’t any friend of the Germans; and we said “May we use your crypt?”; and he said “Yes we could”.
AM: This didn’t put him in a moral dilemma?
JC: I thought he was for a moment, but no it didn’t. Pissy Payne was doing the negotiation. Well anyway the situation in an Italian churchyard like that was that you have a ‘campo sancto’, and it’s that big, and when it’s full up you dig up the chap that’s been there longest, and you take him along and put him in the crypt if there’s anything left of him. So there were miscellaneous skulls and cross bones and things like that in the crypt – people who had recently died, the oldest grave would be dug up, and tomorrow they could put him in Giovanni’s hole, so that the ‘campo sancto’ didn’t have to be extended or replaced. So it was quite a strange time in the crypt because there was literally a sort of miscellany of rotting calcium all over the floor – I mean there were some quite well preserved bits still left from the hard-headed ones. But it was an excellent place to put arms and ammunitions, so that’s what we did.
AM: Was this at Propezzano was it?
JC: Yes – Monte Propezzano church. Anyway that was well known to us all. Then Pissy Payne went off to do something – I can’t remember what it was, probably to reconnoitre somewhere for some raid – and he got picked up. He was stopped on the road where an Italian half-track or some sort of military vehicle had slid off the road in the snow, and they were trying to pull it out. The Sergeant in charge was stopping anybody going by, and getting them to help pull this thing out, so Payne had to stop. And somehow or another they got suspicious of him and searched him, and he was armed, so he was taken away and locked up in the Gestapo place. For some reason or another he didn’t get shot – he didn’t escape either, he got taken off to Germany eventually and that was the end of his escaping days.
So at that stage, Fayne having got drunk and gone off that way [West], and Payne having landed up in jail, I joined up with Bill Brown and Jock Murray, the 3 of us. We decided that there wasn’t any future in hanging around here any longer because virtually nothing was happening down here, and we decided to head North, and go up and see if we could get into France or something like that. So we set off on foot in very early May 1944, and decided to walk Northwards. I knew the way for a start. So we took off with packs on our backs, and, I suppose the packs on our backs weighed 50 lbs [pounds] each – but we were fit. We were armed, light armed really, I don’t know a luger or a mausser I can’t remember which, Jock had similar. And we headed North – we came up the East spine of the Appenines from here [pointing to Monte Propezzano] up through or passed San Severino, that sort of thing, up round Fabriano, over towards Sassoferrato, then round over to [word unclear], Piobbicco we came by, like this – we’ll get onto another map in a minute – but this was pretty hellish walking because any 3 or 5
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kilometres on the map was certainly 10 kilometres on the ground, because we were going up and down, up and down and all around or avoiding a village or something. We did in fact walk just over 800 miles.
JM: Was this mostly done at night or in the daytime?
JC: We did a lot of it in the daytime, we reckoned it was safer – well you could see further – and also up the mountains it was pretty safe, unless you got the word from the locals. We did indeed move about in the evening – if we had to cross a major river which we understood… which was to be guarded we used to do that at night, and secretly so to speak, on our bellies if necessary. We weren’t hindered at all. There was one place where we got challenged – that was at night – and there were a few shots fired and we scarpered, we went the other way, it was nothing very dangerous. You can imagine an Italian guard firing at night was more danger to himself than anybody else, probably. Anyway we did a fairly famous walk which was never put on record. During that time Bill Brown, the 3rd of our people, he decided that he would change his mind, and he would head down South-Westwards and see if he could get over to the other side and get through the lines down there. So, we were great friends but he decided to do that – he was a bit of a one-man sort of fellow anyway – and that’s what he did. He’s in that little list that you sent me.
AM: Was he a Lance-Corporal?
JC: Well he wasn’t then but he was when he came home – he got an MM [Military Medal] too, but that was nothing to do with me. He was in one of the other patrols going into Sardinia. The list of the patrols is where I saw it.
AM: This is actually taken out of the Operational Report.
JC: You had another list of the patrols.
AM: That’s what the SAS [Special Air Service] sent to me.
JC: He wasn’t a Lance-Corporal then he was a Parachutist.
AM: As was Marshall presumably?
JC: Yes – they were the 2 up in Pop’s cottage. The other thing we learnt up in Pop’s cottage, we learnt it off a bunch of Partisans who were using this Piano Grande as well for their supplies and came over the mountains. We learnt this incredible drinking game called ‘La Pasotella’ (??) which I’ll tell you about later – Rose knows how to play it, it really is a formidable game. I’ll tell you about that later, it’s a real killer.
[long pause while JC peruses photo-copy of list of names from Operation Hawthorn]
AM: This chap Brinkworth just disappears out of the operation – goodness knows what happened to him, he’s not mentioned in the list of casualties or debriefs or anything, he just seems to disappear. He was a Captain Brinkworth – but there are escape reports for Johnston, McMillian, Rogers and Scott that we’ve found at the Public Records Office.
JC: It’s quite interesting that this should have been published so quickly [photo-copied sheet shows date of December 1943].
AM: We think that this [report] was done between December and January, December 43 and January 44 – the map has got a date on the bottom of it, the Operational Report has a map.
JC: It says up to the 31st of December you’re quite right.
AM: You don’t happen to know anything about these code words do you Sir? – like “Forks”, and “Elks” and “Sluts” that, this is Lord Soames I think [producing photo-copy of correspondence between A.C. Soames and another taken from Public Record Office] in his correspondence, this rather waspy correspondence about the POW’s not coming South.
JM: It suggests that they were making themselves comfortable with the local inhabitants – “lying up like dog-ferrets”.
[long pause while JC reads through Lord Soames’ letters]
JC: Amazing. What section do you think this was?
AM: I.S.9 [Imperial Service or Internal Security] we think.
JC: “A” Force was an organisation for guiding prisoners through the lines.
How very interesting – I go along with a lot of what they say, but I’m glad that it didn’t apply to me.
AM: It’s quite strong terms isn’t it? The terms used in the correspondence.
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JC: Yes I can think of one or two. Anyway that’s very interesting.
Anyway we kept walking North, North-by-East, I mean North-by-West, and so we go off this map – nothing really, nothing of any interest happened between there and here.
AM: Were you stopping at all or were you walking day by day by day?
JC: Day by day by day by day. And while I think of it Jock got a bout of… he had malaria somewhere I don’t know where – does that turn up anywhere in any of this?
AM: Most of the chaps on that Sardinian exploit seemed to be suffering from malaria – they presumably had it already although there was some suspicion that they caught it, or got it, when they were in training …
JC: Anyway there was one day, I don’t know whereabouts in the middle of this walk, when he could move no further and, in fact Bill Brown was still with us then, so we holed up in a farm up in the mountains somewhere and he spent 24 hours sweating it out so we didn’t actually move for 1 day.
AM: Presumably you didn’t have any quinine with you?
JC: No. We had nothing except what we carried – no nothing at all. He had to sweat it out if you like.
