Summary of Paul Randles
This is a remarkable account for several reasons: it is based on Paul Randles’ letters home to his family, it offers the perspective of a South African soldier (Randles was in the Umvoti Mounted Rifles), it includes many images and also the impressions of his family who returned to Italy to visit places of importance to Randles during the war. We follow Randles from his carefree pre-war days, through the fighting and sandstorms of the North African desert, imprisonment in Italy, escape and re-capture and finally, his joyous return to his family in South Africa.
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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[photograph with caption]: Paul Randles
[photograph without caption of three men sitting on a pebble beach]
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In Loving Memory of
Paul John Leonard Randles
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Paul’s daughter Jennifer
Alex Irvine Fortescue for his help, encouragement, research and photos.
Kath and Alex for going to Italy to gather information and meet Dad’s saviours.
Gill for looking after the letters for years.
To all my siblings for their encouragement with this project.
Rae Nash for editing this book and for her encouragement. [email protected]
‘Love and war in the Apennines’ by Eric Newby
‘When the Moon Rises’ by Tony Davies
‘Beyond the Wire’ by Malcomb Tudor
‘The Way Out’ by Uys Krige
Cover page photo.
Jinks Chennels, Paul Randles, Dave Short, on Brighton Beach 1945
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Our Dad, Paul John Leonard Randles, was born in Pietermaritzburg on the 21st May 1922. Our Grandpa and Grandma were Natalie and Leonard Randles. Dad was their much loved first son and the brother of Peter and Ann.
Dad was head boy in his post Matric year at Hilton College, PMB in 1940. He was just 18 years old when he was persuaded by his mates from Greytown, Dave Short and Jinks Chennels, to join up. War had broken out in 1939.
Dad was therefore only head boy for half a year. I am sure he jumped at the chance to fight for what he believed was right. Whatever his parents may have thought, can only be imagined. He and Dave and Jinks joined the Umvoti Mounted Rifles, otherwise known as the Mahoops. 1
Apart from the occasional stories Dad told us, we have pieced together Dad’s War from letters he wrote, while he was away at war; as well as the stories from Kath and Alex’s tour in 2016, of the various sites Dad was at as a Prisoner of War in Italy. This has made a huge contribution to Dad’s story.
There are 7 letters to his parents during his time preparing for active service. After that he wrote nearly once a week to his parents when he could. The letters are now nearly eighty years old and are flimsy and delicate.
Dad and his mates were stationed at Premier Mine in Pretoria for their basic training. They were issued with gas masks and taught how to use them. In their off time, they played hockey and rugby. They completed the wiring of the Italian prisoner of war camp at Zonderwater near the diamond mining town of Cullinan. This had been originally designed for the Italian prisoners of war.
On the first Sunday of November, 2014 the Italian community held a service to pay tribute to the Italian soldiers imprisoned at Zonderwater during WW2. It is this paying tribute to part of our history that many South African Italians are able to appreciate the history of their fathers and grandfathers. A very emotional experience. The military cemetery is incredibly beautiful and well-maintained. Italian craftsmanship to be seen all around, with the rose bushes absolutely beautiful.
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[Text box] From Wikipedia
The local contribution of the village of Cullinan and Premier Mine (now known as Cullinan Mine) in the Second World War (1939-45) is fairly well known. In 1932, the mine closed for a second time and the village became a virtual ghost town until 1939, when the Union Defence Forces (UDF) arrived. It was probably due to the vacant houses and the abundance of open veld – suitable for practising military manoeuvres – that the military authorities selected the village of Cullinan and the surrounding area as the site for the construction of a massive camp. An added advantage was that the village was connected by the railway network. The decision to construct an Italian prisoner of war camp at Sonderwater (now Zonderwater) was probably influenced by its location well inland and by its close proximity to the large new military camp at Cullinan and Premier Mine. Besides occupying all the empty houses in the area, the Union Defence Forces built massive army camps close to the village, even on the local golf course. The military authorities took over the local hospital as well as the hotel. The hotel bar was for officers’ use only.
[photograph with caption]: Men of the South African Armoured Division arrive at Cullinan Train Station for training at the new military base.
[photograph with caption]: Villagers look on with interest as military servicemen march past the Premier Hotel, Cullinan, after the establishment of the military camp nearby. (CMA).
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From Premier Mine they were sent into Botswana at Pitsani-Malope, to learn war manoeuvres. Then back again to Zonderwater for more training and preparation for their war ahead. This time they were at Premier Mine, about 9 months. Italian prisoners started pouring in, very measly and frail looking, according to Dad.
The East African Campaign (also known as the Abyssinian Campaign) was fought in East Africa during World War II by Allied forces, mainly from the British Empire, against Axis forces, primarily from Italy of Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI, Italian East Africa), between June 1940 and November 1941. Forces of the British Middle East Command, included units from the United Kingdom and the colonies of British East Africa, British Somaliland, British West Africa, the Indian Empire, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Mandatory Palestine, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia and Sudan participated in the campaign. Ethiopian irregulars, the Free French and Belgian troops of the Force Publique also participated.
The AOI was defended by Italian forces of the Comando Forze Armate dell’Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East African Armed Forces Command), with units from the Regio Esercito (Italian army), Regia Aeronautica (air force) and Regia Marina (navy), about 200,000 Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali from Italian-occupied Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Italian Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, led by Italian officers and NCOs, 70,000 Italian regulars and reservists and the small Compagnia Autocarrata Tedesca (German Motorized Company).
Hostilities began on 13 June 1940, with an Italian air raid on the base of 1 Squadron Southern Rhodesian Air Force (237 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF) at Wajir in the East Africa Protectorate (Kenya) and continued until Italian forces had been pushed back from Kenya and Sudan, through Somaliland, Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1940 and early-1941. The remnants of the Italian forces in the AOI surrendered after the Battle of Gondar in November 1941, except for groups that fought the Italian guerrilla war in Ethiopia against the British until the Armistice of Cassibile (3 September 1943) ended hostilities between Italy and the Allies.
South African troops were sent to fight in East Africa and when the Italians were taken prisoner they were sent back to the Union and many landed up at Zonderwater prison.
One weekend they were given leave to go to Johannesburg. Off Dad, Jinks and Dave set and had a great weekend. He spent all his money having a whale of a time and had to ask very humbly to borrow money from his Dad, promising to repay it. The Christmas 1940 Dad and his mates went home. This was to be the last for many years. Others of their unit were to go north to fight in the real war and there was great jubilation and anticipation. They couldn’t wait to get going – little knowing what may lie ahead.
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[photograph with caption]: Umvoti Mounted Rifles marching out of Premier Mine camp 1941 to entrain to Durban, prior to embarkation to North Africa.
22nd July 1941 Dad and his mates eventually set sail in convoy for North Africa on the SS Elizabethville. They had a great send off from Durban Harbour with thousands of friends and families waving goodbye. Tears and sirens adding to the moment. The convoy was escorted out of the harbour by one of the 5 most famous battleships whose name he couldn’t reveal. She was the watchdog for the convoy.
[photograph with caption]: UMR leave Durban harbour for North Africa, July 1941 on the Belgian troop Carrier S.S Elizabethville.
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Dad wrote his first letter from the ship on the 5th August 1941. They had been at sea for 2 weeks. Dad said he was very seasick, but things improved as the sea calmed, however he was missing his family desperately.
The food was not bad but there was a great shortage of fresh veg, and they lived on fish and meat. All of them gained weight, due to the lack of exercise. They had been very active in the training camp, now there was little space for more than a walk around the deck. They passed the time reading, playing bridge or chess, boxing, PT and had lectures in the afternoons. The battleship would let off balloons every now and then for the Bren-gunners to practise shooting at.
They were excited to be approaching their first port of call, having rounded the mighty Horn of Africa, where they would be docking for a few days for refuelling. Although Dad was not allowed to say which port it was, we now know that it was Aden. Their ship was surrounded by Arabs selling their wares from little canoes. Dad was fascinated by the system involved. Their method of selling and transporting goods to the ship from their canoes, was very unique. A long rope with a weight at the one end was thrown on to the deck. A basket attached to the rope, was then hauled up and if you required anything you had to put the money in first and in return the goods were placed in the basket and then you could haul your purchase up.
They were allowed 2 days’ shore leave and for the first time Dad put foot on Middle Eastern Soil; where we were surrounded by lousy, dirty, thieving beggars. He was not impressed with the Arabs at all but he was very proud of his bartering skills for buying cigarettes. They had a mixed grill consisting of camel’s meat, crow’s eggs, and small Arabian potatoes with dreadful tea. And all this for 2/6.They did quite a bit of sightseeing and walked around with a fez on their heads and beautiful silk scarves around their necks.
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[image, no caption]: Map of Egypt
The SS Elizabethville arrived at Suez on the 14th August after the 3 days in Aden. From Suez, the whole regiment entrained for Mareopolis reaching camp on the 15th August 1940. They had been travelling, sailing and by train for 23 days. Mareopolis is a small settlement on the desert road between Cairo and Alexandria.
Other than the heat and seasickness Dad had enjoyed the trip very much. The Port of disembarkation was under Imperial Organisation. He was part of the 2nd SA Infantry Division.
They were all loaded into 3rd class coaches on a train where they had to sleep on planks on the floor. When they awoke, Dad says there were green fields whizzing past and they saw for the first time the efficiently irrigated fields of Egypt.
At 11am they arrived at the most God forsaken hole one could wish to see. Here they had a hot meal and were then taken by Army Lorries along a tar road to their camp in the western desert. Their tents were pitched all over the place to avoid presenting a big target for the enemy planes. They were sunk 4 feet into the ground, could sleep 12 men and were very comfortable.
The sand was very fine and after lunch the wind blew and they could see very little in front of them. The sun would set about 8.15pm and then it got very cold. The tents had fleas, scorpions and bugs but so far, they hadn’t been too bothered by them.
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Dad was most grateful for the 2 pounds that his parents had sent in a previous letter and asked for the odd cookie box as they were longing for chocolate.
At the end of August, they were moved further up the line to a beautiful camp about a mile from the sea. Dad and Dave Short were dragged unwillingly into being transport drivers. Dad’s job was to transport the brigade, in relays about 500 miles to the new camp. Dad was not impressed with this as he felt he hadn’t joined the army to be a driver. He did say the tar road wasn’t too bad though. His biggest complaint all the time were the flies. There were everywhere and he wore a net over his face to keep them away.
It seems that Dad had been shuttling the brigade up to El Alamein where serious digging of the defences, that were to become so vital in the great battle, were in progress.
[Text box] The Battle of El Alamein marked the culmination of the World War II North African campaign between the British Empire and the German Italian army. Deploying a far larger contingent of soldiers and tanks than the opposition, British commander Bernard Law Montgomery launched an infantry attack at El Alamein on Oct. 23, 1942. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel returned to battle from illness and tried to halt the tide, but the British advantage in personnel and artillery proved too overwhelming. After Hitler blocked an initial retreat in early November, Rommel managed to escape annihilation by withdrawing his men to Tunisia.
The weather was not bad, nights were glorious, but there was a shortage of water. A salt- lake separated the camp from the sea and in places had dried up and hardened the ground. This made a beautiful cricket and hockey ground. There was no dust there, much to their delight. Dad was amazed to discover that he had landed up a few miles from where our Grandfather, Leonard, his father, had been stationed in WW1, twenty-two years earlier.
They often saw bombers flying off into the desert. In September Dad and Dave were still in transport so they went swimming in the morning and then drove the chaps to a place where they were digging their defence lines. The men had to dig from 7am-12 noon and then from 1-5pm. This was hard work as in some places the ground was rock hard and had to be blasted, in others it was very soft so the soil had to be sandbagged. Dad tells of 2 bodies that were washed up on the beach where they swam each day. They were identified as their own airmen. This was as a result of the battle of Crete, a two-month invasion of the island by the German air invasion which left British, Australian, New Zealand and Greek troops decimated. 50% of their troops were either dead or POW’s. The German numbers of deaths was high because of the continued resistance by the Cretians. It makes sense that bodies would be washed up on many surrounding beaches.
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The flies drove them mad so Grandma Randles made him a net for his head and face to keep the flies away.
In September, they were allowed a visit to Alexandria which was 70 miles from the camp. Driving like hell they got there in 2 hours. Alexandria reminded him of coolie town in Durban but the smell was much more intense. The houses were falling over, cracked and rickety, and the streets dirty. They passed evidence of bombing, air raid shelters and AA posts. Traffic was very dangerous. It seemed to Dad that the rules of the road didn’t apply to the local population, so they had to drive very carefully. When they arrived at Mohamed Ali square, where the military vehicles were parked, they were immediately besieged by thousands of Egyptians selling their wares. They got a guide to take them around. They had time to stop and bought presents. In the more affluent part of the town, they visited King Farouk’s palace, as well as the Catacombs where an ancient Roman family was buried. They thoroughly enjoyed their outing.
Following their time off to visit Alexandria they had a week’s manoeuvres in the desert. Dad once again had to do the driving. They were plonked at their destination 30 miles from their camp where the terrain had changed from rocky to mere sand. This was survival training. In the desert, they had to do their own cooking on a primus stove. They often went hungry due to their unsuccessful attempts. The rice had us absolutely beat. By the time we had finished with it, it resembled something like dog’s poo. With practice, eventually they managed to produce some reasonable meals.
After a week in the desert, where they were continually moving in different formations, they returned to camp, dirty, unshaven and tired. Their water ration was only being used for tea and cooking. Very little washing was done, and they’d returned looking like hard-bitten warriors.
On their return, they saw that there was some naval engagement at sea, our convoy being attacked by enemy’s shells. They could see shells bursting all day long. Things were hotting up. They still spent a lot of time digging trenches, but at least they were close to the sea, and could have a lovely swim at the end of a hot day, and often in the early mornings.
September 1940. They decided to dig their tent into the sand. Up till then they had been sleeping under the stars but the nights were getting cooler. They dug down about 8 feet down. Dave had returned to Dad’s unit after being in no. 2 Section. Rest and Recreation trips to Cairo became regular. It took about 6 hours to get there. They were allowed to spend 36 hours away from camp, so had to spend a night. Dad hoped to have his turn soon. He was due to play cricket for the regiment against the Engineers, on the salt pan they had made into a pitch. Dad was good at all sports at school so he was a natural in the army. It seems they had a lot of fun in between all the digging.
Dad wrote a hilarious account of a fight:
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One of the tents above us caught a bird in their fly mixture and having tamed it, it had become quite attached to them. No fly escapes it and if you are swatting them it is always near at hand to pounce on the dead. Another old chap caught a desert viper – deadly poisonous. He had this for a few days then decided it might be quite a good idea if he enlarged his menagerie. After scouting around, he captured a lizard and a chameleon. This next idea formed by wondering how the jolly old zoo would go if they had a fight. Realizing that the chameleon and the lizard were up against terrific odds, he caught a scorpion to settle the viper. Right ho!
The first bout was between the lizard and the scorpion. They entered the ring neither too confident but after a bit of lumbering up, the lizard bit the dust and had to be carried away to the morgue. The scorpion, now very swollen headed, challenged the chameleon who proved no match for the unconquered Scorp. The chameleon was placed beside the lizard and after a post mortem, was declared dead by internal haemorrhage. Then came the fight of the day. Scorp and snake, both deadly but perhaps the snake a little quicker. Scorp was allowed 10 mins’ rest during which he was fanned and well rubbed down. The gong sounded and the seconds removed the chairs. Both contestants were in fine fettle, Scorp a new man after the previous fight but breathing a little heavier.
The snake dealt a sizzling uppercut but like greased lightning the Scorp sidestepped and the blow struck one of the press men who crumpled up under the impact. The fight from then on was fast and furious. Blow for blow, counter for counter until the snake took a huge chunk out of Scorp’s back. It looked like the end, the ref had begun counting down but with a superhuman effort Scorp raised himself and sent a stinging sting into the viper’s neck. This was the Scorp’s last move but his sting had driven home to its fullest extent and the fight ended with the two contestants dead in each other’s arms. A truly tragic affair. The betting had been heavy and I think it was a day for the bookies.
In one of his letters home Dad talks of the tragic death of one of their friends. He had been shot accidentally at home, waiting to be sent to Egypt. He had been married just one month. The chaplain held had a memorial service in their desert chapel for him. The chapel was in an ordinary tent sunken into the ground.
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[photograph with caption]: Sermon Under Canvas In the Desert
Under canvas an army padre, the Rev. D. Wrigley, of Queenstown, holds a sermon in the desert. The soldier congregation made the altar, crosses and candlesticks from stone which they dug from the desert The ‘organist’ holds his concertina in readiness for the hymn.
Chapel in the desert
Some of the chaps had carved candlesticks and a cross out of the local stone. The priest was terribly proud of it.
In the evenings, they played rugby and the big match was between the engineers and the artillery – both of which the artillery won. There was a great deal of dust spitting. Perhaps that is where the saying bite the dust comes from. There had been newspaper reports back home of the Springboks playing rugby in the desert which Dad said was absolute rubbish.
In October, they moved camp again. Probably to El-Daba-Baqqush where they were now side by side with the Imperial troops. Dad thought they were an awfully nice lot. None of them had seen any action yet. Their main job was anti-aircraft spotting and identifying during the day and patrols at night. Although they had only heard the German planes flying over but had not seen them.
Dad always hated flies. This had started in the desert. He often mentioned them when we were children. And so, one of the first things he mentioned in his letter from the new camp was, best thing about this camp is there are no flies! Their camp was pitched right at the sea. Theirs was the only platoon there, the others were all over the place doing odd jobs like guarding airports and railways.
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[images with caption]: Uniforms worn by the different troops. South Africa, South Africa, Germany, United Kingdom
Christmas was coming. Always a special time for Dad and his mates. He asked his folks for fruit cake, asparagus, puddings, biltong, muscatels, (grapes) and raisins for Christmas. He also always needed tobacco.
One day Dave and he decided it was too much trouble to wash and cut their hair so they cut all their hair off. What a dinkem pair of convicts. They were still with the Imperials but didn’t much like the regular meal hours. I’ll never lose weight like this. No doubt the food is excellent but I wish it wasn’t so often. The troops were well fed and well entertained. They received food parcels from home as well as the camp food. As there was no actual war going on in their area chaps had time to put together good entertainment.
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They attended a wonderful military concert with an Imperial cast. It was hilariously funny, with great music. The fishing was looking up and two rock cod had been caught. Good fisherman though Dad was, he hadn’t had any luck.
Dad was a regular letter writer, to his parents, an aunt in England as well as to his younger brother, Peter.
The tone of the letters to his brother were very different to his parents, much more jokey with risqué comments. He moaned that a line and half had been cut out of Peter’s last letter to him and couldn’t understand what Pete could have written to upset the censors. The news of their move to a new camp was repeated and another moan about too much food too often although the cooks were above average and the meals were very good. There had been another terrible sandstorm where you couldn’t see a yard in front of your face.
Then – So you thought you saw Maureen. You should have gone and asked her why she didn’t answer my last letter and then hit her on the nob and called her shorty. He asked to be remembered to the chaps at school. He commented on the sea being very flat with no waves, just like a big swimming pool and the first rocks they had come across. As with every letter, Dad was so thrilled and grateful to receive letters and parcels from home. He was very keen to get ‘The Hiltonian’ He missed his family terribly and always wrote very lovingly to all of them.
Along with all the other letters he wrote to his family and friends, he and his girlfriend, Ann Green, kept regular contact. He was delighted to know from her that she loved him.
Dad’s platoon had been separated from their company and for a while and were camped 20 miles from Mersa Matruh. He said they were going backwards instead of forwards. (Looking at the map of the area and in discussion with Kath and Alex, we assume that forwards really meant westwards towards Libya.)
Guard duty was a regular activity. This time again at an important nerve centre. This is where Dad had his first chance to fire a Lewis gun. These guns had been taken from aeroplanes and given to ground defence. His platoon was housed in barracks in terrific, big stone buildings. They were a long way from the sea but transport delivered them there twice a day. Hot showers were provided even though they were 2 miles away. Adjoining their camp was a New Zealand camp so for the first time they came into contact with them. They were full of fun and well-built, some of whom had represented the All Blacks. Dad and his platoon were exposed to their first Maoris – strong and black.
The days were shorter and the nights colder as winter approached. Everyone was issued with winter kit. The battledress of the Imperial Army, made of excellent material and very warm.
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November 1941 and Dad was thrilled to receive 7 packets of tobacco from his parents. This was very expensive in Egypt, 5 shillings a quarter pound. David and Dad had just got back from a trip to Mersa Matruh where they had been doing train guard duty. We mounted Anti-Aircraft in a pill box which is set on a truck and coupled directly behind the engine and as a result collected most of the soot which flew by. Dad was amazed to see how many troops there were towards Mersa, he said the number must be colossal. Mersa was a very pretty place in comparison to these other so-called summer resorts. It had a picturesque little harbour and deserted by Egyptians – not one in sight.
Most of the big buildings had been taken over by the military. They spent the night parked in the desert while German bombers flew overhead and bombed the hell out of the desert further on.
The New Zealanders oversaw the trains from Alexander to Mersa Matruh. They drove the engines and organised the stations. The trains had never been driven at such great speed.
[photograph of two soldiers in the dessert]
[photograph with caption]: Dad second from the left
Dad had a new hobby collecting match boxes and he had gathered a collection of about 30 different makes. He and David were also reading a lot of Penguin books, about 1 a day. He loved Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome and laughed himself sick. Dave spent the best part of his time reading it, rolling off the bed laughing. They were due to play cricket against the Imperial Bakery. He only hoped their cricket team wasn’t as good as their soccer team. They’d lost to the Imperial Bakery soccer team. But at least they’d won the rugby against the engineers.
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When on station guard one night an ambulance train went through and he and Dave had a good look around the train while the stretcher cases were being picked up. They were very impressed with this train as it was spotless, well made and very comfortable. It seems quite worthwhile getting sick. Although they weren’t so sure about being wounded.
Dad had concluded they would be in Benghazi, in Libya, by Christmas as there was an incredible number of men and mounds of equipment being sent up.
[image]: Map of Libya
David and Dad were about to do a 72-hour stint of train guard duty. He reckoned they may even end up in Suez. The list of requests from home this time were Lanoline, Nescafe and powdered milk. He commented on Pete giving up Rachel. By Jove he is a fickle chap, he’d better watch his step.
They returned from their train trip none the worse for wear although they did have a day that was full of mishaps. The milk for the coffee was off, the train was hit by a truck and knocked all their water and tea making stuff all over the place. At supper time their gas ran out in the middle of cooking onions for a bully beef stew. They landed up going to bed after eating cold
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bully beef, raw onions and bread. Just as they were settling down the engine shunted into them and they both landed up in a heap with milk dribbling over everything. They were not amused.
The desert is known for its flash storms. Few and far between though they may be. After a terrific rain storm lasting 3 hours the desert was covered in water. The slit trenches were brim full of water. Awfully messy and uncomfortable.
Exciting as the rain storm may have been, it was closely followed by their first raid during which they were bombed and machine gunned.
This meant that there were Germans around, and a platoon had been sent out to look for them. The capture of some Jerries caused great excitement. They were then brought back to the camp. They were young, all under 24, well-built and square headed, also very arrogant. They were transferred elsewhere to be questioned, and were eventually handed over to the Imperial forces by a Sudanese Outpost.
