Simpson, Charles – Chapter 8-21

Summary of Charles Simpson, chapters 8-21

This is the second part of the highly detailed and descriptive account of the escape of Charles Simpson from PG 49 Fontanellato and his subsequent journey south through Italy.

Simpson continues to display his extraordinary memory for the geography, places and people he encountered along the walk. This part of the story starts at Cassignano and ends in the Lama area in the Aventino valley, when they come across a unit of the 11th Indian Division in March 1944. Throughout the journey, Simpson allows the reader to accompany him on all his experiences: near starvation, broken boots, extreme discomfort, encounters with other escapers and refugees and wonderful hospitality from the poor Italian local people. The climax of the story is a gripping and terrifying account of the final journey across the Maiella, guided by brave Italians. Charles Simpson was fortunate enough to return to a couple of the villages that had sheltered him before he was repatriated to the UK.

Read part 1 – Chapters 1-7

Read part 3 – 1944-1946

Read part 4 – Maps

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]

Chapter 8 – Haven at Cassignano

Maps 9, 10, 11

All afternoon we followed the road at the foot of the mountains, until Gubbio was well behind us on our left, but as usual, we were not to be able to continue further in such a direct line, for at Ponti di Assisi the road joined the main road across the plain to the town.

It was late afternoon, and time to look for a night’s lodging. Barry, his pink face set in sulky determination, insisted on our climbing back into the mountains, and I was inclined to agree, for the plain seemed pretty empty of houses, and we both felt a town to be too dangerous. There was only the main highway, which was quite broad, but as usual, deserted, so we struck south into the mountains and the trees, and kept alert for traffic.

We crossed the Ponte della Pietra, where the Acquina stream prattled in its deep gully, and straightaway met a side road on our left, which dived into a steep, tree-covered valley. At the bottom there was a bit of a clearing, and a single, white and unpretentious house stood there. It was the very thing we were looking for, so we set off down the steep slope.,

The house stood alone by the roadside. There was a deep stillness in the enclosed valley.

All was perfect peace. I knocked on the door and made our requirements known to the pleasant old lady who appeared. We were invited in at once and made a great fuss of.

The house was comfortably furnished and was spotless. Various domestics nodded and smiled from the kitchen, and the lady, now joined by another equally hospitable creature, saw to our comfort. Washed and made presentable, we sat down with them to supper.

We talked pleasantly as the dusk gathered, and then, with a sense of delighted drama, they took us into the next room and showed us the surprise they had been conniving at. They had made up a double bed on the floor, and the pure, white sheets were turned back invitingly. I tried to explain our unfortunate condition, but they insisted that we enjoy their surprise. Whether my vocabulary was unequal to the task, or they understood my explanation and were indifferent, I couldn’t tell, but they were so kind, and so pleased with their efforts, that I could not disappoint them. We were left to undress and climb naked into the luxury of sheets and pillows. The remarkable kindness of these simple people continued to move me.

With packed lunches in our hands, we left the house in the woods, while the entire household stood at the door and wished us well. It was a cloudless morning as we set off into the tree-covered mountains. My memory is faulty, for the country was confusing, and I have had to rely on the map to unravel our probable course, though certain landmarks stayed in my mind. We tramped over ridges, across valleys, using tracks where we could and always under the cool shade of the trees. We met no-one in this empty, silent world.

There were plenty of tracks to choose from, but they seldom proved helpful for long, and we made many false casts and had to retrace our steps, or else, using the watch where we could as a compass, had to strike off through the trees, hoping to have better luck later.

[digital page 2]

We were well accustomed now to the daily marching, and were quite fit. My shoes remained sound, and we had been fortunate with the weather, so our progress, if unspectacular, had been steady. We estimated that we were covering about fifteen miles a day on the map, though we must have walked considerably further than that on the ground. We had no idea of the distance we had yet to travel. It could be two or three hundred miles we guessed, before we came within reach of our advancing forces. What we would do then we left to lady luck, and my confidence never wavered. Things would not always run smoothly. But so far, we had surmounted all difficulties, and I at least, had developed a fatalistic attitude, accepting each day as it came. Limiting my attention to immediate problems had a reassuring effect on me.

The river Chiasco barred our path. It had cut a deep channel along the foot of the mountains, and its banks rose like cliffs on either side. Across the river the hillsides were covered with vineyards, which ended in woodlands on the higher slopes beyond.

We must have reached the river somewhere west of Pol Palombo, and it presented a considerable obstacle. We had encountered a road here which ran parallel to the river, so we followed it westwards, and eventually found ourselves travelling south in the region of Casa Lombardi. After some miles the road approached the river near Casa Vaccaria, and here we spotted a footbridge across the muddy waters.

It was an iron suspension bridge, just wide enough for the passage of a laden ass. We had to wait while a couple of men with their asses crossed and then we took their place on the structure, which swayed high above the river. There were a number of slats missing from the footway, so we had to be careful where we placed our feet. It seemed a long way down to the sluggish water.

We landed amid the vineyards and followed a country path or bridle path leading to Casa Gobbino and beyond. We travelled on to San Cristoforo, where we climbed once again into the wooded hills. At Casa Piaggia-alta the road forked, and we turned east, descending finally to the main road leading to Casa Castalda.

The trees continued. They were still and silent. No rabbits darted for cover, no blackbird rose, scolding in alarm. The only trace of any activity were the scars of the charcoal burners’ fires. The track veered westerly. It was no use thinking of climbing the mountainside through the dense trees in the hope of remaining on course, so we followed the track through ranks of tall chestnut trees. There were so many of those that I assumed they had been planted, and so silent, that we could hear a chestnut drop to the ground at some distance. They sounded like rain dripping slowly from the leaves after a shower.

In the middle of the afternoon, we came out at last into the sunshine by a couple of four storeyed buildings which looked like city tenements. It was a though a fragment of a city slum had been mislaid in the countryside.

[digital page 3]

We were now in the open and could at least see around for a little distance, but there was no sign of any village, or even a farm. These large buildings, standing in such isolation, seemed so incongruous that I puzzled over their purpose. The mystery deepened when hordes of lively children swarmed out into the fresh air. All I could think of by way of explanation was that this was where the workers of some large estate were housed. At any rate, they were no use as accommodation for us.

We cut across country into the general area of San Donato, and from here we followed minor roads and tracks to Casa San Giovanni, and past Monte delle Croci downhill to the bridge at Piano della Pieve. This is the point that remains clearest in my memory, for there was a signpost at the bridge, one arm of which pointed southwards to Assisi.

At the time I thought the tree-lined river to be the upper reaches of the Tiber, but the map shows it to have been the river Tescio. It ran south westerly at the foot of an escarpment, with the open plain on its left bank. It was nearly sunset, and the sky to the west was blood red, with the escarpment a deep purple, reminding me of scenes in the desert of North Africa. Heavy banks of cloud had covered the rest of the sky, and the light was fading.

Some way off, near the river across the plain. We saw their lively figures as we approached, and they gave us many curious glances.

I knocked at the door of a two storeyed house with latticed windows, and we were at once admitted with great courtesy, and were soon enjoying a noisy meal with the family. Despite my protestations, we were again induced to occupy a bed, and sank into the sweet, feather mattress with sighs of pleasure, tinged with feelings of guilt at our lousy condition.

Hardly, it seemed, had we fallen asleep, then we were awakened by the sound of powerful aircraft engines and the thud of distant explosions. We leapt out of bed and ran to the window. Somewhere near Perugia an air raid was in progress, and we watched the flashes and the bright cascades of fire bombs, thinking a little enviously perhaps, of the pilots, who would be having bacon and eggs in a few hours’ time.

The following morning was overcast. Rain threatened, and we returned no further than the bridge before heavy raindrops pocked the dusty road. We resigned ourselves to having to endure a wet day, but the rain held off and we were able to keep moving with no additional discomfort.

After a couple of miles, the road climbed northward, so we left it and struck across country. I can remember nothing of the next few hours, but without the sun we were unable to use the watch as a compass, and drifted off course more to the eastward than we wished. Finally, we came downhill to a broad, open valley, like a desolate Yorkshire moor, and found a rough road that led us to Vittiano, a collection of a few houses.

[digital page 4]

Here a metalled road ran parallel to a railway, on the further side of which grasslands swept upwards to the mountains, which were about 3000 feet high. From where we stood, we could see few signs of habitation, and Barry was dubious about using the highway. The sun broke through weakly, and we were at last able to get our bearings. About a mile to the north there was a railway station and the road turned eastwards at a level crossing. We decided to try this direction, although it took us at first out of our way, so we set off towards the station.

A few shabby bystanders paid us little attention as we passed the crossing gates, and the empty road led us, in a couple of miles, to Nocerna Umbra. As the first stone houses of the village came in sight the rain began to fall heavily, so we ran down the garden of the first house we met and asked for a night’s lodging.

We were invited in with the usual courtesy and made to feel at home. After a wash and shave we were shown into the parlour, a cheerful little room with pot plants, table covers, antimacassars and a patterned carpet, which created a delightfully Victorian atmosphere.

It reminded me strongly of my godmother’s living room, where in winter, the kettle would be bubbling on the hob of a bright fire.

We were as reluctant to stop so early in the day as we were to get soaked by continuing, and we fidgeted impotently. Barry was uneasy to be stopping in a village and prowled restlessly round the little room. The rain thundered down, and the clock on the wall ticked away solemnly, telling us that it was still only 2 o’clock and that we had a long time to wait for the evening meal.

Now and again the good folk of the house came in to have a chat, but mostly they were busy elsewhere. They told us that there was a large band of partisans in the woods around, but could furnish us no details. We discussed joining them, but concluded that, apart from the difficulty in locating them, we had doubts about their ability to conduct a successful guerrilla war. They were brave and bold enough in the attack, but could they maintain the necessary security, or curb their impatience, for by temperament they seemed impulsive and garrulous.

Happily, the rain ceased and the sun broke through, so we decided to press on for a few hours before seeking a night’s shelter. We were both glad to get out again on to the wet road and to head for remoter regions. We thanked our hosts, who seemed disappointed at our departure, and set off once more with the air fragrant after the rain.

The road, to our surprise, bent round in the direction we wanted, and we followed it uphill past Petracchio and along the ridge to Stravignano, where, once again, it came on to rain.

[digital page 5]

We took shelter in a house, along with a number of young men, footloose deserters from the army. Everyone was relaxed and friendly. There was a smell of damp clothing, and the sound of chatter and laughter. I remember examining the family photographs that were stuck on the wall above the dresser. The old folk stared out, stiff and self-conscious in their best clothes; the young men, in ill-fitting uniforms, gazed wide-eyed and innocent, and I wondered how fate had dealt with this family group.

After about an hour the rain ceased, the sky cleared, and we were able to move on. We let the young men get ahead and followed at a distance. With so many seeking shelter, we would have to find a route of our own, so when they continued straight on at Sorifa, we took the track that branched off past Ceresoli and le Prata.

We were now in a gloomy, empty valley. They sky was again overcast, and not a house was in sight. The light was beginning to fade and it seemed more than likely that we would be stranded for the night in the inhospitable surroundings. I began to regret having left the comfort of the house we had found earlier, and became more and more anxious as the road stretched on grey and empty, between the mountain slopes.

The darkening mountains, silent and unconcerned, made me increasingly conscious of our puny insignificance in their realm. It was dispiriting to tramp on in the twilight with this ever-present feeling of futility.

We tramped on in silence, keeping our thoughts to ourselves, and hardly noticed that the road had curved round the shoulder of the mountain, until suddenly we had the welcome sight of a group of houses on the road ahead. We were so relieved that even Barry agreed that we must try to spend the night in this hamlet, beyond which the mountains loomed in the dusk, forming a Spartan amphitheatre. There was no other chance of shelter as far as we could see.

We passed through the hamlet and enquired at the last house, where we were hospitably received, much to our relief. So here we were, more than 2000 feet high, in the lonely hamlet of Cassignano, resting comfortably on the hay in tire stable after a good and companionable supper. It could rain now, if it liked.

[digital page 6]

Chapter 9 – A Friendly Baker

Maps 11 & 12

It was a sparkling morning when we set off again. As usual, the first few minutes were painful as stiff muscles took the strain. My shoes were rock hard and difficult to put on after standing overnight, but they settled comfortably once I was properly into my stride. The stick on my shoulder, with its cheese and chianti flask at its end, seemed so much part of me that I seldom noticed it. We were keeping these life-giving stores for an emergency, and so far had not had to think seriously of using them. The relief of last night’s welcome lodging was still in our step, and we faced the day with renewed confidence.

The road ran round the deep, grassy basin that lay south of Cassignano, and on its slopes we gathered about 30 young men, keeping out of the reach of the authorities, and containing, no doubt, the cheerful lads we had met the day before. They hardly spared us a glance as we strode high above them on the road.

A fork in the road led steeply to Annifo. It was in the direction we wanted, but Barry remained chary of villages, so we continued on the road we were on, which looped round the hollow. In the same way we ignored the branches to Arvello and Fondi, and followed the road to point 873. We pondered on which track to take, and I suggested we might take a look over the mountain top, which was only a few hundred yards ahead, so we tramped over the turf to the crest and gazed over the Topino valley. The grassy hillside should, I thought, have been covered with flocks of sheep, but instead lay empty. The valley ran south and seemed an easy way to travel, but unfortunately there was both a road and a railway running its length. It was the line we had crossed the previous day. A goods train trundled south as we watched. German guards lolled at the open doors of the box cars, and we fancied it might be an ammunition train.

As we had kept away from highways as much as possible, we rejected this route and returned to the trackways. The track we chose led us through a shallow valley down to the road at kilometre 21. Taking a bearing, we climbed the opposite slope of Monte di Gupigliolo. At the top we found a classical pastoral scene. Sheep grazed quietly on the pasture, and others lay peacefully in the shade of scattered clumps of trees. In their midst, sitting on outcrops of rock, were groups of shepherds eating their midday meal. They even had musical pipes stuck into their belts.

They returned our greetings as we passed, but showed little interest in us. Again, I wondered why so few sheep were to be seen elsewhere.

[digital page 7]

The mountain now descended steadily to a valley, where the road to Popola ran. Quite by chance we had avoided the difficult and tedious gorge to Volperino, and had struck the easy, almost level walking of a grassy ridge. There was a pleasant, light breeze, sweetly scented after the earlier rain. Flying insects droned past, and overhead, flocks of woolly clouds drifted dreamily in a blue sky. The air was warm and humid, forcing us to carry our jackets and open our shirts to the breeze. Walking on the springy turf above the valleys on either hand was a pleasure.

The ground fell away to a valley, at the bottom of which we found the village of Verchiano, where we were given some hunks of bread for our lunch. Once we were again on the grassy hilltop, we ate the bread on the march. All afternoon we continued this idyllic progress until it was time to look for shelter. The stream at the bottom was narrow enough to jump, and the opposite bank was steep and thickly wooded. We clambered up, almost on hands and knees, and after a laborious struggle, came out on a road leading to Sellano, a few hundred yards away. We were never too keen to stay in a village, but the dying day gave us no option, so we turned towards it.

The road ran in a loop through the village, and we followed it to the furthest house, which was a low cottage. Knocking on the door, we asked the old lady who shuffled to it if we could stop there overnight. Doubt filled her tired, wrinkled face, but she bade us enter and sit down, telling us we would have to await the decision of her husband when he returned.

We sat in the stone-flagged room and waited. It was very like that at Casa Cerro, with sparse, battered furniture, and very little comfort. On the ledge of the single window above the sink, was a dish containing half a cold rice pudding. A meagre fire smouldered in the hearth. The old lady pottered about anxiously and the shadows lengthened. I was growing anxious too. If we could not stay the night here, we would find difficulty in finding other shelter as doors remained shut after dark. An old clock ticked away the time until at last, in the dusk, the old man appeared, bent double under a bulging sack, which he dropped with a grunt on the floor and straightened up. The sack was full of acorns, which he must have laboriously gathered in the woods. His brown and wrinkled face had a weary and dispirited look, as he gazed, unspeaking, at his wife. She explained our presence, to which he made no objection, but sat down glumly at the table, upon which his wife had placed the cold rice pudding. He gestured to us to join him, but appalled by the man’s poverty, we declined, and said we would wait outside until he was ready to show us where we could sleep.

Now that the sun had gone the temperature dropped steadily, and we were soon feeling the cold. After all, we were about 2000 feet above sea level. It seemed some time, but it could not have been long, before he came out, and in the gathering darkness, led us into the barn adjacent to the cottage, and showed us inside. It was in ruins. One end of the roof was missing and much of the wall had collapsed, so that we could see out to the sky, where the stars were beginning to shine.

[digital page 8]

He left us to make ourselves as comfortable as we could on the bundles of maize stalks that were piled in the remainder of the barn. We had no covers and lay on the unyielding stalks in a nest we devised. Strangely enough, we slept much of the night, but the cold woke us before dawn, and set us walking to and fro outside until daylight and life returned to the village.

As there was no sign of the old couple and we did not wish to disturb them, we moved down the road asking for food. All we received from that poverty-stricken place was half a stale loaf which, despite our sharp appetite, we found inedible.

The village stood on a steep-sided promontory between the junction of the Vigi and a tributary. The road ran back along the lower slopes of Monte Puriggia, and high above the Vigi valley, which ran due south. Its opposite bank rose steeply, a waste of furze and scrub oak, so we chose to follow the road down the valley, hoping to emerge in more open ground and to be able to turn more to the east. Vineyards covered the lower slopes above us at first, but otherwise the valley remained a wilderness. Below Colle, lying unseen above us behind its trees, a branch road ran across the river, but shortly after crossing the bridge it ended and became a mule track which followed the opposite bank of the river. To get off the road we took this track, but after a few miles further down, at Ponte Sargano, it re-crossed the river and re-joined the road. So did we for some unknown reason, and followed the road on the right bank once more. We were still hemmed in by the mountainside and were forced to keep to the road for the next hour or more.

By now the sun was giving a pleasant warmth, and on such a cheerful morning we went contentedly along the level road, although we were not heading in precisely the right direction.

At length the valley walls almost rubbed shoulders and the road climbed the hillside until it reached the highway to Triponzo. This ran northwards over a bridge high above the river into a huddle of buildings in a somewhat complex pattern. Above us on our right a railway ran high above the river Nera into Borgo Ceretto. Opposite this village, on a bluff where the Nera and Vigi met, squatted the village of Cerreto di Spoleto. We could not see how we were to get from one to the other, but as we crossed the bridge over the Vigi, we saw there was a second bridge at right angles to the first, and this took us over the Nera and landed us by the railway station.

There were plenty of people about and we got some curious glances. Once more Barry had to smother his disquiet and follow me boldly. The road turned sharply and ran parallel to the railway line to Ponte. Fortunately, it passed through its outskirts and we came to the valley of the Tissino, a fairly wide but shallow river splashing over its stony bed.

In one respect at least we were fortunate, for the valley ran directly south east. Its steep sides rose to over 3000 feet and seemed unbroken. A dense growth of scrub oak covered the higher slopes, and nearer the river, impenetrable thickets formed an absolute barrier.

[digital page 9]

A rough road led us along the river bank as far as the chapel at San Giuliano, where it turned into a mule track that ran north easterly up the mountainside. There was a pack horse crossing of rock slabs at this point, and a mule track beyond that followed the opposite bank, so we crossed the river without difficulty and followed its left bank until we came to a broad stretch of grass, where we halted to have a wash and shave.

The warm sun was spilling into the valley and sucking the mist from the surface of the water. We undressed, had a good sluice in the cold water, and I at least, for Barry had little need, of a shave. It was not a pleasant operation as I found that my only razor blade had split, and by the time I had finished, I was bleeding from several cuts, which took some time to staunch.

Nevertheless, when we resumed our march, I was feeling greatly refreshed, and as we could walk on the grassy bank, I was able to enjoy the early morning, even though I felt hungry after our long fast. The miles passed easily enough, and the valley sides grew steeper and closer as we moved upstream, so much so that we feared we would end up in an impassable gorge. We looked around for an alternative way out.

After about 6 miles by the river, we found a track leading up through the thickets and trees, and we decided to follow this in the hope of escaping from the menacing valley, which seemed to funnelling us into a trap. The stony track wound inconsequentially upwards until, at length, a huddle of stone houses came into view, which turned out to be the village of Mucciafora. The track ran past the village and ever upwards in a westerly direction. The houses seemed piled on top of one another on the slope beneath it. Nearest to us was a rustic café, with a group of men at cards and wine. They gave us incurious glances s we stood debating whether to continue in a completely wrong direction, or to return to the valley and take our chances of emerging from it higher up. We soon decided to turn back, and after wasting a considerable time, reached the river bank again and resumed our march along it.

Hardly had we done so than the head and shoulders of a man appeared above the thickets ahead. He was floating smoothly along, so we concluded that he was mounted, and as he emerged from the brush, we saw he was riding an ass and trailing a couple of others behind him. What particularly drew my attention was that he was wearing sheepskin chaps on his legs, like a cowboy in a western. I could readily appreciate their value in such overgrown country. He nodded as he passed, and encouraged by the thought that where he had come from, we could certainly go, we took his place in the head-high thickets.

The track persevered for a short while, and then ended at the river bank, which was cut away at that point by the hooves of pack animals, and we were forced to walk on the gravel of the river bed and simply follow its course. A small valley opened out on the other bank and the sun shone on a castle-like church of honey coloured stone some distance up it. It was backed by an unbroken mountain wall.

[digital page 10]

We were now heading south, with the sun in our faces. Before us the valley seemed to be opening out, although the almost vertical mountainside on our left continued without a gap. We spotted another scar in the river bank, where the mule track began again, and we followed it up a gentle spur until we suddenly found ourselves in the pleasant village square of Roccatamburo, overshadowed on nearly all sides by mountain crags. We were ravenously hungry, and as it was noon, set about seeking a meal ticket.

Our luck was in, for at the first house we chose we were gladly welcomed indoors and immediately served with a splendid meal. The room was high-ceilinged and stone-flagged -very cool after the warm sun. It was comfortably appointed, and the various household implements, common to all rural houses and made of copper, were arranged on dressers, or hanging on hooks, and all were highly polished. Though all the articles were now familiar to me, I had noticed that as I passed from valley to valley, each region seemed to have its own design, as though the articles were manufactured in each locality.

Our host was a genial and expansive character, who held us in lively conversation and saw to it that we lacked for nothing. We thanked him heartily when we left, no longer hungry.

Standing once more in the hot sunshine, we surveyed the road before us. It ran south west along a valley, which was inconvenient, but the crags of Monte Piergentili on our left presented an equally unpromising route, so we were left with no choice but to follow the road hope for the best.

Barry, of course, hated highways, and though this one, like all the rest, remained deserted, sought the first opportunity of leaving it and climbing into the hills. After tramping a couple of miles and finding a side road therefore, we turned off and climbed up to San Guiseppe, where it petered out into a mule track, which wound upwards through the trees to the shoulder of Monte della Rocoa, from which we could survey the valley below, with the road running along it like a grey ribbon.

