This unusual account tells the story of a New Zealander, Roy Johnston, who worked for a time on military propaganda films. He arrived with a convoy in the Middle East just after the Fall of Crete. Johnston was captured near El Alamein in July 15th and had the dubious privilege of being paraded before Mussolini.
He was moved to Benghazi, on to Bari and subsequently to camps in Altamura and Gruppignano. He escaped from the camp just before the Armistice and was helped by a family at Casa Busa. He stayed in the area for a while, before becoming involved with local partisans. He eventually was taken from Italy on 13th April 1945, eventually arriving home in New Zealand on VJ Day.
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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Roy Johnston – The First 85 Years
Recorded at Raumati Beach
Roy Johnston (Memories of 2000). New Zealander. On big convoy of ‘Queens’ and others from Sydney and arrive in Middle East just after Crete fell. Seconded to make propaganda film ‘Return to the Attack’. Knew Peter Mcintyre, very good NZ artist of desert. Goes to Syria with Kiwis but rushed back when Tobruk falls. (Keith Killby met them at Dabba as he was going back.) Captured on Ruweisat Ridge at Alamein 15th July 1942. Paraded before Mussolini. To Benghazi, tries to leave with a friend who is killed when ship is torpedoed. Taken through Corinth Canal to Bari and out to camp at Altamura. Put on train for days to Gruppignano. Hunger. Tunnel escape before Armistice. Guard shoots one man dead. Escapes* with another man before Armistice and then helped by family at Casa Busa. Given, with civilians, malaria injections.
*Though a Sergeant gives up rank to go to work at San Dona di Piave. States it was Montgomery who gave order for PoWs to remain. While ‘on the run, helps aircrew shot down’ – one pilot taken off by boat within 24 hours. An American pilot said he had never seen such excellent ‘staff work’.
Friday 13th April taken off by boat to Ancona. (1945)
[Handwritten note] ROY JOHNSTON – 22 Bn -2NZEF 35784
CHAPTER 3 – World War II
Was POW in Campo 57 Gruppignano in Hut 5 with Noel Sims.
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When I joined the Army, I went into Trentham Camp with the 4th Reinforcement. Then I was seconded for the NCO Training School and was made platoon sergeant instructor for incoming men for the 5th Reinforcement. I provided weapons training for a handful of troops, a job I was given mainly because of my experience in the University Rifle Club and the fact that I had a university blue for shooting. At one stage there was a proposal to ban beer from the NAAFIs (the Camp canteens) The result was a mutiny on the morning parade ground and a speech by a hung-over orator, “No beer, no bloody war. We’re going on strike”.
Then we were posted overseas and I left with the 5th Reinforcement on the Mauritania, bound for Sydney. When it was time to leave, Daphne rode round the ship in a launch with some friends and saw me looking out the porthole. Later that day, I was busy putting troops down and I happened to look out the porthole and saw Aunty Clarice standing on the wharf. She waved and cried which made me cry.
I was terribly seasick. The Mauritania was a very elaborate cruise ship which had not been fully converted to a troop ship. All the cruise cocktails were still on board, which we were able to dispose of! Going to war at this stage was mainly an up for me. The downs came later on.
Once we reached Sydney our convoy got larger and the Mauritania was joined by the Queen Mary, the Aquitania and the Queen Elizabeth. We set off for Europe. First stop, Colombo. John Love and I went ashore and met a chap named Kenny, a plantation manager who invited us to visit his estate. I became aware for the first time that a lot of Kiwis are victims of their geographical isolation. John Love provided several examples much to my embarrassment. The first was in Colombo when he was able to contain himself after a super-hot curry, and was peering around to see how much perspiration was pouring off. Next was then the ladies’ bananas were produced, and he commented, “We have much bigger bananas in New Zealand.” At a later date, after seeing beautiful Kandy, he stated, “We have much better scenery in New Zealand.”
We travelled through the Red Sea without an escort and so we all went like bats from hell. I was running an ack ack gun on the flying bridge of the Mauritania. We finally arrived in Ismalia where we were taken into Maadi Camp to start our training. Maadi Camp was like a piece of New Zealand except there were no green fields. At this time troops were returning from Crete where they had suffered severe losses.