A few days later when all had returned to normal, their camp was bombed. Everyone was totally shocked and surprised at this as there had been German bombers flying over for ages. The men dived into slit trenches and kept their heads down as the tracer bullets flew. A bomb was dropped on the village nearby but luckily it hit the only empty piece of ground in the area. All the buildings collapsed though. Dad and his friends were suddenly woken up to the reality of war.
Dad received a letter from his parents saying that they were contemplating selling ‘Llanwern’. (This was our childhood home in PMB, which Grandma and Grandpa had built in Scottville.) Dad was aghast and sad at the thought and would hate not to return to that beautiful house with its beautiful garden. Dad’s Dad, our Grandfather, had been offered a commission, which meant he had to give lectures, on what is not discussed or known even now. Dad was worried that it would be too much for him after a long day at the office. (His Dad, Len, was a lawyer in PMB and a partner of Randles, Davis and Wood).
Selling Llanwern didn’t happen thank goodness, and we all grew up there. Me, Gill, Kath, Poo and Steve. We all have wonderful memories; with Mom in the garden and Dad coming home after a day at the office, getting the wine out and wiping the wine glass on his bottom, saying Shot Darling to each other as they passed in the passage.
There were lots of scares and air raid warnings. One day a Messerschmidt 110 flew over and they learned it was one of a few that had been captured from the Germans before ‘The Push’ had started. News from the front was not good. There were hospital trains coming and going and a train full of prisoners, mostly Italians, passed through.
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Another tough rugby match had been played against the New Zealanders. Dad’s team won 3-0, in which he converted a try barefoot. Hockey was the latest craze, having only 14 sticks between them so the goalie was armed with a cricket bat and pads.
Dave and Dad had been put into a Vicker’s squad as ack-ack defence of the station.
It was now freezing cold and raining and Dad was longing for the comfort and warmth of home. Christmas was drawing nearer and Dad was missing his family very much. It was his first Christmas ever away from home. Dave and Dad had another night of guard duty in the pouring rain. They were comforted by the ‘hot stuff’ magazines sent by his parents. These did the rounds in the camp and were much appreciated by all. Many thanks Dad for the mags and Mum for the goodies.
December 1941. Dad sent birthday wishes to his Dad and expressed his love and devotion to his parents. He was always so grateful to have such wonderful, loving and supportive parents.
There had been a terrific scrap with the Germans in which the 5th brigade was involved and they had fared very badly with many casualties.
The platoon was now moving up but Dad couldn’t disclose where to. (We assume into Libya) He received a Christmas card from the Porritt’s (Possibly Gary’s grandparents). Dad mentions Ann Green often. She writes to him often and was planning to send Dad a cake for Christmas.
Rain had been falling in spasms and there had been terrible afternoon sandstorms. It was also getting really cold. He mentions that there had been lots of activity from Jerry, dropping lots of bombs, but not near us.
Since the last letter home, the platoon had been on the move for the last week. After leaving the previous camp they were transported to Mersa Matruh in cattle trucks. There were 30 to a truck with their kit which left very little space to sleep. They spent the next day and night in dug-outs where they were quite comfortable. They set off again in cattle trucks to the back of beyond and camped in a wadi at night. The big tents had been replaced by two -men bivouac tents. At 4am they were awoken by ‘Jerry’ flying around and around for about 15 mins before dropping their eggs quite a way from the camp. The men spent the next 2 hours in and out of slit trenches. Dad was fed up at not getting a decent sleep.
The next morning, they continued travelling along a very bumpy road. Dad and Dave were cosily writing letters in their little two-man tent with an icy wind blowing outside. The Japs had just come into the war. He says they were now going forward to do a job which he hoped they could do successfully.
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16th December 1941. They were still on the move, the whole night there was constant shelling and it was freezing cold. Their present camp seemed to have been the scene of previous activity where Dad manged to scavenge some rubber seats from a plane, which would help cushion him in the trucks.
19th December 1941, they moved again. They arrived at a position that had very recently been evacuated by the Germans in a hurry. Dad and Dave got hold of a motor bike which had they had great fun fixing up although they had to watch out for booby traps lying around. Dad walked into the middle of a mine field before being told where he was.
A letter to Natalie on the 22nd December 1941 told where they had been holed up for a few days. While our artillery pump lead into German fortifications, we idly wait for him to come out of his rabbit warren. A few days earlier they had been at a previous German stronghold from where the Germans they had been chased by Allied artillery. The Germans had left all sorts of souvenirs like ammunition, clothes, trucks, supplies and a huge naval gun. Amongst this lot they found letters from German wives, pictures of sweethearts, fountain pens and money. The most treasured prize was two small field guns in perfect condition.
Just after Christmas Dad wrote home to tell his parents how they celebrated Christmas. They made a stew of bacon and tinned duck, followed by Christmas pudding, stewed fruit and cream. The following day Dad’s Christmas parcel from home arrived with a homemade Christmas cake and a pipe. He was overjoyed as he had long been waiting for a pipe. (Years later when I went to work in London, I had to go to Dunhill to buy dad a pipe).
The day after New Year in 1942, Dad, like the rest of his platoon, were cooped up in their tents with the rain falling. The weather had been ghastly, freezing cold with terrible sandstorms. They were, as quoted in the newspaper, part of the Springbok Division that have surrounded thousands of Germans and Italians in the Western Desert. Dad said the Germans were dug in and that they may have to go in and get them. He described a tragic scene of a crashed Hurricane airplane with the body of a dead chap in it. There was no ID and he hadn’t been buried. Pieces of bone lie all over the place and his spine rests broken in about five bits, only one bit of skin remains visible.
It seemed that Dad, along with his fellow soldiers, had to get over things very quickly. After describing the chap dead in the plane crash, he comments on a Rummy show about Des’s engagement to Jane, she’s a tiger. She should have been strangled ages ago.
A few weeks later they were moved again but this time for a rest away from activity and noise and at last they could sleep undisturbed.
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At the battle at Bardia, in Libya, from where they heard Artillery barrage start at 4am continuing then next day, they later heard that the Germans had been beaten and were considering our terms. There was plenty of loot around; cameras, binoculars as well as beautiful BMW motorbikes, enough for each person, and wine flowed freely. They passed Fort Cappuzzo which had been battered to pieces by Allied bombing. There were damaged and destroyed vehicles all over the place.
[image]: Map of Libya, focussing on Tobruk
[Photographs with caption]: Battle of Bardia (Libya)
22nd January, 1942 the big news was that Helfaya Pass had fallen. This pass was in Egypt near the Libyan border and the main access route into Libya. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halfaya Pass
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For almost a month Dad’s company had sat around seeing that no Jerry or Iti bravado was carried out or any bid for escape brought about. They were all set to go in and attack when they heard that the Germans had surrendered.
After this surrender, Dad’s platoon was living royally in a house at the foot of a deep wadi with the sea below them and with walls that kept out the dust. They even had a kitchen and a bathroom which was total luxury. He was impressed at how well everything ran. They were one happy family in their happy home. Their job there was to garrison a port which had been one of the first to fall to the South Africans. It is a most beautiful little place. As you approach its outer defences you look down on the town, not much bigger than Howick. Nearer the town you notice a road winding way down beneath it. The actual town stands on a cliff about 300 feet above the sea. At the bottom, to which this road runs, are the docks, where we in our house, are situated. On either side of the docks are these precipitous cliffs. In them Jerry and Italians have made some remarkable dwelling places. In places, they have blasted through sheer rock and lived in every comfort. One dug out we entered, had had its walls cemented and in it stood a beautiful mahogany table and chest of drawers. Very little was left, just rows of burnt-out cars.
29th January, 1942, they were still leading the life of luxury and our luxuries are increasing tenfold as Dave had rigged up electric lights for their house. 5 Jerry motorbikes stood ready for use and Dad was now the proud owner of one of them. They were BMW’s and were held together with bits of copper wire. The chaps had great fun riding around in these and then fixing them up again afterwards. Dad found a huge automatic revolver and a German Mauser which he was hoping to take home. They also found a good wireless so could get all the stations around the world to hear the news.
A letter to Pete, Dad’s brother, on the 4th February 1942 told of a terrible sandstorm, the worst in 10 years. As the afternoon grew older and the gale increased its momentum, the sky changed from a bright red to a dark hue. Dad had fixed up an Italian rifle for Pete to use as a sporting rifle but unfortunately, he had had to hand it in, which they were supposed to do with any looted guns. He had however managed to hang onto his Mauser and Luger, for how long he didn’t know. He had a big moan to his brother about their house nearly being blown up by their own chaps who were blowing up an enemy ammunition dump.
A shrapnel shell whizzed up into the air and exploded. The doors rattled, windows shook and plaster rained down on them. Why can’t a poor chap be granted some rest? If it not Jerry, it’s your own engineers!!! California here I come. Dad teased Pete about his matrimonial affairs. One minute Rachel, the next Barbara and then again Joan Kelly!! Watch your step and something else. He encouraged Pete to work hard for their Dad’s sake. Play the game and play clean.
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Moving camp was a regular way of life, although in the same area, they were back under canvas. There were only four of them together. (As he doesn’t mention his friend Jinks, I assume he was in a different platoon). Dad and Dave pottered around looking for anything of use. They had their bivvy tent pinched by Libyans so made themselves a nice spacious new one. They also had a collapsible bed of their own contrivance. They were living in a small wadi in which the Germans had burnt out all their vehicles including huge diesel trucks. All of them were just charred wrecks. Dad was distressed at the huge waste of it all. Dad and Dave had made their kitchen in a cave to get shelter from the dust and wind. It was a big job making porridge and stews which often ended up as mud. Dad concluded that when he got home his parents could save the expense of a kitchen boy and he would do all the cooking! (We never saw evidence of this as we grew up. Dad was never in the kitchen except to chat to Mum while she cooked.) Early one morning they were visited by ‘Jerry’ and were machine gunned, and had to dive into the trenches with their steel helmets. Eventually they were left in peace with no damage done.
In late February Dad had a spill on his bike and bashed his ankle, luckily nothing was broken.
Building fortifications was their main activity and they were thankful for the Jerry compressor Jack had fixed up. Dad was always a great reader, and there were books on Socialism, Religion, Politics and Psychology and the birth of the Labour party. This all stood him in good stead in his law practice later. He was kept up with good reading by the books his parents sent him.
13th March 1942
Their Cairo leave had been cancelled with no reason given. Rumour had it that there were a lot of Yanks there overhauling their tanks and planes.
Eventually Dad and company were granted Cairo leave when they least expected it. In a short 5 hours, after the notice, they set off to Mersa Matruh where they collected their accumulated pay of 30 pounds and sallied forth in a happy frame of mind. They caught a train from Mersa Matruh and travelled overnight to Cairo, Dad sleeping in the luggage rack about an inch from the roof. Not much sleep was had as he feared falling out of the rack and flattening his comrades. After the usual red tape on arrival at the station, they could go. As they stepped onto the pavement they were besieged by a howling, greasy, smelly mob of beggars. You could hardly move for their pestering and for the first time in my bonny life, I felt like committing murder. He managed to restrain himself, and he and his comrades escaped in a taxi in the wake of those pestering beggars. There were 5 of them in the group including Dave Short. After a very perilous journey in the taxi, they arrived at the Grand hotel. Dad was most impressed with this new hotel which had every luxury and cost 15/-(shillings) a day.
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[photographs with caption]: Grand Hotel in Cairo
As the place was so full, they waited till the afternoon to get their rooms. Our kit looked quite ridiculous piled up on a beautiful plush carpet in the lounge. Blankets tied together with mangy bits of string, utensils hanging from straps and when anybody’s foot collided with some part of the kit, a cloud of dust would envelope him for about half a minute. Officers would strut past us and turn about to eye us with suspicion. We were dirty, unshaven, our hair about 2 foot 4 inches long and our clothes looked as if they had been salvaged from an Italian scrap heap.
At last, they could move into their rooms and each headed for the bathroom for a good clean up. They had a delicious supper and were entertained by a jazz band. As they were so tired from their uncomfortable train trip, they headed off to bed early. It was wonderful to feel clean sheets and a soft pillow under their heads.
Early the next morning they set off to explore Cairo. Dad was impressed by the beautiful shops in the main streets. They forged ahead in their taxi, missing cars by inches and went to look at King Farouk’s Palace.
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[photograph with caption]: King Farouk’s Palace
Outside the palace, guards paraded in resplendent colours mounted on beautiful horses. The next stop was the hygiene museum, an education in itself. It had everything to do with the human body, represented in wax. Our organs and blood system. Disease and its result. It was so lifelike that we felt quite nauseated. It did us the world of good and I would not have missed it for anything.
From there they had quite a climb though narrow winding streets enveloped by slums up to Mohamed Ali’s Mosque and the Citadel. These were situated on a hill so they got a marvellous view out over the whole of Cairo which was enormous. The Mosque was made of pure alabaster which was drawn by mules from Aswan 500 miles away. It was a magnificent piece of architecture. “What a wonderful sight. It left me breathless. It is about twice the size of the City Hall (Pietermaritzburg), and twice as high. The roof was covered with beautiful designs made of gold leaf. A pulpit donated by the present king was made in pure gold and must have cost a fortune.”
[photograph with caption]: Mohamed Ali’s Mosque
[photograph with caption]: Dome in the Mosque
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They then went on to see Mohamed’s palace and were very impressed with the alabaster bath in which his harem bathed. Then it was off to the bazaars where they bought presents. Dad bought for his Mum a beautiful handmade table cloth in blue and gold, for Ann silk dressing gowns, for Pete a wallet. He also bought the pouffe that is still in use in Gill’s house. For his dear Dad, who didn’t seem to be easy to buy for, he had a photo taken of himself and a chap was painting in the colour in oils. He said it was sent with all the love a son can give his father. We all have copies of this photo. How he sent all this stuff like the pouffe in war time, I don’t know!
[photograph with caption]: The photo Dad had taken in Cairo for his father.
Dad said he had never handled so much money in his life as that 30 pounds, but promised that he had spent it wisely.
After lunch, they set of to see the pyramids. They decided to use horses so they could see them in style and get in a good ride. Just as they got galloping the Egyptian groomsman grabbed the horses’ tails and held on for dear life. Nothing would make him let go. Dad was most impressed with the immensity of the pyramids, each one covering 14 acres. The most interesting trip was into the bowels of the pyramid to where the King and Queen were laid to rest. After climbing down for ages, they got to the King’s chamber and over the entrance of the door was still carved the name of the man who found it. ‘COVINGTON’.’ The chamber was terrific and the actual coffin of stone in which the body was found, is still there.
Their next stop was the Sphinx, carved out of solid rock. There are many myths around this amazing statue. They had their photos taken on their horses which Dad promised to send as soon as possible. Thus, ended their day trip.
Travelling back to the hotel they were impressed by the enormous mansions and beautiful houses along the way. They were all very impressed with the residential area they passed through on the way. The area was clean and the houses beautiful. The first night they did the
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rounds of the night clubs. The women who hung around for dances were dreadful so they kept well away from them. The main aim of these women was to get the men to buy them drinks at exorbitant prices in return for a dance. Dad said they were so low and everything so crude he couldn’t imagine any self-respecting man enjoying them. He was very disappointed at the poor quality of the floor shows. He was hoping for something along the lines of a smart West End show. The following nights they went to the bioscope and the skating rink where they had great fun.
One afternoon they went to the races where they lost some money. At the race course, they saw the respectable people of Cairo and for once the respectable women, most of whom were very well dressed and many very beautiful. He was amazed at the very cosmopolitan crowd and Dad found it interesting to listen to the different conversations. The horses were beautiful animals, sleek and elegant, mainly Arabian and Syrian.
It was delightful living in the lap of luxury with no duties to worry about but towards the end they became tired of wandering around and were quite please to set out back to camp. They had an extra day thrown in as their train was cancelled due to severe rains. They had six days of peace and quiet.
Dad explained to his parents how he spent his 30 pounds in six days, going back completely broke.
10 pounds in presents, 7 pounds for a watch for himself.
5 pounds for the hotel, 1 pound for the day sight-seeing, 1 pound for a pair of shorts and a shirt for himself The rest in odds and ends.
He had thoroughly enjoyed himself and had a good rest and a change of activities.
To crown it the weather had been glorious.
They got back to camp to find the rain had played havoc with the roads and they were lucky to find their tent still standing.
A week or so later Dad was thrilled to receive a nice fat parcel from home, he said all it missed was his parents in the parcel too.
Since they got back from Cairo, he had been appointed chief cook for the section, a rotation that lasts about 2 weeks. At the end of which I think I’ll be a nervous wreck. A terrific strain on a chappie, when all the pots are boiling and you sit and wonder whether everything will be ready
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in time or whether something will burn, and perhaps suddenly realise after an hour’s boiling that the tea has been made from sea water or the potatoes boiled in compressor’s radiator water.
He was proud of his roast – tying it up with wire and skewering it with innumerable lengths of wood. In the end, it was quite a success!
As lunch was the main meal of the day, he didn’t have time to idle around in the morning with 13 hungry guys to feed. The usual menu was rice, which had him beaten, mashed potato, not so difficult, stew or roast or savoury Madomballs (meat balls). He boasts, I am now broadcasting to all women about cooking in the Western desert and why.
When they were in Cairo, they met a lot of New Zealanders who Dad thought were fine chaps. All they wanted to talk about, after being stood to a drink, was rugger. They thought the world of the Springboks. They had also had enough of the war and wanted to go home.
Dad was furious to know that the Japs were in striking distance of the Union and hated the thought that they may bomb Durban or PMB. Dad asked his dad to send some suitable books to study from, nothing too valuable in case he lost it.
A letter to Pete soon after, told of his trip to Cairo and had lots to say about the awful pestering beggars that worried them all the time.
He was very sorry to hear that Pete had all his teeth out and was pleased he now had his false teeth. At least the dentist would never get to sink his drill in them again! Remarked that if Rachel plays up again ‘kick her teeth out’.
On the 28th March Dad wrote a heavily censored letter home. (They may have arrived in Tobruk.) A big chunk of the letter was blacked out. They had just moved to a new camp when all hell broke loose. The anti-aircraft guns fired into the sky at a group of six German dive bombers. There were bursting shells everywhere and Dad was amazed that the planes survived the gun fire as they did their vertical dives. One plane was hit and crashed into the sea just beyond Gazala, west of Tobruk.
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[image]: Map of North Africa
During this Dave and Dad were sitting in their tent writing letters when they heard machine gun fire. A plane not 20 feet off the ground was firing at the camp. They burrowed under each other to escape the bullets. Mr Jerry doing a spot of strafing. The Germans seemed to have respect for the Red Cross. The raid they had witnessed took place just after a hospital ship had left the harbour. Apparently, the German recce plane had circled all morning over the harbour waiting to radio the bombers when the Hospital ship left.
Dad was quite impressed to hear that, after a bomb landed very close to the underground hospital, the Germans dropped pamphlets apologising for what had happened and saying the pilot was being court-marshalled. Quite a gentleman’s war.
In April, a letter to Peter wished him happy birthday and asking him to give them all a treat and get a first class matric. He also sent this poem.
The soldiers Farewell to Egypt
Land of heat, sweaty sox and flies
Land of sin where Egypt lies,
Streets of horror, streets of shame,
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Streets to which we give no name.
Streets of filth and stinking dogs,
Harlots, thieves and pestering bums,
Clouds of choking dust that blinds,
Drives blokes clean off their minds.
Aching hearts and aching feet,
Gippo guts and camel’s meat,
An Arab’s haven, a soldier’s hell,
Land of beggars, fare thee well.
The next letter gives us an idea that at home, people were getting involved with the war. Dad comments on his parents’ war work and that his Dad is manning a Vickers’s Gun which he says is an excellent small arms weapon. He was also an air raid warden. His mother worked at a mobile café giving wounded British troops food at Oribi. Ann, Dad’s sister said that when the Italian prisoners arrived at Hayfields in PMB, she lost her heart many times over to Antonio, Leonardo, Benito etc… About the Japs he said… If those yellow sods ever touch South Africa, there will be hell to pay.
The air raids had not been as numerous as previously, but the alarms were sounded often. One night they were woken by the noise of their anti-aircraft guns. There followed an amazing show of bursting shells, tracer bullets, the purr of a bomber and searchlights all making it look like Guy Fawkes.
Six of them were then guarding an enormous petrol dump and once more they had encountered the Imperials. All they could discuss with the South Africans were the joys and pleasures of Cape Town and Durban.
We visited the town the other day and considering it has passed into so many different hands and undergone such heavy bombing and shelling, we found it not so badly battered as we expected. (I assume this is Tobruk). There was a lovely little church with beautiful statues and with its walls and altar still intact.
Dad said the most annoying feature of the air raids is the falling shrapnel which he spent ages dodging, as they could do a man serious harm.
Later in April they had moved from guarding the petrol dump to manning a water point. They had to pack up in the height of the worst dust storm they had had in weeks. They supervised the filling of tanks of the incoming vehicles and thousands of gallons of water had passed
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through their hands. They got all the army gossip and tit bits of news, otherwise life was as boring as ever. They were supposed to have gone up to the front line to take over from the Carbineers but it all fell flat. He was hoping to see Jeff.
He told of an amusing story concerning a patrol of the Carbineers that had become engaged with the enemy. As the skirmish wore on, things were not going so well for the Allies and a few prisoners were taken. All of a sudden, they noticed a figure tearing across the desert, heading home, throwing off his rifle and web as he went shouting I am blowed if these b…..s are going to get this 4 pounds!
The good news from home was that Pete had been elected Vice. It must have been of the Rugby team as he was leader of the forwards. Rachel had given him the boot. It’s about time he had a change. She held him the longest.
Dad was thrilled to receive parcel no. 35 with magazines of the most excellent taste. They were greatly enjoyed by his comrades and they had great fun picking the prettiest women or the one best for marriage or figure merits.
When he opened the letter, something crept out and fell over. To his surprise, it was a tooth. After checking his mouth to see if it was his, he found the letter explaining. It was one of Pete’s teeth that had been removed but it was crawling with little things like maggots. He didn’t leave the extraction a minute too late. His jaw would have dropped off. It turned out he was pulling Pete’s leg about the maggots.
Grandpa Randles had been offered a commission of which Dad was very proud. What it exactly entailed he doesn’t say. He wanted a snap taken of both of them at the end of the war with their ribbons!
Life continued in its monotonous way but the bombing of Tobruk was increasing, with heavy stuff being dropped, luckily without too much damage. Occasionally some twerp wandered into a mine field and got his truck blown up.
1st of May 1942 Dad wrote that they had been relieved of their water duties and were now back with their platoon in the outer defences. Luckily this time there was no dust storm so they could see what was happening. Shortly after arriving Dad and David got stuck into digging themselves a dug-out which took 3 days to complete. They laboured flat out digging for all they were worth and then carrying heavy sheets of corrugated iron for the roof for miles. After a day’s hard work, they set about the finishing touches and began to pile earth on the roof, when it caved in. They were so disgusted they turned on their heels and retreated to their tent in disgust. 2 days later, after a dust storm, they managed to complete the job and they were very proud of their efforts. The dug-out was about five feet beneath the surface of the earth,
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extremely roomy and on hot days, beautifully cool due to the amount of earth on the roof. They were as snug as a bug in a rug. The day after moving in they had the rest of the patrol to a house warming. The usual topics were discussed, like management of the war, the use of an atomiser on a diesel engine, the prospects of leave etc.
Dad asked his parents not to send any more murder stories as he’d had enough of them and had read enough to rival Sherlock Holmes. He also asked for some elementary law books to use his time more usefully. He was pleased with the results of a shooting practise they had attended where he got a score of 18 out of 20.