Monte Carpenale thrust its bulk into the southern end of the valley, causing the road to loop at right angles and seek a path round its foot. It looked as though we might find a path eastwards at this point, though we could see mountain ridges beyond, for below us, where the road still ran straight, was a solitary house in a clump of trees, past which ran a mule track. This continued directly across the loop in the road in a south easterly direction. As we looked, a woman came out of the house and busied herself out of doors. We wondered if we could make this our stopping place for the night. We were beginning to find that there were no scattered farms in the mountains, and that the only buildings to be found were clustered together in hamlets or villages, usually on a hill or a spur. A solitary house, therefore, merited attention, even though it was close to a road.

[digital page 11]

We ran and leapt down the mountainside, crossed the road and approached the house. It was large and square, with many tall, shuttered widows and what appeared to be large garages at the side. We looked at it dubiously. The peasants had always proved helpful and generous, but would the middle-class resident of this country house be as forthcoming, or would they be involved with the authorities and betray us? Barry wanted to move on at once, but the day was now very hot and I was thirsty and thought we might at least get a drink of water out of our halt.

When I asked the lady for water, I tried to gauge her attitude. It proved to be as cool as the water itself, which was handed to me in a glass. Plainly she wanted this ruffian to move on, so with a word of thanks, I obliged her.

The mule track cut off two loops on the road, which continued due south. We had been marching in that direction all day without being able to turn east. A mule track appeared on our left which showed promise, so we tried it, only to find that it turned immediately north, which brought us to a halt. We looked round for an alternative track and spotted a footpath leading up to a spur on our right by the boundary fence of a small pine plantation.

Although it ran south, it was not far to the top, and once there, we hoped to get a helpful view of the country ahead, so we trudged up to take a look.

At the summit we found ourselves on a rounded col. There was a notice on a piece of white board at the comer of the plantation which simply said ‘Poggio’. The col sloped away gradually to the east until it met a steep escarpment running south. This marked the far side of the very Tassino valley that had trapped us for much of the morning, and it remained as desolate as before, we would have no chance of a friendly night’s shelter. The sign must indicate a nearby village, possibly the Poggiodomo I had noticed on a road sign. It seemed our only option so late in the day. There was no track, so we walked on the turf for a short distance until a collection of houses on each side of a wide, unpaved street, proved indeed to be Poggiodomo.

We passed by the little church, knocked on the first door on the outskirts, and were accepted at once.

‘Come back after dark’ said the padrone, a chubby man in a white apron. I shall look after you then’.

We were always happy to slip unnoticed into any house that offered us hospitality, as it was safer for the householder to do good by stealth. We had to hide ourselves for some time until darkness fell. Nothing stirred in the village. It was about the time of the evening meal, so we strolled casually through the street and hid ourselves behind a rocky outcrop that dropped sheer to the road below, and we idly scanned the country about us as we waited for the sun to sink behind the mountains to our front. It had hardly done so when a German halftrack trundled briskly along the road towing a 105mm gun. We continued our vigil with awakened interest, but no further movement occurred, and as the dusk gathered, we

[digital page 12]

retraced our steps through the village, intending to be near our house, so that we could identify it before it grew too dark.

We were halfway up the street when we saw approaching us a policeman in the black uniform of the Caribinieri, with his carbine slung over his shoulder. He was talking animatedly to a civilian as they walked and so did not see us. I gripped Barry’s elbow, turned him round carefully, and steered him quietly into the first open door we came across. In the dark interior, father, mother, grandparents and a host of children were seated round a large table eating their supper. I nodded and smiled, signing for them to keep quiet, but beyond a brief stare they ignored our uninvited presence and continued with the serious business of eating.

We waited some time, while the light continued to fade, and then we cautiously emerged to find the coast clear. Unhurriedly, we continued to the end of the street, located our house, and sat down behind the church to await the darkness.

When we knocked at the door again, we were admitted, with a great show of welcome, into the stone-flagged parlour, in which a fire shone brightly. The padrone was the village baker, and his wife, in a spotless apron, was as hospitable as he, so we had a very good meal, followed by a glass or two of wine, and quite a comfortable conversation in my limited Italian until it was time for us all to retire. He pointed out that he would have to get up early to bake, and promised he would wake us before dawn. He then gave us a heavy shepherd’s cloak and showed us a stall next door half filled with sweet hay, upon which we dropped and at once fell asleep.

[digital page 13]

Chapter 10 – Back to School

Maps 13 & 14

It was still dark when we awoke. We could hear our host at work on the other side of the wall, and after we had lain for some time, reluctant to get up, but unable to sleep further, we dragged on our footwear and stepped outside into the bitter mountain air. No stars were visible, and we had to grope for the bakery door in the dark. Lifting the latch, we stepped into the comforting warmth. We were in deep shadow, but the far end of the room glowed in the light of the fire and of a cruse lamp which hung from a beam above the table. It was a scene that would have attracted Caravaggio. The baker was engrossed in his work, so barely paused to give us a cheerful welcome and ask us if we had slept well. He indicated two chairs near the warm blaze and we sat there in its comfort for quite some time before his wife bustled in, pleasantly smiling, and gave us something to eat. As we prepared to leave, the baker held up his hand and asked us to wait a moment. He went into the bakery and returned with a hot loaf, which he gave to me with a grin. We thanked them both, and left them at the door, dim figures in the faint light of approaching dawn.

There was no track, so we retraced our steps of the day before as far as the corner of the pine plantation, from where we continued downhill eastwards. I stuffed the loaf inside my jacket, and felt the comfort of its warmth. The smell of hot crust rose like a benison at every step. We came across a mule track and followed it until we reached the bank of the Tissino again, which at this point was merely a wide stream running along in a deep gully. As the light strengthened, we saw we were in a narrow valley hemmed in by mountains rising to about 3000 feet on either side. There appeared to be a fair amount of scrub oak on the steep slope opposite, and the risk of losing ourselves in it, especially in the poor light, decided to continue up the alley and see what might befall.

Dawn broke and we could now see well ahead. Not only did the valley insist on running south, it now began to bend to the west in an exasperating way. Just as tantalising to me was the smell of the bread under my jacket. I could bear it no longer, so plucking the loaf out, I tore it in half and Barry and I munched it as we went along.

We were forced to follow the river valley. A mule track led us to Usigni, where no-one was yet astir. Once through the village we came out on the Poggiodomo road again. This ran more or less south round Monte Sciudri. We took a likely mule track that took us off the road, only to find that it led us back to it again in a short distance. The long ridge and the densely wooded bulk of Monte Alta and Monte Marsa prevented our westward passage, so we were forced to follow the Vorga valley parallel to the ridge along the road to Pulcini and Carmine. At last, the mountain ridge yielded and the road turned eastwards and finally ran along the ancient wall of Leonessa.

[digital page 14]

We stopped at the bridge over the Tastino, where there was a road sign to Monteleone, the road to which ran along the eastern wall of the town. There was a gateway where the two walls met, and from where we stood, we could see some way up the steep main street that rose up the hillside on which the little town stood. I was so intrigued that, despite Barry’s pleas, I left him chafing by the bridge and walked up the hill, through the gateway and into the town.

What impulse drove me I cannot say. Perhaps I was reacting against having to avoid all inhabited places. Besides, I had a theory that I would be inconspicuous in a crowded street. Whatever it was, I found myself idling up the narrow street, which ran directly up the hill, and apparently straight through the town. It was paved with large, flat cobbles, and the stone fronts of its buildings stood shoulder to shoulder in substantial cliffs effectively blocking off any escape. I moved quietly on, passing the open door of a barber’s shop. Everyone in its dim interior turned to stare at me and all those in the street turned to look at a stranger. This unwelcome attention effectively disposed of my theory, and I discreetly abandoned my excursion and withdrew, realising that, apart from curious citizens, populated centres had their quota of carabinieri only too anxious to make an arrest.

Barry was relieved to see me return so soon, and we lost no time in seeking our way out of the new valley in which we now found ourselves confined.

Picking up my stick, which I had left by the bridge, we trudged up a mule track that climbed steeply up the mountain before us, only to discover that it turned and ran parallel to the valley. A short distance to the left of the track had lain a little side road, so we turned back to investigate this. It too turned parallel to the valley as far as we could see, so we returned to the bridge and reluctantly decided to follow the road up the valley as it seemed to turn to the south east further up.

In a few minutes the mountains, 5000 feet high, crowding in, shut off the sun from the valley floor, leaving only their tops shining whitely in its light. It gave me a sudden unease to realise I was gazing at the first snowfall of the coming winter, for a dusting of snow, like icing sugar on a sponge cake, covered the mountain crests, warning us of hardships ahead if we were unsuccessful in reaching our advancing troops before winter set in. It was now late October, and we had no idea how much further we would have to march before we re-joined the army, or how indeed we would manage to do it. We still clung to the original plan of lying low somewhere and allowing the army to overrun us. At all events, the appearance of snow added a sense of urgency to the journey, which had so far been undemanding.

We had gone about a mile when the constriction of the valley became oppressive. We began to feel trapped. There was no cover on the bare mountainsides, and a vehicle had only to come along the road to find us completely exposed. Barry readily agreed with my suggestion that we turn back and try the mule track, which would at least carry us out of harm’s way.

[digital page 15]

Back we went to the bridge and had another look at the mule track we had already climbed once. Thinking there must be an easier way, we tried the side road again and this time passed further along it. To our immense satisfaction, after heading north for a short way, it abruptly turned east, and led us gently into a spreading valley, where we found the going very easy. This was just as well, for I had developed an aching calf muscle and my right shoe was beginning to break up as the stitching on one of its many patches was coming away from the uppers, though the sole remained sound. This was an intimation of future trouble, and I hoped fervently we were nearing our journey’s end, though of that there was no sign.

South of Piedelpoggio a mule track branched off in the direction we wanted, so we followed it along the mountainside, from which the snow soon disappeared as the sun rose higher. The mountain bore us easterly for miles, and we did not mind travelling in this direction, for we felt it adjusted our course, since we had been travelling southerly for so long. Eventually the track ran down into the valley and brought us into the little village of Posta, nestling under an escarpment that blocked our forward path.

It was after midday and our last meal had been the shared loaf at dawn, so we were pretty hungry, and the first thing I did was to ask for food. The result was startling. Word flashed round the houses and in an instant, we were surrounded by an excited crowd pressing gifts of food upon us in frantic competition. Bread, sausage, fruit was lifted high in eager hands, and we were begged to accept them all. We had far more than we could carry, and I did my best to refuse the excess without causing offence. White teeth flashed from brown faces, black eyes gleamed, arms waved and voices clamoured as the crowd stretched out to touch and pat us. The eager inhabitants, young and old, overwhelmed us with their desire to be of help. I began to wonder whether such a demonstration might not attract unwelcome attention, and all the while kept sidling along the village street trying to free myself from their enthusiasm. At length, with many smiles and cries of ‘Auguri!’ they allowed us to get clear of the village.

Behind the houses we found the river Velino running at the foot of the escarpment, through which it had cut a narrow gap. We crossed the bridge and passed through, only to discover the way to be apparently blocked by the almost sheer side of another feature. As we approached, we came upon the river Ratto, which flowed to join the Velino. At this point the road forked and a lesser road crossed the Ratto to the right and climbed steeply into the mountains, which blocked our view. It was a toss-up which road to follow, for there was no real indication of the eventual direction of either. We chose the one that seemed to lead eastwards, and followed it along the bank of the Ratto, where we sat down to enjoy the food we had been given.

We took a rest within sound of running water, and very pleasant it was. It took some effort eventually to struggle to our feet and continue our journey. It was easy going on almost level ground. Across the river the mountainside fell back until it looked like an English

[digital page 16]

fellside, but on our left it crowded us to the river bank, and presented a steep and forbidding wall, densely packed with scrub oak.

After about an hour’s tramp by the side of the river, the first scattered houses of Borbona came into view. It was early afternoon, but we decided we had covered enough ground for one day, and agreed to seek shelter for the night at one of the houses. As we had time to spare, we were able to freshen ourselves in the river, where the steep side hid us from view. Here I had a careful shave, using the water as a mirror. Afterwards, we sat inside the edge of the trees and examined such houses as we could see.

They stood on both sides of the river. Those on the near side were too close to the road for safety, but across the river there was what looked like a farmhouse a little detached from the others, which we made our target.

When sufficient time had elapsed, we moved off to find a way over the river and soon came across a stone bridge quite close to the house we had chosen, but sufficiently distant to give little danger from inquisitive idlers.

The house was substantially built of weathered stone, with small, latticed windows. It had a stone slated porch which reminded me of a Dales farm. On each side of the doorway hung strings of tomatoes, peppers and fungi, which emitted a strange scent as I stood there. I made my standard request, with the same distaste I always felt, and, thankfully, it was received with the enthusiastic liberality we had come to expect. We were invited into the stone-flagged dining room. It was dominated, as usual, by the huge fireplace, but unlike other Italian houses, had a low timbered ceiling. Suspended from the beam was an encouraging profusion of all kinds of food, including hams, sausages of every colour, strings of onions, bunches of garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and even bunches of grapes. Like a squirrel, the padrone was well prepared for winter.

We were pressed to join them at table as soon as it was piled with provisions, and the family of teenagers gathered noisily round and set to as did we, with hearty appetites. The wine came out and circulated freely, and when the meal was over, I asked if I could share my Chianti with them. They smilingly refused, but allowed me to open the bottle. It suddenly occurred to me that I had never given a thought about this, although I had been carrying the wine for hundreds of miles. It would have been difficult to have tried to remove the cork with a nail file, which was my only tool, so I took this lucky chance to remedy my oversight.

Finding that Barry had no flask, the two lads laughingly presented him with an army water bottle, which they filled with wine, seeming to be pleased to be of help.

It was not yet sunset, and the boys evidently had some work to do, for they set off across the bridge with packed rucksacks, and left us sitting on a bench by the door in the last of the sunshine.

[digital page 17]

As I idly scanned the tree-covered mountainside opposite us, I spotted some movement on the upper slopes, and then a family of two adults and two children crossed a clearing, apparently following a track to the crest. The adults were carrying suitcases, and all had rucksacks. I wondered who these people were, wandering at this time of day, and concluded that they must be Yugoslavs, for we had met similar groups on the move on occasions. Presumably they had been interned by the Germans and freed by the Italians when they broke away from the Axis forces. The plight of the children oppressed me. Although they were well and suitably dressed, they were facing an uncertain future. It made me reflect on the incomprehensible convulsions of war that so disrupted ordinary lives.

My thoughts were interrupted by the noisy return of the boys, who asked us to follow them to our sleeping quarters. Darkness was rapidly falling as they led us through the empty and silent street. They fell silent too, though they seemed to be bursting with an exciting secret. It was quite dark when they led us into the village school. Some desks had been cleared away from the middle of a classroom, and our beds had been made up for us on the floor.

To crown all, they turned on the school radio and tuned it in to London. We were in time for the news, which the boys thought an immense joke. We learned that our troops had reached the Sangro river, wherever that was, so it seemed we might have that obstacle to cross to reach them. Telling us to show no lights, the boys whispered ‘Buona notte!’ and with many giggles, promised to rouse us before first light in the morning.

We lay down, wrapped ourselves in blankets, and lay gazing at the stars, which shone through the classroom windows. The temperature rapidly dropped and the cold nipped my nose as I snuggled down to sleep in the comforting warmth of the plentiful bedding the lads had provided.

As promised, they returned while it was still dark, and led us back to the farm, still apparently enjoying their role of conspirators. Breakfast awaited us, and by dawn we were ready again for the road. Before we left, however, our hostess pressed into our hands a box of food for the journey, and the whole family gathered at the door to wave farewell, and to wish us good luck.

[digital page 18]

Chapter 11 – A Night in the Open

Maps 14, 15, 16 & 17

We crossed the bridge, avoided the main street, and went straight ahead for the mountainside, where we took the mule track that had been used, I supposed, by the refugee family of the previous evening. It went steeply upwards through the trees, taking us past the old working places of the charcoal burners, and down to the Ville de Fano road towards Casaproba, which we skirted until we got to the track to Gabbia. Again, we kept away from the village, because we found all of them crowded with refugees, mainly young deserters, but also many families. Washing hung everywhere, and every upper window was hung with mattresses and blankets airing in the sun.

Taking occasional bearings, we moved along the eastern contours of Monte Gabbia and Monte Gelate until we were above Termine. The country alternated between thick woodlands and open grasslands. Olive groves lined the valleys, where most of the villages lay. Passing between Termine and San Cosimo, we climbed up Monte Lato. As we came past its wooded peak, we had a wonderful view to the east between Monte Rua to the south and the shoulder of Monte Lato, which cut off our view to the north.

In the foreground the lower peaks shut off any view of the valley below us. A sombre overcast gave an air of menace to the mountains, which reared up, like solidified, broken breakers, right across our front. Behind them, towering up and piled in gnarled heaps, was the purple mass of a great block of mountains. Unknown to us then, they were the Gran Sasso massif. Here Mussolini, the deposed dictator, had been held. A month previously he had been rescued by a daring German parachute raid and was now in the north of Italy. In the lowering, sulphurous atmosphere, the rugged peaks seemed a formidable barrier, aloof and impenetrable.

Greatly impressed by the grandeur of the scene, I stood gazing for some time before turning away. Within a few steps the nearby mountainside hid all from sight. The track joined a road that led us towards Casaline. A mule track then turned up the wooded slope to the road at Monzano, which we passed to the west, finding a useful track that led us along the contours. We could sense that the mountains ahead were opening out into a wide valley, but we had to leave the track and walk across the springy turf to the flat top of Monte Soffiavento, before we could see anything of what lay ahead.

[digital page 19]

The mountain mass we had seen earlier now reappeared in the far distance. The sky had cleared, and the rearing masses of rock seemed more benign. At their foot, in the middle distance, about 10 miles away, the houses of l’Aquila formed a red and white patch in the late afternoon sun. Between us lay an extensive valley, much of which was hidden behind the ridge ahead, so we moved on until we stood on La Toretta, like Moses on Pisgah, to view the promised land.

It was a beautiful sight. The green valley swept away before us, rising gradually to the mountains about 10 miles off. Scattered over the plain and foothills, like daisies in a meadow, were the white walls of villages, hamlets and farms. We had not seen so populated a countryside since leaving the Po valley.

Though the scene was most attractive, it posed a few problems. The foothills were too far away to be reached before nightfall and to wander about seeking shelter with so many curious eyes upon us, would discourage offers of help. We did not wish to expose any hospitable householder to too great a risk, so we decided to streak across the valley in the quiet of dawn.

Accordingly, we looked for a spot that was hidden from sight, and found one in a hollow amid trees and bushes. It had an earth wall of about 6 feet high on one side, and I collected plenty of dry sticks and lit a fire against it, satisfied to see that it gave no smoke. We pulled bushes into the hollow to form a next (?), and sat by the fire to keep warm as the darkness gathered.

All we had left to eat were a few lumps of bread from our packed lunch. They were dry after so long a time. We considered broaching my sheep’s cheese, which I carried tied to the end of my stick, but we decided it must remain as an iron ration for a sterner emergency.

We took a swig or two of wine, and I was thankful that I had loosened the cork at the farm. Then we toasted the bread on the end of a stick and chewed it slowly.

There was no wind, but the air soon cooled, and we found it hard to keep warm when we lay on our springy branches. We shivered and turned restlessly, unable to sleep. Every now and then we had to stir the fire and round it to warm up before trying again to sleep. At first light we were still awake, heavy eyed and shivering.

We took great care to extinguish our friendly fire, and then moved off in the semi darkness towards the valley. We passed between Scoppio and Cese without noticing either of them, and in half an hour or so, with the light strengthening, we crossed the Pretaro road and, almost immediately the one to l’Aquila. We now found ourselves in a complex of roads, railway and river. The bulk of the railway station was the most prominent feature. We would normally have steered clear of it, but it was so early that there were no signs of life, and the road to the station led to a bridge across the river, so we made straight for it and passed safely over.

[digital page 20]

The sleeping villages of Sassa and Colle lay before us, and we slipped unobtrusively between them into the open country beyond. It was not so open as we had imagined, however, for every vineyard, olive grove and field was enclosed within drystone walls, which proved tedious obstacles to our direct progress. At length we came across a country road, itself wall-lined, leading directly to the hills, and as the countryside remained deserted at this early hour, we hurried along as briskly as we could.

We soon warmed up, and by the time we were approaching the village of Colle di Lucoli, the sun had risen and was soon adding to the warmth.

A few houses came into sight. They were lining the road, so we left it and made our way around a labyrinth of walls to a bungalow at the edge of the village. We made a brief survey of the houses beyond. They were all bunched around a tangle of cobbled lanes and surrounded by drystone walls. Not a soul stirred, and no smoke arose from any roof, but as we approached our chosen bungalow, the lace curtain was drawn aside and the thin, brown face of middle-aged lady peeped through. When she answered my knock, she turned out to be a tiny little woman with quick, birdlike gestures. Two bright eyes, as round and as black as a robin’s, twinkled at me.

I had barely started my appeal before she welcomed me in as though in were her son. Everything within was neat and tidy.

‘Rest yourselves, boys. You will wash? Of course. All will be prepared’.

She rattled this off without a pause for breath, almost dancing with the excitement of having company to entertain.

She bustled about, prepared to meet our slightest wish. We washed and shaved in comfort using real hot water, and then sat down to a substantial breakfast.

‘You would stay longer? You are tired. You must rest. Here is the bed. I am going out. When I return we shall eat again’.

In vain we stressed we were lousy and too dirty to lie on her immaculate bed. She insisted, and seemed so disappointed at our reluctance, that to please her, we partially undressed, and feeling intensely guilty. We stretched ourselves on her soft bed, while she drew the curtains and left us, beaming all over her lively face.

We were certainly in need of sleep after our restless night in the open, but all the time we lay there I was thinking what a risk the little lady was taking, and how much time we were losing, so that when she returned about 2 hours later, we insisted we must go, and left her, very disappointed, to wish us good luck from her doorway.

[digital page 21]

The lanes were by now bustling with people, and we sought an early opportunity to escape into the solitude of the mountains. At the end of one straggling row of houses a mule track ran away steeply up the mountainside, but in the opposite direction to the one we wanted. We were only too eager to take it, however, and get clear of the village. In a short distance we were looking down on its rooves, and the track turned like a hairpin and led us exactly on course along a ridge towards the highest point.

Now it was uphill all the way from 4000 to about 6000 feet along the crest of the ridge, with its outcrops of rock. For much of the time the track lay below the crest, which reflected the glare of the sun. It was beginning to roast us. Occasionally we could see over the top to the ridge opposite. It was densely wooded, and from the trees arose the grey smudges of the charcoal burners’ fires. I counted 23 of them, but there was no other sign of life.

We were in shirt sleeves by now and streaming with sweat beneath the burning sun. I took a swig at Barry’s water bottle. The wine was warm, and tainted by its metal container. I offered Barry my flask, which he took, but subsequently rejected in favour of his own disgusting brew. With a clear conscience, therefore, I clung to my Chianti, and a regular swig from it was all that kept me on my feet during the gruelling climb.