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Somehow it was known that I had been involved in film and I was seconded to Geoff Cox and Dan Davin to produce a film ‘Return to the Attack’ for General Freyberg. For distribution in the United States and England, it was designed to be an answer to the criticisms about Crete and show we were still viable as a military force. I worked on the film at Studio Mesa, at Mena just below the pyramids. It involved going into the desert and shooting film of Upham, who didn’t really want to cooperate, and his platoon. I have some lovely pictures of Upham scowling, looking as though he is thinking, “You silly buggers. What are you up to?”
The film industry in Egypt was big at that stage, mainly catering to the surrounding Arabic population. Their equipment, provided by the French, was miles ahead of anything we had in New Zealand. They could mix 12 tracks on a console and they had engineers who could hear! I built the film with Freyberg or a member of his staff and then took the working copies to Dan Davin and Geoff Cox for clearance. It was a fascinating experience.
That was the only major film I made there. After that we made bits and pieces which came back to New Zealand and were used in news releases, and some training films on how to use landing craft, thinking ahead to when we would be moving into action.
Some of the politicians like Peter Fraser came along to film screenings and I became aware of the conflict between the New Zealand politicians and the British military commanders. The politicians were beginning to see how the New Zealand troops were being used as pawns, and were greatly concerned about what was happening in the division. They felt responsible for its well-being, and saw that their men were being handed over to other people to control. They were aware of the big flop in Crete, an operation which had been carried out without the politicians having any say over their so-called dominion. They realised that the New Zealand troops had been used in the Crete engagement without adequate support and had been let down by the allied forces.
Time and time again, the British took the easy way out. In World War I they exploited the New Zealand Division, the only division with fire brigades. The British used the brigade to clean and dig trenches, to do all the hard, dirty work. Russell, the then CO, woke up to what was happening and disbanded the brigade. It had to be disbanded anyway because it had lost so many men.
One of the things that has got to be understood in the modern idiom is that when a little country like New Zealand puts its forces into another country to support a British or United Nations-led initiative, a situation will inevitably arise where somebody will say, “Well, the New Zealanders can carry the can.” Bill Jordan, the London High Commissioner, who was frightfully open and not a discreet man, used to make that point when he was sitting down with the sergeant, not with the generals. I learned a lot from him.
For the film work I was seconded to Army Public Relations. As part of my ongoing
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duties after making the main film, I liaised closely with a Kiwi Captain Kinnear, who had served with Lawrence of Arabia and was on the staff of the British Embassy. He was an Oriental scholar and product of Oxford. I could have stayed with Army PR in relative comfort as a base wallah, as we called them, hobnobbing with Peter McIntyre, Official War artist (I was his drinking mate). But after making the training films on the use of landing craft, the chaps I had trained with at Trentham and Maadi were leaving to join the battalion ad I decided to join them. I was still working out my relationship with my father – I had problems with him but I respected him for his war experiences. I was also conscious of the fact, going back to Ormie Burton, that if I wanted to find out about the reality of war then I needed to go and experience it in action.
The first action I was involved in made me aware that we were a big blundering mass of men, and that any idea I had that attacks were choreographed with skill was mistaken. I had travelled up to the Turk border to join the 22 Battalion. (I travelled the first stage from Cairo on a motorbike which I delivered to Tel Aviv, then took the rations truck through Aleppo.) The division had been moved to the Turkish border because of concerns that Hitler might push down through Turkey and menace the highly strategic Suez. I joined C. Coy with my old platoon officer John Riddiford and because of my previous service with him on ‘I’ duties.
Since we were only one division but wanted to appear as though we were one of several, I was instructed to create cipher traffic so the enemy would think there were a number of divisions in the area. I prepared hordes of messages and passed them on to the signal station to send out over the radio. Then we were told to rush back to Egypt because of the fall of Tobruk. As we prepared to leave, I discovered that the radios had been on the blink and the signallers had been sending my messages over land lines, which the enemy couldn’t listen in to! The main signal man turned out to be a chap called Russell, who later became the Mayor of Wanganui.
