Summary of Bob Rogers
The text comprises Rogers’ whole life story, foucssing particularly on his war-time experiences. He recounts important events leading up to his capture in North Africa and his relationship with his colleagues. Once captured as a prisoner of war, he had been taken aboard Nino Bixio which was to be torpedoed by British Forces – a pivotal moment for Rogers.
Still a POW, they were held in a huge shelter, later taken to work on a farm, from which Rogers and fellow captives would escape. They were aided by locals throughout Italy, spending a lengthy period in the small village of Gaina in the mountains of Italy before crossing into Switzerland. Rogers’ return to England is slow, and eventually he is discharged to carry on his personal journey after the war ends, including visits back to Italy.
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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SIXTY BONUS YEARS: a tale of survival
by Bob Rogers
[Image of Bob in the countryside covers the background.]
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It is my privilege to honour my Dad by writing this foreword.
My brother Michael and I grew up with these amazing stories of Dad’s war years. I always marvelled that someone who had been through these times could then go on to lead a normal life!
I remember Dad’s wisdom when he said that he regarded every day since the Nino Bixio as a bonus. With this positive attitude it is no wonder that Dad is a survivor and is a fit man in his eighties with a great outlook on life.
Our lives have been blessed by amazing connections. The first one brought great sadness to my mother. It was because my mum lost her first husband (Roger Peel) that the connection between Mum and Dad began.
Of course without that connection none of our family would have been brought into being.
The connection with my husband Bill’s family back in 1958 has brought the blessing of my marriage and our own precious family.
Dad’s time in Gaina has given us an incredible link with the Manessi and Ravarini families. This strong bond will continue to develop and is now touching four generations.
We thank Dad from the bottom of our hearts for taking the time to write this true story down, giving the family wonderful connections and bonds to treasure throughout our lives.
With thanks from your loving daughter Lynn, on behalf of all the family.
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[Handwritten text above the photograph] all the very best, good health to Stephen
From Bob Rogers. 10.6.03
[Photograph with caption] Private Samuel Robert Rogers
[Page Footer] Mr Rogers – Memoirs [Page] 1
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At Home With My Ma
This is a tale that I would like to dedicate to my Ma, on behalf of all of her twelve children and the others she took into our family, her parents and two nephews who were orphaned. All taken care of by a most remarkable woman who was a tower of strength to us all. Myself, I came seventh in the scheme of things, and even though things were pretty tough in the 1920s our house was a warm and, of course, hectic place. But filled with love and good humour along with the most aromatic of smells – fresh baked bread. My Mother must have had a constitution of a horse, the amount of sheer hard work she did daily was just exceptional. She baked at least three times a week; I can smell the fragrant smell of it now. Washdays were a monumental task – scrubbing, boiling, and wringing – all done by hand in those days. The kids were recruited early in life to help turn the handle of the old wooden roller mangle, and taught to use the poss stick, a heavy peg like thing used to pummel the dirt out of the clothes in large wooden tubs. Her only rest or break was every two years; she was confined to bed to have a further addition to her brood. But always a smile and a helping hand to all around the village.
[Photograph with caption] Bob’s parents with the first of their eleven children.
Amongst my earliest recollections is one when I was four years old and had been persuaded by older kids to get some matches from home. lt was around Guy Fawkes Day and the kids had a huge bonfire prepared for November 5th. They had a large hole inside it and on the cold nights they would gather in it with a
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candle in a jam jar for light. So to light this candle, I was to get the matches and, by standing on the brass fireside fender I could just reach up to the mantelpiece where they were. Unfortunately Dad came to get the box of matches soon after and of course they were gone. When we came into the house later he said to us all.
“Who took the matches”?
everyone cried – me louder than anyone! “Right,” he said “A walloping for all of you”. Tightlipped, I took the smacks with the rest of them. He was usually a gentle man but he said that liars had to be punished and although I never did own up, the lesson stuck with me for life.
My early recollections were also of seasons of outdoor games. We all played marbles, rounders or swapped cigarette cards, according to the seasons. Guy Fawkes Night was a very big thing that took long preparation of gathering and building a huge bonfire of rubbish, which was guarded diligently against rival gangs. Even in our small village we had separate zones, each with its own clan and bonfire, and raiding of rubbish was a full pitched battle for weeks before November the 5th. But a glorious sight when it was at last set on fire. Mind you the fireworks were few, as the times were very hard indeed, being young you never realised how tough it was to just feed a large family in those days.
As children reached the tender age of fourteen it was out to work as soon as a job could be found and as time went on they were handed down to younger ones. Mine came early, a bicycle and a paper round at about ten years of age came from my elder brother who started as a butcher, a great job, as the perks came home for the pot. At school it was a bit of a battle, as I delivered newspapers at 6.30am and in bad weather I was quite often a little late reaching school by 9am. No excuses, you got two strokes of the cane, one on each hand, very painful on cold winter days. What a reward for trying to help, but that was the way it was. lt made you hurry around the streets to be on time. Four hours a day, seven days a week for the princely sum of seven shillings. lt was handed over to Ma and a shilling came back for pocket money. I thought I was well off and always had a few pennies in my pocket.
By this time about five or six kids had some sort of jobs and I suppose we managed quite well. My father and eldest brother worked at Smiths Docks, a repair yard, and until the depression set in had pretty regular work. So I suppose in the scheme of things we were fairly well off, in our expanding family. All had their little tasks to help out in the home; it would have been chaos otherwise. The smaller ones were helped and taught by those who were a few years older.
Being born seventh in a family of twelve in the 1920s was probably commonplace in those days of large families. But England, after surviving the “war to end all wars” just two years previously, was still struggling to recover and food rationing was still on. At this time on every birth registration it was stated that a ration book had been issued.
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Even though times were very hard, and getting worse – 1926 being the year of the general strike when major civil disruption was very close – our home was a warm sanctuary in those stormy days. Without a doubt it was because of the wonderful skills and courage of our Mother.
We lived in a small community of about 1,000 people called East Howdon. This was nestled on the banks of the River Tyne and was always a place of movement – ships up and down the river, tramcars rattling by – but even in such a small place there were divisions and areas that were claimed as “ours” or “theirs”. The children in the bottom two rows of houses never mixed with the two up the bank but I think that in those days things were more centered around the home. Travel was something that you read about in storybooks. We seldom went out of our own little area and if we did we walked it – shank’s pony was the expression. All over England, villages just a few miles apart, had variations in dialect and fierce local rivalry was fought out on the soccer field, yet the whole area had a pride in being “Geordies” which still continues to this day.
I was to find that even another part of the same county would seem foreign and that they took some time to accept strangers. I refer to the small fishing village of Cullicoats in this case, which was more or less a family affair of six or seven families who had lived together for a very long time. One man who moved into the village, even after twenty years there, was always referred to as “the bloke from Wallsend” where he originated.
Still, in the cocoon of our own steadily growing family, we were secure and happy. Any problems of younger ones were quickly put right by older and bigger brothers and sisters. Responsibility of caring for the one younger than yourself was the way it worked and it worked well. The mainstay, of course, was “Ma” – feeding and looking after us all, while having a pregnancy as regularly as clockwork every two years. The logistics of washing, cleaning and cooking for such a tribe tremendous but on top of all this, she still had time for anyone else’s problems. She must have had a great constitution to keep going year after year and still be cheerful and caring. lt wasn’t a “lovey, dovey, darling and kisses” house but never did we leave the house without saying “Ta’ra Ma” and getting a reply – in fact we would stand and shout “Ta’ra” until she did reply “Ta’ra then”.
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[Photograph with handwritten caption] TOM, JOAN, MARGIE, DON, NELL, MUM, ALMA, ANNA
As mentioned before, the rising family numbers meant that a bigger house was always a need. My first recollection of shifting was when I was about six and we moved from East Howdon to North Shields, only about two miles away, but another world. Dad worked in the ship repair yard , Smith’s Dock, so it was easier for him. We had a large, three storey terrace house, which must have had a jinx on it as we had nothing but trouble in it.
At the time, my mother’s parents were living with us. First my granddad died, then in a short time a younger brother tragically died at the age of three years after suffering a fit. The jinx seemed to be still with us as a day at the beach ended when one of my sisters and I were both badly scalded when boiling water was spilled on us at a picnic. Infection occurred and we were treated at home for many weeks, adding one more duty to our mother’s hectic life. No sooner had we got over that episode than I contracted scarlet fever. The council was putting in sewerage into the area and the fever was said to come from that operation. Being the first to succumb to the illness, I was rushed away to an isolation ward in a horse-drawn carriage and to what I thought was a prison. Parents visited once a week but they stood about twenty yards away behind large wrought iron gates while most kids wept copious amounts of tears. Also, while I was away in hospital, Ma had to cope with the house being fumigated from top to bottom. Not that it made any difference, as out of the eight
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left at home, seven contracted the fever and had to be isolated at home for two weeks incubation period. It must have been a nightmare situation and yet she took it all in her stride.
Being part of such a large family meant you learned the rules of life very early. It seemed you always had an older sibling telling you what to do, but as you had younger ones than yourself you soon learned to pass it on to the next below you and so on in order of seniority. It must have worked okay as we seemed to be quite a happy bunch even in the worst of tough times – the years 1928 to 1939 were especially no picnic. However, we made our own fun and it all went by the seasons – each current “fad” went around in a cycle – marbles, cigarette cards, games, and rounders all came back in their own season. We were a complete clan and took care of each other.
As mentioned before my working life started when I was about 10 years old. The jobs were inherited from an older brother and I felt I was helping to do my bit. lt was hard but some things helped to make it all worthwhile, like selling newspapers to the fishermen on the large fleet which used the port. The local newspapers and a racing paper called “The Sporting Man” were popular, as the fishermen liked a flutter on the horses. Also, with the papers, I had small envelopes in which were tips from the experts, ex jockeys and trainers, “sure winners” etc. and they were good sellers at three pence each. The fishermen themselves were a grand lot of men – rough, tough, but the salt of the earth (or should I say the sea)! Many a time I would get a fresh fried herring from the cook – delicious! I was part of the scene and I loved it.
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[Photograph with caption] In 1926 80-year-old Cullercoats fishwife, Mrs. Bessie Taylor, was still carrying her creel.
The girls at the dock worked very hard gutting the herrings, packing them into wooden barrels, while salting them into layers. A cooper would put the bands and the lids on ready for loading on to ships, usually Russian or Scandinavian ones, for export. On a sunny day, it was a great sight and sound which I never tired of but if the wind turned North or South – look out, because the chill could cut your ears off even on a sunny day. However, we were used to the changes in the weather and I saw about four years of daybreaks and sunsets but I loved it and it gave me a real feeling of independence. You were responsible for getting payment from your customers and I felt great satisfaction in handing over my seven shillings wages and getting one shilling back. I also made a bit on the side
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as Saturday extra work earned a few pennies, so I always had a little bit in my pocket.
We were still kept on the move with our increasing family numbers, and looking back we had about ten house changes over the same number of years. Of course there were no removal vans then – it was all done on a handcart, with prams, homemade bogies (a favourite with all young boys). We must have been some procession, not that that sort of thing was out of the ordinary as everyone did the same thing when moving house.
By this time though, some of the eldest had married and we moved once more back to East Howdon where we settled down from about 1935 and it seemed that at long last we would stay in one place for a while.
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The Arrival of War
This chapter of my life is a special dedication to a wonderful mother who was an inspiration to all her family on how to cope with adversity. There is no doubt that she helped me survive the special challenges faced in battle, being a prisoner and in escaping the enemy.
The dark clouds of war were building up over Europe and I had begun my apprenticeship as a painter. For four years it meant an hour’s cycle ride to Whitley Bay, morning and night and pretty tough it was in the winter days. At times the wind would stop your riding, and a few of us would wait at a bus stop to get behind a bus for shelter and we would peddle furiously and sometimes catch it up when it stopped regularly to let passengers on or off. The exercise must have been good for us because we were hardly ever sick.
The year 1938 saw the Munich crisis with Mr Chamberlain’s famous “Peace in our time” statement but the pace of preparation for war heated up. Of course our River Tyne was one of the key docks for the building of ships so it became a real boom time. Finally, on the beautiful Sunday morning, 3rd September 1939, the somber words, “Britain is now at war with Germany”, were heard over the radio. Soon after, the wail of the air raid sirens was heard and must have been the cause of a few heart attacks. Planes had been sighted approaching the coast, and for some strange reason, the whole country had the alarm sounded but it all turned out to be a false alarm as the planes were friendly ones, so the many heart patients were probably the first casualties of the war.
After a few weeks had gone by, six of us young fellows went along to the Navy recruiting office to sign up. However, only one was accepted – because he was already working on the tugboats and they were needed for minesweeping duties. Even then, mines were being laid by enemy submarines and planes around the harbour entrance. We were told that it was ships they needed, not men, and anyway, we would soon get our call-up papers. lt was nearly five months later when I got mine and it informed me that I was to report for a medical. A quick look over by four doctors – eyes, ears etc, and if you were even at least warm, you were in, graded as “A1”.
Now came the waiting for the letter that would tell me where, when and what branch of the Armed Force I would enter. At last it arrived and I was told to report to Brancepath Castle, County Durham – the home of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI). So, with a cheery “Ta Ra Ma”, off I went to war with a brown paper parcel under my arm. Suitcases were a rare commodity in our house and, anyway, clothes would be provided. My trusty old bike was left at the station to be picked up later by a younger brother – no worries in those days of having it stolen.
We seemed to travel a long way from home, although it was only about 30 miles, but felt like a foreign country to me. The dialect was totally different, as was the
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whole introduction into the Army, with the incessant shouting to do this and do that. The “automaton” aspect was very hard to get used to after about ten years of being independent but you had to adapt and learn quickly. Within a short period of time, we were given uniforms, equipment, and inoculations, and generally transformed into a crowd of very confused people. The loud barks of very tough-looking NCOs [Non-Commissioned Officer] then had us milling around like panic-stricken cattle.
[Photograph with caption] Bob (photo taken on entering the army)
We were put into small groups and trucked away into the countryside and I finished up in a tiny village hall at New Brancepeth with about forty others. We were all shapes and sizes, which was just as well as the uniforms seemed to come in two sizes only – large or small, so swapping was the way to get a reasonable fit. We were issued with a rifle and told how to clean out the thick grease that filled the working parts. The rifle was a Canadian Ross type, left over from the First World War I would imagine.
“Take out the pull-through from the butt of the rifle” shouted the corporal -“Now take this piece of flannel and pull through the barrel to remove the grease”. As keen as mustard, I duly found the bit of string with a bit of brass on the end, gave a heave-ho and it snapped like a bit of thread. Unperturbed, I went to the corporal – “My bit of string has snapped”, I said. He seemed to swell up and went red in the face as he shouted, “You say ‘Corporal’ when you speak to me and stand to attention. I hope it is only a 2″ x 4″ flannel you have on your pull-through, if not you will be put on a charge”.
What a great start to the day, I thought. It didn’t get any better either when the towering figure of RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] Jennings arrived on the scene. “Have the armourer push it out with the Bren gun rod” was his advice but he gave me such a scowl that I
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knew my name had gone down into his little black book. Anyhow, they finally had to burn it out with a heated rod, so destroying any evidence of how big the cloth actually was. “What a lot of fuss”, I thought.
We settled into a frenzied pace of training that seemed to be all done at a gallop from dawn to dusk and then included some night-time exercises. The war news matched my own mood – depressing – as German Panzer units smashed through Europe, pushing the allies into the sea at Dunkirk where 300,000 men were snatched from the beaches by heroic efforts.
The threat of invasion strengthened the effort to get our training finished. This included doing guard duty on the bridges over the River Tyne that had explosive charges fitted in order to demolish them if Germany did get ashore in an invasion. Desperate times for Britain – real backs to the wall stuff. Our training finished and with six others I was sent to join a battalion, the 8th Durham Light Infantry that was stationed at the little south Devon town of Haniton. We duly fronted up to the guardroom to present our papers and were told to report to the company office on the other side of the square. Taking the short cut straight across the huge expanse of concrete parade ground, we were met by the tall, steaming figure of, … yes, my “friend to be” RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] Jennings.
When he had controlled his apoplexy, he read the riot act about the sacrilege we had just committed, i.e. treading on the sacred parade ground. We got to know that ground very well as we joined the Headquarters’ Pioneer Platoon and my’jinx’, the RSM, was to give us a weekly dose of strenuous parade drill. Indeed, he seemed to get a great deal of pleasure as he quick-marched us up and down for two hours.