At about this time we passed our first group of charcoal burners. Their asses, daintily picking their way down the track, laden with charcoal, while the men walked behind. Their swarthy faces and sombre clothes were impregnated with the soot from their calling. We exchanged greetings, and their teeth gleamed like coalminers’ coming off shift.

By the later afternoon we dropped into a little hollow where two tracks crossed, and there was a weather-beaten sign pointing to Casamina. The sun had, thankfully, lost its power, and my Chianti flask, alas, its contents. I hid it in some bushes, and finding that my cheese had now shrunk, stuffed it into a pocket and threw away the stick. It seemed odd to have both hands free.

The declining sun warned us that it was time to look for shelter, but we were reluctant to descend to the village, with the prospect of having to climb back again the following day, preferring to stay on the ridge and hope to reach the end of it before dark. We were regretting having lost so much time earlier on.

An hour later we were still climbing, and again came across a little hollow where this time several tracks met. We reconnoitred one to the left. Some way off, in the middle of a sparse clump of trees, stood a black building of some sort. We could only see a part of it, and surmised that a shepherd might be there. However, when we approached, we found it to be an immensely long Nissen hut. It looked incongruous in such an empty wilderness, and we wondered what it contained.

[digital page 22]

Lifting the latch, we walked in and found ourselves surrounded by sheep. As far as we could see in the gloom, there were also piles of filled sacks, which might have contained wool, but what chiefly drew our attention was the bright light from a fire in the middle of the room, which fell upon a group of about a dozen men who were gathered around it.

They turned their heads in our direction as we entered.

Without a word we withdrew.

‘Too crowded’ I thought.

A single host was what we had hoped for. Somehow the atmosphere in the hut seemed uncongenial. It felt as frosty as the air outside which, now the sun had gone, smote us as we stepped into it. Closing the door, we trudged back to the track. We had our jackets on now against the cold, and I wrapped my silk scarf around my neck and stuck my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. Behind us the last, red gleam of the sunset were fading from the sky, and the darkness was stealthily gathering. We pushed on quickly, both to keep warm and to get off the mountain before it grew too dark to move. We were, at last, going downhill, which was encouraging, but had no idea of how far it was to the next valley.

The track ran along the side of Monte di Bagno, and then round the shoulder of Monte Ocre. It grew wider by the minute, and as the track swung round a barren, shale-covered mountainside, with a steep drop into the darkness, little clouds of mist began to form in the air. I must admit I began to feel uneasy, for we were inescapably hemmed in, and the path was very tenuous over the moving shale. The darkness crept around. It was almost tangible. The mist clouds expanded remorselessly. The last thing we wanted on this treacherous slope was an impenetrable fog.

At last, the trail began to drop steeply, and we almost ran down it, until we passed into pinewoods. Here the track widened comfortingly and we seemed to have left the mist above us. Some sort of a house appeared in the gloom. I hammered on the door, but there was no response, so we hurried down the steep mountainside with the first stars above the treetops.

Eventually we came out on a spur, and saw a wide plain stretching into the darkness before us. Something loomed overhead and we froze. It was the cold, metal finger of a German 88. We had walked straight into a German gun emplacement. It was sited to command the road, that ran like an arrow across the plain, gleaming faintly in the starlight. I now blessed the fortunate chance that had caused us to rest in the morning, otherwise we should have landed on the gun in daylight, when Germans were about, but as far as we could see, there was no sentry.

[digital page 23]

We did not wait to find out if one was about, but seeing the lights of some houses twinkling far off across the plain, hurried over the road, and made directly towards them. We had vaguely made out the rooves of Rocce di Cambio near the gunsight, but expecting the German crew to be billeted there, we left it astern.

The stars gave us enough light, and our eyes were accustomed to the dark, so we made good progress over the flat plain until we were faced by a deep and wide ditch, in which water coldly gleamed. Luckily there was a footbridge close at hand, so we easily crossed this obstacle and arrived at the village of Terranera.

We reached a road, along which the village appeared to stretch and chose a house standing somewhat on its own at the end of the row. The plump, middle aged man who appeared at the door was loath to have us. Quite naturally, he was afraid of the Germans across the plain. He was equally afraid of informers among the villagers, for there was always at least one feud or quarrel among the inhabitants of them all, as we later discovered.

It took me a considerable time to convince him that no one had seen us arrive and that no one would see us leave in the morning. With a very bad grace he let us enter.

He was living alone and cooked for the three of us, so that eventually we sat down to a welcome, if silent, meal, after which he showed us to an adjacent stable and left us to sleep on the straw, which we did without drawing another breath, being quite exhausted by the day’s march and the lack of sleep from the previous night.

[digital page 24]

Chapter 12 – Gagliano Aterno

Maps 17 & 18

Aware of the enemy in the neighbourhood, we awoke at the first hint of dawn. My leg was paining, my ankles were stiff, and my shoes were as hard as iron and chafed my feet as I forced them on. The right shoe was now falling apart and looking like a sandal. It would only last a further day or two at the most. Now that we had evidence of the enemy presence, we began to feel we were approaching the battle front and the end of our journey, which was just as well with such dubious footwear. This did not seem to worry me much. Our past success made me confident of the future and I felt, like Mr Micawber, that something was bound to turn up. By now I had realized that to worry was a waste of effort.

We found our host stirring and in a much better frame of mind now that he saw we were indeed keeping our promise to be off at first light. I could sense both his relief and his desire to make amends for his previous, churlish behaviour. He prepared a good cooked breakfast for us and we parted on good terms.

In the grey of the dawn the village street was empty. A low, tree smothered ridge ran behind it to the east and the flat plain was encircled on the other side by mountains. We came upon a mule track that seemed to follow the foot of the ridge, and as this ran in exactly the right direction, we gladly took it and began our customary climb into the highlands.

The track soon levelled out and made very easy walking, with the ridge on our left keeping us company all the way. The sun rose and warmed us and we made good progress for a couple of hours.

We avoided Pagliare di Fontecchio, as it was full of refugees, but we picked up the track again beyond it and continued on our way. Then we saw a single figure approaching us from ahead. He had a walking stick and marched along briskly. When we met, he gave us a cheerful greeting, and was obviously prepared for a chat.

I obliged him, hoping to learn something about the situation ahead of us. In his wizened face, weathered to a deep tan, a single blue eye gleamed merrily. He was full of energy, and bursting with good humour. He told us he was a butcher from Gagliano Aterno, a small village some way ahead of us, and was on his way to buy some beasts.

‘They are fine people, the Gaglianese. That’s the place to be. They look after prisoners.

They have helped others. The Tedeschi are there, but they think nothing of it. Go to Gagliano, that is a good place.’

[digital page 25]

I thanked him for his information, but made a mental note to avoid it if, as he said, it was occupied by Germans. We certainly seemed to be nearing the region of the front line, and although our walking days might soon be over, there would be other problems to deal with.

He waved to us as we moved jauntily on his way. I explained to Barry what I had learnt, for he had understood nothing of the conversation. Each thinking our own thoughts, we moved in single file along the narrow track.

Very soon we came upon Pagliare de Tione, huddled on the mountainside with no apparent reason for existence, like so many of the small villages we had met on our journey. We gave it a wide berth, since it was too crowded with refugees, and re-joined the track further on.

An hour’s march later we saw the circular entrance of a cave at the foot of the ridge. It was just the thing for a hideout, except that it was completely exposed to view.

Another hour or so brought us suddenly upon Sacinaro, perched above a valley, which spread open to the south. It was midday, time for a meal, so I knocked on the nearest door and was received by a slender woman dressed in the usual black. She was nervous, and explained that she was too frightened to help us as the ‘fascisti’ were active. She was quite obviously agitated, but agreed to give us a drink of water, first drawing us into the shelter of a wall, where we were hidden from sight. Despite her fear, she stoically waited until we had drunk, wished us luck, and turned indoors.

Her fears were well grounded, for a few months later, a Captain Simpson was shot dead by fascists in a sudden raid on the very cave we had just passed.

Life was getting a little complicated. There were, it appeared, no isolated dwellings where we could lie up in comparative safety, and the villages seemed likely to contain unfriendly and treacherous elements. I absorbed these facts, but remained curiously unperturbed.

We slipped out of the village without attracting attention, and headed for the high ground on the west of the valley. Once there we had a fine view of the countryside as it silently drowsed in the midday heat. The sides of the valley were not very high, perhaps 3000 feet, and they seemed fairly green and bare. A road ran its length at the foot of the eastern ridge, and in the heat, I could discern the village of Castelvecchio, with Castel di Teri on the higher reaches beyond it. The valley seemed largely uncultivated and there were no sheep to be seen on its grassy slopes.

The heavy silence was suddenly broken by a short burst of machinegun fire in the far distance.

[digital page 26]

‘Someone is cleaning his gun,’ I thought.

It sounded a peremptory warning. ‘You are now entering a military zone!’

Our track ran along the lower slopes of the western ridge, which was a mass of scrub oak on its highest slopes, but was covered with brushwood at our level. We came upon a stream that crossed our path, and so we took the opportunity to wash, shave and bathe our feet. I remember dropping my nail file and hunting desperately around until I saw it glinting in the mud. I had too few possessions to afford to lose any.

We ambled comfortably on until we came to a spot where the track had been washed away in some long past flood. It had scoured a gully about 25 yards wide into the mountainside, the upper part of which disappeared into pinewoods. Lower down we could see the rooves of a village. Where we stood, the edge of the gully had been undercut and had collapsed here and there. It was formed of a bonded aggregate of gravel, slabs of which stood on edge among other detritus from past falls.

When we climbed down into the gully, a descent of about 10 feet, we saw that the undercutting had formed a couple of likely caves, but again they were situated in too obvious a position, and so near the village that we dismissed them as being quite unsuitable.

Finding the mule track on the other side of the gully, we pressed on along the western ridge until the peak of Monte Ventrino came in sight. The ground below us was very broken and covered in trees, through which huge boulders pushed their grey heads. The higher slopes were more open, and high up the mountainside was a pocket handkerchief of a field, one of the many I had seen, for every square yard of fruitful land was utilised. I wondered how anyone reached these patches to cultivate them, and the answer came a few moments later. A young ploughman, leading his yoke of oxen, his wooden plough strapped to the back of his ass, was plodding through the small fields and olive groves in the direction of the isolated patch on the mountainside.

When the squall struck, we were completely exposed. Black clouds suddenly enveloped the mountain top, the air went chill, lightening flashed and thunder reverberated from peak to peak. Then the rain, driven by a wild wind, slanted down line a monsoon. It was icy cold and soaked us to the skin within a few strides. There was neither a rock nor a tree near to offer us shelter, so we doggedly walked on.

The squall ceased as quickly as it had started, and the sun beamed down once more. We were soaked and welcomed the warmth it brought as we squelched on. I was limping now, as my calf seemed to be in painful knots, and my broken shoe was in a sorry state. I tied a rag round it to hold it together, and stumped on until we came to the main road between Pescara and Rome.

[digital page 27]

It was the only coast to coast road in that section of Italy, and was obviously a strategic objective of importance. If we could settle ourselves to the south of it, we might well find ourselves enveloped by our own advancing army.

What lay immediately ahead, however, was a bleak, unpromising barrier of mountains with any apparently unbroken front.

It was too late in the day to attempt this obstacle, and we were both soaking wet and unfit to spend the night in the open, so we looked round for a refuge. A short distance below the road, the solitary farm of Casa Colananni stood, one of the few isolated building we had seen recently. It seemed to be the last house in the world in the empty landscape. It was that or nothing.

Once more I made my pitch to a very reluctant host. He refused repeatedly to have us under his roof, stressing the nearness of the road.

‘The Tedeschi use it all the time.’ he declared.

At length I persuaded him we would be very little trouble and would be off before dawn.

By now the family had gathered, silently cursing our presence, I suspected. Finally, I virtually thrust myself upon them, and they offered no resistance; but the atmosphere in the warm living room was very tense, for they regarded our presence as a distinct danger. However, I was desperate, and suppressed my uneasy conscience for the sake of survival.

Barry and I stood by the fire enveloped in steam from our drying clothes, while preparations for supper went ahead. All the family, except the padrone himself, lent a hand, and it turned out to be the strangest meal I ever shared.

There was a scrubbed deal table in the centre of the room under a naked electric light bulb. One of the girls set forks all round, the padrona hauled the cauldron of cooked polenta from the fire and poured its contents on to the table top, two girls then spread it evenly, using the backs of spoons. A third girl followed with tomato puree, previously cooked on a charcoal stove, sprinkling cheese over all. This was done at breakneck speed before the polenta could cool.

The moment the preparations were completed, we all took our places and immediately attacked the spread with our forks, working from the edge into the middle. It was not an operation for dainty or slow eaters, as I did my utmost to claim a fair share, though I could hardly stop giggling as I cut and scooped away.

[digital page 28]

In a moment or two the table top was a clean as a bone, and we returned to the fireside. As no-one suggested drying our clothes, we remained there as long as possible while they steamed and dried on us. They were still damp when the farmer took us to the barn and left us to crawl into the straw in the loft. Strangely enough, despite our chilly garments, we warmed up in the straw and slept soundly.

[digital page 29]

Chapter 13 – ‘Canada’

Map 18

The roar of powerful engines, and the shaking of the barn, dragged us out of a deep sleep. I stuck my head out of the straw and listened. It was pitch black. Nothing could be seen. The engines were so powerful and the vibrations so strong, that I guessed I was listening to a column of laden tank transporters climbing the pass on their way towards Rome, using darkness to protect themselves against predatory aircraft. For about half an hour the noise continued, and the barn trembled. I peeped through the chinks in its wooden sides, but the road was too high above the farm for me to see anything. When all was peaceful again, I snuggled back into the straw and went to sleep, thinking that the farmer had had reason to feel afraid.

We now seemed to have developed a sense that warned us sheen dawn was approaching, for we both awoke to find light shining through the chinks. I peered out and my spirits sank. Everything was covered in a garment of white. Snow!

We had always had a sneaking feeling that we were marching against time, since our first snow warning back at Leonessa, and now it had trapped us. Tracks would be hidden, but we ourselves would leave a trail wherever we went. In any case, my shoe would not survive under these conditions.

Damp and shivering, we crept out of the bam and looked around. The mountain wall to the south looked more impregnable in its austere covering of snow, and we at once decided to retreat to the last village we had passed and try to make contact with the one-eyed butcher, who we hoped, had by now returned with his beasts.

The farmer appeared in the yard and we shook hands with him. He made no secret of the fact he was glad to see us go. We scurried up to the road without waiting for a possible breakfast, so as to cross it before it was broad day. Slithering in the wet snow, we scrambled and slipped up the opposite bank and hurried away to the side of the white, impassive peak of Monte Ventrino, in very low spirits. I was at my lowest ebb. My leg ached, my shoe was hanging from my foot, I was damp and chilled, and all and all around seemed implacably hostile. I began to have favourable thoughts of prison life, where we were at least provided for and discouraged from wandering abroad. The dreary routine now seemed to represent a happy degree of comfort. All in all, I was like an Israelite in the wilderness hankering after the abandoned fleshpots of Egypt. Indeed, I felt reckless enough to barge straight into the village and risk recapture.

[digital page 30]

The sun came over the mountains and put a more cheerful face on things. The sudden beauty of the clean white mountains, their peaks veined in blue and purple shadows, the intense blue of the sky, and the warmth of the morning sun, improved my mood. Then, as I gazed at the splendid panorama of snow-covered mountains, two fighter planes darted over the crest and swooped down like swallows on the hidden road below. Their perspex canopies flashed in the sun as they banked steeply and then plunged, cannons blazing, behind a shoulder of the mountain. The roar of their guns followed while they were out of sight and then they swept vertically into the sky and plummeted down again to the attack.

The rattle of their cannon fire echoed again from the mountains, and then a thick column of oily, black smoke coiled into the clear morning air. The two planes, having dealt with their target, rose above the slope and shot off in company down the length of the valley. As I watched the tiny shapes shrinking into the distance, I felt heartened by this evidence that our forces were not far away. My deep gloom had gone, but I was at my wit’s end to know what to do next.

We reached the gully above the village, and Barry took cover while I made my way down to it. Under the warmth of the November sun the snow was already melting fast, and water was lying or tickling everywhere. I plunged into a narrow, cobbled street, lined with stone houses and thronged with people, all of whom were taking a lively interest in my progress. Hoping that this was, indeed, Gagliano, I kept a lookout for a butcher’s shop, intending to ask for my one-eyed butcher, but before I had gone halfway down the street, I was hustled into a workshop and given a chair. A huge bowl of lukewarm gnocchi was thrust into my hands.

‘Eat, eat!’ urged the crowd that filled the room and jammed the doorway. Between mouthfuls I explained my predicament. Everyone nodded in sympathy and exuded friendliness. When I could eat no more, I was told to wait until they could bring a man who could speak English.

In due course the men at the door made way for a wiry, thin faced, hook-nosed man, who thrust his way through and greeted me in English. He wore a Tyrolean hat, a neat, black suit, with a watch chain spread across his waistcoat. His trousers were tucked into grey stockings, and he wore climbing boots.

He spoke with a transatlantic accent, reminding me of the extradited Chicago gangster who had treated me in Bari hospital a year or more ago. Unlike the friendly bystanders, he was not prepared to offer me welcome until he had satisfied himself that I was genuine. At his request, I showed him my identity discs, and answered all his probing questions until he was satisfied, whereupon he held out his hand and explained that he had worked on the Canadian railways for 20 years, until the climate had undermined his health, and had been compelled to return home. He confirmed that this was, indeed, Gagliano Aterno, and that we would be cared for.

[digital page 31]

He fancied himself to be a bit of an organiser, and seemed to be held in some esteem by his neighbours. He mentioned other groups with which he was in contact, and said he hoped to arrange an airdrop of supplies pretty soon. There was already one prisoner being looked after in the village. He had been found lying exhausted on the mountain some days ago, and was now restored to health. We would meet him later.

Meanwhile, I must collect my friend and ‘Canada’. As he came to be known, would first put us in a place of safety, and then move us to a cave up the mountain after dark. The villagers, impressed by his command of a foreign tongue, gave me every kind of encouragement, and made way for me when I told them I was off to bring my friend.

Barry popped his head from cover when I called out, and uncoiling his lanky frame, followed me downhill while I explained what had happened. Earlier that morning I had been almost prepared to give myself up, and now my opportunity had come, for round the last house in the village appeared an armed German patrol making straight towards us. We were completely exposed. To run would be suicidal. We could only continue towards them and bluff it out.

With Barry at my heels, I walked on without hesitation. Back in the village, behind the approaching patrol, street urchins were darting out excitedly and then darting back behind the buildings, obviously reporting to their hidden elders what was taking place.

I was really enjoying this unexpected adventure that put my nerve to the test. We approached each other steadily and passed within arm’s length. There were about half a dozen lads in field grey, with rifles slung. They looked very fit and cheerful and could easily have been mistaken for British soldiers. Two had snowballs in their hands, ready for a bit of skylarking. They looked at us with friendly faces, and the corporal at the rear gazed at me so frankly, that I had an idiotic urge to speak to him.

Once we had passed, we were careful to keep a steady pace and not look round. My back seemed very exposed to a shot and the thought that Barry would be hit first was no real comfort. However, we reached the safety of the houses without further incident, to find ourselves the heroes of the hour. The villagers, who had watched our progress from cover, were very emotional about the affair and overjoyed to see us safe and sound.

When Barry had been fed, and the coast pronounced clear, ‘Canada’ took us to a stable on the outskirts, and we climbed a ladder into the hay loft and prepared to remain there until nightfall. Our clothes were still damp, but with food in our stomachs and warm hay to lie on, we were elated by our change of fortune. The near despair of the morning had changed dramatically to hope, and I regained my sanguine outlook, content to accept that our future plans had been decided for us.

[digital page 32]

We lay in the hay all afternoon while our clothes dried on us. Happily, we suffered no ill effects from our soaking. It was almost dark in the loft. What light there was came from a small, latticed window. From time to time, we looked out, but the glass was so dirty and the view so restricted, that we saw nothing. When the light began to fade altogether, we heard the uneven clanking of a bellwether as it led the flock down the mountainside, and in a few moments, the door below jarred open, and the sheep were herded into the gloom of the stable below. We heard the door slam, and then the sounds of the shepherds retiring over the rough cobbles of the yard.

For some time longer we lay in the dark. Eventually, stealthy footsteps approached, the latch of the door below clicked, feet scraped on the ladder, and a vague human shape blotted out the faint light from the window. ‘Canada’s’ voice emerged from the shadow.

‘We are not ready to move you yet. You must wait until tomorrow. Food is coming’.

I thanked him for his help, and this seemed to spark him off, for he continued with an air of excitement, mingled with self-satisfaction. ‘We’ve been in touch with your forces. I am hoping to have an air drop of supplies on the mountain top, where it is flat and open. I have to light 3 fires when we get the signal from the plane’.

I wondered what the Germans in the surrounding country would think of this escapade. Fires on a mountain at night are somewhat conspicuous, and at this juncture, I had no inclination to draw attention to my presence. However, I made appropriate noises, and hoped his ambitions would not be realised. He obviously regarded himself as the mastermind of the escape line. I wondered if he realised the risks he was taking.

[digital page 33]

Chapter 14 – Francesco Ciaverra

Map 18

After he had gone, we had another long wait, and then other figures loomed through the trapdoor. They introduced themselves as Mario and Mattodio, and came bearing gifts of hot food, bowls and spoons. They waited until we had eaten and then departed with the empty vessels. Glad of the hot food, we thrust all care aside, lay back contentedly in the hay, and slept until daylight filtered through the little window once more.

In the early morning the door banged open, there was whistling and bleating and the soft patter of hooves as the flock was collected. Some of the bleating came from goats, but I could see none of this activity from the window. The door slammed shut, the sounds faded away, and we were left in the silence of the loft.

It was some time in the afternoon when next we heard feet on the ladder and ‘Canada’ appeared.

‘The Tedeschi are searching the houses,’ he said. ‘Don’t be alarmed. They do it frequently. I’ll have to move you, though. Follow me!’

His head disappeared and we followed him down the ladder and into the open air.

Hugging the walls of the buildings, we kept close behind him, and half way down the lane, turned up an alley and darted across the main street to the shelter of a little corner house set slightly back from the general line of the village street.

The moment we were inside, he closed the door, and then peered out to assure himself we had not been observed. Satisfied, he introduced us to the lady of the house, and then left.

In this abrupt manner I first met that indomitable character Laura Sanciaculo.

Two mischievous, black eyes danced and sparkled in her lean, sallow face. A smile lurked in the corners of her mouth. Her black hair was swept back and fastened in an old-fashioned bun, and a few stray strands fell rebelliously over her face. She was poorly dressed in a shapeless blouse of indeterminate colour, and an equally drab, ankle length skirt, from beneath which her skinny, bare legs disappeared into a pair of unlaced, battered man’s boots. She lacked everything except spirit.

