Lanyon, Pat

Summary of Pat Lanyon

Pat Lanyon was released from Fontanellato Prisoner of War Camp in September 1943. Pat and his fellow POWs Tom Ockleston and Harry Shakespeare were fed and sheltered near Fontanellato for just under a month before being forced South to Parma, only to travel further South to Rome just over a month later. The next seven months were spent living and travelling within Rome. Often in dangerously close proximity to enemy soldiers, Pat’s life depended on the hospitality and protection of Italian families and clergymen.

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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Outside the Wire

The story of Tommaso, Enrico and Patrizio

[Sepia photograph without caption of Pat Lanyon in uniform]

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[Photograph of a War Memorial inscribed as follows]:


[Photograph caption]: This stone remembers on its fortieth anniversary the English and Allied Prisoners of War interned here in concentration camp P.G. 49 and the population of Fontanellato which after the armistice of 6 September 1943 helped them and hid them at the risk of severe reprisals
Fontanellato 11 September 1965

[Bottom right of page] Memorial inscription on a pillar outside FontaneIlato today.

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The Armistice

It all began on 8th September 1943 when I was playing crib with Harry Shakespeare, Willy Pringle and Nigel Knight-Bruce after dinner, outside in the courtyard.

A rumour suddenly started that we had signed an armistice with Italy. No one believed it at first but then we were ordered by the Italians to go inside the building in case of demonstrations. About a quarter of an hour later we were told to assemble in the main hall. This was a large room where we used to put on plays and concerts, and which the bridge fans occupied every other evening. There was no entertainment or group function planned for this evening.

The Senior British Officer (SBO), Lieutenant Colonel De Burgh arrived and told us that, according to the Commandant, an armistice had been signed but that it was not official. He said that he had been told the same thing at his last camp at Bari. In that case it had proved to be untrue so, for the present, we must just keep calm and await events. I decided that this called for a drink so I went to the bar and managed to get three without the usual tickets as Nigel was serving behind the bar. There was no more news that night so at 11 pm we all went to bed, hoping for the best.

The next morning I got up at 7 am, as usual, and went out for a walk round the games field. To my intense surprise, the sentry on the gate stood to attention as I came through so I thought that perhaps something really had happened. Roll call and breakfast passed off uneventfully but then, at about 9 am, we had orders to fall in. I should point out that, in case of such an eventuality, the camp had been divided up into companies. Each one was commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel, with a Second-in-Command, an Adjutant and an Intelligence Officer on his HQ. Each Company consisted of three Platoons, one RAC [Royal Armoured Corps], one RA [Royal Artillery] and one Infantry; and each Platoon, in its turn, was divided into Sections. We were therefore organised and prepared for all eventualities.

The SBO [Senior British Officer] then told us that the armistice was official, that the Commandant intended to defend the camp against the Germans, but had refused the SBO’s[Senior British Officer] offer of assistance from the prisoners as we had no arms. The Commandant, however, would give warning if the Germans were near and we were then to walk out of the camp. Meanwhile, we were to put on battledress and pack a bag. A bugle would sound the call to fall in, if necessary.

[Photograph with caption]: Rear view of the Convent of Fontanellato, Italy, c. 1945. Built as an orphanage, but used as an Allied prisoner of war camp during World War 2.

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Then began a morning of wandering and wondering. I had no haversack and I didn’t believe we would be able to leave the camp. We’d heard that the Allies had landed at La Spezia and Pisa and we’d also heard a lot of explosions which we took to be demolitions, so I thought we would be freed by the Allies in a day or two. I did no more than put some cigarettes and the remains of my Red Cross chocolate into my sweater and tie it up. I felt that if we were going to be running around the countryside, it would be better not to be too encumbered with a lot of baggage. It turned out that I was very unwise.

While all this was going on, Lieutenant Colonel Mainwaring had gone off on a recce with the Italian interpreter, Capitano C. All the Italian sentries had been put into trenches outside the camp, with the machine guns turned facing outwards. This wasn’t much use, for they were supposed to be commanding the road, but there was a block of wooden huts between them and it, and they only had a field of fire of some ten yards. More practical measures taken were to place spotters in the bell tower of the church next door to us and to cut a hole in the wire at the far end of the camp furthest from the road.

Later, we collected haversack rations consisting of a tin of bully beef, some biscuits and a couple of apples. At midday, I went off to the bar to celebrate my 24th birthday. We drank vermouth, which is an amber coloured liquid quite different from the French or Italian vermouth which we drink in England, and considerably stronger. After two glasses we began to feel rather drunk, but we put that down to excitement and had another one.

Just as we were thinking of going to lunch, a German plane swooped low over the building and the Italian sentries quickly ran for cover. The war was coming a bit too close for them. However, their officers soon got them back into the trenches, though they kept on breaking away again when opportunity offered. Finally, they were all ordered into one trench where they were packed as tight as sardines in a tin.

Then the bugle sounded and within three minutes our Company was marching out through the wire in columns of threes…we were free men!

[Photograph with caption]: Front view of Fontanellato, 2011.

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In the ‘Bosco’ (woods)

We marched off, guided by an Italian interpreter and a Senior British Officer. It is difficult to describe our feelings. We were all rather excited and felt as if we were going off for a field day with the OTC [Officer Training Corps] and would be back for supper. Everyone was talking and laughing, carrying their bundles or haversacks and pulling the corncobs off the maize as they passed and eating them.

Our destination was a river called Fiume Rovacchia, which was a little stream with steep banks on either side covered with acacia trees. There was a space of about 15 yards on either side of it with an embankment about 20 feet high – in fact, a form of bund. We hid ourselves by Sections in the vines on either side of the bund and, before I knew what was happening, I found that I had become platoon runner. The first situation report from Battalion HQ came through to say that the Germans had arrived at the camp at 3 pm with a tank and some lorried infantry, and it was expected that we would be returning to the camp that evening. After that, each succeeding sitrep (situation report) became more optimistic that we would not be returning. After a day spent eating grapes (rather sour), sleeping and getting water from a local farmhouse, and acting as air sentries, it became fairly obvious that we would definitely not be returning.

That night I was on guard from 10-12 pm and I then had to go off to Battalion HQ to take a nil report. Battalion HQ had moved and no one seemed to know where to and, in the dark, I failed to find it, so I returned to my hiding place and went to sleep, waking up wet from the dew and well bitten by mosquitoes.

The next day I spent most of the time as a lookout. We were besieged by the local inhabitants, who had broken into the camp and looted everything. They presented us with our own Red Cross food and also gave us bread and wine. There was a continual stream of bicycles all day to a food collection point, where a Colonel was in charge. There were a number of officers who had already changed into civilian clothes and were out foraging for food and acting as spies.

The local inhabitants became rather a nuisance. This was one of the best thrills they had had for many a long day and they came to stare, rather like going to see the monkeys at the zoo. They stood on top of the bund and talked at the tops of their voices. It was quite useless asking them to go away or explaining that, if there were any Germans nearby, they couldn’t fail to be attracted by the noise and the crowd. At that time, my Italian was limited to ‘domani’ (tomorrow), ‘aqua’ (water), ‘pane’ (bread) and ‘vino’ (wine).

Towards afternoon it was decided that Nos. 3 and 4 Companies should go off, endeavour to cross the Parma-Fidenza road, and then try to get into the mountains overlooking La Spezia and there await the advancing Allies. Meanwhile, a number of officers of Nos. I and 2 Companies had been given civilian clothes and sent out to various farmhouses. The clothes had been found for them by the two interpreters, Capitano C. and Teniente R, both of whom did splendid work. By the evening it had been decided that the remainder of us should split up into small parties and either go off by ourselves or stay around in the area.

I joined up with Tom Ockleston, a Liverpool stockbroker, and Harry Shakespeare, and we decided to go off together. That night we moved further down the bund towards the Parma-Fidenza road.

The next morning, after a long discussion, we decided that we would not go south where the natives might not be friendly, but would remain in the neighbourhood where we knew that they were, and where we expected the Allies at any time. I personally didn’t fancy the idea of walking far as my boots didn’t fit and I already had large blisters on both feet.

We sat for the whole day, getting food from the local people and wishing we had learned Italian while inside the wire so that we could understand what they were saying. We had visitors all the time, including one very smart gentleman who shook us warmly by the hand and asked us how we were and if we recognised him. We apologised and said ‘No’ by waving our hands in the air and he told us he had been one of our sentries. With cries of ‘Bravo, Ingleses’ he went off home with his little bag. He told us that all the sentries had left and were now in mufti. Every sentry had had his suitcase with his ‘civvies’ in it ready to change and leave his post.

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That night we slept in a barn, Harry and I in some maize stalks which were very warm, but the mosquitoes were terrible and I woke with over 80 bites on my hands.

The next day, which was Sunday, passed in much the same way, but how very different the Italians looked dressed in their Sunday best! The men had shaved and were wearing pointed shoes and wonderful double-breasted suits with wasp waists and colossal padded shoulders. The women, too, were unrecognizable. We had watched them reaping the harvest just outside the wire in dirty old clothes so, when one very smart lady came up and asked us if we recognised her we were amazed to hear that she was one of the harvesters. We managed to get 500 lire between us from our Platoon Commander, part of the money that the Italian paymaster had been able to salvage for us before the Germans arrived.

Apart from this, the next two or three days were quiet, though we saw many Italian soldiers and Yugoslavs returning to their homes with their suitcases. It was at about this time that we decided that our abode in the bushes was getting too crowded so we moved off to a maize field. We had also come to the conclusion that the thrill of looking at the English prisoners was dying down, and the chances of getting food brought to us would also get smaller, so we looked out for a farmhouse at which we might be able to get a meal each day. With the help of an Italian-speaking friend we made contact with a farmer and his wife who said they could take one of us. That evening I met Signora F. who led me to her farm. When we got there, the old farmer told me that the other two English men he had had with him had gone to the mountains so my friends could come, too. I ran back to Tom and Harry, who were just sitting down to their meal of dry bread, and told them the good news.

The family consisted of the husband and wife and their son, aged about 15. The parents were both charming. Signor F. was a small, dark man with a little moustache rather like Hitler’s (which we used to tease him about). He had been a prisoner of war of the Germans in the First World War. He had a great sense of humour and used to keep us in fits of laughter every evening. Madame F, as we called her, was a typical countrywoman of a type met everywhere in the world. The moment we entered the house she took us under her wing and treated us as if we were her own children. There was nothing that was too much trouble for her to do for us. The Fs lived in a very small farmhouse which was kept spotlessly clean. It was divided into two parts: on one side was the cowshed in which their two cows lived, and on the other side were the kitchen and parlour with two bedrooms above. They had about 25 acres of land growing vines, wheat, maize and lucerne. The milk from the two cows paid the rent and everything above that was profit. They had the usual chickens and geese, one pig and a few rabbits, as every farm seemed to have.

That evening we sat down in the parlour and had our first hot meal since leaving the camp – and very good it was too! The parlour was a small, dark room in which were a small table, at which we ate, a dark oak dresser in one corner and another table in the opposite corner. A few copper pans, kept beautifully polished, hung round the walls, and the room was lit by one acetylene lamp which hung over the table, giving enough light to eat but leaving the rest of the room in darkness. We had some delicious meals in that little parlour during our stay with the Fs; one which will remain in our memory was a lovely omelette with a tomato sauce, all made with ingredients from the farm.

Our usual daily programme for the next two weeks was to rise from our straw bed in the barn at 5.30 am, when the farmer would bring us breakfast – a cup of milk each and a piece of bread or cold polenta. When we had eaten, we would go to our pitch by the river, there to spend the rest of the day. The early mornings before the sun came up were the worst, with a heavy dew and bitter cold.

Luckily, unlike me, Tom had been wise and had brought out his washing kit and a razor and, most important of all, a pack of playing cards. We had a shave about every third day, as the Italians in the countryside only shave on Sundays and we didn’t want to look conspicuously clean. Also, smooth chins would not have gone with our clothes, which we had picked up at odd times and were extremely disreputable. The trousers were almost more patches than trouser.

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Having washed in the river, we would go off to see other POWs in the vicinity to try and find out the news. There was always someone who had heard from someone who had heard the BBC news, but beyond the fact that Joe Stalin was advancing at a rate of knots and liberating his usual 1000 towns a day, the Allies seemed to be standing still. There was a daily rumour that we had landed somewhere between Livorno and Genoa, but nothing ever happened. Instead of thinking we’d be home for the start of the pheasant shooting, we now felt we’d be lucky to be back for ‘cocks only’.

Having gathered what news we could, Tom and I used to play piquet, whilst Harry appeared to be quite happy sitting or wandering about. After a lunch of the remains of the bread we had been given, we used to sleep until it was time to go to the farm for supper.

By this time our Italian was starting to improve with the help of a phrase book which someone had given us, although most of the phrases were of limited use, being on the lines of: ‘Can I have a first-class ticket to Rome?’ or ‘When does the boat leave for Alex?’. With the help of signs and remembering what French or Latin we had ever learned, we got on really quite well and talked on every conceivable subject over supper until it was time for us to go to bed in our barn.

The barn made a very fine bedroom. We dug holes in the hay, used our uniform as a pillow and pulled the hay back over us. The colder the nights grew, the lower we went into the hay. Even so, towards October, it was quite chilly in spite of all the hay on top of us.

One day, when we were sitting on the bank by the river, an old man came along wearing gumboots and carrying a pail, a wicker basket, a spade and a wooden shovel. The latter was about 18 inches long with the edges turned up about two inches all round. Having said good morning to us, he proceeded to build a dam across the river by cutting down the sides of the bank and throwing them into the water. He made four dams, each about six yards apart. Then, going to the dammed piece of water furthest downstream, he started bailing all the water with his bucket. This was a considerable task as it entailed moving about 650 cubic feet of water, but that did not deter him. He stood in the middle with the water over his gumboots and quite calmly bailed away. We were most intrigued by this and watched, spellbound. After about three hours the water began to get fairly low so he started using his wooden shovel to scoop the remaining water out. When the water was nearly all gone, he put his basket on top of the dam and threw the water through it in the hope that if there were any fish they would be caught in the basket.

[Photograph with caption]: Countryside near Fontanellato

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After six hours of hard work, he finished that piece of water and had caught enough fish to fill a small jam jar. The fish were chiefly freshwater shrimps and little fish about one to two inches in length. The biggest fish he caught was a barbell about six inches long and he had also collected a few freshwater mussels which were sticking to the banks. We thought it was a lot of work for such a very small return, but he seemed quite pleased and we left him starting to bail out the second dam.

Life continued in this way until, one day, the Germans came and searched some houses in the next village, capturing about ten people. We knew that this would scare the whole neighbourhood and that we would not be allowed in their barns. Furthermore, it was raining a lot now and we were never welcome in the barns in the daytime. We therefore decided to build a dugout where we could shelter during the day when it was raining, and where we could sleep at night if the Germans were about and, finally, where we could hide if there was a battle in the area.