However, we settled in and found it pretty good really. The locality was very nice, but we still found it hard to get to know the ‘old hands’ who, after going through the France episode and finally the horror of Dunkirk, were, understandably, a very much close-knit team. They were also mainly Territorials so the older ones must have been together for a number of years, and even father and son relationships were common. Therefore they were a close community and it took a long time to be accepted.
The summer ended with the nightly drone of German bombers on the way to some unfortunate city. Bath, Bristol, Liverpool, Coventry all had very bad raids but it was all peaceful in the Devon countryside. We trained and prepared for the expected invasion with our Division spread along the south coast very thinly. I am sure that if Hitler had pushed ahead after Dunkirk, it would have been very hard to stop him, as the defences were very poor at the time. Christmas and New Year came and went, very subdued with the gloomy war news.
A series of intense training exercises started on the moors around Exmoor – a wild, desolate area with the temperatures around zero. We suffered quite a few deaths from exposure; even a whole crew once when exhaust fumes got under a
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tarpaulin on their Bren carrier and asphyxiated them as they tried to keep warm after becoming bogged down. The old hands said the training was as bad as Dunkirk. Even things like evening meals brought up to us in insulated containers, may have ‘gone off’ so the result a few hours later was a severe outbreak of food poisoning and diarrhoea. Trying to shed all of your equipment in a hurry was often impossible and a lot of accidental soiling took place and all of this in a very cold, snow-covered area was, as you can imagine, very disheartening. When we finally came down off the moors we found the climate so different and people looked amazed at our appearance. What it all achieved was beyond my understanding but a lot of the army way of doing things seemed like that to me.
Although our Division was being readied to leave England for a ‘confidential’ destination we were actually issued with sun helmets. When we finally marched to the railway station, sun helmets on our shoulders, we could have had a banner flying saying “Egypt here we come”.
A long, dreary train journey to Scotland ended at Gourock where we boarded the troopship “Duchess of Richmond”. The harbour was full of ships, cruisers, destroyers, and even a huge aircraft carrier. We sailed out at dusk, comforted (in our swaying hammocks) by the large number of navy ships to protect us. The sea was calm as we headed due west and our first day out was quiet and peaceful. The “Duchess”, as was her nickname, was on her best behaviour and we sort of enjoyed our new shipboard life. However, after about 36 hours we found that all of our escorts, except the cruiser “Ajax”, had left us in the night. Rumour had it that the German battleship “Bismark” was loose in the Atlantic, in our vicinity, and when the news came of the loss of HMS “Wood” not too far away from our position, it added to our concern. As we plodded on westward, I figured we must have been going to Canada.
Shipboard life on a troopship was an eye-opener to me as a ferry ride across the River Tyne was my only previous ‘deep’ water experience. Packed in like sardines, hammocks side by side we swayed hypnotically above the mess-tables as we pressed on across the Atlantic. What a good job we were ignorant of the dangers in our journey. We were more concerned at the awful food that we had to pick up in dixies from the galley and bring to the mess desk – a juggling feat in the rougher weather. Seasickness was a real problem for a lot of men but I had a good pair of sea legs. A stroke of luck came my way when I got a job as a dishwasher in the Officers Mess. This meant that I ate with the ship’s officers and there was no swill at all on their menu. Every day I would bring some back for my mates so I was very popular when my work in the steamy kitchen was done. Huge sinks of water had steam piping to heat them, so it was like working in a Turkish bath, but well worth it.
The crew called the “Duchess” the “Drunken Duchess”, as she rolled and pitched so much. She had been designed for Fast East travel and the wild Atlantic was not her scene. But on we sailed with our lone protector, the cruiser “Ajax”, that entertained us when launching her Walrus seaplane to reconnoitre for U Boats.
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After what seemed a very long time, we headed south into warmer climes and finally made land in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa – a beautiful harbour, but no one was allowed ashore. We were entertained by natives in dugout canoes selling fruit and shouting to us to throw coins and small children would swim down after the coins. But wrapping pennies in silver paper was greeted by howls of derision – “Glasgow tanner” they screeched. All of this entertainment was shattered by a couple of Vichy French planes dropping bombs at the convoy, but fortunately they missed.
We were soon on our way, heading south again. lt was a calm, empty sea and we crossed the Equator with due ceremony, everyone receiving a certificate from King Neptune.
It was all very peaceful and uneventful as we enjoyed the sunshine of the tropics. A day or two before reaching the Cape of Good Hope, our lone guardian, the “Ajax”, launched its aircraft for the usual slow patrol around the convoy, watched by most on board as it was a break in the monotonous routine and a welcome diversion. lt would circle the convoy a couple of times, finishing the patrol with a display, releasing a couple of balloons into the air and using them as targets for a mock attack.
It was the most exciting thing to break the monotony but on this beautiful day, the sea like a polished mirror, tragedy struck! As if on a huge stage, watched by a huge audience, the Walrus dived steeply, the wings just folded back and it went into the sea like a big dart. lt floated there with its tail clear as if embedded in the sea. The “Ajax” was swiftly alongside, but too late. We were all so sad to see it sink before a rescue could be made. I am sure the whole convoy felt as if we had lost an old friend. Just two days later we arrived in Durban.
Most places were closed as a convoy from Australia had caused some snags as the troops had celebrated in typical Aussie fashion – for example, the car on the top of the Post Office steps – but it was great just to walk along the beach.
We came across a boat high and dry on the beach that turned out to be a “city” wine vessel. There were gangs of coloured people salvaging large pieces of timber from it. Twenty or more, with ropes secured, chanted as they slowly inched the timber up the beach.
A few beers and the day was just about gone but a race back to the ship with a few other Zulu rickshaw drivers was an exciting way to finish it. The drivers were muscular, tall men in full Zulu regalia – feathers, fur, beads and all the trimmings. As they gathered speed while balancing the rickshaw, they seemed almost in slow motion as their huge bare feet slapped the tarmac but we were really motoring with three rickshaws abreast down the main street.
All too soon we were on our way again. Farewelled by the sweet singing of a lady in white standing on the breakwater as we sailed into another ocean – the Indian – and headed north to our destiny. It was getting very hot and a lot of the men
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slept on deck as the cramped conditions of the mess decks were unbearable at times. The passage through the Red Sea was particularly awful and one of the engine room crew actually died from heat exhaustion. I think we must have been five or six weeks at sea when we made land at the bustling Port Said. We saw the sad sight of a fine ship, the “Georgio”, sunk by Italian bombers. Just her superstructure was showing and we were told that a ‘lucky’ bomb had gone right down the funnel and blown out the bottom of the ship.
Next was a train ride along the Sweetwater Canal to Ismalia. By the smell of the canal it should have been called just the opposite! So Ismalia, a sandy waste far from anywhere, was our first stop in the Land of the Pharaohs. Sand was like a dust that covered everything, even the food. Also, a plague of flies hung over the place and the thought of the clean, golden sands of dear old Tynemouth brought on nostalgia and a yearning for home.
But there was not much time for self-pity. Germany was rolling all resistance aside and they had conquered all of the Balkans, Greece and then came Crete, the latest casualty. The next stop would be Cyprus, before the rich oil wells of the Middle East. So 50 Division was off to war starting with a high-speed dash to Alexandria on one of the Navy’s fastest ships, the minelayer “Orduna”, said to be able to travel at 40 knots. From Alexandria to Famagusta and a hectic landing in the middle of the night saw us scrambling down rope nets with a few bits of equipment lost between ship and jetty. They said that the ship had to leave before daylight, as enemy bombers were a daily hazard.
Headquarter Company settled in at the capital, Nicosia, a lovely old city that I got to know very well. Our tents were pitched in a groove of very old olive trees – quite pleasant, and we soon settled down. The weather was fine and, being scattered around, we weren’t under the eagle eye of RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] “Spike” Jennings, so that was a nice change.
The Pioneer Platoon was a mixture of all trades and one of our duties was seeing to the burial of any dead. Nameplates had to be made for coffins and this job often fell to one of our Lance Corporals who had worked for the Co-Op Undertakers back in his hometown. He was appropriately named Ted Toll – after “For Whom The Bell Tolls”.
I remember a time we had to take a coffin to the mortuary in Nicosia when one of our dispatch riders had unfortunately been killed in a road accident. He had run into a horse-drawn carriage at night and the shaft had hit him right in the chest. So after we had got his nameplate done, off we went to the mortuary to box him up. When we arrived and had him laid out, we found that no one had brought along any tools with which to screw down the lid so we hammered in the screws with the butt of a rifle. Well, the joints on the coffin lid were filled with what seemed to be wax that, with our strenuous blows with the rifle, were soon jumping out. It was impossible to get the screws down flat so we just left them sticking out a bit as the men doing firing party duty had arrived. I often wonder if this was noticed – certainly nothing was said.
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One of our other less morbid duties was brothel patrol. Essentially this involved checking out that lower ranks were not in the higher-class “Officer Only” establishments. lt was certainly an eye opener for me.
We had about five months of an almost peaceful time on Cyprus, broken by daily high altitude bombing by Italian planes – only specks in the sky, but pin-point accuracy with the airport the target. Occasional trips across the Troodos Mountains to a beach at Kyrenia would mean a hair-raising bus ride over hairpin bends and sheer drops. The driver seemed to spend most of the trip with his hands off the wheel, which didn’t help, but the beach was just fabulous. Clear, buoyant water was a welcome relief from the very hot weather.
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Off To The Middle East
However our idle life would change very soon. On the 5th of November we were taken by landing craft to scramble aboard the destroyer, HMS Hasty, for another dash across to Haifa and into the Holy Land where we came under India Command. Apparently General Wavell had ordered that we were to be toughened up after our soft life on Cyprus – so daily twenty-mile route marches with full kit began. Our troop carriers took us to within twenty miles of our camp, then set us down to march home. This occurred all the way through Palestine, Jordan and Iraq where we finally finished up. The northern city of Mosul and the oil wells of Kirkuk were of course Germany’s Middle East target and they were fairly close having reached Sevastopol. Luckily for us, the severe winter was to hold them up. We were in tents and felt the dramatic change in the weather badly. By early December, the snow was so bad that the pickets had to patrol at night and rake the snow off the tents to save them from collapsing from the sheer weight of it.
At that time we were trying to kid any would-be-spys that we were more than one division by periodically changing our division signs on our wagons, so I was pretty busy. Our TT sign was painted onto a piece of steel and slotted into a groove on the front of the trucks. A new one was on the back, 62, and on certain days would be changed over in an effort to confuse. But it was such a desolate part of Iraq I wondered where the spies could hide! Admittedly, the locals were not very friendly so any of them could be “agents”.
Sometimes I did get a trip or two to buy supplies of paint in Mosul, and the sights I saw were like something out of the Dark Ages. Slaughter houses seemed to be a common feature in the streets – sheep, goats, camels were killed by a man who decapitated them with a two handed sword and the smoky fires were, I think, to keep the black clouds of flies at bay. lt was like a scene from Dante’s “Inferno”. However, overall I found Iraq a bleak, barren land and was glad to leave in early February, bound for warmer climes. lt was a much quicker trip back down through Iraq, Jordan and Sinai to cross the Suez once more near lsmalia and again taste the sands of Egypt.
lt was a very barren, cold country with only the rich oil deposits making it such a prize for the Germans. Kirkuk was the town where the oil pipeline started, stretching all the way through Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine to Haifa, so it was a glittering prize for the Germans to try and break through to. They almost made it at Sevastopol, however like that other invader, Napoleon, they were stopped by the cruel Russian winter.
lt was a miserable time sleeping in tents with snow and freezing temperatures. At night it was necessary for tents to have the snow raked off to stop the weight of it collapsing them – after the heat of Cyprus we all found this very hard. Also, our
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clothing was not suitable for such conditions, just the normal battledress and greatcoat.
Christmas came; a bleak and freezing day, but the cooks did well with the meal served to us (sitting in the backs of our transports) by the officers – a tradition of the Division.
[Photograph with caption] Christmas dinner
So it was with no regret that we once again loaded up the camp and set off for warmer climes. A quicker trip back – no daily marches – and we were once again over the River Jordan into Palestine. A stop on the way beside an orange grove saw the trees almost picked clean in record time. Oranges had not been on the menu for months and this variety, Jaffa, was the best!
We continued across the Sinai desert, across to Suez, and back into Egypt where I celebrated my 22nd birthday just outside Cairo. We were lucky for once to be camped near a huge hotel and so beer cans were built into a mini pyramid – a birthday to remember.
Soon we were on the coast road again via some famous places; Mersah Matruh, Sollum eh Adem and Tobruk. Names we were to get very used to, and finally into the front line to relieve the 4th Indian Division at Gazalla – not a town but a stretch of barbed wire and minefields. Life was soon marked by stand-to at dawn and dusk, and the occasional hair-raising exploits of the Pioneer platoons that were trying to clear the minefields at night. The sappers would try and plot out where they thought the mine grids were set, and then at night they would probe and defuse them. lt was bad on our nerves – goodness knows what it was like for them!
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[Map with caption] ROUTES FOLLOWED BY THE 8TH BATTALION IN THE MEDITERRANEAN THEATRE
The weeks dragged on and, in May, I came out of the draw for seven days leave to Cairo. Three of us left by lorry to Derna, then a rattley old train with cattletrucks for accommodation to El Alamein. Then a normal train (wooden seats) for the rest of the way. The journey took a day out of the week so we had to make merry with just five days and a trip to the pyramids on the first day got our sightseeing over with. They were a wonder to behold even if the Arab guide wanted paying every time he lit a sparkler type of illumination – hadn’t heard of torches I suppose. The trams looked like travelling hills of people, so many were clinging to the sides and they rattled and swayed at an alarming speed. Inside, you were packed in like sardines and smelled much worse. When one of the lads got off, he found that his pay book etc had been stolen even though his shirt pocket had a safety pin through it to secure it. lt took us half a day at a military police barracks to get it sorted out, as a very serious view is taken because a pay book was like a passport and evidently brought a high price on the spy market. A glorious few days in the teeming city and then we were back on the train all too soon. We were greeted at the lorry pick-up by a fantastic sandstorm. Impossible to see your hand in front of you. We crawled along for two days of sheer torture and made it through to our battalion.
It was this sandstorm behind which Field Marshall Rommel pushed his advance deep in the desert and by-passed all of our coastal defences before turning in towards Tobruk, leaving us surrounded. Sadly one whole brigade (150th Brigade
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of the Green Howards, East Yorkshire) to the left of us was decimated when the Germans bombed and punched through with his heavy armour.
At this time, part of our duties as mine clearance was to take charge of a gap in the minefields to allow exit and entry of patrols. This was a one-man duty of 24 hours that came around every two weeks. Everyone was pleased to get it over with as you were alone with the nearest friend about half a mile back. You had phone contact but it always seemed a long 24 hours.
One evening at stand-to after doing my spell at the “gap” a few of us were talking amongst ourselves regarding how our water ration was being wasted in making tea. lt was so heavily chlorinated it was impossible to drink. We opted to get a Corporal to ask for the water to be given out instead as we used to dose it with Andrews Liver Salts and it went down well then. What we didn’t realise that all our discussions or arguments had been overhead by the CSM [Company Sergeant Major] and the QSM [Quartermaster Sergeant Major ?]. The next morning I was surprised to be called out by the CSM [Company Sergeant Major] and told to report to the Company office dugout. I was marched in to face the Company Commander and just about fainted when the charge was read out – all sorts of things tantamount to inciting mutiny in the field, a court martial offence!
“What do you have to say for yourself”? I was asked. I tried to explain about the undrinkable tea but was dumbstruck by the severity of the charge. With dire threats of a court martial and of being surrounded by the enemy, I was sort of released on parole to be of exemplary behaviour – or else! I retreated to my dugout that I shared with Johnny Mellor to ponder my misfortunes.
The following morning I was greeted by my “friend”, CSM [Company Sergeant Major] Wood, told to get my kit together and go on outpost duty again. My protests that I had only just done duty two days ago, were brushed aside with another threat of failing to obey an order and further dire consequences. My own sergeant could only say, “Do it, and we shall protest later”. But “later” very nearly did not come about. Even though I felt that it was a clear case of someone in authority trying to get back at me there was nothing to be done about it so off I went. The man I relieved was proudly waving his wounded hand. “What did you do, kept it poked up out of the slit trench?” I asked. “lt will keep me away from here for a while” was his cheerful farewell – “it has been pretty hot around here lately”.
After an hour or two watching a huge Mark IV Jerry tank patrolling back and forth to the entrance of the valley, I was amazed to see a convoy of trucks drop off at least 200 infantry just a few hundred yards in front of my post. A frantic phone call told me all was under control as they were about to shell the enemy with a barrage of 25 pounders and mortars. So this kept me entertained until dark.