The room was a spare as her body. Like a tall wedge, it was barely wide enough at the door to accommodate a small deal table, and at the rear, it narrowed so that the door there almost filled the wall. A few essential pieces of furniture, ancient and worn, filled the remaining spaces, and the usual copper, holding the household’s water supply, stood on a dresser near the front door, close to which a wizened pig’s bladder hung from a nail in the wall. A morose fire smouldered on the hearth, giving neither warmth nor light.

[digital page 34]

Laura Sanciaculo seemed to think our presence a huge joke, and grinned as she took us through the far door and into a stable at the back. Penned on one side of this was a huge pig, so gross, that it could barely stand. There was a half loft above, reached by a ladder, and she sent us up there, where we settled down among the bundles of green twigs stored there as food for the goats.

We were left undisturbed, wondering why we had been brought into the middle of the village as a safer refuge from a search. The padrona herself treated the risk with composure. I found it more difficult to control my feelings as I had liked her at first sight and was very much aware of the danger she was in. My feelings were further tried when. at sunset, she brought a wooden bucket full of boiled potatoes and set it before the pig. It sat up and ate its dinner with noisy appreciation. I was starving, and very ready, like the prodigal son, to share the beast’s meal, but I had to suffer the torment of the spectacle until the empty bucket was removed, and we and the pig settled down to await further developments, it at least, with some satisfaction.

After dark, ‘Canada’ returned, and we left the loft and followed him up the slope.

‘Careful’ he whispered, ‘There is a curfew every night after dark. The Tedeschi have a patrol in the streets until dawn. We are supposed to keep to keep off them until then’.

We followed him in suitable silence.

‘Thank goodness’ I thought, ‘We shall get away from the houses and up into the mountain’.

Not a bit of it! I had prepared myself for a stiff climb in the dark, and was surprised when we suddenly stopped. At first, I would not believe it. Here we were, at the very cave we had previously rejected as being too near the village! So much for ‘Canada’s’ mighty plans!

I thought our chances of survival so close to the village were pretty poor, but there was no better hole, so we climbed in and crouched down in the darkness.

At some time, the front of the roof had collapsed, and it now formed a barrier conveniently hiding the mouth of the cave. It was like a Dutch oven inside, about 6 feet across and almost high enough for us to stand upright. Over the years the roof had begun the process of breaking away, and there was a fissure at the rear wall. This formed a ventilation shaft, and would be useful as a flue if we ever had a fire.

‘Canada’ flashed a torch and revealed the pale face of a young man, who sat up from where he had been lying on the straw, and cast off the shepherd’s cloak that had covered him.

[digital page 35]

This was the soldier they had brought down from the mountain recently. He was known to the whole village as ‘Johnnie’. We were sorry to be thrust upon him like this and so deprive him of the limelight, but we had no option. As a regular soldier, he found living with officers a trying experience, even though we were merely amateur soldiers, with no intention of throwing our weight around. Evans must have felt like this when ordered to join the final sledge party on Scott’s Antarctic expedition. Johnnie proved to be short of self-confidence, and must, therefore, have felt the situation even more keenly.

A group of women appeared bearing hot food and blankets.

‘Canada’ assumed command.

‘We gather food every day and will bring it to you after dark. Many are helping’.

I said we understood, and thanked him for his efforts. He took himself very seriously and allowed none of the customary Italian warmth to enter into his manner as he said, ‘Buona notte’. And left us in the dark.

We introduced ourselves to Johnnie, who quite naturally, was uneasy at our intrusion. He was diffident, slow to confide in us, and it was not for some time that he told us something about himself.

‘I was an orphan in Dr. Barnado’s, and joined the army as a boy. I was too small for most regiments, so I joined the Rifle Brigade. I suppose the army became my home, really. It was like my family.

I used to box a bit and got this broken nose. They wanted to make it straight, but I wouldn’t let them’.

He had a slight restriction in his nose I could tell, for he breathed somewhat through his mouth, but he was prepared to suffer this affliction for the sake of the tough appearance his bent nose gave him.

‘At Dunkirk time,’ he continued, ‘we was sent to Calais and told to hold it to the last man and the last round. We made half a dozen charges a day to keep the Jerries off. We was ordered to fix swords – it’s swords, not bayonets in the Brigade. They gave us each a tot of rum, and we charged. Before every charge we got a tot of rum. I didn’t know where I was by the end of the day. In the end we had only one officer left and hardly any blokes. When we was down to one wounded major and 25 men, we was took off’.

[digital page 36]

He told a bald tale and I had to imagine the fear and desperation of the bayonet charge, made among the ruins of the town. Each man knew he had no real hope of survival, and that he was sacrificing himself in the forlorn hope that the troops at Dunkirk, further up the coast, would have more time in which to escape.

I lay back in the straw. Dunkirk seemed a lifetime away. That hot summer I was finishing my officer cadet training course at Catterick. We had prepared the upper floors of the barracks with mattresses and blankets to receive Dunkirk survivors, but the need never arose.

The loss of equipment was so critical, that ordnance officers came round to inspect our ‘drill purposes only’ guns and limbers to see if any could be used in action. They did not bother to look at our transport, for that was made up of commandeered civilian cars and lorries.

I was commissioned that month, and after a shoot at Larkhill, was posted to a holding unit at Watford, where with a pistol and 5 rounds, I was put in charge of a flying squad of 25 lads with rifles and bayonets. Our transport was a newspaper van and our task was to cooperate with the Home Guard at the check points and hunt any parachutists that happened to land. We trained in Cassiobury Park.

What an atmosphere of defiance and unity there was during that unique summer! We seemed to welcome the fall of France, and the fact that our fate was in our own hands. Churchill exactly matched the mood of the people when he spoke of total resistance, and declared ‘We will never surrender!’

I left England knowing the country could not succeed unaided, but determined to make a fight of it. And now here I was, in a cave in the centre of Italy.

For the next week or two our lives fell into a regular pattern. At first light we got up, ate the food we had saved from the night before, and crept out, shivering, under the adjacent overhand, where we had room and fight enough to shave and peel off our clothes to seek and destroy our constant lodgers, whose eggs we crushed with expert thumbs, and so held the population in check for 24 hours. It took about an hour, by which time it was full daylight and dangerous to linger exposed to view. Off we went into the thickets of juniper, hazel and scrub oak to lie low.

With only one reasonably sound shoe, I could not go far, and had to sit around studying the valley, or lying in a clearing under the benign warmth of the sun. Once a week, presumably on a Sunday, a regimental band played in the afternoon, and we got as close as we could and listened to the music. It came either from the square or the castle, but we were unable to overlook either to make sure. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

[digital page 37]

From our position we could also hear the town crier ringing his bell and calling out the news. I tried hard to pick up the gist of what he was yelling, for it might have been useful to us, but never succeeded.

On other days we sat in the scrub and watched the villagers leading their asses up the gully to cut firewood. The upper slopes were covered with plantations of pines, which ran all the way up the mountain until halted by a lofty crag.

In the evening the flocks came down the gully, led by the bellwether, sheep and goats together. The two shepherd lads, the Sanciaculo boys, brought up the rear, while their sheep dog, like a large, animated, white mop, ran aimlessly from side to side. Its job was not to herd the sheep, but to protect them from wolves. For this reason, it wore a wide collar, with 3-inch long nails sticking out of it like the spines of a hedgehog.

I was astonished to learn that there were still wolves as in the Abruzzi, but was told that, for the most part, they remained in the large forest to the south, and only ventured further afield in the bad winter months.

The elder boy, Mario, was a tall, handsome, serious lad of about 15 or 16, and the younger, Mattodio, was a lighter hearted mischievous lad of about 12, with his mother’s twinkling eyes. Both wore blue shepherds’ cloaks.

When the sun declined behind our mountain, we returned to the cave, bringing with us as much small firewood as we could collect, and while the others went into the cave and lit the fire, I frequently stood behind the fallen roof, like a captain on his bridge, and looked eastward to the mountains across the valley as the shadows crept up their slopes.

A featureless, grassy ridge formed the boundary of the valley, blocked off to the south by the ridge that had forced us to turn back. To the north east, beyond the valley ridge, rose the rugged pile of then Gran Sasso, and flanking the valley, the jagged crest of Monte Rotundo merged southward into the Morrone complex. Far to the south east, like a Bactrian camel, ran the hump-backed ridge of the Maiella, some 9000 feet high at the summit. The crests were covered with ice and snow, broken by wedges of dark red rock.

I was fascinated by the changing light as the last rays of the sun lingered on those cold and impassive mountain tops. Strange shadows, purple, heliotrope, jade and ultramarine, filled the hollows and spilled on to the jagged patches of snow. A clear, translucent sky, sometimes barred with gleaming, red clouds, lay beyond the silent peaks, which stood, massive, remote and austere.

Every evening I waited until the last light had gone, and the stars had gradually appeared, as though a ghostly lamplighter had been doing his rounds. Then the chill, mountain air drove me into the smoky shelter of the cave, where a fire crackled warmly against the rear wall.

[digital page 38]

At odd intervals we had visitors from the village. Everyone knew where we were, but amazingly, no one betrayed us, despite the jealousies, rivalries and spite that ran like an undercurrent through their community life. Each visitor warned us about the others, and told us to be careful. Each claimed to be our principal protector, but what gradually emerged was that the most persistent and successful organiser of our survival was the village cobbler, supported by his wife.

Francesco and Elvira Ciavarra were, to their sorrow, childless. Within weeks they had adopted me as their son, Carlo. Nothing daunted them. Every day they organised the collection, cooking and delivery of food to us. Many must have been involved, but they were the resolute organisers. His house stood across the square from the castle, which was the local headquarters of the Germans. A sentry was constantly on duty at its gateway.

Francesco turned up one evening with his friend Vittorio, bearing a bottle of grappa. He was a spare man of over 60, plainly dressed in a baggy suit. A cardigan showed several inches below his waistcoat, across which hung a heavy watch chain. Like all the villagers, he wore boots. His cap was a permanent feature, which he may have removed on going to bed, but which otherwise stayed on his head indoors and out. He removed it once to show his thatch of dark hair, of which he was very proud. He took equal pride in his teeth. Opening his mouth to its fullest extent, he invited me to admire their white splendour.

‘Look! I have more than 60 years, and my teeth are still very strong. Is that not so? It is because I eat no sugar. Sugar is very bad for teeth’.

He nodded to himself complacently and drew out his pipe, of which he was very fond, and filling it with coarse tobacco, contentedly puffed clouds of smoke around his head.

Johnnie was a smoker too, and was very grateful for any tobacco that came his way. Paper was often the problem. Often an old prayer book – he settled for newspaper as being the most satisfactory. At long intervals the ingredients of a smoke would arrive, for tobacco, like everything else, was very scarce. Without it he grew a little peevish. Some men, I later learned, went to desperate lengths to satisfy their craving for a smoke, even approaching the Germans for help.

Vittorio passed round the bottle of grappa, and we each took a swig of the colourless spirit, which tasted like aniseed, as far as I can remember. He was a large man, tall and well built, with a long, heavy face. He usually sported a Tyrolean hat and a plus-four suit with grey stockings and mountain boots. He seemed a reliable and good-natured fellow, but in common with Francesco, was still guilty of denigrating his fellow helpers just as they denounced the pair of them.

[digital page 39]

They explained the structure of the village administration. Ostensibly, the man in charge was the Podestà or Mayor, for whom they expressed their contempt. The real master, of course, was the German lieutenant in the castle. They asked us not to think harshly of the village girl who was living with him, as she had no real choice, and besides, was useful in giving them warning of impending searches and the like. Now and again the young men were rounded up and taken by lorry to work on the German defences further south. As they were, to my mind, completely spoiled by their mothers and sisters, a bit of forced labour would do them good. They were returned, usually after a day.

Before he left, Francesco asked, ‘Is there anything you want?’

‘Can you do anything about my shoe?’ I replied, showing him the remnants of my footwear. ‘Certainly. Leave it to me’.

We asked if he could buy us some razor blades, and offered him money, which he indignantly refused.

‘Perhaps we can borrow some scissors to trim our hair?’ I suggested.

We shook hands, and he promised to satisfy our needs.

Sure enough, within a few days he not only turned up with the blades, but also with a barber, who cut our hair for no charge.

On his next visit he proudly brought me a pair of German army boots, brand new, which he asked me to try on.

‘They are perfect!’ I told him, when I had done so.

‘Good! I got them from the German stores. They have a Russian prisoner at work there. He gave them to me for a bottle of grappa.’

With decent footwear I could now move about freely, and the thought of crossing the Maiella towards the front became a possibility. I would need more information about the military situation and more clothing before I ventured into those freezing heights in winter, but I kept looking towards the crest and trying to determine a route, should I ever get the opportunity to make the attempt.

At the end of November Francesco brought two new arrivals. Both were from our Camp 49 at Fontanellato. One turned out to be Major Garland of the Ghurkas, who had been my ‘platoon commander’ in the organised escape. He was tall and lean, with a cadaverous, square jawed face and a pink skin which peeled easily in the sun. The other was Colonel Harding, a shorter, stouter and amiable man, who like myself, was a Gunner.

[digital page 40]

Francesco was very impressed by the high rank of his two acquisitions. They would add to his prestige, and make him more determined than ever to see that they were kept from harm. Poor Johnnie was even more overwhelmed by the arrival of two regular officers of such rank. He felt himself to be the odd man out, though the Major, in particular, was very kind and understanding.

At about this time Francesco changed the food delivery system. The women were becoming very nervous of working in the dark and having to run the risk of being challenged by the curfew patrol. There had been a few minor incidents. And he told me that, from now on, we would have to collect the food from the Saniaculo household. We therefore arranged a rota amongst ourselves and took turns in going into the village after dark. Whether the moon shone, or it was pitch black, we never succeeded in making a stealthy entry, for as soon as we approached the first house, every dog in the village started to bark, and there was a fearful din until we were safely indoors. When later we moved away with our supplies, the dogs once more yelled their disapproval and there would be continued, sporadic outbursts even when we had left the houses behind. It was something I never got used to, for I felt that the patrol must, sooner or later, investigate the cause of this nightly uproar, which endangered everyone.

I now spent more time in the pinewoods and on the higher slopes. Here we often had a chat with the shepherd boys, who tended the village flock and herd. The animals dispersed among the rocks until checked by a stone fired accurately from a sling. From time to time, we heard these missiles whistling through the air and cracking against the rocks. Quite often one whistled past our heads and we looked up to see the faces of the two lads grinning at us from cover. Mattodio was the usual culprit, but Mario occasionally succumbed to boyish mischief and joined in. I noticed that, as the weeks passed, he held himself ever more erect, something he copied from our implanted military bearing, I suppose. It reminded me that a simple thing like this could easily betray one, for I recalled an incident. Looking across the valley one day I noticed a tiny figure walking along the skyline.

‘That’s no Italian,’ I said to Barry, ‘I’ll lay odds it’s a British soldier. You can tell by the way he walks.’

As time passed Mario increased in self-confidence and reliability. His family was obviously very poor. It was demeaning to be landless in the village society, and I never discovered whether they had any land, or were reduced to caring for the village stock. However, they owned an ass, which carried large panniers. These were used, among other things, to carry manure to the fields, which suggested they might not be entirely landless. I was once amused to see a woman leading a mule that was loaded with manure in this way. She herself bore a loaded basket on her head. Her hands were free, and so as not to waste any opportunity of useful work, she was knitting as she went along.

I rarely met the padrone.

‘He is in bad health,’ said Francesco when I enquired.

[digital page 41]

Laura introduced us to him one night when we were at the house collecting the food. He was a careworn man with a leathery face scored with deep lines. His eyes held a look of defeat, and his squat body was bowed with years of labour. His movements were slow, and his speech quiet and deliberate. He seemed content to leave the management of the cramped household in the hands of his brisk and competent wife. He sat unassumingly by the fire, courteous, but uncommitted.

I had been most struck by the way the women in every household were expected to do all the chores. Even the youngest girl was kept busy, and all were at the beck and call of the boys, who were invariably spoiled by their parents. The result in general was that I found the women to be more reliable and compassionate. They earned my deep respect.

By now we had worked out our domestic arrangements. The fire at the back of the cave, since we could not now all sit side by side in front of it, roasted those nearest and left the rest to shiver. We therefore placed it in the middle and arranged ourselves in a fan shape around it, sleeping with our feet towards it. The flue continued to work well, although the roof became black with the tar from the pine branches we used as fuel.

Francesco had provided us with a billhook, for we had scoured the hillside bare of dead wood. The lower branches of the pine trees burned well. Those about an inch thick were ideal. They could be chopped from the tree with a blow and then cut into foot lengths.

There was a plentiful supply. We cut the wood before the villagers were about and stored it in the cave. At night we piled it all in a heap and lit a fire, which soon made a cheerful blaze and illuminated the cave. Unfortunately, the flames induced a fierce draught from the entrance, and we had to block this with sticks and an old cloak.

The ration party left while the fire was blazing, and when they returned there was plenty of light still by which to see to eat. We kept a crust or two for the next day. While the firelight lasted, the Major, who was a religious man, read us a passage from his Bible. Then we chatted until the fire was a pile of glowing embers, and finally lay down to sleep in a warm, if smoky atmosphere.

Early in December, on a crisp, bright day, Francesco, despite our protests, led us all into the village to his home, which lay within fifty yards of the sentry at the castle gate. I have no idea why he took such a risk, unless he knew that the Germans were busy elsewhere that day, but I sent up a silent prayer that all would be well. He introduced us to Elvira, his wife, a plump, kindly woman in the customary black, and then to his niece, who was staying with them. Signora Olivieri was a young and attractive woman in a blue frock. Her glistening black hair and beautiful, dark-lashed eyes were a sharp contrast to her smooth, ivory skin. When she showed her perfect teeth in a smile, two dimples appeared in her cheeks. She had a young daughter of about nine with her, equally attractive and with the most beautiful, liquid, dark eyes.

[digital page 42]

To the distress of the family, the girl was deaf and dumb, and far from any form of treatment. The mother had brought the child to escape the bombing of the city. She herself seemed more urbanised and less robust that the country girls, who were vigorously washing their linen in the fountain by the castle gate.

We were reminded of bombing soon afterwards, when the sound of gunfire drew our attention to the hills across the valley. The black puffs of anti-aircraft fire burgeoned in the grey sky over Popoli. Tiny planes, like dancing midges, swooped and dived through the hunting shell bursts, and the distant roar of bombs followed later, and rumbled through the mountains.

A few days later, a formation of Fortress bombers, in two tight blocks, rained bombs in the same area. The target must have been the railway bridges spanning the Pescara and the Aterno rivers.

Shortly after this we had an unusual visitor to the cave. He was of medium build and very dapper in a black suit, trilby hat, white knee-high stockings, and mountain boots. He introduced himself as a Squadron Leader from Auckland, New Zealand. He seemed very self-assured, and was obviously better provided for than the seedy denizens in our cave.

‘I’m a POW from Camp 5,’ he explained. I got out carrying forged papers and travelled south by train with no bother’.

Clearly, he could speak good Italian, for his went on to say, ‘I’m staying with local people. I move about a bit from house to house. Nobody takes any notice of me, but I shall have to dye my hair again before they do’.

He had a point, for strands of fair hair escaped from his hat.

‘There are lots of us hereabouts. I’ve been everywhere in the valley and have counted above 30 so far. What I wanted to tell you, though, is that I’ve got hold of a radio transmitter and have sent off messages, but as I have no receiver, I don’t know if they are getting through. If you can find anything of interest to the RAF, let me know next time I’m round, and I’ll send a signal. If they act on it, I’ll know they’ve been picking them up.’

We promised to keep our eyes peeled, and then he left us and walked calmly downhill and into his comforts in the village beyond.

I watched his departure with some respect, for Camp 5 was the Italian Colditz – a security prison for inveterate escapers.

[digital page 43]

A less romantic incident occurred at about the same time. As I was standing at the ‘bridge’ one afternoon there was a scraping of feet on the path above, and a scruffy figure in a worn overcoat slithered down into the gully, spilling some potatoes from the sack he was carrying. He was obviously a fellow prisoner on the move and was keeping some rations by him. When he recovered his footing, he gathered up the fallen potatoes, and slinging his half empty sack over his shoulder, marched purposefully across the gully and out of sight. He did not notice me, and there seemed no point in drawing attention to myself. Gagliano could hardly support any more hungry prisoners. At least that was what I thought then. I underestimated the devotion of Francesco. As I gazed at the back of the traveller, I wondered where he would spend the night, and what would become of him as the winter deepened. At that moment the cave seemed a safe haven.

[digital page 44]

Chapter 15 – Bianca

Map 18

Christmas Day was bright and sunny. Francesco had promised us that we would have a proper feast for the occasion. Sure enough, around midday, Signora Olivieri arrived, as stately as a carystid, with a tin bath balanced on her head. I ran down to relieve her of the burden, but found it too heavy to lift by myself and had to get Barry’s help to lower it from her head. Together we staggered to the cave carrying it between us. The slight, graceful woman, who smiled at our efforts, had proved to be a good deal more robust that I had supposed.

We opened the bath, which was not only laden with cans of hot food, in which a chicken featured, but also with cutlery and a supply of plates. Included in the load was a bottle of wine. She took the empty bath and promised to return the next day to collect the crockery. Placing the bath on her head, she glided effortlessly downhill to the village.

We had a fine dinner of soup, pasta and chicken, and toasted our friend in the wine. The usual soup and bread would have contented us, but dear old Francesco had to show what he was capable of, and the trouble to which he had gone was very touching.

In the afternoon the Major and I climbed the mountain to the high, open grasslands, from which we could see the whole valley lying, silent and empty, below us in the slanting winter sun. A remarkable feature of the Italian climate to one used to the blustery fells of northern England, was that, even in the mountains, there was seldom any appreciable breeze. Only a light, fitful breeze was blowing, enough to chill my legs through my thin trousers, but leaving me otherwise snug and warm. I vowed then that I would never complain of hardship so long as I had sound footwear. If I have not quite lived up to this since, as least I have been more aware of my blessings when things have not been at their best.

Though the valley and its retaining mountains were green with grass, no flocks were to be seen. Only once did I encounter sheep from another village on the spacious grasslands. It was incomprehensible.

From our high point we could see the roves of Gagliano below, and the white road leading to Castel Vecchio, whose grey walls were usually hidden from us behind a small hill. The road joined the one running the length of the valley, and behind the village there was a tree-clad pass, which cut through the mountains. Somewhere beyond the peaks lay Popoli, which was now being bombed almost daily. Further away still, near the coast, lay Chieti. The road up the valley rose to Castel di Ieri, the last village in sight, for high ground concealed Goriana Sicoli even from this height.

[digital page 45]

We studied the landscape for some time until the sun dropped behind the mountain and the sudden chill that followed drove us down to the warmth of the cave.

We were startled one morning, to hear piercing screams coming from the village, but quickly realised that they had come from the Sanciaculo’s pig. That gross animal would eat no more boiled potatoes.

Next time I visited the house I noticed that the old pig’s bladder had gone and in its place hung a sleek, round, white one. Items of that formidable beast’s carcass appeared among our rations for some time, so in a way I had my revenge. A special treat was a tasty spread made from its blood. Doubtless a new animal would take its place in the pen to provide food for the following winter.

