Summary of Fred Harris
Fred Harris joined the Royal Engineers as a boy apprentice at age 14. He was captured near Benghazi and eventually ended up at the Bologna PoW camp. His file includes not only his escape story and time with a local Partisan group, but is well documented with notes from his return to Italy, correspondence arranging the trip in April 1996, copious photographs of the trip, maps and ephemera.
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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[Editor’s Note: Handwritten notes from Keith Killby]
Freddie Harris (F.A.) from Bologna became a Partisan at S. Sofia S. of Bali??. [word unclear] at Lugo near Ravenna & finally got away South of ?Pescaia in the same boat [several words unclear] Lord Ranfurly (To war with Whitaker). Through A. Millozzi of Monte San Martino the families who helped him are traced and contact made. A few months later Freddie Harris was feted & feasted with many private & public functions as an Honoured Guest at the Liberty Day celebration. He took with him many [several words unclear] with greetings from [word unclear] A. C [word unclear] of the Royal County of Berkshire of which F.H. had been a councillor. The Archives of the [word unclear] are [rest of line unclear]. With photos of his original hideouts, of [word unclear] of the functions he attended.
F.H. returned in 1996 (After A.M [Antonio Millozzi] of M.S.M.[Monte San Martino] had made contact with family who helped him).
Photos of Ceremonies in 1996
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REFLECTIONS ON THE LIFE AND TIMES OF FREDERICK ARTHUR HARRIS.
(F.A. Harris had been a supporter of the Trust for year or two when he decided he should return to find those who helped him. Through Antonio Millozzi of Monte San Martino – though the area was near Ravenna – a contact was made and FAH was able to return and find so many of the families and take part in very many ceremonies. The whole tells of his war time experiences and his return supported by many photos, documents etc from both eras.)
F.H. a boy soldier at 14 in 1934 is a Lieut. (R.E.) [Royal Engineers] at 20 and while others are scrambling back from Dunkirk he is in charge of blowing up various installations on Sheppey. For it and to contain the gelignite he needs to purchase a gross of condoms. (As did KK in Algiers). Sent to Egypt and up the shambles at Mecheli before retreating into Tobruk. Put to unloading ammunition from lighters and when most of it is ashore the lighter is sunk, they scramble ashore and then sent to Alex by destroyer.
FAH captured later in second retreat from Benghazi.
Taken by ship – with two hard biscuits and 2 tins of meat for 5 days – to Palermo, Naples and Capua. Then moved to Padula 500 officers. One sells shares in a well-planned future brothel in England. At Salerno landing – not far away camp closed. FAH and others moved to Bologna Camp -Bersaglieri Barracks. At Armistice the Camp marched out to find the Germans surrounding them. &-including FH hide in tunnel they had started. (F.H. thinks that no one could have hidden in roof (see Capes and many others). After 36 hours in tunnel they go at 5 minute intervals – F.H. only in underwear and socks over the wire and then into fields where he meets an Australian (JK [Jack Kirkman]) pilot who was wounded when shot down. JK and FH slowly meet up with a mixed bag of Italians and others and plan sabotage. F.H., being RE [Royal Engineers] plans the attack on an ammunition train which needs the cooperation of many to light the fires having taken the wood cut down for them, the Itis behave very responsible and are quiet and the train is burnt but all have to scatter. FH and JK set off to where they hear there is a grounded plane at Lugo between Forli and Ravenna. Joins with Russians and others as partisans. (Found in 1996 that it was Massa Lombardo). FH is wounded in the leg but JK comes with a mule to take him to a remote and very poor family who put him in a hay loft and leave him for ten days with a festering wound without food and water.
Small boy comes to see him and he grabs him and threatens to shoot him until the family come and bring him water and food etc. (50 years later, with the bullet still in his leg FH was paid compensation). Over 3 weeks after FH wounded JK [Jack Kirkman] returned, as the rastrellamento in the area had calmed down, and with a mule took FH to better hay loft where a rather severe family look after him well in what to English (Amadori) standards was then very primitive surroundings but in 1996, when FH, returned found had been modernised almost to luxury. In Spring 1944 JK and FH leave to join a group in touch with the SAS [Special Air Service] which include General Vaughan, General. ‘Bass’ Armstrong Brigadier Pip Sterling and others. They are joined by an SAS [Special Air Service] who had been partly blinded when shot down but had escaped from a train taking him to Germany. Go to coast to wait submarine but none came so find a boat, which had been out of the water for some time. FH, says they leave from near Riccione and arrive at Chietino Ortana (Ortoni?), which is a long trip.
Extremely well documented with photos, notices, newspaper cuttings, map of area, camps etc of war time and his return in 1996. Photo of General Neame and others General O’Conner with Tonino Spazzoli and another with Arturo Spazzoli hanging in Santa Sofia. Another of Nadia & Serotkin (Russian partisan). He had to return to Russia and was never heard of again. The notices in local papers and the TV of FH’s return to Amadori family was picked up by another family he had not been able to trace F.H. who had thought it was in another village could confirm that it was the house where had been hidden – though completely modernised. Copy of an IOU signed by FH on 13.3.44 to Signor Lotti and of identical IOU’s signed by Ranfurly, Ruggles-Brise (Trust Supporter) Brigadier. Pip Sterling, all witnessed by Brigadier Todhunter to Signor Lotti of S. Sofia but dated 3.3.1944 & 7.3.1944.)
Also original correspondence with FH after he got in touch with the Trust through Jim Bourne and Tony Gregson showing how contacts developed and many photos -often duplicates but with good information on back.
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REFLECTIONS ON THE LIFE AND TIMES OF FREDERICK ARTHUR HARRIS
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My name is Frederick Arthur Harris.
I am not a writer, but this is a synopsis of my life (and hard times) to date.
Whatever next ?
Newbury, Berkshire, August 1996
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I was commissioned a second lieutenant Royal Engineers on my 20th birthday, 9th May 1940. Youthful, brash, rather arrogant, certainly insensitive – I knew the army though, and the other side of an officer’s life, because already I had served six years, joining as a boy apprentice at 14.
Thanks to educational pressure from my widower father (my mother died of pneumonia after a gall stone operation when I was 10) I sailed through all the educational certificates current at the time, including the army ‘Special’ which was the equivalent of a first year at Peterhouse College, Cambridge.
No good at sports, having always had a psychic aversion to all games using a spherical ball, and indifferent as a cabinet maker craftsman although eventually acquiring a first class grade on completion of boys training.
The army establishment at Chepstow – just across the Severn Bridge on the right – was firstly called the Boys Training School, then Apprentice Training School, then Army Apprentices College. At least thirty percent of the personnel of the Corps of Royal Engineers have begun their service there and even currently it is a safe bet that anyone of rank in the Corps is an ex-Chepstow boy.
There is a thriving old-boys association, but the College has removed to Abingdon and things will never be the same again. It is a sure-fire educated guess that one day they will rue the day that the outfit has gone.
It seems that nowadays if a thing is of proven good and valuable to the Nation’s commonwealth then alter it, abuse it, demolish it and the standards for which it has stood.
Posted as a rather useless second lieutenant to Kitchener barracks Chatham, the first task handed to me was on the Isle of Grain. It was largely deserted then, nowadays it has become an oil company stronghold. The job was to prepare for demolition the
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timber jetty stretching into the waterway. After acquiring half a dozen 45 gallon drums of oil by launch from the mainland, the timber structure was liberally soaked in oil and timber laid so that there would be a good conflagration at the drop of a match.
The next job was on the road and rail bridge over the Swale river which divides Sheppey from the mainland. This was a larger task involving explosives, mostly gelignite sticks inserted into holes punched into the several bridge stanchions. Because it was wet work the gelignite had to be kept dry in the holes and male condoms were employed very satisfactorily. However, it fell my unfortunate lot to purchase a gross of condoms from a pharmacy in Sittingbourne, and I well remember the wondering look on the pharmacist’s face as he counted out forty eight “packets of three”. Perhaps he thought that I was going to have a very good time!
At this time the whole of the British Expeditionary Force in France was on retreat in the face of the German blitzkrieg. Anyone conscious of current affairs was twitching with anxiety about invasion and all the coastal defences were put on high alert.
On Sheppey, south of Leysdown was a six inch gun battery guarding the estuary. Leading a platoon I was sent out to prepare a defensive position for the gun emplacements, which consisted of a series of trenches a Ia WWI. The venue was called “Shell Ness” a sort of private holiday camp consisting of a string of nice bungalows, all deserted, in which we lived. There was a sandy beach with bathing, all denied to the troops until the defensive work was completed.
The trenches were dug, without parapet or parados, roofed with corrugated steel sheets supported by short joists cut from rail track, with firing position apertures and fixed firing lines. The lot camouflaged with sand and soil.
The digging had been arduous in very sandy soil with much revetment and work went on in shifts round the clock.
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Completion of the task coincided with an inspection visit from the CO [Commanding Officer] who was well satisfied, because he came to pass a warning of a surprise visit by the General Officer commanding the shore defences. It transpired that my CO [Commanding Officer] (a captain) and the CO [Commanding Officer] (also a captain) of the artillery battery had been contemporaries at “the Shop” the Military Academy for technical branches of the army at Woolwich. They disliked each other and I had been warned right at the beginning of the project that orders were not to be taken from that “bloody gunner”.
The time of the GOC’ s [General Officer Commanding] visit was guessed wrong; however the guard was spic and span, well rehearsed in a general salute. The defence positions were impeccable and so were the sleeping quarters and the cookhouse. Unfortunately, all the Sapper soldiers except the troop sergeant and me were disporting themselves in the water when he arrived. In retinue were my CO [Commanding Officer], the adjutant, the gunner CO [Commanding Officer] and sundry odd bodies. I presented myself smartly, he looked me over, eyes passed by to the beach where was quite a bit of skylarking and splashing about. “Are those your soldiers?” “Sah” “I think you are very wise”. Then he stepped off to look at the defences; I fell in behind. My CO [Commanding Officer] beamed with delight, the adjutant chortled, the gunner sneered. My name was made.
A word about the CO [Commanding Officer]. He was an engineering graduate from Cambridge but had developed a serious drink problem as a Rugby blue. It never showed except in his ruddy complexion, nevertheless he became a bottle of whisky a day man. Later in the desert he organised a steady supply of booze from Alexandria, but was captured at Mechili in April 1941 and the drinking ceased immediately. He lasted a year, but died in Italy a shrunken shrivelled man, who had been liked and respected by officers and the men he commanded.
The Shell Ness project was completed soon after the Dunkirk debacle when the whole of the army was in turmoil. So we all were sent on leave for seven days while things and people were sorted out a bit.
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Our new unit was formed as Support Group Engineers to 7th Armoured Division, which was already in the Western Desert fighting the Italians. The new reinforcements brought the unit strength up to 265 other ranks, together with the officers comprising 4th Field Squadron RE [Royal Engineers] and a Field Park Troop a part of which was the workshop troop which was my command. The new chaps comprised a lot of time-expired old sweats who were reservists in their 30’s recalled from jobs and families to the colours, many with mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation. All these were skilled tradesmen and my senior in age. The remainder were young recruits from the RE [Royal Engineer] training battalions at Chatham and Ripon, with a sprinkling of ex-boys from Chatham and Chepstow, tradesmen all.
The officer intake was young and inexperienced, the product of public school cadet forces with a few months military education at the RE [Royal Engineers] Officer Cadet Training Unit.
All were quartered in a tented camp adjacent to St George’s barracks Aldershot under the benevolent gaze of Squadron Sgt Major Claud Cumper.
Let me tell you about Claud.
We first met in the squadron office of the 1st Field Squadron on the day that I was a humble Sapper on promotion to Lance Corporal in 1938. The troop task had been the building of a replacement bridge at the entrance to the Rushmoor arena where the Aldershot military tattoo was an annual event. The replacement bridge was a “Bailey” structure overseen by the great man himself; the components were flanged tubes, later they became square boxed sections.
The bridge was built and we were shovelling hard-core and gravel topping onto the bridge approaches perspiring with effort under the hot autumn sun and the sharp eyes of a tough sergeant.
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Suddenly – a despatch rider – all noisy motor cycle, flash gauntlets, helmet and goggles! Harris is wanted at the Squadron office so double off!
En route and agitated, wondering what sort of trouble I was in, decided to wash, change into clean uniform and spruce up. At the office, wheeled in by the Sgt Major before Major DW A Cleeve RE [Royal Engineer], a fearsome regular officer whose time had largely been spent in India on a horse playing polo or pig sticking. In England his fun was point to pointing, and it was said that he would treat a horse better than he would treat a man. In the event he asked a couple of questions about educational attainment then curtly said “you are a Lance Corporal”.
Outside again the Sgt Major, grinning, said that at first parade on the morrow I was to present myself at the office to Staff Sergeant Cumper here to be inducted as the Squadron orderly corporal, and to put the stripe up.
My uniform jacket had to go to the tailors for the application of the stripes, and on the way, feeling jubilant (after all, the pay went up that day from 3/9d to 6/9d) and in my youthful foolishness I rejoiced in the mistaken belief that never again would one ever have to use a pick or a shovel!
In the barrack room that evening, surreptitiously pinning stripes to overalls it became very obvious that I had lost all my friends.
One must remember that those were the piping pre-war days of peace when regimental idioms held sway. A lance-corporal was a figure of substance and authority, one stood to attention when addressed by one of them and responded ‘Yes Corporal, No Corporal’!
At nineteen years of age, as a lance-jack I saluted (twice) on Fridays for two guineas = two pounds and two shillings = 42 shillings all found. The average workman’s wage then was around 30 to 35 shillings, from which he had to find food, accommodation and coal to heat himself and most probably a wife and children.
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So I was rich. Never so, since.
Back to Claud Cumper.
He had recently finished a stint (of 3 years) in Singapore with a searchlight outfit. In those days ‘the lights’ were a Sapper responsibility, I suppose it was because there was electricity to be generated – very highly technical in the army then. He was an ex boy of course about ten years older than me, a contemporary of my brother at Chepstow. Tallish, burly, fleshy in a muscular way, he was married, no children. It transpired later that his wife had cancer which was eventually terminal.
His job at 1st Field Squadron was Pay Sergeant. This involved every aspect of unit accounting down to the very last penny, using the cumbersome (no pun, honest) military system of double entry, which he proceeded to teach me in detail and at length, together with office procedures and intimacy with the Pay Warrant and King’s Regs.
As soon as proficiency showed I was elevated again to full corporal and appointed messing corporal for the Squadron. This involved drawing up menus for the troop’s meals, acquiring the rations from the RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] depot and buying comestibles from the NAAFI [Navy Army and Airforce Institute] stores. Of course, every last piece of bread and jam had to be accounted for, under Claud Cumper’s eagle eye, and a very close watch had to be made on the cooks and the kitchen helpers who are universally known to be crooked, devious thieves.
The secret of good army catering lies in the excess ingredients. A staple then, using stale bread was bread pudding with a fair lashing of dried fruit in it and the eternal rissole. Fortunately, we had a reservist cook who, with a few herbs (unknown in army circles) could make rissoles to dream about, which literally melted on the tongue and were clamoured for by all who sampled them.
Another very cheap staple was fried eggs and chipped potatoes, still a favourite in my old age. The accrued savings went towards mushroom stalks bought in bulk for next
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to nothing from a Hampshire mushroom farmer. A fair portion instead of beans with bacon was a frequent treat, as was cream on the spotted dick instead of milk less custard. Sugar increased in the tea too because the cooks found it impossible to steal. All in all, the soldiers waxed fit and fat.
This stage of affairs continued up to the outbreak of war in September 1939. Then I was posted as an officer cadet at the RE [Royal Engineers] OCTU [Officer Cadet Training Unit] Mons barracks at Aldershot. Although cadets, the regular other ranks (all ex boys!) were mostly employed in teaching the others of the intake. I recall instructing in field works and demolitions and believe this helped when I failed in the adequate description of the use of a coil in a vehicle engine. Also, the maths was much higher and somewhat beyond my ken and with hindsight I think this, too, was deliberately overlooked. The brutal fact was they needed the experienced bodies to replace those lost at the Dunkirk fiasco and before.
As the course ended, the incoming bunch included NCO’s [Non-Commissioned Officers] who had been my instructors at Chatham! Famous names in the Corps, Hargreaves, Pye, Green, others. I took a great delight in putting the frighteners on them about the maths. They all listened very solemnly, biting their lips a bit, eyes roving, quick sideways glances. I loved it!
Back to Claud Cumper again!
When we formed at Aldershot for 4th Field Squadron with Claud as Sgt Major – his wife had died. Claud had changed into a thin gaunt fellow, rather acrid in loneliness. The situation was a little odd. I was now his superior although in fact it did not worry either of us. On parade he was completely supportive. The only place where a unit becomes a whole entity is on the drill square and by decree there was a lot of that. Off parade Claud could be abrasively critical of the whole operation. Perhaps I was the only chap he felt he could talk to. The Colonel was a remote 1914/18 old soldier recalled to the colours. The second-in-command was a patrician. The Adjutant was a little man who bounced around poking his nose in, nicknamed ‘Spring Heel Jack’; it
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was appropriate. The other officers treated him as a senior other rank. In fact, he was the fountain of all wisdom (mostly untapped) in army lore, and the mainspring of the training programme.
Later, in the desert he became more and more desperate and took to doing very dangerous things. After one incident (I was away at the time and never learnt the detail) Claud was given an immediate commission in the field and a Military Cross, appointed second-in-command and senior to just about everyone else. Including me!
At sometime in the late 1940s he died as a mercenary in an African jail after torture.
The training proceeded apace and the unit was settling down into something of a cohesive body. We knew where we were destined and the equipment (except vehicles and ammunition) came in and was distributed by the day.
Then the Germans began bombing London, and after a couple of days of it all, the London soldiers became very agitated about their families and asked for passes which were denied them (rightly I think now). Three of them went absent without leave and this was duly reported to me by the troop sergeant at first parade. I consulted Claud and together with the troop sergeant averred that nothing would be noticed until the first parade of the day after tomorrow.
Two of them were back in good time as though nothing had happened. The third somehow got himself caught up in a train muddle and did not appear until noon on the third day. He was charged with absence from first parade that day and privately cautioned to plead guilty, offer no excuse, and accept summary punishment.
The CO [Commanding Officer] gave him seven days defaulters, which mean that all his spare time would be spent dashing about cleaning latrines and swill tubs and picking up cigarette butts, etc. whilst his chums made his bed and cleaned his kit, etc.
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The bombing subsided a little but everyone relaxed a lot. Meanwhile, London was burning down.
We entrained at Aldershot station for Liverpool and embarked on the SS [Steam Ship] ‘Orontes’ sailing in atrocious weather in the Atlantic around the top of Ireland to join a slow convoy of vessels herded by destroyers, in mountainous seas. Everyone was desperately sea sick until the weather eased and we found our sea legs.
The vessel operated very much on the pre-war class system. All the officers had comfortable single cabins and dined on pre-war first class provender with wines by the list on demand, duty free cigars and spirits, etc. The troops’ accommodation was dreadful and the food poor too. All sorts of complaints were made. The Colonel took it all up with the ship’s captain but nothing was done.
As we approached Freetown on the African west coast for refuelling in the humidity and heat of the ‘tween dicks’ (without air-conditioning in those days) we almost had a mutiny – I would have mutinied! -only averted by the Colonel really reading the Riot Act, then promising all sorts of goodies when we had reached Cape Town. He made good his promises too! Everyone had a smashing time there being entertained by the hospitable South Africans who took our ‘brutal and licentious soldiers’ into their homes and cosseted them a little.
The days there were a little marred for me by what was a rather odd racist incident. Seeking to buy a pair of soft brown shoes I spotted quite a prosperous busy shoe store named ‘Harris Shoes’. In uniform, I entered and was greeted by the welcoming proprietor. I told him my needs and volunteered that I was there because my name was Harris and perhaps it was appropriate to buy there. Smiling, he turned and summoned his wife saying something like – “this chap’s name is Harris and he wants to buy from us”. His wife immediately said “Are you Jewish?” Startled, unnerved rather, I stammered that I did not think so, and she straight away left without a word watched
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by two dumbfounded people. Embarrassed beyond belief he found me the shoes, I paid for them and left, wondering in naivety what the hell all that was about.
We re-embarked, sailed the African east coast, through Suez to Ismailia towards a tented camp outside Heliopolis west of Cairo. After a few days of acclimatisation we were issued with vehicles, mainly 30 cwt [Hundredweight] and 3 ton Bedford trucks, and soon headed along the Alexandria road and the coast road through those notable battles places, Sidi Barrani, Fort Capuzzo, Mersa Matruh, finishing west of Benghazi at El Agheila.
I commanded a workshop troop, each Sapper a skilled tradesman, including bricklayers, plasterers, tinsmiths, etc – a fat lot of use in the desert. Indeed, the whole operation was a complete waste of time, labour, material and men’s lives and health.
The troop blacksmiths were employed day and night repairing vehicle springs for the Bedford trucks which could not have been more unsuitable for desert track conditions. We had a forge and anvils and spent days cannibalising wrecked vehicles. Other tasks included attempting to make lavatory seats out of the slats of wood which made the crates carrying petrol tins – a useless occupation.
Another was to make grapple hooks for use by the Long Range Desert Group. They should have been made in the Delta, Cairo or Alexandria – from spring steel properly tempered after bending. All we had was a ½” round mild steel rod. Useless!
After a few months it became apparent to all concerned that there was a serious misuse of trained soldiers and the ‘workshop’ was largely diverted to more useful tasks.
The food in the desert was indifferent – the best was McConachie’s stew in tins. Tinned potatoes, bully beef and army biscuits. More often than not the water was brackish to the point where it curdled condensed milk. Tea was brewed in cans which had been used to bring petrol forward, a handful of tea to the gallon of boiling water.
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After a while everyone was filthy with fine sand everywhere especially in sand storm conditions. All had desert sores caused by biting flies. First a blister starts then bursts and the sore eats into the flesh. I still have scars on my hands now rather camouflaged by liver spots. The medication was “blue unction” a compound of Condy’s fluid! There were lots of blue faces and limbs around. The troops wore those long shorts which folded back to the thighs – a ridiculous garment. It was forbidden to remove shirts and they soon became sweat impregnated. Steel helmets were never worn, just side caps pulled well down. Hair became long, matted and infrequently washed. Despite the north African sun there were no sun glasses to be had, only anti-gas shades which helped to keep the sand out of one’s eyes. Cataracts in later life have been the penalty.
The desert was a dangerous place, without the intermittent evening air attacks. Movement along the tracks were very bumpy and most uncomfortable. Each truck had a lookout for any aircraft which were always enemy. The only RAF [Royal Air Force] aeroplane that I can remember was a Lysander trundling forward and back on reconnaissance and the uncomfortable urge to shoot at it. All the side doors of the trucks had been tossed away. On spotting any aircraft the truck was halted and everyone fled away from it – doors would have been a hindrance. Sitting in the desert heat watching the truck blaze after being strafed, waiting for someone to come along and recover you – not the happiest of situations.
Apart from fuel for the vehicles, water is the life blood of the desert. It was served to all the units in water trucks carrying oval tanks of perhaps 200 gallons, and was strictly rationed. The vehicles came first, but there was always enough for a couple of tea brews every day, and a daily wash and shave was obligatory. All-over bathing and laundering was out.
We saw to it that every vehicle had at least one five gallon jerrican of water aboard for the emergency use, regularly inspected with rigour.
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One day I was detailed to go to a site outside recently captured Derna and check some rough buildings for booby traps. One approaches this sort of thing very carefully indeed, one wary step at a time; stop dead still and examine everything minutely before taking another step. Halfway through the job, motionless at the entrance to a very rough built room, I felt a tingle and itch in both legs and looking down, my trousers to knee height were boiling with a thick coating of fleas. In horror I exited on the run to the truck parked with driver some distance away, stripping off en-route and shouting “get the water – get the water!” The driver, standing in the truck, poured the contents of the jerrican over me as I chased the fleas out of the body hair. We were so absorbed in this that we did not notice that we were about to be attacked by a passing Jerry aircraft. Their aim was always to destroy the vehicle, so the approved action in an air attack was to get away from the truck as far as possible as quickly as possible. So bollock naked I streaked across the desert for my life. The Jerry lined up his run, pranged the truck, and made a lazy departure probably splitting his sides with laughter. Perhaps he thought that there had been gay goings-on!