[pause whilst JC gets out another map]
We were up here somewhere – on the spine of the Apennines would be the junction between the Marque (??) and Umbre (??) or the Marque and the Toscano – but we were always on this side [East]. So we came up here and around here, near Pennabilli actually, the reason I say Pennabilli is because our gardener comes from Pennabilli. He lives 100 yards from here. He was taken prisoner of war somewhere, and was brought to England, and he worked on the farms. At the end of the war he decided not to go back to Italy – he became head cowman on a farm down the hill here. He became 65 years old – he’s got a tied cottage in the village – I got to talking to him once when he’d retired, and said “would you come and help in the garden?”. And we got to talking – I said “where do you come from?”, and he said “Rimini”, and I said “Well I know Rimini”, and he said “Not Rimini” and I said “Anywhere near Monte Carpegna?”, he said “Monte Carpegna!!” and his eyes lit up, and I said “Yes with a crocc or cross on the top of it”. “Oh” he said “Oh yes”; I said “Down the hill from the … Monte Carpegna there is a cave above a town called Pennabilli”. “Oh” he said, “that is where I come from, Pennabilli”. I said “Well I used to hide in that cave every now and then”. And he said “Oh, I used to play in that cave as a boy”.
AM: Goodness me!
JC: Unbelievable, but it’s true. Well anyway about 4 or 5 years ago we were heading in that direction, so we said we’d go by Pennabilli and … he said “Oh you can take my sister out to lunch, and you can look at my house”. Because he’d still got his house, because the eldest boy in the family gets the house by Italian law, and he keeps it until he dies even though he lives somewhere else. So I said “Yes, I’ll take your sister out to lunch willingly”. And then finally I said “What is your sister’s name?”, and he said “Which sister?”, he said “I have 4 sisters”, I said “Are they all in Pennabilli?”, and he said “Oh, maybe”. So I said “Then I’ll take them all out to lunch”, and he said “Yes that would be nice”.
While we were there we went to his house, and his great friend was the butcher, and so I called on the butcher and told him all about Angelo, “Oh”, he said “You don’t mean Angelo, you mean Angelino (the little angel)”. Anyway we’re not going to pass that around in Coleshill! The butcher was called Pasqualli, or Easter, and I’ve got a picture of me and the butcher arm- in-arm sort of crying on each other’s shoulder about Angelino really – funny!
Anyway we came up through there [Pennabilli], and then we came through here [Maiolo] and then on up through here [Sarsina], and then we had to cross the [River Reno ?? south of Bologna] …. We were like this really.
AM: That’s where you were before.
JC: Oh yes, quite right, yes. Then we came round here, then on up here, and through here, and landed up here approximately, and we went into a little village called Varsi, and subsequently to a spa town called Bardi [North-West Italy just East of Genoa]. Near enough the back end of May 1944 there were huge Partisan operations here, huge quantities of Partisans, who weren’t
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really Partisans, the organisation was, the organisation was quite good but the material, the man-power, was terrible. Apart from the actual organisers, the officer people, who mostly …. [pause whilst JM changes tapes]
So we were talking about Varsi which is there, and Bardi which is there – but what I’m also talking about is a mountain which is called Monte Barigazzo which is there, and you can see that Monte Barigazzo is just under 5,000 feet or 4,500 feet high. The main Partisan base at the time was centred around Monte Barigazzo, and that was at the end of May 1944. Although many of them were in the villages because, or in and around the villages, although there were a few Germans about on this road [Bardi to Fornovo di Taro ??] in Varsi and Bardi, so people didn’t go in there and hang around – they went in there to get food sometimes, rather secretly, and take stuff back up the mountain to the main base of Monte Baragazzo. So when Jock and I got up into this area we went up Monte Baragazzo, and we lived on the top of the mountain for a bit. And we lived under cover if you wanted to use parachute tents, because there had been some supplies coming in here onto the mountain by Special Force arrangement. I’ll explain to you in a minute how those supplies arrived because it is quite interesting, unless you already know – but why should you!? Anyway the Partisans had orders that, at a suitable moment when they would get a code word through their organisation, they were to descend from Monte Baragazzo and put this whole area around it. I’m showing it generally, and clear out any Germans that were in it and put it into a state of defence, and then act as the defenders of that base to receive people coming in from the S.A.S. [Special Air Service] or anybody else, so that they could come into a safe area.
Well, in fact, the orders came through on the night of June the 5th 1944 which was the day that Rome fell to the Allies, and it was the day before D-Day and Normandy, so I can be absolutely precise about that. And that night we descended from the mountain and we helped the Partisans with our special knowledge of explosives and that sort of thing to blow all the bridges except one leading into this main base around Bardi. And the one we left open was the one running down from Vernasca to Bardi – we left that one open so that we had access to the Plain of Lombardy over a bridge under our direction, but we blew up the other bridges around on the roads leading into Bardi – this road leading up from Bedonia and so on. So we couldn’t instantly be attacked by road at all. We then organised raids, or the Partisans did mainly and we helped when required, to harass the general area between Parma, Piacenza, that’s Route 9 a major road running through Italy, to harass that and to prevent, as far as possible, rail transport getting down the Taro valley (because the railway line runs all the way down the valley – there’s the railway line I think) – it goes to Borgo Val di Taro, the railway line, that’s there, where it turns sharp left and goes through a long tunnel and goes down to place called Pontrèmoli which is there, and then it goes on down to La Spezia. And all the traffic, this was all German occupied – the German Gothic line was there, which they retreated to from Rome, it ran through a place called Seravezza. Exactly through Seravezza because that’s where Jock and I went through the lines at Seravezza, later. So it was like that. The job of these Partisans assisted by us and others was to keep that railway line closed as far as possible, and to harass this road, and generally create as much mayhem as possible. And we created incredible mayhem for, we really did live the life of Reilly as well (not in the terms of that guy’s report) because we were actually shooting people and things as well, but we lived the life of Reilly in that we lived in Bardi in the most comfortable quarters once we’d cleared all the Germans out. And we operated from there [Bardi] as and when we felt it safe to. The sort of things we did down here was, although I wasn’t involved in that [indicating Fidenza on map], was bringing in food like huge rolls of Parmesan cheese like this [indicating 4 foot width], like stealing vehicles, like stealing gasoline and derv and stuff from the trucks, we stole the trucks as well, we had 5 huge great petrol tankers with trailers from Morcio (??) which we removed and brought up over our prepared for demolition bridge. We all had a car each more or less to wander around locally, and it really was the life of Reilly, and this was 200 miles behind the lines, it really was quite extraordinary.
AM: You weren’t being bombed at all?
JC: Well I’ll come onto a little bit of time when we were eventually rumbled and had to do something about it, we had to scarper eventually. But we had 6 weeks I suppose, we’re talking about June to roughly the end of July, about 6 weeks when we were totally in control of the whole of this huge area and living like Lords – we really were, I mean it was incredible. So that
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sort of raid – Jock and I went down, we were getting a bit browned off by now, and said “Let’s go and lay a mine in the middle of Route 9, we’ll call it the ‘Mino san Giovanni’ after me”. So we laid a bloody great mine under the road – what we blew up on it I really don’t know – but we felt better once we’d done that.
