Rowe, Jack

Summary of Jack Rowe

Jack Rowe was captured at “Ruin Ridge” in Egypt in July 1942. He was in hospital in Vercelli with malaria when the Italian Armistice was announced in Sept 1943.

He escaped from hospital disguised as an Italian civilian and returned to the Italian farming family who he had worked for previously as a POW. Increasing Nazi/Italian Fascist patrols caused him to leave in order to protect the family.

He joined up with part of the Italian “Partisan” forces which were providing underground resistance against the Nazi forces in Italy. He was part of the “Garibaldi Divisione”. Jack Rowe gives details of many of the missions that he was involved with at this time.

The last part of Jack Rowe’s account details the high risk mission he undertook to test an escape route through the Alps from Northern Italy to Switzerland.

Jack’s story is written by Australian journalist Keith Hooper. Copies of this story exist in the archives of the Monte San Martino Trust and also of the Australian War Memorial.

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.

[Digital Page 1]

About 10,000 words. Resumed by K.K. June 2000 (P.T.O.)



by Keith Hooper
The Partisan,
Jack Rowe

K.H [Keith Hooper] journalist with ‘Adelaide Advertiser who wrote up this story of Jack Rowe.

[Digital Page 2]

‘PARTISAN’. The story of Jack Rowe (Adelaide, South Australia) as written up by Keith Hopper.(Journalist) (Sent in Bill Rudd of Melbourne.)

‘At the time this story was ‘filled with fear’ but on looking back it is amusing bits we remember’. J.R. in his forward which is excellent in the first person but the whole loses impact when it is related in 3rd person.

Campo 39 at Vercelli was the base for many working camps of Aussies and Kiwis. Rowe at the time of the Armistice was in hospital with malaria in Vercelli. Nuns and Italian patients kept them hidden until a party of girls came to walk arm in arm through the town already a German supply point. One Italian carabiniere takes a too close interest in them but finally slaps one on the back and wishes him well. An Italian provides by bicycles and they go off to join a very bag of ‘partisans’ led by Primoio, a smuggler. The 250 strong group is soon scattered by a similar number of Germans. Rowe returns to the FAGA family where he had worked as a POW and receives a huge welcome. For warmth the family sit in the barn in a cleared section with the cattle- for warmth—etc. – at the other end. Firing comes from the nearby Milan/Turin highway. Rowe and a Kiwi with him flee with food etc. provided by the family. Above Biella they meet other POW’s who decide it is impossible to reach Switzerland and necessary to join partisans or starve. By ‘Moscatello Rowe’s driving skills and general usefulness is put to test in a raid to destroy a garage helping the German but for Rowe to drive off one truck. A ‘rastrellamento’ disperses the partisans some being killed including an elderly Australian with them, executed after capture. Rowe and others reach a reserve camp but with another Australian Rowe agrees to go back to their respective ‘families’ on the plains. Rowe to be nursed back to health.

(Mention of a diary!).

Rowe after some weeks feels the pressure on the family and so leaves again to join a smaller and better organised group of partisans but soon Rowe gets away while the leader and other POWs are captured and shot.

Rowe climbs into another valley and then is helped by other Italians.

They raid boarded up homes and find the bodies of some of their former fellow escapers including that of a girl – obviously shot after capture.

With a fellow S, Australian R. moves down from the mountains to foot hills and their familiar vineyards. The FAGA family welcome him back again but he feels the tension. They sleep in the barn but quickly scatter when armed fascists arrive. After hiding they find one of the family is taken for questioning. R. had hidden half in a stream.

Once again R. returns to a party of Aussie, NZ and South Africans with partisans. They raid a fascist shop but R. cannot continue to accept the callous drunken cruelty of the partisan leader. After much moving around he and others move higher and find above the snow line two English officers with other parachutists in support. The English officer provides them with passes for a series of guides and ‘passports’. Rowe returns to say goodbye to his family and leaves with them his photos and personal papers. As they climb through the mountain villages they see the graves of Aussies and Kiwis buried beside the Italian with whom they had fought beside. They join up with three South Africans and three American bomber crew being passed from one guide to another — using their ‘passes’. It is real mountain climbing in snow and deep cold. Rowe leads most of he way but alternates with others to bring up the rear and help the weaker.

In sight of the front they are joined by three Russians. Rowe leads them on and then in sight of Bressago on the Swiss side north of Lago Maggiore, they go down into the town and given a warm welcome. Next day however there is tension. With nobody to help the stragglers – sick and too weak to march alone through the snow they are challenged by a Swiss guard, who forces them back to hut. Three do not make it.

This account is a rarity. Rowe is among a group of Aussies, Kiwi and South Africans who having worked in the area tried to stay in it. The Germans were kept busy taking on the various Partisan Groups that spring up. By the time they realised that Switzerland it had to be to get away and they had found the necessary guides winter was very much on them. Many POWs had died in the clashes with the Germans.

Page 120 ‘It takes us three weeks to reach the next stopping point, three weeks of privation, of frostbitten feet and gnawing guts.’ This is the only point where it seem there is a serious error. None in their condition could have survived such conditions for so long and surely not journey –

[Digital Page 3]

As co-author
BARBED WIRE – Memories of Stalag 383
(Published London, 1947)

[Digital Page 4]

[Black & white picture of Jack Rowe, the central figure in this story.]

[Digital Page 5]

by Keith Hooper
The Partisan,
Jack Rowe

[Digital Page 6]

© Keith Hooper and Jack Rowe 1982

[Letter from Jack Rowe to his Mother]
To My Mother
It was my constant awareness of her prayers that gave so much [word unlcear] in the very hazardous year [ 2 words unclear]. I was missing believed killed. My Mother, bless her always knew in her heart that I was alive and would return. Thanks Mum. Jack Rowe.

[Digital Page 7]


Forward by Lt-Col [Lieutenant-Colonel] L. McCarter, 2/28 Inf. [Infantry] Bn [Battalion] AIF [Australian Imperial Force]

Chapter 1, Page 1

[Digital Page 8]


Jack Rowe, the central figure of the story. Frontispiece

The Italian partisan passport.

Susanna, the Italian girl, who risked so much to help.

The six Britishers and one American who got through.

The Swiss newspaper report of the trek over the Alps.

Five of the heroes In Switzerland.

Map of the area in Northern Italy which the partisan division “Garibaldi’; of which Rowe was a member, operated.

[Digital Page 9]

All Rights

[Digital Page 10]

[Black and white photograph of the Italian Partisan passport that was used by Jack Rowe]

[Digital Page 11]

[Black and white photograph of Susanna, the Italian girl, who risked so much to help Jack Rowe during his escape]

[Digital Page 12]

[Black and white photographs of the six Britishers and one American who successfully managed to escape to Switzerland]

Private Bill Frost NZEF [New Zealand Expeditionary Force]
Private Roy Cameron NZEF [New Zealand Expeditionary Force]
Private R. “Bing” Jackson AIF [Australian Imperial Force]
Sergeant Len Hoyne USAAF [United States Army Air Force]
Riflemen CC. Van Rensburg SAA [South African Army]
Riflemen JF “Fish” Welsh SAA [South African Army]
Rifleman Eric Welsh SAA [South African Army]

[Digital Page 13]

[Black and white photograph of the Swiss newspaper report of the trek over the Alps. It expresses amazement at the feat of Rowe and his party in crossing the frontier in the midst of winter]

[Digital Page 14]

[Black and white photograph of Jack Rowe four other escaping POW’s [identities unknown] titled “Before the cathedral at Bern”].

[Black and white photograph of Jack Rowe and a group of successfully escaped POW’s [identities unknown] titled “Five of the heroes in Switzerland”].

[Digital Page 15]

[A map of the area of Italy in which the partisan division “Garibaldi’; of which Rowe was a member, operated.]

[Digital Page 16]


To all those, irrespective of nation, who fought and fell in the fight for freedom, that freedom which now is in jeopardy because of the myopic vision of the leaders of those nations which led the fight for peace.

“It is better to trust in the mass of mankind than in a leader or theory.”


[Handwritten note by Keith Hooper]
For nearly 30 years the manuscript of this book lay in a vault at the Australian War Memorial (AWM). I had lent it to the late Gavin Long, editor of the Official War History (World War II), to help a section one of his authors compiled about Australians in Prisoner of War Camps. Soon after making the manuscript loan, I left Australia to work abroad and subsequently forgot about “Partisan”. It came as a surprise when, recently AWM archivist Bill Fogafty said, “This is yours” and handed the manuscript to me. A re-reading showed no need for a rewrite. Keith Hooper

[Digital Page 17]


Many excellent books have been written about various phases of World War ll and I cannot claim to have read them all. I have, however, enjoyed reading many of them and have found that generally they have covered incidents which have received considerable publicity at one time or another in the daily press.

It is obvious that in a bitter struggle of such magnitude as the recent World War, involving as it did so many nations and covering so many countries, some relatively important chapters have received little publicity. I am certain that few people have heard about the true position in Italy in those exciting days of 1943 when the Allied armies gained a foothold in the south of Mussolini’s stronghold.

Those of us who were prisoners of War In the north of Italy at that time have vivid recollections of the reactions of many of our guards and the Italian people, who were unable to conceal their fears of the Germans. Unwilling participants in the deadly struggle, the majority of Italians seemed keen to get out of the mess into which they felt the Fascists had manoeuvred them. Their hopes of an early capitulation to the Allies were rudely shattered, as their taskmasters, the Germans, quickly swarmed south to oppose the advancing Allied Forces.

During those chaotic days, those of us who managed to escape but were recaptured and sent to Germany felt that fate

[Digital Page 18]

had treated us most unkindly. The amazing experiences of Jack Rowe related in this tale are convincing evidence that we were much more fortunate than we realised at the time.

It gives me great pleasure to write a foreword to a book which so graphically portrays the experiences of some of the gallant members of the 2/28 Infantry Battalion during their trying time from escape in 1943 until they reached Switzerland.

Here is a tale which rings true in every detail, wherein Keith Hooper has captured much of the real atmosphere of the Italian way of life and particularly the peculiar conditions prevailing in those strange days.

As we follow Jack Rowe from a hospital bed in Vercelli through his exciting career with the partisans and hie several visits to the family who befriended him — the Faga family of Val del Oca – and finally, as we accompany him on the epic trek through the dead of icy winter to Brissago in Switzerland, we cannot but marvel at the vagaries of Fate.

In the end, I am sure you will join me in saluting those gallant chaps whose perseverance and courage in the face of adversity and ever-present death is an inspiration to all Australians. It is with pride that I reflect it was my privilege to serve at the side of such grand fellow.

L. McCARTER M.C. [Military Cross] (Lieutenant-Colonel)

Urrbrae Agricultural High School,
Mitcham, South Australia.
September 5, 1951,

[Handwritten Note].
Colonel Mc Carter was commanding the 2/28 when it captured Ruin Ridge in 1942 after bloody fighting, was isolated from the rest of 24 Infantry Brigade and surrounded and captured by Afrika Korps, the only Australian Unit, other than those of 8 Division in Malaysia and a couple of 7 Division diverted belatedly, while homeward [Editors Note: most of the last line is obscured] this fate.

[Digital Page 19]


This is a war story. As far as I have been able to ascertain, no previous attempt has been made in the English language to depict the campaign, which it covers. This was the partisan effort in Northern Italy.

I believe that it is time the general public learnt something, of the valour of the men who carried on this battle, at all times under almost insuperable difficulties. True, most of them were soldiers, with the soldiers’ expectation of what this career entails in war. But theirs was not the life of the men in the frontline. They were in the midst of their enemy, he was at their sides, before them and behind. Capture meant not imprisonment for the duration but instant death by shooting, or worse.

A large number of these partisans were Allied soldiers escaped from Italian prisoner of war camps. Quite a few were Australians. Some came back. The others lie buried where they fell.

This story is of one of those who came back.

On several occasions he might have been among the unfortunate. His adventures were the same as any who fought, perhaps greater; the reader will judge. They covered a period of two years.

His name is John Wilfrid Rowe, As WX5292, he served as a corporal in the 2/28 Infantry Battalion, enlisting in Perth. He was taken prisoner at Ruin Ridge during the North African fighting of 1942. On arrival in England, following VE [Victory in Europe] Day, he was promoted to Sergeant. Today he is an unassuming civilian living in Adelaide.

[Digital Page 20]


It was quite by accident that this book came to be written, one afternoon, when the author was my guest, he produced a short story he had just written. The story was about an Australian who was a partisan in Northern Italy. In it he mentioned a character he called “Il Mosca,” and said he understood there had actually been a partisan leader named Moscatelli. I asked him if he would like to see the leader’s signature, and showed him my partisan passport with Moscatelli’s signature upon it. He asked me how I came to have it. I told him I had been a partisan. From then on, he kept telling me what an interesting story would eventuate if I sat down to write my reminiscences of that period. For a long time, I demurred. Finally, I thought, Why not?

I am glad that Keith Hooper has told the story as I told it to him. Firstly, the story itself deals with what was a grim testing time for many Australians taken prisoner by the Italians and who escaped after the collapse of the Fascist Government’s major war effort. Secondly, I can express the gratitude – and I owe a great deal – to those common people, the ordinary Italian citizens, who did so much for us fellows, often at the risk of his or her life; especially do I think of the Faga family, of Val del Oca, near Carissio. It is hard to say what I want to say when I think of them; I was a part of them, and they of me. I hope that, in the story, some of that feeling I still have for them comes out, that the reader may understand. Thirdly, the story as a whole also depicts the general situation, [Editors Note: Most of the last line of this page is obscured] point in

[Digital Page 21]

behind the facade of the principal conflict between the Allied and enemy forces locked in battle on the front around Naples and Cassino.

A lot depends on how the reader may regard the book. Some people may find it a story filled with fear, as, indeed, it must be to a great degree. At the time it seemed that way to me. When you look back on an adventure, however, it is usually the amusing events which stand out. Today, I find myself laughing at some of the things that happened to me, and other fellows, which, then, filled me with terror. Readers who were themselves soldiers, sailors or airmen, or prisoners of war, will grasp what I mean. Even grimness has its lighter moments.

To just give you an example, which, incidentally, conveys a picture of the day-by-day living in an Italian peasant home, let me tell you this little incident:

You know that saying, “When in Rome…”. Well, there is a lot in it. If you visit another man’s country you will find his habits are vastly different from yours. You may find them abhorrent. He probably thinks the same of yours. After all, he has grown up under a certain code or set of standards. It requires diplomacy on your part how to act. Your actions can be an insult to his honour, particularly if you are partaking of his hospitality. While I lived with the Fagas, I never spoke English if I could avoid it. To my way of thinking, it seemed unfair to carry on asides they could not understand; it was different in Frank Bowan’s case, for he was past the age when he could find languages coming easily to his mind. But that’s a digression. I was going to tell you about Sunday dinner at Val del Oca.

The menfolk wore their headgear at table. The women thought nothing of it. Before dinner the men would dip their fingers in a bowl of water. When Frank and I washed our faces and hands and combined our hair we amused everyone. They thought it an unnecessary toilet. Hadn’t we washed.

[Digital Page 22]

The human members the farm were not the only creatures in the room when dinner was laid. There would be fowls pecking between one’s feet at scraps on the floor, and dogs keenly watching one take every bite. Once, I remember a pig straying in, but he was promptly booted outside.

Frank and I could not bring ourselves to throw the bones on the floor after we had eaten the flesh off, as the Italians did. We often joked about it between ourselves, and resolved to do likewise. I lost more than one bet with Frank, betting him I was game to do it before he.

Then, one Sunday evening, Frank and I returned from one of our walkabouts. We had been over to see Mick Armstrong, Penot and Rosetta, at the Val de Persica. Frank seldom drank, but I did. On this occasion, I had been bibbing all afternoon, and I was right merry. On our way back, too, we were dragged into the local ‘osterio’ (inn) by some friends, who further plied me with wine. By the time we got home I was very happy indeed. I imagine Frank must have had rather a job urging me along.

The Faga’s were already seated to dinner when we came in. Apparently, they had heard my poor attempt at song on the way up the path. For they were all grinning. Visitors were present, too. Antonio’s sister and her industrialist husband had called, and were staying the night. Our places were laid, however, and we took them amidst laughter.

The weekly fowl had been cooked and served up. If Momma Faga was cooking, she always saw that I got some of the best on my plate, even if she had to take it off her own. But if her sister did the cooking, I got the scrag ends. Guilio’s wife, the sister, was the cook. I had a scraggy piece of the fowl.

My first faux pas wag to upset the glass of vino poured for me. The red wine slopped everywhere. Frank apologised for me and said I ought to go to bed. Being born stubborn, I refused to go. And for once I broke my rule about not talking in English. I said to

[Digital Page 23]

On my plate was the scrag end I had not bothered to touch. I reached over and picked up the bones from Frank’s plate. Standing up, I called in a thick voice for silence. Silence came. I said I was about to join the ranks of the bone throwers. Lining the bones along the edge of the table, I swept them across the room. The dogs must have had some intuitive idea of my plan, because they were jumping for the bones before they touched the floor. The family burst out laughing and young Aldo, the son who was so like me in appearance, slapped me on the back, saying, “Bravo, Giovanni Buono Italiano.”

Then, in my stupor, I realised what ill-manners I had shown. I vowed I would never throw my bones on the floor again, nor did I.

Well, that’s only a trivial incident, perhaps to me it wasn’t. I lived with those people. They respected me. And I should do likewise by them. They were crude in their fashion, no doubt. But it’s not breeding alone which makes gentlemen or women of us. It’s what you have in the heart. The Fagas had a lot in their hearts.

Might I also say a word about Frank. As you learn, he was killed. I liked Frank enormously. He was a lot older than I. That didn’t matter. We went through much suffering. He never complained. If anyone deserved to live and return to his own people, he did. And I’ll leave it at that.


[Digital Page 24]

AG8/WT2A/LP                                          476/1/236                                                       R/4/4029

MXY 130                                                                                                                         CARO
Ext 587                                                       Coat of Arms                               Albert Park Barracks

DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY                             3 JAN 1950

O3                                                                                                                      Melbourne, SC3.

Dear Sir,

With reference to your letter of the 13th December, 1949, regarding the Italy Star, it is advised that your application has been approved and the award will be forwarded together with the remaining awards to your entitlement, viz: – Defence Medal, War Medal and Australia Service Medal, as soon as possible.

Awards already received may be returned for engraving.

The Australia Service Medal is not yet available for issue but will be forwarded without further application in due course.

Should you change your address in the meantime, would you please advise this office.

Your Partisan Passport is returned herewith.

Yours faithfully,

L. A. Gursansky, Major.
For OIC [Officer In Charge] Central Army Records Office.

Mr. J.W. Rowe,
21 Highfield Ave.,        (Duplicate)

[Digital Page 25]


At the finish they were worse off than before. Now Kesselring’s legions rushed down to halt Clark and Montgomery’s invading forces, barred the way to freedom. Only those prisoners in camps in the vicinity of Naples and Rome managed to reach the Allied lines immediately the news of Italy’s capitulation became known. For the rest it was impossible, recapture this time would mean not another term as prisoners of war but probable death, certain and sudden.

What they should do, therefore, was the question. It mocked all their attempts to find an answer.

The eight grouped about the fire in a valley some miles north and west of Milan had spent most of the morning debating the question, without finding a solution to satisfy all. Some were for trying to reach Switzerland, but the Swiss frontier was many miles distant and in between lay the rugged fastnesses of the Alps upon which winter was already putting down the first snows; in another week only a madman would dare try to cross the mountains.

A few were for going back to the farms where they had worked when prisoners; at least, there they were assured of shelter and food; but, at the same time, they would be endangering the lives of the peasants who afforded them refuge, and they did not wish that if it could be avoided. A third way was to seek out the partisans, and this, of course, entailed taking up rifle or revolver and joining in that cloak and dagger conflict, with all its consequences.

Since they seemed unable to reach unanimity of opinion, they decided to break up into pairs or trios – it was a brave man who would have travelled alone.

They presented a villainous appearance. All were unkempt. None were clean-shaven.

As for their attire, it was an incongruous mixture of khaki uniform and civilian clothes, for the most part torn or patched. Instead of boots, a couple wore peasant clogs. One wore sand-shoes through which a big toe protruded. Notwithstanding its unfitness, the civilian clothes offered some protection – admittedly damned little – against apprehension by Germans or Fascists, particularly if one could speak Italian.

[Digital Page 26]

Of the eight, six were Australians and two New Zealanders. Until recently, they had been among the 80 men who formed the working party, Campo Concentramento 39 at Veoelli.

A tall, skeleton man, who might have been thirty-five years of age because of his lined forehead but was no doubt still short of his thirties, rose from where he had been sitting beside the fire, went to the nearby stream and cleaned his plate with the palm of his left hand, using dirt scooped up from the bank to scour off the grease.

This one’s name was Jack Rowe. Back in Manjimup, Western Australia, where he had been a commercial traveller, his clients called him Wilf. In the 2/28 Infantry Battalion and in the prison camp, his mates called him Jack.

Having cleaned the plate, as best he could under the circumstances, he squatted back on his heels, and, using a little fingernail as a pick, tried to get at a crumb of bread stuck between two of his back teeth.

At the same time, he was thinking: So much for another meal, such as it was: a handful of rice cooked in sheep-fat, a hunk of rye bread, and a cup of liquid faintly tinctured brown and supposedly coffee. He grunted disgustedly, counting up all the meals he had had since the night he was captured during a skirmish at Ruin Ridge. He estimated – no, he was unable to estimate. It was easier to estimate the number of times when he had not eaten, not a few by any means. He sighed. No doubt he would go without many times more. Anyway, it was selfish thinking only of one’s self. There were other fellows who felt hunger more than he.

He picked up the dish and returned to the fire. He stubbed the fire with the toe of a sand-shoe, and the embers burst into flame, but waned again.

A Kiwi named Frank Bowen, spat into the fire, and said, “I should’ve had a shave.”
“Grow a beard like me, ” commented one of the Australians, a young man with a beard little more than adolescent fluff. Noticing the others grinning, he went on petulantly to add, “Alright, you jokers, I can grow as good a beard as any of you once I get started.”
“You go right ahead, son,” said Rowe. “Don’t worry what these jokers think. We’ll all be growing beards soon; we’ve no razors. They’ll help us look like Italians, anyhow.”

[Digital Page 27]

“The last thing I want to do is look like those bastards,” snapped the young Australian.
“You don’t want to take that attitude son,” Rowe said, quietly.
“I’ve met some good Italians. Yes, good ones.” The young Australian sneered, “You will, too. They’re the people who’ll help get you to Switzerland, y’know.”
“I’ll get there, on me own.”

“I hope you do. I hope you do. But I wouldn’t count on it.”
“Hey, what’s the matter with you? You turning Dage?”
Bowan broke in, averting the quarrel, “Cut it out.”

Rowe opened his mouth to say something, thought better of the idea and changed his mind.

By this time the sun was high in the sky. They decided to sleep.

It was not easy trying to sleep. The cold cut like a knife down the valley. The forest about them broke the wind but it could not stem the cold.

Rowe, lying a few yards apart from the remainder, dragged an old civilian overcoat about him and put his hands under opposite armpits. After half an hour fruitlessly trying to doze off, he gave up in despair and let his mind carry him back to Vecelli.

In the long run, prisoner who went out to work fared better than the senior non-commissioned and commissioned officers left behind in the main camps. While a man worked on a farm he was fed, the same as the peasants, except where he was unfortunate to be assigned to a peasant who hated the British. Perhaps that peasant had had a son killed in North Africa, and who could blame him for hating you – for all you knew, that Italian you bayoneted at Ain el Gazala was his son. On the other hand, maybe you found yourself with a family who had a son taken prisoner now working for a farmer in Australia. They had had letters from Francisco and he said he was being treated very well. So the Australian prisoner must also be treated well. But there was never enough food to go around.

With a few exceptions, the Italian peasant was a kindly person, his women doubly so after they got over their initial shyness. It is the same with the common people the world over. It is not they who make the wars, yet it is they who supply the men for the slaughter. Vivere in pace was all they asked.

The other side of the picture was the prisoner. Prison life affected

[Digital Page 28]

him greatly. No man can be cut off from his kind without being affected by the strange conditions in which he finds himself. Those conditions bring out the best or worst in his character. He revealed himself for what he really was, a tolerant or an intolerant individual. Most fell into the former category, for they were cognisant that the alternative was to increase what was already tantamount to a mental Hell.

Musing thus, Rowe drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

[Digital Page 29]


Malaria broke out. Prom the larger barrack containing forty-four men, it quickly spread to the other containing thirty-six. The Italian doctors, as always, incompetent, maintained that it was some germ in the water the prisoners had been drinking. Besides, they shrugged their shoulders, what quinine there was was needed for the ‘militari’. So the prisoners went down one after another to the disease, “shivered” it out, and when they recovered tended the next lot to fall. Blankets on a man who had passed the crucial stage were whipped off him to cover the poor blighter who had just come in.

This was the adversity which brought out the best in a man. Sick himself, he quelled his nausea as best he could to look after the man who was no longer able to tend himself.

Malaria sends a man into the nadir of misery. His morale shatters, he no longer cares whether he lives or dies.

The worst cases were taken to hospital, only then because it was patently evident to the Italian doctors that such a course was urgently necessary.

The hospital was maintained by the sisters of a Roman Catholic order. Like the peasants, they were not concerned with the war. God insisted of them that they exempt no man from their ministrations whether friend or enemy; and they heeded their God.

Among the several British prisoners taken to the hospital in Vecelli was the Australian, Rowe. He had reached that stage when nothing mattered any more, not even the gladsome news that the Allied forces were making steady progress up the Italian boot. Three weeks passed. Gradually, he began to resume an interest in things about him. Still, the war news passed him by – he had heard it so often before, and been disappointed when the Allies had not arrived. He was more interested in watching the nuns at work. Their gentleness restored the faith in humanity he thought he could never know any more.

In the fourth, week, it came. Italy had capitulated!

Despite his weakened state, Rowe was pulled out of bed by the nuns, forgetful of their calling for the once. He was hugged, kissed, slapped on the

[Digital Page 30]

back. “Bravo! Bravo!” shouted the strangely jubilant doctors. A doctor came to Rowe, who had scrambled back into his bed, offered him a cigar and told him he was free.

Somehow, it was hard to believe. It was better not to let his excitement too much rein, thought Rowe. Perhaps it might not be quite as good as it sounded.

The day gave way to the night and the night was disturbing. Outside sounded a rumbling, faint at first, and louder as the origin of the sound neared, came nearer, nearer. Rowe looked out of the window behind his bed, thinking it odd that there should be a thunderstorm in late August. The skies were clear, not a semblance of cloud was to be seen. Then, it must be the rumbling of vehicles. He gazed about him, wondering if the other patients had heard. They had. In the wan light of the night light over the entrance to the ward, he saw them listening. He dropped off the side of his bed and staggered across to the side of the building whence the sound came. There was a full-moon though the streets were blacked out. By its beams he saw the cause distinctly.

Heavy tanks, artillery pieces, troop carriers, bumper to bumper, rolled by, seemingly without end to the column.

One of the patients called out, “What is it, Jack?”
“Huns,” he answered.
“Christ!” exclaimed the patient in the bed next to his own.
On the other side of the ward a group of Italian wounded started to babble.
“Silenzio!” shouted Rowe.
Another Australian added his voice, saying, “If you don’t keep yer traps shut, we’ll bloody well shut ’em for yer.”
“Well, ” said the same Australian, “that’s bloody well that. It looks like now we’re montys for Germany.”

Rowe turned away from the window and surveyed the faces. Disappointment marked every one. It also marked the faces of the nuns. The three on night duty were bustling in.

Their attitude was unchanged towards the prisoners, he saw. In fact, they showed concern. One came over and almost pushed him back into bed. The other two went quickly around, closing the windows and drawing down the blinds.

[Digital Page 31]

Rowe went off to sleep, and thought no more about the German column. After all, he could not do anything about it.

He was awakened at dawn by one of the nuns. She was a small woman, not heavier than eight stone. Rowe himself weighed over ten. Yet this little woman was picking him up like a baby and carrying him. “Chi & vero?” he queried, startled. She did not reply. He repeated the question. Still she did not reply. He glanced around and saw four other nuns also carrying British prisoners.

They carried them down to the cellars beneath the building.

The mother superior came and told the prisoners to lie quiet.

Shortly they would be taken back to the ward. That was, if no Germans came.

“You must understand,” said the mother superior. “It is not for ourselves we fear. ” There were tears in the woman’s eyes. “But if the ‘tedesci’ come?”

She made the sign of the cross over them and left.