However, I swore the driver to solemn secrecy, but reported it to the Adjutant who ordered me back to the buildings to toss a couple of grenades in and make them thoroughly uninhabitable, which I did.
There was a howl from the Guards Brigade. They had wanted to set up some sort of exclusive bar there, but the matter was not mentioned to me again.
There was another water cart incident when a Sapper in another troop nicked a full one and deserted with it back to Cairo. Quite an unusual case, really.
Early this year of Grace 1996, the newspapers created a brochure about pardons for the soldiers in World War I who were executed for desertion and a letter in the Telegraph referred to the desert incident – (the writer had probably been the troop commander) saying that in his opinion, this Sapper should have been shot.
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It so happened that I was the defending officer at the court martial set up when the red caps caught up with him some months later. The fact was that every unit in the desert had newly commissioned young officers in charge of soldiers for the first time in their lives, anxious to win their spurs and full of gung ho whizzes to seek the approbation of their commanding officers.
These schemes invariably put soldiers’ lives at risk. The desert is a perilous place at the best of times without the imposition of vain glorious nonsense and I suspect that the chap who made off with the water cart for a spell in Cairo was not fleeing from the enemy. It was not he who should have been shot. However, he broke the rules seriously and was punished for it, with a year or so in a military prison. Nuff said.
West of Benghazi, forward in the desert and ahead of the line of Kings Dragoons – armoured cars marking the front was a series of largish storage tanks which I was detailed to look at with a view to their recovery. It was dangerous territory and I went mob-handed with a section of 20 men and a corporal.
As we gingerly approached the site we saw an unfamiliar vehicle in the offing, so with suspicion I deployed the solders into skirmishing order with safety catches off. The, revolver in hand warily approached the storage tanks all half buried in sand. Suddenly, among them, a head popped up wearing a General Officers’ red-banded cap.
It was the big boss himself – the Chief Engineer. I holstered the weapon and saluted while he eyed me and the soldiers, then he said that I was wasting my time – the tanks were not worth salvaging. Without a hint of sarcasm mark you, I enquired whether the area had been checked for booby traps and mines. He grimaced, paled a bit, harrumphed then departed with his driver without a further word.
I had the area checked very thoroughly for nasties and reported back to the Colonel, who glowered a bit.
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It was a curious incident about which I have frequently wondered. Why should a very senior officer put himself so casually at risk in a very dangerous situation like that? Apart from booby traps, we could easily have been an enemy forward patrol and really he should have known better. It was rather like keeping a dog (me!) then barking for it.
Soon after the advent of Rommel the Germans swept forward in what became known as the 1st Agheila Handicap. By encirclement very many British units were captured, Mechili was the pivotal point. Fortunately my troop was apart from the main body and we fled westwards to Tobruk which became a besieged stronghold, defended by an Australian Division. We were put to work on the southern perimeter, with mines and barbed wire and booby traps. Subsequently our task was the repair of the quays on the northern deep water side of the harbour. All the time we were bombed, particularly by German Stuka dive bombers.
One day, at short notice, we were ordered to hand in our vehicles and arms and make ready to embark on a vessel anchoraged in the harbour – the MV ‘Chakla’. Much elation! We were getting out – but there was a slight snag. The ‘Chakla’ was loaded with ammunition and it had to be unloaded – by guess whom! From the vessel into lighters to the quayside and reloaded onto vehicles for shoreside storage. Everyone set to with a will, and the vessel was three quarters empty when the Stukas came and bombed the bows off, so everything sank very quickly and we all had to swim for our lives.
The soldiers subsequently made it very clear that if they were expected to do similar work during daylight hours they would be very unhappy indeed.
Eventually we were evacuated from Tobruk by sea on a RN [Royal Navy] destroyer to Alexandria, destined for Cairo and the desert again. All had been in the desert continuously for about 9 months, and we were the only experienced Sappers left in the Delta – 35 out of
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a complement of 265 officers and men. The lads were champing at the bit and on arrival in Alexandria we arranged some pay for them and gave them passes – to parade next morning at the railway station for the train to Cairo. To the credit of all – every single body turned up on time.
On arrival at Cairo, my companion officer and I were ordered to report immediately to the General Command HQ [Headquarters] at the Semiramis Hotel. Amid staring base-wallah personnel we were directed to a very pretty and beautifully uniformed young ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] subaltern who reacted very badly at the sight of us – long, matted hair framing sun-blackened faces, sweat rotted shirts and desert sand stained slacks, side arms prominent on our belts.
Perhaps she was down wind of us and had a good whiff of our personal perfume. The instinctive horror on her well-bred face will never be forgotten – maybe she imagined that her honour was about to be besmirched. She nearly screamed for help.
In the post-war years there have been repeat TV screenings of some ‘desert’ films – ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ is one of them. Watching them with contempt I have never forgotten that girl’s reaction to a passive aspect of real soldiering.
The power in the Garrison Engineers’ store in Ismailia lay in the hands of the Quartermaster – who was an ex-Chepstow boy. Naturally, after a couple of drinks with him he fixed me up with several hundreds of feet of good square-edged timber and two dozen toilet seats. They had been in the store from time immemorial and he was pleased to be rid. A few were superior, made of mahogany, with lids and brass hinges and I selected the best for the Colonel, Second in Command and the Adjutant, whose names were carved onto them and they were then painted with local Egyptian varnish. (I know how to creep, with the best of em!) The point about the varnish is that it never really sets hard and becomes very sticky in hot sun. Of the remaining
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seats some were offered to the Adjutant, to placate his chums at Support Group HQ [Headquarters] and the others allocated to the three troops.
On making lager in the desert the very first duty was to dig latrines. Then the slit trenches. One had to be very careful about positioning, because in the event of (quite frequent) surprise aerial attacks one tended to jump straight into a slit trench and if a simple error was made, one was likely to be knee high in excreta.
Early in the campaign, lavatorial provisions were very primitive indeed. There was a pole along the length of the trench over which one parked one’s bum. The toilet seats and the timber provided facilities for comparatively sophisticated structures which lifted the process of the daily office into the 20th Century. At least a little delicacy was put into a tasteless business which has beset soldiers since pre-Roman times, it was much appreciated by all. The Colonel and his senior cronies had their own thunder-boxes of course, tended by their batmen.
The remainder of the timber was gradually finessed by the troop NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officer] and the old sweats to make beds. Just a simple frame with little folding legs and hessian stretched over. Anything for a little basic comfort.
In our depot outside Heliopolis we formed the nucleus of a new formation of Engineers to go forward again on “Operation Crusader”, relieving Tobruk en route. Unfortunately a substantial number of those on passes to Alexandria soon reported sick with a “socially transmitted disease”. The Colonel was very unhappy and I received a bitter tongue lashing from him.
Of course, all this was well before the advent of El Alamein. All power to the Eighth Army but the desert war against the Italians and the Germans had been in progress for more than two years before Montgomery appeared on the scene – a fact not generally recognised nowadays.
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Little credence has been given to those who were the real Desert Rats. My 21st birthday as a young officer, was spent in a hole in the desert sand really like a rat sheltering from the German bombs while our own air-force was nowhere to be seen.
The youth of many young men was needlessly frittered away in those largely forgotten years.
Before moving up to the desert front again we were quartered in the same tented camp outside Heliopolis. The troops were regularly paid on Fridays when in the Delta for spending over the weekend in the fleshpots of Cairo. Passes were issued to most of the soldiers. The cash was prepared by the Squadron pay corporal who regularly looked after the excess which was normally about £50. There was no safe or otherwise really secure place for the money.
However, one weekend someone stole it, and the theft was reported to me and I reported it on, resulting in an investigation by the military police. Two months later in the desert, up to our waists in sand and bombs there was formally convened a Court of Inquiry into the disappearance of the money. No matter that vehicles worth thousands of pounds were being regularly destroyed – some of them deliberately by me in the face of the enemy or that chaps being maimed daily by enemy action or that the wasteful destruction of war encompassed us everywhere one looked.
The Court was presided by a Major, white skinned and very regimental, probably just off the boat from England. The findings of the Inquiry pointed to me as a guilty party by neglect, and recommended that the CRE [Commander Royal Engineers] – my Colonel – should administer a formal reprimand, and that I should pay the £50. On hearing all this, the Colonel quietly vomited – we had known and respected and trusted one another for about fifteen arduous months. No wigging, but there was no way out of paying the cash penalty.
All these years later my indifference is equalled only by my contempt for a system which enforced reparation from the pitiful taxed pay of a 21 year old junior officer, as its acknowledgement of lonely, utterly exhausting and frightening dangerous hours,
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days, months and years on the only front then in contact with the enemy. Against that scenario, and at that moment, I ceased to be a dedicated lifelong soldier of the King, despite the onerous oath of allegiance and the ‘Kings shilling’ taken seven years previously.
There was worse to come.
In those days £50 was quite a sum of money. Its purchasing power would nowadays be well in excess of a thousand pounds.
I paid the cheque to the appropriate body but its encashment depleted my account with the Egyptian bank into which monthly drafts were transferred from my pay, by Lloyds Bank in Pall Mall.
The president of the Regimental Institute, a junior officer and a ‘friend’ since cadet days found that another cheque for a mess bill, a relatively paltry £2 odd, had bounced as a consequence of the £50 withdrawal. The only decent thing to have done would have been to ask me about it, in which case with another presentation a couple of days later it would have been cleared. Instead, fired by military zeal, he took the matter straight to the Second-in-Command without any reference to me.
Bounced cheques are a serious misdemeanour among service officers. The inference is that the offender is unreliable, possibly dishonest, perhaps a gambler but anyway, a suspect with a cloud over him. So, without notice I was summarily summoned to explain, then given the most enormous wigging of my life. Ever since I have been extremely meticulous about payments of any sort and very cautious with banks and banking generally. Except of course with my wife, from whom I sometimes borrow (my own money mark well!) some small sum for the football pools or the lottery and then forget to repay it.
‘Sod’s law decrees
Bad things come in threes!’
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The third rotten event was a nasty strafing by enemy aircraft when we were moving forward to the front. My batman lost his right elbow. Not much blood, but bone and tissue dreadfully exposed. In severe shock he just smiled. Stretchered away, I have never seen or heard of him since.
In the same raid, a small boulder sent erupting from the desert surface struck my left shoulder and dislocated it. On the way to the field dressing station in a truck as walking wounded I fondly imagined that a spell in a base hospital would make a welcome break. Instead, the cold-hearted doctor just painfully snapped the joint into place and with emollients for the bruising strapped it up a bit and cast me back to duty, with continuing discomfort for a couple of weeks.
Gad! We were a rugged lot in those days!
Having reformed as a viable unit and trained the reinforcements with some semblance of desert lore we began again the long trek westwards past the familiar places. Eventually my troop found ourselves on detachment to Giarabub, a small oasis on the edge of the great sand sea, pumping water for the force attacking Giallo, an isolated fortress some way to the west. It was beyond the extremity of the German right flank and free from aerial attack. Indeed, apart from the rotten food, the saltwater and the millions and millions of flies, life was relatively pleasant. I lived fairly comfortably in a ridged double tent with a canvas floor. A return to the elements of regimental discipline in kit inspections and range firing. On Christmas Day 1941 there was a football match organised against a South African team, and we all dressed very respectably for the occasion.
Suddenly ordered north to Benghazi because Rommel had started the second Handicap (which ended at El Alamein) our task was the demolition of two ammunition dumps. We made it all ready and waited for the order to fire everything but when the job was done it was too late to escape from Benghazi, which had by then been encircled by the enemy. When the situation became clear and final, we destroyed the vehicles, marched
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along the coast eastwards on the beach beside the road – with a minefield on the other side. At dusk, everyone exhausted, we dug shallow foxholes around a small spinney of palms, set sentries and slept a little. We had been on the go for more than 36 continuous hours.
At dawn there came a German skirmishing patrol and there was an exchange of fire when their officer was killed. Shortly after, there arrived a German company in vehicles on the road and we were shelled and mortared until it became obvious that further loss of life and limb was pointless. At least eight of us were killed, about twelve wounded. We surrendered – hands in the air and all that, to German cries of “Kriegsgefangenen” and “for you the war is over-jah! Meanwhile -raus! schnell!”. In Benghazi we were handed to the Italians in a makeshift cage, heavily guarded.
Bombing is bad enough and so is artillery fire but being mortared is very personal. First one hears the cough of the weapon in the vicinity. Then the whistle of the falling shell and one can frequently spot them coming in; then comes the explosion and one is aware that it is intended just for you. It is very scaring, an experience never forgotten but rarely talked about.
Nowadays, the sight of a cricket ball falling near is sufficient to produce a frisson of anxiety and an instinctive desire to fling oneself prove.
My forefathers were sailors since the time of the US Armada and a noted psychologist once told me that the ‘ball’ syndrome probably relates in my historic memory to cannon balls. I accept this – all my life I have had an aversion to any ‘sports’ using spherical balls. Rugby football is OK – the ball is ellipsoid. My father and brother felt the same.
There followed the worst, most uncomfortable journey of my life, south then westwards to Tarhuna and Tripoli. Four hundred miles standing packed together on an open 20-tonne Italian springless diesel lorry. Each day’s ration was one biscuit very hard and dry (about 3 inches square) and half a very small tin of Italian bully, which is
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horsemeat and quite delicious if one is hungry. A little brackish water once a day. The intervening nights were spent in caged lagers, previously occupied. There were no latrine arrangements and it was impossible to find a spot to lie, among the piles of defecation. Of course, we had to go too, so those who were unfortunate to follow us had a worse problem.
Eventually we reached the transit camp at Trig Tarhuna which was quite dreadful. It was jam-packed with prisoners, the bulk being from 4th Indian Division. Cholera was suspected in the camp and there were many deaths particularly among the Indian troops, Sikhs especially who could not take the food on religious grounds and who had to wash themselves several times a day.
A German “oompah” band marched round the camp every day – triumphalist bastards they are the same today – and there was an incessant singing of “Lili Marlene” which I have loathed every since. In the camp I met an old friend, ex-boy – Ernie Cox, and we became “mukkas”.
EC was a thumping good soldier from a soldiering family. His father was then a RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] in the Buffs stationed in Burma when EC was born and his infant years were spent there, hearing the language and local patois.
He gravitated naturally to the Apprentice Training School at Chepstow and learned chippie work – carpentry, joinery and cabinetmaking, carrying off all the small trade incentive prizes which were going.
A non-smoker, he excelled at cross country running and at school work, and was promoted through the various apprentice ranks to company sergeant major – which is the second highest juvenile rank in the army. Commissioned in 1940 he was seconded from the Royal Engineers to the Indian Army Sappers and Miners and was captured in the desert serving with 4th Indian Division.
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He was not fortunate in evading transport from Italy after 8th September 1943 and spent the remainder of the war in a German prison camp. The final days of his sojourn were pretty dire from all accounts, although strangely, we have never discussed them.
It is not my intention to eulogise EC, indeed one could not say that we are close friends, but my admiration of him exceeds that of all other men encountered in a long and woeful life.
In the 1930s pre-war soldiering was a brutal business especially for boys, who were perpetually hungry. Our instructors were survivors of the Somme and the Dardanelles. Harsh discipline was paramount because they knew that in the final analysis it is the only quality which just might save one’s life and anyway, it would make soldiering a little easier in the long run.
This, coupled with a benevolence veiled to near extinction for those they taught, in the coarse and rigid methods of a 1914 style army, there was stamped a little iron into the souls of each of us lads. Yet despite the endemic barrack-room profanities I have never heard EC use a dirty word or a crude or boorish expression. A God-fearing fellow, he has always striven for targets of perfection – not many army boys of his age and group succeeded to the rank of Lieut. Colonel Commander Royal Engineers with an MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire] and a Mention to boot.
I understand that in Burma, when he finished his time, there is a military road dedicated to and named after him. What an accolade!
After about three weeks at Tarhuna we were taken to Tripoli and loaded onto freighters, into the tiered hatches and battened down. The convoy set sail across the Mediterranean for Palermo and thence to Naples and was attacked by aircraft en-route, and that was not a nice experience.
Rations were issued as the ship sailed. Two of the hard square dog biscuits and two tins of meat each to last for the five day trip.
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At Naples we were disembarked and marched through the dockside streets to a delousing shed, then to a transit camp at Capua on a very slow uncomfortable train with all the usual undignified squalor associated with prisoners the world over.
Capua was a little more civilised. I recall that it was a long arduous walk through the slums from the station to the barbed wire enclosure. There were mattresses and bedding with sheets and big Red Cross blanket each. Food was indifferent and quite desperately short. It was sold to our messing officer by a rapscallion contractor from Capua.
There was no breakfast-just a cup of “coffee” made from roasted cereals. Lunch was a skimpy mess of either pasta or rice and the evening meal was similar only less. At lunch we were usually issued with one hundred grams of hard grey bread and perhaps an orange, jam from time to time.
There was constant talk of Red Cross parcels of food, provided by the Allies and allegedly distributed to the various PW camps from Switzerland. During the sojourn at Capua I cannot remember a single issue, although the intention was to give each prisoner a parcel of food every week. Some hope!
Officer prisoners had to pay for their food. This was by way of special camp currency according to his rank. As a lieutenant my pay was 950 and out of this one had to pay the messing bill. What most of us did not realise was that all those payments – from the date of capture – were deducted from one’s pay in England. Further, the exchange rate was 72 lire to the pound sterling. The rates of pay and the rates of exchange were agreed with the Germans and Italians by the latter part of 1940. In 1942 the true rate of lire exchange was 400 to the pound. This was reflected in the prices we had to pay, so we did not get much food for the money. As the rate of exchange became increasingly unrealistic the result was that nearly all the advances had to be used to meet basic needs.
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The deductions made in England from the pay of officers who were prisoners in Italy were made after income tax, and for the most junior officers the pay deductions were of the order of 60% of their pay.
It is significant that our Allies did not suffer these deductions – particularly the Australians, Americans and New Zealanders. Our enemies did not financially suffer either – only the UK prisoners.
On return to England after a prolonged and particularly hazardous period it was galling to learn that there was no monetary redress for either the food so grudgingly supplied, or the token money spent to acquire it.
In the 80’s, with wartime memories being stirred, there arose a crescendo of clamour from ageing prisoners for natural justice. There is incontrovertible evidence that in 1945 the Government of the day misappropriated some £800,000 extracted from prisoners’ pay. The value of what was, and still is owned to ex POWs now must be well in excess of £20 million.
Highlighted in the press some dreadful stories of official parsimony emerged. One fellow (L H Jole of Aylesbury) had a fine imposed on him by the Germans for damage arising from tunnelling. This resulted in a deduction from his pay account at home in England.
Another (W Kerruish of Cambridge) bought clothing from the Italians at penal rates, to replace his battledress no longer wearable due to bloodstains from a battle wound and tearing and filth from an escape attempt. The MOD [Ministry of Defence] rejected his claim.
Eventually, with pressure from the House of Lords, the Government reluctantly mounted an enquiry which effectively concluded with a letter signed by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, that the Government had satisfied itself after the most thorough investigation that there was no impropriety or major injustice involved and no useful purpose would be served by raking over the embers of the past.
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At the ad hoc committee presided by Mr Geoffrey Pattice in 1980, the evidence of the ex PW was not heard, their written evidence ignored and bluntly, the MOD [Ministry of Defence] lied.
The bitter truth is that we know we were robbed, swindled, cheated, but will never be able to prove it to the point where any money will be handed back.
A subsequent appeal to the European Court was rejected because it was “out of time”.
But I digress – back to prison:
In April 42 we left Capua for Padula, where the prison venue was an ancient monastery. The building was monumental with allegedly the largest cloisters in Europe surrounding a vast courtyard with a disused fountain as a centre-piece. Opening off the cloisters were chambers originally inhabited by generations of monks, now allotted to senior officer PW.
Directly above the cloisters, with exterior dressing of ionic pilasters were four wide long corridors in line with the four sides of the courtyard, elevated some forty feet above it. It was in these wings that the junior officers slept.
Again, the food was scarce and atrocious but there arose a truly scurrilous black market organised by a despicable “gentleman” from one of the better rifle regiments, and funded by the excess of token camp money paid to the senior officers. The junior officers saw little or nothing of it. Meanwhile there was no news of food parcels and hunger grew until it became really difficult to think of anything else.
It is axiomatic that the less you do, the less you have to do. Our time was spent in lethargic exercise, escape planning, study, lectures, interminable bridge. 17 or 18 months of youth wasting away, when we should have been playing manly sports and chasing (or being chased) by girls.
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Some months were enlivened by the arrival of Red Cross parcels or when mail from home arrived. Some of the prisoners were rich. Ernie Cox and I were among the poor. Riches consisted in receiving private parcels from rich relatives at home. The list of names of those for whom parcels were received were posted daily on the notice board. Some got two or three parcels at a time quite regularly. Others never once saw their name. It is called “character building”.
With the infrequent advent of Red Cross parcels came a surge in bartering. Non-smokers, for instance, swapped their fags for foodstuffs. I recall a glib fellow starting his bartering round with a parcel box containing only a small tin of Colman’s mustard powder, returning some hours later with a full box of goodies, all profit from swapping.
Among a certain segment gambling was rife. Bets were placed and paid for by written bankers order in the form of a letter home allowed monthly. In dire times cigarettes changed hands at £1 each.
There were some very clever chaps among the 500 odd occupants. There was always much talk about what one would do when the war ended. One chap – a pasty faced RAF [Royal Air Force] navigator, claimed that he had been born and bred in a brothel, and knew all the wrinkles and nuances of brothel keeping – and that is what he was going to do after the war.
The plot was – there would be found a nice site for an up-market restaurant, perhaps fifteen or twenty miles from the centre of London, i.e. within a reasonable motoring distance. The bordello would be above the restaurant. The attractive terms of employment would ensure that there would be an extensive queue of beautiful young tarts avid for work in his establishment.
In short, it was a sure-fire successful proposition. But alas! It had to be funded. So, with the help of a little Welsh lawyer in the camp they floated a limited liability company with 100 shares each priced at £30. This would provide £3000 for a deposit
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and start up costs, with a substantial bank loan or mortgage on the property. The issue was over subscribed! In order to satisfy the demand they held a draw for the shares among all the residents. I was fortunate in securing three shares for which I paid by banker’s order in the next mail.
Of course, I have not clapped eyes upon those chaps since. Experience teaches a school where only fools will learn, but it is galling to think that for fifty odd years I have been walking around in the knowledge that I am a serious stockholder in a prestigious bordello! Wish I knew where it is!
With Ernie Cox we settled into an existence made as comfortable as possible. We grew tomatoes on the window ledges, learned to speak Urdu, the military language of choice; brewed tea, etc. on a home-made stove and generally looked out for one another. Ernie continued in the army after the war and on retirement went into marketing. He lives in peace and tranquillity with a loving wife in Tenerife. For years we have been trying to meet up.
When the Allies landed at Salerno for the invasion of the Italian peninsula – it is not very far from Padula – we were hurriedly moved North by rail via Rome to Bologna.
The camp there was a converted Bersaglieri barracks and the camp staff were new and inexperienced in dealing with young and very devious British officers. We were soon digging away behind the canteen bar. The canteen was hardly used. There was nothing to drink, so we had an almost free run without having to worry much about noise (breaking concrete cannot be done silently) and soil disposal was relatively easy, onto the flower beds between the huts. The tunnel site was the best ever! Closest to the outside of the wire fence, perhaps 16 feet of tunnel – a piece of cake for experienced people.