Earlier on, as a matter of interest, on our walk up when Bill Brown was still with us then, it was in the late evening, we were walking along a main road which we didn’t normally do, but we were and we seemed to be alright, and we came across a bridge classification sign which said Class 40 in German (Klasse Fier???? Tonnen is what it said), and this was a main road going down to Rome, they hadn’t got up to here by then. Then we turned right off that road and we’d got across the bridge which wasn’t guarded and we came across a little bridge which said Klasse Funf Tonnen ???, so we changed the signs round – stupid, but why not for a bit of fun?! Whether that stopped the war for any length of time – it might have stopped the war for an hour or two – there could be ammunition lorries going down with people – very alert the Germans, very rule conscious, and they would obey notices. So a bit of that sort of thing went on anyway – a bit of double-bluffing went on rather like the Irish are doing at the moment – in fact we would have made good IRA! [Irish Republican Army]
AM: I was wondering whether you had any connections …
JC: No. Anyway we had really the freedom of the area – we could do more or less what we liked, and we did more or less what we liked, and I hope that we caused a great deal of mayhem, in fact I know that we caused a lot of mayhem around.
Then came the time – I’ll explain at this moment, it’s a good moment, about how we got supplies in. We had our suitcase set, and radio operator, and each radio operator was a Special Force man in S.O.E. [Special Operations Executive] and he would have 4 frequencies twice a day in order to get on to Special Force Headquarters which were in Monopoli near Bari way down South. If you wanted supplies you had a list of the sort of supplies that you might want, they each had an alphabetical, or numerical, or both code – so if you wanted 100 lbs. [pounds] of explosives you wanted B6, or if you wanted 200 pairs of new boots, you wanted 200 XYs or whatever. And you made your shopping-list and you wrote it out for your signals operator to send, and you would then describe where you wanted the thing dropped onto – so you gave a latitude and a longitude of where you wanted the thing dropped onto – somewhere near Monte Baragazzo obviously – and there were places that were more suitable than others for dropping things at night from Halifax aeroplanes (that’s how they came). You then had to give a special message – a special message was a short sentence like “Johnny eats lions” something stupid like that in Italian “Giovanni mange la leoni”, and then eventually this signals operator would start at 11 o’clock in the morning pressing the buttons and things, and he would get through all 4 frequencies because he would get jammed, because there were Germans with things called Radio Goniometry (or Radio Goniometers) which were distance-finding and direction-finding things. We actually captured one outside German main Headquarters at Salsomaggiore – that was a great catch that was – the G.H.Q. [General Headquarters] of Kesselring was there, and he had a Red Cross on the top of his general Headquarters, and he went around in an ambulance with Red Crosses on it too. So that was German main Headquarters, so we weren’t very far away from German main Headquarters in Italy – it shows what sort of country it was. Anyway what happened then, eventually you would get an acknowledgement, or the signals operator would get an acknowledgement “message received and understood” if you like, and then you would have to hang around until 4 o’clock in the afternoon, on an ordinary radio, on an ordinary medium wave radio, to listen to the news in English which would come from Radio Free Italy or whatever – we just turned it on and listened to the radio. And then they would say before the news, before the news – it wouldn’t be in English it would be in Italian but it was an English concern (an Allied concern I should say) – before the news they would say there would be an “Alculle message specialle (???)” which means “some messages special”, and if your message came up “Giovanni mange la leoni” came up, it meant that your request would be delivered in the next 5 nights at the place that you’d said. Now you needed something more than that to make sure you got it, and that was the Rebecca/Eureeka sets – I can’t remember which was the ground set and which was the air set, but we’ll say that the Eureeka was in the aircraft operated by the navigator, and the Rebecca was on the ground operated by me or somebody. And this was set about 6 times that size [indicating JM’s ghetto-blaster] which weighed about 35 lbs. [pounds], and you were on certain
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frequencies which you knew which it was, and for every day you had a 2 letter code number like BZ or whatever. And you had a Morse transmitting key, and you had ear-phones, you also had a velometer for measuring the wind-speed, and you should have had a barometer (I didn’t have one) which would give the pressure. They knew where you were going to be so they knew the height, and they wanted the velometer which would give the wind-speed and the direction. You put all this on and switched it on and hoped for the best. Now if it was the best you would get a buzzing in your ear-phones when the aircraft with the kit on board on your frequency was 25 miles away; whereupon you would then Morse at 6 words to the minute only – very slow, very very slow – your code number, the wind-speed and direction, and the next thing you knew, you hoped, was to have 15 parachutes land on top of you, each with a 300 lb. [pounds] container attached to it. And you had your party there ready to clear the Dropping Zone.
What had happened in the past, and before the Eureeka/Rebecca was really working properly, was that the stuff was dropped onto people who lit flares on the ground, like a “T”, putting out lamps or lighting small bonfires or whatever, some method of producing light. But then not only the Germans, but all the Italians, thought “well, if we light a few lights around, with a bit of luck we’ll get some pennies from heaven” – so there were bloody lights on all over Italy and all over France too probably. And people were losing stuff and not getting their supplies. But this one was 100% it really was – it worked very well. The other thing was, when I’m on the subject of help by parachute, was that they dropped in agents every now and then, and if you wanted money, money in particular, and I’m talking now about gold in terms of sovereigns or Louis, and I’m talking about rough-cut diamonds as money – specie – which was something that you’d get money for, or use as money in exchange or barter if you like – that had to come in with somebody. O.K. so that started by sending it in with the odd Italian, but they gave that up pretty quick because the odd Italian buggered off not to be seen again. Then the next thing that they decided to do was to – or the final thing they decided to do, to cut a long story short, was to send in a British Sergeant with it, and that worked.
AM: He didn’t bugger off?
JC: Well no – he wouldn’t – he couldn’t. One got the money that way, so one was able to pay for things – you were able to bribe farmers, you were able to get things. But that was how supplies arrived -I thought you might be interested.
AM: How did you get hold of the Rebecca or the Eureeka set yourself?
JC: By parachute – it came in with a Sergeant once. I’m afraid that I had to abandon it, but that’s another story coming on – and the donkey that was carrying it for that matter too, and a lot of my kit.