Come daybreak I was told to lift the mines in the gap and to go out with the patrol to round up the prisoners we hoped were going to surrender after the heavy barrage. Down came a bren-carrier, an armoured car and a 15cwt lorry, into which I climbed. We had no sooner cleared the minefield, than up and out of a
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fold in the ground, rose at least 150 Italian soldiers who formed up in good order and advanced towards us. Guiding them through the gap, we just pointed to the rear and off they went. After salvaging an anti-tank gun and a couple of shellshocked Italians, one who was able to hang onto the tailboard of the truck whilst standing on the limbers of the gun to stop it bouncing around, we headed back.
After all the excitement I was left at my lonely outpost to await my relief at midday. Noon came and went with no sign of anyone. Apart from the shelling that mostly went over my post, it was peaceful until late afternoon when five enemy fighters tried a shooting exercise at low level. I could see the pilots clearly, but clearer still was the row of flames from the wings and I was the only thing in sight apart from an old Italian gun, with a pile of ammunition that we hadn’t a clue how to use. After each plane had a turn at firing at me, they formed up as a unit and the five, side by side, roared down this little valley with guns blazing. How so many bullets could miss me, I’ll never know as they pinged off stones and the old gun as I lay crouched in my shallow slit trench with my blanket folded and placed on my back in the hope that it would stop a bullet. Not a scratch did I get, so I surely must have had a Guardian Angel looking after me.
Dusk was coming on and I had no word of relief and as my 24 hours rations had long ago been eaten, I was starting to get worried. The phone link with the outpost had long gone dead.
I decided to have a walk back and check the phone line that may have been put out of action with the shelling. So, leaving everything except my rifle and ammunition, I picked up the line and trudged off to investigate. Lo and behold, I arrived at a deserted and empty outpost and felt as if I had been abandoned on a desert island. Feeling dismayed and really isolated I was unsure as to what to do next. To leave my post could be another disaster for me if by some chance, my particular gap was still needed. The outpost was a slightly elevated pimple on the flat desert and there I stood, a lonely figure, peering into the falling dusk.
I could see a lot of activity, like dust rising from lorries, back towards our main defence lines. Suddenly a bren-carrier appeared, travelling fast towards me and I thought – “now I shall get some news”. lt was the battalion CO [Commanding Officer] and his entourage crammed into the carrier (but I was sure that a little skinny guy like me could fit in).
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” were his brusque words. I explained how I was in charge of the gap and that I had not been told to leave. “Humph” he snorted as if I had made it all up. “You should have been out of here at first light”.
Wish I had been, I thought to myself.
“Look across to where those trucks are,” he said, “that is about the last of the battalion. We are abandoning the area, so hot foot it over there and get aboard any lorry you can”.
“What about all my equipment?” I cried. “Never mind that” he said, and with that roared off and left me standing there.
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Great! Nothing like a good hike on a starving stomach. Why he couldn’t have given me a lift I do not know (I would have climbed up the radio antenna at a pinch). But, no, I was on my own again. Off I went at a gallop and as it was getting dark by this time, I was more than a little anxious.
Eventually I reached the passing trucks but to my dismay the first few refused to pick me up. They said that water had been rationed to each man as the plan was to punch through enemy lines and head deep into the desert before turning back to the coast at Mersah Matruh. “Thanks very much” I thought. My own water bottle was as dry as the desert.
After being refused by a few more “comrades”, I got a “Yes, climb aboard”. They meant me to clamber on top of the canvas cover but I scrambled up the camouflage netting. lt was quite comfy-like a hammock-and a bird’s eye view of the battle. Little did I realise it, but I was sitting on top of a virtual bomb! The truck was full of 4-gallon petrol tins. The driver shot out of the column into the darkness with a yell from his mate, “lend a hand to dump some of these tins”. We stopped and started piling up a half dozen cans. The driver shouted, “climb aboard” and fired his revolver at the cans until they burst into flames. Off we roared and in a flash tracer was flying past to where we had set the fire. Through the columns of trucks and out to the other flank, we repeated the same ruse. lt was getting too hot for me and when we rejoined the rest of the column, I dropped off to become a foot soldier once again. The nightmare continued until, at last, I recognised a friendly face on a truck – our own company wagon. The CO’s [Commanding Officer] clerk, a Newcastle lad from Percy Main said “get in if you can” as it was pretty full. I was perched on the tailboard when a shell landed really close, the blast nearly putting me in beside the driver. However, no damage was done although the noise and confusion was bewildering. At least I was with my own mob – or so I thought.
At another stop as we went through more Italian lines, I heard a voice I had come to loath, demand from the back of the truck “Who are you? You will have to find your own truck. I have prisoners we must interrogate”. lt was, of course, RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] Jennings, my nemesis, so once again it was out into the confusion and darkness to try and get a truck to get on.
Finally, a signals truck let me get aboard and bliss! It was great to find a 44-gallon drum of water with the bung out and a copper ariel to suck it up with. I had come to Shangri La after a nightmare of two days that I should never have been subjected to. After forty-eight hours travelling we turned north to head back to the coast at Wadi Mersah Matruh. Digging in, we had one quiet day before the shelling started again. The Company was asked to send a truck into the town as the NAAFI [Navy, Army and Air Force Institute] was to be destroyed and we could procure supplies before they blew it up. We received a shared out portion – two beers, 50 cigarettes and a few boiled sweets per man. We thought it was buckshee but it was deducted from our first pay at El Alamein – a great way to sell something earmarked for destruction.
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Rommel was not going to let 50 Division off so lightly and by nightfall we were once again surrounded and were taking heavy shelling. A lovely full moon lit the desert like daytime and again we formed up into a column to breakout through the German lines. We stripped off the canvas tops from our 3-ton lorries and everyone sat up without any steel helmets on, to pretend that we were Italian or German infantry. We even tried tying on a bush to the tailboard as the Germans did. At that time the Germans used a lot of our captured trucks so we were (cheekily) hopeful of pulling it off.
All went well and we passed through the lines with only a few tanks and lorries lagging behind. We made the open desert successfully, however the Padre’s and the Second in Command’s trucks were hit when enemy guards opened up. No further trouble came our way until just before we came up to the wire that marked the Egyptian border. In a short, but fierce, tank battle our Honeydews suffered heavy casualties against the much heavier German tanks.
[Map of battle with caption] GAZALA ROMMEL ATTACKS, MAY – JUNE 1942
THE WESTERN DESERT. The line-up of the opposing forces at Gazala when Rommel attacked in May 1942, and the break-out route taken by the Battalion a few weeks later, south of Bir Hacheim and back to the frontier.
Next stop, a patch of desert near El Alamein station for organising and replacing to bring the battalion up to strength. A grand parade of all the companies in the battalion was arranged for us to be inspected by General Ritchie. As I had lost my kit and all of my equipment, the only clean shirt I had was a German one that I had picked up from somewhere. We fell in with full service marching order (FSMO) of course. The only formal FSMO I had was rifle, bayonet and ammunition pouches (four) so I was covered up with them. Inspection by the Sergeant and the CSM [Commanding Sergeant Major] raised no eyebrows but then came a last check-over by
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my friend! Yes, RSM [Regimental Sergeant Major] Jennings gave me a screaming session. Fit to burst, he ordered my dismissal from the parade, which pleased me no end as it was a red hot day and we had been standing on parade for well over an hour. Two hours later, after many men had fainted from the heat, the platoon trudged back to our tent saying that I would be for it, but that would be nothing new to me.
Although I never heard anything more of it, the feud seemed to carry on and ultimately myself and a couple of others were transferred out of HQ Company into B Company (a rifle company). That was a real shock to the system, as we had been in HQ together for well over a year. So it was straight into training on night manoeuvres to get us sorted out.
We had one pass to Alexandria but had to be out of the city by 6pm. The locals acted as if the Germans were due at any time. On 23 July we got orders for a night attack – a “simple” straightening of the line, capture a bit of a ridge and wait for our armour to consolidate.
I didn’t fancy it very much, especially when the padre came around and held a bit of a service and also dished out cigarettes and a few boiled sweets. Night-time saw us trucked forward to our start zone and another bit of a shock when we lined up – the first order was to fix bayonets. That got the short hairs rising, especially for some of our replacement men, some of whom had been rushed through the Mediterranean and had only landed in Alexandria a few days ago.
The Sarge said that it was OK as the artillery was going to give the enemy positions a good pasting. lt was certainly noisy and we all thought that nothing could stand such a pounding. All went quiet and we were told to move forward. I wasn’t really scared as we were in the second wave of men. However, no sooner had we started forward than heavy machine-gun fire and anti-personnel shelling became very heavy and men were being hit all around. A lot of barbed wire was holding up the first wave and we closed up behind them at a marked mine field.
The officers were having a conflab behind the wire for a while, and then our CO [Commanding Officer] stepped over and led us forward to take over as front-runners up a rising slope that seemed to bristle with well-fortified positions. Despite us suffering a lot of casualties, we reached the dug-in enemy troops and they came streaming out to surrender. A lot never got the chance as in the dark and after the punishment we had taken they were mostly shot down.
We finally reached the top of the ridge and started to dig in to await our reinforcements of armour. Spasmodic shelling continued throughout the hours of darkness. Two half-tracks, mobile guns similar to a Bofors, drove close to our positions and laid down fierce fire until both were knocked out with our 2-inch mortars. At first light we watched enemy lorries coming down a forward slope and go out of sight in a fold of the ground. The next thing we saw was the Infantry advancing at walking pace towards us – it was like a clay pigeon shoot and they soon beat a hasty retreat to a flurry of shots as they climbed into their transport. Still no sign of our relieving tanks. We could hear plenty of cries from
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the wounded and one man, lying out in the open in front of our positions, kept waving and calling. Someone said he is shouting “DLI” (Durham Light Infantry).
Along came CSM [Commanding Sergeant Major] Ralston -“You and you” he cried, “have just volunteered to go out and bring in that man”. Naturally it was firstly me who he was speaking to. We scuttled away. It was all very open with still a bit of shelling and the odd burst of small arms fire. When we got up to the injured man, he said that he was called “Brown”, a 9th Battalion man and had been hit the previous night. He had been a prisoner on a Jerry truck for a while but, for some reason, they had dumped him off during the night. He had small wounds all over his legs. We carried him on a rifle between us and, with his arms around our shoulders, dashed back to our position. I then helped make him a bit more comfortable and used my own field dressing on his worst leg wound. What a mistake that was, for when I got hit later on – and asked the CSM [Commanding Sergeant Major] for a replacement dressing you would think I had committed a hideous crime.
However, all his ranting was a bit wasted, as we were soon to find out. When dawn roll call came we found that only 32 of our original 90 soldiers were left alive and uninjured from the previous day – a very bad night indeed. To make matters worse, with the morning came the enemy. With an ominous clanking and roar of engines, five Mark IV German tanks came down both the forward slope towards us and from our rear. A furious barrage roared over our heads, as the artillery did its best to knock them out. However, the tanks had a charmed life amidst the shell bursts. Even though there were no hits the intensity of the barrage turned them back. This action was repeated two or three times but eventually the tanks came directly at our line in single file and broke through one end of our thin defences. The shelling had to stop then and that was it! We were prisoners.
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In the Bag
It didn’t seem real somehow and we all just stood around in a daze whilst these huge tanks rumbled over our hastily dug slit trenches. The tank commander waved us back towards the German zone and made us gather up all of their wounded. We laid them on the back of the tanks before we were herded back to their own defensive line.
Huddled together we sat on the ground and spent a miserable day pondering our fate. During this time we were subjected to spasmodic shelling from our own guns – not a very pleasant experience. By nightfall all of our food and water had gone and there was no sign of any forthcoming.
Apprehension was felt by all when we began to be split up into small groups of up to 8, 10 or 15 people and under guard, marched away into the darkness – with guards all carrying automatics or light machine guns. Fertile imaginations had most of us thinking that we were to be taken away and shot. This was reinforced by the incessant rattle of machine gun fire all around us. Our turn came and about eight of us from B Company, including Bill Alcock and Johnny Mellor my two mates from HQ who were transferred with me, climbed aboard a 30cwt truck with two very nervous guards. Off we went into the darkness and after a jolting ride over the desert we eventually hit the coast road and finished up on the beach at Derna. Here we managed to fill our water bottles and also, under guard, had a swim in the sea. There were some tents on the beach and as we passed one it appeared empty except for a table with bottles standing on it. Bill Alcock spotted an opening in the tent wall and, as quick as a flash, he reached in and grabbed a bottle. But to our dismay it turned out to be Vichy water. What a let down.
So there was no grub at all that day. But next day, in Tobruk, we got our first ration of corned beef and biscuits. From there we were packed, standing room only, on to big lorries with trailers for a gruelling journey, with no stops for toilet emergencies. These were ‘managed’ somehow as we went along. This was much to the amusement of our guard, who sat perched on the roof of the lorry and fired shots close to our heads just for laughs.
At long last we hauled into a camp, nicknamed “The Palms” – an exotic name for the most dismal piece of Libya that you could imagine. Just a wadi with barbed wire around its steep sides and, across the mouth, a crude gate of the same material. Guarded by trigger-happy Italian soldiers, it had no water, shelter or any amenities and the toilets, dug into the wadi sides, were soon overflowing as about 2000 men were crammed into its stinking confines. Water and rations came in once a day – a tiny tin of some sort of watery, stringy meat, between two of us, and a small loaf to be shared between four. The loaf seemed to be made up of 50 percent sand and it ground down our teeth whilst trying to eat it.
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One day, two enterprising Kiwis got under the lorry and, clinging to the chassis, got clean out of the camp. Unfortunately for them they got off just in view of a group of soldiers. When they were brought back, the major in charge had them hung up, with their hands behind their backs, to the posts on the front gate and so stretched that they were up on their toes. After a few hours in the searing sun, both men collapsed and it was pitiful to see them hanging like corpses. A crowd gathered and shouted abuse at the guards until a sympathetic one put a rock under their feet so as to ease the strain on their arms. The Italian major in charge came on the scene and immediately called out the guards who set up machine guns facing the crowd at the gates. He could speak English and said, “Get back or I will open fire”. A most undignified scramble took place as it looked as though they meant business. A short time later, however, the two were taken down and put in the guards’ tent and even given grapes and wine before being returned to the cage.
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“Cruising” on the MV Nino Bixio
After two weeks of miserable existence, we were glad to be told that a ship or ships were to take us away to Italy – another adventure I will never forget. Loaded once again like cattle, onto the huge lorries, we were tormented by the Italian Colonial guards from Eritrea I think, as they demanded any rings or watches. Anyone who still wore them were pounced upon and dealt a nasty smack with the butt end of a rifle to make them hand the valuables over. We were pleased the journey down to the docks was not too long and soon we could see a fine looking ship alongside the quay.
lt was the Italian Motor Vessel (MV) “Nino Bixio”. The harbour bore the scars of bombing along with quite a few wrecked and sunken ships. We were soon loaded aboard and before disappearing into the holds two or three of us hung back to have a scrounge around and snaffle anything to eat. We made contact with the cook who could speak English, but no luck with any grub. We were getting used to doing without by now. Anyway, before long we were rounded up and prodded by excitable Italian guards and pushed down No. 1 hold to begin our Mediterranean cruise.
[Photograph with caption] Nino Bixio: ‘The beautiful ship who would not die.’
Our scrounging delay may have backfired on us because when we were pushed into the hold it was to find no space at all on the upper part and so had to find space on the bottom. About 500 men were crammed into the semi-darkness with only one corner of the hatch permitting a little light. Hardly an inch of space was left and we finally had to settle in the farthest corner. There was no room to lie down so we just squatted in the gloom with the increasing stink of men almost all suffering from dysentery. A 40-gallon drum lashed to a steel post was to be
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used as a toilet as not all the men were able-bodied enough to climb the two vertical ladders to the deck.
We set sail at dusk and the sound of water swishing by did little for our morale. Soon the drum of excrement was overflowing and the stench was almost unbearable. Some tried to carry tin hats filled with it up the ladders – a tricky job at any time, never mind on a swaying ship under way. The howls and curses as a rain of stinking fluid soon put a stop to that. Daylight filtered in from the one open corner, not that it reached us in the far corner.
I decided to go and try to get a breath of fresh air. The guards allowed about a dozen men to come on deck to use a makeshift latrine that had been built over the side of the ship. lt was a crude affair, basically a trough with permanently running water washing the waste straight into the sea, and just a rail to perch on and another to cling to. At least it was clean and the view was great. I was in no great hurry to go back down to such misery. The sun was beautiful and the sea calm and a brilliant blue. We also had an escort of two or three Italian Navy ships fussing around. Eventually I was chased off my perch and back to the hold. Just as I was being pushed below decks, I noticed a lot of the Italian guards had lifebelts on. Even so it didn’t overly worry me.