We had adopted the Italianate leisurely approach but had worked steadily for about a fortnight when the Badoglio Government collapsed and Germans took over in Italy. That night we were technically free and the Senior British Officer, Brigadier Mountain
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decreed that at midnight we would march out of the camp properly, as disciplined British soldiers. We paraded with basic necessities and on the stroke of the hour marched out in two columns left and right, along the perimeter road which was hedged.
Unfortunately, the Germans were there, waiting for us and they opened up with machine guns and killed some and wounded more. Everybody was herded back into the camp, and the bodies laid out in the threshold inside the gate. We were paraded and counted. The German commander made a speech saying “how sorry” he was at the deaths but his troops were young, un-blooded and had misinterpreted their orders, etc.
The following morning early, after a quick discussion, we began work on altering the excavation to provide a refuge for hiding, by digging the earth from under the concrete into the exchange chamber. In shifts we worked day and night and the job was completed well before the evacuation parade. Everyone was to be taken “to a place of safety” in Germany.
The parade was at 2 pm and at about 1.45 pm we entered the excavation and were closed down by others who sprinkled dust etc. on and around the trapdoor.
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[Illustration by Fred Harris of the general layout of the main prison camp near Bologna where he spent the majority of his time as a POW during World War 2]
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[Illustration by Fred Harris of the escape tunnel that they built at the prison camp near Bologna]
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Other people escaped by hiding. Tony Gregson got out by clinging to the underside of the German ration truck. It did a round delivery trip and returned inside the camp with Tony still under – he had not found an opportunity to debark but he clung on beneath until it left again and in darkness he got away.
Jimmy Bourne and a companion prised up a manhole cover in a flower bed and hid in the sewer below. Friends had placed chairs and an easel around as though a lecture had been in progress. They emerged when the camp was clear and got away. I had heard that they had been discovered and shot or perished in some other way and was surprised and delighted when Jimmy called last year.
Another pair lifted a complete toilet cubicle – the latrines were the squatting Indian sort – and hid below, their chums replacing the sanitaryware. I do not know their fate.
Others, I was told, hid in the roof but with hindsight it does not seem to me to be a viable proposition given the German efficiency.
While we were in our tomb the Germans seriously searched for us. The first lot had epees which they prodded everywhere, including the flooring behind the bar.
The next lot had a dog which we heard padding above and snuffling over our heads. One of the Jerries’ relieved himself into the sink behind the bar which was there to rinse glasses, I suppose. The waste pipe had been pierced to allow a little air to come down and the tap was left dripping to help pull the air down. The urine ran down the pipe and cast a pall of aroma, apart from the liquid aspects. It was a real test of personal discipline not to gasp in outrage and be silent and absolutely still, while a despised German peed upon one. That was on the morning of the second day of our confinement. We realised, I think, that they would not keep it up indefinitely and all tended to relax a little afterwards, and the tension declined dramatically.
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There were seven of us. We lay in utter silence unmoving on the moist warmish soil for 34 hours until midnight on the second day when the coast was thought to be clear. We emerged at five minute intervals. I was clothed in underwear only and socks, boots hung around my neck. Frightened and expecting a bullet any second. The camp was still and floodlit, but steeling myself in the shadows, I went to the barrack room where my kit was, but all was looted and trashed.
Emboldened, I climbed the wire fence at a guard post and into it and down the steps to the outside of the camp and made my way beyond the rail-track and into a field of high growing corn, wondering what to do. It was cold, moist and very uncomfortable but I heard a rustling noise and remember being very scared that it was a German, perhaps with a dog, but a whispered Australian voice asked “Who are you?” It was JK [Jack Kirkman], an Australian pilot.
He had been intercepted and shot down in the sea while ferrying a fighter aircraft to Malta. A leg was broken and he was taken to the Italian military hospital in Casenta where it was set. Then broken and reset. Then broken and reset.
Anaesthetics were scarce in Italy, and there were certainly none available for injured prisoners of war.
When he was on his feet at last, the injured leg was about half-an-inch shorter than the other and it gave him continual pain, but he was a fair skinned blue-eyed Aussie stoic of Scots descent and he never whined about it.
However, he resolved that medicine and the relief of pain was to be his future and on conclusion of hostilities he took up the ANZAC [Australian and New Zealand Army Corps] Bill of Rights offer of medical training and in due course became an eminent professor of surgery in New South Wales.
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But I digress again:
We decided to approach an adjacent farmhouse and at cockcrow we did. The peasants there were alarmed but sympathetic and they gave us bread and cheese and old but clean clothing and we set off, vaguely eastwards. At about noon we met a young lady with a cycle who motioned me to stop where we were, and she would return with food and wine. The wine was a sparkling white and we drank the lot and fell asleep all the afternoon in an olive grove. We were awakened by a rough, tough looking bloke with a carbine, who wanted some sort of identification. Reassured that, at least, we were not Germans, he indicated that we were to accompany him to his leader and we did so with alacrity.
In a dispersed rough camp in the countryside some distance away we were introduced to a short dark haired brusque Italian who obviously had some military background. He greeted us warmly and made us as welcome as was possible there.
The troops were a rag-tag bunch with no discipline. Mainly evaders of military service – the Germans had decreed the conscription of all young men – some were out-and-out army deserters unable to return to their homes. There were half a dozen other rank British soldiers who formed a stable core to an otherwise useless rabble who drifted in and out of the organisation – such as it was – without conscience.
The main problem was food provision. Each man was expected to provide for himself. There was no automatic ration truck arriving daily. Hence everyone scavenged in the countryside. Chickens, sheep and pigs appeared quite regularly forfeited by others as the price of domestic peace. Eggs were in abundance. They were usually cooked in a pan on a wood fire with pieces of pork fat as an omelette. With a sprinkling of herbs that is a real feast for a hungry man when accompanied by fresh home baked bread and a glass or so of the terrible ‘red ink’ wine.
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Arms were another problem. There were not enough to go round, although I was given a 9 mm Biretta automatic, not much of a weapon.
Our first venture was an attack on a German ammunition train stationery for some days in a marshalling yard at Castel Bolagnese – somewhat west of Faenza on the Via Emilia. The demolition tactic which the partisan leadership thought to employ was to place explosive charges beneath the trucks between the wheels, but as a Sapper officer with useful field experience of such work I knew that the only way to destroy the trucks was to light fires beneath them, as explosive charges only scattered the munitions without obliterating them. After some consultation, that was the mode adopted.
The decision to attack the ammunition train was initially seized with acclaim, but explaining the logistics and having them put into effect was a very difficult business. There were alleged to be at least twenty trucks. To light fires with a reasonable chance of combustion demanded at least two man-loads of wood per truck, which meant at least fifty fellows willing to enter the forest, chop and collect the wood, then carry a substantial load subversively across country to the railway site. When the idea got across they were very enthusiastic but alas, where were the axes to chop the wood? Some sort of sortie was made to acquire suitable edged tools and the wood collection began apace.
When all the other gear was found – cordage for the timber and kindling, cans of oil and petroleum spirit filched from German vehicles – and the climate and moon were right, an order of battle was conveyed to the assembled troops and details made, all in rapid Italian Romagnola patois which I did (and still do not) understand. The body moved off with typical clamour for an exhausting tramp across the country, but the Italians are not fools, especially when there is danger, and surprisingly at the railway yard the operation went very smoothly indeed and in virtual silence.
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The fires were set under the trucks one by one in fairly rapid order and in sequence they were blazing merrily. Some of the shell cases had been broached for cordite which is very flammable and when the fires got to the ammunition there began a series of loud pops as more casings burst open and their contents burned. In all it was a satisfactory conflagration. I well remember the fire noises and the heat and light and shadows cast. In the pandemonium on withdrawal, I counted 18 trucks ablaze and saw the emergence of the German disturbance as I departed.
There was no evidence that the train had been guarded. No doubt the Germans had detailed Italians for the job. We were sure in the knowledge that the sabotage would stir the enemy up enormously.
All the Italians disappeared like wraiths and JK [Jack Kirkman] and I were left wondering what to do. Foolishly we had not thought beyond the demolition job; however, JK had heard that there was an aeroplane on the ground at Lugo, a township between Ravenna and Forli and we made our way there across country, sleeping rough and begging food.
On arrival at the airfield, the only aircraft was on the ground and wrecked, so visions of flight to the Allied lines dissipated rapidly. We were cold, wet, hungry, dirty and full of trepidation.
Suddenly we were confronted by a bunch of about eight young cyclists, fortunately friendly and who, with much excitement, carried us on the crossbars of their cycles into Lugo, past the municipal centre (full of fascist officials) and to an unidentified spot where we were passed to a senior communist who led us to a small house on the outskirts, very quiet and surrounded by open country on three sides.
(Later I was to learn that it was not Lugo but Massa Lombardo, a township somewhat north west of Lugo.)
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It was the home of a man named R. He was a blacksmith and mechanic who found work repairing agricultural machinery which was largely carried out in a workshop lean-to on the side of the house.
He was a staunch communist and a patriot with a wife and their children – later he was to be denounced and with his wife deported to another region from which he subsequently escaped. Afterwards, both he and his wife were honoured with Certificates and medals for the part they played in the resistance movement in 1944.
It was a small house by any reckoning. One room served as a sitting room and dining room leading to the kitchen. A ladder led upstairs to two bedrooms, the smaller of which JK [Jack Kirkman] and I occupied.
There was no electricity, no running water in the house, no mains drainage. Water came from an adjacent canal. The lavatory was a deep hole in the front garden over which one squatted in the dark of the night. Cooking was done on a wood fire in a large hearth.
The food was good but very sparse. We were confined to the bedroom for 23 hours per day and became very restive to the point that R appealed to his superiors and we were moved to a large farm south of the Via Emilia after about 35 days. This was done in full daylight in an ancient horse drawn carriage.
Of course we were dressed as and acted the part of peasants of the countryside, but the passage of German personnel vehicles and Fascist lorries was rather un-nerving. Little did we realise then that the hunt for us was in full tilt. The Germans had been very stirred up at the ammunition train destruction, and by interrogation had established that two Britishers were the brains behind it. They suspected that we were still in the area and were searching door to door in Lugo and around and about to find, capture and deal with us.
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At the farm we were hidden in a secret cellar for about 48 hours, then at night taken by lorry south through Meldola and Civitella. Then short of Galata we disgorged straight into mountain climbing westwards towards Premilcoure high in the Appenines.
There we met the bulk of the local partisan brigade, the 8th Brigata Garibaldi, headed by “Colonel Libero”. There were various platoons dispersed in various locations, of Italians who were army refugees, or youngsters evading military service. There was also a Russian “squadron” comprising Ukrainians, Georgians, Yugoslavs, etc. who were suspicious bitter men, very defensive and unwilling to accept direction (i.e. they did not take to orders from the leadership). One of their numbers, a Yugoslav named Mirko, a machine gunner (he carried it with him everywhere), became drunk too easily and in his cups attacked the local populace. After the second episode he was sentenced to death – justly, I think, for a particularly senseless brutal crime. He was taken into the forest and chained to a tree to starve to death.
The Russian platoon was led by Sergio Serotkin who was a lieutenant in the Soviet army. An inflexible fellow, he did not take kindly to the resistance movement command structure then emerging. Libero and he did not like one another, and Sergio chose to row his own boat as it were.
The Russians participated in the Biserno battle and several were wounded, two seriously, one in an eye, the other in the back. After the battle, their numbers depleted, the platoon went into deep hiding in another area.
When the war finished Sergio was ordered by the Russian ambassador in Rome to return home. Nothing has been heard of him since and informed opinion is that he probably disappeared into a Soviet concentration camp alongside many other soldiers who had made contact in the West.
For his activities in the Resistance, he was awarded a gold medal (a high Italian honour) but it has not been delivered to him.
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An active member of the Russian squad – for whom she was the cook, was an attractive seventeen year old girl name Guiseppina Venturini, known as “Nadia”. Her family was very strongly anti-fascist, indeed, her brother had fought in the Spanish civil war.
Enamoured of Sergio, she stuck with him until 1945 when he returned alone, to Russia, and oblivion.
There was little to do in the mountains except scavenge for food. From time to time we marched to Santa Sofia where, armed with long barrelled French rifles we took pot shots at the Fascist tower there and stirred them up.
Then I was wounded.
At night my platoon was moving in the moonlight along the muddy mule-track when suddenly there was a brisk firing from a sort of overhang in the cliffside and a bullet entered my leg above the right knee.
52 years later I was to learn that this was a deliberate attempt to kill me off They say it was done by a fascist infiltrator into the partisan brigade, but who knows?
All the Italians disappeared like ghosts and I was left alone in shock at the side of the track nursing my swelling leg and thinking that perhaps my number was up. After some hours JK [Jack Kirkman] arrived. He had been told about the affair and sought to have me rescued. On the back of a mule, him leading, we travelled all the rest of that night and all the next day deep into the mountainous crags (I think around Monte Guffone) to a very bleak and ramshackle house perched on the edge of a cliff with a small river steep below. The inhabitants comprised the grandfather, grandmother, father, mother and about four children. They were absolutely frightened to death of JK, of me, of what they had heard of the fascist militia and the German bogies. Also, they were on the point of starvation. Most of the peasant families had some sheep, goats, a cow or two
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and oxen perhaps. These poor people had a couple of chickens and what they could trap or snare in the forest, and nothing else.
It follows that I was not welcome. However, in some distress and clutching at a straw of sanctuary, in some discomfort I climbed a rough ladder into a quite large loft with a window and a humble bed in the corner, with a mattress of sorts upon it.
Perhaps JK [Jack Kirkman] twigged the situation and went to do something about it, but he soon departed and I did not see him again for about 3½ weeks. In the meantime, I was abandoned in the loft. Nobody in the family came anywhere near me for 10 days. The leg was swollen, suppurating at the wound entry, I was feverish and rapidly infested with lice. No food, no water, no toilet, no anaesthetic or aspirin. It was not a happy time. To keep up my spirits I sang-God Save the Queen, Rule Britannia, Hearts of Oak, Hurrah for the CRE [Commander Royal Engineers] and the 23rd Psalm among others.
The bullet which caused all the trouble is still in the bone above my knee. Two surgeons have separately declared that it would be pointless to remove it, so I have carried it around for King George VI for nearly 53 years, at times in some discomfort.
A year or so ago I made an application for a war pension on the basis of the wound and after several months’ procrastination and a medical, the Commission paid me a handsome sum which partially compensated for the official pay theft which all Italian officer prisoners suffered.
When it comes to “looking after” ex-service personnel our country is the worst in the world. The only organisation, apart from regimental associations which actively pursues the welfare of ex-service people is the Royal British Legion. It seems to me that the Government, in the shape of the MOD [Ministry of Defence] is in perpetual adversity.
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One morning there was a noise on the ladder and a young inquisitive faced peered at me above the rim. I smiled, made encouraging noises and beckoned him into the attic and towards me. As soon as he was near enough I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and clapped an automatic weapon to his head. His loud screams soon brought others and in exchange for his life then and there (I meant it and they knew), they firstly brought some water, bathed my wound and applied a sort of coal-tar poultice to it, then produced a small sausage of all things. After drinking lots of water and with a potty provided I made an agonising toilet and washed as far as was possible.
From that moment I began to get better, and demanded sticks to make a pair of crutches to stomp around the attic, and when feeling strong enough, arranged that there was a deep cushion of hay or straw at the bottom of the ladder and I fell deliberately onto my back halfway down it. Soon I was perambulating around the house and tossed the crutches away for sticks for walking.
Eventually JK [Jack Kirkman] sent a muleteer and mule for me with a note advising of a better refuge with a prosperous family, and astride a mule again we set off for a place named Poggio alla Astra (‘the hill to the stars’) a small settlement above Santa Sofia (which was teaming with republican fascist militia and Germans).
The house was a small stone built cottage well above the settlement, comprising a kitchen/dining/sitting room and two bedrooms aside. A ladder led to a small loft directly under the eaves with a bed, a chair, a washstand with basin and jug and a window. Outside was a stable for a pair of cows and oxen and another for sheep and goats. A water spring was adjacent with cold clear water direct from the mountain behind. In front of the house was a small grassed area, vines in the background, sheep grazing. Sitting on a stone and knitting was a young lady who completely ignored me, did not respond to my polite ‘buon giorno’ and just continued knitting.
The muleteer departed with his animal and I sat on the side despondent until a couple of hours later there arrived the master of the house. His wife had been inside all the time. I though it best to tell him that I was lousy and perhaps should sleep in the stable
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with the animals, but he would not have it, and told me to go to the attic, remove all my clothes and throw them out of the window. Then I was to wash all over with the harsh soap provided – it is an efficacious disinfectant – and I shampooed my hair. He provided a clean set of clothing, removed my boots for disinfection and in socks I sat in the yard while his brother cut my hair super-convict style and gave me another scalp disinfection. Then into the house to properly meet his wife Alice – a timorous woman and very wary of me indeed, and his sister Pasquina who had been sitting knitting and minding the sheep.
During the meal and after a couple of glasses of the atrocious red wine of the district, everyone thawed a bit and I was offered more food. It was the first decent meal for a long time. Minestrone, tagliatelle in a delicious sauce, then bread and goats cheese with coffee! I thought to be in Paradise!
There is nothing really bad about sleeping in a cattle stable. One dosses on a bed of hay in the moistly warm atmosphere, very comfortable in winter from the heat from the animals. Of course there is a fairly pungent lavatorial smell of animals farting and defecating, etc, but one soon becomes acclimatised and used to the lowing of the beasts. This all declines at night and one always sleeps very soundly, to be awakened by the farmer with pail and milking stool. To greet the sharp frost and diamond light of the cloud bedecked mountains for a hungry breakfast of bread soaked in bowls of coffee and creamy milk.
Fodder is distributed to the animals and they are turned out for water and perhaps to graze, and the stable is raked out and flushed down, with all the art of husbandry so essential for survival in a harsh environment.
Fifty years on the small farms have almost disappeared and fields with very steep inclines of cultivated ground are now almost all covered in trees and self-sown bracken.
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The children of those who derived their living from the land have all departed for towns and cities and yuppie jobs, and who can blame them. Their standard of living is many times multiplied than that of their grandparents and from personal observation it is considerably higher on average than it is in the Berkshire hinterland. Everyone you meet nowadays is clean, neat, polite, decent. There is virtually no crime of any sort. All are industrious and prosperous. The children are very serious-minded, exceptionally well-behaved and avid for education.
Marriage seems to be at a sort of standstill. Couples do not marry easily and divorce is not on the cards. But there are no unmarried mothers with illegitimate children begging sustenance from the State. Nor are there obvious winos, deadbeats, ‘travellers’, protesters – dreadful people of all kinds subsisting on benefit – which we all have to pay to keep them.
The interior of the average Italian house now is very elegant. Their taste in furniture and decoration is exact, on-the-button and expensive. Particularly, the bathrooms are splendid places with glistening sanitaryware splendidly appointed for Ia toilette. Every bathroom has a shower. Deep baths appear to be infrequent. Usually it is all spoiled by very cheap and nasty toilet seats in flimsy white plastic!
The rooms are not carpeted, but covered with exotic tiles – very cool in summer. Staircases with, usually, marble treads. All have a plethora of domestic electric machines. Pride of place in the kitchen is the coffee maker in gleaming chrome and the machine for tagliatelli! The dining appointments are superb, very expensive cut glass, excellent napery. The forks are often solid silver but surprisingly the knives are rubbish and would not grace an English table.
Most homes have two cars, all new, glistening. Driving skills appear dangerous but are of a very high order. They appear able to judge distance to within a millimetre. Their negotiation of mountain roads at speed in the wet is an unforgettable experience – especially as they drive on the wrong side of the road and pass on another on severe curves without slackening speed, a hairsbreadth between them.
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Of course, some mountain farms remain but all the animals have gone. The work of oxen is done by tractor – invariably a Fiat pulling modem ploughs, etc.
Pasquina’s husband Milanesi (now a tall hunched cadaverous but cheerful fellow in his 70s) has an original house just off the main mountain road. It comprises a kitchen/dining/drawing room with a large elevated hearth and fire for cooking, beside which is a wood fired oven, heated air from which is ducted to warm the adjacent bedroom.
Outside is a large outhouse for mechanicals, and a coop for a dozen or so chickens and a cock all running wild. The house is solid, clean, hospitable and rustic.
In 1943, despite my being a randy young subaltern of 23 years there was no nonsense with Pasqua, attractive though she was, in a pious sort of way.
Firstly, she was of a family staunchly Roman Catholic and ante-marital goings-on were unthinkable. Further, her brother Giacomo had made it very clear “don’t touch”. To give an example – on Sunday all the women in their best dresses went to church, followed, apparently reluctantly, about ten minutes later, by the men who crowded the rear church pews. After the service the women departed to prepare lunch and the men frequented the bottega behind the church swapping yarns and becoming slightly tipsy. Me too!
For some reason Pasqua was delayed – probably on church business, and I caught up with her on the long upward trek along the mule-track.
The wine went to my head in the clean air and on part of the track I stumbled a little so Pasqua took my arm in a passionless gesture of guidance until we reached the flat bit near her home. Giacomo following us at a distance had seen this and he immediately
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took Pasqua into her bedroom and thrashed her with his belt. Do not ask me why. I think that it was a signal lesson to me. Pasqua appeared to be quite philosophical about it.
In the background also were steady hints about her ‘fidanzata’ whose name “Milanesi” cropped up from time to time. I gather than although there was no declared engagement there existed a family understanding of some years. He had not been heard of for some time. Captured by Germans in Crete he was sent to forced labour in Bavaria, on a farm where the family there treated him very decently, although the work was arduous and long.
Returning, he married Pasqua, took her to the home they still occupy and raised a family of two boys and two girls. The eldest son is married with twin sons of 5 years of age. He is a computer manager for the Sangiovese winery in Santa Sofia and his wife runs a beautician business – manicure, facials, massage, sun bed, etc.
The eldest daughter Franca works for a travel agency in Forli and is extensively travelled herself in the course of business. She has one lovely daughter Guilia (10). Her husband Fabio has to do with distribution for the large chicken factory in Forli. He is a thinking serious man, very concerned for the welfare of others and is highly involved (together with his brother Furio) in the affairs of the Bertinoro Club (in the hill town of Bertinoro), started in the time of the Crusaders and the oldest club (rather like the Lions) in the world providing benefit for the under-privileged. Garibaldi was a president of the club at one time. Fabio’s brother Furio controls the firefighters for the National Forest. He has a pair of young sons who are very with it with stylised beards and long hair.
Milanesi has about an acre off family flat cultivated land, but it is a bit beyond him now. The family care for the old couple. They are visited at least twice a week and Franca
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and Fabio have a “casetta” nearby which is a summer house for them and the family when weekends are too hot on the plain.
52 years later I learned that Alice, Giacomo’s wife was a member of a family not much liked by the inhabitants of Poggio Alla Astra. I rather gather that they were considered to be a down-market scurrilous bunch of no-hopers.
It was in the home of a branch of that family that I had been, and they had appealed to Alice – as a more prosperous family number, to do something to relieve them of me. Her husband Giacomo responded (with JK [Jack Kirkman] as the intermediary).
He was a lugubrious fellow, industrious in a hard sort of way of life. A prosperous sort of peasant – not a ‘contadino’ – he owned a small ‘podere’ in Corniolo, the valley of Santa Sofia, but fearing the fascists had acquired the refuge high in the mountains as a place of some safety for his wife and children. A brother came frequently with provisions and news.
Giacomo was a deeply religious man and insisted on twenty minutes of prayers every evening after supper, the family kneeling on the hard floor. As a small concession to my bad leg I was permitted to kneel on one knee on a chair turned round, so that one could rest one’s weight on the chairback. Out of respect for me all the family copied suit and the habit spread to the remainder of the inhabitants. In 1996 it still causes amusement at Giacomo’s expense although he has been dead for some years now and so has his wife. His brother still lives, and so does his sister Pasqua, long time married to Milanesi, and with a grown family and grand children.