So we led the life of Reilly for a bit – and we were joined at one stage by somebody who we knew was on our side, although he wasn’t Italian, he was some sort of Pollack we thought. Anyway he was highly plausible and he lived amongst us around Bardi, and he drank with us in the café in Bardi, and he chatted the girls up same as we did – although Jock wasn’t a great chatter-upper of the girls, not a great womaniser, not when I knew him anyway. Anyway this guy disappeared, and we then realised that he might well have been a very highly trained, very brave member of the opposition, which I’m sure he was. By which time he had all our photographs, all our descriptions – he knew how we did things more or less, because in early August the next thing that happened was that we had a reconnaissance aircraft (you asked about aircraft) coming over us – a German reconnaissance aircraft was called a ‘Fieseler Storch’, single winged aircraft, highly manoeuvrable like an Ostra (???) or a Beaver, single winged monoplane, single engined. This flew in a reconnaissance mode all round where we’d been – we tried to shoot at it, we shot at it, but we didn’t do any good. We thought “Well here we go”, so we decided that the best thing to do was to remove ourselves before anything worse occurred. So we did a bit of reconnoitring, Jock and I did, in this area, which was near the main Headquarters of the Germans – and there was obviously a build-up of troops going on, and we heard reports of build-up of troops going on elsewhere from other people, other Partisans in the area – and some of these were Burger (???) troops, mountain troops, so a very well trained lot we thought. We reckoned that were going to be surrounded and there would be a huge rounding-up, it’s called a “rastrellomento” in Italian, to end it all. So we set about making ourselves scarce or preparing to make ourselves scarce. Anyway Jock and I sorted out this end, and you’ve read his MM – Pellegrino Parmense is just there which is really not very
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far from Field-Marshall Kesselring – and between us we did quite a lot of mayhem. Between us we did stop a major advance starting – it gave us about a couple of days spare.
AM: This road [indicting the Bardi to Vemasca road] is still open is it?
JC: Yes – well it was. They had to re-build the bridge – it was while they were re-building the bridge that we blew it up again! It’s quite easy actually, it’s much easier than it sounds – you see if you’ve got a column going along, and you’re here with a weapon shall we say, and you’re looking down on a column going along that road there, what you can do is to lay some charges there [indicating a point behind the column] and you lay some more charges there [indicating in front of the column], then you wait for the column to come down, and when they get there you blow that up [the forward charge], then when they try to scarper backwards you blow that up [the aft charge] so you’ve got them stuck in between.
AM: How were you detonating these?
JC: Oh a plunger job.
AM: So you had to be pretty close by?
JC: Yes. Or you could do it electrically. But in between the 2 you could occasionally catch a column, because they couldn’t go forwards because you’d blown that up, and they couldn’t go backwards because you’d blown that one up. Much easier than it sounds honestly. Anyway that’s where Jock got his MM [Military Medal] that I wrote, because he was doing some very brave stuff there – neck stuck very well out. Anyway we withdrew having done that and warned all the others – we blew up a lot of our petrol stuff stored along the river there, and we generally cleared up and got the Partisans out – and then Jock and I looked at each other and said “Well really there’s not much more we can do for a bit”. Trying to make these Partisans do something useful was not all that easy, they weren’t all that brave – you see if they had a warning that there was going to be a “rastrellomento” of people in Cremona, or Piacenza, or Parma, or anywhere, or La Spezia, the way it happened was that the Germans would blow the air alarms and people would rush towards the shelters, where they’d get picked up and put in trucks and taken off to Germany, or taken off to slave labour camps, or taken off to go and build the fences down here or something. So what the youths used to do was, they used to find some red handkerchiefs from somewhere or another, tie it round their necks, and bravely go up the hill to join the Partisans pretending that they were Garibaldini (followers of Garibaldi) – but, of course, they were absolutely low, useless, buggers – but you couldn’t shoot them because they were … they were absolutely useless, but they had to be fed – this was one of the reasons that you needed money to buy cows and things that you could slaughter to feed them. So it was that sort of situation. Anyway Jock and I decided that we weren’t going to do any good with this, so said “we’re going to gently scarper” – and I said I’ll take the radio set and the Corporal and donkey that I had at the time, by which time the Germans were coming in around us, around Monte Baragazzo. We reckoned, we may have been exaggerating, that we had the honour of using up about 10,000 German soldiers. That’s not bad when you’re hiding behind the lines! There were a hell of a lot of them about. We agreed to meet in 12 days time at a place up in the mountain here, up near Borgo Val di Taro, somewhere here, at a place that we both knew, and that we would meet at a certain time, and decided what we were going to do next. So that is what happened. And I, in a fairly cowardly manner, went down this way and came down off Monte Baragrazzo, having blown up the explosives there first. And at night the Germans were all around here where I was [indicating the river valley leading out of Bardi through Noveglia and adjacent to Comune] by then. And don’t know how your uncle went, not my way anyway.
They weren’t as well trained as they should have been these guys, because there were 2 lots and they had both lit fires, and they were about, I should think about 800 yards apart, down quite near the river, this river the tributary of the Ceno (it was really a stream). But they were in the woods there, and they were in the woods there – so I decided that I’d go between them at night, very silently, but you can’t be silent with a donkey!
AM: You’ve got this dirty great big box as well, or is the donkey carrying that?
JC: So I unhooked everything and told the donkey to “bugger off” and it buggered off. And I crossed over at night with this other guy and we climbed up this mountain leaving some kit at the bottom of it -I don’t know whether anybody ever found it again but I certainly never used it again. And we headed up this mountain – we weren’t exactly nearly caught, but we did have one patrol pass us by no further than that bush [indicating bush in the garden about 30-40 yards away] – a patrol of about 15 or 20 people (Germans), but they didn’t have dogs, they
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didn’t smell us out – we were absolutely right in under bushes and things. But nothing happened anyway. Anyway I met up again with Jock as arranged in 12 days time, and he’d come through another way and we were fine. We decided not to have any more to do with this lot, and we decided to move South. So, because the Germans by then had got onto this line here [indicating the Gothic Line], so we thought we’d go South and try and get through the line. So we walked, and we had a really hairy walk from Borgo Val di Taro up over this horrible mountain -I don’t know exactly where we crossed it, but it was one of the worst walks I’ve ever had – very, very steep, but I suppose it was over there [indicating area of Monte Molinatico on the map, between Grondola and Zeri]. And in this area, which is the Zeri, there’s Zeri and there’s Rossano, we holed up here somewhere on, um, it was called MonteGroppo (???) but it’s not marked on this one. This really is an excellent example of how hairy the country was on this map.
[JC bringing out a different map]
Here’s Sestri Levante and here is La Spezia, and there is ?????tregli that I was telling you about where the railway line went through the tunnel, and there is Borgotaro which is what we’ve just talked about. So we came over here -I said Montegroppo, I don’t know what I was … anyway we were up in these really very hairy mountains indeed. And there wasn’t much to eat, not up in the heights, you had to get down into the hollows to get anything – and going down we heard that the Germans had come in, and there was a Partisan group, very … run by an Englishman, very brave chap, who was doing a lot of excellent work discouraging … causing them to send lots of troops in to find him. There is Zeri there, and Rossano would be here somewhere, I can’t see it on this rather difficult map, but what they did was …. There was a commune, a commune being a bunch of villages and they had shot up everybody in the villages that was left – they had burnt the houses down, and what they had done in Zeri village itself was that they poisoned the wine stocks with cholera bugs – this is an unknown, I don’t know whether you’ve seen or read anything like that in your studies? but I bet you didn’t, I bet you didn’t. This was the only known bit of bacteriological warfare that I ever came across anyway. I was told actually to keep very quiet about it. But they did that and they poisoned the wine stock and that was the only wine around what was left in Zeri all the rest anywhere had been shot up, the barrels had been shot up – filled with holes by Schmeissers (???). And so more of that anon.