At nightfall they were taken back to the ward, but merely for an hour or two. The nuns came into the ward. By their demeanour, they were clearly disturbed. Two were weeping openly.

Rowe called one of the nuns over and asked her what was the matter.

She told him a German soldier had been brought in sick. It was all right, for the moment, because he had been put in another ward. Nevertheless, the ‘Inglese’ must go back to the cellars. German doctors were expected any time.

Again, they went down to the cellars. This time, however, additional precautions were necessary. Some of the Italian sick and wounded volunteered to set up a system of scouts. It was arranged that as soon as a German approached the hospital gates signals would be passed back to the cellar. The prisoners would have time to get away under their own volition, if need be.

For awhile, though, it was not so bad. Several times the prisoners went back to the ward, only to have to remove to the cellars.

Some of them grumbled, not at the enforcement of the ward to cellar trips but over their inability to do anything. Naturally, they felt ashamed of the necessity of this course, and their having to rely on the nuns to assist them. To make matters more difficult, beyond a few simple words none knew Italian well enough to carry on a prolonged conversation. Had they been

[Digital Page 32]

able to, thought Rowe, maybe they would have been able to scheme a plan of action. As it was, if the Germans did tumble to the system of alarm, they would be caught literally like rats in a cellar.

A week passed, a week full of tension. Then, one night, the prisoners were all awakened. Each man was handed civilian clothes of sorts.

Rowe’s was a grey suit, which had seen its best long ago; the legs were too short for his six-foot frame. There was also an open-necked shirt he managed, with some struggling, to tuck into his trousers. Lastly, for his feet, he was provided with a pair of sand-shoes – no socks.

Down to the hideout the prisoners trooped. The cellar, they were surprised to find, was crammed with people they had not seen before, young men and girls in their teens. The Italians handed them more articles of clothing and money.

One of the girls, evidently overcome by emotion, put her arms up to pull Rowe’s head down, and kissed him full on the lips. It seemed such a quaint gesture, in the face of things, that his face creased into a smile. He would have laughed openly, but he reasoned quickly that the girl was sincerely upset over his plight, and he desisted.

A stocky Italian, plainly someone in authority, called the prisoners to the centre of the cellar and explained matters to them. The plan was simple, he said. Each prisoner was to take the arm of a girl, and walk unconcernedly out of the hospital grounds with her. They would continue on through Vecelli to the outskirts where transport awaited to take the whole party into the mountains.

There were not sufficient girls to share. Rowe and two New Zealanders “Darcy” Henderson and Bowan were left without escorts.
“Gee, a man can be stiff!” remarked Rowe, with a grin.
“This is not the time for the love”, said the Italian leader, who told them to call him Reino. A middle-aged man, he had striking eyes that sparkled constantly over some joke of his own. “It will be OK, I have the idea for you. Listen.”
Reino said he had a bicycle outside. He would lead the way for the trio, riding calmly and slowly along the streets. They were to follow, singly, being careful not to show they knew him. If passers-by nodded to them it would

[Digital Page 33]

be all right to nod back. But say nothing, not a word.

It sounded a crazy idea, actually, as it meant walking through the larger portion of the town, but if Reino said so, he ought to know if it were safe. It was crazy enough to succeed.

From the hospital to the open country was a mile and a half, and every street was full of German vehicles and troops, for Vercelli was becoming a marshalling centre.

Bowan followed Reino. Rowe waited half a minute and followed Bowan. Followed again Henderson.

Trying to appear as nonchalant as possible, Bowan, Rowe and Henderson walked through the streets at thirty-yard intervals. It was evening, and elderly Italians sat at their doors talking. They nodded to the three Australians, who returned the nods. Rowe noticed Bowan several times bow elaborately back. Rowe kept his face turned resolutely forward. Behind him, he heard Henderson returning the greeting, “Good Evening” with a grunt.

The streets were full of Germans. Trucks and occasional armoured cars passed. The escaped prisoners were outwardly calm, but inwardly they were nervous and excited. The Germans seemed too interested in their own affairs to trouble about these nondescript civilians strolling through their midst.

Slowly the distance between the hospital and the rural area outside of Vercelli decreased. Now they were nearly out of town. Damn it, the local blacksmith held two draught horses across the road, and carried on a voluble conversation with a customer and friends! And on the footpath…. Fear plummeted to the pit of the Britishers’ stomachs, as they spotted the two caribinieri.

Rowe saw one of the policeman catch sight of Bowan. The man stepped forward from the kerb. He was going to stop the New Zealander, nothing surer. But Bowan increased his stride and was past.

The blacksmith halted in his conversation, lifted his cap, scratched his head and stared after Bowan’s retreating figure.

He turned his head back, to stare straight into the face of Rowe, not a yard away. Rowe mumbled, “Bongiorno, signor.” smiled, and walked by as slowly as he could restrain himself.

[Digital Page 34]

Rowe wondered about Henderson’s chance. Reaching a corner, he bent, ostensibly to tie his shoe lace, and peeked around his legs. One of the caribinieri left the kerb and approached Henderson. Henderson kept walking. The caribinieri walked by him a few steps, grinned broadly – and slapped the Australian on the back.

Ten minutes more and they were on a country road. They caught each other up and sat down.

“Whew!” exclaimed Rowe, “I thought for a jiff you were a gonner. “
“I was shit frightened, I can tell you”, Henderson said.
“They were with us all the time,” said Bowan.
They fell silent, affected by the intense strain of that walk to freedom.
Rowe finally said, “Queer, isn’t it? A few weeks ago we were behind barbed wire and jokers like those were guarding us. Now, they don’t give a hang.” They resumed the walking.

A mile further on, they met up with Reino. He had five cycles.

They explained that the Kiwis had decided to try their luck elsewhere. Reino protruded his lower lip, and shrugged. He wished them luck but he did not regard them as very clever, he said. Meanwhile, they themselves must not dally. He got on to his own cycle, and signed them to ride with him.

[Digital Page 35]


Reino said it was an “open” camp. Here came all who wished to take up arms against the ‘Fasciati’.

Rowe, Bowan and Henderson looked at the crowd. They were not all Italians. Among them were quite a number of British prisoners. Many they knew but had not seen since the early days of capture.

It was quite evident that a swarthy, curly-headed Italian was the man in charge. They learned that this was Primelo. He was in command of the military aspect of the situation, while Reino was the ‘capo politico’. Primelo had everything necessary in a leader when it came to courage and daredevilry. His pre-war vocation was contraband running between the Northern Italian provinces and Switzerland, carrying maize and rice one way and returning with cigarettes, all of which he sold at black market prices.

Primelo was in his element in danger.

At first, it was good being in this camp but not for long. Overall there was an atmosphere of suspense. The suspense led to tempers flaring up. Arguments among Italians can be violent affairs. Knives often flashed. On several occasions pistols were drawn. Men were callously murdered. To the Australians, it was bewildering. Judging by the accusations the Italians hurled at one another, half of them were Fascists.

Within the fortnight the number of partisans in the camp had grown to almost a hundred. At this stage, orders arrived from somebody at higher level. A meal was served and a march began.

It was a long march, more than twenty kilometres. The Australians-by this, Bowan was content to be called an Australian – owing to their weakened constitutions, felt it keenly; all the while there was the fear of a recurrent attack of malaria. They lasted out the march, though they lagged behind the main party.

The destination was a farmhouse, ‘cassino ciriola’. The farmer and his family greeted the party with apprehension. The next day, the party moved on, all except eight, six Australians and two Kiwis. These, including Rowe, were

[Digital Page 36]

too ill to attempt the next stage, a test even for fit men.

Fate however was on their side. A couple of days later, one of the leaders, an ex-sergeant major returned with the news that the party had been ambushed by a German patrol. Many had been killed or captured, a handful only managing to escape. The leader said it was fruitless trying to fight.

He had escaped the ambush and was the first to return to where the horse and cart containing provisions had been stabled. Perhaps he was avaricious, or perhaps he did not realise what he was doing, but he had sold the complete outfit to a wealthy farmer. As the property was not his in the first place, he showed a handsome profit on the deal.

What was he going to do now?

With the customary shrug of the shoulders, he said he was going to take to the forest. He advised the Britishers to do likewise.

Henderson elected to remain and work on the farm where they had been staying.

[Digital Page 37]


Rowe and Frank Bowan and one of the other Kiwis, Mick Armstrong, set off together when the party of eight separated in the forest. They had no definite plan in mind, but heading north was that much closer to Switzerland. Sleeping in stables or lofts, getting bread and salami sausage and rice and macaroni from friendly peasants, they pushed north.

During this march, Rowe made up his mind to learn to speak Italian.

It was necessary, if they were to get food and ask for help to reach Switzerland. Bowan and Mick Armstrong had not the same desire; in Bowen’s case, he was too old to assimilate a new language.

Mick decided before they had travelled far not to continue.

The circumstances were opportune. A bullock waggon loaded with potatoes appeared. Obviously the driver intended crossing the ford by which the three prisoners at large were washing. The driver was a short, rotund individual.

He spoke to the Britishers and shortly they were carrying on a lengthy conversation. His name, he told them, was Penot. They explained their plight. His understanding was Immediate and he expressed a desire to help them, and they were cognizant of sincerity in the offer. During this conversation by gesticulations, Rosetta, his sister, a woman of similar build and disposition, arrived on the scene. She promptly indicated that she expected the Britishers to follow Penot and herself home to their farm, Cassino Val de Persica. There they would get potatoes and any other foodstuffs, and a cooked meal before continuing on their way.

During the afternoon Rowe contrived to leave Mick in the care of these good people. Mick was willing. He believed the British would arrive within the next few weeks.

Rowe and Bowan kept moving. They decided to make for the old POW camp where they had worked, at Brianco, about halfway between Santhia and Cavaglia.

From the camp Rowe knew he could find his way to a peasant family for whom he had worked in the rice fields. The family had always been kind to him.

It was a lot to hope for, but he hoped they were still friendly. They had invited

[Digital Page 38]

him to visit them when the war ended.

They had a daughter, Susanna. He had always got along well with her. She could teach him to speak Italian fluently.

By a stroke of good fortune, Rowe and Bowan met up with a friendly caribinieri. He turned out to be a friend of the policeman who had visited the camp as part of his official duties.

The latter had hated the Fascists. Rowe remembered his telling the prisoners the father had been arrested and thrown into prison for daring to speak out against Il Duce. As he told the story his eyes had flashed with hate.

His friend who met the Australians and directed them to the old camp was of the same mould. He gave them money shook hands with them, wished them good luck, and told them that his house, in the hills nearby, was at their disposal if they wished. Writing out the address, he handed it to them.

Rowe and Bowan left him and went to the camp. It looked forlorn without it’s former inhabitants. In a way, its forlornness was a good thing. No-one, surely, was likely to go looking for escaped prisoners there now.

Even so, Rowe decided then and there to go on to the ‘casa’ of the family he had worked for.

As the pair approached the house, a horse and cart came out of the yard. Rowe recognized the driver as the uncle of the girl, Susanna.

“Guilio!” yelled Rowe, and waved.

Guilio looked searchingly at the two men, looked away. He was being cautious. Yes, he recognized the tall Australian. Leaping from the cart, he came running.

“Giovanni!” he shouted, embracing and kissing Rowe. “Come,” he said, leading them and calling out to the house. “It is Giovanni!”

From the doorway emerged the family, people Rowe knew and people he had not seen before. They crowded around him, crying out his name, gesticulating their delight. Only Susanna did not speak. But her eyes said for her what she wanted to say, and more eloquently than words. Rowe detached himself from her relations and went over to her. He reached with both hands to take her right hand, shook it.

[Digital Page 39]

Susanna’s lips trembled.

Holding the girl’s hand, he gazed at the family, watching him in silence. It was an odd feeling, he thought. Here was one of the strongest friendships he had ever known, between this family and himself. He wanted to tell them how he felt, but he knew there was no way he could express it.

Remembering Bowan, he introduced him as a comrade.

Of course, said Antonio Faga, Susanna’s father, they must be fed.

So they went into the house to eat. Indeed, it was a meal fit for a prince: fresh, home-baked bread, a chicken and vino; it was the first sustaining meal Rowe and Bowan had had since leaving the hospital. They did it right justice.

Later, Papa Antonio nodded to his wife, and Bowan, and all the others, and they left Susanna and Rowe alone in the kitchen.

At twenty, Susanna was blossoming into an attractive young woman.

She might not have been as attractive as many girls he had known back in Australia, thought Rowe, but she was attractive.

In a few years she would lose her attractiveness – Italian women matured and aged quickly – but meanwhile she had all of it to make a man admire her.

In height, she came hardly to the breast pocket of his coat. She had a round, moon-like face in which were set a nicely-shaped mouth, pert nose and dark-brown eyes. She had black hair, kept it well-groomed.

For a long time they were content just to regard each other.

A titter sounded at the door. They swung around. Two faces withdrew hurriedly, but belatedly. The faces belonged to Guiseppi and Aldo, Guilio’s two sons, aged seventeen and twelve respectively.

Rowe looked at Susanna. She looked at him.

They laughed, got up, linked arms and went to join the family.

[Digital Page 40]


Antonio, acting as spokesman for the Fagas said that everyone was of the opinion that the safest course would be for the ‘inglese’ to stay and work on the farm. It should not be long before the Allies arrived, and meanwhile the two escaped prisoners would get the best care, the same as if they were members of the ‘famiglia’.

“Frank and I are very grateful”, Rowe said, and left it at that; there was not much more he could say. For though he had dared to hope the invitation would be forthcoming, it was pleasing to note that it had been spontaneous on the part, of the Italians.

“A festa,” cried Antonio. “Momma,” he said to his wife, “bring wine.”

So they feasted.

Susanna sat at Rowe’s side, at one end of the table. He observed that she was flushed with delight at his agreement to stay. Once he sought under the table for her hand, found it and held it tightly a moment.

To the two Britishers, the next few weeks were idyllic compared with the past fortnight and the strain they had experienced. Certainly, Guilio was a hard taskmaster, he demanded they work hard, but, at the same time, he asked no more of them than he gave himself. The hours were long, from dawn to often after dusk. There were occasions when the strenuousness of the work told on Rowe and Bowan because of their undernourished bodies; several times they considered seriously leaving and moving on towards the towering Alps visible from the farm on days when the atmosphere was clear. But winter was not far off, the nights were lengthening and becoming colder, the enormity of attempting to climb the mountains appalled them and they eschewed the idea. Then the kindness of the Fagas was a restraining factor against abruptly walking off the place.

Their first assignment each day was to help Aldo and Guiseppi clean the ‘stalla’. Next came the curry combing of the cows and finally, the milking had to be done.

Rowe began to know an unexpected enjoyment In this work. He was reminded of the dairy farms he used to visit on his commercial round back home. When he

[Digital Page 41]

got back to Manjimup – if he ever did: always one appended that phrase, In case – he would be able to show the Australian cow-cookies the correct way to do their work. Not that the Italian methods could apply, they were virtually unaltered from century to century. And, of course, housing of cattle was unnecessary, even in the harshest of winters in the South-West of Western Australia.

Gradually, the work exercised a beneficial effect on the Australians, heeling the manure from the stalls to the heap outside, for instance, strengthened the muscles of the arms.

After breakfast, the whole family, with the exception, generally of Antonio’s wife, went down to the rice terraces. The men would drain the fields and the women would follow abreast to cut the plants.

Rice grows rather like wheat as a crop, and when out is tied by hand into sheaves.

The sheaves were heavy to handle and Rowe recalled more pleasant and congenial tasks.

More to his liking was the turning of the threshed rice in the sunshine on the wide concrete floors with light wooden rakes, but this was not often possible. The sunlit days were fewer and farther between, now it rained almost every day. When the rice had dried fairly well it was carried up into the lofts of the barn.

Rowe tried keeping a diary during this period. The entries were infrequent. One entry read:

“A pathetic sight during the rice drying season, and in the maize drying season, is to see the continuous stream of hill dwellers, who swarm down to the lower farms, and seek to buy up as much of the grain as they can to tide them through the winter. Rice is practically the staple food for this part of Italy, while the maize is ground for making ‘palanto’, a rich-yellow, thick, sticky mass which is unimpressive to look at but quite tasty if eaten with milk or fried in olive oil; it is very filling, ‘sticking to the ribs!’

“The loads these people, preponderantly old women, carry is amazing.

Often I’ve watched them staggering along with their loads of grain, and had to go over and re-strap their packs comfortably or give them a word of encouragement. God knows, theirs is a difficult life, especially with their menfolk cut off

[Digital Page 42]

from them by the war. It doesn’t pay to go near them too often, though; the Allies are still blocked at Cassino; one never knows if the old woman he speaks to is a Fascist sympathiser …”

Another entry read: “Guilio hardly moves anywhere without me. Ours is a strange friendship; he can’t speak English and I ‘non parlo Italiano bene’ yet.

He’s a sly dog, too. He takes me on his wine-buying trips. I have to drive the horses home. He samples the various vats, and, as it is on the wine merchant, he samples more than in moderation. Guilio has rather a reputation as a winebibber, and, does he live up to it! He also has a habit of introducing me to his friends as ‘amico mio, il australiano’. I wish he wouldn’t. I’m frightened that one of these days the bloke he introduces me to will say, ‘So! An escaped ‘prigionier de guerra, hugh?’ And that will be that.”

Evening was the time Rowe liked most. The meal eaten, the men moved out to the ‘stalla’ and sat in a fenced-off portion. It was smelly in the stalls, but who cared about odour so long as it was warm. The men drew out pipes, and a hard-come-by cigarette for the prisoners. Sometimes, everybody just yarned, sometimes Guilio produced a packet of cards. Later, with their chores finished, the women came and joined the men, to spare the firewood for the kitchen cooking. The women knitted or weaved: they made practically all the clothing their men and they themselves wore.

Coming from Australia, whose economy is based on the wool industry, Rowe was interested in the women’s craft. He learned that the wool was hand-spun into yarn by the women. Two, three or four strands were twisted together to make the ply required.

Susanna was an expert, but her bent was to use the fluffy fur from Angorra rabbits. Rowe made a practice of holding the rabbits while she clipped them, and developed a secret pride at the adept way in which she wielded the blades without wounding the animals. Occasionally, he went with her to farms where she would buy sheep’s wool. Once she fashioned this wool into a pair of socks and gloves which she shyly gave him for his own; he was to keep them through future adversity; the socks wore out and were discarded in Switzerland months afterwards, but the gloves travelled home with him to Australia, – without those socks and gloves he would assuredly have lost toes or fingers from frost-


[Digital Page 43]

Bowan was not happy. He worried, understandably, a great deal over his wife and family in New Zealand. It was well over a year since he had had word from them.

“What,” he asked Rowe over and over again, “will they be thinking? The missus’ll probably think I’ve had it.”

He never suggested it, but he would have liked Rowe to agree to make an effort to cross the Alps. But that would have been tantamount to suicide. They had broached the idea to Antonio and Antonio had spoken to many of the hills people. Their replies were not heartening. They told of finding escaped prisoners in the snow— frozen to death. There were accounts of prisoners being caught by German patrols and shot to death.

Maria, Antonio’s wife, helped ease Rowe’s winter nights by teaching him the rudiments of the Italian language. He learnt quickly, and well. Living with Italians helped him pick up the correct pronunciation.

Frank, on the other hand, showed no desire to learn. His sole outside interest was looking forward to their occasioned, visit to fellow-Kiwi, Mick, who still lived at the farm where they had left him en route to the old camp.

Several other Britishers were in the neighbourhood now, and “billeted” on farms. Among them was an Australian, Bert Keats, of Whyalla, South Australia.

[Digital Page 44]


From the direction of the Milan-Turin highway came the staccato sound of rifle and machine-gun fire. The highway was two kilometres (about a mile and a half) from the farm. Ominously, the firing came closer.

Their day’s work finished, Rowe and Bowan were waiting for the evening meal. They sat in their quarters at the rear of the stalls, gazing out of the window at the rain which had kept up a steady downpour for most of the day.

With dusk coming, the landscape presented a miserable appearance.

Neither was paying attention to the firing.

Suddenly, they heard the Faga men yelling and the women screaming.

They heard someone shout, “Giovanni! Francisco! Scapa, scapa!”
“What are they yelling for?” Bowan said, turning to Rowe.
“Dunno,” answered Rowe, a puzzled look on his face. “But they want us to get out of here, by the sound of it.”

Antonio came bustling into the stalls, greatly excited. He talked volubly in Italian waving his hands about frenziedly.

Rowe gestured to him to calm down, but Antonio was too overwrought to be calmed.

He knelt down by the Australians’ bunks, gathered up their boots and threw the footwear at them.

His wife, Maria, came. She carried two blankets and food in one arm and in the other the suits the two had worn when they came to the farm originally.

By this time, Rowe was cognisant of the cause of the Italians’ fear.

A Fascist patrol was working across the fields from the highway. He realized what that meant. If Bowan and himself were caught it would result not only in their deaths but in the slaying of the whole family as well.

He comprehended also, by Maria’s bringing the blankets, clothes and food that the family had been prepared for such an eventuality.

Hurriedly, they changed, donned their boots, took up the blankets and food. Using the window in the rear of the stalls as an exit, they clambered through and dropped to the ground. They started to walk in the opposite direction

[Digital Page 45]

to that whence the furore came.

Rowe stopped once to look over his shoulder. His spirits rose as he saw Susanna, her mother, Antonio and Guilio wave to them. He waved briefly back, turned and strode after Bowan.

Catching up with Bowan, he said, “Where do we go from here?” Bowan kept going, without replying.

Rowe remembered the friendly policeman, searched in his pocket for the paper on which the policeman had sketched the directions to his home.

On second thought, he decided against going there, tore the paper into small fragments and scattered them behind him.

They walked on, senses alert, eyes peering constantly all around.

After several hours steady drudging, Rowe’s feet hurt. He knew why.

At the farm he had worn clogs. Padded with straw they were warm on the feet.

He wished now he had stuck to wearing boots, as Frank had.

Reaching a copse, he called to Bowan to stop for a rest, and sank gratefully on to grass against the butt of a tree. The grass was wet, but he was past caring.

Rowe looked across at Bowan. The latter appeared happier. Rowe recalled the times Guilio had asked him to ask Frank to leave. Somehow, the Italians disliked the taciturn New Zealander. Rowe’s reply every time was that if Bowan went he must go, himself. Invariably, the matter dropped there, because the Fagas were genuinely fond of Rowe and would have been reluctant to see him go.

He imagined the Italians’ feeling for him was due to the remarkable similarity of appearance between him and Guilio’s elder son, Aldo. The young Italian and the Australian were very much the same build, the same facial structure aid features and the same light-brown hair. They had been mistaken by Italians, when they visited villages together, for brothers. If strangers tried to speak to Rowe, moreover, it was Aldo who spoke for him, in the local ‘patois’ Rowe had not yet grasped. He like Aldo, but then he had a great affection for all the Fagas.

The darkness was now definite. Rowe and Bowan felt at a loss. There seemed only one course they could take, so they resumed the walk. Soon, they came to a road. Because it was night, it was quite safe to walk along it;

[Digital Page 46]

besides, if they continued as they had been they would blunder into heaven knows what: ditches, rocks, trees – Bowan already had fallen over a rock and skinned his leg.

Shortly, they saw the white walls of a house loom out of the darkness.

They stopped and debated whether they should chance going in. It was still early, however, and they decided to push on.

Against their better judgment, they left the road and tried short cuts across cleared fields. By now a wind had come up, and since there were no wood-lots to break its force, it cut into them. Another problem was the frozen nature of the ground, which made them frequently stumble and fall.

Another ‘casa’ came into view.

“What do you think?” Bowan said.
“There’s a barn behind it,” said Rowe. “I’ve had it!”
“You kidding?” said Bowan, wryly.

Before dawn they could be away without the peasants knowing they had been there.

The loft of the barn was filled with hay. Wearily, they climbed in, dragged off their boots and flung themselves down. Within a moment or two, they slept the sleep of exhausted men.

[Digital Page 47]

With several other Britishers In the neighbourhood, Bowan and Rowe filled in some of their idle time by paying visits. While these were of a social nature, they proved also a means of educating them to the perils of their existence, as the following episode shows.

One afternoon, Frank expressed a desire to visit his co-patriot, Mick Armstrong. Rowe went along with him, but left to go on to see three fellows whom he had learned, Mick Moore and Mickey Miller, were living in a hut in a section of wild country not far from Val de Persica where Armstrong worked. These fellows had been with him In the working camp at Brianco.

They were Jack Crowe, an Australian; Len Grierson, a New Zealander, and John Frost, a South African, Their camp was at the confluence of two rivers. It was well-hidden, and they were confident they had a hide-out which would avail them for the rest of the war.

Rowe met them and they talked of past incidents in their lives and their hopes of the future. From them he heard of another hut a couple of miles farther west, where lived two more. One of these men was Eddie Bergin, a Victorian member of the 2/32 Infantry Battalion The four decided to go over and see how Eddie and his mate were faring.

Rowe did not like the second hut. For one thing, it was too close to a main road. As before, the meeting developed into retailing reminiscences. They talked around a huge fire. So engrossed did they become in their conversation they forgot about the fire. It blazed away merrily. Dusk came on.

Suddenly, there was a fusillade of shots. The party broke up in confusion. It was every man for himself. None of them was armed. The rifle shots were replaced by pistol shots, revealing the close proximity of the attackers.

“The two Micks and I got away all right,” said Rowe. “But it was a close go. For the others, it wasn’t so good. They were taken prisoner. It just shows you how the numbers of the escaped prisoners

[Digital Page 48]

were depleted around this time. The morning prior to this attack and the arrest of Eddie & Co., the Germans or Fascists – I don’t know who attacked us – had captured four chaps living in another hut a few miles away. From these captures, I figured it out that it was safer living with farmers, if you could arrange to do so. At the same time, it made me think seriously of heading for the hills to join up with the partisans.”

[Digital Page 49]


They slept longer than they had Intended. Light was filtering under the eaves of the barn when they awakened. But it was not that which had awakened them. The ladder creaked with the movement of somebody climbing.

They looked at each other. It was useless moving; whoever it was coming would undoubtedly hear them, and would probably go off to get assistance. The quiet was that intense they could hear each others heart pounding.

A face rose above the top of the ladder, looked up, saw the Britishers. It was a man, a farm labourer. His mouth gaped in surprise.

No doubt their appearance would have surprised anyone. Only their heads stuck out of the hay, while hay stuck out of their ears and hair. They looked like animated scarecrows.

Rowe spoke to the ‘contadino’, smiling. The ‘contadino’ smiled feebly back, then scuttled down the ladder.

In a few moments he had returned, bringing with him the whole of the peasant household. The Britishers peered over the brink of the manhole, and saw them grouped below and staring up. A babble of chatter broke out.

Rowe called out that Bowan and he were ‘australiani’. He saw the old peasant farmer’s face cloud with a frown. But it was all right. Though the Italians were not happy about the Britishers being there they contrived to give them food.

As they ate, Rowe asked the Italians where they were, and how they could get farther into the hills. The advice was readily forthcoming, so readily in fact it was not necessary to analyse the answers to see the Italians’ attitude was, “The sooner we’re rid of you, the better.”

Rowe and Bowan thanked the peasants, and left.

During the ‘conversazione’ with the Italians, Rowe had taken care to find out a little about the state of the war. It was depressing. Hie Germans had, by this, the middle of December, 1943, formed a strong line pivoting on Monte Cassino. Successive attacks by the Allies had been unavailing. The fighting

[Digital Page 50]

had reached the static phase.

The Fascists were recovering some of their lost strength. With German stiffening to their morale, they were once again getting recruits. Most of these misguided people were firmly indoctrinated with the Blackshirt venom.

The other side of the picture was hazy. During the debacle of August, the partisan movement had obtained a filip. Nevertheless, a lot of those who had rushed to the hills did so in an effort to evade participating in the civil warfare they expected to break out. The staunchest supporters of the underground were those veterans who had fought with the Allies against the Austrians in the 1914-18 conflict, but staunchness of friendship counted for less than a man armed with a rifle who was prepared to use it even at the risk of losing his own life.

The underground warfare narrowed down to a battle of wits between the respective Italian sides. In the main, the German was less to he feared than the Fascist. The Germans had more on their minds than to bother about the partisans with their hit and run tactics. By leaving them to the Fascists, the Germans were rid of the nuisance of having uncertain Italian allies alongside them in the line.

Describing the Blackshirts to an Australian friend, Rowe said, “It wasn’t so much that a Fascist would kill you if he caught you. He had an unpleasant habit of applying torture first.