In 1943, denied any sort of female companionship in four years of war I found Pasqua very attractive. She was a modern-minded good looking intelligent young lady, her family sufficiently prosperous to provide her with a sort of maid who dressed her hair daily and tended to her laundry – and mine. On grand occasions she wore silk stockings and high heel shoes and teetered very carefully along the tracks. Normal footwear was excellent boots made in the home by Giacomo in the winter months.
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When an animal died the meat was parcelled out to neighbours and the hide roughly flayed. It was taken to the salt and tobacco place beside the church in Poggio alia Astra (it is there still) and bartered for cured leather for soles and uppers for new boots. Repair soles on my army boots lasted for many years after the war and were used for gardening. The tobacco was raw plucked leaves to be boiled and dried in the house. The liquid was diluted and fed to the animals, while the dried leaves were rolled in newspaper to be smoked as cigarettes. The ‘Giornali D’Italia’ was best!
The diet was sparse but varied and tasteful. Bread was made on Mondays and baked in a large wood fired oven beside the hearth. Pasta ascuitto, spaghetti, risotto, polenda, minestrone. I grew fat and fit from walking and climbing in the mountains.
Pasqua’s maid was called Angelina. She was a chubby bovine peasant girl with an amiable nature. Her family was very poor. Her father eked a living chopping and delivering firewood from the forest. They did not own their house and had no land or animals and I understand that soon after the war ended the landlord evicted them and they left the area.
I remember an occasion in 1943 when her father had done me some slight favour. I had a lot of money at the time, all German forged stuff, and I gave the man the odd note which was 5000 lire. Aghast, he nearly fell on his knees to thank me because he had never seen so much money at one go before. It represented nearly two years’ income to him.
When the women of the hills wanted a dress they first caught and sheared a sheep. Then the wool was washed with harsh home-made soap, then carded and spun into thread by hand on bobbins. I have never seen a spinning wheel there. Made up into skeins it was dyed in sombre colours from bark and foliage extracts then knitted into dresses or stockings.
After Christmas 1943 in Poggio the snow began to thaw away and I became quite mobile in the mountains although it remained quite cold and crisp. There were no
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roads then, only mule-tracks along which oxen dragged sleds, the only transport available for heavy goods.
Venturing further afield I made contact again with the 8° partisan brigade, still headed by ‘Libero’ and his second-in-command ‘Boris’.
Early in February 1944, without specific orders to do so two partisan platoons attacked the barracks at Premilcoure which quartered a substantial contingent of fascist militia and carabinieri.
Like Poggio alia Astra, Premilcoure is an obscure mountain settlement with nothing to recommend it, but it had a telephone network which was an important feature of the German ‘gothic’ defence line then in course of construction.
The object was to cut all the telephone lines, then possibly occupy the place and defend it.
Sadly it all went awry. One must remember that these were very irregular troops, mostly very young with only a smattering of training, unused to discipline of any sort and without an inkling of self-restraint. Two or three young Italians chatter like monkeys so one can imagine the clamour from 30 or 40 of them.
Further, noise in the mountains seems to be magnified many times around the valleys and crags so the ever watchful carabinieri in Premilcoure were alerted to something amiss for many minutes before the attackers arrived so there was no element of surprise and the action was doomed from the start.
There was a fierce fire fight when some partisans were injured but only one killed. His battle name was ‘Stoppa’. Born in Santa Sofia into a big family of five brothers and three sisters (the Italians are a fecund lot!) he had been a regular soldier in the Bersaglieri and before 8th September 1943 had fought in Yugoslavia, then in Russia on the Don river.
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His body was taken surreptitiously from Premilcoure on an improvised stretcher lashed to a mule, to Santa Sofia for a vastly attended funeral. This deal made a big impression among all the partisan bands. Many had been wounded but this was the first mortality in combat in the whole of Romagna.
Every year on Liberation Day in Santa Sofia, in his honour, they sing the famous ‘Olandisina’ with words adapted to the circumstances.
Of course, this was just a taste of the bitter months to come, especially in 1945 when the main Allied offensive was launched for the Po valley.
The immediate consequence of the Primilcoure attack in February 1944 was an extensive search in the whole of the area by the Nazi fascists. Hundreds of them, mainly very young German soldiers, diverted for the task from their journey to the front line in the south. Almost shoulder to shoulder, they exhaustively combed the valleys and easily climbable hills probing everything, everywhere, supported by Storch aeroplanes in slow airborne reconnaissance.
Naturally, all the preparation had been noted well in Santa Sofia, and with good notice every dissident disappeared into prepared secret hiding places. I was offered a number, mostly concealed cellars dug in barns of stables with ingenious masking, but with experience of the Alsatian dogs which is normal rummaging equipment I declined them all. So, laden with a straw palliasse and a flimsy blanket or so, hard-tack rations and flasks of wine and water, I was led to an eyrie on the south side of Monte Marino on a ledged overhang in high rock, with a wide panoramic view of the valleys below.
After a couple of lonely days when the circus had repassed back to its base, I warily descended, into the relative warmth of the Amadiros’ casa. It had been very cold on the mountain with the prospect of hypothermia through inactivity. The farm had been trashed in the search but all the family were safe and the animals retrieved.
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I gathered recently that that was only a pin prick in relation to the consequence of the parachute drops in April 1944 at S Paolo in Alpe and the ensuing battle of Biserno. The Germans were determined to clean the area and they employed, under the direction of the SS [Schutzstaffel], two ‘wehrmacht’ battalions of Panzer grenadiers from the famous ‘Herman Goering’ division, plus a division of SS [Schutzstaffel] Italians specially formed for anti-partisan operations and other special units.
The 8° Brigata Garibaldi temporarily blocked their passage at various passes in the mountains, but in the operation lost about 500 men, 186 of whom were dead and 22 were prisoners, summarily sentenced to death.
Execution method was at the discretion of the SS [Schutzstaffel] commander and in Santa Sofia it was varied, for maximum effect. Favourite was by public hanging. It is so much more a vivid visual consortium than a bullet in the name of the neck. the bound victims, placard with name and crime about their shoulders, led in a much photographed slow procession to the place of execution by Italian fascists, preferably from the same town or village as each victim. Then – no nonsense about it – no gag or blindfold or drop. Just read out the sentence and haul them up. To dangle for a couple of days before granting sneering permission for someone to remove the body.
It is against this background of bestial sadism that the population continued to succour allied soldiers with shelter and food. So when old cynics like me say “We do not forget these acts of brave generosity so freely given” – we actually mean it.
There is a strong school of (inexperienced) thought which avers that the present German generation is not like its predecessors and that they are not responsible for past atrocities. And, anyway, the logic goes – we are all sprung from the same Saxon stock and it is time to let bygones be bygones.
But Deutschland uber Alles is not just a national song. They really know it deep down. Twice in living memory this century they have attempted to dominate us militarily.
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On both occasions it is likely that they would have succeeded but for the tardy intervention of American arms in abundance. Germany lost both wars by economic attrition, not a lack of military prowess.
I believe that beneath the handsome, blonde blue eyed, smooth, industrious, disciplined nationalistic psyche there lies a hidden gene in the Tuetonic DNA which, when their persona is in a dominant position, sparks a streak of cruelty spontaneously generating acts of evil viciousness.
By rote, Germans are either at your feet of at your throat. Now they are back once more on a tack which it appears, is much more difficult to oppose. They have learned the lessons. All the signs are on blatant display. They want a federal Europe dominated for ever by Germany, and unless we quickly find a leader in the Churchillian model then it will come to pass quite soon.
There does not appear to be such a person on the horizon and it may be too late to find one. The situation may be irretrievable already. I sigh for my grand daughters’ future children; it is my generation which has betrayed them. But I too, with many largely voiceless others of our rapidly disappearing vintage feel an appalling sense of deep betrayal, for reasons too frustrating to discuss here. The Germans are coming again! Will we never learn?
Needless to say after the Biserno affair the enemy achieved its objective. Subversive activity in the area diminished.
The battle had raged around Poggio alia Astra and Monte Marino had become a centre of partisan opposition.
Fortunately the Brits in the area had departed for the coast a few days before the drop, but this time the Amadori buildings were set afire and the animals scattered. The family quietly removed to the main farm in the Corniolo valley, where they lived out the war in nervous dread.
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In late 1947 I wrote to them in Poggio, no reply forthcoming and again in 1948. With the lack of response I wrote to the Town Mayor of Santa Sofia and his enquiries showed that they had been burned out and disappeared. I assumed, erroneously, that they might have been denounced and either deported or killed.
In the Spring of 1944 and in the neighbourhood of Poggio all Astra at a mill on the Bidente river, upstream there were several very senior officers in hiding. Generals Neame, O’Connor, Combe. Air Marshal Boyd and others had departed from the area at the end of December 1943, and made a successful clandestine embarkation via Cattolica, accompanied by Partisans from the 111° bregata, and sailed south to re-join the Allied forces.
In March 1944, another group prepared to leave by a similar route. It became evident that British military intelligence was in contact with them via the SAS [Special Air Service]. A large parachute drop, including a large consignment of arms, was planned for a place named San Paolo in Alpe in early April. This is about five miles west of Poggio as the crow flies, across the Ridracoli river, all very mountainous craggy country.
The inevitable consequence of the drop would be a Nazi fascist search through the mountains soon afterwards, so it was time to depart. As a footnote, the famous “rastralamento” is a “raking operation” carried out in those hills in the 1944 spring resulted in some fierce engagements by the Garibaldi partisans in withdrawal, and the capture and subsequent execution of several dissidents.
I was advised to accompany the party in the next departure. It comprised – so far as I can recall – General Vaughan, General “Baas” Armstrong, a South African tank man, and Brigadier Pip Stirling 17/21 Hussars and others.
There is, or was, a photo of Baas among my souvenirs. It depicts him on a small donkey or mule astride the wrong way about, a large man, dressed in peasant’s baggy plus fours, laughing his head off, aware of the ridiculous picture of his own making.
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He had been captured in a big tank battle in the desert – possibly at el Adam. The Germans lashed him to the top of a Tiger tank which then went into action again.
Nice Teutonic touch, that.
We left Poggio amid tears from Giacomo’s family on April Fools Day, 1st April 1944, trudging east, led by a partisan.
In all the party comprised of a dozen souls. The three generals, JK [Jack Kirkman] and self, a young SAS [Special Air Service] officer partially blinded by the premature explosion of thermite bombs which he was using to destroy enemy aircraft on the ground at Perugia. His sight and legs were saved in a German hospital but when sufficiently recovered he was despatched to Germany for certain death as a terrorist. Although still nearly blind and barely able to walk he escaped from the train and eventually joined us in the mountains. After the war he resumed his career as an architect, somewhere in Wales. His name – Quentin Hughes. No medals. No honour for bravery.
Pip Stirling was a genial fellow who cadged cigarettes from me and was quite friendly. His claim to fame was the he had taught Prince Henry – the old Duke of Gloucester to ride horses, during bouts of the Duke’s sobriety, of course.
During the march to the coast I contracted a bad attack of gastroenteritis but was nursed by a kind family – I cannot recall too much about it – but it delayed the main body to the point where, while I was still in bed, Pip Stirling produced a gentle ultimatum – come with us now, or stop here and be captured. I got out of bed and walked. Staggered rather.
At the coast, I think it was around Riccione, certainly a long flat beach lapped by the Adriatic, the plan was to await a submarine laid on to pick up the generals. At the appointed time each night all we heard was the throb of the engines of the guard boat and it became obvious that the submarine was not on.
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However, negotiations were entered into and we bought a fishing boat from a local fisherman. It was stranded on the beach but there were timber rollers to take it to the water. There was a mast which we stepped, and a tattered sail, oars, a demijohn of water, and a rudder all of which had to be carried across the coast road which was alive with German vehicles as it was one of the main supply routes to the frontline.
In the moonlight we pushed the boat straight into the water and the wind immediately blew it parallel to the shore, so it had to be pushed out neck deep in the water until an oar could bite. On scrambling aboard the boat had nearly foundered. It had been out of the water for a long time and the seams had opened so everybody had to bail like mad things until the seams swelled and the water intake was diminished. Eventually the sail was set and we headed out into the Adriatic, turning south at dawn. Soon thereafter spotted by an Allied aircraft who made to attack us – we waved towels and shirts, etc, and he got the message. Apparently, he reported the incident and the Royal Navy sent out a launch to retrieve us, but it broke down.
At about mid-morning the wind dropped and as one of the more junior members of the crew I was invited to man an oar and we rowed the boat for several hours into Chiethino Ortana, south of Pescara, recently captured by the Allies.
The quay was high, lined with Military Police and Italians. We were not helped up the steep wall ladders but were immediately bundled into army transport under guard to go for exhaustive interrogation and “debriefing”. Afterwards at a sort of transit camp we were curtly treated by a brutish sergeant major who compelled an anti-lousing treatment; a meal of bully beef and biscuits and sleep in an army cot.
The next day trucked to Naples for a pleasant fortnight in a serene barracks with a gaggle of other junior officer escapees, and kitted out with battledress, etc. Then an American military vessel from Naples to Gourock for Glasgow, more or less segregated in the bowels of the vessel on a slow three week voyage with few creature comforts. We were particularly galled to find that the upper decks with the first class accommodation was taken up by Italian officer “collaborators” with the Allies.
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At Gourock we were kept on board under guard for four days while our bona fides were checked, presumably with the War Office, but eventually we were issued with ration cards, clothing coupons, and “first class sleeper” travel to London. The last did not exist. I stood all the way in a third class compartment from Glasgow to London.
In London I learned for the first time that my home in Portsmouth had been destroyed by enemy bombing. After a bath and a haircut at the Regent Palace hotel I was met by my fiancée whom I had not seen for nearly four years. Unknown to me she had been for some time a member of the American Red Cross. Her family very generously granted me residence in their north London home for my leave period, before returning to war. The V2 rockets and the doodle bugs made for an exciting time!
Once in London Pip Stirling was good enough to buy a good dinner for my (then) financé (later my wife) and me and subsequently a military lunch at the Cavalry Club where another guest of his was some sort of intelligence spook – a major bearing General Service badges and buttons.
Over the port it was indicated that it “would be thought to be a good thing Old Chap if one cared to consider a return to that part of the world where things would most likely be hotting up a bit and you could do a very useful job if you know what I mean, Old Boy?”
“And how would one go back?”
“Usual way Old bean. Parachute”
So, after five continuous years of war, me with a bad leg, dropping into mountains, almost certainly in the dark, to do some sort of half-assed “useful job”? Some hope! I would not have volunteered to join two pieces of string together, let along engage in that sort of scatter-brained scheme.
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In the event, after some weeks leave amid the doodle bugs and spasmodic London bombing I was appointed Adjutant to a Sapper works unit at Shotover, a little east of Oxford, making ready for operations in Belgium and Germany.
Then took a draft of reinforcements for a depleted unit from Liverpool to Knocke via Dover. After getting to know them all in the unit and entering into the spirit of the offensive, was appointed to the Staff of HQ [Head Quarters] Rhine Army, the administrative appendage of Montgomery’s personal HQ [Head Quarters].
This was to prove an entirely different aspect of soldiering previously experienced and did not take to it at all. Except for the various senior directorates HQ [Head Quarters] staff work lies mainly in the manipulation of Kings Regulations, the Royal Warrant for Pay, Army Council Instructions, etc. The bulk of the middle and low rank officers were in their jobs either as exalted clerks graduated from the Civil Service or as grace and favour nepotic appointees, scion of family numbers in high places. It struck me that except for a bit of bombing few had never heard a single shot fired in anger. In contrast to the average front line soldier they appeared to be a lazy and incompetent lot, with little or no feeling for the squaddies in the line.
The HQ [Head Quarters] venue at Bad Oeynhausen, near Hannover, was very comfortable indeed. The quarters were in commandeered houses, a few with all the furniture intact. Office hours were 8.30 am until pre-lunch drinks time while afternoon or evening work was anything but mandatory. There was a superbly appointed officers’ club just along the road, and on a readily available request basis free weekend train travel to Brussels with accommodation and messing in the Grand Hotel there. The train left at 9 pm and arrive at 9 am each way, so one had a good sleep en route and arrived fresh with no waste of time.
Exclusive air travel to Hendon by Dakota was available on demand. It was a very uncomfortable journey – the aircraft seating had been designed for parachutists, but it was very popular and much used, but only by HQ [Head Quarters] personnel.
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For those in the know, there were organised trips to Chamonix for skiing. All the time there was looted fare on offer – Rollei cameras were excellently priced but HM [His / Her Majesty’s] Customs in the UK always clobbered for the purchase tax.
For all the delights, it was a cold and lonely place. The ‘A’ mess was largely composed of languid young men and ‘Sloane’ type women quite devoid of the camaraderie of line units and after a time, except for meals I did not use the place much, although the bar arrangements would have done credit to a first class London hotel, complete with chic clientele.
Meanwhile, Ernie Cox had returned home from incarceration in a Stalag and was thinking about a job. On the old chums network I secured an appointment for him in ‘A’ Personnel.
A medical board, because of the bullet in my knee had pronounced me ‘B-non tropical’ which was effectively a death knell to a continued army career. Having married in the meantime (Headquarter organisations do not have the camaraderie nor the ‘family feel’ of combat units), I resolved to take demob at the appropriate time and take my changes in civvy street – for which after 12 years one was singularly unfitted. But after six continuous years of war I was sick of things generally, the Army in particular, and to be honest – a little bit mentally disturbed, unbalanced perhaps. It was perhaps the biggest mistake of my life.
Demobbed in 1947 I knocked about in various jobs: a director of a firm of instrument makers on the brink of failure; a buyer in an export firm; then a department manager with merchant shippers.
On the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanganijiki lies Mwanza, where in the late 1940s there was a prosperous general store called “Fancies”. It acquired its name because the Muslim founder and owner named Aziz always wore a fancy waistcoat. The store supplied ships chandlery, the usual small farming tools and general household supplies to all and sundry. Among its more opulent customers was a Doctor Williamson who
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was a private geologist obsessed with finding precious stones in the Hinterland. When his funds ran short the Aziz family grub-staked him to continue and granted more or less unlimited credit until bingo! he discovered a huge untapped field of diamonds.
In Africa the diamond business is controlled by – De Beers and it is illegal to trade in uncut diamonds outside the official supply agency; this in order to control supply, thus maintaining price margins.
At about this time two events occurred. India and Pakistan came to partition. The Aziz family are Ismaili Muslims, followers of the Aga Khan, who called all adherents to support and sustain their new country. Hence the Aziz family bought gem-bearing land in Ceylon and lo! it offered up heaps of diamonds. They also established a company in Karachi called Pakistan Industries Ltd whose prime purpose was to acquire the trappings of industrial endeavour.
For guidance they naturally turned to the London merchant shipping house which had been processing their indents for the Mwanza store. At this time I knew little of the background, but one day was asked to meet a chap off a Karachi flight at London Airport. All that was known of him was that he was named Amirali Fancy, had never been to Britain, but had to be ‘looked after’.
He was a tall thinnish fellow, nearly bald, dark and shiny skin which seemed to be perpetually moist. He was very nervous and an incessant smoker. His ill fitting clothes looked as though they had come from a dump somewhere and his trilby hat was an atrocious sweat-stained example of headgear. In short, he looked repulsive. He was confused about his immediate intention but sought to find some accommodation until he could sort things out.
I drove around most of the small hotels in Bayswater seeking a room for him but his appearance put every hotelier off and there was no room available. In a flash of rare genius we went to the Regent Palace Hotel off Piccadilly, where every morning at about 11.30 am they queue for rooms and with Fancy in the background I asked for a
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room for a couple of days. When they affirmed so, I summoned Fancy forward and they had to make the booking, albeit with some reluctance. However, they wanted a stiff deposit which he paid and I took him then to our office for the MD’s pleasure, and afterwards got on with my other work.
Later in the afternoon it transpired that Fancy had met a chum who rented a flat in Halkin Street and had arranged to reside there for the future. I thought about the Regent Palace booking, went there, cancelled it and claimed the deposit back.
On the morrow I gave the cash back to Fancy. He was staggered – he simply had never been so decently treated in all his life before, and for an Englishman to actually go out of his way a little to see that he did not suffer, was a unique experience outside his life as a lowly assistant to his grandfather in the Mwanza store.
His purchasing remit was huge for the times and quite naturally we secured all of it.
Pakistan Industries had been appointed steel stock holders for the new state of Pakistan. We had a small allocation from the British Iron and Steel Corporation – steel products were in very short supply for commercial ends. PIL took the lot at a very substantial profit to us, plus of course the rebates on the shipping charges and the marine insurance; also the statutory buying commission which all indent houses change automatically.
He wanted a steel rolling mill and I found a second hand one with refurbished rolls and be bought it. He wanted a blast furnace to render down scrap iron and steel, and we sold him one. He wanted firebricks for kilns and we secured an agency of sorts from the Gas Board who produce fire bricks as a by product of the coking process during gas extraction from coal. Millions of them. Boatloads of them. The freight rebates alone permitted them to be shipped at cost price – of course they were not.
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Other than through the official quotas at the time, export of steel products – bars, billets, girders, or rerolled goods was not permitted. One had to secure an export licence. However, in Middlesbrough I found a firm dealing in “billet and bar ends”, the export of which was permitted as scrap. Fancy placed several cabled orders for thousands of tons of the stuff and we worked up a very good connection with the railway authorities just moving the stuff to the Port in their wagons.
This business sparked another outlet in Buenos Aires and our customer there secured orders for more thousands of tons – at a considerably enhanced price, so one or two of the Fancy orders were “delayed” to the point of extinction – the supply of billet and bar ends was finite and was slowing down.
Fancy arrived unexpectedly from Karachi. He was a different fellow. Well dressed, immaculately groomed, an air of wealth and a very confident attitude, bent on discovering the truth. Immediately on arrival he offered me an appointment as London agent for Pakistan Industries to be charged with processing all their orders, as their employee. I though the proposition over, but the financial package on offer was no good. Rates of pay in Karachi and London were vastly different and he was operating on his domestic labour wages. I did not fancy (no pun -honest) working for a darkie.
We parted amicably enough, but he soon began to find other sources of supply, mainly in Germany and own business with him declined very substantially – except for the firebricks!
Amirali Fancy was most likely the very first Pakistani to arrive in England. Nearly half a century on – there are tons of thousands of them, mostly industrious and ready to integrate – except for religion!
At the 1951 British Industries Fair in Birmingham there appeared a marvellous new machine. Its function was to make chain link fencing – at four times the production rate of anything similar on the market, and the makers had a world exclusive.
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On duty, I took a visiting Australian client to the Fair. He was a steel stockholder in Sydney and immediately saw the Antipodean possibilities of the new machine. Rabbits were in the ascendancy at home, and chain link fencing was at a premium in the farming community, then rich with wool cheques.
With a deposit and an order for three machines the makers consigned them by sea against a 90 day Bill of Exchange and I secured an agency for the supply of the wire on similar terms. Gave up my job, sailed to Sydney via Suez and Bombay, found accommodation, rented factory premises in a Sydney suburb and looked around for suitable staff. Everything was ready for production when we hit a major snag.
There was serious labour trouble at Broken Hill Propriety. The miners were on sustained strike and the wharfingers were out in sympathy. There was a real energy crisis and electricity cuts were very severe indeed to the extent that the NSW [New South Wales] government decreed that electricity users would be licensed and no new licenses would be issued to new businesses. With hindsight, I think that had I been Australian born, some strings might have been pulled, but for a newly arrived Porn there never was a chance.
So, with the machines and the first substantial consignment of the wire unmoving in a dockside warehouse the residue of the 90 days began expiring and before long the Bank was reminding me that ere long I would be required to dibby up the cash to retire the Bills covering cost, insurance, freight, commission interest, etc., etc.
Expressions of sympathy from my steel stockholder friend and from the Pakistani connection but no help.
In extremis, I sold everything to Broken Hill at cost and paid everyone off with the proceeds, but I was broke, with a wife and child to support, seamlessly, in England. So I looked around for work, and found a job in a woodwork factory as a spindle hand, making ironing boards in Parana pine, working all the overtime available. After
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a few days I was promoted charge hand. Also found a moonlighting job in a Sydney suburb nightclub as a waiter, and quickly learned that bar work is where the tips are, especially early in the mornings.