My mate Johnny was dozing, so I went into the queue to fill up my water bottle. A single tap dribbled slowly and a wait of an hour or more was normal. Eventually I managed to fill the bottle and my enamel mug. I was just putting it to my lips ready for a welcome drink, when BOOM! There was a sound like a huge steel door being crashed shut, and in an instant the sea was filling the hold and I was lying flat on my back with something pinning me down. Even so, my mind was still working and the silly thought in it was “I never did get that drink”. That was soon to be remedied but the water was a bit salty, as well as whatever else was mixed in it.
A British submarine had torpedoed us and the surge of the sea coming through the huge hole in the bow of the ship was swirling everything around. The ship was still going ahead adding to the surging and we were all being tossed around with it. Whatever had pinned me down was swirled away so I tried to get to the surface. No great swimmer, I kicked madly to try and get up, but my breath was gone and I could feel the water going down my throat. Suddenly I popped to the surface, but immediately went down as the water filled up to the steel plates of the upper part of the hold. “Blast” I thought, “I never got a breath”, but up I popped once more. I was about twelve feet from the side of the hold and the water seemed to have turned into a thick horrible brew.
I almost scrambled over the top on hands and knees, and even at such a time I thought “Jesus walked on water” and I might have done so too. As I reached the side another man was clinging to the wood slats that ran around the hold. He was clinging to one side of a lifebelt and I clutched at the other and for a short time we struggled for possession. As I was still in the water he had an advantage
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and I gave up as another surge covered me again. Clinging to the slats I noticed that the other man had disappeared.
I was in a corner which was filled to the steel deckhead every minute or so, but as the ship slowed to a stop I could take stock of my predicament. I was in the top corner of the hold with three sides of steel plate around me. One of them was the bulkhead between Holds One and Two. There was about two feet of air space available that at times disappeared altogether as the ghastly brew sloshed back and forth with the motion of the sea. I was feeling pretty desperate when I noticed that the bulkhead between the holds had a gash torn in it by the force of the explosion. The gash was about six feet long and maybe a foot wide and, luckily, only about five feet away from me.
Clinging with one hand I could just reach it but as the water surged it went through like a huge waterfall into Hold Two. To be caught by such a torrent would be suicidal so I had to wait for the water to settle. At the same time I was fearful that the ship would sink, so I knew that I had to time my move just right. I spread-eagled myself with one foot in the gash and one hand on the wooden slats. I let the water cover me once or twice as I timed the surge and then swung into the gash – clinging to the jagged steel on the other side I swung once again on to the ribs and I was into Hold 2.
I was somewhat better off as only about four-foot of water was sloshing around the bottom with a few bodies floating in it. The hold had held about 500 Indian troops and they were fighting to climb up the two ladders to get on deck. The ones on the ladders were being crawled over by other men, so it took some time before it cleared. Anyhow I was in no fit state to do any fighting. Just then I took stock of the situation and found I was stark naked apart from my shirt collar and two pockets -every stitch of clothing had been blown off me. When I finally stepped out of the hold I was horrified to realise that I was standing on a half a man, severed at the waist. I got rid of a lot of seawater and foulness as I wretched and heaved.
But I had to think about my chances if I was to go overboard. First things first – clothes, water and then I would think about what to do. I quickly got my bearings and found the crew’s mess that still had food on the plates. I grabbed a chop and scuttled into the crew’s cabins grabbing a shirt, shorts and a cardigan (German by the colour I thought). Get going I thought, when a large, angry gentleman came at me screaming and flailing his arms. I ducked and ran clutching my or maybe his, clothes and out onto the deck.
It was a real nightmare in the sunshine of that August day. The bodies lay in heaps and the wounded were just pitiful. I wandered in a daze looking for Johnny and my other mates but found none of them. The ship had quite a list and a lot of men were throwing things over the side.
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I saw a medical orderly I knew, Ginger Rutherford. He was doing his best to help the pitifully wounded. “Can I do anything?” I asked. He said “Go and try and find anything to bandage them up with – sheets or such like”. Back I went into the tents crews’ quarters and grabbed sheets, pillowcases and found a cupboard with cigarettes and a lot of boiled sweets. Stuffing them all into a pillowcase I was out on deck once more giving a fag to those whom were critically injured. lt seemed to help them as they passed away. Ginger said to me “There must be every injury known to medical science here around us”.
The ship was listing but the danger of sinking seemed to have passed. Possibly the fact that two torpedoes, one in the engine room as well as Hold 1, may have stabilised the ship. However, it was going very badly for all the poor souls who had jumped overboard. Our Italian Navy escorts must have made contact with the submarine because they started depth charging. As a result the people in the water seemed to just disappear. All this time the sea was calm, and brilliant sunshine shone down on a shattered ship filled with shattered bodies.
The torpedoes had struck at 3.17pm and the shadows were becoming longer as the Captain tried to rally his crew and get a towline on board from one of the Naval escort ships. It was dark when we commenced to limp towards the coast of Greece. Exhaustion had caught up with me and even though a nasty gash on my forearm was throbbing, I still fell into a restless sleep amid all the carnage on the deck.
Daybreak saw us in sight of land and by noon we wallowed into the picturesque little harbour of Navarino. The towing ship made a sweeping turn and dropping the line, allowed the “Nino Bixio” to gently come to rest on a little sandy shore. I was feeling rather off at this time from a combination of shock and a raging infection from my injured arm. The ship was soon crowded with newsmen eagerly photographing the carnage, much to the disgust of the Captain who ordered the press off his ship.
All of the wounded were soon put ashore and I followed with those who could walk. We finished up in what I thought was a school. It was soon filled with the moans of the badly hurt men – many died during the night. It was a two-storey building with wide concrete stairs and space was at a premium. So much so, that every step had a wounded man on it. I spent most of that night helping men down to the ground floor where treatment of a sort was carried out.
Some time during the early hours I had my arm dressed. A young Naval orderly gave me the works. When he jabbed a swab into the gash, the top of my skull just about came off. He consoled me by taunts of “Wadya tink of di British Navy now, eh”? I was past caring about any Navy as the last 48 hours was about all I could take.
A feed of rice of some sort was passed through the bowels untouched like rapid-fire machine guns. The toilets, a hole in the concrete with footprints, gave you a picture of the action, dysentery still being rampant.
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The walking wounded had to help one another and in the few days that we stayed in Navarino we had to trudge out to an open field that was set up with tents as an emergency treatment centre. On one morning as I was being checked over, I watched a Sikh soldier with a head wound crying his eyes out as a rather sadistic orderly took great pleasure in chopping off the Sikh’s hair. It was about 3 feet long and as he cut it off he cruelly dropped it into the sobbing man’s lap. Sikhs, I believe, never cut their hair and it was pitiful to see his distress.
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It will be sixty years on 17 August 2002 that so many lives were lost in a single moment when the “Nino Bixio” was hit by two torpedoes from HM Submarine Turbulent under the command of Captain “Tubby” Linton (VC) [Victoria Cross]. In a single moment as many as 400 perished. I have told my story earlier but what I want to record now is the tragedy that befell so many other POWs who died unfortunately at the hands of the Royal Navy.
Let me say now, I never heard anyone ever say a single word against the Navy. The general word was, “that is what their job is” but it is such a shame that so many had to die. Ever since the “Nino Bixio” incident I have heard a lot of stories of different ships being sunk and the awful waste of lives. Being crammed like animals in a stinking hold is an awful defenceless way to die. If the “Nino Bixio” had sunk, the toll could have possibly been around fifteen hundred to two thousand. To survive two torpedoes is a miracle for a vessel. I have reasoned it to myself that being empty saved her and a forward hold and the engine room kept her afloat with her other holds intact. She was tough and in the last few years I have found out her history when she was beached in Navarino, Greece she was patched up and towed to Venice and sank as a block ship there.
After the war she must have been salvaged and repaired. Under the same Captain, she visited Wellington in New Zealand, and he opened the ship for all survivors to visit her. The Captain was a fine man who unfortunately died the following year, 1959.
The reason I bring such a sad tale to light is the huge waste of men who died. Could it have been avoided? Usually ships returning from Africa were empty apart from the pathetic human cargo, and surely the naval intelligence must have known that POWs were being loaded from African ports. But it was not an isolated incident as at least seven or eight ships were hit.
According to a military historian for the British Army, the El Alemein War Memorial has about 11,000 names. Of those, it is thought nearly 7,000 died as POWs. Tragic is hardly the word to describe such losses. I have had documented proof of a single ship the “Scillin” sunk by HMS Porpoise that one thousand men died in a single hit. She was a small ship, quite old being built in Scotland in 1903. The submarine surfaced in darkness and shelled it until it stopped, torpedoes sank her in minutes and as the “Porpoise” sailed through the flotsam, a lookout heard a voice in the dark. He shouted “any English there?” “No, but there’s a bloody Scotsman”. He was one of the lucky ones, twenty seven, including Italians, were hauled aboard before an approaching enemy vessel made it submerge.
Of course these events in wartime are never revealed to the public. It would have been bad for morale but I do think these disasters could have been in some
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cases been avoided with a bit more care and knowledge of sailings from certain ports in Africa, especially Benghazi. That is the sad case of the effects of what has before known as “friendly fire”.
Even boarding the ships in Benghazi was a lottery of fate – embarkation cards had been issued at the prison camp, colour coded for the different ships. Consequently mates exchanged cards in order to stay together. Some to miss disaster completely, others to become traumatized, wounded or die. But life is like that – mine would certainly be different if my sisters, on my return from Switzerland, had not told a local Newcastle newspaper reporter of my “torpedo” exploits. When the article was published a few days later, there were dozens of letters begging if I knew of any their loved ones missing as POWs.
A strange twist to the tale of my time on the Nino Bixio occurred about three years ago when a man who was on the second ship of the two that sailed from Benghazi, the Siestre, claimed that the torpedoes that hit the Nino Bixio were actually aimed at the Siestre. Apparently the crew spotted the torpedoes and evasive action avoided contact. The Siestre arrived safely in Italy.
The eventual fate of the Turbulent was not so lucky. Having escaped the torpedoes of the escort ships she was lost with all hands in April 1943.
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A Prisoner in Italy
After a few days in Navarino we were bundled into railway wagons – fifty to a wagon – with about ten wounded and forty of the Indian soldiers. We only stopped once, on a deserted stretch of line, for a toilet call. The guards were Italian Blackshirts and didn’t mind helping the slower prisoners back aboard with a boot in the behind. One of our lads, Oxley from Gateshead, was given a kick just as we were hauling him aboard. He had an awful wound in the back of his thigh and the guard caught him right in his wound – he passed out right away and we just managed to drag him in.
I found the Indian troops very selfish – they refused to share their water with us because of some religious fetish about needing it for toilet reasons. Consequently, the ten British soldiers were thoroughly brassed off by their attitude. After a stop-start journey of about sixteen hours we reached our destination Patras, in darkness. We staggered around and helped each other out of the train. We were under heavy guard and there were hordes of Italian soldiers lining the streets.
Finally we arrived at what appeared to be some sort of jail. It had high walls and an open area with a couple of taps and a typical smelly toilet, footprints and a hole in the concrete (you would think we were all bomb-aimers). The sleeping arrangements were two large wooden platforms, one above the other, in each of the bare rooms that about eighty men shared. No bedding or blankets and once again we shared it with about sixty Indian troops, Sikhs mostly. They seemed to spend hours washing each other’s hair. The second day we were dished out a rice meal that evidently had bits of pork in it! Much to our delight, the Indians refused to eat it so we stuffed ourselves to bursting point but our next meal was reserved for the Indians only so it was a case of a feast and a famine. Dysentery was still a problem and as only a few of us at a time were allowed out at night, accidents were commonplace. One Aussie, “Blue”, which was the only name I knew him by, wandered around in just a shirt as all his other clothes were so soiled.
Sometime in September – dates had long been forgotten – we were loaded on board a ship for Italy. This was a nerve-racking time for all the survivors off the “Nino Bixio”. However, it was an uneventful trip across to Bari where, for a couple of days, we were penned up in a dried-up canal. Another trip by rail (cattle wagons) up the Adriatic coast of Italy was quite pleasant as the doors were open and the line ran close to the beach – saw lots of what looked like scout camps (or young fascists!) We went a long way up the coast to Porta San Giorgio, then by tramcar for a mile or two inland to “PG7O”. This was intended to be a new jam factory but now had eight thousand POWs housed in about eight huge rooms with three-tier double bunks set about two feet apart. It was pretty well a noisy babble day and night.
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As we arrived at PG7O, a crowd gathered at the gates eager for news of mates and any news on the progress of the war. I spotted one or two from my old battalion and the first greeting from one of them was “I heard you were dead”. “Not yet” I said, “I have a few lives left yet”. We soon got settled into the routine of dreaming for a big Yorkshire pudding and beef dinner, as the food got worse by the day.
The great day arrived for us all when we received Red Cross parcels. One parcel between seven and all tins punctured as a precaution against hoarding and trying to have supplies to help in escape. Hoarding was not an issue – we just about ate the tins as well as the contents and dividing up a parcel was a fine art so that it would be scrupulously fair to all. The same rules applied to the meagre food we were given. Breakfast was a cup of black, unsweetened acorn coffee if you could be bothered. After that was roll call – a long drawn out affair as we were counted one at a time whilst standing on a bare bit of ground, exposed to all weathers and as winter came on, it was terribly cold. Being so skinny by now, we felt the cold more, everyone wearing their blankets as shawls or skirts.
Any trouble in the camp was nipped in the bud by stopping the parcels that were our lifesavers without a doubt. The only hot meal we had was half a pint of soup which consisted mostly of a coarse type of green which, I am sure, was cooked without washing off the soil as the bottom of the pot was always gritty. As mentioned a great deal of planning went into the sharing of food so as to be scrupulously fair. In your group of five, you rotated having first pick of the bread and cheese that we got daily. No touching and you picked out what you thought was the best piece, rotating from being first to fifth daily. The evening soup was done in groups of fifty and if you were first in the line you went in for buckshees when number fifty had been served. The men doling out the food had to have their backs to the queue so as to eliminate any chance of favouritism.
The year of 1942 was dragging on; we had an influx of navy men who had been in the battle of Matipan – real tough guys they looked – mostly sporting a full set of whiskers. Alongside us skinny inmates the difference was all the more pronounced. Some of them were loud in their derision of us and said that they would soon get out. The first attempt by five or so of them was a disaster. Two were shot dead on the wire at the bottom of the camp and the others caught and slammed into solitary for a week or so. The dead were left hanging on the wire while roll call was extended for four hours as a warning to the rest of us.
Deaths kept occurring from numerous ailments, also a few suicides. Some men became so depressed from hearing about wives being unfaithful that they couldn’t face the future and so ended it all. One man caught stealing red-handed one night, suffered so many blows as he ran the gauntlet to get outside, that he died shortly afterwards. Theft was the worst thing a man could do and, if caught, the culprit was made to stitch on his back the word “thief’ and was escorted around the camp for a period of time so as everyone got a good look at
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him. The shame of it must have been awful and was a powerful deterrent against thieving.
Christmas was an exciting time as not only were we given an extra ration of soup but it actually had meat in it and was quite tasty. Also, the Red Cross parcels were issued – one per person for the first time. Men made hogs of themselves and a lot of upset stomachs were the outcome after such a long, long time feeling permanently hungry.
Our hopes for an early liberation were soon dashed as the winter weather bogged down the Allies. By the spring, conditions were really bad. The Red Cross parcels were stopped for no apparent reason and on one particular occasion caused a lot of bad feeling. Of the men detailed to carry the parcels out of the store there was one particular character (a Kiwi) named A. A. Smith nicknamed Ack-Ack. On this occasion he hid behind the stacked parcels and got himself locked inside the store. On the next roll call he was put down as having escaped. The rest of us had an extended time on roll call and the parcels were immediately stopped. This all went on for a day or two during which time AckAck had opened and stolen from sixty parcels. He was finally found out, but the Italians said that as the parcels had been tampered with they couldn’t be issued. The anger generated was so bad that the colonel in charge had Ack-Ack shipped to another camp for his own safety.
Perhaps the most distasteful thing in our camp was the lice that plagued us at all times with their itching and biting. However the man in the bunk below me, Bill Pendry from London, was quite philosophical about being a POW as he had a lot of actual civilian prison experience. He had been a getaway car driver for a smash-and-grab raid gang. He used to say, “Just relax and don’t worry and your time will soon go by”. His certainly did, as he was a medical orderly and as part of an exchange of prisoners as he left early in the year.