A week later he received 2 more parcels which he was very pleased with, especially the curry powder which the chaps were thrilled with. Dad cooked bully beef using it and he said he had never seen bully beef disappear so fast. (On the few times we went camping as a family Dad always made bully beef stew which we loved.)
Some of his comrades managed to get an enormous diesel truck found in the desert, going. With transport being so short it was a huge help and they went swimming quite often using it.
John and a few pals dropped in to their dug-out most nights for a chat and a game of cards, followed by a cup of Nescafe. They had a strenuous game of soccer one afternoon against a platoon from the Durban Mounted Rifles. They were mostly sheep farmers from the Cape and stood 6’6″ in their socks and were very well built. They knew more about rugger than soccer but they all had a great game and a terrific battle, which was drawn. Dad was very pleased to have some good exercise again.
He seemed to be losing interest in his girlfriend Ann and his sister Ann had started acting!
Dad was over the moon with his birthday parcel that had just arrived with postal money orders. He was about to turn 20 on the 21st of May. He was also thrilled with the lovely photo of his beautiful mother who he adored.
He says, you look so proud and defiant and so beautiful. (She was a very beautiful woman).
Then there was good picture sent of Peter with his flashing smile and false teeth.
The previous week Jan Smuts had paid a visit to them. Dave was the lucky one from their platoon who was in the guard of honour to meet Smuts. He said it was a very informal affair with Smuts asking them to sit around him where he cracked jokes and asking the men’s opinion of the war. He also spoke of his decision to enter the war and although it was the biggest step he had ever had to take, he had never been as sure of himself as he was then. Mrs Smuts had come with him and was in Cairo seeing to the ‘Gifts and Comforts’ which they had been
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receiving quite regularly. Dad had paid a visit to the dentist where he had a tooth pulled out and others filled.
His letter to his grandmother, who he called Grams, was heavily censored so I don’t know what he was telling her. He told her about Smut’s visit and how informal he was with the men.
22nd May 1942, a day after his birthday, Dad wrote home to say he’d had a good birthday celebrating with his mates at sundown with the money they had sent.
Once again, they had moved camp, this time to the very outer defences……………where we now live and wait for any untoward thing to happen.
They were placed in magnificent defences built by the Italians before the war broke out, made of reinforced concrete which gave them very good protection.
Many lines hereafter censored. It seemed they were underground, eight feet below the surface with 3 feet of concrete above them. It was beautifully cool and dust free. It was obvious to Dad that this position had been heavily bombed before as the earth was scarred with shell and bomb craters. Next section heavily blotted out. They found a 20mm anti-tank gun lying in a trench and managed to get it in firing order. It was a great asset for them. Parcels were arriving regularly for which Dad was very grateful and he asked for some fruit drops as the weather was heating up.
[image with caption]: Fortress Tobruk
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28th May 1942, there was a sudden flurry of action. They witnessed four M.E.109’s strafing transport on the top of an escarpment facing them. The planes would rise and fall and at the end of each dive the men could clearly hear the staccato bark of their machine guns.
About a mile away they once again watched three dive bombing raids about an hour apart. The detonations were terrific, especially below ground.
Shortly after this raid they were all standing around talking after gingerly crawling out of their warrens when they heard a bomb falling through the air. Like one man all seven of them made for the door. As he said it was impossible for seven husky brutes to fit through a two and half feet opening abreast. As Dad was last in the row, he dived for cover underneath their newly acquired anti-tank gun which had a clearing of about nine inches. Of course, he couldn’t get his bottom under it and got totally stuck. So, he just lay there, exhausted and stuck and hoped for the best. Luckily it turned out it was an unexploded ack-ack shell that had caused all the worry and it eventually burst 100 yards away from them.
The night before they had all been beneath ground waiting to turn in when they heard bombs coming down again. It was a most uncanny and nerve-racking sound, leaving them feeling very exposed. Once again luckily, they exploded a hundred yards away. It was obvious things were hotting up at Tobruk.
He reassured his parents that they were fit as fiddles and as happy as larks so they mustn’t worry. As always love to Ann and Peter.
A few weeks after the last letter Dad writes home to apologise for not writing for so long, but they had been sent out as a mobile column and still hadn’t returned to their base. They camped near Jeff’s (possibly his friend Jeff Frederick) crowd but he was most disappointed not to be able to see Jeff due to lack of transport. While positioned there, they witnessed some spectacular sights. Every time the Germans flew over, every gun opened up at the planes. Even rifles blazed away at the flying targets. The small arms barrage was highly successful and together with the heavier guns made a death trap for the planes. One day they saw a Stuka hurtling to its doom. The most spectacular sight was sixteen Junker bombers, returning to roost after bombing Allied lines being attacked by the ack-ack guns. One of the bombers gave a sickening lurch and went into a perpendicular dive. Three parachutes opened but the fourth didn’t and they watched as the chap hurtled to his death. All this artillery shelling day and night took him back to the days of Helfaya Pass. I think that this is Rommel’s last gasp up here. He is at the end of his tether and I don’t think it will be long before he is finished.
12th June, 1942 in a letter to Mrs Green he said that on Monday they had gone into action for the first time. He couldn’t believe it was possible for so much to explode at the same time. The row was terrific and only subdued after an hour of fighting. It seemed impossible for anyone to
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have come out alive but the casualties were exceptionally light. About thirty of them had gone in with eight tanks and captured about four hundred prisoners from the Italian positions. Dad said that the men they captured did not put up a fight and all poured out of their trenches like rats from a hole. They had their hands up from about three hundred meters away and seemed pleased to be captured. Needless to say, white flags were in abundance and obviously working overtime. These prisoners offered them cigarettes and shook hands with them and appeared extremely jubilant over the whole affair. One chap showed Dad his photo album of a pretty Italian woman standing next to a baby, probably his wife and child. It was considered a very successful action thanks to the co-operation from the tanks, artillery etc. He thanked his lucky stars they escaped as lightly as they did.
Tobruk fell to the Germans on the 21st June 1942. Surrender of the South African 2nd Division. 10,722 South Africans were captured.
[image with caption]: Map of the Fall of Tobruk. See Umvoti Mounted Rifles on the left-hand side.
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[photograph with caption]: From Bundesarchiv, June 1942
After the fall of Tobruk there was chaos
Well worth reading is this article by Karen Horn, a lecturer at Stellenbosch University. This research is for her PhD D on the S.A. POW experience. I will pick out a few highlights to show what Dad probably went through before being shipped to Italy. See Appendix 3
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This telegram was sent to Len Randles on the 29th June 1942. One can only imagine their feelings.
[photograph of telegram]: DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE REGRETS TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON 5268 PRIVATE PAUL JOHN LEONARD RANDLES REPORTED MISSING ON 20 JUNE; ADDRESSED MR L RANDLES BOX 456 PIETERMARITZBURG NATAL REPEATED RED CROSS JOHANNESBURG
Dad, Pte Paul John Leonard Randles, was reported missing in action. This was a letter from the Officer-in-charge of war records, Defence Headquarters, Pretoria.
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Officer-in-Charge, War Records,
Defence Headquarters, Pretoria.
10 July 1942
Dear Mr. Randles,
It is with great regret that I have to confirm my telegram informing you that your son, Pte, Paul John Leonard Randles, was reported missing on the 20th June 1942.
It will be helpful to you to know that in all cases where men are reported missing, I inform the South African Red Cross Society, which immediately transmits cabled enquiries through the International Red Cross Committee at Geneva. If, therefore, it is confirmed that he is a prisoner of war, you will receive information either from me, or from the Red Cross Society immediately conclusive news is obtained.
In that regard it will be unnecessary to add that because of the almost universal extent of the war, and the large number of enquiries reaching Geneva, some exercise of patience, whilst admittedly difficult, is necessary. But you may be assured that everything possible is being and will be done to relieve your anxiety as soon as it is humanly possible to do so.
It will be of interest, and probably you are already aware, that broadcasts from Rome and the Vatican City frequently contain information relating to prisoners of war. My office has accordingly arranged for copies of these broadcasts to be supplied to it, and any relevant information which may result will be passed to you at once.
In the meantime, if you have enquiries to make in relation to pay matters, please communicate direct with
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THE SOUTH AFRICAN RED CROSS SOCIETY
THEIR EXCELLENCIES THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL AND LADY DUNCAN.
MIDDLE EAST MISSION
Air Mail, 19th September 1942
Mr. L. Randles,
P. 0. Box 456, Pietermaritzburg, NATAL.
RE: NO. 5268 PTE PAUL RANDLES
Further to your letter of 28th June, 1942 we have pleasure in advising you that the above-named detail has been confirmed as a prisoner of war by International Red Cross Telegrams. No other details are known.
You will now be able to write to him in accordance with the regulations laid down by our Society in Johannesburg who have, no doubt, notified you of the good news.
National Staff Officer, Middle East Mission»
[digital page 40]
After Tobruk fell, the Italians were delegated to look after the PoW’s by the Germans, who had better things to do. The PoW’s were kept in North Africa in dreadful conditions in temporary camps with insufficient food and water. Eventually after 4-5 months, they were shipped to camps in Italy.
6th Sept.1942 Dad wrote home from ‘Campo Settore 1,CC 60,PM3200 Italia. This turned out to be Colle di Compito near Lucca.
It seems this was a temporary camp.
Our chief sleuth Alex found this out.
I have done some research on the camp CC60 from which your Dad wrote home – received 6th September 1942.
I have translated an account of Campo 60 (P.G.60) from the Italian. The camp was located at Colle di Compito, near Lucca. It came into operation in July 1942 and was specifically for NCOs and privates (no officers). It was an all-tent affair and by 30th September 1942, held 3,970 PoWs. Of these 1,737 were South Africans. Apparently, the camp administrators were having some (unspecified) difficulties with the tents and although they planned to replace the tents with hutted accommodation, it was realised that this operation could not be completed before the onset of winter. In September/October 1942all the prisoners were moved to other camps. We know from the Letter of Mercy from the Vatican that your Dad was in Montalbo (P.G.41) in September so I believe we have explained his moves.
It is likely that after being shipped from Tobruk to Italy, Dad was held in transit camp (P.G. 75, Bari?) before being sent to P.G. 60 Colle di Compito near Lucca.
He would then have been transferred to P.G.41 Montalbo in either September, or more likely October 1942.
[photograph of road sign in Colle di Compito]
[digital page 41]
Racing forward sixty-four years to 2016. Alex and Kath have just returned from Italy where they have done marvellous work tracing some of the camps that Dad was in in Italy. It seems that the South Africans, after about 3-4 months in camps in Libya, were taken by boat to the toe of Italy. They were then transported by train to a temporary camp in Lucca, Italy, before being taken to Camp 41 at Montalbo. Alex and Kath found an old man, Antonio, who had helped build the camp in Lucca when he was 20 years old. He then became a guard in the camp. He is now 91, and he took them there to see it. He was thrilled to bits to be able to share his experiences with Kath and Alex. Antonio was just the man to fill in the details that no one else would know. The locals who lived there know nothing of what Antonio could tell them.
[Two photographs with caption]: Antonio showing Kath the memorials at the transit camp PG 60 at Colle di Campito outside the town of Lucca.
[digital page 42]
Citations at War Memorial
In memory of the bloody sacrifice on this site that took place on the night of 21» June 1944 when a patrol of South African Allied liberation troops was engaged in a bitter clash with German occupying troops.
The Community of Chiusi expresses its unwavering gratitude to the fallen and its renewed homage to the ideals that guided the liberation struggle.
In memory of the visit by South African war veterans who returned to this site 50 years after 21st June 1944 to pay tribute to the sacrifice made by their fallen comrades.
This stone was laid by South Africa’s ambassador to Italy on 26th June 1994.
[photograph of La Via della Memoria]
[digital page 43]
These letters tell their own story. Grandma and Grandpa Randles must have been worried sick and so relieved to know Dad was still alive, although a prisoner of war.
[image]: MESSAGE OF MERCY FROM THE GOOD FATHERS OF VATICAN CITY.
In a Broadcast Message from VATICAN CITY this Evening, dated October 28, Wednesday, 28, 1942, at 6.40 p.m. S.A time, it was advised that Rank Private, Name PAUL, JOHN, RANDLE. POW Number 340 is a Prisoner of War in ITALY. Camp No 41. Military Post No.3200.
REMARKS— Have you been notified, or is this your first advice from Vatican Radio? As Vatican Radio has discontinued giving P.O.W. Addresses it would be advisable for you and your friends, when writing to me, to state Rank No. and Full Home Address. Please tell your friends.
28th October 1942 from the Vatican City.
[image]: POST CARD.
SENDS THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE TO MRS. RANDLES. – DON’T WORRY ANYMORE. EVERYTHING WONDERFUL AT NEW ADDRESS, MANY HAPPY RETURNS FOR THE 19TH. ALL MY LOVE. FROM PAUL.
[digital page 44]
There is no date on this card.
[image of letter card]
My dear Mum and Dad
I am alright (have not been wounded). I am a prisoner of the Italians and am being treated well. Shortly I shall be transferred to a prisoners’ camp and I will let you have my new address.
Only then I will be able to receive letters from you and to reply.
With love, Paul.
This letter didn’t say anything about his capture or imprisonment so most probably some letters went missing in all the confusion or he was simply not allowed to write more.
6th September 1942
Dad had much to say about being much more appreciative and changed now and felt ashamed at grousing about little things. He was trying to do some constructive work in the way of Law and attended law lectures. He doesn’t explain who gave the lectures. They were lucky enough to be issued with fruit and believe it or not, his favourite things, onions and tomatoes. They had to control their smoking and he managed to come out on 3 a day. He said he was missing David terribly so they must have got separated when Tobruk fell.
[digital page 45]
[photograph with caption]: Kath at Montalbo Castle August 2016
It seems from the camp near Lucca they were sent to Camp 41 which was at Montalbo in district of Piacenza where there was a castle that had been requisitioned by the Italians for the PoW’s.
In a much later letter, I see that Dad said he had written every Sunday since the 1st September so this letter must not have reached home. It would be the one telling of his capture.
We found the following account of Dad’s escapades in Mum’s cupboard after she died. It was written on a scrappy piece of paper.
In Mum’s words, While at Montalbo, a villa requisitioned by the Italians, near Piacenza, he was a batman to the POW officers, who were allowed a wine ration for Xmas. So Dad was delegated to help Petro fetch the wine from the vats and syphon it into bottles. Guess what? More wine slid down Dad’s throat than went to the officers. I remember him telling us that he was pushing a wheelbarrow full of wine and tripped over on the path to the castle which was a steep incline. Probably due to his intake of the wine!
Montalbo is a very small village with a population of 99. It is in the district of Piacenza.
[digital page 46]
[two photographs with caption]: Kath with the current owners of the castle at Montalbo, 2016
[photograph with caption:] Kath in the vineyards at Montalbo Castle 2016
[digital page 47]
[image with caption]: A map showing the PoW camps in Italy
[digital page 48]
27th September 1942 – 4 months since Dad’s capture.
My darling Mum, Dad, Pete and Ann.
Since I last wrote a lot has happened, so swiftly and so wonderfully. As you will see my address has been changed. (To Camp 41 which was Montalbo). The reason being that twenty of us were fortunate enough to have our names accepted as batmen to officers. I have done many things in my life but this is an entirely new line. I was sorry to leave John (no surnamegiven) but he was quite cheerful about it all. The four of us are still together, Cyril, Arthur Sivertson and Jinks Chennels. We have not been separated since we were captured. To get back to our present position we are very happy and taking to our jobs like a duck to water. We are in a dormitory with twenty other Tommies who are also batmen. The officers are Imperials and are of all different age and rank. Books are quite plentiful and once more I can read to my heart’s content. We have been issued with winter battle dress and should be prepared for the cold. The only things in the way of clothing that I need are perhaps some woollen jerseys and a pair of rubber soled shoes if possible. Last but not least, of course, cigs and tobacco and jams etc. I am thinking of you all the time. How I miss you all. Still it can’t last forever, won’t we make up for everything.
All my love, Paul
4th October 1942
Dad was becoming accustomed to his new and strange job.
Up to now the officers have been very decent to us and we are getting on well with the Tommies. They really are remarkable fellows. Some of them have been captured for ages and yet nothing on earth gets them down. We have just started playing basket and volley ball, the first real exercise we have had since our capture, and find that we are still not quite fit enough.
Life wasn’t dull at Montalbo and they made their own entertainment with variety shows and sports. The officers put on really first class show with costumes made out of what few rags they could lay their hands on. AII the songs were composed by them. Dad said he was fortunate enough to be able to continue with his law lectures, given by two London lawyers. Although he wondered whether the English law will be anything similar to Roman Dutch Law, I don’t know, but their principles must correspond, so it can’t do me any harm. He told of the weather getting really cold and that he was longing for his first letter from home since his capture.
[digital page 49]
11th October 1942
Winter was drawing nearer and they were beginning to feel the cold, however they got to go for a walk along a winding cobbled road, past old farmhouses and field upon field of ripe grapes. Dad said he had never seen so many grapes in his life. The peasants were unconcernedly going on with their work, and everything seemed to be so peaceful it was hard to believe there was a war going on. They had now the added luxury of a cinema which they thoroughly enjoyed even though the language was Italian. He is still desperate for letters from home. The batmen were putting on a play and Dad had a part. He missed Dave Short terribly and wondered how he was getting on. One thing he loved there was eating chestnuts. Dad asked again for warm clothes as his feet got freezing cold in wet boots.
6th November 1942
News arrived that an officer in the castle had received letters from the Union dated September so there was much hope that they would start receiving letters soon. The weather had been amazing, one day bitterly cold and the next beautiful and warm. They were told the snow should arrive by the end of the month. Each afternoon they did a bit of PT to keep themselves in condition.
To Pete, Dad said that Matric was getting dangerously close now and that he must give it his best and keep the flag flying.
8th November 1942
Dad spoke to his parents of his faith which he considered very important. He had just attended a sweet little service where he prayed very hard for all his family. He said he was learning to appreciate religion more. He enthused about the beauty of the snow-covered Alps, glistening in the sunshine.
They had all received a huge treat in the form of food parcels from the Canadian Red Cross, the best thing of all being butter. Needless to say, it didn’t last long but it was wonderful to taste butter again.
22nd November 1942
Since last he wrote, all the English batmen had been moved to another camp and their places filled with more South Africans. Now all the batmen, forty-five of them were all South Africans. All the officers were English. Due to this change they had been allotted new jobs. Dad was now more or less a quartermaster, responsible for seeing to the issue of bread, cigarettes, linen and officers’ washing that went to the local village. Last but not least he was responsible for the cleanliness of the bar, washing and polishing glasses. He was very excited that Jinks had received a letter from his brother in the Middle East. His friend Cyril was at last in the kitchen where he could eat to his heart’s content – his biggest worry – eating that is, since they had
[digital page 50]
been captured. It was cold as heavens knows what and Dad asked for woollen pyjamas and shoes. As always lots of love to all the family.
29th November 1942
There were happy birthday wishes to Dad’s Dad for the 13th and lots of encouragement to the family to enjoy the forthcoming Christmas.
The officers produced a ‘Nigger Minstrel’ show which thoroughly appealed to Dad’s sense of humour and was much enjoyed by all. He and Jinks had taken up boxing and was enjoying it immensely as it helped to keep them fit. They were expecting snow any day and it was freezing cold.
6th December 1942
They were all terribly bucked as Cyril had received a letter from Zululand which meant that his letters should come soon. Dad said it was as bad as being deprived of his food not to have news from home.
Jinks celebrated his 20th birthday and they managed to celebrate with wine bought from an officer. The Scotsmen of the Castle entertained the men with a program of highland dancing and singing and with Christmas on the horizon they were planning to get a turkey.
14th December 1942
Dad wrote a letter to his aunt Maggie, his godmother who lived in England at Bexhill-on-Sea. (She was a Randles so possibly Len’s Aunt). He told her of becoming a prisoner of war and that the worst things of all were the boredom and inactivity. He told her how he fortunately had come into contact with some lawyers who were helping him with his studies. Despite being a prisoner for about 6 months, he had still not received any letters from home, which really upset him.
20th December 1942
It seems incredible how eventful this year has been, crammed full with strange and tragic incidents. When I look back on the different happenings, it somehow makes me feel so much older, – not the fledgling you knew when I left home. The experience has undoubtedly been valuable, especially the latter part but oh, I wish it were all over and done with.
He told of reading a lot including Tolstoy’s Resurrection which he found most interesting. He had nearly finished the Law of Contract and were in the closing stages of Criminal Law. He had been at it for 3 months and felt a lot more enlightened.
On Christmas day he wrote with great excitement to his family as he had received his first letter since becoming a prisoner. He was so excited he could hardly open the letter and had read it 9 times in 2 days. It was dated the 27th Sept and was obviously not the first they had written. Dad and his mates had a very enjoyable Christmas with lots of food from Red Cross Parcels. The big
[digital page 51]
day was actually Boxing Day when, as is the custom in the British Army, the officers waited on the batmen. It was great fun and the wine flowed freely with the officers bestowing presents on the batmen and granting them temporary privileges.
Dave Short wrote to Dad’s Mother on 30th Dec 1942.
Just a note to say I am fit and well, but unfortunately been split from Paul and John. Hope to join up with them soon as we are in a transit camp at present and hope to be moved to a permanent camp soon. Last heard through prisoner taken later he was fit and well. Campo Concentramento P.G. n 66. PM 3400.
In January Jinks wrote a letter to Dad’s parents on Dad’s behalf as he had injured his hand. He doesn’t say how. He was thrilled to have received another letter from them dated Nov. 2nd which he reckoned wasn’t bad going from the Union. He was happy that his parents now knew he was in an established camp. He agreed that it was a good idea to send Ann to St Annes because even if she didn’t learn anything, they would at least turn her out a lady. (She landed up doing a degree in political science and was a very intelligent woman!)
Dad had seen and felt snow for the first time and it was quite different from what he expected. They had fierce snowball fights and great fun rolling around in it. The officers had put on a Pantomime Cinderella for which they composed the music and dialogue themselves, which was not an easy matter. It was a huge success and greatly appreciated by all.
The mystery of the injured hand was revealed in the following letter. Dad excused his poor handwriting but said his hand was still bandaged. He had developed a blind boil at the base of his ring finger which had to be lanced, but was clearing up well. The snow was still lying on the ground although it was not terribly cold. The big problem was that his feet felt like blocks of ice. They were however fortunate enough to have an Italian fireplace, like a stove, in their rooms.
He was learning to read music and play the piano accordion and reckoned he may return home an accomplished musician although he doubted it as patience was required, something he only had a limited amount of. He was putting a bit of the weight he had lost in the earlier stages of our strange existence.
[digital page 52]
[photograph with caption]: Prisoners’ graffiti in dormitory
[photograph with caption]: PoW dormitory ceiling
[digital page 53]
[photograph of letter]
13th January 1943
THE SOUTH AFRICAN RED CROSS SOCIETY
HONORARY PRESIDENTS: THEIR EXCELLENCIES THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL AND LADY DUNCAN.
CENTRAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
13th. January 1943.
Mr L. Randles,
P.O. Box 456,
Dear Mr Randles,
We thank you for your letter of the 6th. instant and attach hereto our official receipt No. 19766 for £1-3-0; in accordance with your request, we have instructed our London Committee to forward 500 cigarettes and 1 lb of tobacco to your son Pte. P.J.L. Randles.