Towards the end of the month our hopes were raised by the roar of gunfire from beyond the Maiella. The bombing must have been a prelude to an attack by our troops. Their objective would be Chieti which, once taken, would open the road through our valley to Rome, thus turning the German line. The enemy would be forced to retreat to a more secure line, leaving us to welcome our troops without lifting a finger.

The continuous roar of gunfire was supplemented by the rattle of small arms fire, and at night the sky behind the mountain was bright with gun flashes. The noise continued at a high pitch for a day or two before it petered out and we realised that the attack had failed. If we wished to escape, we must do so through our own efforts, and must, therefore, wait for spring before attempting to scale the heights of the Maiella.

Once more I had to learn the hard lesson of patience, which was against my nature, for I like swift action when once I have come to a decision. I had to fill the hours with some form of activity, mental if not physical. When our daily delousing was over, I would wander in the thickets and among the trees, perhaps having a chat with the shepherd lads, or simply marking time in the pinewoods and keeping out of sight. The longer we remained in the cave, the greater the risk of discovery, and I could not bear to think of the reprisals that would be taken on the villagers who had sheltered us. I was ever more perturbed when the Christmas crockery was left in the cave for days on end – proof of their involvement with us, should it ever be discovered. Day after day I pleaded for it to be removed, only to receive the reply of ‘Domani’ – ‘tomorrow’.

It was at this time that fascists were reported to be in the area. These were the minions of the puppet Italian government, and more to be feared than the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, for not only were they of native stock, but they had a fervour for denouncing opponents of the regime, or indeed anyone who appeared to lack their won enthusiasm for the cause. We heard that they were at Secinaro, and I have already mentioned what took place there when they raided a cave used by PoWs.

[digital page 46]

Bianca told us of the events at Castel di Ieri. She was a sturdy girl, with a rosy, weather beaten face, which glowed amid the wrappings of a long, woollen scarf that was round over her head. She was dressed in an overcoat, buttoned to the throat against the cold. Her legs were protected by thick, black stockings, and on her feet, she wore a pair of stout boots. Unglamorous though her appearance was, it was eminently practical for life on the mountain in winter.

She spoke animatedly of a group of officers who had been living openly in the village across the valley. The security of the villagers had been so good, that even the children were disciplined enough to keep silent about them, so that they could mix with the Germans and remain undetected. However, once the fascists arrived the game was up, and there was a hasty exodus into the mountains. Half a dozen officers had taken refuge in the ‘Wolf’s Cave’ on the peak of the mountain. She was taking them food the three miles to the cave.

The refugees would not allow her to do this, however, and came down to meet her on the upper track, so we went off to meet them and swap yarns. They were in good heart, and full of praise for the people of Castel di Ieri, who had given them sufficient warning of the ‘fascisti;. I could not help marvelling at the way the people of Gagliano had taken upon themselves the task of feeding these extra mouths.

It was Bianca again who introduced us to a new bunch of arrivals whom she brought to the open cave adjacent to ours. They were seven shaken British soldiers, who were only too glad of the primitive shelter the overhand – for that was all it was – afforded. Damp and exposed it certainly was, but nothing else was available.

Blankets and food arrived in due course, but these failed to lift the spirits of the lads, who had evidently had a hard time. After a night’s sleep, they told us of their experience. They were travelling to Germany, packed in cattle trucks, which were chained and locked. The train halted at Poppi, and whilst it was standing there the station was raided from the air. Bombs crashed on the wagons, killing dozens of helpless prisoners. Splinters from a near miss shattered the truck they were in, allowing them to escape through the holes on to the track. Bombs continued to fall as they ran off. The guards had long since fled, so they were well clear by the time the raid was over.

After a week’s journey, they were still suffering from the effects of their ordeal, and one of them was ill. Francesco tried to get the doctor, but he had, apparently, been hauled off with the others to work on the German entrenchments. When he got back, he would be told.

True to his word, Francesco returned with the doctor some days later. A large bruise over his left eye suggested he had been knocked about, but despite any manhandling he may have suffered he still had the courage to defy the authorities and give us help.

[digital page 47]

The fascists must have gone from the neighbourhood, for we were shortly afterwards invited to supper in the village. Francesco escorted us through the dark and empty streets, across the piazza to a doorway opposite, where we were hurriedly ushered in, not only because it was in full view of the castle gateway, but also because the Germans were using the house next door as a canteen. Our hosts apologised for this, saying that their neighbour had no choice in the matter. I was more concerned with the risk they were taking themselves in offering us hospitality. All evening the sounds of an accordion and of voices raised in song penetrated the dividing wall.

We had a very enjoyable meal in decent comfort, but I was secretly relieved when we slid out into the darkness again, the door closed behind us, and we were left in the silent streets. We listened intently for sounds of an approaching curfew patrol, but all was still. The moment we moved, however, the dogs protested, so we lost no time in hurrying up the street, keeping to the shadows, while the stars looked down impassively at our antics.

The mountain air was crisp and cold after the warmth of the house, and we were glad to creep into the dark cave and light the fire.

Not to be outdone in the matter of hospitality, Francesco invited us all to supper the following week. Spruced up as best we could, we were conducted to his door by Vittorio, who said he would return later, and left us there. We wasted no time in getting indoors for his house was even closer to the castle that the other.

Elvira was in her element, busying herself at the charcoal stove and chattering as she worked. In the centre of the high-ceilinged room, with its tiled floor, was a long table well provided with food. A fire burned brightly and a naked electric bulb hanging from its flex overhead, gave enough light for us to see to eat.

Francesco sat with his hat on, begging us to be covered. ‘You will catch a cold in the head’, he said, mystified by our hatless state.

After supper he got out his pipe and sat by the fire. We gathered round and drank some wine. Vittorio and Raphael arrived and joined in the conversation. I listened to them, and was delighted to discover I was able to comprehend much of their conversation without having to do a mental translation first. Never having considered myself to be much of a linguist, this came as a real surprise.

[digital page 48]

The arrival of the soldiers next door to our cave had added to the risk of discovery, so Barry and I decided we would try and slip away from it. We climbed into the pines, which grew from long, narrow terraces cut into the sides of the gully. These were wide enough to allow two to lie side by side. We took the billhook with us and spent the day building a low shelter, using the rise of the adjacent terrace as a side. We cut a fireplace into this, and when darkness came, lit a fire before rolling into our blankets. The effect, however, was alarming. The flames, although concealed beneath a thick thatch of pine needles, nevertheless threw up such a glow that the topmost branches of the trees glowed like a lighthouse.

That was our experiment, for the nights were now so cold that the heat of a fire was essential for survival, and we could think of no way of shielding its light from curious eyes.

The soldiers, too, sought other quarters. They could have no fire as they were so exposed, so they set about building themselves a hut in the trees, chopping down saplings, making a framework and cladding it with further saplings. They built it at the foot of a cliff that parted the gully like the prow of a ship. They were very ambitious, I thought. A lower, more compact dwelling would have been better, and indeed, it was never finished.

At this time of the year the sunlight barely penetrated the gully where the pines grew, and the frost lay all day. Icicles on the cliff face halfway up the mountain grew daily until they hung like a frozen waterfall, sometimes three or four feet long. In spite of the cold, I managed to keep warm, though I had no greatcoat. By keeping on the move in the still, dry air I kept my circulation going, and my white silk scarf, wrapped round my neck, prevented the loss of some body heat.

One bright day I decided to walk over to the Wolf’s cave, and took the high track above the valley and round the shoulder of the mountain. Once past this I saw, for the first time, the wide, open pasture that sloped from the peak on my right down to the track. To my left it dropped abruptly to the valley. In the middle of the pasture stood a lonely, stone cottage with a smokeless chimney at one end. There were outcrops of rock near the summit, and among these somewhere, lay the cave.

I plodded up the grassy slope to the rocks, where sheep were grazing. This was a pleasant surprise, for elsewhere the grassy mountainsides lay empty. The cave proved easy to find as it had a wide entrance and was high enough for me to walk inside. It ran about 15 paces into the mountain, and then bent at right angles. There was a fire struggling to burn at the bend and its smoke swung about aimlessly in the draughts. The officers were crowded beyond it, taking shelter from the keen air that even its paltry heat helped to attract. They sat, like medieval lords of the manor, in smoke-filled gloom, with weeping eyes and shivering limbs.

[digital page 49]

Bianca was there, happily exchanging banter with one of the group, all of whom, despite their discomfort, seemed in buoyant spirits. They described their wonderful time in Castel di Ieri, and we discussed the possibility of crossing the mountains to join our forces.

It was then that I first heard rumours of guides who would help us to get across. There were no details, just hints at possible help, but I made a mental note to question Francesco about this when next we met.

I accompanied Bianca on her return journey. Her favourite charge came along with her. They were on the best of terms and he admired her tremendously.

‘What a courageous girl she is!’ he kept saying to me. ‘She never misses a day bringing our food and we don’t always manage to meet her on the way up’.

I left them talking outside the village, and strolled into the pines until it was twilight and time to seek shelter as the temperature dropped.

[digital page 50]

Chapter 16 – Snow!

Map 18

One day we were warned of a regulation search and took the usual precaution to be safely hidden away in the thickets until the Germans had gone through the customary motions. It was a chill, grey day, and by the afternoon I had had enough and returned earlier than usual. Though I thought I was alert as I carefully slipped through the juniper bushes, I stepped out of the shelter of the trees into the full view of a German sergeant. How I failed to notice him I could not imagine, but there he was, guarding the track where it crossed the gully. His hands were in his pockets of his grey greatcoat, and machine gun hung from his shoulder. As our eyes met, he grinned and turned his back. Taking the hint, I melted away into the protection of the trees. I silently upbraided Francesco for his carelessness, as the sentry had only to walk the 20 yards to the cave, peer in, and see the incriminating evidence of the crockery, which had still not been removed.

When I saw Francesco, I vehemently implored him to remove this evidence and he at least seemed to understand the danger of leaving it there. He told me that, along with the rest of our friends, he had spent the day in the castle courtyard being interrogated, but had been released. This had probably brought home to him the risks he was running, but despite this experience, he was not unduly perturbed, and kept telling me not to worry. I was fond of the old boy, and worried to see him ignoring elementary precautions. He was as enthusiastic about his clandestine organisation as any schoolboy, and apparently as irresponsible. I gave up trying to persuade him to be careful, and simply kept my fingers crossed. At any rate, he soon removed the crockery.

While the weather remained fine, I avoided the cave during daylight, and it was while I was sitting alone on the mountainside below the high track, gazing at the familiar valley, that I observed a convoy of armoured cars leave Castel Vecchio and park on the grass away from the road. It was the first movement I had seen since I had arrived.

‘A nice target for the RAF’, I thought, remembering the instructions of the Squadron Leader.

The armoured cars remained, unmolested, for some days before they were gone but then German lorries rolled up the road from Castel Vecchio and turned into a tree-filled quarry that seemed to lie in the broken ground on the outskirts of Gagliano. For some time, there was a good deal of traffic passing in and out and I wondered what was going on there.

A plane appeared over the mountains opposite, and, hugging the ground, sped up the road towards the village. It roared up the gully as I sat there, almost above it. At first, I thought it might be one of ours on patrol, but as it shot past, I recognised the yellow and brown camouflage to be German. The pilot was clearly visible as he hoisted his fighter over the pine trees and skimmed the crags above them.

[digital page 51]

It recalled the last time I had been as close to a German fighter plane. That had been at Gazala in North Africa when I was in an observation post on the escarpment by the sea. A [words missing] which reached the ground long after each manoeuvre. Now and again, one would spin down and crash into the sea. My German dived out of the fight, and skimming the waves, flew hard for the base, while I looked down on him from above. By common consent, the surviving aircraft, being probably low on fuel and ammunition, broke off too and went their separate ways.

As if on cue, the Squadron Leader appeared next day. He had been on the Maiella, trying to cross the front while the battle was raging on the other side.

‘There is a lot of snow there’, he said. ‘It’s soft and very difficult underfoot. I’ve been up to my waist. I had to lie low a lot of the time because Jerry had ski patrols along the top from Guardiagrele in the north to Campo di Giove. I came under rifle fire and had to take cover until dark’.

Despite his failure he was as composed as usual.

‘I have heard talk of guides up there. Have you heard anything about them?’ I asked.

‘As a matter of fact, I ran into a group on my way back. They said there was an organisation to help PoWs over from time to time, when conditions were right. I told them about you and the others in the valley, and they promised to get in touch as soon as they could.’

I told him of the trucks in the quarry. He was very interested. ‘I’ll take a look on my way back,’ he said, ‘and if I think it worthwhile, I’ll try to get a signal through to the RAF’.

Apart from the solitary German fighter, I had seen no air activity for several weeks. The enemy remained wary, however, and left the roads empty during daylight hours. If his signal was picked up, I doubted whether any action would follow. Surprisingly, it did!

As usual, I was sitting at the edge of the scrub a day or two later, enjoying the sun, which, though it was early January, had still a noticeable warmth, hugging the side of the mountains opposite. Tiny, gleaming insects they seemed as they followed the valley road to Castel Vecchio, where they dipped their wings and turned towards me, following the road to Gagliano. With a sudden roar of engines, they shot up into the sky over the village. The slanting sun flashed on Perspex and wing surface as they pivoted at the top of their climb and dived in succession on the quarry.

[digital page 52]

Thin streams of smoke trailed, briefly, from under their wings, wicked little red flames flickered. The roar of cannon fire followed. Up they soared once more, and dived to continue their attacks. I was so absorbed in the spectacle that I was startled to find myself a target, and to be surrounded by exploding cannon shells from a misdirected burst.

After a few more attacks they turned away and were soon two silent specks at the upper end of the valley. Behind them they left thick, oily smoke rising from the quarry, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, until a substantial column reached into the sky and spread a dark pall over the area. I never did find out what was stored there, but it was evident from the attack that the Squadron Leader had been getting his signals through.

There were no repercussions from the raid, and Gagliano settled again to its uneventful routine. In the middle of the month the snow came.

It had been a grey, bitter day, and for once a wind had risen, driving us all to the shelter of the cave. Bringing in the food that night was an ordeal, and we were glad to huddle round our comforting fire while the wind blustered outside.

Next morning, when I stuck my head through the cloak covering the cave mouth, the wind still hissed past, piercing as an arrow. A white world lay in front of me. Drifts of snow a metre deep enveloped the rocks. Here was an additional hazard, for every movement from now on would leave betraying footprints.

It was cold. Even in the cave we shivered. We blew the grey ashes till they glowed, and longed for firewood to coax the fire into a blaze. Barry and I, tired of the discomfort, determined after a while, to try for some wood. A fire would give smoke, but we expected the strong wind to whip it away, and anyhow, no one was likely to be abroad in such weather.

The branches we wanted would be at head height and out of the snow, so we anticipated no difficulty, and taking the billhook with us, we climbed over the ‘bridge’ and dropped into the snow, which came up to our knees. It was only a short 100 yards to the shelter of the trees, but I had managed a mere 25 paces when I had to stop. Once out of the shelter of the rocks, the wind tore through my ribs as though I was a wicker basket. I could not move another step forward, and indeed began to doubt whether I would be lucky enough to get back, for then I would be facing east into the wind that was already gnawing at my ribs and freezing my lungs.

It was desperately slow work. Head down, I placed one foot in front of the other, and gasping with the effort, forced my way back to the cave, where I arrived utterly exhausted with no feeling in either my fingers or toes. The idea of having a fire was forthwith abandoned, and we wrapped ourselves in our blankets and, huddling together for warmth, sat the day out.

[digital page 53]

Fortunately, the wind had dropped by nightfall. The sky cleared, and brilliant stars, like frozen crystals, glittered over an icy world. In sweeping up the gully the wind had driven the snow aside and had left only a thin layer of a few inches underfoot, so although it crunches noisily with each step, walking was hardly hindered.

Next day the villagers were out once more in force, leading their asses up the mountain to load them with fuel. In the late afternoon Francesco turned up, muffled in a woollen scarf, to tell us the latest gossip.

‘Yesterday a traveller arrived barely alive. His eyelids were frozen shut and he collapsed in the square. At first, we thought he was dead, but he recovered. He had come by the mountain track, and half way from the Wolf’s cave his ass had slipped off the track into a snow drift. He had not been able to get it out and had to leave it there. We went to get it this morning, but it had been eaten by wolves. Only the hooves were left.’

‘Is the snow deep up there?’

‘Not so bad on the track, but there are big drifts on the mountain. Bianca went up there in the storm. She would not leave the prisoners hungry. They brought her down this morning. She had reached the cave and had then collapsed. She was quite blue. The prisoners looked after her. They were afraid she might be frost bitten, but she is not, thanks to God. She is asleep now and will be back on the mountain again tomorrow.’

On my next visit to the Wolfs cave a fortnight later, they confirmed the story with awed admiration.

Daily the snow slowly melted, but it restricted our movements, and the air remained chilly. Only by constant movement could I keep out the cold. I spent about 10 days doing sentry-go between the pines, kicking my feet against a tree each time I turned so as to keep them warm. Meanwhile the villagers continued their constant traffic for wood, seldom missing a day.

On one of these quiet days, I was doing my usual patrol between the trees and thinking of a fire as the daylight faded, when I noticed a couple of women struggling down the mountain. The younger carried a felling axe and was helping the elder to drag a young pine tree down the snowy track. They had trimmed off all the branches except one, which they used as a tow rope. They were making good progress, except that, every now and then, the tree caught in a snag, and the old woman sat down on her backside. When this happened, she called on all the saints to witness the hardships she was suffering.

As they passed, I asked if I could help them to pull the tree to the outskirts of the village. At first, they stared in disbelief, then the old woman’s brown and wrinkled face split in a gap-toothed grin and she stood aside to give me room. They both seemed miserably poor, and were bundled up in a variety of drab and ragged garments.

[digital page 54]

The daughter led the way and I set off, dragging the tree and leaving the old lady to bring up the rear complacently enjoying the unaccustomed idleness. Suddenly she stopped and turned aside. I stopped too. She had caught sight of a log of timber lying in the snow. It was about 18 inches thick and 10 feet long. She hauled at it, calling her daughter for help. Between them they hoisted it on to the old one’s head, and balancing it perfectly well, she marched off in triumph to the village. I shook my head at this tough old lady. By now I should have become used to their stamina, however it never ceased to amaze me.

[digital page 55]

Chapter 17 – Death to the Fleas!

Map 18

One day Francesco asked us to call for food earlier in the day, as Laura Sanciaculo was now giving supper every evening to a German sergeant major, so we had to collect it before he arrived. It was still daylight when we arrived, but the food was not ready, so we concealed ourselves as well as possible round the corner of the house and watched the German soldiers playing with the children on their sleighs.

They started just in front of us and careered downhill with much shouting and laughter, until they slid to a stop in the square at the bottom. The Gaglianese, young and old, seemed on intimate term s with the alien troops, however it was interesting to reflect that these jovial scenes were a successful cover for their double dealings. They were still at play as the darkness gathered and we were on our way to the cave with the food after a typically jolly chat with Laura.

We decided that this arrangement was too dangerous for all concerned, so we resumed the night collection, either waiting in the dark until the German left, or getting away before he arrived. One of the boys was always on watch outside to give us the right signal.

In the middle of January, a group of Yugoslavs passed by. They had been living, they told us, in an old shepherd’s hut on the mountain, but the melting snow leaked through the roof every time they lit their fire, so they had decided to quit and find another house. The mountain, it seemed, was alive with refugees.

Another migration took place at about the same time. The soldiers next door had abandoned their attempt to build a hut, and now that they were all fit again, had decided to move on. Johnnie, who had spent a good deal of time with them, decided to go too, so we parted. I expect I felt relieved. Which of us would have the better fortune, I wondered.

By the end of the month most of the snow on the mountainsides that were exposed to the sun had gone, but pockets remained among the pines and brushwood. At night we could hear the wolves howling their complaints through the still, frosty air. I never caught sight of any, but found their pad marks in the snow near the mountain top. During the day we were able to move more freely, but walking through the thickets was becoming dangerous, for some reason the villagers were roaming there with loaded shotguns on the lookout for hares or other game, and while we were used to sling stones buzzing past our ears, shot pellets were a little too alarming!

[digital page 56]

I paid another visit to the Wolf’s cave. It was a sparkling day with a faint, cold breeze from the west. I sat on a rock, high in the mountain, to eat my lunch of a thick crust of bread, and I remember the pleasure I felt at simply being alive to taste the goodness of this staple food.

I arrived at the cave to find all the occupants in their usual good spirits, despite the swirling smoke from the sulky fire, over which they were trying to toast some bread. They had only a few drops of olive oil with which to garnish the charred fragments, but they ate them with evident relish nonetheless.

They had with them a self-confident, and somewhat disparaging, Texan pilot, who had forced landed in the snow to the west and had tramped into our area. He was all for a quick dash over the mountains back to his squadron, and had, I felt, a poor opinion of our acceptance of the extreme difficulty of making the passage under the existing weather conditions.

The alarm flashed round the village that the SS had arrived. They were unpopular with everyone, including the Wehrmacht, for they had the reputation of making life unpleasant wherever they went. They would be much more thorough and fanatical than our tame Germans, so everyone with anything to hide ran for the hills. Nothing untoward happened, however, though everyone remained tense.

At the end of the month until well into February, the weather was sufficiently fine for Barry and me to sunbathe on the mountain top at the foot of a crag which cut off the flow of cold air from the north, and gave us the full benefit of the sun’s growing warmth. We took a tin can with us, filled it with snow, and placed it in the sun so that we could have something to drink when we had swallowed our dry crusts. It was a glorious feeling to be rid of our lousy garments for a few hours and to feel the warmth of the sun on our naked bodies.

To the south the mountain tops were ribbed in white, where the snow lay un-melted in the hollows. Away to the south east the Maiella rose against the blue sky gleaming in the sun.

We had lain for several days in succession in our sun trap and had stayed until the sun weakened and the air grew chill. About the end of January, we were interested to hear heavy gunfire from large calibre guns to the west. The sound was quite distinct and we judged it to be from German guns. Evidently there was some attack going forward on this western coast in the direction of Monte Casino, and we wondered if an Allied landing had taken place. Like the attack on the east coast the previous month, it would be an attempt to turn the enemy line and force him to withdraw. We were full of questions when next we met Francesco, and in a day or two he was able to tell us of the landing at Anzio. The firing continued sporadically for several days before the guns fell silent, and we feared that the thrust on this flank had been as unsuccessful as that on the other.

[digital page 57]

One day, as Barry and I lay contentedly in our customary spot, we were alarmed to hear guttural voices coming from the crag above us. Two SS officers were in conversation. We stealthily pulled our clothes towards us and crawled under the cliff, hoping we had not been observed. While we wordlessly dressed, I tried to catch what was being said. My schoolboy German might have helped me to understand the gist of the conversation and might have revealed something of value. Of course, they might just have been discussing the view. At all events the sound was too indistinct for me to glean anything, so we waited until we thought they had gone, and crept cautiously away.

Fortunately for the nerves of everyone, they departed after a few days, leaving us wondering why they had come at all.