So we hung around here for a bit and didn’t do anything brave or anything like that. Then we came a bit South of Zeri, and we came to this part just North of the Cinque Terre, which is this line of fishing villages which has no access. And we came across a number of Americans – we’re now into September 1944 – and the Americans were the sort that had been shot down from Liberators and the other aircraft that they used – out of Sardinia actually. And they were on the run trying to get back as well. Anyway we joined up with some of those and what we ate was chestnuts, the whole of this area called Liguria is one chestnut forest (sweet chestnuts), and the locals didn’t have anything else to eat either, so they had chestnuts as well, so everything was chestnuts! A chestnut tree is called a Castagne (???) and the flour they make of chestnuts is called Castagnacce (???) – anything with -acce on the end is bloody awful – so Castagnacce is bloody awful chestnuts. They made bread of it, puddings of it, everything of it – it was awful stuff. And we didn’t have anything else – we didn’t have the means any more of calling in food and stuff. Anyway we joined up in the end with the guy from this force called “A” Force which we mentioned earlier on, which was designed for getting prisoners out. And they sent a guide in. In the meantime the Special Forces had sent a medical man, a doctor RMC [Royal Military College] parachutist, in to investigate the poisoning of the wine at Zeri. And he investigated this, and there was no doubt about it whatsoever, and he prepared a report which he eventually would have to take back. He said, as I was about to take a party through the lines, which I was after I’d joined up with this other fellow – I was going to lead a party through the lines including your uncle – “Would I kindly take the report with me”. I said “Not on your bloody Nelly I won’t – no way”. I said “What I will take with me – I’ll take it with me in my head – I’ll learn it off-by-heart, and you can listen to me spout it, and see if I’ve got it right, got the medical terms right and all that sort of thing”. So I learnt this report off-by-heart, absolutely off-by-heart – I was slightly against doing it, on the other hand it was very important that somebody got it through. They couldn’t obviously radio it through, or anything like that, so I learnt it off-by-heart anyway.
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Anyway we joined up with this chap from “A” Force and, thankfully, we left this bloody awful area. What we did then – we’ll move off this map.
AM: We’re moving out of chestnut territory now are we?
JC: We sure are – really thankfully indeed. So we’re down here somewhere – the exact place I’m not quite sure of Anyway we took to our feet and I think there were about a dozen of us again. And we took off mostly by night and we crossed the river Magra [mouth just North of La Spezia] somewhere near Aulla – and we went across country somewhere like this. We came across the German medium artillery somewhere about here [Bibola ???], so we dodged them, noted where they were, what sort of guns they had and things. Then we landed up above the Carrara marble mines – Carrara is famous for its marble as you probably know, St. Paul’s and all over the world is Carrara marble – and we weren’t quite sure what to do, as you can understand. Our guide fellow said “Well it’s perfectly alright, you get onto that and we’ll take you up to the marble mine manager’s office”. And that was a platform connected to a steel- wire rope by 4 slings like that – the platform actually was used for lowering slabs of marble down the hill – but we went up on it, frightening, and we went up the hill and landed up at the marble mine manager’s office, where the manager wasn’t there because they weren’t really running a marble mine then, but there was a Greek officer, who was a Special Force Greek officer – what the hell he was doing there I’ve no idea, but he was a brave man – and he was in bed with his mistress when we arrived. He was running a group of Partisans almost on the German front-line, but he was remote because he was up these bloody awful hills they call the Apuanian Alps or the Apuane. They had snow on them. The snow fell on the 26th of September, we saw it falling. And I’m now talking about the night we saw the marble mine manager, at least the Greek with his mistress in bed was October the 4th. I know with precision this that it was October the 4th. 1944. And he said “Well I’ll give you a guide to get you through the marble mines – when you get down through the tunnel to the other side, you head for a place called Arni [just North-East of Massa] which was captured by the Americans yesterday”. So we said “Thank you very much” or words to that effect. He’d got lots of grog, so we got pissed once again – and that was about the last time, we thought we ought to keep sober for the morning. The next day we were taken through the tunnel and put on the … I mean these are really hairy mountains, they’re vertical and covered with marble and god knows what. And anyway we got near Arni and I said “We’ll lie up now”, and so we laid up. And I said I would take one other guy and go and have a look at Arni before we attempt to enter it when it gets dark. And when it got dark I went into Arni myself, and the first thing I saw was some square-head Germans guarding the buildings – no sign of any Americans! So I came back and told them that Arni was not on – but our guide fellow said “The best thing to do is to go round and leave Arni on the left, and slide down the mountains, and head for a place called Seravezza”. And we said we’d do the first part around Arni before it gets light – which we did. Then he said that we’d do the second part in daylight because it was too bloody dangerous to do at night – so we did it in daylight – and we slid down this mountain here on our bums more or less, it was shale, marble shale that’s what it was. And we came down to some little village here – the natives were not too worried about anything, they weren’t being bothered by the Germans anyway. And we said “What do we do from here on in”, because the front line was this river here [indicating river running down from Seravezza to Le Focette] which runs through Seravezza, and it’s called the Seravezza river actually. And on that side were Americans [indicating East side] and on that side Germans [indicating West side]. So they said “What you do is go into Seravezza town and you will find a big house on your right, it looks like a manor house, and you go and find some Partisans in there and they will tell you where to go to get up into the American bit. And at that time it was pissing with rain – it was about midday I guess. Anyway we went down into Seravezza town and we found this house, and we found these Partisans drunk! A lot of my story goes around drink but it’s true. They were in the library of this big sort of a manor house, and they had bottles all around the wainscot, all around bottles and bottles and bottles of vino. And every now and then they were having a slug like this, and they had guns round them as well – so every now and then one of them gave a bang-bang-bang – what the hell they were shooting at god only knows. But there were Germans all the way around – we’d gone through them.
AM: Not in the village, or in the village and around the town?
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JC: Oh there might have been in the village, but we didn’t see any. And they said “What you do is go along the road, and you will come to a demolished bridge which has not quite been demolished properly, and has still got reinforcing bars which you can cross on or swing on”. Oh Jesus Christ – so off we went. I mean at that time we were totally committed, had to go, however foolhardy it sounds and all the rest of it. And we found this bridge, and we crossed it by swinging under it on the reinforcing bars and things. Then we got to the other side – there was quite a lot of water coming down – and we had to go up hill like that which I’ve got photographs of somewhere [indicating near vertical slope], (they’re not very good photographs) – when I say it was vertical of course it wasn’t vertical, it was 45 degrees, but I think that it was more than at least 45 degrees. And it was like the Sysyphus pushing something uphill because we were pushing ourselves uphill – you went 2 steps up and 1 step down. However the adrenalin was running very swiftly, and we got up, and we came across an abandoned office, which was another model? – but there was no Greek and no woman in bed there! Except it had a burning Chesterfield cigarette on the mantel-piece with ash on it – so somebody had been there 5 minutes ago anyway. We were absolutely fucked by then – the adrenalin working and we’d been across some of the most hairy country that you’ve ever seen in your life. So I said “Right – we’ll call a stop here and dry ourselves, and then we might be able to make a sane decision”. There was a roaring fire in the grate I forgot to say – so I said we’d dry ourselves, and we did.