We developed the acronyms SABU, which was a self-adjusting balls-up, and GAFU, a general army fuck-up.
Tobruk had fallen and Rommel and his Afrika Corps were making a mad dash trying to get to Cairo and the Canal. NZ Division was rushed back from Syria and we went straight into action. We were encircled at Minqar Qain but fought our way out and got in front of the Alamein Line.
We were living a day at a time. If somebody was killed that was too bad, there was no great emotion. We were aware we were on borrowed time, we were always being reminded of it. In that situation you start to do silly things, like thinking you’re safe if you put your tin hat in front of you when you’re still exposed from the back.
By July 1942 we had the advancing enemy units stalemated on Ruweisat Ridge. Then we suddenly realised we were caught in the middle of a GAFU. John Riddiford was given
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the job of selecting a group to escort a couple of engineers (ginger beers) who were using mine sweepers to check a suspected minefield in the area we were about to attack the following night. I joined the group and we were ‘well equipped’ with sandshoes, camouflage and tommy guns straight out of the Spanish Civil War! Nightfall came and we went out into the middle of the minefield. We passed a blown-up tank on the way out. The dead crew hadn’t been buried.
In the middle of this minefield, while we could hear the chatter of Italian troops on our left and were experiencing fixed-line machine gun fire across the area, a Royal Air Force plane arrived on top of us and dropped flares. The rear gunner then had a go at a munitions dump and set off a whole lot of explosives. It was like daylight for about an hour! While all this hoo-haa was going on, we had to stay frozen. We couldn’t move until the fireworks died down.
Finally, we started our real exercise. Our first task was to establish that what appeared in the aerial photographs to be an ack ack or an anti-aircraft gun was in fact a dummy, made of wood. By daylight, we were able to establish that there were no live mines, despite the mine notices all over the place. We then went back to brigade headquarters, where Colonel Russell thanked us personally, ensured that we got a water ration and told us to rest for the day.
It was the worst day I have ever experienced. We were in the middle of an array of German 88s, big heavy field guns used horizontally or up in the air, which had been captured and disabled. We dug slit trenches in the middle of the guns and spent the rest of the day there until we were re-joined that night by our whole company. It was a very hot day. There must have been about 20 of these huge guns scattered around and their metal attracted the heat. We did get some dozing sleep, but it was boring and uncomfortable.
Then we were given our instructions. The signal for the start of the attack was to be given by an aircraft flashing navigation-lights. My battalion was meant to be providing rear support for the main attack. We had a company in reserve on our left and right. The password was Speights, a New Zealand word.
We went on through the night with gunfire ahead of us and a machine gun on the right. When daylight broke, we found ourselves in a hollow basin and were ordered to dig in. I said, being who I am, “Which is our front?” I then realised that another GAFU was in the making. The guy said, “Well, I don’t know, you had better just dig in.” As we started to dig, gunfire started and we realised that it wasn’t coming from the supposed front but from tanks at the rear. I was asked as the I-bloke, supposed to know all about everything, to check them. The chap next to me who was a curious sort of fellow put his head just above the slip trench to see what was going on and the next minute had a bullet through his skull. That made it clear they were enemy tanks.
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We found ourselves in the middle of a contest between our own solitary anti-tank gun and the advancing tanks. They bowled the anti-tank gun out, the tanks came up and we were all taken prisoner. It was 15th July 1942.
A German soldier approached, carrying a Luger and with an iron Cross swinging around his neck. He said, in perfect English, “For you, mein friends, the war is over.” I thought, “You silly bugger, you don’t even know what you are talking about.” We thought that more and more after the event.
We were all rounded up and stripped of our weapons. It was the most humiliating thing I have experienced. I thought we might have been killed because they were calling us the butchers. A few days before there had been a breakout from Minqar Qain by bayonet-wielding Kiwi soldiers.
After the war, General Kippenberger, with whom I had contact at War Histories, explained the background to the incident. He said he had argued at length with the British tanks commander in an effort to commit them to action to save the Brigade. The Commander had arrogantly refused. Kip said that had been the worst day of the war for him. I did not like to say, but thought that he had later lost both legs from a landmine in Italy. The Ruiwesat Ridge debacle and the 6 Brigade retreat that followed, precipitated Freyberg’s determination not to take the Division into action without his own tanks. There Is a lesson here for modern-day would-be experts.