After careful reconnaissance, we found a suitable place in the bund about six feet above the river, which could not be seen from either bank. With a spade and an old four-gallon petrol can, like those we had used in the desert, both borrowed from Farmer F, we started to dig. By evening, we had a hole big enough for two of us to sleep in that night. The hole was completed the next day and, after laying some rushes in the bottom to stop the damp striking up, we spent a fairly comfortable night -cold, but better than being outside. Being so close to the river the mosquitoes were very bad.

The Fs. had now decided that it was too dangerous for us to come to their house at night. It would be better to go to the field behind the house at midday and a hot meal would be brought out to us. In due course, when the flap died down, we were able to return once again to our barn.

At about this time, we met a certain Principessa and her sister, the Contessa. They evolved a plan whereby we would be given clothes, have our heads bandaged so that we couldn’t speak and, with the aid of false papers saying we were wounded Italian officers, be taken by the Contessa, one by one, by train to her hunting lodge in a forest some 25 miles north of Milan.

The first officer from our camp to go, whose name was Renwick, duly left for the Princess’s castle to be prepared. We waited impatiently for news, as we had ideas of getting into Switzerland from there and getting home that way. Three days later, we met the governess who taught the Princess’s children and she told us that at the last minute the plan had been changed. Renwick had been dressed as a woman, but had been caught by the Germans on Fidenza station. It was thought that a maid, who was known to be pro-German, had given him away. That was the end of the plan and, as a result, the Princess and her family had to make a quick exit into Switzerland themselves.

Just after this, we heard a rumour that the nuns who lived next door to the camp had said that the Germans were coming to search the wood where we were lying up. We kept out of it for a day or two until one afternoon when Harry and I were dozing under the vines and Tom had his trousers off, adding one more patch to the many, we heard a vehicle which sounded suspiciously like a half-track. There it was on the road just outside our farmhouse, with a lot of men jumping out of it. Old Mr F. appeared running and shouting: ‘Via, via, tedeschi’ (‘Get out of it! Germans!’). We collected our belongings, not forgetting our umbrellas, and ran, bent double, up the vineyard and away from the road at the top. There we lay and awaited events, keeping a good look-out all round so we could move quickly if necessary.

About two hours later we heard the truck drive away. We waited until it was dark and then I went down to the farm to find out what had happened. I learned that the Germans had recaptured seven of our fellow prisoners and, although some of the Germans had gone, they had left a patrol in the wood to try and capture prisoners going back there for the night. I borrowed some sacks and a bundle of maize stalks, and a flask of wine to keep the cold out. We retired further into the countryside for the night, away from the river. We had managed to collect our clean washing from the nuns (who always did it for us), so we put on all our clothes to keep warm.

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At about three in the morning, we heard the German truck return and then go away again. The next morning we went to two different farms to find food. At one, they were suspicious of us as Madame F. had dyed our khaki shirts dark blue and they thought we were fascists.

We had now run out of tobacco so we were reduced to smoking the leaves from trees in our pipes. We found poplar leaves to be the best, but they were difficult to keep alight and we used a lot of valuable matches. After supper, Mr F. would roll us a cigarette with black, dusty tobacco, but it tasted very good to us and we looked forward to our daily cigarette.

We returned to the farm on the day after the Germans’ visit and saw Mr F. making signs to us with his arms. In our army, these signs would have meant either ‘go away’ or ‘lie down’ so we weren’t sure what to do. However, it was the Italian method of saying ‘come here’. We learned that the Germans had definitely gone and had caught nobody else. We also heard that they had not found our dugout, which was a great relief to us.

The weather was now much worse, with constant rain, and, with the Germans becoming troublesome in the area, we thought that it was time we were moving on. Accordingly, and remembering all the detective stories we had ever read, we thought that the best place to go if you are in hiding is a large town. We decided to try to get to Parma, which was about 20 miles away to the east. You can therefore imagine our surprise when, the next time Madame F. brought us our food, she had with her a little, red-haired woman who fired off a speech in rapid Italian; when translated into simple Italian, it transpired that she wanted two English officers to live in her flat in Parma. This was all very well, but we explained that there were three of us, that we had always been together and wanted to remain so, if possible. After a long discussion about money and the difficulty of getting food, and just as we had started to talk about who was to go, and come to the conclusion that the only fair way to deal with the situation was to cut the cards and for the lowest to remain behind, Madame F. stepped boldly into the breach and said that if the redhead would take us all three, she, Madame F, would send us bread, flour and wine enough to feed the third. On that, it was settled that we should all three go and that we should bicycle over to Parma one at a time.

Our meal that day tasted excellent and we then had a good sleep, from which we were woken by Madame F. telling us that it was a special day, that she was going to give us another meal and that we could then sleep at her cousin’s house.

During supper, old Mr F. stood on guard on the road outside to give the alarm, but all was well and afterwards we went to the cousin’s house, which was a much larger place. We were taken to a little room over the cow-byre where, wonder of wonders, there was a bed. We gave this to Tom as he was the biggest and the worst sleeper, feeling the cold more than Harry or I did. We both slept on some straw with a couple of blankets and the smell of potatoes all around us and had the best night we had had since we had been ‘free’.

After leaving at daybreak, we spent the morning as usual in the fields and came back to the farm at midday. Here, we were met with the good news that the redheaded lady had arrived with her husband’s truck and would take us all together. Then started feverish preparations, with everybody yelling at everybody else and putting clothes on us so that we looked presentable, packing our few odd things into a suitcase, undressing the husband so that we could have his clothes, lengthening trousers to fit Tom, until we didn’t know if we were coming or going.

When at last we were presentable and ready, we said goodbye to dear old Madame F. who broke down in floods of tears, convinced that she would never see Tommaso, Enrico and Patrizio again; with much waving to all the Italians who had collected from nowhere, we were off on the second part of our journey.

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The journey to Parma on 4th October was short and sweet and very easily done. We were quite surprised as we had heard awful tales of the main road being patrolled by cars and also by Messerschmidts, and that everyone was stopped. About halfway we stopped to deliver a parcel to a woman and I, sitting in the back with the redhead, had my head patted to my intense embarrassment and to the acute delight of Tom and Harry who were sitting squashed up together in front with ‘mio marito’ (my husband) who was driving. My feelings during the journey were that it was all too good to be true; it was just too easy. As we sailed past German after German I lost any qualms I might have felt when we set out.

As we were getting into Parma, the air raid alarm went and we drove through very empty streets and along by-ways to get to the house. There were a number of broken-down Italian tanks lying around the town, which had been shot up by the Germans on the day after the armistice with a certain amount of ease. It was hardly the Italians’ fault as an M15 is no match for a German MKIV. It turned out later that we had been fortunate not to be stopped, as all traffic was supposed to halt when the air raid siren went; however, luck was with us.

On arrival we were led up very dark stone stairs and, on the third floor, we rang the bell and were admitted to our future refuge by an old woman who warmly welcomed us inside. The head of the family was Caesar, the husband, who was a man of about 45, rather morose and grumpy. He was very idle and hated doing any work. He was a lorry driver to a firm of wine merchants, which was how he had managed to bring us to Parma. He liked going out in the evenings and drinking with his friends and coming back late in a filthy temper. This always cast a gloom over the family. Quarrels and bickering invariably started, in which we were generally the target. Our redheaded friend was called Nina. Then there was their nephew, aged 11, who was at school in Parma; and an old woman who was a general dogsbody, doing all the work and taking the blame for everything, and on whom everyone let loose their tempers. The ‘vecchia’ (old woman), as we christened her, seems to have her counterpart in most Italian families; she had a daughter of 12 who was also at school.

Lodging with the family was a young Sardinian boy called ‘Dottore’ (Doctor) who had been to an Army Cadet School and was due to be called up so he was in hiding to avoid it. At first we couldn’t understand why this boy was called ‘Dottore’ or why the husband, Caesar, had been introduced to us as ‘Ingegnere’ (Engineer).We were puzzled because the former was not a doctor and the latter was only a lorry driver. We later discovered that anyone who has a degree of any sort is a ‘dottore’, while anyone who has anything to do with anything mechanised is an ‘ingegnere’. Anyone connected with the law, shady or otherwise, is an ‘avocato’, this is all due to the Italian love of titles. If you possess any of these titles, your friends always refer to you as ‘un grande uomo’ (a great man). However, if they don’t like you, you’re ‘molto cattivo’ (a very bad man) or ‘bruto’ (a brute or boor).

The flat was a big one, consisting of three large double bedrooms, three small bedrooms, a sitting room, kitchen, lavatory, and a bathroom which was only used for washing clothes in.

Our room was a large one with a double bed and a single bed in it. It had one window looking out into the well behind the other buildings so it was very dark; in fact we never saw the sun during the six weeks we were there. It had rather the appearance of a room in a commercial hotel, with dark furniture to add to the gloom. However, when we first saw it, it seemed like heaven, especially when we were given pyjamas and went to bed ‘in beds’ for the first time. Tom got the single bed as he was the largest.

We very quickly settled into a routine. We would be called at 8 am with a cup of coffee made of acorns and barley – which, with plenty of milk, was not a bad drink – and a piece of bread. When we had eaten this, we went back to bed until about 10.30, when we got up to shave in the order: Tom, me, Harry, an order we always used and never varied the whole nine months we were ‘free’. Getting to the lavatory was quite a tricky business. We had to pass the kitchen, which had a window looking out onto the passage, so it was necessary to peep around the corner to see if there were any visitors in the kitchen, which often happened. In that case, we had to go down on hands and

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knees and crawl to the WC along the corridor as nobody was supposed to know we were in the house. For the rest of the morning, we either played cards or studied the map of Italy, trying to work out when and where the Allies would arrive. Harry had been told by someone that General Montgomery always spent one hour a day thinking, so he did his hour’s study too. During this time the ‘vecchia’ would come and clean the room by throwing a bucket of water over the floor. Naturally, the floor never dried.

We had lunch of minestra (broth or soup), minestrone (thick vegetable soup) or risotto, with pasta asciutta (any kind of dried pasta) on Sundays. We would get a second course of a small piece of meat or salami with salad or peperoni (sweet peppers). After lunch we played cards or made maps of Italy so that we could fill in, in red, the Allied advance, with an enlargement of the Parma area in case we were ranging the country with a battle in progress. Later in the afternoon we ate the bread we had saved from breakfast and put in the drawer of our bedside cupboard. Unluckily, one day Nina found the bread in the cupboard and we never had bread for breakfast again. There was one good result from this because Harry always ate his bread in bed, leaving crumbs in it.

After supper we would go into the kitchen, which was the only place in the whole flat where there was any warmth. There, we would talk or listen to the wireless. Tom was initiated into the game of Sette Bella by the young nephew, a very cunning card game at which, we were told, Badoglio (the nephew) was a ‘maestro’. Tom found it very difficult ever to win as the rules had a disconcerting way of changing to his disadvantage when it looked as though he might. As it was all played in a foreign language, he was always caught out.

Rather to our dismay, we were inveigled into playing poker with Caesar, Nina and the ‘Dottore’. This was all right until one day I noticed Nina look at Harry’s hand and, realising he and she were against each other, I said, ‘For goodness sake, see her – she has seen your hand.’ Quite naturally, she won. The young nephew wasn’t much better, as he used to take three cards, find he didn’t like them and ask for more, pretending he hadn’t had any. He found this easier to do when he was dealer.

We decided to change the game and taught them rummy, but that was worse as they found all sorts of ways of changing or forgetting the rules and then saying they were awfully sorry but they hadn’t really understood. We soon decided that in future we would not, if we could possibly help it, play cards for money in Italy.

At 9 pm we had the BBC news on the wireless, turned right down so that not a murmur could be heard six feet from the set. Then we would say goodnight and retire to bed.

One drawback in the kitchen was that the cat, which was a beautiful big, white tom, was not very particular and quite often, during meals, he would do his business in a corner or under the bed or any other place he chose, inevitably producing a very offensive odour. The Italians did not seem to mind, I expect because they were used to it, but our sense of smell had not become so insensitive.

Lying in bed in the mornings, we used to hear nearly all the farmyard noises, including the bleating of sheep. This struck us as odd for we were in the centre of a fairly large town, and yet a cock, which sounded quite close, used to be answered by his friends from every direction. This was explained one day when I was taken up to the top of the house where there were turkeys, geese, Muscovy ducks, chickens and rabbits of all shapes and sizes. We gathered that most of the houses had farmyards on their roofs.

We had duck for dinner one day and could not understand how it could be made to feed so many; especially as I knew from my visit to the roof that they were by no means large. This was explained later when we were living more in the kitchen. A similar duck was produced for consumption. It was killed and the blood drained off, which made a meal of fried blood; the eyes were gouged out and the tongue cut off and given to the cat; the feet were then cut off and put into the minestra (soup) to give that a good flavour. Then we sat down to the meal, at which Harry got the neck, Tom some guts and I got the lungs; what the rest of the family got is anybody’s guess, but it certainly wasn’t meat because we had that for the next two meals.

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In fact, there was no waste, though we never found out what happened to the feathers – we couldn’t believe they had been thrown away! We didn’t see the head eaten at that time, but later on in Rome we gave the head of a chicken to an Austrian deserter and to our amazement he took a knife to it and ate it comb and all with great relish, then cracked it like a walnut between his fingers and ate the brains.

Although the above description gives the impression that we were leading a very comfortable and lazy life and making no attempt to go south to re-join our own troops, this was not the case. Some people do all their thinking in the bath; we didn’t have a bath so we did all our thinking in bed. Almost daily, Harry would come out with, ‘I was thinking last night…’, and so would start a discussion on our future. What to do was always the burning question: in the country, to begin with, we had daily expected a landing and we thought that a month at the outside was the longest we would have to wait. Here in Parma, that hope was receding so what was the answer? There seemed to be three alternatives: to go to Switzerland, where we would be interned; to go to Yugoslavia; or to go south. How were we to get a guide? Should we go by ourselves without one? If so, how should we go – on foot, by train, or by some other means? Answers to all these questions had to be found and hours were spent going round and round the subject. What we eventually did will be seen later.

There were two very mysterious characters who used to flit in and out of the flat, sometimes sleeping there. They were a ‘dottore’ and an ‘ingegnere’. We were told that they were really Italian officers in hiding. One of them was said to have conducted a dozen English POWs over the Alps into Switzerland. We were never allowed to see them, however, or to have anything to do with them, which led to some amusing encounters.

The first took place in the kitchen where we were sitting after dinner. There was a knock at the door and in walked one of the mystery men. He was a dapper man of about 35, dressed in a dark, double-breasted suit. A good six inches of his shirt cuffs protruded beyond the sleeves of his coat and he wore his wristwatch over his left shirt cuff, which was a new fashion to us. He sat down at the kitchen table and started talking to Nina, now and again having a good look at us as if to say, ‘Who are these people and why haven’t I been introduced to them?’ We remained quite dumb because if we’d opened our mouths we’d have given ourselves away immediately.