In May a call came for men to work on state run farms and we were urged by our officers to apply. The fitness test done by the Medical Officer was that you stood in front of him while he sat on a chair and he pushed with his stiffly held fingers under your ribs – that stuck out like on a skinny greyhound. If you winced or reacted to this little test, you were out. As I was “slimmed” down to 7st 71bs by this time (from a normal 11st 7lbs), his hands just about pushed my Adams apple aside, but I gave him a smile and got the thumbs up.
We were quickly shipped out; a motley crew of fifty, and the first stop was a delousing station. Everything we possessed, not a great deal mind you, was sealed up in a room and treated for about four hours. Meanwhile, the fifty of us sat around in our birthday suits in full view of a fairly busy road, causing quite a stir of excitement, especially when any females passed by. We were delighted to get our things back, lice free for the first time in months. When we arrived at the farm we found that a two-story concrete building had been made ready for us –
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downstairs for eating and, a joy to all, we had showers. lt was almost like being free because as well as being clean, we were outside in the fresh air.
[Photograph with caption] Bob is third from the left at the back.
Our guards were mostly elderly locals, with the exception of a corporal and sergeant who were Blackshirts. The work was very hard at first. Our first job was breaking up previously ploughed field for planting. The soil was rock hard and the only implements were ‘zappas’, a sort of large hoe. “Piano-piano” (or slow, slow in English) soon became our theme song. On another task, thinning sugar beet, we deliberately tried to annoy our guards as part of our war effort. The idea was to leave just a single beet standing. If there was more than one they tangled and grew twisted. So despite the guards cry of “Uno, uno, sole uno” (one, one, only one) we tried to leave as many doubles as possible.
The farm was mainly dairying and the milk was collected from several farms in the area and made into cheese. As we were close to the city of Parma, I presumed it was Parmesan cheese, quite a famous type. In typical POW fashion, anything that could be snapped up and eaten was immediately done so. We always tried to have our work breaks near the dairy. Using all sorts of diversions to keep our couple of guards occupied, two or three of us at a time would nip into the shed where the huge stainless steel trays full of milk for settling were located. We would quickly dip our faces in and skim the best off the top until we were full.
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The standard of cheese or butter would certainly have dropped in the area for that season!
As the weather warmed up, we were given big sombrero type straw hats to work in. Consequently, before returning to our little camp we used to fill up the hats with any sort of food we could lay our hands on – tomatoes, potatoes or whatever was going. Pulling the sombreros tightly onto our heads, we would march back, very erectly, to supplement our kitchen. The cooking was shared amongst ourselves and at last we started to put on a bit of weight and generally felt much better.
My closest mate at this time was Les Stewart from Manchester, a tank driver and also a survivor off the “Nino Bixio”! After a couple of months, we thought about escaping and started saving food that would keep. As we were getting regular Red Cross parcels, we built up quite a store. Les drove the ancient tractor on the farm and was always guarded by a civilian. Les got very friendly with the guard and managed, by mime mainly, to get an old pair of pants, a disreputable shirt and a map of northern Italy from him. The map was very vague as it was out of a child’s atlas and didn’t show very much detail. However, it was the best we could do and we just hoped to get some news of the Allied’s advance up the leg of Italy.
Rumours we flying around and we had quite a few Germans coming to have a look at us, the Britishers, as if we were in a zoo. They usually visited on a Sunday that was our day off. Perhaps they were new recruits and hadn’t seen many POWs and as their camp wasn’t very far away, it must have been a diversion for them.
September arrived with lots of rumours flying around about the Allied progress in the war. We knew something was happening when we were confined to camp for a couple of days. Then the sergeant in charge took off for a weekend, and finally it came through that Italy had capitulated.
We really thought that it was all over and persuaded the local guards to turn over their weapons and to go home. Most of the POWs went straight to nearby farmhouses and in a short time were “well away” with drinking wine in celebration.
About eight or ten of us decided to set up some sort of guard whilst we listened to the radio for some news of what was happening further south. We were afraid that the Germans in the area might take some action against us, so a few guards were placed on the roads leading to the camp. All was very quiet, especially as about half of the men were “flat out” after all the unfamiliar drinking. We listened to the radio in the guardroom and pondered on what was best to do.
At about four in the morning, one of our lookouts ran in to say that he could hear tanks coming. Such panic! Les and I were all set, having packed our supplies out and remaining fully dressed with even our greatcoats on. There was a mad dash
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to rouse the rest and get them out into the fields – some just in shirts and underpants fled into the darkness. Everyone made it although it was very close. Crouching behind irrigation ditches, we heard the clatter of tracks but it was a half-track vehicle along with a truckful of infantry. At the camp gates they let fly with machine guns before pushing the vehicle through the wire. Bursts of fire were heard as they went up to our old sleeping area. After a while they left and we were left wondering what to do for the best. Those with little clothing suffered badly from the chill and the fierce mosquito attacks.
At first light we ventured back to a scene of destruction. The bullet-pocked walls indicated that it would have been a massacre if we had still been there. The general mood was very gloomy. No one had a clear plan, so people just started slipping away in twos and threes in all directions. Les and I moved as quickly as we could whilst all was quiet, trying to put a few miles between the camp and us. When we spotted some activity on the roads – usually trucks and the odd motorcycle with a sidecar, we would hide in the adjacent fields (sugar cane grown for cattle feed was common). Picking our way into the middle of the fields, we spent a fearful couple of days listening to the constant prowling around of the German patrols. Quite a few of the original fifty POWs were similarly scattered around us.
Gradually, in twos and threes, the men drifted further afield and I ventured out and grabbed a tattered shirt and trousers from a scarecrow in a field. Bundling up my army clothes, I approached a farmhouse and, after a pantomime act, gained permission to sleep in their hay barn – very cosy apart from the rodents running all over you. Les was also accepted and we settled in, being well looked after by the Pessina family, the old lady, her husband and their son, Nando.
Nando had been a tank driver and had just come home when Italy capitulated so I knew it was unlikely for him to give us away. We soon got into lending a hand around the farm. As it was flat open country, we always had plenty of time to hide if we saw anything suspicious. Nando got me a small Italian-English dictionary that I soaked up like a sponge. Consequently, my ability to get my ideas across improved quickly. Les showed no inclination to learn and left all the negotiations to me.
A couple of weeks went by when for some reason I had an urge to accompany the old lady to church. So they managed to get Les and myself dressed reasonably well and off we set to the church about a mile down the road. The old lady was dressed all in black with a large black umbrella to shade the sun. It was a very small church and almost every pew was full so Les and I slipped into the very back seats while Mama Pessina sailed to the front. Everyone turned and gave us searching looks. The service was a mystery to me and I gave a sigh of relief when everyone came up the aisle, led by the priest and altar boys carrying the crosses. The entire congregation filed behind from the front, so we were last and, grabbing a smoke, we were just puffing away when they all trooped back in again after they had walked around the church. Some religious
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ceremony, I presumed. While we waited to go back in, we were horrified to see a German motorbike and side car with a couple of tough looking guys aboard pull up right beside us, so we quickly scuttled inside and started praying real hard. The service was soon over and we were most relieved to hear the bike taking off. All was clear when we came out and despite the scare, our visit seemed to be worthwhile and I had a feeling of calm as we made our way back to the farm.
We continued to lend a hand around the farm and while out working early one day we saw two men trudging across a field, leaving a marked path in the dew-soaked pasture. Nando was visibly annoyed and conveyed to me in no uncertain terms that they must be idiots. I approached them and found that they were two British officers, a major and a captain. I forget their names now but fully agreed with Nando that they were certainly lacking in common sense as their shoes and trousers were soaked to their knees, one had his uniform jacket slung over his shoulders ‘capelike’, and were very obviously escaped POWs. The major said to me in a real “officer to private” manner, to “ask your man if he can lie us up for a while and give us something to eat”. Nando was most scathing in his opinion of them, but said they could stay for one night and the next day he saw them on their way.
A few nights later, the major returned and more or less ordered Les and I to join him and a group that were setting up in the hills. He said that he would send a guide to take us to them but it only took me two minutes to make up my mind and I told him that I preferred to do “my own thing”. With a last retort about doing my duty, he went off. Later that week Nando asked me if I wanted to cycle into Parma with him to hire some part-time labour. On our way we were held up at a railway-crossing gate, and lo and behold, a railway wagon with prisoners peering out of it went past – fronted by our old friend the major! I was very pleased that we hadn’t taken any heed of his orders for us to join him.
Nando was separated from his wife who lived a few miles away and he took Les and I to see her. She lived in a very old place reputed to have once been owned by the Duke of Oasta, a feudal lord back in the days when Italy was more or less run by separate fiefdoms. The house had an inner courtyard, entered by huge gates. We were in a small room that had no back door when a small German truck came into the courtyard effectively trapping us in the room. They were looking for a car that was hidden in a bricked-up small room in the courtyard. After breaking down the bricked-up wall, the Germans prepared to tow away the very large and expensive looking car. While they were busy with this, we slipped out of the room and down through the garden to hide out in the field until all was safe for us to return.
It was in the same house, a couple of weeks later that I became ill with some sort of fever that affected my legs so that I couldn’t walk. lt caused quite a stir and debate amongst the Pessinas what to do with me. They ended up placing me in the kitchen alongside a huge brick oven where I was slightly ‘cooked’ for a few days until my legs regained some sign of mobility. Whatever it was, I was very
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pleased to get back to the farm at Cortile San Martino and take it easy until I was, at last, fit and well.
In early November, Nando decided that we should try and make contact further north in the city of Brescia. We were fitted out by different families, myself by the Dossi family who lived in a little village of Lentigione. They had a son, a POW in England, and it was his overcoat that I was given, along with other items. The overcoat was a sort of heather colour, very smart, and along with a very snappy trilby I felt that I could get away with travelling by train to Brescia. Nando bought the tickets and gave me the ones for Les and myself. Nando would travel with us but in another compartment in case we were caught. So, very early on a chilly morning, we boarded an almost empty train and settled down to our journey, sitting opposite each other. The train seemed to stop at every village and the carriage was soon full of quite a lot of young men. Nando later told me that they were being called up to go and fight in Russia for the Germans.
Every hour or so the conductor would come along shouting “Biglietti” (“tickets”) and I would pass them over and just point to Les and say “Lui” – “him”, but it was a nerve-wracking time. Being seated near the door, I was in a sweat every time the call for papers by the German military came but by some lucky chance, each time they indicated some of the young men further down the carriage. Les kept us his pretence of being asleep with his trilby tilted over his face. Thinking that we must be near to Brescia, I made an almost fatal mistake by getting up to stand in the corridor where the inspection of papers was continuing. While standing in the corridor, I was subjected to very close-up contact, even to having my feet stood on by a large German soldier.
After what seemed a lifetime, in fact about six hours, we arrived in Brescia. The train stopped short of the platform and everyone got off. Lining the platform, right down to the gates, were two inward-facing rows of troops and as we passed along, a random passenger was halted and taken aside. Looking neither to the left or nght, we made it to the gate where a ticket collector and two soldiers stood scrutinising the people, but we sailed through. Peering around to find Nando, who had briefed us to follow him from a distance, we trailed him until he made contact with someone who was supposed to help us on the way to Switzerland.
After a nervous hour – Brescia was the German headquarters for Italy and the place was thick with the forces of occupying power. Nando finally went into a small cafe and we followed him in, to be taken into a back room where we almost collapsed with nervous exhaustion. However, a good feed and a good drink of vino put us back in good form for our next ordeal – a bus journey on our next leg into the foothills of the Alps. Nando was leaving us to return home and he handed us over to a one-legged man who, even with one crutch, was as agile as Long John Silver. He boasted of killing a German with his crutch and we were given a dramatic re-enactment of the event. After a bit of difficulty with the language we got our instructions about the bus – push, shove and grab a seat – which we did. The bus was filled to overflowing and an armed Carribineri stood
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at the exit when we took off. People kept getting off and on, and I made the mistake of giving up my seat to an old lady and standing in the aisle where a priest, also standing in the aisle, immediately started talking to me. I mumbled the odd “Si” or “No” and hoped that they were said in the right places but whether they were or not I wouldn’t know so I turned my back on him and hoped for the best.
After a long stop and start journey, ‘crutchy’ got off and, with the sun setting, we followed him into what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. He trudged on up a slope with just a path and we nearly died of shock when someone jumped out of the bushes at the side of the path. After a loud and excited conversation, all seemed to be in order and we continued on to a tiny village at the end of the path, Gaina. There we were put into the house of a very old couple, the Guilielmos, and we worked out that we would meet a Canadian Major who was running an escape route into Switzerland. Two or three days went by and still no sign but finally two Italian deserters arrived and told us that the whole team had been rounded up and we were on our own again.
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we settled down to the quiet way of life with the village people who shared their meagre supply of food with us. My Italian was improving quickly and in the local dialect as well. It seemed all my words were abbreviated and I used to amuse them at times when I spoke. Perhaps I altered some words and made a joke. But I was a bit of a mimic and tried hard to copy what I heard.
[Photograph with caption] Gaina in the 1940s
The vineyard, which seemed to be a communal resource, was ready for picking so we were out at dawn getting the crop gathered with the dew still on the grapes. Then the fun started – a trough about ten-foot long with slats across the bottom was filled to about two feet deep and along with four or five women I joined in the session of treading the grapes. The grapes were black ones and we were soon stained a deep red up to the knees. Singing was also a part of village life and most evenings usually had some singing. I really enjoyed that – in fact I learned about six songs that after fifty-seven years I can still sing.
The older women used to recite the rosary every evening. They would spin wool into yarn. The wool, in a ball on a cleft stick, was held between the knees and teased out in a thin strand that was fastened on to a wooden bobbin that was twirled before being wound into yam. Quite a knack was involved and my amateurish efforts caused a lot of hilarity.
The Delbono family was an important one in the village. The father was a shoemaker or cobbler, so he was a busy man and his wife used to be in charge of the mail. They had two daughters, Elena and Eliza. Eliza was an unpaid postie and I used to go with her around the small, scattered farms. A lot of the postcards were from Italian POWs all wanting to know about where their prison camps were. They were postmarked various places, with Blackpool one of the
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more common ones. I had never been to Blackpool but I knew about it and its holiday reputation. So I raved on that their men were in a great place. Like a holiday camp I said. I hope it gave them a bit of comfort.
By this time the village was really stretched to look after the escapees. Four more POWs had arrived. These were South Africans – big men with beards – and feeding both them and us was not a small problem. But I heard no complaints and no one went hungry. The South Africans stayed up the valley and food was given so they could look after themselves. They were quite happy to do that and just came down to the village now and then.
One day in November on a beautiful, cloudless day, we were surprised to see wave after wave of huge four-engined planes flying over in formation. They seemed to be endless but I estimated that there were about a hundred. They appeared to wheel around as they passed over our village but it was Brescia, about twelve miles away that they were attacking. We (the POWs) went down in the popularity polls for a few days after that.
We heard that one of the bombers had been shot down near us and survivors had got away. We contacted some of the local men and they picked up two of the crew – the engineer, Wallace C Baldwin from Detroit, had a nasty leg wound, and the co-pilot a young blonde man whose name I have forgotten, was uninjured.
“Wally” seemed a bit of a moaner – very young, about 22 – and had recently been married in the USA. After a few weeks he had flown to Africa and was on his first active mission so I suppose everything was a real shock to his system. We gave him a drink of our local wine that he thought was quite poisonous and our local handmade cigarettes had him coughing and spluttering. The airmen were really from another world as after our time as POWs we had developed a fairly unique “culture”. However, after about a week they were drinking and smoking like veterans.
Wally told us how they had been shot down. Apparently their plane had fallen behind after an initial fighter attack. Eventually, the order to bail out came and there was a scramble for the parachutes. When Wally arrived at the escape door there was another of the crew jammed in. Giving him a hefty push, Wally jumped after him and received a blow to the head as plane spun round. He lost consciousness but his chute opened and he remembered coming to and thinking he was dead! He awoke hanging limply and drifting down through some thick white cloud and hearing the bells of the village below – he thought he was in Heaven.
The Americans had received instructions, if shot down, to head for Switzerland. They had been kitted out with silk-printed maps, money and the promise of an early return to the USA if they made it. We had no such promises and hung on to our freedom in the hope of the Allies occupying all of Italy. The airmen added to the burden of the villagers who now had eight to feed. This they managed
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without any complaints even though there was little enough for themselves. Really marvellous people.