Prisoner of War
We were marched back by the German troops and in the process were shelled by our own artillery. This wounded some of our men. It was also when I lost my hearing. We loaded some of our wounded onto a German truck but as the shelling intensified the truck was abandoned by its driver. We marched for 15 miles and were then handed over to the Italians, by which stage we were dehydrated and exhausted. We were loaded onto open diesel trucks and taken to Derna. There, we were lined up and, although we didn’t realise it at the time, were paraded before Mussolini who had come over to join what was going to be a victorious march into Cairo. From Derna we were taken to Tobruk and on to Benghazi to an oasis camp euphemistically called ‘The Palms’. It did have a few palm trees! It was in a basin with limited shade and as hot as hell. It had a small number of open latrines, too few for the number of men.
The other brigade arrived soon after. They had been captured a week after us with exactly the same GAFU. They were the first to be transferred to Italy. Peter Swan, a friend from Trentham, was drafted into the first move and tried to persuade me to leave with him. I remembered something my uncle had said to me about never volunteering and Instead going where you are put, and I chose to stay. Peter left on a boat which was torpedoed by one of our own submarines. He had both legs blown off and died without
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A few weeks later the rest of us were taken by ship to Greece and then through the Corinth Canal to Bari, Italy.
As we came off the ship my university friend John Love, who was stricken with diarrhoea, was take away in an ambulance. He was vomiting and bleeding both ends. We didn’t see him again and presumed, correctly, that he died. That was a sad occasion. John and I had been close friends. John was an out-of-this-world scientific kind of guy who had made up his mind that he couldn’t live on PoW rations. He also had no girlfriend back home and I think that made a difference. In the early days when we flatted together in Wellington, the other boys and I had gone to some trouble to arrange for a girl to be on the bed with John while we walked backwards and forwards quoting Swinburne. Our scheme didn’t have the result we had intended!
The fact that I was engaged to Daphne and knew she was waiting for me back in New Zealand was definitely a big factor in keeping me going. That’s why my theme song in Italy after my escape was ‘Stardust’. I used to whistle that while I was wandering around vineyards at night pinching grapes. It was my link with the one I loved. When you are in enemy territory, even though you have people around you helping you, things continually happen which remind you that you are on your own. It can be very lonely.
The camp was on a walled hill called Altamura just out of Bari. It comprised a collection of small, low, eight-men canvas tents set up close together on a hillside. We had limited food but we did have spring water which I’m sure was what enabled us to survive in this pretty grim situation. We were able to watch the local peasants working the surrounding land so it was quite interesting.
We received our first Red Cross parcel here. I think we each had an eighth share Including a few Ardarth cigarettes. I took a massive draw on one and passed out because I hadn’t had anything to smoke for quite a while. I have never been able to smoke Ardarth again! I had been a heavy smoker since I was about 20. We smoked an army issue cigarette called Caravan A, which had the connotation of being something to do with the rear end of a camel!
We were there for about three weeks and were then herded onto trains, packed into wagons with four horses and ten men standing like cattle. We took turns to lie down to sleep. We travelled like that for a day and a half until we arrived at Udine in northern Italy. I will always remember it because there were lightning and thunder storms of a scale I had never seen before, although they are typical of the European continent. We were taken off the train, debussed and put into Camp 57 at Gruppignano, where there were already about 1000 allied prisoners, including many Australians. We had to settle into a communal environment. We filled a whole new block in one compound so we didn’t mix much with people who had been there longer. We had to wait for a while to
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get Red Cross parcels, which were essential because the food situation was pretty grim. We got a little loaf of bread, the size of a small bowl, a bowl of skilly, a watery soup with a few greens, and an occasional piece of meat.
Nevile Lodge and I were in the same hut and we got up to some fun and games. I would call out to Nevile, “How many pieces of meat have you got?” and he would answer “I think I have four”. “I’ve got three,” I’d say, but of course neither of us had any. I had known Nevile in Wellington, but this was the first time I had met him in the Army because he had been in a different unit.