As we were wondering how to get out and back to our own room, without exciting too much suspicion, the young Sardinian, who had left the room shortly after the man appeared, returned with a pack of cards. He stood just outside the room so the man could not see him, said something in Italian and pointed at the cards, making gestures that we should come with him. So with exclamations of, ‘Ah si,si!’ we returned to our room and, after a good laugh, played a game of poker.

We learned afterwards that when we had gone, the mystery man asked who we were and Nina said we were her cousins. The Italians have literally hundreds of cousins, so to say someone is your cousin is fairly safe. The man remarked that Tom (who is very tall with blonde hair) looked like a German, but Nina got round that very cleverly by saying he was an ‘Alpini’ and came from the Tyrol. This episode therefore passed off successfully, though we didn’t think the man ever quite trusted us again; indeed he seemed a little afraid of us.

After that, it was decided that, in future, if anyone wanted to come into the kitchen when we were there, we should slip into Nina’s bedroom. This was a little room which could only be entered from the kitchen; it contained a bed, a dressing-table and a statue of the Madonna, and there was little room for anything more. It had, however, one important feature, namely a window looking out onto the passage leading to the WC. The arrangement was that, when we had scuttled into this bedroom, the wireless should be turned on loudly to drown any noise we might make, and we could either stay in the room until the visitor had gone or climb out of the window and return to our room. This was not as easy as it sounds for the room was pitch dark, the window squeaked horribly and someone invariably managed to knock something off the dressing-table. However, by taking off our shoes and trying to imitate a burglar, we usually managed our exit without arousing comment.

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One day, though, our behaviour cannot have failed to arouse suspicion. Both the strange men were in the house at the time and our exit through the window was not well timed. Tom went first and arrived safely, I was next and I ran into one of the men in the passage. I was carrying both my own and Harry’s shoes. I walked past the man without saying a word, trying to look as if it was my normal habit to walk about the flat in my socks carrying two pairs of shoes.

The only other person we met was a very ancient woman. It was quite safe for her to see us, as she spoke no known language, just some outlandish dialect. She had come begging for food and Nina gave her a bit of sugar, an onion and a stale piece of bread. Nina then went to get dressed up to go out shopping and came back in a fur coat with all her make-up on. The old woman gave one look at her and putting a skinny claw on the fur coat she emitted a cackle like an old witch as if to say, ‘I know how you got hold of that, my lovely lady.’ It was all we could do not to laugh.

The two children caused us a certain amount of amusement. Both were always getting into trouble. The ‘vecchia’ told us that her daughter was a villain and she blamed it all on her husband; he was working on the railways and what he had been up to we never found out. The child was not very prepossessing as she was always either sniffing or crying, or both, and she had a nasty habit of sticking her finger into our jam and then sucking it, which didn’t increase the attractions of the jam. At times, when one of the children did something wrong, the ‘vecchia’ would have her say, especially if it was her own daughter. However, she was only the dogsbody so she was not allowed to speak for long, just to fire a few ranging shots as it were, before Nina opened up with effective fire. Nina would let loose a stream of invective at the top of her voice, following up with a hard slap on the head with the hand on which she wore a heavy gold wedding ring. This was followed up with an equally hard backhander and, what with the cursing of the women and the yelling of the children, the noise was indescribable. When it had all died down, Nina would tell us what bad children they were and blame it all on Mussolini. We certainly learned about one sort of family life at Nina’s house.

After we had been there about three weeks, we were feeling the lack of fresh air and sunshine and that we must go for a walk. I, being the smallest and most Italian looking, was duly dressed up in a double-breasted suit with huge padded shoulders, black pointed shoes and a white mackintosh worn loose with the belt ends tucked into the pockets, in the approved fashion. With my long hair and fine pair of sideboards I looked a very nasty type of person, but had a very pleasant walk round Parma arm-in-arm with Nina.

[Photograph with caption]: Arches in central Parma

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It was very nice to be out in the fresh air again and to feel the sun on one’s back. Parma was a pleasant town with broad streets, some of them tree-lined. In the residential area, there were some attractive private houses with small gardens full of flowering shrubs. We went past the corn magazine which was still smouldering, the inhabitants having set fire to all the corn to stop the Germans taking it away. Then we went out to the station to see Verdi’s statue, with colonnades round it in a semicircle, each representing one of his operas.

There were not many Germans about and, anyway, we were always more frightened of the Italians, as the Germans were not likely to speak Italian whereas, if an Italian spoke to us, he would know immediately that I was English. We ended up at a café where we drank the inevitable acorn coffee. I felt a bit awkward when it came to paying the bill, as Nina paid for me but, apparently, in Italy it was not considered odd for a woman to pay for a man.

The next walk was to the cemetery, a pleasant place to visit although not normally the first choice for an outing. I was interested to see that nearly every grave had a photograph on it of the person buried beneath. The most recent was of a man of about 55. He had obviously had his photo taken after a very good lunch, as he had his hat perched on the side of his head, a very wicked smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. It was apparent that he was fond of the bottle and was one of the lads of the town.

[Photograph with caption]: Parma Cemetery Gates

We finished up by buying roasted chestnuts at a stall and eating them on the way home.

Nina was now getting bold and thinking this was all easy, so she decided she would take me shopping and make me carry her parcels. So, on the next outing, I found myself doing the round of the shops and, before I knew where I was, we were in a hat shop and she was trying on hats. I had no notion what to do with myself and, though I tried to pretend I was taking an interest, I really felt very stupid. Things now went from bad to worse for me because I became the stooge.

One morning I was woken at 9.30 am as we were to go to the market and I was to carry the basket. An incident on this trip convinced me that I would not make a very good secret agent.

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When in the market, I was holding, among many other things, a large turnip. Nina tried to relieve me of it, apparently thinking that I had more than enough to carry. Acting the perfect gentleman I said, ‘That’s all right,’ before suddenly remembering that I was an Italian; I got one or two funny looks from those around.

From the market we went to the Black Market, which entailed walking up three flights of stairs in a tenement building. I was left standing outside the flat while Nina went in to do her business. I felt very much in sympathy with the comedian when he said, ‘I feel awful; I bet I look awful.’ I wondered what on earth I was going to say if some other resident came by and asked me what I was doing or what I wanted; no-one did, but I returned home with my morale a bit shaken.

These outings had become too much of a good thing. On some of them we met her friends, to whom she spoke while I hung around, un-introduced, trying to look pleasant and not daring to speak. Once, I was introduced as a cousin and I smiled sweetly, but said nothing. It seemed certain that, one day, someone would say, ‘Who is this silent young man who is always around with Signora B.?’ The Italians love a bit of scandal at any time!

It was the last straw when we went into a very small cake shop, with just enough room for three people at the counter and three behind them, leaning against the wall. Nina was at the counter buying some nasty chocolate polenta and I was behind her. In walked two Gestapo men who stood next to me. I was far from happy, as you can imagine, but quite realised that they had come in to buy cakes, not to arrest me, and the chances of them talking to me were very small indeed. Nina, however, did not seem to think so, and feeling sure that I must be terrified, kept turning round and smiling at me in what was meant to be a reassuring way. To me, it seemed a very conspiratorial manner and made matters much worse. The day after this, I talked to Caesar and told him I would go on no more walks, and this was agreed.

Tom and Harry were luckier; they used to go out with the ‘vecchia’ in the evening, just as it was getting dark, and simply walk round the town to get exercise. Tom started by going out in daylight, but he felt so conspicuous with his height and fair hair, and so many people stared at him, that he found it better to wait until it was dark. Even when he walked in the gutter, which he was always careful to do, he was still a good head taller than the ‘vecchia’.

[Photograph with caption]: Aerial view of the streets of Parma

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The weekly arrival of old Madame F. was always a day to look forward to. It was rather like your parents coming down to visit you at school. She was such a quiet, kind person and it was such a pleasant relief from the noise and ructions of our present household. It was a very noble effort on her part to bicycle over a matter of 20 miles with two very heavy bags, carrying food and wine for us, but I believe she actually enjoyed it because she always seemed so very happy and pleased to see us, just as we were to see her.

The tobacco situation was far better here than in the country; Nina gave us ten cigarettes a day between the three of us, and Caesar always kept his stub ends for us and gave them to us in the evenings. These we rolled into cigarettes or smoked in our pipes.

Hair cutting was always a problem. When we were in the country, Mr F. used to give us a trim and made quite a good job of it. In Parma, Caesar had a friend, a very pro-English man, who was a barber, and every other week he would come in the evening and cut our hair. This was always a good day for, as often as not, he would bring us some cigarettes, giving us a couple each. Once, he even gave us ten each, but they were a brand called ‘Milit’ which were almost unsmokeable, even to us. Hair-cutting days were also the occasion for a drink to be produced, usually a rather sweet liqueur, but we weren’t fussy and were glad of it.

After we had complained about the coldness of our room, we managed to get the ‘stufa’ (stove) lit at about 2.30 in the afternoon. No wood was left in our room in case we wasted it; they would come in periodically and put on a small log, but the stove never really got going. Its chances were not improved, and nor was the air in the room, when they put on some sawdust which had been in the cat’s litter tray. It produced no heat, but the offensive odour which permeated the room forced us to open the window so we were colder than ever. The ‘stufa’ was never lit again, and we didn’t ask that it should be.

Thus the days rolled by until we decided to go to Rome.

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The Decision to go to Rome

The decision to go to Rome was not made in a flash. As you can well imagine, we had spent many hours together discussing the war situation and our immediate future.

In the second week in November, our troops were advancing towards that redoubtable bastion of Cassino, which was to give us so many heartaches. We really felt at that time that there was a very good chance of the Allies arriving in Rome by Christmas, but we didn’t expect them to be in Parma before the summer at the earliest. We had quite given up any hope of a landing in the north, in spite of daily rumours that the Allies had landed and that the population of La Spezia had been evacuated to Parma because of the imminent threat of invasion.

With the military situation, and the fact that we were getting extremely tired of our family with their continual noise and strife, we came to the conclusion that somehow we must go south. Preferably, we would go to Rome, which was supposed to be an open city and, having got there, then we could decide whether we should go on and try to get through the lines.

However, it’s one thing to decide to leave, but quite another to actually do it, as we very soon found out, and the next week turned out to be one of our most trying.

We had decided that we would need a guide to take us. Although we could now understand the language and make ourselves understood fairly easily, we had only to speak to give ourselves away at once. Besides this, Harry, who all along had said that Italian was a dead language, had made no attempt to learn it, with the result that his vocabulary was still limited to a dozen words and he left all the interpreting to Tom and me.

To find a guide was the next problem, and for this we fell back on our mainstay, the Fs. The next time Madame F. arrived, we asked her to try to find us a guide. To our amazement she was not at all surprised by this request. She had expected it, as her son, Giovanni, who had come to see us a few days earlier, had told her that we were ‘stanco’ (fed up) and she herself had thought that we seemed tired of our present situation and not happy with our hosts.

A few days after this meeting, old Mr F. arrived with a note saying he had found a guide.

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The Battle to Go to Rome

Mr F. was a bit frightened of Nina and, when he came into our room that morning, he slipped a note into Tom’s hand when he shook hands with him and made conspiratorial gestures like an old-fashioned actor in a melodrama, which were meant to indicate that Nina was not to know what was happening, or that it was anything to do with him.

Mr F. then scuttled out of the room rather like a rabbit quitting a burrow with a ferret on its tail, leaving us to read the note. The note was from a soldier called Sugden who had been a batman at our camp. It said that the Fs. had found a guide who would take us, and that Sugden and another soldier called Elliott were also going to Rome, being taken by a friend of our guide-to-be. He thought the guide was quite safe and he had already taken some members of our camp south.

We considered that was good enough for us and, then and there, we decided to accept the guide. When Mr F. came back in we told him our decision and asked him to arrange for the guide to come and see us. We also asked him to ask Nina to come in so that we could break the news of our imminent departure to her.

A few moments later, in walked Nina with a very set expression on her face. She started off by saying, ‘I hear you want to speak to me.’ I could see we were in for trouble and, as I had been nominated as interpreter, I realised I was in for a difficult time.

I started off by saying that we had found a guide and that we had decided to go to Rome, not because we were at all unhappy with her; on the contrary, we had been very well looked after, she had been so kind to us and we thoroughly appreciated it. Our duty to our King and Country, however, was to re-join our forces and fight again. We were still members of the Army and we were not being paid to sit in comfort in Parma without making any effort to get back to the war effort.

As I stuttered my way through all this, Nina listened in stony silence. Then we were told it was quite impossible; we had no identity cards; everybody was stopped, everywhere; the whole thing was quite absurd. So, once again, I started to talk about our duty although, at the same time, stressing how happy we had been with her.

The frequent emphasis I laid on our duty was chiefly to impress her, but we had, in fact, a fixed determination to go south at all costs, whatever difficulties lay in our way or were put in our way. We had come to the conclusion that no further landing would take place and that the only way to re-join our forces was to go south. It was only this fixed determination which carried us through the following days. If we had given any sign of wavering we would have been overruled by Nina, and all her guns would have been brought to bear on us. After all our discussions had ended in complete deadlock, she left the room. By this time I was soaked in sweat and we all sat back to recuperate and to think up more arguments for the counter-attack, which we knew would come at any moment. Sure enough, quarter of an hour later, back she came with another sally and it turned out to be quite cunning. She had cornered poor Mr F. in the kitchen and bullied him so much that he had contradicted himself, tied himself in knots and was now speechless. She told us that Mr F. was deceiving us; that we were not to be taken to Rome as we had thought, but to Bardi in the mountains south of Parma, where we would live with the partisans.

Now this was rather an awkward one to answer, but we very quickly realised that she had been badgering old Mr F., saying how impossible it was to get to Rome and that he was sending us to certain death. She had also probably said that, if we were caught, he would be to blame and that she would make certain that he was shot when the Allies arrived. Poor Mr F., feeling himself cornered like this, had said that we were going to Bardi, partly to get himself out of a difficulty and partly to help us to leave the house under the pretence of going to Bardi, not Rome. Unfortunately, Nina had an answer to this which she soon produced. She said that Caesar was always going into the mountains on business and could take us any time we liked and hand us over to the partisans. We had to play for time to think up a response to this, so we said we still wanted to go and we trusted Mr F. not to let us down, but we would think it over. We were left alone again for a short time.

By now it was 11 am and we had not had time to wash and shave so we started to do so.

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However, we were not even allowed to shave in peace. Back came Nina, saying she had brought her husband ‘to deal with us’. Caesar was not nearly as clever as his wife and did no more than say that it was quite impossible to go to Rome and that he would take us into the mountains. We countered this with our usual talk about our duty and not forgetting our happiness with them.