[pause for JM to change tapes again]
AM: This swinging about under the bridge sounds a bit hairy – is this just by hand?
JC: Yes – by hand.
AM: Are you looking down steep … ?
JC: No, not very deep.
AM: I was a bit concerned about that.
JC: No, not very deep at all, but if we’d gone in we wouldn’t have killed ourselves but we’d never have got out again, if you know what I mean. Anyway we get up to this thing and I said “We’ll pull ourselves together, and we’ll head on”. And we headed on, and we came across an American position. And they said “Who the hell are you?”; and we said who we were; and they said “We sure would like to believe you, but we can’t believe anybody these days”, so we were taken prisoner by the Americans, rightly. We were safe as long as the Americans didn’t do anything stupid. And we then were put into jeeps and taken under guard down to their battalion Headquarters which was somewhere towards Pietrasanta. And there we were again locked up, and held prisoner, and I said I demanded to see the battalion commander because I could tell him where the enemy positions were, where the medium guns were, and also the places we were shot at doing this thing by machine-guns and things going down this hairy stuff, not up there though, and I’d like to mark their maps for them and all that. And they said “Well gee”. I said “Take me to your commanding General, would you mind” – so I was taken to the commanding General of the 92nd. Negro division – I bet nobody has ever heard of that before. Well it was the 92nd. Negro division – the commanding General was white, the officers were white, some of the senior NCOs [Non-commissioned Officer] were white – the rest were either niggers, or they were Brazilians – they had a Brazilian brigade, the Americans did. And I told all this to the commanding General, and he said “Well gee I’d really like to believe you but my orders are … blah blah blah”. So your uncle and I were not believed, or they would like to have believed us but weren’t allowed to. What they did with our information I don’t know because they were still there a month later! And we were put into Dodge 5 ton trucks with German prisoners, guarded by American mushroom white-caps (Military Police) with guns sticking out of them. The Germans were pissing themselves with laughter – hysterical because they knew we weren’t German – and they were glad to be captured by then because it was coming towards the end of the war. Anyway we got to the Allied interrogation centre at Florence, which was … you go down to Pisa and turn left and then you’ll get to Florence. They realised that all was well, and that was that – we were through, released, happy! And that was how we got through the lines.
We then spent a night there I suppose – and then we were put into British troop vehicles together with some others. Oh, incidentally before I say that, we met down there in similar condition to ourselves, another party with a Jock Lance-Corporal in, who had also gone up that steep hill, who had also gone to the marble mine manager’s office – but they’d been attacked there by a German patrol. And this Jock had pushed the patrol commander, a Corporal or a Sergeant or
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something, over the cliff and scarpered, and got away with it – and good for them! And so we were lucky, if it hadn’t been for them we would have been the ones in trouble.
Anyway then Jock and me left Florence in a troop-carrying vehicle – went to Beirizo (???) which was a sort of staging-post where we were in a requisitioned building, and we got absolutely stoned out of our minds there, I can assure you. And we went from there to Rome into another transit camp just South of Rome, and we hitch-hiked up the Appian Way and went into down-town Rome. And here’s another extraordinary coincidence rather like my gardener, because we went into a restaurant somewhere in down-town Rome to have a meal (they had a good black market operating and things) – and one of the waiters in the restaurant was one of the Somalis who we had liberated (as I told you earlier on – Jock hadn’t, I had) when we were operating out of Monte San Vicino. So he fell about, and we had quite a fling in Rome, Italy. Then we went on down to Naples and we parted company because I was on officer and he wasn’t. And we parted company, but we re-joined and came home on the same ship back into Liverpool out of Naples. And he went back to the SAS [Special Air Service] and I went to the 9th, what is now the 9th. Para-squadron Royal Engineers. I did my parachute course in Ringwood?, and I joined the 1st. Airborne division. We met often in London and places. And come April we went off to Norway on the same mission.
JM: I was going to ask what did he do subsequent to coming back ? – You see we don’t know what happened to him.
JC: I’ve no idea what happened to him between then and April – but I do know that in April he was in the SAS [Special Air Service] brigade, in 1st. SAS [Special Air Service] under Paddy Mayne. The whole of 1st. SAS [Special Air Service] brigade and the whole of the lot I was with went to Norway at the end of the war, and Denmark. He went up to Bergen, that’s where the 1st. SAS [Special Air Service] were, operating, I don’t know what he was doing – my job was to pick up the mines, or have them picked up – I didn’t pick up any bloody mines. I got someone called Schumacher to do it!! And then I had to do the same in Denmark, then I was pushed over to Oslo – I wasn’t in 9th. Para-squadron then, I was in 1st. Para-squadron, I’d been transferred to be second-in-command of the 1st. Para-squadron, who had got terribly cut up at Arnhem (as had the 9th as well). But I then took command of the 9th. Squadron from 1st. Para-squadron in Oslo. I had to get from Stavanger to Oslo – the British wouldn’t fly me, it was too dangerous – so I got hold of a Deutsche pilot and I said “You will fly me to Oslo”, and he said “Jawohl”. Me and Geordy Harper (???) my bat-man (a great guy), and I and a co-pilot were flown in a Junkers 52 which was a troop-carrying aircraft flew from Stavanger airport round the fjords and landed on a place called Funnibu (???), which was the secondary airfield at Oslo in between the craters on the runway – more or less that’s how I got to Oslo. I didn’t see your uncle again until later on, and he came back to England – I don’t know what for, or why, or when, or what he was doing, but we met in London once or twice. Then I was pushed off to Palestine with the 6th airborne division to deal with that lot, and I didn’t see hide nor hair of him until what I described at the beginning which was in Nairobi. So that’s it.
JM: Very interesting, Than you very much.
AM: Absolutely marvellous.
JC: That’s about all I can tell you that comes to mind – I mean there are lots of little incidents that will come to mind and I’ll curse myself for not telling you about them but I can’t think of them right now.
JM: Brilliant – thank you very much sir.
JC: I think what we might have is a drink – don’t you?
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[Black and white photograph of FWJ Cowton taken around 1943/44 in Italy but precise location is unknown. Cowton is on the far left. Also in the picture are Flight Lieutenant A J Payne, Squad Sergeant Major Douglas (Ginger) Davidson and some of the Italian Partisans which Cowton was helping during World War 2]
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[Caption to photo on digital page 17] Front Row L to R
Cowton, Payn, Don Enrico, Fane, Douglas “Ginger” Davidson
Back Row: Can’t remember
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LA LOTTA PARTIGIANI A BRACCANO (The Partisan Struggle at Braccano)
IL GRUPPO ROTI (The Roti Group)
The dictator Government of Mussolini fell on July 25th 1943. Shortly afterwards on September 8th the radio announced the conclusion of the Armistice with the Allied Governments. The Italian troops, weary of a war which they had never though justified, abandoned their barracks and sought their way home. The Marche, like the other Regions, fell under German domination. On September 18th, an SS [Schutzstaffel] detachment reached Matelica, set up two machine guns before the Town Hall and raised the German and Japanese flags, and the new Pennant of the reconstituted local Fascist party, on it’s balcony.