We are delighted to note that you have received a letter from your son; unfortunately, the shoes with rubber soles which he asks for are no longer permitted to be sent in the quarterly parcels; only army boots or ordinary slippers may now be sent.
in reply to your enquiry, we would advise that, as your last parcel was despatched during November the next one cannot be sent until February, as according to regulations three months must elapse between the despatch of each.
As your son seems to be feeling the cold, we would suggest that you enclose a light blanket in your next parcel because, even though our men all receive two blankets – and in some cases even three – from the detailing power – an additional one from home would prove most welcome.
We trust that in his next letter Pte Randles will mention the fact that he and his companions are receiving the Red Cross food parcels with unfailing regularity.
Assuring you of our desire to be of assistance to you at all times.
for, GENERAL SECRETARY.
[digital page 54]
A week later Dad wrote saying how thrilled he was to receive two letters. He had been reading a lot and talked of the good books he had read recently. It was very cold and he was sorry to hear that he couldn’t have shoes. He needed socks and shirts too. He was still hoping Pete would pass his Matric.
Dad received a wonderful parcel from home and was over the moon about it.
He had just knocked back a slab of chocolate and was smoking his much-loved pipe.
In the parcel was a rug, a jersey, balaclava which he was so happy with. He said he could now give an eskimo a run for his money. (I remember grandma telling us how she knitted Dad a jersey and wove long strands of her auburn hair into the wool as she knitted. She had the most beautiful hair which I loved to brush as a young girl. Jen.)
Dad was happy and full of beans, as he said and continuing with his law studies. He assured his family he was sure to be home before the year was out. How he missed and loved them all.
To Peter; Heartiest congratulations on your success in Matric. Damn fine effort-you must be terribly bucked. So you are in the army now. It has been said that it either makes or breaks a man. Well it is entirely up to you. I know I can rely on you. All my love, Paul. Little did he think Peter would ever have to don a uniform.
[photograph with caption]: Paul and Peter in uniform. Place unknown.
In another letter Dad asked his Mum for more photos of them all. She had sent him 2 postcards with photos before he was captured and they had gone up in smoke with all the kit he had to leave behind. It meant so much to him to have their photos. He was very envious of two chaps that had gone home already. Once again, he asked for his cigarette parcel to be sent via Aunt Maggie in England as it was a much quicker and surer way of getting them.
[digital page 55]
Now the letters were coming from home on a regular basis which pleased Dad no end. One being from his girlfriend Ann Green. He was so sorry that his family had not been receiving his letters. He says in this letter of the 7th that he had been writing letters home every Sunday since the 1st Sept, which meant that the one telling of his capture is sadly missing.
In the past few days, they had experienced glorious weather. Most them had been walking around in shorts. Dad said that they had finished Criminal and Contract Law and were now moving on to the Law of Property. He wondered how Dave was and said how much he missed him. Although he knew he could hardly find better friends than Cyril, Arthur Sivertsen and Jinks Chennels. They hadn’t had a cross word between them since they became friends. As always, he longed for his family and sent all his love.
Later in Feb 1943, Dad reports that winter was almost over and once more they could bask in the hot sun. He was very upset that his family were not receiving his letters. Basketball was in full swing and every afternoon Jinks and he had a few rounds in the boxing ring.
[photograph with caption]: Family at the wicket gate
[photograph with caption]: The road up to the castle.
[digital page 56]
[photograph with caption]: The castle courtyard in 2106
[photograph with caption]: The current owners at the main gate.
[Two photographs with caption]: Kath in front of the Castle with the current owners.
[digital page 57]
The Germans decided the castle was far too smart for mere PoW’s so they requisitioned it for themselves and the PoW’s were moved out.
2nd April 1943 the next brief postcard home reports of their move – lock, stock and barrel, to a new camp. This was camp 49 which Alex has worked out was situated in the town of Fontanellato. Dad said they were now in a truly magnificent camp, an enormous modern building which was intended as an orphanage. It is just like the Edward in Durban. There were 500 officers and 120 batmen. It had opened in March 1943 so was brand new.
[photograph with caption]: The orphanage still under construction in 1943.This became camp 49 during the war.
Later Dad wrote a more detailed account of this move. He said it was a lot of work packing up the old camp but they managed to be ready and cleared the old castle by the set date. The journey by train to the new camp took 6 hours, followed by a short walk to the actual camp. The building was 5 stories high and absolutely brand new, very luxurious and spacious and was being used as a hotel. Two other officer’s camps had joined them. He still had his old job of quarter-master and barman. On the 13th April, 1943 Dad sent a postcard to wish Peter a happy birthday, his first in the army. He said of the new camp, a very nice place but I prefer the old castle.
[digital page 58]
[photograph with caption]: The Orphanage at Fontanellato. As it is today. Camp 49
Suddenly the letters from home came pouring in and another parcel awaited him in the store room. He got news from home that Pete was on leave and said how proud he was of his brother. He was equally proud of his lovely sister, Ann. He doesn’t say what she was up to.
Dad was in a spin as they were putting on a Zulu scene in a variety concert. They spent the whole day running around making beshus and mitchus, shields, assegais and all that goes with them. Terrific rehearsals and memorising of words of the songs takes place. I do hope it will be a success.
A big playing field had been opened up to them and they found it a great help to pass the time using it. They were busy picking and levelling it in the hot sun, stripped to the waist, so they had become brown as berries. The highlight of the week was the new craze. A little stream ran down one side of the field so they all, officers included had races with boats made out of cork or wood. The betting was heavy!
[photograph with caption]: Alex in the playing field and the rear facade of the camp as it is today
[digital page 59]
Dad turned 21 on the 21st May 1943. He had a nice little party, got tipsy on vermouth and wine and was spoiled with presents of cigarettes, chocolates and tobacco by a few of the officers. Their Zulu scene in the variety concert went very well and the show a huge success, Dad was dressed up like a huge bucksome Zulu, black from head to foot with a mixture of charcoal, olive oil, moochi, shield and sticks.
During a house committee meeting and Dad was elected Educational Representative. He then launched a debating society and the first debate was a hat debate. He hoped to be able to get the chaps interested and confident to stand up and speak. They had terrific arguments about politics and religion, but in the end decided no one knew enough to convince the others.
He was thrilled to get his first letter from home in 8 weeks. The move seemed to have upset the postal service again. He was pleased to hear that Ann was horse-riding and bet she looked magnificent.
One day they had a very fast 45 min game of basketball and as the final whistle blew, Dad sprained his ankle and landed up in the infirmary. If it hadn’t been so hot he would have appreciated his holiday more, however it gave him more time to read and he enjoyed the cool sheets and the spring bed.
Dad wrote that he heard Pete was enjoying his time in the army. On looking back on his time in the desert Dad thought they were some of the happiest he had experienced. He thanked his parents for the offer of money but said it wasn’t allowed. They had been on a delightful walk under guard, along winding roads and had a smoke under the trees. All the pretty signorinas turned out to gape at them, which of course he thoroughly enjoyed not having had female company for 2 years. He still rather missed the old castle and found the new camp a bit big. They did miss the cinema too.
Dad received a wonderful parcel full of clothing from the South African section of the Red Cross in London. No doubt sent through donations from his parents.
In June Dad was happy to say that the letters were now simply pouring in. He was also thrilled with boots and slippers that his folks had sent. He was stuffing himself with chocolate and was delighted with a photo that Ann had sent of his mother and herself. My darling mother, still as young and beautiful as ever and my lovely sister growing into such an attractive girl.
[digital page 60]
[photograph with caption]: Kath at the orphanage at Fontanellato in 2016, now a hospital for psychiatric patients. It was opened in March 1943.
[photograph with caption]: The dormitory at Fontallenato
[digital page 61]
[photograph with caption]:The statue in front of the orphanage
[digital page 62]
[photograph of letter with caption]: This came 3 months after they had been transferred to Camp 49
THE SOUTH AFRICAN RED CROSS SOCIETY
Honorary Presidents: THEIR EXCELLENCIES THE GOVERNOR-GENERAL AND LADY DUNCAN.
CENTRAL EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
Mr. L. Randles, 19, Hutchinson Rd., Scottsville, PIETERMARITZBURG-.
18th June 1943.
Dear, Mr. Randles,
We have pleasure in advising that we have received a cable from our International Committee reading as follows:
N0. 5268 PTE. PAUL JOHN LEONARD RANDLES TRANSFERRED 31/3/43 TD CAMP 49, P.M. 3200, ITALY.
It is possible that you may have received a more recent camp address from some other source, in-which case we would naturally advise you to use that address. The Italian authorities seem often to transfer prisoners-of-war from one camp to another, but do not allow this to cause you any undue anxiety, as letters and parcels are forwarded from one camp to the other if necessary.
Assuring you of our interest and desire to be of every assistance.
Rugby had taken the camp by storm. They had wonderful games on their much-reduced field with 10 aside. The batmen had just played the officers in a hard-fought battle and managed to beat them by three points. They celebrated with wine supplied by the losing team. (Amazing that as prisoners they always seemed to have wine!) Their big sports day was happening the following week. This consisted of races, jumps, highland dancing, Gym and a Boxing Tournament.
[digital page 63]
By some strange fluke Dad said he found himself in the finals. He reported that his Aunt Maggie was writing regularly and that she had promised him his Uncle Walter’s cigar case for his 21st.
The following week Dad reported that the sports day had gone off very well with Jinks running excellently. He managed to win the 3-legged race with a pal of his. Jinks and Dad boxed against each other in the Light Heavyweight Class. They pasted each other but no harm was done. It was thoroughly enjoyed by all. ‘See you at Christmas’, says Dad hopefully.
They had watched a first-class production of Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit which Dad said was superbly acted. A.A Milne’s Dover Road was the next production and Dad was inveigled into taking part in a play. This time the play was an all-batman cast. It was to be produced by an officer who seemed to know his stuff. He felt it was rather a big undertaking, considering that none of them had acted before. Still, he was always game to try something new. So now it meant rehearsal after rehearsal, practise and memorising of lines, in fact jolly hard work for weeks. He said he may make the films yet! The weather was perfect and he was playing a lot of sport. The bluebirds were singing at night.‘ Home soon.’
22nd July Dad writes that the weather was glorious but a bit too hot. The rugger teams had been reduced to seven a side, a much faster and harder game and his law studies were still going strong.
In August he says that their rugger team beat the strongest officers’ team 15-3. He was pleased to hear the first details of Peter’s whereabouts as most of April’s letters from home seemed to have gone astray.
The last letter before the Italian Armistice was to his Aunt Maggie on the 15th July 1943, thanking her for her gift of cigarettes. He hoped to be able to thank her in person at the end of the war. Pete seemed to be enjoying his existence in the desert but hated Cairo and the flies. Dad said life continued in its monotonous way but he was reading a lot.
Armistice was declared by Italy on the 8th September 1943.
[digital page 64]
[Text box] The Armistice of Cassibile  was an armistice signed on 3 September 1943 by Walter Bedell Smith and Giuseppe Castellano, and made public on 8 September, between the Kingdom of Italy and the Allies (“United Nations”) of World War II. It was signed at a conference of generals from both sides in an Allied military camp at Cassibile in Sicily, which had recently been occupied by the Allies by previous agreements. The armistice was approved by both King Victor Emmanuel III and Italian Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio.
After its publication, Italy left the Axis powers but the country was plunged into a civil war with some co-belligerent forces joining the Allies while others remained loyal to Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader, and the Axis. Italian forces both in and outside Italy who would not join the Axis, but could not resist until the Allies reached them, were interned by the Germans.
It was here that the Comandante di Campo, Col Eugenio Vicedomini, released all prisoners including your father. Later the Germans gave this thoroughly decent man a “helluva beating”.
[Text box] Fontanellato was always a strongly anti-Fascist town and its inhabitants felt well disposed towards the prisoners even while Italy was still at war with Britain. When the Armistice was signed, the Italian camp commandant, Col Eugenio Vicedomini, bravely opened the gates and let the prisoners escape. When the Germans arrived, and found the camp empty, they beat him up and sent him off to Germany. He returned in broken health and died soon after the war.
Nothing was heard from Dad until the 6th December 1943 when this amazing letter was written home.
[digital page 65]
[photograph of letter]
Pte. P.J.L. Handles No. 5268,
San Donato, Valli di Comina,
Provincia de Frosimone, ITALIA
6th December, 1943.
By dearest Mum and Dad,
I am writing this letter, darlings, on the off chance of being captured by the Germans, which I sincerely hope will not eventuate. Since the 9th September many strange things have happened, adding, no doubt, many valuable experiences to my young life, experiences which I am sure no money in the world could buy. Our actual departure from the Camp was extremely well organised, since nobody realised at the time how realistic the German occupation of Italy would be. Naturally our joy was unbounded when we heard the glad news of Armistice imagining us home within a month. How different it proved to be!!
We were told on the day of the 9th to fall in and go on parade. The Senior British Officer made it quite clear to us that the Germans had full intentions of occupying Italy and that it was possible that they would clear all the P.O.W. Camps to Germany. He had arranged with the Commandant of the Camp to let us know when anything untoward happened. We were told to dress into battle-dress, draw rations, pack what kit was necessary, and be prepared to move within a minute’s notice. At 12 o’clock the bugle blew and within ten minutes, the whole camp, 600 of us, were assembled and ready to move off. The Germans were on their way to occupy the camp. With the aid of the Italians who had cut the wire, and incidentally the sentries were already on their way home, we moved off. There were horses to carry the sick away and the Italian interpreter to lead us to our re-arranged rendezvous. The organisation was excellent – not a hitch nor a moment of doubt. We arrived at a spot which was a dried up river and there we got settled for the time being. In the meantime, the Germans had arrived at the Camp, found it deserted and were very angry and were scouring the countryside for us. After a day, four of us decided it was high time we moved, not approving at all of the Iarge crowd. And here comes the theme of the whole story -the kindness, hospitality and friendliness of the Italian people.
To think how we cursed and abused them in camp and well deserving the insults, we were to find such a change. They brought us food and clothing and 600 are a lot of people to feed, it is truly amazing how we were treated -like lords.
As I said the four of us left the river and for a period stayed with Italian families on their respective
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[photograph of letter continues]
farms. The farms incidentally covered about two acres each. We ate spaghetti and drank wine, chaffed the signorinas in an effort to pick up the language. Everybody drinks wine -from the children of 4 and 5 to the old men and women of 80 and 90. We did what little work was asked of us and in our very depleted civvy clothes might have passed off as Italians. In the meantime, we heard that landings had been made all over Italy; that parachutists had been dropped all over the country, and in actual fact it was a matter of hours before we were with our boys. Then one night we heard the B.B.C and learnt where they were. The Germans at that time were being a bit awkward, so we decided to start walking South and meet our troops who could not be more than a week in occupying Italy. We set off with a Major and a Captain to tackle the first difficult task of crossing the main railway line from Parma to Piacenza.
We had heard terrifying stories of how the line was guarded and patrolled by fighter aeroplanes and, as was usually the case, we found nothing and crossed without any trouble at all. At first we walked during the night and slept during the day. Whenever we asked for food, we were given a feast. Our first halt was caused by the unbelievable courtesy and kindness of an Italian family who spoke remarkably fluent English. It was the same the whole way down, kindness, hospitality, food, money and places to sleep. And how we walked! I never realised how mountainous Italy was. Up one mountain and down the other and so on for 700 Kilometres.
We had to be very careful and always on the alert for Germans. Crossing reads and railway lines were our biggest dangers. In one instance we had to wait 2 ½ hours before German transport had passed. Another case of suspense materialised out of 5 drunken Germans walking down a sheltered path on which we were wending our way. We nipped off into the bush and avoided them successfully. At one little village we were invited to dance, and we struggled valiantly through foxtrots, rumbas and country folk dances. On another occasion, we accompanied two rather charming signorinas to church, attending the very long services ourselves.
The language, at first, we found a bit trying but we soon mastered sufficient to make ourselves understood. After having studied Latin, we found it very similar.
Our biggest worry was the Fascists, who still remain in a minor percentage. Being the Germans’ stooges, they wormed their way into official positions and if they found out where a person was, they would hand you over to the Germans. There was a price on our heads -1800 lire -so it was quite worth their while.
The came when we were but 60 kilos from the front line and, as we were firmly resolved to cross it, we stopped for a few days to collect as much bread, nuts and dried fruit/
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[photograph of letter with caption]: (This letter must have been typed in South Africa. The original is virtually indecipherable.)
as possible. We started off – spent a miserable night on the top of the mountain in a little cabin when the first snow fell. Our boots were almost through – it was cold and our clothes were thin and insufficient in number so we decided to try and find a place to rest up and equip ourselves. Thus, we came over the mountain into Valle of San Donato where we have been living for the past two months. We live in a little cabin on the side of a mountain, with a main road on which Germans pass daily about 100 yards above us and below us about 200 yards away is a German workshop. We were advised to remain and not try the line owing to the heavy fall of snow – our boots are beyond repair. We met about 30 chaps returning who said it was impossible to cross.
For quite some time we were fed by a little red-headed woman who brought the food out from the village. She is a wonderful little person. In rain, snow or blood she still brings us something to eat. At night we have our respective families to whom we go for supper. They are farmers and have more food than most. I am treated just like one of the family. They call me Paolo and I call them Ma and Jim. The sons are like brothers to me and it was they who put wooden soles on my boots. So here we wait for our troops. Our shells are landing in the valley so they can’t be far away.
Jinks, Cyril, Arthur Sivertsen and I are still together with four other South Africans and a Hollander all living in our little hut.
Well darlings I hope I can deliver this in person. Give my love to all – Ann and old Peter. Longing for our day of our re-union. Every inch of love,
This letter was most likely posted by Ma and Jim as Dad called them.
They were Vincenzo and Costanza Pelligrini, the kind Italians who fed and sheltered Dad and Jinks while they were on the run.
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[photograph with caption]: Vincenzo and Costanza in front.
[photograph with caption]: Vincenzo on the right.
In 2016 when Kath and Alex visited Italy and traced the family, they found the descendants of Vincenzo and Costanza still living in the village of San Donato. Their son Loreto who was 2 years older than Dad, died 2 years ago, and their children were Romeo and Liliana. Kath and Alex met them both. Romeo is now 68.
[photograph with caption]: From the left, Maria Letizia (mother of Giulia kneeling, the interpreter and granddaughter of Romeo and Anna), Antonio Salvucci, his wife Liliana (the baby at the Christening), Kath, Romeo, his wife Anna and kneeling is Donatella (daughter of Romeo)
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The story goes that when Jinks and Dad were at a party to celebrate the christening of baby Liliana, the granddaughter of Vincenzo, a German officer walked in to the house. Dad somehow fell down the stairs at the feet of the officer, probably having had too much to drink. Costanza, quick as anything, slapped Dad around the ears and shouted at him to go to his room upstairs where she locked the door on him and muttered at how badly behaved the boys were, thus saving him from the Germans. That baby, Liliana,is Romeo’s sister.
[photograph with caption]: Costanza Pelligrini
[photograph with caption]: Kath and Alex having supper with Romeo and his wife, Anna
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[photograph with caption]: Romeo with a picture of his father Loreto, Vincenzo’s son
[photograph with caption]: Giulia reading Dad’s letter to the Pelligrini family in the square
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[PELLEGRINI FAMILY TREE]
[Editor’s note: Details from the family tree have been redacted for privacy purposes. If you wish to consult the family tree please contact the Monte San Martino Trust]
The Pelligrini family were wonderfully welcoming to Kath and Alex once they heard the above letter read that Dad wrote home. They now want to meet the rest of us and show us the little cabin on the side of the hill where the men sheltered for 2 months. Without this family, the men could easily have died of cold and starvation.
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After their return home Donatella sent this letter and some photos to Kath and Alex.
Dear Alex and Kathryn,
We’re writing to you now because recently we have been very busy with work and other things.
How are you? We hope that it’s all right.
We’re sending to you this e-mail with the photos of the places where Dad and Geoffrey stayed during the war here in San Donato Val di Cornino. We’ll send them in stages.
Here there are two photos of Vincenzo’s house where they had dinner and sleeped (sic). The house is located in the mountain, in a place called Ventura, but now it’s uninhabited and it is not changed during the years.
[photograph with caption]: The House where Dad and Jinks stayed
[photograph with caption]: San Donato countryside
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Capt. Geoffrey Phalp wrote this letter to Mrs. Chennels, Jink’s mother, on the 7th Feb 1944, 5 months after their escape from Camp 49 at Fontanellato.
By now Dad’s parents must have been sick with worry about him, so this news would have been a great help.
[photograph of letter]
To: Mrs. Chennells,
Box 45, Eshowe.
Natal, South Africa.
Sender’s Address Capt. G.A. Phalp. R.A. 12 Hawthorn Road West, Gosforth, Newcastle-on-Tyne.
7th February, ’44.
Dear Mrs. Chennells – As perhaps you may know, I was in the same prisoner-of-war Camp as your son Geoffrey, and after the Armistice I had the good fortune to reach our own lines. Since my return to England, I have been in touch with Miss Rogers who has no doubt already written to you, but I felt I would like to write to you also. – We all got out of the camp quite safely after the Armistice but separated into small parties shortly afterwards. I last saw Geoffrey about Sept 10th and he was then very fit and cheerful, and with his friends Paul Randalls (sic) & Sivertsen. I made lots of enquiries subsequently, but heard nothing except that they were believed to be moving southwards.
I can assure you that from my own experience, I know the local inhabitants are very friendly and that they would have no difficulty in finding both food and shelter. It is quite possible that they may be waiting at present for a favourable chance to join our own people. Naturally you must be very anxious, but please be assured that “no news” is really and truly “good news”, because you would certainly have been advised if they had had the bad luck to be re-captured. I wish very much that my news was more up to date, but at least I wanted you to know that they will be able to find people to help them and also that they were
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extremely fit when they started out – you should have seen our South African rugger team! Perhaps you will be kind enough to pass on my message to the relations of Randalls and Sivertsen. I believe you know them both well. I shall always be delighted to hear any news you may receive about Geoffrey, and meanwhile please accept my very good wishes for his speedy and safe return. With kindest regards,
Very sincerely yours,
Geoffrey A Phalp.
Dad didn’t tell us much about the war as children but the one story we all remember is this one in the Apennines.
One freezing cold night, in the snow, with a howling wind, the four men sat huddled on the mountain trying to keep warm. They wanted to make a fire but there was only 1 match left in the box.
Dad tells that they drew sticks to see who would have to light the last match and Dad drew the short stick. In true Dad fashion, he made a dramatic story of how he had to cup his hands, with them all huddling to keep the wind out, for him to strike the match that would possibly keep them alive that night. With us all wide-eyed listening to this awful story and the huge responsibility he had, he lit the match and got the fire going. What a relief for us all.
The other story we remember from childhood was Dad telling us about the night he was with the Pelligrini’s having supper when a German soldier walked in. What a terrifying thing that must have been. The whole family would have been shot for harbouring an escaped PoW if caught. Dad’s acting skills must have come to the fore. The soldier was invited to join them at
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the table and was put next to Dad who proceeded to speak his best Italian and ply the soldier with wine. They landed up having a great drunken evening and parted the best of friends.
12th March 1944
Dave Short wrote a letter to Dad’s parents asking them if they had had any news of Dad. He had met chaps who were with him in Italy who told him that Dad was fine except thinner. He longed to meet up with him again after they got separated at Tobruk.