Directly we went into the kitchen, the young Sardinian, who had been well primed, was immediately brought into action. He told us that no-one could travel more than 20 miles without a pass; everybody was always stopped to have their identity cards looked at. We hadn’t got identity cards and we would be shot; we were just walking straight to our graves. Besides, the RAF were bombing all the trains. He finally asked us why we thought he didn’t go south if it was possible to do so? After all, he was an Italian with an identity card, his home was in Sardinia and living up here was costing him a lot of money. We knew the answer, but we could hardly give it to him – he wasn’t brave enough.

There was only one more member of the family to be brought to bear on us – the ‘vecchia’ – and we let Tom deal with her by just stolidly playing patience and pretending he could not understand what she was saying. In the end she gave up the struggle.

We stayed in the refuge of our bedroom for as long as possible, but when we went back into the kitchen another barrage of arguments was brought out. After a desultory supper at which we were made to feel the most ungrateful trio of rotters who ever lived, the final attack of the day began with the arrival of the barber, and away we went again with all the same arguments.

Completely exhausted, we retired to bed directly after the news to await the next day’s developments. We were woken the next morning with our coffee in grim silence; Nina was obviously reserving her ammunition for later on.

The attack started at 9.45 am when a surge of people entered our room, led by Nina with a false smile on her face. She was followed by Madame F, looking happy but rather frightened, and then the guide’s wife, who was a large lady, well dressed and much made-up. This woman sat down on Tom’s bed, turned on her charms and tried to bewitch him. Quarter of an hour later, his wife having paved the way, the guide himself came in and ousted her from her seat on Tom’s bed.

He started off by asking if we were frightened, to which we replied that we were not, but we had been worried that the Fascists might give us away. He then dropped the first bombshell by coolly announcing that he was one, and producing Fascist papers to prove it. This really did stagger us, but we were already committed and determined to go on.

The guide was a small, voluble, volatile little man of about 40 with the usual Italian features: black hair, dark face and protruding ears. He was a motor salesman in private life and a typical commercial traveller. He told us that he had been in the Fascist brigade and had fought in Spain, but not in this war. Having admitted that he was a Fascist, the guide then explained how this could be very useful. If there was any trouble, he just showed his Fascist papers and everything was smoothed over.

He then produced various documents purporting to be from an English officer, showing that he had done good work bringing POWs through the lines. He showed us the names of several people in our camp, with their addresses, saying he had already guided them, and these were all correct. He also said he had taken Sergeant Major Black, who had been in our camp, through the lines to Salerno and he produced Black’s watch. This was not conclusive, of course, as he could just as easily have got the watch by denouncing Black as by escorting him, and he might even have stolen it. This story, therefore, did not carry much weight with us but, rather, put us more on our guard.

Finally, he produced a photograph of Kit Paterson of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, who had also been in our camp, saying that he had been captured and telling us who had been with him. We knew this information to be correct, but we didn’t see how it could help his case. In fact, it rather led us to believe that he had been responsible for Kit’s recapture, especially when he told us that he had given information to the Germans of the whereabouts of British prisoners, ‘but, of course, it

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was always false’. We knew it was possible to give false information once or twice, but that it was impossible to continue to do so. We subsequently came to the conclusion that he had sold Kit Paterson and his friends to obtain the money to take us south.

Having said all this whilst Nina and the other two women stood looking at us – the former a stone image and the others looking at us benevolently – the guide asked us to decide there and then whether we wanted to go with him. We had a short discussion and decided that we had already committed ourselves so far that we had better go on. Anyhow, it was essential that we go south, and if you never take a gamble, you don’t get very far in life. We believed the Fs to be absolutely trustworthy and, as they had said the guide was all right, we were prepared to back our judgment of the Fs and engage the guide. Before announcing our decision, we asked the guide how he was going to take us and what the risks were. To this he replied that it was quite safe as long as we didn’t speak the whole time, and that we’d go partly by train and partly on foot. On that, we closed with him and agreed to go.

All this time, Nina had been waiting for her moment. She had left the room, to reappear almost immediately with a young man who was her last card, which she had been keeping up her sleeve. He was a friend of the Sardinian and was a regular soldier in the tanks. He had fought the Germans in Parma until his tank had been knocked out, which happened quite quickly as he had hardly any ammunition and was up against far superior forces.

We had met the young gentleman before, as he had come to see us several times. He had brought us an English book and liked practising his English on us. We had had some quite amusing times talking about Sardinia. Once, we had asked him about fishing there and he had told us that they usually put lime in the water, as that was much the quickest way to get fish.

On another occasion, we had asked him about bandits and he said there were plenty of them and they sometimes organised bandit hunts. Photographs were produced showing a bandit hunt with the ‘bag’ displayed in front and the man who had shot the bandit standing by the body, with the rest of the guns behind. We thought it would look rather well in ‘The Tatler’ alongside a picture of a shooting party at Lord X’s.

However, to return to our story, this chap was a partisan and commanded a section or troop of rebels, so he was considered a person in authority. After greeting us, he tackled the guide, asking for his documents and checking him out and finally asking him about the route. As the guide was telling him, although he spoke much too fast for us, Tom and I realised that it was a completely different route from the one we had been told. The partisan, however, seemed quite satisfied and turned to tell us what he had found out.

He said that, although the guide was a Fascist, he might still be all right and that he could easily find out all about him from his organisation and let us know. This was very satisfactory and we asked what he thought about the route. He replied that it was as safe as possible and was a good route. We would go by train from Parma to Bologna, bicycle from Bologna to Rimini, walk from Rimini to Pescara and then by boat from Pescara to Bari. This was a surprise, but after a quick discussion we decided it was no good arguing and pointing out that we had been told that we’d be going to Rome by train and on foot; if we did, we might never leave. So we said it was excellent and the young man left, telling us not to do anything until he had found out about the guide.

The situation then was that we had said that we would go with the guide and the partisan had told us to wait. It didn’t matter much as we really had no option. Everybody started to call on us to get out of bed and go to the photographer to have photos taken for our identity cards. We hadn’t heard before that we were going to have identity cards, but we allowed ourselves to be dragged out of bed and dressed, and to have our shoes polished so as to be presentable. So great was the haste, that I cut myself three times while shaving.

After we had been inspected, we left the flat at three-minute intervals; first Tom and Madame F, then the guide’s wife and me, and finally Harry and the guide. After an uneventful walk, in which we took all the side roads and didn’t go near any main roads, we all arrived at the photographers. We sat down together in a circle like a family on an outing and waited while some other customers

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were being photographed. Then we were all introduced to the photographer, who proudly produced a piece of paper showing an English officer’s name and address; he told us that this officer had been in his house for some time.

Once the door was securely locked we all had our photos taken. I had to dab hard at my face to staunch the flow of blood from the shaving mishaps. We returned by the side streets to the flat where we were left feeling rather dazed and wondering what would happen next, while Madame F. and the guide’s wife went off to buy overcoats and suits to make us presentable for the journey. The photos eventually arrived five minutes before we left, all wet and useless for identity cards.

We had lunch, as usual, in the kitchen in stony silence; we were still being made to feel like naughty, ungrateful children. Immediately after lunch, we slunk back to our room to await developments.

Shortly after 3 pm, the shoppers returned with an overcoat and a suit. Tom already had a suit which had been given to him earlier; it was not a very good fit as the coat neither covered his bottom nor his wrists, and even when the trousers were turned down they didn’t reach his ankles. The suit the shoppers had brought fitted Harry beautifully and was much better than the Italian officer’s uniform trousers which had been given to him earlier. The overcoat fitted Tom fairly well and another one was found which would do for Harry. A mackintosh had been found for me, but I had nothing to wear underneath it, as the clothes I wore belonged to one of Nina’s many cousins and were only borrowed.

We said goodbye to Madame F. that evening, as she would not be coming to Parma again before we left. Once again, the poor thing broke down. Although she had found us the guide, I don’t believe she really thought we’d get safely through, but feared we’d be killed or recaptured.

The next day we had a quiet morning, without any troubles, and at lunchtime news came through from the partisans that our guide, by name Ettore, was all right. This was a great relief. Soon, he appeared with his brother, Adriano, who was also going to help as a guide. The brothers told us that we’d be leaving on the Wednesday evening train from Parma; they also discussed my clothes. Adriano was wearing a very sporty green coat, which fitted me, so it was decided I should have that and a pair of grey flannels.

Although things had gone so far, Nina was still not giving in and kept on nagging away at us, but we were completely determined to leave, so we took no notice of her tirades. Ettore came in the morning and told us he would return at 5.30 pm the next day to take us away.

Now she had seen that nothing would move us in our resolve, Nina did a complete ‘volte face’ and said what a good thing it was that we were going and that she had decided to come with us. She suggested that one of us could put his head on her shoulder and feign sleep all day. That was too much for us, and our faces gave us away at once. ‘You don’t want me to come,’ she said. We quickly assured her mendaciously that this was not the case, but that it would be a difficult journey with, perhaps, a lot of walking to do. After minimising the difficulties up to now, we started to prove how difficult it was going to be. We pointed out that she couldn’t possibly leave her house and that she wouldn’t know when she’d be able to return. Her idea was only a flash in the pan, and I’m afraid we failed to conceal that it did not commend itself to us.

To show her willingness to help, Nina said that she would get us identity cards, which the guide had failed to do. She embarked on a long explanation of how she would take us singly to the municipal headquarters and tell the officials that she had to do all the talking because we only spoke some outlandish dialect. But, like many other schemes, this got no further than talk.

Good advice about what to do was now thrust upon us and a very elaborate system of codes was evolved by which we could let Nina know that we had arrived safely. Then we came up against the inherent addiction of the Italians to carry revolvers, when Caesar offered us his. We politely refused, saying it was no good to us as, if we were arrested, we could hardly start shooting up the whole carriage and get away with it. Also, if we were caught with arms, we would almost certainly be put up against a wall at once and shot, whereas if we were not armed, we would be sent back to a prison camp in Germany. Caesar could not see our point at all.

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The Sardinian also strongly advised us to take the revolver, not for shooting Germans, but for if we saw the guide talking to the Germans and it looked as if he was giving us away; we could shoot him in the back and make our escape! Our answer to that was that if we didn’t trust the guide, there wasn’t much point going with him. The Sardinian said he knew his countrymen better than we did and that we were just being led like lambs to the slaughter!

Just before lunch, the barber arrived, bringing with him a bottle and some cigarettes, so we all sat down and drank to our success. Tom wrote out a large poster saying that the barber had been very kind to us and that we hoped the Allied troops would patronise his shop. We told him to put it in his window when our troops arrived.

At lunch we were told what food we would be given and various other little arrangements were made. Afterwards, we sat down and wrote letters to our respective families, telling them what had happened to us and what we intended to do, so that in the case of our complete disappearance there would be some record of what had befallen us. We also wrote cheques on pieces of paper: £45 to Mme [Madame] F. for our stay with her and for the overcoat she had bought for us, and £45 to Nina. These were to be put in our letters and sent home to our families after the war so that those who had helped us could be reimbursed, whatever happened to us.

Nothing further happened in preparation for our departure until about 4.45 pm. Then there was a sudden feverish rush, during which a chicken was killed and cooked, my mackintosh was washed, some other clothes were washed and ironed and a meal was prepared for us to eat before we went.

Ettore and Adriano then arrived and more rush and bother ensued, including copious note and address taking, until finally we were all ready. We had a small suitcase in which we had our meagre belongings – washing things, a pair of pyjamas and a couple of shirts. We had had to jettison a good number of our clothes as being too English, including our towels. These Nina took, giving us three in return, beautifully folded. When we unfolded them, we found that they were full of holes and virtually useless. We each had a little parcel of food, including chicken, bread and butter, cheese and an apple; we also had a small bottle of Marsala.

When dressed, we presented quite a spectacle. Tom looked like an off-duty policeman; Harry, with a dark hat pulled over his eyes and in a black coat, was a very sinister Italian: and I looked like a prep-school boy wearing a soft hat for the first time.

Finally, on Wednesday 17th November 1943, we set out, having said ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Molto grazie’ a hundred times to everybody. Tom and Ettore led the way, followed at a 100-yard interval by Adriano with Harry, and finally, after another 100 yards, I brought up the rear. Thus we shook the dust of Nina’s flat off our feet and, with rather a sinking feeling, wondering what was going to happen to us, we started walking to Parma station for the first part of our journey to Rome.

[Photograph with caption]: Officer Cadet Pat Lanyon c. 1939

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The Road to Rome

It was just dusk as we started our walk to the station and we had the cover of darkness to hide us and give us a feeling of protection. However, fate did not allow us to arrive without incident. Just before we reached the station, when we were in one of the main streets, Harry and Adriano were stopped by a German. It was an awkward moment but it wasn’t documents he was after, just a light for his cigarette so, in sullen silence from Harry, and a flow of Italian from Adriano, a light was supplied and we passed on.

Arriving at the station, we waited in a dark corner just outside the main buildings and the two guides started shouting, ‘Veglia!’ Eventually, this call was answered by the appearance of a woman. Although it was too dark then to see what she was like, later on, in daylight, she turned out to be a girl of 19, about five feet tall, and well-covered as well as very made-up. She had the usual wooden, high-heeled shoes, so common in Italy due to the scarcity of leather, a green overcoat trimmed with rabbit, a bright red waistcoat and black skirt, all this surmounted by a small hat with an enormous feather. In fact, she looked like a lady of the night – a very good sort of person to have with one on this kind of journey, as she was very sensible and brave and could make continuous conversation which only required an occasional ‘Si, si’ from us.

She took hold of Tom’s arm and marched him up and down chattering hard. It was a funny sight, this little fat girl just about reaching half-way up Tom’s chest, walking arm-in-arm with him and Tom bending almost double to talk to her. She proved invaluable and was allotted to Tom for the whole journey as he, being so tall and fair, was most in need of camouflage and it was unlikely that a man with a woman would be stopped.

Harry and I were now left to our own devices, and to await the two brothers who had gone to collect their baggage and tickets. We walked up and down separately, hoping that no one would come up and speak to us. Harry proved that he was a past master at walking and standing about looking bored with everything; he might really have passed for an Italian. Whereas I, so Tom and Harry politely told me, looked like a small boy who has been told not to open his mouth under any circumstances, and whom nothing would induce to disobey this order.

Having collected the tickets, Ettore came back and we discussed which of the three of us spoke the best Italian. I was made the official interpreter and given the tickets for the three of us to Bologna, and told what to say. We went off in an unorganised rabble so that it wouldn’t look as if the six of us were all one party, but we kept close enough together to be able to help each other in an emergency.

At the barrier I held out the tickets and in my best Italian said, ‘Tre’ (three), and passed through. The train was not yet in so, once again, we wandered about trying to look like bored travellers, a practice we became quite good at by the end of the journey.

When the train arrived, we found an empty compartment which we tried to take over completely, but failed, and a priest and a workman got in. It might have been a lot worse, as the odds were that the priest would be pro-British and the workman probably not pro anything or likely to notice anything. To make sure of him, Ettore offered him some tobacco to make a cigarette.