The rescue of Mussolini from his prison on the Gran Sasso. The proclamation of the Republic of Salo, and the occupation of most of Italy by the German Armed Forces caused a profound counter-reaction. C.L.N’s (Committees of National Liberation) sprang up everywhere and the first groups of partisans were born. The German and Fascist proclamations appearing at the time give a good idea of the climate of oppression, blackmail, and fear which prevailed.
“PENALTY OF DEATH
HQ [Head Quarters] German occupation Corps hereby orders all Military men, whether arbitrarily dispersed, on official leave, or however disbanded following the current situation, to report to this Garrison on the 23rd of this current Month.
PENALTY – SHOOTING AFTER SUMMARY TRIAL.
Macerata; 20 Sep. 1943. Year XXI Fascist Era.
Cons. Eugenio Caradonna Commander, Military .Garrison.”
This Proclamation, except in the rarest cases, was ignored. Groups of young men left the town and moved towards the San Vicino range and the mountains of Il Gammo: By now, it was early October. Cold nights and persistent rain persuaded the first partisans to move to Roti, once the site of an old Benedictine Abbey and then inhabited by a family of Shepherds. This location was ideal as it dominated all the roads leading to the Matelica area and was surrounded by a thickly-wooded area for shelter – and defence in time of danger. Little by little, English, Yugoslav and Somali POW’s, Italian soldiers and defaulters gravitated there. The Germans soon realised the danger which the formation of these groups of Patriots could pose, and issued further notorious proclamations:-
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Anyone who supports Bands, who helps Prisoners-of-War or Anglo-American Agents, by giving food, shelter or clothing or otherwise supports their flight, is an Enemy of ITALY.
Anyone who knows the location of a Band and does not communicate this immediately to the German Army will be shot!
Anyone giving shelter or food to a Band or an individual bandit will be shot!
Any house in which a bandit is found or has proven to have been sheltered will be blown up!
Denounce the traitorous Bandits!
Do not give food or shelter to the Rebels!
This is the German Reich who orders this!
Headquarters 22 October 1943
Maj. Gen. Von Zanthier Military Commander. “
These, and other ensuing proclamations, fell into the void.
At Matelica, the National Liberation Committee was formed shortly after the Armistice and comprised:
Virgilio Lori (President)
Don. Enrico Pocolnoni
Midway through October a Group of Patriots was formed about thirty English and Yugoslav POW’s and some fifteen Italians. The British were commanded by Captain of Aviation (Flt.Lt.) [Flight Lieutenant] Anthony ‘Pyne’ who had been made prisoner in 1940 in Sicily after a forced-landing; the Yugoslavs by Captain Popavic. The Liberation Committee nominated, as Commander of the Italian Group, Lieutenant Giuseppe Baldini, a veteran of the Russian campaign. All the Groups which gravitated to the San Vicino chain became part of the 5th “Garibaldi” Brigade under the command of Colonel Carrado, with it’s headquarters in Ancona.
[Handwritten notes] Flight Lieutenant A.J. PAYN, RAF [Royal Air Force] [word unclear] F.W.J. COWTON, MC [Military Cross] RE [Royal Engineer], ?Lieut J. FANE Green Howards, SSM [Squadron Sergeant Major] Douglas (“Ginger”) Davidson RTR [Royal Tank Regiment]
Who had escaped from Bologna together
+ including JOCKO a butcher, Alessandro (his son) from [word unclear]
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In this period the efficient, unselfish and generous work of Don Enrico Procogni, parish priest of Braccano, began. His attitude could well have been one of comfortable neutrality, physically as well as morally, between Matelica (under the control of the Fascists) and Roti (the HQ [Head Quarters] of the Partisans). Instead, knowingly, he made his choice, supporting, advising and lending shelter to the partisans of whatever political colour, religious faith, or nationality.
The most urgent problems were these: to give a sense of unity, discipline and enthusiasm to men of varying social and political backgrounds: to find effective and modern weapons for the partisan guerrillas: to procure victualling supplies. Braccano became the supply centre of the Group. There, were slaughtered calves destined for the State Pool: part of the meat was sent to Roti and the rest sold at a favourable price to the local population.
In any honest account it must be mentioned that because of the lack, in the Partisan zone, of any established authority, (given the disorder created by a civil war situation) it was not surprising that there were, circulating in some areas, occasional armed bands which extorted, stole, bullied and cornered the market in food and clothing. They passed themselves off as partisans and perhaps, sometimes, they really were. It became one of the duties of the Partisans to unmask those who passed themselves off and who, Italians or foreigners, were nothing but adventurers; the accounts of every Partisan Commander mention cases, from October to June, in which the Partisans intervened and in extreme cases, inflicted severe punishments.
As well, and according to the differing Groups, discipline varied as did the concepts which the Commanders reached about Partisan warfare (in those days neither the maxims of Mao nor the principles of Giap existed!). There were sad losses in many zones of Le Marche which could have been avoided, at least in part, had there existed greater experience.
It must not be forgotten, however, that those nine or ten months were a beginning, that the Partisan movement started from zero, that mistakes were made by beginners and that there was no time to learn from experience as happened in the North.
Something, however, was done even by us.
The Assault on the Villa Spada (South of Treia)
Arms and ammunition were insufficient for the growing number of Partisans. Lieutenant Giulio of the Valdiola Group had come to know that some arms, guarded by a nucleus of Militia, had been deposited at the Villa Spada, near Treia, This news had been brought by two Negroes who had escaped from the Villa and joined up with the San Vicino Partisans. Lieutenant Giulio discussed this with the Roti Command and they agreed, together, to attack the Villa , liberate the prisoners, and take possession of the arms. About thirty Partisans (Yugoslav, English and Italian) took part in this expedition. Capitano ‘Pyne’ and Lieutenant Baldini commanded the Roti group and Lieutenant Giulio those from Valdiola.
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All were guided by one of the Negroes who, as had been said, had escaped from the Villa but, for prudence sake, the other was left at Roti as hostage in case of betrayal.
They left Roti on the afternoon of October 23rd. The night was rainy, the mountains enveloped in mist. They proceeded along muddy paths, often flanked by ravines. During the march Captain ‘Pyne’ and Sergeant Major Douglas fell down an escarpment but both came out almost unharmed. Towards midnight they reached the Villa Spada, Giulio’s men cut all the telephone lines to Macerata and blocked the access roads to the Villa. The building was surrounded. Several Partisans, guided by the Native who knew the post, and commanded by Lieutenant Baldini, scaled the wall and Douglas wounded the Commandant of the Garrison with a burst of Tommy-gun fire. Inside, three ferocious Mastiffs gave the alarm and were set on the Partisans. At once, fighting broke out and ended after almost an hour with the surrender of the Garrison, who had four wounded: two of the Partisans were slightly wounded.