Dad was recaptured by the Germans again at the end of March 1944.
Exactly where we do not know. They had walked about 600km down the Apennines before being recaptured.
Sadly, there is no letter telling of this event.
[photograph of postcard with caption]: At last on the 25th of March, six months later, this card arrived
TRANSIT CAMP FOR P0W. FP. Nr. 31979
Date 26th March 1944
I am prisoner- in German captivity, and in perfect health. From here I shall be transported during the next few days to another camp, the address of which I shall give you later. Only there I can get your letters and can reply to them.
NAME AND CHRISTIAN NAME: Randles, Paul John Leonard
UNIT: 2nd South African Division
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Now Dad was in German captivity having being caught in Italy trying to get through to the Allied forces in Southern Italy. At least his parents knew he was safe.
Alex has worked out that Dad and his friends were probably at the transit camp at Pissignano near a town called Campello Sul Clitunno, before being sent to Germany, so off they went to find it.
[photograph with caption]: CAMPELLO SUL CLITUNNO, P.G. 77 (DULAG 226)
[photograph with caption]: Kath at the transit camp PG 77at which Kath and Alex felt most uncomfortable. They said it was a depressing place with a bad atmosphere.
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[Text box] Citations at War Memorial, Large Plaque
During WW11 this site was a prisoner of war camp. On 5th August 1942 the camp held about 300 British and Greek prisoners. Following a popular uprising in Montenegro against Italian occupation, The Royal Army of Italy unleashed ferocious repression, capturing thousands of individuals, among them civilians. On 26th November 476 captured civilians were deported from the Albanian port of Durres. The prisoners reached Campello sul Clitunno (P.G. 77) on 3rd December. During the following months a steady stream of new arrivals ensured that in all about 800 prisoners were interned here. The prisoners were housed in military tents in harsh conditions throughout the winter of 1942 and into the summer of 1943, exposing them to suffering and disease. After the Armistice (8th September 1943) the camp fell under German command. It was finally abandoned on 8th February 1944.
[Text box] Small Plaque
From August 1942 until September 1943 this was the site of a concentration camp, a place of suffering and hardship inflicted upon hundreds of military and civilian internees by the Fascist regime. In their memory, in the name of justice and equality among peoples, we renew our promise to defend peace, freedom and respect for all humankind.
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27th April 1944. Germany, Stalag 1VG
The letter telling of Dad and his mates’ recapture is missing. Perhaps this letter never got through.
Dad says that there have been no letters since the last batch but he hopes they will be rolling in shortly. They had been at the work camp for 10 days, where they work from 6am to 6pm.They shovel, wheel barrows, lift cement moulds about the place and are kept pretty busy. There are 35 of them, very comfortable in their little billet and so far, getting on very well.
Dad was working on a gigantic cement mixer, feeding it with shale, sand and cement.
He is learning German and coming on well owing to its clear association with Afrikaans. The pronunciation is reputed to be the difficulty, but to us who know Afrikaans, it’s almost identical. Dad said he even knew a bit of Russian. He missed his old mates (Boots Newmarch, Niffy Turner and the rest) who were very good to him at the previous camp, and went to a lot of trouble to make him comfortable.
1st June 1944 this rather belated letter was sent to Dad’s Dad, Len Randles. By now of course they knew that Dad had been recaptured by the Germans.
The recaptured POWs were taken by cattle trucks, up the Brenner Pass into Germany.
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[photograph of letter]
UNION OF SOUTH AFRICA, UNIE VAN SUID AFRIKA
21ST June 1944
Dear Mr. Randles,
I have to advise that a recent cable from War Office, London, states that information has been received from a reliable source to the effect that your son, Private Paul John Leonard Randles, in company with a number of other South African Prisoners of War, is reported to be free and well in German-occupied Italy; it would appear that he was seen there during the period 22nd January, 1944 to 31st January, 1944.
It should be clearly understood that in passing this news to you, the Department is not in a position to confirm the report from official sources but it is sent in the hope that it will serve to allay some anxiety on your part.
In the circumstances it will be appreciated that it would be unwise at present to make any further enquiries as to his location or welfare as these might prejudice his chances of reaching ultimate safety.
Immediately any further news is received you will, of course, be notified. Should you receive any communication direct however, prior to an official report, it would be appreciated if you would inform the Officer-in-Charge of War Records.
OFFICER IN CHARGE OF WAR RECORDS.
1st July 1944.
Dave Short wrote to tell his parents that Dad had landed up in Stalag VIla, a German PoW camp. Norman Young, who was with Dave, managed to get word through to him via Des Butler, but they had had no reply. There was a great possibility of him coming to work near Dave and maybe meeting up. There had been reports of Dad being fit and much thinner. He was longing to have a chat
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with him. This must have happened at the end of June.
[map of Stalags in Germany]
[Text box] Stalag VII-A (in full: Kriegsgefangenen-Mannschafts-Stammlager VII-A) was Germany’s largest prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, located just north of the town of Moosburg in southern Bavaria. The camp covered an area of 35 hectares (86 acres). It served also as a transit camp through which prisoners, including officers, were processed on their way to other camps. At some time during the war, prisoners from every nation fighting against Germany passed through it. At the time of its liberation on 29 April 1945, there were about 80,000 prisoners in the camp, mostly from France and the Soviet Union (1). Many others were billeted in Arbeitskommando working in factories, repairing railroads or on farms.
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[photograph with caption]: Dad’s POW Tag from Stalag VIIA
[photograph with caption]: Stalag VIIA
[Text box] More British, Commonwealth and Polish prisoners came from the North African campaign and the offensive against the Italian-held islands in the Mediterranean. They were brought here from Italian PoW camps after the Armistice with Italy in September 1943, including many who escaped at that time and were recaptured. Italian soldiers were also imprisoned.
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9th July 1944
Stalag VIIA via Kriegsgefangenpost
It was just a matter of time before they were all together again, says Dad hopefully! It was his second week in Germany and that thanks to the Red Cross parcels he was gaining weight again. Arthur Sivertsen would be able to tell his parents everything. (I don’t know how come he went home)
16th July, 1944. Dad wrote that Dave Short had passed through months ago, he was apparently camp carpenter at a neighbouring camp. He was responsible for the stage effects in a recent musical comedy produced at his camp. Dad had received news of his brother Peter through other prisoners from SA and had also had news of Peter from Noel Charlton who had seen him, not in Italy, but knew where he was fighting. He remarked that 2 years was up now and he had had enough of the monotony and as always sent love to them all including his grandmother, Grams.
30th July 1944. Dad wrote that he had now been in Germany for a month and it had not been too bad, made more bearable by receiving parcels. They managed to get out occasionally to the main sports field for a few games of basketball and were gradually becoming fit again. In a few days, they were due to leave on a working draft, where to they didn’t know. So, they got to see a bit of Germany. Dad thought next time he wrote it would probably be from a different camp. There was a small batch of 50 of them including Jinks and a few other South Africans. Chaps coming into the camp from hospitals brought with them good reports of their treatment, which Dad found reassuring.
8th August 1944
Dad wrote to say they had arrived at a truly smashing camp and met up with old pals. Still no sign of Dave Short though. It was very well organized with lots of sports a marvellous theatre, comfortable quarters and bags of Red Cross kit and parcels. He had a great time catching up on the news with old friends. He was now a corporal but no mention of it was made. This was Stalag IVB.
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[photographs with caption]: Stalag IVB was at Muhlberg on the Elbe, 30mls north of Dresden.
[photograph of post card from the S.A. PRISONERS-OF-WAR RELATIVES ASSOCIATION]
30th August 1944
S.A. PRISONERS-OF-WAR RELATIVES ASSOCIATION
30th August 1944
P.J.L. Randles, P0W.No.132109, Stalag 7a.
Am for the second time a prisoner. Health and spirits are well. All my love, Paul.
9th September, 1944. Neville Turner wrote to Dad’s mother to say that Dad had arrived in his camp. Stammlager IVB (Stalag for short) together with Jinks and another chap. He was looking very well and as cheerful as ever. They hadn’t stopped talking and catching up with all the news.
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Dad was very pleased to tell his parents that he was lucky enough to represent South Africa against England in the Cricket test match which SA won comfortably. He only scored 18 runs, but it was the top score.
Later he wrote that he had received 22 letters, most from his parents, his sister and his girlfriend Ann Green. He was beside himself with joy and re read the letters again and again. He was so sorry that he hadn’t managed to get through to the Allies in their escape. He and Jinks were due to go out on a work party so would be leaving all his good friends for a time. His old mate Arthur Sivertsen somehow seemed to have gone home and would be seeing Dad’s parents to give them all the news.
29th September, 1944. Neville Turner wrote again to say that Dad and Jinks had been sent out working. They had tried to keep him at the camp, but only NCO’s were exempt from work. Dad was taken out of a cricket match to go off to work. (I bet he was pleased!)
Dad wrote to say that they were well established in their working camp. There were 35 of them and there was lots of hard work, but he assured his Mum that he would, without a doubt be home for her next birthday.
October 1944. Dad said that the expectation of the end of the war, bears very heavily on him. This was the worst period so far of being a PoW. He was very tired of it all. He missed his family desperately and was tired of the monotonous existence. It wasn’t the luxuries of life that he missed so much as the loving care of his parents. He had been giving a lot of thought to marriage and realized how very important it was to pick the right partner.
Winter was setting in and the days were getting very chilly but otherwise there was no news, just lots of work.
He had just got a letter from his Aunt Maggie in England to his new address. This was the first confirmation that his parents knew where he was as he hadn’t received any letters from them there although he had got lots of Italian mail.
25th October, 1944
A Lt. Cox wrote to Dad’s parents thanking them for the parcel they had sent him in appreciation for forwarding a letter from Dad. This seemed to have come via an Italian. And was possibly the letter of the 6th Dec 1943 from San Donato. He was so sorry to hear that Dad had been recaptured. He said that they question the natives/locals extensively as they want to find as many of their fellows as possible. It was difficult to get facts from the natives but what they told Cox was that Dad and a few others had been living in the mountains all through the winter hoping to get through to Allied lines. Lt Cox said, as you have heard, it
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proved impossible for our army to advance between Dec and May and consequently your son was confronted with the almost impossible task of passing unseen through an enemy line which was unbelievably strongly guarded by dogs and minefields. It would have been an outstanding bit of work if he had been able to do it, but taking into account the atrocious weather which prevailed, it was a thousand to one against him. It was extremely bad luck that he should have been six months trying to get through only to be recaptured and I can imagine how such news would seem to you after getting the letter I sent on. He assured them that Dad was in relative safety and well looked after by the Red Cross. He once again thanked Dad’s parents for the sweets, an unheard-of luxury.
To Ebbie and Reg, (These are possibly Dave Shorts’ parents) Dad says that after a most enjoyable spell at large in Italy, I find myself once again between four walls, this time in a cement factory working from 6-6 and not very light work, as you can well imagine.
The next post card was addressed from Stalag lVg which was not a camp but German Military headquarters for the area of Leipzig. All prisoners were in little working parties around Leipzig.
Dad said, I don’t think I have ever pushed so many wheel barrows in all my life and have not much intention of continuing the practice at a later date. If there is anything you want to know about cement mixing, girder-construction or concrete moulds, just drop me a line.
In late November Dad was very excited as Jinks had received a parcel from home sent to Camp 49 in Italy, then redirected to Geneva then eventually reached him in Germany. Dad hoped that his parcel would be coming soon. He couldn’t help but think they would be all meeting soon.
5th December, 1944. Dad received a tobacco parcel, also sent to Italy then forwarded to Germany. He reckoned besides being a virtual capitalist he was almost a millionaire – such was the state of the tobacco market. Then he received 3 letters from July, August and September which he read over and over devouring, all the home news. His good mate Arthur Sivertsen had visited his parents and given them all the news which they must have thrilled to hear.
29th November, 1944. Jinks received a tobacco parcel so the two of them were smoking to their hearts’ content once more. Dad said, a remarkable spirit exists between Jinks and I, a stronger bond binding two friends would be hard to find. Very rarely do we squabble and everything is shared alike. Our thoughts and opinions very rarely differ and I could wish for no truer a friend. I have been very
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lucky with my friends and perhaps appreciate the fact more than most chaps do. They were busy preparing a very busy program for their stay in England after the war. They wanted to do so much and visit so many friends they had made during their time in camps that they didn’t think they could possibly fit it all in, although they would give it to good try!
This extract from a letter from S/SGT Talbot fills in a lot of details.
15th November 1944
“Captain Eksteen gave a lecture today to the POW Association. There were a couple of hundred people present. He was very interesting indeed. Here are some of the points I can remember…..”
When armistice was declared in Italy they were given orders at first (by Intelligence I think) not to make a break for it. Only at the last minute when it was obvious that Jerry was taking over did any make an attempt to escape. Wireless information given them was false. They went to Germany in wired cattle trucks, 40-50 men per truck. They were allowed out of the trucks every 36 hours. Water was rather short. Some went to Silesia at first but eventually almost all landed up at camp 5A which is about 40 miles from Karlsruhe and the same distance from Stuttgart. They used to see the several hundreds of bombers raiding these places but were of course well out of the danger area. VA was a French officer’s penal camp originally and therefore not very pleasant. It consists of large bungalows – I’ve forgotten how many-and a court yard in which the men exercise and play soccer, basketball and so on. There are about 500 South African Officers there. Their food ration was only potatoes and rye, 1/2 oz of meat (including bone) per day, and bread made from potato, rye and sawdust. They sometimes made booze from the bread as it wasn’t very edible. But for Red Cross he said that not 20% of the men could ever have come back. Red Cross food and clothes parcels arrive regularly every week and are pooled-and they have two good hot meals from this source and a rather special meal on Sundays. He said that they had two months’ reserve of Red Cross food in store. He emphasised that relatives shouldn’t waste money on sending clothes as there was a huge store of clothes, boots, shirts and winter battledress. But he said that mails had been falling off recently and people simply must continue to write regularly as most mails get through eventually. He said that the German censors used a type of Blacking which they had learned to remove leaving the letter legible provided it was type written.
All the men were in excellent health and spirits-sometimes they had a cold, but none were in hospital sick.
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The guards on the camp were mostly old men who had been in the last war and were very fair and decent. They were not allowed to talk to them, but sometimes overheard them discussing the war and saying that Germany was definitely beaten. It is only the Gestapo and Nazis (about 1/3 of the population) who keep the war going with their iron rule. A German woman who gave an apple to a sick N.Z PoW was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment.
The POW’s dug secret tunnels as a pastime. One tunnel was 150 ft long and ended up under a cultivated field outside the camp. Usually the field was hand-cultivated, but the day before the escape was scheduled, a tractor was used to and happened to fall into the tunnel. Forty men tried to escape through another tunnel which came out into a storehouse but the lock on the storehouse had been changed and the next day the tunnel was discovered. In digging the tunnels, they used to take earth away a few grains at a time in their pockets and idly get rid of it while on walks. They even installed electric lights in the tunnels and kept it ventilated with a long line of Klim tins strung together, having a man blowing with bellows at the other end. Some of the tunnels were discovered because one of the prisoners was giving away information (no, it may not have been a prisoner-he said “they had a stooge in the camp” but they got him well under control. He said they didn’t bother to escape because they are certain of being released soon. He said he did not think the camp could possibly be shifted when the Allies break through as there is absolutely nowhere to shift them to. There had been great difficulty in finding anywhere to park them in the first place. He is confident that as soon as Gen. Patton’s forces breakthrough in the North all the camps in that area will be isolated from the rest of Germany and the prisoners will be free. He anticipates this will happen in the next few weeks. He was told by the war office in England that there were arrangements to control the camps and supply them with food the instant there was a complete break through or Armistice.
At one time the water had been very scarce but now there was a fairly good supply and they were certain of hot showers once a week. Their camp had been muddy but ashes had been put over this and conditions were better but of course very dirty. I overheard him telling someone that her son was studying law very hard and that everyone was studying something.
26th December, 1944. Dad wrote 5 letters home. Since the last card they hadn’t been given any letter cards to write on so couldn’t wish his Dad a happy birthday or his family a happy Christmas. He wrote most affectionately to his father about how he and Pete had tried to model themselves on him and wanted so much to be as successful as their father. He said, oh! For the day when I can step into your
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shoes and say, it’s your turn for a rest Dad, leave it to me now. Dad loved his parents dearly. They had had a good Christmas in the camp with plenty of food.
In the next letter, he talked of being allow to lie in and have the day off on Christmas day which was a luxury. Although they were only allowed a half a parcel a week then they pooled their food and the cooks made the most delicious meal from them. They sat around the fire in their room, as the frost was lying thick outside, singing carols, joking around and playing games. After supper, they put on a pantomime which Dad was in again. Despite the lack of props it went off remarkably well. Dad was happily smoking his pipe with tobacco the family had sent.
In the last 2 weeks, he had received 12 letters, one of them from his Mum and Dad, the first from them after hearing of his recapture. He was so pleased that Arthur had given them first-hand information and grateful his parents had given him a good time when he visited.
It was comforting if not a bit intoxicating to hear of his financial resources, his accumulated army pay, but he promised he wouldn’t throw it away on wild celebration. He had sweated blood, suffered hunger, thirst and maltreatment for that money, possibly the hardest wage he had ever earned. He said there was plenty of time for celebration when he was home with his family and then to share it when he was married to someone he loved dearly.
Dad was excited about his first ever visit to England and wanted to do and see as much as possible. It sounds clear in his letters that they expected the war to end soon and in the Allies’ favour.
About his studies Dad was still dead set on going home to study Law. He hoped to be good enough to step into his father’s shoes. Which of course he did, when he joined Randles, Davis and Wood in PMB. He wanted it said that he was a chip off the old block. He promised not to let his father down and would give his profession everything he had. He certainly knew more now than he had before he set off to war having studied a lot under some lawyers in the prison camps. Grandpa Randles wrote to one of these lawyers later on, thanking him for helping Dad. He asked his sister Ann not to get married before he got home as he wanted her to himself for a while. In the last of these 5 letters Dad tells his parents that his enthusiasm for Ann Green had cooled very much. There was lots to time to find himself a good wife and he didn’t want to make a mistake in this regard. About a remark from his mother about becoming a grandmother he told her that when he and Pete got started, she would have her time cut out. (in the end they had 8 children between them.)
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There is a most important sentence here where Dad says he is so pleased that they received that letter from Ma and Jim. Though rude old peasants, they are wonderful people, with hearts of gold and overpowering tenderness. They kept me alive for many months I shall never forget them. These are the folk who sheltered and fed Dad in the mountains above San Donato. Dad must have given them the letter of Dec 6th 1943 to post for him.
He certainly did not forget them as years later when Jinks went to visit the families who had looked after them, Dad sent a suitcase full of money to them. Jinks and Dad were looked after by two brothers, Vincenzo and Franco Pelligrini. Jinks visited them 4 times, the last time with their son Tim Chennels, who Gill and I met in July 2016.
I remember Dad telling us the story of his gift being received with cries of, Basta, basta (enough, enough), when he saw all the money in Lire.
Tim Chennels told us this wonderful story of his father. When Jinks went to tell his patron (Franco Pelligrini) that they must leave their hut in the mountains as the Germans were getting suspicious and they didn’t want to endanger the families, his patron took him into his humble home and opened a safe. In the safe was a bottle of wine and under it some lire. He gave all the money, probably his life savings, to Jinks. Jinks didn’t want to accept it but said he knew that one day Jinks would come back and return it.
In a sweet letter to his sister, Ann, Dad congratulated her on doing so well at her studies and sport at school and promised it would not be long before he drove up to St Anne’s to fetch her for the holidays. He asked one favour of her and that was for her to find him a nice young girl to marry. He was sure her choice would be perfect.
Dad was overjoyed to write home that he had received a clothing parcel that had been sent in Aug 1943 and only reached him now via Geneva. He was thrilled as his clothes were in a poor state by then. The winter was hitting them with biting winds, frost and snow.
In late January 1945 they held a mock trial. As Dad was the only one who knew anything about the procedure, he was responsible for the execution of the trial. A murder was committed and the accused found and tried. I defended him – he was hung!!!
12th February, 1945. Dad said that they had a break in the winter weather and it was just like spring. Cold weather depressed him and he was so pleased he lived in South Africa as he couldn’t stand those winters. He had had enough snow and
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frost to last him a lifetime. As always, he was longing for them all. They were going through a bad time with no mail or Red Cross parcels getting through to them. However, they were saved, by Jinks receiving a parcel of 100 cigarettes so that was tiding them over. (Dad suffered in his later years from terrible circulation in his legs and eventually died at the age of 57 from a heart attack. I wonder how much all this smoking contributed to his early death).
In March Dad wrote home to say that he had received a card through the Red Cross letting him know his parents were well. It was the first news he had had from home in 6 weeks so was very relieved. The winter was almost over, thankfully. Due to transport problems, they were out of the parcels which had kept them going.
7th March, 1945 Dad got his first proper letter from home after 6 weeks. It was dated the 12th November. How he longed to be home with them all and be treated to breakfast in bed in the rondavel like old times. He found it strange to hear that Jeff had been seen out with the Porritt girls. I asked my friend Bernice Porritt, and she said it would have been Joan Porritt, Doug’s cousin who was Joan Pinnel and died recently. He asked his parents to find him an attractive, charming girl bubbling with energy for when he got home. In the end I think they did as they invited our aunt Floss and Mum over one night to meet Dad and Peter after the war, and things happened from there. Mum said she initially preferred Peter!
He supposed Jeff (? Fredericks) was bored being home after all the action at the front but he assured his folks he would be quite happy to spend the rest of his life lolling in a chair with lots of books and food and his family all around him.
26th March, 1945 The sun had come out and they had spent the day lying outside in shorts. They had spring cleaned their billet which it had needed after them all being cooped up all winter.
An interesting letter was sent to Grandpa Randles, on the 27th April, 1945 from D. Venn from the Military Hospital at Voortrekkerhoogte.
I have just received your letter and I thank you for your kind wishes. Since my return from Germany, I have been confined to hospital, but they are fixing me up fine. If your son was at 1VG that means he was working in or around Leipzig where I was. As a matter of fact, I think he worked at the gasworks there, because there was only one other South African crowd in that area. 1VG is not a camp, it is the German Military Headquarters for that area around Leipzig, Halle and Wurzen. Oschatz is the H.Q., but it is forty miles north east of Leipzig, but no prisoners are kept there, they are all in little working parties around Leipzig and Wurzen. If you have not yet received a cable, I think you soon will, because he should be out of it by now. IVB is at Muhlberg, on the Elbe, 30m north of Dresden.
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That is where we all go to be registered as P.0 W. In this evening’s Star newspaper, I just saw that a group of chappies from IVG had arrived in Brighton. They were all working in that area. Hoping that you will soon receive word of him. D.Venn.
8th May 1945. VE Day. WW2 ended in Europe.
[photograph of telegram with caption] 5 May 1945
TO PWM MR AND MRS LEN RANDLES 19 HUTCHINSON ROAD, SCOTTSVILLE, NATAL
HAVE AT LAST ARRIVED SAFE AND SOUND ENGLAND. PAUL
6th May, 1945. To his beloved parents, oh the feeling to be free again, to be really alive and take notice of what is happening around you. The sense of freedom actually come slowly, it grows on one and only after a few days does one realize what has taken place. Somehow there was a parcel from home waiting for him in Brighton, to welcome him.