The train started at 6.30 am and we were safely over the first fence, breathing sighs of relief at seeing the back of the SS and ‘carabinieri’ guards at the station. The Italian members of the party then started talking and singing, while we three, having been cautioned many times with the words: ‘Niente parlare – dormire – capito?’ (Don’t speak – sleep – understood?), composed ourselves for sleep. We didn’t feel like sleeping. Excitement and wondering what was going to happen next were not conducive to rest. At Reggio, the first stop, the priest and the workman got out, to our intense relief. We could now talk freely amongst ourselves.

Travelling by train in Italy at this time was always chancy because the RAF were bombing the railways and nobody knew what would happen when we got to Bologna. All we knew was that the station had been bombed. We expected that we’d have to leave the train about two miles from the station, take a tram across Bologna, and pick up the Florence train on the other side of the city.

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At 10.30 pm we stopped in the pouring rain and Ettore went off to reconnoitre. It turned out far better than we’d expected; the train had stopped outside Bologna in the country and the Florence train was only about half a mile down the track. We gathered up our belongings and joined a crowd of people walking along the permanent way, including two Germans carrying a machine-gun in a box. As Ettore and Adriano both had dynamo torches, we were very popular and everyone stayed close to us to get some of our light.

When we got to the train, the Germans and the rest of the people got into the first carriage, but we thought another carriage might be preferable so we walked along by the train trying to get in, but all the doors seemed to be locked. Eventually, we got to the end of the train where we found a guard’s van and a mail van unlocked, so got into one of them to get out of the rain, have some food and discuss what we should do next. When the rain stopped, Ettore went off to find a carriage and returned later to say he had found one unlocked. We picked up our things and trooped off to the carriage, which was one of the Pullman type with seats for two people facing each other on either side of an aisle going the whole length of the carriage, and holding about thirty people. It was fairly empty so we were all able to get into two lots of seats on each side of the aisle. The train was not due to leave until 5.30 am so we settled down and went to sleep although it was perishingly cold as, of course, there was no heating.

Round about 5 am, Ettore went off to get tickets to Florence as ours only went as far as Bologna. The train left an hour late so we whiled away the time looking out of the window or feigning sleep. The country looked difficult for fighting, being very mountainous; we wondered how you fought in mountains, whether you went to the top of each one, or went round them at about halfway up.

As we drew near Florence, the train began to fill up until there was hardly a vacant seat and we began to wonder if someone would come and sit down with us. Sure enough, at the next stop, a woman with a lot of luggage took our fourth seat, opposite Tom and next to Harry, and burst into a stream of Italian. Tom, with great presence of mind, smiled beautifully and put her cases on the rack above his head and we had to hope that if she addressed us we could carry it off.

We eventually arrived in Florence and got out into its splendid station, which was thronged with German officers and sentries, RTOs [Railway Traffic Officer] and ‘carabinieri’. We split up into pairs and, with a respectable distance between each pair, passed through the ticket barrier and made our way to the waiting room, a dirty place full of people among whom screaming children and ‘carabinieri’ predominated. We did feel rather uncomfortable; it seemed to me that we must look very strange standing about in a group of six, with three out of the six completely dumb. After we had spent half an hour like this, Ettore found out that the train for Rome did not leave until 7 pm so we had better go to a restaurant. We put our baggage in the cloakroom and marched past the German sentries at the barrier leading out of the station, hoping we wouldn’t be stopped.

Directly we got outside, Tom and Veglia were accosted by a nasty-looking little man who proved to be a hotel tout offering them a room, which they declined politely. We wandered through the streets of Florence, which were packed with German troops, smart and well-behaved and paying no attention to us. We arrived at the restaurant where a slight argument developed with the manager as it was only 11.30 am and the restaurant was not yet open. However, we managed to get in finally and, having sat down at a table, we ordered black market cigarettes and Moscatello. We drank two flasks of Moscatello and felt much better; in fact, fit for anything. We ordered lunch, which consisted of the inevitable minestrone – nastier than usual – followed by guinea fowl, and finishing with our own bread and cheese.

By about the middle of the meal the room had filled up. At the table on our left there was a party of middle-aged people who had brought most of their own food. At the table on the other side of us, the people had a long discussion about Tom and came to the conclusion that he was a Dutchman.

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We now had to decide what we were going to do until it was time for the train and it was agreed that the cinema would be the best answer. So, off we trooped in pairs and saw a dreadful German-made film in Italian, followed by an equally bad stage show involving a young man singing the popular songs of the day in a falsetto voice. This was very popular with the audience who, to our consternation, insisted on two encores.

By the time the film show was over, we were just about due to go back to the station so we collected our bags from the restaurant, where we had left them, and returned, passing safely through the guards at the barrier once again.

The train was very crowded, but we decided we must try to find Tom a seat as he was too conspicuous standing up and, eventually, we were able to find seats for him and Veglia, while the rest of us stood in the corridor. We had a worrying time, as Italians are chatty by nature and it was unpleasant to feel they might address us at any moment. Luckily, no one did on this occasion. Tom was not so lucky; he was sitting next to a priest, a jovial old boy who kept on trying to start a conversation. After a few attempts had met with a stony silence while Tom feigned sleep, he tried again when Tom was eating. When he still got no reply, he asked Veglia why Tom didn’t answer and was told that he couldn’t because his mouth was full. By this time, the old priest had begun to suspect something; he leaned over and whispered with a broad smile, ‘Inglese?’, to which Veglia nodded and he leaned back looking very pleased.

There was another girl in the carriage who was looking suspicious, so Ettore told her that Tom was a German and she left very quickly.

At midnight, the train arrived at Chiusi and we were told that, because of the RAF bombing, no train would leave for Rome until midday. We thought it lucky that there was a train for Rome at all. We had expected to walk from here as, a few weeks before, Chiusi had been very heavily bombed because it was the local railhead. In fact, our train was going to be the first one over the repaired line, which would save us a 100-mile walk. Chiusi turned out to be a one-horse town; its tiny station had only a very small waiting room, which was soon filled up, leaving the rest of the company to sleep as best they could in the packed corridor.

We had the worst night we had yet spent, surrounded by our enemies. Opposite us were two members of the Pays – the pro-German police; next to us were two fascists in uniform; and we were watched over by a member of the SS, who spent the whole night walking up and down. There were also a number of German soldiers returning to the front. Veglia attracted all the Germans, who came over and talked to her. She was very good with them and rolled cigarettes for them gaily, which took their attention away from us. Trying to feign sleep during the eight hours of that night was very difficult. A small boy tried to get into conversation with me; the first time I pretended not to hear and the second time I gave a loud snore.

Towards 10 am we went and had a wash and settled back down, thinking there were only two hours to go. Our hearts sank when one of the passengers came in and told us all that the train wasn’t going until 4 pm. At that moment, the air raid alarm went off and we thought we were going to be bombed by our own side. What a very stupid way to be killed. We walked out into the countryside for about half a mile and started to eat our lunch. A German soldier passed by and Ettore invited him to share our lunch. Our hearts stood still but he refused and wished us ‘Buon appetito’.

When we got back to the station, just before the train was due to leave, we met a very nice young Italian priest, who told Ettore what to do when we arrived in Rome. We had thought that Ettore knew what to do, but this was not the case at all; he was taking us to Rome and hoping to find something when we got there. Our meeting with the priest was, therefore, extremely lucky. He also kindly offered to find us a house in Rome, so we felt a bit happier about our future. The train for Rome arrived at 4.30 pm and we got into a carriage occupied by only one man, who turned out to be a sailor from La Spezia who had gone over to the Germans. We regarded him with great suspicion, although he professed to be pro-British. He was already slightly drunk when we got in

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and he immediately produced a flask of wine and offered it round. We all took a large gulp and found to our astonishment that it was extremely good cherry brandy, so we had another gulp and felt all the better for it.

We were rather surprised that he was so friendly and appeared to be rather frightened of us. It was not until later that Ettore explained that he had told the man that we were German.

Great joy was felt by us all at the RAF’s accuracy in bombing the bridges, over which we had to pass very slowly and carefully where they had been repaired.

At last the great moment arrived, as the train rolled into Rome station. We felt that all was now nearly over and there was only a short way to go. Arriving as we did at 10.30 pm, there was a curfew in place, so we couldn’t leave the station. We wandered around trying to find somewhere to sleep. There appeared to be no waiting rooms and the place was completely deserted. There were only two ‘carabinieri’, which surprised us as we had expected Rome station to be full of people and for there to be a mass of police, but it turned out to be the quietest station we had been to. We found a stone seat looking down from a platform onto a square courtyard with water troughs in the middle and a doss-house leading out of it. One look at the doss-house was enough and we preferred the cold stone seat. It was not the best of nights as it was freezing and the courtyard was used the whole night through by the patrons of the doss-house for the relief of nature in all its forms.

However, we had arrived in Rome and at 8 am the next morning, getting up cold and stiff, the question we asked ourselves was, ‘What now?’ It was one thing to arrive, but quite another to find a place to live.

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Il Convento Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

The priest whom Ettore had met during our journey had advised him to go to the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, which was a church about five minutes’ walk from the station. Just after 8 am, therefore, Ettore and I set off for the church; the others were to get breakfast and join us later. It was only a short walk and the streets were almost deserted. I was impressed, again, by the accuracy of the RAF bombing; they had smashed up part of Rome station without hitting anything else.

We arrived at the Basilica, where I was put into an ‘extra-terrestrial’ room – in other words, Vatican territory. I was on neutral ground and safe for the first time. What a wonderful feeling it was to sit there and to know that whatever happened I was perfectly safe. The hunted feeling I had had during the journey left me relaxed, watching the priests going about their daily life. When the others arrived, I explained to them that we were on neutral territory and free to talk. It was a great joy to be able to talk to each other once again in our own language, and to discuss the journey in detail.

I then went off with Veglia to a café for my belated breakfast. When we got back, we were introduced to Padre Paolo, a huge, fat, very jovial priest, who knew all about good food. He was the quartermaster for fifteen monasteries and collected and delivered their food for them in Vatican lorries. He said at once that he could find a place for us to live, in one of his monasteries.

Having eaten what remained of our food, we went across the road to his monastery, where he gave us a suitcase containing ten days’ rations of bread and flour. The arrangement was that he would feed us and another monastery would house us. While we were there, we wrote out cheques on pieces of paper to pay Ettore. As the price offered on each of our heads by the Germans was £20, we decided that we should pay Ettore £25, which we duly did, each writing out a cheque for that amount.

We reached the monastery where we were to live, the Convento Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, by trolley bus and on foot. It was the lunch hour, so the streets and buses were quite empty.

At the monastery, we were greeted by Padre Floris who was to be in charge of us. He was a small, dark Sardinian with a terrible squint who was extremely jumpy.

[Photograph with Caption]: Convent of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome

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The story now becomes just like a tale of the days of religious persecution in England. We were led up to the top of the bell tower from which we had to clamber out onto the ceiling of the church, under the rafters. The next part of the journey had to be postponed until dusk, as it involved crossing a roof which was overlooked by neighbouring houses, including that of the local prostitute, whose clients were mostly German. When dusk came, a ladder was brought and we climbed down onto the roof, following the two monks in their long, white habits. We crossed the roof carrying the ladder and came to a hole in the wall, which had been a window but no longer had any glass. Putting the ladder through this, we climbed down into a room which led into an organ loft, built 250 years before and long since fallen into disuse. The normal way up here was from the library, but the door from there had been walled up. From this room, there was a hole some two feet square, through which we crawled into the room which had originally housed the bellows for the organ. Although we didn’t know it at the time, this was to be our home for the next 82 days!

It was not at all prepossessing at first sight, when we crawled in that first evening – a dirty, dusty room about 12 feet square, its roof being the one over which we had just walked. Gaps in the tiles showed where the rain was going to come in, and come in it did, in more places than not. In this room there were beds for four; one was the bellows and the other three consisted of boards laid across organ pipes; there was a mattress and two dampish blankets for each bed. The room was lit by one small electric bulb; the floor was made of soft cement and there was a thick layer of dust everywhere – and the only window had been boarded up.

Our spirits fell; what an awful place to live in, and so it proved, as we soon found out. However, it was not long before we adapted ourselves to it and evolved a routine under which the days passed fairly quickly.

The next question was food and water. The solution to the food problem was simple. We were taken outside the room into the organ loft itself, which was some 40 feet above the floor of the church. Here, there was a sort of wicker waste paper basket with a cord attached; it was explained to us that we were to lower the basket twice a day, when a bell rang in the church, and our food would be put in the basket for us to pull up. As for water, there were some bottles in our room which could be sent down once a day to be filled.

But how were we to relieve nature? We were told that this was quite simple: we should use the next room, the one which we had originally entered by ladder through the window. We could simply use one corner of this room and cover it over with dust if we were fussy. This is what the three Italian officers who had been there before us had done. We were not very happy with this arrangement and, after much discussion, the monks agreed to bring us a wooden box and some lime.

Now that everything had been arranged, the monks and Ettore left, leaving the three of us and Adriano; he was to act as liaison officer and he also considered himself a fugitive from justice who needed to be in hiding. Ettore was going to live with Veglia in a house which Padre Paolo had found for them, so he was very happy.

Now we were settled, we started to put our house in order. Tom took the bellows as it made the biggest bed. We divided the blankets between us and sat down to discuss our situation and to await our meal. We came to the conclusion that, although the outlook was rather depressing, we had, when all was said and done, at least arrived safely in Rome. We were very much nearer our own troops and stood a good chance of being liberated in the near future, whereas before we had had none, and we felt sure we would get accustomed to our surroundings.

At about 8.30 pm the bell rang and we went to pull up our food. To our horror, a huge tureen of polenta arrived. As polenta was our staple diet for some time, a few words about it are due. It is maize flour and water boiled up and, in the country, it is made every evening and allowed to set. It can then be cut with a piece of cotton and is generally eaten with grated cheese. What’s left over is eaten next morning when it has grown a nice thick skin – although at that stage, it completely defeated us. In Parma, the only time we had it was the day Nina bought some chocolate polenta;

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she gave me a piece but, luckily, while she was eating hers, I was able to stuff mine in my pocket and, saying I was going to keep some for Tom and Harry, I made my escape. In the church, we had a different sort of polenta – runny with large lumps in it like badly cooked school porridge.

We had no plates and no table so we rigged up a board, using the bellows and a chair, of which we had half a dozen. We put the polenta on it and stood round dipping our spoons into it. We tried not to let the orchestral noises made by Adriano when eating put us off too much. And so to bed, for the first time in comparative safety since leaving Parma.

Our bedroom had an interesting history. Written on the walls were the names of the people who had been in hiding there over the years, with the dates when they were there. The earliest fugitive had been a man who had come sometime in the 18th century to write a treatise which, for some reason, had been prohibited. He spent two years there writing his book. In our other room there were some extremely good little drawings on the wall, especially one of a man with Dundreary whiskers and a walking stick.