We arrived at Gruppignano just as a tunnel escape was being engineered, the first tunnel escape in the war. We weren’t involved, it was organised by some of the people who had been there longer. They made a marvellous job of tunnelling under the floor of the hut and getting out. All hell let loose as a result. The camp commandant, or camp comedian as we called him (they were Gilbert and Sullivan sort of guys), was sent off to the Russian Front.
We were able to manipulate and even blackmail some of the guards there because of their fear of being sent to the Russian Front. When we did get Red Cross parcels, we traded cigarettes for bits of radio. Some of the men built radio sets.
This was not a labour camp so we were free to play games and do as we liked with our time. Our main preoccupation was in ‘tin bashing’. Fuel was scarce so we made blower gadgets out of tin which enabled us to boil a little water for tea in very good time, or cook something quickly from the Red Cross parcels. We also planted gardens to help supplement the food supply.
I had never experienced hunger like that before and I hope I never will again. I went around the cookhouse picking up pieces of pumpkin and squash from the garden, borrowed one of these blowers and cooked up the vegetable scraps. My weight went right down. I didn’t start to recover weight until we escaped and got onto a maize diet, and then I had three chins and four knees!
We were in this camp for quite a while on a very strict regime, with daily parades in the morning and evening when everybody was counted. The main events were when it was your turn to go to the storehouse to get Red Cross parcels. We couldn’t have survived without those. I have written something about the debt we owed to the Red Cross.
One of the things we did every day was to walk around the perimeter of the compound and of course we thought about how nice it would be on the other side. Part of me was relaxed, felt I was quite safe in the camp and was content with staying put, but another part wasn’t very good at being locked up. A few of us started talking about escape.
Then there was the episode of the shooting of Sock Symmons at a cricket match. We had arranged a major cricket test between New Zealand and Australia, using camp-made cricket gear such as a ball made of string. Part way through the sell-out match, an Australian
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guy yelled at an Italian guard who was blocking his view. The Italian, who understood English, replied with his own obscenity and shot the Aussie dead. That prompted one or two of us to start planning to get away from the place.
They were taking groups of about 50 men out to work camps. Nevile and I volunteered. I was a sergeant and I think he was a corporal so we had to demote, giving up our stripes to become privates because they wouldn’t take commanding officers to the work camps. We went to a camp on the plains of Veneto, outside San Dona de Piave near Venice. We were living there as a community of 50 in a farmhouse with an Italian sergeant in charge. There was barbed wire around the place and a few soldiers with whom we established friendly relations. We were put to work loading sugar beet onto barges on the small canals that traversed the area. We travelled the area surrounding the camp, mostly in bullock carts and got to know the local people.
We were visited by an Italian priest and I borrowed an Italian grammar book. Having learnt Latin at school and university, I managed to leapfrog into Italian fairly easily. When I discovered that the local people spoke Veneto dialect I converted to that.
Nevile and I were in the work camp for quite a while and had a lot of fun. We operated an imaginary radio station, called Station G-I-N, ‘the breadth of the Lombardy Plains’. Then I started selling Nevile’s cartoons. He was already drawing cartoons for the NZEF Times but the first commercial sale of his drawings came about when the guards wanted to be caricatured. I had the language skills; he had the drawing skills, and we worked together. I would negotiate a deal for a drawing, such as two eggs – one for the business manager and one for the artist. We needed that extra food.
September 1943 was the Italian Armistice. An order from Montgomery came via MI9, an underground operation feeding information to Italy, saying that prisoners of war were unskilled, needed to stay in their camps, and were an embarrassment. This annoyed me no end. Much later I worked with an Italian historian at Otago University to establish the military value to Italy of the escaped prisoners of war, to offset that stupid staff college attitude.