The closing days in Germany before liberation were very strange ones indeed. When the Americans by passed Leipzig, they thought it was all over, but the Germans had different ideas. They decided to evacuate the prisoners who were bundled out of the camps carrying all their kit and marched east along the open road. Dad said it was no joke to have to carry all their kit but they fortunately managed to scrounge an old rusty wheelbarrow which was their saviour. Others managed to steal or beg little hand carts from the civilians and before long our convoy became a replica in Technicolor of the Great Trek. They left Oschatz on the 16th, about 1000 strong, and were joined along the way by surrounding commandos as they marched. They crossed the Elbe at Strekla and that night reached Jacobsthal, 10 miles later, where they bedded down for the night. By that
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time nearly all IVG had joined the march, some 2,500 strong. There were only 200 Englishmen, the rest French, Poles, Russians and the rest. They were in the woods at Jacobsthal for 3 days when the Russians started their offensive on the Oder and Lower Neisse, most inconsiderate of them from a German point of view. By then they were due west of Gorlitz and the Russians were coming in their direction so the Germans decided to march them all back across the Elbe in the direction from which they had come. Rather the Americans than the Russians was their dictum.
In the end the Germans landed up handing the prisoners over to the Americans on the 25th April 1945 at Trebsen just south of Wurzen, 15 miles later. What a moment, the Yanks were mobbed in delight, the guards taken prisoner and they were liberated. All this took place at midnight and by 1 am they were on their way in a German Opel which they had pinched. They saw what was left of Germany at their leisure. The Yanks were wonderful to them all the way. The chaps ate and smoked all day and night, until their tongues were raw and their stomachs felt like balloons. They crossed the Rhine at Wiesbaden and the French border at Mety and entered Paris on Sunday the 29th April where they spent a very swift moving day and 2 nights. Dad said, no thanks, you can have Paris and the women. Phew! The last stretch they did by train to Le Havre and then to Aylesbury, 48 miles Northwest of London, then on to Brighton, which was the repatriation centre. Dad said the organization all along had been magnificent, they had been given so much kit, comforts and cigs he didn’t know where to put it all. After all the horrors and maltreatment they had seen, England was soothing to the eye. The girls were also lovely! He would be phoning Aunt Maggie in half an hour and would probably be home in 6 weeks, Oh for that day!
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[image of map with caption]: Map showing the route they marched before being freed
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11th May, 1945 a letter arrived from Aunt Maggie at Bexhill-on-Sea, telling Grandma and Grandpa Randles, Dad’s parents, that she had received a cable from Dad telling her he was free. What joyous news for the family after 5 long years.
There is no detail about how the men got to England but they were stationed at Brighton until being returned home. Bexhill on Sea was nearby.
Dad went to spend VE day with Aunt Maggie. He looked very fit and well and not at all thin. (It’s funny how often Dad’s weight is mentioned in these letters. As a child, I remember him eating quite a lot and thinking it was because had so often had too little to eat during the war, and that he was making up for it now!) She was so delighted to see him and thought he was a dear! He was coming over again on Sunday and she had asked him to make her home his HQ while he was in England. He was having a month’s leave and was planning on seeing all he could during that time.
12th May, 1945 Dad wrote home to say how thrilled he was to receive their cable which made it obvious that his parents knew he had been liberated. He did not want to share with them then his privations in Germany but would wait till they were all together again. So now it was back to a life worth living! He was so happy to be alive. He had been to see Aunt Maggie on VE day and she had embraced him, kissed him and cried all at the same time. Dad said she was a very dear woman and was so terribly pleased to see him. She lived in a beautiful little house with her godsend of a maid, Annie who seemed to keep her going and was a ray of sunshine.
They spent a quiet day together talking nonstop and poring over family photographs. He assured his parents that the food parcels they had been sending during the war had helped Maggie so much as rationing had been very strict. Aunt Maggie looked very good for her age, but suffered with a bad leg and couldn’t get around much. Bexhill was a lovely little village quite near Brighton where the men were stationed. He was most interested to hear her stories of the bombing and narrow escapes, plus to see the damage to the buildings for himself. He returned to Brighton at about 5pm on VE day and picked up Jinks and off they went to London to celebrate. What a night. He had never seen such a crowd in his life and never wanted to again. He reckoned if you weren’t careful you could easily have been trampled to death.
They spent a few minutes in Westminster Abbey in thanksgiving in that overpowering and awesome atmosphere, then set off up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square. They went through Admiralty Arch, up the Mall to Buckingham Palace. No sooner had they found a favourable place to stand than the King, Queen and the 2 princesses appeared on the balcony. The half million strong crowd went mad. He said, Dad would know, he was there last time. Strange that father and son should see alternately the Armistices of two World Wars celebrated in a capital thousands of miles from their homes.
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17th May, 1945. Dave Short wrote to Dad’s parents:
As you have most probably heard Paul and I have met up again after three ghastly years. We met in a tea room here with a few others of the old crowd, and what rejoicings. He said that Paul had not changed a bit except to have grown taller and was now as tall as Dave. He was going to meet up with Dad the next day in London. He emphasized how much he had missed Dad during the last three years. Brighton at present was overrun by South Africans, he was once more amazed at the number of friends and acquaintances he had made. He said he had never known so many men in his life. Dad, Jinks, Norman and Dave were planning a trip to Scotland and had drawn rail warrants. He was sure Dad would keep his parents up all night talking, when he got home.
22nd May, 1945. Dad spent his birthday on the 21st May with Jinks and his Aunt in Buckinghamshire. They went to a garden fete in a beautiful country manor. A couple somehow connected with the fete took them. The Queen of Albania was to open the fete and suddenly they were asked to go and meet the Queen and her two step daughters. A very select group were invited, including a retired judge, a General, the hostesses, Jinks and Dad. The Queen was young and beautiful and could speak perfect English. He was quite thrilled by this event. (Dad’s Mother, Grandma Randles was always a great Royalist, so would have been most impressed by this.)
The happiest night he spent since he arrived in England was with Ernest Green who had arranged a party at the Savoy for David and Dad. Four women arrived to partner the men, one of whom was a champion tennis player, Joan Ingram. They spent a wonderful night dining luxuriously, dancing to superb music with a lovely girl who was his partner.
Dad had been so thrilled to see David again. They had a big reunion dinner at Brighton when they met up for the first time in 3 years. They were then on official thirty days leave which ended on 14th June 1945. Four of them, Jinks, Dad, Dave and Norman Young went to London to do all the shows. Then they were setting off for Scotland and then intended to make their way down via the Lake District.
Dad had spent the first two days of his leave with Aunt Maggie who had given him Uncle Walter’s solid silver cigar case and silver match box. The most exquisite articles he had ever seen. Grandpa had sent money to Dad via Barclays Bank which he was most thrilled with. He put it in his pay book with other money he had and it mounted up to a whopping 350 pounds.
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[photograph with caption]: Jinks Chennels, Dad, Dave Short on Brighton beach 1945
These 3 men stayed friends for life and our family, Mum, Dad, me, Kath, Gill, Poo and Steve spent many happy times with Dave and his family on their sugar cane farm at Gingindhlovu growing up. Jinks married Betty and as kids we used to chant Betty and Jinks are coming for drinks. Now 71 years later we have traced Jink’s son Tim and daughter Lynn. Gill tracked Lynn down in Hilton in order to get information from the Chennels family about the war years.
[photograph with caption]: Lynn Chennels, Jen and Gill (Randles) Tim Chennels. 2016
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On to Scotland
In June 1945 they set off on a road trip up to Scotland. A friend, Ian Pyott, very kindly arranged a car for them. This had to be collected in Liverpool so after all the festivities in London had died down, they set off by train to fetch the car.
Dad didn’t think much of Liverpool; it was a filthy hole and always raining. However, they went to the Liverpool Theatre and saw an opening performance of a musical with the current stars, Jeanette Me Donald and Nelson Eddie, Ann Ziegler and Webster Booth. A wonderful show with excellent singing. After the show, they went to a nightclub where they met a young naval officer who had been treated very well in South Africa. He wanted to return the favour so invited the four of them to dine with him the following night on his corvette. David and Norman had to fetch the car, so Jinks and Dad attended the dinner, and what a party they had. They practically crawled down the gangplank only to be given a smacking salute as the commander showed them off the ship.
The biggest snag was to get sufficient petrol coupons for the trip. They soon overcame this problem by spinning their sob story. Ex South African POWs visiting the beautiful country after 3 years of suffering in the cage. It always worked!
From Liverpool, they went to Blackpool where they experienced how the masses are entertained. There were enormous dance halls holding 2000 couples, fun fairs, variety shows etc. From there they went to the Lake District which they just loved. Dad called it the fairy Land of England. They stayed in nice hotels and wallowed in luxury. In Carlisle, they booked for a show and were passing a bit of time before the show by wandering down the streets when two very nice-looking girls rushed out at them and invited them to a party. As they had booked for the show they asked if they could come later, so that’s what they did. Dad said it one of the happiest nights he had spent in England, far removed from the other happy one at the Savoy, in a poor family’s kitchen, but just as much fun. They rolled up their sleeves and danced to the wavering tunes of a very old man on a harmonium. Lots of food and drink, no funny business and a good time was had by all.
From Carlisle on to Edinburgh. Where they admired the castle and the beautiful city. They headed for an address of a well-known doctor and ex Michaelhousian who was expecting them through the arrangements of Jack Ardington. They met his family and the doctor explained he was sending them up to his country cottage in the highlands where they could stay for as long as they liked. Who was there waiting for them but Douglas Turner! Dad described him to his parents as the opening bat for Natal, a Maritzburg man and Captain in the RAF. There was also a chap called Walter Shaw staying there. Douglas was to act as their guide. (In later years Douglas Turner and his wife became good friends of Mum and Dad and Ann was my godmother.) They stayed friends until they all died.
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So, well stocked with provisions, they set off for Aberfeldy which was North of Perth and South of Inverness. The men arrived at an attractive little cottage in a picturesque glen. Dad said it was useless to try and describe the beauty of the place. It was hillier that what they had seen so far, the hills covered in heather and slightly wooded, infested with rabbits, deer and grouse.
The glens and valleys were too beautiful for words, with little streams running through them. All up the glen were mansions, castles and hunting lodges where the nobility came to shoot in the season.
Dad said his Dad would love to fish in the brooks and rivers that were teaming with salmon and trout. Their cottage lay at the head of Glen Lyon, the breeding place of the Campbell, McGregor and Stewart clans. They were told the legends of the old days when for an afternoon’s sport the clans would go out and hunt each other!
Dad played golf on the most beautiful course he had ever seen, in the grounds of Taymouth Castle. They watched sheep dogs bringing in the sheep acting merely on the orders of the farmer standing some miles away with a whistle.
At night, they went to a village dance where they learnt to dance eightsome and foursome reels amongst others. They visited a tweed mill, Haggots, famed throughout the world. They cooked their own meals at the cottage which was double-storied with 10 rooms and fitted with every modern convenience. Being in the country they could get eggs, butter milk, and lived like lords. He said he’d put on pounds.
It was with great reluctance that they moved on to Dundee. Ian had arranged for them to stay with the Batchelors, a very important personage in Scotland in the Air ministry. Once again, they were treated like kings. Whisky flowed like water, they got breakfast in bed by the 2 charming daughters and were thoroughly spoiled. Dad really liked the Scots, they were so hospitable and sincere.
They went to see the St Andrews golf course but didn’t have time to play. He bought himself a set of Tommy Armour golf clubs, probably the best in the world. They visited Glamis Castle, belonging to the Queen’s father where they were preparing for the visit by the king and Queen in a weeks’ time.
Reluctantly they left their very generous hosts and motored from Dundee to Edinburgh where they went to thank Dr. Verney for the use of his cottage, then on to Durham. They planned on returning the car, a Ford 10, to Liverpool the following day. It had been a godsend for the four of them. He reckoned they would have covered 1000 miles by the time they got home. Their friend Ian had invited them to a party in Piccadilly which was to be his farewell party, and he had organized some girls for them all. Dad had golf appointment with Joan Ingram, the tennis player, where he was keen to try out his new clubs. He was proud that out of the 100 pounds he drew in London he still had 40 pounds left.
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After a visit with Dave to some friends in Kent he would see Aunt Maggie, then Brighton, then HOME. He was so excited at the prospect of seeing his family again.
17th June, 1945. Dad said the letters from home were now pouring in. He last wrote from Durham. Since then, they had returned the car to Liverpool and went back to London. They had accepted an invitation to Ian’s party and met up with the same girls that they had met the previous time. It was a grand affair at the Piccadilly. Ian had been very good to them and the evening ended up with Sarie Marias being played by the band. This was followed by a slap-up dinner, once again in the Piccadilly with the Batchelors whom they had met in Dundee. They were treated to the most delicious food, the likes of which they hadn’t seen before. The Batchelor’s daughter had brought with her the Tweed clothes that Dad had asked her to buy in Scotland. It seems one of them was for his mother. He left the choice of colour to the daughter, as he had no idea.
Their next adventure was off to Newmarket to watch the Derby. They put some money on the horses and had a wonderful day watching the races and the lovely women. Dad was amazed at the wonderful hats. They got a lift back into London in a meat van after plenty of excitement with some of the bookies running away to avoid paying out, and tremendous traffic jams.
They went to a variety show which Dad was most impressed with, wondering how they managed to produce such fabulous costumes with the coupons they had. They were accompanied by three Wrens whom he found very much more refined and cultured than the other Women’s services.
The men dined with a friend at a flat in Harley Street where they watched the famous specialists coming and going in their Rolls Royce’s, immaculately turned out in frock coats and spats. Dad told of his visit to the houses of parliament to see Wakefield but due to the forthcoming elections he was too busy to see him. Anyway, he had an interesting time watching the famous people, including Mr. Atlee, pass by.
They enjoyed another tennis match with their friend Joan, the tennis champ, followed by drinks at her flat. She organized for them all to attend an address by Lord Beaverbrook, an MP in the House of Commons, to the people of Paddington Constituency. They had front row seats and were looking forward to hearing a good speech. Unfortunately, the hecklers didn’t give him a chance. Dad says they were paid men who screamed and shouted at him the whole time. He had to strain to catch a word said by Beaverbrook. If tomatoes hadn’t been so expensive, they would have been thrown. After the meeting broke up, with a socialist shouting at Beaverbrook to get the hell out of here, the fun continued in the street. The Hyde Park soap opera chaps put up their soap boxes and started holding forth. Dave and Dad became embroiled in an argument that lasted an hour, Joan and her friend Wendy were having a go at another woman and great fun was had by all. One woman was carted off hysterically by the police. What fun.
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21st June, 1945. Dad landed with his bum in the butter a lot. One night he went to the booking office to try to get tickets for the currently popular show called ‘Gay Rosalinda ‘only to be told that the tickets were booked up for months. He looked very disappointed and a lady in the queue asked him if he liked good music to which he said he did.
This lady then asked him if he would like two tickets to the Royal Box at the Albert Hall to hear Dame Myra Hess, the famous pianist, playing in the London Symphony Orchestra. Would he ever! The Queen had invited four men from the Dominions as her guests to attend the concert. He jumped at the chance. He was then introduced to a man who told them about the procedure when meeting royalty. Dave fought shy and Jinks was away so Dad invited another friend. The other two were Flight Lieutenants in the RAF, an Aussie and a Canadian.
Promptly at 6.45 pm they presented themselves at the Royal Box. The ushers danced around them when they saw their tickets. A passing Admiral nodded at them. On the stroke of 7pm the Queen arrived with Princess Juliana of Holland and the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose with two lords and ladies.
The queen went straight over to the men and with her lovely smile said, I am so glad you boys could come. I hope you enjoy the concert. She then shook hands with them and introduced them to Juliana and the princesses where after they followed the Royal party into the box. The crowd rose and the orchestra played ‘God save the king.’ There Dad and his friend sat like Lords being peered at by the crowd. He obviously loved every minute. The box was very luxurious with satin curtains and commanded a view of the whole hall packed with 10,000 people.
Strangely enough Dad commented, he had come to appreciate symphony music having heard so much of it in the past three years. Dame Myra Hess was a genius and they heard music by Mendelsohn, Beethoven, Grieg and Bach. He was lost in deep concentration with the lovely music.
On two occasions the Queen turned around to ask them how they were enjoying the music.
Dad was quite at ease and felt cool and calm, but he said the Queen was such a darling, she put everyone at their ease immediately.
At interval, they all rose for the Queen to go to another room for Dame Myra Hess to be presented to her. As she passed the men, she asked each one of them in turn what they thought of the celebrated pianist. They all muttered sweet nothings.
He had studied the Royal family during the concert. The Queen, he said was plump-ish with a very round face with a radiant smile. She was dressed in a lovely light blue summer dress with matching hat and eight rows of pearls. Elizabeth had the identical dress material. She was a lovely thing with a beautiful figure and Margaret Rose was going to be the most beautiful one of the lot. Juliana with a diamond tiara in her hair was fidgeting and sucking cough drops. When they returned, the Queen became engaged in conversation with the RAF chaps.
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Queen Elizabeth saw the two of them standing aside so went over to talk to them. She was very charming and natural, so Dad told her about the Symphony concerts they had had in Stalag IVB in Germany and of the Russian Violinist who was a member of the Russian Symphony Orchestra. She seemed so interested in what Dad had to say. At the end after the anthems the Queen said goodbye to each of them who thanked her for the kind invitation and told her how much they had enjoyed it. They shook hands with each Royal member. Dad was blown away by the experience. He said he would never forget it, out of millions there were the four of them, so honoured and privileged. (I can imagine Grandma’s excitement at this story!)
[photograph of tickets with caption]: Once again Alex did some research and through a friend found these tickets and handbill for Myra Hess’s concert that night, the 19th June 1945.
The ship to take them home to South Africa had been postponed until the 6th July, 1945 and there was no plane service, so they were given another 14 days’ leave. There was further explanation about why the ship was not ready to sail. Not much they could do but continue to enjoy their time in England.
25th June, 1945. The chaps were dying of heat in their winter battle dress. Dad said that if you want to attract attention all you do it wear shorts in the streets. Everyone stops and stares, and the girls whistle at them. He couldn’t care less as long as they were comfortable.
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Dad went to Saville Row to have a suit made for himself. There were three chaps measuring him at once and they took about 50 measurements. He needed an import license to get the suit into South Africa, otherwise the tailor couldn’t send it.
He went to off to Wimbledon one day to watch some tennis and saw the South African playing Canada in a beautiful game. They were staying in a Club in Kensington which Dad loved. It was luxurious and enormous and being in Kensington the setting was perfect. He certainly went to a lot of shows while in London. ‘Gay Rosalinda’, Ivor Novella’s ‘Perchance to dream’, a comedy called ‘Is your Honeymoon Really Necessary” amongst others. After the shows, they usually went to Soho for supper and tried all the different cuisines. Their favourite was Maxim’s, where they ate Chinese food and especially mentioned bamboo shoots. Although he loved England, he was getting very restless to get home. He said they should be leaving on the 10th July.
29th June, 1945. Dad wrote to say that he and David had just returned from a few days with the RAF. It was a fascinating time and he said he had fallen in love with flying. They had seen how things worked that set the bombing raids into action. The pilots were very interested to hear from Dad and Dave about them being at the receiving end of the bombing as they had been in camps near Munich, Dresden and Leipzig. They wanted to know the reaction of the population and intimate little stories that Dad had about the bombing. They were invited by Capt. Pat Addison whom they had met in London and with whom they had been at school. They went to his RAF station outside Lincoln and lived in his officer’s mess where they ate their excellent meals and slept in their luxurious quarters. The W.A.A.Fs did all the batmen duties and served the food.
Pat was part of a Pathfinder Lancaster Squadron, one of the crack ones of England. Dad said you should have seen all the D.S.O and D.F Cs floating around.
Their first trip was with Pat. They took off at 10pm while it was still light and climbed to 6000ft. They were all togged up with Parachutes, Wests Flying Helmet, goggles and earphones. They were plugged in to the intercom and so could hear all the chat between ground and air. The back chat was most amusing and must have relieved the boredom on long flights. They climbed through a deep bank of clouds and he was amazed at the sight up there. The sun was setting and made a red hue on the clouds. He knew his Dad would know what he was talking about. Other planes and Mosquitoes were whizzing past them at high speed. They were just cruising at 280mph.They flew east then turned over the North Sea, back over to the West Coast, then North over Liverpool which was ablaze with light through a gap in the clouds. They were 1500ft up and quite chilly most of the time. Dad sat next to the pilot who explained what all the knobs and dials were for until it made some sense to Dad. They got back at about 2am where they had a snack before bed. Dave had sat with the navigator and wireless operator and was absolutely entranced.
The next morning, they took off to do a mock raid, high level bombing. This time Dad sat in the front turret with the bomb aimer who showed him how everything worked. They were
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bombing a triangle of white stone in an open field. They dropped six bombs, only one of which was a direct hit. The visibility was good so they had an excellent view of the countryside. Pat showed them how to get a fighter off their tail and he made the plane do everything but stand upon its hind legs and speak!
That night Pat was in charge of night flying so Dad and Dave spent a lot of time in the control tower seeing the planes off on their way to respective missions. To think all the 1000 bomber raids that had been conducted from that control tower and we were actually there seeing the great organization in motion, was indeed an experience hard to acquire.
Everyone was very good to them and tried hard to answer all their numerous questions. On departing they visited Lincoln Cathedral which Dad said knocked Westminster Abbey into a cocked hat. It took 214 years for a French monk to build. The stone and oak work were exquisite.
The following day they were off to Wimbledon again to watch the British Empire play the United States. He had been speaking to Eric, the South African representative who said he preferred Ellis Park because the courts there were in better condition than Wimbledon. Dad was now getting terribly impatient to get home; it was also costing too much money. He was buying as many records as he could for his sister, hoping they would get home intact. Once again, he hoped they would sail on the 10th July, 1945.
[photograph of telegram]
LEN RANDLES ESQ BOX 456 PIETERMARITZBURG
AT LONG LAST HERE WE COME THlS TIME DEFINITELY LEAVE TOMORROW LONGING FOR YOU ALL, PAUL RANDLES
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8th July, 1945. Dad was so disappointed to hear when they returned to Brighton that the ship was not ready to leave and no one knew when it would be. Having sent the cable that they were due to leave on the 8th was most annoying. Now that their time in London had come to an end, they couldn’t do much as they only had a day at a time off and had to buy their own rail ticket which was expensive.
Their closing few days in London had ended on a high note. They all met very nice girls at the Overseas League, a very select club indeed. The men took them to several dances at the Piccadilly Hotel and then landed up visiting the various night clubs. The girls were members. Great fun was had by all.
“Who should I meet in the tube but Lewis Pape (a friend from home). When we had got over the shock, I discovered he had come down from Birmingham to see me.”
They talked into the night and the following day went swimming at Roehampton. They went to an Italian restaurant where they had the waiters running around them like flies as they could speak to them in their own language and didn’t need an interpreter to read the menu! (I can just imagine Dad throwing around his poor Italian, getting better at it as the drinks flowed.)
He went to say a tearful goodbye to Aunt Maggie and Annie her maid who cooked the most delicious gooseberry pies. Aunt Maggie gave Dad a gold pendant to give Ann and a solid silver ash tray and silver pencil for Peter. He had become so fond of Aunt Maggie and was sad to say goodbye.
He had had enough now and just couldn’t wait to get home to his beloved family.