“The Fascists had a lot of dirty tricks. I saw many a peasant burned out of his home for no reason at all, except that he was suspected of having supplied food to partisans – maybe another peasant in the village disliked him, and the ‘Fascisti’ made the ready weapon of revenge for some past grievance. Or the poor blighter’s cattle, fowls and other hard-come-by products and valuables would be confiscated.

“Can you wonder why we Britishers at large up there were cautious of our dealings with the Italians? You had to pick your man. If you picked wrong … Well, we remembered those hundreds of chaps who were knocked off earlier in the piece.”

Over the next few days Rowe and Bowan took risks, but they were in strange territory now; they had no friends to rely on, they had to make friends. One way

[Digital Page 51]

to seek out pro-Ally Italians was to call in at the local inn, or ‘osterio’.

Since Rowe could speak Italian passably well, they would get away with it – they hoped. In the ‘osterio’, one learned who were the people to be avoided; it was very noticeable how the talk and laughter subsided when an unwelcome character entered. Then, a friendly Italian would give them the hint whether it was safe to remain; if it were not, they departed as inconspicuously as they had come.

These “friends” of the ‘osterio’ were interesting personalities. Some were English men who managed to veil their identity while acting as liaison to the underground; they were the moat valuable contacts. These men lived with a Damocles sword over their heads. Often Rowe and Bowan beard of Fascist forces surrounding a village and hunting down the British liaison. If the hunted man had fair warning he had a fair chance to get away. If not he was shot down as he ran for the open country.

It was like hunting rabbits, thought Rowe, only no-one considered the point-of-view of the rabbit.

Generally, the slain man’s body lay where he fell; no friendly Italian could approach it, for fear of his own life being forfeit. Hardy souls would take possession of the body under the cover of night, or send word to the nearest partisan band to come and collect if for burial.

To the two Australians, Switzerland seemed further away than ever, and it was not just the winter conditions which made it so.

At least, friends directed them on to other friends, and thus they progressed from village to village, into the heart of partisan territory, getting a meal here, stealing there into a barn or deserted building to sleep.

A new complication was lice. They seemed to be forever killing the vermin, and as fast as they got rid of one louse, half a dozen started to bite. The two men used to find secluded places and sit for hours at a time in the sunshine picking lice out of their clothing.

[Digital Page 52]


The man at the bridge watched them for a long time, then motioned them past. They crossed the bridge, and entered the mountain village to which they had been directed.

“Good place for a stronghold,” remarked Rowe. “Only one road, heights all around. I can’t see the Fascists catching these jokers unawares.”

Bowen grunted.

A man came along the street and barred their way.

“Chiela”? He asked.

Rowe handed the Italian a slip of paper. The Italian read it and nodded.

“Follow me,” he said, in Italian.

He ushered them into a nearby house. The place was devoid of any furniture. A woman came in, and the man told her to bring ‘chianti’. The Australians took the wine, murmured “Grazia,” and drank. The man said, “Signora look after you”, and went away. They talked to the woman.

For awhile, the conversation was inconsequential, about the woman and her family. Her husband and twenty-year-old son were up in the mountains training recruits, she told them. Many patriots were coming forward to offer their services against the hated ‘Fascisti’.

What the Australians did not know then was that they were two of the earliest recruits, for though the woman earnestly believed recruits were streaming to the partisan standard the reverse was actually the case at that stage.

That night they slept in a bed. It was a big, old, iron-framed thing which creaked and groaned beneath their weight, but it was a bed. The night was cold, however, and, except for one blanket for the pair of them, there were no other coverings. Thrice during the night, Rowe had to rise and go downstairs to urinate. Each time, he counted the stairs: thirty-nine steps – they made him remember the book of that name by one of his favourite authors, John Buchan (lord Tweedsmuir).

[Digital Page 53]

Two days passed and they remained the woman’s guests. On the third morning a young Italian who laughed and talked incessantly came to act as their guide on the route to the partisan training camp. They climbed again.

There was something about this climb that was enjoyable, somehow. In the mountains above Biella the scenery was magnificent. The snow lay on the peaks glistening in the early morning sun. The white made a pleasant background to the dark-green on the conifers. Farther below were the villages, looking, from that height, no larger than groups of dolls’ houses. They enjoyed the view because they were seeing it for the last time, they thought.

Towards noon they entered a ravine. The road was an example of the Italian mastery of road-making. At several points it tunnelled through the mountain-side. They did not go through the tunnels but descended to the ravine and climbed around. The young Italian said this saved them many kilos, and since they were anxious to reach their journey’s end, they did not demur.

The end of the road and the end of the ravine brought them out by a hydro-electric power station, which, later, was to be attacked regularly by the partisans, for it supplied power to the towns under Fascist control.

Beyond the station was only a goat-track. It wound steeply up the mountain-side. Now their pace slackened considerably.

Lunch, they shared with a group of log-cutters. The fare was rough, but the Australians ate as though they had not eaten for ages. When they left the log-cutters were pleased to see their backs.

The goat-track led along the top of a precipice. Below spanned an awe-inspiring drop into another ravine.

On the other side was a hut above the snowline. Smoke curled idly from the chimney.

The young Italian said they would pass the hut. Six ‘inglese’ live there. By his expression, the young Italian evidently did not care of the hut-dwellers.

Rowe asked him why, and the young Italian merely shrugged.

Half-an-hour later they approached the hut. The smoking chimney was inviting, suggesting a chance of warming their hands and feet, cold despite the exertion of the morning’s climb. But there was no warmth in the greeting of the six Britishers inside.

[Digital Page 54]

Three were Englishmen, one a Kiwi and the other two Australians. Rowe was delighted to find one of the Australians was a member of his old battalion, named “Ticker” Nicholls. When Nicholls recognised Rowe the delight was reciprocal.

The sextette were chary about offering the newcomers anything to eat. Food was scarce, they said, and becoming more difficult to get. The partisans in the next valley were refusing to give them food unless they joined them, they added. It was not difficult to see the six were disgruntled and tired of their own company.

It was apparent to Rowe and Bowan that they were unwelcome. Nicholls was apologetic. Rowe waved aside the West Australian’s protestations and motioned Bowan to leave. So they left, glad to get out of a situation distinguished more for its discomfort than racial friendliness.

Describing the incident of that meeting, Rowe said, “In the limited time we had to talk to those six unhappy fellows, we realised a few things we had not allowed ourselves to believe before. Firstly, we could forget entirely any idea of getting to Switzerland at that juncture; the three Englishmen had set out but been forced to turn back. Secondly, either one must fall in with the partisans and become a fighting man again, or he didn’t eat.”

The going was harder after leaving the hut. Frequently, they strode along in snow up to knee-level.

Five miles farther on they came upon a camp of three Australians. The efforts of these men to survive was harrowing. Like the six in the hut, they stolidly refused to join the partisans. One of the three was also a former member of the 2/28 Infantry Battalion. He had been a lay preacher in civil life and in the battalion a stretcher-bearer; he had justification in disliking to handle a weapon and kill. It was he who did the lion’s share in finding food to keep the three alive.

Rowe tried to get them to understand the need of joining the partisans.

“Don’t you see,” he said, “it’s the only chance you’ve got of staying alive.

And supposing you don’t join the partisans, you still stand the risk of being captured unarmed by the Fascists. If that happens, it’s a wall and the village population watching the Blackshirts mow you down. You realise that, don’t you?”

[Digital Page 55]

It was no use, the three would not be swayed.

“Well,” said Rowe, “Frank and I may be silly, but at least we’ll know what’s going on all the time, whereas you chaps are in the dark.“

Rowe, Bowan and the young Italian continued on their way and shortly emerged on to a grassy slope. After stumbling along through the snow, the grass was wonderful to walk on.

A peculiar thing about the Alps was that it was nearly always green on the Italian side, where the sun shone, but the sides of the mountains facing towards Switzerland, being shaded most of the day, kept the snow; on the Italian side, too, the pines grew well, but on the Swiss aide they were warped and stunted.

At last, they reached the partisan encampment. The partisans’ welcome was sincere, especially when the young Italian explained the pair were an Australian, New Zealander avid to “have a go” at the Fascists. The partisans slapped the Britishers on the backs.

The camp consisted of an old farmstead and a number of outhouses converted into a rough semblance of barracks. To one of these Rowe and Bowan were directed. Inside they found their new comrades, who gave them a meal of rice and sliced potatoes cooked in the inevitable olive oil. As they ate, they studied the men around them. The first impression was not a good one. With an odd exception, the partisans were but kids, youngsters aged from sixteen to twenty-three. But what they lacked in years they made up in enthusiasm. Particularly were they proud of the weapons they bore, and a motley collection it was. Some had German Lueger pistols, some Italian Biretta automatics, rifles of various description and age, and machine-guns. There was a constant dissembling and cleaning of all the weapons.

Rowe, who had lain down on the hay, was reading a magazine one of the Australians had given him. Suddenly, there was a raucous burst of fire. One of the Italians cleaning a machine-gun had neglected to take the belt out. The bullets sprayed through the roof.

He had to grin, though admittedly his own nerves had shaken at the unexpectedness of the happening.

An Italian came into the shed and called for Rowe and Bowan. They got

[Digital Page 56]

up and went out. The Italian told them the leaders wanted to see them. They accompanied him to the camp headquarters.

The leaders were older than the others back in the shed. They were men who possessed knowledge of war. Nearly all had been officers and non-commissioned officers in the Italian army.

The two Britishers went through a form of interrogation. The Italians were satisfied. The two Britishers had been accepted into the ‘Garibaldi Divizione’.

[Digital Page 57]



Weeks passed without the partisans moving from camp. Rowe and Bowan could not understand why. This was incomprehensible. They had been led to believe that the guerilla warfare was constant. Yet there was a cogent reason.

Theirs was a new band, filling much the same position as a ‘cadre’ of reinforcements. Every now and then a small party would go off as replacements to a band which had been badly mauled in a clash with the Fascists. Meanwhile, the group at the camp grew in numbers, and, what was more important, stronger in weapons – it was a common thing for a Fascist soldier to have a change of heart, quit his Blackshirt regiment and cross over to the partisans; in so doing, he brought whatever weapons he could lay hands on and carry.

To augment their supplies of weapons, clothing and food, the partisans themselves went down from the mountains periodically and staged hold-ups of vehicles travelling on the main highways. Prisoners taken were stripped of everything which might be of material value to the guerilla effort. The youthful partisans entered into the spirit of this idea with zest.

Looking at the larger canvas of the underground movement, the partisans were better-organised than six months before. Everyone knew who the partisan leader was, a Communist who adopted the flamboyant ‘nom de queire’ ‘Il Moscatelli’(The Mosquito).

Within the partisan forces, Moscatelli’s name was reverenced. He was referred to in awe. Few had seen him but his work was all around. No doubt he had inculcated his genius for organisation during his political training.

He had also that characteristic inherent in a good leader of men, the ability to instil his enthusiasm and confidence of success in the struggle in his inferiors. Consequently, his lieutenants were capable men. On them rested the task of forming the new groups. Now the partisan units ranged in strength from platoons to as large as brigades and divisions. Moscatelli’s ‘aides de camp’ also brought in the very necessary element of discipline. To all extents and purposes the partisans had become an army.

[Digital Page 58]

Notwithstanding the improved organisation, the fighting quality of the force continued to be poor. It was still not designed at that stage to carry out anything other than harassing tactics against the enemy, and cull out Fascist sympathisers from among the civilian population. The main object was that the force should be kept intact while it developed.

The principal source of recruits was the age groups of youth due to be called up to serve in the Italian army. Many were taken into the Fascist forces not because they volunteered but because they were conscripted. If they had warning of impending inductment, more often than not they absconded to the mountains and the partisans. Sometimes, their action, well-merited though it was, resulted in their parents being gaoled and treated harshly. If this happened the lads would return to their villages, but their services were not lost to the partisan: for their eyes and ears served if their trigger fingers could not. Then, the treatment meted their parents increased the bitter enmity they felt towards the hated Fascist regime.

For nearly two years, from 1943, Italy lay in a political vacuum. The Italian government had capitulated. The Allies were held up and exercised control over only that portion of the Italian mainland which they had conquered. The Germans were more intent on fighting than setting up a military government. The partisans claimed to be the rightful government, but, were unable to constitute themselves as such.

The group of which Rowe and Bowan were members was now considered fit for combat duty. There were sixty men altogether. They had moved from the old camp to disperse throughout the lower foothills from which they sallied forth to attack and ransack enemy supply columns. Each sub-group was well-equipped, the equipment including machine-guns. Each individual member understood his position in the whole. Besides Rowe and Bowan, there were several other Australians. Two of these men were Mickey Miller,2/28 Infantry Battalion and Albert Moore of Bayswater, Western Australia a member of the 2/32 Infantry Battalion.

The first major assignment the group had was when twenty were detailed to go to a big factory in a town ten miles distant and load a four-ton truck with whatever foodstuffs they could lay hands on. It was a job the fortunate twenty relished. For the manufacturer was known to be selling his entire

[Digital Page 59]

production of butter, cheese, rice, maize and bread to the enemy, while Italian civilians in adjacent villages lived in a state of semi-starvation.

“Every member of our party was armed,” said Rowe, “and we had a machine-gun fixed on the canopy of the truck ready to spray any opposition we might run into. Miller and I were the only Aussies in the party, our senses were keyed up in expectation of trouble.

“We left our camp at dark, travelling without headlights. I was driving the truck. The moon came out, and we got along at a fair speed”.

“We had reached our objective. Four men quickly sprang from the truck as soon as I pulled up, climbed over the high iron gates of the factory and forced the women inside to unlock and swing them open. Luckily, there was only one man working in the place, we found him in the chilling-chambers; he was so frightened at seeing us, he made no resistance – it would have been suicide, anyhow, with half a dozen guns aligned on his breast. Within five minutes of our getting into the factory, we were loading the truck”.

“Other members of the party cut the telephone wires and took up position as guards to prevent our being caught napping”.

“When we pulled out the truck was literally bulging with food. It was an arduous job getting it back up the steep roads to the camp. The unloading was done by the fellows who had not been on the raid”.

The food taken in this raid replenished the group’s commissariat so that they had plenty to succour them over the next few months.

Another raid was planned. This was a bigger and more important project. Instructions from brigade headquarters reported that brigade funds were running low. There were five banks at Valle Mossa. Eight men must raid these banks and bring back all the money they could get hold of.

Because he had built up a reputation for coolness in action, Rowe was one of the men selected for this raid, and though the hazards were greater than on any previous raid he had been on he did not demur.

It was market day in the town when the raid occurred. The inhabitants were shopping. Nobody, therefore paid any attention when four men took station at the town’s entrances; not that there was anything suspicious about them, for what weapons they had were well-concealed. Two more walked down the street and lounged

[Digital Page 60]

opposite the first of the five banks. The last two men waited until there were no clients in the bank then entered. Less than ten minutes elapsed before they came out again carrying a bulky package.

“The bank officers offered no protest,” said Rowe, “They were too shrewd to argue with our guns. To make sure they didn’t foul our plan, we left one man to close the doors and stay inside to watch the bank officers”.

“I remember”, Rowe chuckled, “the bloke we left to guard that first bank. He was just a kid, sixteen years of age, with curly, golden hair – it’s funny but a lot of Northern Italians are really blonde. ‘Curly’ had a happy disposition which made it easy for him to make friends with everyone; he looked upon our work as a great joke”.

“But getting back to the job in hand. We did over the other banks in the same manner, without loss of life to either the bank employees or ourselves. Each time, we signalled one of the chaps to come in and stand guard”.

“The only one of us who did the talking was the ex-army loot in charge of us. Throughout, the manner was calm and purposeful. It was largely due to him that we collected about two million lira, worth about two hundred thousand Australian quid, I suppose”.

“As arranged beforehand, as soon as we’d looted the fifth bank we got out of town and made for our car. The loot fired a shot to let the boys we’d left behind know it was OK to join us. Then, the loot and one of the other boys drove off: we’d decided to get the money away before we had a mishap.

I waited for the others.

“Three of them lost no time in quitting the banks they’d guarded. But our young, curly-headed fellow didn’t turn up. It was eleven o’clock when the shot rang out. After nearly an hour we started to get worried. We wondered what the hell had happened to him. So we went back slowly towards the town.

“Back in the bank, if we’d known, Curly had ensconced himself in an armchair. He was thoroughly enjoying the discomfiture and fear of the men who watched his menacing pistol, so much in fact, that he didn’t hear the pistol shot. When the clock over the head of the bank teller showed noon, however, he began to suspect something was wrong. Rising from the armchair, he motioned all the bank officers to march, and with them preceding him he

[Digital Page 61]

made his exit through the rear of the bank. Suddenly, he heard hammering at the front door of the bank. Even to Curly it was obvious the robberies had been detected. Threatening the captive bank officers that he would return and kill every one of them, he took to his heels. The Fascist patrol saw him and chased after, but Curly by this time was scared to the marrow and fear put wings on his heels. We met him a mile from the town.

“Returned to the camp, we found ourselves heroes. There was no denying it had been a spectacular coup. Out come the vino. What was more satisfying, we had a pay parade.”

The partisan group’s confidence after these successes was abundant, especially among the younger members. Imbued with success, they demanded more tasks of a similar nature.

For Rowe it was a hectic week. Again he was chosen for a difficult raid. This time, with two Italians, he was to go to Cossato, a village beyond Gattinara railhead. The partisan leader had decided they could do with a ten-ton truck. There was a contractor who might “furnish” a truck like that desired. At the same time while they were about it, the trio could smash up the contractor’s haulage gear; he was known to be lending his huge diesels and semi-trailers to the Germans, as well as carrying out essential repair work for them. Obviously, this traitorous activity had to be terminated, and it would serve as a warning to others who displayed Fascist-Nazi sympathies.

Rowe’s companions for this venture were a former army sergeant-major known as “Lupo”, a heavy-set, cool-headed individual who wore a badge on his jacket made in the shape of a wolf’s head, hence his nickname, and a slim lad, Enrico, who hailed from the village to be raided; he was to act as guide.

Rowe’s part in the raid was to drive back the captured vehicle.

“As usual, we were all armed,” said Rowe. “Lupo had a Lueger. Enrico had an Italian automatic. Myself, I had a long-barrelled, single-shot pistol which I’m positive Dick Turpin must have owned. Anyhow, it was accurate; I’d tested it.

“Travelling at a fast bat, we passed through a number of villages towards the rail-head. We planned to board the diesel train at the Biella railhead for the remaining twelve miles or so of our journey, or else pinch a car. Personally, I didn’t think much of our chances of getting a car.

[Digital Page 62]

It was a common sight to see dozens of cars lying about, stripped of tyres, magneto’s, plugs – everything. This was the work of the Fascists. They were pretty hard up for vehicles; what they did have they had to keep moving by parts from others.

A few miles out of Biella, the three had to hide when the headlights of a car beamed up the road. As it neared they saw it was a very old machine. Nevertheless, Enrico fired at it and forced the driver to stop. The driver was like his car, old and decrepit, Rowe boxed Enrico’s ears, and told the old man to get back in his car and drive on.

Rowe was worried that the shot might have been heard in Biella, but there seemed to be no signs of consternation when they arrived there. The train had come in, they found, but they were disconcerted to learn that it had also left on its return journey. That meant falling back on the alternative; they must seize a car. But how? Outside the railway station there were two buses. One already was filled with workers returned from the industrial plants in Biella and Cossato. Except for the driver, the other was empty. It seemed an easy matter to get the latter. The driver would probably co-operate, but he would have to be “assisted” in making up his mind.

Lupo and Rowe went to the bus and talked to the driver. They stressed the fact that he should not pick up any civilians, as the truck was needed for military purposes. The driver readily enough agreed, on the assurance that they would make it appear as though they had coerced him into meeting their demands.

While Lupo stayed with the driver, to ensure he did not change his mind, Rowe

left to go and find Enrico, who had suddenly become conspicuously absent.

He found Enrico inside the bus filled with passengers. Brandishing his automatic, he was ordering everyone out. There were several elderly people in the bus, and a lot of women. By the look on their faces, they were obviously terrified of this lad threatening them.

Cursing under his breath, Rowe leapt into the bus, seized his fellow- Partisan, and, turning him around, kicked his posterior hard. Enrico went bouncing out on to the roadway. Rowe turned and tried to do his best to console the passengers. Ordering the driver to get moving, he leapt from the bus, picked up the chastened Enrico, and bustled him to the commandeered vehicle.

[Digital Page 63]

They passed the rail-car not far out of Biella.

Enrico continued to be a nuisance, firing at every vehicle they met.

Rowe considered putting the fellow to sleep; but the trouble was he would be needed when they eventually reached Cossato.

It was almost midnight when they reached the village. Leaving the bus outside, and instructing the driver to go for his life back to Gattinara, they walked the last few hundred yards. It was dark, pitch-dark. Every shadow seemed to stir and become a figure. Sometimes, they did walk into people.

And now Enrico proved useful. Without any difficulty, he conducted them to the garage they sought.

There was a light in the house at the side of the yards. They entered without bothering to knock. The occupants recognised Enrico instantly.

The three partisans herded the civilians outside, proceeded to take the usual precaution of cutting all telephone wires, then set out to accomplish their scheduled task.

Lupo found a truck, larger to the one required; its capacity appeared to be twenty-ton. Methodically, the Italian manoeuvred it until it was facing the gates.

“Right”, said Rowe. “Let’s fix those others.”

The fixing was easy. With their weapons, they deflated all the tyres. They tore out wires, used spanners to smash essential parts. In short, the trucks were rendered useless.

Outside the garage, Rowe located a car. It might be worth taking, he decided. He had tried to work the big diesel, unsuccessfully. Luckily, Lupo was acquainted with the make.

There was a need to act quickly. At any moment they expected civilian authorities, disturbed by the shooting, to rush to the scene. To make matters worse, the women standing around were sobbing and screaming at the top of their lungs.

“Shut up!” Rowe shouted at them.

Ordering Lupo and Enrico to get moving in the diesel, Rowe went to the car. He saw the diesel move off. The car would not start. Some of the Italian men came and assisted him. Still it refused to budge. He tried every ruse he could on the engine in vain.

[Digital Page 64]

Of course, he thought, I’m a damned fool for not having tried it in the first place.

But it was too late for regrets now. It seemed as though he were stranded. Then, as if by a miracle, he saw the big diesel returning.

“Good boys!” he cried, clambering into the cabin. “Now get out of here, for Pete’s sake. Scapa!”

The diesel swept out on to the highway.

Naturally, the plan provided a different route for the homeward journey. They travelled on a road which would take them via Graglia.

In this area were many factories which manufactured doth – oddly enough, from Australian and New Zealand wool. Though the war had curtailed supplies, the factories still produced, using other raw materials.

It was Lupo’s idea that they stop at one of these factories, and load the truck with cloth. The partisans included men of all trades, and some were tailors: admittedly, impressed. The partisans certainly needed cloth for uniforms. Lupo knew his way around on this road, he knew a factory where the manager might be co-operative.

Rowe was apprehensive. After all, he pointed out, they had been told to get a truck and destroy the others. They had done that. There was no mention of stealing cloth.

“It is all right, Giovanni,” said Lupo. “You see, there is no danger.”

“Lupo was a sound man at any job he handled, Rowe was reassured.

Shortly, they came to a factory. The plane was blacked out, but the hum of looms was audible. Backing the truck in to a ramp, they climbed out and went into the factory. The place was filled with women operatives. Lupo spoke to several. Smiling broadly, the women left their machines and went over to talk to Enrico and Rowe. Rowe found himself a celebrity, because he was ‘una australiano’. Lupo winked and went off to talk “business” with the factory manager.

He returned, giving the thumbs up sign. The truck was loaded with rolls of materials. The women helped with the loading. Soon, they were ready to go.

Once again, Enrico was up to his tricks, this time, he was making love to the girls. Rowe called him, and he came reluctantly. To a chorus of

[Digital Page 65]

“A rivederci” from the women, they drove off.

On the whole, it had been a most successful excursion, Rowe thought.

He felt an inward sense of satisfaction.

He looked across at Lupo, The Italian’s profile was illumined by the light from the dashboard. Lupo’s was a striking face, the type of face which inspired trust. Somehow, Rowe liked Lupo. He was a damned good man to have around.

[Digital Page 66]


It was the Sunday morning before Christmas 1943. The atmosphere in the camp w as lethargic; men were sleeping, reading, or busy at simple tasks of mending clothes.

Rowe and Miller contemplated going down to one of the villages in the foothills. Indeed, they were on their way to see the commanding officer, when the camp erupted in confusion.

Stopping a running Italian, Rowe asked what the excitement was about.

A large force of Germans and Italians was on the way to attack the camp, the Italian answered. How did they know? queried Rowe. A Fascist, in reality a partisan spy, had brought word, replied the Italian.

There was not much possibility of the band being taken unawares.

Besides the numerous spies they maintained in the towns on the flatlands, they had their own safety precautions. In the event of attack, each man had his orders. And placed at strategic points were machine-gun nests.

Rowe sped to take his post, as a member of a crew manning a gun on a peak overlooking the camp. From this peak they could fire down the valley upon the several roads by which the enemy must approach.

For awhile, nothing happened.

The mountain mist which had come down during the night became thicker, until it was impossible to see more than a few yards. Rowe wondered. The mist could help an attacking force, they could move with impunity.

Time dragged on. Perhaps the Germans and Italians were not planning an attack? Suddenly, from the valley sounded firing, it broke out at other points. The attack had come.

The enemy force numbered two hundred Germans and three hundred Italians.

The partisans’ total strength was about two hundred and fifty, divided into four equal groups. The groups farthest right overlooked Biella, where the combined German-Italian headquarters for the region was located.

The front extended five miles.

The attack was launched first upon the group on the right, then

[Digital Page 67]

systematically extended to the second and rolled on to the third group.

The third group was the one of which Rowe was a member.

By the system employed, the attack was clearly directed by the Germans.

The enveloping method followed the familiar technique exploited by the Germans in major campaigns. It was German infantry who spearheaded the attack, the Italians constituting a secondary force.

“Looking back on this incident,” said Rowe, “It appears that the attack must have begun about dawn upon the group farthest right. The first shooting I heard was just before our group was hit. The mist was inclined to muffle sound; normally any sound would echo from valley to valley.”

“First and second groups were routed, but with few losses. Most of the fellows headed for the safety of the mountain passes.

“The attack on our group came at approximately 11 am. With me was a Victorian lad and three Italians. In charge of the gun was Attilio, who taught me how to climb mountains: by keeping the hands clasped behind the back, one saved energy which would be expended by swinging the arms. From our position, we had a grandstand view of the whole show.

“The mist lightened a little, and we saw the Germans. It wasn’t an inspiring sight. They’d almost completely encircled us. The forward Breda gun-crew, in front of Group Headquarters had no hope. And I knew Lupo, and Mickey Miller were in that crew.

“We loosened a belt off from our gun, but whether it was effective or ammunition wasted we couldn’t tell. The mist had closed in again. It lifted again slightly, and we saw the Germans walking about our camp buildings, a couple of hundred yards below us. Someone called out to us, saying it was Lupo calling, and urging us to come down. We stayed put. This calling went on for three hours. We didn’t know exactly what to think, we didn’t know if we

should bolt for it, or if we could even get away. We’d seen some of our chaps run off, and some of them running too. It was all confusing.

“The interchange of shouts with the unseen person below had its amusing side, though, at the time perched up there on a snow-clad peak, it wasn’t at all funny.

[Digital Page 68]

“Once, Albert Moore wandered up. He couldn’t tell us much. He wandered off again.

“Silence fell, and nothing more happened. The silence became a strain.

At last, we reckoned the game was up. We decided to get out. Dismounting the gun and unassembling it to take a part each, we slid and stumbled down the reverse slope. We knew our ground; it was a ‘one-way track’, and God help anybody running into us.”

Though they got safely out of the trap, they were curious to know what had happened to the remainder of the group. Rowe suggested that they return as stealthily as they could and find out. “Planting” the machine gun, they set off. It was not necessary to go all the way, however. En route, they met three of their fellows.

The trio were in a bad condition. But it wasn’t their plight but their story which interested Rowe, Attilio, Keith, the Victorian, and the remainder of the machine gun crew. The group had been completely disorganised, said the trio. They advised the gun crew to get out while the going was good, as they were themselves.

From this trio Rowe heard of Lupo’s death, and of Frank Bowan and Miller being taken prisoners.

Lupo had taken his own life. When it was evident the crew were being overwhelmed, he had shot himself, preferring this way out to summary execution.