Our next tribulation was the sudden multiplication of fleas in the cave. The poor major suffered the most. His tender, pink skin was greatly appreciated by these uninvited guests, for while our tough hides bore scarcely a bite, his waist was encircled by a broad band of them, and he suffered torments every night. We therefore decided to have a blitz on the vermin, and after our daily infestation drill, we carried our blankets into the overhand and, crouching we commenced the slaughter, like apes looking for a succulent morsel.

After my first few dozen kills, I realised that plenty of leaping activity continued on my blanket, and started to count my victims. Its colour made them difficult to see at first, but they were so numerous that I became very skilled and was soon ambidextrous, killing them in pairs. The large ones I took to be the females, and I was practically catching them in mid-air. When I had cleared one side, I turned the blanket over and found just as many on the other side. By the time I had finished I had counted 275 victims!

Astounded by the unexpectedly high numbers, we decided that we must purge the cave by burning the straw, so after dark we lit it and withdrew to the overhang. In a few moments there came an alarming roar from the cave mouth. It must have been heard for some distance. Just as startling was the dirty, grey smoke that poured in coils from the flue and rose into the air in a thick column. There was a strong smell of burning straw, and we prayed that no fickle breath of wind would carry the smoke towards the village and attract unwelcome attention. The noise, the smoke, and the smell continued for what seemed hours, but at length the fire died down and the smoke slowly diminished to a faint plume. We slept uncomfortably that night on the cold stones, but at least we had no fleas.

One of my last memories of the cave was a night of a full moon. Although each day had been bright, it had been followed by a cloudy night, so that the appearance of a full moon, huge and golden, came as a revelation. The air fairly crackled with frost, and a frozen silence enveloped mountains and valley. The patches of snow on the mountainsides opposite shone clear and white. The pinewoods behind stood solid and black, like an army of pikemen. Away in the distance a wolf howled mournfully.

[digital page 58]

It was impossible to remain in the close darkness of the cave, with its atmosphere thick with smoke and wood ash. I had to get up the mountain into the heart of the surrounding beauty.

Barry came too, and we climbed through the pines on to the bare mountainside, where we could see the whole sweep of the valley in the clear, silvery light. We wandered about the moon-washed mountainside, enjoying the entrancing spectacle, impervious to the cold. At last, we felt its numbing chill and we turned, reluctantly, towards the warmth of our dark lair.

Returning was not so straightforward, we discovered, for by the time we had re-entered the trees the snow had frozen hard and it cracked underfoot like hard, sugar icing. In the profound silence the sound of each careful footfall seemed to resound down the valley.

Dogs instantly barked discordantly, and a sentry in the village called out a challenge.

Wherever we placed a cautious foot, the noise of crushed snow crackled alarmingly through the trees. Only by risking a fall on the icy trail, packed hard by the villager traffic, were we able to make any kind of silent progress down the steep slope. The damned dogs kept up their frenzied yelling, and we began to think we would have to spend the night out of doors. The wolf howled again, and the dogs redoubled their noise. Hoping that the German patrol would place the blame for the uproar solely on the wolf, we thankfully reached the cave.

[digital page 59]

Chapter 18 – The Shepherd’s Hut

Map 18

In the middle of February Francesco and Raphael arrived at the cave. They were evidently in a hurry, for Francesco was left, panting, behind while Raphael came almost at a run.

‘You must go! Presto!’ he said urgently. ‘Bring your things and follow me’.

‘What has happened?’ I asked.

‘There’s to be a big search, a proper one this time!’, he replied. ‘It’s not safe to stay, so you are going up the mountain’.

‘Where to?’

‘I’ll show you. Follow me! Andiamo! Let’s go’.

Francesco had arrived by this time. We were all scrambling out of the cave, clutching our few belongings.

‘The Major and the Colonel will stay with me,’ he panted, T will put them in a safe place.’

We hastily said our farewells and Barry and I followed Raphael up the high track.

I was extremely relieved to abandon our winter home. It was a miracle we had managed to remain so long undisturbed. If we were discovered in a more remote hideout, it would bring less trouble on the villagers. To me the Gaglianese were now no anonymous peasants, but trusted friends who had already run grave risks on our behalf. We all, I think, set off with lighter spirits.

Barry and I were taken to the lonely shepherd’s cottage amid the bleak mountains.

Although remote, it was the only building to be seen in any direction and was therefore conspicuous. The high track also ran past it at no great distance and travellers were fairly frequent. There was no alternative, however, so we went inside without complaint.

The single room was bare of all fittings except a manger at one end and a fireplace at the other. A single window gave light. Some straw lay on the stone floor near the fireplace, and in one corner a ladder led to a loft in the rafters. Raphael left us there. ‘We’ll send some food up as soon as we can; enough for a few days. We daren’t come regularly at present. So long!’

[digital page 60]

We settled down in the straw with our acquired patience and awaited developments. We could not have a fire in daylight in case the smoking chimney betrayed us, but we managed to keep warm enough. In the afternoon the company arrived. First came two brothers, both young. They were Yugoslavs. What they were doing in Italy I never discovered, or have perhaps forgotten. However, they were pleasant lads, and settled on the floor beside us. Having arranged themselves comfortably, they then produced an army blanket, scissors, measuring tape, thimble, needless and thread, and set to work to make a pair of breeches, for those of the younger one were coming apart. They were obviously tailors by trade, and I watched, fascinated, as they deftly tacked and untacked with unhurried skill, threading their needles unerringly in the poor light.

The third visitor arrived at the door later in the afternoon. The sun had broken through and cast a long shadow behind him. He carried a large bundle over his shoulder. In it could be seen a quilt and a pillow. This was balanced in front by a bulging holdall. He too was a Yugoslav but a little older than the others, being about 30. He was on his way to Gagliano and was resting awhile, pleased to meet some fellow nationals.

When they spoke in Italian, I could generally follow the conversation, for I understood a deal more than I could speak, and to some extent could join in.

He had come from Iaella, where he had been staying with the Podestà. Now he was on his way to the Podestà in Gagliano. All winter he had taken turn and turn about, staying first with one and then with the other. He told us they got on very well. No wonder he seemed a happy man!

I warned him of the dangers in the village, but he just laughed, and when he had rested, shouldered his load and set off towards the distant track to Gagliano.

The two boys recounted how they had lived under German occupation in their home town of Lubljana. Everyone was a resistor and subjected to street searches. They became very skilful in concealing weapons. They explained that they did not intend to stay with us longer than it took to finish making the breeches.

Our other visitor had long disappeared round the mountain ahead and the sun was sinking behind the peaks, when Signor Sanciaculo arrived with his ass, from which he unloaded a quantity of supplies. His seamed and weather-beaten face retained its serious expression, which amounted to sadness, but he was friendly enough, despite appearances. Never talkative, he simply told us mildly that he would return when he could, and that meanwhile we must manage with the supplies he had brought. With a little nod, he turned his ass and set off across the mountainside to be home before curfew.

[digital page 61]

We remained indoors for a day or two, by which time the breeches were finished and the two Yugoslavs had departed. It was a cloudy day, with a freezing east wind sweeping over the pastures. We were out of food, except for a bag of about a kilo of lentils which we had no means of cooking. There was a smoke stained can by the empty grate, which prompted me to go out in the late afternoon to search for firewood. I calculated that any travellers would have sought shelter by then and that I stood a good chance of being unobserved. I set off across the wild slopes, head down into the biting wind. They were clear of snow, but there was a patch of white beneath the crags which conveniently disclosed a stretch of brushwood.

A few vagrant snowflakes swirled past as I pushed into the promising harvest. Here the snow lay a foot deep and the bare stems protruding through it whistled in the wind. I set to work, snapping them off with cold fingers and patiently collected a large bundle, denuding almost the whole patch. They wind blew me back to the cottage with my load, and I found myself humming ‘Good King Wenceslas’, as it seemed appropriate.

In no time a bright fire was crackling in the hearth and the can, filled with snow, was pushed into it. When we had sufficient water, we emptied the lentils into the can and sat back while they cooked. The wind rumbled in the chimney but we were in an oasis of warmth in this desolate wilderness. I hoped it wouldn’t snow again and bottle us up without supplies, for our friends might consider it too dangerous to help us when every step left a tell-tale track.

Barry sat with his long legs folded up to his chin. He said very little. Probably he too was wondering whether we were to be snowbound by morning. There was nothing we could do about it, so we sat in silence, looking at the dancing flames and at the steam rising from our cooking pot.

At last, the mess was cooked, and we each had a good portion, leaving plenty for the following day – longer, if we were careful. It was good to have a hot and satisfying meal before going contentedly to sleep.

In the middle of the night there came a thunderous knocking on the door, and we both shot up in alarm.

‘Jerry has found us!’ I thought. ‘What bad luck’.

We were quite trapped. The door was the only exit. Shouts came from outside, but the wind carried the words away. I stumbled through the darkness to the door, and edged it open. Snowflakes swept past me in a mad dance. A figure, muffled to the eyebrows, could barely be distinguished before me. To my relief it was the squat shape of Signor Sanciaculo. Young Mattodio, wildly excited, pushed his way forward.

[digital page 62]

‘Via, via!’ he cried shrilly. ‘The Tedeschi are coming’.

‘Come with us at once!’ his father said quietly. ‘The boy is right. The Tedeschi are on their way now. You have no time to lose’.

We grabbed our boots and hastily laced them up. I fastened my scarf around my neck and wrapped myself in my blanket. Barry was a vague shadow in the dark, thrashing about in his hurry. I found the can by the fireplace and threw it outside, trying to eliminate traces of recent occupation. Barry pushed through the open door into the teeth of the gale and I followed. It was bitterly cold. The padrone slammed the door shut as I turned to Mattodio.

‘The others – in the Wolf’s cave – have you warned them?’


‘Go then, quickly. Tell them the Tedeschi are coming. Bianca will thank you’.

He darted off excitedly into the inhospitable darkness, and I smiled to see him go. What an adventure he was having! He could look after himself, for he knew every inch of the mountain and could avoid any Germans in these wild conditions and be home before his father.

The padrone led us steadily downhill, away from the track and down to the lower reaches of the mountain, where the ground was a jumble of rocks and trees. It was pitch black, and we saw nothing of the Germans. He did not hurry. Evidently, he was sure of the way, even in the dark, for we passed between the rocks, turning first one way and then another without hesitation.

It was more sheltered down here, but the winds roared through the tree tops. The snow was scanty, and only when the odd flake stuck to an eyelash were we reminded of it. A long time seemed to elapse before we came to a stop. A stone wall rose high above us. We followed him alongside it to a door, which he opened, and we stepped into what seemed to be a large stable or byre, for the darkness was redolent of straw and hay. It was suddenly quiet inside after the wind. There was a smell, but no sound of animals, and I assumed the place was empty.

‘Stay here until morning. Someone will come. You will be safe. Tomorrow we will move you’.

He closed the door behind him, the latch clicked, and we were once more alone.

[digital page 63]

Chapter 19 – Air Drop!

Map 18

I lay for a while, listening to the wind outside, and the occasional creaking of the roof timbers as a heavy gust buffeted the building. I wondered whether Mattodio had been able to warn the others in time, and felt sure he must have done. What was happening to Gagliano? How tight was the new clamp-down? They were questions I could not answer, but they buzzed in my head like frustrated blue bottles, until I dropped off to sleep.

A few shafts of light from ventilation slits high in the walls indicated it was full day when we awoke. As expected, we were in a large, gloomy stable or byre, with rows of mangers along the walls. It seemed about the size of a small village church. The only door was at the far end, and when I opened it and peered cautiously outside, the warm sun greeted me from a cloudless sky. The wind had dropped, and all was peaceful.

The building stood in a small clearing, surrounded by trees. I scouted quickly around. We seemed to be close to the head of the old quarry, but well hidden. Unless the Germans were very active, we should be safe for a day.

It was late afternoon before we were disturbed. There came a thunderous knock on the door and a voice shouted in Italian, ‘Open! Open!’

Not knowing what to expect, and fearing the worst, I opened the door, which, in any case, was not locked. A hatchet-faced man stood there. He was wearing a black fascist shirt. This could be of little consequence, as I was wearing one myself, but I was not sure of his intentions, for his manner was aggressive and suspicious. I caught sight of the fascist dagger he was wearing at his belt, and began to feel we were in deep trouble. My mind was whirling like a computer, manipulating a dozen possibilities simultaneously. He might indeed, be a fascist. There were plenty about in the valley. He had expected someone to be in the barn, otherwise he would not have knocked, so perhaps he had been sent by our friends. A fascist would not have come alone, I reasoned; but doubts remained. I invited him closer, and as he entered, flashed a look around outside to see if he had any support.

All seemed well, so I began to feel better, but his manner remained discomposing. The man was now outnumbered two to one, so I felt he could be overpowered if the need arose. All kinds of hideous solutions and consequences tumbled through my brains as I led him towards Barry.

If he proved to be a fascist, what then? We could quieten him with his own dagger as a last resort, but could I do that in cold blood? I was nagged by all sorts of decisions and doubts and was infinitely relieved when he grinned and said, ‘I am Arturo from Castel di Ieri. I have come to take you away from here. Did you think I was a fascist? It was only a joke to give you a fright’.

[digital page 64]

What a fright he would have had if he had known how my mind had been working!

Barry had not understood the situation at all, so I did not enlighten him. I thanked Arturo, and having introduced ourselves, asked him where he was taking us.

‘There is a cave on the other side of the valley,’ he explained. ‘I am to take you there.

Guides will take you over the Maiella later’.

‘There are guides to help us?’

‘Certainly. They have been taking parties over all the time. They will let you know when they are ready.’

Though the Squadron Leader himself had spoken of guides, I had some mental reservations about such grandiose schemes, remembering ‘Canada’ and his air drop. However, I sounded pleased when he promised to return later.

We were asleep when he tapped on the door late at night. He told us to leave our blankets and follow him. Outside, the sky was overcast, and a few drops of rain were falling. We threaded our way through the rocks to another building. Here a crowd of 20-30 people had gathered. They were chatting quite noisily.

‘Silence!’ hissed Arturo. ‘No more talking! Andiamo! Let’s go!’.

We set off, an unruly column, down a muddy lane, flanked by walls or hedges, dimly visible in the dark. Hardly had we gone 100 yards when the rain, hitherto hesitant, suddenly decided to fall. It was a drenching avalanche, drowning everything. Splashing through the mud, head down in the downpour, we were soon soaked to the skin. The drumming of the rain on the sodden earth was all that could be heard as we marched steadily on, intent on keeping our circulations going against the chill of our soaked clothing. The general discomfort subdued any urge to talk.

We were still on the move, approaching Castel Vecchio, when daylight came. The valley road had to be crossed and the mountain scaled before people were about, so we quickened our pace. The rain, mercifully, stopped before we reached the road. We were about to set foot on it when we heard the sound of an engine, and a motorcycle combination left Castel di Ieri and bowled along towards us at top speed. Like us, the riders were scurrying for cover before it was full day.

For us there appeared to be no cover and we looked around anxiously. There was a stream nearby, bloated with the night’s rain. It ran under the road and on through the pass beyond. We dashed for the shelter of the culvert and leaped into the water. It rose to our knees and hurtled urgently past us as we crouched under the limited protection.

[digital page 65]

The motorcycle, with its German officer sitting stiffly in the sidecar, roared over our heads and into Castel Vecchio. When it had passed, we all emerged and hurriedly crossed the road and climbed the mule track that took us up the mountain. Once we were high enough to be out of reach, the group split up, leaving Arturo alone with Barry and me. He led us northwards to the lip of the pass and here he plunged over the edge into the trees, and guided us along a faint track running parallel to it. After a while the track rose slightly to a rocky outcrop, where we found our cave.

It was high and wide and we could easily walk upright in it. Major Garland and Colonel Harding were already in residence, as they had been for some days. A fire was burning half-heartedly against one wall, well back from the entrance, which looked out on the road below.

When Arturo had left, Barry and I stripped off our wet garments and hung them on the branches outside to dry. The cave faced north, and even if the sun had been shining it would not have reached the entrance. It was, however, an unpromising day, grey and overcast, but there was a bit of a breeze through the pass that might succeed in drying our clothes, given time. Wrapped in blankets, we sat the day out and eventually had to use the fire to complete the drying process.

In the twilight a party of women and girls from Castel di Ieri brought us some food. They were enjoying the adventure, despite the dangers of fascists that were still in the village, plus a steep climb up the mountain with their loads. They promised to return each day.

It was now March. The snow had gone from the valley and we began to grow impatient to be one the move. Arturo came occasionally, and we questioned him about the guides he had provided us. At first, he said they would certainly be here the following day, then later, they would arrive the next week, but a fortnight passed and we were no further forward.

Eventually, two strangers appeared one afternoon, and told us to get ready to move. When next day they came we would go. Days dragged past, but no guides came. Then we had a visitor. It was ‘Texas’, the American pilot from the Wolf’s cave. He had left that refuge very early on and had gone on his travels. Now he was eager to be on his way over the Maiella, and had a sheet with him.

‘I’ll cover myself with this and lie low if the patrols come,’ he explained.

‘Why not wait for the guides?’ I suggested. ‘They will know the best routes’.

‘You can’t rely on them. I’ll make my own way. If you wait for them, you’ll be here a long time.’

[digital page 66]

He spent the day with us, disappearing into the countryside from time to time. Next morning, after we had eaten the last of our supplies, I went off into the woods to work off my frustration. Towards dark I returned to find that ‘Texas’ had gone off to attempt the crossing of the front and had taken Barry with him!

I recalled they had been together a lot the previous day, and must have been discussing their move. Barry and I had never been compatible, but I felt he might have told me his intention, especially after I had done so much for him.

This was the final blow that decided me to try the Maiella on my own. I was weary of being the sole spokesman of the party, and in any case felt better on my own, so I broke the news the next day and set off southwards, keeping just below the crest to avoid the skyline.

About an hour later I crossed the ridge and for the first time saw the valley beyond.

To my left lay Raiano amid its olive groves. From here a railway ran to the foot of the ridge and across the plain to Sulmona, which I could see in the distance. Behind rose the impressive barrier of the Maiella, still swathed in white.

I ran down the mountainside, crossed the railway line and set off along the bridle path on the other side. I was now on level ground, with fields on my left and olive groves covering the slopes of the mountain on my right. A country road crossed the path, and as it seemed to lead in the right direction, I took it and tramped through the fallow fields.

After a while I sat down beneath an almond tree for a rest. It stood on a slight rise and gave a good view of the countryside around. There were plenty of almonds on the ground and I smashed some open with a stone. They proved to be very mature and well flavoured, so I had an unexpected feast.

Walking through the fields in the warm sunshine was very pleasant. The road passed under

II Colle.

The land was divided into small plots of about an acre, most of which were lying fallow.

Half a dozen sheep were grazing on one such patch, and a little girl of about six was in charge of them. She concentrated earnestly on keeping them on their own patch, and was not tempted to join some other children who were playing on the road. Boy Blue would have been put to shame.

At the edge of the hamlet, I came across a group of men and women breaking the black soil with their mattocks ready for the spring sowing. We exchanged greetings, and they rested on their mattocks, glad of a respite and the chance of a chat with a stranger.

‘Where are you from?’ came the familiar question. I told them my story.

[digital page 67]

The padrone, a thickset man with a face as rosy and shiny as a polished apple, gave me a cheerful smile.

‘Why, we can soon fix you up!’ he said, and pointing to the handful of houses, he indicated one near a pond. ‘Go to that house, tell them your story, and they’ll give you help’.

I must have looked a little dubious, for he gave me a slight push.

‘Go on,’ he insisted. ‘It will be alright.’

Still somewhat in doubt, I did as I was told, knocked on the door, and stated my case to the neat woman who answered. With her lean face and merry eyes, she would have been a second Laura Sanciaculo, except that her skin was paler and she seemed much more prosperous. She invited me in without hesitation.

‘We have many things from the English,’ she said proudly, ‘they were dropped by parachute. Look!’ She dashed into another room and returned briskly with an armful of assorted army supplies. ‘Take what you need!’ she said.

Aladdin must have felt as I did. I could hardly believe my good fortune. I chose a blanket to act as a cloak, for the one I had used in the escape from the shepherd’s hut had proved its worth. Searching among the smaller items I found a ‘housewife’ from which I took a large safety pin with which to fasten it. I selected an army shirt, long woollen underwear and socks. A small map, printed on silk, and a little compass completed my equipment.

By the time I had completed my selection the padrona returned, bringing a bowl of hot water and a bar of soap. As soon as she had left with the remaining supplies, I stripped off my verminous clothing and enjoyed a satisfactory sponge down in front of the fire. Then followed the equally sensuous delight of slipping into clean underwear and pushing my feet into soft army socks.

When I was ready, the good lady removed my cast-off rags, and as it was about noon, invited me to share her meal in the next room.

‘You should not go on the mountain alone,’ she cautioned. ‘The snow is soft and deep. Wait for my husband to take you across as soon as the snow is hard. He will come for you.’

The airdrop had almost convinced me and now her words confirmed my belief that guides did, indeed, exist. It seemed foolish to ignore the proffered help, and besides, I could share my good fortune with the Major and the Colonel and bring them with me later. I decided to return to the cave with my good news. Once we had a clear night to harden the snow which had been softened by the sun during the day, we would be on our way.

[digital page 68]

Chapter 20 – Farewell Gagliano!

Map 18

After crossing the railway on my return trip, I met another group of people at work in the fields and stopped to gossip. They were very friendly and interested in my story.

‘The Tedeschi are in our village,’ said one young man, ‘but no matter. Come and stay with us tonight.’

‘It is too dangerous for you,’ I replied.

‘No! No!’ they all shouted. ‘We ignore the Tedeschi. Do as he says. It will be alright.’

A comfortable night under a roof was not to be missed, so as they seemed confident, I sat and waited for them to finish work.

Sometime later there was a stir of excitement among them and a group collected around a young woman.

‘A bambino! A fine boy! Madonna be praised!’

The young woman had evidently been working until her time had come, when she had simply gone to the hedgerow to have her baby!

As the sun was now about to set, we all moved off together, chattering like starlings, towards Raiano. We took the railway, as it was the shortest way, and walked into the red eye of the sun, which glowed over the crest of the mountains and soon slipped behind them. The lines shone in the slanting rays and seemed to stretch ahead for ever, but eventually we drew near the village. A sentry stood where the line was crossed by a road. My companion grinned at me.

‘These are Austrians. They are all right. Here, take this. Put it on your shoulder.’ He handed me his hoe, so I did as he asked and marched towards the sentry. As he had promised, there was no trouble. The girls chatted to the soldier, while we slipped away on the road into the village.

It was dusk when we passed alongside the wall of the soldiers’ quarters, I could hear them singing harmoniously inside. My companion guided me into the main street and into a doorway of one of the houses opposite. Inside, he introduced me to the family, who welcomed me unaffectedly. I sat down at once to a very friendly supper, and later was taken upstairs by my new friend.

[digital page 69]

‘The soldiers come here,’ he explained. ‘Don’t be alarmed. Stay upstairs.’

He led me to a bedroom where there was a large and desirable brass bedstead.