13th July, 1945 Once again their departure was cancelled and Dad was now really fed up. They were given another few days’ leave so decided to apply for a private hospitality invitation. They landed up with a charming woman, a Mrs. Walters, in Wallingford, 18 miles south of Oxford. She and her husband had gone to South Africa 20 years before to farm in the Karoo near Cradock but it proved too much for them, so they returned home in 1935.The Walters’ home was on the Thames and Dad and Dave had spent hours sculling down the river. The setting was idyllic and they took books and music with them and basked in the hot sun. Mr. Walters was a Commander in the Australian Navy. Their daughters taught Dad and Dave how to sail their little sail boat.
The two of them visited Oxford and walked all over, admiring the University buildings. He was most impressed with the history, age and beauty of the place.
On that note his time in England came to an end. Dad always spoke very fondly of it. It took ages before he took Mum back to England on a visit. The letter of the 13th July, 1945 was the last one he wrote so they must have sailed home shortly afterwards. What could have gone through Grandpa’s and Grandma’s minds waiting for him to arrive home? Had his ship been
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sunk by remaining subs, had they left England yet as there was no further telegram. Eventually after 5 long, hard, emotional years he got home to his beloved family that he had missed so desperately.
What a homecoming that must have been.
All ended happily with Dad marrying Diane Tweedie 4 years after getting home.
[photograph with caption]: Dad’s and Mum’s wedding
From left; Len Randles, Natalie Randles, Charles Smythe, Maureen Tweedie, Paul Randles, Diane Randles, Dave Short, Ann Randles, Percival Tweedie, Millicent Tweedie
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[photograph with caption]: Dave Short, his son Wallace, Dad with his son Steve at Hilton College
[photograph with caption]: Dad kept his promise to have lots of kids.
Peter and Dad with their young children. Approx. 1958.
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[photograph with caption]: Pippa, Kath, Jen, Gill, Steve and Mum
Some years after the war Jinks and his wife Betty went to Italy to visit the family that had looked after him and Dad. He asked the 4 men who had been together who wanted to send the families some money but only Jinks and Dad did so. Vincenzo’s brother Franco had looked after Jinks. They called him Goffredo. The reaction to seeing Jinks again was incredible. The reunion was very emotional, with Vincenzo overcome with emotion when he received Dad’s suitcase of Lire. He kept shouting Basta, Basta. Sadly, Dad went didn’t go back in time to see the Pelligrinis again.
This letter was written by Vincenzo Pelligrini to Dad in Italian in thanks for the money, and I had it translated few years ago by an Italian friend of ours.
We are all well in health.
How are you and your bride and your 4 daughters?
Our thoughts are always with you, always good thoughts and never black!
We receive your letter that you are in good health.
Dear Paul I thank you very much and your friend. You have come to our help as if you were our sons.
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It would be good to meet up with you and if we could have some time together. Let us know if your family have received our letter as soon as it arrives. Let me know how you passed your time as a prisoner.
From my son Louretto and his wife and the little ones Liliana and Romeo who send greetings. We send a lot of greetings to your friends who stayed with us and also from all the families.
Signed Pelligrini Vincenzo
Via San Maria Molino
(This was one of the letters Kath and Alex showed the Pelligrini family in San Donato which convinced them that K and A were genuine).
From the above letter Alex, our chief sleuth, had these comments to make about Pelligrini’s question;
‘Let me know how you passed your time as a prisoner’
There would have been plenty of occasions during evening meals when your father could have described his life as a prisoner.
I am now wondering if he was recaptured before, or during the battle for Monte Cassino.
As it was he and his fellow Evasi (those evading capture) were holed up in a hut on the Southern tip of the Abruzzi Mountains they had just crossed.
From this position they could observe the German army building a defensive position along what was known as the Gustav Line. The Gustav Line was the name given to the line of military forces and defences that stretched the entire width of the boot of Italy. Its aim was to prevent the Allies from advancing north and taking Rome. My father was in that Allied force pressing north. Pivotal in the battles that ensued was a monastery perched on the summit of a mountain called Monte Cassino. The Allies needed to take it to secure a key strategic stronghold. Likewise, the Germans needed to retain it all costs. One of the key confrontations of WW2 developed. There were five battles before Monte Cassino eventually fell to the Allies with terrible loss of life (30,000 dead). Your father was but 20km to the north and would have heard the battles and seen all the German reinforcements being brought up. He was in an extraordinarily precarious position. It is evident from the fourth last paragraph of his letter that he had realised this. It may have been this realisation that spurred him to write such a detailed letter in the first place.
When I decided to record Dad’s letters, we tried to find Jinks’ family. Gill managed to track down Lynn Chennels, Jinks’ daughter and in 2016 Gill and I met her and her brother Tim in Pietermaritzburg.
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Here is Tim Chennels’, Jinks’s son’s, account of further visits, written to Alex in 2016, and his memories from what his father told him.
Dear Alex and Katherine,
It was really wonderful to receive your email…. a most interesting and exciting trip lies ahead.
My wife Jill and I are visiting South France in two weeks then do 5 days in Italy. Sadly, we won’t have time to do the old “war trail” of Jinks and Dad.
My knowledge is fairly scarce as I visited the family who looked after Dad and Dad in San Donato, with my Mum and Dad in 1973. I was a young 23-year old and look back and acknowledge that I could have got so much more out of trip. However, it was an incredibly emotional experience to witness these humble, extremely poor people who gave everything including risking their lives for people they did not know. Since then, I have had an amazing respect for the Italian people.
The little “shack”/home we visited the family at was small, old but homely, clean and well cared for. There were a few sheep grazing nearby. When they recognized Dad, they all wept openly, shouting “Goffredo, Goffredo”, which was Geoffrey….Dad’s proper name!
This was perhaps the fourth visit Dad had made to the family, carrying with him as many Lire as he was allowed to bring into the country. The first trip, Dad and Dad clubbed in together and took, again, as much as they were able to. The second visit, Dad went to the local hardware shop and bought a stove, fridges etc…amidst their wailing and emotion.
I just so wish I knew more about them! My sister Lynne had a much more meaningful and recent visit to the family and I hope she responds to your email, as she gave Jenny the business card.
Dad, Mum and I then went on to Fontanellato, which was then an orphanage. The Nuns let us in and we had a thorough look at the whole place, with Dad telling us where he had slept etc.
Another aspect that not many of the family know about, is that when Dad and Dad were recaptured, they were trucked to Leipzig in Germany where they worked at a cement factory (I know Dad did anyway), at a little village, Laussig, some 30 k’s north of Leipzig. I have googled it and I am sure the factory is still there near the railway line????
Dad crossed the Iron curtain and took Dollars back to the manager of the factory, Max Gezzler, who was still there. Another, incredibly emotional story! If Dad had been caught crossing the Iron Curtain, we would never have seen him again!! He persuaded an East German taxi driver to take him to Laussig. He made Jinks lie on the back floor and threw a blanket over him and drove to the factory!!
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Other than the above, my knowledge, I’m afraid, is quite scanty.
I so look forward to your return and what you find about the Pellegrini’s.
Good luck and have a wonderful time.
Jill and I were in Winchester a few years ago!! If we come your way some day, we would love to meet you.
Sending kind regards,
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A brief history of the Umvoti Mounted rifles.
On 16 May 1864 the Umvoti Mounted Rifles (UMR) was founded in Greytown as the Greytown Mounted Rifles.1 There were some 45 men in the original unit, under command of Capt A.S. Wyndham who was also the Magistrate of Greytown at the time.
The Umvoti Mounted Rifles (UMR) mobilised at Oribi on 25th June 1940 commander by Lt Col L’Estrange.
Major Reiche was 2 i/c. Maj Nel (ex-Springbok captain) commanded A Company.
By the end of October, the regiment was 800 strong.
The UMR were an integral part of the South Africa 4th Brigade, itself part of the South Africa 2nd Division. The 2nd Division was made Intensive training took place around Pietermaritzburg, local farmers willing to accommodate manoeuvres on their land.
In November 1940 UMR entrained to No.1 Camp Premier Mine (Cullinan). They were joined there by the Signals Platoon under Lt. Horsfall.
In January 1941 the UMR undertook divisional manoeuvres near Nelspruit in which the 3rd and 4th Brigades were pitched against each other.
After this exercise there was an intensive debrief which involved a severe reprimand for the officers of 4th Brigade for poor communication.
The popular Col Hearn was replaced by Col Thompson.
The regiment undertook further training at Pitsani-Malope in Botswana.
At the end of June 1941, the UMR entrained for Pietermaritzburg. They camped for a month at Hay Paddock close to the Durban Road.
On 22nd July 1941 the Regiment sailed for North Africa from Durban Harbour on the S.S. EIisabethville, a Belgian troopship.
The Elizabethville arrived at Suez on 14th August having spent three days in Aden. Upon arrival in Suez the regiment entrained for Mareopolis, reaching camp on 15th August.
On 27th August the UMR moved up to El Alamein where they worked on digging the defences that were to become so vital in the great battle.
On 6th October, the defences completed, the regiment moved to El-Daba-Baqqush.
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On 11th October a German Air Raid (7 bombers and one fighter) took place and the regiment sustained its first casualties.
During November the South African 2nd Division took Bardia in a well-executed and coordinated strike. On 12th January 1942 Solium fell to the South Africans.
Virtually the whole regiment was captured at the fall of Tobruk on the 21st June 1942.
[image]: SOUTH AFRICA SECOND DIVISION 1940
3rd Infantry Brigade 4th Infantry Brigade 6th Infantry Brigade
1st Royal Durban Light Infantry Umvoti Mounted Rifles 2nd Transvaal Scottish
Imperial Light Horse Kaffrarian Rifles 1st Battalion SA Police
Rand Light Infantry 2nd Royal Durban Light Infantry 2nd Battalion SA Police
Commanded by Lt Col Geddes-Page
Interesting article by Karen Horn about the conditions in Tobruk after the Allies were captured. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=scirttext&pid=S0018229X2011000200006
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This article aims to present to the reader previously unknown narratives of former prisoners of war (POWs) immediately following the fall of Tobruk in June 1942. The intention is not to explain the events that led to the fall of Tobruk or to lay blame with any specific leader or Allied nation involved in the Western Desert Campaign. The focus is rather on the events during and following the battle, specifically the experiences of the South Africans who were captured and became prisoners of war. Of the 33 000 Allied soldiers captured on 21 June 1942, 10,722 were South Africans who were all part of the 2nd South African Infantry Division under command of Major General H.B. Klopper.1 Making use of oral testimony, published and unpublished personal memoirs, as well as post-war statements found in the Department of Defence Archives and in the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, the article hopes to portray events as experienced by the ordinary rank and file men, giving a different perspective from that usually portrayed in military history publications which for the most part focus on the perspectives of those in command. Through this approach it should also become possible to extract the individual experience from the general experience, as each of the former POWs understood and interpreted what was happening to them in unique ways……………………..
The fall of Tobruk
The aim of Operation Crusader in 1941 was to relieve Tobruk and to recapture Cyrenaica from the Axis forces. Following two weeks of battle at Sidi Rezegh, Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, Commander of the Afrika Korps, withdrew and Tobruk was relieved, but although Operation Crusader was successful in this respect, it came at a high price to the South Africans because the entire 5th South African Infantry Brigade was lost, with 224 killed, 379 wounded and 3 000 captured from the total force active at Sidi Rezegh.9 To authorities, however, these losses were considered insignificant in view of the fact that the Afrika Korps lost half their tanks.10 While the 1st South African Infantry Division was active in the Crusader battles, the 2nd SA Division was busy digging defences around the El Alamein area, and as the 2nd Division had not experienced any battles at that stage, their task of digging in the 30 mile bottleneck between the Mediterranean Sea and the Qattara Depression was met by some with disappointment and frustration because they wanted to become involved in active warfare, or be “blooded”, as it was known by the men. Their duties however soon acquired a more prominent role as Tobruk became the responsibility of the SA 2nd Division under Klopper’s command when Rommel withdrew in December 1941.11 During the months preceding the fall of Tobruk the men in the 2nd Division gained limited battle experience in the Benghazi Handicap and the Gazala Gallop during the initial phases of the Desert Campaign.12The task of the 2nd Division became increasingly difficult on 14 June when the Commander of the 8th Army, Lieutenant General N.M. Ritchie, ordered the withdrawal of the 1st SA Division and the British 50th Division to allow the 8th Army to rally its strength.13……..
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For most in the 2nd Division, the battle at Tobruk was a chaotic experience characterized by conflicting orders. Many former POWs described the battle as frenzied and confused, mostly due to the fact that many of them were unaware of the full extent of events in the battlefield because it was spread out over such a wide area. In his memoirs, Ike Rosmarin, a war correspondent with the 2nd SA Division, described the attack as “terrifying [but] worst of all was the fact that we did not know what was happening as there were no orders from our officers. Confusion reigned with fear and panic”.19 The dire situation is further emphasized by Private Gert Daniel van Zyl with the 1st South African Police Regiment, whose official statement on 19 January 1944 said he heard the BBC announce that Tobruk was besieged and no longer of strategic importance. While it seems strange that the BBC would contradict Churchill, who two weeks before the fall of Tobruk sent a note to Auchinleck that Tobruk had to remain in Allied hands because this was vital to prevent Axis forces from entering Egypt, one can only assume that the BBC was attempting to influence the British public should the Allies suffer a defeat in North Africa.20 At the time, Van Zyl did not even realise that Tobruk was in any danger and the BBC message must have added to his confusion.21 On 20 June, Van Zyl and the rest of the men in the 1st South Africa Police Brigade (1 SAP) was ordered to hand in their equipment, but an hour later the same equipment was reissued to them. During the evening of 20 June, they were told to move towards the coast as the Navy would come to their rescue, however, there were no clear orders and some men began to destroy their rifles while others simply walked away into the desert. Van Zyl described the men as “sheep without a shepherd”.22……………….
The shock of becoming a prisoner was followed by days of mental and physical hardship under Italian captors. Although the Germans captured the men, they immediately handed over their prisoners to the Italian forces who were responsible for the confinement of POWs, mostly in camps in Tobruk, Gazala, Tarhunah, Derna, Benghazi and Mersa Matruh. These were all transit camps and most POWs ended up in Benghazi before being transported to Italy. While most camps were simple wire enclosures with Italian and Senussi guards posted on the perimeter, there were exceptions, such as the graveyard in Derna where most POWs spent a night on their way to Benghazi. At this early stage of captivity, no Red Cross delegates inspected any of the camps, and the conditions in the North African camps were so bad that POWs were mainly concerned with basic survival needs and only later began to concern themselves with the stipulations of the 1929 Geneva Convention. Similarly, faced with an unexpected high number of POWs and inadequate temporary camps, the Italians did not regard the Geneva Convention as a priority at this time.57…
Whatever their opinion of the Italian guards, many South Africans were reduced to begging for water and food during the first few days in transit camps, as was the case in the Derna graveyard, where the water taps were on the outside, forcing POWs to plead with the guards for water. According to Cremer, the guards became irritated with the constant begging and started shouting insults at the prisoners. When a prisoner returned an insult, the guard reacted by shooting into the crowd, killing one of the prisoners. The prisoners reacted by storming the fence at which juncture the guard ran away. When the Italian officer asked the prisoners to bury the man, they refused as they felt they were not responsible for his death.75…………
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As the Red Cross did not visit any of the camps in North Africa, there are no official reports on the living conditions in these camps and information has been gleaned from interviews, memoirs, diaries and to a lesser extent from The Benghazi Forum, a camp newspaper started by Eric Hurst, a British POW.94 Many POWs consider their experiences in North African as dehumanising, referring to the camps as “cages”.95 Maintaining a sense of dignity became a daily struggle, because living conditions worsened and most POWs lost on average between 20 and 30 kilograms in weight as a result of food shortages while in North Africa. Because there were so many prisoners, the distribution of food was a long process and after standing in line for hours, the POWs were always disappointed when they received their rations. In Derna the biscuits were so hard that Reverend Major Patrick J. Nolan asked an Italian guard to break the biscuit with his bayonet. The Italian replied that Nolan should soak the biscuit in water, but by that time the water had run out.96 Often POWs received tins of bully beef, but these had to be shared between two or three of them.97 The shortage of food forced POWs to look for food elsewhere and on one occasion Collet was desperate and lucky enough to catch and eat a mole.98 Dickinson’s diary probably gives the most accurate description of the food POWs received:
Our daily ration is a tin of bully-beef and a small loaf of bread, the size of a large hot cross bun, per man. The bully-beef is 300 grams. About every third day we are given a hot meal which is a pint and a half of stew, but which is mostly rice. When we get this meal, our bully is cut to half a tin.99…….
On average, the Tobruk POWs spent five months in North African camps, but this was a long time to live on rumour, hard biscuits and bully beef, and a few POWs decided to escape and take their chances in the desert.
POW experience in North Africa was marked by a range of aspects that can be categorized as common to most POWs. In chronological order these included the chaos and confusion during the battle; and the negative perceptions about those in command. Once captured, most South Africans experienced shock and humiliation and in this confused state they identified to some extent with German soldiers, mainly because of the shared disrespect of Italian forces, which in some cases was motivated by perceptions of race. In some instances, POW testimony reveals a more sympathetic view of their Italian captors, but this is probably due to the influence of their later experiences in Italy when they became dependent on Italians for their survival. The negative attitude towards Italians resulted in many POWs finding it extremely difficult to accept their POW status and probably led to confrontations with Italian and Senussi guards that held harmful consequences for POWs.
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The main camps were all designated ‘PG’ Prigionieri di Guerra, although they were also abbreviated ‘CC’ meaning Campo di Concentramento.
All were prefixed and numbered with the exception of the 2 Dulags and 1 Stalag within Italy which were German-controlled transit centres for POWs being transferred to Germany.
Now, the two Dulags were No. 226 and No.339. Dulag 226 was located at Pissignano (lovely name!) near a town called Campello Sul Clitunno. This is the camp closest to Frosinone and would seem to be the most likely one. Dulag 339 is in Mantua, a little way South of Verona (miles away from where they are likely to have been recaptured).
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Alex’s account of their trip to Italy in 2016.
Visit to PoW Camps in Italy 2016
In August 2016 Kathryn and I left Winchester and drove to Sicily to stay with friends who had taken a villa for a week. This road trip provided us with the perfect opportunity to look for evidence of the Prisoner of War (PoW) camps that we knew had held Paul Randles during World War II. We also intended to visit the village of San Donato Val di Cornino; our aim, to find any descendants of Vincenzo and Costanza Pellegrini who showed Paul extraordinary compassion in sheltering, feeding and clothing him while he was ‘on the run’.
PoW camps in Italy administered by the Italians were known as Campi di Concentramento dei Prigionieri di Guerra. For brevity they were numbered e.g. PG41 Montalbo. The few camps in Italy under German control were transit camps (with prisoners being transferred to camps in Germany); these were designated Dulag, an abbreviation of Durchgangslager (reception centre).
Sunday 14th August – PG41 Montalbo
An eight-hour drive from Beaune in the heart of Burgundy (France) took us through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to the tiny, hill-top village of Montalbo in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. Montalbo Ziano Piacentino, to give the village its full name, has a population of only 99 people. The castle, occupies the highest ground and towers over the village commanding magnificent, 360° views over the surrounding countryside. On a clear winter’s day, the snow-clad Alps may be seen 140km to the north from this vantage point.
Arriving at siesta time we found the village deserted. The mid-summer heat (36°C) had even silenced the local dogs. We parked just outside the castle gate. Finding it locked we began exploring the narrow streets looking for someone to speak to. In a cobbled side street, we came across three middle aged signoras gossiping in the shade. We learned from them that the castle was not open to the public. If we could not visit the castle, we were determined to have a good look around the walls and imagine what it might have been like to have been imprisoned there.
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Following the outer ramparts, we reached a point on the opposite side of the castle from the main gate that overlooked a sweeping vineyard. Wishing to take a photograph of the castle in its surroundings we walked through the ripening vines and climbed the low rise on the other side.
Collection of letters home written by Pte Paul Randles (1941-1945), held by Jennifer Potgieter
This vantage point granted us an excellent view over the vineyard with the castle and village as backdrop. Photographs taken we returned to the castle through the lines of grapes and there, standing close to the ramparts was an elderly man. Although he was unable to speak English, he gestured to a young man who we could see washing a car within the castle walls. Calling to this man Kathryn explained in basic Italian that her father had once been a prisoner of war here. The young man disappeared briefly then returned with a silver-haired gentleman who spoke excellent English. After a short discussion he suggested that we present ourselves at the main gate. His name was Luciano Donati.
Returning to where we had parked our car, we were admitted to the castle grounds. We walked up the driveway where, on Christmas Day 1942 Paul had lost control of his wheelbarrow and the wine he had so carefully decanted was lost! Standing before the great gate we were admitted though a wicket gate and found ourselves within a large courtyard. The castle rose three storeys high enclosing three sides of a square. The fourth side was open revealing a magnificent view across the flat Po Valley to a hazy horizon.
Luciano, an old family friend, introduced us to our hosts Stefano Antonio Marchesi, a lawyer, and his pretty wife. Stefano was head of one of the two families that had owned the castle since 1957. They explained that each family lived in a separate part of the building. The family members were in relaxed mood and appeared to be preparing for Sunday lunch al fresco.
We accepted their offer of wine and then they listened intently as we described our connection with castle, Luciano translating as the story unfolded. There were gasps and raised eyebrows, smiles and frowns. Stephano then confirmed that the castle had indeed held Allied PoWs during WWII, making it clear that it was a camp for officers. He asked what was Paul’s rank in the army and was clearly surprised when we replied “Private”. Stefano went on to explain that in March 1943 the German military had requisitioned the castle and occupied it as a regional HQ on account of its commanding position and finely appointed rooms. It was explained that the prisoners had all been removed to other camps.
The elfin Signora Marchesi then appeared with two enormous dishes of antipasti and our wine glasses were refilled. Members of the family contributed to the discussion from which we learned that they had not yet completed the refurbishment of the whole building and that the interior decoration of one half remained effectively unchanged since the war. “Would we like to see inside that part?”
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“Most certainly!” we responded. Following Stefano’s sister, we were taken into the north eastern portion of the building. Climbing a broad marble staircase, we arrived on the First Floor. We were escorted through a dimly lit dining room and into a further reception room. It was like walking into a time capsule. This empty room had a high, vaulted ceiling, beautifully decorated with formal designs in coloured pastel highlighted with gilding. The windows were tall and thin and the views over the surrounding countryside were breath-taking.
We were then taken up a narrow stairway to the Second Floor and were shown rooms that had been the prisoners’ dormitories. Here were unpainted wooden wardrobes daubed with graffiti left by the prisoners. On separate wardrobe doors we could clearly read ‘Happy Christmas 1941 ‘ and ‘Happy New Year 1942’. On a dormitory door was painted ‘The Midnight Walkers’. It was astonishing that these had survived.
We took photos of the rooms and the graffiti and were reluctant to leave. It was all so fascinating. However, we were aware that we should not overstay our welcome and our hosts’ generous hospitality so we returned to the courtyard somewhat overwhelmed by what we had seen.
Back in the courtyard we were offered more antipasti. Stephano appeared with the Italian National Flag. On closer inspection it was a much older flag bearing in the centre the arms of the Italian Royal Family. Other guests began to appear so we started muttering about needing to continue our journey. However, our hosts were keen for their guests to meet us! Kathryn told the story of Paul pushing the wheelbarrow of wine up the castle driveway in a rather inebriated state. And how he had lost his balance, and control of the barrow, and that its precious contents had been spilled on the driveway! Stefano disappeared inside only to reappear moments later to present us with a bottle of wine from the castle’s vineyard as a memento – a fine touch!