After a couple of months of all this very exhausting work I had enough money for a passage home, sold some tools and visited the tax people. In those days nobody could buy a ticket to leave Australia without an exhaustive tax clearance, but I was delighted to be handed quite a substantial rebate which eased departure quite a bit. The slow journey home was relaxing, fairly luxurious, with plenty of time to reflect upon the error of my ways.
Harking back, after many years of commercial experience I realise that the scheme did not really stand a chance. It was vastly over-ambitious and grossly under capitalised, and I think that everybody else involved realised it from the very beginning, but chose to allow me to sink most of my capital into a no-go scheme while selling me their products and standing by for the crash.
The wire supply alone would have scuppered the scheme and that is why the agency was so readily available – no one could afford it. Working backwards from the farmers barn with the fencing delivered; waiting for the invoice to be paid – more fencing en route to other farmers. Stock in the goods out, waiting for despatch. Wire going through the machines. Wire waiting to go through the machines. Wire at the docks waiting delivery to goods in. Wire on the steamer en route to Sydney. Wire on order for despatch from the wire works.
Only a substantially funded organisation could handle a scenario like that. A bitter lesson for a stupid ex soldier boy.
In the 1950s people had to stand on their own feet without substantial handouts of unemployment benefit. The ‘dole’ was viewed as state charity, degrading, even despicable and not to be considered. With no money left, the London bank manager dunning for the overdraft, something desperate was called for. In the event, I took
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two oil stones with rags and oil, hitched to the west end of London to the upper class flats around the Albert Hall and began knocking on doors – ‘Sharpen all your knives for a shilling and sixpence per hour’. After a while I struck lucky with a genial housekeeper who gave me tea while I sharpened away, and as a bonus for her after being paid, oiled all the hinges in the apartment and adjusted some doors which were squeaking.
She told me then that the master of the household was seeking to have a box-room fitted out with shelving for a library and she subsequently spoke to him on my behalf He put up a deposit for the timber and I did the job over a couple of days.
He was the chairman of a group of companies with textile mills making West of England cloth with an office in Bond Street, and he had a childless trophy wife, many years younger, who was the editor of an export magazine.
When the job was finished and paid, from mahogany off-cuts I made a small coffee table in the contemporary style (it was all the rage then) with unique hand-worked edges, and presented it to her as an unsolicited gift.
She was overwhelmed! For whatever reason, she insisted that we went with it in a taxi to a ‘poofy’ furniture boutique off Sloane Square where it was shown to the pretty boy owner who was as gay as they come. It was out of deference to his patroness that he promised to take all my production; it was most unlikely that he would have given me – a rampant heterosexual – the time of day otherwise. Of course, there was no production, although I made several small pieces of hardwood furniture – ladies’ workboxes and standard lamps etc, using the dining room table as a workbench.
The next week brought a separate offer of sub-contract work, to cut thousands of profiles for table tennis bats from birch – faced plywood, and I began to think seriously about woodworking for a living.
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As always, the trouble lay in funding. Needed was a small workshop, with some woodworking machinery and a work bench, timber stocks and all the attendance paraphernalia. All to be paid for, cash up front. The bank manager dunning me for the overdraft! However, through a contact in a merchant shipping house I was suddenly put onto quite a substantial job with Iraq Petroleum. That company was in the throes of rapid expansion building a 24 inch pipeline from Kirkuk in the north with branch lines to Haifa and Turkey, also, they were engaged in exploration for oil in Qatar, the Trucial Coast and Abu Dhabi, with all the problems associated with servicing survey teams, oil rigs and production wells.
After quiet reflection I took the job, but on looking back over the years I never really relished it. It was a safe and secure haven in an otherwise flint-hearted world, but following an adventurous life it soon became uninspiring with repetitious tedium.
Despite advancements in the company, for some years I felt trapped in a soft comfortable cocoon of financial security from which it would have been foolish to attempt to escape.
In 1962, from ennui, I learned to fly light aircraft, first at Elstree, then at Luton Flying Club – this was before Luton Airport became a ‘jetorama’.
Based there was a twin engine Pier Apache “Hotel Charlie” run by a very experienced Australian pilot with many many hours of exceptionally safe flight under his belt.
Pressing on for a night rating following the basic private pilot’s licence, we used Hotel Charlie for instrument approaches over Stansted, then a little used airfield. The following weekend the aeroplane and pilot were chartered to fly a lady named Nancy Spain (a television celebrity of the day) together with her lesbian lover, to Aintree for the race meeting there. On the final approach to the racecourse grass runway something peculiar happened in the cockpit and the aircraft stalled in from about 200 feet killing all the occupants.
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The wreckage was taken back to Luton and laid out in one of the flying club hangers for inspection by the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] accident investigation team. I had been flying with my teenage daughter on a number of pleasure trips but one look at the blood spattered tangled metal of Hotel Charlie put me off private flying for good.
In the hallowed halls of Iraq Petroleum my pilot’s licence had been noted by someone or other. Such are the vagaries of the oil industry, dominated as it is by American customs and then still reeling from successive management reconstructions after the McKinsey Reports I found myself running the company airline up and down the Iraqi pipeline from a London base. Why, I know not. The organisation was bursting with ex-RAF [Royal Air Force] types with years of experience in aviation logistics to whom the job would have been a joyfully nostalgic piece of cake.
Instead I had to struggle with all the gruesome management details of engine hours to expiry, propeller servicing, fuel dispositions in the desert – all deep mysteries to an earth bound clod like me.
The icing on the cake came when it became apparent that the whole company was to be ‘nationalised’ by the Iraqis. Not only were the aeroplanes to be handed over intact with all their baggage – we had two newly purchased ‘Islanders’ and two ‘Doves’ – but the Iraqi pilots had to be conversion trained to fly them.
Guess who was to manage their training programme? It really beggars belief!
The training course finished, the Iraqi’s back home and the aeroplanes handed over, along with several other people I was handed my marching orders.
As an aside I see that on the Internet the process of sacking people is now called “decruitment”.
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With nary a pang I left the HQ [Head Quarters] building in Cavendish Square vowing never to set foot in the place again and I never had nor will. Iraq Petroleum no longer exists as a British company, but for the moment anyway, I remain alive and kicking with all my marbles still intact.
There followed a year’s hiatus during which time we moved from North London (our respectable suburb was traduced by Greeks manufacturing gowns in their garages and playing incessant Greek music) to Newbury.
Soon after we moved, my wife’s mother died, and her aged father came to live with us until a place was found in a Masonic home. He was a very exalted Freemason. As a son-in-law I joined the Brotherhood in 1944. Suddenly, with prostate trouble he was in crisis. We summonsed Dr Sievers who arrived at about 1130 and opined that an instant ‘prostectomy’ was necessary but as it was Thursday, the Reading visiting surgeon would perform the operation that afternoon, which he would arrange. It was best that I took the old boy to Newbury Hospital by car, which I did.
My father-in-law was a very erudite gentlemanly fellow, steeped in newspaper lore in all the printing aspects. He had worked hard all his life, and was well known and very respected in the newsprint world, on the London scene.
At Newbury Hospital – it was a quiet cottage type in those days – all was tranquil. There was no-one about in the casualty department where I pushed him in a wheelchair. We waited around for some time but nobody appeared and all the time he was becoming more and more distressed with considerable pain and discomfort. Eventually, we had waited enough – with hindsight it was just past lunchtime and all the patients had been fed and the nursing staff were relaxing in a post prandial state.
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Walking in a corridor, I came to the Matron’s office, knocked and opened the door. Matron was at her desk reading something (Playgirl?) and peered at me surprised over her spectacles.
The Devil took over and I said “He’s here”. “Who’s here?”. “Sir Reginald Burnaby Smith is here – surely Dr Sievers has told you that he is going to operate on him this afternoon?” This imparted with a first class military intonation.
If Newbury likes one thing, it is a bit of nobility. Lords and Ladies are best, apart from your actual royalty but knighthood with a Sir will always do at a pinch.
Matron punched the panic button and straight away there were nurses and orderlies and receptionists foaming around and the old boy was whisked away to the five star bed, undressed, bathed, his name put up in lights, etc. In the melee someone had trodden on his hearing aid and without it he was as deaf as a post.
The operation went well and “Sir Reginald” enjoyed the excellent aftercare for which our hospital enjoys a deserved good name. However, a young orderly, examining his bed chart asked “Sir Reginald – for what did you get your honour?” “Of course I am a man of honour”. “No, why were you made a knight?” “I came in during the daytime not the night time -what are you on about?”
With that, the old boy saw “Sir Reginald” on the bed chart and roundly cursed his errant son-in-law. The orderly reported to Matron and Reg Smith was smartly relegated to the skid row bed adjacent to the washroom until he was discharged the next day. Matron sharpened her castrating knives and began looking for me without success.
Subsequently, she was promoted to the hierarchy of the county health authority and we met across committee room tables a few times. There was always a vengeful glint in her eye.
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Anyway – this story reached the local Freemasonic lodges and they all rocked with laughter and the upshot was that I was tipped to be the next (Conservative) County Councillor for what was then the Newbury North branch.
Membership of the county Council is no longer the honourable affair which it once was.
Years ago the Councillors were dedicated laymen of some wealth and sense of civic responsibility, each seeking to make fair and proper decisions in the wide interest of the general public. Unfortunately party political considerations have entered the Council chamber where there is no proper place for them and decisions are made on broadly party political lines irrespective of the arguments or evidence for or against. All this is grist to the will of the paid executive officers whose empires and salaries build year on year.
For elected Members of Government at local level, there is scant respect, no authority, no status and no money, except paltry expenses. Yet the job carried a lot of onerous baggage with it. There are obligatory appointments as school governors, trustees of charities etc. together with seats on a multiplicity of committees and sub committees. There are sheaves and sheaves of papers to read and absorb, meanwhile enquiries and complaints are continual from the electorate, not to mention the abusive and sometimes obscene letters and phone calls. Sunday evenings are a favourite time when the phone rings; at the other end some semi-drunken clod saying “I pay my bleeding rates. Wot are you gonna do about it?”
After four years I was thoroughly disillusioned with the local political scene and to be honest – was quietly relieved to lose the 1981 local election although the blatant lies and innuendo put out by the main opposition party would be laughable had they not been so wounding.
After the election I was approached to become a director for a start-up operation in Swindon. The Chairman was Steve Norris, MP for Epping and now a retiring
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Minister, Under-Secretary of State for Transport (he of the four or five mistresses). Although it was rather under-capitalised the project had all the ingredients for success and it was so from the start.
We had an exclusive franchise for the sale, modification or repair of all FIAT diesel engines in the UK south of the Wash. Further, when modified, we could sell abroad world wide under our own name “Southern Diesels Ltd”, soon to be nicknamed “Sudden Disasters”.
Essentially we imported bare truck engines from FIAT in Turin. FIAT had suffered a turndown in sales and they had a large engine surplus to dispose of at really knock down prices. In fact they were almost giving them away.
Our function was to put the engines on sleds or wheeled chassis with drawbars. Then hook on gearboxes, or generating sets, lighting sets or pumps according to customers’ choice. Fit radiators, exhausts, instrument panels and all sorts of cowlings. Paint them, gift wrap them, then ship them.
Steve Norris is a natural large volume salesman and very soon very large orders began to arrive.
The Engineer was Martin Lowe, and very good indeed at his job.
I was the Procurator General charged with purchasing all the bits, organising and running the stores complex and feeding parts surplus to individual engines then shipping the product.
In the beginning it was very exciting and exhilarating work. We worked long hours and found much job satisfaction although dealing with the Italians on their laid back – “perhaps tomorrow” approach became very frustrating. The bureaucracy in the FIAT Turin plant was unbelievable, and so was the blatant corruption.
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Orders continued to arrive, several for a hundred engines at a time, all secured on an advantageous price guestimate without a clear delivery schedule. This is true of all salesmen. Their interest is in the order, they are not concerned with the logistics of the delivery of the goods.
Consequently – inevitably – delivery times began to slip. Parts supply could not keep up and perhaps more important, the skilled workforce could not keep up either.
So the money did not come in at a satisfaction rate, and payments of some bills and to be delayed. In fact every UK supplier was paid in full and on time. Everyone at work was paid. The Inland Revenue was paid and National Insurance was paid.
The people who were NOT paid were the Italians. Their invoices lay unprocessed for month after month, apparently without protest from them. However, during a private conversation with a senior Italian visiting England it emerged that the FIAT management were very unhappy indeed with the English operation, not so much about the unpaid bills but –
Steve Norris had acquired a very substantial order from Saudi Arabia via an Arab there. The specification was exact and identical to the engines supplied to the Saudi Arabian government agency direct from Italy. The only difference was the price. Southern Diesels price was about a third cheaper than the Government was paying, and this was because someone in Italy was padding the invoice for a corrupt Government official in Jeddah and here were Southern Diesels rocking the boat, albeit innocently, but what were FIAT going to do about it because several Saudi officials might well have their hands cut off?
To placate everyone FIAT decided to shut down the UK operation. They went to Ford in the UK and with them originated IVECO, which are Ford lorries with FIAT diesel engines.
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The Italian intimated to me that this was to be the likely outcome and I reported to directly to the Board of SDL. Their reaction was “If you are unhappy with the management of this organisation we suggest you leave it”. I had my resignation typed up immediately, filled in the appropriate official form for Companies House and departed forthwith.
A fortnight later DSL was served with a writ from IVECO for half a million pounds. It could not be paid so SDL stopped trading. Bankruptcy was out of the question because Steve Norris was seeking to become an MP, but Houdini like (it is the Norris factor) he sold off all the gear, re-leased the premises, did a big deal with the Italians and got out from under without his pocketbook too severely dented.
Later I worked very hard at the hustings at a bye-election for Oxford East where he was elected the Member of Parliament there and again in Epping when he was also elected.
He is too exalted to maintain contact now, but his largely discarded wife remains a friend and we see her for tea from time to time.
Now aged 76, and fifty odd years later, unemployed and unemployable, with time on my hands I began thinking of some of those who had been fellow prisoners of war and I concocted advertisements for them in the Journal of the Royal British Legion, and “Choice”.
There were several responses and I was introduced to the Monte San Martino Trust for the first time.
Churchill in his History of the Second World War says that thousands of Prisoners of War, trapped by the Italian Armistice in September 1943, were guided to safety thanks to the risks taken by the simple country people of the Italian countryside.
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While those prisoners of war in the working camps scattered widely in the area of the Po and up to the Swiss and Yugoslav borders dispersed into the Italian countryside, often helped by those for whom they had worked, only from two or three of the permanent camps further south did the majority escape before the Germans arrived.
However hundreds of those, then guarded by the Germans, escaped from the camps or disappeared off trains taking them to Germany. Many made their way into Switzerland, priests and businessmen from Milan financing and finding guides and hiding places en route. The majority however, even from as far north as Parma and Bologna, headed towards the Allied lines in the south near Campobasso or on the Sangro river.
Wherever POWs found themselves Italians immediately fed and hid them in sheds, caves, haystacks or gave up their huge beds for them, in spite of the danger for giving such help. The Germans and born-again Fascists offered rewards for every POW betrayed and heavy penalties – even death – to those who hid them. Even so everywhere such hospitality was offered, mostly for just a night but many stayed for weeks trapped often by weather or illness. Some merged into families, a few joined the partisans.
After the war many returned to thank the Italians who had given them such generous hospitality. Allied Command in Italy set up a special Commission, manned mostly by prisoners of war who had escaped, to give at least a small monetary reward and a Certificate from General Alexander as evidence of the tremendous sacrifices which they had made. The majority, especially those who kept on the move, never knew the names of their helpers nor that of the nearest village of the hundreds who gave them food or lodgings. To have carried the names and addresses of those that helped us would have brought to them immediate retribution had we been recaptured.
All those who received such spontaneous, courageous and generous support had never forgotten and will never forget all that was done for us. Therefore when, in 1989, the Monte San Martino Trust was founded it received immediate support from all those
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POWs who heard of it in its task to commemorate and record the courage and generosity of the ‘contadini’ and all who helped us. The Trust gives Study Bursaries in England to young Italians who have a knowledge of the English language and wish to improve it. A month’s full time course and their stay in England is paid by the Trust. While any Italian, between the age of 16 and 25 may apply for a Bursary, the Trust seeks out the grandchildren of those who helped us or those from areas where much help was given. To date more than forty Bursaries have been granted to students from many parts of Italy.”
The Trust is a registered charity but operates on an Administrative shoe string by a dedicated Hon Sec in London and a most efficient Italian factotum in Monte San Martino, named Siqnor Millozzi.
If one bites hard enough, most people will cough up some money for a worthy cause, but have you noticed that if you ask them to give up time without substantial reward there is always a valid excuse. So when one finds fellows pursuing humanitarian causes quietly and constantly year in year out – dealing even-handedly with all the problems of student selection and travel and accommodation they are to be considered treasures, largely irreplaceable.
Whatever personal pleasure and possible success I enjoyed in April 1996 stems directly from the initiative and help freely given me by the Trust, particularly from Siqnor Millozzi.
The Monte San Martino Trust tries and will, with its endowments and bequests already promised, continue to try to record and commemorate for future generations the gratitude of all those who received such spontaneous, dangerous and general help which Italians so immediately gave to us- ‘strangers at the gate’.
There is a wide canvas of the various assistance given to those in the North who crossed into Switzerland – some 2000 – guided and fed by individuals and ad hoc organisations of Italians, while others would be led through the lines hundreds of miles
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to the south. Numerous stories of hardship and heroism often ending in the disaster of death or recapture for the POWs and the Italian helpers alike. Usually it was the poorest who were the more willing to take the greater risks – one man to have his seven sons shot because they helped prisoners of war, while hundreds of others had their homes destroyed.
There are the stories of those who joined and sometimes led partisan groups, aided often by the SAS [Special Air Service] and SOE [Special Operations Executive]. There was the huge network organised within the Vatican by an Irish priest, and a British officer and financed through the British Ambassador to the Vatican which helped thousands in Rome and far out into the countryside. Throughout is the steadfast sympathy, support and generosity from their own simple lifestyle of the Italian ‘contadini’ and also, in contrast is the slight recognition and reward that British Military authorities gave, after the battle had passed by, to those who had risked all.
In my possession are copies of German military/political manifestos. One offers 1800 lire (then about £20) reward for the capture of English or American fugitive prisoners of war. Another promises the punishment of death to anyone helping “enemy” prisoners on the run.
A third declares that the death of a German would bring instant reprisal on the civilian population – 25 persons of any age or sex, taken at random, to be executed by shooting, hanging or beheading. Every community is littered with monuments to the civilians who perished in this way. A notable execution was of an Italian who assisted the escape of Generals Neame, O’Connor and Boyd in December 1943. He was Tonino Spazzoli and appears in photographs with the Generals. He was hung in Forli on 19th August 1944 and his body displayed in the Piazza Saffi. I have photos of it.
There is an apocryphal story of two young English corporals who set off south against mature advice to penetrate the front line and re-join the Allies. In the bitter November wet, cold hungry and probably pretty desperate, they sought shelter in a farmhouse in the vicinity of Premilcoure. Welcomed and fed they were bedded in the stable warmth
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for the night. Meanwhile, for the £40 reward they were denounced to the fascist militia. At dawn they were taken into the adjacent woods, made to chop lumber and make biers. Then they were shot and their bodies burned.
As a Trust supporter, I gained access to much material and one particular article touched a nerve when it declared that the majority of those who had been so courageously helped on their way had not bothered to return thanks.
The comment could have been aimed directly at me and I consulted the Trust to establish if they could find the addresses of the families in Lugo and Poggio Alia Astra. Their enquiries turned up Giacomo (deceased) but not R whose name appears to be synonymous with Smith of London.
I wrote to Pasqua Amadori to establish that I would be welcome in her home and then wrote to the Registrar of Births and Deaths (‘anagrafe’) in Lugo about R.
The municipality in Lugo asked a well-known local historian to make the research, and he did a tremendous job with the basically wrong information with which I had provided him. After some further communication about my background it was recommended that the Comune of Lugo should formally invite me as a Municipal guest (all expenses paid, thank you) to their town for four days, to participate in the Day of Liberation ceremonies. I grabbed the chance.
Militarily the Italians have always been losers. Most of the rotten jokes about their battlefield prowess are beneath repetition. But they have the resistance movement to cling to, and their Liberation Day ceremony is like our Remembrance Sunday but with added poignancy which stresses the part played by the Resistance.
There is all sorts of wreath laying at various monuments and obeisance paid to those who were shot or strangled by the Germans. The agony of the elderly remains, it is a very emotional day.
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For those who participated in the Resistance there are framed Certificates of Honour, bedecked with Resistance Medals and hung on walls with family pride. At least they did something.
As an Englishman come to render thanks I was welcome, especially when armed with “Attestations” for the families concerned, from the Chairman of Berkshire County Council (BCC) and Newbury District Council (NDC), who also generously sent gifts to the Administrators. From BCC a valuable print of Windsor Castle (where the Queen lives!) and from NDC a plaque bearing our town arms in relief; also calendars and a NDC directory which was seized upon by the mayor of Santa Sofia as a valuable visual aid for his English classes. His own English was much worse than my fractured Italian!
There was also a handwritten letter of introduction from Sir Alan Campbell, Chairman of the Monte San Martino Trust, who had been a UK Ambassador to Italy, together with a full expose of the Trust function, in the Italian language and in several copies.
Lugo is the birthplace of the musician and composer Rossini. His derelict house was restored at considerable expense by the Lions Club of Lugo and when I learned of this I approached a Past President of the Newbury Lions. He kindly provided a Club banner from the Newbury Lions and that was received with much pleasure in Lugo. The mutual exchange of banners was shown on national TV that day.
Finally, I had been a partisan of sorts.
Thursday, 27th April
For the Liberation Day parades I chose to do honour to my hosts by dressing up as a military Christmas tree, with polished medals, an orderly sergeant’s red sash, and a Sapper officers’ side cap, the latter two items provided with the help of the School of Military Survey at Hermitage.
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Before the ceremony I was introduced to the Chief Caribinieri, and the civil police chief and their assistants. All were a little at arms length as policemen always are, but after the mayor’s introduction and my response their attitude completely changed and they became very effusive afterwards.
The ceremony began with a dignified walk from the mayor’s office through the antique portals to the municipal edifice proceeded by two policewomen, two more officials carrying banners for the town. Others with partisan flags and Uncle Tom Cobbley. Vigilante boss, ex partisans, most of the ‘persone elevi’ di Lugo.
Another guest was the youngest council member, a chubby girl of about 22, to make an annual speech.
With her on the left, the mayor in the centre, me on his right, ahead of the banners of the Republic, Police forces, Red Cross, Regimental Associations, Partisans, etc. Two lots of wreath laying to the Martyrs and the Liberation. I saluted everyone and everything like Flashman would. Then into the mayor’s car to the banks of the Senio river where there is another monument to seven partisans hanged by the Germans. This is a ‘broken column’ with photographs of each of the victims embossed on it. Another wreath and more saluting. Back to the mayor’s office to meet the widow of a famous Juventus football player from Lugo who recently died. Then a concert of songs by a local choir dressed in traditional costumes singing ancient ‘Romagnola’ songs which nobody understood.
Then everyone processed to the main square, with a dais. The mayor made a long speech; in part introducing me to the assembled multitude. He then presented scrolls to all the young people who had passed their ‘A’ levels.
I was then pushed forward to make a speech in Italian into a microphone. It was quite short and very well received. At least – they all applauded. Probably because it was short! Then the mayor presented me with a medallion (6 cm diameter)
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commemorating 50 years of the Liberation in the region, and I made another short speech thanking him. Lots of saluting, etc.