One day I had been up the valley to check how our four South Africans were doing, when I was met on my return with the news that an “Englisi” had arrived in the village. Much to my surprise and delight, when I heard him speak (it was like music to my ears) he had a broad ‘Geordie’ dialect and what a tale he had to tell. He was a fellow DLI [Durham Light Infantry] man from 8th Battalion who, after being wounded on a raid in North Africa, volunteered as a rear gunner in the RAF. Fred Oliver was his name and straight after some training he was on a mission – photo reconnaissance over Northern Italy in a new plane, a “Lightning”. After finding their target clouded over, the pilot decided to stooge around somewhat and ended it very suddenly over Florence with a rather nonchalant message- “we are out of fuel, we shall have to bail out” and he promptly “turned the plane over to let them fall out”! Evidently it was the method of ejection from that type of plane. Fred drifted gently down to fall intact into a narrow street. The pilot no such luck. He landed on a rooftop, fell and broke both legs. The local people had rushed Fred indoors, changed his uniform for old clothes and passed him from house to house so that within a few hours he was out in open country. Within a few days he had miraculously made his way north, passing from village to village and finishing up at Gaina.
[Photograph with caption] Guiseppe Manessi (photo taken during the first visit to Gaina).
[Photograph with caption] Iolanda Manessi (wife of Guiseppe).
Bob’s Italian mother and father.
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By this time, Gaina had become a second home to me, and the Manessi family, Iolanda and Guissepe (the Mum and Dad), like a second family. Gaina is at the end of a road leading to the foothills of the Alps, so was a very quiet backwater, subject only to periodic patrols from the military.
Needless to say, Fred and I were soon very close friends. The only trouble was that he had no fear. Never ever having been a prisoner of war, he did not have the constant fear of being recaptured or of the dangers inherent in wearing civilian dress. Consequently he tended to run awful risks – even speaking English in a pub with quite a few German customers in there – I almost choked on my vino and hustled him out!
Our two Americans left to make for Switzerland – successfully as I was later to find out. Meanwhile we were supposed to have contact with a Canadian major who was running an escape route to Switzerland. We had one meeting in the village and we were told to sit tight and wait for instructions. Time passed peacefully enough -then disaster struck – word came that all the men active on the escape route had been rounded up and we were on our own. For myself, I was quite content to let things go sliding by. The only problem, at times, was organising grub for all the POWs.
By this stage I was more or less adopted into the Manessi family. I had managed to get Fred onto a remote farm and he seemed to fit in without any problems although he made no effort to learn to speak Italian. With the help of a small English-Italian dictionary, I was becoming quite good at the local dialect. Guiseppe’s (my ‘Dad’) three young daughters, aged fourteen, twelve and nine, were learning a few bits of English from me – principally the singing of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” which appealed to them very much, especially “Yi yi yippy” which they thought was great. However, we had a visit from the local priest who told me to stop the lessons as the girls were singing at school and might draw undue attention if it fell upon the wrong ears.
The villagers did a marvelous job of feeding and caring for us all – even to providing us with a “bolt hole” up the mountain. This was a cave that had been dug intending to tap into an underground stream to supply the local people with a community water source. They had missed the stream and made a suitable dry cave with a very narrow access screened off by undergrowth. The cave was a great hiding place when local police and soldiers made their periodic searches of the area. However, I hardly ever used it, as I felt trapped, not having a way out.
Christmas came around and we were lucky that the weather was still fine. The day itself was great and we had a great feast of a famous dish called “gnocchi”. This consisted of very small dumplings, layered into a huge bowl with sauce, herbs and cheese covering each layer. lt was truly a banquet, washed down with wine and we ate till we were bulging.
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[Photograph with caption] Allesandro, the colourful character who made the grappa.
Around this time we used to help out an old guy called Allesandro, a local celebrity as he was the area’s collector of wine dregs to be distilled and made into “grappa” – Italy’s answer to rocket fuel. Most Italians take a nip in their coffee, especially in the wintertime.
He had a very large copper cylinder that he used to (after collecting all the wine from the locals’ barrels) cook up batches. As it was highly illegal, it was done in the dead of night. Fred and I acted as stokers to keep the brew boiling madly at times we thought the copper would blow up. The sludge was a dark muddy red colour and was sealed in the copper. A pipe from the top led down into another vat of cold water and out a small tap. After a session late one night, we did some tasting as the clear and almost pure alcohol started to trickle through. We needed only a few sips to make us forget that we were fugitives. Allesandrio had a ready market for his product in the cafes of Brescia. He had a couple of lady friends who carried the hooch in motorcycle inner tubes tied around them. I was surprised the rubber didn’t dissolve as the grappa was so strong!
At about this time we noticed an increase in patrols but we were very fortunate that a local. young woman, Elena, had a boy friend in the “Carribineiri” – the colourful police of Italy. He used to let us know, through his fiancee, whenever a
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patrol or search of our area was to be carried out and we had ample time to get everyone well hidden. Time passed and the days settled down to a routine broken only by the odd scare of the police or military patrol. On 18 February the Manessi family put on a special dinner for my 24th birthday. Iolanda, my adopted Mum, made a delicious meal of stewed rabbit (I thought) and I was given the lucky foot for good fortune. What a shock I got when I saw the claws – “cat”! My stomach gave a bit of a heave, but not too much as I had enjoyed it – but the lucky paw was soon lost! Wasn’t sure if it was lucky – certainly not for the cat as they were a welcome addition to the menu in that part of the country at that time.
[Photograph with caption] Iolanda makes polenta over the open fire.
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On The Run Again
As mentioned, village life was generally peaceful with only the odd scare from occasional patrols. One in particular happened when I was caught sitting on a stone wall when about six fascist soldiers passed close by on the path that led up the valley and would likely come across the four South African escapees. So, taking the rougher of the two paths out of the village I dashed up the valley, slowing down when I came into view of the patrol. I managed to get to the stall where the South Africans were staying about a few hundred yards in front of the soldiers. When I burst in the escapees were cooking over an open fire and I shouted out “Eyeties coming”, did not stop and sprinted out the back door and away up the mountain like a scalded cat. After a short panic attack, the four of them made a good getaway.
During this time the villagers shared their meagre food supplies with us even under dire threats from the enemy as illustrated on many pamphlets on walls and shop windows. Their bravery and generosity was quite overwhelming.
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‘He went that way, Sheriff!’
The following reward notice was taken off a tree and kept until I crossed the ‘line’ six weeks later. Had I been recaptured I could have said that I was on my away to give myself up, and claimed the reward. I wonder if they would have paid-up? DKJ.
[Notice captioned in Italian] PREMIO
1800. – Lire it. oppure 20. – Sterline ingl.
vengono pagate ad ogni italiano che cattura un militare inglese o americano sfuggito alia prigionia di guerra e che lo consegna ad una unita germanica.
IL COMANDANTE MILITARE TEDESCO
1800 Italian Lire or £20 Sterling – Your choice
will be paid to every Italian who captures an escaped British or American prisoner of war and hands him over to a German unit.
The German Military Commandant
In war-time, Jerry-occupied Italy 1800 lire was a lot of money and these notices brought out the ‘bounty hunters’. These were gangs of mainly fascist and other youths who armed themselves with knives and other weapons, and for escaped prisoners. The Germans also paid very well for information about Italians who had helped or fed P.O.Ws.)
Carnival days were a traditional celebration in the last 3 days of February and I am sure that having seven young men in the village really added to the festivities, so we joined in with great gusto. Mind you, the whole village was feeling the
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effect on their wine cellars. You see we drank mostly wine at meal times and even breakfast was served with diluted wine. The first couple of days passed by in a festive mood but the morning of the third was to hold some not so pleasant events for us all. We were all a bit bleary as we gathered at the home of “Aunty Manessi” (a sister of Guiseppe), while we waited for her to return from church, where most of the people of Gaina must have been away to on that day as the village was almost empty. Of course, the church was in the sister village of Foina, just down the hill. Our village, Gaina, was at the very end of what was a very rough track so it was really the end of the road. Quietly we sat around, not having the slightest notion that our peaceful day was soon to be shattered.
[Photograph with caption] Contrada foina
Suddenly a young boy burst into the room shouting “Tedeschi! – Fascisti”! – Germans, Blackshirts! Immediately a mad dash by all for the door and as I was the last to leave I shouted, “Wait a minute, Fred, I’ll grab the haversack” which held our emergency bits and pieces – it took only a few second to scoop it up. The other five men had gone out of sight in the short time it had taken to get the
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bag. Fred and I raced down the sloping back garden which ended in a small stream just behind a large hedge and like two steeple-chasers we took off on the down slope and crashed through the hedge and landed panting in the shelter of the banks of the stream. Pausing only to push the haversack deep under a bush, my thoughts were that I needed to travel without any extra burden if I was to get away. Even as we crouched, wondering what to do for the best, a chattering of a machine-gun galvanised us once more into action and we took off up the stream-bed, heading up the valley. It was OK in the shelter of the stream but we had to pass a small ford and as we did so shots again rang out, as we must have been spotted in the open ground. On we dashed, gasping for breath, heading higher up the valley. The fear of being caught spurred us on. We reached the junction, where the valley went right and left, rather like a big ‘Y’, and we had to climb out of our stream-bed and into open spaces where, I suppose, our hunters had a good view of us. They opened up with a vengeance and a long burst sent bullets spurting right between Fred and I. We could not have been more than two feet apart. I could see the spurts of the rounds right in front of me. I made a mad dash to a huge clump of brambles and flung myself to ground and wriggled deep into the thicket like some scared and frightened animal. I never felt the thorns that tore at clothes and flesh. I flopped into a narrow leaf-filled crevasse and burrowed into it, covering myself with leaves and tried to quieten my pounding heart, as I was sure it could be heard. The crack of occasional shots whistling overhead and the shouts and whistles which seemed to be very close at hand, kept me in a state of shock for what seemed like hours.
Eventually all went quiet and I wondered if it was safe to come out of my refuge but I lay there for another hour or two hoping the searchers had finally given up. Crawling painfully to the edge of my hiding place, I peeped back down the valley to the village where all was quiet and peaceful. Stiff and sore, I made my way higher up the valley and, passing a tiny farmlet and longing for a smoke, even it if was the last one I ever had, but not having any matches, I decided to chance going in for a light. Knocking on the door I shouted the local greeting “Permisso” and back came the answer “Avanti” – so in I went. A very old couple sat huddled at a table and I tried in my best Italian to find out if any Germans were around or had been. “Si, si” they cried and gabbled so fast I could only make sense of the odd word or two but I gathered that they had been searched and threatened if they helped the dirty English “Ladrone” (thieves).
I decided it was time I left with my one precious cigarette – a rough homemade one that I tried to light up from the embers of the fire. Puffing rapidly, the coarse paper it was rolled in ignited in a puff of flame and the damned thing disintegrated. The old people were terrified and kept pointing to the door and insisting “Via, Via” (Go, Go).
Anyway I wasn’t planning on staying but to head onwards and upward to the top of the valley. Then I was hit by another disaster. Reaching the summit I had a bird’s eye view right down the valley and I could see a couple of vehicles and quite a few soldiers. Finally I could see people, it looked our guys, being put into a truck and I wondered what was going to happen to them as they were all
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dressed in civilian clothes. I was very worried as to what would become of them. While we all had our regiment identity discs around our necks, we didn’t know if that would protect us. I was really sorry for them as after five months on the run it was really tough to be recaptured.
Mind you, I was feeling more than a little sorry for myself. lt was a feeling of utter desolation – alone – unwanted – everyone against me – but it was the isolation
of being the only one left that was shattering. All of my other troubles in life had been shared by others and being so we helped each other to get through it no matter how bad it was.
Now I faced the coming night in a fit of black depression. It was growing cold and I was hungry and my clothes were pretty threadbare so it was very grim to say the least. Searching around I found a hide, or mai mai, used by hunters to shoot at birds. In that locality small birds were commonly hunted – and eaten too I may add. Apparently it was to protect the ripening grape crop that could suffer damage if there were too many birds. Nevertheless, the hide was shelter of a sort from the weather and it also had a couple of mouldy old sacks. Long after dark I was kept in nervous tension by the shouts and flashing lights as the search for me continued. I prayed as never before that they wouldn’t have dogs and evidently they did not. Really cold now but forever watchful, I heard engines starting up and then all went quiet and I figured that they had finally given up for the day. Crawling into my humble abode, I pulled on the sacks to try and stop my teeth from chattering – as much from fear as from the cold – and lay down to sleep. It was a night of bad dreams and I still have them fifty years later. Waking up to what I thought was night, because I couldn’t see a thing. I found, in fact, that I could not open my eyes – they were frozen shut. Most likely I had been crying in my sleep, my despair was so complete and I really felt so sorry for myself. Rubbing open my eyes I was really horrified at what I saw. Inches of snow had fallen while I had slept and immediately my mind screamed – footprints! I would leave my trail for them to follow. For a while I was in a sheer nervous panic and felt as if my world was shattered around me. I thought of all the people who had been hunted for whatever cause, and knew the terror they must have felt.
Desperate to get out of the cold, I set off down the valley on the other side of the mountain to find shelter, hopping from clumps of grass like a demented kangaroo in an effort not leave a trail. I managed, luckily, not to sprain an ankle or some kind of injury while trying to hide my whereabouts. I came at last to an old stone stall where summer hay was stored – just to be inside made me feel safer after my trauma of the previous day. Burrowing deep into the sweet smelling hay I once more fell asleep and I lay curled up, warm, but quite weak as by now it was nearly 3 days since I had eaten anything. As it grew dark, I decided to venture down to an isolated farm where I knew the people were very friendly and Fred had been a regular visitor. Once I was off the snow line the going was easier and at last, after a good look around I ventured to knock on the door. I was welcomed in, but the father sent his two sons to guard the paths that led up to
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the farm while the mother set to and made a large pan of polenta – a type of thick porridge made from maize flour – a staple belly-filling local food and very nourishing. Two lovely fried eggs also to dip into, a drink of vino and I was back to normal once more.
Their tales of the search and of the rough treatment towards some people at Gaina was hard to take and they also said that the Germans had sworn to catch the other two who had managed to get away. That was the first hint that Fred was still alive after that burst of machine-gun fire had split us, I thought he must have been hit but now he was alive and still around somewhere. That really gave my flagging spirits a boost and after a good meal and the good news, I felt much more hopeful after three days of misery. However, I still had to head out into the darkness once again as the old man said patrols were still coming around. Tears flowed from the mother and I felt like joining in with her. However, I knew the danger they were putting themselves into so off I set for my bed in the hay. Next day I met up with a villager who told me that Fred had been sheltered in a village nearby and he arranged for us to meet up the following day. A man from Gaina met me on the slopes of the mountain above the village, but he was very agitated and I gathered from his excited tale just how terrified everyone was and that the whole village had been threatened with destruction. Some of the men had actually been taken away to jail. He also suggested that it would be much better if I moved to a place called Bergamo, which was in another province, and give myself up to the police.
I knew that that would be the last thing I would do, more so now that my pal and I were to join up once again. He all but chased me back up the mountain but promised to bring some food up to me later in the day. Sure enough, he returned with some hot food and bread – I was most grateful. However, he was very sure that it would not be safe for me to come back into the village and again told me to give myself up. That was one thing I would never do whatever happened.
The villager told me what had taken place – the four South Africans and Les had run up the path out of the village but a machine gun had fired a burst of fire, halting them and they had all been captured. For hours they had questioned them and the villagers, bringing in the women to taunt them and ask if they could pick out their “boy friends”. Les, my prison camp mate, had a valuable platinum Freemason ring that he had kept hidden all the time we were in the camp. He wore it after we escaped (he maintained that if we could find a Mason amongst the Italians he would help us!) but we never did find one. However, this ring was firmly fastened to his finger, Les having put on a bit of weight, and he had no chance of hiding it when he was caught. It was spotted by one of the Germans and ripped savagely off his finger along with part of his knuckle.
However, we had concocted a cover story for just these circumstances. If captured we would say that we were just passing through on our way to try and reach Switzerland. Also, we never left anything in the village. I believe that the ruse did work in the end, as even though the whole village was threatened with demolition and some of the men were arrested but later released, that was the extent of any retribution. With the benefit of hindsight and my “numerous” years,
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I am even more amazed how the people of the village so willingly’ fed and sheltered us -their former enemies -while putting themselves in such terrible danger. I am so thankful that the only consequences were just threats and bullying.