‘Have a good rest,’ he said, as he left.

I immediately undressed and climbed into the soft bed, where I instantly fell asleep. Much later, I awakened to the noise of the Austrian soldiers below. Obviously, the wine was doing its work and loosening their tongues. Every now and then there would come a burst of song. I dozed off again and only woke when my friend came to share the bed. All then was quiet below. I got up to relieve myself in the chamber pot, which I found to be almost full.

‘What do I do with this?’ I asked.

‘Oh, empty it out of the window.’

It was the fulfilment of a hidden ambition! From the moment I read of this ancient custom I thought what fun it would be. Now I had my opportunity. Opening the French window, I stepped on to the balcony and peered carefully up the moonlit street. It was deserted. With the utmost satisfaction I leaned over the iron railing and quietly emptied the pot, its contents splashing on the road below.

I was awakened betimes and taken to the kitchen, where after a wash and shave I was given breakfast and ushered into the street before sunrise. Alert for patrols, I hurried towards the hills in the early mists of dawn. I crossed the railway line and then the road, and climbed up the hill of Il Castallone, which was covered with olive trees, and also with enemy transport and slit trenches. No-one stirred, however, so I was soon up the mountain and on the crest before the sun rose.

The senior officers were happy to see me, and happier still when I told them my story and showed them my new possessions.

‘As soon as the snow conditions are right, we will be collected,’ I promised them.

Now that we had some tangible evidence of help, the waiting of the next few days proved even more of a strain, and it was quite an anti-climax when, after a few days, two men arrived to tell us they would be round to collect us the next day.

‘After midday’, they promised.

‘I must say goodbye to Francesco before we leave,’ I said. ‘I’d like to know what has been happening.’

[digital page 70]

I set off at once, picked up the trail down the mountainside, and crossed the road into the enclosed farmland beyond. Passing round the head of the quarry, I slipped into the lanes of Gagliano, intending to seek out the Sanciaculo home. There was a jumble of kitchen gardens hereabouts, flimsily fenced and riddled with narrow footpaths. They gave me plenty of cover as far as the main street, and there I paused to reconnoitre.

The house lay on the opposite side, about 100 yards uphill. Few people were about, and as I was mentally selecting a few lanes to lead me closer, the good lady herself appeared across the street, steadily climbing the hill with a copper water vessel on her head. She had just come from the fountain with the family’s water supply. As she drew abreast, she spotted me and winked. I let her get indoors and then darted up a couple of deserted alleys and across the street into her humble home.

She clapped her hands as I slipped indoors, and her lean face split in a splendid grin.

‘Carlo! Carlo mio!’ she laughed. ‘So you are back! Francesco will be glad. He has been anxious. I will tell him you are here.’

‘I have come to say farewell, for I am off to the Maiella tomorrow.’

She nodded briskly at this. May God be with you,’ she said as she bustled out, as happy as though I had been a member of her own family.

I sat down alone in the dark and narrow room, wondering once more at the unselfish generosity of these poor people.

Francesco arrived, beaming, shortly after. He drew out his pipe to conceal his emotion.

‘Bravo, Carlo,’ he said. ‘Elvira welcomes you to our house. You shall stay with us tonight.’

I embraced the padrone, who remained as chirpy as a sparrow, and Francesco, restored now to his self-importance, led me by a circuitous route to his front door, where Elvira was waiting to welcome me with a smile of pleasure.

‘Sit! Sit! Carlo! Have a little wine. This is a grand occasion.’

She fussed around me, smiling broadly, and Francesco puffed at his pipe with proprietorial complacency.

‘I am making you a pizza, Carlo! We shall have a feast.’ He smiled at his wife as she busied herself at the stove.

[digital page 71]

We sat down to supper. Francesco paused and looked at me. ‘Cover yourself! You will catch a cold in the head!’ he ordered earnestly, just as he had before. I said I would be alright. He hesitated a moment, and then made the supreme sacrifice. In honour of his guest, he removed his cap! When the meal was over, however, he at once resumed it.

I asked about the officers in the Wolf’s cave. ‘Did Mattodio warn them in time?’

‘Yes. He warned them, but only two would leave. The other five were captured. The Tedeschi brought them down to the castle.’

‘The idiots!’, I thought. ‘After all the freedom they had enjoyed, they were too lazy to leave their warm blankets and go out into the gale. Probably they did not believe the warning and took a chance. They know better now.’

‘The Tedeschi burned the shepherd’s hut,’ Francesco continued. ‘It has no roof now.’

It saddened me to learn of this further sacrifice the Gaglianese had been called upon to make, but Francesco seemed unconcerned.

Later in the evening Vittorio arrived, and we had a pleasant gossip around the fire. He had brought me a bottle of Marsala with eggs in it. This was, I gathered, a fortifying drink, like Guinness. It at least looked the same.

‘It will strengthen you on your climb,’ he said.

Francesco agreed. ‘It is very strong,’ he remarked, ‘just the stuff you need.’

Gratefully, I accepted the kindly gift. Elvira then produced an army haversack.

‘You will need this for the wine. It will carry well.’ She placed the bottle in it.

Ignoring the curfew, Vittorio slipped away into the darkness of the unlit streets, and I was shown into a bedroom upstairs, in which stood a noble feather bed. There I was left with instructions to sleep well.

‘We will call you early. As soon as curfew is over, we shall see you off.’

I looked out of the window into the village square. There opposite, gaped the dark hole of the castle entrance. The grey walls of the buildings over the fountain showed dimly in the starlight. The dogs were, for once, silent.

[digital page 72]

Climbing into the comfort of the bed, I was glad I had got rid of my verminous underwear and would not, therefore, contaminate it too badly, though I suspected I was not entirely free of the persistent lice.

Next morning, after I had spruced up, I was given breakfast and sat with Francesco awaiting Vittorio. We were both silent, and both, I think, a little sad at parting.

Vittorio arrived with the sun, and we all stood inside the door awaiting the return of the patrol, which had to pass it to reach the castle. Elvira handed me the haversack, now swollen with the food she had packed into it, and wished us good luck. I slipped the strap over my shoulder. It seemed impossible that I was seeing her for the last time.

Finally, the two men decided it was safe to venture out, so we stepped into the street and walked off into the square. We had reached the very centre, when the patrol came round the corner and tramped slowly towards us. There were only two soldiers, very smart in grey greatcoats and peaked caps. They were very tall, and very young.

My two friends stopped to chat with them. Evidently, they were well acquainted. Vittorio, no dwarf, had to look up to speak to them. I stood silent, fearful of what might happen to my friends if my identity was discovered. Francesco remained calm and unconcerned.

After a few words had been exchanged, he quietly led me away out of sight, while Vittorio held the lads in further conversation. I heaved a sigh of relief at their coolness.

Vittorio re-joined us in a moment of two and we all walked along the low track as far as the iron roadside cross outside the village.

‘This is where I must leave you, my friends,’ I said. ‘Many thanks for all you have done for me and for the others.’

We shook hands warmly.

‘Take care!’ said Francesco, a little shakily.

I promised to do so, and bounded down into the trees by the quarry. Looking back, I could see his forlorn figure, dwarfed by the big frame of Vittorio, who slapped him on the shoulder as if to comfort him. With a final wave we parted.

[digital page 72]

Chapter 21 – The Maiella

Maps 19 & 20

As promised, our two guides appeared in the middle of the afternoon. We collected our scanty belongings. I slung my haversack over one shoulder and my blanket over the other and we set off along the ridge away from the valley which had sheltered us for so long.

It was dusk when we dropped into Prezza, and dark when we reached Campo di Fano, where we were ushered into one of a row of houses and found a number of other PoWs there. Apparently, it was a collecting point. We were given something to eat, and then there was a long wait. I was not feeling too happy about the organisation, and hoped it would improve quickly.

After an hour or so there was a discussion at the door and a guide called us to him.

‘It is too late to start today. We shall have to leave tomorrow.’

He showed us into a barn, where we spent the night, disappointed at the delay. Before dawn we were taken outside into the field behind the house. Near a bridge was a little harvest shack made of maize stalks. It was about 6 feet square. He pushed about eight of us inside.

‘You will have to wait here until sunset. Keep very quiet and stay hidden.’

The sun shone through the slits of roof and walls, and we watched its progress through the tedious hours. Having had no breakfast, most of us were feeling hungry, so to alleviate their boredom, I shared out the food I was carrying, keeping only a crust for myself as an iron ration. As always when going into action, I found I had no appetite.

In the late afternoon, with the sun beginning to sink, we heard voices, and through the walls we saw a couple of German soldiers on the footpath about 20 feet away. They were coming from the village carrying between them a dixie, full we suspected of wine. We made no move and barely breathed as they passed without a glance in our direction. When they had gone, we were taken back to the house and mustered in the street with a large group of strangers, many of whom were Italians. Among them I spotted Arturo. ‘I am coming with you,’ he grinned.

So, about 30 strong, we set off on the road to Sulmona looking like an ill-assorted company of pilgrims. I hoped the Italians were better prepared than the rest of us, for we had had little to eat for the past 24 hours and carried no food for the strenuous climb which lay ahead.

[digital page 74]

The country was completely open, and such a large group, ambling along in broad daylight, was bound to attract attention, but the guides seemed happy enough and were in no great hurry.

The buildings of Sulmona seemed to stay out of reach as we tramped steadily towards them, but the moment came when we suddenly found ourselves to be quite close. It seemed impossible to believe that we were still unobserved, but the streets appeared to be deserted. Just as we were crossing the railway line on the outskirts, four twin-engine bombers suddenly appeared over the housetops, flying very low. This accounted for the deserted streets. There must have been an air raid warning unheard by us.

I had been so engrossed in getting safely past the town that I had not heard them approach, but now the noise of their engines made me look up. They seemed to be just above the rooftops. The setting sun glinted on the bomb doors as they opened, and then momentarily, on the bombs as they fell.

We were across the railway and over the bridge into the outskirts when the thick clouds of smoke and dust rose from the direction of the station to our left. The roar of the explosions followed, and the town’s windows shook.

The raid had cleared the streets for us, so that we could freely hurry along to the southern end of town, where we clambered wildly through a network of allotments, over the road, and into the open country beyond. A rustic bridge took us over the Vetta, and then we were on flat, grassy plain. Pacentro lay ahead, spread on the lower slopes of the mountains.

The sun set, and the darkness swiftly gathered. An embankment along a water channel made a useful causeway and we hurried along it in single file. It was almost dark when we reached the bridge carrying the road to scamper over the bridge, which in the gloom seemed a long one, when a headlight stabbed towards us from the opposite side. We just had time to make out the shape of a motorcycle combination before we flung ourselves down by the road, pressing our faces into the ground. The machine roared past and disappeared towards Pacentro. We scanned the road ahead for signs of further traffic. All seemed quiet. The noise of the motorbike faded into the distance and nothing appeared ahead. We leapt up and, like a storming party, made a concerted dash across the bridge.

It was quite dark by now and the stars were out. A clear night was essential to harden the snow, so their appearance was welcome. Under their faint light the road stretched whitely before us. After the shock of the motorbike, we were nervous of meeting other traffic, and jogged along, hoping no headlights would swing round the next bend and expose us. We could feel the presence of tire mountains confining us to the road, and were thankful when the guides suddenly turned off on to a mule track which carried us speedily up the mountainside.

[digital page 75]

Once on the crest, we could see the snowy mass of the Maiella against the starlit sky, close, but remote. We were not yet on its slopes, and I began to appreciate the value of the guide for the approach march was more complicated than it had appeared from a distance. For nearly two hours we followed the track, without appearing to get any closer to the mountain. Then we suddenly descended and came out upon a road again.

Our eyes were well accustomed to the dark by now, but we could see very little beyond the short stretch of road ahead. Once more we grew anxious. The mountains on either side seemed to lean on us and prevent any escape. The sound of tramping feet seemed deafening in the silence, and when we suddenly found ourselves passing by the black walls of a village, the sound was redoubled.

‘What’s this place?’ I quietly asked the guide.

‘This is Campo di Giove,’ he replied.

I felt a sudden apprehension. This was the southern base of the German ski patrols. There could be Germans behind those walls! We did not linger.

Despite the uproar we seemed to be making, no-one showed any interest in us, and with great relief, we passed safely through and turned left off the road towards the Maiella that now rose immediately before us.

We were in a little tree-fringed valley. The bare branches showed like black besoms against the snow, which lay, smooth and unbroken, to the edge of their ranks. From there the mountain slope began. It was only about 100 yards away, so we stepped boldly into the little valley, and at once plunged up to our thighs in the snow. Each step required a great physical effort that sapped the strength from our legs. Before we had struggled half way, most of us were gasping, and I was running with sweat. One by one the weakest, or less determined, fell out and turned back, and by the time we had reached the trees and were clear of the deep snow, the party was again reduced to about 30, all of whom were temporarily exhausted.

The guides, who had dawdled during the early part of the march, were now keen to move as fast as possible so as to be over the crest by dawn, so we were not allowed to linger. We were forced to keep a good pace as we followed a mule track that sloped up the mountainside to the pass. It was only an inch or two deep in snow, but the brisk pace made it tiring work, just the same.

From the darkness of the valley below a dog occasionally barked. A few chinks of light showed from the village. Overhead the remote stars glittered. Above, the mountain turned its white shoulder to us in silent indifference. Only the grunts and wheezes of distressed climbers broke the silence of the crystal air.

[digital page 76]

At length we stopped for a rest. A snow slip had blotted out the track and we had to pick our way across the snow slope, which was starting to form a hard crust. We bunched up and flopped about in various conditions of exhaustion. I myself felt quite strong, and now that we were away from the perils of the roads and villages, exhilarated.

At length we stopped for a rest. A snow slip had blotted out the track and we had to pick our way across the snow slope, which was starting to form a hard crust. We bunched up and flopped about in various conditions of exhaustion. I myself felt quite strong, and now that we were away from the perils of the roads and villages, exhilarated.

I opened my bottle of Marsala and took a long swig. It was certainly welcome. I passed it to the Major and the Colonel, who were eating some food they had brought. I was still unable to eat any food myself.

Two of the guides walked across the gap, leaving the other two to marshal us. One by one we picked our way across the slope. The hard crust took my weight easily and made the crossing simple. Some others had difficulty, but stumbled and slid across, leaving a group of big South Africans last. All but one managed to cross, but the last man kept breaking through and struggling to keep his balance. In the end he retreated and said he would go back on his own and try again later. His mates urged him to make the attempt, and to bring matters to a conclusion, I decided to go across and guide him over.

He had a walking staff, and I took one end and helped to tow him across. At each step the crust broke under his weight, and he slipped wildly, but recovered. We were almost over, when he slipped again and this time failed to recover his balance. In a flash he had gone head first down the mountain, tugging me instantly off balance too. Head first, arms and legs sprawled, we shot smoothly down the hardening snow. The stars turned in the sky. I was quite calm. I felt there was no danger, and that we might travel swiftly to the valley floor without mishap. The climb back to the track was the ordeal that daunted me.

We shot into a hollow and up the other side to its lip. Our impetus failed just in time and we slipped back, like peas in a bowl, until we came to rest side by side.

I looked up and could see the line of black figures against the snow almost 300 feet above us. I pulled my companion to his feet. Wordlessly, we began our climb back, and here the hard crust helped, for we could easily kick footholds in it.

As soon as we regained the track the party moved off again, climbing ever higher for several more hours before we were allowed a brief rest. The Major begged for a swig at my bottle. I handed it over and he returned it to me empty. I was feeling tired, but still pretty strong. Once we were over the crest and going downhill, walking would be easier, and with luck, we would find somewhere to lie up and rest during the daylight.

[digital page 77]

The mountain resisted us with a series of false crests, and it was not until the light was creeping into the sky that we reached the Fondo di Femmina Morta, ‘Dead Girl Pass’. It was a dismal moment. Not only were we not over the crest, but the sky had grown overcast and a chill wind was blowing in our faces, bearing scattered snowflakes. There were groans of exhaustion and dismay. One young British soldier was in a state of collapse, and was being supported by his comrades. They were very calm and level headed.

‘We’ll take him straight down the pass and lie up somewhere until he’s fit to travel,’ they said.

‘You’ll be in the German lines,’ I reminded them.

‘We’ll have to risk it. It’s as far as he can go.’

We knew the enemy held the upper reaches of the next valley, and our troops the lower, so we hoped to come down between them in no man’s land and eventually find our own lines.

The soldiers were almost within reach of freedom, yet they were prepared to sacrifice this rather than desert their comrade.

Behind us, figures were still struggling out of the trees and up the last slope. Others were lying, exhausted, in the snow unable to go further. I saw Arturo. He was in good heart, pleased as Punch to have got so far.

I went down to one man who lay exhausted.

‘Leave me, leave me!’ he begged ‘Let me die!’

I grabbed him by the coat collar.

‘Courage!’ I shouted. ‘We’re nearly there! It will be easier on the other side.’

I was on hands and knees, lugging him upwards through the snow, while he crawled feebly with me, begging all the time to be left, and crying on the saints for help.

At length I got him to the top and went back for another, whom I treated in the same way. This time however, I had had enough, and when I dragged him to the crest my knees were trembling and I realised I had lost a lot of strength. None of us were in a very good condition, and we stood around, leaning on one another for support. Meanwhile the guides had been holding a lengthy conference, at the end of which they decided to go on. My own mind had long been made up the moment we reached the pass. I was going on, alone if need be, using my little compass and map.

[digital page 78]

The wind was strengthening and blowing against us. It was bitterly cold, and soon the peaks of the mountain were shrouded in fine, swirling snow. I unrolled my blanket, wrapped it round me and pinned it with the safety pin. Then I removed my white, silk scarf, wrapped it under my chin, over my ears and tied it in a knot on the top of my cap, which I pulled well down. The blanket cut off the wind surprisingly well, so all that remained was for me to keep my fingers warm by stuffing them into my pockets.

By this time the guides had moved off, and I plodded some distance behind them, head down into the fierce wind and driving snow that struck us the moment we entered the pass. We took a downward path north east towards Lama in the valley below, which we hoped was in the middle of no man’s land. We could only see a short distance around, for the driving snow reduced visibility to a few yards. Even the guides, spread in a line across our struggling party, disappeared from sight from time to time. The roaring wind swept the snow from the slopes and prevented it from accumulating underfoot, so the going was easy enough, and once we were fairly on the move, I kept comfortably warm. In a very real way, the blizzard was of help to us, since it kept the ski patrols away and allowed us to continue marching all day, instead of having to lie up and risk the danger of frostbite.

However, we did not entirely escape this, for I noticed the ears of the two men ahead of me suddenly swelling, like drop scones on a hotplate, until they were twice their normal size.

Ice coated my eyelashes and my breath froze on my face.

The Colonel came to a halt. ‘Can you give me a hand?’ he gasped. T don’t think I can go much further.’

I stood, swaying, and shook my head. ‘Sorry, sir. It’s all I can do to keep going myself.’

It was true. I now felt very weak and shaky at the knees. Only the fact that we were going gently downhill kept me on my feet at all.

The Major, who was at the Colonel’s side and was obviously feeling the strain too, took a firmer grip of his elbow and encouraged him to keep going. The Colonel’s plump face was drawn and grey. He quietly accepted the situation, realising that I was indeed exhausted.

All now depended on individual endurance. I shut myself off from the world and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, doggedly trudging on. The hours passed, and somehow, I remained on my feet, walking like an automaton, and only vaguely conscious of other trudging figures nearby. I had not noticed that the wind had dropped, and that no snow was falling, other than a few, random, flakes, when the guides called a halt, and I staggered to a large rock and leaned against it. I dared not sit in case my trembling legs would fail to lift me again. Looking dully around, I saw we had come across a stretch of very broken ground. Huge boulders lay tumbled about in confusion and pine trees were clinging to the mountainside wherever they were able.

[digital page 79]

I had been marching for about 24 hours without food, yet did not in the least feel like eating. The effort must be made, however, if I was to continue the march, so I took out my hunk of bread, now pretty dried up, and nibbled at it. My mouth was dry and I had great difficulty in chewing, but I went about it slowly and at last managed to swallow the first mouthful. It tasted like sawdust. Little by little I ate my way through the crust, and before I had finished, I could feel a steady glow of returning strength.

My blanket was frozen stiff in a cone, but I managed to fold it and put it over my shoulder. The journey was not over yet, so it would be unwise to discard any equipment. My scarf was frozen into a ring, and as it was impossible to untie it, I stuck it in my haversack.

For hours more we tramped on, gradually descending into warmer conditions. Late in the afternoon we passed through a pinewood. The slopes became steeper, and suddenly, the Aventino valley came into view. There in the centre, on a slight rise, were the shell-shattered ruins of Lama. The only building standing seemed to be the church in the centre. Nothing stirred. Below us a road curled round the mountain, and beyond it the ground dropped suddenly. Huge, rounded boulders were scattered everywhere, promising plenty of cover. But who occupied those ruins? I wished I had a pair of binoculars. There was no other way of knowing who held the village, or whether the road was covered by fire.

To my right the rest of the party were slithering down the steep, snow-covered slope and dropping on to the road. I kept away from them, discarded my blanket, and plunged down the almost vertical slope, through snow-filled brushwood until I dropped on to the road and instantly dashed across to fling myself into the shelter of the boulders on the other side.

The others were still streaming across the road, when three Italian soldiers came round a bend from the direction of our lines. They were armed. With a dramatic gesture, their leader halted and pressed the others back. He had a pistol in his hand. They could be fascists, so I kept still and hidden. After a moment’s hesitation, they seemed to be reassured and marched along to question the Italians, who were now standing in the road as if it were a Sunday evening in the village square.

I heard a sharp challenge. ‘Halt!’ It was not an English voice.

I darted off like a whippet, dodging round the boulders, until I had put some distance behind me. Then I looked back and saw the scarecrow crowd being waved on by a soldier who was wearing a black beret. He was in khaki.

Still cautious, I drew closer, and as they neared the church, I saw other soldiers emerging from the ruins and realised that they were indeed our own troops. They were Indians, which accounted for the strange accent.

[digital page 80]

A platoon of Indian soldiers of the 11th Indian Division were installed amid the ruins of the church, which alone seemed to have part of its roof intact. Several soldiers were asleep on mattresses taken from the shattered buildings, which were little more than heaps of rubble.

Major Garland chatted to the soldiers in their own language while Colonel Harding reported to their British officer. We sat around awaiting instructions, numbed by the abruptness of our success. Lama had changed hands many times. We were told it had been in enemy hands until three days ago.

The soldiers brewed us a can of strong tea, thick with tinned milk and sugar. My last drink I recalled, had been on the other side of the mountain. How remote it all seemed now. I needed time to adjust.

The patrol had a telephone link to the forward positions and the situation was explained. There was quite a delay before we received instructions to walk down the valley to Fonterossi, the first hamlet, which was a couple of miles away.

It was a pleasant walk, for the sun broke through for the first time that day and turned the river to a sparkling blue. The water prattled over the stones with a soothing familiarity as I walked appreciatively along its banks, although I kept an ear cocked for the sound of any approaching German shells. I was astounded to pass farmhouses that were still occupied, and to see peasants even at work in the fields well within range of the German guns. Soon Fonterossi was above us, and was still occupied by civilians, who were going about their normal business.