Escape and Resistance
We thought the sensible thing to do was to get away. We had learned from the big tunnel escape in Udine that the Italian search parties didn’t look for escapees anywhere near the camp. They assumed that everyone got the hell out of it. One night another PoW Giacomo and I climbed the fence and hid in a maize field nearby where we could still see the camp. It wasn’t a very gallant thing to do. The Italians were in a see-saw situation as they were about to abandon the camp, so when we got out, we weren’t worried about the Italians. It was the Germans who were sent to pick us up. We waited in the maize crop for
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three days and two nights. We were pretty stinky because we had our boots on all that time. We made contact with a Pommie who escaped after us and was trying to get to Yugoslavia, and he confirmed that the Germans were searching for escapees. If they caught you and could prove you were acting as a spy, they shot you. They shot David Russell who was with our battalion. We got the George Cross for him posthumously.
While we were hiding in the maize field, we watched an Italian family working their fields nearby at Casa Busa. The name of the estate – Busa del Morte – intrigued us because it means the mouth of death. I said to Giacomo, “I think the moment of truth has come. We can’t stay here indefinitely.” We were dressed in khaki with a big red patch on the back so we were rather obvious, a bit like the Jews in Germany.
I went into the house just on dusk and talked to the grandfather, Nonno. The whole family gathered. I was able to establish a connection thanks to Matteoti, a Christian socialist who was killed by Mussolini and became a symbol for the liberal Italian. The Italian peasant was the victim of both a feudal system which had wracked rural Italy for years, and of Fascism. If they stepped out of line the men were filled with castor oil as a punishment and the women’s hair was shaved off. The family had a photo of Matteoti, who they revered, hidden inside Casa Busa.
Nonno, his wife Nonna and their family welcomed us. The women gave us some civilian clothes and turned out wool uniforms into garments for the children because they were short of good clothes. They behaved as though the British had arrived and we were the advance guard of Montgomery. They made a great fuss of us. The Italians are like that.
We slept the first night in the loft amongst the hay. The next morning, they were making wine and we offered to help tread the grapes. We weren’t even allowed to wash our feet first. “No, no water in our wine,” said Nonno. We were assured that the fermentation process cleaned everything including, we hoped, the excrement of the hens we noticed doing their business above the pressing.
We had big discussions about our presence there because we didn’t want to cause the family any trouble.
Nonna stepped in and said, “You are a mother’s son therefore we want to look after you. Mo nationality or patriotism comes in to it. Furthermore, we have a son in South Africa who is a prisoner of the British; we will look after you and they will look after him.” That was the simple contadini logic. So it was agreed. We lived outside in a casetta, a small shelter of maize stalks hidden inside the vines which was effective until the leaves fell off the vines. A German patrol came through one night and didn’t [pick us up. We set up a lot of safeguards. We didn’t go into the house unless there was an exit arranged. Everybody, including the children, was briefed to give us warning as quickly as they could if there was any sign of Germans or neo-fascists. At that stage we were dealing with the real tough neo-fascist Italians, fanatic supporters of Mussolini.
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We escaped in September, the beginning of autumn. At first, we worked in the fields with the family and slept outside in our shelter. As winter came on, we moved into the hayloft. We cut a hole in the middle of the hay, big enough for two men to sleep in. We accessed it through a stock chute. If there was a neo-fascist or German raid we were able to hide in the hay and watch what was going on through chinks in the brick. In incidents in other places, the soldiers poked bayonets into haystacks but we were lucky. If we had been found the family would probably have been shot.
The women were marvellous. They were the courageous ones, the men could waver. Nonna was wonderful. Her husband was huge and used to hover; she was small but boy oh boy, she ran him. All my ideas about the strength and fighting spirit of women were being reinforced here!
The family fed us and shared everything with us, even though they were on limited rations. We would go out and find food for them. Fruit was a luxury and the orchards were guarded with dogs and guardia, like a security force. Big farms like the one we were on were run on a mezzadri system, where the landowner provided the seeds and tools, kept in a big storehouse and the contadini – the peasant farmers – provided the labour for their block of land. They took half the crop and the padrone took the other half. It was quite interesting to watch the halving being done. Some halves were definitely bigger than the other!
Malaria was a concern and a lady came around to administer quinine injections. We all had to strip off. I said to Nonna, “This is awkward. What if they question us?” “No,” she said, “You go in, take your pants down, bend over and they will give you a punga – injection. We don’t think the asses of you Kiwis are any different from the asses of Italians.” So we shared all those sorts of things with them.