Having said our goodbyes to the guests and surrounded by family members we made our way down that very same driveway (any sign of spilled wine long washed away) and were given a very warm send-off at the castle gate. The last time that anyone with a wartime connection had visited the castle had been in 2006.
We drove off down the hill, sorry to leave our new Italian friends. That evening we enjoyed the remains of our padkos sitting under a vine clad pergola at the lovely old stone farmhouse, our B&B.
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Monday 15th August – PG49 Fontanellato
It is a 12km drive from Montalbo to Piacenza, established by the Romans as an army camp in 218 BC and now the provincial capital of Emilia-Romagna. A further 60km drive eastwards along the arrow-straight Via Emilia brought us to the turn off to Fontanellato. A minor road first crosses the key railway line linking Milan and the Adriatic coast via Bologna; it then crosses the A21 Autostrada. This region of northern Italy is exceptionally flat. Flowing West to East is the lazy River Po. To the north, some 150km away, are the foothills of the Alps. A mere 10km to the south of the Autostrada the spine of Italy, the Apennine Mountains, rises and marches to a hazy horizon.
Arriving at the village of Fontanellato on market day we found the town centre closed to traffic. Having found parking we walked towards the centre of the village stalls lining both sides of the main streets. We thought we had identified the Orphanage that became PG49 but on closer inspection it turned out to be the Town Hall!
The facades of the two buildings are remarkably similar. However, we realised that The Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin of the Holy Rosary, a key reference point on our quest was nowhere to be seen.
A stall peddling fine white cotton dresses caught Kath’s attention. Perfect attire for the hot conditions! Kath was a successful shopper leaving the stall-holder better off and her wardrobe rather fuller.
Asking directions, we soon came upon the beautiful Baroque church. As we passed by, we caught the strains of a choir in full voice. We peeped in through the open West doors to see a packed congregation participating in the Mass. Turning left at the East end of the church we found ourselves in a broad street and, a little way ahead, the familiar (from photographs) railings that enclosed the Orphanage. This imposing and handsome building was completed in 1938 but never used for the purpose for which the funding was raised.
There is a plaque on the pillar of the main gate engraved with an inscription proclaiming that the Orphanage was requisitioned from the Church by the Italian military to be used as a
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camp for Allied officer PoWs before it admitted a single orphan. This inscription relates that until 8th September 1943, the day after Italy declared an Armistice, the building had served as a Concentration Camp PC 49 for English and Allied PoWs.
Monday 15th August – PG49 Fontanellato (cont.)
The front gate was open so, crossing the forecourt and climbing the broad steps, we entered the building through the impressive porch. The receptionist greeted us with a warm smile as we explained in faltering Italian that Paul had been a prisoner in this building between March and September 1943 and asked whether we were permitted to see inside. She indicated that there was some information about the building’s use during the war in the Ground Floor corridor. There hung on both sides of the corridor black and white photographs of the Orphanage under construction and complete. There were also some plaques explaining the building’s former use as a PoW camp.
This grandiose building is now used as a hospital for patients with neurological disorders and has been well maintained and brightly decorated. After taking photographs and showing our gratitude to the receptionist we left by the front door and walked around to the rear of the building. There we found the large, level expanse of grassed area. This had been the area that the prisoners had begged the Commandant to allow them to use as a playing field. Lt Colonel Vicedomini, an understanding man, had acceded to the prisoners’ request on the condition that they prepared the pitch by first levelling the ground.
During the levelling of the ground, two officers had approached the camp’s escape committee with a daring plan. A short, shallow trench was to be dug on the centreline of the pitch allowing just enough room for two people to remain concealed. During a scrum over the trench the two escapees were to manoeuvre themselves into the space. Other members of the scrum were to lay a plank over them and yet others were to cover the plank with soil. The escapees were to breathe through tubes projecting just through the soil. At the end of the game players were to retire and leave the field. The guards routinely locked the playing area and vacated it at 6pm. After dark the escapees were to emerge, cover the trench, cut through the wire and make their way to Switzerland.
Captain Ross and Lieutenant Day used the ruse and made it to the border. Unluckily they were spotted and challenged by a Carabiniere close to the border, captured and returned to PG49 Fontanellato. Paul would certainly have known about this escape and the similar one that took place three days earlier using the same technique. Unfortunately, the second group of three escapees were identified after they boarded a train at Parma. He may even have been part of the scrummaging cover.
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All five officers were returned to the camp. Punishment for escape was 30 days in the ‘cooler’ on half rations. (Beyond the Wire; Malcolm Tudor, 2009).
Monday 15th August – PG49 Fontanellato (cont.)
We took photographs of the ‘playing field’, recalling that although there had been only 39 South African prisoners out of a prison compliment of 536, Paul played for the South African rugby side that remained unbeaten.
As we stood on the ‘playing field’ we also reflected on the extraordinary events of Thursday 9th September 1943 when the Senior British Officer, Lt Col Hugo de Burgh, had addressed the prisoners at the morning parade on that very ground. He had told them that Camp Commandant, Colonel Vicedomini, had received reports that there had been fighting between German and Italian troops since dawn. He went on to say that in the Commandant’s judgement it was highly likely that German troops would arrive shortly to safeguard the camp. De Burgh told them that the Commandant had agreed to release all prisoners. We tried to imagine the cheer that must have rung out across the parade ground!
The prisoners were told to tidy their rooms, collect their possessions and rations and to be prepared to reassemble on the parade ground on a signal of three blasts of a bugle. The alarm was sounded at noon by the Italian bugler. Five companies of soldiers formed up and marched out of the camp, three-abreast, through a gap the Italian guards had made in the North side of the fence. The camp was empty by 12.10pm.
We knew that the march from the camp to the pre-arranged hiding place had taken about two hours. They had gathered in the deep, winding bed of the Rovacchia stream northwest of the camp. We considered looking for this place but decided that, without a guide, our search might prove fruitless and could delay our onward journey.
Departing Fontanellato we drove west to Bologna on the A21 Autostrada before turning south onto the Al Autostrada del Sole towards Firenze (Florence). Our plan was to travel in the direction that Paul would have done after his release from prison to gain some impression of the kind of terrain he would have had to contend with. Bypassing Firenze we made for Arezzo, a town neither of us had visited before.
Arezzo is one of twelve Etruscan cities (pre-Roman) and, through the craftsmanship of it gold and silversmiths became one of the wealthiest in Tuscany. It occupies a hilltop position and has a broad, pedestrianised main street. We enjoyed evening sightseeing and dinner al fresco in the Grande Piazza and a peaceful night in our B&B in the town centre.
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Tuesday 16th August – PG77/DULAG 226 Pissignano
After early breakfast overlooking the roofs of the town, we visited the Chiesa di San Francesco. This early medieval church dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi hosts Piero della Francesco’s cycle of frescos depicting the Legend of the True Cross. The paintings covering the walls and ceiling of the choir were executed on a monumental scale were completed in 1466 and are regarded by leading art historians to be his masterpiece. The sumptuous colours of the paint, the clarity of expression and story-telling make these works a delight to behold.
We then travelled east to Sansepolcro, birthplace of Piero and then turned south to Perugia. Bypassing Perugia we took a small side road with a special purpose. This road is tree-lined and there is a moment when, after travelling for about 5km, it rises to a crest from which suddenly the whole town of Assisi becomes visible gleaming white on the hillside ahead with the splendid Basilica di San Francesco appearing like the prow of a Roman galley.
Stopping in Assisi we made straight for the Basilica and were relieved to find only a short queue of tourists. The great cycle of frescoes depicting The Legend of St Francis, painted in 1300 by Giotto, proclaimed the arrival of the Renaissance in Europe on a colossal scale. The giant murals cover the entire length of both sides of the nave and are one of Italy’s greatest treasures.
Leaving Assisi (reluctantly) we decided to pay a surprise visit to Zoe, Stephanie Irvine-Fortescue’s sister, who lives in the forested hills at Ananda some 20km east of the town. Unfortunately, she was not at home but left a message at the retreat to say we had called.
Returning to Assisi we headed south and stopped in Pissignano to ask at a bar the whereabouts of PG77. We were given good directions and arrived at the small village of Campello sul Clitunno moments later. The site of this camp is well hidden by a screen of pine woods and is only accessible along a narrow dirt track through the wood. At the end of the track there is a clearing in the trees where the ground was levelled.
There is a rusted metal sculpted memorial to prisoners who died there and two explanatory memorial plaques. The wording on the plaques makes plain that prisoners in this camp had not been treated well by their Italian guards.
Tuesday 1 6th August – PG77/DULAG 226 Pissignano (cont.)
As PC77 the camp was in operation from 5th August 1942 and throughout the bitter winter of 1942 as a tented camp. After the Armistice the Germans took control of the camp. It was
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reclassified as DULAG 226 and used as transit camp to move prisoners to Germany. The camp was closed on 8th February 1944.
We know from his letters that Paul was held here briefly after his capture by the Germans. He was still hiding at San Donato Val di Cornino in early December 1943.
There is little to see at this site. There is a level terrace the size of a rugby pitch. There are concrete bunkers (confinement cells?) almost completely buried in the ground. Today the site is being used to grow vegetables.
This site had a creepy, unpleasant atmosphere which was almost tangible as we approached it up the narrow track. Our feelings of unease were not dispelled by reading the memorial plaques. The camp site is so well screened from the village it is possible that the locals had known little of what went on there.
Grateful to leave that place as free people we drove east through Terni and then through mountainous country to Rieti on the Via Salaria to L’Aquila and our B&B.
Wednesday 17th August – PG78 Sulmona & San Donato Val di Cornino
L’Aquila (the eagle) suffered a severe earthquake in 2009. Seven years later the mediaeval town centre is still crowned with a forest of tower cranes employed on the repair and restoration work. The town sits in a broad valley with the Gran Sasso mountain range (2,623m) defining the northern skyline.
While the reconstruction work proceeds slowly, traffic diversions redirect traffic away from the centre providing additional challenges for the foreign driver. After a tiring day’s drive, I was thwarted and had to resort to making a series of telephone calls to seek guidance from our hostess. She had made plans to go out for the evening and, to ensure she kept her date she kindly drove into town to meet us and escort us to her villa.
After a comfortable night and continental breakfast, we left L’Aquila and drove east to join the Via Tiberna Valleria (ancient Roman road) and then south to Sulmona.
Wednesday 1 7th August – PG78 Sulmona & San Donato Val di Cornino (cont.)
I was interested in visiting Sulmona as it was both the birthplace of the Latin poet Ovid and the location of Camp PG 78 during WWII. Sulmona had held Skinner (grandfather of Miles), a wonderful man whose company Kathryn and I had enjoyed on several boundaries when Miles
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and Jamie opened the batting for Winchester College. The camp had also held Uys Krige, author of ‘ The Way Out’ (1946), the gripping tale of his own survival in the Apennine Mountains after the Armistice of 8th September 1943.
Leaving Sulmona, we headed westward over the mountains to Avezzano and then south to Sora and on to our B&B at Atino. We dropped at our bags at the villa and set out to visit San Donato Val di Cornino, about 10km to the north.
The approach to San Donato through the hills is impressive. Rounding a bend in the twisting road this quintessentially Italian village is revealed suddenly, perched on steep, thickly forested hillside. We parked and made for the central piazza. As a glorious sunset was fading Kathryn went off to take photographs of the hillside behind the village where she supposed Paul and Jinks would have hidden during daylight.
I remained in the Piazza and looked for the oldest person I could see. The Italians, like all countrymen in southern Europe, enjoy promenading in the summer evenings. I spotted a signore wearing a straw hat who I took to be in his 80s and approached him. I explained in faltering Italian that I was English and looking for anyone in the village with the family name of Pellegrini. His eyes lit up and he exclaimed “Molti Pellegrini”! It was clear that this was an extended family but, evidently, not all of them had moved away from the village. He gestured to me to follow him and he led me to a bar and introduced me to a big man with a white moustache who was seated on one of the tables in the piazza. I guessed the man was about 75 years old. I called Kathryn to come and join me as “I had found a Pellegrini”!
Greatly encouraged I offered my new acquaintance (and his friend) a beer. The offer was accepted with both curiosity and a faint trace of suspicion. I then produced a copy of Vincenzo Pellegrini’s typed letter to Paul (1957) in which he had referred to his son Loreto and “…the little ones Liliana and Romeo”. My moustachioed friend exclaimed “Ah! Ha!” and in Italian he plainly conveyed to me that his was a different branch of the family.
Wednesday 17th August – PG78 Sulmona & San Donato Val di Cornino (cont.)
At this point the young barman was summoned and following a brief discussion he produced a smart-phone and within 5 minutes some signoras appeared in the Piazza, clearly keen to learn what these Inglesi were about. Kathryn and I introduced ourselves to Donatella, Maria-Letizia, Giulia and a friend. I offered them a drink but all of them politely declined. We showed them the letters: Vincenzo’s letter to Paul (1957) and Paul’s letter home (Dec 1943) and straight away they recognised the name Paulo! A phone call home by Maria-Letizia and within 10 minutes Romeo & Anna Pellegrini appeared to join us. Kathryn’s meeting and embracing of these two new arrivals was extremely emotional.
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Of all the Pellegrini family members present Giulia (19) was the best English speaker. This was so helpful as she could interpret for us all. She read aloud Paul’s letter home (6th Dec 1943) translating into Italian for the benefit of the assembled family. They were astounded and understood at a stroke the purpose of our quest. Romeo was able to confirm that his father Loreto (who died in 2012) used to talk about Paulo. Loreto had served in the Italian Army until the Armistice in 1943. He had been two years older than Paul.
We asked about Romeo’s sister Liliana. They suggested that we go to their home. We accepted gratefully and soon we were pouring over their family photographs. Discovering, in all the excitement, that we had not yet eaten Anna produced some salami and bread while Romeo uncorked a bottle of Sangovesi and we “Salute’d” not once but many times!!
It was not long before Annino and Liliana Salvucci appeared to join the party! Liliana, Romeo’s older sister was born in January 1944. Paul and Jinks had been invited to her Christening party. The story they remember is that Paul (22) was swept up in the occasion and drank much wine. Emerging from the house he fell down the steps. Coming to, he looked up to see a German soldier grinning down at him. Costanza Pellegrini, recognising the peril of Paul’s identity being revealed, moved quickly to avert a disaster by scolding Paul with “These young people today, Tut! Tut! they cannot hold their drink! What a disgrace you are! Off to bed with you at once … and sleep it off!
Liliana is now 72 but remembers being told the story by her parents. It was clear that the stories of the PoWs had become folklore in their family. Loreto became a career soldier after the war and was known affectionately as ‘Il Capitano’. Romeo too went into the army and now his only son Fausto is presently serving in the Italian Army. Fausto was recently awarded the Legione d’Onore by the Italian high command for completing his second tour of duty with NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Wednesday 17th August – PG78 Sulmona & San Donato Val di Cornino (cont.)
Loath to leave the family but mindful that on the morrow we were to drive to Tropea on the toe of Italy, a distance of 573km, we bade our good nights to our dear hosts, the Pellegrini family. Romeo was insistent that he accompany us to our B&B to ensure we did not lose ourselves in the dark and we set off in convoy. Arriving there safely we thanked them effusively, assured them we would stay in touch and waved them off as they returned to San Donato.
Thursday 18th August – Monte Cassino and Tropea
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Waking early and peering from our bedroom window we were greeted with an extraordinary sight. There was a temperature inversion. We found ourselves looking down on a ‘sea’ of cloud that had filled the valley and almost obscured the mediaeval town of Atina on the hill on the other side. Atina had been a feature of the Gustav Line in 1944.
Following the Italian Armistice on 8th September 1943 the Germans had defied received wisdom by choosing to defend as much of the Italian mainland as they could. To achieve this, they had moved troops and armour south by road and rail and formed a defensive line that extended across the ‘boot’ of Italy from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic Sea. This first line of defence, using the Volturno River as a natural barrier, was known as the Volturno Line. However, having studied the topography in great detail the Germans had calculated that there were better, more easily defended, positions a little further to the North. They planned to meet and resist Allied forces along the Volturno Line and hold it for as long as they could while building stronger defences along what was to become the Gustav Live, or Winter Line. In order to re-join Allied forces, Paul and Jinks would have needed to cross unobserved 1) the Gustav Line i.e. through the defensive positions as the Germans were digging in, 2) the ground occupied by German troops between the two Lines and 3) the Volturno Line. In his letter home of 6th December 1943 Paul reported that he had met some 30 or so PoWs who had attempted this dangerous crossing, only to be told by them that it was not possible.
We had an early breakfast and as we were packing the car our host explained how during the war the American Flying Fortresses could be seen flying through the gap in the hills to the south of Atino, bound for Monte Cassino some 10 km to the South East.
Thursday 18th August – Monte Cassino and Tropea (cont.)
We joined the Autostrada and after a few kilometres left it at the Cassino exit. We made for the town centre and after a little difficulty found the narrow single-track road that wound up the mountain. Monte Cassino is very steeply sided and the road climbs through a series of hairpin bends. Arriving at the summit we found the car park virtually empty – we were among the first visitors of the day.
The abbey that dominates the summit is enormous and has had an eventful history. St Benedict founded the abbey and established his order here in AD529. The abbey was visited by Charlemagne and later, in the Norman period, it became one the great centres in Europe for producing illuminated manuscripts – some 200 monks worked there in the scriptorium.
The mists we had seen earlier that morning had thickened as the sun’s rays had warmed the countryside and had risen almost to the summit of the mountain. The abbey appeared to be floating upon a sea of cloud as far as the eye could see. It was pieced only by higher mountains to the East.
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Mindful that we should not dally long we explored the open courtyard and cloister but did not go into the buildings. The building is such a good state of repair that it was difficult to imagine that after the Americans had bombed it there had been almost no part of it left standing. From their shelter behind San Donato Paul and Jinks would have heard that bombing.
As we drove back down the mountain road, we passed the enormous Polish memorial and war cemetery. Polish parachutists finally drove the Germans out of the ruins in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. More than one thousand Polish soldiers are buried in a truly beautiful setting on the saddle below the abbey. Trees have been planted to form a giant cross and an avenue of trees leads down to the site. It is a magnificent tribute to the bravery of those who fought there.
Thursday 18th August – Saturday 27th Southern Italy and Sicily
We continued our journey to Tropea, spending one night there before crossing the Straits of Messina the next day. We spent the evening of Friday 19th August exploring Taormina and stayed at a B&B with a pool on the Eastern slopes of Mt Etna. We then spent a week staying at a charming villa in Noto. During the week we visited Ragusa, Modica, Agrigento, Piazza Armerina, Enna and Cefalu.
Sunday 28th August – PG60 Colle di Compito
Catching the night car ferry from Palermo on the North cost of Sicily we arrived at the busy port of Napoli at sunrise. Mt Vesuvius was silhouetted against the dawn sky to the East. It was dormant – no sign of smoke.
Disembarking from the ferry we joined heavy traffic slowed by extensive roadworks in central Naples. Once on the Autostrada del Sole (Highway of the Sun) we made good time, bypassing Roma and then Firenze. By mid-afternoon we had reached the village of Colle de Compito, about 16km south east of the Tuscan city of Lucca.
One of Paul’s earliest letters home as a PoW in Italy was written from PG60. He was a prisoner here for no more than six weeks in August/September 1942, before being moved to PG41 Montalbo.
Entering a bar/café in the neighbouring village of Castelvecchio di Compito, I found four customers enjoying some refreshment. When asked if they knew the site of the old PoW camp
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in the area they looked baffled and, shaking their heads, told me they had no idea there had been one. The barmaid provided hope when she claimed to recall something about one. Before I could enquire further an elderly man, who had come in to buy a gelato for his wife, interjected and declared that not only had there been a PoW camp but that he had helped to build it! I introduced myself to the white-haired Antonio and, with some assistance with interpretation from one of the other customers, persuaded him to become our guide.
The barmaid offered to keep his gelato on ice while Antonio and our interpreter gestured to us to follow their vehicle. After about 1km driving through very narrow lanes we drew up at a steel gate. There was a large stone memorial and a plaque describing for visitors the former camp. Beyond the gate lay a large, level open area of land bordering a reservoir.
As we got out of our car Antonio, who we learned was 92, became very animated. He explained how he had volunteered for the Army and, a mere 18 years old, he and his unit had been detailed to build the compound. When the camp had been completed, he was assigned to guard duty. It was an extraordinary discovery. Here was a man who had actually ensured that Paul remained a prisoner. Equally he was astonished to learn that Kathryn’s father had been one of his charges!
Antonio explained to us how the situation at the camp had changed dramatically in September 1943. As at PG49 Fontanellato, the Commandant of PG60, Colonel Vincenzo Cione, had thrown open the gates of the camp and released all the PoWs.
Sunday 28th August – PG60 Colle di Compito (cont.)
When a German SS armoured unit reached the camp, it was met by the Commandant, his second-in-command Captain Massino de Felice and Private Domenico Mastrippolito. The three soldiers were questioned by the SS officer. When he learned that all of the prisoners had been released, he ordered his guards to shoot the Italians. The guards immediately let off a fusillade of sub-machine gun fire and all three were killed.
Antonio had witnessed this atrocity and it was he who persuaded the village to erect a suitable memorial to commemorate the courage and civility of the fallen. He also explained how, when German aircraft had approached, he and other guards had dived into the ditches that surrounded the site to protect themselves from strafing and bombing. He showed us the concrete drainpipes in which they hid, now almost hidden in undergrowth.
We strolled around the site imagining the area covered in tents and surrounded by barbed wire fencing interspersed with sentry towers. There was a signpost to the former railway station
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about 1 km away which served as the arrival/departure point for the prisoners. Later we visited the old station which has been disused for years.
We thanked Antonio profusely for his impromptu and informative guided tour. Despite our efforts, he would accept no gift from us. While it had been a remarkable day for us it had also been been a special day for him. Memories of his youth had come flooding back. In his village he was probably the only living witness to what had occurred and he was delighted to share his experiences with people who had a reason to be there and had travelled so far.
Kathryn and I stayed in a stone-built farmhouse B&B on the edge of Lucca. We spent the evening in the old Roman Amphitheatre enjoying good Tuscan fare a! fresco and a bottle of Chianti Classico. We Salute‘d Paulo several times and went to bed wondering if Antonio had remembered to collect his gelato.
Monday 29th August – Leave Italy and travel through France
Departing after breakfast we drove north staying on the Autostrada, bypassing Pisa, Genoa and Torino. We made for the Aosta, whose valley escaping PoWs had passed through during the war on their way to Switzerland. After a lengthy queue we passed through the Mont Blanc Tunnel again and pressing on into France we found a simple hotel beside a lake near Bourg-en-Bresse to spend the night.
Tuesday 30th August – Travel through France
The following morning, we were up early to complete the final leg of our journey to Calais and the Channel Tunnel. Fortunately, we encountered no difficulties and even had time to visit the ancient city of Laon. Loan is ‘twinned’ with Winchester and we had spent a very pleasant Easter weekend there in the 1990s when the Winchester Tennis Club was invited to play their Laon counterparts!
We boarded the train at Calais in good time and were home in Winchester by midnight.
Written by Alex Irvine Fortescue. 2016