Our routine was as follows: we stayed in bed until about 9.30 am, when Tom would get up and make tea. We had found a small spirit stove on which we could boil water and, later on, we managed to get an electric stove; tea and sugar were provided by Padre Paolo. We drank the tea in bed out of jam jars and then went back to sleep again. At first, Tom started getting up at about 10.30 am but, as the days got colder, getting up was further and further postponed until, ultimately, Harry, who was always the last, was not getting up until I pm. After we had washed and shaved, a process which was much improved when we got the electric stove and could have hot water, we would retire to the big room to try to get some air and sunshine, for the sun came through the windows for about half an hour each day. By knocking a couple of holes in one wall and putting a peg in each, then bending a bit of iron we found and making it stand up by putting bricks around its legs, we were able to make a table in this room, too.

Round about 1 pm, the bell rang and we collected our lunch. Once again, we ate it by putting it on an organ pipe and sitting round and dipping in. So, for lunch we sat and for dinner we stood! Afterwards, Tom and I played Patience as we only had one pack of cards. We continued until the light failed or we were driven in by the cold. Harry went to bed. Tom and I retired, too, when it got cold. To begin with, this was at about 5.15 pm but, towards the end, it was nearer to 2.15 pm. We brewed up some tea at about 4 pm and then rose again from our beds at 8.30 pm for dinner.

You will have noticed that by far the greatest part of the 24 hours was spent in bed, partly through boredom, partly due to the intense cold, and partly because we had so little food that it was the only way to keep going.

The food we did get was not appetising; it consisted of polenta, macaroni and various forms of vegetables, beans (soya and horse), potatoes sometimes, and various forms of what is called ‘erba’. This is green stuff of doubtful character, sometimes edible and at other times having the appearance of seaweed and tasting so bitter you couldn’t eat it. We also had raw cabbage and fennel. Meat was unheard of. We had bread each day in varying quantities. We grumbled a lot about the food at the time, but we agreed it was enough to keep us alive and hoped we would only have to put up with it for a short time. We were expecting Christmas to be our liberation day. We had a cigarette ration of about five a day (when it came); some very rank cigars sometimes appeared, which we used to cut in half, that being quite enough to smoke at one time. We kept the cigar and cigarette ends to smoke in our pipes.

Later on Padre Paolo went to Ponte Cerro and brought back some tobacco leaves which had just been roasted. Tom put himself in charge of the tobacco; he dried the leaves by putting them under the electric stove, then rolled them up and cut them with a razor blade, producing ‘Tom’s Curly Cut’ which was so strong you couldn’t smoke it without getting hiccups.

It was not long before we discovered that living with an Italian soldier is no fun. Adriano had become rather a trial with his nasty habits, such as noisy eating and profuse spitting. We once

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counted ten expectorations in one minute, all directed at the place where we had to go down on our hands and knees to crawl through the hole into the next room. He had a genius for doing the wrong thing, for instance he would make a frightful noise banging away at something when we had been warned to be as quiet as possible as no one knew we were there and any noise could be heard in the houses in the vicinity.

At one time, we were trying to make a lavatory seat by cutting a half moon in each of two pieces of wood. Our saw would not cut in a circle so we cut straight across in half a dozen places and then, with a pair of pliers, were going to break the pieces out. Adriano appeared on the scene and immediately took everything away from us and said that he knew how to do it. He just cut straight across in two places instead of half a dozen. We explained that if he now tried to break the middle piece out he would break the end of the seat off. He wouldn’t listen and when, as we had predicted, he broke the end off, he was very hurt when we shrugged our shoulders and said ‘we told you so’.

You mustn’t think that we were leading an entirely idle life in Rome, lying in bed all day and making no attempt to get back to our own troops. We were lying in bed, admittedly, but a lot of our time was spent in weighing up the pros and cons of making the attempt to re-join. Two things decided us not to go right away: first, Rome had been closed and, although one could leave, having once left, it was very difficult to re-enter, even with identity cards. Secondly, Ettore and Veglia had decided they couldn’t stay in Rome, but would make the attempt to join the Allies. They went off to do so, only to return telling us it was quite impossible. From later information from people who had tried, we heard the same thing. An officer from the KDGs [1st King’s Dragoon Guards], who were in the line as infantry in the Cassino sector, told us later that they had orders to shoot all people in civilian clothes attempting to cross the line, and some of our own prisoners undoubtedly suffered as a result.

Of course, we didn’t know all this then and, during our whole stay in Rome, whether or not to make the attempt was the subject uppermost in our minds and the topic of continual discussion.

About two weeks after our arrival, we had a visit from two Italian officers, also in hiding, who came to see what the English looked like; they chattered away at the tops of their voices in spite of all our efforts to make them keep quiet – but you may as well address a brick wall as ask a southern Italian to speak quietly. They turned out to be very useful, however, as one of them gave us an electric stove which was an absolute godsend, not only for boiling water, but for lighting our cigarettes, as matches were very scarce.

The officers belonged to a party called ‘Il Movimento Cristiano Sociale’ (The Christian Socialist Movement), which claimed to be fighting against fascism, Nazism, communism and capitalism, though this does not seem to make sense. Whatever their political beliefs may have been, they gave us a present of food for Christmas, New Year and Epiphany so we didn’t grumble.

Just before Christmas, an escaped OR [Other Ranks] called George Harris joined us. He was an AA [Anti-Aircraft] gunner from Glasgow and had been walking round Rome dressed as a priest. He was shortly followed by an Austrian deserter named Franz. He said he was a sergeant major in the Air Force, had fought in France, Russia and Italy, and was fed up and hated Hitler. He had his uses, as he had previously worked in the cookhouse and managed to get plates for us, which we had been asking for in vain. He also got hold of salt, oil and onions, which greatly improved the taste of the food.

Franz stole from the church two high-powered light bulbs, which meant that we were able to read. This new equipment also caused a good deal of trouble, as Franz and Adriano were always messing around with the lighting arrangements, trying to add one more bulb. Unfortunately, the wiring was very old and very faulty and they invariably started working on the lights just before our dinner came so we’d be plunged into complete darkness as the lights fused at the most inconvenient moment and no repairs could be done until daylight. We said, ‘Please don’t do it now, you will only fuse the lights,’ but it was never of any avail and they always fused the lights. We had originally mended the fuse with silver paper but, after numerous fusings, the silver paper and their patience ran out and they put in a colossal piece of wire to ensure that if anything went wrong it would not

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be the fuse that would go. One of these days, all the lights in the monastery are going to blow but, luckily, we won’t be there when it happens!

There is always a silver lining to every cloud and, fortunately, Italians don’t like staying in one place for any length of time. Soon, Adriano used to leave nearly every day before it got light, returning after dark for dinner. We suspected Miss Veglia’s charms were the cause. Franz also left and went to work in the kitchen.

After Christmas, Adriano was banished to another hideout and in his place arrived Walter, an Austrian Jew, who claimed relationship with Colonel Beck and said he had stayed with the Duke of Marlborough’s son. He had left Vienna before the war and come to work in Italy as a schoolmaster. He spoke English after a fashion, of which accomplishment he was inordinately proud. We took one look at Walter and gave him ten days; actually, he lasted six!

During those six days, he afforded us an immense amount of amusement. On the first day he told us, ‘My friends, they do anything for me. I ask for this and they send it; you tell me anything you want, they send it. My friends they send me a chicken every week.’ We didn’t really believe it, but we asked for some English books, of which he said his friends had hundreds, and some salt. But that wasn’t good enough for him. He said, ‘I think some napkins be very nice; I ask for some. The floor it is dusty. I ask for some linoleum to put on the floor. Your electric stove it is too small; we will have a bigger one. Then, let me see, clothes for you, they give you all, and a wireless would be nice.’

We kept on telling him that it was impossible and that all we wanted were books and salt. It was no good. Five days later, two English books, a dressing gown and a shirt arrived. Prior to this, Walter had kept saying, ‘I cannot think why my friends not send me the things I ask.’

After three days of incarceration, Walter began talking about his soul. He would say, ‘This for me is terrible. I am artistic, my soul it cannot take this life, it wants to be free.’ Walter also fancied himself as a violinist and was always telling us he must have his violin with him, as it was his soul. We told him that it would make far too much noise – we didn’t have much patience for people with souls! If they had them, they should keep them to themselves.

On the fifth day, Walter retired to bed with a cold and told us, ‘This for me is terrible. I am a sick man. If I stay in this dreadful place I shall die. I am not strong.’ On the sixth day he went, leaving behind his gloves, which Harry pounced on. Meeting Walter a month later, he took off one of Walter’s gloves in a very gentlemanly manner to shake hands with him.

Christmas was celebrated with meat and wine sent to us by Padre Paolo. We also had some oranges, nuts and cigars. Ettore kindly sent us a cake. On New Year’s Eve, the Christian Socialists sent us a cold roast chicken, which was excellent. When we went to bed on that day, we thought there was a civil war going on, as we heard machine-gun bursts, hand grenades and every sort of small-arms fire being let off until 1 am. It wasn’t until some time later that we learnt that it was just the Germans enjoying themselves. They had got drunk and fired into the air or, which was much more fun, at windows, with every weapon they possessed, eventually falling in a drunken stupor. The next morning, Rome was littered with drunken Germans sleeping in the gutters. This wasn’t altogether an unusual occurrence. Every night we used to hear bangs caused by Italians lurking round corners and throwing a bomb at a German patrol, then disappearing. The other popular sport was to put a time-bomb in a suitcase where they knew the Germans would be; we believed they did quite a lot of damage this way.

Early in the New Year, we got in touch with the Vatican organisation, run by the British for helping POWs, and John Sperni, an interned journalist, came to see us and took our names. From then on, we were paid a subsistence allowance of 100 lire a day. Through John we tried to send messages home via the Vatican. We had done the same thing many other times through various people, but none of our messages ever arrived; we didn’t expect that they would.

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Our allowance was a huge help. We straight away asked Padre Paolo to get us more bread and this greatly improved our diet. We also managed to buy some cheese. The final thing we spent our money on was wine, which just made all the difference to life. We heated it up and put a bit of sugar with it, and I’m sure it kept us from catching cold. Drinking our wine, we really forgot all about being ‘free prisoners’ and drifted back to the time when we really were free men. We discussed everything under the sun, but one of our chief topics was shooting, of which we were all very fond, especially recalling all the good days we had had.

Another fruitful topic of conversation was the army. We discussed and argued about it ad infinitum. The argument generally became one of Territorial versus Regular Army. I, being the only regular, usually got the worst of it. Scandal and mutual friends was another inexhaustible subject and we tore everyone to pieces.

I suppose our conversation would have been very boring to most people, as all three of us were philistines and our souls did not yearn for anything intellectual. We were quite happy talking about the mundane things of life, which may be one of the reasons why we never, during the whole time, got fed up with the sight of each other’s faces, odd though it may seem. Perhaps the strongest reason for that is that we all had a fairly well-developed sense of humour and, even when things were at their blackest, we always managed to see something funny in them. Perhaps the final reason is that there were three of us; with two people alone together, possibly the odds are that you would get sick of the sight of each other. I know that my father, when he was big game shooting in Africa with a great friend, found that sometimes. If there are three people, there is always one to hold the balance and if, at any time, things become strained, he is able to make a joke and relieve the situation. To be able to laugh is the best asset you can have in life; it will always carry you through anything.

We were very elated and excited when our troops landed at Anzio and the Italians said they would be in Rome in a fortnight. We were not so optimistic and tried to explain that if our troops did come to Rome, the Germans would probably cut them off. Our objective was not Rome, but the defeat of the Germans. They couldn’t understand this as they were too close to the war and couldn’t take the broader view.

The first time we left the belfry, after arriving on 20th November, was 7th February, Tom’s birthday, when we went down to the library for dinner and had spaghetti and mutton.

Now is the time to introduce Frere Giuseppe, a very tired member of the community, who was responsible for feeding us. He twice failed to produce any dinner and, when asked why the next morning, he told us, without apology, that he had been too tired and had gone to bed. We used to watch him cleaning the church occasionally, walking very slowly up and down pushing a broom in front of him – just about moving, but that was all. He came to cut our hair one day and kept complaining about how tired his hand was from holding the clippers. We asked him why he had chosen the church as a profession. He told us that he was the son of a farmer but that milking the cows was too hard work and he thought a priest’s life would be nice and lazy. When asked why he did not become a father instead of remaining a brother, he replied that being a father involved too much work and responsibility.

We had already learned not to believe any of the news that the Italians brought us. We were told that the RAF had bombed the Via Veneto, the principal street in Rome, in which were the German HQ, the SS HQ and the Fascist HQ. They had hit all three headquarters and killed 3000 civilians. Later, we learned that no bomb had fallen within three miles of the centre of Rome. Our only way of getting news was through Adriano or Franz, who listened to the BBC in Italian and German respectively, but never seemed to actually get any news. When asked, Adriano would say: ‘Niente – attachi, contrattachi, aspri combattimenti’ (Nothing – attacks, counterattacks, fierce battles’), which doesn’t really mean anything, when there was actually quite a lot going on south of Rome.

On February 12th, Adriano appeared, looking very frightened, to say that Padre Flosis had received a letter demanding that half a million lire be paid to the Fascists or they would come and

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search the monastery. They knew there were four English men hidden, and where they were. They also knew where all the Jews, deserters and Italian officers, in all adding up to about 80 people, were hidden. The letter ended by saying that Padre Flosis would be shot. The result for us was that we would have to leave first thing the next day after everyone else had gone.

As far as we could find out, there were three types of priests. First there was the ‘sacerdote’ who was the head man; he was over 80, didn’t know what was going on and lived apart from everyone else. Below him were the fathers, who had the responsibility and did all the executive work. Finally, there were the brothers, who did all the menial work until they got their ‘house colours’ and reached the rank of father. Every lay brother has a ‘sacerdote’s’ baton in his knapsack, but few reach that exalted rank, and many, like Brother Giuseppe, have no desire to.

When the poor old ‘sacerdote’ read the letter from the Fascists he nearly died of shock, as he had no idea there was anyone hiding in the monastery. He immediately ordered an extra mass to be said for the safety of the monastery and its inhabitants.

Before this, a few monasteries had been searched and people caught, including an Italian general, so we had rigged up a bell which the priests could ring if anybody unwelcome entered the monastery. We four would then go into another room, which had originally been built as an oven, which we could enter through a small hole. We would then fill the hole with wood so that it looked as if it was still being used as a stove. The wall at the back was a false one, so it was an almost watertight hiding place and we had already stocked it with water, candles and some baked bread. Adriano and Franz, when they were with us, were going to open the window and, with a rope, climb down onto the next roof and somehow escape. This was to our advantage, as anybody coming into our room and seeing the window open and a rope dangling from it, would think the birds had flown. We preferred our hiding place, while the other two preferred to run for it, so we didn’t deter them.