This bold action produced sixteen weapons of the sub-machine gun and machine-pistol category; hand-grenades, rifles and revolvers were carried off as well. Several Natives followed the Partisans back to Roti, among whom was the leading Somali called Aden.
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[Handwritten letter from Major-General F.W.J. Cowton to Mrs Williamson-Noble dated 14th April 2000]
Dear Mrs Williamson-Noble,
Having discovered who you were from [word unclear] [word unclear] earlier this week it was good to hear you on the telephone yesterday A.M. In anticipation of you getting in touch I found my copy of the Italian account of what went on in those dark days of 1943/44 written in memory of and dedicated to Don Enrico Polognoni, the brave priest of Braccano, who was murdered by the Fascist Militia. He was very much part of the Partisan movement which was formed and carried on in the general area of Matelica of which Beaccano, at the foot of Monte San Vicino, was an outlying village. In this account were a number of photographs, including 2 of the miscellaneous group of some of the Partisans who operated out of Roti up the mountain. Your father, whom we knew as Sergeant-Major Ginger Davidson (Royal Tanks) was prominent in one of the groups with his cap askew and his sleeves rolled up. The good looking fellow on the left is me, armed and wearing my hand-stitched check cap made out of a pair of bedroom slippers sent to me by my old Mum before I escaped from prison, of course! Others figures in the group
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are Flight Lieutenant A(Tony). S. PAYN, RAF [Royal Air Force] (featured in the enclosed account as Capitano PYNE) and Captain JOHN FANE, of the 5th Green Howards – the three of us had escaped from BOLOGNA after hiding in the kitchen roof of what became a German barracks for 12 days and 11 nights, 11-23 Sep 43.
And of course DON ENRICO in the centre.
Not in the photo, but very active as a Partisan were JOCKO, a Montenegran butcher, and his son ALESSANDRO a Sergeant in the Yugoslav [word unclear] [word unclear]. JOCKO spent a great deal of his time in contemplation of killing Germans, singly or in multiples, with his butcher’s knife which he was continually sharpening. Just the man for cutting out sentries!
There were a lot of others, including the very brave and effective commander of the group Lieutenant GUISEPPE BALDINI (whom I will be visiting this September) a couple of good but [3 words unclear], a few more good men, and a dozen or so [word unclear] who made patriotic gestures, but were really only there for the beer.
The enclosed account, translated from the Italian, gives some background on the state of play in Sep 1943 and the early foundation of Partisan groups of which the group at ROTI must have been one of the very first. It includes an account of the attack on the VILLA SPADA near TREIA in which your father took part. Though not mentioned I was with him throughout the attack and contributed to the general mayhem, including dealing with the Italian commandant. I have never forgotten the event, not so much the successful end result, but the physical strain of getting
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there and back over unforgiving mountain mule-tracks (mulatieri) and footpaths (sentieri) in the pouring rain, in often slippery mud a distance of some 53 miles there and back in a total of just over 19 hours, much of it in the dark. Still we were young and fairly carefree, and it was good for the morale of the group. We was knackered as they say!
Another episode in which your father and I and most of the rest of the group were involved was the opening up of the sequestered (by the Germans) grain store in the city of Matelica itself.
We descended from the mountains, dealt with the guards on the ancient city gates, cut communications, left machine gun pickets at all entry points and [word unclear] then the granary. We loaded up all the grain we needed for ourselves in sacks on a cart we brought with us and sent that back up the mountain – then we opened the granary for the public to come and get it. And they came and came, one lady removing her nightdress and using it as a sack over her naked shoulders as she took her loot home! We said that all would be protected until 3am at which time we had to leave to get back up the mountain before dawn.
As a result a special mass was said for us in the cathedral, endless demi-johns of local wine were sent up the mountains for us, and four of us, including your father, were invited to a special celebration lunch and I know not what else in down-town Matelica some 10 days later!
By mid-November Payn, Fane & Cowton decided that we had done our stuff and moved on South towards the lines some 100 miles south. Your father decided to stay with the group and that was the last time I saw him. We parted
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on the best of terms – he had exhibited great leadership qualities to the sometimes less enthusiastic Italians and preferred to go his own way, as did we. Rank never entered into it I’m glad to say and we mutually respected each other.
Tony Payn is still alive (a widower) living in a sort of home in S. [word unclear] where we meet and go pubbing quite often. He was captured by the Germans and finished up in an OFFLAL in January. John Fane parted company with us early after a difference of opinion mainly brought on by alcohol so far as I can remember. He got through the lines somewhere & so there. He died in Aldeney recently. I joined up with two SAS [Special Air Service] troopers who had been raiding ?Sardinia with Keith Kilby, and we eventually got through the lines in October 1943 south of the Carrara marble mines on the other side of Italy after many adventures, only to be taken prisoner by the United States 5th Army!
I joined 1st [word unclear] Division in Oct 1944 so know your part of the world pretty well, being stationed alongside the Dambusters at Tattasall, then in [word unclear] and Market Rasen and then at Stoke ?Rockford Mann House on the A1, south of Grantham now a teachers training college, I think. Our happy task at the end of hostilities was to liberate Denmark & Norway which we did with great gusto and joy! (and skill).
I will be visiting Guiseppe Baldini in Matelica in September and will see what more I can find out about your father.
Yours very sincerely
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[Handwritten note] Davidson Mike
PARTISAN INFORMATION ON GROUP ROTl
Location of Group – Monte San Vicino. From September 1943 March 1944.
Leader of the group was Guiseppe Baldini, lived in Matelica. The group was formed by disaffected Italians after the Italian armistice. They established themselves at ROTI, once the site of an old Benedictine Abbey, but then inhabited by shepherds. Little by little others joined the group, including English, Yugoslavs and Italian soldiers. At Matelica a National Liberation Committee was formed, including:
Don Enrico Polognoni
The English group of about 30 were commanded by Flt Lt [Flight Lieutenant] A J Payne and included Lt [Lieutenant] FWJ Cowton, RE [Royal Engineers], Capt. J Fane, Green Howards and SSM [Squad Sergeant Major] Douglas (Ginger) Davidson, RTR [Royal Tank Regiment]. The Liberation Committee nominated Lt [Lieutenant] Guiseppe Baldini as commander of the Italian group. All of the groups operating in the San Vicino area became part of the 5th Garibaldi Brigade under the command of Colonel Corrado, with its HQ [Head Quarters] in Ancona. Braccano became the supply centre for the group. To capture more arms the Roti group carried out a raid on a villa near TREIA, the Villa Spada. The raid was carried out on the night of the 23/24 October 1943 and included SSM [Squad Sergeant Major] Davidson. The raid was successful and resulted in the capture of some 16 sub machine guns/pistols; rifles; hand grenades and revolvers.
[Handwritten note] Mike Davidson