Rowe was puzzled about Bowan. The latter should not have been on the Breda. Over the last few weeks, Bowen had been suffering from blood disorders which caused his skin to break into innumerable sores. Rowe helped to give him injections to counter the trouble. The ulcers persisted, and Bowan found it increasingly difficult to walk.

Uneasy about Frank, Rowe decided to venture into the camp. He was pleased to find Attilio and the others agreed to accompany him. Besides, they might, get information of value to the cause.

One of the young Italians volunteered to scout. They watched him out of sight, saw him reappear lower down. He stopped, apparently nervous of what lay around the next bend. After a pause, he moved forward again.

His form disappeared.

[Digital Page 69]

A machine gun barked briefly.

They waited for the young Italian; he did not come,

“I think we should go,” said Attilio.

It was certain the Germans still occupied the camp, so there was no reason for remaining, they left, following Attilio in single file.

Their escape route lay along the other side of the valley. Had it not been for the mist, the Germans would have seen them.

They were almost out of the valley when a voice called out of the mist, in Italian. One of the young Italians called back.

The next thing they knew was an outburst of machine gun fire; with bullets zipping venomously all around them, Rowe and the partisans raced to the shelter of a bend.

“How none of us were hit beats me,” commented Rowe.

They pressed on. The rendezvous, always known in case of such an attack, was four hours march through the mountains. Deep snow entailed slow, steady plodding. By the time they reached the rendezvous – it was almost nightfall – they were cold, hungry and very dispirited.

There were a lot of escapees from the battle already at the rendezvous, a house in sunlit surroundings. The sunshine was a morale- lifter, inside the house was a huge fire, even more welcome. The greeting of the other partisans was like greeting men returned from the dead.

No more arrived at the rendezvous after Attilio’s machine-gunners

[Digital Page 70]


It was a week before information came in about the men who had been taken prisoners or were missing following the battle.

Rowe learned that Bowan, Miller and the three Italians who comprised the remainder of the forward machine-gun crew had been handed over to the Blackshirts by the Germans, and executed. Bowan was caught as he could not run because of the sores and ulcers afflicting him. The five men were marched by the Fascists to the nearest village to the fighting, placed against the cemetery wall and shot.

They heard the full details of the executions from an English-friend, who was an eye-witness. This friend said that Frank Bowan pleaded to be allowed to live, telling his captors of his wife and family. “He might as well have saved his breath”, said the Englishman. After the executions, the bodies of the five were buried outside the cemetery. In the Fascists’ eyes, being partisans they must be godless, and, therefore were not fit to be interred in consecrated ground.

The news of Bowan’s death, especially the manner of it, upset Rowe. The two had been inseparable since they became close friends in the hospital at Vercelli, in August.

“Frank was not a young man by any means,” said Rowe, recalling their friendship. “I never did know how old he was, but I reckon he’d be about forty-five. He was a very clean-living man. Unlike me he was always on about his wife and children back in New Zealand. He couldn’t help it; he was a husband and father, whereas I wasn’t married. For that reason, perhaps, he never liked being partisan; I think he had a dread of being caught.

“It’s not much good assuming what might have been. But I’m sure that if it hadn’t been for the sores he’d have got away and still been alive.

The poor food, and the fact he drank little wine, which helped provide some of the vitamins our body lacked, upset his blood and certainly caused the outbreak of sores he suffered. That and malnutrition.

[Digital Page 71]

“Of course, there were many others in bad health, due to the poor food and scarcity of food, so many, in fact, that a doctor was obtained who agreed to visit the camp periodically under the cover of darkness.

“It was from the doctor we got the hypodermic and injections for Frank. The sores must have been very bad; the doctor was concerned about them. I had to give Frank the injections twice daily. What the contents were I don’t know, but I doubt they were much good, because Italy was desperately short of medicinal ingredients.”

News arrived also of Albert Moore. He escaped capture during the battle by actually walking through the enemy. The mist helped him. His trouble came when he arrived at a hamlet. Unknown to the partisans, the Germans had anticipated the possibility of attempted escapes to the plains and accordingly stationed men at likely points. One of these men, posted at the hamlet, saw Moore come out of the mist. A blast of fire stopped him.

The Germans must have thought he’d been killed, for he was left to lie where he’d fallen.

He lay in the same spot for three days, unable to move, wounded in the thigh and in great pain. On the third day, he was found and picked up by an Italian civilian, who, realising that he needed urgent medical attention, handed him over to the German medical authorities.

The Italian’s action, unfriendly though it seemed, saved his life. He as cared for, restored to health, but sent to a prison camp in Germany.

At least he did not suffer the usual execution which followed capture.

The next time Rowe met Moore was after the war, on Bayswater railway station, Western Australia. Moore was taking tickets at the barrier, Rowe came off a train.

They were surprised to see one another, for each had thought the other was dead.

(Rowe reminded Moore) then of the time when he, Miller and another Australian had called at the Faga farm, Val del Oca, and demanded food by flourishing a fancy revolver they had picked up.

Susanna and her mother, their faces blanched, ran inside, and asked Rowe to go out and deal with the “gangsters”.

“You certainly looked like gangsters”, said Rowe to Moore, “with that

[Digital Page 72]

pistol and grenades hanging from your belt.”

Moore shrugged, “We were pretty desperate. We hadn’t eaten for days.”

“Maybe,” replied Rowe, “but it was a bad approach. Those days, when our blokes did a lot of that kind of thing, the ‘inglese’ were hated almost as much as the name Fascist”.

Rowe gave the gangsters a “fatherly talking to”, the revolver was put aside, and the hungry wayfarers invited inside and fed.

Another disquieting piece of news was that the five Britishers and Ticker ^Nicholls, whom Bowan and Rowe had met on their way to enlist with the partisans, were dead. They had been killed early on the same day as the engagement which routed the partisans. Their slaying was tantamount to brutal murder. The Fascists had shot them, everyone.

Rowe said, “As far as I could find out, they’d gone down to a village to get food. When they got warning about the five hundred Germans and Italians coming, it was too late. They tried to clear out of the village, so as not to implicate their friends, but they ran straight into a Fascist patrol. They never had a chance. The village was surrounded. Two of them went down at the first burst of fire. The others tried to find hiding places, but the villagers were too scared to help them. They attempted to steal out, using the cover of the mist, and make for the hills. One after another, they were blasted down.

“It wasn’t what they had expected. They’d told Frank and I that if they were caught unarmed they were sure they’d be treated as prisoners. They were caught unarmed, all right. “

[Digital Page 73]


Rowe was cautious in making friends with the young Italian partisans.

It was not that he feared for himself, but he was always concerned for the Fagas. There were too many instances of disloyalty, of Fascist spies in the partisan ranks, just as there were partisan spies in the Fascist ranks.

He could never have forgiven himself if he said anything out of place, and the Italian peasants who had been so kind to him had been arrested.

An entry from his diary dealt with this period. It read: “It was in these difficult days that the Roman Catholic priests lost a lot of their prestige among us. I say this without any religious bias. The fact that these men often acted as spies for both sides, made me dislike them.

At the same time, it must be admitted that partisans and Fascists both commonly used the ruse of dressing as priests to wander among the opposing forces. Notwithstanding whether a captive dressed in clerical robes were true priest or false, he was shot as expeditiously as any other spy; under the circumstances rightly so, as this was no time to be squeamish about the moral consequences, and who should say that a priest who stoops to espionage is entitled to his life if he is caught?”

Rowe recalled a typical instance to substantiate his diary entry.

A genuine priest, who, in the early stages of the cloak and dagger conflict, had betrayed a party of partisans, was put on the ‘Garibaldi Divisione’ blacklist. He was watched patiently against the time he could be seized. That time came, when, claiming a change of heart, he visited the camp of the partisans and offered to help them. Perhaps the deaths of the men for which he had been responsible weighed on his conscience. If they did, it was too late for repentance. As he entered the camp he was promptly arrested, pending trial by the brigade leaders.

Rowe said the trial was a farce. “His fate was sealed before he even entered the court-room. His judges sat at a table draped with a red flag bearing the device of the hammer and sickle. Declared guilty after a brief

[Digital Page 74]

hearing, he was handed a pick and shovel and escorted away.

“I can see him now, his grave dug by his own hands, standing at the brink, facing a firing squad of six men,” said Rowe. “They fired, and he fell back into the grave. Within a few moments, the earth had been piled in and smoothed over”.

“Yes, it was brutal. But the Italians contended that there was no place for fair play in this fight. To suggest it brought scorn down on one’s head. How could you be fair to your opponent, they claimed, when he’d do the same to you – and probably worse, torture you before the execution?

“The least such torture was to force the prisoner to drink a bottle of castor oil, and then lock him in a cell from which he wasn’t let out for a week. You can well imagine what a terrible experience that would be.”

Now it was 1944. The guerilla warfare was in it’s sixth month. The pattern was unchanged. Main purpose of the partisan forces was still to pin prick the enemy and carry out sabotage at every opportunity. This programme was fraught with more difficulties than earlier. The Germans, annoyed by the partisans’ efforts, had joined with the Fascists in trying to put a stop to the nuisance.

The Germans were redoubtable opponents. The partisans could meet whatever tactics the Fascists adopted by the same guile, since basically, they were of the same race and mentality. The Germans was more thorough, more scientific, more ruthless – the manner in which they had smashed three out of the four groups of the ‘Garibaldi Divisione’ just prior to Christmas was proof of that. On the other hand, the German fought cleanly; if a partisan was captured by the Germans, he stood an even chance of remaining alive, though he was certain of spending the remainder of the war behind barbed wire.

For the individual, there were also difficulties, particularly for the Britisher. Fleas and lice bothered him, the inability to have a periodical bath was an inconvenience, the latter did not worry the Italians, who seldom bothered about washing their bodies, anyway. The Italians’ lack of knowledge of essential hygiene was accentuated when the partisans were in camp, where what quarters were available had to be shared among many.

[Digital Page 75]

“But it was the lice, more than anything, that bothered us most,”said Rowe. “I’ve killed them until my hands were running with blood – my blood. The alternative was to cracking them with fingernails was to light a cigarette and run the lighted end along the seams of one’s clothes; you should have seen the little blighters move then. This lice-hunt was a pretty regular thing. Sometimes we got new clothes, but that didn’t occur often.

And new clothes didn’t stop the lice, anyway. They bred in the ground and the blankets, and there wasn’t much we could do about it to atop them.”

[Digital Page 76]


There was jubilation in the camp. The cause was a pay parade.

“You know with what enthusiasm we looked forward to a pay parade in our own army?” said Rowe. “Well, it was like that, only more so. It seemed like something from heaven to get a few lire. It meant we could go down to the villages and buy some of the things we depended on the civilian population for, a pair of socks, perhaps, maybe a pullover, a clean singlet, or cotton to mend an old one. It also meant we might be able to get a decent feed, we’d been hungrier of late, for in that debacle the Fascists had carted off all that food we’d stolen.

“It meant we could visit the ‘osterio’ for a drink, though we seldom had to dig into our pockets and buy the vino. The Italian civilians liked to buy for the brave ‘inglese’ fighting for the Italian Forces of Freedom. Naturally, we tried to protest but they’d be offended. Now we had money of our own, we could repay some of their generosity in kind.

“With those thoughts in my mind, I joined in the queue lined up before the paymaster’s ‘office.

“Our leader, the former army lieutenant came out and addressed the pay parade, and at the end of it the whole group sang the partisan song, “Bandiera Rosa”. As each man went in, he stood to attention before a table draped with the inevitable Communist flag, and saluted with clenched fist.

“Came my turn. I was the first Britisher to go in. I collected my money, and, out of respect for the lieutenant, saluted him in Australian fashion. I could see the lieutenant respected my attitude, too. But there was a political commissar sitting beside him. He was toying with a revolver. I saw him scowl when I did not give the Communist salute. Fortunately, the lieutenant said nothing. Had he done so, or had he refused to pay me, I’m certain that politico would not have hesitated to shoot me there and then. But I knew, as I walked out, that he had marked me out for the future.”

Food shortages led to a straining of the atmosphere in the camp. To

[Digital Page 77]

get food, it was necessary to make frequent trips to friendly villages through snow four and five feet deep. When the food-bearers arrived back, they were invariably disgruntled. The temper of the camp was so short that it would have taken little to provoke a riot.

Darcy Henderson, the New Zealander whom Bowan and Rowe had left on a farm months before, was now a member of the partisan group. He and Rowe had become firm mates. Like the Italians, they were unhappy with their lot.

There seemed but one way to overcome the unhappiness, and that was to return to the plains below.

“We discussed whether it was safe to down down,” said Rowe. “I wanted to see the Fagas again. Darcy had been happy with a peasant family, and had a hankering to call on them.”

“Darcy’s peasant was a vigneron named Pidna, whose outstanding feature was a melancholy moustache. This melancholiness did not apply to this character. For Darcy and his friends he was prepared to do anything. The attraction for Darcy was not so much Papa and Momma Pidnas’ generosity as their two pretty daughters, Nici and Elsa, and they were pretty.

“It was surprising, you know, how many pretty girls these peasants gave birth to, particularly if you saw the parents. Farming is a hard life, and it showed in the peasants; men and women of forty often seemed much older.

“Darcy could speak Italian quite well. He had not run much risk of capture in the early days. He left the Ciriola where we’d left him and gone to a place isolated in the foothills. There I’d met him one day while with Guilio. He said he’d met Nici and Elsa in the fields and they’d invited him to stay. Blackshirt patrols never came near this second farm. If a visitor called, he made sure of keeping well out of the way. One day, however a surprise visit by a patrol frightened him. It was this which, as in the case of Frank and I, decided him to head for the partisans’ country.”

Rowe and Henderson finally made up their minds to leave, they joined with a trio of Italians who were leaving to try and locate where brigade Head Quarters had moved to. Over the last few weeks since the battle there had been a strange silence in higher circles.

A spell of warm weather was a bane instead of a boon. It melted the

[Digital Page 78]

snows, and the bottoms of the valleys became raging torrents. Generally, the torrents were deep and the party had to walk along the banks until a ford was found; once or twice they had to wade across, in water waste-deep. And if it were not the torrents, it was the snow, still deep but now slush which seeped into the boots and chilled the feet.

“Darcy and I started to wonder if we’d been clever in leaving,” Rowe said, “It was cold, damned cold. And we couldn’t find any food. Nearly every hill cottage we came to was deserted, and the people in the others were to chary of helping us; the patrols had scared them.

“Late in the day, we came across a group of buildings, the centre one of which was two-storeyed. It looked empty, but it also looked as though it had been recently occupied. Of course, the doors and windows were all locked, but glass is no barrier to hungry men. We were soon inside and rustling around for food. A jar of pickles, cheese, some biscuits and a large tin of jam resulted from our search – a meal fit for old King Emmanuel himself!”

Though they fed well, they were unsatisfied. They had been foolish enough on the trip down from the mountains to eat snow. While it temporarily assuaged their hunger, it caused them severe stomach cramp.

Bypassing villages, in case a stray patrol of ‘Fascisti’ lurked in it’s environs, they continued on till nightfall, when they came to a village.

Since it was dark, they decided to risk asking for food, information and shelter at a house on the outskirts.

The occupants gave them food and information, but were terrified of meeting their request for shelter. Munching black bread and cheese, the party decided to march all night. They travelled steadily, but with difficulty.

They found it hard to lift their feet. They took in turn to break a path through the snow. Even on the plain the snow was a foot deep. Dawn came up and they were weary, and rested. Here, Rowe and Henderson decided to part company from the Italians, and resumed the trek alone.

“It wasn’t easy going on,” Rowe said. “Our groins hurt like billy-ho. Imagine a sharp knife pressing in and out, in and out, that’s how it felt.

“The vista before us was a wide expense of flat white, broken here and

[Digital Page 79]

there by stark, leafless trees, with snow-covered boughs looking like the outstretched arms of corpses asking for supplication. The landscape had an odd beauty about it. Occasionally, we spotted a robin redbreast, their red breasts making a sudden, gay flash of colour as they flitted across the snow.

“I could imagine how pleased the farmers hereabouts must be. From their viewpoint, it was quite a mild winter compared with some they experienced. Under the snow was wheat, sown before the weather broke.

“Down on the plain we did not feel the cold as much, though our saturated boots made us uncomfortable.

“Looking back, we took some incredible risks. We were out in the open and could clearly be seen for miles. We crossed main roads and ‘vias’, or, as the Germans called them “Autobahnen”, the wide highways which linked the principal cities and skirted villages. It was a wonder we didn’t run into a patrol.

“The landmarks became familiar. We crossed the railway line connecting the junction of Santhia with Biella. Soon we reached Cavaglia. We thought we ought to be able to get food there, because the people had been friendly to us before. This time our reception was not as cordial. Times had changed. Patrols visited Cavaglia regularly. We got food, however, because these simple hadn’t the heart to refuse aid.

“It was a great relief to sit down and rest, and eat. The rice was a change from the bread and snow. Wine is a wonderful stimulant, as it is made by Italians. To us, it tasted like nectar, though, actually, it was the sour chianti.

“During the halt, the disquieting thought struck us. What should we do if our old employers and friends turned against us – not turned against us, really, but too frightened to harbour us, as the people of Cavaglia were?

Looking at each other, we decided that, having come thus far, we could only press on and find out.

“We tried to get up to move on, but we couldn’t budge. The Italian family with whom we were eating tried to help us by lifting us up. It was agony. Apparently, the long walking through the last twenty-four hours had affected our muscles. We could not leave the village. We had to stay

[Digital Page 80]

in Cavaglia a few days to recuperate. The Italians suffered qualms of mind; they probably prayed every night that a patrol would not pass while we remained.

“At last, we were able to continue.

“Crossing the main road for the last time, near Cigliano, we heard the roar of an approaching motor. Simultaneously, the rattle of machine-gun came from the same direction. We threw ourselves into a ditch and stayed there until the Blackshirt truck had passed. They probably hadn’t been shooting at anything. That was an old trick. It kept the civilians in a state of terror, and bolstered the spirit of the Fascists, for they were constantly in a state of funk themselves.

“On this occasion, Darcy Henderson of New Zealand, and Jack Rowe of Western Australia, also had the wind-up; and properly!

“After some painful acrobatics, we managed to regain our feet. Cripes, we felt sore! We walked towards the highway, hoping the Fascists wouldn’t come back. If we’d had to run, we would not have been able to.

“Beyond the road we came on to the canal zone used in irrigation for rice cultivation. The canals were deep and we had to look for the locks to get across. We lost time doing this, still within sight of the highway.

After much unnecessary walking, at last we were far enough away to feel reasonably safe. “Darcy and I separated. From this point we both had a similar distance to go to our farms. We shook hands, wished each other luck and promised to meet in the near future. I named a rendezvous. We didn’t say much, because we were too tired.

“There are no words to describe our feelings. Hundreds of doubts assailed our minds. We both feared we might never see each other again.

“Cheerio, mate” I said.

“Cheerio, Jack” said Darcy. He grinned. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“I laughed, ‘That gives me a lot of scope.”

“I’ve never been so glad to get to the end of a journey as I was then. The cows in the fields plodded about faster than I walked that last couple

[Digital Page 81]

kilometres. I had no feeling from the stomach down. I went down a long avenue of leafless trees, past a farm with smoke curling from it’s chimney, and up a winding track from which I finally saw Val del Oca, home of the Fagas. Swallowing hard to stem the queasiness in my stomach, I stumbled towards the house. I saw young Aldo, and whistled to attract his attention.

He took one look at me and ran back into the house. I wondered what that augured, and hoped it wasn’t what I thought. Then Antonio came and walked across to see who the bitterer was on his property. He recognised me, and his face donned a smile.

“All I could manage to say was “Buonserra. Antonio,”

“Gently, he took me by the arm and assisted me towards the house, crying out my name so that the others would know. The others came running out, and helped him guide me into the kitchen.

“They led me to the most comfortable chair by the fire. Momma Maria rushed away to prepare food, Guiseppi rushed to get my clogs and filled them with fresh hay – but I wasn’t able to wear them for some days.

“While I rested, they stood all around me. They were curious, I saw, but they knew I couldn’t answer their questions if they asked.

“Susanna knelt and pulled my sodden boots and shoes off. Just how wet I was is evidenced by the fact that steam was rising from my trousers through the heat of the fire.

“Momma Maria came back with herbal remedies, insisting I drink them. Guilio came with olive oil, and insisting I roll over and let him massage my legs and buttocks with it.

“These things were good for my body. For my mind I had the peace of knowing the Fagas wouldn’t send me away. That was much better than any herbal remedies or massage.

“That night I slept between spotlessly white sheets, in a bed in Antonio and his good wife’s room. They thought they ought to keep an eye on me that night, in case I fell seriously ill. I drifted off to sleep wondering whether Darcy Henderson has been as well-received as I had.”

[Digital Page 82]

For the next few days Rowe was the cynosure of the ‘famiglia’s every attention. They could not do enough for him. At tines it was embarrassing. He tried to get up. They pushed him back on the pillows. He got up and went out. They forcibly returned him to the bed. He was not to be allowed to get up until they thought he was sufficiently well to do so.

Meanwhile, Antonio’s father, a venerable and ageing septuagenarian, was ailing. Priests had been called to give the last Sacrament. With the family concerned over one of its own members, it was an indication of the place Rowe occupied in their affections that he was treated with no less attention.

The old man took a long time to die. With the peasant’s reluctance to let go of his possessions, he hung tenaciously to life. At night, someone had to always be with him. Though old, he was a huge man; it took two people to turn his great frame over.

Rowe helped. The old man was pleased. He and the Australian had developed a firm friendship.

Rowe was at the old man’s bedside when he died, and the last name he mentioned was “Giovanni”. The end was pathetic, for he had fallen into senility. Rowe was one of the few people he was still able to recognise.

The next few weeks passed easily. Brianco had not been troubled of late by patrols. But this was not to keep on indefinitely. For awhile, though, the horizon was untroubled.

During this stay at the Val del Oca. Rowe spent most of his time with Aldo. He kept as far away as he could from the house, and, if working around it, did so in the loft over the ‘stalla’. This was the time when the family’s main activity was chopping wood, for the snow prevented any other tasks, except the foddering of the stock for the men, and wool-spinning and knitting the making of clothes by the women.

The snow melted away, but it was still cold. Now it was time to prepare the market garden plot, hoe out undesirable weeds, prepare the ground for

[Digital Page 83]

fallowing. and rebuild breaks in the rice terrace banks.

Rowe helped Susanna and her mother with some of these chores and the days slipped pleasantly by.

Susanna, Maria and Rowe talked of many things. They asked him about Australia and his countrywomen’s way of life, Antonio and Guilio asked him about Australian farming methods, and were astonished when he told them of ten harvesters working one behind another and of the vast tracts of country given over to nothing but sheep flocks or beef cattle herds.

They asked him about his own family and his work.

In their turn, they told him about Italy, her traditions, history, customs, problems.

By and large, the Italians took from Rowe’s knowledge, and he from theirs, and they mutually benefited.

At night there was more ‘conversazione’, card games with the men, or joking with the women.

Rowe felt he would not mind life going on like this for ever, particularly when Susanna and he were alone together.

Then, once more danger threatened. It was a Sunday afternoon. Susanna and Rowe were in the cow-stalls. The girl was instructing the Australian in the rules of Italian syntax, when the door was flung open and Guilio rushed in, wild-eyed, shouting to Giovanni to get away: a Fascist patrol was coming.

Rowe glanced quickly through the window and saw six uniformed men approaching. It was too late; to escape by the door, the way was blocked.

Guilio, Susanna and Rowe went into earnest conference.

Looking around the stalls, Rowe saw the feed troughs. Pointing them out to Guilio, he leapt in. The Italian covered him with hay and straw. Rowe heard Susanna and Guilio leave, slamming the door behind them.

Lying in the troughs, Rowe could feel his heart thumping in trepidation. He visualised capture, and what would happen to the Fagas. It was warm under the straw and hay, but it was not that which made the sweat well on hie brow.

It was a quarter of an hour before Guilio returned. There was no need to worry, said the Italian. He could come out. The men in uniform were friends.

[Digital Page 84]

Rowe was sceptical. Guilo reassured him. They were merely ‘caribinieri’ in new uniform. The sound of an accordion filtered into the stalls, and singing. Rowe nodded and followed Guilio out.

Rowe was annoyed with himself, ashamed at having to hide in the trough. He felt that the others were laughing over his action; that he had lost prestige. But they were not, it was only his overwrought nerves playing on his imagination.

Their joviality resulted from a decision to hold a ‘festa’ in honour of the friends, whom they had not seen for many months.

“Once before, some of us had visited a neighbouring farmhouse for a ‘festa’ said Rowe. “On that occasion I enjoyed the singing and dancing very much.

It had gone on until the early hours of the morning – when they have a party, the Italians go into it wholeheartedly.

“On this occasion, however, I felt miserable. That lovely Italian film star, Valli, had she been there, couldn’t have made me join in the fun. Somehow, I couldn’t summon any enthusiasm. I felt strangely uncertain about my relations with the Fagas. Frankly, I was worried.

“Although they had greeted me like a long-lost son when I arrived back from the mountains, they hadn’t given any indication whether the welcome was permanent or temporary.

“Of course,’ it was an understood thing that I must keep out of sight – even Antonio’s two brothers, living down the valley, never knew the Val del Oca harboured an Australian. Those who did know were sure to keep their secret.

“One of those who knew was Renato, an elderly traveller for a woollen mill. He was brought into the secret because his son was a prisoner of war in New Zealand. He-told the Fagas his son had said he did not intend to return to Italy after the war; if he were permitted, he would remain in New Zealand which he had come to like. In his letters the son told how well, the Kiwis were treating him. Therefore, when he found out I was an Australian, Renato thought I was a fine fellow, indeed. He assumed that New Zealand was part of Australia, and I didn’t try to disillusion him. Renato was a real friend.

Every time he visited the farm he brought me clothing, and things which would be of value later on. One of these latter was a wrist-watch, but I lost it

[Digital Page 85]

later in a raid, to my regret.

“As I said, I don’t know why I should have felt despondent at the party.

Perhaps it was Susanna. She flirted with the guests. To be honest, I might have been a little bit jealous. I do believe she was doing it to tease me.

If she did, she succeeded. In fact, I thought, ‘Two can play at that game, my girl,’ and I flirted too. By the end of the night, we were both a little annoyed with one another. You see, we had got to like each other a lot.”

[Digital Page 86]


The calm was too good to last. Everything was normal but there was an ominous note in the air. The snow was all gone now, the sun shone more warmly, the wheat crops sent up a plentitude of green shoots, the trees were putting forth leaf. Yes, everything was as it should be. And yet …

In the Faga household there was a strained atmosphere. It was nothing tangible, but it was there. Rowe knew. The women never said anything, but sometimes he would look up from his plate and see them watching him. Often, he caught Maria with a worried look on her face.

There had been a lot of shooting recently from the direction of the ‘strada’. Once or twice there had been partisan foraging parties in the vicinity. It was inevitable that the Fascist patrols would shortly follow. The women were afraid.

Antonio called Rowe over to him one afternoon when they were working in the fields and asked him what he thought. Apart from shrugging his shoulders, Rowe made no comment. But that night he packed his haversack and told the family he was leaving. Their distress at his decision to leave was genuine, but they knew he must. They wished him good luck, and promised to ask the Holy Family to watch over him. Even so, they would not let him depart without making sure he was well-clad, and provided with new boots and a bag full of salami and bread.

He went first to the farm where Henderson worked, only to find Darcy had left some days before to rejoin the partisans. The people for whom he worked were not definite whether that was his plan; he had just said he might go back to the mountains, and then again he might not. Rowe was sure that Henderson would go to the mountains; possibly, he might catch up with him.

Rowe slept that night in a loft of a house on the outskirts of a village in the foothills. Next morning he was up at dawn and away without anyone knowing he had been there. The next village presented no trouble, for he had friends there. From them he got the latest news on partisan activities and their certain whereabouts, drank a few glasses of wine to be sociable, and went on.

[Digital Page 87]

His destination was a group which contained a number of Britishers, according to his Italian friends. Up the valley he travelled, to the first major ridge, and there, after asking for further information, along the slopes until he finally contacted the group he sought. It was not a large group, about fifty men. It belonged to the ‘Garibaldi Divisione.’

He did not receive any wild welcome. The time when a reinforcement would be greeted thus was past. The life was unremitting in it’s uncertainty of what lay ahead from day to day. But the Britishers were pleased to meet one of their kind.

This group, he discovered, was more efficient than the one he had previously been associated with. They were more active, they had more and better weapons, and they were comprised of older men. The commander was an ex-army captain.

He had surrounded himself with men who had seen action, men whom he felt he could count on in a struggle. There were youngsters as well, good lads on the whole, steadier than those in that other group. They did not appear keen, though, on some of the jobs allotted to them.