The next day dawned and I was so restless that I set off very early in the morning for my rendezvous with Fred. I was very excited and had hours to wait. We were to meet at a place in the next valley and I kept searching the path that I expected him to come along. Around midday I spotted him strolling along as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Behind him I could see someone else and from the distance I was sure that it was a soldier or a policeman. Hiding myself around a bend, I waited to see what was happening. Eventually Fred strolled around the bend but of the other fellow there was no sign. We grabbed and pummelled each other in sheer delight for minutes on end, just dancing around with sheer joy. Forgetting for the moment about the other man, consequently, I once more almost had a seizure when the other man appeared around the bend and on to our path – and it was a policeman with a rifle slung on his shoulder! We dived for cover off the path and into the bushes as he made his way past, to turn off into a small farmlet. We found out later that he was just delivering a permit to the people on the farm to allow them to kill a pig. So our fears were for nothing.
After we had calmed down we went to a place where Fred had spent the last few days after the burst of gunfire had split us up. He said he had just kept running until he was in a little village which had a small “Osteria” or pub – just a room and a few chairs and tables. By afternoon he was well sozzeled on vino and couldn’t have cared less about the Germans. That was his attitude to life and all his dangers. Never having been a POW, and spent little time in occupied territory, may have contributed to his cavalier attitude. It nearly turned my hair grey! Apart from that he was like a breath of fresh air after spending a couple of years under armed guards and prison camps.
Things quietened down, Fred staying on a small farm outside the village while I returned to Iolanda and Guiseppe’s house. There were a few scares as the police and the odd patrol kept our nerves stretched and by the end of March it was thought best if we tried to get into Switzerland. The allies had ground to a halt halfway up Italy. Fred and I would meet up often and would help to herd a flock of goats up the hills near to where he was. On the top of a hill was a small pub – just one room but quite popular as it had lovely views over Lake Iseo. This was also a place where seaplanes were based so had a fair number of German and foreign workers there. Some of them used to frequent this pub and if Fred and I happened to be there when any of them came in, it was a nerve-wracking time until we could leave, especially as Fred would keep talking. As he had never learned a word of Italian, it was broad ‘Geordie’ that he would speak in. He used to say, “They’ll think it’s Russian I’m speaking in and we are just some of the forced labour that’s being used by them”. After a couple of incidents like that, I am sure I aged considerably.
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At the beginning of April, Guiseppe’s brother who lived further north, came and said that he would take us some of the way and set it up for us to be met and shown the route over the border. So on the 12th April we said our said farewells to all our friends in Gaina – a heroic group of people that, a short time before, had been the enemy. They were brave beyond imagination and it was a very sad day for me when I left them. My clothes were washed, patched and the very best made of what little there was. So off we set on a beautiful, fine sunny spring day and climbing to the ridge overlooking the lake, we continued north along the spire of the hills. The snow here was pretty deep and by mid-morning, after it had softened with the sun, we were finding it very rough going, floundering at times in snow up to our thighs when we hit drifts. Rounding some of the bends in the ridges, we had to go around nearly sheer walls. Our guide was a tall man and he kicked footholds as he went round these walls. Unfortunately, his steps were too far apart for Fred who was shorter by a foot.
We each had a stout stick that we used as an anchor. As we were crossing one of these sheer walls, Fred lost his grip on his stick and we watched in horror as it skittered away down the slope, seeming to slide for an age, down and down. That decided us and we trudged down off the snow to dry ground. I was a bit sore and my feet were soaked. I didn’t realise at the time that the snow had found its way into my shoes and had given me a touch of frost-bite and that blisters had burst on the back of my heels.
Finally at dusk we settled into a small barn. These buildings were scattered all over the hills like ready-built POW motels. After having something to eat, it was oblivion time for us – all to the sweet smell of hay on which we lay. Fred chose a huge trough that he filled with hay, like a huge manger. I was startled awake by the screams and curses of Fred, “It bloody well bit me”. In the faint gloom of first light we saw a small, ancient donkey standing munching out of Fred’s manger.
We prepared to carry on at first light and decided to go down to the valley floor and make better progress along the road. It was good to be on the flat as my feet were very sore and our hard day before was telling on us. Apart from a couple of scares from passing military traffic, we made good time to reach the small town of Breno at dusk. Set on a small hill-top like a lot of Italian villages, we passed through a sort of arched wall to the village centre where we were soon being fed, sheltered and looked after by another group of brave people. The general feeling of hatred for the Germans and fascists was very strong in the north of Italy and we were really treated as allies against them.
We had a bit of money and decided that it would be of little use in Switzerland, so we handed it over to buy refreshments for our ‘Farewell to Italy Party’ and the night went well with some drinking and singing. I recall it had been a Saturday night; a good time had by all, then early on Sunday morning we were fed and taken down to a tiny railway station and a tiny train. Just two small carriages with no corridors, only doors on either side. It was a short branch line, used a lot in
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the winter for skiers. We chugged along, passing picturesque scenery, glad that we were isolated in our little carriage and not having people going up and down a corridor that had happened on our other train trip from Parma to Brescia. The line ended at a place called Edolo – a very quiet, sleepy little place – on Sunday about 11am.
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Across the Border
Now that we were getting near the Swiss border, it was becoming tricky and we had instructions to go down and cross a bridge over the River Sondrio. It was the last hurdle before the border-or so we thought. We had been told to watch for a man with a flower in his buttonhole and to follow him at a distance. Guards were on duty at both ends of the bridge and a good number of civilians were walking over the bridge. We mingled with a group and sauntered across with them without any trouble, but still no sign of our guide and we felt, by this time, very conspicuous being now out in the open. After some anxious time spent dawdling in the vicinity, we spotted a flower in a man’s jacket and we followed him, seemingly for miles, not even knowing if he was our man.
On entering a small village we found him waiting for us and he quickly gave us the news that we were to stay there and someone would come to take us up and over the border. Up was the operative word, as it seemed to rise up sheer from the village. In fact, seeing the top from where we were was impossible. Our new guide arrived with another couple of escapees, both English, who had spent six months on a mountain living in a cave and being fed by villagers. A truly hermit like existence, which reflected in the way they acted. They seemed scared stiff to be out and among people.
Our guide told me that he was a professional smuggler and he certainly looked the part, dressed in black, with felt shoes which appeared to have no soles probably so he could grip with his toes – and looking at the climb, I could well imagine we would all need them. He explained that we were starting right away as the actual border had to be crossed during the changeover of guards and with that, he set off at a terrific pace almost straight up. Fred and I had a bit of experience, climbing around our village and we were pretty fit but our newfound companions were soon being left behind.
Moving ever upwards, we had a glorious view of the Sondrio Valley to our right. The town of Torino looked a picture and on the border we could see the tiny town of Campo Collonia. Under a huge overhang of rock our guide waited for our two back-markers. He gave us our final instructions for our dash across. He had taken down our names and numbers as the consul paid him for each live escapee who checked into the police on the Swiss side. He said, “When I give you the signal, you must be up and dash over the burnt part of the border and continue down until you get to the nearest house, but do not stop as the guards will still shoot, even though you are technically in Swiss territory”. At last the signal to go was given and off we dashed in one mad scramble over the burnt-out stretch on the ridge and then a headlong dash down the valley. Fred and I were soon out of sight of the other two and, in fact, we never saw them again.
The first house we came to with a tiny red cross on its door, we knocked on. It was opened by a portly gent with a huge white beard – “Santa Clause” I thought. A request for a drink of water brought a very strange response – he came back
[Digital page 31, original page 59]
with a ladle full without speaking a word. After taking a sip, we passed it back as we were not really water drinkers after 6 months of having been on only vino! A quick thanks and we were away to look for more friendly Swiss. Our next house brought better results and a kindly lady sat us down to a meal of bacon and eggs.
We also had a wash and clean up with real soap – something I hadn’t seen for a couple of years. She also told us to report to the police station and it seemed to be that she had met up with others in the same boat as us. Not wanting to give up our new sense of freedom and security so quickly, we set off see the sights. It was a strange feeling, walking around the small town without the fear of everyone in uniform and the vision of recapture and to know that we were really free and could do as we liked without everyone being our enemies.
So we thought, anyway. But we must have stuck out like sore thumbs as everyone we met gave us a queer look. I suppose in a small town where probably everyone knew each other, we might just as well have been dressed as clowns. However, we knocked on a few doors and finished off the day with a couple of feeds and even a few drinks. Each of our new friends, though, told us to check in at the police station – “very important” they said – and we probably looked a couple of dodgy characters anyway.
By 1Opm the place was as busy as a disused cemetery and we trudged into the cop shop, ready for bed. We were greeted by a friendly sergeant, asking “and where have you been? Your friends are long gone”! Apparently our two acquaintances had made a beeline for the police and our smuggler guide had checked us in as well. However, after a nice cuppa and a bite of supper, we were given a cell for the night and dreamt of home and freedom.
The next morning we were further documented, fed, and in brilliant sunshine put on a train with an escort to go into quarantine for a couple of weeks. It was a very pleasant and picturesque journey, ever upwards it seemed, finally reaching Samaden, high up in the Alps, and I believe it may be St Moritz’s airport town. Deep snow blanketed everything but the ‘hotel’ or ‘hostel’ was very comfortable and we felt really at peace – just resting after our hectic journey.
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[Photograph with caption] COMMISSARIAT FÉDÉRAL
à l’Internement et a l’Hospitalisation
Carta d’identìté provisoire pour militaire étranger.
Le porteur de la présente déclare se nommer:
ROGERS SAMUEL ROBERT
fils de THOMAS né le 1920
à EAST HOWDON province ENGLAND
Cette carte ne peut servir de document officiel elle ne tient
lieu que de carte d’identìté personelle.
Signature au verso
Swiss ID card
Fred, ever the restless spirit, got us the job of bringing in the meals, by sled, from a big hotel nearby -“see a bit of the town” he said. So we trudged through the snow, well muffled up in our new Swiss Red Cross clothes – quite respectable after six months of Italian scarecrow fashions! To pick up the food, we would set off early, enjoying seeing the people skiing down the streets, even toddlers, women pulling babies along on sledges. It was wonderful to have such a sense of normality. We would chat up the girls in the kitchens, cadge a few cigs and anything else that was going. The job was a welcome break in our fourteen days
of enforced quarantine.
Our hotel faced the airfield at Samaden and we had a grandstand view of Swiss military planes taking off and landing fitted with skis. One day we watched a German fighter land – he was either off course or lost – but as soon as he stopped, about six of the ground staff grabbed his wings and prevented him from taking off again. We never found out what his reason for being so far from the border was. He was isolated when they brought him into our hotel and whisked away the next day.
Our quarantine time ended and we were put on a train to a permanent camp, a place called Olten. About a dozen of us were sent to a hospital for examinations and check-ups. After a medical, we were told to strip in order to remove our body hair and shave our heads. “Why”, we asked, as we had already endured this in the camps to try and get rid of lice. That time, in the circumstances, was perfectly OK as we were all in the
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same boat, so to speak, and never minded looking like moon men. However, after being free of lice for quite a few months and having a good thatch of hair grown back, I was most reluctant to be cropped once again. So I told them most emphatically “No”!
Fred had never had the indignity of being deloused as he had never been captured and he also refused the ‘haircut’. “Everyone else has been done, it is a health rule”, they told us. We said that after two weeks of quarantine surely we must be all right, but it was to no avail and we had to sit around in indignant nudity until told to dress and that they would find out what to do with us.
We were still in civilian clothes – quite smart really – including trilby hats, and finally we were shunted off to a civilian jail to share a cell but they kindly left the door open so we were free to come and go around the place. It was pretty comfortable and the food was reasonable and we chatted to the inmates in the cells beside ours.
After a few days we had a visit from a British Army sergeant accompanied by a Swiss officer. They talked about how we were embarrassing our hosts and how it was the rule etc, etc, etc. I finally asked the sergeant if his head had been shaved and his reply sent my blood pressure soaring. “It doesn’t apply to sergeants and above,” he said. I told him “bloody rubbish”, and if that was the way Switzerland treated us, we would go back to Italy.
The following morning we were taken to an office and asked to sign a declaration saying we were leaving of our own free will – “OK by us” we said, “as long as you take us back to where we entered Switzerland, we are ready to go”. Back we went to jail where we were told to stay in our cells until arrangements could be made. For a few days we saw nobody and as the weather was beautiful we felt frustrated at once again being under lock and key. At last we had a visit from some top military brass – a Swiss colonel and a British officer.
“You are causing a great deal of bother” they said, “and we have been in touch with London about you two. In fact we have to tell you that you may face a court martial if you do not comply. Also, it is not possible for you to go back to Italy, so you either toe the line or you stay in jail and face the consequences later on”.
Once more, to get our freedom, we agreed and were whisked away to be shorn. We were more or less free again. My trilby was about two sizes too big now because of my bald pate but I managed to procure a beret to replace it. So looking relatively debonair, we set out to sample the delights of the Swiss countryside. This lasted about six months when we eventually finished up at a little place called Caux. We were billeted in the Caux Palace, a huge hotel built down the sheer side of the mountain, overlooking Montreux and Lake Geneva. It had hundreds of rooms, all with a balcony and fabulous view of the Dents du Midi – a range of mountains facing the hotel. Early sunrise would touch the snowcovered peaks and change the snow from white to a fantastic pink. It would have cost a fortune to be in such a place normally and I’m afraid we did not really appreciate what was before our eyes. Money was a problem as the British Government allowed us the equivalent of one pound a week and as that only
[Digital page 33, original page 62]
bought 20 ciggies or one bottle of beer, it was not what you would call over paying us.
There were at least two hundred soldiers, all from different countries, in the hotel and as soon as we were paid, gambling of all sorts went on – poker, brag, two up, crown and anchor – it was a real make or break atmosphere. Three of us used to pool our money and take turns to play and I had a real run of luck at two up or pitch and toss. It was run by a few Aussies and “Come in Spinner” was the cry when the pennies were sent up off the small piece of wood. This particular day I tossed five consecutive pairs of heads and finished with the equivalent francs of about one hundred pounds.
So, forgetting lunch, we set out for Montreux to paint the town red – a snack to eat and it was ‘let her rip’. By 2am, and countless cherry brandies, we were helped to the local lock-up by two very nice and very big cops (without a pass we should have been in the hotel by 12 o’clock). The local lock-up appeared to have been built in the stone age. Stone walls, stone bed with a straw palliase, no windows and a studded door with a tiny grille and no window. We had our braces and shoes taken from us then the door clanged shut and with no blankets it was pretty grim. However, the cherry brandies were still doing their magic, so I curled up on the straw mattress and knew nothing more until 7am when the jailer opened up and gave me a blanket which I threw back at him and told him to keep it.
By 8am a military cop from the hotel arrived. Discipline was maintained by our own senior ranks and he signed for my body and we set off to the station. A funicular train went right up to Caux. “Where’s your ticket”? A search of all pockets found no ticket or any money either so he had to dip into his own pocket and I was told that I was confined to the hotel for two weeks.
What a laugh! After what we had gone through in the previous two years it was a picnic to be confined to a hotel.
But the war was turning against the enemy. France was invaded and a landing in and the south opened up the Swiss border and we were told to prepare to leave. In those days we were ready in five minutes. No luxury train this time though. Only empty goods wagons and a few American K rations, and we set off on a five-hour journey.
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The Journey Home
The retreating Germans had made a proper job of the rail system. There were bridges down and tracks torn up, so it seemed that every few miles we would stop for hours as the engineer would disappear to sort things out. Quite a few of our group just took off hoping to get back quicker under their own steam. A few of us had a trip to a nearby village where the people appeared in a state of shock – not surprising since they had been in the middle of a battle zone and were now confronted with a motley crew dressed in part-military, part-civilian gear.
After days of the train stopping and starting we arrived in Marseilles. The place was a shambles with facilities and buildings wrecked. We were quickly taken by barge to a large merchant ship that eventually sailed away to what we hoped was home. However, the ship was bound for Algiers to join a convoy and we thus ended up moored offshore in stinking hot conditions for two or three days. Nobody was allowed ashore as apparently bubonic plague was rife. Eventually we set off again and I must admit I was very anxious about prolonged sea travel after the Nino Bixio experience. After a while the thrill of going home overcame my fears and the journey passed fairly quickly. As we came through the Irish Sea we caught occasional glimpses of land and the excitement on board started to build up. At last we were sailing up the Clyde after an absence of three years and five months.
On docking at Gourock, we had the brass band and the military top “brass” to welcome us home. A waiting train took us south, stopping at Newcastle where I was sorely tempted to nip onto a bus and be home in an hour! However, that was not too be and we were off to Ealing in London where an especially built reception camp was waiting for returning POWs. After a meal and collecting some pay, a few of us wandered up town to explore Ealing. It was a lovely summer evening soon to be spoilt by a strange aircraft buzzing across our view then plunging to the earth with a terrific explosion. It was one of the German doodlebugs – a pilotless plane filled with explosives. We only saw the one and apparently the advancing allied armies quickly eliminated the launch sites.