Then we went to the main concourse to watch a display of mainly Allied vehicles which were in use in 1944. It was strange to see all the locals dressed in wartime uniforms, with medal ribbons not pertinent to the times. The commander of the parade was dressed in battle dress bearing rank badges of a Lieutenant-Colonel but wearing a general officers red hat. He claimed that his battledress top had originally been owned by FD [Field] Marshal Montgomery!
The formal ceremonies over, I retired to the hotel to change into “civvies” and go to lunch in honour of the footballer Munchinelli who died, his widow receiving a big plaque. There were about 50 persons at the lunch, most of them Juventus players past and present. The widow was a gorgeous blonde lady who they claimed was at least 53 years of age but looked no more than 30. Gallantly, I kissed her hand. At 76 years of age I can still detect a pretty woman at twenty paces!
The lunch was provided by the Lions Club of Lugo, a past President is a famous gynaecologist, very Italian and very verbose who claims to have brought about 70,000 people into the world and repeats a mantra:
Ecco No populatione!
He should know!
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Friday 26th April
The next day was spent buying shoes in the market. It is like Newbury’s, but about a hundred times bigger and stretches for many hundreds of yards with all sorts and qualities on display. The up-market part is in the main square, surrounded by ancient “pavilions” the nacelles of which are devoted to all the big names in Italian couture exquisite dresses, jewellery, etc.
Visited the Rossini house and the Rossini theatre which they had opened and lit specially for the visit. Was shown all the extensive back of stage apparatus – the whole of the structure is made of wood, and the various dressing rooms occupied at times by Gigli, Caruso, Callas, Pavarotti, etc.
The stage is vast and the auditorium curves round in a squared U, with tied boxes extending towards heaven, all elaborately stuccoed.
I stood in centre stage and declaimed the only piece of Shakespeare which I remember:
The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blessed.
It blesseth him who gives, etc, etc.
My companions rocked with laughter, and I felt a little sheepish afterwards, but rather smug too. After all – who else from Newbury has had the opportunity?
Then a visit to the Allied war cemetery in Faenza where there are the graves of 1200 young men from all over the Commonwealth – Empire as it was then. I had sorted out the locations of fallen Royal Engineer soldiers and took photographs of each of their graves with the intention of securing family addresses from the War Graves Commission in Maidenhead. They frowned severely on the idea claiming that despite the passage of 50 odd years the advent of the photographs might well provoke
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untoward upset. This may be, however, I have a feeling that they simply do not want to do the research. I am sure that my regimental museum at Chatham will welcome them.
The following day we went to an outlying village named Cotignola and were greeted to a reception by the mayor, a very old and senior partisan leader, a young lady interpreter with atrocious English and three other prominent persons. Lots of photographs were taken and we were led to an important monument to Jewish families saved by the Resistance.
When the Germans took over in 1943 they started rounding up all the Jews for transport and extermination. The mayor at that time was a Jew but he suddenly became Roman Catholic and a Fascist and he successfully spirited most of the Jewish community away to safety before he was denounced, and paid the penalty.
The old partisan leader has a large (72″) ceramic diorama dedicated to him in the precinct of the municipal office. It shows him, with a companion waving a white flag on the bank of the Senio river, demonstrating to the Allies that Cotignola was free of Germans.
The mayor is a proud Communist, and with him and others I sang the Bandiera Rossa (Red Flag) and he was very pleased.
The whole region, from Ravenna to Bologna declares itself communist. In fact their politics are no more left than our Liberal Democrats and they would hate to be classified alongside the Bolsheviks.
Pre war Cotignola was a quite prosperous market town rather like old Newbury. Unfortunately, it became the scene of a pivotal battle on the Senio River, and after artillery bombardment, fierce street fighting and as the start of an allied air-force bombing run (aimed at Ravenna?), it was reduced to total rubble, with many innocents
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killed or maimed. In the last half-century the town has been rebuilt in the model of the old, but there remains a hanging sense of sadness and pain.
The campaign in Italy ended on 2nd May 1945. It had lasted twenty-two months and covered more than one thousand miles. The total Allied casualties, killed, wounded and missing were 312,000. 42,000 of the killed belonging to the forces of the British Commonwealth and Empire.
The area on a line, Rimini to Bologna, was the scene of particularly vicious fighting particularly between Ravenna and Forli with the enemy in a do-or-die defensive position. They lost.
Back in Lugo, later that day, I was made an honorary member of the Baracca Flying Club in Lugo. Baracca was a famous World War I air ace with dozens of enemy aircraft shot down, and is of course, a national hero. Lugo has a museum dedicated to him and his aeroplane, a “Spad”, is on display together with his medals and various bits of memorabilia. The cockade or emblem on his aircraft was his family crest – a rearing horse. After the 1914/18 war a family friend, Enzo Ferrari, sought and obtained permission from Baracca’s countess mother to use the emblem on his automobiles, and it is on every Ferrari car sold to this day. The only difference is that the horse’s tail is upright – Baracca’s dropped.
Saturday am. 27th April
Two members of the Amadori family arrived from Santa Sofia to collect me. They were Sante, Pasquina’s eldest son and his brother-in-law Fabio, married to Franca, Pasquina’s daughter. Both were quiet and reserved. The hotel had made available a small drawing room with tables and chairs and the mayor arrived to give me letters to take to the Chairman of Berkshire County Council and Sir Alan Campbell.
Suddenly there was a telephone call from a chap who absolutely identified himself as a son of the R family which I had been seeking. A friend had told him of the TV
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broadcast on Thursday and showed him an article in L’Unita which is the predominant newspaper in the region. In ten minutes he was at the hotel and introduced to everyone, with photographed embraces for me. Bluntly, I did not take to the chap. He is very broad, stocky, about 5’5″ with a fixed smile which denies the opportunity to read his mind. Employed as an armed bank guard, I later learned that he has a very vengeful nature. However, I made an appointment to stay in his home on the night of 1st May before returning to the UK, forgetting for the moment that I had already agreed to meet and have a meal with the mayor in the home of an important friend of his – a national poet.
B the historian had summoned the press, and there were interviews for all and photographs by the reel. I gave a short farewell speech then departed with Sante and Fabio for Poggio alia Astra, a drive of about 75 minutes to the home of Pasqua Armadori in Milanesi in the mountains at her Rochetta house. Assembled awaiting us was a crowd of about 15 assorted bodies including some lovely little girls and a “Welcome Mr Harris” banner with balloons. There was a brief interview with a local journalist (who wrote a kind article) then lunch. I presented the Attestation to her brother to Pasquina and the interpretation was read by her daughter Franca. All agreed that the proper place for it was on the wall of the church porch in Poggio alla Astra where it could be viewed by all. Also there were personal presents for Pasqua from my wife and myself. An arrangement was made for me to visit the cemetery where Giacomo and his wife Alice are interred, then Sante drove me to the hotel which I had booked in Santa Sofia. He was doubtful about it – it was on the wrong side of the town by about 12 miles and his wife Franca had prepared a ‘casetta’ next to their holiday home three minutes’ walk away from her mother – Pasquina’s place, which was available if I wanted it. However, I had to honour the hotel booking, at least for one night and we drove there to find that there was a very noisy wedding reception in progress. However, I slept very soundly all night.
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Sunday. 28th April
Fabio and Sante collected me early and we went to the cemetery in Santa Sofia to visit the graves and put some flowers on them. We then drove to a restaurant in Poggio alla Astra which had been converted from an old colonial house. There were 30 guests, all part of the Amadori family but not all of them. The wine flowed and there were at least nine courses. There was a present for my wife Joyce, and I made a speech of thanks.
Then everyone, in a convoy of cars, drove up into the crags to the original house of refuge where I had been nursed in the winter of 1943/4.
The road is the original mule-track, widened a bit and straightened along the contours somewhat, with many potholes. The house has been abandoned and more or less wrecked. Giacomo’s brother Agostino (who remembers me well) at one time attempted to restore the house but was defeated by time and money. It was Agostino who had cut off my lice ridden hair, and recalled the event.
The stable has been demolished and everything is overgrown with trees and brambles but with a little difficulty I gained entry although it was a bit dangerous inside. I remember the room in which I slept and took photos of it.
There was quite a declamation from Agostino and Giovanni (another elder) and one from Pasquina, all listened to intently by the family who had taken the occasion very much to heart and had responded to it. All departed and we went to Franca’s ‘casetta’ to meet Fabio’s friends.
Fabio is the vice president of the Club Bertinoro, his brother Furio is the president. A friend present is the immediate Past President. The Club Bertinoro is in a hilltop town named Bertinoro between Cesena and Meldola. It is the oldest club in Italy, started in the year 995 AD, for hospitality to travellers. There is an ancient column revered by
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all. Membership is exclusive, much sought after and expensive. I felt (and still feel) very honoured to be invited as a guest.
Monday. 29th April
After breakfast with Franca and her daughter Guilia (10) on bread and jam, jam tart and coffee, we drove to the office of the mayor of Santa Sofia and I exchanged presents with him.
The father of the present mayor of Santa Sofia had been a partisan. The mayor is a teacher in higher education. The “Resistance Movement” is required study by all pupils at a certain age and details of the life times and persons involved is examined minutely, especially by the mayor, who has made it his life’s work. He knew of JK [Jack Kikman], Libero and the British Generals. It seems that my ‘nom de guerri’ appeared in the formal post-war records of both brigades. Ergo, they must have thought that I acquired some distinction (like Flashman perhaps?). (The British Army did not give a toss!)
I understand that the mayor of Santa Sofia, aware of my invitation to the Club Bertinoro telephoned the mayor of Bertinoro, and confirmed my bona fide status as an ex-partisan.
However, we then drove to the house of Giacomo’s brother Giovanni who had served in the Italian army during the North African campaign and knew all the places. He was outside Tobruk when I was besieged within, and lo! he was captured in Benghazi! too. Taken to Africa he said he had a rotten time. He produced a bottle of Glen Grant single malt and I had a couple.
Then Sante drove us down the mountain to a restaurant (Ca de Rivoli?) where there was another party of 20 odd different Amadoris. There were six courses, lots of wine and chat, with Pasquina (who had had a drink) speaking Romagnola Patois of which I do not understand but quietly interpreted by daughter Franca.
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Suddenly R appeared. Said that press and TV cameras had all been laid on for a reception by the mayor at his home town Massa Lombarda which is north east of Lugo and would I please come at once. The return trip would take at least five hours and more importantly – the current party would be offensively interrupted so I firmly declined. He was very upset, as Italians sometimes are, but Franca pacified him in some way and he departed, dejected.
Tuesday. 30th April
Along the way from Franca’s ‘casetta’ lives Pasqua’s brother Luigi with his wife Giovanna and children. Luigi farms no more than an acre, for vegetables in the home in season. A vineyard, some hens. He is a famous hunter in the forest and his larder is always full of game. Venison, semi-wild boar (from which they make delectable sausages of very high flavour), hares, rabbits, etc. There is also beef, lamb and pork readily to hand in the house.
Although a mountain house, the interior is again very elegant in a restrained Italianate style. It is not large but twenty people were seated for a lunch with all the beautiful table appointments and the rubbish knives. Luigi is a painter of pictures in the winter months and his work, unsold by choice, would command respectable prices here. At the lunch there were served no less than 14 courses, all prepared in the house from ingredients from the immediate countryside, vis:
1. Antipasta : Carpaccio con parmigani and limone
2. Polenda con Ragu, salsa and pomodore
3. Tagliatelli con strudoli and pomodore
4. Tortelli filled with patate roots and zucchini
5. Chicken with small roast potatoes, spinach and pomodore ripieni
6. Grilled lamb with tasty peas
7. Insalata con mozarella and pomodore
8. Crepe de Stivolli and spinach
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9. Fruit salad. All fresh fruit cut small “Macedonia de fruitta”. Strawberries cut
small and marinated in sugar and lemon syrup
10. Trifle (Supa Inglese) and tiramisu
11. Crostata de niori, with cheeses
12. Jam tart.
All plus coffee, liquors, fruit (pears, apples etc).
To drink: clear sparkling mountain water, Asti Martini, Sangiovesi red, Single Malt Whisky.
Lots to drink, lots of chat. After lunch, joking I said “it’s not enough”. They fell about, laughing.
In the forties ‘polenda’ was a staple dish, now rarely made, and not the same. Cooked in a cauldron on chains in the fire it was a sort of stiff porridge made from cornflour. The freshly ground yellow flour was gradually added to boiling salted water and stirred continuously until cooked – probably two hours. Meanwhile the sauce was prepared in a small earthenware flat pot on a trivet. The basis of the sauce was two small birds each about the size of a sparrow shot early in the morning. Plucked, dressed, chopped up with olive oil, pork fat, a variety of herbs plus tomatoes. The table was scrubbed.
When all was ready the cauldron was removed from the fire and the bubbling contents tipped onto the table where a large flat circle of yellow steaming porridge sat. Small plates and forks were set, the sauce put on the plates. One cut a small arc in the ‘polenda’ [polenta], put it on one’s plate with the sauce and wolfed it down. Then another arc of ‘polenda’, then another.
This was accompanied by vicious throat scorching red wine and probably followed by dried grapes or, if lucky, a scraping of rock hard very old goat’s cheese, with a piece of morbid bread. The cheese was very strong, exquisite flavour. It hardly exists today. It was so hard that it was impossible to cut by ordinary means.
Nowadays, as everyone knows, most Italian dishes are accompanied by grated parmesan cheese. The stuff from the supermarkets in handy sprinkle containers is by
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no means the same as the real stuff, freshly grated in some bulk and served in a silver container with a spoon, rather like sugar is served here.
The Italians know how to cook and they know how to eat too, but the food is pure and not adulterated with all the modern additives which are ruining our health.
Wednesday, 1st May. May Day. Labour Day, and a feast day in all Italy
I had breakfast with Franca and her daughter Guilia and cleared out of the ‘casetta’ to say goodbye to Pasquina and her husband Milanesi.
Franca then drove to Bertinoro through Galiata and Meldola, passing the house of Mussolini’s wife. We were met by Fabio at the club an he conducted a tour of the premises inside and out – all very ancient but in good order.
The guests for lunch numbered 55, of which I was “guest of honour”. They assembled outside and I was introduced to the mayor of Bertinoro, who led me to the hospitality monument, and with a short speech presented a commemoration medal to which I responded. Most of the town inhabitants were there. Immediately after the formal photographs, as we stepped back, our places in front of the monument were taken by ten or twelve cyclists in the usual conspicuous gear of latex tights and streamlined helmets. As they arranged themselves for photography someone the crowd said very loudly “They are Germans (Sono Tedeschi)”, and the crowd immediately broke up, dispersed and disappeared.
I was then led to the club plaza which is a large gardened balcony for a presentation by the Immediate Past President of the Club who made a long laudatory speech extolling my virtues! I then was made an honorary member of the club and presented with a plaque confirming it. I made the usual speech – “very honoured, many thanks, family will never forget”, etc, etc.
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The lunch was about six excellent courses with very nice and copious Sangiovesi red wine. Furio the present president made another speech at the end of the meal and at the toasting stage – everyone a bit liquored – would you believe – three cheers for Harris. Hip Hip Hooray.
In all my insignificant shameless life of piety and virtue that has never happened before, nor likely ever again. There was more to come.
After lunch there was a wreath to be laid at another monument within the grounds to the originator of the club (Garibaldi himself had been a president at one time). There, lined up was the town band – lots of clarinets, trumpets and a couple of drums. They struck up the Italian National Anthem followed (apparently in my honour) by the Red Flag, then the Partisan melody and finally – God Save the Queen, which the bandmaster told me they had practised especially for the occasion. When everything was finished and it was time to depart I trudged wearily to the top of the hill car park arm-in-arm with an ancient lady who had been heavily involved in the resistance movement and apparently as revered in the community for her work with orphans of those times. After an emotional goodbye to Franca and her husband Fabio, the Poet drove me to Massa Lombardo to meet R. Later, the penny dropped, the ‘ancient lady’ is none other than ‘Nadia’, Sergio Seratkins lover. She gave me an Italianate letter tray which is treasured.
This next piece is going to be very difficult to put into words. Even as I write there is a sense of dread. The trip was over. The “mission” accomplished. A long-held desire satisfied. But the ghosts have not been laid to rest, and my mind is much disturbed.
Memory is not immune to the influence of emotions and can play strange tricks, magnifying and dramatising some experiences and diminishing or underrating others. I make no excuses for thinking for years that R’s father’s name was Carlo. In fact it turned out to be Pietro. His mother’s name was never known to me. Further, I was
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convinced that the house of refuge was to the east of Lugo. In fact it is in Massa Lombarda, some five miles north west of Lugo. These simply errors of fact distracted firstly Millozzi of the Monte San Martino Trust and the noted local historian, called B, in intensive searches for the R family. Exhaustive is a more appropriate adjective for their efforts. Both wrote to, and received negative replies from the official record officers in the province of Ravenna. B caused detailed and erudite articles in local papers, some with banner headlines. He alerted Italian TV to the story so that my faces – both young and old – appeared both on national and local TV, without result. B became a little worried that the whole affair was either a figment, or more likely, the name “Carlo R” was a ‘nom de guerra’, which was not unusual at the time.
It was the fourth day of my visit to Lugo that a neighbour of R, who had seen the TV broadcast, showed him a newspaper article and sparked him to telephone the poet at the hotel. With hindsight this would seem to have been an unfortunate accident. There is an adage – “let sleeping dogs lie”. Perhaps the deities who control these events considered that the project to find R was outside my remit.
On leaving the Club Bertinoro I bade farewell to Franca and Fabio and the others and was taken by the Poet to Massa Lombarda where R lives.
He resides at the top of a noisome two storey apartment block in rather dingy surroundings. The accommodation is reached via two wide, steep and wearisome flights of concrete stairs and through stark corridors obstructed by elderly and curious inhabitants. R welcomed us very civilly and introduced his wife – a semi-invalid with a badly distorted leg. I have written elsewhere that there was no initial rapport but after a couple of minute of close contact I was overcome by an unreasonably dislike to the fellow.
In my mind there gradually appeared a realisation that the venue might have been the scene of some horrific event, and my nervousness commenced. He showed me framed certificates granted to each of his parents applauding their involvement in the Resistance. Each bears photographs in the soulless passport style and I recognised
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neither – my tension growing. Each frame is bedecked with the meritorious partisan medal.
On the wall of the salon was hung the Attestation from the Chairman of Berkshire County Council, but I was immediately conscious that it is a wrong thing in a wrong place. For some unspecified reason my alarm began to crescendo to a point where I began to perspire with trepidation and with it came the realisation that if I remained there longer I would be overcome by fear, terror, call it what you will. I am convinced that there was something in that room which strongly disapproved of me and my presence.
The Poet, who is a sensitive soul, noted my discomfiture and on his suggestion that we visit the original of refuge I jumped to it. R’ s wife was not gratified, I fancy she had a meal in preparation for us.
R went off in a newish Golf GTI to pick up his brother (who I did not recognise either, and thought by the Poet to be a complete, silent moron) and we all went to the original house about two miles away, Harris still very nervous and disturbed. I only vaguely remembered the outline of the house, which has been completely refurbished and is now very modern inside. The original workshop is now the kitchen, full of resplendent electro-domestic appliances. The position of the staircase has changed, it is now marbled. The front garden has been curtailed by the sweep of a road, and the property fenced, enclosing a separate garage. The current owner appears very prosperous, and said he knew the story from the newspapers. I took some photographs, then broke the news to R that I would not return to his place but would keep a previous appointment (of which the Poet had reminded me) with the mayor of Lugo. He was very upset, however, to placate him somewhat, I permitted him to drive me to meet the mayor of Massa Lombardo who offered us drinks all round and made a short welcome speech with an equally short response from me.
Finally, the Poet and I departed Massa Lombardo to the obvious dismay of R who became very emotional, but my tension declined immediately we parted.
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All who know me well will agree that I am not particularly psychically sensitive. However, there is no doubt in my mind, after quiet reflection about that episode of the affair, that some sort of celestial intervention indicated to me forcibly that I was out of line and perhaps out of court.
One can only hope that it is over and done with. Forever after in my life, the first day of May will be a very significant date.
I checked into the Ala a’Oro hotel once again then went with the Poet to his elegant apartment in the ‘Hans Crescent’ of Lugo. The mayor appeared while the Poet’s optometrist partner prepared supper and he heard of the events of the day and the Massa Lombarda debacle with interest and sympathy.
He expressed a desire to establish if possible a self-financed communal system of student exchange primarily for educational purposes, based on mutual family hospitality and he asked for my help. I have already taken the first steps with the Chairman of Berkshire County Council and Newbury District. The outcome will be interesting.
Finally, that night I recorded the day’s events and retired exhausted.
Thursday. 2nd May
A farewell in the hotel bar with a drink for all (on the Commune – who also paid my hotel bill). Present were the Mayor, the Poet, the Historian, the Past President and Current President of the Lions Club. We all kissed each other goodbye in the approved Italian style and the Poet and I were driven to Bologna swiftly along the autostrada, in the mayoral Lancia, by the mayor’s driver.
On the journey the Poet – who is a very sensitive chap, dwelt a little on the disparate Amadori family, all descendants of Giacomo and Alice. There are dozens of them, and
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in the intervening fifty odd years there are uncles who have never met nieces or nephews, cousins unaware of aunts, sisters who had not met for many years.
Gently the Poet told me that he had been told by an Amadori family elder that my visit, with the ‘Attestation’ to Giacomo and the accompanying press publicity had drawn the family together in quite a substantial way.
If that is true, let it be my monument. I seek none other.
At the airport, lugging my own baggage for the first time, I came down with a bump, especially when the attractive checkout girl in the duty free shop refused to let me purchase more than one litre of booze.
Back to Newbury and my loving wife!
The Italian episode ended early May so it is too early for a sequel. However, every week brings expensively posted packets of documents from B the historian, always with photographs and small gifts. The latest is a small music box carillon. One turns a little handle and it plays O Sole Mio, to everyone’s amusement.
Among the documents is a copy of an IOU for 10,000 lire which I signed when on the run in the Apennines. Worth about £500 at today’s exchange rate (then about £20) I need it like a hole in the head, but of course I have promised to make it good – the word of an Englishmen and all that! Ouch!
B the historian tells me that the money lent to Allied soldiers came from amounts parachuted by the Allies. It was all documented by receipts and at the end of the war the people who lent money were repaid by the Allied Screening Commission. I will bet
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£20 that eventually that sum was deducted from my pay by a rapacious government. They say that records no longer exist, but we shall see!
There are cordial invitations to return to Italy – to a seaside home in Ravenna, a holiday home in Coriano which is a nice hill top town not far from Rimini and of course to Poggio alla Astra and Lugo.
Perhaps next year!
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Photographs taken during Fred Harris’ trip back to Italy in April 1996
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[A re-union photograph with Fred Harris and the descendants of one of the families in Italy that he met during the war. With caption by Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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Some of the AMADORI family.
I was there four days. On each day there was a party, no less than twenty bodies (excluding the exceptionally well behaved children). Always lovely wine and single malt whiskey on tap!
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[Photograph of Church at Poggio alla Astra from Fred Harris and visit back to Italy after the war. With caption by Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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The church at Poggio alla Astra.
The colourful lady is FRANCA, daughter of PASQUINA AMADORI who is the sister of Giacomo (deceased).
With her husband FURIO she was my hostess in Poggio and made available a ‘casetta’ in the mountain for my use.
She runs a travel agency in FORLI and speaks a sort of English. Husband directs transport for the SANGIOVES, winery in S Sofia.
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[Re-union photograph from Fred Harris and his visit back to Italy after the war. Mayor’s office with notes by Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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Cotignola. The Mayor’s Office.
Bassi (Historian), Rambelli (Pro Loco), Tarlazzi (Mayor), Harris, Donata? Andrghetti (Interpreter)
Casadio (Partisan Hero) Bendandi (Godfather in Lugo).
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[Photograph from Fred Harris and visit back to Italy after the war. House in Massa Lombardo. With notes by Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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The refurbished house in MASSA LOMBARDA where I was hidden in October 1943.