As one of the Britishers told Rowe. “If it’s action you want chum, you’ll get it here. The ‘capo’ is a tiger for sticking his neck out.”

Rowe was to find that out for himself. He had not been on the group’s strength long before he got his first assignment.

The partisan technique was improved. The main aim was still hit-and-run tactics, but they were better planned, and more effectively carried out. The partisans were invariably successful now.

One of the main tasks of all groups was to ‘cull out’ Fascist sympathisers from among the village and town communities in and around the foothills. Whether the sympathisers were aged, middle-aged or teen-aged, it made no difference; they were treated similarly, and severely. In this task, the spies and partisan sympathisers played their part by informing.

“That was my first job,” said Rowe. “I was to be the truck-driver on one of these Fascist hunts. ‘Il Capo’ and three others, all tried and trusted were the boys who would do the real work. All I had to do was drive the truck, which suited me because I didn’t like this business of shooting people in cold blood, whatever they might be. With me were two more partisans to act as guards on the prisoners we expected to take. The job was carried out on a pitch-black night.

[Digital Page 88]

The captain and his most trusted man, Arturo, went in a small Fiat.

I had to drive the other partisans down and when they picked up their quarry bring the guilty back to the camp where ‘justice’ could be done. It wasn’t a nice job.

“Fourteen times that night – I counted them – we collected the quarry. The victims were men, women, some old, some young, some beautiful. The truck was filled.

“We were just making our fifteenth call, the last for the night, when tragedy struck us, quick and awful. Maybe a spy in the group had given our plans away. Perhaps the captain’s men forgot to cut the phone wires at the last house visited.

“The last call was at a big double-storeyed mansion. The captain and his men got out, all except Arturo. Partly crippled from an injury received in the African campaign, he remained in the car. Suddenly flame belched from an upstairs window. The car burst into flames, and Arturo, trapped in it, died screaming in terror as the fire engulfed him.

“The other three ran back to try and beat out the flames, only to run into a volley of shots from German soldiers who had emerged from the front-door and bay windows. They fought back.

“The truck, with myself, the other two partisans guarding on the prisoners, was parked a few hundred yards back and we didn’t see what was happening, but we knew the captain and his men had run into a heap of trouble.

“An eye-witness who sent information to the camp about the affair, said they got eight of the Germans before they themselves were mown down.

“What courage those three showed, to blaze away against a platoon of Germans equipped with a flamethrower! It is of men like that I think when I hear Australians talk of Italians being yellow Dagoes, who’d run away if you looked at them. They didn’t run; they stood their ground and fought a hopeless fight. There were a lot more like them. These were men like those who, in the last century, flocked to the banner of Garibaldi, the great Italian patriot, who roused his fellow-countrymen from their lethargy and servile existence under a foreign yolk; thus the name of the partisan division in which I fought.

“I don’t say the Southern Italians are a good fighter. Generally the Italian people don’t like to fight; but the Northern Italians, the men of Lombardy,

[Digital Page 89]

Piedmont and Savoy, they were the equal of any Britisher or German, I can tell you.”

The partisans who turned back to the hills were a sorry band. Although they did not know what was happening they knew it was time they moved. What the prisoners thought, none of them enquired. But they were probably not happy, either. They knew there would be retribution. And they were right.

Before it was daylight, the news of the fate of the four partisans had been received. There was no need for a trial, under the circumstances The fourteen men and women captured during the night’s sally were set to dig a trench three-feet deep. A machine-gun despatched them. Those that did not fall into the grave were kicked in.

Said Rowe “It was & life for a life, with a vengeance.

“As usual, afterwards there was an issue of wine. We drank to our success, but the toast seemed hollow. You can’t lose four good men without feeling upset about it.”

The camp Head Quarters was situated near a small village at the head of a long valley up which led one road. On this road one afternoon, when he was taking a stroll, Rowe again met Primelo, – the Italian who had helped plan the escape from the hospital at Vercelli. Primelo and Reino, who led Bowan, Henderson and Rowe out of the town, were now partisan group leaders. Primelo was well-suited for the life of a guerilla, in pre-war days he had been a contraband runner, running anything which made a profitable risk from Italy to Switzerland and vice versa.

“Primelo and Reino were the exact reverse of each other in temperament. Which, in a way, was a good thing,” said Rowe.

“Primelo was married, had two beautiful young daughters, as hardy as himself, though I’m certain, not as unscrupulous. He was a dark, swarthy man, with short, curly hair and eyes that ate into you. If you crossed him, it was wise to watch out. Reino was a good-looking fellow, but there was nothing about him to distinguish him from the mob. He had an easygoing manner, and a pleasant temper. His was the job to bring about appeasement, whenever Primelo started a fight and half-killed someone, after a drinking bout; Primelo was a devil of a man for drink.

“A Kiwi lad named Mac – I forget his surname – was Primelo’s aide. In time, he became almost as unscrupulous as his skipper, and just as rotten in some of his dealings.

[Digital Page 90]

“Primelo was leader of a band which was roving the flatlands, he told me. Their work was to locate food supplies, get information of use to the partisan forces, and watch the roads for enemy patrols. It was hazardous work that needed a good man as leader, for there wasn’t much hope of escape if the band ran into bother. He asked me if I’d like to join him, but I said no, I was happy where I was.

“I wasn’t to know that fate was to lead me and some of the other Britishers to Primelo.

Following the capture of the civilians and the ill-fated fight with the Germans, the partisan group came in for attention from the Germans.

“It was another of those mountain battles, but this time we had not been forewarned. We weren’t worried about a surprise attack, for the machine-gun placements had been sited by former army expert gunners. These emplaced guns could traverse three miles of the valley, every bend of the road, and every bridge over the mountain streams. We thought the camp was virtually impregnable, unless the Germans used aircraft.

“The men manning the guns were purposeful, keen, in fact, to show their mettle. But there are times when discretion is the better part of valour, and it was discretion that was necessary this time. The Germans attacked us without warning, using tanks and armoured vehicles which quickly pinpointed the machine-crews with unerring accuracy. Once more, the partisans had to run away if they were to live and fight another day. But there were a lot who didn’t get away. Where our camp was not far up in the hills, and, consequently, there weren’t any ready-made escape routes to flee by, no shelter close at hand. And the Germans pressed on quickly. Many of the partisans were shot down. This time, the Germans weren’t going to take many prisoners. Apparently they were getting fed up with the harassing tactics of our side.

“When the firing broke out, Bert Keats and I were having a rest outside Head Quarters in the village. We were on our feet in an instant.

“Two women, an old man who was the father of one, and several Italians who were with us, started gathering up blankets and food to carry away. Following suit, Bert and I picked up a bundle of blankets, flung them over our shoulders and made for the rear. The village was left to its fate, men, women and children.

[Digital Page 91]

Whether the Germans punished them for the partisans using the village I don’t know.

“We moved as far up the valley as we could, then scrambled up the hills beyond. It was desolate country, still covered in parts with snowdrifts that the sun didn’t reach; snow often lay in some of the Italian valleys for eight and nine months of the year. It was cold, we had only the clothes we’d quit the village in, but the firing below us didn’t abate, so we kept on. Upwards we climbed, always up, and up. Some of the Italians who’d scampered off with us tired and decided to go no farther. Bert and I couldn’t see the sense in that, especially when we looked back and saw the tanks now in the village. And ahead of the tanks, coming up the track we’d taken were a score or more of German infantrymen. We saw them shoot and kill some of the Italians who’d decided to stay put and watch what happened. The shots echoed around us and stemmed our resolve to put as much distance between us and the village as possible.

“At dark, we thought we could safely halt. There were still some Italians with us. Others had climbed the slopes on the opposite side of the valley.

Shots still rang out below long after nightfall. Maybe they were designed to scare us. Maybe someone who had had the misfortune to be captured was being executed. The village was ablaze from end to end, and the flames lit up the surrounding countryside and made it weird with leaping shapes which kept us in a state of nervous tension.

“Then, Bert laughed. I turned and looked at him and said, “What’s so funny?” He said, ‘Hasn’t it struck you, Jack, that everything you and I own is down in that holocaust.’ I saw his point.

“We both laughed, we laughed until it hurt. We were laughing at ourselves. We were laughing because we’d just realised what a fools existence we were living in.”

[Digital Page 92]


Getting across to the other side of the valley was arduous, but they eventually reached it. They found a hut by the smoke from the chimney. The cabin was inhabited and the occupants readily offered them shelter. Moreover, they offered them coffee and a spoonful of jam.

That was the first food they had had since early morning.

Rowe and Keats decided not to remain. If they were moving, they would not fear capture. Shortly after dusk, after thanking the people who had succoured them, they and several other partisans set out in single file. The party numbered thirty. Again, it was a dreadful trudge through deep snow.

They travelled south, back towards the plains. Perhaps they ought to have ventured towards Switzerland, but that way was barred by great barriers of snow and ice; to make the attempt was to suicide.

At dawn, they halted for a brief spell. There was nothing to eat. The cold and the lack of food lowered their morale.

Despite their own plight, Rowe and Keats were more concerned over a girl who was in the party. She had escaped from Rassa following the burning of her parents’ home. A short, stout girl, she had helped in the partisans’ kitchen, where the atmosphere had been rendered unpleasant by the coarse language and offensive behaviour of some of the partisans. Ron and Keats remembered she had put up with this unpleasantness without demur. She was a nice chit of a thing.

During the current march, she said nothing, keeping herself to herself. Rowe and Keats tried to comfort her by trying to make her smile. It was hard, for she had lost the will to smile, but once they saw a fleeting wisp of a smile cross her features.

The snow was nearly five-feet deep. Only the last half-dozen of the file enjoyed the benefit of a path. They changed places every hundred metres, that all might have a shot at the easier going. The pace of the file was the pace of the man in front breaking the snow.

[Digital Page 93]

They were solaced by the knowledge that each step carried them farther and farther away from Rassa, and the Germans. Now they did not hear any shooting, which suggested that the Germans had returned to Biella. The Germans did not like the mountains, with its constant threat of ambush.

By the time the partisans reached the top of the ridge they were exhausted. So exhausted were they, they could not appreciate the sunshine which impinged on the ridge, nor the green verge of the path ahead. Below, a hut loomed in the valley, invitingly; no doubt they could get a hot drink of sorts there. A roaring stream coursed by the hut and on across the plains, here and there covered still with ice or snow. They reached the valley by sliding and stumbling down the slope, cursing at the falls, thrilling to the tingle in the blood caused by the exertion.

This hut was uninhabited. The front portion was open, but the rear was locked. Leaving it to the Italians to stoke a fire and boil water, Rowe and Keats and several Italians battered down the door leading to the rear portion. They hoped, they expected to find food. There was no food, just straw and maize husks and stalks littering the floor. Notwithstanding their disappointment at not finding food, the straw and litter looked kind enough to lie upon.

Rowe and Keats, anyway, unrolled their solitary blanket apiece and lay down, not forgetting to ask the others to call them when a drink was made ready.

They had lain down not five minutes when the peace of the valley was shattered by machine-gun fire. Their hearts thumping in fear, they cleared out of the building.

No time to roll blankets, no time to drink, no time to consider what to do!

They ran along the floor, of the valley, whence they came.

Rowe described this action: “The enemy were behind and to the left of us. Bullets sprayed all around. Those who had retained anything of their possessions diced them, so that their going was unimpeded.

“Rifles joined the clamour of the machine-guns. I saw one youngster hit and pile over. Soon, the track was spattered with blood.

“Of course, we had marched into a trap. It was our own fault. We had underestimated the Germans, who had anticipated our coming south. We were in a pretty sticky position. There seemed no route of escape. The bullets whined

[Digital Page 94]

around us. More men went down, and had to be left.

“There seemed no way out. The Germans had machine guns on the ridge.

“Unexpectedly, the firing stopped. We were near the head of the valley by this.

“Bert and I weren’t going too well, but we were spurred on by fear. The Italians pressed directly on. Perhaps there was another ambush ahead; Bert and I veered off the track, half-right.

“We picked a hard track; not only was there snow to plough through but also huge boulders to climb around. We were continually falling and bruising ourselves. We came to the stream, and hurried along the right bank.

“Bert said,”Let’s have a blow. I think we’re all right here.”

“OK.” I replied, ‘But to make sure, let’s get under that big overhanging rock.’

“The rock was handy. It was good shelter, and it afforded us a view of what was going on below. We saw the Germans hove into view and follow on the track we’d taken. We wondered if they’d hunt us out.

“Thrice we saw them stop by wounded men we had left behind, and shoot them dead. They weren’t bothering about taking prisoners then.

“And then,; Bert and I realised we had done a pretty smart thing in taking the course we did.

“As the others went up the ridge, taking what they thought was the only route out, they ran slap bang into the fire of concealed machine guns. It couldn’t have been anything but fear that kept them going, for everyone was weak from lack of food and warmth. The outcome was disastrous. The Germans had been cunning in placing their machine guns, obviously with Fascist advice on the terrain. As the fugitives appeared, they were mown down as though they were rabbits.

“Bedlam broke out once more. We stared at each other in silence, feeling sorry for those poor devils who had continued straight on. If we hadn’t veered off, we’d have been in a mess.

“If only they had stopped to consider, I thought. But how many men can think calmly when hundreds of lead slugs are whining about his head? Experience is, they say, a great teacher. Several times now I’d run the gauntlet of experience.

[Digital Page 95]

“The German patrol below us, meanwhile, covered by machine-guns advanced to within shouting distance of where Bert and I crouched. We saw them halt and gaze up at the ridge where the second spasm of shooting had sounded from. Apparently, they were satisfied with the results of their operation, for they turned back towards the hut recently vacated by us.

“Bert and I stopped under the overhanging rook about four hours until the daylight waned. When we emerged we fell out rather than crawled. Stiff? We were numbed by the cold! Icy-cold water had dripped off the rook, as well and on to us, freezing us. Added to that, our bruises ached.

“We were debating which direction we would go in, when someone called and startled us. Oh, no! Please God! But it was all right. It was two of our party, one Georgio, an ex-army sergeant, and an elderly man whose name I forget.

“Georgio was a cool headed individual, and made of good stuff. It was OK to team up with him. He knew this country.

’’We fell in with the two Italians and let Georgio take charge. An hour’s march brought us to another hut. It was locked, but we speedily broke the lock and got in. Soon we had a fire going, and were drying our saturated clothing. Georgio carried some vegetable cubes. He found a tin, filled it with water, and, adding the cubes, made a hot drink. It wasn’t much but we couldn’t think where we could get anything else. We slept. Tired as we were, however, it was surprising how one or another of us would rise. Obviously, we were still half-afraid.

Whoever rose refuelled the fire. At any rate, we had warmth.

“In the morning we set out to take the route followed by the unfortunates who had been ambushed the afternoon before. We were taking a chance, but we reasoned that the way should be clear. There wasn’t any other way out of the valley at this end, and the sides of the valley were steep and unscaleable higher up. Luckily, the weather had been calm during the night and the track broken by the others the day before enabled us to climb easily.

“Nearing the top of the ridge, we discovered some of the Germans and Fascists’ dirty work.

“We could not bury the bodies. There were too many, for one thing. For another, we had no tools. And the ground was hard.

“Georgio noted the names, so that he could make a report when we met up with any partisan group.

[Digital Page 96]

“Little trails of blood showed that not all had been killed immediately. Some had dropped and subsequently frozen to death in the night. One of the bodies belonged to the girl from Rassa.

“No shots greeted us as we reached the top. Georgio urged us to hurry.

He knew of a house where we could get food. The thought of food was all we needed to set a brisk pace. We would have run had he asked us to, I’m sure.

“We were on top of a slightly undulating plateau. In a little while, we caught sight of the house Georgio mentioned. The house was empty, it meant we had to break in again. It was unnecessary, because our search for food was fruitless. The house was as bare as Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, except there wasn’t a dog. If there had been a dog around we’d have probably eaten it. We were that damned hungry! There were a number of outbuildings around. We tried them, without success.

“There was nothing for it but to move on. On again we went, for what seemed like hours and hours and hours. Actually, it couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours before we came on the next house. This was a palatial type of place, the house of some wealthy person by the look of it. A lot of wealthy Italians who lived in the northern cities maintained mansions in the hills to which they retired in the summer to evade the heat. This could have been one of them. If it were, there was certain to be some food about.

“We found the food, the usual jam and pickles, flour which we made up into flapjacks over a big fire, and some bean coffee, a luxury in those times. The food and coffee swept away the pangs of hunger which had been gnawing at our insides for the past two days.

“Four chairs to be sacrificed to build the fire. Wood was scarce up in the hills. But we needed hot food. We did not worry about what we used for firewood.

“We camped in the house that night. Before we slept, we yarned. The question of escape to the villages didn’t enter into it. We talked of inconsequential things. The bridges ahead could be crossed when we came to them.

“It was late the next day before we resumed our journey. The flour that was

left was made into a bundle and carried by Georgio. He told us he did not know of any more houses. The next valley was unlikely to be patrolled, and there were houses there, he said.

[Digital Page 97]

“Georgio was wrong about the next valley not being patrolled. As we reached a point from which we could see down into the valley, we saw a road. A couple of armoured cars were racing along it, and soldiers in the cars were firing sporadically all around. The firing echoed up to the heights where we squatted.

“It was senseless going down in daylight, so we kept plugging along the ridge, in the cover of trees. We found a stream and drank of the icy-cold water. We got hungry and cold again.

“Bert vowed he’d never go into the mountains after getting out of this episode, I wondered what he’d do if it came to a pinch.

“As darkness fell, we worked our way down the slopes. We came to a hut and knocked and walked in without waiting for anyone to answer. The hut was owned by a shepherd, who was startled at our uninvited entrance. Georgio spoke to the shepherd and his face cleared. The shepherd and Georgio went into conference. In the meantime, we other three ate the bread and cheese the shepherd proffered.

“As we ate, Georgio told us what he and the shepherd had been talking about. “It is dangerous in these villages, he says”, said Georgio, stubbing a thumb at the shepherd. ‘I think it is better and quicker we travel on the road. We come to villages but we can walk up the little streets.’

“Georgio waited for our reaction. The Old One nodded. Bert and I looked at each other. I acquiesced for the two of us.

“Our boots were heavily-studded and rang on the cobblestones of the village streets. They rang loud enough to wake the dead in the cemeteries, I kept expecting any minute a batch of Germans or Italians would spring out of the darkness and shoot us down. But except for an occasional light in a house, the villages were deserted. Nevertheless it was an eerie journey.

“As the valley widened, so the risk increased. Here, Georgio deemed it wiser to leave the road and follow well-worn tracks at the valley-side. We were heading for a village the shepherd had told us was regarded as friendly. It was dawn when we arrived there, but in a trice we were gathered in and hidden from sight.

“The village was off the main beat and there was not much chance of a patrol visiting it. We hoped! Anyway, we had travelled by night and spoken to no-one bar the shepherd, so we felt safe.

[Digital Page 98]

“Georgio and the Old One were welcomed warmly. We were not the first of the partisans from the Rassa massacre to arrive, though. We learned that three or four others had come yesterday. They had not run into the ambush, as we had.

“Once again we noticed how news travelled fast of partisan activities.

“Georgio came and told us that the girl who had worked in the kitchen, and several of the men with us the day before, had surrendered at the head of the valley, only to be meted the same punishment that Bowan and Miller and the three Italians received in that first massacre.”

[Digital Page 99]


Rowe felt a longing for the Val del Oca. Instead of going on with Georgio and the other Italians, Bert and he took leave of them and continued alone.

Rowe wondered again what sort of welcome he would get from his ‘famiglia’. Life seemed to be one long sequence of threats and fears. He was not afraid for himself but for them, if they should he harmed on his account for harbouring him. Although they had never expressed any resentment at his returning, he had noticed the worry which his presence created.

Bert declared himself finished with the mountains.

“That’s the last time I go up into those damned things”, he said.

Rowe liked Bert, He was a youthful man with an OS sense of humour – God knows, a man needed a sense of humour most of the time; if one laughed at things, they appeared not so bad after all.

One of Bert’s little jokes was to dress in clothing which made him look old and decrepit; he reckoned that it was good disguise; no-one could consider him as being anything but a ‘contradino’. During the winter months he wore as many as three and four pairs of trousers; more than one pair was necessary, he said, to cover all his, parts and keep him warm. Similarly, he donned as many pullovers, jerseys and sweaters as he could lay hands on, or persuade his employer-cum-benefactor to give him.

“To see Bert undress, on rare occasions, was like watching a party guest unwrap a booby prize,” said Rowe, grinning at the recollection. “It was just as amusing to see him don all his wardrobe.

“He was a funny devil,’Bert. He was a regular ladies’ man. He loved to join in the dances, to chuck the girls under their chins and generally play up to them, and the girls liked it.

“He liked working in the house, but he hated the work in the fields. At Val de Persica, where Mick Armstrong used to stay, Bert would do anything for homely, handsome Rosetta. He would scrub the floors, wash the dishes, tidy the rooms, make the beds – he even insisted on doing Rosetta’s darning for her,

[Digital Page 100]

darning all the socks of the household. Penot, Guiseppi and Mick would laughs at this “feminine” industry of Bert’s. Bert’s reply was that it was the women who mainly looked after him, and he was repaying their kindness. Besides, they were overworked and needed help. As for the men, they could look after themselves.”

Right now, though, Bert and he needed a bath badly, and a change of clothing. They were lousy. Cold or not, they just had to do something about the ecto parasites. Rowe suggested making for a house in the foothills where Darcy Henderson and he had made friends with the vigneron who owned it, his wife and two daughters. This was the place Darcy had made for after the first Fascist attack, on the camp above Capo Mussa; he stayed there several weeks, but was gone when Rowe called on his way down from the mountains that time.

At the mention of the daughters, Bert’s eyes sparkled in anticipation. He made a little run ahead, as though anxious to get there. Rowe emphasised that the visit was for the purpose of cleanliness, not romance.

They trekked in broad daylight, but taking the precaution of skirting villages. At nightfall, they tired, and sought food and wine. Another friendly vigneron supplied them what they needed, and agreed to allowing them sleep the night in his barn.

As he dropped off, Rowe thought how pleasant it was to feel and smell the warmth of the cattle in the nearby stalls. The cattle cudded and stamped and rattled their chains, but the noise did not prevent him sleeping.

His last thought before consciousness left him was to thank God that here was another of the thousands of families who were prepared to risk their lives to preserve the old Italian hospitality to wayfarers.

The vigneron himself awakened them, and made them accompany him to the house where they found a meal of bread and milk prepared. Nor was that all.

When they made their farewell the vigneron pressed food and a bottle of vino upon them for rations.

Their next call, late that afternoon, was not so fruitful. This peasant and his wife were old people. Their farm was old, too, and sadly needing repair. Evidently they had no children to assist them. They were alone. And they were plainly frightened over the arrival of these strangers.

Rowe smiled and said, “Bongiorno, amici,” passed a few other remarks about

[Digital Page 101]

the weather and the state of the crops, then asked whether the old couple had heard of any ‘fascisti’ being; in the neighbourhood. The old couple answered churlishly and even suggested the two might be Fascists themselves; well, Rowe spoke fluent Italian, whereas they spoke the crude Piedmontese dialect. Rowe insisted that Bert and he were ‘australiani’. The old couple shook their heads, unconvinced. Obviously, it was useless trying to argue with them. They refused both information and food.

Rowe was not annoyed. On the contrary, he respected the old couple’s attitude. It showed that they desired no contact with either side in the internecine conflict. They were just an ignorant old couple, but that was their safeguard.

“On ignorance and literacy” Rowe commented, “an interesting feature of Italian primary school standards is that three subjects only are taught: language history and geography. I can’t be certain, though, for I’ve nothing more authentic than the word of Italians themselves.

“History seems to have been the most important of the subjects. It dealt largely with the ‘great’ Italian empire built up by Benito Mussolini through arms. Garibaldi, Cavour and Victor Emmanuel, the Italian patriots of the last century, did come into the teaching, and were depicted as villains rather than heroes. Mussolini, as you might expect, was the fountainhead from which all Italian progress, past, present and future stemmed.

“No countries other than those immediately neighbours to Italy were ever mentioned in the history, according to my informants.

“Geography and history were linked. Once again, we find ‘Il Duce’ figuring largely, the biggest feature of the teaching apparently being the truly amazing – and I think it that myself – irrigation scheme he introduced. We must give the wretch credit for some beneficial works he introduced to Italy during his regime.

“So far as language was concerned, the results were piteous, in my opinion. Young Aldo, and his brother, and many of the young partisans I met, admitted they understood very little of the teaching unless the teacher spoke the local dialect. Consider for example, if Victorians, Queens-landers and West Australians spoke each a dialect, and a bloke came along from Canberra to teach pure Australian.

I don’t doubt it could be done, but it seems that the right approach wasn’t

[Digital Page 102]

adopted in teaching In Italy, At the same time, where you have dialects you’re go against a problem which should be solved first.

“ls it any wonder, that any ragbag politician could foist his philosophy on a people with such a poor learning, and what’s worse, a poor outlook; for poor learning engenders illiteracy in all respects? Nor could they hope for enlightenment through the newspapers, because, in common with the theory of totalitarianism, the Italian papers gave only that side of the argument which put the Fascists in a good light; anyway, a lot of Italians I met were incapable of reading the papers. The same thing applied with the radio; often we Britishers would listen in to ‘Radio Londra’ broadcasts in Italian, and then have to more or less translate into dialect for the benefit of our fellow listeners. Radios, however, were few and far between in the Italian peasant community.”

It was late when Bert and Rowe arrived at the home of the friendly vigneron. There was a light in a window, which indicated that the family had not gone to bed. Creeping up to the door, Rowe and Bert listened to the sound of voices within. Mingled with the talk was the laughter of girls – Rowe recognised the laughter of Nici, the more attractive of the two daughters. There was another voice, a man’s, and by the way he spoke he was not Italian. It could be Darcy Henderson.

Rowe nodded to Bert. They knocked, and following partisan custom, entered without waiting for anyone to answer. The entrance caused an instant silence.

On the faces of the vigneron, his wife and the girls there was surprise. They seemed unsure…. The two Australians were dirty and disreputable. Rowe spoke. The doubt on the Italian family’s faces cleared. Momma was immediately full of consideration for their comfort and welfare.

The vino was produced, and the two Australians accepted gratefully the glasses handed them by Nici. She was beaming with pleasure at seeing Rowe again. Rowe gave her a smile, but his attention was elsewhere.

The non-Italian voice he and Bert had heard was not Darcy’s. It was that of an Englishman, one of two Englishmen in the room. One was red-haired and the other fair. Both were huge-framed, burly chaps.

The red-haired man introduced himself as Joe Fenton. His eyes gleamed mischievously. He looked to be a man who enjoyed life and was self-confident.

[Digital Page 103]

An odd note about him was that he was well-dressed. The suit he wore could have come straight of a Saville row tailor’s work-room.

His friend introduced himself as “Bomber”. Rowe asked what his other names were, but he shrugged for answer. But, he said he had been a sergeant-major in an artillery unit before being captured. He did not say much, but he must have been all right to be the mate of Fenton.

Papa produced another drink for the Australians.

“Go on, drink”, he urged, “It will warm you up, this Italian wine of ours with the sunshine in every grape.” He explained that it was a special grappa, he had made by distilling some of his fermented grapes. Actually, it was not a wine but a spirit. “It will keep out the chills”, said Papa.

“We didn’t doubt his word”, said Rowe. “It took a lot of swallowing to get it down; it was potent stuff. If you’d have seen me drinking, I’d probably have reminded you of ‘Red’ Skelton In that skit of his, where he has to drink ‘Guzzler’s Gin’. You remember, in the end, it’s coming out of his mouth, eyes and ears.

By the time I got the glass to my mouth the fumes from it were blearing my eyes. We gave the others something to laugh at. The girls were hilarious over our efforts to drink Papa’s ‘wine’. Momma and Papa found it funny. Joe and Bomber helped by slapping Bert and me between the shoulders.”

Later, Bert and Rowe had their personal wants seen to. They bathed. They shaved. Fenton found some clean clothing for them; he and Bomber had “been around a bit” and made many friends.

The Australians were keen to learn where the two Englishmen had “snaffled” the neat suits they wore, and what they were doing in this part of the country. The Englishmen, for their part, were quite as keen to learn what the Australians had been doing.

They exchanged accounts of themselves.

Joe and Bomber had met up with a band of partisans roaming the flatlands and visiting the farms for food supplies, etc. It transpired the leader of the band was the same Primelo who had invited Rowe to join him when they met a couple of weeks ago, on the road in the hills.