After a couple of days our documentation was completed, we were issued with temporary ‘papers’ and double ration coupons (for six weeks!) to fatten us up,and given a travel pass. I headed back up north with the journey seeming to be much longer due to my anxiety to be finally home. It was five in the morning when I reached Newcastle, still dark and no local trains for a few hours. So with my kitbag of meager possessions I set off for the local bus station – about a half hour’s walk through the still blacked-out streets.
[Digital page 34, original page 64]
[Photograph with caption] Typical north-east street.
When I reached the bus stop there were quite a few men waiting for the first bus to take them to work. What a thrill it was to hear the “Geordie” dialect again. I just soaked it into my system. The bus ride was the same. I just sat there for the forty-five minute ride absorbing the whole atmosphere like a sponge and feeling too emotional to talk. When I disembarked at my hometown bus stop a group of waiting workers gave me some funny looks – perhaps due to my combination outfit of battledress uniform with white shirt and red tie! My mother’s house was at the top of a rather steep hill and I found it harder and harder to climb as my deep feelings of relief at actually having “made it back” took over.
Passing the bottom of our street I noticed flags and bunting across it and thought they were for celebrating the invasion of France. However, it was my Welcome Home decorations. Walking up the garden path to the back door, I had noticed a light on in the kitchen. My kit bag felt like a ton weight so I dropped it at the door and stepped inside. One of my sisters was on her knees cleaning the fireplace and she gave a mighty shriek when she saw me. Consequently, the house erupted with joy and I knew I was home at last.
My Dad had been in bed with a cold, but this was cured in a flash as the tears of joy flowed with neighbours and friends calling in. On a rather sour note though I learned that the girl who I had been very fond of, and wrote to all the time, had just married a sailor about six months earlier. I was knocked for six myself but realized that life does go on and the excitement of being home helped get over it. Dad and I decided to celebrate with a visit to the pub to catch up with the lads, who soon made me feel like a returning hero. After a while a young fellow came
[Digital page 34, original page 65]
over to shake hands and I could see the tears running down his face. Imagine I did not even recognize my young brother. He had been at school when I left but was now a workingman, boiler suit and all.
Soon after I had settled back home, a reporter visited to get a local interest story of my return. I was out at the time but sisters soon gave him the gist of my being torpedoed by a British submarine and the rest of my escapades. The story was published and over the next week I received about sixty letters from all over Britain asking about loved ones who had gone missing while being POWs. Of all the letters there was only one about someone I knew – and how that letter was to change my life.
[Digital page 35, original page 66]
Back to the Army
My six weeks leave went by in a blur – just like my total back pay (and mostly helping to flush my kidneys out!). My army papers arrived stating I had to report to Otley, Yorkshire. The winter was setting in and I was not looking forward to once more being shouted at “do this” or “do that”. I had been my own boss for too long. They put us through tests for fitness ending with a five-mile run that had to be finished in an hour. A mate and I diverted somewhere en route finishing up in a very friendly pub and finished the course two hours late. The PT instructors were foaming and threatened to make us do it again. That was to be Christmas Eve, but it did not occur.
After being away three and a half years we thought we would get Christmas leave, but the Army had other ideas and said we would get leave at New Year. A pretty miserable way to treat us really. So for the first time in her life my mother came to Harrogate, about fifteen miles, I think, from Otley, to her sister’s home (Aunty Alma). So early Christmas Day I set off, no pass or anything, and walked the fifteen miles to spend a great day. I had to get back on Boxing Day and I was not very pleased to see a thick blanket of snow when it was time to leave. It was a bit of an ordeal as there was no transport between Harrogate and Otley but I was used to long hikes and was back in camp without having been missed.
The Army was still to have the last word and on New Year’s Eve I was given my travel papers for Northern Ireland with no leave. So the next morning I was sort of overseas again. It was a miserable thing to do as it meant that once again I couldn’t get any local leave but I had to make the most of things and I did get a cushy number painting rooms in the big camp in Belfast when officers went on leave. I was my own boss and really found it not too bad. I had been there for a few months when my eldest brother, Raymond, died suddenly of a heart attack. What a shock, as I had always thought of him as the toughest of us all. I was given compassionate leave of seven days to attend his funeral.
The war in Europe was almost over and the surrender came at last and we went on a huge celebration. I remember standing on the top of a large pair of stepladders, conducting the huge crowd singing outside City Hall in Belfast while sailors and soldiers were going crazy, diving into huge water tanks put there by the fire brigade for firefighting. Overbalancing from my lofty position, I plunged down into the crowd who parted nicely to let me land on the pavement. I lay winded and, feeling into my battledress blouse, said “not broken” – meaning the bottles of Guinness I had in there. They do say that drunks fall very relaxed! I suffered no ill effect. Until the corks blew out of two bottles and gave me a Guinness shower – what a waste!
My time with the Irish was coming to an end and once again the Army was to put me far away from home. My next posting was to Dorset on the South Coast as far from home as it was possible. After a few months in Dorset, the Army finally
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got round to physical examining me to see how I had come through my trials and tribulations.
After x-rays and tests of sorts I was declared unfit for service – allotted a grand pension of fourteen shillings a week, given an outfit of civilian clothes and it was all over in February 1946. I was still like a lost soul and didn’t really fit in anywhere, but I knew I had to get a grip on life.
[Photograph with caption] DISCHARGE CERTIFICATE
ARMY FORM B
(If this CERTIFICATE is lost no duplicate can be obtained.)
Army Number 4463788
CHRISTIAN NAMES SAMUEL ROBERT
Effective Date of Discharge APRIL 12TH 1946
Corps from which discharged DURHAM LIGHT INFTY
Total Service: Years FIVE Days 299
Campaigns SERVICE OVERSEAS OR EXPEDITIONARY FORCE M EAST 21/5/41 TO 26/7/42 POW. ITALY 27/7/42 TO 23/10/44
Medals AFRICA STARS
[Stamp on text]
Date JAN 23RD 1946 Place YORK
I returned to Newcastle and took a job painting. It was a huge factory and as it was winter and the work was outside it was pretty rough, so after a few months I once again returned to work in Whitley Bay. A long cycle ride, but the work was much more interesting and I soon fitted in to quality work and started enjoying the job.
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My Canny Lass
One of the previously mentioned letters was from a local girl, Edna James, who lived about twenty-four miles away from me at that time. Her newly wed husband – Roger Peel, had been in my platoon – and onboard the Ninio Bixio together. Roger had been one of the fatal casualties so I visited Edna to shed some light on where, when and what had actually happened. Correspondence continued between us for some time, with the occasional visits leading to a blossoming romance and eventual marriage in her hometown of Bedlington (St Cuthberts Church to be precise) on 12th July 1947. As I write this, we have been married now for 55 years.
[Photograph without caption of a young woman]
I had visited Edna in Bedlington on a few occasions and the romance developed even though it was a pretty long bus ride to see her. As mentioned we finally got married at St Cuthberts in Bedlington. At the time the buses were on strike so it had to be a chartered bus to get all of our guests there and we started our married life in a couple of rooms. The landlady was a nosey parker and a bit of a
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religious nut. Always prying and she let slip with a remark about something she could only have found out about by snooping into our drawers. I decided to set a trap, sliding a message so it would drop into the drawer. I wrote on it “Trespass not into temptation” and sure enough it had been opened. We could not stay and moved to another couple of rooms.
In 1948 our son Michael was born at a local nursing home. Arriving at the nursing home by ambulance, the Matron greeted us with “You are late”. To me she said “Away you go, nothing for you to do here”. So I went back to work. I lost two hours pay, so I had to do overtime to make up the time.
We saw a house for sale, No. 9 Duchess Street, £800. With our savings at £20 we went to my mother and borrowed £60 and we had our own little home. It was in a bit of a shambles, but for a handy man it was great and in a year it was a little palace. We were there nearly 10 years. Our daughter Lynn was born in 1951 and that completed our family. Even though times were hard and money scarce, we were very happy.
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And So To The South Pacific
After a few years we didn’t seem to be making a lot of progress and no matter how long or hard I worked we never had much money left over for holidays or other savings. So in 1957 I decided to emigrate to Australia. After we had passed all the interviews and received our “papers” the voyage was cancelled due to a skirmish around the Suez Canal area. However, at about that time we had a visit by a distant Aunty who raved about New Zealand and she was happy to sponsor us to go there. Once again our applications were successful and we finally left in October 1958. We travelled to Glasgow to join the immigrant ship “Captain Cook” for a six-week journey – Caracas, Panama, and Wellington.
As fate would have it, as we stood at the rail waving to my brother Tommy – in the background the dock workers in the little Clyde ferries singing “Will ye no come back again” – we shared this sad moment with a nearby Scottish family (the Kirklands) who had a boy and girl almost the same ages as our two – Michael was ten and Lynn seven. Who could have guessed that we would be joined as family later in life! Anyway, we soon made friends and enjoyed the long six-week journey to New Zealand. Arriving in Wellington, the Kirklands headed south to Dunedin while we settled in Palmerston North and started a new life on the other side of the world.
After twelve months we had our home built and soon after I started working for myself. Plenty of work to be had, but I stayed a one-man-band with help from Michael at the weekends. He was soon wielding a 4″ brush as good as anyone. It must have been in his blood, and forty years down the track he is still doing the same.
Edna had a couple of jobs and battled on her bike to get to work and back against the Palmerston winds. She fell pregnant again but sadly we had a little girl who had a heart defect and after only thirteen weeks of life Donna died in the hospital. A very sad time for all of us.
After six years, the longing to see our families was always with us and we went on the long sea journey again. This time a bit more comfortably in the “Northern Star” and coming home in the “Southern Cross”.
My mother was not in very good health, but, with my eldest sister, Nellie, was there to welcome us at Southampton. We had a great time and saw parts of England we had never seen before. We also had an adventurous trip across Europe in an Austin A40 (40 British pounds) back to Italy and my ‘family’ in Gaina. The welcome was wonderful and Guiseppe wanted Lynn to stay for a year – not our preferred option, as she was only 14 years old. However, at a later date she returned and almost stayed for good when she became engaged to Giovanni, Guiseppe’s grandson. With Giovanni having to do his compulsory national training in the army for two years, Lynn decided to come home and
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everything was called off fairly amicably. Meanwhile the young Bill Kirkland, son of our friends on the Captain Cook, was at Massey University allegedly starting his vet degree, but more likely majoring in football (soccer). And so, on Lynn’s return, they resumed their friendship and were married in 1974.
A rather sad part of the story was that Giovanni died quite young of a hereditary illness.
Michael, my son, married Heather in 1969 so Edna and I were on our own again. We now have five grandchildren and enjoy seeing them grow up and meet the challenges of life. I have had a great share of the good times and have travelled many miles across the world. At a rough estimation, since arriving in New Zealand we have returned to Europe a total of seven times along with two or three trips to Tonga and Fiji. Of course my last trip home was rather special as we managed to fit in another trip to Gaina.
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Return To Gaina
[Photograph with caption] Gaina, September 2000
However the threads that tie me to this very old and tiny village were again to see more of my family. My granddaughter Karen and husband Edwin spent a few days in 1997 with Guilia, the daughter of Iolande and Guiseppe and, in spite of language difficulties, had a great time.
However, in September 2000 we set out from New Zealand once again to visit the village that has had such an impact on my, and my family’s, life. Who could have guessed that we were once more to see the place after such a long time? Our last visit was thirty-six years ago and even then it was only for just a few hours.
[Original editor’s note captioned as follows] (Editors Insert: The reader should be aware that on a different visit to Italy in 1979 Bob suffered a heart attack, but as you can imagine this very tough DLI veteran survived that and has never looked back!)
Our ‘invasion’ party to Gaina had grown to eight and encompassed three generations. The party included myself, Edna (wife) Lynn (daughter), Sarah (grand-daughter), Michael (son), Heather (daughter-in-law), Karen (granddaughter) and Karen’s husband Edwin. So we were all very excited when we landed at Milan. We had hire cars waiting and looking at the distance on the
[Digital page 38, original page 73]
map, we reckoned it would take about one and a half hours but it was – a bit of a nightmare with drivers blasting us to move over amidst very heavy traffic.
We were quite exhausted by the time we reached our hotel at Lago D’Iseo (Lake Iseo). But I was very excited and emotional as we got near to Gaina. The road into the village had been unsealed and very rough when we visited in 1964. So it was good to see it all sealed and in good order, even car parks for about 10 cars. We parked and got out of the cars. It was very quiet in the village centre. As I looked around I saw two elderly ladies standing in a doorway. Suddenly one of them shouted “Roberto” and hurried across to us grabbing my hand. She set off down the street shouting “Guilia” and sure enough before we reached the house, Guilia was out to greet us. It was a very emotional time.
The extended family arrived and old friends of the Manessi family filled the house and courtyard. Excited Italian was hard to follow but it all seemed to be understood (certainly the joy of the occasion was obvious) and tales of wartime events were recalled. It was arranged for a big celebratory lunch to be held on the Sunday.
A very eager group set out for Gaina on the Sunday morning in convoy of three cars. Leaving Iseo, Edna and I were with Lynn and granddaughter Sarah. It was usually a fifteen-minute drive to the village but traffic was heavy and we got behind a bit and missed the turn off into a tunnel. Consequently, we enjoyed a spectacular drive over the mountain instead of under it in the tunnel. The views were amazing but the fifteen-minute drive stretched to ninety minutes so everyone got very anxious about us. But we made it, and after presenting our hosts with an engraved silver tray dedicated to the bravery of their village we had a fantastic meal, mixed with tears of joy after so many years of absence – “Magnifico”.
Later we all went to see “Bucco Volpe” the foxhole or the cave, we used in wartime when things got too dangerous for us to stay in the village. It had been lost for years with the overgrowth of scrub. In wartime the sides of the hills were stripped of bush to be used as the only source of firewood for heating and cooking as in those days no power reached the village.
However, “Claudio”, Giovanni’s sister’s son had led the search with a school group to find the legendary cave. He had found it and now led us up the mountain. He had a slasher to clear away the entrance. The entrance was very small. About eighteen inches and you had to crawl about ten feet on your stomach emerging into a large cave. Finally about ten of us were all photographed arms raised in triumph, the culmination of a dream that I had held for years.
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[Photograph with caption] Nearly sixty years later Bob revisits the cave.
All too soon our visit was almost over. The last evening brought the most terrific thunderstorm hail and huge flashes of lightening. During the height of the storm Jose and Nicola (Giovanni’s sister and her husband) said to Lynn “Come, we will go to the winery where Jose worked”. On returning they presented me with a case of gold medal wines and a book on the history of the wine makers. Just terrific and need I say “delicioso”.
It was a sad parting but a great sense of satisfaction that we had achieved once more, to say thanks to the people who had showed us such courage so long ago. Thank you, Gaina.
[Photograph without caption of houses in the mountains.]
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Of course time marches on and our families have all gone through losses. Edna has only Nancy, her sister, left and of my large family, six brothers have gone and four sisters, leaving just Anna. But that is just life and you have to carry on and live it the best that you can.
This tale has taken quite a bit of time in the telling and already new plans and journeys to Gaina have taken place. For example in November/December 2000, my granddaughter and her Dad (Lynn’s husband, Bill) had a few hours in Gaina during the time that Sarah was based in Milan trying out the modeling world. And in March 2002, Lynn, Bill and Sarah all stayed with Guilia as part of the celebration of Sarah’s 21st birthday.
And so the links and connections get firmer with time. It is very likely that more of our family will again visit Gaina, and hopefully we can host some of Guilia’s family in New Zealand. You never know, I myself may just decide to have another trip back to those memorable people and places.
As my last word I want to say that I have had a very full, challenging and good life and thank all of my family and especially the source of it all, my Mother and Father.
Ta Ra Ma.
[Photograph with caption] Bob’s mother on her 80th birthday.
[Digital page 40, original page 76]
[Photograph without caption of Bob holding a baby]
Just a small addition to the ongoing story of life – a new boy has joined the family. Karen and Edwin have a little smasher “Max Roberto”. Max for himself and Roberto to keep another link with our Italian friends who are like another family to me and mine and I am honoured to be part of it.
Who knows what life has got in store and if this new addition to our family will walk down memory lane as I so often do.
I wish him well and all of my family for the years to come.
Ta Ra again.
[Digital page 41]
[Photograph with no caption. Image of two people walking along a path.]