Then it was a modest artisan’s casa, now an elegant residence of a Bourgeoisie. The lean to workshop is now the kitchen, marble staircase,mains sanitaryware all the v best electro domestic appliances etc.
The people shown are Sante Ricci and his brother who is Moronie. April 1996
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[A photograph of Fred Harris at Poggio alla Astra from his visit back to Italy after the war. With notes from Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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Poggio alla Astra.
Before the tomb (in the cemetery at S. Sofia) of the original AMADORI couple who hid and nursed me when wounded during the winter 1943/4. The tombs are the top two, not very clearly shown.
The regimental [word unclear] was much appreciated by his family; a [word unclear] of [word unclear] [word unclear]. April 1996
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[Photograph from Fred Harris and visit back to Italy after the war. With notes from Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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The ‘ATTESTO’ to his family of Giacomo Amadori on the screen of the porch of the church in Poggio alla Astra, where all the church going population can see it!
Beneath is a translation into Italian.
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[Photograph from Fred Harris and visit back to Italy after the war. Bertinoro Town Band, with notes from Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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The BERTINORO TOWN BAND. Labour Day Mayday 1st May
In my honour they played.
1. The Italian National Anthem.
2. Bandiera Rossa
3. The Partisan Tune
4. God Save The Queen
After a lunch in the CLUB BERTINORO, (56 guests) when I was made a honorary member and presented with a metal certificate.
1st May 1996
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[A photograph of Fred Harris from his visit back to Italy after the war. Monument to New Zealand fallen. With notes from Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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Monument to the New Zealand fallen in US battles on the Senio river. Spring 1945.
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[Photograph from Fred Harris and visit back to Italy after the war. Poggio alla Astra, with notes from Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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Poggio alla Astra.
A ‘hide’ used when the Germans began this severe ‘rastralamento’ in the early Spring 1944. The original camouflage has been torn aside.
The sort of terrain is typical, and still very difficult on foot.
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[Photograph of Fred Harris from his visit back to Italy after the war. House at Massa Lombarda, with notes from Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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Ricci’s son SANTE in the refurbished house in MASSA LOMBARDA where I was hidden in October 1943.
Sante Ricci is employed as an armed bank guard, his wife an invalid with a badly distorted leg. No children.
I did not take to Ricci at all.
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[Photograph from Fred Harris and visit back to Italy after the war. Mayor of Bertinodo, with notes from Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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The mayor of BERTINORO.
Presenting a commemorative medallion before the ‘hospitality’ monuments. In ancient times his guests tethered their horses in the iron rings on the monument and the hosts names were put above.
The cyclist at the foot of this monument is a German, one of a party of ten. Someone cried ‘Sono Tedeschi’ and the crowd turned away immediately and dispersed. They re-emerged when the Germans departed.
Labor Day, May Day 1st May 1996
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[Photograph of Fred Harris from his visit back to Italy after the war. Abandoned refuge in Poggio alla Astra, with notes from Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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Outside the abandoned refuge in Poggio alla Astra.
After a 12 – course lunch in an original mountain farmhouse now a very elegant residence owned by LUIGI AMADORI, a famous hunter in the mountain forest.
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[Another photograph from Fred Harris and visit back to Italy after the war. Amadori family, with notes by Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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FRANCA, Pasquina’s only daughter reading the Italian translation of the ‘Attisto’ to the Amadori family in Pasqua’s home.
Facing is GIOVANNI (Giacomo’s brother who knew me from 1943/1944) and LUIGI, Giacomo’s eldest son.
In the foreground ROSNA, Giovanni’s allegra sposata!
Poggio alla Astra April 1996
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[Photograph of Fred Harris standing by a commemorative plaque dedicated to Allied soldiers from World War 2.]
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[Photograph of Fred Harris standing by a monument to Club Bertinoro with the mayor of Bertinoro, with notes by Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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Bertinoro May Day 1st May
The Mayor clutching my right arm while I pretend to be very noble a la ?Flashman.
At the monument to his club founder after wreath laying.
The club is the oldest in Italy, began AD995 by Crusaders, and is dedicated to hospitality.
Garibaldi was once a president. The other gentleman is FURIO MALTONI, club president and capo of the firefighters in the national forest.
1st May 1996
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[A photograph of Fred Harris from his visit back to Italy after the war. Mayor of Santa Sofia, with notes by Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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With the Mayor of Santa Sofia, Sig NERI.
Holding the “Attesto” to the AMADORI family. On the table the seal of the Newbury District Council and a scroll later presented to me.
The “Attesto” was hung of the precinct walls of the municipal building in full view of all visitors.
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[A re-union photograph with Fred Harris and the descendants of one of the families in Italy that he met during the war. Amadori family, with notes from Fred Harris on the following digital page.]
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Santa Sofia House of the AMADORI –
Since 1944, all the young people have left the mountains for yuppie jobs in the various townships. There are very few ‘contadinos’ left and many of the houses have been abandoned, although quite a number are ‘holiday houses’.
Young people have married, bred, dispersed. Some of the Amadori’s have not seen their relatives for years, particularly PASQUINA with her aged husband MILANESI, living aloft in the mountains.
Our departure from Poggio, I was informed (second hand) that my visit had a signal effect on the family and as a result they had been drawn closer together.
If that is so, my trip was justified by that alone.
That is PASQUINA on the right.
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[A photograph of Fred Harris from his visit back to Italy after the war. Giving speech in LUGO, with caption on the following digital page.]
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Liberation Day in LUGO.
Making a speech in fractured Italian, giving thanks etc.
25th April 1996
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[A photograph of Fred Harris from his visit back to Italy after the war. Liberation Day in Lugo, 1996, with notes from Fred Harris on the following digital page]
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Liberation Day ceremonies in LUGO, 25th April 1996
The Mayor flanked on his left by the youngest member of the council, together with the reps of all the regimental associations, Partisans, [word unclear], vigilante, Red Cross etc etc plus most of the population of LUGO, despite the (not very heavy) rain.
25th April 1996
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[Photograph with the caption, “The officials on parade for Liberation Day in Lugo, April 1996”]
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[Photograph with the caption, “Making the formal speech”]
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[Two photographs with caption, “Nino Bendandi. Sometime merchant and local historian Honoured Society?”]
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[Two photographs with caption, Dr Danielle Serafini Poet and noted art critic Museum curator in Lugo. The other is of Maurizio Roi, Mayor of Lugo]
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[Three photographs with the caption “Monuments to citizens of Lugo killed or deported by the Germans]
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[Two photographs, one with the caption “First meeting with the Amadoris, in Lugo”, the other has the caption “Pasquina awaiting arrival at her home in Poggio alla Astra”]
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[Photograph with the caption “A ‘welcome’ notice at Pasqua’s mountain home”]
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[Three photographs. Two have the caption “Pasqua’s daughter Franca, and her husband Fabio”, the other has the caption “Reading the Attestation to Giacomo”]
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[Three photographs. One has the caption “The church at Poggio”. The other two photographs have the caption “The Attestation on the wall of the church lobby where everyone can see it. An interpretation in the Italian Rangreage is appended”]
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Photograph with caption “The original track from Poggio up to the Amadori home and refuge”]
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[Two photographs of Fred Harris from his visit back to Italy after the war with the caption “Outside the abandoned house”]
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[Two photographs from Fred Harris’s trip back to Italy after the war. One has the caption “Burnt out by Germans”, the other “The derelict bedroom”]
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[Four photographs from Fred Harris’s trip back to Italy after the war. The first two photographs have the caption “With the mayor of Santa Sofia, handing the Attestation for Giacomo Amadori and the Newbury District arms seal”. The last two photographs have the caption “The tombs of Giacomo and Alice Amadori in the cemetery, Santa Sofia”]
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[Four photographs from Fred Harris’s visit back to Italy after the war. The first photograph has the caption “The present Cotignola administration – Bassi, Rambelli, Tarlazzi, Harris, Donata, Casadio, Bendandi”. The second photograph has the caption “Monument to the civilian victims”, the third photograph has the caption “The Jews of Cotignola”, the last photograph has the caption “Casadio (on the right of the picture) before the monument recording his courage”.
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[Three photographs from Fred Harris’s visit back to Italy after the war. The first photograph has the caption “Some of the Amadori descendants”, the second photograph has the caption “Pasqua, flanked by her brothers. Husband Milanese is extreme left, daughter Franca on the right.”
Venue is a refurbished mountain home with marble walls”, the last photograph has the caption “In the middle is Luigi the hunter before one of his paintings. He is Giacomo’s son. The others are Giacomo’s brothers, Giovanni (left) and Agostino (right) – uncles of Luigi”]
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[Four photographs from Fred Harris’s visit back to Italy after the war. They all have the caption “Various feasts with the Amadori tribe”]
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[Three photographs from Fred Harris’s visit back to Italy after the war. The first photograph has the caption “Being made an honorary member of the Club by Furio the Club President”, the second photograph has the caption “After the ‘thank you’ speech”, the last photograph has the caption “The Bertinoro band”]
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[Three photographs from Fred Harris’s visit back to Italy after the war. The first photograph has the caption “Reception at the Club Bertinoro. The dark haired young lady is a grand daughter of Nadia”, the second photograph has the caption “With the mayor of Bertinoro and the Poet before the ancient monument to ‘hospitality'”, the last photograph has the caption “A celebratory medallion”]
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[Three photographs from Fred Harris’s visit back to Italy after the war. The first photograph has the caption “The house in Massa Lombarda where JK [Jack Kirkman] and self hid. I had thought that it was in Lugo”. The second and third photographs have the caption “R the son of the family who hid us”]
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[Photograph from Fred Harris’s visit back to Italy after the war with the caption “On departure from Lugo for Bologna airport. With the Poet and mayor’s driver”]
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[Three photographs. The first two photographs have the caption “Jack Kirkman in South Africa before he was shot down and captured” the last photograph has the caption “Ernie Cox”]
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Correspondence between Fred Harris and others researching and arranging his return trip to Italy in April 1996
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[Handwritten letter from Fred Harris to Keith Killby dated 16th January 1995]
Dear Mr Killby,
Out of the blue last week came a surprise visit from Jim Bourne (of Richmond, Yorks – you wrote him on 2nd December 1994) after nearly 52 lapsed years.
He graced the cot next but one tom in PADULA. I had been led to understand that he lost his life in an escape attempt from BOLOGNA. Happily untrue.
For myself – got out of BOLOGNA with others and became a Partisan operating around S. SOFIA south of FORLI.
Wounded but eventually re-joined, having sailed in a fishing dinghy down the Adriatic coast from someplace N of PESARDO to CHIETI ORTONA, S of PESCARA, with 2 Generals and a Brigadier for company.
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Until recently have been reluctant to reminisce much about that period of life, even with family. A painful period best forgotten. Guilt feelings perhaps?
But there are two families to whom one feels a lot of gratitude – addresses only roughly known. I really should give them personal thanks before shuffling off.
A small donation for your excellent work is enclosed. It has to vie with grandchildren at Varsity. However, if you can supply the paperwork, would happily enter into a yearly covenant which as you know would be tax beneficial.
Last year I heard from TONY GREGSON in Devon, responding to an ad, and have since made contact with Mick WAGNER who
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I knew in PADULA and met after the BOLOGNA escape somewhere in EMILIA, thence much later in HQ [Head Quarters] Rhine Army.
After demob I knocked about in a variety of jobs, then lost all my money in an Australian venture. Found a half assed career in Middle East oil with Iraq Petroleum, to be ousted on nationalisation by SADDAM.
Eventually became a director of a diesel engineering outfit and in the recent years before retirement in the seventies and 80’s, a County Councillor for Royal Berkshire.
Now, at 75, unemployed, unemployable, falling apart with arthritis, bad leg, angina perhaps it is best to look back a bit.
Find out why I’ve been wrong all these years.
F.A. Harris PTO ->
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Jim Bourn furnished a photocopy of the FOURTH ANNUAL REPORT, APRIL 1944 which you had sent him.
If available I would be most grateful for the sight of previous publications!
x. Could you advise me of the best approach? How does one contact them? One knows the family names of course, and rough locations (of 50+ years ago).
Perhaps there are lists of “known helpers”.
I can remember certifying some of the investigation of the War Office, almost immediately post VE [Victory in Europe].
Incidentally are you aware that J. Bourn Esq was at sometime His Excellency HM [His / Her Majesty] Ambassador to Somalia et al?
We mix with the great ‘n the good eh?
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[Typed letter from Keith Killby to Fred Harris dated 19th January 1995]
Dear Mr Harris,
Obviously I must begin by thanking you for the very generous cheque which you have sent to the Trust. Then I hope the enclosed will answer some of your queries and I think be of interest to you.
Last year, as will be reported in the Annual report in April, I went to ceremonies of commemoration near Gubbio and there, there was launched the Italian edition of a book by an American Consul who escaped with some high ranking officers not far from Pescara. It would take quite a volume to recount the various efforts – several successful – to get away from the coast of the Marche.
You will have heard quite a lot about the trust from Tony Gregson and Mick Wagner- one of its first supporters and contributors to its archives. Have you written out the story of your time behind the lines? We would value a copy in with the many others that the Trust has gathered.
Among the enclosed is a copy of our first leaflet which has in it a yearly covenant form. The two page summary I produced last year at the request of Sir Patrick Fairweather, who when I saw him in the autumn asked for a summary of the work of the Trust to send some leading Italians to show that we had not forgotten. You will find some of the reports rather repetitious. I would appreciate having the first three back as I am getting a bit low in them. You say you were with some Partisans. Can you add that to your account and also in what period they were active and doing what?
Now as for finding the families that is sometimes difficult but we have had amazing good fortune sometimes – as the reports will show – and the proportion of students who can claim grandparents who helped has increased. We would very much like to try to trace grandchildren of those that helped you. In the first instance I think it would be best if you sent me what names and addresses you have. I can then see if we have any contacts fairly close who might try and see if there are any of the family still around. We have letters, written in Italian, which we send when we find a contact but of course we would let you know immediately if we found anyone – but some of course have proved untraceable.
I myself was first captured in the desert when Rommel started his advance to Alamein, but being a Field Ambulance we worked for his wounded – he walked through the camp, – we stumbled back into the Knightsbridge Box after six days. After the advance from Alamein I was sent back with jaundice and then joined the SAS [Special Air Service] being sent to Sardinia to do a diversion when our troops landed in Sicily – but got diverted ourselves into prison camp in the Marche. We all escaped at the Armistice. I was once more near the front line but escaped in the night leaving the Germans whom I had encouraged to drink more wine than I, still sleeping in the beds beside me. A week later I was captured perhaps by the last patrol on the Biferno with our troops on the other side. So after two weeks in Rome’s notorious prison, I was sent up to Germany.
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Two years older than you I have been very fortunate, certainly my memory is most erratic but otherwise I seem to be very well thanks to modern science as I have had a heart bi-pass which completely relieved my angina which had reached pretty dangerous levels. Had I been born ten years earlier I suppose I could not have had it done – or been a guinea pig for it. The doctor responsible for it seems surprised how well I seem whenever I have to visit him. Though I can do a brisk walk for most of an hour I do find that if I am sight seeing somewhere I can only walk around for half a day.
Next week I am off to Australia and New Zealand – where I was a cowboy roustabout before the war – visiting friends and relations and some trust supporters.
This week also came support from one of two brothers who got through the lines. His enthusiasm for what the ‘contadini’ had done and the work of the Trust in trying at least to commemorate that help does make the four or five hundred letters a year very worthwhile as does of course the gratitude and enthusiasm of the students – all of whom I try to see at least once while they are over.
I have purposely put my telephone number in case you have any queries before I go ‘down under’.
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[Typed letter from Keith Killby to Fred Harris dated 9th June 1995]
Dear Freddie Harris,
First, two apologies. I tried to get the Annual Report out in too much of a hurry and did not check my sources and relied on my non-existent memory which went back to the Frank Harris whose name intrigued me as it was forbidden in the household, also, though not in this case, several of the corrections I put in were not picked up by the typist. Secondly, I am sorry I have not replied before part of the reason for that being I wanted to sleep on your request to try and contact the people mentioned in your letter.
Usually such requests are made with just a Christian name and ‘not far from’. Yours are very precise so we will see whether we can get co-operation in two places.
In the first place – Monte San Martino (MSM) – I am sure that Antonio Millozzi will do his best. He is Town Clerk of MSM but his efficiency, as I told him after the ceremonies to make me Honorary Citizen, would not disgrace Buckingham Palace.
I will send him a couple of copies of the letter we send, in Italian, when we have a contact which explains the Trust and how Bursaries can be applied for. I will ask him to write to the Mayor of his opposite number in which ever place he thinks is appropriate. Whether we get any response depends on whether there is someone like AM at those places or more like those Italians about whom we were so rude during the war when we were prisoners with them.
Most interested to know that we have another of those who took that boat ‘ride’ from the mouth of the Tenna. I do not remember Orebaugh mentioning the Tenna and thus pinpointing its departure. As I go back every year for a night at Porto San Giorgio and MSM looks down on the junction of the Tenna and the Tennacolo beneath it I know the area very well – besides originally arriving at PSG as a POW three weeks before the Armistice of 1943. It is in ‘To War with Whitaker’ by the Countess of Ranfurly that I read the account of her husband of that trip. A very fascinating book for anyone in that area of the war.
Now to the third point in your letter – your generous offer to meet students. I have nightmares of students arriving and not being met – not that I think it worry most of them but their mothers would have hysterics at such a thought. Though we have several others to ‘book in’ the meeting of those at present scheduled has been arranged.
On 17th Caroline Gavinga Trustee is meeting three girls at Victoria from Gatwick. CG has a house not far from their home near Urbino and has met them. They agreed immediately to get the train to Victoria as it is such an awful journey by car. CG will house for a night – we do not usually do that – dispatch two next day to Tunbridge Wells having agreed with the landladies to meet them off a certain train and she will take the other to the house where she is staying in London. The next day – 18th – Stephen Sims is meeting a very competent sounding young man at Heathrow
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[2nd page of a letter from Fred Harris to Keith Killby, no date. This letter does not follow on from the previous page and the preceding page of this letter has not been found in the file.]
putting him on a train at the other end of the Piccadilly line and phoning the ‘landlady’ who will meet him. On 24th I am meeting one young man at Heathrow at about 1pm, waiting until 2pm for two others to arrive. One of them I shall put on the train to another landlady at the other end of the Piccadilly line and bring two others here and then distribute them to two different homes not far from me – I hardly drive at all these days as I hate it but can manage short journeys at the weekend.
Stephen Sims, the son of a New Zealander who was with Arch Scott, is in the police force in London and lives not far from Heathrow. He was at the functions for Arch Scott north of Venice in April and last year went down to Monte Sam Martino for a night to meet Antonio Millozzi.
I have purposely given you this detail so that should any of the three of us fall by the wayside I might need to ask you to jump in – if possible. It gives you an idea of what meeting the students mean. Many thanks for the offer.
It was nice to have such a positive letter as yours. I will of course let you know if we make contact with the families but I expect it will take quite a time.
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[Handwritten letter from Fred Harris to Keith Killby dated 1st June 1995]
Dear Keith Killby,
Thank you very much for your interesting letters dated 19th January and 26th May.
I just missed you on your departure “down under”. However, to respond to your first letter:
1. Your annual reports 1, 2 & 3 are returned herewith as requested.
2. The two families who were particularly helpful to me (and others) were
(a) RICCI Carlo (in his 80s if still alive!). He was a blacksmith, mechanic – ferraio, residing in LUGO (eastern side near BAGNO CAVALLO) prov. RAVENNA. Eldest son named ANGELO (now in his 60s) wife, 2 other children names unknown.
(b) AMADORI GIACOMO, (again in his 80s if alive), a farmer, property owner, Not a ‘contadino’. Stone built farmhouse above POGGIA ALLA ASTRA which is (was?) a settlement surrounding a church with priest and nunnery about 10km due south of S. SOFIA, which is south of FORLI,
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wife, 2 children then, toddlers, names unknown. Had a sister PASQUINA, then (1943) a very attractive modern-minded girl in her twenties.
It follows that if any descendants were traced I would ‘push the boat out’ for them now, apart from any possible Trust contribution.
Your Fifth Annual Report – 3 things.
1. Page 3. I was on one of those in the far from seaworthy boat with OREBAUGH and the Generals. One was Gen ‘Baas’ ARMSTRONG, a very Dutch South African tank man. Another was Brig ‘Pip’ STIRLING a Lancer of 17/21? His ‘claim’ to fame was that as a YO [Young Officer] he taught the old Duke of Gloucester to ride.
2. Page 9. It is FREDDIE HARRIS. Frank Harris was a 19th Century pornographer whose ‘high life and lovers’ illuminated my adolescent years!
3. Page 10. I am free to meet anyone at Heathrow, Bristol, Gatwick or Stanstead with reasonable transport and services thereafter.
You obviously live a fruitful and interesting life KK, which I envy very much.
[Digital Page 167]
[Letter in Italian from the Commune of Monte San Martino giving information about the Amadori Family, 21 June 1995.]
Trasmetto la richiesta del college di MONTE SAN MARTINO, essendo il territorio della Frazione di POGGIO ALLA LASTRA nel Vs. Comune.
Certo della Vs. collaborazione, distintamente salute.
[Digital Page 168]
[Letter in Italian from the Commune di Bagno Di Romagna regarding Poggio Alla Astra, 21 June 1995]
In sequito alla tua richiesta pervenuta attraverso il collega di Santa Sofia di rintracciare la famiglia di Amadori Giacomo, le notizie in nostro possesso sono cosi di sequito elencate:
AMADORI GIACOMO, NATO A Bagno di R il 21.11.1908 e deceduto a S.Sofia il 18.10.1992.
AMADORI LUIGI, figlio nato a Bagno di R il 4.5.1946 e res. In questo Comune in Poggio Lastra Compor, 29
AMADORI MARIA, figlia nata a Bagno di R 30.1.1948 e residente in Santa Sofia;
AMADORI LUCIA, figlia nata a Bagno di R il 30.11.1951 e residente in Santa Sofia;
AMADORI PASQUINA, sorella, nata a Bagno di R il 15.4.1918 e residente in questo Comune in Poggio Lastra, Rocchetta 26/B
[Digital Page 169]
[Letter in Italian from Comune Di Santa Sofia with details of the Amadori Family, 4 July 1995]
Ricci Carlo (ferraio) a LUGO (vicino a Bagno Cavallo) Provincia RAVENNA.
Figlio maggiore (adesso forse nei sessante) ANGELO. Erano due altri figli.
Amador Giacomo (agricoltore, terrier) sopra Poggia alla Astra, 10km sud di S.Sofiz chi e Sud di Forli. Aveva due banbini ed anch una sorella Pasquina.
Freddie Harris mi ha datto questa informazione che me embra dovrebb sufficiente di trovarei personi se loro vivono ancora o loro discendenti. Lui sarebbe molto lieto se sarebbe possible fare contatto ed anche se c’e qualcuno nelle famiglie che vorebbe cercare una Borsa.
Mi piacerebbe se tu potessi aiutareci con la tua solita efficienza.
Pens oche sara una buona idea di includere una dei copie, in Italiano, della lettera inclusa che da un idea del Trust.
Tutto e organisato per incontrare 7 studenti fra dieci giorni.
[Digital Page 170]
[Typed letter from Keith Killby to Fred Harris dated 6th August 1995]
The answers from Italy are rather what I expected. The Municipal of Lugo replied by phone to MSM saying that without further information they could not trace the Ricci family – Ricci is quite a common name. The excellent reply from Bagno di Romagna I enclose a copy.
Unfortunately Giacomo died three years ago but his sister is still alive and his son and two daughters – but all born after the war. Will you write either to Pasquina or to the son? I can let you have something in Italian about the Trust and you can say that if there are any grandchildren who are studying Italian we would be pleased to offer them bursaries.
I am hoping to get to Italy in September. First I hope to visit friends near Naples and get to Ravello which I love. Have not been that way for some years as have always been tied up with Trust business. Then into the Abruzzi to visit the English teachers at Castel di Sangro, Sulmona and L’Aquila about students for next year. Then to MSM and back to Rome.