Joe went on to relate one of the band’s adventures. The band paid a call on a village noted for its aloofness towards the partisan cause. The villagers

[Digital Page 104]

were not opposed to the partisans, but scared, on account of the ‘commandatori’ – “the rich ones”, the landed and moneyed people – who were kept aware somehow of everything that went on in the village. The partisans had decided it was time something were done about that fear. At night they visited the home of one of the moneyed people with the object of helping themselves to some of the treasure in his vaults.

“We knocked on the door,” said Joe. “A window above opened, and a voice asked who were we and what we wanted.

“Come down and open up. We want a chat with you,’ said Primelo.

“Naturally, the door didn’t open. So we pulled the doorknob off. A panel was bashed in and the door opened from inside.

“A hunt upstairs and we found the householder, cringing in terror. He was on his own, the poor sod.

“While the rest of the boys looked after him, Bomber and me thought we d look after ourselves. The rich one was a big man. We were big. So we popped over and had a look-see at the wardrobe. That’s where these suits came from.

“Then, we went down and helped the boys carry away everything we could find. And we took the rich one himself.”

Joe said he did not know what became of the householder. Bomber and he decided to part company with the partisans and play lone hands.

[Digital Page 105]


It was five miles to Val del Oca from the vigneron’s house. Although he was eager to get there, Rowe thought it wiser to wait until dusk descended.

He invited Bert to accompany him. He felt sure that room would be found for the South Australian.

In his own words, “We left the miles and miles of vineyards which cloaked the foothills hereabouts and shortly came to the familiar wheat and rice fields of the flatlands. We saw many women working on the rice, weeding and hoeing and cleaning out the irrigation channels. Most of the women worked with their heads down, gabbling among themselves.

“This gabbling I found amusing, particularly when I learned to understand ‘Italiano’. Women must be the same the world over, I guess. If it wasn’t their husbands they talked about, it was the new baby, or the mother-in-law trouble – you know what I mean; you’ve got a wife.

“What I liked when I worked in the fields with the women was the beautiful harmony of their voices; they sang folk songs in unison. There might be a half-a-dozen groups of women working within a quarter, or even a half-mile of one another. One group would start to sing, another would join in and soon the lot were singing. Thus the song went around and around the fields, the lilting tunes carried on the breeze. Kindly, happy people, the Italians, their nature is disclosed in their folk songs. Honestly, I’ve sat down on the bank of a rice terrace for hours listening to the singing.

“As we strode by, some of the women waved and called out greetings. I knew a lot of them, and they recognised me. We stopped and talked awhile here and there.

“It was all very pleasant. Surely, I thought there could not be danger.

One would not have known there was a vicious civil war on. But there was, and we had to keep an eye open to the weather side.

“Before we reached the Faga family’s home, I decided to call in on my other friends, Michele and his sister Maria.

[Digital Page 106]

“Maria was a crippled girl. She loved to play the gramophone and have me dance with her. She was full-bosomed and very pretty. There were whisper about her, but I never took any notice. Some of our lads had worked at the farm when they were prisoners at Brianco. And our guards often visited the place. Men will talk, but it is generally imagination on their part. For myself, I found Maria good company, but a little clinging.

“Michele and Guilio were inseparable friends. Consequently, I spent many a Sunday at the farm when with Guilio. Susanna used to get a bit jealous and say I went only to see Maria. But it was the change of scenery I was interested in, not the other girl.

“Maria and her mother were home. They immediately asked us to come in, and showered us with questions about what we’d been doing, how we were and where were we going. Maria warned us that the patrols were calling regularly. We didn’t need the warning, because we’d heard one of those cursed road patrols letting fly a few rounds back a mile or two. The firing was into a wood through which the road passed. The Fascists were always frightened there might be a partisan machine-gun crew sweating on them in timbered cover.

“Maria said a patrol of ten men had called at the farm a couple of days before and asked whether any partisans or ‘inglese’ had been around. The patrol commandeered some of Michele’s hens and ducks, and took them away without even saying ‘Thank you’. The patrol was composed of swarthy Southerners.

“There was enmity between the Southern and Northern Italians. It was among the Southerners that Mussolini had most success with his Fascist doctrine. The Northerners hated them because their wheat and rice were taken without payment to feed the millions in Rome, Naples, Taranto and Sicily. There were more Southerners than Northerners, and so the latter couldn’t do much about it.”

At dusk, Bert and Rowe reached the Val del Oca. Before entering the farmyard, they surveyed the buildings carefully to make sure there was no trap awaiting them.

The Fagas were delighted to see Rowe, their Giovanni, again. Of course, he had to tell them everything he had done since his departure.

[Digital Page 107]

“During the meal”, said Rowe, “I had a feeling all was not well. Susanna’s mother was not at the table. Aldo wanted to know why. Nobody answered. I guessed she was keeping a lookout, just In case. Meal-time was a favourite time for patrols to call. If there weren’t any partisans to catch, at least the Fascists could get a feed. The food would be on the table then, and the peasants couldn’t very well say they had nothing to spare.”

[Digital Page 108]


Each time he had stayed with the Faga family since the hurried departure with Frank Bowan months before, Rowe had slept in the house. On this occasion, Bert and he were to sleep in the machine shed. The night was not too cold, and, if it should become colder, the family could provide extra blankets. The Fagas, Momma and Susanna were not happy about the idea. Rowe told them that it would be all right, that Bert and he were used to makeshift.

“If you saw some of the places we’ve slept in, you’d say a shad was pretty good,” he said with a grin.

They made beds by throwing straw on the floor of the shed, and to shield themselves from the wind a wall of straw bales on either side.

Papa and Momma Faga and Susanna remained until they assured them that they would be warm and comfortable.

They turned in fully-clothed.

Rowe had a premonition that something untoward was destined to happen. He did not know how he knew; when you are a soldier you seem to develop a faculty of prescience. Bert went off to sleep easy enough, but he stayed awake a long while, thinking. Unbeknown to Momma and Susanna, Antonio and he had carried on a conversation aside, and it was Antonio’s suggestion, or rather, query, whether Bert and he might not prefer to use the shed. Antonio would not have introduced the idea without a reason. Why had he not suggested the hay loft, or the ‘stalla’? Unless, he thought there was a risk of a patrol visiting the farm; he had advised they ought not to stay. If Bert and he were in the hayloft or stables they could be trapped by locking the door. If the worst came, and they were caught in the machine shed, at least they could swear they had wandered in during the night unbeknown to the Fagas. It would be a poor story, though, as far as a patrol would be concerned. In the past patrols had disbelieved similar stories, and slain innocent peasants who were genuinely unaware that they had harboured partisans for the night.

The uncertainty must have preyed on Rowe’s mind all night, for he was

[Digital Page 109]

awake early. He tried to wake Bert, but Bert was tired and went off to sleep again. Alone, he stacked away the baled straw and scattered that which had composed his mattress to make the scene appear normal.

Letting Bert sleep on, he proceeded to pack his gear, such that he had, went over to the house and had the usual breakfast of bread and milk, and gave Aldo and Guiseopi a hand to clean up the stables to let them get their breakfast.

“Susanna’s mother was baking bread”, he said, recalling that morning.

“She asked me to wait, so we could have some buns to take with us. The flour for the bread and buns was milled by the Fagas from their own wheat; it was a fine flour which made the bread white and tasty. We didn’t see much white bread. You can understand that I was keen to have some of it.

“Michele, from the farm next door, drove into the yard, and there was a lot of talking and shouting and laughing.

“Outside it was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining brightly, the birds were singing in the trees and vines, the green was coming back into everything … It was a really lovely morning.

“While the bread baked, Momma went out to pick vegetables from the garden for the midday meal. Susanna was preparing to leave with Antonio for a day’s till in the fields.

“Picture this peaceful setting.

“Suddenly, I heard Momma speaking. There was an urgency in her tone.

I wondered what the deuce could be the matter. She came running into the house, shouting ‘Scapa. Giovanni! Tedesci, tedesci! Madre mia! Her face was pale.

I stood hesitating, and she pushed me. ‘Poverina Giovanni! she kept saying.

She was crying. All she could think of was my getting away.

“I took her face in my hands and kissed her. ‘No Germans are going to catch me’, I said. Under my breath I added,’I hope’.

“The game was on again with a vengeance. Fortunately, I’d developed the habit of thinking fast since I’d become a partisan. I slid through the back door and headed for the shed to wake Bert. But he was awake. Not only awake, he was already scooting away for the rice fields behind the shed.

“Susanna and Momma were behind me. Together, we scattered the straw where Bert had slept. Susanna picked up the blankets and raced off to the house with them. Wringing her hands in her anxiety, Momma urged me to leave quickly.

[Digital Page 110]

“I dropped out of a window at the rear of the shed and made after Bert. The silly cow had to cut for the open. There was a covered way of escape along a creek bed with thick overgrowth. But he wasn’t to knew that.

“Seconds had elapsed since Bert had left to my catching up with him. We were still within shelter. If you can imagine the patrol approaching from one angle, and us heading along the other, with the shed between us, you can get the picture. Eventually, we must leave the shelter and the patrol would see us. We didn’t know how many men there were.

“I told Bert to stop running and walk naturally. They’d think then we were a couple of labourers going out to the fields. Now we were in the open, in view of the patrol. I wanted to, but I didn’t dare glance around.

“This was the closest shave I’d had. But I wasn’t clear yet by any means. I uttered a prayer. Surely God would stand by us.

“We were nearly at the entrance to the fields, when a voice shouted, ‘Alt! Alto il mani. The voice sounded quite close.

“We stopped dead, turned quickly, and saw two soldiers, steel-helmeted and armed, about seventy-five yards distant. Of all the rotten luck ….! These two had evidently cut away from the rest of the patrol and come across the pastures beside the rice fields..

“One of the pair had a light machine-gun in his hands. The other’s rifle was still over his shoulder.

“There was no time to think.

“I off for my life, towards a dip in the fields. Once or twice Susanna and I had gone into that dip to collect blackberries or fungi for her mother. I remembered noting the virtues of the dip as an escape route during those expeditions.

“Bert shot off in another direction. He took the higher course, along the ridge. His idea was to get to the woods on the other side. It was no use pointing out to him he ran a dreadful risk.

“Anyhow, I was too busy thinking about my own skin.

“The machine-gun opened up. I heard the bullets zip-zip—zipping past my head. My thoughts ran back for a moment to El Alamein when three Jerry tanks opened up on my section. Funny, you know, how much lead can fly about a man without hitting him. Or perhaps I was travelling too fast for them to hit me.

I don’t know.

[Digital Page 111]

“At last, I was into the dip and among the blackberry bushes. I did a bit of quick thinking. Either they’d head after Bert, or they’d come after me. It was unlikely they’d split up and chase each of us. Fascists weren’t that brave. They didn’t know but we might be armed and fight back.

“The creek was a couple of yards from me. I jumped into it on all fours and crawled right under a blackberry thicket through which it coursed.

There I lay flat down in the ice-cold water, close to a bank.

“I could see the open ahead of me; well, some of it! There was a cart track leading down to the highway. The firing kept up another minute or two, then stopped. I waited. Nothing happened, so I started to crawl out.

“On second thought, I decided to stay put. I shoved backwards, climbed up on to a bank, and lay on the wet grass, still under the thicket. I wondered what had happened to Bert, had they caught him. Running feet sounded closely on my left. Then I heard some more on my right. The two men converged on the creek just ahead of the opening of my hiding-place. Boy, how lucky had I been not to crawl out! I recognised by the feet that they belonged to our two pursuers.

They were that close I could have put my arm out and touched them. Instead, I held my breath.

“I heard them cursing volubly.

“One of them said, “Tutti dui inglese, è tutti scapata.’ (They were both English and both escaped.)

“The other replied, ‘Never mind, our patrols are on the road, and they’ll be caught just the same. Come on, we’ll go back.’

“Slinging their weapons, they trudged back towards the house, muttering to themselves.

“The two soldiers were youngsters, by their voices. They didn’t seem to be worrying much about our getting away. Probably they were inducted lads, from a local village.

“Don’t think I felt friendly towards them. Far from it! I recollected it was lads like these who murdered Frank and Ticker Nicholls and Lupo. They’d have done the same to Bert and me.

“I thought of the Fagas. The two soldiers had sounded as though they knew beforehand we were British. Also, Val del Oca was their destination for some particular reason. What would happen to the Fagas, I wondered.

[Digital Page 112]

“I resolved to stay away from them in future. But that might be too late. “Then, I heard five shots, pistol shots, coming from the direction of the ‘casa’. That was ominous. There were eight in the family, five men and three women. DV [Domestic Violence]., the Fascists hadn’t shot them? I waited for more shots, another three. None came.

“No firing came from the direction of the road which Bert would have to cross to reach the wood. He must be safe, wherever be was.

It was midday, judging by the sun’s arc, before Rowe crawled out of the thicket. He looked a pretty sight. His clothes and his body and face were torn and bleeding from thorns. He washed his face, and the water in the stream turned red.

Strangely, he felt no pain, not that he would have noticed any; he was distracted, about the shots at the ‘casa’.

Bees came down and alighted on the bramble roses growing by the stream.

A butterfly brushed against his face, and sheered away. The birds gave out their song again.

No-one could have told that a moment before there had been death flying around this idyllic spot. How odd to think that life was fraught with murder and Nature herself ignored it as though of no account.

He lay down in the sun. Following the excitement, a reaction set in. He felt limp.

After awhile, hunger took over.

It was not food he thought of, however. He wanted to know how the ‘famiglia’ had fared. He knew he could not be content in his mind until he found out. And to find out meant running more risks.

He waited until late afternoon before he ventured near the farmhouse. Taking a course which provided plenty of cover in case the patrol was still hanging around, he made his way to the grape-vines from which he could observe the place and watch who came and went. His first glance was hopeful. Standing outside talking were Antonio and Maria, Guilio’s wife, her son and Franco, Susanna’s six-year-old brother. But where was Susanna?

Thank God, she came. She had a bicycle. She must have been hurrying, because she was puffing and panting. The others gathered around her, and they went into a huddle.

[Digital Page 113]

Whatever it was made them excited.

Edging his way further along the vines he came to the gap through which Bert and he had run. From here he could see young Aldo keeping watch on the cows. He could contact the youngster and find out what went on.

Under cover of tree foliage along the creek – the cover Bert end he should have taken in the morning – he made his way to within twenty yards of Aldo.

Aldo leaned against a sapling. He did not like to call out, so he stepped slowly up behind the lad, and touched him on the shoulder. Aldo jumped with fright.

“It’s all alright Aldo,” said Rowe, “it’s me, Giovanni.”

Aldo swore, understandably, horribly, for a youth his age,

“What did you do that for?” he said. “I nearly die when you touch me!”

“Well you didn’t,” said Rowe, but he was unable to refrain from laughing.

Aldo’s face was white and he was shaking. “Tell me. What happened?”

Aldo frowned. “They have taken Papa.”

Poor Guilio, thought Rowe. Hope to Heaven they don’t shoot him.

“But the shots?”

“Oh those”, said Aldo. “They shot three of the geese and two turkeys”. He spat. “They said they not get much food from the ‘commissario’.” He ran his fingers across his throat, “They should be fed, to the pigs”.

Three geese, two turkeys – that accounted for the shots. Rowe sighed. So far, so good. But Gulllo?

“Susanna”, continued Aldo, “is gone to Santhia to see Enrico” – Enrico, brother-in-law to Guilio and Antonio, was a big industrialist dealing in tractors – “Enrico is good friend to the “Commandanti Fascisti Regione.”

“She’s just come back,” said Rowe. “I saw her, through the vines up there. They talked on.

“Look you go back to the ‘casa’,” said Rowe, “Tell them I’m alive. ‘Buono’?”

Aldo nodded.

“Good boy”, said Rowe, “Come back and tell me the latest news. And tell Papa and Momma I’ll go away and come back sometime when it’s safe. Now go. I’ll wait here till you return.”

Aldo departed to do Rowe’s bidding. While he was gone, Rowe considered the information Aldo had told him.

His account was vivid.

[Digital Page 114]

The patrol was less than a couple of hundred yards away when Maria first noticed it. They saw her run to the house, and hurried themselves.

The patrol consisted of ten men, including the two Bert and he had run into, under a Lieutenant and a Sicilian sergeant. It was the sergeant, a real troubleshooter, seemingly, who suggested the fugitives were Britishers. He it was who Insisted on a search of the house, to see if there were any more prisoners hiding within.

Antonio staunchly denied the Sicilian’s accusations. He maintained that the two were Italians, who had been scared of the patrol, They had been afraid the patrol were partisans. Antonio convinced the patrol this might be so by producing a beret and badge of the “Juvenezaa” (Blackshirt Youth Movement) which belonged to Aldo.

Certificates of membership owned by Susanna and. little Franco also seemed substantial documentation of the Faga family’s ‘bona fides’.

Though the lieutenant was satisfied, the Sicilian remained suspicious, and he demanded that Guilio accompany the patrol to its headquarters for interrogation, which meant gaol for a time.

The officer was too scared of his sergeant to do anything but agree to this course of action.

“There’s a typical example of the distrust which marked the Italian people at that time,” commented Rowe. “I wager the majority of the men in the patrol were not inclined to strictly adhere to their duty. They were obviously conscripts. Yet they allowed the one among them who was Fascist to the backbone to decide what to do. The officer was probably afraid the swine might report him for being lax.

“For all we knew, those two who had chased Bert and I hadn’t tried to hit us. In fact, I was sure of it. We weren’t far ahead of them. It would have been practically impossible to miss. At the same time, knowing the capabilities of Italian marksmanship, it could have been bad. Those bullets had been awfully close for deliberate miss-shooting.

Aldo came back to Rowe. His news was dismal, Enrico had not been able to locate the Fascist commandant. But he had not given up hope and was looking for him. Interim, Guilio cooled his heels in a cell.

The family was startled to learn that Rowe was still on the farm, but glad he was alive.

[Digital Page 115]

Aldo told him to wait.

Soon Susanna arrived with a basket containing food. She sat down beside him while he ate.

Shoving what he did not want into his pockets, he said goodbye. He hoped he could catch up with Bert, he said.

“God go with you,” said Susanna, her eyes misting.

“Don’t worry” he said, patting her cheek.

It was to be many weeks later before he visited Val del Oca again.

Between times, he learned that Guilio had returned home as good as new the day after his arrest. Three other men from neighbouring farms who had been gaoled with him had not been so lucky. Suspected of helping partisans, they had been shot.

“It wasn’t what you knew but who you knew counted,” said Rowe. “For once, I was glad the Fagas knew a Fascist. Enrico had been good to me. He’d often brought me cigarettes and tobacco. I was glad he was smart enough to save his brother-in-law and my ‘amico’, from the shooting he would undoubtedly have faced otherwise.”

[Digital Page 116]


Under cover of darkness, he crossed the main Vercelli-Turin road and made for a farm whose owners had always been friendly towards escaped prisoners of war.

After talking over a ‘birra’, and learning that three ‘inglese’ were camped in timbered country nearby, he went to the hayloft and slept. Next morning, he ate heartily and set out light heartedly to find his compatriots, not forgetting, to take obscure paths which kept him away from the ‘strada’.

As he walked along he ruminated on the changing picture of the landscape. The wheat was now high and waving in the breeze. In the corner of a field women were harvesting grain by hand. He did not go near them, but continued his cautious way.

Following the margin of the field where the women worked, shortly he came to a creek and a crossing made by bullock-waggons. Beyond the creek he could see the wood. He jumped from stone to stone across the creek –  boots were too hard to get to wet needlessly — he went along the track uphill a short way. Here he stopped and called out, in English, “George”. The ‘paisan’ back at the farm had mentioned this was the name of one of the ‘inglese’. There was no answer. So he wandered further into the wood a fair distance. At last, he found an Italian woodcutter who pointed out the Britishers’ refuge to him.

Obviously George was too wily to answer his name. The woodcutter also was wary, and walked with the Australian to the others’ hideout. When the woodcutter called, George crawled out from under a perfectly-camouflaged, humpy-like arrangement. He was a stranger to Rowe. But, wonderful feeling, his companions were none other than Joe and Bomber, whom he had met not long before at the home of Nici and Elsa.

George and Rowe informally made acquaintance. Joe and Bomber came forward and slapped him on the back. The four chatted and joked and laughed and exchanged news.

Like Joe and Bomber, George Evans was a big Englishman. He hailed from Ringstead, Northamptonshire. A quiet, methodical fellow, he managed to exist through his native understanding of rural life.

“As I got to know George, I found out that he never stayed long in one place,” said Rowe. “He had a lot of friends among the Italians, but he never put

[Digital Page 117]

too much trust in them; he preferred his own kind.

“The three of them had been together in the same work camp, but was only chance which had brought, them together again after the debacle. They fitted in with one another very well, were what we’d call ‘the best of mates.’ They’d made friends with several of the local girls, and had two of than regularly bringing foodstuffs to the hideout. I met the girls. Maria and Elde were their names. They were slim and lovely. They seemed to like Joe Fenton the best, because of hie bucolic humour. Both revelled in his joking and petting. They liked Bomber too, but he was inclined to be a little guarded. As for George, well he was not the romantic kind at all; that is to say, not in this wise; he was married. I guess his thoughts were with his wife back in England. “

Elde it was who brought the news that one of our chaps had arrived at the canal house of the Bosio family. She called him Alberto. Rowe discovered this was Bert Keats she referred to. It seemed he was a “cot case”.

Rowe remembered Keats speaking of the Bosios. Papa Bosio was the attendant on the canal winding through the towm of Carissio.

“His wife had borne him four daughters who had now reached the interesting age of eighteen to twenty-seven, ” explained Rowe. “Gradi, the youngest, was a well-made girl with fair, wavy hair, her father’s pride and joy, She was also the joy of every man who came in contact with her, especially Bert, who sang her praises without stint. Elde and Maria were her sisters. The fourths was Luigina.

All three were dark-haired and vivacious. A common characteristic of all four was a passion for dancing. Hence Bert’s praise, perhaps, because he was a good dancer -even with three or four pairs of trousers, and whatever other items of his ‘wardrobe’ he might be wearing.”

“It was Joe”, continued Rowe, “who accompanied me over to the house, two miles away. It was the first time I’d met the family, though only Gradi and Elde were home with Momma.

“Maria had just left with Bert’s midday meal. He was being hidden not far from the house. Momma suggested we go up and see him, and to wait there ourselves till Gradi brought up some more foodstuffs. We agreed it was a good idea, to get away from the house.

“A rough track led us to a thick scrub patch where we found Maria and Bert.

[Digital Page 118]

Bert was wolfing down rice and chewing at a large lump of bread. Beside him was some more bread and a piece of cheese.

“He looked sick and white. As soon as he saw me he cried out, ‘Boy, am I glad to see you, Johnny!’ Some colour came back into his face. He brightened up considerably.

“Meanwhile, Gradi appeared with our share of the food. As we ate, Bert and I discussed our respective parts in the flight from the Val del Oca.

“It seemed Bert had run and run for miles; no wonder he was a cot case!”

For seven days Bert and Rowe remained with Joe, Bomber and, George, interspersed with visits to the Bosio household for a warm in the ‘sala soggiorno’ (lounge), a dance, a good meal of spaghetti, a little romancing… Always, however, in the back of Rowe’s mind was the fear of detection. The last narrow escape had made him doubly cautious. Besides, the Bosios, and the other friendly farmers they met, were inclined to be worried over the Britishers’ nearness. Once again, Rowe decided it was time he went up into the hills, to the partisans.

His mind made up, he decided to cut across and tell the Fagas of his intentions To make haste, he went down the macadamised road. A horse and trap passed him.

The driver called out something. Rowe did not hear. A little farther on he came to a house at the entrance to a village. There were several women standing in front of the house. They beckoned excitedly to him. Comprehending that they were warning him of something, he ran over into an alley where one of the women joined him and pointed down the main street. He looked and saw, not fifty yards away, a squad of Germans embarked on a house to house search.

Rowe’s temples throbbed. It was impossible to go back the way he had come.

A German had only to turn, and he was a gonner. “Presto, figlia mia!” said the woman beside him. She led him into her house and out of the back door. In a moment, he was hastening across country via a long shaded lane.

It was dark when he reached the Val del Oca.

The family were pleased to see him.

They told him that Primelo and his band had called and taken away a good supply of rice and maize. The band was camped about four miles distant. Primelo had mentioned Rowe’s name. The family were a little anxious on that account.

[Digital Page 119]

If Primelo knew they had harboured a Britisher, perhaps others knew. Rowe assured them that it must have been a chance idea of the partisans to visit them.

He stayed the night and left before daylight to find his way to Primelo’s camp. Striding out along a leafy drive, he was suddenly challenged.

“Io australiano” he answered.

Three young Italians, with pistols and rifles, came forward from behind a tree.

“Chi e lei?” they asked.

He explained that he was seeking Primelo.

“Cosa vuole?”

“I can do my own explaining to Primelo” he said.

“Voi siete?”

“Giovanni Rowe.”

Still they were unsatisfied. Rowe was worried. Had he run into a band of Fascists by mistake? The two lads were not wearing Fascist uniform, but that did not signify; they could be counter-partisans. They debated among themselves in an undertone.

At last, one said “Vada; avanti”.

He walked by and two of them followed, their rifles pointed at the small of his back. Thus escorted he was taken to a farmhouse a half-mile on. He was relieved to see that this was the band he was seeking.

There were a number of Britishers in the band, including Darcy Henderson. Some of the others introduced to him were an Australian named Doug Walker, a Kiwi called “Mac”, a couple of other Kiwis, and two South Africans. He was delighted to see Darcy.

Primelo was in a vile temper. He had been drinking. Beyond a grunt of recognition, he paid Rowe no attention. He was planning an engagement.

“That same night”, said Rowe, “I was assigned to duty. Twenty-five of us were to travel to a village eight kilos away to do over a shopkeeper with Fascist sympathies.

“In the dead of night, we held a council of campaign in the fields outside the village. Three were ordered to go forward and scout, two tor remain in the village square and one to return for the others of the party if the way was clear.

Twas fated to be one of the scouts.

[Digital Page 120]

“Our footsteps sounded like thunderclaps on the cobble-stones, and the walls of the houses emphasised the sound. Nearing the village square, figures loomed up in front of us. Pistol in hand, I called out, “Chi & la?”. The reply was a voice calling mine, and urging me to take my pistol from the vicinity of his belly. I couldn’t place the man.

“He said ‘Buonanotte, Giovanni. But surely you have forgot me? You don’t remember when you and your comrade Alberto work the rice reaping with Vicki and me?’

“The mention of Vicki helped me to remember. She was a tall, fair girl who used to invite me to visit her. Then I placed the man. He was Robbiano, with whom Bert Keats and I, as he said, had reaped the rice.

“We were lucky running into him. He offered to guide us to the shop we looking for. He did so, and disappeared.

“One of our trio went back and brought the remainder of the party, and when they came we smashed open the door. We were amazed to find the shop and the attached house uninhabited. Which was so much the better; no-one would interfere and get hurt. In short time, we filled our twenty-five sacks with every foodstuff we could find; sweets, biscuits, cheese, rice, salami, noodles, and so on. To [word unclear] not fully loaded with food, we handed clothing, a gramophone, records, an [word unclear], silver cups, and anything else that was portable. Then we proceeded to smash the scales, furnishings – the lot of the Fascist wasn’t always pleasant, if we had our way.

“Four of us had to carry large cane-covered flagons of. chianti. They were heavy. We thought it wise to lighten the burden. The job had been thirsty work. The vino revived us. It made us hungry, too. So we sampled some of the sacks. By the time we got back to our farmhouse camp, we were a pretty hilarious party.

“The following morning most of us slept late. We were strewn like rabbits all over the place, some sleeping on the floors of the rooms, some in the empty stables, some in the haylofts. Of course, we slept fully-dressed in case of alarm.

“Late in the morning Primelo called us all together for a distribution of clothing. There was a lot of wrangling and tempers frayed; one man wanted this,

[Digital Page 121]

another thought he’d been unfairly treated… After my escape from Val del Oca and my sojourn under the blackberry bushes in the creek, my clothes were very much the worse for wear. I needed a pair of trousers badly, and hoped I might get one of the pairs we’d picked up the night before. There was not sufficient clothes to go round, however. Several of us missed out, including Doug, Darcy and myself.

“Noticing my torn pants, one of the Italians remarked that the game was all wrong. It didn’t count who needed the things but who you were.

“I was a bit annoyed myself, and my reply was typically Australian, I said, ‘They can stick ’em for mine, I guess someone’ll come good when these fall off.’