This latest alarm, however, was a different proposition, so we packed up and destroyed all papers which we considered compromising, getting ready to leave at first light the next morning. At 4.30 am we rose, washed and dressed, and at 5 am were away over the roof and down to the library. There we waited until 11 am, wondering what would happen to us. We thought that if the letter was genuine, all the exits from the monastery would be watched. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much point to it. Eventually, Padre Flosis appeared with the letter. It seemed to us very bogus, being badly written and with nothing official about it. We wouldn’t risk staying, however, and preferred to leave while we could.

We were taken downstairs, where we found John Sperni, an ex-Italian officer and two women. One was Signora N. whose mother was Russian and whose father had been an ambassador. She was an extremely nice woman of about 30, very intelligent and cultured and well-known in Rome for her soirées where she had young musicians to entertain her guests. The other woman was Angela Maria, a young artist, also very charming. We went to her studio later to see her pictures, which we all liked immensely.

These people were to act as our guides across Rome to John Sperni’s flat, where we were to stay until he could find a house for us. We paired off, Tom going with Signora N., Harry with Angela Maria, Harris with John Sperni and myself with the Italian, and we all left the monastery by different doors. I went through the kitchens and out of the back gate. We walked out into a square without seeing anything suspicious; there, we got into a gharry with Harry and Angela Maria and went for a very pleasant ride, seeing the sights of Rome, including the Colosseum and the Piazza Venezia. With the joy of being out and about in the fresh air for the first time for 82 days, and seeing Rome for the first time, we didn’t have time to feel frightened. We drove as far as the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, where we got into a tram for the rest of the way. Once again, there were so many new things to see that the journey passed too quickly. Arriving at the tram terminus near the New Appian Way, we had a short walk of 200 yards to John Sperni’s flat, where we once again breathed freely in a completely English atmosphere.

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In Transit

John had a lovely modern flat in the southern part of Rome. His family consisted of his wife, who came from Brighton, and two little girls, who had all been interned until the fall of Mussolini. Also in the house were two ex-POWs: one from the RNFs ?[Royal Northumberland Fusiliers] and one from the RHSC [unknown], who had been in a camp near Rome.

It was very pleasant to hear our own language spoken all around us and not to have to worry about speaking softly. We had an excellent meal, cooked in the English way, and to eat eggs and meat was a pleasure beyond words.

As there were not many beds in the flat, the three of us slept in a double bed with two mattresses. Because I was the smallest, I was put in the middle and spent the whole night slipping down between the two mattresses.

Another joy was to have a proper wash in hot water in a basin, for in the church we had, of course, no washing facilities. Our baths used to consist of washing the upper part of our body one day, the lower part the next, and the feet on the third; washing in cold water in the bitter cold of the place made it an unpleasant task. We hadn’t been able to change our clothes, except for socks and pants, since leaving Parma, for we had no spare vests or shirts. Our underclothes were pretty dirty, but at least we could be thankful that we hadn’t got lice.

In the afternoon of our arrival, we met Padres Madden and Boland, two Irish priests from the Church of St Patrick in Rome, who were both working in the Vatican organisation to help POWs. Padre Madden was the man who was to be responsible for us. We had the greatest admiration for him; he did a wonderful job, collecting escaped prisoners, finding homes for them, visiting them and giving them money. At one time, the Gestapo had him on their list to be caught, dead or alive, but, except for a few days when he went into hiding, he continued with his work right up to the Liberation. When we eventually did get free, we put his name forward for a decoration of some sort, as few men could have done such a dangerous job better, and always be so happy and light-hearted about it, which made us look forward to his visits. He was all the more to be commended because he was Irish and therefore neutral. He used to amuse us by saying, ‘I don’t know why I help you filthy British, but sure I would help you whoever you were, and go through hell-fire for you.’ Padre Boland was his helper and became our barber, and a fine job he made of it.

George Harris now left us and was put in a flat where another OR [Other Ranks] from our camp was staying. They were both eventually caught by the Germans leaving the Swiss Legation, which was silly of them, for common sense tells you that a neutral legation will be watched, especially when Red Cross parcels are known to be there.

In the afternoon of our arrival at John Sperni’s flat, we three left for our next destination. We walked about a mile, then took a tram to the new flat near the Villa Borghese, which is a good residential area. This was to be our home for the next few weeks.

[Photograph with caption]: Villa Borghese, Rome

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A Casa Della Signora P.

It was 13th February when we walked into Signora P.’s home, a very nice flat and quite different from what we had been used to of late, though it was a basement so, once again, we never saw much sun. There were two floors – one at ground level and one below. On the upper floor there were two rooms and a bathroom: one room was occupied by a married couple and the other was a drawing room where we spent most of the daylight hours, as it was the only room which got any air. Downstairs there were three rooms, a bathroom and kitchen. The first room was a sitting room which, at night, was occupied by Signora P, whose bed became a sofa in the daytime. The next room was the dining room where we spent the evenings. It was dark but it had two very nice pictures: one was a Herring of a steeplechase, in which Jem Mason was riding and all the other riders were listed; the other was a French painting entitled ‘Visites aux Mères’ which was of mares and foals.

From this room another room led out, normally a box room, but now to be our bedroom. Signora P., who owned the house, was a lady of about 45, whose husband, a marquis, had died and she had reverted to her maiden name. However, all her friends called her ‘marchesa’. Her nephew, Giovanni P., who came from Bergamo in the north of Italy, was also living there. He had been a clerk in the Italian Air Force but was now in hiding. The other member of the household was the maid, Palmyra, one of the stoutest-hearted girls one could ever meet. She thought nothing of hitch-hiking to Signora P.’s mother, 60 or so miles north of Rome, fetching food in two large suitcases and a huge rucksack, and hitch-hiking all the way back again. She would do the double journey in about 36 hours. One day, she was picked up by a German lorry with three dead Germans in it next to her.

There was the young couple in the room above, Fulvia and Giulio, who were from Trieste and also in hiding. They spoke quite good English. Finally, there was another escaped POW, a South African BQMS [Battery Quarter-Master Sergeant] in the Transvaal Horse Artillery, called James Moreshead, who was one of the nicest people one could hope to find. This was fortunate, as we were to be cooped up together for quite a long time.

When we arrived, we found Fulvia’s father and mother, who lived nearby, were there. The father had been a ship’s doctor and spoke excellent English. They were having tea and we really felt that we were back in civilisation again as we were handed cups of tea, but we did feel very embarrassed by our filthy clothes amongst these smart strangers.

As there were nine people in the house, there was quite a shortage of beds, but Signora P.’s nephew slept on the floor on mattresses and the Signora slept on the sofa in the sitting room, so it all worked out very well. We settled into a routine, spending most of our day upstairs in the drawing room as we couldn’t go out. We were very lucky to get hold of a number of English books from John Sperni and Father Madden. Two were on the Irish question: Frank Pakenham’s ‘Peace by Ordeal’ and ‘Michael Collins’ by Bearby, both very interesting and illuminating. We talked them over with Madden and Boland and agreed that the civil war was almost entirely due to de Valera and that it should never have happened. There was another book we found interesting, which was an Italian classic called ‘I Promessi Sposi’ (The Betrothed). The fact that it was in the original Italian was an advantage as it slowed down our reading of it and greatly improved our Italian.

We were quite well fed as we were being paid for by the Vatican Organisation, and our routine included a glass of wine in the evening while we listened to the BBC news at 7 pm. Sometimes, after supper, we played poker and soon learned that it was advisable to let the Italians win most of the time, otherwise the rules would change, to their advantage, as we went along.

When we first arrived we had one tepid bath a week, but this didn’t last long as the gas supply in the whole of Rome soon ran out.

With so many people in the house, it wasn’t long before strife started between various factions. The Signora could not speak any English, whereas the young couple did, and they wanted to talk to us and learn more. This meant that they monopolised us and tried to turn us against the Signora. This was both stupid and rude and we wouldn’t put up with it. Sometimes, Fulvia’s mother would come and call; she would only spend time with us in the drawing room and never go to see the

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Signora. This was very ill-mannered, and Tom told Fulvia so, but of course they said it was normal behaviour in Italy.

Things went from bad to worse and there would be terrible outbursts from the Signora, threatening to throw us all out into the street. Matters were not improved when John Sperni came to see us and the Signora told him that Fulvia had been caught in a compromising situation with James Moreshead by the maid Palmyra. We knew this was untrue but, unfortunately, John told Fulvia what the Signora had said, which made everything much worse. The upshot of it all was that the young couple decided to leave and asked John to find them a house. They asked us to go with them, not because they liked our company, but because they thought that we would eventually be useful to them. Also, the Vatican was paying 480 lire a day for the four of us and they felt that if they had the money they could feed themselves as well as us.

The days dragged on in this unpleasant way until the end of March, when John Sperni found a flat in the same block as his and offered it to the young couple.

The American Air Force had been rather active of late, with disastrous results as far as we were concerned. They were not accurate at hitting the stations they were aiming at and many more of their bombs fell on the civilian population than on the stations. We never heard of a German being killed but Fulvia, going out to do her shopping, came back with awful tales which we had great difficulty explaining away. Once, after a particularly gruesome tale, we sat silent for there was nothing we could say and in a nasty voice Giulio said to the Signora: ‘They don’t care; it means nothing to them.’ This did not improve relations.

In Rome, the Fascists were in charge although the majority of the population was anti-Fascist. This meant that after an air raid nobody cleaned up and body parts were left lying about for days. There were two particularly bad raids; one when a bomb hit a fountain where a lot of women were getting water; the other was when a fighter swooping low dropped an anti-personnel bomb, killing about 150 people.

The new house which Giulio and Fulvia were meant to be going to was in a bad area for bombing because it was near the station and Giulio said it was too dangerous, so we said we’d go there. That didn’t please them, so they rented another house owned by the Signora. It was by the Ponte Milvio which, before, they had always thought too dangerous as the bridge was likely to be bombed. However, the next day they packed up and left and, once more, things settled down a bit.

We had told the Signora we were leaving and John Sperni had said that he was taking us away, but now that the others had left and we talked to her more and paid her more attention, she became friendlier and didn’t want us to leave. The flat we had been going to fell through so we asked the Signora if she minded us staying and she was only too glad as she was making money out of us. To do her justice, she had also become quite fond of us. Life became much pleasanter now and the atmosphere was a great deal friendlier.

All this time we stayed indoors because the Germans were rounding men up in the street by the thousand and sending them off to work in Germany. Also, the porter didn’t know we were in the flat; he had been sent off on an errand the day we arrived. Tom did go out once to a party given by Signora N. Afterwards they went to Angela Maria’s studio to see her pictures and those of Chen, a Chinese man who had come to Rome to learn European painting. He was a charming man and his pictures sold very well. An Italian film star and her husband were at the party and told Tom he was the most English-looking person they had ever seen, which made him very wary of going out again.

The Signora did not approve of Tom going out so we thought it best, for that and all the other reasons, to stay at home. James Moreshead and Harry both went, at different times, to spend the day with Giulio and Fulvia because there was an electric geyser at their flat and they could have a bath; otherwise we never left the house. We heard that other prisoners did wander around Rome but many were caught and we preferred, as far as possible, to make certain we didn’t get recaptured.

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Father Madden used to come with terrible tales of the trouble he had with some people; one man got drunk and came back on the tram singing ‘Tipperary’. An Italian tried to arrest him but he beat the whole tram up and made his escape, followed by a fusillade of revolver shots.

Just before Easter, the Signora left us and went to stay with her mother for a few days. Her cousin came to do the cooking and, as she was not supposed to know that any of the occupants of the flat were English, it was arranged that she would have her meals in the kitchen. When the Signora came back she brought quite a lot of food, including two chickens and a pigeon. None of us had ever liked pigeon much, finding it dry and tough; the Italians cooked it in oil without pulling it, like a snipe, and it was delicious.

In April we contacted the ‘carabinieri’ who were believed to have 40,000 men in hiding, waiting for the moment to take over Rome. They said they could provide us with some clothes and food if we needed them; as our clothes were now extremely shabby we asked for a few things. Nothing ever turned up, but we didn’t really expect it to, so weren’t disappointed. We hoped a large bill had not been presented to AMGOT [Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories] for things we’d never had. Meanwhile, we continued to make and mend the things we already had.

[Map of Rome with Caption]: Map of Rome

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A Difficult Time

On 26th April we were shaken out of our security with a vengeance. Fulvia arrived in the morning to tell us that John Sperni had been captured by the Gestapo. We were worried that he would have our address and/or telephone number on him, so decided to leave.

While we were debating this, the telephone rang. It was a woman who said she was a friend of John Sperni and could we give her his address. The maid had answered and said that she did not know it, but we were fairly sure it must have been a German and that we must definitely leave. It was decided that I should go with Fulvia to see Father Madden at St Patrick’s to find out what the situation was. Father Madden confirmed that John Sperni had indeed been captured and he himself was being followed so would have to lie low for the moment. A German had already rung asking for him so he couldn’t help us. He had a girl there with him whose house had been raided and three prisoners caught. He advised us to leave our present house and look for somewhere else to live. If we failed, he would try to help.

Arriving back at the flat, we found that the others had already left and the Signora was in a great flap. She gave us the address the others had gone to and we set off again, walking and going by train until we found it. Apparently, the others had packed up directly [after?] Fulvia and I had left; they had only waited to tell the Signora, who had been out. She rang the adjutant of the ‘carabinieri’, telling him she was sending Palmyra to him with a note. Palmyra then took the three of them across to the adjutant’s aunt who, instead of receiving a note from the Signora, received three English POWs, shortly followed by a fourth, which did not please her at all.

As in all things, there were wheels within wheels and it was not only our future which had to be considered. Because Fulvia could not get us into her flat, she had gone to John Sperni’s house and collected two American soldiers who had been captured at Anzio, whom she did have room for. She also thought John might have her address and telephone number and she wanted to destroy those and to find a house for the Americans.

The situation now was that the Signora had got us off her hands, expecting the ‘carabinieri’ to deal with us, and Fulvia was trying to find a house for the four of us. Having left me, Fulvia went off to look for somewhere, saying that she would telephone if she found anywhere. We didn’t hear from her but, eventually, the adjutant arrived with news of a place where we could spend a night or two. We all trooped off to Via Cavour where there was a flat with one room and a lavatory. We were locked in and told to stay until further notice, and that Palmyra would bring us food. There was only one bed but, as the bed bugs were very active, the floor was the best place to sleep.

The next morning, in rushed Palmyra to say that they had just had a message to say that if we didn’t leave immediately, the owners of the flat would denounce us to the police. Off we went again, on a long tram journey to the Signora’s other flat, where Fulvia and Giulio lived; there we met Pte Bill Smith and Sgt Carl Jordan, of the US Infantry, the two Americans from John Sperni’s flat. There was a lot of activity and, while it was all happening, I managed to get a hot bath. What bliss it was; the first I had had since August 1942 in Caserta hospital. Fulvia was still out looking for houses and we received a message from her to say she would be back at about 5 pm to take the Americans to a flat.