Do not think I have forgotten your kind offer to meet students. Stephen Sims has very kindly met many of them. In my last letter I said how I planned to meet three of them at Heathrow – unfortunately the plane for two of them was four hours late so I spent a total of six hours at Heathrow! I am meeting another three all off the same plane on 26th. There is one student due in November and he is going down to Bristol to study and stay with some distant relatives who don’t speak English. I might seek your help then in meeting him and getting him on to the appropriate rail link with Bristol.
Let me know if there is anything I can do about the Amadori family.
[Digital Page 171]
[Handwritten letter to Keith Killby from Fred Harris dated 14th August 1995]
Very many thanks for your recent letter.
It is excellent news that Pasqua Amadori survives! Something of a shock to realise though that she is a 77 year unmarried lady.
A mystery about the children. In 1943/4 there were definitely toddlers in the casa – believed to be Giacomo’s progeny. But who knows (except Pasqua!) – they were strange times for all of us, and it was a very close (indeed secretive) mountain commune.
I propose to write to her and would be grateful for the paperwork in Italian about the Trust, for her consumption in her family.
If surviving I further intend to visit Romagna before next Easter, to visit P in the mountains with a birthday present – then have a good look around LUGO for the Ricca family.
[Digital Page 172]
As you say – the news about them while a bit disappointing but much to be expected. One wonders whether ads in the local papers (do they exist?) might prove fruitful. Any experience?
My wife Joyce & I expect to be in Hong Kong and Singapore from mid October until about the 10th November, but with that caveat regarding your students for Bristol, it will be a delight to be of help.
The best option would seem to be to pick him up at Heathrow, bed and board him here overnight and deliver him personally to his Bristol hosts on the morrow.
If you care to give me the details I will see to it?bushallah.
For his return to Italia presumably his hosts or others would deal?
With best regards
[Digital Page 173]
At the end of June on a break in Torquay, visited TONY GREGSON – he of the 1988 motorcycle trip.
Had a long very interesting chat. See page 2 of your April 1944 Fourth Annual Report, and page 6 of the Fifth.
He is quite an astonishing bloke. After escaping he returned to UK in time for US D-Day landing and was brutally wounded on the beach on Day 1.
[Digital Page 174]
[Typed letter from Keith Killby to Fred Harris dated 16th August 1995]
Enclosed is the information about the Trust in Italian. It may be that Pasqua was married but is using her maiden name as of course they always attach that to their married name. But as you say who knows that goes on in some of the close mountain communes.
As regards contacting the Ricci family by newspaper advert I would not think it likely to have much success – few read papers these days – especially in the small villages while the ‘town clerks’ are usually very much on the ball as to anyone within their orbit. I think the only hope is for you to ferret around.
Sorry that you will be away when the ‘Fontellato’ lunch will be held in London. They allow a few o & ss in like myself and this year Tony G. is going. I did not realise that Tony too had escaped only to get into ‘D’ as well. Ian English, whose excellent book ‘Assisted Passage’ was published last year also got into ‘D’ Day and got his second Bar to MC [Military Cross] – very rare.
Hope you enjoy Hong Kong and Singapore. I felt at the end of 3 days I had seen most of it but your wife will love all the shops! I had the advantage of being taken around by the son of an Englishman killed as soldier in Hong Kong and a Chinese mother who stayed with me years ago. Singapore I found a much bigger version of HK but would return to visit the marvellous bird garden.
When I hear any news of the boy for Bristol I will let you know. I am hoping to go to friends near Naples and then to Castel di Sangro, Sulmona and L’Aquila rounding up students so I might see him in Sulmona.
Have to meet three girls next week. Fortunately they are all on the same flight and all going to families at the other end of the Piccadilly line.
Don’t forget I am expecting a full account of your escapades for the archives of the Trust.
[Digital Page 175]
[Newspaper cutting in Italian dated 9th March 1996. Details Freddie Harris’ quest in Italy to find the family that sheltered his during WW2]
[Digital Page 176]
[Newspaper cutting in Italian, with a picture of Fred Harris that dates back to 1943 and with details of his war story. Dated 9th March 1996.]
[Title] Where is mister Ricci, comunista? Ufficiale inglese cerca il suo salvatore
[Digital Page 177]
[Letter to the Lions Club of Lugo dated 7th April 1996]
To: The Lions Club of Lugo.
The lions Club of Newbury was formed 26 years ago. It currently has a membership of 30 with several prospective members in the process of joining. Our members come from all walks of life and give their time free to raise funds for the less privileged, this generally amounts to in excess of £20,000 per annum. Our fifth of November ‘Guy Fawkes’ Fireworks display raises almost half this sum. This event is held at the Race Course.
Our banner depicts a racehorse with rider mounted, the Newbury Race Course holds meetings for both the flat races and steeplechases. The colours were originally taken from those of HM [Her Majesty] Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s racing colours. With this banner we send our best wishes to your club.
[Digital Page 178]
[Typed letter from Keith Killby to Fred Harris dated 14th April 1996]
The enclosed will I think be useful to you. The two ‘letters’ in Italian are set out to describe what the Trust was set up for and what it is doing and how students may apply. The other papers show that at least some of the press has given the Trust good publicity.
I have spoken to Sir Alan Campbell – who was Ambassador in Rome, and he is willing to write a brief letter to the Mayor and you should receive it – on MSM headed paper within a day or two.
You have certainly done excellent work in ensuring that those who helped you have never been forgotten. Though funds are getting short I am sure that we cannot offer a Bursary for next year and might be able to offer one for this year. The essential thing is that they must come within the two guide lines – to have learnt English at school for a year or two and secondly be between 16 and 25. Of course anyone directly descended from the families who helped you or other POW’s would have priority.
Now could you do something for me. Antonio Millozzi does so much for the Trust – all unpaid of course and is so very efficient – as I found when he organised the day I was made an Honorary Citizen. Could you send from Lugo at least a post card with your signature and perhaps the signature of the Mayor and the family of Pasqua thanking him for making the necessary enquiries which put you in touch again.
Please give me a ring after you have received the letter from Sir Alan if there is any further information you want – not on Sunday 21st as I shall have Australians and family here and trying to feed them.
‘Buon viaggio e tanti auguri’
[Digital Page 179]
[Typed letter from Keith Killby to Sir Alan Campbell (former Ambassador of Rome) Dated 14th April 1996]
Enclosed please find an envelope addressed to Freddie Harris and inside two sheets of Trust paper topped and tailed – two in case you want to start again.
Would you be so good as to write – in Italian a brief letter of greeting to the Mayor of Lugo.
I outline below a rough of what I think suitable underlining the essentials. I know that you being so excellent at putting ‘multum in parvo’ as you did in your biography will find the right words.
We are so pleased to send through Freddie Harris the greetings and thanks of the Monte San Martino Trust to the people of Lugo for all they did for Prisoners Of War after the Armistice in 1943.
When Ambassador in Rome I was fortunate to know well and appreciate the Italian people who had so courageously and generously helped and fed thousands of prisoners of war throughout occupied Italy.
We hope soon we may offer a Study Bursary to a student from Lugo meanwhile I send the greeting of all those of The Monte San Martino Trust to the people of Lugo.
[Digital Page 180]
[Page 1 of a letter written in Italian on MSMT header paper dated 15th April 1996 to the Mayor of Lugo from Sir Alan Campbell (former Ambassador to Rome). The letter serves as a letter of introduction of Freddie Harris to the mayor of Lugo]
[Digital Page 181]
[Page 2 of a letter written in Italian on MSMT header paper dated 15th April 1996 to the Mayor of Lugo from Sir Alan Campbell (former Ambassador to Rome). This part of the letter offers a bursary to study English to a student of Lugo]
[Digital Page 182]
[Handwritten letter to Keith Killby from Fred Harris dated 18th April 1996]
This is to acknowledge your letter of 14th inst & your help, & to bring you up to speed with the bumpf.
I have acknowledged Sir Alan’s letter with thanks (and an off-the-cuff remark that you are an adornment to any organisation! which will cost you a beer one of these days).
All the “Addresses” are very nicely framed & with translations. All the other bits are boxed attractively. I am sure the Italians will like them.
For the S. Sofia lot there is a wooden plaque with the seal of Newbury District Council, together with a framed ‘Address’ (plus a coin), and for the Amadori
[Digital Page 183]
family – for Pasqua – a very expensive piece of Wedgewood together with a silk scarf. Some good whiskey for her husband plus the duty free cigarettes if he smokes. Sunday boxed £5 coins for intimates of her family in Poggio all Astra etc etc.
Naturally I will respond with vigour on behalf of Antonio Millozzi. Please be assured!
[Digital Page 184]
[Handwritten letter from Fred Harris to Sig Bendandi dated 18th April 1996 re Fred’s attendance at Liberty Day celebrations]
Dear Mr Bendandi,
It is certain that your kind intervention sponsored the official invitation addressed to me, to attend the Liberty Day celebrations.
For my Country, my Town and for me personally this is viewed as an honour of considerable magnitude, for which I am deeply indebted.
Trusting my ability to reflect the honour with words and deeds, I bring some tokens of appreciation to your municipality in the person of Sig Maurizio Roi, your Mayor.
1. A formal Address of Greeting from the Chairman of Berkshire County Council.
2. A [word unclear] of a picture of Windsor Castle by a well known local artist. This is the favourite residence of Her Majesty
[Digital Page 185]
Queen Elizabeth II and is in fact her family seat.
3. A ‘Crown’ coin of £5 sterling legal tender in Britain, value ca L12000, recently struck to mark the 70th birthday of Her Majesty. A facsimile of her head is on one side; on the other the flag of the Union of Great Britain, the flag of the European Union and her personal standard with other pennants. These coins are much sought after and in a few years’ may have a significant rarity value.
4. A personal letter from Sir Alan Campbell GCMG. Chairman of Trustees, The San Martino Trust. Sir Alan is the representative of the British-Italian society in Great Britain and was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Rome in 1970
[Digital Page 186]
5. A missive in the Italian language explaining the aims of the San Martino Trust, supporting Sir Alan’s letter to Sig Roi.
6. A banner for the Lions Club of Lugo from the Lions Club of Newbury with a note from its President Brian Wilmot.
There are small gifts for others which I would seek to discuss with you in due course.
Meanwhile I look forward to meeting you very much indeed. My lady wife also sends warm personal regards.
[Digital Page 187]
[Newspaper cutting in Italian dated 25th April 1996, it has a current up to date picture of Fred Harris. The newspaper may be the ‘Romagna Mattina’ of Ravenna and it was reporting on Freddie’s current trip to the province.]
[Digital Page 188]
[Newspaper cutting in Italian ‘An Englishman searches for his angel’, dated 25th April 1996, reporting on Freddie’s current trip to Italy]
[Digital Page 189]
[Page 1 of letter to “Sig. Antonio Millozzi” from Luigi Casadio after 23rd April [1996?] written in Italian. Refers to Fred’s trip to Italy.]
It 23 Aprile, presse il Municipie di Cotignola (RA), ho incontrato Mr Fred Harris, ufficiale del Genio militare brittanico, prigioniere dei Tedeschi nei pressi di Bologna che all’indomani dell’ 8 settembre 1943 riuscì a fuggire. Trovò ospitalità nella zona di S. Patrizie (RA) e successivamente si unì all’ 8 Brigata Partigiana dove rimase ferito.
Il sottoscritto, essendo stato comandante partigiano del mio commune, gli ho comunicato che anche la mia famiglia aveva ospitate, in diverse occasioni, ex prigioneri alleati fuggiti dai campi di concentramento che successivamente li avevo alloggiati anche presso altre famiglie, le quali, nel medesimo tempo offrivano ospitalità anche a partigiali ed ad esponenti della Resistenza.
A conferma di quanto affermato gli ho mostrato le foto di due ex militari alleati con gli indirizzi da loro descritti e la fotocopia dell’attestato rilasciato all mia famiglia, firmate dal maresciallo Alexander allora comandante delle forze alleate nel settore del Mediterranneo. Immediatamente me disse che l’attestato avrebbe favorito qualche mio familiare interessato per una borsa di studi per un certo periodo di tempo, come dall’allegato foglie che mi ha lasciate.
Essendo passata 53 anni ho due figli maggiorenni, uno ragioniere e l’altro medico. Essi hanno tre figlie: una di 20 anni che studia alla facoltà della Conservazione dei Beni Culturali, [inserted]: Has not learned English, le altre due sono piccoline (3 or 5 years old).
Ora chiedo a V.S.: se quanto mi é stato consegnate é ancora valido e in quale misura e a quali condizioni si può ancora utilizzare.
Attualmente allego le fotocopie dell’attestate del generale Alexander, di due foto di ex prigioneri con i relativi indirizzi e quella del mio riconoscimento quale partigiano.
Rendendomi disponibile per ulteriori informazioni e restando in attesa di precise delucidazinoi, distintamente salute
[Digital Page 190]
P.S L’indirizzo di Bob Hosheid lo ritengo non esatto, quella de Eddie Punton personalmente ho scritto a quell indirizzo e alla Municipalità de Edimburgo, mi é stato respinto il tutto con la dicitura sconosciuto e introvabile. Se potessi avere l’indirizzo almeno il qualche sue familiare, presumendo che sia andato disperse mentre tentava di attraversare le linee del fronte. Vorrei comunicare con loro.
Mittente: Casadio Luigi
[Digital Page 191]
[Letter written by Fred Harris to “Sig Millozzi” dated 26th April 1996. Millozzi initiated Fred’s visit to Lugo.]
Dear Sig Millozzi,
I am writing this is LUGO, Ravenna where for four days I am the guest of the Municipality, for the celebration of the Day of Liberation and everyone here has been most kind and helpful.
This letter, however is to express my thanks to you personally for initiating the whole affair.
It was your efficient enquires on my behalf through the MSM Trust which led me first to S. Sofia and the AMADORI family (whom I shortly depart to visit and thank) and then to LUGO in an attempt to trace another family here named RICCI who seem to have disappeared.
Both families helped me enormously when I was a fugitive POW and it has been your good offices which set me on the trail to find them.
[Digital Page 192]
I have organised properly framed and translated documents of “Greeting” to the Administrations of both LUGO and S SOFIA and enclose rough copies for your inspection.
The ‘Sindaco’ of both Municipalities are now very well aware of the MSM Trust and your connection to it.
Meanwhile enclosed is a very modest personal gift which one hopes you will find interesting.
[Digital Page 193]
[World War 2 Dedication Certificate. Awarded by Field Marshall Alexander to Casadio Giovanni fu Agostino. [Shown to Fred on his trip to Italy]
This certificate is awarded to Casadio Giovanni fu Agostino as a token of gratitude for and appreciation of the help given to the Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen of the British Commonwealth of Nations, which enabled them to escape from, or evade capture by the enemy.
Signed Field Marshall Alexander
Supreme Allied Commander
Mediterranean Theatre 1939-1945
[Digital Page 194]
[Letter of thanks from the chairman of Berkshire County Council to The Administration & People of Lugo, Italy dated April 1996]
To the Administration and the People of the
MUNICIPALITY of LUGO
From the Chairman of the Council of the
ROYAL COUNTRY OF BERKSHIRE
During the critical war years of 1943 and 1944 the family of CARLO RICCI and other persons of LUGO heroically aided British prisoners of war escaping through German occupied Italy.
The spontaneously risked their lives and homes to feed and shelter conspicuous strangers in times of great peril. With gratitude and admiration, we do not forget these acts of brave generosity so freely given.
Let us continue to go forward under the flag of European Community, resolved that in friendship and in peace the horrors of war will never again endanger the lives of our progeny.
Signed C.C TREMBATH
Chairman of the County Council
[Digital Page 195]
[Letter of thanks from the chairman of Newbury District Council to people of Santa Sofia & Poggio alla Astra]
To the Administration and the People of the Commune of Santa Sofia and Poggio alla Astra from the District Council of Newbury in the Royal County of Berkshire in England.
During the critical war years of 1943 and 1944, the family of Giacomo Amadori (deceased) and the people of Poggio all Astra heroically aided British prisoners of war escaping through German occupied Italy.
They spontaneously risked their lives and homes to feed and shelter conspicuous strangers in times of great peril and with gratitude and admiration we do not forget these acts of brave generosity so freely given.
Let us continue to go forward under the flag of European Community, resolved that in friendship and in peace the horrors of war will never again endanger the lives of our progeny.
Robert B. Judge
Chairman of Newbury District Council
[Digital Page 196]
[Handwritten letter from Fred Harris to Keith Killby dated 3rd May 1996]
Returned from Italy yesterday after an exhausting 10 days. Here we do not know the meaning of the word “hospitality”.
In truth I have been overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of everyone!
Enclosed is a very restrained letter to Sig MILLOZZI which is self-explanatory. Also a letter from the Mayor of LUGO for Sir Alan.
The Administration of LUGO is seeking to establish some sort of self-financed (but official) student exchange scheme and I am raising the matter with the Chairman of Berkshire County Council and Newbury District Council.
In a place named BERTINORO, was approached by an ex-partisan, holder of a “help certificate” (not an Alexandra) provided by British soldiers whom he wants to contact (Dopo 52 anni chi speriamo!)
[Digital Page 197]
One of his family youngsters might be a suitable MSM candidate, and he was really delighted to read the Trust broadsheet and intends to write to MILLOZZI.
Name is SCARPA, Giudo. A man of considerable distinction and respect in his Commune.
The list of thank you letters stretches ahead for weeks to come. Will give you a blow-by-blow account in due course, meanwhile enclosed is an interim snap taken at the FAENZA war cemetery.
With continued thanks for your help, and with a small contribution for the cause.
Yours [word unclear]
[Digital Page 198]
[Handwritten letter from Fred Harris to Keith Killby dated 21st May 1996]
While I am pre-occupied with the many ‘thank you’ letters, in the interim ecco some snaps which might interest you.
Thanks for your call about CASADIO.
I recall giving the MSM broadsheet to the Mayor of Cotignola and undertaking to seek DUNTON and HOSHEID on behalf of Casadio, but nothing of a family interest in a bursary at that time.
Perhaps you would be so good as to let me know the result of the lady’s candidature, in due course.
Meanwhile, I have a feeling that this DUNTON fellow was King’s Dragoon Guards. (a) Have you any idea where I could get at the address of
[Digital Page 199]
Any regimental association which they might have, and (b) where does the Italy Star Association hang out?
[Digital Page 200]
[Typed letter from Keith Killby to Fred Harris dated 13th August 1996]
In between trying to cope with students and before I get too ga-ga I am getting in order the forty to fifty books and some 80 manuscripts, documents etc in connection with those or us who were ‘on the run’ in the hope that I can persuade; the IWM [Imperial War Museum] to give it safe keeping as an entity. They expressed interest some years ago when the Trust had so little.
I have put together your correspondent and the excellent photos you sent of the functions you attended but I find I have a. very scanty outline of your ‘home run’. Bologna, Partisans and then wounded but no detail. You are the only person I have heard of who was wounded when serving with the Partisans, while another Sergeant was the only one of whom I have heard who had got the M.M. [Military Medal] while serving with them.
Your letter of 16th January last year is a very brief outline.
[Digital Page 201]
But do you think you could do a few pages on Army service, capture, treatment in Africa, Italy, how you escaped, how you joined the Partisans and any dates. Walter Orebaugh, an American Consul arrived at Ortona it would seem sometime in April ’44 by boat with ‘Three British Brigadiers, a member of the House of Lords (Ranfurly – see ‘To War with Whitaker’) an American Consul along with four other Allied Officers. Orebaugh has written his account O’Conner, Neame and Air Marshall Boyd had got away in December with the help of an officer who came back through the lines again and got to Termoli.
Then also could you do another page on the dates etc of the Ceremonies you attended an whom you met.
If you are able to put something together it would certainly add to the ‘archives’.
On Wednesday I am having to lunch one of the three widows left by an early supporter – Douglas de Cent. It is Gillian de Cent whom he met on his journey south as she was also on the run having been married to an Italian and put in prison herself and then got out at the Armistice. They later joined up with Ian English and the account of them getting through the lines is excellent.
[Digital Page 202]
Photographs and memorabilia collected by Fred Harris during his time as a POW and escapee in Italy in 1943
[Digital Page 203]
[Map of Italy near Rimini that details Partisan activity during World War 2, these areas have been circled in green]
[Digital Page 204]
[Nazi leaflet in Italian offering £20 reward for the capture of an Allied POW]
[Digital Page 205]
[Newspaper cutting in Italian with caption] “Death if you help Allied POW”
[Digital Page 206]
[Nazi declarations in Italian with the caption] “Death for Aggressive Acts against German Forces”
[Digital Page 207]
[Nazi leaflet in Italian with caption] “Jews to be rounded up for departure to concentration camps and all their goods confiscated”
[Digital Page 208]
[Page of four photographs from WW2 July 1940-1441. The first photograph has the caption “The Officers, 7th Armoured Division Engineers, Aldershot, July 1940. Prior to embarking for the Western Desert, Libya.”. The second photograph has the caption “The Officers, 143rd Field Park Troop, Aldershot. July 1940. The third photograph has the caption “2 Lieut FA Harris, Royal Engineers Aldershot 1940”. The last photograph has the caption “Lieut FA Harris Giarabub on the edge of the Sahara desert Christmas Day 1941”.
[Digital Page 209]
[Two photographs from WW2, 1942. The first photograph has the caption “The Royal Engineers escape club Padula, Italy. September 1942”. The last photograph has the caption “A prisoner of war in Padula, Italy, 1942”].
[Digital Page 210]
[Two photographs from WW2. One with the caption “Spazzoli with British Generals”, the other has the caption “Spazzoli with General O’Connor”]
[Digital Page 211]
[Two photographs from WW2, with caption “A victim on his way to execution and before the firing squad”]
[Digital Page 212]
[Two photographs from WW2, one with the caption “Arturo Spazzoli after being hung and exposed in Santa Sofia”, the other has the caption “The Russian Squad”]
[Digital Page 213]
[Photograph from WW2 with the caption “Partisans from Santa Sofia”]
[Digital Page 214]
[Photograph from WW2 with the caption “Platoon Leaders. From the left ‘Maciste’ ‘Dinola’ ‘Mano’”
[Digital Page 215]
[Photograph from WW2 the caption “Serotkin and Nadia in Rome 1945”]
[Digital Page 216]
[Photograph from WW2 with the caption “Nadia in a warlike pose”]
[Digital Page 217]
[Photograph from WW2 with the caption “Germans taking reprisals”]
[Digital Page 218]
[Photograph from WW2 showing a picture of Fred Harris as a younger man in uniform]
[Digital Page 219]
[Two black & white photographs from WW2. One with the caption “Contignola, before and after the battle of the Senio River 1945″]
[Digital Page 220]
In November 1944 Cotignola was a commune of some 7000 habitants, in the province of Ravenna. The battle for the Senio river raged around the little town for about 135 days, from 17th November 1944 to 12th April 1945 during which time human losses in the civilian population were 249 dead and 415 mutilated, amounting to about eleven per cent of the population.
The Italian Resistance played a sturdy part.
The Senio river was a formidable barrier in the German defence and in the long winter of 1944/5 it became something of a symbol of the enemy resistance and represents the final limits of their defence.
Cotignola has been variously described as:
1. An oasis of butchered flesh in a desert.
2. The “Cassino” of Romagna.
3. A seat in the mouth of a volcano.
4. A “moonscape”!
5. Cancelled from a geographical map.
Allied artillery and aerial bombardment took their toll but the ground battle was won (as ever) by footslogging infantry supporting armour, mainly from the 2nd Division New Zealand Expeditionary Force, containing battalions of Maori soldiers.
[Digital Pages 221 – 225]
[Handwritten IOUs signed by various officers showing the money Sig Lotti Giovanni had lent to various named British soldiers, 1944]
[Digital Page 226]
[Document in Italian. Recognition of Luigi Casadio as a “Partisan Combatant”, 1946]