“Unfortunately, Primelo was standing nearby and heard me. Though we were friends of the common cause, we didn’t care much for one another personally. He came over and started an argument. Things looked really nasty. Prudently, I said I didn’t want any clothes. He stormed and said I was trying to start trouble. Someone pulled him away and handed him a cup of wine. As though he hadn’t had plenty already that morning. I knew that he’d have his knife into me from then on. There was a nasty look in his eyes. He’d killed his companions before. I was conscious that it was only my nationality which stopped him drawing his weapon.

“I had an uneasy feeling that I wasn’t going to like being with this mob.”

[Digital Page 122]


A man whom Primelo had been seeking for a long time was reported to be in the locality. This man, a former partisan, had gone over to the Fascists.              He was the fellow who had returned and taken the horse and cart and sold the contents, after the escape from Vercelli in 1942. The ex-contraband runner was resolved on revenge, and here was his chance. The betrayer was a member of a Fascist motor-cycle patrol operating along the Santhia-Turin highway. Primelo went cunningly about preparing his trap.

“Nightly, several of us were posted above the road to note the times the patrol passed,” said Rowe. “W e had to be sure to get our man without warning the other Fascists. Thanks to the accurate information given us by an ‘inside’ man, we learned that our quarry and a passenger in the sidecar would pass the kidnapping point at eight thirty that night. The kidnappers went down, and stretched a light rope across the road high enough to unseat the rider. It worked to perfection.

Not a shot was fired. The outfit was ridden back by one of our fellows. The motives were bound and forced to march.

“By the time the party reached camp, Primelo, his Kiwi offsider, Mac, and the other henchmen were stupid with heavy drinking. Had they been sober, the brutal actions which followed might not have happened.

“About twenty of us squeezed into the ‘office’ to see what would happen.

The captives were given wine, and Primelo cordially invited the ex-sergeant major-cum-traitor to explain away his previous misdemeanour! Why had he deserted and joined the Blackshirts? What had he done personally to destroy the organisation the Fascists hated? Yes, Primelo was cordial all right, but there was venom in his smooth tone.

“It was a devilish affair, with Primelo and his lieutenants smashing into their victims. It was too much for the Britishers, who cleared out rather than watch the two being punched and kicked into insensibility.

“You may as well hear what happened. First, the victims’ tongues were tom out. Next, their ears were cut off. And so the insatiable blood revenge went on.

[Digital Page 123]

“Meanwhile, some of us dug their graves. Usually, the prisoners had to dig their own. We knew this pair would never be able to.

“Later, we buried them. They were brought out singly, wheeled in a barrow, two pitiable sacks of flesh. Yet they were still alive. Primelo asked for a volunteer to finish them off. No-one stepped forward. So Mac, his henchman, fired at them – fired at them five times from three-feet range, and missed! Primelo it was who finally despatched them, one shot apiece, and kicked the first earth over their mutilated bodies.

“The incident left me sickened in mind and body.”

The following day Rowe decided to visit to Val del Oca. He went and told Primelo he was leaving camp for the day. The partisan leader was in a foul temper. He told Rowe not to leave the camp.

Rowe said, “There was more to it than refusing to let me leave for a few hours. I knew then it was him or me. Whether he liked it or not, I was leaving. I rolled my blanket and threw it over my shoulder. Doug and Darcy suggested I wait for night, when we could all leave. They also had had as much as they could stomach of this butcher. I said I was going for a few hours, and I’d be back. Nothing happened as I left the camp, except for the sentry on duty passing a crude remark about why I was leaving.

“So I visited the Fagas, returned, was challenged by the sentry, and admitted to the camp. I was worried – I admit. I feared Primelo’s temper.

But the hills were close and I could easily contact the ‘Garibaldi Divisione’. Somehow I was certain the crisis between Primelo and me would come in the morning.

“Before dawn, however, we were all roused by shots close at hand. Bodies scuttled in all directions. We heard our sentries answer the fire.

“By instinct, it seemed, Doug and I teamed up, and we lit out for the scrub, following a low-lying creek bed which offered plenty of shelter. We couldn’t see anything, and we kept stumbling. We just kept going, hoping all the while that the camp hadn’t been surrounded, and we wouldn’t run into an ambush. There was a constant firing now from the attackers’ side, but it sounded no closer than in the beginning.

“Maybe the attackers were men who wore the Blackshirt, not because they liked to but because they’d been called up. This was a familiar pattern of attack

[Digital Page 124]

by our covert sympathisers inside the Blackshirt ranks. They fired when a fair distance of [word unclear] [word unclear] so as to give the partisans the alarm to get out. Never did they attempt to chase us.

“Doug, Darcy and I kept on along the creek-bed a fair way. After awhile we stopped to rest, two lying down and the third keeping watch.

“Dawn came up. Near at hand were some farmhouses. Coming towards our direction we saw several ‘contradini’ about to commence their day’s toil. They came within speaking distance and started to hoe. We kept our eyes on them but made no attempt to speak.

“Hunger brought us out of the creek at nightfall. We made for a maize crop and pulled a few cobs. Doug suggested we try one of the farmhouses for more food and shelter. We were still armed, and kept our weapons concealed. Nearing the farmhouse, we stopped. Someone was approaching. It was a youngster about fifteen years old. He was scared stiff on seeing us.

“It’s OK, bambino” I said. ‘We won’t hurt you. Tell us.  Any ‘Fascisti’ been here?

“No,” he said, quickly.

“That’s fine. Then we can get some ‘maggeri, si’?’

“‘Si’ he said, ‘I go tell ‘papa mio’.

The lad hurried inside and a man came out; he was genuinely agreeable to sharing his food with ‘Inglese’.

They went in and ate their fill. Afterwards, there was a gramophone recital and some signorinas arrived. Mysteriously, they had learned of the Britishers’ coming. It was a pleasant evening; always the girls learned when Britishers were around. So as not to spoil it, the trio demurred at the invitation to sleep on the farm, and, instead, left and chose a spot a goodly distance beyond.

[Digital Page 125]


With the Fascists and Germans intensifying, their campaign against the underground movement, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find peasants prepared to shelter partisans and Britishers.

Doug Walker left Rowe and Henderson to return to the hills; he disliked the plains, said they were not safe. The others returned to their old haunts near Branco, where they would be in reasonable distance of people whom they knew well and on whom they could rely for food.

Here, Bert Keats rejoined them, one night when they were attending a dance at an outlying ‘casa’.

Noticing a tension among the farmers, Rowe, Henderson and Keats decided to make for the hills. The trouble was the distance meant a long march. Then, it was hard to find places suitable for camps en-route. The way lay through open fields for the most part.

They set out along a canal track.

“I want to tell you about these canals,” said Rowe. “By them, the previously desolate Lombardy plains were irrigated and transformed into fertile areas. It was a remarkable engineering feat. There must have been hundreds of miles of these canals. They represented one of the benefits Mussolini had brought to his people, and for which he was entitled to some credit. It was solely through the existence of these canals that the Northern farmers were prosperous. That didn’t stop them, as I mentioned once before, hating ‘Il Duce’ for taking their provisions at low prices to supply their lethargic and amusement-loving Southern cousins. But to get back to the canals. They followed fairly straight courses, sometimes out of sight, and, at other times, crossed valleys as aqueducts. Locks were sited at strategic points to permit the flooding of country where and when required.

“We camped under one of these aqueducts. The water seeped through the concrete and formed stalactites. It was cold and damp at night. We hoped it didn’t rain, or we would be washed out. At least, we felt, secure from detection. The area

[Digital Page 126]

was bleak enough to deter visitors.”

The stationmaster at Brianco was not popular. Some people hinted that he could be a Fascist, or at least sympathetic to the Blackshirts. None of the many Britishers had met him, but they had to pay him a visit out of necessity.

The request was for first aid equipment. The farmers had nothing of this nature, for supplies of cotton wool, lint and ointments were unprocurable. The station-master had supplies, because the authorities regarded their railways as important to their cause, and accidents occurred which demanded having first aid supplies on hand.

The primary reason why this visit was planned was because Rowe’s arm was covered with boils. He tried to clear them up by squeezing, but as fast as one healed another erupted. As a consequence, his health generally was suffering.

But could they trust the station-master?

They were sitting over a slow fire debating the question when a voice broke the stillness, making them jump in alarm. It was George, and he was the scout for Joe and Bomber who were somewhere farther back along the canal system.

George said they had been hunted out of the woods near the Bosio’s canal house.

They had made a long circular trek to get this area where they, like the Australians, were well-known and assured of some assistance. A farmer not far away had directed them to the Australians’ camp.

“George had sort of walked out on his cobbers,” elaborated Rowe. “It seems they had come through Brianco. Joe and Bomber called in at a little shop where they used to get cigarettes. Here they lingered and drank wine until they were both under the weather. This, to George, was just damned stupidity. He [wasn’t] going to lose his head through them, so he walked off alone.

“Fortunately, he stayed on long enough to see Joe and Bomber call on the station-master to say ‘Bongiorno.’ With the vino in them, they were right for [word unclear] that pair. After pulling the stationmaster’s doorbell off, they had banged noisily on the panels. The stationmaster’s wife was a cripple. His daughter however, was pretty and very active. Evidently she fell for the likeable Joe. Joe and Bomber stayed late to enjoy more wine and better food than they normally got from the peasants. George thought, he’d best hang around and keep nit for them – there was no doubt about it, he was a good mate to have.

[Digital Page 127]

“At last, the two rascals made their farewells, laden with salami, bread and several pairs of their hosts socks which had been lying about for the pair to pick up. They were still not content. Bomber nicked around the back; of the house, grabbed a couple of fowls off their perches, and he and Joe pulled a sock down over each fowl’s head.

“It was a good half-mile to our camp from the station; according to George, it was more like ten miles. Joe and Bomber might be anywhere. We              set out back with him to see what was going on. They weren’t hard to find. We could hear them singing raucously, in English; the silly cows! When we got closer we found them walking in the canal, thigh-deep in water, pushing each other or sprawling full-length, and all the time shouting with laughter.

“We laughed more that night than we had for years. It really was a funny get-up. Imagine six Britishers in enemy territory laughing, and two of them so drunk they could barely stand.”

Since none of the six had blankets, and the clothes of Joe and Bomber had to be dried out if they were not to die of pneumonia, they built a big fire. Around this they huddled and dozed fitfully the night out.

Next morning, Joe accompanied Rowe on a visit to the stationmaster. The stationmaster was seemingly human, if a Fascist sympathiser. He agreed to tend Rowe’s plague of boils. He was rather like a butcher at the job, but the boils did clear up. Four visits were necessary; all were carried through without mishap.

At this stage, the six mutually agreed that it was risky to stay in a large party. George, Joe and Bomber decided to leave.

[Digital Page 128]


Henderson, Keats and Rowe were fed quite well by the local people while they remained at their camp under the aqueduct. By day they left their hide-out altogether and kept well away from it. Who knew, the chance traveller seeing them there might be a Fascist?

George, Joe and Bomber had moved into wooded country, regarded by the locals as an eerie place to be avoided. This place, resembling a graveyard by it’s damp, dark and fusty atmosphere, was reached after much twisting and turning of a downhill track.

Resuming his recollection, Rowe said, “One morning we three tucked into a good meal while we made plans for the day. We decided to call on our English cobbers, then continue on to the Bosios for a bit of fun. The idea didn’t come off. About eleven o’clock we suddenly heard a burst of shooting not far off.

“Scattering the fire and scooping up what remained of our eats, we made a quick evacuation, from the aqueduct.

“The shots sounded from the direction of Brianco station. We made in the opposite direction. The cover was good. We had nothing to fear unless another party made a ‘sandwich’ of us; we’d have made tough eating, just then we had weapons.

“At what we considered a comfortable distance away from danger, we spelled for thickly-wooded country near the main ‘strada’. This was some of the land belonging to Val del Oca. We decided to continue on, visit the Fagas, stock up provisions, and make our way north to the hills.

“Bert said he’d rather stay put. This he did. It was the last time I was to see him, until I tapped him on the shoulder one day in May, 1945. That was when we were with thousands of other Diggers in the A.I.F. [Australian Imperial Force] Reception Group camp  at Eastbourne, England, for ex-prisoners of war. Darcy and I wished him the best, and, with some Australian broad humour, wished him the best.

“Darcy and I went on to the Val del Oca. He waited in the dark of the yard while I tapped on the door.

[Digital Page 129]

“I’ll never forget the expressions on the Fags faces when they saw it was me at the door. Everyone seemed petrified, Maria, Susanna’s mother, whose face was already tear-stained, broke down and sobbed loudly. The other women followed suit.

“Antonio and Guilio came forward and took my hands.

“For a moment, no-one spoke. Then, Antonio said, ‘Saluto, Giovanni. Bene?’

“‘Bene, maestà, e lei?’

“‘Benone. Entrate nel salla.’

“Just like that, they greeted me, with a salute and an enquiry to my health, and all the time looked at me like they’re looking at a ghost. I’d been smiling when the door opened, but the look on their faces astonished me. For one horrible moment, I thought there were Fascists or Germans in the house, even perhaps in that part of the room which I was unable to see.

“The spell was broken by Darcy appearing.

“Antonio explained they had been told a tall, fair Australian was shot dead that morning near Brianco station by a German patrol, while another man with him had been badly wounded and taker, prisoner. Whoever told the Fagas had said he was sure it was Giovanni, and they were upset. So much, indeed, that no work had been done during the day, nor had anyone felt like eating. They had mourned me as they would have one of themselves. Is it to be wondered that I loved these people as my own.

“Rapidly their mood changed from despair to delight. Momma quickly had a meal cooking. Susanna went about with a song on her lips. The meal was eaten with a babble of conversation.

“They wanted to know our plans.

‘”We told them we were heading north to rejoin ‘il cacciatori delle alpi (the young patriots of the alps).

“Antonio and Guilio were doubtful whether we could make it, with the intensified enemy patrolling.

“‘Arderemo avanti egualemente,‘ I said. (‘We go ahead all the same.’)

“We asked for more information on the shooting of the two chaps in the morning.

“Antonio said it must have been because someone informed. Everyone had a shrewd idea who did it. A patrol of Germans had come up in the train and hidden

[Digital Page 130]

in the station buildings. It sounded as though we six were the quarry.

“As it happened, Joe and Bomber had left George the day before to go walkabout. On their way back they decided to pass through the town. Brianco was a one-street town. There was open country all around and it was easy for the Germans to see without being seen. They set up a machine-gun pointing down the street. The Englishmen walked right into the trap.

“Bomber spotted the gunners first, and promptly made for the shelter of a nearby building, only to drop full of lead.

“Joe escaped around a corner, running pell-mell for shelter. He sought out the house of the ‘commandantori’, which had a high wall, topped with mesh, thinking it’d be the last place the Huns would think of searching for him. The idea was good, but he reckoned without the Germans chasing him. As he was climbing over the mesh, they fired and brought him to the ground.

“Joe was another of these few fellows lucky to end up in a prison camp in Germany instead of being shot.

“Thus, two more disappeared from our dwindling numbers.”

[Digital Page 131]


They journeyed by night. After so long at large in the area, they knew their way well and travelled easily. The distance was not great, and soon they were into the foothills. Now and again they called in at farms where they had friends. Invariably, they were prevailed upon to eat and drink something to fortify them against the cold night.

The Allies at this stage had advanced as far as Florence. In the stillness of night and day they could hear the far-off rumble of the battle.

The nearness of the Allies made the Italian peasants more affable towards them. It was heartening to know that the Allies progressed, albeit slowly.

Indeed, some of the farmers were almost jubilant; most spoke knowingly of a “second front” coming soon – they did not consider the invasion of Italy the main thrust which had been so long anticipated.

Adagio (slowly) and ‘pazienza’ figured prominently in the peasant’s conversation. They acted as a brake against overdue optimism on their own parts.

Once or twice a toast was drunk: “Evviva gl’inglese, gl’americani!”

The Australians would respond with; “Viva Italia unità!”

Or the woman seeing them off the farms, would press their arms and whisper, “Santo Christopher go with you, caro mio”.

Nevertheless, the reaction was moderate, for the peasants still feared the Fascists and Germans, who, with defeat at the front, became more bitter in the campaign against the underground movement. While the Fascists and Germans maintained the upper hand, death was a very real threat.

Into the hills at last, Henderson and Rowe allowed the tension which had gripped them to lessen. Here they were safe. The ‘Garibaldi Divizione’ controlled the whole region pretty thoroughly. Now the two mates walked into villages quite openly and conversed with anyone they met.

One of the tasks of the partisan spies in the villages was to intercept people like Henderson and Rowe and direct them to the nearest group headquarters. Thus it happened with the pair. Since they had left the hills before,

[Digital Page 132]

the partisans had been forced to shorten their lines. Consequently the Australians had to travel a long way before they finally reached the headquarters they sought.

Rowe said, “This was new country to us. It seemed to have been a locality favoured as a holiday resort, as we passed many beautiful homes owned, no doubt,  by rich landowners and industrialists of Milan, Turin and the other major cities of Northern Italy. They were mostly double-storeyed places, beautifully-furnished.

The partisans had commandeered some of them. Seeing that the majority of the partisans came from poor homes, it was natural that they didn’t appreciate sumptuously-furnished houses. Their behaviour in these surroundings amazed us.

It nothing to see hand-carved furniture, parquet flooring, splendid balustrades scotia boarding, etc., hacked up and burnt as firewood. Paintings worth probably hundreds and hundreds of pounds were used for pistol targets by gun-crazy men.

“On the other hand, we amazed them. In as much as the partisans couldn’t stop Darcy and I drinking the wines we got from the cellars in the good old Australian fashion – straight from the bottle. Our ‘ill-manners’ nearly caused a couple of scenes.”

“With the increasing pressure of the enemy against the partisans, the food situation had worsened. Often patrols returned from food raids empty-handed, or with merely a small supply of rice.

Meanwhile, the job of collecting arms and ammunition had also increased. The partisan leaders expected at any time now to get orders from the Communist party and Allies to thrust into the back of the Italian-German forces. In fact, the initial part of the plan was already in operation; all mountain passes giving [word unclear] from Italy had been guarded to prevent the Germans escaping; more and more railway bridges were being dynamited; tunnels blown in; miles and miles of rail track-way ripped up. Partisan demolition squads accomplished a high percentage [word unclear] which required high bravery. Not without cost, for many men lost their lives.

Once again Henderson and Rowe found themselves in the line of action, as [word unclear] in search of food, generally.

[Digital Page 133]

“Did you hear the news, Jack?” asked Henderson, Without waiting for Rowe to reply, he went on. “Word’s just come in some of our jokers have been dropped by parachute. Probably another bloody furply “

Rowe agreed with his mate.

A little later, the ‘capo gruppo’ affirmed that several English parachutists had been dropped. It was a British mission sent to make contact with partisans. The ‘capo gruppo’ advised the two Australians to find the mission.

Because of security measures, the whereabouts of the mission given Henderson and Rowe were hazy; but they eventually found them after several days of moving around and  questioning.

In finding the mission, they met up again with Doug and another Australian, Bill Smith, of 2/28 Infantry Battalion. With them was a large group of Italian partisans. Bill was acting as interpreter for one of the British officers.

The mission was commanded by a Major McDonald, with a Captain Bell as second-in-charge. There were also a Lieutenant, 2 Sergeants and a corporal.

Henderson and Rowe were taken by Bill Smith to meet Bell. From Bell they had it substantiated that the mission had been dropped to organise and become familiar with the partisan movement. They also had radio equipment with which to establish and maintain contact with the advancing 5th and 8th Allied Armies.

Captain Bell was a short, stocky man, middle-aged. He sported a moustache on the latitudinal pattern of Sam Costa’s. Although a quiet type of man, he gave the Australians the impression of being an efficient and able man; he inspired confidence immediately. He was greatly interested in the Australians’ past activities, and asked many questions. His answers to their questions were inclined to be non-committal. He had no illusions about the mission’s part in the pattern of war.

“It’s a sticky job”, he said. “But it’s duty.”He added with a grin,”You fellows have managed to keep your heads.”

[Digital Page 134]

”It’s not our heads we’ve had to worry about, but our backs,” said Rowe.

Doug told them that Bill and he had happened to be in the vicinity when the mission was dropped and had automatically become members of it because of their fluency with the Italian language.

“Bell’s alright,” said Doug, laconically, “He’ll do me.”

Henderson and Rowe saw little of the major and the lieutenant. Both were comparatively young men, well-seasoned by battle, nonetheless. They spent most of their time locating the various partisan groups and talking with the leaders. They both spoke Italian well. A lot of information they brought back and radioed to 5th and 8th Armies was of great value in the big push.

One of the sergeants was an armourer. The other, and the corporal, were staff types. The armourer, Sergeant Lewis, was usually in Captain Bell’s company.

Soon Henderson and Rowe learned why Bell had been reticent to tell them much of the mission’s work. It turned out the mission was bringing in great quantities of arms, ammunition and clothing. The partisans were to be welded into a real fighting force. Discipline was more strongly-enforced. Partisan activities took on a more definite aspect. Demolition projects, particularly, were doubled, trebled.

Rowe gives a very good picture of what was going on in his own words:

“We received advice that a plane would be coming over one night. We finished the evening meal quickly and set off at dusk for a fairly-flat spot between two hills. No-one but the members of the mission knew exactly what was on. But there were rumours and in any rumour there’s some foundation of fact. This is what happened. A message the major got in code had given a date, an approximate time, and a letter of the alphabet as a signal. The captain set up a beam wireless on a lofty position and set it to bring the kite in. Us fellows carted straw and laid it out on the ground in the outline of the code letter in the middle of the flat. As soon as the bombers were overhead, we fired the straw.

“Preparations completed, we waited for the sound of the bomber. The nights were getting colder again. There was much stamping of feet. Yarning helped to pass the time. But we were too excited to talk much.

“Suddenly, in the far distance we heard a hum. The captain said, ’Right, chaps.’ Each ran to his place and took out matches ready to fire the straw.

[Digital Page 135]

“Nearer and nearer came that British plane.

“The signal to fire the straw was given.

“Teased-out, a bale of straw will burn for quite a while.

“The plane circled, seeking the best approach to get slow speed for the drop.

“Flames leapt high, showing everything up clearly.

“Over came that wonderful kite, and down came the first batch of ‘chutes. Boy, was the cove who dropped them good! Some of the cases landed fair in the flames.

“The ‘chutes were highly-prized souvenirs. Actually, the mission was, supposed to collect them for return. But some of us got down on them. I know of a few wives and sweethearts who rewarded with a kiss and a hug the gift of that fine silk.

“The ‘merchandise’ from our ‘merchant’ up aloft was contained in long, cylindrical, steel drums which opened up lengthways. The contents were Sten guns, ammunition, British and American Services clothing, medical supplies, and other items needed for carrying on a battle.

“Three swoops like that first one, and we had the lot, and the plane sped off back to its base. I admired the plane crew’s daring in braving the high peaks – you ought to see some of those Northern Italian peaks.

“Our work smarted as soon as the flames subsided. It was heavy going but we had to work fast. The stuff had to be got out quickly to the partisan groups.

“We had Italians with us on the job, of course. You can guess what clothing we got out of the show we had to fight for, and that was damned little: a woollen vest, a pair of long underpants.

“American planes did some of this dropping business, too. The pilots came on to the target OK, but the aim was often bad and we lost a lot of the stuff. If it landed short – or drifted down – to the flats, it fell, into the hands of Fascist patrols. If it landed high, it went into the lakes, or so far back it took days to find. But the British lads never missed, and we were proud of them.

[Digital Page 136]

“You can’t imagine what it felt like to us Britishers down there. We never met any of those aircrews, but we knew them. The ghost-like shape of a [word unclear], those parachutes, were as good as a handshake.”

[Digital Page 137]

“Bing” Jackson was a Victorian. He came in one morning and asked Captain Bell if he could attach himself to the mission. Bell agreed. Jackson was a short, wiry fellow.

Within a few hours he made himself one of the team. He had an inherent ability to fit in, plus a dry sort of humour which went over well with his fellow-Australians. Soon he established himself as the prize member. At night he helped dispel the serious atmosphere by acting the clown. His best act was tap dancing on table tops, with his long straight hair pulled down rakishly across his forehead, and his eyes glinting impishly in a deadpan face. He knew a little Italian, but not much; his efforts at the language when he was compelled to use it were ludicrous.

Rowe discovered that Jackson was one of the two ‘picolini’ (small) ‘Australiani’ whose camp had been near Salosola. The other was Keith Turner, yet another member of the 2/28 Infantry Battalion. The pair had contrived to evade many attempts at capture and eke out a perilous, and exciting existence.

Bing said that Keith and he had been forced eventually to vacate their hideout and make for the hills. When he contacted the mission, it was the first time Bing had had anything to do with the partisan movement; until then, Keith and he had been content to await passively for the end of the war. Bing said that Keith had joined another band, since when he had become a flamboyant figure in his many badges, collection of multi-coloured scarves and sox and a huge pistol.

Later, when Rowe and Darcy Henderson met Turner he was sporting a Sten gun as well. With him then was another 2/28 man, Ray Vigar, and his mates, all of whom had won a reputation as being “ready for anything”.

“The last time we met these adventurous spirits”, said Rowe, “they were setting out for France with the job in front of them in trying to cross the French Alps via Aosta. They reckoned that with the second front imminent, the opposition along the frontier should be weakened by withdrawals to defend the

[Digital Page 138]

coastal forts. They got away with the attempt to turn up in England as large and full of life with a couple of British chaps”.

Bing and Rowe became close mates, a mateship which was to endure through a tough testing time.

Rowe’s long-cherished hopes of escaping from Italy into Switzerland were revived. Major McDonald told the Australians that he was planning an escape. Route for Britishers still in the country. As yet, however, the whole scheme was in the moot stage. The Britishers in the various partisan brigades had to be contacted and apprised of the idea. The thing had to be undertaken with care, for there must be no slips. Meanwhile, there was the business of the underground conflict to be attended to.

There was plenty to occupy the British and Australians’ minds and prevent their becoming too enraptured with what was, after all, a slim chance of getting away. Food was scarcer than ever and extra efforts had to be made to get it.

More and more enemy patrols had to be matched and beaten. But with ample ammunition, automatic weapons, and increasing reserves coming in by air, the partisans were able to hold their own, and even started to give out better than they took. When a man has had to restrain his fighting instinct for years, he develops fanatical fighting powers when he is at last able to hit out. Thus it was with the majority of the ‘cacciatori’. They disliked to give ground. And it was seldom now that their blood stained the ground where these vicious combats took place. Notwithstanding zeal, as is invariably the case where over-confidence applies, sometimes breaches were forced here and there in the bulwark of defence through carelessness. When that happened, there was a retreat farther into the mountains.

“The major and his aides had been away for days and had returned only a couple of hours before,” Rowe reminisced. “There was an air of calmness over the camp. Only the comings and goings of runners and the changing of sentries and so forth disturbed the afternoon quiet.

“We’d claimed a nearby village as our own as it came within the range covered by the sentries guarding mission headquarters. Some of us went over. A few passed the time in the ‘osterio’. Others went shopping or chatted to the ‘signorini’ or lazed about against the sunlit walls.

[Digital Page 139]

“Suddenly there was great confusion. A fusillade of machine-gun fire shattered windows, chipped plaster off walls. Further gunfire made an addition to the first burst. The air became thick with slugs. Men and ‘signorini’ flew in every direction.

“My mates and I made record time back to Head Quarters. We arrived to find evacuation already under way, so we followed suit, rolled out blankets, and waited for instructions. Although it was there to aid the partisan effort, the mission was not itself supposed to be involved in the actual fighting. The orders were that we ex-prisoners and the Italians were to hold off the enemy to allow the mission to clear off. If any of the big boys were caught it would be disastrous to the mission’s work.

“In groups armed with anything from ancient revolvers to Stens, we mug-alecs turned back to hold the line. We didn’t go far. The sentries were heading towards us. The news was pretty grim. They said the force attacking was extensive and had armoured vehicle support. We wouldn’t have a chance to fight.

“Well, one of the things you learned quickly in this show was that discretion is the better part of valour. I take consolation in knowing that better soldiers have had to do the same thing, and they had plenty to fight with.

“The retreat was disorderly. We had no clear conception where to go – the mission were well away by this time – and the possibility of flank attack was alarming. We just had to depend on our knowledge of the terrain, and whether other groups could blunt the attack.

“This nerve-wracking state of affairs lasted about three hours till night fell, when some organisation built up and we set off on a long trek to a secure line.

“We lost men. Some were trapped in villages. Several patrols and small rearguard formations were overwhelmed. We were a pretty dejected mob. The enemy also had losses. Judging by the firing we heard, though it was spasmodic, there was opposition.