An officer was waiting to take charge of us. The few officers among us were taken off to the mess of a reconnaissance unit, and we sat on easy chairs, uncomfortably aware of our scruffy clothes and the unsavoury livestock infesting them. We were served tea and cake, a certain confirmation that we were indeed among our own kind.

Transport was brought up for us, and we climbed aboard, yielding ourselves gratefully to the processes of the Army, and abandoning all responsibilities. I saw that Arturo had survived the journey. Like his compatriots he would be interned, which seemed hardly the welcome he would have expected and was, to my mind, somewhat stupid, for why should we antagonise friends, however humble?

We lurched off down the valley to Casoli, where we saw masses of armoured equipment crowded together by the roadside. The daylight faded, and we travelled on, each of us lost in his own thoughts. I felt no excitement or sense of achievement. I was simply glad the ordeal was over, and surprised to feel that it seemed all so remote and unreal.

[digital page 81]

There was a small reception camp on the beach south of Vasto, and here we were dumped as the darkness gathered. The lorries ground noisily away on the coast road, leaving us listening to the regular pulse of the Adriatic, as it ceaselessly rolled and rattled the shingle.

We were shown inside a Nissen hut, which loomed as a black blot against the night sky. Here we were interrogated one by one, stripped, shorn of all hair, showered, scrubbed and finally given fresh battledress to wear. By this time food was ready, but I found I could not eat the standard Army fare, and in particular the white bread, which tasted insipid and without substance.

Before going to bed I managed to write a lettergraph home. This was a wartime innovation of great value – a cross between a letter and a telegram. One wrote on a single side of the paper form and posted it. Somewhere along the line it was photocopied and reduced to about a quarter size. In this way thousands of letters could be flown home. Provided you had written clearly, the reduced print was perfectly legible when it was received. In a few day’s time, my mother would learn that I was still alive. She had been without news of me for six months as I had been posted ‘Missing’ and I wanted to put her anxiety to rest.

In the few days that we remained there the three soldiers who had parted company at the pass arrived. They had found an empty house and had hidden there. Inside had been a sack of wheat, which they had lived on until their weak comrade had recovered. Then they had followed the river to our own lines. I was pleased that their loyalty had not led to their recapture.

In due course we were forwarded across country to Naples, and as we drew near, saw that a cloud of smoke hung over the countryside. We came out on the main road somewhere south of the city, and then realised that Vesuvius was in eruption. Lava oozed from the crater like shining treacle, and a column of smoke trailed eastwards across the hills.

We stopped at the outskirts of the city just inside the Portici Gate, and were directed into an imposing villa that, like its neighbours, was shabby with neglect. Palm trees surrounded them all. Here we were to await a passage to the UK, and here I found Barry.

He was in bed, recovering from frostbite. He and ‘Texas’ had taken their sheets with them on to the Maiella and had hidden under them when the ski patrol was spotted. Lying there, unable to move until the coast was clear, his feet had become frozen. Now he was well on his way to recovery.

Some weeks later we sailed together and landed in Scotland. We have never met since.

[digital page 82]


In November 1944 I was with 8th Army at Salonika in Greece. The following March I was sent at a moment’s notice, by LST to Athens on my way to a technical course at the Artillery base at Eboli in Italy. With remarkable ease I got a lift in a Douglas bomber from Athens to Bari, and from there in a Dakota to Naples, so that I arrived a fortnight before the course was due to start. With this amount of time in hand I was determined to get to Gagliano Aterno to see my old friends again.

I tried everywhere to get transport, but without success. I even tried the railway, but trains were so erratic that passengers commonly waited a day or more for one to arrive. Time was passing, and I was pretty gloomy when I sat down to lunch in the Officers’ Club with no hope of any transport.

An Engineer Officer joined me at the table, and in the course of conversation I explained my predicament.

‘Nothing to it, old boy!’ he said. ‘I’ve got a convoy going to Pescara in an hour’s time. That should get you somewhere near.’

‘Why, it will take me past the very place!’ I replied. ‘Could it stop there for an hour?’

I’ll have a word with the sergeant. If he agrees, he can stop for an hour or two.’

I gave him my thanks.

‘No trouble. Pleased to be able to help. As soon as I’ve finished here, I’ll take you along to meet him.’

The Italian sergeant, a sandy-haired, rubicund man, took me aboard his lorry and we set off and trundled along for some time until he stopped in the industrial quarter of some town.

‘A cousin of mine works here,’ he explained. ‘I’m going to have a word with him Would you like to come?’

I agreed, and we strolled into the yard of the single-storeyed factory, which turned out to be a wine bottling plant, I was introduced to his cousin, and we sat on planks, with a keg as a table, and drank vermouth, which was the main product of the firm. The cousins had a mutual attachment it seemed, for we sat an hour chatting and sampling the excellent vintage. I hoped the sergeant would be able to drive along the mountain roads without mishap, for when we took our leave, a hive of bees was buzzing merrily in my head. I soon abandoned my fears, for in a very short time I fell asleep, dimly aware that we had joined a convoy of four vehicles.

[digital page 83]

Some time later I was jolted awake by the mad behaviour of the lorry. We were passing slowly through a bomb-damaged village, typical of the many I was to see throughout the day. On each side of the road, houses had been gutted like herrings and left in crumbling ruins, their entrails of broken beams, shattered furniture and torn bedding pitifully exposed to the spring sunshine.

‘Americani,’ explained the sergeant tersely.

Not a village along the road was undamaged, nor was Isernia in which we stayed for the night any exception. Half of it was intact, but the rest had virtually disappeared.

I bought a couple of bottles of cognac, and had a convivial evening sharing it with some of the villagers, including the chief of the Carabinieri. The second bottle I kept for the sergeant, who had agreed to stop at Gagliano for an hour or two.

The following afternoon we drove over the pass, which was barely free from snow, and trundled down the familiar valley to Castel Vecchio. We left the valley road, turned through the fortress-like houses and bumped up the narrow road to Gagliano. Kids, wild with excitement, swarmed around us as we swayed over the cobbles of the square. Curious villagers, a little more dignified, gravitated towards us, so that the little square was packed with people exchanging noisy greetings with the drivers as they dismounted.

They fell back respectfully at the sight of my uniform as I climbed down from the cab, and so I was able to see the slight figure of Francesco as he stepped out into the street. I waved and called out to him.

‘Hi Francesco! How are you? It is I, Carlo!’

‘Aie! ‘Can it be you, indeed, Carlo? ‘Bravissimo!’ He fairly skipped into the throng and we embraced.

He was delighted to see me and equally delighted to be seen by the crowd in such circumstances. Here was evidence of the important work he had secretly been involved in. There would be an increased respect for the cobbler of Gagliano.

The sergeant was welcomed. ‘Come inside.’ ‘We shall open a bottle.’

Quite a crowd trooped into his house. Among them I noticed the big frame of Vittorio, who was grinning and nodding his head with pleasure. Elvira, tearful with emotion, patted my cheek. ‘Enter, Carlo!’ she cried, ‘Welcome back.’

[digital page 84]

Everyone talked at once. Chairs were drawn up for me and the sergeant. The wine appeared, glasses appeared, toasts were drunk. There were smiles everywhere – of affection and triumph mixed. Where the drivers went no-one knew, but they would be well entertained, you could be sure of that.

Eventually, the crowd disappeared, leaving invitations for me to visit them, and Francesco promised to bring me round to see them all. Vittorio remained, and he and Francesco answered my questions.

‘What happened when our troops arrived? Was there any fighting?’

‘No. All was well. The Tedeschi simply left and the New Zealanders came in. There was no fighting.’

We chatted on, while Elvira busied herself as usual at fire and stove. ‘We shall eat!’ she declared – and meant it.

The sergeant had to leave soon, but he would not be allowed to go before he had eaten his fill. Francesco sat down – still wearing his cap – Elvira joined him and we settled down to the serious business of eating.

I was hungry and managed my heaped bowl adequately, but could accept no more from Elvira, who was dismayed at my feeble appetite, but the sergeant, a jovial soul, did full justice to her cooking and devoured mountains of pasta. She turned a beaming face to him. ‘We Italians know how to eat!’ she asserted.

The sergeant, his mouth full, agreed and continued to justify her claim. At last, with a sigh of pleasure, he pushed away his empty bowl and, very politely, gave thanks for his meal.

He rose, shook hands with everyone and was then escorted into the square, where his men were sitting smoking, surrounded by chattering children.

I accompanied him. ‘I must go with him. I have to get to Rome.’ I said.

‘You will stay the night with us, Carlo. We shall get you to Rome.’

‘But this is all the transport I have!’

‘You are in luck. The day after tomorrow I journey to Rome myself, once a week a truck comes to take us to l’Aquila. You can come with me. It costs only 50 lire.’

I remembered the valley beyond l’Aquila, densely populated. I knew a railway ran along it towards Rome, and assumed there would be a regular bus service, so the rest of the journey should not be difficult to arrange. I suggested taking a bus the rest of the way.

[digital page 85]

The Americani are at l’Aquila’ he replied. ‘You might get some transport from them.’

‘In that case I shall get a pass for you also.’ I promised. ‘A pass there and back.’

It was decided that I could have a whole day in Gagliano and then use American transport to complete the journey to Roma.

The lorries backed, turned, and rocked away, with their drivers waving from their cabs, and children scampering and shouting alongside. Peace returned to the village.

I asked to walk through the village to see the cave again. Side by side, with Francesco puffing his pipe, we climbed the slope, waving from time to time to those who called to us from their doorway. The last house sank out of sight, the pine trees came into view, and there we were at the boulder strewn entrance to the cave.

The timbers across the door remained, and though the old cloak had gone, it was still dark inside. Looking at the black, tar encrusted roof, and the empty, tomb-like interior, I felt nothing. The cave was mute, dead, and without significance.

We walked back in the dusk and I suggested a visit to Laura.

‘Tomorrow. Tomorrow. You shall see her tomorrow.’ Francesco hastily replied.

Next day I was the guest of many of Francesco’s helpers. We went first to the house that had been next to the German canteen. There were smiles of welcome. Bottles from the cellar, cobweb-shrouded, were opened in my honour, and sweet cakes were pressed upon me – luxury indeed with sugar so hard to get.

After many such visits I was taken to the church, as it was Sunday. It was perched on a spur near the castle. The service was already in progress. There stood the priest before the altar in the apse. Two young helpers assisted him. He was rapidly saying the Office, apparently to himself, for the young people of the village, in their best clothes, were chatting amiably in the nave. A sprinkling of elders had the privilege of sitting on some of the few rush chairs. The rest were standing. Every so often the priest rang a little bell. Conversation stopped, the correct responses were made, and then the conversation was resumed until the next signal.

We did not linger, but slipped out and paid a visit to the castle hall, where there was a plaque commemorating a visit of St Francis of Assisi, but little else of note. We next went to ‘Canada’, who had so suddenly sunk into oblivion early in our stay in the village. More cakes and wine. Then Francesco said, ‘You must visit Laura next. She is expecting you. She is cooking your dinner.’

[digital page 86]

By this time, I had eaten as much as I could comfortably hold, and I wondered whether I would be able to gratify her by eating whatever it was she had prepared for me. I would have to do my best not to disappoint her, since this had obviously been arranged as a surprise.

Francesco led me into the poor, cramped little house. There she was in the gloom, crouched over the fire, cooking the leg of a kid on a spit. She flashed me the old, mischievous smile, and begged me to be seated. She was alone. ‘The boys are up the mountain,’ she explained.

Francesco left, saying he would return after dinner and then we would continue our social calls. I sat down at the deal table and watched the dinner preparations, wondering how much I would be able to eat.

She chatted cheerfully, slashing away at the joint with a kitchen knife, and turning the spit before the flames. Eventually the meat, smoking hot, was placed on a warm plate before me.

‘Mangi, Carlo! Mangi, buon appetito!’ she said, standing with arms folded, her bright, black eyes anticipating my enjoyment.

‘Are you not eating too?’ I asked.

‘No. No. This is for you alone.’

I picked up the meat and sank my teeth manfully into it. So tender and succulent was it that I found I was able to work my way through with less effort that I had feared.

She glowed with pleasure.

‘Bravo! Bravo!’ she applauded, as I finally laid the clean bones on the plate.

I thanked her warmly for an excellent meal, glad that there was no more to follow. A terrific belch added emphasis to my words. She grinned and clapped her hands.

‘You are no longer hungry?’ she enquired.

I assured her that I was not, and she nodded her satisfaction.

Later, with Francesco, at the open door, I said my last farewell to the indomitable lady, and left the dingy little room that had provided us all with so much support. Despite her poverty, she had a stout heart, and I wondered what sacrifice my meal had cost her.

[digital page 87]

Next morning at daybreak, the transport arrived as promised. It was a small, flat truck piled with various bundles and baskets intended for the market, on which a few passengers were already sitting. For the last time I said farewell to Elvira, and then helped Francesco with his suitcase.

We trundled off in the chill of the dawn down the valley road, stopping to pick up other passengers and their wares on the way to l’Aquila.

The road into the town passed under the grim walls of the eighteenth-century fort, which glowered across the plain. Below it a monk in his habit was working in a vineyard. Round a bend and we were into the town, that spilled over into the mountainside. The pavements were arcaded, and people were by now thronging the square, and gazing into the shops.

The truck stopped, we all jumped down, paid our fares and scattered, each with his own bundle.

I sought out the American HQ which was easily identifiable by the large flag that hung limply over the street. The desk sergeant listened to my tale with great attention. I pointed out that Francesco had done useful service by giving shelter to an American pilot, and with little delay or argument, I was given a pass on an Army vehicle for the following day. Francesco was given a return pass, and his eyes glowed with gratification.

The Grand Hotel opposite was being used as an Officers’ transit hotel, and I could get a bed there for the night. I asked Francesco what he would do.

‘That is simple,’ he said. ‘I have friends here. I shall be all right.’

We arranged to meet the next morning and then parted. He was obviously very pleased with himself and looking forward to meeting his friends, to whom he would have a proud tale to tell.

Francesco and I jumped off the lorry in the suburbs of Rome near to his destination, I took his suitcase and went with him as far as the street he wanted. Here I set down his suitcase.

‘You have gone far enough, Carlo,’ he said. ‘I have not far to go. Many thanks for your help, my son. May God go with you.’

We both realised we were parting for the last time. Everything had been said. We accepted the finality of the moment. He showed no undue emotion, but sucked at his empty pipe and gazed at me with affection. We shook hands, and he abruptly grabbed his suitcase and hurried round the corner. I sighed, a chapter of my life had come to an end.

[digital page 88]

Arriving at Eboli, I found that my course had been cancelled the very day I had left Salonika by sea.

‘Don’t say I’ve come a thousand miles for nothing!’ I exclaimed.

‘Haven’t you got another course somewhere?’

There was a pause for reflection and consultation. Papers were shuffled, files inspected and then, with some satisfaction, the desk sergeant announced, ‘There are vacancies on a course at Rufina in a fortnight’s time. Will that be alright?’

Rufina! That was just an hour or two’s walk from Casa Cerro! I could visit the Allesandris! It could not have been better, and as a bonus, I had a couple of weeks free.

When the necessary travel papers were in my wallet, I travelled back to Rome to spend my free time, and it was during this time that I discovered an Army department dealing with PoW affairs, and in particular, compensation to those Italians who had been of help to us. The man in charge was a-Captain Simpson, and it was to him that I reported the efforts of both Francesco and the Alessandri family.

I took a troop train north to Florence. Conditions aboard were spartan, but the knowledge that my hopes of visiting the mountain farm were being fulfilled was compensation enough.

The train of box cars was immensely long. Each car had a brazier slung on an arm at the open door, and for the rest we had to sit on our kits, or on the bare floor, on which some straw was thinly spread. The brazier could be swung outside when we were cooking our rations, and it was quite a sight to see the glowing eyes at each car as the train, dragon-like, rounded a curve. Every bridge had been destroyed and replaced by a Bailey bridge, so that our speed was reduced to a walk, but eventually we reached Florence, and the following day I got transport to Rufina.

As I climbed out of the lorry, I looked up at the mountain on the west bank of the Sieve. There on the street, was the ancient watch tower that stood near to the farm where I had stayed barefooted for a month.

I took the first opportunity of a free day to climb the road back to it. The warm spring sun soon had me perspiring profusely by the time I had climbed the steeper part of the road. I was glad to see that there were no traces of war on either hand, and began to hope that the farm had escaped here, but as I approached the last, long slope, I passed the hump of a soldier’s lonely grave close to the roadside. An Indian soldier had ended his long journey there.

None of the farms appeared to be damaged, however, and I stopped to talk to a farmer, who was leaning on his gate

[digital page 89]

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘there was some fighting.’

The Gothic line was further north, in the higher mountains. This must have been a delaying tactic while the enemy retreated. I hoped that the fighting had not been too severe.

He invited me indoors, out of the hot sun. The room was large, high ceilinged and very cool. A long table ran down the centre. He invited me to sit and then went to a dresser and returned with the inevitable bottle of wine and a couple of glasses. We sat facing each other amicably across the table and gossiped pleasantly as the bottle emptied. Then we shook hands and he escorted me to the gate.

‘Good luck,’ he called, as I strode off on the last short stage to the farm.

Suddenly I reached the familiar field we had sown the previous year. There were a few black shell holes in the grassy hollow, and as I approached the yard, I noticed the yellow cylinder of an unexploded 6-inch shell sticking out of the ground about six feet from the farm door. A red-headed stranger was forking manure by the byre door. He was wearing battledress, dyed a strange colour. As I drew near, he looked up, stopped his work and leaned on his fork. At once I noticed that this was a new implement, for it has a full complement of tines.

‘Good day,’ he said in English.

‘Is Signor Alessandri about?’ I asked.

‘He is indoors. I will call him.’

In answer to his shout the padrone looked out from the door. He gazed at me, puzzled, and then a smile of recognition spread across his square jawed face.

‘Carlo! You are back!’

He yelled for his wife, who peered anxiously out and then beamed as he explained the phenomenon. The four children gathered shyly by the byre, gazing round-eyed at the stranger.

I pointed to the shell. ‘The war has passed over you, it seems.’

‘Yes. The Tedeschi held the farm and there was fighting.’

‘Have you suffered harm?’

[digital page 90]

‘We were betrayed by our neighbours,’ he said, without rancour. ‘They told them you had been here and the Tedeschi burned the barn. The sheep were on the mountain and the boys got them into the woods, but they took all the other stock, even Giorgio, my horse.’

‘Did you send my letter to the authorities?’

‘Alas! I hid it in the wall of the barn and it was burned too.’

He took me round to the back of the farm and then I could see the damage. The metal sliding door was warped and rusted. The barn roof had disappeared completely and had collapsed inside. Where Barry and I had slept there was a blackened pile of rubble and broken tiles.

‘You can get help for all of this,’ I told him. ‘I know where to write, and shall tell them everything. Make me a list of the things you have lost, and I shall send it to the authorities.’

I don’t think he really believed me. He had become inured to hardship and disaster, and had lost faith in the authorities. He promised to make out a list, however.

Back at the yard the red-headed man was paused in his toil to explain that he was the brother of the padrone and had been a prisoner of war in England. He spoke well of his treatment there and was extremely well disposed. I was able to explain to him more clearly the help his brother could get to restock the farm and repair the barn. Apparently, the farm had been looted to some extent, for a lot of furniture and bedding had been taken. He understood, and promised to explain everything to his brother.

The grandfather appeared and stood in the door, unimpressed and as impassive and taciturn as usual. The padrona pushed past him and begged me to come inside.

‘You will stay the night?’ she implored.

‘I must be back in Rufino, but shall come again in a week.’ I said.

‘But you must eat first,’ she proclaimed. ‘Come. I shall fry you some eggs. I know you like them cooked in plenty of oil.’

She was quite wrong, but I dared not upset her by saying no, and in due course had to eat the greasy eggs with all the gusto I could command, though my stomach rebelled.

So, with promises to stay overnight on my next visit, I left the little farm and tramped downhill to the valley.

[digital page 91]

The following week I returned as promised, bearing gifts of as many useful commodities as I could muster, wrapped up in a couple of Army blankets I had cajoled out of a sympathetic quartermaster.

With great dignity the padrona accepted my bundle and bore it indoors, followed by the expectant children. Placing it on the dining table, she unfolded it and disclosed the various groceries I had bought, including invaluable packets of soap and, to the delight of the children, a few bars of chocolate. Carefully she opened the wrapping of one of the bars, broke the chocolate into pieces, and shared it out among her brood.

‘More later,’ she promised them.

As shyly as a girl, she thanked me for the gifts and carried them off to be stowed away.

The family had made preparations for my visit. The younger brother was not at home, so the original number were present to sit down to a grand feast in my honour.

Sitting afterwards in the lamplight, we had a pleasant talk.

‘Have you written the list?’ I asked.

‘No. Not yet,’ said the padrone.

‘You must do so before I leave,’ I insisted. ‘Next week I leave for Rome and must have it with me.’

He promised, with no great enthusiasm, to have the list ready before I left in the morning. I begged his wife to see that he did so, and she agreed to bully him into it. Alessandri was a man of some independence of mind, it seemed.

I slept with two of the children in a grand bed upstairs, and after breakfast, collared the padrone, forced him into a chair, stuck a pen in his hand and a piece of paper before him, and demanded that he make his list, which, with the prompting of his wife, he did in fair copperplate writing.

She and I exchanged amused glances as I pocketed the document. The padrone looked as downcast as though he had been discovered in some crime. I believe he thought it a waste of time.

We said goodbye all round. I explained that this was my final visit, but that I would write to them to see that they had received the promised help. This I did a few months later and was happy to learn that help had been forthcoming and that repairs were on hand. In a later letter I was told that ‘Giorgio’, emaciated, but undamaged, had been found.

[digital page 92]

Some years after the war I found Major, now Colonel, Garland as a parish priest in Suffolk. He told me that he had made a walking tour of Italy, visiting the prison camp at Fontanellato, and our good friends Francesco and Elvira Ciavarra, Wolf’s cave and was living in England. He and Colonel Harding had helped get the deaf and dumb Olivieri child specialist treatment and he himself had managed to get Mario Sanciaculo an immigration permit for Canada, so both had managed to repay the kindnesses they had received.

I was able to help in my own humble way by keeping up correspondence with Francesco and sending him parcels of such things as he said his people needed. Some years later his letters ceased, and then I received a letter from Elvira to say the old fellow had died. The last letter I received was from the Olivieris, telling me that Elvira too had died, and so ended my last, tenuous contact with the little mountain village.

Finally, I learned that Colonel Harding and his family were living in South Africa and that Barry Nichols was married.

Whenever the 22 March comes round, the day we crossed the Maiella, I put a few moments aside to remember my staunch Italian friends, who without hesitation, out of simple goodness of their hearts, dedicated themselves to helping the strangers who came by chance into their mountain community.

God bless them, every one!

Connect with us via Facebook or email - [email protected]