At wine pressing time we noticed there was a lot of refuse from the pressings, wood and skins. We came up with the idea of distilling it. We got copper piping from a shot down B29 bomber and someone found a 44-gallon drum for us. We made a still and produced a grappa which the family thought was marvellous. There was some self-interest in this as well, particularly when we were sleeping out in the cold. They would come out in the morning with a small glass of grappa and that would warm us until lunchtime.
As the war developed there were huge raids into Munich, called the thousand bomber raids. They came up the Adriatic right over us. We were shot at by American pilots in Lightning aircraft. They would swoop down and shoot any damn thing.
We worked out how far we could travel in a night and still get back to Casa Busa before dawn. We established liaisons with other escapade prisoners and created an informer line that ran from Udine to Venice. We were in about the last third of it. We made regular visits to swap information, find out whether there were searches going on and what was happening. Then an Italian lieutenant arrived who had a lot of contacts and a quantity of
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Italian lire. He established an Italian partisan group called the Matteoti which we worked with. Daphne and I visited him years later.
Our drill was to rescue anybody shot down in one of these big raids. If it was in our sector, we tried to get there before a German patrol. One chap we rescued, Graham, was in the Oxford Air Training Corps. The Germans had picked him off and he had parachuted down. We arrived as he was about to hit the deck. I can understand what we looked like to him, two very dishevelled looking guys approaching him, and he pulled out his revolver. He received a tirade of New Zealand language about what to do with his gun, to which he retorted, “Who are you?”
“We are bloody New Zealanders of course,” we said.
“You New Zealanders seem to be everywhere in this bloody war,” he said in his plummy accent.
We hid his parachute and put him under the nearest haystack. “Even if you want to pee, don’t come out,” we told him. “We will come back on dark to pick you up. In the meantime, don’t move from here and don’t make a noise.” The drill was to go back later to pick him up and hand him over to the Partisan group. We asked him later what sort of aircraft he was flying, and he told us Spitfires. That was well ahead of anything we were used to.
At that time the Nelson Force, the force that we eventually came out with to the Allied lines, had torpedo boats landing people and taking away pilots. We dealt with them a lot. The Americans usually didn’t want to return to their own lines. The war was over as far as they were concerned. On the other hand, some of the others, those of more Irish extraction, had a different attitude. A bomber pilot arrived one night and the next night was on a boat back into the action. I remember him saying, “I’ve seen staff work in Tunisia, I’ve seen staff work down at base but I’ve never seen staff work like you guys have around here.” All in his United States nasal accent. That was a good morale boost.
I wrote a book while I was staying with the Italian family. It is a fictionalised account of Peter Swan, my close friend who went down on the torpedoed Nino Bixio.
Every night the Matteoti guy came over and gave us the BBC news and current events.
After 18 months of surviving and running, the news came through that we could get out with the Nelson Force. We went with them to Ancona. It was Friday 13th April when we came out on the boats. A British Major was coming shore dressed as though he was on Piccadilly Parade. You should have heard the language directed at him. “Silly bastard. What do you think you are doing? This place is alive, you can’t wear a uniform here!” The poor old major must have thought New Zealanders were very rude!
Shortly after arriving in Ancona I was finally able to get a message back to New Zealand: “SAFE IN ALLIED HANDS”. My first letter to Daphne soon followed (no small step for man stuff!): “Know of my love for you. At this moment are inadequate to convey
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the muchness of love for you. Ever and always.”
The world was my father fought was very different to World War II; that was something I wanted to being out in my book. The mobile warfare that I experienced in the desert and later in Italy was totally different to the slogging matches that went on in WWI trenches, where they were stuck in France for several years. One of the points I wanted to make in my book, by having the hero marry the Italian girl, is that in the Italian situation in WWII the enemy was able to marry the enemy. They were just two human beings whose feelings for each other were beyond any sense of nationalism or crazy patriotism. The simple message from Nonna was, “You are the son of a mother.” That summed it up for me.
Other issues came out of the war period in Italy and I had several articles published in National Education.