“The new assembly point was above the snow-belt. It was cold trekking up the slopes. Sometimes the ice was almost black and hard to see, and men stumbled and fell. You could tell when a man fell, because he cursed.

“Chaos reigned at the new Headquarters, a group of tumbled down shepherds’ huts.

[Digital Page 140]

“There were a lot of men, and all desiring shelter from the cold. Somehow or other, Bing and I got inside one of the huts. We’d not seen Darcy earlier on but we found him inside, and some of the other lads. Also there was my old friend and enemy, Primelo.

“He’d done his usual good job of inflicting causalities on the enemy. He’d lost most of his group. On his orders they’d refused to quit their position. It had taken the armoured cars to shell them out.

“Knowing Primelo as well as I did, I’m certain he’d have shot any of his men if they’d attempted to withdraw before he gave the order. Muchly hated though he was, there was no-one who didn’t admire his courage.

“He was in earnest conversation with Major McDonald and Captain Bell when we caught sight of him in the murky light. All three were arguing and gesticulating, apparently planning re-establishment or debating escape possibilities.

“Then Primelo called his lieutenants together, and he and his remnants disappeared.

“We never saw any of them again.

“Primelo died from a bullet fired by one of his men. As the story had it, he’d got drunk, vile-tempered, picked on a man and drawn his gun. The time the other fellow beat him to the draw.

“Personally I disliked him, but I think it was a sorry way out for a man of his calibre who’d done a lot – a lot more than-most – in making the word ‘Partisan’ mean something to be reckoned with among the Fascists and Germans.”

With sane the partisans dispersed, there was a little more room in the hut. The Britishers congregated around the major. The major announced that plans had been finalised for the first party to test the escape route to Switzerland. He called for volunteers. There was a pregnant silence. Each of the ex-prisoners knew what the others were thinking.

In volunteering to go, would he be letting the others down at this dangerous stage when his weapon could help? If he volunteered and went, would that indicate he was afraid to attempt such a hazardous trek in the middle of winter?

The major made it plain that the route was difficult and success no

sinecure, passports would be needed to assure safe conduct from one partisan group to another, and guides to make sure they reached the Swiss frontier.

[Digital Page 141]

“It’s irrelevant who volunteered first said Rowe, but there were four of us who decided we’d give it a go: Darcy, Bing, another Aussie and myself.

“The major dictated the letters which would serve us as passports, his corporal typed them, and then the major stamped and signed them and put them in envelopes.

“He handed the envelopes to me and gave me instructions.

“‘You will find your way to the first group under your own initiative,’ he said. “When you contact that group, hand the ‘capo’ the first envelope. Guides will then be provided to show you the safest and shortest route to the next group, and so on. Good luck, chaps’”

It was turning midnight as the intrepid four shook hands with the major and those men who had preferred to remain. With the good wishes following them, they set off into the night. They were aware that their way was fraught with obstacles. Fascists could be in possession of the country they must traverse before daylight. Their first destination was the plains. To venture on the journey without food would have been foolhardy in the extreme. They decided, unanimously, first to visit their Italian friends, in search of provisions.

[Digital Page 142]


But for the fact that It was imperative, Rowe would not have gone to the Val del Oca to ask for food for the journey. He sensed what the reaction of the ‘Famigia’ Faga would be when they learned that he was leaving for Switzerland. Though the wish to make for the Swiss refuge had been ever-present in his thoughts, it had never seemed likely to materialise. It seemed that he would remain associated with the family until the end of the war. Now that the bonds were to be cut, somehow he was filled with misgivings. His announcement was followed by a great silence during which he could see every member of the family was absorbed in his or her own thoughts.

Of course, the food was forthcoming – he never doubted that it would be. Antonio broke the silence by urging him not to entertain any idea of leaving his companions and venturing alone.

He answered. “Non vi voglio andare” (“I’ll not go without the others.”)

Momma Faga was in tears. Rowe took her in his arms  and kissed her, as he had seen her children kiss her. ‘He’:was conscious of a swelling in his heart. Just then he felt a small boy in need of a mother’s care. Momma must have sensed his feelings, for she embraced him fondly, murmuring several times softly the name they knew him by. “Giovanni mio figlio. Giovanni mio.”she said over and over.

There was Susanna. He didn’t want to cry before her. He knew how she felt. And he respected her feelings.

Whatever made him do it, he did not know. From his coat-pocket he drew out his wallet, fountain-pen, several photographs of his mother, brother and sister. These he handed to Susanna, asking her to keep them safe for him until he should return after the war. He grinned and said that would call for a celebration, between her and him. Susanna took the things with a smile, a courageous smile, he thought.

It was time to say goodbye.

One after another, Guilio, his sons Aldo and Guiseppi, and Antonio took

[Digital Page 143]

Rowe’s hand and shook it warmly, at the same time pressing money upon him, which, they declared with a shrug, might be very useful.

He was on his way with the other three. As he passed out of the family’s home, his heart was heavy. Theirs was to be heavy, too, later. A rumour reached them that Rowe and his three companions had been killed in ambush.

Many parties who set out for Switzerland were caught in Nazi-Fascist ambushes and slain; therefore, the mistake was understandable.

The party of which Rowe was a member grew in size by the addition of two men who joined along the way. Shortly, they were six, three Australians and three Kiwis. All were young except one of the Kiwis, a man in his forties.

This was Roy Cameron, of whom Rowe said, “He was pretty old, but what he gave away in age he made up in spirit. When the going was toughest, it was Roy who kept spurring us on. Another man his age most likely wouldn’t have lasted the trek. Roy had had a safe haven until recently; consequently he was in good trim.”

The farther they pressed into the mountains, the more the hazards of their escape route became aggravated. To try and cross the alpine frontier between Italy and Switzerland in the midst of winter was a task even hardy mountain dwellers of the region frowned upon. And the winter of 1944-45 was worse than any in a decade. The snow deepened until for long stretches it was feet thick. They waded through it waist-deep, one breaking the track aid the others following in his steps; every few miles, the man who had been breaking the track dropped to the rear and his next number moved up – by that, means each man shared the hard and the easy.

Always, there was the risk of clashing with German patrols, or walking unawares into the guns of a Fascist outpost: in the snow and ice it was difficult to pick out danger spots. A foot kicking something, the breaking of a branch, or curse set up thumping in their hearts, wondering if it had disclosed them to an eagle-eyed Fascist or the German soldier.

“Our nerves were constantly taut”, Rowe said. “’When we slept, one remained awake and alert.

“By day we slept in thickets, in a shed if we could find one,           beside a drift – anywhere, in fact, which offered some protection against the biting winds.

“Then darkness again, pitch-black night, and on again, hoping we were going

[Digital Page 144]

right. If there was a moon or stars, we didn’t worry much.

“Sometimes we found friendly villagers or peasants who gave us food. At other times we walked on if we thought there was the risk of being betrayed.

“At one village we called on an English-speaking Italian. He led us to the graves of two cobbers I’d lost in the fighting, Mickie Miller, of my battalion, and Frank Bowen, the Kiwi who’d been with me for so long before he was slain.

Three Italians were buried beside them, I guess that’s as good example as any of the unity of man fighting for a common aim: Australian, New Zealand and Italian comrades side by side. They were outside the cemetery walls; as I mentioned once, because they were partisans the Fascists refuses to allow their being interred inside the cemetery – being partisans they must be Communists and therefore without religion!

“The climbing became difficult, but I made the pace hot and the boys were true. Up and down the snow-covered slopes, we [word unclear]. My mind went back to the days of marching over sandhills during combat training in Palestine; the boys in the platoon were always abusive then about my long legs.

“It might have been because of the pace or the major’s warning about the [word unclear] before us, but one of the Aussies and one of the Kiwis decided to quit.

No amount of enticing could make than continue, so we shook hands with them, wished them luck, and left them.

“From here on I’m afraid my recollections are a bit hazy. The cold air of those mountains thousands of feet high sort of chilled the brain.

“We reached with the aid of a guide picked up in a village, the first contact in the chain of our progress. The contact is a goatherd, a kindly chap about forty but looking a lot older. There are two men with him, they’re dubious about us and say nothing. I know by this how hard it is to get on with the folk who live in the mountains, so I don’t say much. Maybe that’s not hard to do, because we haven’t been talking among ourselves, either. We need all our breath for the climbing.

“We’re the contact’s guests for a couple of days, share his food and wine and sing with him the ‘Rendiera Rosa’ and that thing Garibaldi’s patriots used to sing, which goes ‘Veniamo. Veniamo….. I forget that one, now. The partisans sing ‘Bandiera Rosa’ after every meal, when the vino is multiplying the red

[Digital Page 145]

corpuscles in the veins. I remember how I used to watch the young blokes singing it. They are big in their way of thinking, men doing men’s work, fighting and killing Fascists. But the words don’t mean very much. Communism, they are told by the ‘capo politico’, is the ‘only weapon which can defeat Fascism’. But the funny thing is that half of them don’t comprehend what the words they sing mean. The Garibaldi song probably strikes home because it talks of fighting for Italy. Both are rollicking songs, and singing them with, our contact and his mates cheers us fellows up and makes us forget awhile the ever-lasting climbing, cold, hunger and the damned lice and fleas….. I wonder if science has ever found out how cold it has to be before a louse or flea’ll, die?

“The contact supplies us with guides who show us the way to the next ‘cano militari’, many kilos farther on. The country becomes barren, the farmsteads fewer – they’re all uninhabited, anyhow, this period of the year, the owners are wintering in the lower villages. The Italian lads guiding us are very young and filled with the joy of living. The job is not that urgent to prevent them calling on a couple of girlfriends in a couple of small villages. But there is food to be had, rough fare which we wash down with wine, but sustaining. We reach our second point, hand over another envelope from the major and get new guides who’ll take us on to the Head Quarters of Moscatelli, the ‘capo politico’ for the whole area. The man whose reputation as a fighter has won him the admiration even, of men who do not favour his politics.

“By the time we reach Moscatelli’s Head Quarters we’re weary and footsore. Italian boots aren’t the best, especially if you’ve got to do a lot of walking. Mina are new, but, by the looks of them, almost finished. Bing’s are hanging off his feet, while those worn by Roy and Bill Frost, the other Kiwi, aren’t much better.

Fortunately, we get new pairs here for the worst parts of our journey to come.

“We’re billeted in a barn on the outskirts of the village which serves as Moscatelli’s Head Quarters. We don’t see anything of the “Big Boss”. | We’re not allowed out at all by day.

“The barn roof leaks and the walls are split with cracks that let in all the draughts going between the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans, I reckon.

“We’re all glad when our partisan passports, signed by Moscatelli and his ‘capo militari’, a bloke named Ciro, arrives and we’re told to get out of the

[Digital Page 146]

locality without delay. A ‘capo brigato’ and his followers escort us part of the way and leave us one guide to lead us further. It takes us three weeks to reach the next stopping point, three weeks of cold and privation, of frostbitten feet and gnawing guts.

“We have to cross many rivers. The rivers are frozen sufficiently to bear the weight of the first two or three, then the ice cracks and the next man drops into water rushing over rocks on which he can’t stand up. The others have to wade across. As soon as you step into the water, your whole body freezes and you gasp for breath.

The breath freezes into icicles and hangs thus from your nostrils and mouth.

“We must have been fit, or we’d have been dead ‘uns, every one of us.

“One river we had to cross was too deep for wading, and impossible to swim in the sub-zero temperature. There was a bridge, but we’d been warned that it would be in enemy hands and guarded. One of the guides said he knew of a boat which could be pinched, so we lifted it. It could bear us over the river in two parties. Alas, in our eagerness to get over, we overloaded on the first trip.

Thirty yards from the bank, the boat capsized. You could have heard the curses and chattering teeth of the flounderers a mile away. Back on the bank we were no better off than before; worse, because we hadn’t a boat. Scouts were sent forward to investigate the bridge angle. They returned with the news that there didn’t seem to be any guards. After all that frustrated effort we crossed the long low bridge without being detected nor fired upon.

“Beyond the next range of hills we came upon a village snuggled deep in snow. We wanted to rest. God, how we wanted to rest! But there was no hope.

The Italians urged us to press on as Fascist patrols were calling at the village regularly. We were adamant. We couldn’t go on without sleep. The villagers stood by us.

“We were sent up to various haylofts. I remember rats running over me, but I was past caring.”

Once again their boots were in a terrible state, the new boots they had had only a matter of weeks. They could not get them replaced here, for boots were extremely scarce in this snowbound region.

Food also was a cause for worry. The villages here and from here-on were

[Digital Page 147]

inhabited by a vary poor type of peasant. The peasants could spare them very little; sometimes a handful of rice each, or a crust of bread. Vino was available in mouthful quantities.

“Before climbing into the lofts,” said Rowe, “we took our boots off to thaw them by the fire. We used our boots as pillows for two reasons: we had to keep them handy in case we were forced to ‘scapa’ in an emergency. Our feet would hove frozen to solid blocks of ice had we left them on. As it was,” he added “after a few miles walking in them every day, there just wasn’t any feeling below the ankles.”

[Digital Page 148]

They began to feel they had been mad to think they could ever reach Switzerland. Even the partisans who helped them on the way laughed at their plans, shrugged their shoulders, and said, “Well, what can you expect of stupid English?” The outlook was literally desolate.

“Don’t ever tell me it must be beautiful to live in snow,” commented Rowe. “‘There was snow everywhere we looked. It wasn’t any of that Christmas-cardy prettiness. It was a desolate and barren waste which fitted in with the misery and poverty of the people whose existence was a part of it.

“The only good thing about the cold, snow and blizzards was that sometimes they drove Fascist guards away to shelter from their post over river bridges, and we got across unbeknown to them.”

Once they entered a village at the same moment that a German patrol was driving from the other end. The inhabitants were loathe to help them; they explained that some of their neighbours had been taken away for helping ‘inglese’. The Britishers overcame their reluctance. The villagers grabbed the packs and returned them filled with food. The boys needed it, because they hadn’t eaten for two days. Then a villager braver than the remainder conducted them to the safety of a cave, adjuring them as he left not to light a fire. A fire would have been wonderful, but lacking it they massaged their feet and bodies vigorously with their hands.

Here they were joined by more men who had the same purpose in mind as themselves, to reach Switzerland. The newcomers were four South Africans and the crew of three from an American bomber shot down north of Florence. They had been trying for months to reach the frontier. It was extraordinary that, as Rowe’s party arrived when the German patrol was leaving, so the newcomers entered the village as the Australians and New Zealanders were being taken off to a hideout.

Both groups were unanimous that they team up as one to make the escape attempt. The idea had its good and bad points. From the Africanders and Yanks, the Diggers and Kiwis learned about the extent of the German-Fascist patrol

[Digital Page 149]

activity. On the other hand, some of the Africanders and the Yanks were tardy in helping source rations.

Now they were twelve, excluding the Italian guides.

They travelled day and night, resting at infrequent intervals.

On the left of them as they marched was a vast rook face rising almost perpendicular, on the left a sheer drop of hundreds of feet with the distant rumble of a roaring torrent far below. Two or three lagged, kept yelling at the foremost to break down the pace.

Another mountain village, this time populated by people concerned with harnessing the mountain torrents for hydro-electricity. They were willing to give the twelve somewhere to rest for a few hours. But food there was none to spare; wine to drink, yes. They drank the wine, but it didn’t fill the void.

Only a few miles to the last partisan headquarters, and from then on they would be on their own. Here and there a patch of grass assisted climbing. Now a burst of sunshine warming their bodies and spirits. Looking back, snow-cloud [word unclear] the land. They were higher than the clouds and they felt exhilarated.

They pressed on with renewed fervour, following a momentary sight of the Monte Gridone, the peak nearly eight thousand-feet high, right on the Italo-Swiss frontier, and the waters of the Lago Maggiore, on the right.

Over to the other side of the hill, going down through wind and deep snow, the sun hidden, mist whirling up around them. The exhilaration of a short while before passed. The laggards lagged farther behind, grumbling. And all the time the individual had to keep his mind alert; perhaps that drift into which he sank thigh deep was bottomless, or that innocent boulder hid a great drop into white death.

The original members of the party had elected Rowe their leader, and he carried on the role after the South Africans and Americans joined them, despite the fact that several of the newcomers wore higher rank.

“It took more than rank, though, in this test of endurance,” said Rowe.

“I don’t claim I was any more qualified than the next man to be leader. Someone had to be. Maybe I took the hard view, but a man had to think of the whole mob, not just the blokes who dawdled.”

The last partisan headquarters was a dismal place, hardly deserving the title of a village. Neither did the food they got deserve being called a meal:

[Digital Page 150]

boiled rice and a little salt, which they cooked themselves.

But they were able to sleep, and sleep warmly for a change, on straw and under blankets, while there was a fire to thaw out the boots.

[Digital Page 151]

And there was the frontier! There those huts were, huts spaced at regular intervals in which the frontier guards rested or sheltered from the snowstorm. “Don’t be too jubilant,” said one of the Italian guides. “It’s much farther off than you think”. They didn’t care how far off it was, they were near the frontier.

“The cold was more intense – if that could be possible – at this point near the frontier,” Rowe said.

“With the addition of another four to our party, three of them Russians from the Soviet Georgian Republic, we set out for the frontier.

This was the last lap. Many weeks had passed since I’d said ‘A riverderci’ to the Fagas, yet strangely it seemed no time at all.

“We ran down the hills or slid. Across a bridge, and the road, and we weren’t worried any more about German or Fascist patrols. But here was a climb. Up and up and up, up we went. Some of the enthusiasm went with the panting and puffing.

“This was where Attilio’s advice came in handy. What was it he said?

‘Save yourself when you climb’. I did what he’d showed me. I clasped my hands behind my back, bent forward and plodded determinedly and slowly.

“Some of the others copied my action.

“The grade of the slope was terrific. It paid to keep your eyes on the ground. There was little snow on the Italian side, thanks to the good old sun.

“Hours and hours later, we reached a number of huts. No food, but some wine from the familiar long-necked flagon. I visualised the wine as blood, a warming transfusion of vitality and strength to carry me on. On again, out of the sunshine and into snow. It wasn’t a difficult climb, but still up and up.

“Two of the lads were falling behind badly, and the guides were helping them along. Sticks were scarce as hen’s teeth up here, but the guides found a couple for the cripples..

[Digital Page 152]

“I called halts more often, to enable the tail-enders to catch up.

I guess I was bitter over the lack of spirit of some of them, and said so”.

The scene around them was immense, the awe-inspiring majesty of the Lepontine Alps.

“Ahead or us were two enormous peaks with a pass between them almost at the same level as the peaks. To one side was a breathtaking view of the Lake Maggiore, blue as the skies. The other way a cluster of buildings, black and red roofs, and ant-like figures moving to and fro among the houses. And everywhere the silent vastness.

“I remember saying to myself, ‘A scene like this makes one feel he’s standing alongside God,’

“It’s time for another goodbye. Rather a strange parting this, because the order of things is reversed. We are going from the partisans instead of coming. This is the end of a lifetime in a short span of three years. The guides say that from here-on we have to rely on ourselves. We empty our pockets of all the cash we have and hand it and all our gear over – anything that’s going to impede our progress on the last climb. Farewell, and God bless you, comrades. No we’re not Communists. There was a comrade long before Communism was heard of.

Our comrades are those chaps who looked after us from that time when we escaped from the prison camps. We may not have liked their songs or their politics, but we are agreed on hating wars and those who cause them.”

The Italian guides dropped into the rear and the sixteen turned to assault the last obstacle between oppression & freedom – Switzerland.

[Digital Page 153]


Several of them were in a bad state. The long hours of toiling uphill, constant cold, the poor food and the lack of it were taking toll. Rowe hated doing it, but he lashed them with his tongue, trying to stem their failing morale. It seemed in vain.

“Bing Jackson, Roy Cameron and Bill Frost. I didn’t have to worry about, but the others were a problem,” he said. “We all took it in turn to be first and last man, first to control the pace and break a track, last to take it easy and push along along the tail-enders, when they wanted to sit down.

“The saner members realised that if any man sat down now he would freeze to death! It seemed that what we’d been through to date was child’s play. The wind bit into the face. Icicles inches long formed all over our clothing. If you took a glove off to blow on the fingers the hand froze stiff in a second.

“We’d estimated we could reach the frontier within an hour. After going three hours the peaks weren’t any nearer. It took us over another two hours before we finally reached the foot of the last almost vertical slope. We had reached the frontier, but still had to scale this last peak before we could say we were secure in Switzerland. We sheltered to the lee of the frontier guard’s hut. We had no idea of time, accept that it was getting late and dark should fall any moment.

“I cried “’Ten minutes spell’, preparatory to tackling this toughest climb [word unclear]. The tail-enders went to the front, but they were too weak to kick the toe-holes in the snow. Bing, Roy, Bill and I were last. The pace was deadly slow, the cold made a man shiver under four wrappings of clothes. We four pushed up, trying to restore our circulations. One after another we passed the chaps in front, yelling out encouragement as we passed.

“At times we were clawing our way, pulling our bodies up by our hands.

“We spelled nearly every ten minutes for a minute or two; we had to, the going was that fierce.

“Bing was the first to reach the top, with myself close on his heels.

[Digital Page 154]

The Kiwis weren’t far behind.

“Bing and I looked at each other, without words; but our hearts were exulting.

“And then we saw the most marvellous sight! the Swiss portion of the Major Lake, numerous villages as far as our gaze could see and a fair sized town.

We didn’t know it, but thin was Brissago.

“We set off down the Swiss slopes at a breakneck pace. Safe we were, but we still had to keen moving or freeze. There was no track. We just stumbled through the deep snow. Often we fell.

“Some angel must have been looking after us. By rights, we ought to have broken our necks a dozen times.

“Brissago had looked reasonably close. We lost sight of it coming down the slope, and our route was ragged. The town must have been ten miles away.

“Roy and Bill nearly caught us up.

“Bing and I stooped, looked back, and counted the party. We counted nine dark forms on the way down.

It was almost dark. They gave up hope of the tail-enders catching up.

However, there should not be any need to worry. If the rest followed the leaders they couldn’t go wrong.

Bing said, “Let’s follow the valley down, Jack. “

Rowe agreed heartily, and together Jackson and he climbed, struggled and tore their way through bushes, trees and rocks.

Suddenly, out of the darkness appeared light. It was a fire. Around it sat several men dressed in timber-getter s’ garb. Bing and Rowe spoke to the men in English and Italian, but they did not reply. But the men had deduced that the scarecrows who burst into their midst had come from Italy. They dragged the pair to the fire, handed them cups of steaming hot coffee and wholesome food.

The two Australians were too excited to eat!

The timber-workers indicated by signs the track they should follow to reach Brissago. Within twenty minutes the pair came to a road.

Along this they wended their way. A little farther they rounded a bend. Before them lay the town. The singing died out of their throats. Like two small boys

[Digital Page 155]

who have discovered some wonderful invention, they advanced shyly towards the outskirts.

“For the first time in five years, we saw electric lights in streets,” said Rowe. We thought that everyone of those globes was burning just for us,

“We went down steps leading from the road we were on to one lower down.

“This second road led to streets lined by shops with windows chockful of things we ‘d dreamed about: food galore, clothing, cigarettes, meat. We stepped into the brightly-lit thoroughfare filled with people hurrying briskly in all directions. Somebody noticed our torn clothing and haggard appearance, and we heard a voice claim, Australiani! Bravo! ‘ Next thing we knew there was a crowd pressing around us. A ‘gendarme’ came, broke it up, and courteously escorted us off to the local police station. We were clearly the first to arrive. The officer-in-charge asked us questions which we answered. He wrote the answers down and took the papers we handed him. While this was going on, two more of the boys arrived with mother ‘gendarme’, the South Africans, “Fish” Welsh and Van Rensberg, and the procedure of question and answer was repeated.

“We wanted to know where we could sleep. We were given beds in some barracks, blankets and sheets. We turned in, certain that we’d find the rest alongside us when we awoke in the morning.

“Next morning we awoke in a strained atmosphere. No—one wanted to talk to us. We thought this strange compared with the spontaneous welcome from the Swiss crowd the previous night – particularly those who’d taken up a collection which resulted in a big stack of cigarettes being piled in the street for us. The Swiss soldiers on the other hand, hadn’t gone out of their way to be friendly, but why they should avoid us altogether now was baffling. To make our confusion greater, we noticed those Swiss guards who saw us would, whisper together, nod their heads at us, or look sideways.

“They gave us a light breakfast which left us hungry. Then, without any ceremony, we were whipped up to the commandant’s office. There we found Roy Cameron, and Bill Frost, who’d come in via a different route during the night.

“We asked them where the rest were, but they didn’t know; they were as puzzled as we were why the Yanks, Russians and other Africanders hadn’t turned up.

[Digital Page 156]

“The Swiss German guards came back and marched us a few kilos along the road beside the lake to another group. There was a gramophone playing, but there were no signs of gaiety among the guards. We sensed that something was wrong. We were certain when a big frontier guard entered with a big Saint Bernard dog. They’d come straight from the Alps.

The look the guard flashed at us shocked us into the realisation that tragedy had overwhelmed the missing chaps. The news was broken to us by an Englishman who held an official position of some kind in Brissago. He told us that three of the chaps were dead, and two in danger of dying.”

The news shattered the Britishers’ delight at being in Switzerland.

They could not comprehend… What had happened? they asked the Englishman.

While Jack Rowe and the others were going on to Brissago, the tail-enders struck trouble. They ran into a Swiss frontier guard. The guard turned them back at the point of the bayonet towards a hut well up the mountainside down which they had staggered.

Clarke fell, with the hut but a few hundred yards away. Eric Welsh, brother of Fish, who had taken charge of the party, tried to urge Clarke on, without avail. Clarke was weak, he couldn’t rise.

The guard forced them on.

One of the Americans fell next, to die as Clarke had, in the face of the blizzard which had sprung up. Eric Welsh used artificial respiration on the Yank, in vain.

They staggered through the blizzard, blinded by the sleet.

Now one of Welsh’s pals fell. This lad had been a sick man before he had started the journey.

An American, he claimed to be a cousin of Richard Green, the film actor. None of his companions had known that all along he was suffering a tumour of the brain, aggravated by the cold. He had been the last man to leave his aircraft when it was shot down. Welsh tried desperately to save him, but there wasn’t a hope.

After what seemed hours of horror, Welsh, Lenny Hoyne, and the Russian member of the party reached the hut and fell inside exhausted.

Inside the hut were food and warmth. Not far away three men had dies. It

[Digital Page 157]

was a bitter irony!

When he learned what had happened, Rowe tried to analyse his reactions, if he had been in Welsh’s place. “Should the boys have turned back, or should they have risked the guard’s shooting and gone on? Personally, I think they should have defied the guard. He might have shot a couple of of them dead, but three of them died, anyway.

“If the guard had shot any of them he would probably have faced a court-martial.

“There was hate in the guard’s attitude. Some of the guards we met were prejudiced against the Allies.

“It was brutality.  The guard stood over men whose minds and bodies were too weak to fight. He killed them just as sure as if he’d shot them.

There followed weeks of investigation, questioning, cross-examining, until Rowe and the others who had won through were sick and tired of answering.

“We never heard the result of the enquiry,” he said. “We didn’t care. All we knew was that three of our cobbers had died where there were no bullets flying, no shells firing, no steel flashing. They had died not half-an-hour’s distance from Brissago, their goal after weeks of nightmare climbing over the Alps.

“Their bodies were found under feet of snow the next day by the St. Bernard dog we’d admired. They were buried with full military honours in the cemetery beside the lake.

“Although we hated the guards, we liked the Swiss civilians. We made some grand friends. Everyone was sympathetic and kind. They weren’t proud of the guards who’d let our cobbers die!”

The party received clothes and boots, which they needed badly after what they had been through.

An odd incident was the insistence of the military commander that their heads be shaved, despite the fact he had assured the British diplomatic officials in the  area that this humiliation would not be foisted upon them.

“We were not interned long at Brissago,” said Rowe. “My insistent demands that we be sent to the British Legation in Bern finally resulted in our going there. We travelled in luxury, third class compartments in trains; right then we were so happy we’d have travelled in cattle trucks if we’d have had to.

[Digital Page 158]

“One amusing sidelight on our Swiss sojourn was that Bing and I could not get anyone to believe we were Australians. The Swiss would laugh and say it couldn’t be; Australians were blackfellows, wore no clothes, painted their bodies and had sticks through their noses. I doubt we ever convinced them that Australians were civilised white people like themselves?”


Connect with us via Facebook or email - [email protected]