Things now became very complicated and we found it difficult to unravel it all. In the afternoon, the Signora appeared from the flat above, which belonged to her cousin, to discuss the situation. The first thing she said was, ‘You think Fulvia is trying to find a house for you, don’t you? Well she is going to run away today and leave you all in the lurch.’ We couldn’t believe it as Fulvia had been rushing about all day trying to find somewhere for us, and we felt that the Signora had rather let us down by packing us off. We were wrong, though; John Sperni had warned us that, at the first sign of trouble, Fulvia and Giulio would pack up and leave.

At about 5 pm, Fulvia rushed into the flat, packed some things into a bag and disappeared with a Jewish man who was staying in the flat, without saying a word to us. A few minutes later, Giulio arrived and asked the Americans what was happening to them. Bill said that Fulvia had told him that a man was coming for them in the morning. He added that Fulvia had gone to see the Jewish man off as he had got a lift in a truck to Trieste. Hearing this, Giulio was off like a flash.

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Once everybody had left, the Signora turned to me and said, ‘What did I tell you, they’ve gone!’ I replied that Fulvia had only gone to see her Jewish friend off, but the Signora insisted that we would never see them again. Bill Smith now told us that, as Fulvia was leaving the flat, she had given him the key, telling him that she was running away from Giulio to Trieste with the other man. So the Signora was right, after all; we never saw them again.

The question was what to do next? The Signora, who had been watching everybody flapping around, suddenly announced that she had found a place for us only two minutes’ walk away. It was the house of the daughter of one of her maids; all of us, including the Americans, could live there, and she, Giovanni and Palmyra would join us. An hour later, the woman and her husband arrived and we were escorted in pairs, at intervals, to their house.

Our new home was a large flat with a basement flat below and another flat above. It had a sitting room, five bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. The sitting room was very small with a table in the middle just big enough for us to sit around to eat, a red-plush sofa-bed, a couple of dressers and, most importantly of all, a wireless. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the BBC on it, but the Signora kindly fetched hers from the original flat. Opposite the sitting room was the bedroom where the family who owned the flat slept. The husband was the biggest Italian man we had ever met; his wife was a tiny woman with a piercing voice, and they had two little girls of five and three. The husband had been a Grenadier and was now in hiding; he belonged to a rebel band who called themselves Communists. We nicknamed him the Big Man and his wife the Little Signora. Next door to their room was ours, where there was a double bed and a single one. It was Harry’s turn to have the single, so Tom and I shared the double. There were two single rooms where Giovanni and Palmyra slept and, at the end of the house, another bedroom where James and the two Americans slept. The Signora, as before, slept on the sofa-bed in the sitting room.

We quickly got back into the same routine; we’d got into a groove and were going to stick to it, come what might. We had to divide up for meals, with the six POWs eating in the sitting room and the Italians in the kitchen. Now that there were six of us, we played a lot of cribbage during the day and, after supper, the Italians liked to play the inevitable poker.

The Signora was very angry with Fulvia for what she called her ‘traitorous behaviour’. This was made worse by the fact that nobody came to take the Americans to a safe house, as promised, so Fulvia had undoubtedly let everyone down.

Before we left Giulio and Fulvia’s house, the Signora had gathered up all the food and clothes she could find; she offered us Giulio’s clothes, but we didn’t take them, feeling sure he would come back for them. We quite happily ate their food, though! The Signora was determined to give Giulio a fright when he came back for his things. She got the Big Man to stand guard outside, pretending to be a policeman. When Giulio appeared and asked for the Signora, the Big Man said she had left and the house was closed, and told Giulio that if he had any sense he would leave, too. Giulio fled.

We told the Signora that it might have been a good laugh, but she must be careful as they knew where we were and they might get fed up and denounce us. The next time Giulio appeared, she gave him his clothes back. After that, Giulio didn’t come back again, but he had a friend, a lawyer, whom he used as an intermediary to try to see the Signora. This lawyer would waylay Palmyra and question her about where the Signora was, or sometimes he would ring up. Palmyra had had far too much practice fobbing off creditors to be caught out by him. We would hear her saying, ‘No, Signora P. is not here – she is in the country and I don’t know when she will be back.’

Life continued on a fairly even keel; the days passed, slowly but surely. The ‘carabinieri’ found another house for us, but we were happy where we were and the Big Man was happy to keep us so we stayed there. The other house would be available if we needed it, so we were glad to have a back-up if we found ourselves in trouble.

I had some trouble a short time later with an abscess under a tooth and thought I might have to visit a dentist. Fortunately, it cleared up after a lot of mouth washing with vinegar and water.

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The Big Man’s House

We had been in touch with the Vatican Organisation again to let them know where we were. Our intermediary was another nephew of the Signora, a marquis, who somehow had access to the Vatican. His wife was a charming woman who brought us news; it was the first time we had been given accurate news. She also brought us some money and books from the Vatican.

Food was scarce now, very scarce, so one day the Big Man got a lift to buy food up north, where it was very much cheaper. Off he went in high spirits, to return in three days almost in tears. He had managed to get a lot of food and then, 10 miles from home, out of a blue sky came British fighters. That was the end of the food and he was lucky to escape with his life. This made things quite uncomfortable for us, as we had to take some of the blame for the activities of the RAF.

The 11th May brought the opening of the Allied offensive on Rome and a day of great excitement for us. The Italians thought it would all be over in a week, but we thought it would be more like a month. A week later, we got news that the Germans were going to have a final roundup and search all the houses. We didn’t really believe this because we didn’t think they would be able to spare the troops to do it. However, the Italians were determined to protect us and arranged that the Big Man and Giovanni would stand guard outside from 10 pm to 3 am.

There was a scrap of garden all round the house with a ten-foot wall at one end, on the other side of which was a half-acre garden occupied by the Germans. The arrangement, in case of alarm, was that we’d get out of the sitting room window, over the wall and into the bushes in the garden.

One night, Giovanni came rushing in shouting, ‘Tedeschi, tedeschi, via, via!’ (Germans, Germans, get out if it!). Up we all got and jumped out of the window, landing on the concrete path and making a terrible noise. Harry didn’t realise it was such a long way to drop and landed on his bottom, nearly paralysing himself. One of the Americans also sprained his ankle. Tom and Giovanni ran for the wall, not knowing it had a lot of loose slates on top and, as they reached the other side, these all rained down on them with a deafening clatter. The rest of us climbed the gate and up the ladder, eventually reaching the haven of the bushes on the other side. There seemed to be a lot of people with us, but we couldn’t see in the dark. We later discovered that there had been six people hiding in the flat below us, Jews and soldiers, who, hearing us escaping, thought they should do the same. This made fourteen of us all escaping at once and a herd of elephants could not have made more noise.

It all turned out to be a false alarm but we learned from the experience that, if we were surprised, our chances of escaping were small, as fourteen people rushing about in the night made such a considerable noise.

Now is a good time to say something about the Black Market in Italy. In England, the Black Market was rightly frowned upon, but in Italy it was a different matter and deserving of the highest praise. Without its activities, Rome would have starved and we certainly would have done so. There was no transport in Rome except that belonging to the German army, so there was no means of bringing in food. The Black Market somehow managed to do so, despite the curfew; from 3 am onwards, the streets were full of Black Market men and women bringing food in from the country. There was nothing underhand about it; they called at the houses, just like the baker or butcher. As all food was rationed and we had no ration cards, everything we ate was Black Market. The Black Marketeers became very daring in the end, going so far as to jump onto German lorries carrying food and throwing the food off to sell. Of course, if they were caught, they were shot.

In about the middle of May, water became non-existent. It had gone off many times due to the RAF bombing the aqueducts, but now it went off completely. We had suggested to the Signora that it would be a good idea to fill the bath but the answer was always ‘domani’ (tomorrow); when the water finally stopped, the bath was empty.

The gas had stopped in about the middle of April, so all we had was an intermittent supply of electricity; it always seemed to go off during the BBC news, much to our chagrin. We had always thought that, when the end came, we would have no services left, so we were grateful that we had electricity on-and-off until the Allies arrived.

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The Last Move

On 26th May we were aroused from sleep by Palmyra rushing in to say, ‘Get up! Get up! You have been denounced again; you must leave immediately.’ We were up in very quick time for, having waited nearly nine months, we were determined not to be caught with the end in sight.

In the sitting room was the marquis, the Signora’s nephew, who told us that he had just come from the Vatican where they had received news that someone had told the police there were six British officers in the Ponte Milvio area (where we were) and that they were going to search for us. We were all fairly certain that it was Giulio who had betrayed us.

When the news came, we sat down to work out the next step. The Big Man kindly suggested that we could stay where we were and escape into the country if necessary, but, having had one attempt at escaping in an emergency, we didn’t fancy our chances a second time. The Signora then remembered the house which the ‘carabinieri’ had offered us, so we decided to go there.

We left in three parties: a friend of the marquis first with Tom and Harry; then Palmyra with the two Americans; followed by James and me with the marquis. Luckily, it was only a short walk of about ten minutes along unpopulated roads. The only nasty place was the Piazza Ponte Milvio, which the Germans sometimes surrounded in order to catch people; it was here that we thought there might be plain-clothes police on the look-out for us, but all was well.

When we got there we found we were in two different flats: Tom, Harry and Carl Jordan in one and the rest of us in the other, where we slept that night. The following morning the lady of the house had a long talk with me because she was not happy with the arrangement. She had a lot of visitors coming in and out, many of them from underground organisations, and she thought it would look odd if the baby was moved out of the nursery (where we had slept) and the door of that room was always shut. The result was that we were moved to join the others in her sister’s flat. This was only a small flat on the fifth floor looking out from the sitting room onto the Tiber and the two bridges, Ponte Milvio and Ponte Duca d’Aosta. There was a wireless which worked sometimes.

[Photograph with Caption]:Ponte Milvio (foreground) and Ponte Duca d’Aosta (background), Rome

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We had to be very quiet as we were surrounded by enemies. The flat above was occupied by Fascist police and the one opposite by Austrians who often had Germans in to see them; across the street was a police barracks, so it was a question of tiptoes and whispers.

All the Italians were still frightened of the Germans coming to search their houses and finding us there. It was therefore arranged that we’d have a guard all through the night, looking out of the front window onto the entrance below. This we did in two-hour shifts from 9 pm to 5 am.

We were visited almost daily by the Signora, who told us that it was a good thing we had left the Big Man’s house because one night, three days after we left, seven German soldiers finding their way north from the front had come into the house, shortly followed by eight more. We wouldn’t have had much chance if we had still been there.

Our hostess was very proud of having us, especially as the end was so near, and she kept bringing her friends to see us. We weren’t very happy about this as we wanted to keep a low profile and we certainly didn’t want a lot of traffic in and out of a house where previously there had only been one woman. All the visitors wanted to practise their English on us, but we found it easier to understand them when they spoke Italian because, by now, we could understand their language fairly easily, while their English was incomprehensible.

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The Beginning of the End

At 6 pm on Saturday 3rd June, we were in the sitting room looking out of the window – though well back from it so that we wouldn’t be seen – when we saw the most wonderful sight! Coming along the road running parallel to the Tiber came a stream of vehicles going as fast as they could, three abreast, bumper to bumper. There was no order or cohesion of any description: there were tanks, guns, soft vehicles, horse-drawn vehicles, tracked vehicles, all higgledy-piggledy.

We turned to each other and said, ‘My God! It’s started!’

From then until 5 am the following morning it went on – a continual stream going along that road and over the Ponte Duca d’Aosta to the north. What a noise there was that night! Staff cars hooting, men yelling, and vehicles with men sitting on the roofs, bonnets and wings, in fact clinging to any part of the vehicles. What a sight was the retreat of the Germans! I think that gave us more pleasure than anything we had ever seen. We went to bed that night saying, Tomorrow or the day after; it can’t be longer!’ Tom was an Old Etonian and 4th June (traditionally, Speech Day at Eton) had been one of the dates he had selected for our liberation.

The next day there were hundreds of vehicles going all ways and every way and we couldn’t make head or tail of what was happening. Towards 11 am, some German officers arrived to do a reconnaissance of the ground in front of our house. From the Ponte Milvio to the Ponte Duca d’Aosta there was open ground where there was due to be a block of houses which had not yet been built. We were a bit worried that they were going to defend the bridges and, indeed, things got worse for they brought up three 50 mm anti-tank guns, followed by an infantry unit, taking up positions covering the bridges. We wondered whether they might want to put a machine gun on our balcony as it commanded extensive approaches to the bridges; we had a long discussion about plunging fire and whether the fifth floor would be too high.

The next thing we heard was that the Ponte Duca d’Aosta had been mined and that a fifth floor balcony in the block of flats nearest to it had been taken over, presumably for the plunger to detonate the mines.

At 6 pm the anti-tank guns and the infantry pulled out and we heard that the sappers who had laid the mines had gone. We breathed a sigh of relief; they weren’t going to try to defend the bridges.

We went to bed that night full of hope for the next day. We had hardly got to sleep when the two sisters who owned the flats came rushing into our room and kissed us all warmly on both cheeks. They told us that a friend of theirs had rung to say that the Allies were in the Via Nazionale,

[Photograph with caption]: Italian civilians celebrate the liberation of Rome, June 4, 1944

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that there was to be a changing of the guard at midnight, when the Americans would take over Rome and the Germans would leave. We couldn’t believe it; it all seemed too good to be true and too easy. However, at a quarter to midnight we went out onto the balcony just to see what was happening and there, all around us, was the populace of Rome, standing on the tops of the houses.

Suddenly, we heard shouting and clapping in the far distance … could it really be true?… it got louder and louder … no, it’s impossible! Then the people started shouting, ‘Gli Anglo-Americani arrivano – gli Inglese arrivano – bravo, bravo – arrivano – arrivano!’ (The Anglo-Americans are coming – the English are coming – bravo, bravo – they’re coming – they’re coming!’). Perhaps, after all, it was true. Then we heard the unmistakable squeaking and farting of a Honey tank. It was true! They had arrived.

Bedlam broke loose amongst the people all around us and we walked out of the house free men, just after midnight on 4th June – free for the first time in two years, less two long days.

[Photograph with caption]: American troops enter Rome, June 4, 1944.

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[Map of Italy with caption]:

Map of the Escape Route

Escape route: Fontenallato to Parma by truck.

Parma to Rome by train via Bologna, Florence, and Chiusi


9 September 1943 – gates of POW camp at Fontanellato opened by the Italian guards
9 – c.15 September – hiding in the woods near Fontanellato
15 September – 3 October – fed and sheltered by the F. family on a farm near Fontanellato
4 October – by truck to Parma
17 November – departure by train to Rome via Florene, Bologna and Chiusi
20 November – arrival in Rome. Hidden in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
13 February 1944 – moved to a flat belonging to Senora P. near Villa Borghese, Rome
26 April – John Sperni denounced
27 April – moved to a new location in Rome
11 May – Allied offensive on Rome begins
26 May – moved to a flat overlooking the Ponte Milvio and the Ponte Duca d’Aosta, Rome
4 June – Allied troops liberate Rome.

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