I also learned a lot about public relations by living with an Italian family for 18 months. One of the keys to survival was not to move in, in any sense of the word, with their womenfolk. Mind you, there were pressures! One of the girls, the girlfriend of the Partisan guy, did her very best to seduce me, subtly! But we were living there on borrowed time and couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong. The story of the romance in my book is based on the experiences of a friend, not my own.
While the Italians have a very strict morality, the contadini demand pregnancy before marriage, Nonna would say to me, “We always marry in pink. The signore marry in white but they should marry in pink.”
Nonna’s daughter-in-law Cesira, whose husband was a prisoner of the British, was the odd woman out. When we went to church, which we did occasionally to conform, she would find a suit for us to wear. (Italian wives are very good at doing things for their husbands, very like Daphne actually!)
“Cesira is the daughter of a priest,” Nonna explained.
“You’re kidding,” I replied in Italian.
“Oh no,” said Nonna. “The priests are terrible people. You were here the other day when the Franciscan monks came around; they took a tenth of our food reserves. The church is not good at all.”
She told me this on Saturday night, as we were all drinking wine and talking. The next morning, I woke to see Nonna going off to church dressed in black and looking like something out of a Van Gogh painting. When she returned, I asked her why she had gone to church after what she had said to me the night before.
“Oh Raimondo,” she said. “Just in case. Just in case.”
They had what we would call a risqué sense of humour. When we were out working with the partisans, we would ask them for stories which we would then pass around over a
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[5 words illegible]… some of them were quite amusing.
One was about being in the Piazza San Marco. You’ve been caught short so you put your hat over this dollop on the square. A carabiniere comes along and says, “What have you got there?” You say, “I’ve got one of the protected pigeons here. I’ll lift the hat and you grab it.” That was their style of humour.
From Ancona we were moved to Florence where we were debriefed, then on to Rome and by ship to Egypt where we had time to relax. They wouldn’t allow us to go back into a combat zone. I didn’t see any of my old associates in Egypt, we were so busy having fun! We went on a hilarious trip from Cairo to Alexandria, consuming a great quantity of alcohol. It was a time of relief. We had been living on our nerves for so long and in a situation where we couldn’t ever let go. There had been one episode where Giacomo got very drunk and started to get the Italians worked up. It was a silly thing to do and to stop him, I flattened him. He was going to offend people and we couldn’t afford to do that. He thanked me the next morning But the Italians couldn’t understand it! They don’t like physical violence.
From Egypt we went by troopship to Sydney, where I spent six weeks. We were taken to Manly and billeted in a church hall but weren’t given any money. We wandered into a pub and struck an Aussie sergeant who said, “Oh! Kiwis! Would you like a drink?” “No thanks,” we said. “We haven’t got any money.” Meaning we couldn’t shout back. He produced fifty pounds and we shared that between us. We repaid it as soon as we got paid. The sergeant became a lifelong friend.
We had a lot of fun in Sydney. I was drinking like nobody’s business. One night we were in a big hotel and they had a jitterbug competition. I entered, danced on the tables, and won it! I ama sure the only reason I won was because there were so many pillars with mirrors that I had to take evasive action. I would like to go back to Manly at some stage.
Then we travelled by flying boat from Rose Bay in Sydney to Auckland. We arrived in New Zealand on VJ Day. We thought it was a shame the way New Zealanders were behaving, the drunken so and so’s, when we hadn’t had a drink!
I got on the train to Taihape and had a few days with my parents before Daphne came up from Wellington. I met her off the train. There was this strange woman standing in the shadows. We haven’t looked back since!
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[Four Photographs with single caption to the right] Far left: The now deserted Casa Busa, 1980. Left: Nonna 1944. Below left: With Giacomo 1944. Below: Visiting my Italian family with Daphne in 1980.
[Four photographs with single caption to the left] Top left: Daphne and I Christmas 1940. Top right: Daphne and the tandem we rode at the 1940 Easter Tournament Canterbury University. Far right: In Alexandria on leave with two cobbers who came out with me on Nelson Force route, 1945. Right: On the day of my departure overseas with the 5th Reinforcement, 1941.